Throwing the towel aside and accepting Love

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

October 29, 2017

…but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the Gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.

Last Sunday, we heard the Pharisees praise Jesus for his honesty and integrity, suggesting that he always spoke the unvarnished truth, showing no deference to any person and regarding all people with no partiality. Such rigorous truth-telling seems to be reflected in Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica where the apostle claims that he too speaks not to please mortals but solely to serve the Gospel and please God. As I thought about those two passages, I could not help but to consider my own speech, wondering how often I exercise deference, crafting my truth to please mortals rather than to serve the God who tests my heart. How often is my response to a given situation a clear reflection of my faith, of the message of the Gospel that has been entrusted to me, and how often is it the product of my seemingly insatiable desire to please those who surround me, to seek the praise and affirmation of mortals?

From the age of eight to my early forties, I never lived in one city or community for more than four years. Because of this constant movement, I had to learn at an early age how to make friends rapidly and frequently. I had to adapt to different demands and expectations, constantly seeking to ingratiate myself to various sorts and conditions of men, women and children. I quickly learned to work with the tools of flattery, charm and self-deceit, making sure that I did not say or do anything that would invite scorn, disdain or, heaven forbid, rejection.

At family gatherings my mother was always fond of telling a tale that illustrated the early development of these coping skills. I was about seven years old and I was being sent off to my first day of day camp, my inaugural excursion into the realm of my male peers. We had taken a family vacation and I had missed the first week of camp, a fact that caused my mother some concern. You see she knew, as I did not, that in that first week friendships had undoubtedly been formed, routines had been established and alliances had been forged and cemented. Could I fit in to those settled patterns and relationships or would I be ostracized and excluded before I even had a chance to put my foot in the door? In any event, as my mother recalled it, it was with considerable anxiety that she helped me onto the school bus that morning, anxiety that intensified when she noticed that all the other boys on the bus had taken out their swimming towels and draped them over their heads, obviously a well established ritual designed to intimidate outsiders. My mother watched anxiously as I stepped onto the bus surrounded by these hooded figures but she then breathed a deep sigh of relief as she watched me quickly take my seat, root around in my bag and extract my swimming towel which I then draped over my head. I would make it in life, she thought with a sense of pride and contentment. I could cope. I would fit in just fine.

And so I did, moving from place to place, carefully discovering what towels were to be worn on what occasions, adapting myself and my manner accordingly. At times I did it simply because I wanted to be liked, to be accepted by my peers, but far more often I was driven by fear, my deep-seated fear of being rejected. You see I had learned another lesson early on, a terrifying lesson that had a major impact on my developing sense of self. I learned that no matter how hard I tried to do the right thing, I made mistakes and no matter how hard I tried to be good, I often did things that were bad. I discovered the dreadful truth that despite my best intentions, I was often rotten and I was gradually forced to accept what appeared to be the obvious conclusion. The truth was that I was essentially an unlovable creature, incapable of doing what I really should, unable to meet and handle the responsibilities and expectations that were justly placed upon me.

I tried desperately to cover up that frightening truth. I sought to please people because if I brought them pleasure, they would like me and if they liked me then I could use their apparent acceptance to mask and cover up this deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. I didn’t really believe that they actually liked me, but I thought that I had been able to trick them into liking me by giving them what they wanted, by showing deference and speaking to please them. If, however, I ever felt rejected then this mask of deception was ripped away and my worse fears were realized. I was then forced to accept the fact that I was indeed unloved and unlovable, painfully incapable of accomplishing any real good.

…and one of them, a lawyer, asked him.… “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.

If you are anything like me, you will find that all too familiar commandment to be one of the most daunting and intimidating commandments in Holy Writ. Can we really be expected to love God with such an all-encompassing, all-consuming emotion? When I struggle with the incredible depth of that demand, far too often I simply slip into my well-worn behavioral rut. “All right,” I think to myself, “if that’s what God wants, I will try my level best to please, by giving God a heartfelt, mindful and soulful type of love.” But once again, when I attempt to muster up such emotion, I find that despite my best intentions, I am not really up to the task. Despite meritorious acts and fervent prayers, I continue to make mistakes – I sin, failing to love God with such comprehensiveness despite all my most earnest efforts and best intentions. And so I try to put on a mask. I try to protect myself from the expectations of the Almighty by covering my head with a towel of self-deception. I do not want God to see what a sinful and pathetic creature I am and so I cover myself up and, as you can easily see, priests have some fairly impressive towels to work with. Deep down inside, however, where my innermost being lies, I cannot believe that God could really love me, so I try to trick God into liking me by saying and doing things that I believe will somehow please the Lord.

In the sixteenth century, blessed Theresa of Avila, a wonderful mystic, writer and saint, wrote in her spiritual autobiography about her own struggles within her innermost self. In describing her state of spiritual stupor and insecurity, she wrote:

I wasn’t having bad thoughts, but I was so incapable of having good thoughts that I laughed. It pleased me to see the weakness of a soul when God is not always working in it.

Over the years, as I have watched myself struggle to please men, women and even Almighty God, I have come to deeply appreciate the profound wisdom of Theresa’s words. There have been times when I have been blessed with a similar grace, moments when in the midst of my determined efforts to please, I suddenly catch a glimpse of what a ridiculous creature I am sitting there with a towel over my head trying desperately to be somebody that everybody else wants. And I laugh, I laugh with blessed Theresa and with all the saints. I laugh at my clownish attempts to manipulate myself and others. I laugh at my pitiful attempts to mask my unloveableness, and most of all, I laugh at my ludicrous attempts to seize and lay hold of a love that I cannot even fully accept. At such moments, my laughter does not spring from ridicule or self-denigration. It is not an insane, mocking laugh nor is it one arising out of pity or dejection. No, it is a laughter of joy, rooted in my own pleasure at seeing the utter weakness of a soul when God’s love is not working in and through it. That graceful laughter arises from my knowledge that I can do nothing, nothing worth doing, outside of the love of God in Christ and that knowledge, like the love that it conveys is pure gift: unwarranted, undeserved and joyfully unexpected. Suddenly, gracefully, I am open to the reality of a love that I can not coerce or manipulate through acts of deference or flattery, a love that I can not please or satisfy with pious acts or religious thought. It is a love that breeches the walls of my neurotic self-defenses, washes over the dikes of my insecurities and enables me to hold before God all my disheveled, pathetic and glorious humanity.

There are still times when I cover my head with a towel, honestly believing that I am pleasing God and humankind, but now there are also many more moments when I can throw the towel aside and laugh at my attempts to beguile Love Incarnate. Through the persistent grace of God and the patient care and ministry of my beloved wife, there are even times when I truly know that I am loved and that knowledge enables me to do two things. With utter and sincere thanksgiving it allows me to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind, gratefully accepting and reflecting that love that has been so graciously showered upon me. And secondly, as I look around the bus and see all those silly people with towels draped over their heads, it empowers me to love them as I am now able to love myself.