On not measuring up
Matt 11:16-19; 25-30
In Shakespeare’s trilogy of plays on Henry the IV and Henry the V, the bard shows us a prince in his profligate youth, partying hard with prostitutes and thieves. In several poignant scenes and a couple flashbacks as well, we see Prince Hal turn his back on his seedier friends as he steps up and becomes a responsible monarch.
But reputations are a tricky thing—once you’ve gained one, it’s kind of hard to shake it. People get his idea of who you are and what you’re like, and it takes a lot to change their minds about it. I mean, people do change, but I think most of us are more cynical about the prospect of real change than perhaps we should be.
In Henry V, Prince Hal has assumed the throne and makes a claim against some ancestral lands in France. But the Dauphin has already decided the sort of fellow Henry is, and has sent a messenger to say, “In answer to your claim…the prince says you savor too much of your youth.” The Messenger then informs him that the Dauphin has therefore sent him a royal gift worthy of his misspent youth—a box of tennis balls.
Henry keeps his cool, but utters a line that has stuck in my memory for thirty years now: “We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set [and] we shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard… And we understand him well, how he comes o'er us with our wilder days, not measuring what use we made of them” (Henry V, Act 1, Scene 2).
As it turns out, the rulers of France have seriously misjudged Henry’s mettle—and will pay with the blood of their armies when Henry stomps them at Agincourt.
When I first saw this play—several times, by the way, as Kenneth Braunagh’s film adaptation was a favorite of mine—I was a profligate youth myself and I felt a thrill of justification when Henry asserted that his time in the gutter was actually well spent.
But whether or not it that time was redeemed—for Henry or for me—the fact is that we are often judged by the company we keep—often unfairly.
Just before our Gospel passage begins, John’s disciples come to Jesus to inquire as to whether he is the One—the messiah, the one they are waiting for. Jesus praises John, but laments that others don’t see what he sees. “What did you expect to see when you went out into the wilderness to see John?” he asks them, because they had obviously been disappointed.
And then Jesus goes on a bit of a rant, which we have just read in our gospel portion. “To what will I compare this generation?” he says, which isn’t quite as cranky as saying, “Kids today! Huh!” but…it’s pretty close. Then he says, “You came out to see John and you said, ‘He’s possessed by a demon!’ You came out to see me and you said, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard.’ It’s hard to win with you guys.”
Jesus has a point. He and John were about as different as two prophets could possibly be—John was an ascetic and Jesus just the opposite, yet neither of them are respected. Just what is a prophet or a messiah supposed to look like, anyway? Not, apparently, like John or Jesus.
The problem is idealism. We get these ideas in our heads—ideals, the ideal prophet, the ideal messiah, the ideal prince, the ideal son or daughter, and so on—and the problem is that actual flesh and blood humans are never going to live up to those ideals.
And as if it weren’t bad enough that we judge other people by these unrealistic ideals, we judge ourselves exactly the same way. This plays real havoc with our interior lives—with our self esteem, with our ability to truly love ourselves and often to properly take care of ourselves. It also plays havoc with our spiritual lives, especially when God calls us to ministry—and remember that God calls ALL of us to ministry—but we especially get tripped up when God calls us to ministry and we say “no” because who we are doesn’t match up with the ideal of what a minister is in our heads.
So let’s be clear. These are our ideals. These are OUR images and hangups—not God's. Most of us are in ministry today because God didn't give up on us and hounded us to death, because we felt we didn't measure up to the arbitrary ideal of what a minister is supposed to look like.
I’m going to level with you: NONE of us measure up to that ideal. Not a single person in ministry measures up to that ideal. I mean, I'm sure I'm a big letdown when you really get to know me, because I'm a deeply flawed human being in more ways than I care to count when I’m sober.
We just don't measure up—even when we're really trying, we don’t measure up. Paul captures the pathos and desperation of this in our reading from Romans when he laments, “I try to do the right thing, but as hard as I try, I can't do it! Oh who will deliver me from this body of death?” Now there is a heartfelt cry of anguish and despair worthy of Shakespeare.
But once again, Jesus gives us hope when he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This passage is often used at funerals or to counsel someone going through a rough patch, but in context we see that this is actually a passage about discipleship. Jesus is saying, “Everyone will say you don’t measure up, and they’re probably right. But so what? This is my work, not yours. It’s up to me to make this succeed. You don’t plow this field alone, buddy-boy—yoke yourself to me and let me do the hard labor.”
Jesus is saying, “The world might say you’re not good enough, but the world didn’t call you. I called you. I called each and every one of you by name. I called each and every one of you to ministry. You might not think you look like a minister, and what I have asked you to do might not look like ministry to you, and you might not feel like a minister, but this is my show, and you are my people, and I'll run my HR department the way I want to.”
It doesn't matter what we look like. Doesn't matter if we think we’re good enough. It doesn't matter what others think of us. Jesus says, “I have called you.” And, “I have called you to ministry.” When you say “yes,” everyone in your life who has ever seen you at your worst—and for most of us that’s a fair slug of people—are going to scoff, just as they scoffed at Jesus and John.
But we can’t let that stop us. Because there is something bigger than us, more important than us, grander than us at work and at stake here. This is God’s project, and God doesn’t just call perfect, ideal people—because those people don’t exist. God calls us, flawed and screwed up and messy as we are. God calls us, maybe not in spite of our profligate pasts, but in some cases because of them.
Temptation tells us “we’re not worthy.” Temptation “comes o’er us with our wilder days, not measuring what use we made of them.” But God has measured us, and God has forgiven us, and God has loved us and deemed us worthy. And what’s more, God has charged us with continuing Jesus’ ministry in the world.
So let them talk. And the voices in our heads…you KNOW they’re going to talk. But they’re not RIGHT, and we don’t have to let them WIN. Because we don’t belong to ourselves now. We belong to Jesus. And Jesus has said, “I. CHOOSE. YOU.”
Let us pray…
God is saying, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” This is how God speaks to us: as a lover, as someone who focuses more on our potential than our past. God isn’t deluded about who we really are—God LOVES who we really are. Holy One, help us to get over ourselves. Help us to trust your judgment more than our own. Help us to hear you when you call, and help us to answer. For we ask this in the name of Jesus, who sought us out and found us and loved us and married himself to us, even when we were…let us say, not at our best. Amen.