Poking Holes in Public Holiness

(Click here to listen. Speaker’s Note: The audio version of this sermon deviates from and significantly improves on the printed text below.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen how Jesus consistently raises the bar for his disciples from the letter of the law which kills to the spirit of the law which brings life. From a faith that is self-centered to a faith that is God-centered. Today’s text is no different, and the critique Jesus levels has been echoed repeatedly through the centuries. One of my favorite Dilbert comics is a conversation between Dogbert and Ratbert in which Dogbert had just cashed out as CEO of a company and was going to turn his attention to Philanthropy. Ratbert, being the comic foil, asks if that is the study of people named Phil to which Dogbert replies “It’s mostly about watching people beg and having buildings named after me.” In Jesus’ time the practice of giving alms to the poor was a part of Hebrew tradition and throughout the scriptures there are commands to care for the poor, the stranger, the alien, the orphan and the widow. The awesome thing was that the Jewish people really did make a big deal about the importance of their acts of charity, and their theology reflected it. However, as with many good works, there came a time in which a line of glorification was crossed. The line between glorifying God and glorifying self gets blurry awfully fast sometimes, and Jesus was fully aware of that fact. In today’s teaching Jesus addresses some of the things that will help us to keep our eyes on the mark of God’s glory.

“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, do not 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, do not 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. Matthew 6:1-4

Today’s text is one that we can struggle with applying, so to get our minds on the same page I want to share one way I saw this done. In a large high school like the one I attended the statistical likelihood of someone experiencing tragedy was pretty high, and we often heard through the grapevine how someone’s parent had cancer or was getting divorced. What was really interesting was that usually within two days of the tragedy making the rounds of the school, a bouquet of handpicked flowers addressed to the student would appear overnight. Nobody could figure out who was doing this, and it had a hugely positive effect on the student body. I still couldn’t tell you who, but it had to be someone or some people on the staff who had access to the student address records. Regardless of who did it, on the back of each card was the 23rd Psalm. Whoever did this found a way to apply today’s text and led others to share secret acts of compassion in ways that point to the goodness of the God who inspires them.

When we give in secret, without strings or even allowing others to know who is doing the giving there are some amazing opportunities that open up. The first opportunity is for God to be glorified. When I was growing up in the ministry in New York, we were trying to feed 25-40 people three meals a day and some months we used all of the tricks the third worlders who lived with us knew about stretching food. Occasionally a miracle would happen. We would open our front door in the morning and there on the porch would be bags and bags of food. There would be no note or anything to identify where this came from other than the name of the store on the shopping bags. That food came from God, and everyone in our house knew it. When whoever left that food did it in secret they turned away from credit and acclaim so the people who were living with us would know that the source of this food was Jesus. God received the glory.

There was something else that happened as well, when miracles occur it doesn’t feel like a handout. There is no weird relational dynamic that places the giver over the receiver because nobody knows where things came from. One of the dynamics that Jesus is really addressing here is giving with an eye towards exerting influence or control over others. When we don’t let our left hand know what the right hand is doing in our giving we are exercising a very important act of trust. We are expressing a trust that God will be glorified and we trust that the right things will be done in God’s church without our exerting financial influence over the process.

These acts of trust and faith are not easy, and we are bombarded constantly with the message that other people are not trustworthy, especially people in the church, especially the fallible people who lead our churches. Don’t hear me say that we should not have checks and balances, but that those checks and balances need to be disconnected from personal financial involvement. The problem is one of a misplaced sense of ownership, and I must confess that I have heard that little voice in my soul that says things like “I am a consistent giver so the leaders had better listen to me.” and “Hey, this is my church because I help support it.” and even “I helped found this church and everyone knows I give to make this ministry happen so my voice needs to be heard on this.” I think all of us have heard variations on those themes and have had to check ourselves with the reminder that “No. This is God’s church and I have to submit to his leading.” All glory, authority, control, and power belong to God and God alone, and Jesus is helping us find ways to silence those voices that tempt us to think otherwise.

Jesus is doing more here than keeping us from trying to Lord it over others because of the amount of money we are able to give. He is reminding us of the answer to one of the big questions of life “Why am I here?” Humanity has asked this question for as long as there has been the ability to think about it. For a majority of my life, the answers that I would give, even in theologically prettied up language, were mostly variations on the theme of do the best I can for myself and my family. As I have been part of the Friends and experienced the challenge to live simply, below my means, God has used that to help me focus on the purpose we all are created for: To glorify God; to serve God’s purposes in the world and to show by my trust that God is worthy of the glory, worthy of honor, worthy of praise. When I surrender my desire to control and let my giving be hidden from others, I create an opportunity for others to experience the goodness of God. In that experience of God’s goodness, maybe, just maybe a seed will be planted and God can be glorified in another person’s life as they accept the gift of Jesus.

Jesus is reminding us in today’s teaching to once again keep our eyes on the end game. The mark we aim at is that mark of loving perfection which we see in Jesus. We need his help to keep our eyes focused on that, and Jesus points out for us the reward that comes from following him and his purposes in the world. God’s glory is shown and when we are in his presence we get to hear the words we so long to hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” As we enter into our time of open worship take the first five minutes of silence to allow your thoughts to quiet. As we consider this teaching of Jesus maybe you will be inspired to an act of creative hidden generosity. What joy can we bring to others so that they might give glory to our God? Who knows, maybe if enough of us take on this task we can begin to see the fulfillment of the promise in Habakkuk 2:14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Let us pray.

 

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