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Sermon for November 20, 2016

Cardio Conditioning

Now you can have sincere love for each other as brothers and sisters because you were cleansed from your sins when you accepted the truth of the Good News. So see to it that you really do love each other intensely with all your hearts. 1 Peter 1:22, NLT
Tom was the general manager of a propeller repair shop in South Boston. The building smelled like hot metal and grease. Tom was smeared in dirt. His face was ragged. An inch of ashes clung impossibly to a cigarette that seemed permanently attached to the corner of his mouth. “What do you want?” He growled. “I’m here to apply for the job.” He looked me up and down, and walked away, shaking his head as if in disgust. The shop owner came out with desperate apologies. I wanted to run away at that moment, but we needed the money. So I took the job. The months ahead proved Tom to be the angriest, most foul-mouthed, insulting person I ever met. I was put in charge of grinding the welds of off newly-repaired inboard propellers. Mind you, I never touched a power tool in my life, and I was being trained to make $500.00 propellers look like new. Tom was always looking over my shoulder. My successes were not celebrated, but every failure, and there were many, was talked about for days. “How could you be so stupid? Were you born screwing things up or is it an acquired ability? Give me that grinder you moron and watch me do it again.” I spent hours looking over his shoulder in utter boredom, wondering when he would strike next. I found little consolation in the fact that he treated everyone this way. Every time Tom opened his mouth, I stood frozen like a mouse hoping to be invisible to a prowling cat. Except for one thing: I smiled. Tom would get ready for another verbal volley, and I would look him in the eyes and grin, letting his words burst upon me. I would return home at the end of the day demoralized, smeared with shaft grease and bronze dust and adding a few new phrases to my lexicon of “Profanities I Hope Never to Hear Again.”

And it wasn’t just that Tom was the meanest person I had ever met. He was sad. Empty. And his sadness was infectious. Those early days at the propeller shop broke me down.

We all know people who are, ummm … challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice-but-flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn’t like you, a partner who won’t keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. This past week, I’ve being challenged by people in Silver Spring and beyond who are committing horrible acts of hatred. I’m also upset by what’s inside of me -- my anxiety and fear, my reactivity, my willingness to label people as adversaries.

Let me share with you what happens in me during times of high stress. I get angry and I become a fixer. When I see acts of racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hatred, I’m tempted to the feel as if God has fallen asleep on the job. If no supernatural help is coming, then I’ll make it better myself. I’ll try desperately to change people and situations over which I have no control. We know how that goes, right? Anytime we try to control or persuade indifferent people, we end up failing. The more we struggle against unmanageable circumstances, the further we are from the peace we seek.

I had a great conversation with one of our church members that put me back on track -- a reminder of how much my own hurts and disappointments come from my reactions to the people in my life. She helped me remember that the past is gone and the future is not set, and we only have this moment, which always offers a gift.

I want to take a step back today and rethink our new national landscape. How can we open our hearts during these strange and anxious times? When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s often used as a symbol. We tend to think of the heart as the home base of love, but in the Bible, the heart refers to our emotions, thoughts, or will. The heart is the seat of moral responsibility. If we are not careful our heart, our emotions and will, can get sick. Think of it like spiritual heart disease. Sometimes our hearts close off to others and to God. The heart can become polluted. We talk about broken hearts, fearful hearts, and angry hearts. The most common spiritual heart disease is a hard heart. Like a stone, a hard heart is dead. You can find no feeling in it. There is no consciousness in it. The problem with a hard, stony heart is that the condition can lead to a sense of brokenness and despair. A hard hard can mask itself in hatred.

People will hold on to negative emotions like hatred for such a long time. We don’t want to deal with our pain. We will hold on to hatred so that we don’t have to deal with the real pain that caused the hatred to come out.

Some of us have the habit of setting up a stone-cold barrier between ourselves and those who cause us pain. What if the people and situations on the other side do not need to be avoided or removed?  The further we push them away the more power we give them.  Our cold hearted habit may  have helped us persevere in difficult times. The more we become aware when we are closing off, the more we can practice a more heart-healthy cardio routine. At these times, I imagine God singing to me like Hank Williams Sr.:
“You’ll never know how much it hurts to see you sad and cry.
You know you need and want my love, yet you’re afraid to try.
Why do you run and hide from life, to try it just ain’t smart.
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.”
God wants to open our hearts and awaken us to the reality of other beating hearts around us – hearts that suffer pain, just like mine; hearts who want to be happy, just like mine; hearts that want peace, just like mine; hearts that want friendship, just like mine. We tend to our hearts by opening them to others -- especially those with whom we disagree. We could call it open-heartedness, or whole-heartedness.

