Carole or Kate: Sermon on the Mount 5

October 8, 2023

    Series: October 2023

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Carole or Kate: Sermon on the Mount 5"


    Scripture Readings 

    Matthew 6:1-6

                ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

                2 ‘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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

                5 ‘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. 6But 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.

    “Carol or Kate:  Sermon on the Mount 5”

                A story one of you shared with me: 

                The Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. is home to many naval officers.  Traditionally around Christmas, the staffs carol from house to house.  A lit porch light means a family wants to receive carolers.  They sing and share hot chocolate.  One year, after a successful round of visits, the group made their way to the final stop; the home of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).  Low and behold, the porch light was not on. More than a few were disappointed that this year the CNO didn't choose to accept their gifts of song.  It turns out, at the back of the caroling party the entire night was a gentleman wearing a hooded sweatshirt that had gone unrecognized the entire night.  It was the CNO, himself, an anonymous caroler.

                Doing good in anonymity.  Being humble.  We hold these things together.  We hold them up as Christian precepts.  As Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others… Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…” (Mt. 6:2).  What an interesting passage to fall in the middle of Stewardship season, the church’s annual fundraising campaign. 

                This is as good a time as any to think about our giving and serving as Christians.  Many adhere to a commitment to anonymity in their giving, a low profile in their serving.  That said, we find ourselves in places all the time that are filled with recognition of generous donors and not only ones seeking attention.  Spaces in this very church are named for faithful donors. Next week at a luncheon, we will be celebrating those who have remembered Westminster in their estate plans, and inviting others to join what we call the Legacy Circle.  We explicitly avoid asking about dollar mounts, and we allow people to remain anonymous if they wish, but we do encourage folks to allow us to name them so they might inspire others.  Some of you know that I studied philanthropy in graduate school. We know that public giving encourages others to give, and if the cause is good, why wouldn’t we want to leverage everything we can to support it. 

                Yet, there’s a shadow side to putting one’s giving on display even beyond the obvious examples of self-aggrandizement. On social media there’s a phenomenon of now formulaic inspirational videos.  They all go something like this: Someone approaches a person in need, engages them in an earnest-sounding conversation, maybe learning that person likes basketball.  Then, boom, the person produces basketball tickets as well as $500 to pay bills for the family, or maybe its groceries or new shoes and cash. The recipient is moved usually to tears, as are the viewers, and everyone feels inspired that there is still good in the world.  That is a reminder we crave, is it not?

                Something isn’t quite right about these though.  In fact, I think I’ve heard these videos described as “poverty porn” or you might call it “philanthropy porn.”  Why? Because they use the person in need for the gratification of the viewer—that’s why it’s filmed, it reinforces the trope of the savior (often white), and it perhaps gets us to overlook with one act of random charity a whole set of problems that need to be addressed in a more systematic way.  Are there worse things than giving in this way?  Of course, but Jesus was onto something with his admonitions about giving.

                Let’s look more closely at what he said.  How about we finish the two sentences I started at the outset, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…so that they may be praised by others.”  There is clear attention given here to intention.  Again, the Sermon on the Mount is about getting to the heart.  Just as it wasn’t enough to follow the outward precepts of the law, the good of the giving isn’t good enough.  The spirit and intention of the gift matters in part because it ultimately affects the act of giving.  If you are truly centering a need or a recipient, then that will lead you to ask questions about how and whether you are giving appropriately.  So, we are to ask, is the gift given to gather acclaim and attention?  Is it to curry favor or win influence, access?  Is it to show and therefore accrue power?  This may be given, but it is not pure generosity and it may be what Jesus labels hypocrisy.  In our conversation about this passage after worship last week we dove into the meaning of the word hypocrite.  The Greek is ὑποκριταὶ hupokrites, literally an actor, someone wearing a mask, figuratively a dissembler, someone who hides their real intentions.  If your actions align with an intention of generosity your internal reward will be greater than any external praise can ever generate.    

                So, now we have recognized reasons for making your giving and by extension your serving public—it’s inspiring—and reasons for keeping it quiet—it keeps the focus on the cause and avoids corrupting self-aggrandizement?  How do you know what to do?  You could simply always default to anonymity, and I wouldn’t fault you.  It’s a safe position.  I might offer a different standard, one that recognizes nuance, complexity, and context.  This is a harder position because it requires you to reason in every situation, it requires active discernment, but an easy faith is a cheap faith.  For a standard, I return to the aforementioned value of humility.  We read about the humility of Christ in Scripture. You might think, wait a minute, humility isn’t nuanced.  Humility is about making yourself as small as possible, anonymous even.  Not so fast.  I came across a really helpful definition of humility that takes into consideration both the subject and the setting, and therefore calls us to engage in active consideration about what each consideration calls for, and that varies depending on who we are.  

                The definition came from Kate Adina Hennessey, the education director for a synagogue in Atlanta.  She wrote this of the Hebrew word anavah, which is often translated in English as humility: 

    ...Judaism does not define humility the way that the mainstream world does. In the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar, anavah is not about making yourself small and beating yourself up for never being good enough. It simply means taking up the appropriate amount of space.  How much space to take up depends on the person and the circumstance. If anavah were a spectrum, some people exist too far along the right end of the scale and are unbearably egocentric, and some, like me, live too far along the left end of the scale, in a place of low self-worth and smallness.[1]

     I love the definition of humility, not as always getting smaller, but looking at your surroundings and learning to take up the right amount, the appropriate amount of space.  I was standing at a soccer game and a guy came and stood right in front of me, as if totally unaware of my presence.  He even stood on my foot at one point.  I was ordering at a restaurant counter the other day, where there were two registers occupied by one woman who had sprawled out her things obliviously across the entire counter blocking both lines with no awareness. They needed to get smaller.  There was power in the chief naval officer relinquishing the prestige of his position and getting smaller, hidden, but sometimes those who have been made small need to get bigger to take up the right amount of space. 

                Kate Adina Hennessey writes about her own experience of being in an orthodox marriage that was, “the smallest, hardest, and most extreme confinement I’ve ever had to live in.”  It was only when she left that marriage that she felt like a tiny seed finally breaking through the cracks of a sidewalk and springing into full life and bloom.  In fact that getting bigger, that unfurling, that finding her voice, that broke through her confinement and smashed the sidewalk altogether.[2]

                In our living, just as in our giving, the task is figuring out how much space to take up, how to be in that space, and when it’s time to step back, get a little smaller, quiet enough so other voices can be heard, and when to stand up, speak up, and allow yourself to unfurl and be seen, and there are 1,000 gradations in between.  In faith, we make those judgments, we discern, through prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through analysis by the commitment to understanding the facts of the situation, through conversation by the gift of conversation.  In the end, you get to, you have to decide in your giving and in your living when it’s time for you to offer an anonymous carol and when it’s time to be a Kate who has found a voice.