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"The Problem of Practicing our Piety in Pubic"

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, we heard Jesus’ description of a “new identity” for his followers -- based on the “Beatitudes” in the Sermon on the Mount -- embracing such traits as poverty, humility, mourning, peacemaking, and taking a prophetic stand in public… even if it puts you at risk of rejection.

Last week, on the second Sunday in Lent, we continued reading that “Sermon on the Mount”… and we heard Jesus challenge his followers to forge a new path -- blaze a new trail -- that starts at the point where their contemporaries had settled … taking the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees seriously by going forward with them… going beyond (or going deeper) than conventional righteousness required.

Even though their desire was to “fulfill” the highest “intent” of the tradition… in the process of discerning the direction of the path, it was likely that Jesus & his disciples would be accused of “breaking” some of the details of that very tradition. (!) We considered examples regarding such matters as murder, anger, resentment … choosing reconciliation instead of retaliation, adultery, and truth-telling in public.

Now, on this third Sunday in Lent, we again pick up Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” where we left off… Jim McNeil read for us:

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them;

for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Jesus then goes on to name some of the “spiritual practices” that are used to define “piety”: giving alms (that is, donations to charity and other acts of generosity & compassion given to people in need), praying, and fasting.

Brian McLaren (in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”, Chapter 29) says that giving, praying, and fasting are often called “spiritual disciplines” or practices: actions [totally] within our power by which we [can] become capable of things currently beyond our power.[1] Jesus makes clear that we need the right practices, employed with the right motives.

“Practice makes perfect” (writes McLaren) isn’t quite accurate. It’s truer to say “practice makes habit.” That’s why Jesus emphasizes the importance of practicing prayer, fasting, and generosity in secret. If we don’t withdraw from public view, we’ll habitually turn our spiritual practices into a show for others.

I find it ironic that this text hits us right in the middle of Lent – a 40-day period in which seven churches in Alpena hold public Wednesday evening worship services every week as a witness to the community that we are “one” in the Spirit and “one” in the Lord. I enjoy those services, and do not begrudge the extra time they take.

The irony for me – particularly this year, since I was the preacher for the “Ash Wednesday” service at Grace Lutheran Church – was to see a hundred or more members of the community stream forward in front of everyone to receive a black-soot blemish on their forehead as a sign that they had commenced their 40-days of fasting & prayer. Now, I know it is a sacramental act of the Roman Catholic, Anglican Episcopal and Lutheran churches since the Middle Ages, and I don’t fault those liturgical churches for continuing it in our day in Alpena.

The irony is that, as a Congregationalist (a “separatist” religious movement that dates back in America to the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower) the words of today’s reading resonate in my head:

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who

is in secret.”

Awkward, don’t you think? (!) Jesus’ teachings regularly create tensions like that. In the Beatitudes, it was about re-thinking our core identity – what kind of person do we want to be, as we follow Jesus. Last week, it was about moving forward from conventional thinking as regards our relationships. This week, the tension is about how we worship and how we demonstrate faithfulness in public & in secret.

Frankly, I like to make certain that our good deeds as a congregation hit the public radar. We spend a lot of money annually to support community services. (!) In the second year that I was here, I asked that members of the Mission Committee hand-deliver the “mission-outreach” checks to the agencies that received our support. And I took pictures…

There was Kathy Dempsey at the Boys & Girls Club of Alpena and at Child & Family Services; and Diana Standen at the Bay View Center; and Bill Haase at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and at the Chosen Ranch in Harrisville… as each program received $500 of our church’s “Mission” money. The following year, I did the same with Comstock Fund Committee members. Belinda Hanna gave a $10,000 check to Hope Shores Alliance for their local domestic assault shelter & counseling services; $5,000 to the Salvation Army.

I placed those several pictures in The Alpena News together with a caption on each one about the work those agencies did to support people in Alpena who were going through hard-times. There was the Sunrise Center, Third-Level Crisis (intervention) Center, the Foster Closet, the Baby Pantry, Madonna House, and on and on…

Even though I intended the publicity to highlight the work of the several agencies that we supported, I received an “anonymous” letter from an Alpena Christian which cited today’s text as a rebuke: “When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do, that they may be praised by men. … Let you alms be done in secret, so that your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

It seems that our habit of giving generous financial support to Habitat for Humanity and to the Friendship Room soup-kitchen and to a dozen other helping organizations in Alpena was equated in some circles to “dropping wads of cash in the collection plate, to be seen and praised by others.” Jesus warns us against that “self-serving” motive, and (personally) I think First Church has done a great job over three decades of “hiding our light” as best we could so that no one would blame us for our annual generosity and civic support.

Do you see why I say today’s text is “awkward”? We want to be sure that our good deeds are known. That’s why I place newspaper ads and (occasionally) billboards to advertize coming attractions. Some of us want to make certain that our UCC political positions and social protests are picked up (and broadcast) over social media. We would like our Sunday worship services and Feedback Forums -- as well as our Bible Studies & Theology Classes -- to be recognized and to be desired by the general public. We want word to get out!

And yet Jesus, who never pulls any punches when confronting religious image-builders, highlights the temptation to “hypocrisy” whenever we acknowledge in public our efforts at virtuous activity.

Because of that (anonymous) complaint, for the past three years, I have not taken a picture of (nor sent in an article about) the absolutely fabulous and generous Mission financial support that our congregation does for Alpena. (!) It is done in secret. I want you to know that we are doing good work… but nobody knows. More than $50,000 of our Church’s money has been given away in grants since January of this year to do a world of good in our community… and yet nobody except the recipient, knows about it (!) (and that’s OK).

