- This is a transcript from the October 20, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
We're doing a series around a theme this month called Doing Good. It is the source from which some of our sermons are coming. It is the source of our doing good wall where we're noticing the good that others have done. It is the source of our habit that we are challenging each other with everyday spirituality five by five, which says there are some essential habits. One of the essential habits that's part of this is daily try to do, try to notice, try to be intentional about five acts of kindness, gratitude, service. All of this is coming out of the same direction and we're focusing on that for this month.
When I was thinking about doing this, when I was musing on this, what I heard from someone was, “I don't like that. I don't like this idea of doing good, I don't like that emphasis.” In probing on further as why it's because, “I am never good enough.” It doesn't matter when you talk about doing good, “I'm never good enough.” It just becomes the source of something bad, it becomes the source of guilt and shame. Who needs that? If there was a symbol for it, it might be this symbol, and it’s just you've been weighed and found wanting, you do not measure up, it doesn't matter who you are. You don't measure up.
“Why would I come to church to hear what I hear everywhere else?” I was going to respond, “Stop your whining.” [laughter]
But I didn't because I was the one who asked the question in the first place. I'm the one who treads softly on this topic. I'm the one who was most reticent about this because I've been in a church for a while. I know how this gets used, I know how this idea of being good and doing good has gotten twisted. It becomes indeed a source of guilt, it becomes a source of shame, it becomes those things that cripples people more than helps people, so we stay away from it.
I know there are people here today and the reason I treaded softly about five acts of kindness, of generosity, and service is because somebody is going to come up one day and they'll go, “I can only think of three.” I'll fake it. I'll just add two and pretend or it'll become a competition, “I did six today.” It will be one of those things about we measure against ourselves or to one another, or will become one of those contention points. Not a meeting place, not a connection place, but a contention point between us and God.
I understand that, but the reason I stepped into this theme anyway is because I was curious as to why. Why? What is it about this? What's so bad with good? What has happened to it? Is there any way to reclaim this idea of what goodness is all about? Is there a way to reclaim good as one of those words that has been given so much baggage over the years that we just stay away from its words like salvation and words like peace and words like righteousness, how they've gotten so burdened with all kinds of things that we just stay away from? Isn't there a way to recover that and not just for the sake of recovery, because maybe there's something that's really important there?
I'm going to read a piece of Scripture because it's from the book of Genesis. You may have brought your own Bible and want to turn to that passage or maybe you just want to listen. As you do, I want you to think what happens when I say the word good enough? What happens in your soul this morning? What happens inside your body? What part gets tense? What part do you start to step back from and what parts feels like you want to push against? What is that? What is that response?
Hold on to that because this passage is here, I believe, as the early passages are the stories of origin, if you will, that are in the first several chapters of the Bible to try to explain why is the world the way it is. While the story of Adam and Eve gets lots of play, the story of Cain and Abel doesn't get as much, but I think it's just as important to explaining who we are and why we are the way we are. Since now the man knew his wife even she conceived and bore Cain saying, “I produced the man with the help of the Lord,” which is what the word Cain means. Next, she bore his brother Abel.
Now, Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground and Abel, for his part, brought the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering, he had no regard. Cain was very angry and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain,
“Why? Why are you so angry? Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?
And if you do not do well, sin is looking at the door,
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
If you know this story, you know that in fact, he did not master it. In fact, it is the story that continues on, it is the first murder of brother against brother. It's part of that great story of why is humanity the way it is? What is going on with us? There is a biblical theme that you find in this story, the story before it, and throughout the entire Bible. It has to do with this, it has to do with the idea that when you separate a gift from God, from the source, who is God, when you try to own it yourself, when you try to keep it as an object apart from the giver, it becomes toxic.
Case in point, Adam and Eve, but in the time that people were reading this story, even before that, there was this idea of we were given the promised land, and the people who would be first reading this would be the people in Exile in Babylon. We were given this Promised Land, but we didn't keep the covenant with God. We began to pretend that it was ours to own it, ours to do with what we wanted, and we weren't connecting and so, we lost it, it became the point of contention between us and God rather than the gift of God.
They would remember that that is what happened when it came to power and the power that was given by God to the kings, and when they began to own it themselves and see it as an object to own apart from God, that it became deadly. They would see it with the Adam and Eve story when something as good as the knowledge of good and evil for crying out loud, how bad can that be, but separated from God became the source of guilt and shame and hiding.
Cain is looking for worthiness and acceptance and he's looking forward apart from God. As just something that he is able to do on his own. It ends up in resentment, envy, and murder. Take the word good and you separate it from God, that essential connection and it becomes that terrible thing that among other things we talked about is self-righteous. When you take something that is the gift and you separate it and want it and separate it from God as an object in and of itself, it always will turn toxic. That's a theme throughout the Bible. It's a theme that's coming back to. By the way, this is where it came from.
