A writer named Walter Kirn met a friend at an art gallery in Hollywood, his first visit to a gallery in years. The next morning, in his email inbox, he found several ads urging him to invest in art. Coincidence?
Kirn then consulted an online calendar of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the Los Angeles area. He was shocked when he began to receive invitations to drug and alcohol rehab centers and wondered how these centers could know that he might need them when membership in AA is supposed to be confidential. Coincidence?
But things got really bad when he saw on his Facebook page the name and picture of a man he had met at a private, closed AA meeting, because in accordance with AA custom, the man had never told him his full name. Turns out Facebook revealed the man’s identity by connecting his name and picture with his phone number—which was the only piece of information that the two had shared.
Walter Kirn discovered he is being watched. And truth be told, we’re all being watched. All of this was fodder for Kirn who is the author of an article entitled, “If you’re not paranoid, you’re crazy: Life in the surveillance society” which appeared in a recent issue of The Atlantic. On the cover is a man covered completely in tin foil— a popular stereotype for people who are paranoid, angry, and fearful; who want to protect themselves from electromagnetic fields, mind control and general government surveillance. We used to think of such people as delusional. But maybe they are on to something.
In the article Kirn contends that government agencies and tech companies are finding ever more intrusive ways to probe our thoughts and our behaviors. From Facebook to the NSA, our activities are being tracked and the details of our lives are being analyzed.
Bottom line, Big Brother is watching, and it’s a thought that maybe ought to make all of us squirm. But not only is Big Brother watching, all of us have someone else watching us. God our Creator, Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer. And while for some this is yet another thought that makes them squirm, for the faithful followers it can be and should be a source of gratefulness, joy, and empowerment.
In our text for today the disciple Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It is as if Philip wants to do surveillance on God, and get a clear picture of what God is doing. Jesus responds that Philip doesn’t have to do any spying, because Jesus himself has been with his disciples for years. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” says Jesus. “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
Jesus shows his followers the clearest possible picture of what God is doing. And what a clear picture it is, a picture that can actually leave us with a deep sense of security and peace.
Government surveillance is designed to uncover malicious plots, evil secrets and subversive acts—all in the interest of national security. But, Jesus reveals to us that God has no nasty plots, secrets or acts. Instead, God is all grace, truth, and steadfast love. Jesus reveals that God is compassionate and only wanting into our hearts and not to control our minds.
The bottom line is that we don’t have to do any surveillance on God, because Jesus freely shows God to us, and everything to see is always good.
Now certainly, when it comes to our personal lives, we don’t want the Government or Facebook or advertisers doing any kind of surveillance, but we want it and love it when God is doing it. Most of us want God to see where we are in life, and then show us a way through; or even tell us what we should do. Most of us want God to keep an eye on us and offer us deep peace, clear guidance and gentle reminders of the teachings of Jesus. That’s the promise we received at Pentecost after all— that God is active in our lives through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The word “surveillance” comes from the French with a root meaning “to watch over,” which is surely what God does through the Holy Spirit. God is always watching over us through the Spirit—teaching us everything, reminding us of what Jesus has taught us, and giving us peace.
When we are under God’s surveillance, communication is constant between the Divine and us— resulting in great works that reveal the power of God. But though God is always watching over us, such truth is easier to say then believe. After all, if God is watching over us then why do bad things happen? And maybe a more important question is, how can we go forth as faithful followers of a God who is supposed to always be watching over us when bad things do happen?
In 1941, in a village in Nazi-controlled Poland, a young man came home to discover that his father had died. No doubt an unthinkable loss, but it was compounded by the fact that several years earlier both this young man’s mother and sister had also died. So when he discovered his father, he held him in his arms and lamented, “I’m all alone. I’m only twenty years old, and have already lost all the people I’ve loved.”
One writer described it like this: “Ripped out of the soil of his background, his life could no longer be what it used to be. He now began a journey to deeper communion with God. But it didn’t come without tears, and it didn’t come without what seems to have been a certain existential horror.”
