6 July 2014 sermon — Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!

“Who’s Your Mirror?”

6 July – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first:  Matthew 11:16-19 (NRS)

I’m so glad Jesus could recognize in his day one of the biggest traps in our own: expectations. “To what shall I compare this generation,” he’s recorded as saying (Mt. 11:16).  John the Baptist was an extremist among them, eating no food and taking no drink. And what happened? They rejected him because they expected something else. Here comes Jesus among them eating and drinking and enjoying life with those commonly cut off. And what happened? They reject him because they expected something else. That’s the problem with such social expectations. Even if we tried, no one can live up to them. Not even Jesus himself. He called that from the start.

I’m not trying to say we should throw them out entirely. Some expectations are good and helpful. It’s not a bad thing to expect each other to be kind and honest and forgiving. We Christians expect that of one another because we believe God expects it of us. Imagine life together in the church if we all held grudges against each other, and lied, and were as grouchy as could be stomping around here like we didn’t care one bit about each others’ toes. None of us want to be a part of that. Besides, the body of Christ is supposed to be a little bit more like Christ than that. The problem comes when we start living our lives according to the expectations of others. You know what I mean. It can feel as helpless as being chained to a solid brick wall with a hundred-ton train speeding right in our direction. When we look to fulfill all the expectations of others, aren’t we often left like an out-of-control spinning top? Do it one way, the critics never are happy. Try it the opposite, they don’t like that either. We’re left constantly wasting our energy on what others’ think. How they will react. Will they approve of us or not? Will we get their blessing if we try it their way or not? It’s absolutely exhausting!

Perhaps I should couch these thoughts in the reality of human development. We have to remember that it’s part of the natural journey of life that we look to the expectations of those outside of us. It’s the stage of life called puberty. The time when we start becoming more aware that we are being seen by others. Peers are so very important during our teen years because it is only through mirrors that we can see ourselves. In other words, during this stage of human development, we know ourselves through how others see us. We’re in the middle with all eyes on us and we’re looking back at them to see how they see us. If our goofy sophomoric pranks are accepted by the friends around us, we’ll keep at them. If the group around us isn’t impressed, we’re shamed into letting it go. We all experience this part of life. It’s just that we’re supposed to live through that. A healthy self, thanks to this stage of life, will grow into self-definition. Self-assurance, where what others think of us won’t drive how we live our lives as much as it once did because our true selves have emerged. Our internal authority, known in psychological circles as the executive ego, will become our guide.

About a year or so ago, I discovered fascinating, incredibly freeing research. It is the life work of a social worker named Brené Brown. She tells about it all in the books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Grately. And just in case you’re too busy to read because you’re stuck doing a thousand things expected by others, you could take a mere twenty minutes to listen to it all in her Ted talks at Ted.com/the power of vulnerability and listening to shame. As a PhD in Social Work, Brown spent ten years of her life interviewing thousands of people. She was at it not just to make some contribution to human well-being, but more so to find a way to live her own life free from the crushing demands of others’ expectations, which left her constantly striving to fit in – always feeling like she never was or did enough. What Brown discovered through her research is that shame runs rampant in our culture. So many are locked in it primarily because we do not believe ourselves worthy of love. It’s kinda like we’re listening to the wrong voice: looking in the wrong mirror. Brown also discovered something else; something called wholehearted living – which just so happens to be the basis for lives of courage, compassion, and connection. . . . I love Brown’s list of what she found in her research that rang true in her own life. And in the light of Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel, I’m pretty sure he’d make the same list. That those who believe themselves worthy of love and belonging – in other words, those who turn to God’s mercy instead of being trapped in the world’s expectations. Those folks live lives brimming with rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, joy, gratitude, and creativity. What a wonderful way to live! . . . Those stuck in shame, who doubt God’s mercy and keep on looking to others for their mirrors, have lives dripping with the drive for perfectionism, always needing to fit in, participating in behavior that numbs themselves, standing aloof in constant certainty, self-sufficiency, and harsh judgment of self and others. Living stuck in that sense of never enough, which we call scarcity (Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, Hazelden, 2010, IBooks). . . . The difference in these two ways of life has to do with which direction we turn for our mirror: towards the world, or towards something else. When we stand securely on the truth that we are God’s – all of us. Precious. Valuable. Made in God’s image for connection and ones in whom God’s Spirit dwells. When we know ourselves and everyone else loved fully by God, things like perfectionism, self-sufficiency, and judgment of ourselves and others fall by the wayside. We stop looking to all the expectations of others to define and direct the living of our lives. When we stand secure that we are precious to God, we are free to live courageously – compassionate with ourselves and others, and truly able to connect with God, self, and everyone else.

I think that’s why Jesus says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Don’t listen to this generation that won’t accept whichever way you live. Look to me as your mirror – not everyone else. . . . The translation of scripture entitled The Message, puts Jesus’ words this way: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out . . . ? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message, Eugene Peterson, Mt. 11:28-30). Isn’t that beautiful? Free from that heavy burden of looking to everyone else’s expectations about who we are and how we should live our lives. Come to me, he says, because we know very well he constantly ran up against others’ expectations of him. In fact, failing to meet others’ expectations pretty much was what got him killed. No matter. It’s a light yoke across our backs to allow him to be our mirror. To look into the face of one who looks back at us with such love. Such joy. Such pride. Seeing us as faithful disciples who might falter now and again, but who get back up and keep at it. I want that mirror, don’t you? The mirror of our Lord Jesus Christ showing us how to step out from the load of the world’s expectations into the unforced rhythms of such wonderful grace. Learning from him how to live freely and lightly. . . . That’s the promise he has for us: rest. Rest from the world’s crazy demands.

One of my favorite hymns from the new PCUSA Hymnal is inspired by this part of scripture. It’s set to a quiet, folksong-like tune, though I’m not going to try to sing it to you. The words are a beautiful invitation to new life for us all. They go like this: “’Come to me, O weary traveler; come to me with your distress; come to me, you heavy burdened; come to me and find your rest. Do not fear, my yoke is easy; do not fear, my burden’s light; do not fear the path before you; do not run from me in fright. Take my yoke and leave your troubles; take my yoke and come with me. Take my yoke, I am beside you; take and learn humility. Rest in me, O weary traveler; rest in me and do not fear. Rest me in, my heart is gentle; rest and cast away your care.’” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, “Come to Me, O Weary Traveler,” #183).

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

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