[Transcript of a sermon delivered July 24, 2016, at Plantation United Methodist Church]
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Several years ago, my side of the family rented a house in York Beach, Maine for the week. I flew up to central New York, then traveled by car to Maine with my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, and my 3-year-old niece Emma Jane.
Emma Jane came out of the womb as an outdoor girl. She loves running and jumping, exploring. She doesn’t mind in the slightest getting messy or dirty.
And yet, at age three, she also had an inexplicably powerful love for sparkly ballerina tutus.
Every day as we got ready for the beach, we would put her in her beach clothes, and she would insist on putting a tutu over whatever she was wearing. And the tutus were predominantly in a bright shade of pink.
It was a complete hoot watching Emma at the beach. She was so full of joy and excitement, it couldn’t help but spill over to the adults around her. For hours each day, she would chase seagulls up and down the shore, squealing with delight.
Emma has an incredible way of finding joy in every situation. She made friends everywhere she went. When my Mom and I went to the beach one morning before Emma was ready to join us, an elderly man sitting near us yelled out, “Hey! Where’s tutu girl?” Every person — every single person — in her path was a potential new best friend. And it was amazing to see people respond to her joyful “Hi! I’m Emma Jane! What is your name? What’s your favorite color?”
She wanted to meet everyone, know everyone. This tiny little extrovert in a pink tutu, she charmed them all — and not just because she’s so stinking cute. (Although she is!) She charmed them because she was legitimately interested in them. You could hear it in her voice as she talked with them.
She looked at each person with her sweet, innocent eyes.
“Innocent eyes.” It’s a term I first encountered in a book called Like a Child: Restoring the Awe, Wonder, Joy & Resiliency of the Human Spirit. It’s written by a minister named Timothy Mooney, and I love one of his quotes:
Having innocent eyes is a way of seeing the world unburdened by the cumulative pejorative connotations we gather as we mature.*
Cumulative pejorative connotations. Just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it? (C’mon, you know you want to say it! “Cumulative pejorative connotations.”)
Mounting, growing, accumulating feelings and ideas that are negative and generally disapproving. Cumulative pejorative connotations — they’re exactly the opposite of innocent eyes.
Every single one of us begins life with innocent eyes. We come into the world with no preconceived notions of what life will bring us. We don’t come into the world with prejudices or biases. As we learn, as we experience, our innocent eyes become clouded.
Through the influences of our family, our friends, our culture, we begin to accumulate judgments about things, and about people. All of us have experienced pain in our lives. Pain that leads to broken trust, to wariness and suspicion.
But little kids? They don’t have any cumulative pejorative connotations yet.
They don’t care if you are black or white or brown or purple or green or sparkly pink. (They might like us adults better if we were sparkly pink!) They don’t have a concept of gender difference or inequality. They don’t care if you are straight or gay or just not sure. They don’t care if you are rich or poor.
Little kids don’t care if you have a fancy doctoral degree or didn’t finish 6th grade. They don’t care if you’re tall or short, skinny or stout, in a wheelchair or are missing limbs. They don’t care if your hair is gray or brown, or curly or straight, or if you have no hair at all. They don’t care if you’re covered with tattoos or have pierced every outcropping of your body.
This doesn’t mean that kids don’t see differences. They just don’t care about them. They notice differences — they seem to notice everything. But being different doesn’t have a negative meaning to them yet. Differences haven’t started to accumulate pejorative connotations for them.
Different is just something cool and new to explore!
But we adults, we have a stockpile of pejorative connotations. A lifetime’s worth of layer upon layer upon layer of experiences that insulate us, hide us, cover us. That keep us from allowing others to know us, and keep us from knowing those around us.
One of Emma Jane’s favorite people is my Great Uncle Ed. The youngest of my Grandfather’s brothers, he lives on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York State.
This is a more recent picture of Emma, with her Great-Great-Uncle Ed teaching her to play the harmonica. These two are kindred spirits, best buds. Uncle Ed is retired now, but he still works in the workshop behind his house, refinishing furniture. He is known up and down the River for his meticulous, tender care for antiques.
