Fearless Faith: Can’t Do It All
In 1992, that great American legal comedy My Cousin Vinny was released.
You might remember it:
It starred Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei
and Ralph Macchio from those Karate Kid movies.
The tagline of the movie was great:
“There have been many courtroom dramas that have glorified
the Great American Legal System”
“This is not one of them.”
It was a silly movie,
Ralph and his friend were from New York,
and they were driving through backwater Alabama
where they stop at a convenience store
and accidently forget to pay for a can of tuna.
They’re arrested a short time later,
where they confess to the crime and attempt to make amends
only to find out that, after they left
the storekeep had been murdered
and their car was Identified by eyewitnesses
and their confession was misconstrued as
admitting to the shooting, not the tuna.
And, well, they’re in hot water.
So they call their cousin Vinny, or Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, played by Joe Pesci,
a personal injury lawyer, newly admitted to the NY bar
on his sixth attempt, and with no trial experience
to come bail him out.
The movie pits New York and New Jersey stereotypes
against Alabama stereotypes
and succeeds at leading the viewer through enough twists and turns
to have you cheering at the end.
It was surprisingly better than one might have expected.
Tomei, who played Vinny’s girlfriend, Mona Lisa
won an academy award for best supporting actress.
Lawyers have praised the film for its realistic depiction of courtroom procedure,
and many law schools and pre-law programs have used it in their curriculum.
What has stuck with me throughout the whole process
is how confident the prosecution is that they have the right culprits
and how they’re mistaken.
Part of that confidence, it turns out
rests on two key bits of evidence that turn up at the trial:
the famous picture of the tire-marks from the getaway vehicle
that match up to the same tires that the accused were driving,
and eyewitness testimony that put the boys at the scene of the crime.
Only…turns out that the tires that matched were widely available,
and the car the boys were driving couldn’t have made the particular tracks
(something about the independent rear suspension
that Marisa Tomei can describe, even if I can’t)
and that eye witness…well, she was wrong.
She saw the whole thing, sure
from the window of her house.
But she didn’t have her glasses on
and what she said was clear, wasn’t
as Vincent LaGuardia Gambini was able to demonstrate in court.
And voila, the two boys are freed.
They catch the real bad guys sometime thereafter and everyone is happy.
But some of those scenes stuck with me as I went off to college
and started working through coursework
thinking about how we know what we know,
what we base our understanding on.
I’ll believe it when I see it.
You might have heard someone say that before.
The idea is that the most believable thing is what we can see
or touch or taste or feel.
Our senses are some of the most reliable resources we have
to grasp what is going on in the world:
oh, water is dripping on my skin, it must be raining,
better grab my umbrella
this milk on my tongue doesn’t taste right, it might be spoiled
I am constantly amazed with how intricate and wonderfully made
the human body is
and how, as we grow, our minds are able to take all this data from our senses
and combine it with all of our thoughts
our memory of past experiences
and our knowledge accumulated to date
and our wisdom of possibilities we’ve gleaned from them
how our minds can take all of that and make sense of it for our daily living.
Its absolutely amazing, this ability of ours.
And it keeps all sorts of specialists endlessly busy
from physicians to philosophers to psychologists to physiologists
helping us keep all of it together
running as well as it possibly can.
This is what our Scriptures mean
when they say we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
And I don’t know the last time you paused to ponder
how incredibly intricate creation is
not just us humans, but all sorts of things.
But even so, there are limits.
We are constantly aware of the limits, and we spend a lot of energy
trying to push away the fact that our health does not last forever
and that the way that our bodies and minds work together
won’t keep in sync.
And it can be so hard when our bodies or our minds or both
aren’t working the way we want them to.
We all know this,
but my point about My Cousin Vinny isn’t really about that
even though the eye witness
the one who thought she SAW those boys do it
was depicted by an elderly actress
who wasn’t wearing her glasses.
The bigger point is this: Our senses can, and really do, fool us all the time.
Let me show you an example of what I mean:
This little movie called Perspective
was put together by some visual artists
to show how our minds process the visual data we receive
based on various presumptions
that are easily manipulated by changes in perspective
or the relationship of the eye to the object.
