A Sermon on Privacy

         Today’s lessons give us two very different images of men who are secluded.  Elijah the Tishbite, on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, hides in a cave on Mt. Horeb.  A man from Geras inhabits the tombs outside the village because his seizures make him unfit to live with the other Gerasenes.  Both men have been driven out from society.  Both men are alone, terribly alone.

      I was thinking about these lonely figures from scripture this week and I found myself meditating on their alone-ness in part, I believe, because privacy has become a focus these past weeks.  I suspect you’ve been thinking about privacy have as well.  In light of recent revelations about corporate practices and government surveillance, It has been hard to avoid thinking about, worrying about, wondering at privacy.

In the midst of these thoughts we encounter these two men from scripture, alone.  So today, I want to meditate a bit about privacy.  I can’t pretend that these thoughts are complete, that I comprehensively cover the topic “privacy” in a sermon.  What I offer are a few meditations where my own thoughts have been developing, in part inspired by the stories of Elijah and the Gerasene man.

My first thought:  Privacy is about more than “being left alone.”

On the face of it, privacy seems simple.  In 1890 Louis Brandeis defined the “right to privacy,” famously as “the right to be let alone.”  Seems simple, but defining privacy is very complex.  I think much of our public debate about “privacy” has been problematic, because we have not flushed out what we mean by “privacy.”

If the right to privacy is “the right to be let alone,” were the Gerasenes concerned about their fellow citizen’s privacy?  Were they simply “letting him alone?”  I don’t think so.

What do we mean by privacy, by “the right to privacy?” The right to privacy is a relatively new thought in our culture.  The first publication in the United States about a “right to privacy” was Brandeis’ essay in 1890.  Wanting to understand privacy, I went back and read Brandeis’ whole essay.  It’s only a few pages.  The essay made me wish Brandeis was still on the Supreme Court today.

      What Brandeis discusses as a right to privacy, what he means by privacy is really more robust than simply being left alone.  We have a right to be left alone, because on the flip side, we’re meant to USE the right FOR something.  In Brandeis’ mind “the right to privacy” creates a space within our lives, apart from the obligations of society, apart from work, apart from important responsibilities.  The right to privacy, in other words, in Brandeis’ words, is a right “to enjoy life.”  I’m not an attorney, this essay is admittedly out of my regular reading circles, but it sounds like he’s talking about “sabbath.”  Privacy and sabbath are related.

      I haven’t heard much about the “right to enjoy life” in the debates about privacy in the media in these past few weeks, but I think filling in the space, talking about what privacy is FOR is important.  Privacy does not mean we are entirely free from Government.  Privacy does not mean the government is kept entirely out of our business.  As much as I wish it were different, I have to tell the IRS how much money I make, so that I can be taxed.  Privacy does not cover our right to plan and execute a crime.

      Privacy is meant to serve as a buffer, as a limit.  Having privacy means that we are not so burdened with responsibilities of reporting to our government, or our employers, or the press, that we do not have time to “enjoy life.”  We don’t have to share everything on Facebook for our friends to “like.”  We have a right to some space for ourselves, free from scrutiny, free from obligations, to simply enjoy being alive.

      In this sense, the Gerasene man has no privacy.  His public shame has removed any ability for him to enjoy life.  He has been set apart from society, but not to have space in his life to enjoy.  He is alone because his suffering became too public, and he was shunned.

My second thought: We are the stewards of our own privacy

      In 1890 Brandeis was worried that our right to privacy was at risk because those newfangled “instant cameras” meant that our picture-portrait might end up in the paper, without our permission.  Imagine what he would make of Facebook.  We have rushed head first into the digital age, and I hope all this hype about privacy lately means something.  I hope that we have come to a space where we can pause and reflect.  I hope there are public hearings about the Government’s surveillance programs, yes, but safeguarding our privacy is about more than what the government does.

      Safeguarding privacy means deciding, actively, how much of our lives we want to hand over.  One of the biggest invasions of privacy, in my estimation, is the smart phone.  Not just because GPS technology means that the world can find out where you have taken those pictures on Instagram.  Carrying a smart phone means that your private life can be interrupted at any minute by an email from work, or a text message.  How many of us feel phantom vibrations even when our phone isn’t in our pocket?

      We have gone from a society where a precious few were constantly “on call,” doctors, policemen, firefighters, to a world of smart phone owners who are never free from work.  My sister recently told me that she switched the settings on her phone, so that she has to actively check her email.  In her words, “I’d rather check my email then have my email check me.”

      How do you create space for privacy?  Many of us in this congregation are in high power jobs, where deadlines matter.  But the constant barrage of “being on call” puts me in the mind of Elijah in that cave, looking for God’s presence.  In our world, in our jobs, there are always fires, there are always storms, there are always earthquakes.  But we hear in Scripture that we don’t find God in constant disaster preparedness.  How do we make room for the “still small voice” of God? For the sheer silence?

Elijah in the cave

My third thought: Privacy is important, in part, because it tells us something about God.

      The priest, at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist, speaks a prayer that is a little unsettling.  “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” The prayer is unsettling: no secrets are hid.  God knows us, even better than the NSA.

      There is no privacy before God and this can feel unsettling, but in fact, it is liberating, in the way that unburdening your secrets to a trusted friend is liberating.  God knows us, deeply, fully.

In the words of Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

               you discern my thoughts from far away.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

              O LORD, you know it completely.

Where can I go from your spirit?

                   Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I take the wings of the morning

               and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

               and your right hand shall hold me fast.

I like to call Psalm 139 the “Runaway Bunny” psalm, from the children’s story about the little bunny who tells his mother he will run away, and his mother assures him that if he runs away, she will follow.   The principle is the same. God pursues us. God is present to us. God is always with us.  God knows us better than our family, better than our lovers, better than we know ourselves.

The story from Luke’s Gospel is particularly compelling, because of the interaction between Jesus and this obviously disturbed man.  The text tells us he has been naked for awhile, having torn off his clothes in a fit.  He breaks through the chains and guards that his fellow citizens regularly use to restrain him, and rushes into the wilderness.  He terrifies his fellow villagers, and yet, and yet, Jesus sees through the terror.  This is one of those stories where Jesus knows someone, knows the person deeply.  Jesus knows this man better than his neighbors know him. Jesus knows him better than the possessed man knows himself, and Jesus is able to call forth the man from among the legion of demons.

In privacy, we receive who we really are.  Privacy is about safeguarding a space in our lives where we can listen for the still small voice of the one who knows us, of the one who created us, safeguarding a space to receive who we are, in the way this man receives his identity from Jesus.

Privacy is difficult to define, but is about more than being left alone.  Privacy is about having space in our lives, free from obligations, free from the need to share, free from interruptions.  Having Space to enjoy, and to receive from God who we really are, to receive our identity not from government approval, not from praise from our superiors at work, to receive our identity not from the validation of a Facebook like.

Privacy is about having space where we can hear that still small voice that comes AFTER all of our fires and earthquakes, and lets us know that the one who knows us, better than Facebook, better than the NSA, that God who knew us when we were being knit in our mother’s womb, God loves us, all of us, all our desires, all our secrets.  God invades our privacy to let us know we are loved.  God invades our privacy to call us to be who we truly are.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “A Sermon on Privacy

  1. Mike–I have a slightly different take. Jesus again the th Great Healer. He healed this man’s mind. May the mind of Christ Jesus be always in us–especially those of us in the “second half” of life(or double overtime in my case). Oh for the gift of what John Harper called a “quiet mind”.


    PS I caught the references to John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn:)

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