December 21, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT ARE YOU NOT DOING FOR CHRISTMAS? PUBLIC PIETY
Matthew 6:1-6, Galatians 4:4-7
Back in 1952 a game show started on NBC radio called “Name That Tune.” The host would read a clue to a song and the contestants would bid on how few notes it would take them to identify it. They might say, “I can name that tune in three notes.” Sometimes they wouldn’t need any notes at all. They could “name that tune” just from the clue. Whoever had the lowest bid would have the opportunity to give it a try and either win or lose that round.
I’d like to start today with a variation on “Name That Tune.” I am going to step over to the piano and see if these five notes are enough for you. (I play the first five notes of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and, of course, everybody knows it.) And what are the words to the tune you just heard? “You better watch out.”
That’s what Jesus said at the beginning of our scripture lesson from Matthew. “You better watch out.” Some versions say, “Beware.” Others say, “Be careful.” Jesus begins this passage with a warning. Now, I’ll give you a warning. What I’m about to say may be controversial, but I’m going to say it anyway. Here goes: Jesus is more important than Santa Claus. So if Jesus says, “You better watch out,” you better watch out!
Watch out for what? “Watch out / be careful / beware — of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” What does that even mean? To practice “your piety before others in order to be seen by them”? Jesus gives examples so we’ll know exactly what he means.
There’s this guy giving alms. That means giving to the poor. But instead of doing it quietly, he plays a little trumpet fanfare first. He makes a loud noise, so everyone would look up from what they are doing and see what a good, generous, caring person this is.
And there is the person who loves to pray. But what this person loves most about praying is going into the synagogue or standing on a street corner where there are sure to be lots of people and then praying out loud. So everyone would look up from what they are doing and see what a faithful, devout, holy person this is.
Notice please what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying we shouldn’t give to the poor. He is not saying we shouldn’t pray. What he is saying is that motives matter. We can do the right thing for the wrong reason and it is no longer the right thing. If you are doing good things but your motive in doing these good things is to call attention to yourself, you are doing the right thing for the wrong reason. So it’s no longer the right thing. Give your alms, say your prayers in secret “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.
There was a working mom who would typically hurry home from work and immediately begin working at home. Cooking dinner was the first chore that presented itself. This particular night she was more exhausted than usual. It was December and she was feeling the stress of the season. Not only that, she and her husband both had meetings to hurry to after dinner. So she came up with a great idea. IHOP. Everybody could get what they wanted, everybody would be happy, and it wouldn’t cost them a fortune.
She had just about an hour that she could spend with her family at this restaurant. She could focus on her family and not on preparing the meal and washing the dishes. She was so looking forward to that, so it was very frustrating that in this dining room there sat a single mom with three children who were making a lot of noise. This mom had no control over her children. They were having their fun making her mad. The more she got mad, the more it egged them on to misbehave ever more creatively.
Their family meal essentially was ruined, and as they were getting ready to leave, Sarah, their 8-year-old said, “Mom, I have an idea.” She rolled her eyes over to the out of control family next to them and she said, “Let’s pay for their dinner.”
It was not exactly what this mom was thinking! She was not exactly thinking pleasant thoughts about them. She thought to herself, “Wow! I’ve just been convicted by a child who isn’t even familiar with Matthew chapter 6.”
At IHOP you pay on the way out, so Sarah explained to the cashier what they wanted to do. The cashier was confused. This didn’t happen very often. But then she caught on. She got as excited as Sarah was excited to be in on the secret plan.
A couple of days later, this mom was bragging to her friends about what had happened and how proud she was of Sarah. Sarah was listening. When these friends left she said, “Mom, you’ve told two people now. I wanted this to just be our secret.”
Eight-year-old Sarah understood what Jesus was talking about. Something was happening in her soul that couldn’t happen if other people knew. She had done something in secret, not looking for a reward, but her Father in heaven who sees in secret had rewarded her anyway.
There was a Jewish philosopher who lived about 800 years ago named Maimonides. He said that giving to others is always a good thing. But the way we do it, the motive behind it, can make it an even better thing. He said the lowest level of giving is to give grudgingly. You don’t want to do it, but you do it anyway. That’s better than not giving at all, but not by much. The next level is giving cheerfully but giving way less than you know you could and should give. Then giving something directly to a poor person when you have been asked to give. That’s the next level. One step higher than that is giving directly to the poor person without being asked. The next level: you give not knowing who will get your gift but the recipient knows it was you. One level higher than that is when you know who you are giving to but the recipient doesn’t know you are the one who gave. That’s the level on which Sarah was operating when she and her mom paid for that meal. That’s a pretty high level. But even higher than that is giving in such a way that you don’t know who gets your gift and the one who gets your gift doesn’t know who gave it. That’s truly being careful to practice your piety in secret.
