Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thin Places

Sermon preached August 26, 2012

Texts: I Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43

I am now in my eighth year as pastor at First UMC, though it is all our first year together as the new First United Methodist Church which includes Chester Park United Methodist Church. Anyway, there were some interesting things I noticed early in my time here. Every so often, I would see vans from florists gather together in our parking lot. I wondered about that. Were these just friends who liked to meet on breaks? I can’t remember if someone told me, or I just figured it out – the florist delivery drivers were meeting to consolidate their work. If Engwalls was headed to church X for a funeral, maybe they could take the flowers from Peterson-Anderson, and vice versa. By the way, I have in no way been compensated for product placement in this sermon!
I also noticed that on Tuesday mornings as people came into the building, the headed right away for the bathrooms. Did they all just have long drives to get here? Tuesdays used to be the Weight Watchers meeting day. It took me awhile to realize what was happening - - - Weight Watchers – weigh-in - bathroom first!
Weight Watchers no longer meets here. They left this spring for a location just above Cold Stone Creamery – sort of the epitome of irony. I trust they have good bathroom facilities in their new location. Yet some might think that Weight Watchers is making a return here. Last Sunday’s sermon was entitled “Just Goes To My Hips” and this Sunday’s is “Thin Places.”
Thin places. This is not a weight loss goal. Marcus Borg describes “thin places” this way. Thin places are places where… we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around and within us…. A thin place is a sacrament of the sacred, a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A thin place is a means of grace. (The Heart of Christianity, 156)
I Kings 8 is about a thin place. It is about the temple Solomon had built for God. It is about the dedication of that temple, and it seems as if it was quite the occasion. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. This is a wild description of a thin place. Solomon, the king, prays. He recalls God’s steadfast love and he prays that the temple, though it cannot really contain God, would always be a thin place. O Lord my God… that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house. Remarkably, Solomon also prays that this thin place would be an inclusive place. When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place.
I want to briefly develop this idea of thin places and then do a little testifying and then wrap up.
The notion that there are “thin places” is rooted in the idea that God is everywhere. There is a technical theological word for this. We say that God is “omnipresent” – present everywhere. Marcus Borg: “Thin places” has its home in a particular way of thinking about God. Deeply rooted in the Bible and the Christian tradition, this way of thinking sees God, “the More,” as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is. God is not somewhere else, but “right here.” (The Heart of Christianity, 155) We hear this in passages like Psalm 139 (The Message): Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, You’d find me in a minute – you’re already there waiting! We hear it in this morning’s text. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
Joan Chittister shares this story from the Islamic Sufi tradition. Once upon a time a Sufi made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a long walk for him and the sun was warm and bright. He had come miles without stopping. Finally, in sight of the mosque at Mecca, sure of the goal now, the old man lay down on the road to rest. Suddenly one of the other pilgrims shook him awake, none too gently. “Wake up,” he commanded. “You blaspheme. You lie in such a way that your feet are pointed toward God in the holy mosque! What kind of Sufi are you?!” The old Sufi opened one eye, smiled just a bit, and said, “I thank you, holy sir. Now if you would be kind enough to turn my feet in some direction where they are not pointed toward God.” (The Breath of the Soul, 63-64)
God is everywhere. God is all around. Yet sometimes, God can feel distant. We can recall the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Jesus used these words on the cross. This is not my focus today, but I don’t want to ignore the reality of this experience in our lives – the dark nights of the soul.
