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Secret Saints(?)

February 24, 2012

“Secret Saints(?)” Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 © 2/22/12 Ash Wednesday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Someone once said that public praise is hearty sustenance for the human soul. Just as we can’t live very long without nourishment for our bodies, we find it difficult to go on with high spirits without some kind of recognition for our efforts, some word of thanks. To change the metaphor, gratitude replenishes the well.

How then can Jesus say that practicing piety in public cuts us off from reward from God? How can he ask that his followers shun recognition so utterly that they give alms on the sly or pray in a darkened bedroom with the drapes closed and the door locked? Is it wrong to thank people for what they do? Ought the church to condemn those community awards banquets that are common everywhere? Should we demand of Ole Miss and MSU and others that “summa cum laude” or any honors be banned? How about those plaques we put on furnishings and walls to recognize memorials or service?

Or should we even be here in a public place, with our cars parked outside? We come to church to pray out loud, to sing out loud, to give our offerings by putting them in a plate. We all do these things in front of each other. The doors are unlocked. Anybody could come in and see and hear what’s going on and who’s here. Is the thing to do instead to go home right now, bolt the door, and pray in private, sustained only by water, for the next day or so? Then ought we to put some cash in an envelope and mail it with no return address to the Food Pantry? And while we’re at it, send an anonymous “thinking of you” card to the homebound in the congregation?

A quick reading of the text might lead to such conclusions. But closer examination shows Jesus is not teaching us to shun all public practice of religion or spirituality. Nor does he forbid the giving of recognition to people whose example and work have touched so many for good and for God. Public worship as well as private devotion are part and parcel of faithful living as disciples. There is a rhythm for us between solitude and gathering.

And certainly, our Lord isn’t condemning acts of piety in and of themselves. As someone has said: “[I]t is flawed logic that says if we do not attend worship we are the true worshippers, if we do not pray our spirits are in tune with God, if we do not fast we honestly care, and if we do not give any money we have sincerely given our hearts” (Fred Craddock). In Jesus’ day, giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting were important for the continued vitality of life in God’s presence. It’s the same for us. We need these and other disciplines if we are going to grow spiritually and serve faithfully.

As for recognition, Jesus even said in this same Sermon on the Mount that you and I are like cities on a hill and lights on a stand. We can’t be hidden. The purpose of a light is to shine, so people may be free from darkness. “Let your light so shine before others,” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works.” The very purpose of being a disciple of Christ, it seems, is to do good works that everybody sees.

The text for the evening, then, is puzzling. The very first statement contradicts what Jesus had said earlier. Maybe the Sermon on the Mount was written by one of those committees that has to include all viewpoints. But I don’t think so. Jesus has something else in mind.

What he’s condemning is religion as show. In Jesus’ day, certain words and actions were associated with the theater and public performance. The trumpet announcing the arrival of some dignitary. The unrecognizable, masked face of the actor in a play. The applauding audience that showers acclaim on a popular performer. The actor pretending to be someone else. That, by the way, was an activity which was described by the Greeks as being a “hypocrite.” Such may be appropriate for entertainment, but not in the community of faith.

Both the synagogue and the church of Matthew’s day faced the temptation of turning acts of faith into empty displays. There’s nothing wrong with doing some things out of habit, but sometimes long-term observance brings lapses of memory about the reasons for giving or praying. Many among the faithful did continue to do their acts of charity or their fasting quietly, without a lot of display. But others missed the point entirely. For them, piety was about getting publicity for yourself. Being religious built up egos, reputations, public standing, chances for holding public office, gaining positions of leadership and power in the congregation. This was faith that was nothing more than an empty shell, without the interior devotion that is the mark of real religion. It was nothing more than another form of getting and having, storing up the treasure of public acclaim on earth.

But moth and rust would corrupt that sort of treasure just as surely as they would fine clothing or some expensive household item. And someone else more popular, more spectacular would come along and grab the limelight, just like thieves break in and steal what you had worked so hard to put in your home. Then your fifteen minutes of fame would be gone.

Our Lord knows how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing the value of an action is determined by having an approving and applauding audience. But as a philosopher once reminded us, the only audience for Christians is God. It doesn’t matter to him whether we’re famous or live our lives in obscurity, whether our actions have the approval of the public or the approbation of only a few. We are still valuable to God; our work is worthwhile and worthy. Our calling is not to perform or be successful, but to be faithful; not to gather a crowd around to watch and applaud and bow down at our feet, but to serve the least of these our sisters and brothers. The world is interested in what’s on the outside, and if we are mostly interested in that, we are worldly, too. God sees into the heart, and the heart is what godly people care about. It’s what guides them.

Jesus also calls us to consider why we do what we do. Here’s where subtle differences become important. Was our goal in doing an act of piety to gain fame and recognition or did that merely come as a by-product, an unsought reward? We can do the right thing for the wrong reason, namely to build ourselves up. Or we can do the right thing because it’s the right thing, the Jesus thing. We wrote the big check because someone was in need, and we had resources to make a difference. We spoke out because someone had been robbed of their voice and needed an advocate. We prayed because we felt our pleas might support that frightened, sick child or that friend facing a hard decision. We fasted because we wanted to know what it was like to have an empty stomach or because we had become too materialistic. We served because we have a Lord who cared for the needs of those on the margins of society. We did our good works so that our Father in heaven would receive glory. Never did it enter our minds to do the good we did in order only to become famous or to have someone look up to us or tell us what a good job we did. And certainly not to gain power or favor. Again, reward came as a gift, a by-product, a surprise. Not as the goal. That’s the subtle but important difference between a pious publicity stunt and a genuinely selfless action. The one was done to attract attention to ourselves; it was an act for the camera and the crowd. The other was so inspiring and wondrous that it attracted people who wanted to recognize, honor and imitate what we did.

I believe Jesus celebrates people and churches who keep on doing the good they’ve always done, occasionally getting attention but never seeking it; from time to time doing something spectacular, but never believing getting noticed is the purpose of the church or faithful life, from time to time being honored but responding “I am only an unworthy servant. I was simply trying to serve Jesus.” Fame may reward with profit and comfort for now, while faithfulness may even bring suffering, which the world equates with being punished or being wrong. Godly people know better. Those who suffer for their conscience or their acts may in fact be the ones who are doing what Jesus would do. Those thought well of, by contrast, may be destined for destruction. Their fame will be gone, their possessions lost.

The promise of our Lord is that suffering faithfully will ultimately be rewarded. Showmanship may attract the crowds, but when there’s a new kid in town, somebody else to awe them, the crowds are fickle and forsake their one-time hero. Service might be done in a corner, and the crowds may only be hordes of needy folk, but God does not forsake his own. Today’s treasure might be tomorrow’s garbage; it’s at the mercy of the changing fortunes and tastes of life. But treasure in heaven lasts forever. And Jesus said where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.

So, then, why do we serve? What do we value? Where is your heart and mine tonight?

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