Sunday, July 19, 2015

Homily: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [July 19, 2015] All Saints, Pasadena

"Public and Private"

Kathy and I have lived in Washington DC  for three years now, yet the locals never cease asking me how I'm adjusting to life in the District after having grown up in Los Angeles. "It's really not a problem," I  answer.  “Hollywood and Washington are exactly the same culture. So I’m very much at home here.”

As you can imagine, this is not a popular answer inside the Beltway, but it is a true one. Washingtonians may think of themselves as civil servants and diplomats, but from what I’ve seen they behave pretty much like network executives and theatrical agents. Both Hollywood and Washington are one-industry towns.  Indeed, both cities refer to themselves as “this town”—as in “you’ll never do lunch in this town again,” or “seasoned politicos see trouble brewing for policy analysts in this town”.  And, when you think about it, show business and politics are really twin branches of one enterprise. They’re both about packaging a person and projecting an image.  Everything in one city is about glitz and hype.  You could also say the same of Los Angeles.

So growing up in L.A. and around Hollywood people has actually been an asset for me, especially when it comes to reading people.  Well-known Washingtonians resemble their Hollywood cousins especially in their personal hidden-ness. In public they are often nothing like they in private.  My father was an actor, and his public and private personae could not have been more different from each other.  Politicians are pretty much the same. They project a public image that has almost nothing in common with how they are when the microphones and cameras disappear.

In some sense, politicians and actors only read back to us the public-private discontinuity that we all inhabit. Who are we in company, and who are we when alone? I've thought about this public-private disjunction a lot, especially as I've contemplated the Gospel for this morning [Mark 6:30-34, 53-56] because it is perhaps our greatest spiritual problem, especially in this social media age. But we humans were this way even before the advent of Twitter. We expect actors and politicians to wear masks. That’s what they do for a living, and at least they know the benefits and the risks they’re taking.  But what about the rest of us?
In today’s reading, Mark’s gospel tells us how, after a whirlwind of teaching and healing, Jesus and his companions decide to come away to a deserted place and rest for a while. But the crowd sees them and they follow the Jesus group to their refuge. Jesus is tired, and he is entitled to be cranky. But here is the difference between Jesus and the rest of us—or at least between Jesus and me.  Jesus does not throw a hissy fit. When cornered in private, Jesus responds as he had in public--not in anger but in love.  He doesn’t tell them to come back during office hours.  He has compassion on the crowd because they seem to him “like sheep without a shepherd”. So he teaches and heals them. He does, in private, what he was doing in public.

For Jesus, there is no Garbo-like "I want to be alone" moment here.  Jesus is who he is.  He’ll heal you in public. He’ll heal you in private. He is a unified self in both arenas. He does not have a public act and a private one.  He is one coherent human being who actually knows who he is and behaves consistently all the time and with everyone. This doesn’t mean that he is always happy or cheerful.  But he is never bogus.  He knows who he is and invites you into a zone of compassion and love, a space of healing and peace—a space where you can know and be who you are, too.

Now you'd think that knowing who you are and being that person consistently would be pretty easy.  But it is actually one of the hardest things we ever attempt to do. Growing up in the hothouse of the family, school, and peer groups, as infants and children we often develop a false self in response to the rewards and punishments we receive from parents and other authority figures.  This false self has its place: it helps us navigate the rapids of adolescence and early adulthood and eventually to get out of the house.  But there comes a time later in life—a personal, relationship, or professional crisis—when that false self is no longer adequate to the demands of the situation.  And what we call the “mid-life crisis” is often simply the breaking up of that false self and the opportunity to discover our real identity.  
By being who he was in both public and private, Jesus exemplifies for us his followers what it means to be a fully realized human being.  The Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton [who I will discuss/did discuss at the Forum this morning] puts it this way:
We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it! [New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 5]

            It is no accident that Thomas Merton learned about true and false selves while living in a monastery.  Monastic community may look peaceful from the outside, but it is the most intense kind of living there is; and there’s no place to hide when you’re with your brothers (or sisters) 24 hours a day.  But monasteries don’t only offer intense communities; they also have what we call a “Rule of Life”, a monastic commitment to balancing prayer, study, work, rest, and play in a holistic structure that allows one to experience the fullness of God’s presence in the routine round of the everyday.  You can’t survive in a monastery very long if you’re always wearing a mask. The pressure is too intense. So one of the ways you learn to live monastically is to relax and accept your identity within a shared structure. As a contemporary monk and writer, Curtis Almquist of the Cowley Fathers, says:
Benedict's [monastic] Rule is for a “24-7” living experience, nothing pie-in-the-sky. If this is what you say you believe and value, how do you live this out in the course of the day, i.e., what’s your praxis? The end of Benedictine spirituality is to develop a transparent personality. [SSJE website]

            What Curtis Almquist says of the Benedictine Rule for monks and nuns could be said of the Christian life itself:  the end of following Jesus is “to develop a transparent personality”. Jesus went into the wilderness seeking rest and found people there who needed him. In his most private moment, he was who he was, and he responded with the compassion he exhibited in public. He was one unified, seamless person.  Jesus had what Almquist would call “a transparent personality”.
You and I can have a transparent personality, too.  But to get it we have to work at it.  We can start by adopting a Rule of Life—a commitment to working, playing, resting, praying in a definable rhythm.  We can continue by deciding, in Thomas Merton’s words, no longer to lie to ourselves or to others.  That decision is one LGBT people have shown straight people like me how to make. It’s a decision that people of color and women and oppressed people have shown white men like me to make.  The step into liberation is the same whatever social location you’re in.  It’s the central act of following Jesus:  I am no longer going to lie to myself or to others.  I am going to be who I am, in all environments, regardless of the discomfort that may cause.  The decision no longer to lie to ourselves or to others is one that each of us faces on a daily basis. It is a choice we can put off but can never finally avoid. It’s one we can be strengthened to make only in community with Jesus and each other.
And that’s why we need the church. Christianity is not a solo act, and the church is really a kind of laboratory for authentic living. We need to come in and hear the stories of how Jesus lived and what Jesus stood for.  We need to come into this place and try on being our authentic selves with each other.  We need to come in and remember that we, like Jesus, are called to love and transform the world.  We need to come in so that we may go out. You don’t have to be two or five or sixteen people to get through life.  You only have to be one:  the precious, fragile person created in God’s image and loved and redeemed by Jesus. 

We come in to go out.  It will be time, soon enough, to navigate the rapids of “this town”. But for now, we are here with divine permission to be who we are. And we come now to this table. May the grace and acceptance we find here empower us to try on being who we really are so that, with practice, we can offer our true selves to the world.  Trust what happens here. The world needs the real you. Nobody needs your public relations version of you. Everyone needs you as you are. This is not the conventional wisdom of Washington, Hollywood, or anyplace else.  But it is the truth. And for it we now proceed together to give thanks.  Amen.

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