That’s what it can feel like when we think that God is not with us, not watching over us, not keeping us and the ones we love safe. That young Polish man sitting on the floor with his dead father in his arms was in immense loss and pain and it could have easily seemed that God was not watching over him. But we would be wrong to think and believe such, for though the moment was unthinkable and unimaginable and harsh and cruel—God was watching over that young man. How can we know?
Well, that young man’s name was Karol Jozel Wojityla. But later in life he was known as Pope John Paul II. His story can show us that though unthinkable difficulties and horrors can happen, even to us, God never leaves us and God will work in us and through us so that the struggles and horrors never define us—but rather what defines us is the resurrection—in this world and the next—all of which God makes happen while God watches over us.
Though we are followers of God, and though God is always watching over us, we still don’t live lives of endless happiness. We still face the harsh realities of life, the unthinkable horrors that do happen. But as faithful followers, who can know and trust that we are being watched over by our good and compassionate heavenly parent, we can see glimpses of God’s goodness and signs of God’s involvement in our daily lives.
God promises to keep an eye on us, and to be at work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is an Advocate, as Jesus says— a helper who will be with us forever. This help comes to us when we are tempted to cheat on a test in school, tell a lie in a business transaction or betray a friend or spouse. This help comes to us when we lose a loved one. This help comes every time we need it.
The Spirit speaks directly to our hearts, and pushes us back toward the path of God. The Spirit is closer to us than the NSA, more focused on our personal lives than Facebook, more in tune with us than advertisers. But don’t be paranoid— instead, be grateful. Don’t be angry—be joyful. Don’t be fearful—be empowered. The Spirit teaches us everything, and reminds us of all that Jesus has said, done, and promised. The Spirit gives us a peace that is greater than anything the world gives, a peace promises us that no matter the horrors we face, we are not alone.
A popular T-shirt among conspiracy theorist is of a person with a tin foil hat on that reads, “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!” Funny, sure, but maybe a better T-shirt would be of the words of Jesus who says in our text, “Peace I leave with you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
So yes, we are being watched—but thank goodness we are—for we are being watched over by the Divine who offers us peace when jobs are lost, when relationships shatter, when dreams are dashed and when illness strikes. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit guarantees that neither death nor life “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
So let’s put away our foil hats, because even if the government, or Facebook, or advertisers are watching us, we have nothing to fear. Because one more powerful than them, one more powerful than anything is watching over us—and no matter what that power will always take care of us. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, June 12, 2016
Gracious and loving God, one of the greatest gifts you have given us is the gift of free will. You have not forced yourself upon us; you have allowed us to choose whether or not we will surrender to you and follow Jesus. Even though You have made us for yourself, You do not make us do anything we don’t choose to do.
And so we know that making the choice to follow you, reflect you, obey you is a daily one. We must ask: Will we today choose our own desires or yours? Will we run after worldly pleasure, or the true joy of knowing you through Christ?
It is our prayer O God that you give us hearts that want to choose you and desire your leading above all else, for we know you have called us to be a covenant people— a people set apart. We are set apart not for privilege but for service; not for special rights but for responsibility.
And in this community our loyalty is to be to you and your kingdom. Our values and priorities, our pursuits and passions are to reflect your heart— which is a heart of love for the poor, a heart of justice for the maligned, a heart of compassion for the broken.
Merciful God, there is no peace like the peace you give, for your gift of peace is the gift of yourself. So we pray you again send your Prince of Peace, and have him wrap us in your embrace, comforting us in our fear and sorrow, granting us courage and faith to trust you in every circumstance.
May we abide in you that we might experience the peace that passes all our understanding. It is because we trust in your faithful promise to always watch over us that we can go forth as those who will strive to show your face through our love and our actions.
We ask that you would now listen and hear the prayers of our hearts that we share in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of the one who you sent to us in your image, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”