Proper 7 - Year A (Pentecost 3)
One evening several weeks ago, I read a story in the Chatham Courier about a resident’s objections to some public art in Chatham
and his desire that the Borough have it removed. The Council vote on it was tied, so the Mayor cast the deciding vote, siding with the homeowner to have the artwork covered over with gray paint. I got inexplicably -- and unwarrantedly – upset about this, and, armed by too much to drink and too little self-restraint, l went to the Courier website, and I wrote me a Letter to the Editor. In the letter, I hurled a barrage of angry insults at the homeowner, whom I do not know, for his anti-art stance. I had a few words for the mayor, too -- you know, the one we pray for by name each week as part of the Prayers of the People. I said he was a jerk for having sided with the homeowner. Satisfied that I had gotten everything I had to say off my chest, I clicked on the “submit” button. And off the letter went.
And so began the nightmare.
Oh my, I realized, once the letter had gone out into the ether and beyond my grasp, they might publish it. Oh… My….
That the letter read like an infantile rant was embarrassing enough, but for me it was much more than that. In the letter, I betrayed my civic values. Here I am, someone who has long bemoaned our loss of civility in public discourse, and prayed that we, as a nation, might regain the ability to hear the views of those with whom we disagree without demonizing them. And there I was, reduced to name-calling by some petty local issue that impacted me only tangentially, if at all. And I betrayed my Christian values. We are meant to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world. We vow in our Baptismal covenant – which, if I recall correctly, we had just renewed at a Sunday baptism around that time -- to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. But this letter evinced no effort whatsoever to see Christ in those involved and no love for neighbor. And it could accomplish only the exact opposite of what Christ would want.
The tone and content of the letter was so uncharacteristic of who I mean to be, and think I usually am, that I had to believe that when the game show host asks, “Will the real Joe LaVela please stand?”, it wouldn’t be the guy who wrote that letter who gets up. I had to believe that. But I also could not deny that I did indeed write that letter. And I feared the judgment of others if it were published. Would people think less of me for having written such a venomous letter? Among those who thought they knew me, would I be branded a hypocrite who preaches one thing and does another?
And so, I spent the coming weeks nervously on edge wondering whether the Courier would publish the letter. On more than one evening, I tossed and turned for what seemed an eternity before falling asleep, only to wake up at 3 or 4 AM, agitated with a sense of impending doom.
I eagerly checked the next edition of the paper as soon as it arrived. There were lots of letters endorsing one primary candidate or another, but my letter was not there. Good news. But then I thought maybe they just didn’t have room for it this time with all the election coverage, and are saving it for next week. And so, I waited anxiously a week for the next edition, and, happily, again no letter. And the following week, same thing, lots of letters, but not mine. At that point, I finally decided that the nightmare was over, it was not going to be published.
And that could have been the end of it. No one in the world would have known about that unfortunate letter except me, the Courier staff person who received it, and Rev. Mary to whom I had along the way acknowledged my inner turmoil.
So why in heaven’s name not just leave it there, instead of shining a spotlight on it here from the pulpit? Here’s why: Because this is not the first time I went through this kind of fear of being “found out”, and I know it won’t be the last. I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only one here who has had this kind of experience. So, I think it’s worth talking about, even if there’s a personal cost. And, I believe that today’s Gospel reading has some reminders that can be useful for episodes like this.
Let me say a bit more about what I mean by experiences “like this”. My daily routine did not change during those worrisome weeks. I saw my usual friends and acquaintances, including many of you. But I am pretty sure that at no point was anyone – anyone -- aware of how often during those weeks I found myself shaking under a cloud of dread.
Looking back, I am not completely sure whether I was more concerned about people knowing about the shameful letter to the Courier, or about revealing how much it had me rattled. We’re conditioned, especially in a town like this, to project an image of having everything together, that we’re smart, and competent, that we know what we’re doing and have everything under control, that we’ve got life nailed. More often than we probably care to admit, though, we may in fact be dealing with problems and struggles that worry us night and day. Sometimes, as in the case of my letter to the Courier, it is something bad, or even sinful, we have done for which we have no valid excuse and that may have consequences. But, more often, I’d guess, what we don’t want others to see is just that things in our lives aren’t as rosy as we’d like, that we may be straining under the weight of a job at risk, excessive credit card debt, or tensions in our marriages or other relationships. Or, perhaps, just the worry that we won’t be able to keep up with all the demands that life keeps piling on us, and the corresponding fear that we’re about to find out that when we weren’t paying attention, the dust “bunnies”– both tangible and figurative – under our beds and sofas grew into big raccoons.