Maimonides actually has one higher level. That’s giving to help people before they become impoverished. That’s the proverbial case of people getting sick from the water in a stream. You can treat the sick people and help them get better. That’s a good thing. A far better thing is to go to upstream, figure out whatever it is that is polluting the water and causing people to get sick, and then removing that cause. You do that and you’ll probably become a celebrity for doing such a noble thing, which would defeat the whole point of doing it in secret.
It’s tricky! I’ve been looking in the Bible for examples of helping people in secret. In other words, I’ve been looking for some sermon illustrations. I wasn’t finding any. Then it dawned on me. I’m not finding any because they were done in secret. If you got your name in the Bible for doing it, it would defeat the whole point!
So since I struck out on Bible examples, here are three examples from people who did good things in secret but didn’t do the greatest job in keeping their secret.
There was a couple who set their thermostat at 62 F. All winter long, it was 62 in their home. They were used to it. When they came in from outside, they left their coats on. Sometimes they left their gloves on. But when they had company over, their indoor temperature became something of an issue. That’s how their secret got out of the bag. It was simply this: They had calculated how much money they would save by keeping their home at 62 as opposed to 70. It was some significant money. And this money was used to write a monthly check to support an overseas missionary.
You may not be called upon to live in a 62 degree house all winter. But God may be calling you to think up some equally creative way to sacrifice so you can give to others. So you can experience the joy of giving in secret.
Then there was a newspaper columnist who wrote about his secret way of helping people. That way everyone who read the newspaper would be in on the secret, so it was a very poorly kept secret, but that way maybe others would be inspired to do something similar. This newspaper columnist would go to the local K-Mart a couple of weeks before Christmas. You figure people shopping at K-Mart are probably not in the top percentile of income. He was allowed into the layaway room. People who couldn’t afford to buy these things had paid what they could so the store would hold them and they could pay the balance and pick them up later. Hopefully before Christmas. This man was allowed to look through the sacks and see the potential Christmas toys inside. He would have a great time deciding which ones to pay for. He would always pay for way more than he had intended to.
Finally, there is someone I know who has the best time going out to eat and then leaving outrageous tips. You may know that in Idaho, restaurant servers can legally be paid below minimum wage. That’s because they get tips. They are paid as little as $3.35 an hour. I know this because our daughter Heather was a server here. So when loose change is left on the table as your tip, it can be very discouraging. But the server waiting on the person I’m talking about will open up that padded black book that holds the bill hoping for a $10 tip and finding a hundred dollar bill. It would be hard to know who that deed of generosity makes happier, the recipient or the giver!
There is an anonymous person who is doing something similar. Maybe you’ve heard of him. As far as I can tell he hasn’t been identified yet. He’s doing a good job keeping his secret. And his secret is leaving tips far larger than my friend can afford and writing on the receipt, “tips for Jesus”. Let’s take a look at this video:
I’ve been told those of us who go to the restaurants after church are notoriously poor tippers. I’m just saying. That’s the word among restaurant servers. So this guy is making a point to say, “If Jesus came to your restaurant, this is the way Jesus would tip!” Maybe that’s a good question to ask next time you eat out. Not WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) but HWJT (How Would Jesus Tip?).
Christmas has a way of bringing out the generous side of us. Christmas has a way of getting us to think of those who have less. Christmas is about giving, not getting. And giving in secret is the best kind of giving.
When you come right down to it, Christmas is about a secret well kept. God had this great idea. He dropped hints through the prophecies of the Old Testament. But still when it really happened it caught everyone by surprise. God would come to earth. And God would come to earth not in power and glory. God would come to earth as a tiny, helpless baby.
The time came at last for God’s secret to be revealed. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-7). No trumpet sounded. No fireworks. No public display to signify that something great had happened. It was just a simple birth on a silent night while the world slept. And for much of the world, even the Christmas celebrating part of the world, the significance of what happened on Christmas is still a secret.
Paul has a unique way of describing the significance of what happened on Christmas. I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to Paul’s description before. Then, two Wednesdays ago, on December 10 at 9:30 am, I was present in a Canyon County courtroom for some legal proceedings. My wife was with me. So was a good representation from our church. Normally when you go to court, someone is in trouble. But no one was in trouble. It was just the opposite. Four adorable girls named Analeah, Maddie, Kayleigh, and Destiny were officially adopted by Richard and Debbie Pimentel. They now have a new family. They now have hope and joy and peace and love, the gifts God gave us at Christmas.
God’s secret should no longer be a secret. God came to this earth, born of woman, born in the most humble of circumstances. Why? “So that we might receive adoption as children.” Adoption into a new family. God’s family. A family where we will always have a place. A family where we are always on the lookout for ways to help our brothers and sisters in need.
Thank you, God, for your Christmas gift. It’s a gift we so need. It’s a gift to fill the empty and needy places in our lives right now. May we receive that gift. That hope and joy, that peace and love. And having received your gift, may we be so privileged as to share it with others. For there are many who are lost and lonely, many motherless and fatherless children, who need to know how much you love them too, and that there is always a place for them in your family. Through Jesus, your Son, your gift, Amen.