The Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Jeff Martinhauk preaching at pulpit

The Rev.Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Easter 6B, May 9, 2021
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
John 15:9-17

I’m currently enrolled in a leadership class at the University of San Diego.  It follows the curriculum of one of my heroes, doctor of Social Work and shame researcher Brene Brown.  She has taken her research into shame, vulnerability, courage, and connection and applied it to leadership in a variety of settings.

In one of the early lessons in the course, we looked at pre-pandemic research of some of the challenges facing major organizations today.  The study identified ten common challenges.  I won’t list all of them here but let me tell you just a few of the things that stood out to me.

First, organizations across the board found that honest feedback is hard and rare among people in organizations.  Leaders attribute this to a variety of causes, but whatever the reason one of the top findings is that people are not really very honest in their communications, opting instead for things like passive-aggressive communication, back-channel communication, gossip, and saying yes when they really mean no because honest, direct communication requires too much courage.  The risk of being honestly seen is too big and scary, especially in large organizations, but also in many interpersonal relationships.

Another related finding was that it is very rare for organizations to proactively acknowledge fears and feelings during times of change, which of course means that as things change the organization has to spend a whole lot of time managing troublesome behaviors as those same fears and feelings begin to manifest in actions.  But organizations have a harder time with the uncertainty of emotions and feelings than they do specific actions that are a direct result ignoring emotions and feelings, or worse- actively suppressing those feelings.

Several of the other items have to do with shame and perfectionism– organizations with cultures where individuals do not succeed unless they can be invulnerable and right, which creates climates that are very bad at handling creativity, healthy striving, learning, and growth.  All of those skills require the ability to fail and be wrong with plenty of room for grace.  Any artist can tell you that they never had their most successful performance on their first try, but organizations and many interpersonal relationships do not create safe places to try over and over again.

Brene Brown has called this system of perfectionism and invulnerability a hustle for worthiness.  Deeply embedded in our culture, the research says, is a drive to distance ourselves from “the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be.”

Tell you I think your idea won’t work?  It’s easier to nod quietly and share my true feelings with my friend in the parking lot.  Talk openly about the fear we have about the upcoming change?  Maybe let’s just wait and see if it goes ok, and deal with any resistance later.  Stay with a problem long enough to root out the cause?  It’s easier to put this band-aid on and walk away.  When we avoid these uncomfortable situations, we can move quickly on to the next thing, keep our hustle for worthiness going, keep anyone from seeing through the cracks, and continue to perform, perfect, please, and prove.  We think we are striving for our worthiness by preserving something; an image of ourselves, a resource, a status: armor that we believe keeps us viable “out there.”  

We all do these things at different levels or points in our lives. And in the process we are keeping ourselves from having real, authentic connection.

Our gospel lesson gives us reason to get out of the hustle for worthiness.  In the gospel, Jesus tells his friends that the source of love is God, and that love flows from God into them.  Why?  So that joy may be in them, and joy may be complete.  The goal of God’s love is joy in us, in the object of God’s love; we are God’s beloved!

Then, immediately after that there is this commandment: to love one another as Jesus loved them.

That’s where it gets messy.  Over time, we friends of Jesus have taken that commandment and turned it into a hustle.  In the words of one bishop, “We deserve love, we want love, and so we skip down to the part that tells us how to get it. We see the word commandment and we see that we are to love others.”  We worry that it is an exchange policy, a kind of capitalism of love:  I give love and I get love.

And it has, for some, become a part of the hustle for worthiness that we are running in the rest of our lives, a part of the very problem we were just describing.  If I only do (fill in the blank) then I will be enough for Jesus.  It reminds me of that old bumper sticker:  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy.”  That’s a complete hustle for worthiness: an attempt to put on a front so that Jesus will love; as if somehow acting busy could fool Jesus into loving more.  It is a humorous attempt, but still it is about a hustle because it implies that if we don’t look busy, Jesus won’t love us.

But the opening of today’s lesson dispels that message.  We do not need to hustle for God’s love or for worthiness.  We are loved.  You are loved.  The parts of us that sin and the parts of us that are righteous.  Jesus hung around sinners.  He also says the sun sets on the righteous and unrighteous alike.  All parts of us – they are loved.  Without merit.  Without justification.  Without doing anything at all.  It’s just who God is.  To hustle for that is to be confused about who we are.

The commandment to love is not about worthiness.  It is instead an invitation to journey together on this road of humanity where all of us are a little righteous and a little bit sinner; to experience the grace and the joy of that love that comes from without. It’s really the complete opposite of– or even the antidote to– the hustle for worthiness:  its the realization that I am worthy, that you are worthy, that we are worthy– because God loves us.

Brown says: “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.  Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them- we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.  Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows.  Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.” (Brown)

It’s only fitting, then, that we get this reading, this testament to love, on Mother’s Day, when we honor all the mothering virtues we have had in the people around us who have cultivated this bond with us in our lives.

I think back, you know, to the before time– to before this pandemic.  And I think: it was a hustle.  It was busy.  How many of us had to have our armor up just to get through the week?  You know what I mean, to make sure we there was some story about us out there, but it didn’t get too real so people didn’t see the cracks?  How many things needed to be on that calendar?  And what was that for?  How many things had to happen just right or we would not be satisfied, or even would be ashamed? But you can’t have your armor up and know the joy of love.

Love also isn’t about “anything goes.”  There are boundaries and trust and accountability involved.  But if we are armored up because we are so sure that we will experience shame if we make a mistake, love cannot get through.  How can we know God loves us or that we are ultimately worthy if our focus is on finding worthiness— out there?  And if that’s what we are doing, how can we possibly grow love with anyone else?  Being vulnerable enough to walk authentically in your own shoes is a prerequisite for love.

We are all tired after this past year.  Now, we have new hope and energy as we start to emerge from this great reset of our lives together.  But– do we go back to what was?  What will we bring forward into this new structure of relationships and society?  Can we bring less hustle, less armor, more authenticity, and more connection so that love may be strengthened?  

The good news is that we do not have to be victims of a culture of hustle.  We can choose to show up.  We can exercise the muscles of courage, connection, and empathy and choose to be seen so that we can also see others authentically.  It is through those relationships, through that kind of deep connection that we can make a difference – that we can love.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Sources Consulted: 

Hitchhiking The Word: Easter 6B May 9, 2021 (hitchhikingthebible.blogspot.com)

Quote by Brené Brown: “When we can let go of what other people think a…” (goodreads.com)

Definitions | Brené Brown (brenebrown.com)

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