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?