I’ve written before that I agree with Scott Peck that most of the evil in the world starts with a refusal to look at parts of ourselves that we can’t accept. It moves from there into a projection out onto others and becomes evil then when those it is projected onto are attacked. It is especially so when the originator of the failure to self-reflect tries to destroy their own shadow in the “other”. I’ve also said before that when people are upset about something, it usually says much more about them than it does about the person they are complaining about. For example, the person I know who says “everything is about power” really means that everything for HER comes down to an issue of power. The person who says that other people don’t listen is one who struggles to hear other people correctly, fully, and honestly. It’s not that either of them are incorrect – there are many people who struggle with power issues. The ability to really listen to one another is rare, especially now, especially here. But the fact that the woman who was accusing others of being power-hungry is herself so focused on claiming and using power, and the fact that the woman who complains about others failure to listen in particular mishears and fails to hear, is clear to everyone except these individuals. I could go on and give other examples: the woman who was obsessed with others’ manners and so corrected a colleague publicly and loudly, shouting that she should “say please”; the woman who was deeply concerned about the integrity and honesty of others who lied on a regular basis. These are some examples of how a failure to self-reflect and really work on our own stuff often plays out.
The point of all of this is, as I have said before, that what people express, share, and struggle with “out there” says so much more about themselves than it ever does about anyone else.
But this week I found myself thinking about this at another level. As you know, I write sermons. Weekly I write them. I almost always base my sermons on lectionary – so the passages that come up, that are presented to me, that I preach on, are rarely ones that I have chosen myself. When I do go off lectionary, it is because I have chosen to do a sermon series on something specific. The large majority of the time, pastors all over the world are preaching on these passages at the same time that I do. Additionally, there have only been a couple times, early on in my 24 years in ministry, that I have ever found myself picturing an individual in my congregation when I’ve written or preached a sermon. And both those times the person did not actually show up when I preached the sermon. I learned from that. I felt God had stepped in both times and basically said, “No. That’s not your job. Preach what the passage calls from you to preach, but do not preach AT individuals. You never know the fullness of someone’s story. And it is not your job to try to correct individuals in this way. You also risk alienating or hurting someone. That, too, is not your job.” So, whenever I have been tempted to do that, to preach AT an individual, I will admit to you that I now will dig up an old sermon and use that specifically to avoid the temptation. Our lectionary is on a three year schedule. So topics come up every three years. After 24 years, then, I have several sermons on each topic, and it is not hard to find an old sermon on any topic. This is not to say there aren’t times when I’ve preached something I thought the community needed to hear. There are times when I have felt that as a community we need to be looking at specific problems or issues. But again, my sermons are never aimed at specific individuals, with one major exception. This is my last and most important point. I often write my sermons AT MYSELF. I pray, I sit with the topic, and I write what I need to work on, what I need to correct in myself. Frankly, I am deeply grateful for my job because it forces me weekly to do inner work, to self-reflect, to look honestly at the areas in which I need to grow. I’m never going to be perfect, I’m never going to get there, but I want to keep growing, to keep seeing the areas that need my attention, to keep being committed to learning and being better. If you want to know my faults better, listen to my sermons; they are not about YOU, but often about the areas of my own growth that I need to be addressing. I hope that these areas resonate with you and help you as well, but they are not about you.
I write all this because, on a regular basis, I have people ask me if (or tell me that) I have written the sermon AT that individual, I am correcting them, or (occasionally) someone else. And every time they do that I have found myself surprised, stunned, and bewildered. “Why on earth did they think that?” I have wondered. “Why did they think this was aimed at them, individually, personally, specifically?” But this week all of these reflections conjoined and I realized that once again, this concern that I was writing about them was not about me. It was, once again, a window into the other person. Why did they think I was writing about them? Why did they think I was preaching at them? The fact that they thought this says much about them. Sometimes when there has been fear that I was preaching at someone, it has been accompanied by denial, “I know you were preaching this at me, but I didn’t do it…” kind of a response. Other times it’s just been a question – “was that aimed at me?” And two times of which I am aware, someone has become so angry that they thought I was preaching at them that they have stepped away all together. All three responses have always been a surprise to me. But today I have more insight around it. It still saddens me when people become upset and think that I am preaching at them. It is especially sad when they think that “everyone knows you were preaching at me!” and so they distance themselves. It would be better if they asked and could see for themselves the look of surprise on my face when they do. But I finally got it today. Just as the sermons I write are not about YOU, your concern that they are about you is not about ME.
Whew. What a relief that is! I am not responsible for how you take what I say. I am not responsible for your actions, or how you respond to me. I am not responsible for your decisions, for who you choose to be in relationship to me, or how you react to what I say or do. That is all, all of it, every single piece of it, about YOU. None of it is about me. And by the same token, my writings, my sermons, my choices that are never going to be perfect, never going to be all that someone else could want, never going to be absolutely right every time, those are always about me – none of those are about YOU. And in that, my friends, in that, there is both freedom and relief, and hope, and grace. We are both freed, then, to work on our own stuff. To work on ourselves and offer grace and love to the other. To correct ourselves, and offer forgiveness and compassion to the other.
I am grateful today for this insight. And while I may not always be able to apply it, for today it is a gift.