A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 10, 2019, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, “Becoming Beloved” series.
Text: Luke 6:27a, 31, 37-42
“I’ve seen better eyes on a potato!” I remember that particularly descriptive critique hurled at a referee during one of my high school basketball games. It’s fun and doesn’t cost a thing to sit on the sidelines and criticize what others are doing. Sometimes the critiques might have some merit. In the case of that ref, he did in fact—in a critical moment in a critical game—call a foul on me I know I didn’t commit. But nevertheless, everybody thinks they could do better than the one in the hotseat when they’re sitting in their comfy chair or even their uncomfortable bleacher with no real skin in the game.
It seems a rather persistent human pastime to look out at the people around us and assess, size up, critique, judge. It might be their behavior, their appearance, their leadership or perceived lack thereof, what they say or don’t say…really, we’re generally equal opportunity judgers. And today we get some truth bombs on this subject from Jesus in this next section of the Sermon on the Plain.
Before we get into that, though, a brief recap: Last week, we wandered into Jesus’ sermon, touching on the difficult teaching to love our enemies, to be merciful as God is merciful and to love as God loves. Key questions were “What do you allow your circumstances to do to your heart?” and “How does the state of your heart affect what you ‘do unto others’?” Today’s teaching flows from those “heart questions” that are really at the core of all the wisdom Jesus imparts in this sermon.
Howard Thurman, in his interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, explains that “[Jesus’] message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. ‘To revile because one has been reviled—this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.’ Jesus saw this with almighty clarity. Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.” This focus on the inner attitude is not about disconnecting from the real suffering and injustice of the world, but is rather a way of not being utterly destroyed by it. It is a way of maintaining dignity and agency when everything around you wants to steal or destroy those sacred gifts. Thurman highlights Jesus’ focus on our heart, our “inward center,” as the locus of our primary spiritual work. Regardless of our outward circumstances, we have agency of our inner attitude. Our inner attitude affects our outward response and action.
The thing is, we can be pretty clueless about much of what’s swimming around in our “inward center.” In addition to all the shiny, happy people parts of ourselves we more easily claim, there are old hurts, ingrained, unchecked perspectives, cultural assumptions, deep prejudices, resentment, ignorance, unacknowledged complicities, blinding fears, unmet expectations, regrets, longings and all the rest. There’s a lot going on in there.
So before we start identifying someone else’s limitation or trying to remove another’s “issue,” perhaps, Jesus says, we should do what we can to deal with our own stuff. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
“Know thyself” is an ancient maxim that has been interpreted in loads of ways—some helpful, others less so. For today’s purposes, my translation of “know thyself” from the ancient Greek is “Own your stuff.” A second translation might be, “Find the courage to face some hard truths.” And a third option, “At least try not to be a hypocrite.”
It has been said that truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Why is that? Because some truths about ourselves are icky. This is true for us as a nation, as a church, and as individuals.
Shall we start with our nation? The struggle for the soul of America continues as the realities of our historic brutality against Native peoples, enslaved Africans, and earth’s resources manifest in new ways, ways that come into conflict with the well-worn, white-washed narratives that have allowed us to imagine that we are a nation that truly desires life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. I hope you are aware of the New York Times initiative entitled “The 1619 Project,” whose aim is to examine the legacy of slavery in the United States, timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of the first enslaved people from West Africa. The 1619 Project is a provocative and powerful resource to explore and wrestle with for anyone as yet unaware of big chunks of history that have not been generally acknowledged or taught beyond black churches and schools—and are even now being labeled by imperial powers as propaganda. We as Americans—particularly white Americans—need to own our stuff, have the courage to face hard truths, and at least try not to be hypocrites. And that’s just one place that we as a nation need to tell the truth. Because not telling the truth means death and suffering for beloved children of God, members of our human family, our American family. Other questions we could grapple with include: What do we worship in this country? Are policy decisions made based on the needs of the vulnerable or the common good? What really turns out the vote? How can we as citizens embody a patriotism that honors our highest ideals instead of champions imperial domination? The Rev. Dr. William Barber, II has famously preached about the heart of our nation needing a “moral defibrillator.” Are we willing as a nation to “know ourselves” fully, not just the good—of which there is much—but also the bad and the ugly? I understand this isn’t a feel-good word about our country on this weekend when we honor our veterans. But here’s the thing, I’d rather have our veterans serving and dying for a country that has at least tried to live up to its lofty vision instead of pretending that all our actions are somehow moral just because we overlay them with the Stars and Stripes.
