Your Secret Life

March 6, 2016
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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(based on We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren)

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“Your Secret Life”
Rev. Melanie Homan
March 6, 2016

Matthew 6:1-18

“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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[a]
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. 6 But 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.[b]
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.

8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
but rescue us from the evil one.[e]
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.[f]

Hello
Long ago, or not so long ago, there lived a turtle who was always talking. His endless chatter annoyed the creatures who shared the pond, and they avoided him. He spent his days mumbling to himself as he climbed in and out of the water. One day, two visiting geese landed along the shore. The turtle admired their sleek feathers and spent many hours praising their beauty. At last, to avoid the turtle’s ceaseless chatter, the geese prepared to fly off to another pond. “Take me with you!” cried the turtle. “I am lonely here, and you are fine company.” “How can we do such a thing?” asked the birds. “You cannot fly.” “Nothing is impossible,” said the turtle. “I will think of a plan.” To the amusement of the geese, the turtle said, “It is quite simple. First, let us find a long, strong stick. Each of you can hold one end of it in your beaks. I will then bite hard in the middle.
When you fly up together, I will cling to the center of the stick with my strong mouth.
That way you can carry me over the trees, and we can land in the pond of your choice.” The geese replied, “What a ridiculous idea! You could fall and hurt yourself!”

The turtle protested, “I will not fall. My mouth is strong. I will hold on tightly.” “Your mouth is strong from endless talking,” squawked the geese. “You will be safe only if you can keep your mouth shut.” The turtle indignantly replied, “You think that I cannot keep quiet, but I can. I am not a fool. I know when to be silent and when to speak. Admit it. My idea is excellent. Be kind enough to let me try my invention and fly with you.” “Very well,” said the geese. “But, we cannot guarantee your safety on this journey.” “Then go and get the stick,” ordered the turtle. “You’ll see how quiet I can be when silence is important.” The geese flew off and returned with a long, strong stick. They each took an end in their beaks. The turtle clamped his mouth onto the middle. As the geese beat their wings and flew into the air, the dangling turtle went up, too. Soaring high above the trees, they were a vision to behold. Some children at play looked up and noticed the strange trio. “Look! Look!” cried one child. “Two geese are carrying a turtle on a stick!” Another child chimed in, “What clever birds! They thought of a way to carry turtles!” Another cheered, “Good thinking, geese!” The turtle heard the children’s voices. Their words infuriated him. He fumed as he thought, “They should be complimenting ME for this fine plan, not the geese.” Outraged, the turtle exploded with sound. “It was MY idea!” he sputtered as he tumbled to the ground.

This wise tale from India is one of my favorites. I love the wonderfully absurd notion of two geese flying through the air with a stick between their beaks and a turtle hanging on in the middle. It’s about as likely to happen as it is for a turtle to talk. But, it can be good for us to enter the world of the imaginary, if only for a brief while, to see what we might discover.

We grow up on stories. Most of them have a moral or a lesson – or a variety of lessons that we can take from them. We learn to not trust the clever fox, and that we shouldn’t break into the bears’ home and eat their food and sleep in their beds when we aren’t invited. Cry wolf too many times and people won’t trust you.

John Wesley talked a lot about the means of grace – “those outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby God can convey to us grace.” Communion, which our second graders learned about today in their ministry milestone, is one of those means of grace. So is reading and studying scripture. Another is prayer. Prayer is one of those ordinary channels that will allow us to receive God’s grace.

What, you might wonder, do a couple of geese, a talkative turtle, prayer and the means of grace, have to do with each other? Not much, or a whole lot, depending on how open we are to the world of story, of talking animals, and looking for what they might teach us.

In the beginning, the turtle could be a role model for good Christian living. We can take some cues from the turtle. He was always talking, always mumbling to himself as he went about his daily business of getting in and out of the water. Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (5:16-18).” The turtle was pretty ceaseless in his conversation.

