A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 25, 2014
at Gibson Memorial Chapel, Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Psalm 139: 1-6; 13-18
Matthew 11: 28-30
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
8 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This morning I want to talk about baggage. I brought up in class the other day the idea that words tend to take on baggage. I was talking about the difference between Denotation – which is the dictionary definition of a word, and Connotation – the feelings and ideas surrounding a word. And so I was trying to get at what connotation meant, and used the term baggage. It is just the stuff that becomes associated with something. The stuff that comes along with it and sometimes with words it gets so that it is hard to differentiate between the word’s original meaning and what it has become. Those of us who are fans of the Washington Redskins know all to well how baggage works. It is a big deal for words, but it tends to be a big deal for people too, even institutions. We all have baggage. We have things that are associated with us. Sometimes they are ideas that other people have about us, and sometimes they are ideas that we have about ourselves. Sometimes those things are good but other times they just tend to hold us down and are too much for us to carry. They weigh us down and keep us from being what we should be, quite possibly what we were made to be, or what we are called to be. I wrote this poem a few years back to illustrate the idea. It’s called, “The Foolish Rabbit.”
The Foolish Rabbit
On a bright and sunny day of spring
As I walked down a lone wooded road
A song in my heart to my lips did sing
Of an Easter morn long ago.
Where much to my surprise I spied
A rabbit in his full Sunday best,
Who asked me for an innocent ride
In my basket’s grassy nest.
“Of course,” I said, and you would too
For who could ever say no
To a rabbit who asked with the manners of few
And was arrayed in such wonderful clothes.
“Where to?” I asked as he hopped on in,
“Just where is your aim this day?”
“Any place you please, and thanks again,
For I just wish to be away.”
“From what” I asked, “do you so hurriedly run?
What cares could there possibly be,
For rabbits seem to have so much fun
Hopping and playing and free?”
“It may seem so to you, who is but a child,
But I always must stay on the move,
For new dangers lurk for me in the wild
If you don’t believe it wait and I’ll prove.
“Why do you think, God made us so quick.
We dash, dart, and hide in a jiffy,
But these clothes have slowed me down a tick
I can’t run while looking so spiffy.”
“Well that’s easy!” I said, “Just take them off,
And once again free you will be.”
But he just looked away with a scoff,
Saying, “You don’t know a thing about me.
“For how once being clothed in such finery
Could I ever be seen in the nude?
No, my pride won’t allow to let any see me
With nothing on! How indecent! How rude!
“No I have evolved, improved, changed you see
And so I could never go back
To a time where I wasn’t decorously
Fashioned. No, that is certainly a fact!
“I’d rather die than lose these my clothes
They’ve become a part of me now.
It would be like losing part of my nose,
The thought I could never allow.”
And so I carried the rabbit a while
But my little arms grew quickly tired
For to carry a rabbit is much for a child
And so I then him inquired.
“Is this far enough? I don’t think I can go
Just one more step with the load.
Is this a fair place to leave you so
I can keep on my way down the road?”
“Sure this will do,” he said, “Anywhere
Is just as good as the next
You could have even left me back there,
But I am much obliged to have been your guest.”
And so off I went, but I often think
That those clothes would soon mean his end,
And I feel saddened and my heart does sink
When I think of my poor silly friend.
And now as I walk on this spring day
When I pass that same stretch of road
What changes have I taken on by the way
That I’m so unwilling to unload.
Like most fables this simple story has a lesson, something to make you stop and think. You can see that the bunny in the story is wearing clothes, and that though he takes great pride in his clothes, it is something that is going to lead to his destruction. The clothes were an improvement that he was trying to make for himself, but in fact becomes something that makes it so he cannot do what he was made to do. What he is as a rabbit has become tragically altered, and so the last stanza then asks us, stops to make us think, asking, “What changes have I taken on by the way that I’m so unwilling to unload?” Like the rabbit, have you become something other than what you really are, all to your detriment? Would you even know it?
And so I ask you that question. We all have things that define us. We all have baggage. Many of them are add-ons. We think that many of them are temporary. Do you ever ask yourself, who am I, and not only who--but what--what is the answer to that question based on? What defines us? Many think we define ourselves. Many let others define us. Many let circumstances define us. Many let arbitrary categories define us: Things like eye color, hair color. . . arbitrary right? What about skin color? What about where you are from? What about who you hang out with? Do you get to decide? Have you ever been shaped by something someone else said about you, something that really got under your skin and changed the way you view yourself? What about a diagnosis? A label placed on you--"he's A.D.D. or he's just a jock, his sister is really smart, but he's the dumb one. . . sometimes those begin with words like "Bless his heart" or "I love him to death." "With all due respect" or "I hate to tell you this" but you are lazy. And those things, if we hear them enough they become a weight around our neck because we believe them, maybe not out loud, but deep down we start to see ourselves completely wrong. Sometimes we try to escape them and make a new start. We go some where new and try to start over. Many of you are new to this school, when you showed up did you decide that you wanted people to see you a certain way? Did you act differently? Do you act differently at home than you do here? If so why? Are you trying to escape those definitions because they aren't really you, or are you just running away from yourself? Do you even know anymore? How much of that stuff--whatever it is--defines you, and is it binding? Is it real? Do you find that you define yourself the same way as others do you? Or do you have a completely different vision in mind? Is your vision of yourself any more real, true, beneficial than what others think about you?
Because here is the biting question. . . How much about the way you define yourself is built on lies? How much of it is built on false assumptions, short sighted notions, given by people who don't really know you or assumed by you while you're trying to be something that you are not, you're trying to posture, to seem bigger, better, stronger, smarter? You're trying to place yourself in some kind of hierarchy – of coolness, popularity, that ever evasive notion of status? When I was working at Christchurch the Dean of Students had a sign in his office that read, “When you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.” How true is that? How much of a burden do we carry by trying to define ourselves, by positioning ourselves, in false categories, based on lies? But yet we do it, we add these things to us, or they are added to us by other people and often they are destroying us, just like the little rabbit wearing clothes because they just aren't true.
My faith tradition calls this idea Sin, and you see it's not just a personal thing, and it's not just a thing of actions, it's not just a list of rules, but instead is a mixed up way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world where we are lost in a tangled web of lies, assumptions, misinformation, and things added to us that are not what we were designed to be. Our Psalm reading we read together said that we are made, wonderfully, fearfully, with care, that our inward parts, our real selves, that live within our facade, the outer shell we wear for other people, that even we can't always see through, that deep down within there is really a person there, a person whose mere existence is loved and has value, not because any of the things we add to ourselves, but the people we just are.
Other faith traditions also seek to find the answer to the question--Who am I? There is something inherent it seems within human nature, that we just don't know. Each tradition and culture gives a different word for it, a different goal in mind, And frankly each tradition has some baggage too that may just as often become a barrier to seeking actual truth, but really what it is about, what each tradition is about, at its core, is seeking truth. That is what unites us all, seeking truth. The big fancy word for that seeking of truth is discernment. We are all at different places, have different and unique paths, lives, and identities, different truths we are seeking, but I invite you to work to discern. . . to seek truth. . . to wade through the lies, misinformation, and baggage. . . because I believe that beyond all our comfortable and uncomfortable lies, beyond all the baggage we are carrying, some of which is killing us, slowing us down, and keeping us down, that if we can somehow shake the baggage, and the burdens of our false realities, we can find the peace, the rest, and the firm foundation that only the truth can give. And in the end if you do all that seeking and at the end of the road you find that truth doesn't exist. . . then the road never really ended. . . the end was just another lie. . . so keep seeking. Amen.