March 8, 2015
When Steve and I owned a home in Kent, many years ago, after a long season of rain, the wind blew down a giant fir tree in our back yard. The root system stood on end where the trunk of the tree had been. It was easily 20-30 feet wide, but it had no depth. With all of its roots on the surface, and without a tap root, it toppled in saturated soil and a stiff wind. Our spiritual lives are very much like trees. The stronger and deeper our root system, the sturdier our spirits will become, and the more beautiful our outer lives will be. Jesus teaches us in this central portion of the Sermon on the Mount, that the part of our spirit that grows below the surface anchors and enriches the part of us that is visible and public. Last week Jesus walked us back from the grave sins, like murder and adultery, to look at the smaller emotions and moments that lead to them, then back even further to healthy practices that prevent our crossing boundaries into dangerous territory. It takes a healthy spirit to be fully conscious of our own needs and emotions as well as the needs and emotions of others. It takes a healthy spirit to recognize a slippery slope within us before we find ourselves on a slippery slope in our actions.
In the reading today, Jesus takes us deeper on that inward journey back to the source of our actions. He invites us to tend the roots of our spirituality. If we continue with the metaphor of a tree, he starts at the base of the tree, where the trunk gives way to the roots. Still partially visible, still engaged in the public sphere, Jesus talks about almsgiving. Jesus is not talking about our regular giving, our tithes and offerings brought to the temple or church. Those are thank offerings given in response to our gratitude to God for the gifts that we have received from our generous Creator. Our tithes and offerings are not secret gifts, but are made in public and used in public ministry. Almsgiving is just the opposite. It represents our tangible compassion toward a neighbor or stranger in need. Almsgiving is a private gift that seeks to protect the dignity of the one in need. It is a person to person gift based on need, rooted in our care for the well-being of the other.
We might think of it as charity, but I think Jesus is talking about something that goes beyond charity. Almsgiving digs deeper and becomes more personal. It stretches our spirits to see as God sees. I remember stories in my family that date from the Great Depression when so many people were unemployed. My grandmother often invited strangers who came to the door looking for work or a piece of bread to share the family’s evening meal. She would instruct her family not to take a piece of chicken when it was passed so that those who were truly hungry might eat. The family members would be given something later, but the guests at her table would not know the sacrifice that was made for them. I’ve heard similar stories from you. I have been touched many times in ministry by a gift given in secret through me or through the church to provide for another person’s particular need.
I remember one Sunday afternoon in another church when a homeless visitor to worship was found trying to take a nap on a sofa in the fireside room after coffee hour. One very gentle woman asked what he was doing. He explained that part of being homeless is never getting to stay in a warm place long enough to rest. He was always asked to move on. She let me know that she was going stay with him at the church that afternoon so that he could take a nap. Those of us who were left were not going to leave her alone with a person we didn’t know, so we all got out our wallets and gathered enough money to pay for a room for the night. Our sister in Christ’s quiet offer of her time, another form of almsgiving called out greater generosity from the community. When we see a need and quietly provide the means to meet that need, our spirits grows deeper and stronger, because our empathy has been exercised. We are tangibly connected to the vulnerability of another of God’s children and to God’s tenderness and desire for justice. We are changed because we are connected more deeply to one another and to God.
Now let’s go deeper underground to our prayer life. In his teaching, Jesus is separating private prayer from public prayer. We don’t see a lot of public prayer in our community, so we are not tempted in the same way that some of the people in Jesus’ audience would have been. Most of our public prayer comes in the form of worship. But as important as corporate worship is for our souls, it cannot nurture and strengthen our spirits in the same way that private prayer does. It is our private wrestling with the issues and the big questions in our lives—whether the issues and questions are personal or public—that leads to greater insight and transformation.
Not all prayer is formal. Sometimes we sit with a devotional guide at a regular time during the day and add our personal prayer and that is a great start. But have you ever considered reading the paper as prayer? Are there big questions that cry out for answers after you watch the news? Does the news break your heart or cause you to weep? Stay with those questions in silence and listen. Listen with every fiber of your being to the story that has moved you, to your own experience, to your own spirit, and listen for something outside or beyond you. You can be alone in your car, on the ferry, working in the yard, just sitting with the paper. Open your heart before God and listen. After you have listened for a long time, you might ask what you can do. Let the question stay with you. Listen for God to speak through scripture and other sources.
The truth, as Jesus tells us, is that God already knows what you need and what you want so you really don’t need to use many words. God knows. However, the opposite is not true. We don’t know what God wants for us or from us; we don’t know what God needs from us or for others. Raise questions, tell God what you notice in the world, what you see, what you hear, and then listen. If we can move beyond our own needs and wants to see the world beyond us, our roots of compassion take hold and grow strong. We become grounded in God’s very being. And what shows above ground is love and wisdom.
Let’s go deeper still to fasting, down to bedrock. This is where I should be quiet and sit down, because I have never had much experience with fasting. You’d have to fast to gain experience, and as I said, I don’t have much experience. At least not with food. I’ve never gotten the connection between not feeding my body and growing my spirit, unless I don’t eat so that someone else might eat. I could give up a meal and give the money I would have spent to the food bank of a feeding program. But I did find a kind of fasting that makes sense to me, especially during Lent. One of my friends gave up sugar for Lent because she believes she might be addicted to sugar and she wants to heal her body. That’s the idea behind this other form of fasting. But instead of giving up food, we give up something that poisons our spirits so that our spirits might be healthy and strong. This particular form of fasting comes from Latin America.
Give up harsh words: use generous ones.
Give up unhappiness: take up gratitude.
Give up anger: take up gentleness and patience.
Give up pessimism: take up hope and optimism.
Give up worrying; take up trust in God. (There’s one that will grow your roots!)
Give up complaining: value what you have.
Give up stress: take up prayer.
Give up judging others: discover Jesus within them.
Give up sorrow and bitterness: fill your heart with joy.
Give up selfishness: take up compassion for others.
Give up being unforgiving: learn reconciliation.
Give up words: fill yourself with silence, and listen to others.
Giving up that which does not feed us or harms us and others, is a great way to fast. Think of the damage done by anger, stress, complaining, worrying, bitterness, selfishness and/or unforgiveness to our spirits and how harmful these are when directed at others. But I have to tell you, it’s not easy. We have to be willing to look at ourselves closely and recognize and examine these behaviors. Giving them up takes constant vigilance and repeated effort. That’s why it’s helpful to take on a new behavior in place of the old. Be patient and keep working at it—it takes time and effort and a lot of grace. Growing the complimentary virtues in secret will make us not only stronger personally, but more like Christ. Our roots will go deep into what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Our Being, Being Itself. What will grow above ground will be generosity, gratitude, gentleness, patience, hope, optimism, trust in God, joy, compassion, and a reconciling spirit. That’s spiritual grounding, roots that will help us weather any storm.
Giving in secret, praying in secret, and fasting in secret are disciplines that form and transform us over time. What is grown in secret will be revealed in public. To be generous, wise, grounded people we need to grow our roots as deep as we can. That’s where we tap into the life-giving underground streams of living water. And that’s how we remain rooted when the rain falls and the wind blows. We will remain standing, rooted and grounded in love.