Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

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Just Me and My Shadow

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-7

Some here have been attending a Lenten study series that I have been leading with my colleague Rev. Rebekah Hatch from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church down the road.

We are discussing the book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by the well know Franciscan priest, author, and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr. Rohr makes a number of provocative assertions in his book, first, that the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous serve as a rich source of spiritual wisdom; second, that the twelve steps are consistent with the teachings of Jesus; and third, that we are all addicted to something. Rohr suggests that at the very least we are all addicted to our own way of thinking. What does that mean? Rohr writes, “We all take our own pattern of thinking as the norm, logical, and surely true, even when it does not fully compute. We keep doing the same thing over again, even if it is not working for us.” In the same way an alcoholic organizes his or her life in order to support their drinking, so we all organize our own lives and relationships in ways that won’t fundamentally challenge our beliefs and opinions.

I find Rohr’s perspective compelling, and would love to preach a whole sermon series on the twelve steps at some point.

But this morning’s story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind resonates with Rohr’s interpretation of the Fourth Step. I’ll introduce that Fourth Step in a moment, but first let’s take a look at this text.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, noted scholar and author John Shelby Spong makes a persuasive case that the Gospel of John was not written to be taken literally. Instead, John’s Gospel, uses stories of Jesus symbolically to inform our relationship with God. Blindness and sight, like darkness and light, are to be understood as symbols. Keep that in mind in hearing these first five verses.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Blindness and sight. Darkness and light. If these are symbols as Spong suggests, what are they symbols of? Let’s return to Rohr and the Fourth Step. It reads, “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step Four asks the alcoholic to review their entire life and account for every moral failure. As a counselor and pastor I have known a number of people who have completed the Fourth Step; it is both exhaustive and exhausting. They begin in childhood and work forward, filling page after page in spiral notebooks with confessions of their failures. As awful as this sounds, the Fourth step is meant to break through the denial that allows the alcoholic to justify hurtful and self-destructive behavior.

And here we find the meaning of the blindness symbol in this morning’s text, an inability to see the error of our own way. Rohr uses the language of “shadow” to describe these parts of ourselves that we deny, the things we would rather leave in the dark, traits, beliefs and behaviors that we are blind to.

He writes, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see, your unacceptable self by reason of nature, nurture, and choice. That bit of blindness, what AA calls denial, is what allows us to do evil and cruel things – without recognizing them as evil or cruel”

(singing)

Me and my shadow
Walking down the avenue
Me and my shadow
Not a soul to tell my troubles to
And when it’s twelve o’clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
Cause there’s nobody there
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feeling blue

This old song reminds us, living with our shadow can be a rather lonely existence. Keeping our shadow hidden from the world, means that nobody really know us as we are.

The man born blind is all of us, unable to see or acknowledge our shadow.

When Jesus says that neither the man nor his parents sinned, He means that such blindness is not evidence of judgment, but an opportunity to open our eyes to experience God’s grace. Jesus invites us to bring our shadow out of the darkness, into his light; to be fully known as we are. Rohr calls this acknowledgment of and engagement with our shadow, “shadow boxing,” I might prefer the image of dancing with our shadows. Rohr writes, “Shadow boxing is necessary because we all have a well-denied shadow self. We all have that which we cannot see, will not see, dare not see. To do so would destroy our carefully crafted and preserved public and personal self-image.”

I heard a fascinating story on the radio yesterday about self-image, the story of the three Christs. In 1959, psychiatrist Milton Rokeach brought together three schizophrenic men who believed they were Jesus Christ hoping to cure them of their delusions.

When he learned of these three men Rokeach became curious about how we construct our own identities or self-image. Who do we think we are?

He brought the three men to the state psychiatric hospital in Ypsalanti, Michigan. He thought that bringing the three into relationship with one another would reveal the incongruence of their delusions and cure them. At first they did not get along, they spat, they argued, and they fought to assert their role as the king. But in time they became friends after a fashion, sitting together, sharing rolling paper, and most importantly, humoring each other’s delusion. Though each believed that they were the true God, they turned the other cheek and let the others believe that they were god too.

As the study went on, Rokeach began using morally questionable methods, pitting the men against each other, and hiring a woman to see if one of the men would fall in love. In the end, the man figured out that the woman didn’t love him and never would, and concluded, “Truth is my friend, I have no other.”

In the end, none of the three Christ’s was cured of their delusions. They were unable to overcome their blindness, unable to see their shadow.

Now I recognize that alcoholism and severe mental illness may not be easily relatable to many of you. But Rokeach’s study is instructive for all of us. We too aspire to be like Christ. We carefully construct a self-image that appears Christ-like, hiding our shadow, even from ourselves. This self-image becomes our truth, and that truth becomes our friend, sometimes our most important friend, more important than relationships and even love. And this life with just our shadow can leave us all alone and feeling blue.

In time, Rokeach came to recognize this. Twenty years after he published his study in his book The Three Christs of Ypsalanti he wrote an Epilogue, “Though I failed to cure the three Christs’ delusions, they succeeded in curing me of mine. My God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently arranging and rearranging their daily lives.”

You see, all the while Rokeach was trying to cure the three Christ’s of their blindness, he was blind to and in denial about his own moral failings.

Like the three Christ’s we often humor each other’s contradictions and inconsistencies, not challenging incongruities.

Rohr writes, “The kind of moral scrutiny required by the Fourth Step is not to discover how good or bad we are and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest shadow boxing. In other words, the goal is not the perfect avoidance of sin, which is not possible anyway, but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes with it.”

Jesus understands that if we see rightly, the actions and behaviors will eventually take care of themselves.

Let me close with this reflection on what this might all have to do with church. I had a wonderful conversation with a member recently. This was one of our older members, a very devout woman serious about her faith. She was remembering a day when worship on Sunday mornings was set apart as a sacred time, the sanctuary set apart as a holy place. This sacredness brought with it certain expectations. Children sat quietly and upright. Members dressed up, the men in suits, the women in nice dresses, no pants and certainly no jeans. “There was a time we even wore white gloves,” she reminisced fondly. Church has changed, she said.

Hers is a view in which we bring our very best selves to church. We aspire to be as much like Christ as humanly possible. Our dress and behavior give evidence of our intent, our desire to be good, and moral people. There is not a thing wrong with this. In fact, I think she is right, we have lost some of this sacred understanding of church.

But this is not all church can be. Church can also be a place where we can bring our whole self, a place that invites not just our best but our worst, a place that welcomes us and our shadows. This is a bit of a challenge. How do we be church in a way that encourages even expects the best from all of us while genuinely welcoming each of us just as we are, shadows and all?

How do we the church encourage shadow dancing?

Part of the answer lies in the Fourth Step. We don’t all need to fill notebooks with our moral failings, thank goodness, but we can all make a personal commitment to recognizing and, when safe to do so, share our shadow. Rohr writes, “People who are more transparent and admitting of their blind spots and personality flaws are actually quite easy to love and be with.” When we take off our white gloves, individually and collectively as a church, we just might find that we and our shadows are not so lonely after all.

 

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