I was in the cloak room of Sister Margaret Thomasine’s eighth grade classroom. All the other children were at their desks, busily completing their assignment. My chest was thumping with desperation. Time was flying by and my work lay untouched on my desk.
My fiercely imposing teacher would surely notice my absence soon. And I was terrified that another student would discover me hiding among the coats and the book bags. But I couldn’t bring myself to go to my desk. At least, not until I could find some clothes.
After all, it was embarrassing enough to be an adult sent back to complete an eighth grade math class. But I was dressed only in my underwear. Tighty-whities.
And then it happens. The recess bell rings and everybody rushes for the cloak room. While the others students chatter and throw on their jackets and sweaters, I nonchalantly stand there and chat as if there’s nothing especially unusual about showing up to school wearing only your undershorts.
That’s when I notice that at least I’m wearing shoes and socks and I wake up.
Some dreams defy interpretation. This one’s meaning, by contrast, is laughably transparent. I’ve been exposed as the incompetent fraud that I am. The authorities—whoever they might be—have discovered that I have failed to accomplish something that even a child should have mastered by now. I’m a total disappointment.
Waking from a dream like the one I just described comes as a relief. Well, I’m relieved once I shake the residual shame and terror. It’s good to know that it wasn’t real. The feelings I was having—the feelings I was having about myself—arose from a completely distorted idea about the world around me.
And it occurs to me that many of us walk around in what amounts to a bad dream about God. Many of us live our lives trying to avoid being a big, fat disappointment to God. God tossed us onto this planet with a very clear set of expectations. The Creator is watching to see if we measure up, and God is a very demanding judge. We mustn’t fail.
Jesus has come to wake us up from this awful dream. Just like the rest of us, his disciples can be frightfully difficult to rouse.
Once, the disciples came scurrying to Jesus to report what they assumed was an unauthorized exorcist. Someone not in their circle was casting out demons in Jesus’s name. They were sure that they should put a stop to it.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but a few days before the disciples had tried their own hand at exorcising an evil spirit. While Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, a man had brought his son to the other disciples.
The boy was afflicted with terrible seizures. He would shake and jerk violently. Sometimes he pitched himself on the floor and rolled about. In the midst of one of these attacks he had even fallen into a blazing fire.
Desperate, the man pleaded with the disciples to cast out the demon. A crowd gathered as they tried everything they knew to evict the unwelcome spirit. Nothing they did worked. Finally, Jesus shows up and frees the boy from his torment.
What a public fail! A whole village of people watched the disciples swing for the bleachers and miss. Scripture says nothing about how the disciple felt, and maybe it is mere coincidence that a short time later these same disciples took offense at some other person succeeding where they have failed.
But, then again, maybe not.
Jesus tells them, “If he’s not against us, then he’s for us.” In other words, lighten up. He then goes on to talk about stumbling.
Now lots of readers assume that he’s just changed the subject. Jesus, they assume, is talking generally about avoiding sin. But I think it’s likely that Jesus hasn’t changed the subject at all. He’s trying to wake the disciples up from a bad dream about God by helping them to see how they have stumbled in their response to the other exorcist.
The unnamed exorcist gets under their skin because he reminds them of their own failure. Remember, this is the same disciples who, just after being told to take up their cross and follow Jesus, end up arguing about who sits atop the disciple totem pole and who gets shoved to the bottom.
The resentment and envy they seem to feel toward this other exorcist suggests that the disciples still derive their sense of worth and value from—and continue to assess others on the basis of—their performance. We succeed or we fail. When we measure up we please God. When we miss the mark we disappoint God.
As long as we think of God as the keeper of strict standards and the enforcer of high expectations, we are likely to despise a portion of ourselves and to judge others harshly for their shortcomings. We will always be a disappointment to ourselves and others will predictably disappoint us.
This is a bad dream. Jesus has come to wake us up. And he wakes the disciples up by giving them permission to offer themselves to God as frail and blemished children.
Jesus says it’s better to limp and stagger into the Kingdom of God maimed, lame, and blind than to march to hell fit as a fiddle. Jesus is not giving them hints about how to steer clear of all sin and to avoid God’s ultimate disappointment and condemnation. On the contrary, he’s telling them that God just doesn’t operate that way.
You see, our God turns paralytics into ballroom dancers, makes leprous skin smooth as a baby’s bottom, and breathes new life into corpses. Our God doesn’t sit around and issue condescending judgments. The Creator of all things is the Redeemer of all things. God heals and makes all things new.
Don’t believe me? Just follow Jesus around for a day.
Jesus tells his friends to get real. Even if we had something perfect to hand to God, it would only be the slightest sliver of our lives. If we were supposed to be looking for God’s approval, we would have to hope that God doesn’t catch a glimpse of all that stuff we’d rather keep under wraps.
Instead, in Jesus we see that God has come to embrace us as we really are. Jesus invites us to hand ourselves to him with all our flaws and toxins, all our bruises and scars, all our stumbles and blindness. Jesus then returns us to ourselves as his very own body.
Of course it is better to stagger into the Kingdom of God maimed, lame, and blind. It’s the only way any of us will ever enter.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Trinity, Tallulah, and Grace, Lake Providence.