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As far back as I can remember, even as a young child, I remember being acutely aware that (1) appearances matter and (2) the way I looked was mostly found lacking. I was told to pinch my nose, so the bridge would be higher and that I could get eye surgery when I was older, so that I could have double-eyelids and bigger eyes.
I was notified every time I gained weight and anytime I had acne, as if I wasn’t already aware. These beauty standards were from the colonized minds of my parents and their friends who valued Westernized standards of beauty more than a classic Korean face. Today, South Korea has the fifth-highest number of plastic surgeons in the world. It’s fewer than the 6,900 plastic surgeons here in the United States but higher on a per capita basis. In fact, South Korea is often called the world’s plastic surgery capital with estimates that around one in three South Korean women between the ages 19 and 29 have had plastic surgery, but others have put that number at 50% or even higher. Now, today, some will argue that Asian women are not trying to look more American or European, but back in the 80s and 90s when I was hearing those comments, I guarantee you, my parents thought that looking white was beautiful, and the more white I looked, the better off I’d be. Now, I won’t turn this sermon into a therapy session, but y’all… no matter how much we feel like we are shielding ourselves from our culture’s beauty standards, I think we are all affected by it. Even the most enlightened, body-positive people have to work really hard to resist the constant messaging we receive that we do not look good enough. And this affects people of all gender identities, not just those who identify as women.
Just think back on this past week. How many ads did you see, how many conversations did you overhear, and how many thoughts did you have, that were about being thinner, about what you were wearing or how your hair looked, about the bags under your eyes, or the spots or wrinkles on your skin. Now, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring about how we look. How we present ourselves to the world, by what we wear and how we do our hair or makeup, to me, is a process in creativity. It’s an opportunity to exercise that creative spark that is in each of us. But I don’t think I am too far-fetched in stating that our society, not just South Korea or cultures over there, but right here in the United States, is obsessed with appearances, almost to the detriment of us all. And then you throw social media into the mix, which started as a tool for communication and connection, but we now know what the research says. Apps like Instagram which focus almost solely on images, can be harmful and even toxic to us, especially our teenage girls. It creates a perfect storm of negative social comparisons and impossible body image ideals that can lead to severe mental health issues. Now, I’m on Instagram but I don’t really follow celebrities unless you count politicians and Tony Bravo. But I have heard that celebrities who are already considered absurdly beautiful by almost all standards still choose to photoshop their images, so that they look thinner overall and curvier in all the right spots. And I’m thinking if people like Britney Spears and the Kardashians and other models and actors are doctoring their photos before posting them, how unrealistic are our expectations of physical beauty! It is literally impossible to look the way that some of them do. Human beings do not naturally come in those shapes or sizes, and it is only made possible through plastic surgery and photoshop. But we, who receive these images, don’t always know that. And our preoccupation with appearances is literally taking young, vulnerable lives.
Our story for today tells us of a God who does not see as mortals see; for we humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart. The Hebrew word for heart is levav In Hebrew, the heart is the center of human thought and spiritual life. Today, we tend to think that the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but in Hebrew it also refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well. The word “heart” meant the mind and all mental and emotional activity. I do find it a little funny, though, that we still do get David’s physical description. Verse 12 says: “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” I’m not sure why that would not have seemed like “kingly” material for the Israelites back then, but David, on the outside, did not seem like the one who would or should or could become king. And yet, Samuel anoints him, as the next king, not because of what he looks like, but because of what God sees in David’s heart.
Now, David is far from perfect. And I feel no need to defend him.
But it does seem that he wants to try, and he is open to criticism and willing to change. And God sees something in him, in his heart, that seems worthy of a leader. Perhaps what we really need in all of our leaders is the ability to have some humility when confronted with their own wrongs or misgivings, and then the willingness to make changes and try to right those wrongs.
