Rev. Aaron Willett
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
When Laura was pregnant with Thea, I caught a woman on the radio giving some advice for raising children in our world today. You know how these things go--she had lots of good advice. But one nugget stuck with me: She and her spouse are raising their children with a wholesale ban on secrets. There are surprises, but never secrets. There are lots of advantages of this, first and foremost around specific instances of child abuse and the way children can be pressured to keep secrets, but far beyond that, it seems to demystify many things about life. We don’t keep secrets from each other, and we hope that Thea will grow up knowing she can trust us.
But there is no way surprises would convey the right thing here in this passage. Jesus is definitely talking about secrets, good secrets. These good secrets are a practice of faith that rejects show, pomp, noise and exhibitionist expressions of faith. Church goes wrong when we, whether as individuals or as a body, focus our worship on ourselves instead of God.
There’s good reason for this. When our focus is on ourselves, on our own display, our own status, people get lost. According to the Barna Group, the percentage of people who “love Jesus, but not the church” has grown to 10 percent of Americans today, up from 7 percent in 2004. That’s 32 million. Overall, about half of Americans do not go to church. There are some problems with the perception of “church” in our world.
When author Anne Rice 'quit' Christianity back in 2010, she said, "It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." (Christianity Today)
Six years ago Jefferson Bethke released a spoken-word video called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” It was pretty popular, some of you may have contributed to its 33 million views on youtube. I suspect that Bethke might have been rolling verses like these from Matthew around in his head. Maybe for him and the Americans who “love Jesus but not the church,” the experience of church is one of ostentation, of noisy giving, public prayers, and attention-seeking ritual.
But here’s the rub. As Christians, we don’t get to claim independence from the body. The body of believers is what defines us as Christian. Laura Turner of Christianity Today put it this way, “To say that you love Jesus but hate religion is akin to saying you love your best friend but hate his wife. That relationship will not last.”
So, if Jesus isn’t condemning “religious practice” what is Jesus really saying?
He starts by condemning the hypocrites. Now hypocrite was the Greek word for actors, who often performed in masks. Thus these hypocrites “acted” in one way in public and another in private. In Jesus’ telling, these hypocrites act out for each of us our desire to be
- seen by others
- heard by others
- and praised by others.
The risk we run when our practice of faith is principally about public performance is that the form of our faith can replace the faith itself. We can sometimes become so accustomed to our longing for God that we forget God’s desire is for us to be filled with God’s very self! This doesn’t mean that faith is not about practice though.
In our passage, what practices does Jesus encourage?
- Giving in secret.
- Praying in secret.
- Fasting in secret.
These are Good Secrets.
These good secrets are Means of Grace. They draw us into communion with God. John Wesley describes such means as the “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end--to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey” grace to people. These are means, not ends. Our practice of faith can open a channel for God to reach us. It is God’s action, but we are invited to participate in it. Giving, praying, fasting--these are tools we can use to draw near to God. But sometimes, in our anxiety, preoccupation and self-consciousness, we turn them into performance.
Our motives in worship matter here. Are we focused on ourselves or on God? As a worship leader, I regularly comb over the words of worship music. So much of our worship music focuses on ourselves, rather than on God. Asking God for things is so much easier than appreciating, even adoring God, just for God’s self.
This kind of attention seeking in worship may start with our leaders. In Canada, narcissistic personality disorder occurs in less than 5% of the general population. Now, studies have shown rates closer to 20% in the medical field and the military, but a 2015 study of clergy in the Presbyterian Church of Canada found that roughly 30% have narcissistic personality disorder (American Association of Christian Counselors, September 26, 2015). I suspect those churches might have more than their share of noisy giving, public prayers, and attention-seeking ritual.
We have to do our part to guard against this though. The form of our religious practice is so much easier than the raw, intimate work of faith!
Every night I give Thea blessing from Number 7. It’s familiar. It starts, “May God bless you and keep you…” One night last week I decided to use some alternate language for “the Lord lift up his countenance upon you” and said (somewhat artlessly), “may God look at you.”
