My grandmother’s name was Beulah. That’s a difficult name for a child to pronounce, so my mother’s cousins always shortened it and called my grandmother “Aunt Boo.” When my siblings and I—her grandchildren—entered the world, her title became, simply, “Boo.”
Boo’s house was a second home to us. She lived twenty miles from Paragould, and I was at her place almost as often as I was at ours. My grandfather, Pop, built us kids a two story tree house in the weeping willow tree in their backyard. We walked to the neighborhood soda fountain for cheeseburgers and milkshakes. We were allowed to stay up until 9 p.m. on Saturday nights to eat popcorn from pie tins and watch the Carol Burnett Show. Boo was then, and her memory is now, mythic for me. Her wisdom, her love, her attention exceeded those of all others. She is the best person I have ever known.
There were times at Boo’s house when the behavior of my older brother, Robert, and me, got out of hand. We were two boys, after all, and with two boys play can easily cross the line into wildness and cruelty. Boo’s first tactic in such instances was to make us run around the house (and around, and around) until all that excess energy siphoned off. When that didn’t work, Boo would stand Robert and me in front of her, turn us toward the back yard, and require us to march to that same weeping willow tree with the two story tree house and pick from among its draping fronds the very switches that were to be used on the backs of our tender legs. Oh, the anguish of selecting a switch! One had to be careful to choose one not too thick, but not too pliable, either. The worst switch, we supposed, was one that would whiplash in the air on the back swing, picking up momentum.
Like hardened criminals headed for the gallows, Robert and I would eventually pick our switches and solemnly march back into Boo’s kitchen. Each time Boo, who was barely five feet tall on her best day, took those switches from us, walked over to the refrigerator, and with great show reached as high as her diminutive arms allowed to place the switches on top of the fridge. “If you boys don’t behave,” she’d say, “I’ll get those willows down and switch your legs!”
I want to ask you all a few questions this morning, and lest you feel too exposed by them, know that I’m also posing them to myself: Do you believe yourself to be a good person? Are you sacrificial? Are you compassionate? Are you moral? Are you a good person?
I’m not asking about your public face. Rather, what is your steely-eyed, alone-in-a-room, staring-in-the-mirror self-assessment? To be clear, I’m also not referring to the kind of negative self-esteem that comes with skewed body image and the like. (That also is an important topic and a sermon in its own right.) Here, today, I’m talking about our self-appraisal as good or bad people. If your self-assessment isn’t positive, know that misery loves company. Statistically speaking, more than half of the people in this room, secretly, privately believe themselves to be bad. On the whole, according to the Pew Research Center[i], we are self-loathing. When asked to assess their generation, fewer than half of Baby Boomers describe themselves as compassionate, and even fewer than that say they are moral people. And the statistics get worse as people get younger. For Millennials—that’s people presently age eighteen to thirty-five—less than a third claim compassion for their generation, while only seventeen percent have any confidence in their moral compass.
Of course, our self-appraisal can be both honest and factually incorrect. I know us, for instance, especially during this stewardship season, to be generous. Through our mission work, I know us to be compassionate. As the Body of Christ, I know we seek to follow God’s compass in our decisions. Even so, you and I both know that it is an element of our human brokenness that self-loathing is blind to contrary evidence. We fail, in our own minds, to live up to a standard that comes from we’re not sure where: our families of origin, our culture, our own psychology, our concept of God. Somehow, our souls refract our failings, magnifying them exponentially, leaving us with the felt experience of ourselves as base, and despairing in the dark of night. We don’t need God or anyone else to condemn us, because we’re quick and relentless in condemning ourselves. Does that sound familiar?
In the 1980s, Southern author Reynolds Price developed spinal cancer and endured excruciating pain from both the disease and its treatment. In the midst of his suffering, Price experienced a vision. He describes it this way: “[The vision] took the shape of an utterly real dawn encounter with Jesus on the shore of the Lake of Galilee and then waist-deep in its water…Jesus silently beckoned me into the lake and, with handfuls of water, washed my ugly spinal wound and said, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” [ii]
Initially, it surprises Price in his vision, as it surprises the reader of his memoir, that Jesus chooses to forgive Price rather than (or prior to) healing his cancer. But Price realizes that self-loathing, which is, at root, the experience of feeling unforgiven, is itself a cancer. It eats away at the soul just as cancer attacks the body. And so, Reynolds Price adds, “I have no hesitation in believing that—at that moment in midlife burdened with decades of error from small to huge—I needed forgiveness more than I needed healing.”
Waist-deep in the Sea of Galilee on that visionary morning, Reynolds Price desperately needed a word of divine grace to counter and drown his self-loathing. Don’t we all? We all need a word of forgiveness.
Today, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews enters into an arcane discussion of high priesthood. He speaks of temple sacrifices and mentions mysterious and hard-to-pronounce names. This is one of those readings that causes our eyes to gloss over and our attention to wane. But it shouldn’t, because this reading affirms God’s most important promise to us.
You see, in ancient Jewish culture, the high priest was the singular and only mediator between human beings and God. It was the high priest to whom faithful Jews brought their annual temple sacrifice. It was the high priest who entered into the holy of holies alone to commune with God. The avenue to God, to grace, to forgiveness was distressingly narrow. Or so it has been told for eons. The author of Hebrews says differently. He tells us that Jesus is the great high priest, supplanting any others who make the claim. He even connects Jesus to Melchizedek, a mythic figure from the Book of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible who is called, virtually at the dawn of salvation history, “the priest of the Most High God.” That’s who Jesus is, Hebrews tells us. That’s who Jesus has been since the dawn of salvation history. He is the one whose intercession, whose love, whose grace precedes us. Before there is even cause for forgiveness; before there is self-loathing, before we even ask or know of our need; Jesus stands in front of and behind us, not in condemnation, but with love that runs deeper than any wound.
We still have priests, and we still retain the rite of Confession as a sacrament of the Church, in which we ask for forgiveness and the priest deigns to speak on behalf of God. But we do so not because we need a mediator to God. Jesus is that mediator, once and for all. We confess our sins and hear the priest declare forgiveness because we, like Reynolds Price, need to hear the words. Our ears, so prone to hear our own voices condemn us in self-loathing, yearn to hear the voice of another say, “You are loved, and through that love you are redeemed in goodness. You are forgiven of all things done and left undone. You are cherished beyond belief. And this is the deepest reality, pouring forth from God as grace since the dawn of salvation history.”
Showered in love through the grace of God in Jesus. That is compassion. That is our compass. That is how we are to look upon ourselves in the mirror, and to rise from here, confident in goodness and grace, to go forth into the world.
My grandmother Boo died in December of 2002. We cleaned out her house, which required, among other things, moving the refrigerator. It was a large and cumbersome thing, wedged into a space between counter and pantry. As we struggled to shift the fridge this way and that, at one point it tilted forward, and when it did I was showered with something raining down on my head. For a split second, I didn’t realize what it was, until I looked down at my feet to see dozens of ancient, brittle, willow branches. Not one had ever touched the back of my legs. Not one ever would have, because the fronds were never instruments of condemnation, even back then. They were expressions of grace from a woman who loved me more than I can imagine. Whatever childish affront my brother and I perpetrated was always forgiven even before our solemn march reached that backyard willow tree. Boo was standing behind us always, looking upon us in love. Her love, her forgiveness, her grace preceded us in all things.
We, people of God, are forgiven, redeemed in goodness by the grace of Jesus. There is no condemnation. There is no room for self-loathing. There is only love, preceding and following.
[ii] Price, Reynolds. Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and is He Real?, 50.