Other times, the God we affirm all around and within us, seems very near, as near as the beating of our hearts or the movement of our breath. That’s what the idea of thin places is all about. Marcus Borg: A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened… a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us (156). Thin places can literally be places, but they can also be moments, those times in our lives when God felt very near, where we knew in our bones, God was deep inside and all around. One of the great pains of a church building closing, is that it has been a thin place for so many over the years. The experiences you had at Chester Park will always be with you, but there is pain that the building won’t be there in the same way. Some of the folks here at First experienced some of that when the congregation moved into this building. The old building on Third and Third West was a thin place, too.
We grieve when our thin places, that are literally places, change or are gone. We can also celebrate the wonderful variety of places and moments that can be thin places. Here is where I want to do some testifying to my own experiences of thin places – places and moments when the God I know in Jesus Christ felt remarkably close and deep within. I share these to celebrate the wonderful grace of God and to help us see the variety of possibilities for thin places.
Driving one night near Itasca State Park, going home to Alexandria from a church conference I pulled to the shoulder and got out of the car for a few moments. The snow was falling heavily, the wind was blowing, and there were no other sounds. I was alone, but knew I wasn’t. Driving to worship in Hawley, Minnesota from Alexandria early on a Sunday morning, I was listening to a tape of John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things,” “Naima,” “A Love Supreme” – and I felt completely surrounded by the beauty of God’s grace. I have been to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota twice on mission trips. There is something about the wide open horizons there, and the rolling hills, and the sense of history that makes that a thin place. Sharing work with others on such trips has often been a thin place, as is shared work at Ruby’s Pantry quite often. The shores of Lake Superior, especially at night when you experience the lake as much through sound as sight, have been a thin place. Worship when United Methodists gather at Annual Conference is often a thin place for me. This past week we welcomed “shut-in” members of our congregation for communion and lunch. God’s grace has often been remarkably present to me in that event. The intention of Sunday worship is that this will often be a thin place for us, I know it is for me, often.
I deeply appreciate how Diana Butler Bass discusses worship in her book, Christianity For the Rest of Us. This is the foundation of worship. If you can take an hour on Sunday morning and open people to experiencing just a quarter-second of awe, wonder, and surrender…. Hospitality, beauty, celebration. Awe, wonder, mystery. Communities making merry…. Every act of worship, no matter how private or public, how discreet or elaborate, enacts God’s dream for the world. By learning to look for it, by opening ourselves to sensing the awe and wonder of the dance, we might glimpse the ripples of God (173, 178). Worship is intended to be a thin place, but there is no magic formula for this. It takes our best thinking and imagining. It takes all of us coming together with open hearts and curious minds.
One last thin place that I would like to testify to and that is words. As I was going to bed Thursday night, I was reading an essay by John Leonard, “Reading for My Life.” Leonard was a long-time book reviewer for various publications and for CBS Sunday Morning. His essay ends this way: So do they all, these writers I’m waving my arms about, these angels made of words. Watch out for them. They give you dreams. I thought about this sermon and all the angels made of words I have known, words that come to me and open me up and create a thin place where God shines more brightly, where God plants God’s dream for the world a little more deeply in my soul. Novelists, essayists, poets, philosophers, theologians have been thin places for me.
Thin places. Where would you testify to having discovered them in your life? We cherish them. We trust that with God, more such places will be created in our lives and in our life together.
How? We pray for open hearts. Marcus Borg rightly suggests that “open hearts” and “thin places” suggest much of what is central to being Christian (149). We pay attention. One poet whose poems have often been thin places for me is Mary Oliver.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
(Red Bird, 37)

