Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s from home
EXODUS 1:8-2:10; PSALM 124; ROMANS 12:1-8; MATTHEW 16:13-20
I say to everyone among you
not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think
After I finished my ministry training, but before Karen was finished her PhD, I ended up with a gap year in Davis California before I could look for more permanent work. It provided me an opportunity to enter a one year chaplaincy program at a local hospital, where I would earn some money and get some more ministry experience.
There was one downside, though. It turns out I wasn’t a very good chaplain.
Part of it was the strain of being an introspective type, yet forced to constantly knock on the doors of strangers, and do things that were about as awkward as one could get in most corners of Northern California. To put it bluntly, I often felt like the uncle who brings up religion at Thanksgiving, as I watched so many patients groan inwardly at the sight of a chaplain.
But even moreso, I learned something about what it means to be me— entering those rooms in a wheelchair, and as a person who had clearly experienced illness and injury. Let’s just say, you don’t look at me and say “well here’s a guy who’s had good health his whole life.”
And so as you might imagine, as people faced their own injuries or illnesses, as people faced the fact that they might suffer from some lasting effects of these illnesses and injuries, many wanted to talk about exactly what I had taught myself not to talk about: my own experience of disability.
What had happened was that I had become accustomed to avoiding conversations about my own experience, often for good reason— because usually, when people approach me and ask me about disability, or my chair, there are hidden judgments about my life, often accompanied by pity. And I felt it was my job to correct those incorrect narratives, and to fix their assumptions. I wanted to tell a different story about myself: to make sure people imagined me not as unable, but able; so I would emphasize all the things I can do.
And I wanted to make sure people didn’t see me as on object of pity, too, so I would make sure they knew that disability wasn’t near as bad as they might think it was.
The result was, though, that I had taught myself how to avoid the reality of my own loss, and the reality of my own mourning.
The whole truth is that there are things I’ve done since my injury I would never have done standing up; and there are things I wish I could do. My life is better than most people think when they meet me, but there are still times when I mourn my losses.
But I chose to create a person to show to the world that was only part of my reality, but not the full truth of it. That constant attempt to reframe what other people thought of me, saying “I can do more than you think I can,” and “I’m not worthy of your pity,” had some unhealthy side-effects.
The primary problem was that I actually believed it. I believed in the person who was able to do almost anything, and I believed that my life should always be amazing. And as a result, I successfully hid the truth from myself, I didn’t allow myself to be who I really am—sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholic; sometimes unable, and other times very able.
So now imagine me, entering into a hospital room fully armoured with the false assertion that all is good in my life, and unable to integrate the truth of the pain of my experience. Imagine me entering into a room occupied by someone wondering what their future might be, whether they would be able to do the things they used to do, wanting to know what their future might look like. Imagine that person seeing me and asking me (as so many of them did) “what happened to you?” But in asking that question, were really trying to bring all their concerns, all their anxieties, and their pain into the conversation, seeing me as someone potentially with some insight, only to hear me say something like “I had an injury to my back, but its not that bad, I have a good life actually,” and in not so many words, saying, “let’s talk about something else.”
My inability to face the truth of my life prevented me from entering the truth of someone else’s life, a truth they were more willing to face than I was! And as a result I was often of little help.
Like I said. I was not a very good chaplain. That is far too much time spent talking about myself. But I bring it up because I am reaching for something here, something that I hope helps us to understand what Paul might mean when he says “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” Because we often will read that in a moral sense— don’t be conceited and don’t be proud; you aren’t worthy of much so don’t believe it.
But that doesn’t quite capture what Paul is getting at. Raniero Cantalamessa, the longtime Preacher to the Papal Household, when he turns to our passage in his book on Romans, he connects this exhortation to humility with the truth. “God loves a humble person,” he writes, “because a humble person possesses the truth.” “[Paul] exhorts Christians not to form a wrong and exaggerated idea of themselves … but, rather, to judge themselves rightly, soberly … we could almost say objectively.”
So it is partly about not thinking of ourselves as better than we are, but Paul is also asking that we be truthful. That we see ourselves not as we wish we were, but as we really are.
Thomas Merton, in another stream of Catholic thought, speaks similarly about a true self and a false self. The false self is the one we create, the one we show the world, the person we wish we were. But as Merton puts it, “My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”
So not only is the false self the person we wish we were and the person we try to show others, it’s also a way to try and put ourselves outside of reality, and ultimately an unwitting attempt to put ourselves outside of God’s love, because we are under the false impression that God wouldn’t love who we really are. It’s an attempt to escape the fact that God loves us in the whole truth of our real complexity, a complexity that includes our mourning, our loss, and our brokenness.
It’s tempting to read Merton in such a way that we imagine the spiritual life as one of struggle and perseverance: if only I could get things right, finally, I’d be worthy of love and acceptance. And in many ways the Christian life is a struggle—it can be painful and hard to come to terms with the truth about ourselves.
But to imagine the spiritual life as no more that struggle and effort wouldn’t truly reflect what we learn in Romans about the way God works. Leading up to this passage about thinking of ourselves with sober judgment, about being truthful about ourselves, is a drumbeat reminder by Paul that it is God, in Christ and the Spirit, who accomplishes our salvation.
Our hope is in sharing the glory of God, says Paul. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, says Paul. We are no longer under the law but under grace, says Paul. We are already living new life in the Spirit, says Paul.
It sure feels like a struggle to be humble and encounter the truth of ourselves, but the struggle isn’t to work hard and to be better, but to admit to the fact that God already loves us as we truly are, that we are already living the life of grace. God, in Christ and in the Spirit, has already given us all we need to thrive. And all that isn’t given to who we wish we were; it’s already given to who we already really are. We are already graciously embraced by God, well before our attempt to be who we aren’t.
Let me tell you, I wish that chaplain knocking on hospital doors in Northern California knew that, for two reasons. The first is that I would have been a much healthier person had I recognised the fact that God didn’t love who I wished I was (the guy who had it all together) but that God loved (and loves) who I was, who I am: joyful and in mourning, able and unable. It would have helped me confront my own sadness, mourning, and inanbility, along with my joy and capability.
But what saddens me now is that I also robbed others of the truth, not only about me, but the truth about themselves. Instead of inviting those patients into the possibility of their own grief and sadness, along with the possibility of their joy, I tried to bring them into my fantasy. By only showing them what I wanted them to see, they weren’t able to encounter the complexity of their lives, the good that would come and the pain that is real, the sadness they felt and the joy that would they would eventually experience.
Ultimately I robbed them of the good news, a gospel that I couldn’t hear: that God loves the humble because the humble possess the truth. That God in Christ has already accomplished our salvation, and not the salvation of who we wish we were, but the salvation of who we are: sometimes joyful and sometimes joyless; sometimes capable and sometimes incapable; sometimes broken and sometimes thriving.
The good news that I am, and you are, always, and already loved.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons