"The Secret of Keeping Secrets"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 23, 2002

Psalm 86:1-10; Matthew 10:24-31

     Everyone knows what it is like to have a secret.  Sometimes we have a piece of image-altering information about someone.  Sometimes we have done something about which we want no one else to know.   Sometimes we have defined ourselves around an event in our past, an event that was so disturbing that we have never been able to talk about it.

     Having secrets is an interesting topic.  I doubt many of us have engaged in a group discussion about their nature, what they represent, and what really happens to us when their truth becomes public knowledge.  What we know is that as long as we have a closet with skeletons in it, we will live in fear that if certain information surfaced it would damage the image we want to preserve.

     Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time.  All the people some of the time, but you can never fool all the people all the time."  Even though the wisdom of those words is in the back of our minds, we still want to keep our secrets.            

     Our fears appear somewhat justified because we have seen the results when certain information about public figures has been made public. Everyone from television evangelists, trusted FBI agents, to former Presidents of the United States have all had their characters and reputations whittled down to the size of the "average person."  

     To escape the same fate, we wear masks.  We want people to love us and hold us in high regard, so we appear to them as perfect as we can possibly be. The amount of time we spend in front of the mirror is only the tip of the iceberg.  When our people-skills become a layer designed to protect the secrecy of our secrets, they represent the thin veneer of a self that chose not to grow. 

     Suppose someone talks?  Suppose someone betrays a confidence? Suppose someone writes "an unauthorized biography" about us and confronts us publicly with our faults? The fears that have remained pent up inside come roaring to the surface.  We feel betrayed. We may decide that we will never again trust anyone.  We may choose to become devastated and we give birth to feelings of contempt and deep resentment.  We may withdrawal and become aloof from the one who broke our trust. 

     In our lesson today, Jesus provided his listeners with healing words that everyone needs to hear. In essence he said, "Forget the peanut gallery.  Forget what people think about you.  Ignore what they say.  Their thoughts and words about you represent only who they are.  The opinions of others hold nothing of value for the essential you.  Besides, one day everyone will know everything about you and it will be fine."  Matthew wrote these thoughts this way, "Jesus said, 'Do not be afraid of people.  Whatever is now covered up will be uncovered, and every secret will be made known.'" 

     This morning we are going to discuss the secret about keeping secrets.  Jesus knew about secrets.  He also knew how healing it is to get rid of them. Secrets help us hide our spiritual cancers.  They are like feeling the pain, discovering the lump or experiencing irregularities in our digestive patterns and refusing to see a physician.  Secrets motivate us to hide our insecurities, frailties and all the habits and addictions of which we are not proud.  When we keep them secret, they continue their growth.

     People associated with a church family generally admit to each other that we have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.  It is when we begin to get into the fine details about our sins that we start to squirm.  But we need to go there and squirm.   

     The truth about us is that we make mistakes.  We do not use good judgment.  We say things before we think.  As we do such things, we give each other plenty of opportunities to practice forgiveness, patience, kindness and support.  If this cannot be found in a church, it is not the Church.

     While I was one of the ministers at Cheverly years ago, I was invited to become the adult sponsor for a group of teenagers of alcoholic parents.  Their official name is Alateen.  This was my first experience with people publicly sharing what they have spent most of their lives protecting and hiding.

     They shared their personal journeys about being raped, about promiscuity, of physical and mental abuse, and of their use of drugs and alcohol. The fear of letting others know was incredibly strong, but brick by brick, each of them dismantled their individual walls and opened their closets to the light of day.  Their sharing began the process of their healing.

     The experience demonstrated to me over and over ain that when people humble themselves and confess their secrets, they are not rejected.  There was so much compassion generated that the responses the kids feared might come did not occur.  In fact, what happened was quite the opposite. Teens were giving other teens permission to love them, an experience they had actually been preventing because of their masks. 

     In essence Jesus is telling us the same thing in our lesson.  Jesus was saying, "Do not be afraid of people, even those who have the power to kill your body.  They cannot possibly hurt the essential you.  Now, if you are looking for someone to fear -- fear God!  God has the power to destroy you completely, body and soul.  But, be of good cheer, God does not do that.  God knows all about your secrets and still loves you."

     We are not punished for having secrets, but for trying to hide them.  Perhaps the quality of the human spirit to which we react the strongest is hypocrisy, not each other's sinfulness.  We find it easy to love people who are as vulnerable as we are.  However, we often develop allergic reactions to those who pretend at being someone they are not.

     This is how Jesus could show compassion for a promiscuous woman while challenging those who wanted to stone her to death.   This is how he could eat lunch with Zacchecus while calling the righteous a brood of snakes.  People who willingly acknowledge that they have clay feet are giving permission for the rest of us to love them.  What is interesting is the ease with which we extend ourselves toward them.

     Many years ago, a minister was given the task of starting a new church.  He was given this opportunity in an expanding community long before there were financial support systems in place to help with such a process.  In no time the new church start was flourishing.  A number of his colleagues called his work miraculous.  All he did was visit people and extend the invitation to join him on Sunday mornings.

