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Jun 14, 2020

Limits

Limits

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: June 2020

Category: Faith, Patience

Keywords: godbearer

1. Recall a time when it felt as though your efforts felt wasted or your gift(s) unappreciated. 2. We have a stubbornness value in our culture (Never give up!), but when might it actually be a good thing? 3. Why do you think Jesus urges the disciples to “shake the dust” off their feet in certain circumstances? 4. What do you think it means to be a “Godbearer”? Can you imagine what that would look like in your life?
 Scripture

Matthew 10:5-14

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.7As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.12As you enter the house, greet it.13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Limits

I spoke last week about a desire in some moments to get small, hide out, feel safe and sheltered.  On balance, however, I think most of the time what we want is a life filled with freedoms, expansiveness, and choice.  My sense is these are values widely shared in this culture, even if expressed differently.  We have become acutely aware, I believe, of how different limits are imposed on some in this society.  There’s a reason “no limits” is a popular catchphrase in our culture.  We don’t like limits because we think they confine us; they make our lives smaller.

I know I feel this.  Many of you know my interest in pilgrimage.  One of the reasons I’m drawn to pilgrimage is because it can provide a “religious” experience, named that way or not, totally outside the bounds of any church.  It is experienced on almost entirely on the wide-open road.  When I have walked the Camino is Spain, I have felt this sense of utter freedom, as I suspect others have in their various walks. 

What if we’re wrong?  What if it isn’t the limits that confine us at all, or at least not all limits are confining?  Some certainly are.  Again, many of us are waking up right now to the ways in which some people have profound unwelcome and unfair limits placed on their lives.  What if for the rest of us, or all of us some of the time, limits can be a helpful guide to freedom, fulfillment, and faithfulness? 

Today’s gospel story from Matthew presents what at first seems to me an uncomfortable treatment of limits in two ways.  First, right out of the gate, Jesus tells the disciples not to go anywhere among the Gentiles, the non-Jews, not to enter any town of the Samaritans, the sworn enemies of the Jews, and go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  This is odd to those of us brought up being taught about Jesus loving everyone.  Here, Jesus seems to be playing favorites, and doing so based on ethnicity!  This passage, or a similar such one in which Jesus is focused on “his people,” came up fittingly during an interfaith pilgrimage I took on the Camino.  We had a lively conversation about religious strife, prejudice, and exclusive claims to truth, and the “single right way.”  Indeed just 5 chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, a Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, successfully challenges Jesus to broaden his perspective and focus of his care and mission.

Given that, might there still be a nugget of wisdom in his narrowness, even if it ultimately needs to be widened?  For starters, remember Jesus was part of a minority people and when minorities focus on their own people it takes on an entirely different meaning than when the majority culture does.  Moreover, maybe Jesus, having watched the domination of other cultures, wanted to focus on his own people because he didn’t dare want to tell others, born of different traditions, how to live.  Remember, the legacy of Christian expansion all over the world isn’t just churches, schools, and hospitals, it’s also alcoholism, disease, war, and reeducation in the form of virtually eradicating other cultures through forced “conversion” – now there’s an oxymoron for you.  What Jesus was offering was an internal integrity check, not a global conquest.  As we see statues of a bygone history of colonialism toppled and tossed into the water, I am left to wonder about the value of learning to do one’s own work and the work of one’s own people before going out and trying to fix everyone else. 

Less dramatically, maybe Jesus knew the value of focusing his mission narrowly for practical reasons.  Who among us hasn’t seen someone, or been someone, whose work has fizzled out because of being spread too thin, rather than taking on a clearly defined mission?  At this moment, Jesus understands that he has come to reclaim those of his people who have lost their way, and that’s it.  Sometimes when you try to do everything, you end up doing next to nothing.

The second way in which Jesus lifts up the merits of limits is in how he tells the disciples to respond when they are not received by those to whom he sends them.  He tells the disciples to go out, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, all forms of personal and societal healing (Mt. 10:8).  Where that is received well, they are to stay.  Where they are offered no hospitality, however, which would be a direct violation of their community’s values, they are not to waste their energy and move on.  In a counsel of defiance Jesus says, “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Mt. 10:14).  Isn’t that liberating?  He doesn’t say to wage war or inflict pain, just walk away.  Wait, what about never giving up?  What about universality?  What about willing them to change?  Nope.  Don’t waste your time.  Don’t waste your energy.  Not everyone’s going to get it.  Move on. 

