Bad 70s Pop Psychology in the Gospel
I have something I try to remind myself of on a regular basis.
And that something is that everyone can see through me.
Everyone can see through my posturing and my careful cultivation of a holy priestly persona and a polite and cheerful mask. I’m not fooling anyone.
And when I remember that it brings me back down to earth. I get this kind of mixed set of feelings in myself that is somehow a blend of chagrin, wry humor, and relief.
Why do we try to fool the world into thinking specific things about us?
Why do we act as though the false self of virtue or power is who we really are?
It’s because we are afraid.
We don’t believe that people would love us if they knew the truth about us.
That’s not to say that we can all go around acting like jerks whenever we feel angry or put upon.
There’s a certain amount of faking cheer and cooperation that lubricates our social discourse and keeps our communities moving forward together without killing each other.
But where we get in trouble is when we live the mask so intensely and so frequently that we begin to think it’s real, that we can fool the world into believing we’re perfect and holy, our bathrooms always clean and our clothes always ironed, no parking tickets, no library fines, no making obscene gestures at drivers who cut us off.
The disciples are in trouble in our gospel reading today.
They do not know their own worth.
They are not able to stand before God with confidence because they do not think they are good enough or smart enough.
Jesus is trying to teach them, but his message is lost, because as the text says, “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
This is a key moment.
“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They are intimidated and fearful, and rather than ask Jesus to explain to them what he means and what he’s asking of them, they remain in darkness and ignorance.
As a result, they immediately get off track and get themselves into trouble.
Jesus asks them, “”What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
The disciples are trying to define themselves against one another, trying to create a hierarchy and an order that would give them identity based on pushing someone else down and placing themselves on a higher level.
It is the same destructive impulse that tries to place men above women, or straight people above gay people, or liberals above conservatives, or clergy above lay people, or any other false division we use to defend our fragile sense of self.
A self that can only be defined by crushing the other into submission is a self that is trapped by fear and self-loathing.
Jesus tells us that we are more likely to be in communion with God and each other if we can drop the labels and the jockeying for status and the defending our mask of identity that we present to the outside world.
Who are we, really?
We are not our bank account or our physical appearance or our job or our age.
The most fundamental reality of our identity is that we are God’s Beloved.
We are loved by God individually and passionately.
You, sitting right here this morning, are God’s most cherished, God’s chosen, God’s passion and obsession, God’s worry and God’s joy, God’s reason to get up in the morning.
There is nothing more real about you than your bedrock identity of being God’s Beloved.
Every cell in your body was created to sing your joy to God for being loved.
And let me tell you something else.
In the same way that no one around us is fooled by the fake self we try to show the world, God is not fooled.
But that deep existential fear, that no one could love who we really are, is so far from true with God that it is utterly impossible.
In fact, God loves us the most in our weakest moments.
God loves us in our mistakes, in our floundering around trying to be disciples, even in our moments where we frankly don’t try to be faithful disciples but say “to hell with it, I’m going to do exactly what I want even though I know it’s the wrong thing.”
Let me tell you how I know this.
Jesus provides us with strange sort of non-sequitur toward the end of our reading today.
He’s talking with the disciples about how backwards they’ve got things by arguing about who among them is the greatest. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
So far, we’re following.
But then he goes and finds a kid and starts talking about welcoming children.
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
What does welcoming children have to do with anything?
Let me tell you, plenty of people who put themselves into a hierarchy and lord themselves over other adults, still like kids and play with them and are nice to them.
Well, let’s look at this another way.
I regret to inform you that I’m going to have to bring in a terrible cheesy 70s pop psychology concept here, and I ask humbly for your forgiveness.
That concept is the inner child.
Yes, it’s dumb and clichéd, but truly, when you think about what Jesus is getting at in this gospel, it makes a lot of sense.
There is a part of us that hides away underneath our sophisticated adult façade, that is childish and stubborn and selfish and wants our own way.
We might even think of most of our efforts at morality and being a pleasant person to be around the taming of our inner child.
Don’t tell me you don’t know what it’s like to be saying on the outside, “Huh. That’s interesting. I wonder if we could explore that concept in more detail,” while on the inside, you’re stomping your foot and saying, “That’s stupid! You’re wrong and I hate your face and I want a cookie!”
But look at what Jesus says here. “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Jesus loves that stubborn, selfish childish self that we hide away and berate.
He knows that no one ever truly changes as a result of guilt or fear.
He is telling the disciples, “As long as you deny the reality of yourself, your fear and selfishness and hunger for power, it will control you.”
Jesus instead offers us love and welcomes us into his arms.
But this is important for more than just our own internal struggles.
Jesus tells us to welcome the children in others.
This is where the rubber really hits the road in our Christian community.
There are moments every single time you come to church when a church member does something that drives you crazy.
One person acts territorial over a ministry, another person hugs you even though you give off very strong non-hug vibes.
One person tells you the same story every time you talk to him, another person sets up coffee hour wrong, wrong I’m telling you, every time she’s on the schedule.
We drive each other nuts.
That’s the life we live because we believe in Christian community.
And so when Jesus tells us to welcome the little children, he’s reminding us that just as much as we struggle to be our best selves and not give in to our every desire and whim, so too is everyone else around us fighting that same battle.
And it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that truth. We are called to a much higher and more difficult task: to love one another as fellow children.
That’s not to say we are to excuse and allow abusive behavior that damages the community, by no means.
But these little frictions, these besetting sins that we observe in each other—we are called to see underneath the cranky and difficult adult a little child who is struggling so hard to get his needs met, who wants to do the right thing but fails again and again, who more than anything else needs love to grow up into the full stature of Christ.
Remember the Sunday school hymn, “Jesus Loves the Little Children”?
Well, that’s very much the truth, and it’s not just about the literal little children in whom he delights, but the children inside us that most of the time could benefit from a good time out to think about our behavior.
This is what the disciples do not understand in our story.
They are trying to be super-adults, jockeying for position and power, each insisting he’s the greatest.
But Jesus says, “I love you for the children you are. Welcome each other as the children you are and love one another deeply in your flawed, vulnerable humanity.”
But I want to emphasize here that this is not all fluffy 70s pop psychology.
The reason it is so important to see the child within ourselves and in our neighbors and love that child is because when we don’t, that child can and will rise up and become a tyrant.
Our letter from James today makes that clear.
“But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” James says. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.”
Talking about our inner child helps us understand how God loves us in our sinful and broken humanity, but remember that the unloved self will lash out and demand attention and satisfaction in whatever way necessary.
“You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder,” James says.
Probably not literal murder, but our behavior can easily result in the death of our relationships, the death of our discipleship, even the death of our Christian community. Learning to love matters.
Learning to love matters.
That’s the simple truth Jesus is trying to communicate to us over and over, every time we start to argue amongst ourselves who is the greatest, which is essentially the substance of many conversations we have, conversations where we subtly try to one-up each other.
Count how many times today you or someone else humble brags or brings up something admirable about yourself.
We do it all the time, and let me tell you, I am a number one offender.
I need to hear Jesus calling me to love so much, which is why I’m so grateful to be here with you today where we can proclaim that message to each other.
You were created out of God’s love to be loved by God so that you might love God in turn and love the others that God loves, your neighbors.
Every false way that we name ourselves and name others fades away in the glorious light of that truth.
We no longer need to fight and struggle and push to defend our false identities.
You are called every day of your life to know yourself to be God’s dearest love, to sink your roots into that knowledge and make it the ground of your being.
It is only when we are open to God’s love for us, being fed and nourished by it, that we have any hope of returning it and giving love to others.
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