When the geese are ready to fly off because he is driving them nuts, he asks that they take him along. The geese say, “You can’t fly….you’re a turtle!” To which the turtle says, “NOTHING is impossible.” Paul says to the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (4:13).” He might have faith that could move mountains! The turtle is offering up constant supplications, requests to the geese, and even gets a good measure of praise in, too, before making his requests. He spends HOURS praising the beauty and the sleek feathers of the geese. The Psalmist says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).” The turtle was beholding the beauty of the Lord. What a faithful little turtle!
Things would seem to be going okay for the turtle. But, the geese give him a warning – “You will be safe only as long as you keep your mouth shut.” This is where the turtle can’t hold it together! His pride gets in the way, and in his attempt to set the record straight with a couple of kids who aren’t directly connected at all to the reaching of his “impossible” goal, he tries to take credit for his success. Our little turtle friend lacked a good dose of humility. His need for recognition was his downfall.

Yes, we are called to be in constant prayer/conversation with God. When I see a little kid smiling in the grocery store at me, I think to myself, “Thank God for little kids!” Or, every morning when I walk out my front door to the sound of birds chirping – birds I can’t see, but are calling out that spring is coming – I think, “Thank God for the beautiful sound of these birds!” We can be in constant prayer and conversation with God. But, Jesus has a warning for us. That “constant prayer” or “constant conversation” with God – it’s something that should happen quietly within us.

Prayer is not meant to be practiced in front of others in order to impress them with our piety. “Prayers are not meant to be piles of empty words”. (narrative lectionary: humble pie, Rev. Mary Austin). There is nothing more annoying than long-winded wordiness and babbling to God in front of others, so that the world can see how great we are at praying! When we do that, we are like the turtle that just annoyed the animals around him with all of his words – which caused no one to want to be around him – and then he was lonely. Maybe you don’t go around thinking that you’re the world’s best “pray-er”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get caught up in desiring the recognition of doing good – of giving to others, of helping out.

Jesus invites us to consider our motives. What’s the motivation of our prayers, our words, and our actions? Are we doing something simply because it’s the right thing to do? Are we doing something because of the affirmation or accolades we expect to receive for it?

Our scripture passage today is often used on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, when we are reminded that when we go deeper into our relationship with God – we can’t do so while showing off to the world how generous we are, how hungry we are from fasting, or how beautiful our prayers are. We’re invited to practice them quietly and to develop them. We aren’t supposed to bring attention to ourselves – because it’s not about us. Instead, we’re to practice these spiritual disciplines in the quiet of our heart and mind, to bring our attention to God. As McLaren writes in his book, based on a passage from Matthew, “One of the most important questions we can ever ask is this….Do we want to “more holy than we appear, or do we want to appear more holy than we are?”

Prayer comes from the Latin word “precari”, which means “to entreat”. It’s our human approach to God. Now, usually when Jesus’ disciples asked him a question, he answered them in a parable. He answered them in a way that confused them even more. But, when they asked him how to pray, he was clear. He gave them a pretty straightforward answer on how to approach God. First, we orient ourselves to God. Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. Then, we bring to God our needs and concerns, and we finally prepare ourselves for the public world we live in. This is what we do each and every week when we pray the Lord’s prayer together. It’s what we do whenever we pray the Lord’s prayer in the quiet of our hearts and minds and orient our lives toward God.

So, the next time you see a pair of geese flying through the air – and I hope that we will start seeing that very, very soon! – imagine them holding a stick between their beaks, with a turtle hanging on between them. Remember the story of the turtle. Remember his downfall was the need for recognition. And, may it help you remember Jesus’ invitation to the inner work of spiritual disciplines, like giving, fasting, and praying, from this passage from Matthew “Do we want to be more holy than we appear, or do we want to appear more holy than we are?”