We slow down – but more about that next week.
In the meantime, may you be blessed with thin places. Amen.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Just Goes To My Hips

Sermon preached August 19, 2012

Texts: John 6:51-58

You are an astute group of people so I am sure you notice that people tend to have different body types. We tend to carry our weight differently, and if we have some extra, we store it differently. Some folks carry a bit more weight in their legs and hips, some around their mid-section. I tend to carry it in my mid-section, and right now I need to pay some attention to that, lose a little bit here – though it also tends to be the last place I lost weight.
Thinking about that, I recalled in the recesses of my mind the television character Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show – a seventies classic set in Minneapolis. By the way, some of the shows were written by Lorenzo Music, a graduate of Duluth Central High School. Anyone in one episode, Rhoda picks up a piece of candy then says, “I don’t know why I’m eating this. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”

So to some extent, we are what we eat, and we carry what we eat in our unique ways.
In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus encourages a certain kind of eating. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…. Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…. The one who eats this bread will live forever.
Let’s be honest, this is puzzling and even disturbing. One hears echoes of the recent fascination with vampires – weird creatures who feast on blood and who continue to live though dead in some way. Such creatures may make for entertaining movies and books, but what might the Gospel reading be trying to say to us? Surely there is more than entertainment intended.
In approaching this passage of Scripture, I think it is important that we remind ourselves of the importance of symbolic language in Scripture and religion. The well-known religious scholar Huston Smith considers “metaphor, symbolism and myth” indispensable - - - “they are religions ‘technical language.’” (The Huston Smith Reader, 99-100). John Sanford, writing about the Gospel of John, says this: In order to understand what the Fourth Gospel means by images such as that of the living bread, we must be open to wider spiritual vistas. If our minds can think only literally, if we have refused any insight into ourselves, if our only means of perception are through the physical senses, if we become theologically and psychologically rigid, then we cannot appreciate the tremendous subtlety and variety of the images of Christ that we find in John’s Gospel. (Mystical Christianity, 166)
Most of us would be willing to grant that the language of Jesus here is symbolic and metaphoric. We find precedence for it in the religious tradition of Jesus. Proverbs 9:5-6, the voice of wisdom: Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight. Jesus takes this image and makes it more personal. There is where it gets more challenging. “Eat me,” Jesus says, and in our day and time that kind of language is an expression of anger. I would not want to have that on our church sign as the sermon title.
The symbolic language Jesus is using evokes intimacy, a kind of union. We eat food and it goes to our hips or our stomachs. We take Jesus in, and Jesus wants to go to our hearts, our minds, our souls. Writing about this text, United Methodist bishop Will Willimon penned these words: Ah, wouldn’t the Christian faith be easier if it were a matter of mere belief or intellectual assent! No, today’s rather scandalously carnal, incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. His truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being. (Feasting On the Word)
Sweets may just go to our hips. Jesus wants to go to our core and to every nook and cranny of our lives. He desires that his love, his compassion, his passion for God and God’s dream for the world permeate us, and nourish us. Jesus wants us to have life that is real life.
When I read this gospel text I cannot help but think about the book many of us read last fall, Sara Miles Take This Bread. Its beginning captures the spirit of Jesus words in John 6. One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed bread to others, and then I kept going. (xi)
Jesus wants to do that in each of our lives: feed our deepest hungers, become part of our lives, bring us together with others, help us carry his presence into the world. We know what it is like to feel hungry, and most of us are fortunate that we do not experience that hunger for long because we have the means to satisfy it. As human beings, we have deeper hungers. The poet Carl Sandburg wrote that “There are hungers/for a nameless bread” (“Timesweep” in Collected Poems, 758). We hunger for meaning. We hunger for connection. We hunger for direction. We hunger for acceptance. We hunger for forgiveness. We hunger for love. John Sanford (Mystical Christianity), 163: Healthy souls… yearn for the inner food that nourishes spiritual health. But the process is also reversed; the healthy spiritual food has the power to cure the soul of its ills. In Jesus we find healthy food for our souls – food that nourishes our deepest hungers and cures us of our ills.
So how do we take Jesus in, let him go to our hearts, our minds, our souls? We take Jesus in as we worship, and for Christians that symbolic taking in at communion is particularly powerful. We take Jesus in through prayer. We take Jesus in through Scripture reading. We take Jesus in as we commit ourselves to the Jesus way in the world – the way of love, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion. The list of how we take Jesus in is important. Yet letting Jesus into the depth of our lives is what matters, and that is more than going through the motions. Finally we know that we are taking Jesus into our lives, when our lives have that quality about them that Jesus called eternal life. Eternal life is less about living forever than it is about living with the eternal spirit of Jesus always. We get some sense for how well we are taking Jesus in when we look at what our lives are putting out.
Anne Lamott shares this story in her book Bird By Bird. An eight-year old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained this to him, and said that his blood could be a good match. Could they test his blood? The boy agreed. The test revealed that he was a good match and could be the blood donor. His parents asked him if he would be willing to donate a pint of blood, that it could be the only chance his sister had of living. The boy said he would have to think about it overnight.
The next day to boy went to his parents to say that he was willing to donate his blood for his sister. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see what he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?” (205).
Eat the living bread that is Jesus. Take him into your life. Let us take him into our life together. Let’s take Jesus in, letting him go into our hearts, our minds, our souls, into every nook and cranny of who we are – as individuals and as this community of faith, this family of faith. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will love extravagantly. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will shine brightly. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will show extraordinary compassion.
Taking Jesus in, letting his love touch the world through us, our deepest hungers are fed by the bread of life and we know eternal life. Amen

