Secrets of the heart
What’s your secret? We all have secrets. Take a moment to think of one you don’t mind sharing with a neighbour (it could be something funny, or your middle name – you don’t need to share anything difficult).
Now share with a neighbour.
Anyone willing to share what their secret was?
There are many kinds of secret (ask).
o Nice secrets (eg planning a gift or a party)
o Secrets about things we are nor proud od (eg my dog story). We all have them!
o Necessary secrets – eg pin numbers, where I hide my keys…
o State secrets – wartime codes, information gathered by spies….
Did you notice as you listened to today’s reading that ‘secret’ is a connecting word?
Give in secret, says Jesus, so that your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Pray in secret, so that your father will reward you.
Fast in secret, so that you father will reward you.
Jesus contrasts this with giving publicly, in the street or in the synagogue, with trumpets. I don’t suppose we do this! – but rich people and companies who give large donations are often recorded on plaques or in glossy annual reports. We are not immune from the desire for recognition, and we too need to remind ourselves that we give because God has given us everything and because my brother’s wellbeing, my sister’s wellbeing, matters as much as my own. We should let giving be its own reward.
As to prayer, Jesus again caricatures people who make a bit ta-da! about it, praying in public places where everyone can see and hear. He also says we shouldn’t pray garrulously, unstoppably, not stopping to draw breath. We should go to our room, shut the door, and pray the Lord’s prayer, which puts the will of God first and recognises that we can’t expect to be forgiven if we haven’t already done the work of forgiving those who have hurt us. Well, you get very public, very wordy prayer, in some of the more charismatic traditions. Let’s guard against that. Let’s let our prayer be private, and personal, and profound, and heartfelt. That way it will change us.
Don’t fast publicly, says Jesus. Disguise the fact that you are fasting. I think of some of my Muslim friends who during Ramadan, despite all the difficulties, never complain, never draw attention to themselves, but carry on as normal, making extra efforts to be courteous and to serve and to exemplify the grace of God. I think that’s the kind of thing Jesus meant about fasting.
So, what should we do? Jesus doesn’t say Don’t give, don’t pray, don’t fast until you can get it just exactly right. He assumes we are already doing these things.
So, today’s reading is a call to review the ways in which we give, pray, fast.
Are you giving? I would guess that in this church you all give generously for the basic but necessary things that allow a church to bear its witness – towards the cost of our ministers and other personnel who help us do our job in the local church, towards the essential costs of keeping a building open, towards the cost of special projects and events, towards the work of bringing healing and justice and peace in our world. I would guess you do that secretly, and that you also give in private and individually to causes or projects or individuals that we feel specially called to support. That’s good! Let’s do it with all our hearts.
Are you praying? I would guess that people in this church have grown up to have a regular prayer habit in your own lives; that you pray regularly, alone and with others. Don’t stop! But let’s let our prayer deepen. Let’s let more silence into our prayer lives, more simply waiting on the will of God, more taking time to let God’s guidance for our decisions about our lives quietly become clear Let’s bring to God the difficulty we have in forgiving those terrible hurts we receive and let God over time expand our empathy, our understanding of what make others tick, what makes them do what they do. Let’s let our merciful forgiving God make us less judgemental of others. Let’s do it with all our hearts.
Are you fasting? Fasting is about making a deliberate hole in our lives so that the light of God can shine through. I would guess that many of you fast quite regularly – I’m tempted to ask, but I need to let that be your secret. Let’s go on using special secret ways to say to God More of you and less of me. And let’s resist all temptation to be self-publicists. Let’s do it with all our hearts.
We’ve got work to do, then. But we haven’t talked yet about the other thing Jesus says – that our Father in Heaven will reward us.
How does our Father in Heaven reward us for giving, praying, fasting in secret? What’s your experience?
One thing Jesus emphasises very strongly in this passage is that if we forgive others we will be forgiven. Is that a reward? Yes – guilt is a terrible burden and the joy of having it lifted from us is glorious, isn’t it?
We are rewarded with a light and a clean heart. Giving, prying, fasting for its own sake takes us deep inside ourselves to what really matters and helps us shed some of the rubbish we carry around. Material things we never really needed (as we find when we give); food we can well do without (as we find when we fast); pride that stops us growing towards God (as we find when we pray). I think you’ve experienced this and I hope you experience it every day.
We are rewarded with drawing close to God. Nothing is more beautiful than the experience of sitting close to the God who loves us, paying attention to God and feeling his loving gaze upon us. It’s a foretaste of how we shall be when we come to life in eternity. I think you’ve experienced this and I wish for you that it be a daily and an hourly reality.
Go on growing your secret life in Christ. It’s wonderful! But it doesn’t stop there. Though it’s secret, it can also be shared. When people see your contentment and wisdom, when they ask What’s your secret?, then you can tell them the story of how Jesus as searched for you, and found you, and asked you to walk with him day by day. You will be able to do what St Peter says we should – Be ready to account for the hope that is within us. Through the witness of our lives, underpinned by our habits of generosity and prayerfulness and putting God first, God’s name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done on earth as in heaven – and we will be part of it.
MH 31st July 2016