Seen and unseen

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03


A sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton at a mid-week service at King's Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 31, 2002, and at the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on August 11, 2002.


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. — Matthew 6: 18 (NRSV)

Several years ago, I took a short trip to visit a friend in New York City, where I had never been before. I decided to spend a day visiting lower Manhattan and Ellis Island. My first stop was St. Paul's Chapel, which we have all come to know this year as a rest area for the emergency personnel at ground zero a block away, but which I visited knowing only at the time that it was the eighteenth-century sister church of King's Chapel in Boston. I gawked at George Washington's presidential pew, compared the chancel and pulpit to the one I knew from my time as a tour guide at King's Chapel, and then continued down the street. I spent a few minutes on Wall Street, and then bought my lunch from a sandwich vendor near the north tower of the World Trade Center. The buildings themselves were too tall to take in, so I sat on a bench in the north tower's shadow and watched the business people streaming by on their way to lunch.

The hustle and bustle impressed me, but I was on vacation and was delighted by the oases of calm in the midst of it all. So I walked down the street to see Trinity Church, the gothic Episcopal church that was, long ago, the tallest building in that part of New York. And one of things I remember most vividly from my visit — and the thing that I've been thinking about again recently — is that business people were scattered throughout the vast nave of the church, sitting quietly. There was nothing remarkable about this, I suppose, although business people clearly outnumbered tourists like me. No worship service was going on, no musicians were performing, no conversation was taking place. It was a welcoming place for prayer, contemplation, and quiet in the heart of the world's financial capital. There were simply men and women, sitting quietly in a place dedicated for worship, and somehow this has stuck in my head as one of the more significant things I saw on my visit to New York, perhaps because it was the thing I had not expected.

Of course, I have thought about them since the traumatic events of September 11, finding it incomprehensible to think about what many of them must have experienced that day.

I thought of them again recently in a completely different context, those people sitting in a church on their lunch break, because they stood out in my mind as a sharp contrast to something bizarre I saw on television.

I happened to see part of an episode of the popular cable TV program, "The Osbournes," while I was on a trip earlier this year. Perhaps you've heard of the show. MTV has created a "reality TV show" by filming the daily life of the infamous heavy metal rock musician Ozzy Osbourne and his wife and teenage children in their florid Beverly Hills mansion. The show is weird and somehow strangely appealing to millions of Americans who watch it regularly and who have made it the most popular show on cable television.

Its attractions? A drug-addled rock star arguing with his children about their curfew; the rock star's wife complaining about the noise the neighbors are making; two teenagers lounging about complaining that their parents are annoying and don't let them have any fun.

I'll make a confession. I am not particularly interested in condemning or critiquing the "reality TV" genre. It's an artless form of entertainment, often grotesque and disturbing, to be sure. But I have been thinking about these shows featuring so-called ordinary people because I am interested in what they may have to say about us — or at least about me, since I've caught myself drawn to them more often than I might like to admit.

Adam Cohen wrote an insightful column in the New York Times about the reality TV phenomenon. Cohen described the work of Erving Goffman, whose most famous book was The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959. Goffman, Cohen wrote, "was the great observer of everyday life, a sociologist who spent his days watching how people behave in elevators, cafeterias and mental wards. His conclusions about human behavior seemed to have anticipated reality TV. We are all actors on a stage, he suggested, and a main plot line is the struggle over stigmas, in which we endlessly search for defects in others and desperately try to dupe these same people into not noticing our own."

Somewhere in the midst of my belief that I'm a nice guy, competent enough, doing all right, I felt a twinge of self-recognition when I first read this, and more than a slight twinge of discomfort. But I kept reading.

"People are more worried, Mr. Goffman argued, about their 'fronts,' what is visible to other people, than about what is going on inside them — sometimes to the point of sacrificing what is going on inside them. He quoted Sartre as saying, 'The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his eyes open wide, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything.'"

I suspect that most of us, at one time or another, have caught ourselves feeling terribly exposed in public, dog-paddling socially, as it were, in water over our head. And we certainly learn the motions from each other, figuring out how to fit in by watching others while finding ways to be ourselves. What Cohen described as "a struggle over stigmas" is also what many of us think of as the basic struggle for integrity and dignity.

"Mr. Goffman would not have wondered why people willingly invited film crews into their homes," Cohen continued. "The camera does not intrude on real life because real life — as long as two or more people are present — is itself a highly self-conscious performance. Ozzy Osbourne's family members were already engaged in intricate dramas for the benefit of one another. Putting them on television merely enlarged the size of the audience."

Well. It may be that millions of people would love to be on television, like an aunt of mine who competed on a long-forgotten TV game show, or like a friend who dreamed of living in the fishbowl apartment of young adults that MTV broadcasts as "The Real World." I am not among them. I didn't enjoy my one encounter with a TV camera. But my imagination was captured by Cohen's observation that "real life — as long as two or more people are present — is itself a highly self-conscious performance."

And what really struck me, and what brought to mind those people scattered throughout Trinity Church in New York, was the inadvertent allusion to something Jesus said. Jesus was telling his disciples how they ought to behave toward each other. And he said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." This passage has come to represent for generations of Christians the promise that whenever people who love Jesus gather together, the grace and comfort and peace that his disciples experienced in his presence will be with them, too.

But what would save the church from simply being another stage for our self-conscious performances for each other? On the one hand, not much. The church, too, is a stage, and often its members and its leaders are more worried about their "fronts," what is visible to other people, than about what is going on inside them. That is inescapably part of our human dilemma, which we sometimes magnify into crises of tragic proportion.

But, on the other hand, when Jesus tells us, "When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men," or when he says, "Do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'" — when Jesus says these things, is he not telling us that God is not a member of the audience? Is he not reminding us that God's interest in us is unlike the prurient interest that other human beings often show? God is not rubber-necking at the scene of the accidents in our lives. God is not smirking when we fail, or trip, or make a mess of our lives.

And this is, I think, why a church surrounded by the towers of finance and busyness drew men and women to sit in silence, confronted not by each other but simply by the quiet grace that accords each one of us, each child of God, true dignity, that honors the integrity of broken souls. It's this grace that transforms the sometimes awkward performance of a worship service into the vehicle for God's transforming love.

The news, the media, the staginess of modern life, present us with a tragicomic pageant of human beings struggling with the stigmas of human limitation. It's entertaining. But sacred places and communities of worship offer us something else: the opportunity to dwell in God's grace, to know the forgiveness and peace of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and for whom we do not wear masks and cannot put on fronts.

And for me, this was the curious lesson of "The Osbournes," a reminder of the reason that I go to church — not to be seen by other people, although sometimes that too is a saving grace, but quietly to open my heart to God.



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Philocrites | Copyright © 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu