Sunday, October 14, 2018

I Believe God, Help my Unbelief


James 2:1-17

Mark 10:17-31

Mark 9:24

One year at famous acrobat who wanted to show the world the extent of his talents.  He decided he would push a wheelbarrow with a person inside across a tight rope that was strung over Niagra Falls.  He practiced often and early, working hard to make sure that it would be a success.  As he was practicing one day, an observer came by and said, “Wow!  This is such a wonderful idea.  And I have seen your talents and abilities and I have every confidence that you can do this!” The acrobat replied, “Do you really?”  “Absolutely,” the observer countered, “There is no doubt in my mind that you will be successful at this.”  The acrobat pushed him a little harder, “You really think I can do this.  Even with a person in the wheelbarrow?”

“Yes!  I have complete faith in you.  Even with a person inside, your skill would overcome any danger!” came the quick reply.  The acrobat smiled a huge relieved smile as he replied, “Good!  Then tomorrow you will ride in the wheelbarrow!”

“Are you crazy?” the observer countered, “I could get myself killed!”

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.

Faith.  We say that we are believers.  But do we really believe?  This joke points out to us that belief, that faith, is not just about declaring that we accept something as true.  Our actions show at a much deeper level what, in fact, we actually believe. 

Historically we know that there has been a division in our church, between those who believe in salvation by faith, and those who believe in salvation by works.  This was one of the key issues that surrounded the Protestant Reformation.  Parishioners in the Roman Catholic church at that time were told they needed to earn salvation, first by doing good things, but also by buying indulgences in order to get out of time in purgatory and into heaven.  And Martin Luther said “no” - we are not saved by the things we do, or the money we give the church, but by our very faith.  Salvation does not have to be bought with action or money or favors or anything other than our faith. He had a good point in saying that grace is a gift, not earned, something we can do nothing to obtain.  But I would dare to say, that what began as an important point, what started as a stand against injustice, has in itself become a corrupted understanding that has now led once again to the creation of injustice in some of our churches.

In bible study, we have talked about one example of this that was really evident in Central America for a long time. For many years, the dominant religious leaders were enforcing injustice, keeping the poor people poor by proclaiming that since they are richer in their faith when they are materially poor, and since God promises their reward will be much greater because of that wealth of faith, that they should be grateful for their poverty and not try to raise themselves up.  This is a corruption of the doctrine of salvation by faith.  It is a misuse of biblical passages, it is a mistaken declaration that future salvation means that the present life doesn’t matter and that it is okay for those who are wealthy to ignore the current suffering of the poor, because we believe that they will be saved after death by their faith.

When I worked as a missionary in Brazil for a summer, I saw a very similar situation there.  There were two kinds of missionaries serving in Brazil, and often standing across the street from one another in an especially poor area.  On one side of the street would be people handing out Bibles.  In Brazil, the Christian church is starkly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and the people handing out Bibles were Protestants trying to “save” Catholics into Protestantism by declaring that Catholics were not really believers.  Across the street from them would stand the other group of missionaries, with a hot pot of soup, a truck full of good, second-hand clothing, a couple chairs for people to sit and rest for a minute.  These two groups of Christians were often at great odds with one another.  Those handing out Bibles told those serving soup that they just obviously did not care about the salvation of the people, the only thing that really mattered. And those handing out soup stood on the passages of the Bible such as the passage in James 2: 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  In the middle of this fighting, the faith itself, Christianity itself, looked problematic to those they would serve; it seemed confused and corrupt, it looked like a faith that was lost.

Today in the story from Mark we met the rich man of faith.  He had read the scriptures, knew and believed the commandments, he had lived by the law to the best of his ability.  But it didn’t feel like it was enough and it made him uneasy.  So he went to Jesus, and after flattering him (because my guess is that this usually got him the answers he was hoping for), he asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life.  Jesus didn’t play the flattery game, but challenged it: “why do you call me good?  Only God is good!”  He also didn’t just tell the man he was fine and everything would be okay.  He told him in order to earn eternal life, he had to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We are told that the man responded by walking away sadly. It wasn’t that he didn’t have faith, at least not in the way it has often been described: I think he believed Jesus. But he didn’t have ENOUGH faith to believe that what Jesus was offering was better.  He didn’t have enough faith to believe that what God offered would be more full, more filling, more everything.   

The dichotomy which we have set up, between faith and works is a false one.  If we really, actively believe that Jesus is the divine incarnate, then we will believe what Jesus says.  And if we believe what Jesus says, then we must believe that the call of our lives is not only to love God with everything we’ve got, but also to love our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves.  If we really believe, at our core, that we are to love everyone as ourselves, then we will live lives that try to make sure that all people, not just our family members, have enough to eat; we will live lives that work to make sure that all people, not just those close to us, have lives worth living; we will do everything in our power to make sure that all people, not just those who agree with us politically or are in the same economic class, same race, same upbringing, same economic class, same country of origin, or same whatever can all live the lives that they want to live: lives filled with enough material good, with education, with healthcare, with dignity, with respect, with joy, with opportunities for their kids, with safety and well-being.  If we really believe, then we will have to take very seriously Jesus’ statement that our call to serve the poor is not just for them - it is for our very salvation as well. 

James makes really clear in this passage that we are asked to do this, we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, for our own sakes as well as for the sakes of the poor.  I am poorer in my faith because of my wealth.  It is only in giving that away, in being willing to risk and in living by that faith that my faith is built and increased.  We are called, by this passage, not just to help the poor because they are poor and in need of our help, but for our own salvation, for the increase of our own faith, for the living out of God’s kingdom for all.

Taking this to the next step, then, we have to recognize that this call is hard, hard, hard beyond anything.  As Jesus himself said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  And ALL of us here are richer than the people Jesus was referring to at the time.  The reality is that we are not just short in our works, it is not just that we all fail to earn our salvation, the reality is that we also don’t have enough faith for our salvation.  We just don’t have it.  Very few with resources like we have really do.  Very few are willing to get into the wheelbarrow when we are called to the test.  So where is the good news in this?  Where is the good news that we are promised in our faith when we fall short both in works and in faith?

I am reminded of a story in which a man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven.  The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see.  I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.”  St. Peter replied, “That’s very good.  That’s one point.” 

The man looked scared but he continued,  “Oh my.  Let me think again.  I was a good husband.  I never cheated on my wife.  My children loved me because I was a good father.  I tithed, and volunteered at the soup kitchen.  I was in the Lions Club...”  St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too.  It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works.  One more point.”  The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points.  Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.”  At this St. Peter exclaimed,  “And that’s worth 200 points.  Come on in!”

We fall short in our Christian actions because we fall short in our Christian faith.  We believe, God, Help our unbelief.  But the good news in this is that we aren’t saved by our works, and frankly, we aren’t saved by our faith either.  The good news is that God wants to make possible our impossibilities.  As Jesus said to the disciples, “what is impossible for humans is possible for God.”  The good news is that God loves us despite our inadequacies of works and faith.  The Good news is that we are saved, not by works, not by faith, but by Grace.  God saves us through God’s grace which chooses us, forgives us, loves us, and calls us.  It is through that grace and only that grace that we are brought into eternal life.  It is through that love which gave its life for us that we are brought into God’s realm.  It is through that passion by which God overcame even death to be with us, even when we killed God’s son, that we, too, are brought into new life.  We have failed ourselves, each other and God.  But God still loves us more than life and still wants us to be part of God’s kingdom.

I’m not saying that faith and works don’t matter.  They do.  But they, too, are reflections of God’s grace.  Faith itself, Paul tells us, is a gift from God; not earned, but given.  Works are a living out of that faith, a grateful response to that grace freely given.  In other words, it is through God’s grace that we have faith and do works.  It is through God’s grace that we find our faith and have the courage to begin living it out.  Through God’s grace, God helps us to grow closer to God and to love more deeply.

Dear God, we pray that you would give us the faith to see your grace all around us, in every day, in every way.  We pray that You would help us to live out that grace through deeper faith and more generous works.  We believe God, help our unbelief.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Discerning the Body


1 Corinthians 11: 17-33

Ephesians 2:14-18



               In today’s first passage Paul is confronting bad communion practices.  He starts with this: “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.  Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?”  So his first point is that all are included, regardless of economic level, regardless of what they can bring to the meal.  Also note, as I’ve mentioned before, that communion was meant to be a meal.  It was meant to fill those who came, feed them in a very real and concrete way.  It was a supper, it was a gathering of community, it was a celebration of God-in-our-midst, God who provides our daily needs of food and drink, God who comes to us in the ordinary and every day experiences of eating and drinking, of joining together with friends.  Today’s passage from 1 Corinthians ends with this, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.”  We do this after church on Sundays: just snacks, most of the time, but that eating together, that time for community and sharing of food, that is communion at the deepest level.

               By the way, this idea that communion is a meal is mirrored in the very words we use when we say, “this is the joyful feast of the people of God.”  It is meant to be a feast, a meal.  A feeding.

               Obviously we don’t do it that way anymore.  The communion “feast” became limited to a small piece of bread and a small sip of drink in a time when people were afraid that folk were coming solely because they were hungry and wanted to be fed, rather than for the “proper” reasons of remembering Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  But I will tell you honestly, it always feels more like real communion to me when we are feeding and sitting with those who are there simply out of need than it does to me to take a single bite of bread and call that communion.  Jesus fed people, including the hungry.  And when we do the same, we are more accurately following Jesus’ footsteps, we are more accurately acting out the “sacrament” than any other way we do communion.  Sacraments in the Presbyterian church involve three components: 1.  Jesus participated in it.  2.  Jesus did it for us.  3.  Jesus called us to do it.  When it comes to communion, Jesus ate, Jesus fed, and Jesus called us to do the same.  We are sacramentally called to feed one another, and when we do so in community, it truly gets at the heart of the sacramental practice of communion.

