February 18, 2015
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
Hidden in Plain Sight
Lent is here, which means it’s the time many of us choose a personal spiritual discipline that we hope will bring us closer to God, perhaps by letting go of something we desire a little too much. I came up with my 2015 Lenten disciple the other night as I was fighting my desire to stay up late and watch another episode of “The Good Wife,” on Amazon Prime. For those of you who watch TV in real time rather on the computer, you may not realize that on the computer you can find out what happens next right away, by watching day after day or even hour after hour. So, no binge-watching of “The Good Wife” for 40 days: no watching of “The Good Wife” at all - I’ll have to wait until Easter Sunday to find out whether Callinda kills her husband, who we only learned existed about 5 minutes before she loaded her gun. This discipline fits the Lenten criteria of a promise to God which will be hard to keep, and theoretically opens up space in my life for prayer or study. Last year my discipline was more traditional: a fast from meat. This also had an ethical dimension, as eating meat is very ecologically expensive (carbon and water intensive) and most of us should eat less of it. I called my Lenten diet “Vegan with Loopholes.” No meat, eggs or dairy except for the half in half in my coffee, or when I was served meat or cheese, because accepting hospitality trumps my diet, and of course Sundays are always feast days not fast days so then was it better to eat the leftovers during the week so that nothing was wasted — you can see I ate a lot of meat over the 40 days.
Now by sharing these personal disciplines with you I am violating the clear teaching of Jesus not to practice (or talk about) piety before others in order to be seen (or heard) by them: whether it’s praying, or fasting, or the giving of alms. But I’m not the only one: people now share their Lenten disciplines on Facebook. Last year several of my Facebook friends were decluttering their house for Lent: 40 days, 40 drawers or closets or corners cleared out. Now fasting, turning off the TV and decluttering are all worthy practices. They can open up space or time in our lives for God, especially if we practice them with integrity. But those personal practices also may tempt us with external rewards: such as a “like”on Facebook, the 21st Century equivalent of praying on a street corner to be seen by others. Or by the losing of weight (something people in the first century never tried to do). Or by a tidy house (few people in the first century had possessions they could throw out). We know, as followers of John Calvin, that we have mixed motives for everything and our sinful natures may make it impossible to practice a spiritual discipline solely for the reward of nurturing our relationship with God. But are there disciplines we can practice that have fewer extrinsic rewards? What might the 21st century equivalent be of praying in our room or fasting with oil on our head?
Most of us heard, in elementary school, the story of the mystery of the purloined letter, first told by Edgar Allan Poe. A man has stolen a letter from an acquaintance that he’s using it to blackmail her. She hires detectives to find it: so they go to the suspect’s house and search high and low, looking behind bookshelves, tearing up floorboards, and so on without success. But the hero of the story goes to the house and finds it the letter casually placed with the week’s mail, disguised just a little — hidden in plain sight among all the other letters. The other detectives didn’t see it when they saw it because it was unremarkable.
One way to pray, or to give alms, or to fast without being seen, is to do so in the company of other prayers, givers and fasters. One way to practice our piety without sounding a trumpet and without receiving praise is to do it with others who are also practicing their piety in the same way, so no one gets to boast. The people in church who see you in church are also in church so no one gets extra credit. And frankly, people who aren’t in church generally aren’t impressed with people who are — which is fine. Coming to church these days also doesn’t bring much in the way of extrinsic rewards: some treats at coffee hour. Friendship — although caring for one another in Christian friendship is arguably a form of worship. Of course, this does not apply to pastors and organists who are rewarded with a paycheck for coming to worship, but for most folks it’s more rewarding — in the worldly sense — to sleep in or go out to brunch. The reward for coming to church, for worship or Bible study, is the one given by God: not a ticket to heaven, but a chance to commune with God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
So if you’re still looking for a Lenten discipline, I suggest coming to church: Every Sunday. Now if you’re here for an Ash Wednesday service chances are you already do that, but it bears repeating: come to church, every Sunday. In addition, both of our congregations offer another chance to practice our piety together during Lent. At Summit we have soup and study suppers at 6:30 on Wednesday evenings. We’re reading the book, “Speaking of Sin,” by Barbara Brown Taylor and anyone from First Church is warmly welcomed — let me know after the service and I’ll order a book. I also noticed that here at First Church you have Bible study at 11:30 — which is the perfect time for anyone at Summit who’s not able to come on Wednesdays to study the word, for we begin our service just 15 minutes before yours and that gives anyone at Summit time to come join you at First Church. And give, generously, to the One Great Hour of Sharing — perhaps by saving for it throughout Lent, giving up some other spending so you may give your alms. And giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing is practically like giving in secret because no one except the financial secretary will know what you’ve given — your envelope will be one among many, hidden in plain sight.
So, if you find an individual Lenten practice helpful, do it. Now is the time. But don’t neglect to practice your piety before others and with others. You will not receive the admiration of others: but your heavenly Father, our God, will see you, and you will see her, and so our hearts will be where they belong.