Polyester Piety

Matthew 6:1-18                                                          October 27, 2013

[I had this sermon prepared by Friday afternoon. I went over it on Saturday morning, I had it just where I thought it needed to be. I had a time-specific introduction, I had some cute stories to share, it was going to be an entertaining and charming type of sermon having to do with Halloween and the ways we all put on costumes… then we received a phone call Saturday afternoon that made everything I had written seem irrelevant.  Dilmer Lainez, a young father in our community who was like a brother to a family in our church, was killed in a car accident on Saturday, October 26, 2013. Below is the sermon as I prepared it, not as I preached it]

Well, Halloween is just a few days away, isn’t it?

Most of us would probably agree that Halloween as we know it, is basically for children, right?

We kind of expect that on Thursday, if we’re home and we want to participate in the festivities, we can wait at home for knocks on the door, and we’ll probably have a chance to hand out candy or other treats to kids who are dressed up in costume.

It’s actually a great opportunity to get to know some of your neighbors, whether you’re answering your door, or taking your own child and knocking on other doors.

It’s the one time of year when it’s OK, when it’s even expected in our culture, for people to walk around their neighborhoods knocking on doors and maybe even talking to the people who answer.

But for all the emphasis on candy, and children dressing up, and the size of their haul at the end of the evening, I’d like to suggest this morning that we adults are a lot better at Halloween than the children, because we wear masks every day, don’t we?

We spend the majority of our time trying to present our best side to people, hoping our worst side doesn’t show through, right?

We have elaborate costumes that we put on every day, most of the time for people we barely know.

Christine just made an observation the other day, we were having one of those kind of tense discussions that married people have; I honestly can’t tell you what it was about because I don’t remember, but I was in a bad mood; I was snappy about whatever it was because I had something else on my mind.

Then we saw an acquaintance come out of a building, and I instantly changed, and greeted this person, and we both smiled and were polite and friendly and warm to this person as we exchanged pleasantries.

It’s just one example of a time I was in a bad mood, but then quickly put on a mask to hide it from another person.

I’m actually pretty good at that. 🙂

and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. We all put on costumes.

We all put our best foot forward when we want to. We are masters at manipulating the angle and the light that other people see us in, so that we come across as cool and collected and ‘together’ most of the time.

Jesus will have none of it.

He’s not afraid to get up in our grill, and strip off the costumes that we devote so much of our time to preserving.

“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before others, to be seen by them” He says, “If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

In other words, faith is no costume that you can put on when it suits you, and take off when it doesn’t.

There’s a line in this passage that Jesus repeats 3 times. As he talks about giving, prayer, and fasting, in each section he says some version of the phrase “Do this in secret, so that your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

So it’s easy to read this passage and think that what Jesus means is that we should be secretive about our giving, our prayer life, and our fasting habits.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve too often gotten way too hung up on the ‘secretive’ part of what Jesus says here. I’ve taken this to mean that I should make a real effort to make sure nobody knows when I pray, or when I fast, or when or how I give my time or my money or my resources to someone in need.

I’m introverted, and I can think of a couple of times in college and even in high school, when I found some comfort in this passage, because I felt like it gave me an easy ‘out’ on things like praying in front of people during a worship service or a Bible study.

I could read this as a way of Jesus telling his disciples to keep their prayer life secret, so I was glad for an excuse not to pray in public, since my prayer life should be kept secret.

The truth of the matter was though, that I wasn’t really praying at all. So, who was I fooling?

There was a time, too, when I was thankful for this passage, because I felt like it gave me an excuse not to put money in the offering plate. After all, Jesus basically says to keep your giving a secret, too… So I justified not giving in my mind, because maybe people would think I was giving my money elsewhere, and just keeping it a secret.

As you can guess, the truth of the matter was, I wasn’t really giving. Again…who was I fooling?

We can get pretty good at using scripture to justify our actions, can’t we?

Well, here’s the thing.

If I see someone out running, even if I just see them once, I assume they run regularly, and I assume they have other healthy habits in place, like eating well.

Or, if I see someone buying lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, I assume they eat healthy on a regular basis. I can’t see into their kitchen, or their daily schedule, so all I’m left with are my assumptions based on what I see.