How you look at something is important, not just the fact you’re looking at it
and taking it in,
so that we can say that it is not just the person
with the faulty vision that can get it wrong
but all of us, really, can get it wrong.
I’ll believe it when I see it….if I can see it correctly.
Or take another example,
one which my seminary advisor liked to use
when we were exploring the conflicting concepts between
freedom and volition, on the one hand
and habit or involuntary behavior, on the other.
I know, sounds like a riveting class, doesn’t it.
But here’s what my advisor used to do:
He would have you close your eyes, go ahead, close your eyes
and clear your mind…try to clear your mind.
Then he would say: “think of any color, other than blue, don’t think about blue.”
And then he’d ask, now be honest,
what color did you think about.
You can open your eyes now.
So what color did you think about, he’d ask.
And you know the answer:
because while the mind might have eventually conjured up
red, or yellow, or green
the moment he said “any color other than blue”
right then…the color blue pops into the minds eye
Even our ability to control our thoughts and our perceptions
fails us from time to time,
as the subliminal or subconscious or habitual routines of our lives
compete with our rational faculties.
We’re in this sermon series that we’re calling Fearless Faith
and we’re exploring some of the things that give us worry
that cause us to fret
while we ponder what a life of faith says to us
about those worries.
We’re taking a cue from the more than eighty times,
from the Hebrew Scriptures all the way through the sayings of Jesus
through the rest of the New Testament
the more than eighty times
that we encounter some form of the declaration “do not fear”
and the question “why are you afraid?”
We’ve looked closely at two of the most vivid sources of our anxieties
the people in our lives whom we love,
what it means to open ourselves to love
that love involves risk and risk is scary
and yet we’re called to love anyway
because God IS love
that was our focus two weeks ago
and last week we looked at our own personal anxieties
about whether we’re good enough
or whether we’re safe enough
or whether we’re going to be able to make it through life
and how we often put our trust in things we know
won’t mollify these concerns.
Today we’re exploring, in a round about way,
our propensity to think that we alone
can tackle our fears and solve our problem
and how God, instead, puts us into networks of people
that we call family and friends and community
to help us make do of our natural and very real limitations.
No one person can do it all.
You can put that all sorts of ways:
No man is an island unto himself
is how John Donne put it in the fifteenth century
Lean in, wrote Sheryl Sandberg,
sparking a big debate about work-life balance
among businesswomen in particular
but also their families and the unjustly patriarchal
structure that continues to organize much of our working world.
Why do you write like you are running out of time
goes the rhythmic refrain through the life of Alexander Hamilton
in the new broadway musical about him
No one person can do it all.
And yet we take all of this onto our own shoulders
and keep trying to do it alone.
Sure, we may have a partner or colleagues or close friends
but in our heart we believe the only one who we can trust to get it done is me.
“What you are doing is not good. You will most surely wear yourself out
both you and these people with you”
That’s what Jethro tells Moses
in our reading from Exodus this morning.
Moses has been working working working
driven in his task because of a calling from God to help lead his people
out of slavery and into a new land
and the task is so monumental
he knows that he has special gifts, unique abilities
he knows that the people around him don’t have his vision
can’t see where he is trying to lead them
have a propensity to wander (uh, hello golden calf)
and through all of this he bears the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
He only trusts his own vision.
He only trusts his own ability to see clearly, to think unambiguously.
And it is tearing him apart.
And he goes to his father-in-law Jethro, and Jethro sets him down
and tells him to knock it off.
“You cannot do it alone. Now listen to me.
I will give you counsel, and God will be with you!”
And together Jethro and Moses work out a plan to delegate some responsibilities
and free some stuff off his plate
so that Moses can be the leader that the people need him to be
not a leader that does it all
but a leader who can be healthy enough to do what must be done.
The idea that we have the ability to go through life on our own
without outside help is somewhat silly
when you ponder how we can’t even know for sure
that what we see is always right
or how our entire vocabulary and thought process
for describing what we taste and
imagine and plan
the very colors that come to minds eye
are taught to us by others
usually our parents and siblings and
community of our childhood
and are constantly refined
through interaction and correction.
