Second Cor 20b-6:10
It hurts when someone will not know you for you. When another will not see you for the person you mean to be, it hurts.
Nineteen and a half centuries ago, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to his Corinthian church family, and he gave voice to this troubling truth. Listing every virtue that the community strives to embody – purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, truthfulness, and the readiness to endure great suffering in their faithfulness – he then named the frustration that everyone in the church was probably experiencing at least a little bit: That in spite of their deep commitment to living lives of justice and goodness, many people would still think they were imposters, liars, or maybe naïve, pitiful, citizens of ill repute. It hurts when someone does not know you for you.
Misunderstandings, and miscommunication are a part of life, of course. People are strange and confusing to one another. And sometimes, folks try to understand each other, but they just don’t get each other.
Educators sometimes lament not being able to relate to their students. People who are passionate about politics might be at a loss for understanding why their opponents see things so differently. Family members sometimes feel that they are speaking different languages. It’s not for lack of desire to relate – but knowing people well is hard.
The band Crosby, Stills and Nash wrote a song during the heat of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, a time when there was a perceived generational divide between parents who came of age in the 1940s and their kids who were coming of age in the late sixties. The song is called Teach Your Children Well, and the first half of the song is written to parents, telling them that they have the responsibility of teaching their children about dignity and respect, patience, faithfulness, compassion and love. Teach your children well. The second half of the song is written to the young people, telling them of their responsibilities to teach their parents about the very same things. Teach your parents well. Don’t give up on each other, and you’ll make it through the conflicts that you’re in.
We don’t always understand each other easily. Sometimes we get each other dead wrong, and that hurts. But with time and effort understanding can be increased. This is true in families, among co-workers, between nations, and it’s true of all kinds of people who are different and don’t much know what to make of each other.
Of course sometimes, there is no effort made to increase understanding, and that hurts. You’ve probably had experiences, and you’ll probably have more before you’re done, when someone or a group of people misunderstood and judged and labeled you without making any effort or having any intention of knowing you for who you really are. For some people, growing in a deep understanding of others is not a priority. It hurts when someone will not know you for you.
Paul said “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. It hurts when someone will not know you for you.
Over the past few weeks our church has received a series of very hateful messages by a group that is quite angry about some of the programming we’ve had that aims to advance people’s understanding of the history and the dynamic issues at play in the Palestian/Israeli conflict. We’ve had classes, and forums and speakers here, in an effort to learn about all the sides of the issues, and groups of our church members have traveled to the Holy Land, and sadly have witnessed some of the egregious crimes taking place there, and then spoken about it publicly. And recently now we’ve received a little bit of hate mail, calling our church and our leaders ant-semitic and racist, and some uglier things that don’t warrant repeating. The people who sent these messages clearly have no interest in knowing anything about who we really are. They haven’t been here to see the ways that we live out our commitment to openness, love and justice, how we believe that religious faith is about multiplying grace and compassion in the world. They’re not interested in knowing the truth about our community.
I’m happy to report that I haven’t lost any sleep over this hate-mail. In my most well-adjusted, balanced moments, I’m able to say that if somebody thinks something about me that’s just patently false, it’s their problem. If they don’t want to be neighborly with me, that’s their loss, because I’m a good neighbor. But my balanced, well-adjusted moments are only some of my moments. And sometimes it really does hurt when people say things about me or my people that are not true.
In your personal life, if someone decides that you’re selfish – and you work hard to be a generous person; or someone believes you are judgmental toward them, and you weren’t. If someone thinks you’re stupid, and you’re not stupid, but the person makes no effort to actually know you for who you really are. It hurts sometimes, it does, and Paul’s words of encouragement and reassurance to the Corinthians are also for us, in those moments.
Now I want to talk about a hurt that is a little different; It’s the same, but it’s different.
There is a hurt that lives in a deeper place than the ones that come when a person doesn’t see you for who you are. This hurt comes mixed with shame and self-doubt, and while is also originates in the divide between how we are seen and who we are, it’s a different hurt, because the conflict from which it arises is a conflict within our own souls. Sometimes, the competing claims about who we really are, do not exist between us and others. Sometimes it’s not about whether your family, or your coworkers, or people in the society know you for you. Sometimes the imperative to know the truth of our real selves exists between our own dissonant notions of who we are.
On the one hand, we know our aspirations to be people of grace and goodwill, patience, insight and good cheer. All the qualities of a faithful person that Paul enumerated in his letter to the Corinthians – these are things we want to believe are true to us. And yet, day by day, minute by minute, we think and speak and act in ways that do not align with our desire for goodness.
I could say, for example, that I am a kind and patient person, that I am not the type of person who would yell at a child. Friends, I have yelled at the three children I love the most, more times than I could count, and at those times, my own actions and words convicted and labeled me as a man who is not kind, not patient. It’s not only other people who can hurt me by not knowing me for me. I can do that, too.
We are the selves that God created us to be, that God calls us to be. We are disciples of Jesus, we are people of the light. And we are sinners. We act meanly, though we mean to be gentle. We speak of hope but spiral in desperation. We are lazy and distractible, though we believe in vigilance. We habitually choose greed and violence, even though we do not want violence and greed to rule. We are imposters, and yet we are true.
In our sinning we tell ourselves that we are not the gracious and decent people that God has conceived us to be, that our holy imaginations have known us to be. In our sins, we act as if we are not children of God, whose very lives are forged by grace. It hurts when someone doesn’t know you for you, especially if that someone is you.
This tension is where the work of confession, the work of penitence, the work of Lent comes from – the desire to be true to ourselves – often in the face of others who would not truly see us, but always in the face of our own susceptibility to believing our failures are our real names.
In a few moments we’ll receive ashes, an ancient sign of mourning, that will symbolize our grief over the ways we fail to honor God and love God’s family. And each of us, as ashes are placed upon our heads, will hear the words, “You come from dust, and to dust you will return.”
These words are a precious reminder that each and every one of us is created. We are not the source of our own lives, but we live because the breath of God is moving through us, and we are given the sacred gift of a limited time on this earth, with which to do something good.
The source of our life is the Holy who deals first and finally in grace. Sisters and brothers, let us come, ready to know our neighbors, ready to know ourselves. Let us come to God. Amen.