(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
(watch here: https://youtu.be/RWcsSeGALPI)
‘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.*
19‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
What’s the deal with secrecy? Are secrets good or bad? Is keeping secrets good or bad? Every we kick off the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday and these familiar texts from Joel and 2 Corinthians and Matthew. And every time I hear Jesus speak about secretly giving alms and secretly praying and secretly fasting, I can’t help asking, “why?” Why are we encouraged to do these things in secret? What’s so important about acting in secrecy, especially when acting in ways that better ourselves or those around us? It almost seems like putting a shroud on our acts of kindness and generosity and defining them as shameful. It almost seems like we are being told to hide our acts of kindness and generosity, lest our egos and self-worth might become flared and unrealistic. Is this fair? Is it fair to be ashamed of shameless behavior? I don’t think it is. I don’t think that it is fair to ask us keep our helpful behavior a secret. Year after year, I wrestle with understanding Jesus’ motive for telling us to shroud our acts of generosity and introspection. This year is no different…
On the one hand, I can see that keeping such behavior as giving alms or praying or fasting helps us to maintain a humility and sense of selflessness. When others don’t know about our generous, introspective behavior, we can focus on doing it with the right spirit and good intention. And it is when we tell others or brag about our behavior that we risk losing the losing these things. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if not telling others about our good behavior quickly leads to dishonesty or spite. When we hide our behavior from others, we tend to lie about it or develop an inflated level of self-righteousness, neither of which help us in our relationships with others. Indeed, when we keep secrets about our generous or introspective behavior, we’re ultimately hurting ourselves much more that those around us. Secrecy is hard on the body both physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. So why is Jesus so big on secrecy? Why does he want us to pray and fast and give alms in secret, knowing full well the potential harm of behaving in secrecy?
Perhaps because secrecy develops faith. After all, we worship a God who is himself shrouded in secrecy and mystery. None of us knows the mind of God. None of us will ever know the mind of God. God is much bigger and much more complex than we could possibly fathom. God behaves in ways that we can’t even imagine let alone understand so our God, by his very nature, is a secretive God. We take comfort in believing He “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” as we heard from the prophet Joel. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why He. Why does our God have these qualities? Why does God love us so much? Why does God behave so generously towards us? We don’t know. Perhaps we can’t know. But believing He is this way requires faith. We need faith to be in relationship with God. God is not readily apparent. He’s not easily seen or heard or felt. God is everywhere and in everyone and everything. God exists in complete secrecy and mystery and we know this through faith. We come to know God through faith. Secrecy demands faith and faith is a good thing to have in life. Faith enables us to endure unimaginable hardships. Faith encourages us to live better, more fruitful lives. Faith empowers us to do things that fear would prevent us from doing. We need faith to live the lives that God wants us to live. Faith is essential for living long and fruitful lives.
Yes, secrecy can lead to all sorts of bad behaviors. But it can also lead to stronger faith and, ironically, a deeper trust in God. Jesus said it best, “Our Father who sees in secret will reward us.” God lives in secrecy. We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn secrecy. We should appreciate the gifts of secrecy, most importantly the gift of faith. As we set out on our journey through Lent, let us be glad for the secrecy we find ourselves in. We’re never truly alone anyway. God hears and sees all that we say and do. Let us walk humbly and selflessly through the next 40 days as we await our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection. Though I like to start my messages with stories or jokes, I’ll leave you with one last closing thought on secrecy: I have no problem keeping secrets. It’s the people I tell them to…
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.