STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 13, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME, TOGETHER
Call to Worship: Psalm 111: 1 – 4
Hallelujah! I give thanks to God with everything I’ve got.
Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation.
God’s works are so great, worth A lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!
Splendor and beauty mark his craft;
His generosity never gives out.
His miracles are his memorial
This God of Grace, this God of Love.
Prayer of Adoration and Confession*
Holy and loving One, God of might and mercy,
The heavens and the earth are full of your glory.
Your love transforms our lives.
You take darkness and give light.
You take grief and give healing.
You take fatigue and give strength.
You take fear and give courage.
You take death and give new life.
O God, we confess that our lives do not always reflect your transforming power.
You are gracious, but we cling to judgment.
You are kind, but we can be cruel.
You are forgiving, but we nurse grudges and old wounds.
You are filled with joy,
but too often we are filled with dissatisfaction and complaints.
Forgive us, O God, and fill us with your Holy Spirit this day,
and make us new through Christ, our Saviour.
We come before you in worship,
handing over to you all that weighs us down,
waiting for your refreshing gifts.
Renew us in this time of worship, we pray,
so that we may serve you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: 2 Corinthians 8: 9
You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ.
Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us—
in one stroke he became poor and we became rich.
Prayer for Illumination
Holy God, as we hear your Word, give us open hands and hearts that we may give to others as eagerly as we receive. Amen.
“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 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.” Matthew 6: 2 – 4 & 16 – 18 NRSV
“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘play-actors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.” The Message
Deuteronomy 15: 11
Acts 20: 33 – 35
Luke 21: 1- 4
Masks are the new black They’re everywhere. At present, masks are worn by people who neither want to give nor get a deadly virus. Today masks are thought to have saving power. Not long ago, masks were thought to have subversive power. There are different reasons for wearing a mask. Sometimes they’re worn by surgeons, skiers, soldiers or scientists as protection. Sometimes they’re worn by robbers, rapists, rogues, or rioters with evil intentions. And sometimes they’re worn by super-heroes, trick-or- treaters, masqueraders, or actors to create a make-believe world. Masks have the ability to deceive. In the theatre in ancient Greece masks were worn by “the chorus” to hide their individuality, while the leading actors wore them to represent someone else, like Zeus. The Greek word for ‘actor’ is ‘hupokrites’ from which we get the word “hypocrite”. Jesus used this word to describe deceptive people; those who outwardly act altruistically or spiritually while hiding a self-serving motive. In today’s scriptures Jesus uses this word to describe people who make a show of giving alms or fasting. He accused them of being no more than actors on a stage.
Almsgiving and fasting were among the top religious practices in Judaism. Giving alms (money, food, clothes or goods) is the practice of benevolent giving to those in need; what we call “charity”. Fasting is the discipline of restricting food, drink, or other activities to examine one’s soul and draw closer to God. Jesus supported both these customs. What he didn’t support was the way some people used them. He invited his audience to consider the wealthy man who wants the admiration of his peers. He enters the town square dressed in fine clothes, surrounded by servants and escorted by trumpeters, who are supposedly needed to rally the poor. The man stops mid- square until all eyes are on him. A servant comes forward carrying a basket. The man reaches in, grabs a mitt-full of coins and throws them, tinkling and rolling onto the paving stones. The poor make a mad dash to grab what they can. The man stands looking satisfied, while the peasants thank him profusely with cheers of praise, and his peers applaud his generosity and slap him on the back. He goes home satisfied, not because he’s cared for a fellow human being, but because everyone thinks well of him. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman who’s fasting. She gets out of bed, doesn’t brush her hair, rubs some ashes on her face and hands to show her humble need for repentance, and sits on the front step in her shabbiest bathrobe. Looking dejected, she moans like Mrs. Gummidge in Dicken’s David Copperfield, “I’m a lone, lorn creetur’”. When people offer pity, she apologizes for her rumbling stomach, “…but I’m fasting. It’s a joy to suffer for God.” The people are impressed with the depth of her spirituality and admit their lack of it. They walk away admiring her piety. The woman ends her day by washing off her ashes, eating a pastrami sandwich and crawling into bed feeling satiated, not because of the sandwich and not because she’s brought glory to God but because she has gained a bit of worship for herself.
