You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt. 6:4)
We live these days in fear that someone is watching us, or listening to us – and for good reason. Chances are not so bad that someone is listening, someone is watching, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing. Cameras will snap your picture if you are speeding or if you run a red light. Surveillance systems will track you at the drug store, the grocery store, even on the street corner. Satellites have been spying for decades, and now drones may be monitoring you overhead. The NSA may be recording your phone calls, or reading your emails. Whatever you are doing on-line, you are not doing it alone. Someone is watching. Someone is listening.
In most cases, the listening and the watching have to do with you being naughty. Someone is trying to catch you, if you are being naughty, or if you are plotting to be naughty with someone else. It is quite astonishing that with all this watching, all this listening, naughtiness still abounds, but it does.
For much of history, the great watcher, the great listener, the great arbiter of naughtiness, we have been taught, has been God. God knows; God sees; God hears. Don’t think your naughtiness escapes his notice. God’s surveillance is more prevalent, and more pervasive, and more perfect than the NSA's.
God is watching you, and God will catch you! This has been the message of a certain brand of Christianity – maybe the perceived message of nearly all Christianity – for centuries. And who thinks that the discovery that you are being watched is good news? Not many of us!
Back in the day, when religion was a given fact of your nation, or your city, or your family – OK, so God is watching; I guess you deal with the consequences. But today, religion is much more of a choice. And the suggestion that God is watching you, listening to you, spying on you, keeping track of you – does not sound like such good news to many ears.
Sometimes we think of Lent as a period of God’s intensified scrutiny of our lives. This makes Lent the S.A.T.s of the church year, or the board exams, or the face-to-face interview, or something like that… when we dwell a bit more on the fact that God is watching us, and we allow ourselves to consider what God sees when he watches us. And because we have veiled all the crosses, and put on dark violet vestments, and changed the music to minor keys, and sung the psalm that includes the phrase “I have been wicked from my birth; a sinner from my mother’s womb”… for all these reasons, the strong suggestion is made that if God is watching he cannot possibly be happy with what he sees when he looks down at you and at me!
And, of course, when you and I are honest with our selves, we know that we do, in fact, give God plenty of reason to be appalled when he watches us – well, maybe you don’t, but I do! So, if God is watching, how can it be good news?
And we hear Jesus calling out the hypocrites for making a show of their piety. And it sounds a lot like Jesus is warning his followers that if you act like the hypocrites, God is gonna get you! God sees you. God hears you. God knows when you are being a hypocrite, and he is going to call you out and make you pay for it! Isn’t this the Lenten message of the call to repentance? God is gonna get you! So you might as well come clean and get on your knees and admit what you were doing wrong – because God sees you anyway! God sees you in secret, just like the NSA, only better, clearer, surer!
When you hear the enemies of religion these days – and there are plenty of them - they will tell you that this is religion’s fundamental lesson: that God sees you, God will catch you doing wrong; and God will make you pay for it. There are hordes of people who no longer go to church, because they believe this is the message of the Gospel – never clearer than on Ash Wednesday when we shame you with your smudge of ash and remind you in solemn tones to remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, you worthless creature, you.
Except of course, that this is not the message of the Gospel at all, and not even the message of Ash Wednesday, when Jesus joins those who look down on religion in their most common objection – the tendency of the religious to be hypocrites: to say one thing and mean or do another. And Jesus does not tell his followers that God is gonna get them for the things they do wrong. He tells them this: God your Father sees you in secret, so there is no use in being a hypocrite. For God is not looking to punish you; God is looking to reward you. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus is saying that God is not looking for our faults; he is looking for our virtues. God is not out to get us; he is out to give to us. God is not trying to condemn us; God is trying to reward us. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. We get so caught up in the other details that we barely hear Jesus say this: your Father will reward you. We are not accustomed to the possibility that the purpose of surveillance might be to reward us. It is surely not why the NSA is watching.
But the God who sees in secret seeks to reward his children. God knows that just as some of your worst sins are committed in secret, so is some of your best work done in secret; for he is watching and listening: he knows. And he is trying to teach us how to live.
Of course God knows you can be naughty – what kind of fool do you take him for? But God also knows that you can be good, for that is what he made you to be. And God wants to help you and me be good.
And this is what Lent is about – it is about God helping us to be good, by encouraging us to give him cause to reward us in secret – since that’s where most of the inner work of Lent has to be done – inside, in secret.
The call to repentance is always a call to practice being good, finding our better selves and giving freer reign to those better selves that are too often buried under our greedy, selfish desires. But God knows the better self you have been stifling, and he’d like to see more of it.
Over and over, Jesus promises: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” but we struggle to hear this message. So let me try to put it another way.
God is watching you. God sees you, hears you. God knows when you are being a hypocrite and when you are being true to yourself. Be your best self.
God knows when you are being naughty: try not to be.
Do not put on an act for someone else to see.
Do not think you must wear your faith on your sleeve.
Do not make the mistake of worrying what others think of you – some of them will be right, some will be wrong.
Worry instead about what God thinks of you. Consider what God sees when no one else is watching.
Remember that you have had some of your worst moments when no one else is watching, but that you have also had some of your best moments when no one else is watching.
Consider that there are more of your best moments ahead of you, and that part of the challenge of life is to have more best moments than worse moments – for God is watching them all. In secret.
Do you know why God is watching you? Do you believe that it is because he wants to catch you when you are naughty? Could you give God a little more credit than that? Don’t you realize how easy it is for him to catch you? Even your mother could catch you – it’s even easier for God.
Do you know why God is watching you? Do you suspect that it is because he is gonna get you? Do you believe God’s greatest desire is to punish you for all that you have done wrong? Have you confused God with the NSA?
Do you remember that God loves you? Even though he knows all about how naughty you have been. Even in secret.
God still loves you.
God still sees you in secret.
And God, your Father, who sees in secret, wants so much to reward you – that’s just the way he is: kind of secretive.
For God remembers how good you are, how much goodness is in you. He put it there.
And no one else may ever see it as clearly as God does. No one else may ever see it as secretly as God does.
But God does see you in secret, and he will reward you. This is his deep desire in Lent: to find the reasons to reward you.
Which is why he asks you to look deep into your secret self – where only he and you can see – and find the reasons there to be good, find the reasons to be rewarded. And to practice them – secretly most of the time. But never mind, God sees in secret, and will reward you.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia