Velcro or Teflon

Sermon: Velcro or Teflon

Texts: Psalm 35:5-10; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Date: January 20, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

“Nonessential worker.” As I’ve been reading news stories about the longest U.S. Government shutdown in the nation’s history, references to “essential” and “nonessential” workers have popped up. Some of the workers who have been furloughed have spoken to reporters about how that label “nonessential worker” rankles. Nobody who has a bare minimum of self-esteem enjoys being told they are nonessential, which implies that their work isn’t really valuable. Since we spend so much of our lives at work, whether it’s paid or unpaid work, labeling our work nonessential can easily wash over into feeling de-valued as a person.

One hopes that all the nonessential workers trying to survive this involuntary furlough are finding ways to cope psychologically, finding ways to remind themselves that their value as human beings is not dependent on their work. I ran across a story of a Parish Nurse who tried to teach her colleagues at work that people need to know when to be like “Velcro” and when to be like “Teflon.” She meant that people will say things, or events will happen, which one needs to respond to by either letting them “stick” to us like Velcro or let them “slide” off us like Teflon. Stick or slide? The Parish Nurse observed that sometimes we let the negative words or events “stick” to us and cripple us so we don’t move on. Conversely, things we need to let “stick—words like “You are really good at that!”—we let “slide,” not accepting them as truth. One might use this simple image and get into the habit of asking oneself, “Is this a Teflon or a Velcro situation?”[1]

We’ve probably all let some things stick that would have been better sliding off. “You’re never going to succeed.” “You’re stupid.” “You can’t sing.” “You’re just plain ugly.” “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” OK, most of us have only heard that last one in the movies; but you get the idea. If I give you a moment, I bet almost all of us can think of some judgment rendered by another that stings even years and years later. Sometimes the negative messages we are given have a way of sticking and shaping us in warped ways.

Thankfully, we can also be shaped by letting the positive words we have heard stick like Velcro. Having some of those really positive words stick helps us let some of the negative words slide off like Teflon. I hope your memory holds some of the beautiful and encouraging words that have been spoken to you that have shaped your identity in positive ways. I’ll gift you with a moment to recall something wonderful that was said to you that has stuck with you.

The article I was reading this week that brought up the Velcro and Teflon image referred to the baptism of Jesus as a Velcro moment for him. The gospel stories are a little fuzzy about whether Jesus was the only one who heard these words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It doesn’t matter too much when you get right down to it whether others heard the Divine voice; it was a message for Jesus in this moment. It seems as if it was a truly transformative moment for Jesus when he heard words that stuck, words he would never forget. As he came up out of the water, as he was praying, the Holy Spirit descended and he heard those beautiful words: “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Velcro words.

One can easily imagine those words coming again into Jesus’ consciousness at so many crossroads in his years of ministry. Such words surely would have helped him cope with temptation in the wilderness, giving him the nerve to choose wisely. Such Velcro words of God’s love and delight would have helped him withstand the critique of those who labeled him a drunkard, a wine bibber, because he was hanging around with the down and out. Such Velcro words would have helped him stand courageously against old and stale religious practices as he knocked heads with the Temple establishment. They would have helped him control his fear as he went on trial in Pilate’s court. Recalling them might have even turned the tide of despair at his crucifixion. Perhaps remembering “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” moved him from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “Into your hands, O God, I commit my spirit,” both things witnesses heard him say from the cross.

Were those words about being beloved for Jesus alone? Not at all. As we, the church, overhear those words preserved in the gospel accounts—“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”—we believe they speak to and about not only Jesus but ALL God’s children. We share in Christ’s baptism; we, too, are beloved sons and daughters of God. God speaks to us at each and every baptism, these thousands of years later, proclaiming to all gathered: “You are my beloved children with whom I am well pleased.” This love lays the foundation for all that we are and all that we do. This message is meant to be a Velcro message that sticks with us no matter what we face as we go through life’s journey.

