Psalm 51:10-17, Matthew 6:1-18
October 21, 2012
If you are a fan of British humor, the title of this sermon might ring a bell. The British comedy group “Monty Pythons Flying Circus” once did a sketch by this name – with a lot of simulated explosions! Well, I am sorry to say we won’t be having the simulated explosions here today, but I wanted to give them credit for a borrowed title, and some great laughs!
“The Art of Not Being Seen.” That’s what came to mind when I read this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” That’s what I want us to think about today.
Now at first, that might seem to fly in the face what he said earlier. A couple of weeks ago, we read the part where Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill that cannot be hidden Let your light so shine before men so that they may see your good works.” That sounds to me like we should practice our piety – our righteous living – before others. Doesn’t it? But of course, we must read the last part of that sentence. “that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.” We let our works shine so that God gets the glory, not us. This is not so much about where we let the light shine, but about who’s in the spotlight! And I think youll agree those are two different things.
That’s the focus of this part of the Sermon. And like last week, what’s important is the spirit behind the saying. So the first thing I want you to see here is that Jesus does not say, “Do not practice your piety before men.” He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before men.” Do you see the difference? He’s saying, “When you practice piety, when you show your righteous living, beware, or take care, that you’re doing it for the right reasons.” “Are you doing it in order to be seen by others? Are you shining the light of God? Or are you putting the spotlight on yourself? If you are, maybe we do need one of those simulated explosions we talked about earlier!
Think about how this looks in your life. And listen to the example Jesus gives. He says, “When you give alms,” and again, the assumption is that you do give alms! “When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you.” Now, let me tell you that that statement means a little more to trumpet players! The old cliche understanding is that trumpet players have big egos. I try not to let that be true about me, but that’s what they say. Maybe you’ve heard the old musicians joke that says, “What does one trumpet player say to another trumpet player when they meet for the very first time?” “Hi, Im better than you!” You see, that’s the understanding about trumpet players! By the way, it also applies to violinists! The next joke is, “Why is a violin smaller than a viola? The answer is, “Its really not, it just looks that way because violinists heads are bigger!”
So anyway, “When you give alms,” Jesus said, “sound no trumpet before you.” “Don’t tell everyone what you’re doing.” “Don’t put the spotlight on yourself.” “Hypocrites do that.” he says, “And they do it in order to be praised by men.” “And” he says, “They have received their reward.” That’s the only reward they’ll get.” And of course that goes back to the first verse where Jesus indicates that the true reward we seek is from God.
“Instead,” he says, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what youre right hand is doing.” Now, over the years that phrase has become a clich in our language. It’s one that’s usually been used to describe people or organizations that are confused, and aren’t sure what they are doing. Maybe there’s a breakdown in the organization somewhere, and someone will say, “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing!”
I don’t think thats what Jesus meant here. I think it’s clear that he meant this in a positive way. He meant that when we do acts of charity, we should do them for the right reasons. This is about helping others, and again, not putting the spotlight on ourselves. So what he’s describing is a secret act of charity. He’s describing what is the opposite of “blowing a trumpet before us.” “Be so secretive,” he says, “that the left hand doesnt know what the right hand is doing.”
Again, he’s not saying we shouldn’t ever let anyone see us doing acts of charity. Sometimes we do acts of charity in order to inspire others to follow suit. Sometimes we inspire people anyway. And when that happens, and many people join in, great things are done! But the goal – and sometimes it’s a hard goal to keep in mind – is that we help others and give God the glory. That’s where the spotlight falls!
So, have you ever known anyone who was an example of what Jesus was saying. Think about it. Have you ever known a person who, when they passed away, it was discovered that they left a huge record of giving to and doing for others, but nobody ever knew it? I’ve known people like that. Sometimes the greatest acts of charity are ones that take place without anyone else knowing it? There’s a fine line here though. Again, we are to” let our light so shine,” so that people can see our good works and give God glory. But we are to remember that it is the inner spirit that’s important.
Sometimes people forget that. Sometimes people think piety itself is the goal. But think about Jesus. It would be hard to find someone more loving and compassionate than him, wouldnt it? But he wasn’t all that pious! He didn’t follow all the outward rules of the faith. He often set aside the social and religious conventions in order to reach out to people. And those who were pious didn’t know what do with him. The Pharisees, like we talked about last week, were all about that outward piety. They had devoted their lives to it, and yet, as we know, Jesus had his strongest criticism for them.
The other example Jesus gives here is even more to the point. He talks about prayer. And he tells us about praying in secret. Now, we do a lot of praying in public around here, don’t we? In worship, I pray, you pray with me, we have unison prayers. We also have prayers at the beginning of all our meetings. And of course we have prayers at meals. Jesus wasn’t speaking against that. But he wanted us, again, to know the spirit behind what we were doing. He wanted us to be praying for the right reasons.
Because people sometimes do pray in a way that puts the spotlight on them, doesn’t it? Thats what Jesus was warning against. In the next section, he says, “Do not heap up empty words and phrases, thinking you will be heard if you do.” Prayer is not about our words, its about our connection with God. There shouldnt be many more spiritual things we ever do.
In one of the more smart-aleky moments of my life, I was asked by my dad to offer a prayer at a Thanksgiving dinner. I did. And when I was done, he said, “I could hardly hear a thing you said.” And I said, “Thats ok, I wasnt talking to you anyway.” Yeah, I was a rotten kid! But the point is, prayer is communication with God. That sounds so simple. But of course it’s not, is it! We have to focus on that goal constantly, or prayer will too quickly become us simply talking to ourselves.
The other thing I would mention here is how many people have come to me over the years saying they were worried about praying in public. I once had a man (in another church) decline the request to become an elder solely because he thought he might someday be called on to do so.
The most important thing I try to keep in mind in those situations – and I’m not always successful – but the most important thing, is to focus on God. And again, that sounds simple! But you know it’s not! So whenever I can, I take a few moments to stop, to take some deep breaths, to clear my mind, and to focus on Gods presence with me. It’s almost a matter of going into that secret place Jesus was talking about, even though the words I pray can be heard. I’m not always able to do that, especially when called on to lead prayer right at a certain moment. But that’s what I try to do.
I hope you see that in all this, Jesus was always more interested in a person’s heart. His detractors would try to get him to focus in on rules and laws and practices. Jesus sidestepped all of that. He wanted to know what people were thinking. He would bring things around to get at the heart of the matter. As his people, that should be our concern, too. So in all the practice of your faith, think of that secret place, that inner spiritual part of you. That’s the part Gods interested in. Seek his reward, his peace, his presence.
Eternal God, our Heavenly Father, help us to know that secret place in our soul, and to seek your presence there. Help us to grow closer to you in all ways in our lives. Help us to know the presence of your spirit. May it surround us, may it indwell us, may it empower us in every way to do your will and give you the glory. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.