Jesus says: “When you give alms, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matt. 6:3-4)

We do not want our spiritual practices -- of generosity & social compassion (our alms) -- to be a “show” seen by others, because that would sabotage their power to bring any blessings to us. (!) So, instead of seeking to “appear” more holy (or “spiritual”, or engaged, or generous) “in public” than others, Jesus urges us to become more spiritual in private (in secret) than we appear to be in public.

When it comes to giving to the poor, for example, Jesus says: don’t publicize your generosity “like the hypocrites do.” As I said to the children, “hypo” means “outside” and one’s “crites” is one’s face. Don’t put on an “outside-face” that appears one way, while your “inner person” is something else. (!) A hypocrite projects a “positive” engagement while holding a “negative” and hidden opinion in one’s heart. It is this dis-connect between the public “mask” and the “inner attitude” that irritated Jesus. (!) Jesus urges us to become more holy (or spiritual) in private than we appear in public.

A lot of us (myself included) have found that a good way to make giving “habitual” is to give (on a regular basis) a percentage of our income. Patty and I have consistently focused on the “tithe” – that is 10% of our income. Until this morning, it’s been anonymous (secret).

As our income has increased over time (our standard of “living”), so has our standard of “giving”. (!) By donating through your church, your name is not trumpeted… but your faithfulness and generosity is! The concluding words from Jesus that Jim McNeil read for us this morning are: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:20-21)

Jesus suggests that it is the same when it comes to prayer.

Prayer can either strengthen your soul (in private) or raise your profile (in public)… but not both. Rather than recite a lot of words in your prayer -- as if you were being paid by the word to deliver a spiritual script -- Jesus says that a few simple words, uttered in your heart in secret, make much more sense… especially since God already knows what you need before you even ask!

Jesus offers a model for the simple, concise, inclusive, private prayer that he recommends. We call it the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father”. Brian McLaren says that it consists of four simple, but profound, “moves”:

First, we orient ourselves to God. We acknowledge God as the loving Parent whose infinite embrace puts us in a family-relationship with all people… and with all of Creation. And we acknowledge God as the glorious Mystery whom we can name… but who can never be contained by our words and concepts.

Second, we align our deepest & greatest desire for the betterment of the world with God’s deepest desire. “Thy Will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice & compassion reign.

Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

Finally (in the Lord’s Prayer), we prepare ourselves for the world into which we will soon re-enter: the public world. We ask to be guided away from the trials & temptations that could ruin us and our witness… and we ask to be protected from (and liberated from) evil.

Immediately after giving us this “model prayer”, Jesus lets us know that God wants to create (not just individual forgiveness, but) a whole “forgiveness economy” – where forgiveness is freely given and freely received – unleashing waves of reconciliation in our world which has been so ravaged by waves of resentment and revenge.

Jesus then takes us through “fasting” with the same pattern: “Whenever you… da-da-da- .. do not …ya-da-da… but rather do… ya-da, ya-da, ya-da.” In other words: when you fast (like after Ash Wednesday, or during Ramadan, or on Yom Kippur), don’t try to look all sad and disheveled, like those who make spirituality a performance! Instead, keep your hunger a secret. Let every moment when your stomach growls be a moment when you affirm to God: “More than my body desired food, I desire you, Lord! More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be filled with you. More than my tongue desires sweetness, my soul desires your goodness and life.”

The real you resides in your heart and mind, behind the mask that is presented to the public. So, if we make our lives a “show” staged for others – either to avoid their criticism or to gain their praise – we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness. It is only in the secret, inner, personal reality behind the mask, where we are in the unadulterated presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to “aliveness”.

The challenge for each of us is to distinguish between how we “want to appear” in public, in contrast to what we know we are “in secret”. Brian McLaren says that “a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat, and so on. Jesus reverses things -- urging us to plot goodness in secret… to do good and beautiful things in secret -- without getting caught!

All this brings us back to the original irony of the text in this season. For centuries, Christians have approached the 40-days of Lent by practicing in very public ways (1) prayer, (2) fasting, and (3) alms-giving… exactly the things that Jesus emphasizes (in this morning’s text) we ought to do in secret in his rebuke!

Again, let me say: there is nothing wrong with praying, and doing so often! There is nothing in Jesus’ teachings that says “don’t be lavish in your generosity.” No… The warning is that we humans have a penchant for using whatever we do – even our acts of devotion! – to “manipulate” them to our advantage … in service to our relentless efforts to bolster our image and to control our lives.

But if we are willing to drop the masks, and to be real – to be authentic, genuine… known to ourselves (and to others) as we are known to God, who sees in secret – to be perilously exposed -- to be open, honest, & vulnerable! – we may discover the secret that Jesus wants us to know: that God sees us. God knows us. God is with us.

Three times in this passage, Jesus says: “The Father sees…” That tells me we don’t have to display our spiritual abilities to be accepted. We don’t have to work to make sure our reputation glimmers. We can simply surrender ourselves – our body, money, reputation, our future – all of ourselves, just as we are. Because we are in the hands of a loving Father -- a divine mercy, a partner on the journey, who knows what we need before we ask -- the real you (the real me) behind the mask, can relax… and come out into the light.

[1] McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking” New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, 2014, pages 136-143

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