Underlying all of this, I think, is buying into a value system that too often has us measure our worth by what others think, or what we think others think, of us. And we do not want to put any holes into the image we’ve so studiously put forward for their approval.
Jesus, though, points to a different way. He wants us to know, first, that we are valued by God. Even the hairs of our head are counted, he says, in today’s Gospel reading. We matter to God. He values us. More than the birds of the sky. In every detail.
And just as we are more valued by God than other parts of creation, so, too, must we value our relationship with God more than we value our other relationships. Today’s Gospel reading contains some of Jesus’s most famously difficult words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” I cannot, and do not intend even to try, to do justice to that passage today. That’s a different sermon, and probably someone else’s. But I can say that a core of its message is that our relationship with God must take precedence over anything else. As Jesus says later in this passage, whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than Him is not worthy of Him. A corollary of that is that we should not put more weight on their favorable judgment and approval than on that of God. The fundamental source of our sense of worth should come from the knowledge that God loves us and values us no matter what. Anything else is gravy.
But if even family should not be more important to us than God, then how must less should the opinions and approvals of the amorphous “they” matter? Do not fear them, Jesus says in today’s Gospel. His context was different: Jesus was speaking of those who malign His disciples because of their faith. But the bottom line is still the same: do not fear those who might malign us, do not worry about the negative judgments of others.
A few clarifications are in order.
First, by saying that we should not base our sense of worth on what other people think, I am not by any means suggesting that community is not important. Community is vital to our lives as Christians. It is in community that we find mutual support that helps us to mature in our faith and to weather our difficulties. It is foremost in community where we practice, and experience, the love that Jesus taught us to show to our neighbors. That is how we grow into the full stature of Christ; it is not something we do instead.
Second, I am not saying that how we treat others does not matter, that we can do whatever we want to our fellow man because, who cares what they think. We are called to love one another. As we heard in the excerpt from the Catechism today, “all people are worthy of respect and honor, because all are created in the image of God.” We owe that. And when we have wronged our fellow child of God, we should make amends. But here again the focus is not on what the other person thinks of us.
We make up for the wrongs we have done because it is the right and loving thing to do. If our motivation is to gain their approval so we can feel better about ourselves, then it is no amends at all.
Third, I do not mean in any way to minimize our very real struggles. Cases like my recent Courier experience are easy – it was totally of my own making, and the only thing – the only thing – at stake was protection of my own reputation and image. That’s nothing compared to struggles people right in this town may face with addiction, unmanageable debt, an unraveling marriage and the like. These are real problems that merit serious concern and that no glib platitude of faith can just make disappear. But faced with real problems like that, worrying about what other people will think only adds to the burden without helping things one bit. And any energy we put into keeping up appearances only means that there’s that much less energy left for constructive action.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” If we are coming from a place of fear of being “found out” how messed up our lives, or we ourselves, may be, those can sound like scary words. The last thing we want to hear in that case is that everything we’ve tried to keep under wraps will be uncovered and every secret we’ve kept will be known. But, really, it’s good news: We don’t have to worry about it. We can let go of that fear. God already knows, and He values us still. When we are facing difficulties that hit us despite our best intentions and earnest efforts, it does not mean that God has rejected us or that He loves us any less. And even if what’s underlying our fears is something we’ve done wrong solely through our own fault, nothing is irredeemable with God. We can acknowledge our fault and accept God’s forgiveness. This is freedom.
God’s love is unwavering. God’s forgiveness is always available. Anyone else’s opinions about us are not worth losing sleep over.
You know, I’m going to repeat that to make sure that I get it: God’s love is unwavering. God’s forgiveness is always available. Anyone else’s opinions about us are not worth losing sleep over.
And if I ever do forget that, I pray that I’ll recognize that something’s amiss, and have the good sense to sit down and write me another letter. To myself this time, attaching a copy of this sermon.