(Video of this sermon is available on our church’s YouTube channel)
Now that I’ve been spending a whole lot of time at home, I’ve notice a couple of things about our cat, Chestnut, which I feel are important to share with you. In times like these, it’s important to talk about our cats, evidently.
The first thing I’ve noticed is that it seems like even our cat has been stress eating these days. She’s just been really tucking into that kibble and filling out.
The thing I’ve noticed is that Chestnut, bless her heart, still sometimes spooks at her own shadow. It happens less than when she was a kitten. But it can still happen, especially when she’s gotten really worked up and is on edge and she turns around and “Boo!” there’s that shadow, and she’s springing back like the devil’s on her tail.
I wonder how much a lot of us can relate to Chestnut these days. You know, when were all stuck at home more, and we may be more often worked up and on edge ‘cause of the stress in the air and grief and fear and uncertainty, juggling work and childcare or dealing with unemployment not to mention illness and distressing news, and isolation – a lot of us are having to face our shadows more – whether we’re facing that fact or not, you know what I mean?
An elder colleague of mine recently said that in their experience, whenever there’s been a large group trauma you can expect that whatever your issue is, whatever your personal challenge, the “thorn in your side” as the Apostle Paul put it, it’s likely that the volume is going to get turned up on it.
So, we’re needing a lot of grace for ourselves, and for each other – and we’re needing especially to be spending regular time basking in the Source of that grace, which is God.
We need God’s help to Face and Embrace Our Shadows with Grace.
I’m using this image of “The Shadow.” I like this image because this is about those parts of ourselves that we’d rather not look at, those parts of ourselves we may want to pretend aren’t there – whether it’s because of shame or guilt or pride or distaste – our own judgment, other people’s judgment, and so one. But however much we may look the other way and wish that stuff isn’t there, however much we try to keep it off camera or put makeup on it – it’s with us, it’s a part of ourselves – it goes wherever we go, like our shadows dragging behind us.
If we catch sight of it, all of a sudden, that can really give us a scare, right? Or it can make us mad and ready to attack or defend. Think of a cat spooking at her shadow. Her claws are out.
Often times we catch sight of our shadow because we see somebody else seeing it in us. You know the experience I’m talking about? It can be really uncomfortable. When you realize that someone is seeing part of yourself that you wish wasn’t there. Our weakness or our meanness or what have you. Often times it’s the people closest to us who see our shadows clearest. Or people we’ve hurt because of our blind spots or because we meant to hurt them in the moment. It can also sometimes be our enemies who see our shadows clearest. Now that can really drive us nuts?
So what do we do when we see someone seeing what we don’t like about ourselves? We may try to claw their eyes out. Or we may try to run away, if flight is more your style than fight. Either way, our reaction is to try to get rid of the mirror that’s reflecting our shadow.
We can go to great lengths to avoid seeing our shadows. We can get really clever about it, or really mean, or really intoxicated, or really into eating cat food, if you’re a cat.
Even just hearing me talk about this may be making you uncomfortable, because it’s calling to your awareness something that’s hard to admit about yourself. You may be tempted to just turn this video off. Or go at me for spouting a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
What are we defending against? What are we attacking, exactly? Who is it, what is it, that we’re actually defending? Why can it feel so unbearable to face the shadows of ourselves?
Jesus, in what he taught and what he embodied, was all about radical honesty with ourselves and before God – about facing and embracing our shadows, with grace. This has everything to do with what Jesus was revealing about who we truly are and who God truly is.
We are simply and humbly and exquisitely children of a living and loving God, who is present with us, among us, beyond us in a clear and powerful way If only we get out of the way and allow God to embrace all of us, not only our Sunday best.
The problem we make for ourselves is that we make ourselves out to be different than we actually are, we construct a false sense of self out of how we compare ourselves to others, make judgments, tell these stories that involve competition, envy, rivalry, where we end up convinced that we’re better than other people or convinced that we’re worse than other people. Either way, we are pushing parts of ourselves into the shadows. And either way we are acting out of a deep fear that simply, honestly who we are is not good enough.
This is why Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” This is why he called out religious hypocrisy that’s obsessed with other people’s sins while denying our own, hating in other people what is actually true about ourselves.*
This is why Jesus drew out the poison of hate and fear that rose up to crucify him, and revealed the lengths humanity can go to deny the simple goodness and vulnerability and strength and love at the heart of each of us.
This is what Jesus was teaching in the story of the Prodigal Son, taking that risk to turn from our petty obsessions and return, as we are, to the welcoming embrace of our Creator.
This is what Jesus taught his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not find that within you, it will destroy you.” Gospel of Thomas 70 And: “When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take up your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample on them. Then you will see the Child of the Living One and you will not be afraid.” – Gospel of Thomas 37
May prayer for you and for us, dear friends, is that you can know God’s grace, be embraced by God’s grace, so that you can feel unafraid and unashamed by whatever shadows you may have to face.
As we hear in Psalm 139 “Even the darkness is not dark” in God’s luminous embrace “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”
For this I give deepest thanks.
*Quick P.S.A: “Judge not lest ye be judged” does not mean that we can’t as Christians say that some people have proven themselves to be unfit for public office, dangerously irresponsible with leadership or power.
Psalm 139:1-14 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
Readings from the Christian Scriptures
Gospel of Thomas 70 Jesus said, “When you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not find that within you, it will destroy you.
Gospel of Thomas 37 His disciples said, “When will you appear to us? When will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take up your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample on them. Then you will see the Child of the Living One and you will not be afraid.”
Matthew 7:1-5 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 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.
Delivered May 3, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, for First Congregational Church of Walla Walla