Keeping It Real

To have real relationships, we have to be real about who we are and how we are.  We have to be real with ourselves and with God. Jesus helps us do that.

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Hebrews 4:14-16, Ephesians 4:1-6,11-13

Can I just get real with you for a minute?

Um, no, on second thought, I think it’s safer if I keep everyone at arm’s length.

You know what? No, that’s too close. I think I need these – pool noodles – like we’ve had to do with social distancing because of the pandemic, right? 

But this is also what we do when we only present our polished or curated selves to one another.  We keep people at a safe distance.

We do this with one another.  And with God.

But to build relationships, to have real relationships, we have to be real about who we are and how we are.  And we have to be real with ourselves.

The Good News is that Jesus knows us – all the good and the bad – all our strengths and weakness (Hebrews 4:15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do)– and Jesus helps us navigate all of that.  We can be real with Jesus.  Jesus helps us be real with one another.

Instead, when we get together, so often we stick with what’s safe. The #1 safe topic is the weather, right? But that can also be pretty boring. Sometimes, looking back over the day, I am annoyed with myself for talking about the weather too much, and not doing the work of having deeper conversations.

When a group gets together that’s been together a lot before, it can be hard to get past the preconceived ideas and expectations, to break out of the patterns of the things we always talk about.  If someone new comes in, we break the patterns to introduce ourselves to the new person.  Another way to break the pattern is to ask everyone to tell something that nobody would know about you.[1]

What would you tell that nobody knows about you?

Getting below the surface in our conversations is one way we keep it real.  I don’t mean being mean. And I want us all to be ok.  But sometimes out of fear that someone is going to be mad, we don’t say what’s real. After all, Paul says:

Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. – Ephesians 4:2-3

Being real means we don’t have to hide. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for this place, this church, to be a place where it was safe for people to be their authentic selves?

Is our church already a safe place?  If not, what would it take for this to be a safe place?

Maybe it’s a safe place for you, but is it a safe place for everyone?

The problem is there’s so much going on that we aren’t talking about because we’re trying to keep the peace.  It’s one of the difficulties of being a pastor.  If I don’t want anybody to be mad at me, I have to stay on safer ground. That’s the temptation pastors have in sermons – to play it safe. After all Paul says, “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” 

But did you notice what Paul says in verse 1? 

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.

Paul was writing from prison. Paul didn’t stay on safe ground. Paul was in prison for being real about a very controversial subject in that time – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior for whom Israel had been waiting and praying for hundreds of years.

Real people are suffering from very real things, and the danger of overemphasizing unity and peacekeeping is that we don’t allow people to be real about the ways in which things are not ok.

We all have different levels of tolerance for pain – both physically and emotionally.  I noticed this the other night as my husband Rob and I were watching an episode of the Netflix series Virgin River.  The two main characters are in love, but they’re having issues, and, as is so often the case, they haven’t been totally honest about everything, and they haven’t learned yet to trust each other. As we watch, I’m listening for them to finally really say what they mean to say, but Rob is anxious about their argument, and wants them to just make up and move on, so he’s yelling at the screen for them to just be happy.

If this TV show spent too much time on those relationship tensions, Rob wouldn’t be able to watch it.  And if it never or seldom had any of these tense moments, we would say it was sappy and unreal.  We have that same challenge as a church.  Too much tension isn’t good, but no tension means we probably aren’t being real and we’re not as likely to grow in our faith and in our relationships.

The pandemic has made it more difficult because we haven’t been in the same room together as a church so much as we did before.  But it’s also shortened our tolerance for being unreal, and  maybe also shortened our tolerance for tension.

Or maybe we’ve always had this dilemma, just in different ways.  Paul certainly alludes to this tension. There’s a song by Switchfoot, the Christian band, that talks about the challenge of keeping it real:

Fumbling his confidence
And wondering why the world has passed him by
Hoping that he’s bent for more than arguments,
And failed attempts to fly, fly

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside…

Dreaming about Providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we’ve been livin’ with our eyes half open
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

We want more than this world’s got to offer
We want more than the wars of our fathers
And everything inside screams for second life

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live

—-

Have we lost ourselves?