Today’s scripture invites us to become more like God, to see not on the outward appearances of ourselves or others, but to look upon our hearts. I would imagine for many of us, if we spent just as much time tending to our hearts and making them more beautiful as we do in front of a mirror, choosing an outfit, doing our hair, working out, and focusing on our physical appearances, that our lives would probably change at least just a little. And in a lot of ways, this is huge challenge, not only to try and tend to our own hearts, but to be more attuned to the hearts of others rather than to their appearances. Our brains are trained to look at someone and make quick decisions about them. That impulse, those implicit biases, they’re there to protect us and to keep us safe. But too often, in a world where we are no longer running from predators in quite the same way, those initial assessments are often incorrect and based on biases that are racialized or commercialized. You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The English language is full of sayings like this: “All that glitters is not gold.” “Looks are deceiving.” “Don’t just scratch the surface.” “Things aren’t always as they seem.” We probably have so many of these sayings because our basic human impulse is the opposite. And then there are the movies and stories about this: Cyrano de Bergerac; Roxanne; Beauty and the Beast; Shallow Hal. To be more like God, is to see not what is on the outside, but to notice what is on the inside. So what are some ways that we, like God, might look upon the heart rather than on outward appearances.
Unfortunately, in our busy lives, I don’t think there is a short-cut to something like this. Looking upon someone’s heart takes time, time to get to know someone, time to hear what makes them laugh and what makes them cry, time to just pause and catch up and not have a formal agenda. It’s possible on Zoom, I guess, but much, much harder. And maybe it starts with a common greeting: “How are you?” and then stopping to actually hear the answer. Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company, also suggests trying these questions as an alternative to “How are you?” Consider asking:
Sometimes, phrases that are all too common and familiar like “how are you?” no longer seem to require a real answer. So let’s push back on that. As people who call ourselves followers of Jesus, let’s take the time Jesus did to get to know the people around him, to listen to their struggles, to sit with them in their grief,
to really know and care about them, to visit there where they lived and to encourage them.
You have opportunities to do that right after worship today. Join us in Calvin Hall (with your proof of vaccination) and ask someone how they’re doing, and really mean it. And come to the Library Lounge at 11:30 to experience people’s art and talk with them about what inspired them and how they’re doing now at this stage in the pandemic. Other ways are to practice the art of the holy pause. When you’re about to make a snap judgment about someone, take a pause and engage your holy curiosity. Why might this person look the way they do? What might this person be going through?
How might they be experiencing God’s love for them right now? Or how might they be experiencing the deep pains of life right now? Now, social media isn’t perfect and in fact we know it can be damaging. But it is just a tool, and I do think we can use it for good as well. How might we share and exude love, even in what we post? And how might we look upon the hearts of those with whom we are connected through social media? One way I try to do that is to stop mindlessly scrolling and liking everything I see. If I am inclined to like something, I try to challenge myself to leave a comment of some kind,
so that it increases our engagement with one another. I want my response to say that “I see you and your heart in this post in some way.”
Challenge yourself to try and look upon at least one person’s heart above their appearances this week. And maybe that person is you. Check in with yourself. How is your heart these days? I have been moved by this quote by Francis Ward Weller with regards to having a tender heart. He writes:
The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand
and gratitude in the other
and to be stretched large by them.
How much sorrow can I hold?
That’s how much gratitude I can give.
If I only carry grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair.
If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine
and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.
Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft,
which helps make compassion possible. [end quote]
So allow yourself to grieve. We have lost so many loved ones these past 18 months. And all of us are grieving a life that once was. Give space for your grief. Allow your heart to feel all its feelings, knowing that feelings are nothing more than indicators of how the heart is doing. And then there are the spiritual practices of prayer, scripture, and giving. Take time to pray to God, to bring your grief, your joy, your gratitude to God. And take moments to read and be fed by God’s word. And give. There’s nothing like giving back – of our time, talents, and treasure, to heal our hearts and tend to the hearts of others. And finally come worship because the worship we bring to God is good for our hearts. As we worship God, we are made to know just how beloved we all are. God created each and every one of us. And when God beholds us, love overflows. You may have heard of the term “beer goggles.” They say that’s when you drink beer and people become better and better looking with each sip. I don’t recommend putting this to the test. But I do recommend putting on our “God Goggles” that allows us to see ourselves and others the way God sees us – and God thinks you are beautiful, inside and out.
And God thinks your neighbor is beautiful, inside and out. Let us see the beauty of each and every person as we try to be like our God who looks upon our hearts.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
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