               Paul ends this passage in Corinthians with the following statement: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”  So what does it mean to “discern the body?”  He’s already said that excluding anyone who comes to the table is a failure to discern the body.  He has also said that eating within your own small groups is a way of failing to discern the body. 

               The passage we read from Ephesians gives a bit more insight.  “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”  So “discerning the body” has to do with an ability to get past our differences, to remember that we are connected, united in Christ.  “Discerning the body” is about seeing one another with eyes of love and peace and recognition that we are all children of God despite our differences, despite our disputes.

               Roger Wolsey sent me a story this week in which he described an encounter he had with someone on the opposite side of the theological spectrum from himself outside the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  They were arguing with each other loudly, with passion, with intensity, about LGBTQ inclusion.  Wolsey wrote, “In the midst of this nasty melee, I felt a breeze against the back of my legs. I turned and saw a tall man in a suit reaching in between us with a large cookie in his hand, saying, “Have a cookie!” The guy with the sign and I looked at each other, then at him, and then we took the cookie being offered. We broke it in half and started to enjoy the cookie. The guy in the suit walked off hardly breaking stride at all. We found ourselves still arguing, but our volume level went way down and we somehow shifted into a more civil mode of, slightly, more rational debate. He learned my name is Roger. I learned his name is Fred. And at the end, we honored each other as being fellow Christians, we shook hands and pledged to pray for each other (both of us certain that the other needed prayer).”  He continued, “the line between enemy and friend is not a rigid one and … the concept of “enemy” is only there to the extent that we want and allow it to exist.  Historic writings about the early Church tell us that non-Christians often remarked of Christians “See how they love each other!” There was a time of such a lack of love in ancient Roman society that any show of love or joy, let alone unconditional love like the kind that had them going out of their way to ensure that the poor people of Rome received proper burials, set Christians apart from the rest of the crowd. People could sense something was different about those Christians. That difference was inclusive, radical love and compassion – and that difference made Christianity worthy of consideration. Those early Christians provided proper funeral services for the indigent strangers when no one else would. They rescued infants with birth defects from the garbage heaps who’d been rejected and discarded as refuse by families unwilling to raise them. And they notably tended to each other when they took ill, experienced hardship, became widowed, etc.”

               On this World Communion/Peacemaking Sunday it is especially important that we remember this.  We are celebrating communion with Christians around the world today.  We are also remembering the needs, and especially the hungers of people around the world as we collect the peacemaking offering which goes in large part towards the ending of hunger around the world.  These three things: our connections to each other around the world, our feeding of each other through communion, and peacemaking are all intimately connected. 

               So today as we celebrate both peacemaking and world communion Sunday I invite you to take part at a deeper level in both being fed and in feeding.  In terms of being fed, we have baskets full to the brim with different kinds of breads from around the world.  Do not just take a bite, but take a real piece of bread.  Savor it, taste it, let it fill you in body as well as in spirit and in soul, let it be part of you even as you see that same bread becoming part of those around you.  In terms of feeding one another, I encourage you to give generously to the peacemaking offering that we will be taking in a few minutes.  In our praying, I encourage you to remember people around the world, our brothers and sisters, our family whom we have yet to meet, and to lift up deep prayers for their wholeness, their well-being, their safety and health.

               Communion is so many things.  It is remembering.  We remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We also remember what God has done throughout history.  When Jesus ate the Passover meal, he was remembering the Israelites freed from slavery.  We also remember the return from exile.  We also remember that Jesus was recognized by his disciples after the resurrection through the breaking of the bread – through eating with them in communion and community. 

               It is New covenant of forgiveness and grace and life. 

               It sustains the church by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuing presence.   

               And on this World Communion Sunday it also connects us to people around the world in a commitment to love, to peace, to justice.

               We thank you, God; we bless you, God; we anticipate, God, your fulfilling of the kingdom on earth.  We trust in and receive Christ’s love, we manifest the reality of the covenant of grace in reconciling and being reconciled.  We proclaim the power of Christ’s reign for renewal, justice and peace in the world.  We bind the Church with Christ and with one another, united with all Christians, nourished by Christ’s presence, and we ask to be kept faithful.  We renew our baptism vows through this taking of communion.  We celebrate the joyful feast of the people of God and anticipate the great banquet where all people will be united and made whole.  Amen.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Having the Courage to Include


Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50



How do we understand who we are?  How do we understand what makes us ourselves?  In a lot of ways we do this by identifying what we are NOT, and who we are NOT.  I am NOT male, not a Southerner or East Coast person, NOT a fundamentalist, NOT a sporty kind of gal.  It is okay to figure out who we are in relationship to what and who we are not.  But often we then take this to the next step of excluding others, keeping out those we identify ourselves against.  We exclude folk, don’t invite them to our gatherings, to our dinners, to our activities. We pick people usually who are in the same “categories” that we put ourselves in.  And we either don’t even see, or specifically bar and exclude people who don’t fit into our categories or what is okay, what is good, what is “us”.  But in so doing, we run the risk of keeping people from God, from God’s grace, from God’s redemption, from the life that God gives to each of us. 

We know this.  As we’ve worked closely, for example, with the Rainbow Community Center, it has become extremely clear that the Church (big C) has lost thousands of LGBTQ+ members as a result of Christian exclusion, or prejudice, of unkindness, of intolerance.  Again, we know this.  We are called to be known by our love.  But how many times, instead, are we known by our judgments, our exclusion, and even our hate?

We too easily feel threatened, feel jealous, feel scared of those who are different.  We are too easily afraid we will be “corrupted” or damage or harmed by those who are different from us.  We judge as a way to protect.  We set up boundaries of inclusion as a way to try to be safe.  But these choices to exclude are much more dangerous than any inclusion could possibly be.

All three of today’s passage emphasizes the deep and real importance of not excluding, not keeping others from God.  The story of Esther is a story of a woman who had the courage to beg the king to not destroy her people, people who were being excluded because Haman, the king’s advisor, felt threatened by them.  Haman almost succeeded.  His fear, his jealousy, his anger led him to almost destroy an entire group of people.

In the James passage we are encouraged to not ever give up on someone else, to never consider another beyond redemption but to rejoice in the possibility that all can find their way back.

And of course the Mark passage emphasizes that when we are quick to exclude, we need to look again.  I love this passage because the disciples were clearly people like all of us: they became jealous, they felt threatened by the power and attention that this other person was getting.  And Jesus basically said, “do not allow those feelings to cause you to treat another person as an enemy.  Don’t decide they are against you because they aren’t with you at the moment.  Don’t decide they are your foe because they hang out with other people, look different, make different choices, see the world differently.”

I have shared with you before some of what author Mitch Albom has written. In his book, Have a Little Faith, he really is writing his own story of ‘drifting’ from his faith.  As he looks into why he drifted away from his own faith, he at first claimed that it was mostly apathy.  But as he told his own story, it became clear that there were other reasons at the heart of his drifting from his faith.  He noticed hypocrisy.  Well, we all do, right?  We all know about the many people of faith who claim to be about love who act hateful, for example.  Or the many people who shout condemnation only to be caught doing whatever it is they are condemning…

(On a side note, I find it a bit confusing that people expect church folk to BE perfect, or to somehow be less hypocritical than everyone else.  We are here because we need TO grow.  So if we came in perfect, what would be the point?  As Jesus himself said, Mark 2:17, “ It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”).

But for Mitch, also, he started to notice that he was excluded, as a Jewish person, from the larger culture.  And instead of staying true to his faith but stepping away from an exclusive culture, he chose to be part of the culture and step away from a faith that would leave him out. Additionally, and this is described more than stated in his book, he found good things in other traditions…he married an Arab Christian, not rejecting her because of her faith, not finding her hideous or unacceptable because of her faith.  And yet because of his own upbringing, he felt guilty about not having an exclusivist vision when it came to his faith.  He found wisdom in other faiths, such as Christianity, and felt this must be wrong.  At one point when he was talking to his Rabbi, the Rabbi had made the comment, “I have what I need, why bother chasing more?”  To which Albom responded, “You’re like that Biblical quote, what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

“That’s Jesus” responded the Rabbi.

“Oops, sorry,” I said.

“Don’t apologize,” he said, smiling.  “It’s still good.” 

The Rabbi was able to accept the wisdom in other traditions.  Albom, though, felt guilty in quoting Jesus.  He felt he was crossing an unacceptable line by valuing wisdom from different faiths.   

At one point Albom confronted the Rabbi about this asking how he could be so “open-minded” as a clergy person for the Jewish faith.

The Rabbi responded, “Look.  I know what I believe.  It’s in my soul.  But I constantly tell our people: you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything.  And since we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe something else.” He sighed.  “I’m not being original here, Mitch.  Most religions teach us to love our neighbor.”

Albom continues, “I thought about how much I admired him at that moment.  How he never, even in private, even in old age, tried to bully another belief, or bad-mouth someone else’s devotion.  And I realized I had been a bit of a coward on this whole faith thing.  I should have been proud, less intimidated.  I shouldn’t have bitten my tongue.  If the only thing wrong with Moses is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with Jesus is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with mosques, Lent, chanting, Mecca, Buddha, confession, or reincarnation is that they’re not yours - well, maybe the problem is you.  One more question? I asked the Reb.  He nodded.  When someone from another faith says, ‘God bless you’ what do you say?  ‘I say, “thank you, and God bless you, too.’  Really? ‘Why shouldn’t I’  I went to answer and realized I had no answer.  No answer at all.” (p 168)…  “You can embrace your own faith’s authenticity and still accept that others believe in something else.”

            My son and I were watching the movie “The Help” last week.  It’s one of my favorite movies, so we’ve watched it a number of times.  But this time what struck me the most was the story that Skeeter’s mother finally told her about what had happened to their life-long African American maid who disappeared from the family while Skeeter was away at college. The story takes place in the 60s in Mississipi, where the household servants were exclusively African American woman serving all white families. Skeeter had been raised by their help, their maid, by Constantine.  Constantine had been with and worked for this family forever.  And in many ways she was one of the family, though in other ways the limits and social behaviors of the time would never allow for close connection.  But at the point at which the Daughters of America had come out to offer Skeeter’s mother an award and the President of the Daughters of America behaved in a very racist, exclusive way, expected the same exclusive, judging, condemning and belittling behavior in Skeeter’s mother, when suddenly Skeeter’s mother was being judged for being too kind, too inviting of the woman who had raised her kids, who had taken care of their family for decades, suddenly Skeeter’s mother had a terrible choice to make.  She either had to stand up to a woman she respected, the woman who had the power to give her this honor that she had sought for so long, or she had to throw out the helper, Constantine and her daughter who had given all of their lives to care for Skeeter’s mother and her family.  Skeeter’s mother made a terrible choice.  She chose to impress her guests by kicking out and firing Constantine and her daughter for coming in through the front door of her house, something that had never been unacceptable in that house before.  She chose to impress her guests by taking livelihood and a family away from someone she loved.  She chose to exclude, to judge, to condemn – all for the sake of appearances, for the sake of her own acceptance into a group that was behaving in a manner we know to be deeply racist, to be utterly atrocious.

            We may not face these exact same challenges.  But we know there are times for many people when they are called on to choose between being inclusive but losing the respect of people they had otherwise looked up to, or to exclude in a way we know is wrong but puts us in a better place with someone who has power in our lives.  This can happen at work, this can happen at the store, this can happen on the BART train when we witness cruelty towards a Muslim or an immigrant.  Do we choose to speak up?  To stand up for those who are being attacked?  Do we choose to include, to love, to stand up for people who are different from us even when we might lose something, personally, by doing so?

            I was reminded of a time in one of the churches I served where one of the members who volunteered constantly to be a greeter was a woman that others found… well, slightly repulsive.  She didn’t bath nearly as often as she should have, she didn’t have a good sense of personal space, but would tend to stand too close, and touch too often.  She said whatever came into her head, which was never unkind, but often revealed more than people really wanted to hear.  And I remember when one of our other church members “suggested” that having her act as a greeter might be sending the wrong message to visitors.  “She isn’t like the rest of us.  She should not be the spokesperson for our congregation.  She will turn people off!  We want people who dress right and look good and say the right things to welcome our guests.”  We were in a group of people when this man declared this, and as I looked around to see how other people felt, I could see the discomfort.  The man speaking in this way was highly respected, a big donor, a leader in the church.  At the same time I think most of the people in that room also knew that our job as people of faith, as Christians, is not to turn away someone from a service they feel called to do because they don’t fit the stereotypes we have.  I finally gently suggested that I thought her presence as a greeter sent exactly the right message: that all are welcome in this place, that we are not just a country club for the rich and comfortable, but a sanctuary for all people.  But I have to admit that for me, too, it was not easy to say those words, it was not easy to put a different perspective forward, even if it was one of inclusion, one of love, one of acceptance and celebration of all of who we are.

            The reality is it goes farther than simple inclusion.  It also has to extend to really seeing the other.. it has to extend to respect.

            Thinking about all the #metoo stuff that’s been going on lately, and the harrassments and assaults that have been coming to the forefront of our awareness lately, reminded me of one of my favorite MASH episodes.  Hawkeye needs to give Margaret a shot because Hepatitis is raging through camp.  This is shot that you get on your rear.  And Hawkeye is making comments about Margaret’s appearance, which he believes to be a compliment, but which she hears, as most women would, as crossing a line, as being a form of harassment, of being an invasion, of being disrespectful.  She doesn’t like it.  And she says to him, “How dare you come in here on the pretext of giving me a shot and then stand there ogling me as though I were a sideshow attraction.”

His clueless response, “Boy, I show you a little appreciation, and you hit the roof. - What do you want from me?”

To which she responds, “Respect. Simple respect. I expect nothing more, and I'll accept nothing less.”

            Because in MASH people actually grow and change he is able to hear that, he is able to hear her and learn.  Can we do the same?  Can we learn to include, and more, learn to respect, even people who are different from us? Who have different visions of the world, different views, different understandings, different backgrounds, different skin colors, different heritages, different genders and orientations, different ways of being human in an increasingly complex and difficult world?

            It takes great courage at times to stand up for one another.  It takes deep courage to include people that other people would reject.  But Jesus’ phrase, “for whoever is not against us is for us,” is one that we need to take to heart, in our dealings with one another, and in our choices to live with courage in the face of other’s judgements, exclusive behavior, and acts of injustice and oppression towards others.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Follow up about violent responses, from friend directly affected

The following is from the friend, David Hancock, who found the intruder in his house stealing from him. He wrote this in response to the posts advocating that he should have shot the intruder.  I am sharing it and giving his name with his permission:

Thank you, everyone.

Let me specifically address the responses about shooting the guy.

1- I saw him for three seconds. I thought it was my wife heading to work and I was going to give her a kiss goodbye. So I was kind of surprised that it was a thief. If I were going to shoot him that would mean that I was going out to say goodbye to my wife (who I initially thought was the person in the living room) with my gun loaded, armed, and pointed at her. So that's not a recipe for a healthy marriage. Being in a position to shoot the guy would also have meant being the kind of person who carries a loaded gun around my own house with me all the time. I have no interest in being that kind of person.

2- The Bay Area does not frown upon shooting home invaders. This state's gun laws are incredibly lax compared to where I used to live (Illinois) and to where I am moving in a few weeks (Colorado). In fact, one of the responding officers looked at me and said something to the effect of 'if this guy comes back, California law is VERY lenient with whatever you feel you need to do to protect your home. You can't do anything to him outside, but if he's inside, or ends up back inside, you're free to defend your property however you want.' I bought my first gun in Illinois and I had to go through two full days of safety training before I could buy it and then also complete tri-annual paperwork and updates with the Illinois State Police confirming that I still owned it. Here, I'm required to ever take zero training and didn't even have to register my gun with the state.

3- I've been robbed before, at a job where I worked retail. The kid then had a balaclava on, so I didn't recognize him, and I did have the opportunity to stop him using lethal force had I chosen (that would have meant a lot of risk to me, too, but let's assume that I could have killed him.) The kid who robbed us was the son of one of the police officers who frequented the store and I would have killed the child (who was my age) of someone I knew. So that would have stayed with me my whole life.

I have known people who have killed people and I have seen what that does to them, and the mental difficulties and challenges it brings, repeated nightmares, and, in some, a vacancy behind their eyes that develops over years of worrying about what the act of killing someone does to them and means for them.

It's, frankly, disgusting that Americans are so flippant about ending a person's life. The most common reactions I've had to this event is people saying things like "That would have ended differently for that guy at my house" or "you should have murdered him then had breakfast" or "Why not just shoot him?" All those are exactly word-for-word. Why not kill someone because they have $1K in my camera gear in their arms? Because every human life is worth infinitely more than $1K in easily replaced camera gear. Every person is worthy of redemption, forgiveness, and kindness, no matter the circumstance. Because a camera thief is human, and has in them all the qualities associated with humanity. People don't break into homes and take a paltry little sum of camera gear because it's a hobby. They do it for a need, and whether that need is rent or drugs, that person is in a bad place in their life. I don't need to make it worse. And anyone who writes off a person so easily needs to question their own humanity. I'd much rather be surrounded by camera thieves than people who think it's okay to kill someone because that person is stealing something I can go online and replace tomorrow. All people are worth more than any material item.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Violent Responses

