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Whenever You Pray… (2/27/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
As we were going through our series on the Seven Deadly Sins the church year changed on us. The season of Epiphany changed to the season of Lent. True, we Congregationalists don’t concern ourselves too much with the church year, but we should acknowledge that we have entered the season of Lent.
Lent is a time for introspection. It is a time when Christians are called to look deep within themselves, and to be honest with what they discover in there. The fact is, if we think we are holy, perfect creatures, the notion of God’s grace doesn’t hold much meaning. Why would somebody who is perfect need grace or forgiveness?
The Christian faith makes the same assumption that every religion makes. There is something about us that is not quite right. If we envision God as all that is good and perfect and incorruptible, and we take an honest look at ourselves, we realize there is somewhat of a gulf between us and God. In the presence of true holiness, true perfection, pure love… we fall short. Lent is the time of year when we are supposed to recognize our shortcomings.
And it really does make Easter a lot more special if we’ve taken the trouble of walking through Lent. I know there are a thousand ways of thinking about the cross, and Easter Sunday, and the resurrection, but even in the midst of our theological arguments most Christians can agree that any gulf between human beings and God is bridged by God—not by us—and the death and resurrection of Jesus is a symbol of that bridge.
So let’s spend a little time in Lent. Many people view Lent as a time when they are supposed to give something up. And so we hear people say things like, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent.” And that’s fine. I don’t know how concerned God is with our intake of chocolate, but if one is overindulging in anything, Lent is a good time to get back on track.
There is a great irony in Lent, however, and it is revealed in the way some like to brag about how they are making sacrifices for Lent, and how they intend to become a more holy, religious person. Because this is where it is easy to miss the whole point. Being spiritually honest with yourself is a very important part of life. But it so often turns into outward displays of religion. The idea is to become more introspective, more spiritual, more pious, in the best sense of that word. But so often the effect is as if a person was announcing to the world, “Just so you all know, I am now becoming a more humble, spiritual, pious person—and I am darn proud of myself.”
Maybe that is why the biblical text that is often associated with the beginning of Lent is from the Sermon on the Mount. It is a powerful reminder that when it comes to religion, and spirituality, and holiness, looks can be deceiving. I want to read the passage from the sixth chapter of Matthew:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
If you break it down, Jesus talks about three basic areas where we are tempted to ruin our own good actions by turning them into some sort of self-aggrandizing achievement: alms, prayer, and fasting.
This is not easy. We like to be acknowledged when we do something nice. We want everybody to know how wonderful we are. Let’s consider alms—giving to the poor. I’ll tell two stories—both of them true—that make Jesus’ saying about the giving of alms come alive.
A good friend of mine who is the pastor of a church attended a conference in a large city. This was a gathering of clergy, and it took place in the midst of some very bad weather. My friend had eaten lunch with a new acquaintance—a minister—and as they returned to the convention hall they saw a man begging on the street corner. The beggar was wearing only a shabby old sweater, and was clearly very cold. So my friend’s new acquaintance took off his very nice coat, and gave it to the man on the street.
The generous preacher didn’t say anything about it. He just did it. It was an impulse, I suppose, but a very nice one! And my friend was really impressed. Here was a guy who was doing more than talking the talk—he was walking the walk. His actions spoke louder than words ever could.
And if the story ended there, we could all go home this afternoon feeling warm and fuzzy, knowing there are still some selfless good Samaritans out there in the world. But the story has another chapter. By the time afternoon session came to a close, our Good Samaritan’s selfless deed was the talk of the convention. He spent the whole afternoon telling everybody about the wonderful thing he had done—acting very pious all the while. “Aw shucks, it was the Christian thing to do. I’m just trying to do my little part in building the kingdom. I’m no saint, that’s for sure. Why, Jesus probably would have given that beggar his shoes too.”
What a guy! My friend told me that all he could think about was how that man had ruined his very good deed by turning it into something all about him. It wasn’t the good deed that mattered—it was the fact that he was the one who did it. And I’m sure the words of Jesus were on the minds of almost everybody at that convention: Beware of practicing your piety before others…then you have no reward… whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do so that they may be praised by others… they have received their reward…When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… and God, who sees in secret, will reward you.
The second story I want to tell involves a couple of young people from this church. After the tsunami disaster in late December, people the world over were united in their compassion for the victims. Here at the church our Outreach Board made a monetary donation to that very good cause. But many people do not know that the children of this church took a special offering in their Sunday School to help with aid and relief for the tsunami victims.
