February 5, 2023 for a video, click here
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1st Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
In the middle of my career I read a book by Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, that changed not just my teaching but my life. It’s a wonderful book, full of warmth and insight, and when I was on a committee that invited speakers to come to OSU, I was able to invite Palmer to come.
I was a little nervous as I was making the arrangements, because he asked for a king-sized bed and to have a few hours alone before his talk. I wondered if I’d be dealing with another academic prima donna. But he was a wonderful man. He needed a king-sized bed because he was six foot six, a lot taller than I imagined from reading him, and he wanted the time alone so he could meditate before his talk, get centered, and his talk was very, very good.
But it wasn’t just his words or his wisdom that attracted me, but a kind of light that shone out of him. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells us, and we must let that light “shine before others,” and that’s what I experienced with Palmer. He’s a Christian man, from a Quaker background, but he didn’t talk about that. There was just something about him that you wanted to be around, a decency and a kindness, an authenticity. I saw that in the workshop he did for faculty before the big talk, even as some of them resisted him and his methods, and I experienced that when everything was over and I invited him to the Beanery for coffee. He stretched out his long legs, and he took a sip of his coffee, and he said, “tell me about yourself” and he meant it. We talked, and in his listening he brought out the best in me.
We’ve all known people like this, people who seem to have a certain kind of energy or warmth. They are the ones who influence us, who change us. We are the light of the world, and that light is in us, and that light is Christ, and when we act out of our best selves, people glimpse God through us.
I knew a woman who was dying, a woman who had an important job in Seattle and was admired by many people, especially younger people, and a lot of them made pilgrimages to Corvallis to see her one last time and tell her how much she meant to them. She must have been a remarkable leader, and mentor, and boss.
But she was a cranky person, too, and an impatient one, the kind of person I can really identify with, and she told me that she was tired of having to play the wise and kind old woman and just wanted to be left alone to die in peace. She didn’t want to have to make people feel better by having a good death. She didn’t want to have keep showing people how strong she was.
And this is why I admired her, because she wasn’t perfect and didn’t pretend to be, because in her honesty there was a humility, as Parker Palmer was humble, too, in his own way, despite his reputation and his fame. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God,” St. Paul says, “I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.” I came, he says, “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” and finally that’s exactly the point. It wasn’t his own wisdom he was proclaiming, it was he wisdom of God, and maybe that’s part of what makes certain people compelling to us, that they’re not looking at themselves, but outward, and they help us look outward, too.
In admitting their flaws and limitations, they give us the courage to admit our own and then the confidence to keep doing what we can do—and to do it in our own way.
In our own way.
I can’t be Parker Palmer. I’m only 5’ 7,” for one thing, and I’m never going to be taller. As Thomas Merton puts it, in New Seeds of Contemplation:
It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not. It is as much as saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody’s else life? Their sanctity will never be yours; you must have the humility to work out your own salvation. It takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the person God intended you to be.
God made us who we are, with all our quirks and likes and histories, and this is who he calls, us, right now, as he calls the disciples as they sit mending their nets—he doesn’t say come and follow me when you get act your act together. He says: come now.
I think of so many students I had over the years who felt that they had sound like they were going to college when they were writing their papers, using big words when smaller ones would do, trying to fake a wisdom and a knowledge they didn’t have when really, if they just let themselves write, if they said what they really had to say, if they were honest and direct, their writing was far more powerful and insightful than any of the usual academic talk. Teaching them to write was unteaching them. It was saying, knock off this other stuff, which was really saying, trust yourself. You can only be as tall as you are.
And I think that’s finally what most attracts us to certain people, their fidelity to themselves, and in their fidelity their humility before God, and in their humility their confidence in his power to work through them. This is what in The Courage to Teach Palmer calls “integrity”:
Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my selfhood, what fits and what does not—and that I choose life-giving ways of relating to the forces that converge within me: Do I welcome them or fear them, embrace them or reject them, move with them or against them? By choosing integrity I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real.
Of course, we have to admit our sins and do all we can to overcome them. Again and again. Day after day. We can’t overlook them. We can’t pretend they’re not there. We can’t pretend we’re saints. The saints never do. But our sins do not define us, our sins are not who we really are, and we have to know this and believe this. Our sins are not our deepest layer. They are not at the core.
To let our light shine we have to be comfortable in our own skin.
And this is what I pray, for you and for me. That we discern what fits us and what doesn’t, that we find what is life-giving, that we welcome the forces inside us—not the sinful ones, but the deeper ones. That we become more real.
Because when we do, that’s Christ moving in us, expressing himself through us, through our true self, our real self, however small and limited and imperfect we all are.
May we all become more real.