Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?
Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door
whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your alms may be done in secret
Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.
Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?
In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.
Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.
Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.
When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.
The point of faith is not public works but our private working.
I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.
I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.
And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?
Jesus must be, once again, suggesting something more subtle about how we live our faith as a worshipping body and as citizens of the world.
Our church’s most substantial commitment, financially and in terms of time, to being faithful citizens of the world, is through our membership in AMOS.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, is an alliance from Norwalk to Ames of 35 faith-based institutions and nonprofit service providers, representing many thousands of Iowans. We come together as institutional representatives to identify shared issues, research actionable solutions, and build sufficient relationships with governmental and corporate stakeholders to enact those solutions. We are, in the sense that such work is in the polis, the city, political, but we are truly nonpartisan. We abide by the saying, “No permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent self-interest.” We will work with anyone who will work with us regardless of affiliations. (Pay attention, Congress.)
Part of learning to do this work, and to do it as successfully as we have, is attending to what is private and what is public.
For example, participating in elections is a public act, but our individual votes are private. A wedding is a public act marking a private relationship. Farming is a private business with, depending on whether it involves lots of animals or additives and treatments, few to a great many public consequences.
In relational community organizing we identify how private stresses or worries have their roots in public issues. Because inasmuch as we are private, discrete individuals, our physical, spiritual, mental, and financial health are all implicated in the public square. When it comes to our lived lives, even how long and well we get to live these lives, the boundary between public and private is narrow, if it really exists at all.
So, no, I don’t think that our response to this passage needs to be a reformation. I don’t think we are “in trouble,” scripturally, for how we worship.
The real trouble, and the real location of reformation, is in our attention to that tension between public and private not only in terms of jobs and health care but our individual lives of faith.
Do we attend, for instance, to our private prayer life, as well as the public one we share here? Do we attend to what our spending gives: private pleasures and comforts or public succor and relief, too? Are our private income and prayer sustaining and growing our capacity to live in public covenant?
God knows there is much work for us to do. There are countless circumstances of desperation and distress that need financial generosity, that need attention drawn to them from a faith perspective. But that can only really be faith work if it is grounded in a faith life.
God knows, in ways we cannot understand, all that we feel and do. Jesus is inviting us to go, each of us on our own, to that attentive and ever-present God, rather than media or mavens, to help us guide those feelings and actions. Let God, rather than our egos and our anxieties, be for each of us, our sounding board, our muse, our gauge.
The point of faith is public works informed by our private working.
The point of faith is public works informed by our private working.
If we do that private work, those we offer in public will not only reflect our love of the covenant between God and humanity, they will have the power of God’s covenant love of humanity.