February 14, 2018
Joel 2:1-2,12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Every year The Episcopal Church Pension Fund puts out a calendar with a different cartoon for each month. Usually it’s something funny about life in an Episcopal parish. For February its reads: “Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both fall on February 14? A win/win for the greeting card industry.” Then it shows the four possible greeting cards. The first card says, “Roses are red, violets are blue, Lent is beginning, no chocolate for you.”
I don’t know Lutheran practices for Lent so this may make no sense at all, but growing up in the Episcopal Church in Atlanta what I observed was adults doing just what the cartoon suggests—giving up something sweet for Lent, usually taking the form of fasting from dessert.
Of course the way I could observe this is because these grown-ups would make sure everyone at the table knew that they were giving up dessert for Lent: “Oh no, dear, I couldn’t possibly have any chocolate cake! I’m giving up dessert for Lent, don’t you know.”
If was not till after I was ordained that I started paying attention to the readings on Ash Wednesday and realized that this practice of telling everyone your Lenten fast seems to be in direct contradiction to the gospel reading tonight, where Jesus says, “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
Going public with our fasts, (or our giving and praying) Jesus says, is exactly what the hypocrites do, in order to be praised by people instead of being rewarded by God.
It’s a way of earning brownie points by not eating brownies.
I think the cartoonist, who is a faithful priest that I know, is simply reflecting, not the theology of the Episcopal Church, but the spirit of the age that runs through us all telling us that Lent is all about working on ourselves in order to convince ourselves and others that we are worthy of God’s attention.
As my people get tired of hearing me say, the good news is not about climbing a ladder to get to God, but that God in Jesus Christ has come down the ladder to us, to the bottom where we lie broken and hurting.
Jesus knows how destructive it is to live our lives for the applause of others, because as Luther would say, it puffs up the self. This inflation of the ego may feel good, it doesn’t lead us to new life in Christ.
So why do we tell everyone what we’re doing for Lent instead of following the teaching of Jesus?
My assumption, based on my own personal experience, is that I do this because I am afraid.
Afraid of what? Afraid that not getting the praise of others means I will lose my place on the merry-go-round of life, and will be overwhelmed by loneliness.
I desperately need you to buy into my story of who I wish I were.
Unfortunately, as a friend says, God doesn’t read fiction!
Jesus warns against turning our faith into a public performance of others and then he gives us the better way to live. He says: “when you practice your faith, not if but when, “go into your room and shut the door and pray, give, and fast to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“Go into your room and shut the door”, which can be taken literally. We all need some privacy, so we can open ourselves to God without distraction or worry.
But what might it mean to go into the secret place?
I wonder if the secret place could be the place where we keep our secrets: our secrets about who we truly are. The place where we hide our sins and brokenness, even from ourselves. The place where we drop our ideal self and face our true self.
I clearly remember the day 15 years ago when the wheels had fallen off my wagon, not for the first time, and I went to see my regular monk, who said that when I first started coming to see him at the monastery I was a young, idealistic priest and now, 25 years later I was having to face reality.
That’s the secret place—the place none of us wants to go–that level place at the foot of the cross where all our tidy distinctions between saint and sinner fall away and we are known only by the word “human”.
It’s the place where we face the deepest secret of our humanity: the fearful secret that one day I am going to die—or now that I’m older, it’s the fear that one day my children and grandchildren will die before me!
Jesus invites us into the place of secrets because that is where God is.
No, that’s not exactly right. What he says is that it is the place “your father” is. It’s the place the One Jesus calls “Abba” is waiting for us to show up, to fill us with grace, forgiveness, and acceptance—Abba’s very self.
So when our practice of faith lead us into the place of secrets, then we can give up the story of our specialness, and rest content in our ordinary and temporary life where the tidy distinctions between saint and sinner fall away and we are made one in the Crucified and Risen Christ who loves us and gives himself for us as a sure sign of his Abba’s eternal love.