This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today, Ash Wednesday. The gospel text was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Long-time readers of this blog may notice a distinct influence from a retreat I took three years ago.
Did you ever get the sense that God is hiding from you?
Maybe you feel like there’s a fog between you and God.
Or maybe you feel like you almost glimpsed God out of the corner of your eye, but the moment you turn…nothing.
Or maybe it feels like you and God have been playing a game of hide and seek. And even when you call out “olly olly oxen free,” God still seems nowhere to be found.
If you have ever felt that way, it’s not surprising. Most of us, maybe all of us have. I know that I certainly have.
In today’s gospel Jesus says, “pray to your Father who is in secret.” The word we translate as “secret” [kryptos, if you’re interested] can also mean “hidden” or “concealed,” and all too often, that’s exactly how we experience God. Concealed. Hidden. In secret.
And did you know that you are hidden as well? You, the real you, your personality, your motivations, your deepest desires. They’re hidden, even from yourself. Let me explain. Neuroscientists have studied the brain, to see where consciousness comes from, and how we make decisions. They’ve discovered that there are a lot of things we do that we don’t think about. Our brain works without our knowledge. On one level, that’s not surprising. We all know that our brain does a good job of keeping our heart pumping and our lungs breathing without our thinking about it. We never consciously tell our white blood cells to attack a virus, or our stomach to start digesting our food. Our brain takes care of those things without us even knowing it.
But neuroscientists have also shown that a lot of the decisions we think we make consciously are also taking place below the surface. Did you ever do something, and then wonder why on earth you did it? Or did you ever try very hard to keep yourself from saying something, only to say it anyway? There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because you lack willpower. No, the truth is that many of our true motivations are actually deeper in our brains than we know. In fact, they are so deeply buried in the neural networks in our head, that we literally cannot be consciously aware of them. A great deal of our motivation and decision-making happens behind the scenes. Hidden. In secret. Our consciousness is like the tip of an iceberg. And like an iceberg, a great deal of who we are is completely hidden, even from us. One author has called this “The Hidden Brain.”
And the reason we think that we are making most of our decisions consciously is because our brain is also very good at weaving together narratives to make sense of our experience. We tell ourselves stories to explain why we do things. Why we don’t do things. But we often create these stories after we act, not before. We write these stories to give our lives integrity, but there’s always something that falls between the cracks. We never totally fit the picture we paint of ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves are not exactly lies, but they don’t tell the whole picture either. We truly are hidden in our own minds.
This might sound scary, like the true you is hidden, in secret, and all alone. But I wonder – perhaps we’re not alone there.
When Jesus spoke about “your Father who sees in secret,” I always thought that this just meant that God could see anything, so there was no way to hide from God. But now I wonder if it’s more. Now I wonder if it means not just that God can see our secret places, but rather that God actually dwells right there. Deep inside you, on that level so deep you can’t even think about it, in that place where the true you also resides, perhaps that is precisely where God, where Christ is as well. Living with the true you in secret, nudging you and tugging at you and touching you with the faintest, kindest whispers.
I wonder. I wonder if that’s why God’s presence always feels so tentative, so nebulous, so wispy. I wonder if that’s why it’s so hard to describe our faith to others. I wonder if that’s why God’s messages to us so often seem confusing or incomplete. I wonder if that’s why we wonder where God is, even when we know on some level that God is with us. I wonder if God is hiding in secret with the true you.
I know this might sound mystical and bizarre, but there’s also a sense in which we all knew this already. Our purpose statement as a congregation is to seek and serve Christ in all people. We know that Jesus does not live inside our bodies. He doesn’t perch on our fifth rib or on top of our spleen. So what do we mean by seeking and serving Christ in people? Well, perhaps we already knew that Christ is within us in the deepest depths, the hidden place, the place even hidden from us. And perhaps our purpose statement calls us to believe that about all people.
This Lent, Lent 2020, I am inviting you to get to know yourself with 20/20 vision. To see yourself for who you really are, and see what God has to say to you. But how can we do that? How can we see ourselves if we are so well hidden from ourselves?
I wonder if Jesus gave us an answer in our gospel today. Jesus said, “When you give alms in secret, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus said, “When you pray to your Father who is in secret, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus said, “When you fast in secret, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
So I wonder. I wonder what that reward is. It’s not forgiveness or eternal life. We know that Christ has already provided those for us. Perhaps the reward is the chance to glimpse our Father who is in secret. Perhaps the reward is the chance to glimpse ourselves who are in secret. Perhaps through precisely these avenues that Jesus identifies here, alms, prayer, and fasting. Generous giving, faithful praying, avoidance of things that keep us from God. Perhaps through precisely those avenues we will receive the opportunity to glimpse who it is living in the secret places. To glimpse God. To glimpse the true you. Perhaps this Lenten season is a time to glimpse that. To see. To seek. To find.