The Hardest Part

Beth A. Faeth September 16, 2018

Scriptures Psalm 131, Luke 8:42b–48

A few weeks ago, my daughter Ellie and I loaded a rented van and journeyed eastward to Boston, where she is beginning a new phase of her life as a college student. It was a trip I both anticipated and dreaded, as Ellie’s entry into adulthood brings about a new season for my younger daughter Hannah and me as well. The week before we left, I received an email from one of you, offering good thoughts and well wishes and including an invitation I hadn’t yet fully embraced. The author wrote: “I’m wondering as this time draws near if there might be that sense of having yet so much to teach her, show her and tell her.” These are the words that framed my heart as we traveled, long days spent in the car wondering indeed what the future might hold for each of us. Those days with Ellie were pure gift. We talked of things that made us laugh, we had hard conversations that caused us to weep. And we sang through the entire soundtrack of Hamilton three times. Reflecting on those important words from a new friend, I realized that the common thread through all of our conversations—those both reverent and not—was my profound hope that Ellie would fully embrace and love the person that God has created her to be . . . that she would work hard on that self-love and not sacrifice it through the hurt, the obstacles, the really hard times that life continues to create for us. Our lifelong task is to be acutely aware of the plethora of societal messages that seduce us into self-doubt, tearing apart our esteem to make us believe that we are “less than” and inadequate. And that our greatest defense is to embrace a knowledge that we are worthy, we are loved, we are loveable, we are good. Far from perfect, yes. But we are always enough.

Love God. Love self. Love others. Jesus makes these priorities clear in the scriptures, and, as we’ve grown fond of saying lately, I don’t think he was kidding. Over the next few weeks, we are inviting you to consider radical hospitality and what that phrase means and looks like at Plymouth Church. In a small, delightful book called Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, the author defines radical hospitality in this way: “The phrase radical hospitality refers to the activities and desires that inspire individuals and communities to welcome those who are unlike themselves. Rather than viewing any person in terms of how they benefit us, radical hospitality means accepting the person with no thought of personal benefit. To become hospitable means finding ways to welcome the marginalized, forgotten and misunderstood among us. . . . Radical refers to what is fundamental, or the root of something. You may remember from high school science that the term radical also describes an atom that doesn’t lose its identity during change. Our identity as people of faith and communities of faith will be gained, not lost, in the changes required to become radically hospitable.”[1] Last week Paula reminded us that we have a place here, we belong here. We being a collective we—not just you and me but all those searching for meaning, for acceptance, for a reminder of God’s love and one’s own worth. How do we embrace that knowledge, while also creating a culture of invitation so that others might truly believe they belong here, too?

At Plymouth we focus a lot of energy on caring for the other. We are home to a food shelf in our building; this afternoon we invite hundreds in for a hot and wholesome Third Sunday Meal; we package hygiene kits and make sandwiches during 100 Hands; we build homes with Habitat for Humanity; we gather in small groups to discuss how we can proactively welcome the immigrant, tear down racial divides, create safe spaces for folks struggling with addiction. These are all forms of hospitality, radical or not. This is the essential work of the church. Some of us come to this work because it creates in us purpose, others come to it out of obligation. We are outward-focused because that is the calling of faith—to love our neighbors. To serve others. To give for we have been given so very much. And it is good.

And yet, and yet . . . what is the impetus for our service? In preparation for this sermon, I read something that continues to give me pause. You cannot give away something you do not have in you. So if we come to the sometimes very difficult work of loving others from a place of self-loathing, or even strong dislike, or self-ambivalence, our efforts are empty and inauthentic. We cannot love others without an acknowledged love of self.

