Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
1“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.
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.
16“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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
The preacher’s curse: I can never read some texts without associating them with a particular time in the church year. This section of the “Sermon on the Mount” often pairs with Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent with a cautionary note so that, no matter how pious we feel at the beginning of our chosen fast, we get a quick dose of cold water to drown the embers of our spiritual vanity. “But whenever you pray, go your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This is a problem now, however: because our worship is all done in secret (unless you’re bold enough to venture a comment over the livestream). There is no one to applaud you for coming to church, no one to gently nudge you into coming back. Now that the superfluous things have been stripped away, what will sustain you? The public act of worship unites us. It gives us something to hold onto so when we retreat into the private prayer closet we have something to say. The time away for worship reminds us of our need for it. Now we remember that it doesn’t matter whether the worship is private or public—so long as it’s there. Maybe that was the point all along.
God, let the hidden way you work become visible in our simple lives of faithfulness. Let the hidden ways we pray reveal something of your presence—that no matter where we are, no matter how we worship, you would be beside us. We pray in the name of God-with-us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Art: Bruegel, Jan, 1568-1625. Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55346 [retrieved May 4, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sermon_on_the_Mount_by_Jan_Brueghel_the_Elder,_Getty_Center.jpg.