Sermon: Proper 9 RCL B – “Ripples”

Photo by Lucas Newton on Unsplash

In a Charlie Brown comic strip, Linus, not looking at all happy, is sitting, holding his blanket, with his thumb in his mouth. He then asks Lucy, his sister, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” Lucy smugly replies, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.” Throwing his hands in the air, Linus shouts, “But what about your own faults?!” Without missing a beat, Lucy responds, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

Lucy, well, Lucy can just be a rather unpleasant person, but why does Linus even care? Shouldn’t he just be able to let the criticisms go and move on? And wouldn’t it be nice if Linus wasn’t the only one that the negative comments actually effected. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were immune to them as well. The crazy thing is… science has demonstrated how we are more or less hardwired to hear and internalize the negative far more so than the positive. It is referred to as the negativity bias. It is the negative things that people say about us personally or in general—about society, life, other people—that sticks. That criticism about us personally can have long term negative effects, but if that negative is about someone else, it has a way of cheering us up, especially if it is about someone famous.

A 2015 study published in Social Neuroscience demonstrated that the “reward center in the brain, was activated in response to negative gossip about celebrities; subjects seemed to be amused or entertained by salacious celebrity scandals.” (Source) That helps explain why so many are captivated by tabloid news and “royals” on Oprah. Are you susceptible? Here’s a test: according to federal statistics, 600,000 individuals are released from prison and some 9 million rotate in and out of local jails on an annual basis. (Source) If I was to ask 99.99% of the people in USA to name one of those individuals, who would it be? Bill Cosby. The news media know of our fancy for this type of thing, so they feed it to us in large doses. Not because its really news, but because it sells advertising. {rabbit trail… sorry} The point: it is the juicy gossip, the scandal, the fall of the famous, that draw us in and in order to be included in society, we join in. If my friends—or those I want to be friends with—are scandalized by the scandal, then I too will be scandalized in order to be a part of the group. The gossip or criticism, the negativity bias came into play, and we can all point our finger together, and the person we are all pointing at loses all credibility and all status. They become the scapegoat for all the things we see that are wrong with the world.

“Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’” Hello. We know this guy and he’s know Messiah. Didn’t his mamma get pregnant before she was married? Don’t you remember that? My goodness… and Joseph married her anyhow. Can you say, ‘guilty conscious’? Enquiring minds want to know.

Jesus went to Nazareth, his hometown, and the people criticized and scandalized. The negativity bias almost infected the entire community, because we are told that only a few of the sick were healed. However, no sooner had he and the disciples left Nazareth that Jesus began to send the disciples out two-by-two, having given “them authority over the unclean spirits.” What was the result? “They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” They had not been infected by the criticism of Nazareth. They continued in faith, believing in Jesus and believing in the authority that he had given them. Nazareth—only a few, but out in the world, at the hands of those who kept the faith—many demons were cast out and many sick were healed.

I’m not talking about having a positive mental attitude. That’s not part of the discussion. What we’re seeing in the disciples is faith—a deep and abiding knowledge in the one who sent them and belief in the authority he had given them. And it is through the giving of the Holy Spirit that this knowledge and authority have been handed down through the generations to God’s Church and to you, his chosen people and royal priesthood. (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) And within you is the potential to fulfill that commission, but what is potential? Merriam-Webster defines it as, “existing in possibility: capable of development into actuality.” Poise your finger above the smooth surface of the water and you have the potential, the possibility of causing ripples that will reach further than you could have imagined, but the ripples will not actually appear until you act and touch. Within you is the possibility, but only the possibility, and the capability given through the Holy Spirit to cause the ripples, that will bring about the fulfillment of the Great Commission, but one of the greatest hinderances to this work will be falling in with the people of Nazareth and allowing the negative to seep in: Jesus was only a really good person. God doesn’t heal like he use to. There are no more miracles. I don’t know how to do this. I’m not good enough. This is too much religion. If I do that, I’ll look like some freak and then… then people will start talking about me. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15:18) If they criticized him, they will criticize you.

The story is told of a judge who had been frequently ridiculed by a conceited lawyer. When asked by a friend why he didn’t rebuke his assailant, he replied, “In our town lives a widow who has a dog. And whenever the moon shines, it goes outside and barks all night.” Having said that, the magistrate shifted the conversation to another subject. Finally someone asked, “But Judge, what about the dog and the moon?” “Oh,” he replied, “the moon went on shining—that’s all.” What did my friend St. Josemaría Escrivá say: “Don’t waste your time and your energy — which belong to God — throwing stones at the dogs that bark at you on your way. Ignore them.” (The Way, #14)

Through Christ Jesus, you have great potential to do amazing work. If the dogs bark, let them bark. If the critics criticize, ignore them. You… you continue to shine.

I give you this blessing today:
May God give you more than you can ever think or ask;
May He use you far beyond the boundary of your task.
May God lead you further than your vision can yet see;
May He mould you, day by day, more perfectly.
May God guide you and keep you in the way He sees best;
And may he bless you—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—so that every life you touch is blessed.

5 Replies to “Sermon: Proper 9 RCL B – “Ripples””

  1. I also like Rumi:
    “Those of you who are scartered,
    simplify your worrying lives. There is one
    righteousness: Water the fruit trees,
    and don’t water the thorns. Be generous
    to what nurtures the spirit and God’s luminous
    reason-light. Don’t honor what causes
    dysentery and knotted-up tumors.”
    –From the Coleman Barks translation of “A Basket of Fresh Bread,” in “The Essential Rumi” (1995)

      1. The text continues:
        “Don’t feed both sides of yourself equally.
        The spirit and the body carry different loads
        and require different attentions.
        Too often
        we put saddlebags on Jesus and let the donkey
        run loose in the pasture.
        Don’t make the body do
        what the spirit does best, and don’t put a big load
        on the spirit that the body could carry easily.”

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