     At first he met with resistance.  Some laughed and said, "You would not want the likes of me in your new church."  The minister would respond, "Oh, quite the contrary.  I only want your kind in the church.  The other kind we will send to other churches.  I know people.  Everyone wants to grow spiritually but too often they do not know where to start or how to do it.  After one service, if you do not like what we do, stay at home."  Many of the "unchurched" took the challenge.

     Slowly they came to a neighborhood school that had granted them space.  The fellowship grew not because of marble pulpits, stained glass windows, pastoral robes or theological doctrines, people came because behind his leadership was a genuine spirit that accepted and encouraged them just as they were.

     All of us recognize the masks that we wear. Masks are part of the required uniform at the office.   When we ask people how they are, we honestly expect to hear, "If I were any better I couldn't stand myself." We do not expect to hear, "Golly, I'm glad you ask.  My son moved in with his girl friend.  My wife lost her job.  I'm having a terrible day.  I just came from a fender bender which was my fault. The other driver was holding his neck when he got out of the car. There will probably be a lawsuit.  Do you know a good attorney who might represent me?"   

     The culture of some church families is different.  Here we acknowledge that we are flawed. We understand that life's experience can challenge us and mirror to us our poverty of faith.  No one is here without acknowledged heartaches and disappointments. Few of us have escaped experiencing fears and regrets.  We know that God holds the answer so we come to learn, to share and to grow. 

     Here we are given the opportunity to deepen our trust in God.  Here we are challenged to change how we think.  Here we talk about how to develop the fruits of the spirit. Here we can confess our faults and experience forgiveness. We are at different levels of awareness and we acknowledge that.  Finding such an environment outside the church is difficult.

     One of my favorite stories describes what happened to an Episcopal priest who was called to serve a suburban parish in Philadelphia.  He was moving in to the manse when the urge came to take a break from his unpacking.  He decided to drive to the church and walk through the building visiting every room.  He drove his car to the parking lot and sat there for a moment. Something he saw gave him pause. He looked intently at a group of people who appeared to be loitering outside one of the doors of the church. Some were smoking.  Others were drinking beer from a cooler someone had brought.  There were two couples entwined in each others arms being very affectionate.    

     Another car drove into the space next to his.   He recognized the driver as a woman who had been a member of the Call Committee.  She noticed him sitting in his car and motioned for him to wind down his window.  She said, "Come on inside.  We're about to start.  I will introduce you to the members of your choir."

     What is our identity here at St. Matthew's?  We are a group of people who understand that we are loved tremendously by God just as we are.  We also recognize collectively that no one can sit in judgment of anyone else because not one of us has arrived at a point where further growth is unnecessary.  

     We know the rugs of life can be pulled out from under us.  We know we are vulnerable.  We know we have wonderful moments when peace and love reign, but we also know that we experience times when our habits and quirks of behavior tell the world something else about us.  At St. Matthew's we know this about each other and it is okay.   

     Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "When you assemble a number of people to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those people all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish points of view." 

     A church family is no different.  When we make assumptions that we are more perfect than we are, we cause others to wear their masks.  We teach them how to parrot all the phrases and concepts for which the righteous are known, all the while they may be dying inside. 

     We need to tell others that at St. Matthew's becoming vulnerable does not translate into rejection.  Jesus has called us to love each other just as we come. And if we cannot do that, we are judging ourselves.  This is the message Jesus was teaching.  It takes courage and trust in God to be and remain authentic.  When we get rid of our secrets, growing begins in the area that once was the home for our greatest fears.

     The secret about keeping secrets is that we do not have to hold them any longer.  None of us has life's ultimate answers.  The only thing we can acknowledge is that we have great worth and are loved by God in spite of our faults. We are loved so much that God sent us Jesus Christ to lead us away from fear.  Nothing else really matters.  Knowing this helps accelerate our growth. 


    Gracious and ever-faithful God, we pause during these moments together to remember our common humanity.  Help us during times of indecision to understand that we are still growing.  Our understanding of life remains incomplete.  Our words often fail to reflect the love others need to hear.  Many times our faith is based only on what others have taught us.  Fear prevents us from thinking for ourselves.  It is we who prevent ourselves from experiencing inspiration that would lift us and from revelations that would astound us.  Enable us to trust you to meet us at every crossroad, every crisis of faith and every moment of uncertainty.  As angels in the flesh, we offer ourselves as instruments of your creative process.  Amen.


    We thank you, loving God, for the adventures that come to us simply by living, by taking our experiences as they come and by having the opportunity to decide who we want to be in relationship to each of them.

    When our emotions are challenged, you have provided us with the tools to respond with grace and whit. When the clouds of uncertainty darken our vision, you have given us the ability to trust that You will lead us.  When we experience losses and reversals, you have endowed us with the potential to carry them in the same spirit as we would carry our greatest joys and accomplishments.  We know that our destiny is unfolding in ways we could never understand or anticipate.  It is our trust in you that produces the peace we need for each day.

    As we worship, our congregation becomes part of the larger Body of Christ in a world filled with people who are deeply troubled and divided.  Everyone of us is capable of being hurt.  We all need to be loved.  We need to give ourselves away because that is the way you made us.  Yet many of us think and believe differently and because of such thoughts and beliefs, some of us build walls.  May each of us, in our own way, dedicate ourselves this day to building only bridges. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .