Secret Piety

February 18, 2015   Ash Wednesday   Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Are you any good at keeping a secret?  Or do you have one of those faces that gives everything away?  Even if you don’t say anything, do people know that something is going on, that you have a secret?  Can you ever resist saying, “Guess what?” when there’s something new in your life?  In this age of Facebook and tweets and texts, is anything in your life a genuine secret?  Or does the whole world know what you ate for breakfast, that your library books are overdue, and that your cat is feeling under the weather?  We are so used to instant information and unlimited communication that keeping anything secret may be more than we think we can manage.

     In our text for this first day of Lent, Jesus advises his followers to keep several things secret.  He tells them to give their offerings in secret, to pray in secret, and to fast in secret.  Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, he says.  Pray in the closet.  And if you’re intentionally not eating, try not to look hungry, so that no one will guess your secret.  Jesus seems to be commanding his disciples to engage in some fairly intense secret piety. 

     Most of us who have gathered for worship this evening will leave with a pronounced black smear on our foreheads.  If you stop anywhere on your way home – at a gas station or at the food store – this will be a decidedly unsecret proclamation that you have actively participated in some Lenten piety.  As we come forward for our cross-shaped smudge of palm ashes, are we actually disobeying the command of Jesus to practice a secret piety?

     First, we have to say that Jesus was not against corporate, shared worship.  He himself was often in the synagogue preaching and praying.  We know that he went up to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, and most probably for other feast days as well.  The modern notion of a strictly private piety, which presumes that an individual can seek God alone and in his or her own unique way, would have made no sense at all to Jesus.  Faith was always a shared community experience.  God related to the Jews as a people, and they related to God collectively.  A secret, solo piety could not exist apart from the corporate experience of being the people of God.  So that is not what Jesus is talking about.

     But this interpretation of Jesus’ call to secrecy might, nevertheless, appeal to us, because it lets us off the hook evangelically.  A piety that is a complete secret will not attract many converts.  Nor could a secret Christian be criticized for not living his or her faith in a way that might capture the attention of unbelievers.  But this incognito Christianity can’t be what Jesus was calling us to practice, because the Gospels tell us that he sent out the disciples to proclaim the good news, to heal, and to cast out demons.  Their practice of the faith was just as public and visible as his was, and they returned to him rejoicing in the results of their efforts. 

     Our text for this evening is taken from the gathered teachings of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount.  And just a bit earlier in that same series of lessons, Jesus says to the crowds, “You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16).  These two lessons about secret piety and about being the light of the world seem contradictory.  What, then, was Jesus trying to tell his disciples and us about keeping secrets and about letting our light shine?  Should we forego the palm ashes tonight, or should we receive the sign of the ashes and then go to the mall and walk around for an hour or two?

     The answer to that question may be found in the final brief lesson that we read this evening about storing up treasures.  Where is your treasure?  Where is your attention focused – on earth or on heaven?  That is, are you thinking about what others see in your piety and what they think of you?  Or are you thinking about your relationship with God and what God thinks of you? 

     If we just take the example of the ashes, we must ask ourselves if we want them as proof of our piety.  Or, are we receiving them as a sign to ourselves, in that sense, a secret sign that we desire to repent and seek forgiveness?  We receive the ashes this night as a symbol of our humility before God, not as a sign for others to see, showing them that we are pious, because that will only feed our pride.  If we are thinking about what others think of us, then we are storing up treasures for ourselves on earth.  If we are thinking about the fact that our lives and our salvation are in God’s hands because we are dust and to dust we shall return, then we are storing up treasures for ourselves in heaven.              

     If you stop at the gas station or the food store on your way home, it will be hard not to be self-conscious.  People will see your ashes.  Let them see.  Perhaps they will then give glory to your Father in heaven.  Jesus and his followers did not hide their faith.  But neither did they use their acts of piety or compassion to gain glory for themselves.  Their eyes were firmly fixed on heaven.  That was where their treasure was stored.  As long as we receive the ashes in order to say to ourselves and others, “Look at God!” rather than “Look at me!” then our treasure will be in heaven.  And if no one sees you before you wash your face and get ready for bed, rest assured that your secret piety will have been seen by your Father in heaven.

     May this season of Lent be a time of genuine piety for you as you keep your eyes fixed on God who will then let your light shine in good deeds and faithful worship.