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"What's behind the 20 ton Shield of Perfectionism?"

This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on July 25th, 2021 The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost , by Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

It’s good to have rules. Rules help us take care of ourselves and others around us. But it is possible to concentrate so much on following the rules that we forget to notice other important things about life and to find joy, which is one of the things God desires for us. We are going to hear now a scripture passage about rules and how Jesus broke a small one in order to focus on what God desired for him.


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

7 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,[a] thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;[b] and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.[c]) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live[d] according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”[a]

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

As I began telling the kids, what we just heard is a passage about rules, rule-followers, and rule-breakers. At least that’s how it begins. Just picture this. Jesus and his friends have just sat down to a nice meal together. They are just about to eat when suddenly there appears the Pharisees, who were the people who lead religious life in Jesus’ day. It was their job and their passion to maintain order for the Jews in their community. And so it was their job to notice when Jesus and his friends hadn’t washed their hands before they ate.

Now, we are sensitive to that these days, too. How many of us have suddenly become rule hawks since the pandemic began constantly watching for when hands go unwashed by our children or getting upset when hand sanitizer isn’t available in public places where we need it most. But in this case, the hand washing wasn’t so much about removing germs and dirt as it was about the ritual of purification and the cleansing of what was not holy from the hands before eating. It was a sacred and time-honored ritual for the Jewish people that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. It was a definitely a well-established tradition and the Pharisees were within their duty to make the critique.

Jesus had noticed something else, though. He had noticed that not all rules are important in all the same ways at all the same times. In other words, the ritual hand washing might have been a truly relevant tradition at one time when it was first created, but now it was just a rule to be enforced by the Pharisees without a lot of relevance to loving God or loving neighbor.

Jesus says we can’t abandon the main commandments of God just for the sake of the little things that we might think are important that really aren’t that big a deal. The main thing, as we learn from Jesus throughout the Gospels, is to love our neighbors and love God. And that means sometimes overlooking smaller rules in order to get to the main thing. In other words, be flexible enough to keep the main thing the main thing, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

I turned my sermon inside out this week. Usually I start by talking about what overarching theme we’re studying and then get into the scripture. But I think it was important to hear that scripture and really start to get a grip on what it’s saying at the front of the message this morning.

We’re in a series right now called “Seeing with Compassion” and it’s about why we do what we do and how we can see ourselves and each other with more compassion. If you’ve been following along so far, you know that we are using a tool called the Enneagram to help with this work. The Enneagram lays out nine different archetypes of human character, or lenses for seeing the world. Most people find that they identify with one of these nine lenses. We’re spending one week each summer looking at each of these nine lenses and not only identifying one that might resonate with us, but also gaining new understanding about the people around us. The goal in all of this is more grace. Grace toward ourselves and grace toward others.

Today we are looking through the lens that desires to see order. It’s the Enneagram 1, often called The Reformer or The Perfectionist. Those who see the world through this lens not only desire to see order, but they feel a strong responsibility to bring that order. Or, if the order has been disrupted, to realign it back into proper order. This way of being leads to sensitive yet principled people. People who are dedicated, loyal, measured, extremely ethical and upstanding; people who work very hard, never cutting corners and maintaining high standards for both themselves and those around them. They are good rule-followers because they are concerned about maintaining order. They will be the ones in your life who tell you from the back seat that you’re going 33 when the speed limit is 25. And while it might sometimes sound like they are nagging, they tell you this as a way of saying they care about you. They have a strong desire to right all the wrongs in the world, one traffic infraction at a time.

Brené Brown has called this heavy responsibility to perfect the world and one’s self, “a 20-ton shield.” This is because deep down inside the urge to maintain order is a way of protecting oneself from making a mistake. Being good is extremely important. That’s why The Good Egg makes for a good lesson today. Maintaining order by trying to manage his unruly friends was the Good Egg’s way of protecting himself from what he surely thought would be a slippery slope right toward his own anarchy. It seems irrational if we are not him, but that’s the thing about this entire series. It’s impossible to understand where someone else is coming from if we don’t make an intentional effort to see through their lens. Behind the 20-ton shield of perfectionism is a real and very strong fear that not following the rules or making a mistake, big or larger, could cost you love and respect.

As we lean back on our scripture lesson this morning we see this dynamic at play. If we put ourselves in the Pharisees shoes and look through their lens we might begin to see that they were clinging to their rules and order because they themselves felt afraid and threatened. Maybe it was by Jesus and his radical ways of bringing the Kingdom of God, but maybe it was also because Rome was laying a heavy hand of control and power on the Jewish people. Maybe the Pharisees were worried that if they let their religious rules slip even in the slightest way, they would put the entire religion in jeopardy of erasure and lose their own integrity as religious leaders. Maybe the Pharisees were carrying their own 20-ton shield of perfectionism because of their many fears.

But Jesus speaks to these fears of corruption and imperfection by offering another path. Jesus tells us and the Pharisees that we don’t need strict rule-following or legalism to fend off disorder and the scary enemies that want to control us. We need grace…permission to let go of the rules that keep us from seeing the bigger picture. The ritualistic hand-washing that might have felt important a long time ago, wasn’t as important as eating with tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus was trying to say that legalism can sometimes be a road block to loving our neighbor. It stifles our ability to see the work of the Spirit moving in unexpected ways. If we can let ourselves roll with a little rule breaking when the rules aren’t so critical, we can actually fight our fear of disorder and imperfection by making love for our neighbor be our guide.

This is a silly book about eggs (hold up The Good Egg), but in the end the “Good Egg” learns how let go of some less important rules in order to connect and form friendships with the other eggs. They showed him how to be flexible which, I’m sure, lightened that 20-ton shield and allowed The Good Egg to experience joy and love in a new way.

Are you wearing a 20-ton shield? Are you working so many hours of overtime defending yourself from mistakes that you are missing the grace that Jesus offers? “You do not have to walk on your knees,” as the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” goes, you just need to love yourself. Because until you can learn to love yourself and enjoy life, you will not know how to love others or God. Keep the main thing the main thing, and loosen your grip on all the rest.

Let us pray.

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