When we’re at our best, the love in which we are bathed drips off of us. One pastor remembers a baptism at their church of a relative newcomer to their community. He had come from mainland China to care for his ailing parents, who lived in an apartment building across the street from the church. One day, out of curiosity to see what was going on inside, he wandered into the church. He spoke almost no English and knew virtually nothing about the church or about Christianity. But as he told the people at his baptism, when he entered the building, even though he did not understand English, he felt such warmth and love and welcome that he came back to find out more. Why were these people here? What made the place feel so full of love? As he learned more about Jesus, he decided that he, too, wanted to become a Christian. A few months later, he was baptized. He knew that when he returned to China he might face opposition and discrimination because of his faith, but he had found something of such great importance that it was worth the risk.[2] At our best, the love we receive, believe in and share is evident even to those who don’t share our language.

We are not always at our best, of course. We screw up, do and say thoughtless things, behave badly. We live quite comfortably with privilege and wealth, frequently ignoring the cries of the poor and oppressed. We sit on the sidelines while earth is ravaged. There is plenty of guiltiness over this and that to go around. We have well-founded doubts that God is “well pleased” with us 100% of the time. When we hear John the Baptist’s ominous words about gathering wheat into the granary and chaff being thrown into the unquenchable fire, we may wonder whether our lives, when judged, will look more like chaff than wheat to the one with the winnowing fork in hand.

I’m grateful for the words of one of the commentators I read, who wrote, “I understand the separating of wheat and husks as something we do by our response to the message of the Son, rather than as something the Son does to us.” Yes! Our growth as daughters and sons of God as we respond to God’s love means that over time we can let all that might be understood as “chaff” in our personalities and habits slide off. We’re not “stuck” with our failings; we can own up, seek forgiveness, accept forgiveness, and do better another day. Christian faith teaches us that God is, in a sense, a Teflon God where memory of our failures is concerned. Our sin is allowed to slide off God’s remembering as we confess, seek and accept forgiveness, and begin again. Every day we can be a new creation, clean and fresh, nothing stuck to us except the Velcro love of God and the blessing pronounced over each of us: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Being drenched in that love–drinking in that blessing, love coming to us like a river of delight–makes a big difference in how we walk in this world. Many of us don’t remember our baptisms because they occurred when we were little children. But we don’t have to have a specific memory to draw strength from our baptismal tradition. I try to turn to the life and record of Martin Luther King, Jr. each year on the weekend we celebrate the difference he made in our country. I couldn’t find any of King recalling his own baptism, but I did find a paragraph in his very last sermon mentioning baptism in connection with the pummeling protesters suffered from fire hoses trying to turn back marchers: “Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.”[3] We knew water. What strength can be drawn from remembering the blessing of baptism and the call to be the people of God. Our first calling is to be God’s people in the world, to know deep down that no one can erase the fact of our beloved-ness even if they try with all their might to deny it.

In the same sermon, King spoke about being God’s children in such a powerful way, implying that this identity was at the heart of the movement. “I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world. And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”[4]

We are God’s children. There is no more potent way of understanding ourselves and our neighbors than that. When we let that blessing, that identity stick to us, stick in us, it changes not only the way we feel about ourselves but the way we treat our neighbors. I love the promise Jesus makes at the well as he speaks of living water. To me he is saying that we not only have our thirst for love quenched as we drink from the river of divine delight, but that we can become a fountain of the living water of love ourselves. We can fill up and spill over with love. We can drench others in divine love, and join the struggle to shape a society in which everyone is treated like a beloved child of God.

The world sometimes lies to beloved children of God, trying to convince them they are “nonessential” or other such nonsense. It lies to some folks more regularly and forcefully than others, obviously. But nobody should believe it for a moment. Our beloved nature is of our very essence. If we thirst for affirmation, for assurance that we are beloved, all we need do is recall the word of love spoken to us at our baptism, and even before that at our birth. Drink deeply from the river of God’s delight an moment you feel parched and dry. If we thirst, beloved, let us thirst for goodness, for letting all that blocks love in our lives slide off and slip away. In honor and memory of Mary Oliver, who died a few days ago, let me share one of her prose poems, “Thirst”:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

——————————————————————————–

[1] Word and Witness January 7, 2001, Vol. 01:1, p. 279

[2] “Stories of Baptism” The Whole People of God Adult Study Resource Sheet, January 7, 2001

[3] King Jr., Martin Luther https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm

[4] Ibid

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