Secret service

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, don’t keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

When you fast, Jesus says, don’t look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

– Matthew 6:1-18

There is so much food for thought and wisdom for daily life here! Jesus wants to strengthen us and make our lives deeper and better, more sincere and free of fear and phoniness. We could simply read the Sermon on the Mount every day for a month, and keep finding good spiritual counsel here.

Jesus starts today by telling us not to show off. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says.

He doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to do good things. Of course it isn’t! But doing good things to show off what a great person I think I am simply defeats the whole purpose of doing good.

“Don’t blow a trumpet when you give to the poor,” he says. That’s like the old saying, “Don’t toot your own horn!”

Jesus was  poking fun at people who praise themselves for what they do. But there’s a serious side to the story, too. Back in Jesus’ time, there was no social safety net. Poor people survived only because their family and their neighbors helped them out.

Giving to the poor back then was a religious duty. It still is today, but we don’t always pay attention to what God says. God says that the poor are our brothers and our sisters, our parents and our children. If we deny them, it’s like we’re denying our own flesh and blood.

But even then, back in Jesus’ time, there were people who tried to get something for themselves out of giving to others. They would take up collections on religious holidays, and they would stand on the street corners and blow ram’s horns to remind everyone to give. Then they would make a big show of walking up and making a donation themselves, so that everyone would admire them.

We know that’s not the way to do it. Jesus said, “When you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give secretly, and God who sees in secret, will reward you.”

I make that a principle, not just for my own giving, but also for what everyone here gives. I don’t know, and I try not to know what anyone gives. I don’t know who gives more, or who gives less. That’s not my job as pastor.

Sometimes I find out by accident, or because somebody tells me. But when I come to visit, I don’t want to pay more attention to people because they’re big donors. I don’t want to neglect some household because they can’t give as much.

As pastor, I want to visit people, so I can listen, so I can brighten their day, so I can see their lives and pray with them if they want me to. It’s not about money.

I’m always humbled by what people give. I still remember, back in the first meeting I served, visiting with an older woman named Dorothy. Dorothy lived in a tiny little worn-out house with her son Artie, who was a veteran. Today we’d probably say Artie had PTSD, but back then we just said he “had a lot of problems.”

Artie was a big challenge. He drank a lot, and he couldn’t hold a job, but he always came to the meetinghouse in the winter to clear the snow off the roof, or to chip the ice when it built up on the meeting sidewalk. There was no harm in Artie, and he could rise to the occasion at times.

I remember early one spring Artie was out fishing on the bank of the Hudson River, which is pretty big – maybe a couple of hundred yards wide – and that day with the snow melting up in the mountains it was running fast. A little boy was fishing a little ways upstream, and he fell in the river.

I happen to know that Artie was terrified of water. He couldn’t swim himself, and he used to have nightmares about drowning.

But when Artie saw this little boy, he acted on the instant. He jumped into the water, and grabbed the little boy, and pulled him to safety. Artie was a hero that day. And I learned that day never to write anyone off, because even if a person has big problems, they can still rise to the occasion and do something good. Almost no one is totally bad.

But anyway, I used to go and visit Dorothy, and sit with her in the kitchen of her leaky, rattletrap little house, that was filled with so much love for everyone.

And she happened to mention that she tithed from her Social Security check every month. And I said to her, “Dorothy, you shouldn’t do that! You need all you have just to make ends meet!”

And she said, “Oh, please don’t say that! Giving means so much to me. It’s the one thing I can do. Please don’t take the dignity of my giving away. Please don’t tell me that my gift doesn’t matter!”

I learned something that day, too. That day, Dorothy was the woman in the parable who gave more with her two coins, than all the people who had a lot more, but gave less.

But this is getting off the subject. In today’s reading, Jesus says to give in secret. That’s what I try to do, and it’s what I try to let everyone else do. Don’t give so your name will be up on a monument. Don’t give to impress people. When you give to impress, you get what you pay for, Jesus says. And giving that way doesn’t impress God in heaven.

Fold your check in half, and put it in the plate. Or put it in an envelope. A lot of people today prefer to mail it in.

Give joyfully, it says elsewhere in the Bible. Give sacrificially. Today, we say to give creatively. Give positively. Give for the future as well as for the present. But don’t toot your own horn. That’s not what it’s about.