When it comes to “the church,” there is no shortage of things we could consider on the topic of judgmentalism and hypocrisy—just imagine all the “specks” we could identify! But it’s “know thyself” day so I’m going to focus on Foundry. “Becoming Beloved” is our theme this month and it reflects our call to beloved community in the Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. mode. In various ways over many years, Foundry has sought to do the hard work of communal self-awareness, consciousness-raising, and relationship building. This congregation has a long and proud history of social justice advocacy and solidarity. These commitments are at the heart of our shared life. But if we think there isn’t more work to do we aren’t paying attention. And if we truly want to become a fully inclusive, anti-racist, anti-colonial faith community—beloved community!—that will require that we go deeper into our own communal “inward center” to see what gets in the way. Earlier this year results of a congregational survey revealed that in an area that we are known to be “all about”—inclusion—there are concerns that some may not feel included or welcome among us…based on political affiliation, economics, and a variety of other things. How do we truly hold respectful space for persons to have vastly differing theological and political beliefs? This past year, we’ve told again the shameful part of Foundry’s history of full participation in the white supremacist policies of the Methodist Church that led to the formation of Asbury United Methodist Church and John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal, Zion Church. And while we celebrate the relationships and possibility of our current partnership with those churches, there is so much work for us to do to uncover, acknowledge, repent and repair the past and present racism that persists among us. Part of our work in 2020 will be undertaking a significant process to begin that deep work. If we are to be a church that calls for a reformation of the whole UMC as fully inclusive, anti-racist, and anti-colonial, let’s try not to be hypocrites. If we say we love God and love each other, when people walk in our doors, God help us if they don’t see that in flesh. Let’s try not to be hypocrites.
And that of course, leads to our personal lives. We each have to take responsibility for our own stuff, for how we think of others, treat others, speak to others. We need to take advantage of opportunities to learn and to be stretched, to practice receiving information that is painful and uncomfortable, to look honestly at the state of our hearts and seek to uncover the things that try to hide—or that we’ve hidden out of fear or shame or pride.
Many if not most of us are likely intentionally or unintentionally ignoring some stuff in order to feel ok about ourselves or to maintain a narrative about our life we’re comfortable with. Where does racism or colorism hide? Where do we want to deny our personal complicity in the privileges of empire? Where are the unacknowledged gaps between our stated values and our investments of time and money? What does all this do to your heart, to your “inward center”...and to your outward actions?
Years ago, a familiar voice sang the call of the Gospel today in words I imagine many of us still remember:
I'm gonna make a change, For once I'm my life It's gonna feel real good, Gonna make a difference Gonna make it right
[As I, turn up the collar on My favorite winter coat This wind is blowing my mind I see the kids in the streets, With not enough to eat Who am I to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs
I've been a victim of a selfish kind of love It's time that I realize That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan Could it be really me, pretending that they're not alone?]
I'm starting with the man in the mirror I'm asking him to change his ways And no message could have been any clearer If you want to make the world a better place Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
Michael Jackson sang those words; and Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
“Knowing yourself”—owning your own stuff, facing hard truths, and trying not to be a hypocrite—is life-long work. The good news is that Jesus begins his sermon by saying, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” Jesus isn’t saying that your efforts to not judge and condemn will mean other people reciprocate that effort. We know better and so did Jesus. In the teaching, Jesus uses the future passive form of the verbs, indicating that the action here is God’s. When you are trying to be merciful and patient, to refrain from judgy ugliness, God sees you. God knows your heart. God knows when you’re trying. God is merciful. God will not condemn. God loves you.
If you know yourself to be a beloved child of God with inherent dignity and worth you will not need to tear others down in order to build yourself up. If you know yourself to be a beloved child of God, you will know that every other person is God’s beloved, too. If you know yourself to be the beneficiary of an unlimited grace and mercy, you won’t need to deny those gifts to others because you’ll know it’s not a zero-sum game. If deep in your heart you know yourself to be loved by God, you know the most important thing. And that will make all the difference.