(Gospel of Thomas 37, Gospel of Matthew 7:1-5, Psalm 139)
These weeks we’ve been exploring some of the root values we try to hold here at our church, the moral and spiritual qualities we aspire to, and however much we may fall short of, however much the world around us may want to deny these qualities, these are what can root us, keep us honest and strong. This week: Honest & Bold, Open & Affirming.
Psalm 139 can be our guide. Psalm 139 has saved people’s lives. It’s one of those psalms that comes up in people’s testimonies: “I was in a dark place, but I turned to Psalm 139 and found there a saving word.”
You are God’s creation, God’s work of art – God has made you as you are. And who you are, as you are, is marvelous, wondrous, even you can say terrifying in its grandeur – you, a work of art formed by that nothing less than the great Creator of the universe. We are knit of the same exquisite stuff as mountains at sunset, willows beside streams swollen with snow melt, spider webs glistening with dew. We are made of star-dust, as both the hippies and the physicists say.
God’s presence, God’s awareness, God’s devotion moves through every fiber and filament of us, just as God’s presence, God’s awareness, God’s devotion pervades every last void and humming element in the universe.
“I will praise you, my God,” says the psalm, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are your works, that my soul knows well.”
This good Word can be like the warmth of sunshine after a long winter. It can bring warmth to where we’re cold, light to what has been hidden. It can be like blood flowing back to the places that have been constricted, giving back life.
This kind of good Word, as I said, has saved lives.
There are many folks who have been taught to be ashamed of parts of who they are, of who God has made them to be. And shame easily grows into hate – self-hate, self-violence, and that can get turned outwards too.
Even if we haven’t been taught that for some reason there’s something wrong with how God has created us to fall in love, or in how we feel natural in expressing our gender, there are all kinds of other ways that social convention or people’s mean-spiritedness can get us to believe that somehow there’s something just wrong with who we are. In a way that’s different from other people who are made worthy, we’re peculiar in being made, somehow, wrong.
The result can be shame, guilt, self-loathing, isolation, resentment… And then people get blamed for feeling those ways (to add insult to injury) … When what’s really to blame is the judgment of people and social conventions – judgment that’s sometimes vicious, other times insidious. Judgment about how people look, how they talk, where they come from, how they dress, who their people are, who their ancestors were, what have you.
So it can be a life-saving event a life-giving event for people to discover that their magnificence does not derive from these petty judgments of social convention, but rather that they are magnificent because they have been made to be magnificent by a magnificent God.
As an example: The joy and the defiance of this discovery is what’s behind shouts of “Out and proud!” or “Black is beautiful!” Our magnificence does not derive from the prejudices of social convention. This is the activity of God’s love
So, here’s the thing about God’s love, which is a good word for any of us: God’s love does two things: It frees us from whatever sense of shame or wrongness we may feel about who it is that God has created us to be. And at the same time God’s love can free us from how we judge others for who it is that God has created them to be.
Psalm 139 is so powerful because it conveys both these aspects of God’s love. This psalm, this prayer song is welcoming God to search us and know us, all of us, wherever we are, whether it’s in heavenly realms or hellish realms. The light of God’s awareness exposes all our shadows, which means all our flaws and faults and hidey-holes for the nasty trolls of our nature, as well as all the hidden corners where we keep tucked away whatever fabulous potential whatever caged angles we’ve been taught to feel ashamed of.
“I praise you, my God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Jesus manifested God’s love, in all that it means. In his teaching he uses some vivid images for the activity of God’s love.
For the first aspect of love, the cleansing love that confronts our own nasty trolls, one of the things Jesus says is this timber and sliver eye business. Here’s the teaching If we find ourselves obsessed with judging someone, there’s probably a log wedged in our eye. That’s how badly we’re seeing.
It’s a ridiculous image, which is the point: imagine someone with a tree trunk stuck to their face reeling around pointing to people saying “Hey! You’ve got a speck in your eye!”
So Jesus instructs us, “First take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.” Notice also how the gesture becomes one of helping, once we’ve gotten our vision cleared – helping to clear someone else’s vision. The point isn’t to gauge out their eyes, which is of course what we first want to do when someone is being a raging hypocrite (or at least, I’ll speak for myself).
Jesus is saying, “Before you do anything, calm down, and first open yourself before God’s awareness, which will cleanse you of your own hypocrisy. Then you can see well enough to help cleanse the vision of others.” The attitude shifts from “Hey hypocrite, you got a speck in your eye,” to “We’re all a little hypocritical, so let’s help each other become a little less so.” Let’s try to clean out our vision. That attitude allows God’s love flow to through us.
So when this happens, how will we be seen and what will we see, when we are cleansed and restored like this?
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told his disciples, “When you strip without being ashamed and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them. Then you will see the Child of the Living One and you will not be afraid.”
This is about all the things that hides the magnificent innocence of how God has created us – masks, costumes, fronts, all the service-level stuff we judge each other by. We can be free of all that, free of whatever shame covers us or smothers us. So we can stand as we are, in our magnificent innocence, without fear before the Child of the Living One, and even dance with delight in the light of our Creator.
(Delivered February 13, 2017, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)