Jesus message is consistent. In any and all of our spiritual disciplines, we can be tempted to gain attention for our self, whether by false humility or showy pride. If we do holy things with a double mind or false heart, we fall short of the sainthood for which we’re aiming. If we do them for the admiration of others rather than the glory of God, we’ve got all the applause we’re getting. If we do them to elevate ourselves rather than to lift up others, we’ve got our reward. A fat head in this life and nothing in the next.
Jesus suggests that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Or as The Message says, “When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively”. On top of keeping our actions from the scrutiny of others, we should keep them from ourselves. When it comes to fasting, Jesus directs us, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face” or “If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face.” Again, we’re to forget ourselves. Our spiritual practice should be kept private by not giving anything away outwardly. The concealment of our devotion is to be so complete Jesus uses the word “secret”. We’re to be so stealthy in our piety that even we don’t know what we’re doing! Of course, that’s not possible, but it would be ideal if we could. The point is: it’s okay if no one, including our self, notices because Jesus assures us God, who’s the only onlooker who counts, sees of our quiet, hidden, actions. Just as God works behind the scenes of our lives, so he sees what we do “in secret” and smiles on us.
Giving alms is so central to Judaism that the word for “alms” is also used for “righteousness”. Almsgiving blessed the receiver, and was thought to bring God’s forgiveness, and salvation to the giver. While ostentation was not acceptable, the temptation to show off was too great for some. Self-glorification can be a factor in giving today. Making a donation in a grocery store gets one’s name posted for all to see. Some organizations (even churches) display the names of prominent givers, listed by their levels of generosity. It’s a sign of appreciation that encourages potential donors to go big and get their name in lights. Jesus would have us behave differently. Christians are to offer their gifts but shun the glory. Sometimes, people give money in exchange for the prestige of wielding power; they make large donations with strings attached, desiring to control the money’s use. Others give in exchange for having a room or a building bear their name. This is so contrary to the gospel healthy churches will turn down a gift before becoming entrapped. Christ’s Church can never be beholden to anyone but Christ alone. Other motives for giving alms are no less noble. Many people give from a sense of duty. Duty can be based in a legalistic mindset: The Law says I should tithe so I do. It can be based in guilt: I’ve done something for which I must atone by giving a homeless person a toonie. We may also give to avoid feeling guilty about our wealth, a fact well known by those who run charities for children and puppies. Giving can even be based in a need balance the scales. Hospitals play on this when they send a letter asking you to donate because you’ve been treated there, never mind you’ve paid your taxes for the service. That’s not to say we shouldn’t give to any legitimate organization or person in need, but we’re to do it not out of duty but from generous hearts that desire to bless and aid others. It’s the difference between duty and compassion; between paying back what’s been done for you or giving so something can be done for someone else. Or sharing one’s wealth not out of shame but because you have enough to do something good in this world.
Perhaps worse than charity based on flamboyance, control, duty, law, guilt or fairness is giving out of condescension. Catherine Carswell writes of her life in Glasgow, “The poor were our pets.” Her father would bail out the week-end drunks so they wouldn’t lose their jobs on Mondays, but not without having them sign IOUs. Catherine notes he did a good thing with terrible smugness. Negative attitudes towards the poor have deep roots. The Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus, Ont. is situated in the old House of Industry and Refuge, the last of Ontario’s nine poorhouses, which closed after 70 years in 1947. It housed more than 1,500 “inmates” candidly listed in records as “old, destitute, deserted, lunatics, sick or blind.” The museum holds a display entitled, “If These Walls Could Speak,” and informs visitors that “in the 19th century, middle-class beliefs blamed the poor for their misfortune, and believed that the morals of the poor could be corrected through punishment and hard work.” More than 200 inmates are buried nearby in unmarked graves. While we’re all called to be good stewards of our resources, and while we are to work “wholeheartedly, honouring the Lord. Putting yourselves into every task, as if doing it for the Lord” (Colossians 3: 24) and while we are to “work for the common good” (Hebrews 13:16), we also must recognize that not everyone is given the same advantages in life, nor do we all cope with our circumstances in the same way, nor is life fair. Hard working people, educated people, elderly people, ill people, physically challenged people, mentally ill people can become destitute through no fault of their own. Christ calls us to be compassionate not judgemental.