Now, sometimes people will say that this story happened, that it literally happened and we get ourselves into all kinds of terrible things because if it literally happened, then who did Cain marry? If there was just Cain and Abel and now it's just Cain, now who did Cain marry? Then when he was going out into the world, who was he afraid of? What about all the rest of this world? We get ourselves into all kinds of crazy things, we get into why does God like barbecue, but not fruit?
Here's the point, does literally--? Yes, this is literally true. It literally happens every day. That's the power of this story to explain who we are. This happens every day, we live with this. This is the tyranny of trying to live with good enough. When we are trying to do good enough, when we have taken it upon ourselves to somehow become worthy of acceptance and worthy of God's care and love, there's a couple of different things that we'll do. We do this every day. We run faster, we try harder, we try to become more efficient, we try to become more effective.
I'm not just talking about the things that we can and should do, but somehow as if we are trying to outrun that judgment that it's still not good enough, as if there is this eternal scale and no matter what I do, I never seem to be able to do anything to tilt it. I am never good enough. Then when that doesn't work, we hide and pretend. We hide and pretend from God. We hide and pretend from ourselves. We don't admit how we are because to admit that I have failed is in therefore somehow an admission that I am a failure. To say that what I did was, “I didn't do well enough,” is to say I am not good enough. We would rather pretend.
We don't admit when we do something wrong because if we admit it, heavens, that would show weakness. That would show that somehow that the essence of who we are is not worthy, that we don't measure up, that we have been weighed and found wanting that we are lightweights in this world. We go to all kinds of links. We buy homes that are too big and cars that are too expensive. We do things and overspend so that somehow it looks like we are doing better than we probably already are because if we were to show them somehow not do that, people might think differently of us.
We put stickers on our car about how well our children are doing in school, not only because we're proud of that, because we've got a kid who's doing well. Then if we don't like that, we put a sticker on our car about our dog who's probably smarter than their honors student. You may have those. I think I've seen a few out in the parking lot. You know what I'm talking about. We live a life where we are constantly on a treadmill and we are never making up any ground and we get more tired and we get more scared. We divide and separate ourselves from God day after day.
Then a fresh word comes in from time to time. Last 10 years, the fresh word, the prophet of our days, Brené Brown who did a talk about this when she says, “When we let go of what other people think and own our own story, we gain access to our worthiness, the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don't fit with who we think we're supposed to be, we stand outside our story and hustle for worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, proving.”
Tell me if I'm getting close to anywhere in our hearts this morning. Our sense of worthiness, that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging, lives inside of our story. If we can't admit those things, then the real us is inaccessible. It's only when we are able to bring who we are, including our failings, including the fact that what we did wasn't good enough, that we have a place to finally experience grace. Rather than do that, then we go on and we attack others. We make it more dangerous and more toxic in the way that we treat and talk about others. We do that particularly well in churches. Don't we?
Has anybody ever been on the other side when somebody with the way they said something, didn't say something, the inflection of the voice or maybe just outright was able to imply that what you did was not good enough? It wasn't up to standards. When Garrison Keillor wanted to make the point, he created a church in his fabled Lake Wobegon and the name of the church was Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt. [laughter]
I know a lot of people who have grown up in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt. If we leave the church because who needs that, then it’s just as toxic because even though that's not right, if you go outside the church, there is still that same driving force inside of us. We create top 10 lists. I'm not on any top 10 lists. Are you? We create ads and by their very definition, they tell you by watching these ads that you are not enough right now. Now, if you buy that shampoo, then you'll be enough. If you buy that car, then you will be enough. You buy the car, you use the shampoo, and you're still not enough, so now there's something wrong with me.
Good Lord, even the recipes in the paper. I followed the recipe. I did everything and it still doesn't look like that picture. [laughter]
I'm never, I'm not everything in there and it gets brutal. When we read Facebook and it seems like everybody's doing well and having a great vacation, when we put out those ubiquitous Christmas letters where people put down, “Here's the legacy and all the things that were wonderful that happened,” you go, “That didn't happen in my life.” There's a way of subtly saying that only the good stuff counts. If you don't have that, you're not enough. I think there is an inextricable connection between the rise of social media with our teens and the rise of depression and anxiety and at-risk behavior.
It's not just me who says that. These are psychologists and psychiatrists who are saying when you are online and you see that you are part of the social and public judgment for everything that you write or all the likes that you get or all the likes that you don't get, there is this overpowering sense that everything around you, the whole world is telling you, “You are not enough,” it's crippling. It's killing us. It always has because then when I'm not good enough, I'm not enough. Then when I fail, I am a failure. I don't just do disappointing things, I have become a disappointment. No matter what I do, it never seems to balance that scale. How do we break the tyranny of good enough?