We have a tendency to equate self-love with selfishness or even narcissism. We know people who seem so very consumed with themselves there is no time or space for the other. I suspect some of you are shutting down and tuning out right now, worried this might turn into a soliloquy about self-care and soon I will start giving tips on how you might “take precious time for yourself.” It is difficult to speak of self-love without the negative connotations that permeate the spiritual understanding of love of self. Author and activist Brian McLaren writes that, in contrast to the self-indulgent, self-interest pursuits that are fed by the messages of advertisers and politicians, “the Spirit teaches us a profoundly different way of loving ourselves—a way of maturity that involves self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving.”[2]

I have shaped my ministry and my life around the understanding that “everyone has a story and every story is sacred.” We love our self when we honor our own story, when we embrace all chapters and plotlines, all of life’s twists and turns that makes us unique. When we honor our own story and claim our worth, we can then more easily enter into another’s story and love the other with humility and grace. And often, honoring our story is a process. It can be difficult. It means examining the dark places and the areas of hurt and understanding how those things shape our current narrative. In many circumstances of pastoral care, I have been privileged and blessed by the honest, humble, pain-filled, healing parts of so many sacred stories. Those who know self-love also know it takes hard work to find peace in the past, to reconcile wrongs done unto us and unto others, to practice forgiveness that many of us would never understand. It is brave to love ourselves, because there are parts of us broken and fractured—either by our own choices or by someone else’s power. And yet . . .  to believe in our own worth is also to trust in a God who loves us without conditions and who creates in us and for us a potential to continually seek and persevere. Not only are self-examination, self-control, self-development, self-giving our path to accepting all that makes us who we are, but they also lead us toward giving love more freely, without condition. This is the kind of living to which Jesus invites us.

Our scripture story this morning is one of self-love. A woman, bleeding for 12 years, refuses to give up on her own healing. There are parts of this story, not described in scripture, which make the woman’s situation all the more devastating and soul-breaking. A woman with the flow of menstrual blood was considered ritually unclean and was, then, set apart—figuratively and literally—from the rest of society. Anything this woman would have come into contact with would also be considered unclean. The flow of blood must have been stopped for seven days before a cleansing ritual could re-instate the woman into community. Consider that for a moment—this woman lived in isolation for 12 years. Twelve years. Twelve years without touch from family and friends, 12 years not being near her husband or children. Twelve years of being alone, of wondering why, of experiencing pain and fatigue and contemplating dying. For what else was there? Twelve years of pursuing a cure, of spending all that she had on doctors only to be told there was nothing to be done and she would just have to endure. Twelve years of being told that God was punishing her. I cannot imagine what the agony of exile does to one’s spirit, except that the courage needed to survive would be immense. Yet this woman, whose only name in scripture is Daughter, refused to give up on herself. Breaking free of all the societal prisons was her goal, because she believed in her own worth. She trusted that which many of us take for granted—that we are named and claimed by God. And so, in a bold act of defiance, resilience and hope, she thrust herself into the throng of people and reached with desperation for just the slightest touch of Jesus’ garment. In an instant their stories entwine, and neither will ever be the same. Jesus himself is undone, so surprised is he by this meeting of her spirit with his. As this woman leans toward Jesus in this impossible setting of crowds and noise and overprotective disciples, she receives what he gives and he, likewise, is transformed. Each knows and is known, loves and is loved. She is healed and he is changed. Her fierce self-love became her saving grace. Self-love is not only about us and how it influences our own story, but it is also about the radical possibilities of transformation that can occur when that love is released into the world. We cannot give something away we do not have in us.

Self-love is authentic living rooted in joy. It is accepting all of our facets and idiosyncrasies. Self-love invites us to fully vest in our spiritual being and leads us towards the ability to love others and God in uncensored, wholly present ways. Love God. Love others. Love self. While the love of self may the hardest part, it is the necessary element of the equation.

As my daughters rapidly grow up, time seems of the essence. What is it I long to teach, show and tell them? It is the same wisdom I must remind myself of daily and what I long for each of you, too. Go deep, beloved children of God. Let the stoicism and hard exteriors melt away and do not be afraid of the hard work necessary to love oneself. Face your fears, deal with insecurities, evolve the parts of you that make you cringe, reconcile the painful plotlines. Believe that your story is sacred. Trust that what you have to give will bless another. It takes time and intention, a lifetime perhaps. But loving ourselves is the essence of our own becoming.

That really is radical.

Amen.

[1]Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2011), pages x and xv–xvi.

[2]Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), page 221.