          I was browsing FB the other day and saw a post by a friend of mine who was describing a terrible and scary incident in which he awoke to find an intruder in his home.  The man grabbed a couple things and left. No one was hurt, my friend was able to replace the missing items with fairly little trauma.  It wasn't a pleasant experience but neither was it scarring.  What I found more interesting (here translated "disturbing") was the responses of some of his friends.  Several posted in response that he should have shot and killed the guy.  And that was usually followed by "that would have taught him".
        I have to admit, I find this response shocking and upsetting for so many reasons.  The first is simply the obvious one: once you're dead, there are no more lessons to be learned, folk.  Killing somebody doesn't actually teach them anything.
        But beyond that, why do we feel that we should react to unpleasant things by escalating the violence?  This is a mind-set that seems to have taken over the U.S. at this point in time.  We seem to greet every slight and every affront with an incredibly disproportionate response of revenge and increased harm. This must be a long time human flaw.  In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This was a law put in place to limit the amount of damage that could be returned in response to an injury of any kind.  It was necessary to make those statements at that time because people DID tend to escalate the problems.  "An eye for an eye" meant that you could only return in equal amount what was done to you.  So in this case, you could take something from the other person in response to their taking something of yours (NOT their life, by the way.  That's NOT what you could take in response to their stealing an item.  That is not an equal response.).  The Christian scriptures take it much further.  (Mt. 5:38-42): "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."  This takes the actions of love and kindness exponentially further.  Not only are we supposed to refrain from killing the people who upset us, not only are we to refrain from retaliating by inflicting the same injury to a person who has injured us, but we are to take loving a giant step further and try to respond to evil with goodness, try to respond to hate with love, try to answer anger with peace, and try to meet injury with caring.  
           Is this hard?  Of course.  Does it bring justice?  Not in the way we have come to understand it, that's for certain.  Is this normal behavior, even for people of faith? Not by any stretch of the imagination.  These tend to be passages that people of faith ignore, "forget," or simply fail to apply to real life.  It is hard to walk with love towards those offering hate.  It is difficult to not want revenge when someone has hurt us.  It is absolutely counter-cultural to not hit back when we are hit.
          But as I say in my sermons almost every week, the things we are asked to do by our faith traditions, while they may appear hard, are always things that invite us into wholeness as well: they aren't just for the "other".  They are meant for our own good, for our own betterment, for our own growth.
          So looking at it from that perspective, what are the consequences for different responses in this case?  Let's say my friend had shot the guy who broke into his home.  Instead of dealing with the, not minor, but not overwhelming either, trauma of an invasive house break in and theft, he would carry the scars for the rest of his life of having taken someone else's life.  Maybe there are people out there who can just dismiss another life as somehow not worthy of continuance.  Maybe there are people who would feel proud of putting out the life of someone who is making a bad choice. But my friend is a thinking person: he knows that just because someone does bad things does not mean they are an evil or worthless human being.  We never know the stories behind other people's actions.  We never know if someone is truly beyond redemption. We never know what has led up to that moment, nor where someone will go next in their life. To quote Gandalf, "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  For those of us who believe in the sanctity of life, taking life away from another human is something you just simply cannot heal from.  Ever.  Even if he could heal from it, he would end up going through the court system as a result of his actions: and that, too, is frankly extremely hard to get over, even if he were exonerated.  He also pointed out to me that since he didn't see the person very well, at first he wasn't even sure it was an intruder.  It could easily have been his wife returning from work.  Would you really want to go out shooting and risk hitting your spouse?
         In contrast, there are many stories of a response of love changing the hearts of anger and evil in the other. How does it affect us to behave with love?  It helps us build resilience, loving builds more love, even in our own hearts; forgiveness helps us to completely let go of the anger and pain we carry. In this case, their ability to forgive has meant that a terrible incident is truly over for them, not something they need to carry forward into any other situations.  In reality, there wasn't time for any response on the part of my friend to the intruder.  But if there had been, we never know how a choice for kindness will affect others, and even our own hearts, down the road.  We never know.  And it isn't our job to determine.  Our job is to be kind, to be compassionate, to "love our enemies" as Jesus would tell us, and to be open to allowing the love we have to grow and change us. The results of that are just not up to us.  
          I find this quick response of "you should have shot the guy" extremely disturbing because it shows an inability to seek empathy for those who are different, for anyone who has done wrong, for someone who has hurt us. It shows a way of thinking that is violent, aggressive, and non-sympathetic.  It reflects a lack of ability to see the humanity in people who harm us. It is an action that also demonstrates a forgetfulness of our own mistakes.  While we may say, "Well, I've never done anything that bad," I don't know that rating our mistakes is very healthy or even fair. Again, we don't know what has led up to that moment for the person choosing that behavior.  This reaction also fails to see beyond this moment into the future consequences of our choice to react with violence and revenge.  
           I would hope for us that we could start the pendulum swinging back towards greater compassion, towards a deeper understanding that the difference between me and you is only time and space: that when we hurt the other, we are injuring ourselves: and when we choose love, we are also choosing love for ourselves.  I think that road may be long, but it's an important journey to walk.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Fighting for First Place

James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37



Ambition.  The world tells us we need to be ambitious.  The world tells us that we need to strive for money, for success, for power, for fame.  We know this.  It is all around us.  Every advertisement is in some way about pleasing each of us with comfort, with “feel good” stuff that we obtain with money; and often the advertisements make it clear that with that new “stuff” we will be showing the world that we have made it in terms of success, power, and fame.  All of us are susceptible to this.  No matter how many times we have heard this passage that the first shall be LAST and the last shall be first – that winning the most success and money and power will not put you ahead but, frankly, far down the line with God – no matter how often we hear this, personal success, personal accomplishment, the obtaining of more “stuff” is a temptation hard for many, if not most, of us to resist.

Pastors are not exempt from this.  I remember talking at one Church wide event with a New Church Development Pastor who measured his personal success, his well-being, his sense of self, by how many people were in his church each Sunday. There was a subtle “I am better than you as a pastor because my congregation is bigger than yours” attitude. And a not so subtle, “I am a more effective and successful pastor because my congregation is big” attitude.  It came across clearly in the words, “what are you doing in ministry if your church isn’t growing in terms of numbers?  How do you measure success except by the numbers?” And while bringing more people into the Good News, bringing more people into the fold of family communities like Clayton Valley or other churches is a worthy goal, today’s texts warn against the cultural norms of how to measure success.  They also warn against the very desire for “success” for oneself, they warn against trying to be first, or best in terms of worldly values; they warn against coveting the things that society tells us we need or that should be our goals.  Instead, we are to approach every action, every task with humility, and more importantly with a bigger vision that says that we are about the work of God, not about the work of being first or best.  Listening to this other pastor really emphasized that for me.  “What are you doing that has made your church grow so successfully?” we asked him. 

