Secret Mercy

SECRET MERCY

 

MATTHEW 6:1-4

matthew-6-1

 

                Dr. John Clements… you have probably never heard his name, but I guarantee you his work has affected you or someone you know. As Joe Palca reports on NPR’s Morning Edition, Dr. Clements’ work would ultimately save the lives of millions of premature babies. Clements started his work in the 1950s as a way for the army to find ways to protect its troops against Soviet chemical weapons. You see, our lungs are full of little sacs called alveoli. Oxygen enters our blood stream through these sacs. When the sacs inflate there is more surface area, and thus more oxygen can enter our blood stream. Clements found a huge discrepancy between the amounts of surface area that different scientists measured in the lungs. In 1953, Clements suggested that there might be a substance that allowed the alveoli to inflate more easily. A few years later, Clements and his team of researchers discovered this slippery substance that came to be known as surfactant.

According to Clements, “At that point, the research, to use a trite term, exploded.” In 1959, a researcher named Dr. Mary Ellen Avery discovered that the lungs of premature babies can’t make surfactant. This caused many children who were born at less than 37 weeks to die from a disease known as Respiratory Distress Syndrome (or RDS). It took forty years, but from Dr. Clements’ initial discovery, scientists were able to develop a synthetic form of surfactant. To quote Clements, “When we began this work back in the 1950s, the mortality from RDS was above 90 percent,” he says. “Today, that mortality is 5 percent or less.”

Today, Clements is 92 and still goes into work every day at UCSF.  He does so for the sheer joy of research. Because he does basic research, he did not benefit financially from any of the drugs based on his research. He won no Nobel prize, and before now, you probably have never heard his name.  But the gift he gave the children of this world is profound. Yet, he approaches his accomplishment with humility, knowing there are still more discoveries to be made.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” I think Dr. Clements would understand these words, though I do not know if he is a believer.  His devotion to science changed our world though most of us don’t even realize it. Likewise, Jesus is trying to show us how to practice true piety, a piety that will change our lives and relationships. In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus will address three aspects of Jewish Piety, and the piety of many religions: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. As John Calvin and the other great reformers of the Reformation point out, we are not saved by our works. We are not saved by doing good things. But as Ephesians 2:10 points out, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared for us in advance for us to do.” As we will later learn in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples are expected to bear good fruit, this fruit being living out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.  But there are dangers when we try to live out Christ’s moral teachings. Dangers that we can be doing things for the wrong motivations. And Jesus is first and foremost concerned with the state of our hearts. Jesus first addresses the practice of almsgiving, and so shall we. In fact, for the next few weeks, I will be taking a break from going chapter by chapter through Matthew to draw out more fully a Biblical theology of Stewardship. We will look at other passages in Matthew on stewardship, as well as passages on stewardship elsewhere in the Bible. Then we shall discuss prayer, and finally fasting.

The giving of alms in the Jewish tradition is supposed to be an act of mercy. Even the word for alms, in the Greek, means God’s covenant mercy. It is the love of God that keeps pursuing us and offers us gifts even though we do not deserve it and cannot repay God. But Jesus tells us that this mercy can be corrupted when we desire the praises of man over the approval of God.  He points out the hypocrites who give openly so that they may receive praise. The word hypocrite literally means one who lacks self-understanding. Some scholars think it was used to refer to actors in Greek plays. Thus, what Jesus is saying is that the Pharisees, those who have turned true piety into religious legalism, see the world as a stage and they are the stars of the show. They wear masks, they present a face to the world, but on the inside they are white washed tombs. In other words, they pretend that their lives are squeaky clean but they are still dead inside. Some scholars think that the reference to a trumpet might refer to a trumpet-shaped giving box that would make a loud ringing when you placed coins in it, thus letting everyone know how awesome you are. Indeed, John 12:43 tells us that the Pharisees would not believe in Jesus, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”

Jesus says that folks like this have already received their reward. John Stott, in his book Christian Counter Culture, says this about the outwardly religious receiving their reward: “The verb translated ‘have’  was at that time a technical term in commercial transactions; it meant to ‘receive a sum in full and give a receipt for it.’ It was often so used in papyri. So the hypocrites who seek applause will get it, but then ‘they have had all the reward they are going to get.’ Nothing further is due to them, nothing but judgment on the last day” (Stott, 129).

Jesus says that instead of seeking praise from others, we should give in secret, not even allowing our left hand to know what our right hand is doing. Of this command, Ben Gill, author of Stewardship: The Biblical Basis For Living, has this to say: “Giving should be with such an utter unself-consciousness that it should be as if the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. An utter lack of awareness is implied. The act of giving should be so centered upon God and the need of the other that the very possibility of self congratulation-no less the applause of others-is not even a matter of conscious thought. Kingdom people are to practice giving in secret, literally kruptos, as if in a crypt. God sees, and God will reward openly” (Gill, 126).

