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.

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