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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 b