One of my goals in the four years that I’ve been here as your pastor has been to help us develop stronger relationships through small groups.  But since March 2020, we’ve been more focused on staying safe from the virus and gathering online or only with our immediate family.  I wanted to do this sermon series on the Art of Gathering because I know we were missing being together more, and we want to get to doing more gathering.  But to be honest, even before the pandemic, we still were only just beginning the work of developing groups.  And right now, today, we have to deal with the reality that the positivity rate in our county is back up over 8%.[i]

Talking about the virus is one of the subjects we’ve had to know when to avoid, because not everyone agrees about the risks and how to deal with them.  We have people in our congregation who have to deal with this in their jobs or in their roles in the community, and because of that they have had to deal with people who are angry, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with that. 

The reality is that we would like things to be as simple and clear as there being a right or wrong, but there are so many different factors and so many different kinds of people, and it’s pretty hard sometimes to even know what’s real and what’s not.

One of the reasons we’re fighting so much about this is that it’s NOT as real for us because we’re NOT dying from it.  The website where I got the positivity rate also gives each county a score for vulnerability.  I was surprised that even with 8% positivity, this website says that Rice County’s vulnerability is low.

That’s because we’re a fairly well off community.  The vulnerability score is based on “community members’ income, age, and underlying health, as well as their access to transportation and health care.”[ii]

Our ability to deal with the virus is good if we have access. Other things are more real in our lives – things like cancer and aging and what’s happening with our kids and our parents.  To be honest, I can only guess at what’s more real for you.  I know that depression and anxiety are real challenges for some of us, that other challenges include physical issues and financial issues, and I know that often we don’t want to talk about those – we just want to go on as if everything is fine, and that to some degree that’s how we cope.

So how do we keep it real?

The Message version of Ephesians 4:4 says, You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both inwardly and outwardly.”

When I sit down to write a sermon, the one question I almost always ask God is, “What do people need to hear?  What do you want them to know?”  This week I was also asking, “What is real and true?”

Really it comes down to this one thing that I know is true and real and doesn’t change:

God loves you very much.

If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you right now. 

God’s love is very real to me, and I want you to know that God’s love is just as real for you and for everyone.

It can be hard to know sometimes if love is real.  One of the ways it shows is in our eyes.  Sometimes our eyes show it before our hearts and minds understand it. Maybe you’ve heard someone say something like, “I want someone who looks at me the way so-and-so looks at you.”  With eyes full of love.  That’s the way God looks at each one of us.

God wants us to know that love so much that God sent us Jesus. God became a person so that we would have someone we could relate to more easily.  Jesus knows what we’re going through because Jesus went through it too.  Maybe not a pandemic, because they didn’t know what viruses were in ancient times, but Jesus knows about racism and poverty and despair and division. Jesus didn’t shy away from it.  Instead he walked right into the thick of it and got put to death for it.  But then God raised Jesus from the dead so that we would know that God’s love and grace is greater than racism and poverty and despair and division and death.

God wants us to know how much he loves us so that we can help others know how much God loves them too.

Who do you know who might not know that God loves them? 

This week, make a list of those people. Don’t say anything to them, just make a list.

Pray for them. Pray for a chance to be with them. Pray and keep your eyes open.[iii]

And whatever’s happening in your lives and in theirs, let’s do our best to be real and to remember that God loves us and them and everyone we meet very, very, very much.

Thanks, God.


[1] Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering, pg. 221.


[i] https://covidactnow.org/us/kansas-ks/county/rice_county/?s=21451070

[ii] https://covidactnow.org/covid-risk-levels-metrics#vulnerability

[iii] Unbinding the Gospel, p. 186

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