Sunday, August 1, 2021

Sermon: "Biblical Gymnastics", 2 Samuel 11:26-12:9/Ephesians 4:1-6, 12-16 (August 1, 2021)


I have to admit; I’ve never quite understood the appeal of watching sports. I guess I’m just not all that interested in who can make the ball go in the goal the most times. But even I get caught up in the excitement of the Olympic games. I’m not as interested in the superlative competitions regarding who can be “faster, stronger, closer, ” (the races, weightlifting, shooting events, and that sort of thing) as I am in the ones where competitors demonstrate the incredible ways that they can make their bodies move. As someone who considers herself fairly uncoordinated and is extremely out of touch with her own body, THESE are the sports that leave me in awe. The events like synchronized swimming, diving, and, of course, gymnastics.

Have you SEEN some of the things that those gymnasts can do?? They can twist their bodies in ways that I didn’t know was possible, and more often than not, they do it while seeming to fly through the air, their feet barely touching the ground. It’s truly remarkable what these nimble athletes can achieve, especially when you consider that gravity works the same for them as it does for everyone else and the floor underneath them is not, in fact, made of soft pillows. It doesn’t matter which event I’m watching; it’s hard not to be impressed by these gymnasts’ skill.

Although I can’t be 100% certain, I feel confident in stating that none of us here could do anything like that. The vast majority of people in the world are nowhere near as adept at artistic gymnastics as the Olympians are, but believe it or not, there IS a type of gymnastics at which most, if not all, of humanity excels. It’s equally impressive, but far less admirable. And you could argue that King David was a pioneer in the discipline. I am, of course, talking about mental gymnastics.

Mental gymnastics don’t look like Olympic gymnastics, but they involve a similar twisting, leaping, and contorting of the mind instead of the body. We rarely engage in this “sport” just for fun, but we somehow transform into Olympic-caliber mental gymnasts the instant we decide that we want to do something that we know is wrong. We twist, flip, and bend our thinking until it supports our choice. Everyone wants to cling to the belief that they’re a “good person”, so as soon as an irresistible but immoral opportunity presents itself, we set to work justifying it—no matter how difficult a task that might be.

We don’t know exactly which mental maneuvers King David employed when he took Bathsheba as his wife because a large part of his strategy was to keep everything a secret. But we can probably imagine some of it, because we’re accomplished mental gymnasts ourselves (although hopefully not in the service of stalking, adultery and conspiracy to commit murder). “I work hard; I deserve a little happiness.” “I’ll be able to give her a better life; I’m doing her a favor.” “Really, Uriah was probably going to die in battle anyway; I’m just preventing his prolonged suffering.” Flip. Leap. Bend. Twirl. Spin.

Even though he doesn’t share his thinking, we know that David is mentally justifying his choices because of his reaction to Nathan’s parable. He knows the difference between right and wrong. When Nathan tells his story, David reacts the way we’d expect a morally upright human to react: he’s incensed at the rich neighbor’s actions, and demands that reparations be made. But the mental gymnastics he’s performing to justify his own actions are so skillful that he doesn’t recognize the irony of this verdict until Nathan spells it out for him: “You are that man!”

How often do we preserve our self-image as virtuous people by employing mental gymnastics of our own? We’ve watched this play out on a national scale recently. People of all ideologies are flipping and twirling all over the place, all for the sake of justifying their own actions and agendas. It’s easy to point fingers and condemn the “other side” for its inconsistencies and logical fallacies, but just like David, perhaps our eagerness to condemn the sins of others could be better used to identify the gymnastic justification of our own moral shortcomings. When we’re being hypocritical. When we’re ignoring facts. When we’re lacking empathy. When we make questionable choices because “the ends justify the means”. Flip. Leap. Bend. Twirl. Spin.

We become so adept at these self-image-preserving mental gymnastics that we begin to have difficultly even recognizing when we’re doing it. We think that we’re simply explaining ourselves, that we’re “just sayin’,” when really, we’re skillfully and deliberately rearranging the facts to suit our needs. It becomes second nature, to the point where we can easily condemn those stealing their neighbor’s sheep and justify our own covetousness in the same breath. We can no longer readily identify what’s right and what’s wrong.

In physical gymnastics, the condition of not being able to properly orient oneself has a name: “the twisties”. This is the term for a loss of proprioception (the sense that tells you where your body is in space). As you can imagine, this worrying condition can be especially perilous for physical gymnasts, where recognizing your body’s position at any given time could mean the difference between a gold medal and a broken neck.