Friday, August 17, 2012

Genuine Imitation

Sermon preached August 12, 2012

Texts: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Genuine Imitation - An odd combination of words. I googled the phrase just to see what might be out there. I found out that some other preacher entitled one of his sermons “genuine imitation.” I had already published the title so I did not feel I was plagiarizing. I watched part of the sermon, and I know I am not plagiarizing. That preacher noted that “genuine imitation” is an oxymoron – a combination of two words whose meanings don’t go together well or even contradict one another. He chose some other examples – jumbo shrimp, fresh frozen. Then he went for cheap laughs where he would have been better not to go. He said airline food was an oxymoron, as was hospital food and British food. He said his favorite oxymoron was female driver. I did not watch any more. There was no genuine imitation about this YouTube preacher, he was genuinely tactless.
When I think of genuine imitation I think of something that is cheap and tawdry, something best sold on late night television where one says “gen – u – wine imi – ta – tion – jewelry, furs, leather. Googling “genuine imitation” I came across a picture from Turkey, a stand selling genuine imitation watches.
Genuine imitation need not apply only to things. People can come across as genuine imitation – implying a disconnect between the inner and outer person, a certain phoniness in life. I discovered that the Four Seasons in 1969 released an album of social commentary which included a song entitled “Genuine Imitation Life.” Four Seasons – social commentary - - - that’s almost an oxymoron.
Not every use of the words genuine imitation has to do with something being cheap, tawdry or phony. Kansas University as a glee club called Genuine Imitation because they seek to provide artistically sound covers of others songs. Nothing wrong with genuine imitation there. I also encountered an article on line entitled “Genuine Imitation.” The article was part of a book - Social Learning in Animals and a rather quick scan revealed that it was about the bidirectional control effect in laboratory guinea pigs and rats. I don’t intend to go into detail, but the point of the paper was rather interesting. The author was trying to argue for the importance of genuine imitation as a tool for learning.
Well we are not lab rats or guinea pigs. Yet today’s Scripture reading encourages us to engage in genuine imitation. “Be imitators of God.” Here we have an invitation, a challenge to a unique kind of genuine imitation, the imitation of God. “Be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved us.” I really appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders these verses in The Message. Watch what God does, and then you do it…. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant…. Love like that.
In the article on the lab rats and guinea pigs, the author argued that genuine imitation is learning to do an act from seeing it done. That is what we are being invited to here, genuine imitation. Watch what God does. Mostly what God does is love. Love like that.
What might that mean for us? The other parts of the Scripture we read help us know a bit more about what loving like God is like. So let’s explore some of that.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Eugene Peterson renders that last line this way – “say only what helps, each word a gift.” Well, there goes about 90% of the campaign advertising industry.
Loving like God has something to do with our speaking, our words. We strive for words that give grace. We want each word to be a gift. Words matter, and we need not look far to see this. Race continues to be a difficult discussion in our society. Some argue we are past this, but then a news director posts this on Facebook: “add drunk, homeless Native American man to the list of animals that have wandered into my yard” and he ends up resigning his position. Or a person fueled by racial hatred enters a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and begins shooting, killing six people. Race is an issue for us, and sometimes we need to be nudged into the difficult discussions. At the same time the words used to nudge can themselves become a stumbling block for conversation. How do we balance our need to be pushed a little with encouragement to enter into the discussion? Trying to love like God means seeking to find words that give grace, that are a gift, even when, especially when, the topic is tough. And when we find our words are not giving grace, we try other words.
Loving like God has something to do with working with our anger. “Be angry but do not sin.” Those may be some of the more challenging words in all the Bible. Anger has its place. It is ok to feel angry when some guy in the name of the “white race” shoots up a religious temple. It is ok to feel angry when in the name of Islam, people fly planes into buildings, or when in the name of Christianity, some person decides to burn Korans. I think we need to know this, however. Anger can be appropriate, and it is always dangerous. There was a time when people were encouraged to stuff their anger, to ignore it, but that wasn’t very helpful. So people were encouraged to vent their anger, but studies have found that people who vent their anger aggressively tend to get angrier, and aggressively expressed anger tends to engender angry responses from others.
So what do we do? If loving like God has something to do with working on our anger then maybe we need to do some work. There are situations in which anger is an appropriate response, then we need to ask how we use that energy constructively to make change where we can. Sometimes our anger has to do with stuff inside of us that we have to work through, and we need to do that work. If you find yourself getting disproportionately angry in a situation, ask what else is going on in you. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Anger, at its best, should be a temporary fuel for making change, not a permanent motivation or a pervasive stance toward life.
Loving like God means this: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Peterson: “Be gentle with one another, sensitive.” Again, pretty challenging words for us, especially in a culture that seems enamored with toughness and competitiveness. Maybe we need to be able to discover what it means to love fiercely and gently, and to cultivate a tough tenderness.
These few words from Ephesians challenge us all mightily. Be genuine imitators of God. Watch what God does and love like that. As I have been thinking about these words this week, I have also been thinking about their being addressed to a community, like ours. These words were written to a Jesus community in a place called Ephesus. We hear them in a Jesus community called First United Methodist Church, Duluth. I think that makes a difference.
We hear them as a worshipping community, and we gather for worship to remind ourselves of God’s love. Watch what God does. Part of doing that is gathering here to celebrate God’s love. Worship matters because it reminds us regularly of God’s love and of the challenge we have to love like that. Author Marilynne Robinson says that one of the great gifts of community is to give us “a sense of the possible” (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 22-23). Worship gives us a sense of what is possible with a God who loves us and wants to love the world through us.
Community also matters because here we can work on loving with each other. This is a place where we encourage each other to grow in love, and we know that we won’t always succeed. We are gentle with each other, sensitive, kind. We help each other learn what it means to love like God so that when we leave this place, we can continue such loving.
Watch what God does. Mostly what God does is love. Love like that. Be genuine imitators of God. There is nothing fake or cheap or tawdry about that. It is the challenge of a life time. It is our challenge together. Amen.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