I'd love to say, “Here's the three things you can do and fix the problem.” I don't have it and neither does anybody else because I believe that one of the reasons this story is in our story of origin says, “No, this is the tension in which we live.” This is a tension in which to manage. This is not a problem to overcome. This is the world we live in. There are some things we can do that will help and the first is just to name it, is to be able to be honest. Where have I failed? Where am I in fact, not enough? Where did I not do enough in that particular place? Where do I struggle with feeling like I'm not enough?
There's something about naming it particularly with people who will understand that defames that beast. Suddenly, I'm able to distance myself just enough so that I begin to separate the true self, who I really am from who I'm trying to be. Then we can bring it. The thing that separated the connection between us and God, we can bring it back and let that be the connecting point. When we separate what we did from who we are, when we begin to grab hold of, and this is one of the great things that worship can do, when we confirm and affirm once and again that there's nothing you can do to make God love you more or less, we need to hear that in our soul.
When we come to the Bible and Paul saying there's nothing you can do to separate you from the love of God, we need to hear that. When we come to this place and we need to hear that our worthiness is not up for negotiation, we need to hear that. One of the places we get to do that ironically, coincidentally, is in the very place that some of us avoid. It is the prayer of confession. At its best, the prayer of confession is a way of separating what I have done, I don't have to run away from it anymore to who I am. When we confess and we're going to do that in just a moment, we’re going to have a bit of a unison prayer, classic unison prayer of confession and then just some time for personal time with God.
When we do that, we're no longer running away and trying to pretend and to hide. We get to live into as Brené Brown says, our own story. This becomes the meeting place between God's grace and God's love and who I am. When we do that, there is a chance that I can hear something. Now, there's nothing we're going to tell God that God doesn't know. God doesn't need to hear this. We need to say this because at the other end of any decent prayer confession is an assurance, a reminder that we are loved. We need to hear that. This morning, I'm going to pause and just for a moment, go to this prayer of confession and you may recognize it.
We're going to say it together out loud. Then it's going to have a time of just quiet, silent reflection so that you can put more on to this. What is the things that you want to bring to God today including and maybe especially the fear of never being enough? Would you say this with me?
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy oh, God, forgive what we have been. Help us amend what we are and direct what we shall be so that we may delight in your will, we may walk in your ways to the glory of your name through Christ. Amen.
Here's the good news. You’re already forgiven before you uttered a word. Before you were born, you were already accepted and loved. Hear the good news. In Christ, we are loved. We are accepted. We are forgiven. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Go out in that love. Go out in that confidence. Live as a free and forgiven people through Christ. Amen.
We could leave it there, this breaking of the tyranny of good enough, but I think there's one last step and I want to emphasize this. Part of the way we break that tyranny is to reconnect with God in those places where we feel like we are not enough to be reminded of who we truly are. The second part, it seems to me, is also then in the story of Cain and Abel, is to somehow be able to reconnect with our brothers and sisters, to reconnect with others because that's where the healing needs to take place as well.
Not just any people. I'm going to suggest that for our own self-preservation and our own nurture that we connect with people who can reflect that message to us. That somewhere in our connections with people, that this becomes the model that that group of people around us lives by. That our life groups take this on as their model. That if they need to, they read covenant around that. That you even if you're not in a life group, you find some people who will reflect that. That this is reflected in their words. That this is reflected in their care. This is reflected in the way they look at you, what they say, what they don't say, what they do, and what they don't do, because this is how we grow and this is the environment in which we can manage.
To the degree that they don't, I'm not saying get rid of them. I'm not saying shut them off. Just know that they are probably working out of their own sense of inadequacy and their own sense of not-enoughness. Be very careful how much time you give and allow that to seep into your life so that you can take the next step, which is that we get to become those people. That we approach them with the good news of our Scripture of the month. That you are God's work of art. You are a masterpiece created by God. That in their words and their approach, that you see God at work in them.
That we somehow are able to embody what Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk in the 20th century, was able to bring when he said, "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy." Our job is simply to love. That that becomes how we do our life. Did you hear the words? Did you see the words of the song? What it means to let us create a table of justice and mercy, a table to where people can live without fear and simply to be. That's the call. That's the call to be those people. Not only in our church because that makes for a healthier church, but in our world, because this is the great need of our world. That we get to live in ways that help heal this world.
This week, may we own our own story, and we connect honestly with God. Especially the part of our lives that doesn't feel like it's enough, may we recognize the difference between what we have done and who we truly are, and get to live in that place and do the good works, the good works that communicate the non-negotiable worthiness that is a part of every human soul because they are a creation of God. Separated from its source even good can become bad. This week connected in Christ, it can heal, it can change the world. Let it be so.