Most people I know are buying optimizing search engines and searching franticly for their own “key words.” They want to be found on line. They want to be noticed. I am so glad they didn’t read the lectionary from June 21. There in Matthew 6: 1–6, we are admonished to keep our trumpet home when we give alms to the poor. I certainly hope they didn’t watch my companion on a Beijing bus tour take a selfie every time at every stop where she spread a few coins on the ground for the “beggar children.” Each strophe gets harder. We are also not to pray loudly in the synagogue so that everyone will notice but instead, when praying, “to close the door on our inner room” and speak a few quiet words. The counsel against bragging continues around fasting. We are to fast so that we do not appear to be fasting; our spiritual art should not be noticed by others.
The passage concludes in a downright scary way. Apparently God sees what we do and knows what we do “in hiding.” That contradiction can really give a person’s pride a stomach ache. If God doesn’t want to notice our good deeds in public and out loud, and only wants to watch us “hidden,” how will we ever get to please God? There is an answer and it is not very exciting. The answer is we can’t please God by our good deeds. In theologian Kathryn Tanner’s great word, our debt to God is “unpayable.”
Trying to please God is not only impossible. It is dumb. The only thing that might please God is being so self-controlled that you wouldn’t try in the first place. And, with the self-confidence that comes with self-control, you wouldn’t do dumb things in hidden ways either.
Call me perplexed. And please don’t tell Google. They make a lot of money off self-promotion.
My friend Mary just paid $20.00 a month for her Easter Sermon to be lifted up above the internet’s fray. Before the Internet, we often put printed sermons in the narthex, just in case people wanted a second helping or the unlikely visitor showed up off season. My friend thought the expense worth it for her tiny church. Why? She values the gospel her little Virginia church gave her as a child and she wants her little North Carolina church (which is also one of the few gay friendly ones around) to thrive.
Jesus could reasonably argue for hidden piety because everyone was being pious in pretty much the same way. Tribal religion is tribal religion. With the breakdown of tribes comes the need for attention to what you think matters. We enter what can only be called a marketplace of ideas. How can you sell something without advertising it? How can you get visitors if no one knows you are there? How come the loud Christians get to be called Christians by the secular prejudice of NPR and the NYTimes? They think all Christians are the same and we are not. At my church, we often say we are the best church nobody ever heard of.
The text argues a kind of quietness that would surely put the campus ministries and progressive churches of the day out of business. Plus it’s fun to optimize the engine of your search. Gay Friendly church? Ever try to plug that in? Gay friendly church in the rural south? What would happen if these churches started to out seat the Baptists? We could. We might. But not without violation of Matthew 6.
I like knowing what good people are doing. Why would you not broadcast that 40 Indonesians were saved from deportation in New Hampshire by a last minute rallying of 350 clergy folk? Could that have been done without Herr Google? This portable sanctuary is a blessing. It needs its engine maximized.
My North Carolina friend, now a mature and happy woman, told me recently that her childhood church gave her Sunday School classes in her cousin’s car. Four seater was its name.
She was the same woman who as a pastor in a small Southern church maximized her Easter sermon. Her next project is Miss Mary’s Musical van. Why? Because of the “beloved community and the way we welcomed all people, including me.” She was particularly moved that the man who took up the offering for the 30 or so of them of a Sunday morning had a brother who had clubfeet. “He walked on his ankles. He was fully a part of us.” This is an adult describing a childhood that mattered. The brother also did the offering, passed out the bulletin and greeted at the door. This duo made the gospel real enough to carry her through her time at small church in North Carolina. Her current plan is to become a grandmother to the kids in her neighborhood whose parents are addicted to opioids. Or maybe she’ll provide childhood enrichment programs at her church because so many North Carolinians can’t get into pre-school. There aren’t enough spaces. She and a few retired teachers will “do it yourself.”
They remind me of my Jane project which involves driving across Canadian and Mexican borders, buying a truckload of good safe drugs that induce good safe abortions and donating them to churches to give out in places that defy the federal law and don’t provide access to safe medical procedures, like abortion. When/if I get picked up, I will sue the government for breaking the laws.
Given how nuts the government is, why would I obey its laws? How can you respect a government that tries to hurt old sick people by destroying Medicaid or doesn’t supply enough pre-Kindergarten for its children to have classes? And when I and we do break these laws, believe me, I will want you all to notice. Is that pride? Or just common sense?
My North Carolina sister already builds little libraries on country corners. She reminds herself of Boo Radley, leaving little notes where people can find them. She also is beginning eye glass adjustment clinics, using an under-employed optician in her church who couldn’t stand the regulations of eye companies that made him move quicker, fit less well, and perjure himself. He quietly left. Soon they will work out of farmer’s markets. She remembers being so happy with church as a child that they let her sing “How Great Thou Art,” when she was six years old. She was also preaching from the hamper then. She was formed and shaped by a world that has passed her by. Then again her DIY ministries may matter more than Google knows.
DIY is a big movement these days. DIY might make a good quiet movement. And I would pay to have its search for a progressive engine optimized.
You can find out more about Mary here:
The Rev. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.