Sermon preached August 5, 2012

Texts: II Samuel 11:26-12:15a

I am still in re-entry mode from our vacation, and that is a good thing. It means we genuinely vacationed. Thanks to all of you for your graciousness in making that possible. Thanks to Velda and all the music staff. Thanks to Linda for all her work in pastoral care. Special thanks to Anne Miller and Kevin Walsh for preaching and leading worship the past two Sundays.
So when you come back from vacation you should be rested and refreshed, and I am. This morning’s sermon probably should have a happy go lucky feel. It will not, though it will have good news because that is the essence of the Christian message – good news.
While we were on vacation we saw a lot of beauty – Niagara Falls, all the Great Lakes. We were not isolated from the news, though. The day my vacation began was the day of the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado. There has been some scandal at the Olympics as badminton teams sought to lose early matches to achieve a more favorable later match-up. Penn State received its sanctions for its poor handling of the sexual abuse perpetrated by their former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The Aurora and Sandusky matters are particularly maddening and saddening.
One of the most insightful comments I read about the Penn State matter was penned by William Falk, editor-in-chief of The Week. Writing about the Sandusky scandal, and in particular about how so many had believed football coach Joe Paterno would be exonerated, when he was not, Falk said: Let’s not smugly conclude that only the Penn State community could be so blind – that hubris and self-delusion are confined to Paterno’s Happy Valley. The same, boundless capacity for denial lies within every one of us. Social psychologists have various terms for the tricks the mind plays on itself: cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning. Human beings are not, at our cores, rational creatures. We’re tribal and emotional, and fiercely defend our deeply held beliefs; we look for evidence and arguments that confirm what we already think, while ignoring or rejecting that which does not.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? To that question we are willing to have our own face in the mirror. But if we ask about difficulties and problems, we are much better at pointing the mirror at others, seeing other faces when we think about the world’s problems, or about problems in our own lives. They are out there. Someone else is at fault. We have a boundless capacity for denial.
And this is an old, old story. David was king. He was a successful leader. He had it all, and he wanted more. He wanted the beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. To get her, the king was even willing to put Uriah in harms way in battle – and Uriah dies. Bathsheba becomes David’s wife. No one seems the wiser, and in his own mind, perhaps, David has even found justification for his actions. The human mind has a boundless capacity for self-justification, and for denial. Today we heard the rest of the story.
The prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him a story, the story of another – of a wealthy man who takes advantage of a poor man. The king is outraged. The rich man has had no pity and deserves a sharp penalty for his behavior. What injustice is perpetrated out there. What cruelty others are capable of. The mirror turns. It is David’s face in it as Nathan tells him “You are the man!”
Sometimes we are the problem. Not all the ills of the world are somebody else’s doing. Not all the problems in our lives are to be blamed on others. Sometimes we need to look in the mirror and say, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who messed up this time?” and know that sometimes it will be us.
The final night of my vacation, we were opening some windows in the house as the air seemed to be turning a little bit cooler. One of the windows seemed to be sliding funny, and I remembered that we had had a bit of a problem with it a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough, there was a piece out of place, windows we had installed in the house about four years ago were not working right. There was a problem, and my mind raced ahead to make it even bigger. “Can’t a vacation end without a problem?” “Why does it always seem one thing after another?” Blah, blah, blah. Now there was a bigger problem – me, and while the window contributed to that problem – mirror, mirror, I was a big part of my own problem. I am really good at this kind of thing, and, thankfully, over the years, I have come to recognize that and can often short circuit the downward spiral.