Not only that, we struggle with keeping things so orderly
and that’s true whether you’re type A or type B
to use that sort of psycho-analysis some employ
to describe how strong this desire for order works within us:
All of us struggle to keep our lives together
our finances together
our families together
our work together
our calendar together
and generally we succeed.
But, if were honest with ourselves,
we know that our ability to do this is a gift, and a tenuous one
and that we learned it not on our own,
but due to the wisdom and generosity and care and compassion of others
and we will succeed in keeping it so
largely due to our willingness to lean on others for help
along the way.
So there was a man who was paralyzed.
We don’t know why, but he couldn’t move properly.
And Jesus comes to town, Capernaum,
and he’s been engaging in his ministry of inviting all who would listen
into the realm of God
showing the world some of God’s healing touch
both physical and spiritual healing.
Tonight he wasn’t on a hillside, or on a boat,
but he was in a home,
and there were crowds, so many people
hurting and aching and yearning
that they spilled out of the house onto the street.
You couldn’t even reach the door.
And there was a man who was paralyzed
he couldn’t move properly
he certainly couldn’t get to Jesus,
not on his own.
So his friends, his people, his community
they grabbed the corners of the mat he was lying on
and they lugged him toward that house
and UP on the roof
and while Jesus was teaching and doing his thing
they removed the TOP OF THAT HOUSE
and lowered their friend down
so he could be near Jesus.
What did they expect Jesus would do?
I don’t know. Maybe it was a desperation shot, a hail-mary
maybe they thought it couldn’t hurt
the stories about this Jesus have been amazing
can’t hurt to give this bizzaro plan a go.
And did you see what Mark said about it:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
Son, your sins are forgiven.
Mark goes through the reaction of the scribes,
who get caught up on the forgiveness of sins
and how dare Jesus presume that he can do that
and Jesus going further telling the man to get up and walk
and he does
so that everyone is amazed and glorifies God
but I want you to notice something:
It wasn’t when Jesus saw his faith, the paralytic’s faith
that he was moved to action
it was when Jesus saw the faith of his friends.
THAT was what sparked healing, sparked salvation.
To those of us who get so caught up on our own deeds, our own gumption
our own stress about making sure everything is just so
who worry about being the only one who can make sure it is done right,
we need to remember:
sometimes, we’re saved by letting that go
and relying on the faith of our friends.
I was trying to think this week of all the ways I have to let go of control.
–I have to trust teachers to take good care of my kids.
–I have to trust the Boeing and Airbus to make good airplanes
and United or Southwest to take proper care of them.
–I have to trust my doctor to give me good health advise and prescribe good medicine and, if I ever need surgery, to operate on the right spot
–I have to trust that the grocery store isn’t weighting the scale
and that the engineers didn’t go cheap on the asphalt roads I’m driving on.
–God forbid, if I ever get wrongly accused of a crime I might even have to trust My Cousin Vinny.
–I have to trust that my friends have my interests at heart and that my partner loves me and that my kids are on the right track.
–I have to trust that Sabbath is good for me, and that taking a break and letting go really means that I’ll be stronger and healthier and more loving and more able to do the things I really need to do.
–And I have to trust that God’s got this.
The truth of the matter is that I really can’t do it all.
In fact, I can’t do very much at all without help.
Part of the admonition to stop fearing, to stop worrying
is the acceptance of the fact that we can’t do it all, and that its ok:
God gives us communities of care and concern and mutual help
that will get us through, particularly when we struggle or
have our trust dashed by others.
And not only that, God’s very self abides with us
giving us courage and strength and
prompting us to work together
as we seek healing for our neighborhoods
and justice in our world.
May we celebrate the promise that, while we can’t do it all, we don’t have to
that God walks with us
that God gives us people to love and to be loved by
that we can do what we can, the best we can,
and leave the rest to God and to others.
…And in this way, may we be comforted and confident
as we walk our earthly way, sharing God’s love and peace to all.
May it be so.