However, not letting our left hand know what our right is doing does not mean that we should give irresponsibly or indiscriminately. In 2010, the world’s heart broke for Haiti, as that nation was devastated by a massive earthquake. Americans gave almost $500 million to the Red Cross for Haiti. Five years later, as the Guardian Newspaper reports, serious questions have been raised about how the money was spent. This continues a trend of questioning the Red Cross’s accountability including questions around how the organization spent 9/11 relief funds and Hurricane Katrina funds. Jesus certainly did not mean to not care about how our mercy money is being used and whether it is being used well. To quote John Stott, “It is not possible to obey this command of Jesus in precise literalness. If we keep accounts and plan our giving, as conscientious Christians should, we are bound to know how much we give away. We cannot very well close our eyes while writing out our cheques! Nevertheless, as soon as the giving of a gift is decided and done, it will be in keeping with this teaching of Jesus that we forget it. We are not to keep recalling it in order to gloat over it, or to preen ourselves on how generous, disciplined or conscientious our giving may have been. Christian giving is to be marked by self sacrifice and self forgetfulness, not by self congratulation” (Stott, 131).

We must also balance Jesus’ teachings on giving in secret with his command to let our good works shine before men and Paul’s command in Romans 13:7 which reads, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Jesus does not command us to be private about our faith but only to have a right view of ourselves in relation to God. We must also remember that many a ministry has faltered and many a marriage has fallen apart because people simply feel un-appreciated. A heart that is not concerned with itself has plenty of time to point out how God is working in the lives of others. I suppose that if we took both the command to give in secret and to give honor to whom honor is due seriously, then most everyone would feel appreciated while also not trumpeting their own horn, a balance that is hard to strike in reality.

As a minister, I have struggled a lot with this passage. I am not sure you can tell, but I enjoy the spotlight. I don’t think I am the only minister with that problem.  I am a people pleaser by nature. When people compliment me on a sermon, I feel really good. And when people offer criticism, constructive or otherwise, I feel bad. I have a desire for greatness in me. I have a desire to be a leader, to be an agent of change, to bring hope and renewal, to comfort with a word those who are weary.  But seeking the praise of people can get in the way of all that. I often wish that I could just forget myself and seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness. I can’t say I am there yet.

It’s hard to think of good examples of those who serve in secret, isn’t it? Because if they are doing it right, then one might think you wouldn’t know about it. But it is not so much about serving in the public eye versus working behind the scenes as it is being the same person whether you are in the public eye or working behind the scenes. When I think of someone who served in secret, I always think of George Paulini.

George Paulini was a member at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, the church where I did my parish internship. George was in his late eighties or nineties when I met him. He was a joyful man with an unassuming personality, and he was dealing with a variety of health problems when I met him. All I remember about George was that he designed spy satellites for the US Government, he once participated in a Billy Graham Crusade, which he was very proud of, and he had loved his deceased wife dearly. Honestly, when I made pastoral visits and talked to him at length, I was not hugely impressed. As a pastor, part of your job is to find a way to connect with people who are very different from you and I have to admit that can be difficult for me at times. I thought George was a good man, but he didn’t really grab my attention in any way.

But while I was working at Forest Hill, he went to be with the Lord. Robert, my mentor and supervisor,  did his funeral and I attended the service. To tell this next part of the story, I have to tell you all something that I often do not speak about publicly. For several years now, I have experienced a physical sense of what I interpret to be the Holy Spirit. It’s sort of a cross between feeling a slight pressure, an electrical current, and your arm falling asleep. Now God is always present with us, but I think it is biblical to say that there are times and places in our lives when we may sense God to a greater extent. The Old Testament calls this the Shekinah Glory or manifest presence. I’ve met others who feel this way, so I know I am not alone in this sensation. Perhaps you experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in other ways: a sense of peace, strange intuitions, scriptures standing out to you, seeing God in everyday events. All of it is biblical. I don’t seek to compare my experience of God to yours. I just have to explain my experience to tell you this story.

Like I said, I attended George’s funeral. And when I entered the room where the service was taking place and his body lay, I was just overwhelmed with a sense of this presence. I had to leave the room for a minute because it was so powerful. And somehow I knew that the presence was centered around his casket. And I just got a sense that the Lord was saying, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

This man, whom I did not find to impressive in life, God affirmed in eternal life. This man, who did not seek praise, but did not refuse it, received not just heaven but a “well done” from His heavenly Father. His name will not be written in the history books. In fact, it took me some thinking to remember his name. And not long from now, his memory will pass away as those who knew and loved him go to be with the Lord as well. I did not find George to be particularly praise worthy at the time, nor did I see his life as my definition of success. And yet there is little doubt in my mind that he received the “well done good and faithful servant,” because he served in secret. And I know among you, my friends, my sheep, my people, I have seen many who have served in secret, not expecting a reward, not desiring glory and fame, and I honor that. Often I envy those pastors of young churches, those pastors with hundreds and thousands in the pews, those pastors who publish books that I read and gain from spiritually. Often I want to be one of those pastors. Often that is my definition of success. But I know that is not Jesus’ definition of success. Though he may place some of us over many or over a few, that has to do with his purposes, and nothing to do with our stature in His eyes. The glory of man is not the glory of God. The approval of man means nothing without the approval of God. One of my hesitations about working in an older church is that I would have to bury many of my sheep, many of my friends. But I suspect for many of you when I do, I will be as overwhelmed as I was for George Paulini. For I have seen in you, my people, a secret mercy. And know that mercy will not be forgotten by our Father. In this life or in the next.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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