On one side of the workshop as you walk in the main door, you’ll see a collection of grungy-looking tables and chairs, covered with thick, peeling layers of paint. The wood may be chipped in some places, legs and backs loose and wobbly. Most of us might not even look twice at these pieces.
But Ed knows there is something beautiful inside.
Slowly he begins the process of applying chemicals, heat, carefully scraping and sanding and buffing. Layers begin to be stripped away, usually revealing more layers underneath. It’s slow going, hard work, but you can see the changes happening.
After a while, the original wood begins to show: mahogany, pine, oak, teak, ebony. It takes a lot longer to work the residual paint out of the inside corners and tight spaces, but, at the end, there stands a beautiful piece of furniture, glossy and gorgeous.
I realized that’s actually not a bad analogy for what happens to us when we ask and allow God to strip away whatever unhealthy layers have accumulated over the years in us.
Author Parker Palmer writes this: “As time goes on, we are subject to powers of deformation, from within as well as without, that twist us into shapes alien to the shape of the soul. But the soul never loses its original form and never stops calling us back to our birthright integrity.”**
Our birthright integrity. That’s childlike innocence.
But, unfortunately, we can’t just pop ourselves off to a refinishing shop to have our layers removed. I sometimes wish it were that easy! It takes us — you and me — making a conscious decision to allow God in. Making that decision, over and over again, changes everything.
I think that is why I love our scripture reading for today so very, very much. I have a lot of favorite scriptures, but Mark 12:28-31 is undoubtedly my favorite favorite. It’s the scripture on which I based my doctoral dissertation. A teacher of religious law asks Jesus which of the commandments in the Old Testament is the single most important to follow. It strikes me that Jesus must have been waiting for an opportunity like this, to give a beautiful summary of what life with God would look like.
Jesus responds: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
So remarkably simple. And so deeply challenging! If we truly strive to live by those words, the way we live, the way we speak, the way we act, every part of our lives will come more and more closely to what God desires for us.
Because living with innocence requires a trust in the supporting love that gives us a safe place from which to explore. The only way we can move fearlessly through this life is by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength: by loving God in the core of who we are, by living in ways that express that love with every word and action, by using our intellect to learn more about God and who God created us to be, and by walking our faith out into the world, bringing grace and peace and forgiveness wherever we go.
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
And living with innocence in this world requires an openness to learning about others, seeing life from their perspective, hearing their stories, knowing their hearts.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Being innocent like a child, it means having our walls come down. It means being open. It means embracing the new, the different. It means learning and sharing. It means growing. It means being undivided, being the same on the outside as we are on the inside. It means, in short, being whole.
And it starts with the knowledge that God already sees us that way!
There is a story in the 19th chapter of the gospel of Luke, about a man named Zacchaeus.
Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
Picture that. Hitching up his expensive robes, Zacchaeus scoots up the trunk of the tree, and holding tight, hand over hand, crawling on knees getting dirty from the bark, climbs out on a branch. Does that strike you as an odd picture? We’re told that Zacchaeus is a tax collector — and not just any tax collector, but the chief. He had lots of money, and much of that came from the abuse of his powers. He was an outsider in his own community, a traitor to his people.
This was a man who had sacrificed his spiritual integrity for physical security. And now we see him sacrificing his dignity to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Then something remarkable happens.
Out of all the crowd gathered there that day, all the people straining toward him as he walks by, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus!
The scripture continues…
When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.
Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true child of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, not seeing the years of accumulated pain and self-protective layers, but what lay underneath. Jesus looked with innocent eyes on him, seeing a beloved child of God. And this gives Zacchaeus the permission he needs to jump right in with great joy to a new life of freedom.
God looks at you in the same way!
Not seeing the pretty façades, the masks you’ve put on to show to the world. Not the ways you’ve let people down, the ways you’ve hurt people you care about. Not the shortcuts taken, the paths you shouldn’t have walked down. Not the failures you jumped right into, the dreams you buried.
God looks at you, and sees you. The real you, the innocent, authentic, real, free you.
And wants you to see yourself that way, too.
And wants you to see the people you meet each day with those same, clear eyes filled with God’s love.
* Timothy J. Mooney, Like a Child (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014), Loc. 673.
** Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), Loc. 608.