February 26, 2020, Ash Wednesday, The God Who Sees in Secret – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
There is no recording available for this sermon.
Jesus is teaching about “practicing piety”, by which he means those works we do that are specifically religious. As a Jewish teacher, he focuses on three practices: giving alms, or charity; prayer; and fasting, because those are the three main practices of piety in Judaism. But Jesus wants people to be clear about the purpose of these practices, because we all know how easy it is for our religious practices, or really any other practices, to become just a habit, so we lose focus on why we are doing what we’re doing.
So, he says, don’t call out the brass bands to announce when you write out your tithe check and put it in the offering plate. (He’s exaggerating here to make his point.) Don’t stand in front of the Hometown and shout out your prayers for everyone to hear. Don’t go around looking like death warmed over when you are fasting so all your friends will be impressed by what a holy guy you are. If impressing people is what you’re after, that’s what you’ll get. But that’s all you’ll get. No, says Jesus, keep your piety between you and God. He sees into your heart. He knows your intentions and motivations. He sees what you do in secret. And he will reward you in secret as well.
Jews, like Christians, worship God in community. We don’t sit at home and read Scripture and sing hymns all by our lonesome on Sunday mornings (or Saturdays, if you are Jewish). We worship together; we share the Eucharist together; we minister together to serve our neighbors. But there is a part of our life as children of God that is hidden, that is personal, that is private. There is a form of Christianity that boils our faith down to just “me and God” and that is not at all what Jesus is talking about here. Our life in God always binds us together as the community of his people. We are the presence of God in the world as the Body of Christ, not just as individuals. But there is always a part of our faith that is known only to God. And that is what Jesus is talking about here.
He teaches about these practices in other places as well. When Jesus was teaching his disciples at the Temple one day they were watching people drop their offering into the box, and Jesus pointed out a poor old woman who dropped a penny in the box. “Do you see that woman?” Jesus asked his friends. “She just gave the largest offering of all. They all gave out of their wealth. But that woman, out of her poverty, gave everything she had to live on.” That story is comforting to us when we feel like what we have to offer – whether it’s our financial offering, or our personal abilities or whatever – when they just seem pathetically small. We feel comforted knowing that Jesus noticed the penny that woman offered.
But there’s something more going on in that story. The point was that the woman gave everything she had. Jesus was holding that woman up to us as an example of whole-hearted giving. When we come to God the size or impressiveness of what we offer isn’t really important at all. Who can impress God with money or power anyway? What matters is that we offer it with our whole heart. In fact, that’s all that really counts.
Jesus taught about prayer and fasting both when he told a parable about two men who came to the Temple to pray privately. One of the men was a Pharisee, if you remember, and one was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up front and gave thanks to God that he wasn’t like other men, who drink and smoke and cheat and womanize and the like. “I fast twice a week, and I donate a tenth of everything I get. I can’t thank you enough, O God, that I’m nothing like that disreputable tax collector back there. All praise be to you.” The tax collector, though, bowed himself down in the very back of the Temple in his shame and prayed quietly, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it was the tax collector who went home justified before God.”
Definitely one message of that parable is to teach us that God loves humility and despises pride. The problem with that message is that it is very, very hard – if not totally impossible – to work at being humble. Trying to be humble is a lot like trying not to think about something. As soon as you fix your mind on trying not to think about one particular thing it becomes virtually the only thing you can think about. As soon as you think you’ve begun to be more humble you can’t help but feel proud of it – and down you go.
The more helpful message to take away from that parable is simply that we need to be honest. Jesus never says that that tax collector was any less sinful than the Pharisee thought he was. Tax collectors were notorious for greed and dishonesty. He was almost certainly a less virtuous man than the Pharisee by any outward measure. The one – and maybe the only – thing the tax collector did right was to be honest about his sinfulness. But that was enough. We are pretty much powerless to make ourselves humble. But what we can do, is we can be honest before God about our failings. In our private relationship with God, in the conversation we have with the Father in secret, we can safely bare our souls. He knows more about us than we know about ourselves already, so we are pretty foolish to pretend we are something we are not. But if we are honest we will find, as Joel wrote, that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, that he is a God who relents from punishing.
We talk about all that tonight because we are entering the season of Lent. And of all the seasons of the Church year, it is Lent, above all, in which we focus on the practice of piety, on the disciplines of our faith. It has been traditional for centuries for Lent to be a time for fasting. We can fast in a lot of different ways – again, this is our personal act. Some people abstain from a food that they particularly love: chocolate, or sugar in general, or some other favorite indulgence. Some people fast from food altogether. Some fast from activities like social media or television. The idea is not that denying ourselves pleasures makes us holy, or that we should be mean to ourselves as a punishment for our wickedness. The goal is always to work towards a whole-hearted, honest conversation with God. We fast to clear away the distractions that so often separate us from him in the noisy, cluttered course of our days.
You might find it helpful to read and meditate on the Lenten devotional each day. This year’s devotional is intended to help us to understand more deeply who Jesus is. You might decide to make the Stations of the Cross part of your Lenten piety this year, joining us at noon every Friday. You might add some kind of service for the season of Lent – helping out at the Food Pantry or some other organization that reaches out to help people. You will find, if you are able to participate, that the services of Holy Week will draw you closer to God in a powerful way.
Because in the end, Jesus isn’t just talking about religious practices, or personal piety. He’s talking about our relationship with the Father. Irene recently brought in an ultrasound picture of her little grandson who will be born in a few months. We all looked at it, and we were all amazed at how clearly you could see his little face and arms and legs. But it was different for Irene. Irene saw that blurry little figure and she saw her grandchild, and she loved him at once, with all her heart. That’s exactly how God looks at you. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there— you saw me before I was born.” God has been seeing you in secret from well before you came into the world. This Lent he calls you to come away with him, wholeheartedly, honestly, privately: in prayer, in study, in fasting, in worship, in service, or just in silence – not to impress anyone at all, but just to be in his Presence and to learn from him.