Not everything wrong in our lives and the world is our fault, to be sure. We had nothing to do with shootings in Colorado, nor with abuse at Penn State, or with throwing matches at the Olympics. Not everything wrong in our lives and the world is our fault, but some things are, or we contribute to making them worse, and when I read this story about David, I hear in it an invitation from the Spirit for honest self-reflection. Are we willing to look at our lives to see where there are things that need changing? Can we admit where we are not who we would like to be – at least in some respects, at least some of the time?
The purpose of this sermon is not to depress us or to denigrate us. Feeling bad isnt’t the point. Courageous self-awareness, courageous self-reflection, being willing to admit where we have fallen short serves important purposes in our lives and in our life with each other and with Jesus. I can think of three.
Such self-reflection helps us acknowledge our need for forgiveness and our need to forgive ourselves. Theologian Lewis Smedes writes, Without honesty, self-forgiveness is psychological hocus-pocus…. We need honest judgment to keep us from self-indulging complacency (Forgive and Forget, 97). It begins with honesty, but moves forward from there. Therapist Jack Kornfield: Finding a way to extend forgiveness to ourselves is one of our most essential tasks…. Without such mercy, we will live our own life in exile (Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 33). We need to be able to forgive ourselves, and when we do there is a certain profound mystery to it all. Lewis Smedes: To forgive yourself is to act out the mystery of one person who is both forgiver and forgiven. You judge yourself: this is the division within you. You forgive yourself: this is the healing of the spirit. That you should dare to heal yourself by this simple act is a signal to the world that God’s love is a power within you (104-105).
Courageous self-reflection and courageous self-awareness helps foster gentleness and humility toward ourselves and others. It takes a lot of hard energy to keep up the front that we are never wrong, never in need of forgiveness. Humility and gentleness are much better uses of our spiritual energy. When Paul writes in Romans 3 “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” he is not really making a general statement. I remember a small Baptist church in Pengilly, Minnesota that put Paul’s words on the outside of their church and I always wondered if their strategy for that was to say to passers-by – “You are pretty awful so you better come to our church.” Paul made his statement in the course of a longer argument where Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church were disputing about who was worse. Paul’s response was that all of us have messed up and fallen short. Let’s show a little humility and gentleness. All of this is not to say that some things are not worse than others. Relative judgments of better and worse are important. Yet none of us is blameless. Let’s show a little humility and gentleness.
Finally courageous self-reflection and courageous self-awareness helps us grow. If we don’t see where we fall short, if we can’t look at our failings, how will we grow? Recognizing that my mind can quickly spiral downward has helped me to work on ways to catch myself. I don’t always succeed and need to ask for forgiveness and forgive myself, but I have grown.
See, we begin where we are in our lives with Jesus, in our spiritual journey with God. And we trust that everywhere we are God welcomes us. God forgives us. God empowers us to grow, to change, to be different, and then to make a difference in the world. Here is how David is remembered. He died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor (I Chronicles 29:28). We begin where we are. God welcomes. God forgives. God empowers for growth and change. Good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.