— Dawn Christenson

September 2, 2018

James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Both of our readings today are getting at the same thing from slightly different perspectives. In them, we find that every act of giving and each gift, is divinely inspired and created. Every human being is a gift of God. Each of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And we are born anew by the word of truth made known to us in the Gospel of Christ.
If we live into the legacy of Jesus’ Gospel, we must act and speak with the love made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the ‘Word made flesh who lived among us’. If we are “doers of the Word”, following in Jesus’ footsteps, we will be “quick to listen, slow to speak” acting as he did: with hearts full of empathy, mercy and compassion. No belittling. No condemnation. No trash-talk.
To paraphrase our Gospel reading: ‘it’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles; it’s what comes out of your mouth’. But it’s deeper than words. It’s a matter of heart. How’s your heart? You see, the heart is central to our thoughts, words and deeds. Our thoughts, words and deeds are reflective of our heart-health. Yet, this isn’t just about our interactions with others. How we treat ourselves is important too.
I talk to myself. Do you? What kind of self-talk do you engage in? Do you show yourself the same empathy, mercy and compassion that Jesus showed others? Do you say to yourself: “Hey, it’s okay. You made a mistake. Learn from it and try to do better the next time.”? Or are you your own worst critic? Do you bully and beat yourself up at every turn? Do you say things to yourself, like: “Geez, you’re stupid. You’ll never amount to anything. Why do you even try, you know you can’t do it. You’re hopeless. You’re worthless. You’re a waste of time and material.”? Many engage in that kind of self-talk. All I have to say to that is: What a load of crap! What a load of garbage! I don’t care who you are, who you think you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done. YOU are not worthless! No one is! You were created by God from the very essence of Godself – LOVE. And you are and always will be a beloved child of God. Nothing can ever change that. So, knock it off!
Negative self-talk is self-defeating and crippling. Sure, we might be able to put up a good front on the outside, but no one can possibly know the pain felt on the inside, from the constant self-beratement. It takes a terrible toll. You see, it doesn’t matter if you bully yourself or if you’re bullied by others, the pain and scars inflicted are the same. And over time our self-image resembles all of that negativity. Garbage in – garbage out. The me I see is the me I’ll be. And we never know, when we look into the eyes of another human being, the degree of pain that person may be enduring. We don’t know. We can’t know. We can’t possibly know all of their past and current traumas. We can’t possibly know all of their physical and emotional stressors. We can’t possibly know all of their life circumstances of family, friends, relationships, jobs, school, finances, and so much more. In a given moment we can’t possibly know all of the burdens and brokenness that any one person carries. And that is why we need to be quick to listen.
That’s a gift, you know … to listen, really listen, to be fully present for another sojourner in this crazy, mixed up journey we call life. How many of us, have from time to time needed that … not needing anyone to guide, advise or fix things … but to simply and generously listen? Yet, most of us won’t ask for that. You know, even as a Pastor when I have invited others to unload their burdens, I’m told: “Well, you don’t need to hear this. Everybody’s got stuff. There’s lots of people with bigger problems than me.” Really? Even if that’s true, it doesn’t diminish the weight of those burdens. How much more before any one of them breaks, and feels completely helpless and hopeless?
On the news this past week, I was struck by the story of a 9-year-old boy, Jamel Myles, who took his own life. Nine. He was 9-years-old, going into the 4th grade. He felt so worthless, helpless, and hopeless that he couldn’t bear to go on living. Now, it’s true that he was bullied. In fact, some of his peers encouraged him to kill himself. Now, we can feel angry at those bullies. How could they be so cruel? But I have to wonder, what kind of burdens are those kids carrying? Because bullying is a symptom of something much deeper. It may contribute to suicide, but it’s only one piece of a very complicated puzzle. I’ve wondered … wondered about what so many of our youth face today. I’ve wondered about why and how so many young people feel worthless and hopeless enough to take their own lives.
Do you realize that, according to the CDC, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 to 24? Did you know that last year, nearly 5400 kids committed suicide? That’s an annual average… a number that goes up every year. And that’s just the number of those who succeed. Over 157,000 wind up in ERs every year from self-harm and attempted suicide. And who knows the number of youth today who contemplate suicide. One is too many. Those at greatest risk are those who are bullied, the bullies themselves, uninvolved witnesses to bullying; those with disabilities, learning differences, sexual/gender identity differences, and those with cultural differences. We know that emotional distress, exposure to violence, family conflict, relationship problems, drug and alcohol use, lack of connectedness and lack of resources and support, all dramatically increase risk for kids, with regard to suicide, all of it making them feel like worthless garbage.
What if anything does any of this have to do with us? Everything. Because every connection made, every bit of support given reduces risk. We might not be able to change all of the other crap going on in those kids’ lives, but we can and should be the support and connection that they so desperately need. And I’m not just talking about the kids in our congregation. I’m talking about all the kids each of us encounters in our daily lives. We have a choice to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger” or we can simply ignore them, like the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan, and walk on by. What would Jesus do? We shouldn’t even have to ask that question.
You know, I’ve been blessed to interact with some local youth who like to hang out at the Commons. Last Wednesday, before I left to make another pastoral visit, I took another moment to just say “hi” to them. This time I found some very troubled kids. I listened. I asked for them to tell me more. And what I learned is that one of their teachers seems to be unreasonable, uncompassionate and unempathetic. It seems they can’t even turn to this teacher for any guidance or support. No, I don’t know the teacher’s perspective. But I do know that some of what those kids were sharing with me, sadly reminded me of me early in my teaching career.
Years ago, out of my own insecurity, I put on the unwavering hat of authority – rigid and harsh. That tactic simply doesn’t work. It haunts me that, years ago, one of our students committed suicide. I have often wondered, what I and my colleagues could have done differently to prevent that. You see, any good learning environment must feel safe and foster mutual respect, empathy and compassion. Being a good educator is as much if not more about being a role model, mentor and serving with integrity, as it is about teaching facts, figures and technical skills. I’ve learned that my vulnerability in the classroom – my willingness to say that I was wrong, say that I was sorry, and that I was willing to change matters for their benefit, did more to educate my students than anything I was required to teach. I’ve learned that teaching is grounded in the ways of the one they called Teacher and Rabbi – Jesus the Christ. He welcomed children. And that means each and every one of us, as disciples of Christ, are called to teach and minister especially to our youth.
Let’s face it. If these kids can’t turn to all of their teachers and administrators at school for empathy, compassion and support, who can they turn to? We could be the ones – the only ones – to make a positive difference in their lives. We don’t know and probably will never know all of the brokenness that they face and carry day after day. We may not be able to fix any of that. But we can and should offer them love in a world filled with hate. We can offer them sanctuary and shelter from all of the crap going on in their lives. All we need to do is be kind, compassionate and empathic – bridling our tongues and listening generously with our hearts. All we need to do is greet each and every one of them with the love of God, embracing them as the beloved children of God, for that is who they are.
We can be the difference all of our young people need and deserve. We may not be able to change the world, but with the help of God, we can change our little corner of the world by improving the lives of those around us – especially the youngest and most vulnerable among us. God claims these kids and loves these kids. Let us do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.