Long ago, or not so long ago, there lived a turtle who was always talking.
His endless chatter annoyed the creatures who shared the pond, and they avoided him.
He spent his days mumbling to himself as he climbed in and out of the water.
One day, two visiting geese landed along the shore.
The turtle admired their sleek feathers and spent many hours praising their beauty.
At last, to avoid the turtle’s ceaseless chatter,
the geese prepared to fly off to another pond.
“Take me with you!” cried the turtle.
“I am lonely here, and you are fine company.”
“How can we do such a thing?” asked the birds.
“You cannot fly.”
“Nothing is impossible,” said the turtle.
“I will think of a plan.”
To the amusement of the geese, the turtle said,
“It is quite simple. First, let us find a long, strong stick.
Each of you can hold one end of it in your beaks.
I will then bite hard in the middle.
When you fly up together,
I will cling to the center of the stick with my strong mouth.
That way you can carry me over the trees, and we can land in the pond of your choice.” The geese replied, “What a ridiculous idea!
You could fall and hurt yourself!”

The turtle protested, “I will not fall. My mouth is strong. I will hold on tightly.”
“Your mouth is strong from endless talking,” squawked the geese.
“You will be safe only if you can keep your mouth shut.”
The turtle indignantly replied, “You think that I cannot keep quiet, but I can.
I am not a fool.
I know when to be silent and when to speak.
Admit it. My idea is excellent.
Be kind enough to let me try my invention and fly with you.”
“Very well,” said the geese.
“But, we cannot guarantee your safety on this journey.”
“Then go and get the stick,” ordered the turtle.
“You’ll see how quiet I can be when silence is important.”
The geese flew off and returned with a long, strong stick.
They each took an end in their beaks.
The turtle clamped his mouth onto the middle.
As the geese beat their wings and flew into the air, the dangling turtle went up, too. Soaring high above the trees, they were a vision to behold.
Some children at play looked up and noticed the strange trio.
“Look! Look!” cried one child.
“Two geese are carrying a turtle on a stick!”
Another child chimed in,
“What clever birds! They thought of a way to carry turtles!”
Another cheered, “Good thinking, geese!”
The turtle heard the children’s voices.
Their words infuriated him.
He fumed as he thought,
“They should be complimenting ME for this fine plan, not the geese.”
Outraged, the turtle exploded with sound.
“It was MY idea!” he sputtered as he tumbled to the ground.

This wise tale from India is one of my favorites.
I love the wonderfully absurd notion of two geese flying through the air
with a stick between their beaks and a turtle hanging on in the middle.
It’s about as likely to happen as it is for a turtle to talk.
But, it can be good for us to enter the world of the imaginary,
if only for a brief while, to see what we might discover.

We grow up on stories.
Most of them have a moral or a lesson –
or a variety of lessons that we can take from them.
We learn to not trust the clever fox,
and that we shouldn’t break into the bears’ home
and eat their food and sleep in their beds when we aren’t invited.
Cry wolf too many times and people won’t trust you.

John Wesley talked a lot about the means of grace –
“those outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end –
to be the ordinary channels whereby God can convey to us grace.”
Communion, which our second graders learned about today in their ministry milestone,
is one of those means of grace.
So is reading and studying scripture.
Another is prayer.
Prayer is one of those ordinary channels that will allow us to receive God’s grace.

What, you might wonder, do a couple of geese,
a talkative turtle, prayer and the means of grace, have to do with each other?
Not much, or a whole lot,
depending on how open we are to the world of story,
of talking animals, and looking for what they might teach us.

In the beginning, the turtle could be a role model for good Christian living.
We can take some cues from the turtle.
He was always talking, always mumbling to himself
as he went about his daily business of getting in and out of the water.
Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians,
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (5:16-18).”
The turtle was pretty ceaseless in his conversation.

