“Faith Passages –
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-18
We are thinking right now about faith passages…how we are faced with different faith challenges and possibilities along the stages and ages of life. Today – after an amazing and unsettling week for us as a nation, we want to talk about our souls. This series is held together by a prayer from Psalm 71: 17-18. Let us pray:
“O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Amen.”
Jesus says that we should not practice our piety or our spirituality before others. We should give alms in secret. We should fast in secret. We should pray in secret. (Matthew 6:6)
To me, the most interesting thing about this is the reason. It is not so much because Jesus wants us to be humble, although humility is addressed in the Bible in other places. (See Philippians 2:3 and Colossians 2:23, for example.) It is not really so much about avoiding pride or not being pretentious.
According to Jesus, the reason to practice our spirituality in secret is so that we don’t fool ourselves. Our relationship with God is of necessity a secret one. No one else can know how it is between me and God, between you and God.
“Your Father…is in secret,” Jesus says. Our relationship with God is finally a secret relationship that no one else can know.
The early years of life we live under a looking glass. We are shaped consciously and, even more so, unconsciously by our parents and teachers and family. When we become teenagers we are increasingly shaped by our peers. Either way, we are mostly trying to live up to the expectations of others, except when we are trying to live down to the expectations of others.
One the tasks of our adult lives is to ask the question: Who am I when nobody is watching? Jesus is saying that who we really are is who we are when nobody else is watching. Who we are is really a secret to everyone, except ourselves and God. Only God can know – God and me – who I really am.
If we as adults stay dependent upon the approval or disapproval of others and do not manage to find and know our secret true self, if we live our lives performing for others, we never really come to fully know ourselves…or God. I suspect knowing our secret self and knowing God may be sort of the same reality.
So the question that Jesus is raising for us is the question: Do we know who we really are in our heart of heart when nobody else is watching? No matter what anybody else thinks about us, do we know our own soul?
This has been a tough week. I confess I actually read the Wall Street Journal more than the Bible this past week. Not good.
I spent much of this past week worrying and praying for folk I know who have been in the midst of this financial storm in one way or another. I worried about how it might affect those who are retired, how it might affect young people who are buying homes or wanting to and trying to build a future. I worried about how it might affect those barely managing to stay afloat and those who are already homeless.
I asked a friend who works in the heart of the financial world to help me figure out how to think about the economic crisis. He sent me an email that I found so thoughtful that I want to read it to you. He said:
1. It may be different in degree or feel, but economic upset is not unheard of. This is time for a little serious thought about the lilies of the field and the sparrows. We are cherished by God and the evidence of that love is found in grace not in asset values.
2. It reminds us that we are much more interconnected than we like to think. This crisis is the kind of thing that happens when tightly interconnected, complex systems experience failure in a part of the network. The remedy will need to be systemic in that fixing any one part without strengthening all does not remove the risk.
This seems to me to lead directly back to the question of virtue. Whether you think the villains here are mortgage brokers, stock brokers, I-banks, greedy capitalists, or dreamers who took too much mortgage risk, at the root of the problem there are people who together or separately lost sight of the prize. The prize was not economic – it was in living a life of service and integrity. This is not a time to find someone to blame but rather a time to reflect on how we can work together to strengthen the integrity of our communities.
3. Pain flows downhill in the economy. As much as anyone of us may be unhappy with what is happening in out retirement accounts or to our home values, there are others who are suffering worse (and indeed some may be in the pew next to you). We know that in giving we can and do become spiritually rich. So, in all your loss, fear and confusion, ask who it is that you can help.
4. We are not required to move too quickly through our anger or grief and loss. It is okay to be frustrated and disappointed, and all the rest. God will be there with us in that too.
I found this very helpful, and I hope you do too.
The upset in our economy has had me asking the question: who would I be if I had nothing? How dependent am I for my sense of self on the external signs of success – my job and home and accomplishments and education and status?
I don’t think this is the beginning of a Great Depression but I have been thinking also this past week about my mother’s uncle, whom I never met, because after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 he committed suicide. Apparently he had done well financially and when he lost it all, he committed suicide. My mother talked about him when I was growing up. I think he was her only uncle.
My mother was an only child. I never met any relatives on my mother’s side of the family.
I know suicide is a very complicated thing, but I’ve asked this question about my great uncle: How is it that waiting around to meet me couldn’t have been more important to him than his wealth? The only relatives I knew growing up were on my father’s side of the family and I would have not minded some alternatives to that bunch. I suspect my great uncle was a fascinating guy. I don’t mean to judge him, but how could he not know that he was worth more than his money?
We are worth more than our wealth. We are worth more than our jobs. We are worth more than our reputations. We are worth more than our accomplishments. We are worth more than our looks. We are worth more than our gender and sexual orientation. We are worth more than our health.
And the way we know this is to know our own soul at the most secret place where only we and God can go.
John Ortberg[i] says that our personality is structured like the Old Testament temple. The temple was divided up into different compartments. There was the outer court. The corresponding piece to this in you is that there is a public you. You have an outer court. This is you when you are at work, when you are serving on a board or committee, when you are at the Black Cat or JRs, when you are playing ultimate-Frisbee or softball on the mall. Everybody sees this part of you. This is your public self. Everybody has access to this. This is your outer court.
In the temple, there was an inner chamber, and it was called the holy place. Not everybody had access to this place – only the elders, priests and Levites. Some people were not allowed inside the inner chamber. You have an inner chamber – a holy place. It is the place where you only allow certain people to come – your closest friends, maybe your family, maybe your small group. You get to decide who comes in here and who doesn't. Nobody can force their way in.
Somebody may hold a lot of power over you, vocationally or financially or otherwise. Power does not get them entrance into here. You have total control over whom you allow in here. You have a Holy place.
Then Ortberg says there was one more chamber. One very small, very carefully guarded chamber, deep inside the temple. It was the most sacred space. The Israelites had a beautiful name for this. They called it the Holy of Holies. Only one person was allowed in here – the high priest. The high priest and God. One person and God.
This is true also about you. You have a Holy of Holies inside of you. Whether you have a lot of money or none, you’ve got a Holy of Holies inside of you. Whether you have a prestigious job or no job or somewhere in between, you have a Holy of Holies inside of you. Whether you’ve got no education or an M.D. you've got a Holy of Holies inside of you. Only you and God are allowed in here. No other human being can come into your Holy of Holies.
This is your true self, your soul, whatever you want to call it.
It is in our Holy of Holies that we know who we really are. No matter what anybody else thinks of you, it is here, in this secret place, that you discover who you really are. No matter what anyone else thinks of me, it is in my Holy of Holies that I know who Dean really is.
What Jesus is saying is that as soon as we give other people power to define us for good or ill, we lose sight of who we really are. This can be known only in the secret place where only God and I can go.
I’ve been preaching too long lately so I want to quit now today. So let me just end with this.
We are so insecure, most of us. Me, too. In times of insecurity go to your secret place, your Holy of Holies, where only God and you can go. Don’t count on others to affirm you. Take the affirmation but don’t count on it. Don’t let others wound you or destroy by what they say or what they think. Take criticism for what it is worth but don’t let it define you. Make sure that you are right with God and your own soul in your secret place.
If we are okay there, nothing else will be able to shake or destroy us.
[i] Sermon: “The Greatest Power in the World” at http://data.mppc.org/sermon/transcript/080720_jortberg.pdf