Denial Is Not A River
Sermon Delivered 9/17/12Psalm 116:1-9
“When I was a young man and went to seminary school,” [that’s a Doors reference I have always wanted to make] I found that all the cool kids had bumper stickers – much like the bumper sticker theology wall at C.U.P.S. They proudly brandished statements like Eve Was Framed, or Question Authority, or the truly rebellious, In case of rapture, can I have your car?
So, naturally I set about to find a fitting statement – something that was not merely sarcastic, but truly reflective of my faith. And lo and behold, in a shop in Little Five Points in Atlanta, it came to me – Denial is not a river in Egypt. I placed it tenderly on the rear window of the cab of my small, beat up, yellow pick up truck – and everyone who knew me agreed that it seemed fitting.
In the book of James, we have been hearing about the way in which our denial of healing relationships and restoration for others is actually a denial of healing relationships and restoration for ourselves. We’ve been told that we even lose our sense of self – our true self – when we fail to see others as God’s beloved creations. When we assign value based on needs we deny what we know to be true – that value is not based on skills or abilities or public professions or any other human trait. Value is assessed only on the love of God.
And God loves us so much, and trusts us so much, that God created us with an instrument that is equally fit for tragedy and triumph. That instrument is, of course, the tongue. Now, you might think that this admonition is for those of us who claim to be, or are labeled as, extroverts. You all know at least one person like this – someone who thinks by speaking rather than considering all the angles beforehand. I would suggest, however, that whether you are a “straight shooter who speaks your mind” or someone who speaks in carefully measured tones, the opportunity that exists is the same.
More specifically, James is addressing those who teach, and not just any teachers – but those who teach about God. This is not the best scripture to share the Sunday after kicking off new church programs! Yet we are a people that believe in God’s ability to use each of us. In fact, in a few minutes we will sing words like “Teach me, Lord, that I may teach,” and “Use me, Lord, use even me,” penned by Frances Ridley Havergal over a century ago.
I think that we sing things like over and over again this because we sing what we believe – or at least we sing those things we believe with more passion. It does not hurt to be familiar with the song, but if the song expresses our belief we will put more into it. You can see that just driving down the street!
James talks about bridling and taming, though – which is really more about letting the will of someone or something else determine your actions than it is about expressing passion. In some ways this is like an answer to the question, “Can God make a rock that God can’t move?” James seems to say, “Yes, and it’s in your mouth!”
Still, the idea of taming is interesting to me. I want to believe that I can tame my tongue. What does that really mean though? In the story of The Little Prince, by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, the Little Prince encounters a fox who begs the Little Prince to tame him. The Little Prince, “who never let go of a question once he had asked it,” asked the fox what this meant – to be tamed – because he was not from this world.
The fox said, “To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
Now this may, in truth, be more of a definition of co-dependancy than taming, but it reminds me of something else. It reminds me that the thing that James is so concerned that we will mess up is the very knowledge that God made each of us as unique in all the world. God made each of us with the idea that each of us will contribute to the project of restoration and redemption that God is constantly involved in.
And yet even the disciples that physically walked the earth with Jesus could not get their heads around the idea that God wasn’t just going to physically conquer the bad guys and restore Israel with Jesus as God’s anointed One. Jesus asked them, “Who do you they say I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet.” Then he said, “Who do you say I am?” Peter nails it, “You are the Messiah.”
And Jesus tells them to bridle their tongues. It was not time yet. Jesus wanted to let the actions of God speak – not simply the voice of a man and his followers. Too many had claimed that title and led people to their death in bloody insurrection against Rome. But Jesus was not here for that. He told them openly that his path led not to a victory over Rome but to certain defeat for a crime against the state – even death on a cross.
Peter could not handle this. It made no sense. He pulled him aside and said something like, “Jesus, stick to the script. You are messing this up for everyone!” Jesus told him in no uncertain tones that he had become a Satan – a being in ancient Hebrew mythology that was responsible for the suffering of Job and the testing of prophets.
Then Jesus told the crowd even more plainly that the welcome matt for new disciples was open – if anyone was willing to join him on the cross. Martyrdom is not a convenient or comfortable invitation. Yet faith in Christ is a constant invitation to death of self and resurrection to the new being.
One of our Wednesday night studies, “The Me I Want To Be,” starts from this very position. It starts with the idea that, “There is a God, and it is not you. Therefore, your life is not your little project. Your life is God’s project.”
That does not mean that we are not responsible. What it means is that our deepest need is not to accomplish spirituality as much as it is to become aware of God’s active presence. In our awareness we realize which parts of our lives that we, like Peter, really want to follow our expectations. And we realize that in the denial of our need to be transformed we are, in fact, in denial of Jesus.
In the class last Wednesday we talked about the different versions of our identity based on the assumptions and expectations of others, the expectations we place on ourselves, and the true self that God created us to be. There was a lot of wisdom in that room, so I asked the simple question,“How many times can you really become someone new?” The answer was given as though it were obvious,“How many times does the sun come up?”
And so the question of denial is not so much a matter of whether or not we are in denial. The question is what we have chosen to deny. Are we in denial of our false self or our true self? Are we in denial of the reality of the cross or of its invitation? Are we in denial of the humanity of the one with whom we disagree, judge, and discount, or are we in denial of ourselves? Apparently, even for Jesus, the answer is found in the actions of God and the way in which our lives demonstrate or deny the love of God.
Frances Ridley Havergal not only wrote the hymn, “Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak.” She also wrote the following Prelude to the hymn, “Ministry of Song.”
Amid the broken waters of our ever-restless thought,Denial is not a river, but through Christ we may deny all that is false and proclaim all that is true. May it be that each of us are found to be in such deep denial of this present darkness that the light of Christ flows through us like a river to the sea. Amen.
Oh be my verse an answering gleam from higher radiance caught;
That where through dark o’erarching boughs of sorrow, doubt and sin,
The glorious Star of Bethlehem upon the flood looks in,
Its tiny trembling ray may bid some downcast vision turn
To that enkindling Light, for which all earthly shadows yearn.
Oh be my verse a hidden stream, which silently may flow
Where drooping leaf and thirsty flower in lonely valleys grow;
And often by its shady course to pilgrim hearts be brought,
The quiet and refreshment of an upward-pointing thought;
Till, blending with the broad bright stream of sanctified endeavor,
God’s glory be its ocean home, the end it seeketh ever.