Jesus said that the same thing goes for prayer. Some people like to make a big show when they pray. They want everybody else to see them, and hear them, and be impressed by them. I’m sure we’ve all met people like that.

But Jesus said, “Pray in secret, just like you give in secret. If you make a big show and impress people, you’ve already got your reward in full. When you pray, keep quiet about it. Go to your room, close the door, kneel down and tell God what’s on your heart. God will see you there.”

That feels right. But in some ways it goes against some other things that Jesus said. Didn’t Jesus also tell us to let our light shine? Didn’t he say that we’re the light of the world? We talked about that, just a few weeks ago.

Wouldn’t it be “letting our light shine” if we prayed openly? Aren’t we supposed to be bold and witness to our faith? Aren’t we supposed to pray constantly, and to pray with confidence to God?

Seems like there’s a conflict between “pray in secret” and “let your light shine.” What are we supposed to do?

This feels like one of those areas where we need to be cautious about not showing off, but where we also need to be faithful. My advice is always to listen to the Spirit. Listen to that inner voice, that inward guide, about when it’s right to pray. Let the Spirit fill your heart and mind, and let the Spirit help you choose your words.

Don’t babble, said Jesus. Don’t repeat yourself. God hears you the first time. God already knows what you need, even before you ask.

And then Jesus gives us one of the greatest examples of how to pray – the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not going to go through the Lord’s Prayer in detail this morning. I think most of you already know it by heart. I just want to review the essentials.

  1. Pray to God, who loves you like the best parent ever

  2. Always keep God’s name special – don’t use God’s name to swear with, or curse with, or do anything with God’s name that God wouldn’t want.
  3. Always pray that God’s kingdom should be here on earth. I mean, why wait till you die? The “kingdom prayer” is a way of asking for heaven to get started right here, today. Jesus used to talk about the life that never ends, and he always said that it starts right now.
  4. It’s OK to ask for the things we need every day. It’s more than OK – Jesus tells us to go ahead and ask. Daily bread, daily needs, life and health. We need all those things. It’s all right to ask God for help. It’s all right to ask God for healing. If there’s one thing we see, over and over again in the gospels, it’s that people came to Jesus and asked for help, and especially for healing. Prayer for healing is really OK. I do it all the time, every day.
  5. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus really comes down heavy on forgiveness. Not God forgiving us, but us forgiving each other. If you want to be forgiven yourself, Jesus says, you’ve got to forgive. That’s the deal.

    To forgive in the gospel literally means to let go. It means letting go of the brokenness in my life. It means letting go of the grudges that I hold against people. It means letting go of hurt feelings. It means letting go of attitudes towards other people, and fears, and the desire to get even. It means letting go of all the hateful comebacks we’d just love to rip out with.

    In one of his letters, Paul says that it’s almost as though we’re carrying something rotting around with us all the time. Imagine carrying a bag full of rotting garbage around with you all the time — two week old chicken carcasses, rotting vegetables, things like that. Can you imagine how horrible that would be?

    Forgiveness means letting go, and putting the garbage where it belongs – out on the garbage heap! It shouldn’t be in our homes, it shouldn’t be in the midst of our families or our work places. Let go of all that garbage, and start to live again! If we forgive others, God forgives us. If we don’t forgive others, God doesn’t forgive us. It’s that simple.

  6. Finally, Jesus finishes up by talking about fasting. Most Christians don’t fast very much today. But for centuries, fasting was recognized as a basic spiritual discipline.

    Pious Jews fasted twice a week in Jesus’ day, on Thursday and on Monday. Even today, many Jews won’t eat or drink anything on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which starts at sundown on Tuesday this week, and continues for 24 hours till sundown on Wednesday.

    I know many Catholics who fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and I’ve visited Catholic monasteries where they don’t eat meat or fish – just vegetables – for the entire season of Lent.

    So, it’s an important tradition, and I’d be glad to talk about it with you if you’re interested. But Jesus says, just like when he’s talking about giving and praying, “If you fast, do it in secret. Don’t show off. Don’t tell everyone else how miserable you feel and try to impress them! If you fast, make your hair look nice and wash your face so that no one else will know. But God will know, and you’ll be rewarded.”

That’s the key to this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Keep it simple, keep it faithful, be generous, and don’t show off.

Let’s take all this into our quiet prayer time for a few minutes.

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