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Sunday 3 March 2019

Leaving self behind

1 Corinthians 15:51-58; Luke 6:39-49


By Andrew Dart

Superintendent Minister, Lambeth Methodist Circuit


Context: a medium sized multi-cultural congregation in inner city London

Aim: to remind us of the need for self-awareness


As a Minister I have to regularly seek feedback as part of an appraisal process. It is never easy because even if you have been somewhere a long time and have good relationships it can be quite bruising to hear criticism about your ministry. Being criticised about your preaching or pastoral work, however reasonable or constructive, can hurt because it might seem that it is your calling and your vocation that is being questioned.

None of us like criticism which is why Jesus’ comments about specks and planks resonate so clearly with us. Who hasn’t been lectured to by someone who thinks they know better? And who hasn’t been hurt by hypocritical speech or behaviour?

Although Jesus’ words remind us about the danger of being hypocritical and of offering insensitive feedback, they are actually more about self-criticism. If we take the passage from Luke as a whole, we see that the writer has grouped together several comments that broadly say the same thing. As well as warning us to be aware of the plank in our own eye, Jesus cautions about leading others if we are not properly equipped, he reminds us to take the trouble to build ‘our house’ on firm foundations, and with a nod to nature he reminds us that bad trees cannot bear good fruit.

All of these various sayings point in the same direction. They are about the need for self-awareness; they are about how vital it is that we take time, trouble and energy, to understand ourselves, our motivations, our experiences and our needs. It is only when have self-awareness that we can dare to offer advice, leadership or feedback to others.

This all might seem right and obvious but actually if we think about it there is not much evidence of such self-awareness in public life at the moment. Those in the public eye rarely admit to having got things wrong or to having learnt through their mistakes. The same can be true in church life for admitting we have been wrong means acknowledging our vulnerability, it means owning our weaknesses and it means confessing to our failures.

I wonder if Jesus is not only calling us to this place of vulnerability but also inviting us to exercise a certain discipline in self-exploration. After all, Jesus himself, by committing to the path that led ultimately to the cross, was pioneering such a journey. It was a journey of humility or to use an expression I came across recently – of de-selfing.

This is hugely countercultural. Everything shouts at us today about the need to express our own personalities, to own the right of self-expression and assert our individualisms. But the journey to the cross demands the opposite – that we deconstruct our egos, that we rediscover the nature of humility, and that we understand and own our weaknesses. Within the historical monastic movements what people found hardest was not the vow of poverty or even the vow of chastity – but rather the vow of obedience. For obedience demands that we leave self at the door and our own desires in a corner, and instead humbly walk a path that others have chosen for us.

During his time in office Barack Obama received 10,000 letters per day and amazingly he committed to reading ten of these. He asked that the letters (known amongst his staff as the 10LADs – ten letters a day) were representative of what was received – some showed support, others expressed hatred, some were desperate appeals for help and others were just words of advice.

These letters, despite the burden they placed on him, actually became a source of sustenance for Obama as they kept his feet on the ground, they informed his policy making, and they reminded him that he was there to serve real people. One of many that stood out was the one from Marjorie who wrote movingly of how she was trying to acknowledge the racism she believed lay like a poison in her heart. Obama calls it ‘a beautiful letter’ which reminded him of his own white grandmother who had made a similar journey by allowing new and positive experiences inform a different behaviour. Marjorie was so changed that she told Obama that she had gone on to start a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in her town.

Marjorie was someone who had become self-aware, who had walked the path of humility, and who had been changed; who, in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, had discovered something that was imperishable. May we walk that same path of self-discovery.

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