From the dark of her bed, Thea quickly interrupted me, “But I don’t want God to look at me.” She probably meant she wanted me to say the normal words... but maybe she was tapping into a deeper truth. Maybe this was the same instinct that caused Adam and Eve to hide in the garden. Maybe we don’t want God to see us in secret. In the secret, it’s just us and God--for some a frightening proposition!
In Joel 2:13 God tells us to “rend your hearts, not your garments.” God knows that clothes rend so much easier than hearts, and God wants our devotion to start with the inside, not the outside.
When our practice of faith of starts with our hearts, its value is twofold. First, we bring glory to God, and we bear witness to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Secondly, giving, prayer, and practice all deliver us from our oppressive need to pay attention to ourselves. Each of these actions pushes us away from self. We are liberated from the burden of self for the “other.”
This is a “let go & let God” kind of thing.
In the spring of 2007 I had the opportunity to lead a trip of youth from our church and two others to Bay St. Louis. On our way home we were delayed by storms for two days in Atlanta. We ended up seeing two very different kinds of churches.
The first, we stumbled upon as we were walking from our hotel to the nearest grocery store. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere out by the airport and it was a three mile walk to get food. We encountered a building that seemed out of place. “World Changers Church” it read over the door. It’s giant copper dome towered over us. The doors were unlocked, so we wandered into the empty and massive building. The sanctuary had seats for thousands, and every fixture in the whole place was brass plated. It was a surreal kind of experience. It was later that I learned that this church was (and still is) pastored by Creflo Dollar, one of the most prominent proponents of the anti-Biblical prosperity gospel. With his multiple million-dollar homes, Dollar is unabashed about his exorbitant wealth. He even proudly raised 65 million dollars for the express purpose of buying a Gulfstream G650. World Changers Church describes this as a “necessary expense for spreading the Gospel.”
MinistryWatch, an organization that reviews Christian ministries based on their financial accountability and transparency awarded Creflo Dollar Ministries an F rating and has added it to their Donor Alert listing. The flash, the glitz, the ostentatious wealth--these are markings of today’s hypocritical worship.
Contrast that with our other experience of church during our stay in Atlanta. The next day we planned a trip to the Open Door Community. At the Open Door, we saw no brass fixtures or soaring copper domes. They’ve never raised 65 million dollars in all their history. We were welcomed to the Open Door to eat alongside their homeless neighbors. The Open Door relentlessly practiced radical hospitality and advocated for those who have no voice. Their prayer and practice was simple, their alleluia adorned only by flowers drawn by their guests.
The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that the fast of God’s choosing is to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our homes.”
Or, as they put it at the Open Door community, “Share the Eucharist, do works of mercy, shout for justice, make art,” and, as they say, “go to jail.”
So, what are we to say, that all ritual is to be avoided? No! Jesus’s life was full of ritual which has passed down to us. Jesus fasted, he went to temple, he memorized Scripture, he celebrated the feasts of the faith. In other words, he was a good Jewish Rabbi. But Jesus was religious and spiritual. He prayed alone, he called God abba, or “daddy,” he loved people who were shunned by others. As Amy Becker puts it, “His religion gave him boundaries for his spirituality. His spirituality gave him freedom within his religion.”
Jesus’ point is not that we should be timid about our faith. Our faith is not a secret to be kept, but to be shared. In Matthew 10:27, Jesus says to his disciples, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
Rather than suggesting his followers only practice their devotion in secret, Jesus is warning against the kind of hypocritical, self-oriented action that would harm their witness. From the outset, the church refused to be a private cult. The reason they were persecuted by the Romans was because of their perpetual insistence that they were the ecclesia theou, or the public assembly of God.
Christian faith always has a private and a public dimension. The Gospel is a good secret, but it is an open secret, a secret for the world to hear shouted from the housetops and reflected in our daily lives of service, love, forgiveness, and grace. This secret changes lives. True faith liberates us from ourselves, our preoccupations, and true faith sends us out, to participate in God’s liberating work for the whole world.