We all make lots of these kinds of assumptions every day.

But, it doesn’t really matter whether or not our assumptions are true, does it?

Unless the person in the grocery store is Christine, what goes in someone else’s cart is their business. They have to live with the consequences. Not me.

I can assume, I can judge, I can even choose to feel superior or I can choose to feel judged by the decisions that they’re making. But at the end of the day all that matters is what I put into my own cart.

The kitchen, the bank account, how we spend our time alone…these are the secret places, the private places, where what we do really matters.

These are the places where there’s no need for a costume, because there’s usually nobody else there for us to impress.

So what’s going on in your kitchen? Your bank account? How do you spend your time alone?

God our Father sees in those secret, or private, places.

In Psalm 51, David talks about the secret heart, the one that led him to sleep with another husband’s wife. It’s a Psalm that cries out for forgiveness from the guilt that follows from the incident.

And if you know the story, you know that this sin; adultery, led to another sin, murder.

When we sin, we sometimes forget that our sins always invite their friends to the party.

Lust, for example, in David’s case with Bathsheba, lust led to adultery which led to murder.

But we’re not looking at Psalm 51, we’re looking at Matthew 6.

And the good news is that just as bad choices, or sins, lead to bad consequences, further sins, and other bad choices…just as that process unfolds, so a similar process unfolds in regards to righteousness, or kingdom-living.

For example, Jesus talks about giving.

It’s easy for us to look at how other people are spending their money or their time, and it’s easy to make judgments, right? It’s easy to jump to conclusions, to make assumptions, and to feel either superior, or judged all because of the choices other people are making.

Jesus basically says “that’s not the way of  my kingdom”.

If you choose to follow Jesus, then you begin to give of your money and time in ways that change you.

God wants us to give freely and generously. God wants us to make a statement with our giving, but not to the people around us.

Giving when you see a need; even secretly giving to someone you know needs a little help; that’s got a certain nobility to it, and I think most of us here would probably help someone out if we could, if we knew they just needed some money to get over a particular hurdle.

But let’s not call that kind of giving “Christian”.

That’s considered normal; even among pagans and atheists.

You don’t need to be a Christian to reach into your wallet or your purse to help someone out in a time of need. In that case, your reward is simply knowing that you did the right thing, and you have received your reward in full.

Jesus takes it further than that. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”.

I’ve always been fascinated by that phrase.

What’s it mean?

I don’t really know.

But I have a few thoughts. 🙂

One is, that in ancient times, the left hand and the right hand were symbolic, much as they are today in much of the world.

The left hand signified that which was dirty, or evil, or shameful, while the right hand signified honor, and skill, and power. You can see this reflected in many Old Testament passages where it’s clear that the right hand of God is the side you want to be on; it’s a place of honor, and prestige, and wisdom, and the left hand of God is a place of judgment or scorn.

This goes beyond the bathroom habits of the day…although I’m sure that played a part in how these attitudes developed. Talk to me after the service if you don’t know what I’m getting at. 🙂

So all that makes me wonder if Jesus isn’t getting at something deeper than a mere metaphor when he talks like this, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”.

I think he might be saying simply, “Don’t let what’s dishonorable, or shameful, or even evil within you, don’t let that side of you know what the good, honorable, righteous side of you is planning to do when you give your money. Because most of the time, that ‘left’ side of you is going to be able to talk that ‘right’ side of you out of it.”

My left side can come up with all kinds of reasons why I can’t afford to give anything this month. My left side will name all kinds of places my money should be going instead; most of them will benefit me or my loved ones directly.

My left side is an expert at putting myself first, and at wanting to attach strings to where my money goes and what gets done with it once it leaves my hand.

But my right side knows what’s important isn’t what happens with the money I’m giving; my right side knows what’s most important is my willingness to let it go. It could be ten dollars, or it could be ten percent of my income…Regardless, God is interested in what’s going on in that secret place when you give it.

God knows what we need. He already knows what you’re going through.

But we need to acknowledge it in prayer, not for God so much as for ourselves. Something powerful happens when we take the time to acknowledge our need before God, when we allow our mask to come off, when we stop trying to dress to impress and simply allow ourselves to be known to God as well as to ourselves.

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