Many parents help their children learn how to handle money by giving them an allowance, or giving them money for certain chores done around the house. Some of the children from this church actually have small bank accounts in which they try to save a little money. When the young people of this church were taking up the collection for the tsunami victims, two of the children hung back, and acted embarrassed. They did not give any money. Karen Robu, our Director of Youth Ministries, noticed they were acting a little odd, and after church asked them if everything was okay. Each of those two young people had raided their bank account to the tune of around $100, and wanted to give it to the tsunami fund. But they did not want anybody else to know they were doing it. Why? First, because they said they did not want to look like they were showing off, and second, they saw all their friends throwing a few quarters or a couple of dollars into the collection plate, and they did now want their friends to feel their contributions weren’t important.
So let’s be clear here. These two young people would rather have their friends think they themselves gave nothing to the effort, than for their friends to think they gave so much it made other contributions look paltry. And the only thing I can add to that is to assure you it really happened. Those children understood instinctively what that preacher from the convention had not figured out. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now let’s turn to the second area Jesus indicates our ego gets in the way of our spirituality: prayer. When I read this morning’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, I left part of it out. This is the place where Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. It is in this teaching on prayer—the teaching about going into your room and praying in private—that Jesus uses the example of the Lord’s Prayer as the right way to pray to God.
I have some pretty strong feelings on this subject. Prayer is one of the greatest gifts God has bestowed upon human beings. There is power in prayer. Prayer can change a person at the deepest level of his or her being. And one of the most astonishing and wonderful things about human life is the fact that each and every one of us can speak to, and be heard by, the Creator of the universe, at any moment in our lives.
That is an amazing thing. Now, I have no problem with communal prayer—praying together as a Christian community. I think it is wonderful, as long as it is done with reverence. But prayer has become so abused. One of the most difficult things about the pastoral prayer that I write each week is making sure that it really is a prayer and not a mini-sermon. If I am trying to make a point in that prayer, it is not a prayer. If I am trying to change somebody’s attitude about some subject during that prayer, it is not a prayer.
And it is my deep respect for prayer that makes me furious when I see it abused. A few years ago the state of Texas ruled that public schools could not say the Lord’s Prayer before football games. Most of you know I am a big believer in the separation of church and state, so I thought that was a good decision. Saying the Lord’s Prayer at church on Sunday morning is one thing; saying it before a football game at a public school—that’s something else. We have Jews and Muslims and Buddhist and agnostics and all sorts of other people in the public schools. If a football player wants to say a prayer before the game, I will stand up for his right to do so. But if a school insists on leading the entire crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, I have a problem with that. It is insulting to non-Christians and it demeans a wonderful and powerful prayer.
So here is how the folks at one Texas high school solved the problem. As the game was about to begin, some people in the stands stood up and started shouting the Lord’s Prayer. Soon, most of the people in attendance were standing and screaming out the Lord’s Prayer from the top of their lungs. Prayer as a weapon! Prayer as a way of shouting down your enemies! Prayer as a mighty sword that cuts down those who lack your great religious piety.
The words of Jesus: And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand…at the street corners so that they may be seen by others… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And now, after alms and prayer, let’s turn to the third good thing that Jesus indicates we often corrupt: fasting. We modern Protestants aren’t much into fasting. But I believe we can equate fasting with religious practice—the way we embrace our faith.
And this is a good time for me to mention that the people who are most guilty of these three corruptions of the faith—taking glory for their giving, making a show of prayer, and seeking self-glorification through their practice of religion—are those in my chosen vocation: preachers.
We want everybody to think that we spend all our time imitating Jesus. And we love to act like we are so busy, there is simply no way we can keep up with the demands of a life of faith. Well, nonsense! Nobody is more aware than a preacher of how far short preachers fall from living up to their calling. I have friends who entered the ministry right out of college and never did anything else. They complain and complain about all the demands of their vocation. And I just want to say, “Are you kidding? This is the greatest job on the world.”
I remember working 60 and 70 hour weeks managing operations for a division of a Fortune 500 company. Now that was a demanding and thankless job. I had a lot of jobs over the years before I entered the ministry, and I can say without a doubt that this is the life! In fact, I often say that I haven’t worked a single minute since I entered the ministry. It’s not work when you love what you’re doing.
But we ministers are the guiltiest of all people when it comes to making sure everybody knows we are fasting—making some sort of sacrifice for the faith. Honestly, sometimes I think that preachers have replaced the handshake with the old “back of the wrist to the forehead” sign. Woe is me, I spent the day at the hospital. Poor me, I just did another funeral.
Wow! You can tell its Lent, can’t you! I’m doing some serious introspection here. But friends, I tell you from the bottom of my heart, this is what I love about being a Congregational minister. I’m a member of this congregation. Like every other minister in the world, I’ve got all the flaws, all the shortcomings, all the need of God’s grace that everybody else does. What makes this church special is that I don’t have to pretend that isn’t true, and I thank you for that.
We’re on this journey together. And while I may try to be your guide through some parts of this journey, I hope you always remember that you also are my guides, my support, my inspiration. And if I ever forget that, all I need do is remember those two children in our Sunday School, who remind us all of what it means to really listen to Jesus.