In Judaism fasting was a practice of repentance. On the main fast day, the Day of Atonement, the Law decreed that it was forbidden to eat meat, drink, bathe, anoint oneself, wear sandals, or have conjugal sex”. Fasting was also connected with mourning. Sometimes people fasted as preparation for a revelation from God (Daniel 9:3). Fasting was also done to enhance one’s prayers of petition. Fasting showed you were truly sorry for your sin. It was a deliberate attempt to attract God’s attention and favour. Not only did individuals fast, but the whole nation fasted, as when Samuel called the people to fast after worshipping Baal. I’m not sure if it’s worse to give alms for the wrong reasons or to avoid fasting altogether as most Christians in the west do. Jesus believed there were good reasons to fast. Fasting is beneficial in many ways. Physically it’s good for one’s health and weight. Spiritually it’s even more valuable. It develops self-discipline; keeps us from becoming slaves to habit; exercises our detachment from the things we depend upon; increases our sense of appreciation for what we have and for the One who gives it. Fasting draws us closer to God because we put aside the things in life that we rely on and lean upon God’s grace. Fasting gives us an outlet and expression for our sorrow over sin and our sadness in grief. Fasting creates a “thin time’ which draws us into the realm of the Spirit, where we can receive God’s intervention more openly. Fasting turns our hearts to God and beckons God’s heart to us. When my kids were young, they went through a stage where food they’d liked the day before was suddenly “disgusting”. Lent came and I explained that many people in the world lived with no food or ate mostly rice and beans. Throughout Lent we ate very simple meals. The money our family saved, we took to the grocery store and bought food which we delivered to the food bank. They got a glimpse of life through God’s eyes and God saw them. This simple practice taught them to appreciate, repent, understand a global reality, develop a sense of stewardship, be grateful for all they had and have compassion for those with less. Such are the rewards of those who quietly practice their faith with a pure heart.
Questions for Reflection
Do you ever pretend to be someone you’re not or put on a show for others?
When have you been tempted to use your spiritual practices for self glorification or to have people notice?
When you donate to the poor what attitudes are at play?
Do you ever lack sympathy for those with less?
Are you drawn to the purposes or benefits of fasting? Are they things you desire or need?
Is fasting from food or another substance or habit something you would consider doing?
Offering: God of goodness, you bless us with an abundance of wealth and things. Help us to use them all to bless others and to draw closer to you. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession*
God of light and hope,
we pray for those who face lives filled with darkness:
those who suffer in body, mind, and spirit;
those bent under burdens of sorrow;
those who cannot see the way ahead.
We pray for those who accompany others in dark times and places;
For those who comfort the grieving, and work for healing and new possibilities.
May all these find their darkness transformed by your presence.
God of liberation and justice,
we pray for those who suffer abuse, violence, or injustice
at the hands of powerful people or forces in their lives,
and for those who have been betrayed by people entrusted with their care.
Stir in all people a deep respect for life.
Encourage those who struggle for freedom,
and work for truth to be heard and reconciliation achieved.
God of peace and promise,
we pray for those who work for peace in the world,
for leaders and decision makers,
for those who hold power and can make a difference in their communities,
and for those who make, interpret, and enforce laws.
Awaken a respect for the needs of the most vulnerable, including the earth and its fragile balances.
God of wisdom and understanding,
we pray for those who misunderstand the words and actions of others,
and for those who are misunderstood.
We pray for those who teach, and those who learn,
especially those who struggle and are afraid to ask for help.
In this challenging school year,
guide teachers and students in new patterns of learning
and keep each one safe and healthy.
God of forgiveness and reconciliation,
we pray for those we have hurt or offended
and for those to whom we have been unkind.
We pray for those who have hurt us or been careless with our feelings.
Work in our lives to redeem broken relationships.
Shape us into gracious and forgiving people.
In silence we name before you other concerns on our minds today…
And now we pray together as Jesus taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission
We go into our community to see people,
to see the needs of people,
to alleviate the needs of people
and to be a blessing. Amen.
May the Triune God, bless and keep you. Amen.
*These prayers have been taken directly from the website of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.