The “moral twisties” are just as dangerous as their physical counterpart. When we get them, we’re no longer able to orient ourselves in the truth, to recognize what’s truly right and good. In the case of Bathsheba’s former husband and infant son, the King’s case of the twisties were deadly. Modern political leaders are susceptible to this affliction, too; no political party is blameless: explaining away racist photos, sweeping sedition under the rug in the name of “moving on”, accepting obscene amounts of campaign money from morally suspect organizations. We should all be able to agree that these actions are objectively wrong, and yet they occur with alarming regularity. And when these mental gymnastics persist year after year, election cycle after election cycle, our leaders’ inability to tell the difference between right and wrong begins to put the integrity of our democracy in serious danger.

But the twisties don’t have to win. This week, the world watched as Simone Biles, the undisputed world champion of her sport, withdrew from the team and individual all-around finals of the Olympics. She revealed that her mental health had been suffering, and she’d developed a dangerous case of “the twisties”. She, better than anyone, understood just how dangerous this could be. So, although she’d competed and won championships before with broken toes and kidney stones, Simone Biles chose not to compete until she’d recovered from this condition.

There’s an equally simple way to make sure we don’t fall victim to the “moral twisties”: stop. Just stop. The true mark of a mental gymnast is an unwillingness to take a break from all the twisting and bending and leaping to regain our bearings. The whole point of the routine is to keep from landing on the unpleasant truth, so being grounded or correctly oriented is irrelevant to a mental gymnast. They’ll continue spinning and twisting at all costs until something forces them to stop. Meanwhile, someone truly interested in the truth should be willing to pause, to listen, to learn…and possibly, to have their heart changed.

Contrary to what mental gymnasts may believe, there IS an objective truth and an objective morality, and it’s not the one that they attempting to create with their routine. It’s God’s. The idea behind our theological tradition, the Reformed tradition, isn’t to keep changing for change’s sake; it’s to keep trying to reorient ourselves towards God’s will, no matter how often or how far we stray from it. Sometimes, that means correcting established doctrine that’s based in old human prejudices; other times, it means returning to ancient traditions that uniquely illuminate an aspect of the divine that we’ve forgotten. It means being willing to stop our mental gymnastics, in spite of the momentum we’ve built up over the centuries, in spite of how natural and easy it feels, to make sure we’re really following in the path that Christ has set for the Church.

How often have mental gymnastics given YOU “the twisties”? Yours may not have sweeping consequences for the nation or threaten your physical wellbeing, but they’re just as dangerous. How often have you gotten so caught up in your justifications that you’ve lost sight of what’s up and what’s down, what’s right and what’s wrong? And how many times have you been willing to step away from your familiar routine until you’re able to ground yourself in God’s truth again?

Paul calls us to “live as people worthy of the call we received from God.” We can’t do that if we’re so busy making ourselves look good that we can’t ground ourselves in God’s morality. We need to be “measured by the standard of Christ’s fullness”, not our own desires. Unity of faith and spirit doesn’t mean thinking or believing uniformly; it means all being oriented the same way—towards God’s will—and grounded in Christ and Christ alone. Spiritual infants are tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from deceit and tricks—flipping, leaping, bending, twirling, spinning to present a favorable fa├žade to the world. It’s the mature adults who are able to stop, step back, identify GOD’S objective truth, and speak it with love. Even when that truth condemns them.

Stopping our mental gymnastics is a really tough thing to do. It’s difficult to step back from an attitude that allows us to “have our cake and eat it, too” and pivot to one that kicks off with a bitter serving of humble pie. That’s why Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition was so admirable—it’s HARD to step back from something that makes others look up to you and makes you feel good. But at the end of the day, it’s not the image we project to the world that matters. It’s being grounded in Christ—Christ’s love, Christ’s mercy, Christ’s justice, Christ’s truth—that orients us properly. That makes us “good people”. That allows us to reconcile with God. That cures us of the mental twisties.

So, as you watch the rest of the Olympic gymnastic competitions, go ahead and admire the athletes’ agility. Go ahead and wish that you could get your body to move even half as gracefully as theirs. Cheer for the complex routines and awe-inspiring maneuvers. But don’t seek to mimic their movements with your mental justifications. God is neither impressed nor pleased with the bending and twisting of the truth. Instead, seek to align your morality with God’s, and you won’t need to be an expert mental gymnast. You can stop all the flipping, leaping, bending, and twirling. You can step off the metaphorical mat in full confidence that you’re doing the right thing, and that you are, indeed, living as a person worthy of the call you received from God. Amen.

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