6 Pentecost Proper 9 Year A
July 9, 2023
Genesis 24:3438, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45: 11-18
Romans 7: 15-25
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
In 1981 Tony and I were planning to get married. We were both students living on what he earned as a line cook and I earned as a server in a little seafood restaurant in Albany, Oregon.
One evening, Tony was working a busy Friday-night shift and I was home waiting for the guy who was coming over to clean the carpets. because I had won a free carpet cleaning as a prize from Kerby Vacuum Cleaner Company. I was genuinely delighted that I had won such a wonderful prize.
However, within an hour of his arrival I was signing a credit application for $850.00. It is important to mention that between the two of us, Tony and I probably grossed an annual $12,000. I should also mention that these consumer credit companies charged over 30% interest including all kinds of fees. Poor people get caught in these predatory lending schemes all the time and sometimes never get out.
The salesman, who never cleaned the carpets, explained that if he made this sale tonight the company would send him and is wife to Disneyland. He shared that they had never been on a honeymoon, and his wife “would be so happy”. I really wanted his wife to be happy, and maybe this purchase would be a great household investment for my upcoming marriage.
Panic set in. I felt like a mouse cornered by a snake. But I wanted to believe I was doing the right thing. So, I called Tony at work to get validation. He did not do that. He got all upset. Shouting now in a busy kitchen, he started listing all the “things” I wanted to buy and how we could not afford any of it. I told him about the trip to Disneyland; he was not moved. I told him that we qualified for easy credit. He did not give in. He was freaking out. I was freaking out. But I couldn’t stop what I had started.
I bought the biggest package: a vacuum cleaner with two boxes of accessories because I did not know how to not buy it.
Soon, the salesman left. I sat on my little sofa in our little living room staring at the shiny new vacuum cleaner and two giant boxes of accessories. I felt lost. That is when I did what I always did when I messed up, I called my mom. “Guess what I just bought?” I joyfully sang into the receiver. She replied in her most judgmental tone, “What did you buy, Donna?” Panic set in, but I pretended to be proud as I announced that I had just bought a Kirby. “Oh, Donna! That was a stupid and foolish thing to do.” As she scolded me, I cried.
When Tony came home, I was still sobbing. I think he was genuinely angry at me, but also, he felt sorry for me.
The next day my mom came to our little house, put me and the vacuum cleaner with the two boxes of accessories into her Subaru station wagon, and drove me to the Kirby store for a refund. I sat in the car with my eyes downcast as she yelled at the salesman and managed to void the contract. I was embarrassed, ashamed and confused at how I could make such a foolish mistake jeopardizing my relationship with Tony and reinforcing my mom’s disappointment of me.
I recall this event often, especially when I am faced with knowing the right choice but feeling compelled to do the opposite.
When things like this happen, we are puzzled, but we shouldn’t be. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung explains that if our unconscious motivations remain unconscious, then there will be times when those motivations can do that very thing—just come over us. Jung termed these unconscious triggers, ‘complexes.
What I know now but did not know then was that my unconscious complex was triggered that night. I wanted “grownup things” to feel like I was successful when I felt small and ‘not enough’. I behaved that way because I felt vulnerable.
The lectionary provides a beautiful opportunity to understand why we do what we do and how God can help us.
God has given us a great gift in these matters, if we pay attention. If we ask ourselves, “What is God trying to tell me?”, we will have the opportunity to know ourselves better and to also know God more. This is what Paul is talking about in our epistle today. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul is basically saying, “I can’t help myself.”
We are not alone in our struggle to free ourselves from sin. Sin, as The Episcopal Church’s “Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism”, defines it, is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (BCP, 848). We all have different sins that we grapple with. Some stem from our family systems (the idea of sins of the fathers being visited on future generations is a very real thing in family systems therapy), some from our work (day-to-day struggles and/or overarching ethical concerns), and some from just being human (often to do with not getting our way).
We also have the capacity to have the humility to admit that we can’t break cycles of sin without help. For example, in 12-step programs, the first three steps one must take are to admit that you are powerless over your addiction, to believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity, and then to surrender your will and life over to the care of God, as you understand and view God. Sounds like an altar call, doesn’t it?
We are powerless over the sin that we have, but as Christians, we believe that God can make us whole. According to our catechism, “Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted” (BCP, 849). However, God rarely brings liberty and wholeness until we’re willing to give ourselves over to God. It takes humility to do this. When we come into church and try to give off the “illusion of perfection,” it doesn’t do us any good, nor does it do any good for our relationships, with God.
People who attend 12-Step meetings understand this deeply. The people at these meetings admit that they are struggling sinners, they know it, and they put it out there for everyone else to know. The community and humility that results from AA meetings can be more authentic than many of our church services. They know what we should know, too—that we can do nothing without God. As Paul found out, when he could do nothing else, God did everything. In the end, all that was left was for Paul to give thanks.
This season after Pentecost is all about navigating the way of discipleship. We are called to be disciples and Jesus continues to teach us about discipleship’s difficult road. We often believe that we are responsible for our salvation—if I go to church, if I’m nice to horrid people, if I do more good works, then maybe I will have enough credit to earn God’s love. When we think this way, we get caught in the very sin that we are trying to avoid, and we leave no room for God’s grace to flow. It becomes all about us and not about God.
When we think we know what we need according to the world’s view, God teaches us a to look in a new direction. We are supposed to be different. We are supposed to be followers of Jesus Christ. We need to pause every day and pay attention to how we are trying to create God in our own image for our own desires, rather than allowing God to create and develop us. God uses our weaknesses and mistakes to mold and teach us to be what we are created to be. Jesus says in our Gospel today, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Wow, think about what this means! The more we follow God’s ways, the more we know that we will be rejected by the acknowledged experts of the world—those that might see followers of Jesus as small minded and foolish.
We are called to a different standard. When we stop listening to those voices of the world telling us what we need, we can finally hear the voice that comes from within. When we try to carry out our own salvation, we get weary, we feel burdened. That is when Jesus says to us, “Come to me… and I will give you rest.” This rest can come to us through quiet mindfulness exercises: pausing to be still and noticing five things that ground us in the present moment with God. In doing so, we rest in God and who God created us to be instead of being taken over by salesmen preying on feelings of need or our other complexes. When we rest and humbly accept our shortcomings, we also give other people permission to rest, accept their own weaknesses and experience God fully.
I love this lectionary because it lets us know that we are not expected to be perfect. Our weaknesses are in many ways our greatest strengths. This is why we can relax in our powerlessness and let God use all our imperfections and subsequent growth to build a kingdom. Amen.
Reference: The Rev. Danae Ashley, Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist in Seattle.