When the geese are ready to fly off because he is driving them nuts,
he asks that they take him along.
The geese say, “You can’t fly….you’re a turtle!”
To which the turtle says, “NOTHING is impossible.”
Paul says to the Philippians,
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (4:13).”
He might have faith that could move mountains!
The turtle is offering up constant supplications, requests to the geese,
and even gets a good measure of praise in, too, before making his requests.
He spends HOURS praising the beauty and the sleek feathers of the geese.
The Psalmist says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).”
The turtle was beholding the beauty of the Lord.
What a faithful little turtle!
Things would seem to be going okay for the turtle.
But, the geese give him a warning –
“You will be safe only as long as you keep your mouth shut.”
This is where the turtle can’t hold it together!
His pride gets in the way,
and in his attempt to set the record straight with a couple of kids
who aren’t directly connected at all to the reaching of his “impossible” goal,
he tries to take credit for his success.
Our little turtle friend lacked a good dose of humility.
His need for recognition was his downfall.

Yes, we are called to be in constant prayer/conversation with God.
When I see a little kid smiling in the grocery store at me, I think to myself,
“Thank God for little kids!”
Or, every morning when I walk out my front door to the sound of birds chirping –
birds I can’t see, but are calling out that spring is coming –
I think, “Thank God for the beautiful sound of these birds!”
We can be in constant prayer and conversation with God.
But, Jesus has a warning for us.
That “constant prayer” or “constant conversation” with God –
it’s something that should happen quietly within us.

Prayer is not meant to be practiced in front of others
in order to impress them with our piety.
“Prayers are not meant to be piles of empty words”. (narrative lectionary: humble pie, Rev. Mary Austin).
There is nothing more annoying than long-winded wordiness and babbling to God
in front of others,
so that the world can see how great we are at praying!
When we do that,
we are like the turtle that just annoyed the animals around him with all of his words – which caused no one to want to be around him – and then he was lonely.
Maybe you don’t go around thinking that you’re the world’s best “pray-er”,
but that doesn’t mean we can’t get caught up in desiring the recognition of doing good – of giving to others, of helping out.

Jesus invites us to consider our motives.
What’s the motivation of our prayers, our words, and our actions?
Are we doing something simply because it’s the right thing to do?
Are we doing something because of the affirmation
or accolades we expect to receive for it?

Our scripture passage today is often used on Ash Wednesday,
the beginning of Lent,
when we are reminded that when we go deeper into our relationship with God –
we can’t do so while showing off to the world how generous we are,
how hungry we are from fasting, or how beautiful our prayers are.
We’re invited to practice them quietly and to develop them.
We aren’t supposed to bring attention to ourselves – because it’s not about us.
Instead, we’re to practice these spiritual disciplines in the quiet of our heart and mind,
to bring our attention to God.
As McLaren writes in his book, based on a passage from Matthew,
“One of the most important questions we can ever ask is this….
Do we want to “more holy than we appear,
or do we want to appear more holy than we are?”

Prayer comes from the Latin word “precari”, which means “to entreat”.
It’s our human approach to God.
Now, usually when Jesus’ disciples asked him a question,
he answered them in a parable.
He answered them in a way that confused them even more.
But, when they asked him how to pray, he was clear.
He gave them a pretty straightforward answer on how to approach God.
First, we orient ourselves to God.
Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire.
Then, we bring to God our needs and concerns,
and we finally prepare ourselves for the public world we live in.
This is what we do each and every week when we pray the Lord’s prayer together.
It’s what we do whenever we pray the Lord’s prayer
in the quiet of our hearts and minds and orient our lives toward God.

So, the next time you see a pair of geese flying through the air –
and I hope that we will start seeing that very, very soon! –
imagine them holding a stick between their beaks,
with a turtle hanging on between them.
Remember the story of the turtle.
Remember his downfall was the need for recognition.
And, may it help you remember Jesus’ invitation to the inner work of spiritual disciplines, like giving, fasting, and praying, f
rom this passage from Matthew
“Do we want to be more holy than we appear,
or do we want to appear more holy than we are?”