February 3, 2019 Sermon

“Nothing to Prove: Living and Leading with Jesus”                                              Matthew 6:7-21
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                                           
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
February 3, 2019

Oseola McCarty was a Black woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who left school after sixth grade to take care of a sick relative. After that, she went to work doing laundry for the wealthy bankers, lawyers, and doctors in town. She lived in a small home without air conditioning until she installed A/C in her 80s to run only when she had company. She never owned a car, walking every Sunday with a taped up Bible to the Friendship Baptist Church.

When she turned 87, she could no longer wash clothes and had to retire. Shortly after, the University of Southern Mississippi received a $150,000 check from her, designated to a scholarship fund for minority students of color. She had never stepped foot on the campus, had never been past sixth grade, and yet she gave away nearly every penny she had to this fund.

As it turns out, she had opened a savings account decades earlier, and saved every penny she could over the years. The gift made headlines – the university’s public relations department knew they had a good story after all. In an interview shortly before she died, she was asked why she didn’t spend the money she had earned on herself. She smiled and responded, “I am spending it on myself.”

In telling this story, the Presbyterian pastor Wallace Bubar said, “I do not know exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said that we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven; but I suspect that Oseola McCarty knew.”[1]

In today’s scripture reading, we heard several teachings from Jesus – teachings about how to pray – and how not to, what to treasure – and what to let go. And if I were to sum these teachings up it would go something like this: you have nothing to prove to anyone. So act like it. Don’t make a big show of it just to prove how good you are. Pray simply and sincerely. In your relationship with God, focus on your own self: what do you need? Who do you want to be? How are you called to love? Don’t worry about having the best house on the block or the nicest car in the lot: invest in things you’ll be proud of on your deathbed. You have nothing to prove.

Of course, that’s not the message our culture offers. Many of us learn from a very young age that we have everything to prove: schools are a proving ground for intelligence, beauty, athletic ability, dating skills, fashion, opinions, and so much more. As we move into adulthood all of a sudden it’s about money and stuff and status: do you have a good job yet? Are you married yet? Do you have children? And if not, why not? Are your kids in the right activities? Are they good enough?

Soon you’re entering middle age, and new questions arise. If you have children, are they succeeding? What does that say about me? What matters now? Do I have enough to retire? Have I climbed the ladder of success? These questions intensify as we move into old age: Has my life mattered? What is my legacy? What have I offered the world? Where have I placed my treasure?

Of course these are not necessarily bad or good things to worry about. They kind of just are. As we walk through life and its questions and challenges, one question to ask is this: “who I am I doing this for?”

Are you doing this for someone else, real or imagined? What are you trying to prove? Or, are you living out of your identity as God’s child, one-of-a-kind, like no other person in the world. Are you living for you – the you God created and called good? Because you have nothing to prove to God. As Jesus said in today’s scripture reading, God already knows you. God know what you need before you ask. God knows what is in your heart of hearts and you have nothing to prove. Don’t worry about others. Focus on yourself.

That might not sound like Jesus to you. But if you give it a try you’ll learn something kind of strange: when you are the best you that you can be, others are the best them that they can be. When you free yourself from the need to prove anything to anyone, when you focus on your own self, your own hopes and dreams, your own calling to ministry – you grow. You have more integrity – living more as God made you to live, giving others permission to do the same.

The class I took a few weeks ago focused on the concept of self-differentiation: the ability to be your own self and stay in loving relationship with others. Our teacher, Rev. Dr. Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center over in Lombard, defines it this way: “People’s capacity to calmly articulate what they think and value, and to act on that basis, while staying in active relationship with those who disagree.”[2] Nothing to prove. None of what Jesus calls “empty words” designed to impress all and help none. Simply knowing who God made you to be, saying what you are called to say, and persisting in love even among sharp disagreement. This is easy to describe, but a lifetime of hard work.

Because of that class and events in my life I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on this recently. This last week I saw many one year anniversaries: my ordination to ministry, my move here, and the beginning of my ministry among you. My family is entering a new stage, as we just moved a few days ago and David starts a new job tomorrow. Those of you here for the congregational meeting last week know that we are entering a new part of our life as a congregation, discerning together God’s call for the future of this congregation. (show up on March 3, look out for more information). I’ve been reflecting on my own discipleship and leadership: Have I been the best me I can be? Or have I been distracted by the need to be well-liked and respected – to prove myself? have I faithfully and effectively followed Jesus this year? Have I faithfully and effectively served as pastor here?

The answer, of course, is yes and no. Like you I am a human being. I live an imperfect life and offer imperfect ministry. I ask those questions not just for myself but for each of us as we step forward together. Especially on this day, when we are recognizing and installing our leaders. For leadership is an extraordinary task that takes everything we have and then some. And let’s not forget – those we install today are our formal leaders, but every single person here leads one way or another in this church and in our daily lives.

So here is my charge to each of us: We have nothing to prove to anybody. We have only to be ourselves and to bring our selves. To know who God made you to be, say what you are called to say, and persist in love even and especially among disagreement. As Jesus reminded us, God made us just as we are. God knows and loves us just as we are – warts and all. We can pray simply and sincerely, trusting God knows our needs. We can store our treasure in heaven – focusing on what matters to us in our own hearts, not what other people or the world says should matter. For Oseola McCarty that meant saving for decades in order to help future generations. What does it mean to you?

With Jesus, we have nothing to prove. No script we must follow – even the Lord’s Prayer is an example and not a rule. We have simply to be who we are with one another, and trust God to do the rest. Yes, that’s hard work, but we do it for ourselves, that we might be a gift to the world.

Amen.

 

[1] Bubar, Wallace. “Matthew 6:19-21 Pastoral Perspective.” Edited by E. Elizabeth Johnson. In Feasting on the Gospels — Matthew, edited by Cynthia Jarvis, E-Book. Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.

[2] https://lmpeacecenter.org/about/faq/

 

 

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