Isn’t that freeing?  How many people have lost time, energy, joy, esteem, even safety, by staying in a situation or a relationship that was toxic beyond repair?  You can stay forever, but it doesn’t mean things will change.  Wouldn’t it have been helpful to have permission to simply shake the dust from your feet?  I wonder if you’ve ever left a situation and only when you step out into the open air do you realize how confined you have been?  It’s recognizing your limits that can lead you to that.  I’m not saying give up easily, but we have this obsession with never quitting.  Sometimes that translate into admirable persistence.  Other times it amounts to head-banging into the proverbial wall.  The wall’s going to win that one.  Turn and go somewhere else, somewhere your gifts will be received and affirmed.  Jesus who suffered the cross knows there are times to stay, and Jesus who brushes the dust off his feet knows there are times to go.  Wisdom is knowing how to choose. 

 Part of this is an ego check, and I know that’s tough for us.  We have been raised to think we can do anything, fix anything, overcome everything.  We know the positive side to that can-do spirit.  The shadow side is it’s not always true and it can lead us to barking up the wrong tree when there is a forest waiting for us if we would but look around a little rather than insisting on going horse.  Some of the best decisions I’ve ever made have been quitting things and redirecting my energy.  What if you’d stayed in the wrong major, the wrong job, the wrong relationship?  What if you have?  Recognizing limits, not prematurely just honestly, can be one of the best guides in life. 

Even imposing limits can be a path to fulfillment and freedom.  Today is my anniversary.  That was an unfortunately-worded transition…but isn’t marriage or a committed relationship the choosing of a limit, the pronouncement of the exclusive way in which you will focus some of your ways of giving attention?  I am with my spouse in ways I am not with others, but I would say my marriage is far more freeing than it is restricting.  It gives me a partner with whom to experience the world in a way that offers depth and exploration when I could imagine otherwise scurrying around skimming the same surface over and over again.  That’s not to say that’s what unmarried people do, just to say what my partnership has given me.  By saying no to some things means saying yes to so many more. 

Another example - I spent two years in a Montessori school in late elementary school.  One of the things they did that proved enormously helpful was give students limits and freedom based on what each of them could handle.  I needed, at least initially, more limits.  Without them, I couldn’t get much done.  My output was painfully small.  With the limits, however, I was able to be productive.  This lesson sunk in so deeply that I learned over time to impose limits on myself that I know I needed in order to accomplish bigger and bigger things.  To this day, without a doubt, the characteristic that has most helped me in life is self-discipline. Discipline is simply the ability to self-impose limits which brings focus.  Making things smaller in one area makes room for things to get bigger in another, and perhaps bigger overall.  Isn’t that what we want, on one level, a big life? 

We had a therapist come to the church and do some teaching last year.  His name is Jacob Brown and he works specifically with older populations.  I recommend him to you.  He talked about how so often as people age, they feel life closing in, not death closing in, but life.  Things get smaller, the choices and abilities get fewer.  He doesn’t deny the realities people name in their experience.  What he does is help reframe them and navigate them, and help people learn to use these realities to expand back out.  One of the things he said I’ll never forget: “People think, ‘If I accept my limitations, life will get smaller.  In reality, when I accept my limitations, my life gets bigger.”  In reality, when I accept my limitations, my life gets bigger.  Brown gives the example of some people who have been lifelong runners who get depressed when they can no longer run.  Their body won’t allow them.  It’s a real loss, and the grief is understandable.  Those, however, who cannot ultimately accept the limitation either keep trying to run, or they stop altogether and resign themselves to inactivity.  Both are damaging choices.  Both lead to smaller lives and both are a refusal of sorts to shake the dust off their running shoes…or shake their running shoes off their feet. 

Some people recalibrate.  They turn and walk around the wall, find another tree, so to speak.  They start find new joy in new things—walking, which affords all kinds of different benefits as well as some of the same, hiking, birding, swimming, a group exercise class and on and on…Their life gets bigger not smaller, not because they have defied limits, but because they have allowed them to be their guide and gateway to freedom.

You know what’s funny about pilgrimage.  It’s not free unbounded at all.  It’s not open-ended.  It’s a very clearly delineated path.  At best it’s a few feet wide.  When on pilgrimage you, in fact, do very little:  you walk, rest, eat, drink, use the bathroom, and sleep.  It is these limits that provide a safe container in which you have to worry about nothing else.  In turn, your mind, your heart, your prayer, your conversations open wide and you experience almost total freedom.  In this moment, think about where you are confined, that you might let it guide you to your, and our expansion.  Amen.