I don’t know if you have heard of Brene Brown. If you haven’t, you need to. Brene Brown teaches social work at the University of Houston. She began her research trying to understand what makes certain people more resilient, a quality she calls “whole-heartedness.” She concluded that what blocks whole-heartedness is shame. Shame, at its heart, is a fear that if you know the truth about me, you will reject me. Shame whispers “You are not good enough.” So we hide who we really are.

Our new cardio conditioning begins when we learn to embrace vulnerability.  It takes a lot of courage. Specifically, courage to be imperfect. Whole-hearted people believe we are more beautiful for being broken. They are kind to themselves, because they knew that we can’t be compassionate to others if we can’t treat ourselves with compassion. They are willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they are. In their vulnerability, they are willing to do things where there are no guaranteed positive outcomes. They were willing to invest in relationships that may not work out. Whole-hearted people have a strong sense of love and belonging. Brene Brown found the one variable that separated people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from people who struggle for it, was that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.

Brown says the challenge is we cannot selectively numb emotions. Here are her words: “We cannot say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. I don’t want to feel these.’ You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable so we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.” When we numb ourselves to our vulnerability, when we numb ourselves to grief, and shame, and disappointment, we also numb ourselves to joy, and gratitude, and happiness.

There are other ways that we numb ourselves besides our addictive behaviors. We can numb ourselves by believing everything that is uncertain is certain: “I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up.” That’s part of the cycle of fear and shame and vulnerability. It begins with fear. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, and then the more afraid we are. It’s not just true in our personal relationships.  It’s true in the church. It’s true in our politics. I wonder if a lot of what is going on right now in our national political landscape is a struggle between power, vulnerability, and fear.

What might happen if we at CCC commit ourselves to whole-heartedness? We might step beyond our stone-cold walls and learn the language of vulnerability. We might connect with others across differences. Connection and relationship is the nature of our universe.

The events in our community and our nation may fall outside our experience and our understanding of how things are supposed to work. It's easy to convince ourselves that these things cannot be true so we don't have to deal with them. We can ignore them to avoid discomfort. We stop listening altogether. Whole-heartedness does the opposite. If we really want to address the pain in our community, we have to accept there are some uncomfortable truths out there. If we are going to make things better, we need to listen to these truths and accept the reality that the world if often different than we like it to be. They occur within a system of conditions and causes that can be changed. As we join together with a diverse community of people who are working actively to make the world a better place.

The antidote to numb, stony hearts is warm connection with other people. Let our open hearts notice all the ways that we build walls of hate, or arrogance, or envy within ourselves.

Let our open hearts create something new -- something made with honesty, humility, acceptance, forgiveness, self-responsibility, compassion, understanding, co-operation, service, and patience.

Let the power of our open hearts open other hearts that are afraid of losing something.

Let us be open to a more peaceful and enjoyable way to be.

Let us come together as a whole broken-hearted nation to create connections. Let us dance those connections – and sing those connections – and pray those connections – and march those connections – and legislate those connections.  Let us speak those connections – and teach those connections – and write those connections – and paint those connections – and yes, let us fund those connections!

Let us notice and admire the beauty of those connections in each other as we express them and lift each other up.

I have a postscript to the boat propeller repair shop story. Tom and I became friends. All I can say is I never followed through on my revenge fantasies. I just kept smiling that silly smile of mine. Every morning I would go to work and say, “Hi, how are ya’?” After a year or so, Tom’s defenses began to fall. He even began to smile back as he called me a moron.

One could say that to live a life of faithfulness to Christ is to experience the hurt and pain of our connections; to lament in grief and sorrow over the world’s sad state of affairs. Out of that vulnerability comes an openness to building others up. When we see a world that rejects and denies the power of love, we can be living reminders of what it looks like to believe we are worthy. Do you know whom God loves? The rejected and despised, the prejudiced and those who challenge our prejudices, the disappointed, the insecure and the lonely, the violent and the hate-filled people of the world. Do you know whom God loves? Us – every one of us. We all belong to God. We find ways to encourage and build others up because God’s love never gives up. Not on you. Not on anybody

So, here’s the new cardio plan for an open heart: smile upon others, and encourage others, and love the person who is a pain in the neck. Remember that the people who are causing pain and destruction might be wounded at their very core. You never know. Your smile, your kind words, your acts of compassionate justice, might bring some healing. And you might find that as you show compassion, even as you seek to confront the world’s evils and right the world’s wrongs, your heart will remember that all are worthy. All are worthy.

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