“Well, at our church we have big screens and show beautiful slides with each song we sing.  We have tables rather than pews where people sit with their coffee and their electronics, we have “tweeting” going on during sermons so people can comment and discuss while they listen, our songs are very emotion producing and each week is like a revival and a concert and a show.”  Okay.  So that brings people into the church – people like to be entertained, they like to feel good, they like to be able to drink their coffee and I get that.  I see value in doing what will call people through those doors.  But then what?  What keeps them there?  “Well, then we have golf groups and we have dinner groups and we have surfing groups and other interest groups and small groups.”  They have bible studies, but these aren’t well attended…Okay, those keep the people connected to the church during the week.  And then what?  “Well….” And at this point he admitted that their church was in many ways a very efficient club, a “feel good” place where people were served, were given “products” or services such as feel good worship, golfing and outing activities, places to meet others.  Were they doing any mission and service to the poor?  Not YET, he emphasized.  Were they reaching out to the outcast, the disenfranchised, those who had no other places to go and be?  Well, not YET.  Were the lives of those who came changed by their faith in any other way than that they now had a Sunday commitment and maybe some new friends to play golf with?  Well, again, this was a growing edge for them.  Successful church?  Well, in terms of numbers, yes.  In terms of growing faith, changing lives, making a difference to people who are poor or struggling, challenging the members to be more loving, active, better, changing lives in radical ways?  In terms of the things that matter to God?  Maybe not so much.

There is a wonderful piece of music written by David Bailey entitled “head of staff”.  The words are:

Some folks they got no ambition
They know the numbers but they can’t do the math.
Reckon that’s why I got this position;
Look at me, I’m the head of staff!

Well I know that my mama would be proud
Of this powerful title that I have
I’m not just some lowly Reverend
No no no no no no no  - I’m the head of staff!  That’s right!

Last week the men’s breakfast had no coffee,
And the choir, they don’t like their brand new gowns,
Youth group wants to go to California,
And the cross in the chapel is, it’s falling down.  I’m the head of staff!

Sometimes I get a little hectic
Catching all the balls my people hit.
That’s when I do what a head of staff does best

   and I hand my glove to my associate.

Someday I’d like to be a Pastor
Visit the sick, maybe even preach.
Seminary ought to have a class in politics -
that’s something that I am now qualified to teach, as the Head of Staff!

Some folks they got no ambition.
Some folks get what they deserve.
But the man on the cross said the first shall be last
And the greatest is the one who learns to serve!
I’m the head of staff on a learning curve!



By saying that we should not be about personal ambition, I am not saying that we shouldn’t use our gifts, shouldn’t work hard or shouldn’t try.  We are called to do all of these things.  As you may have heard before, Frederick Buechner says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Personally I think this misses an element.  I think our gifts also need to be part of that equation.  For me the saying should be, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness, the deepest gifts God has given you, and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  My colleague was clearly gifted at bringing people into the doors of his church.  And that undoubtedly is meeting a hunger of the world – an emptiness, a loneliness that only God and God’s community can fill.  But I think that as long as he is doing it for the numbers, doing it to achieve an affirmation that he is succeeding, that he is being successful, as long as it is about his success as a pastor, and not about serving God regardless of the ways in which humans measure success, depth will not come for the people of faith in his community.  True connection to something beyond simply the comfort that God offers, and on to the call God also gives us to grow and serve and love - this will be elusive for his parishioners. It is easy to call God’s people to hear the comfort, joy, fun and Good News.  It is harder to retain God’s people when we confront them with the fact that God does not call us to remain in the same place or to act only in our own interests, but God calls us to change, to grow, to move in our faith into deep caring and love for the other.

            I think it can be hard to put aside the internal voices asking us to measure our worth by how much we succeed.  It can be hard to put them aside long enough to really hear God’s voice calling to us, guiding us, leading us forward.  Still, we are called to walk with humility, to walk with a wisdom that says “this is not about me, this is about serving God and God’s people.”  So how do we measure that success? 

Well, according to the passages we read today from the gospel of Mark, the way that God measures success has to do with who we include, who we reach out to, who we invite in, who we love. As Jesus says in Mark, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” This follows his comment that the first shall be last.  They are connected, they are the same.  Taking the time to be with those who are cast out, who are excluded, who are hard to see as “full humans”, taking time with them, loving them, welcoming them - that is the measure of success in God’s eyes. It’s not competing with others, it is including others, especially those hardest to love.

            There is a story about a young monkey who set for himself the goal of climbing to the highest branch of the tree.  Every day he would climb a little higher and then call down to his grandfather monkey, “Grandpa, did you see how high I climbed?  Did you?  Did you?”  And every day the grandfather monkey would solemnly nod his head, “yes, I did grandson.  I saw how high you climbed.”  Then one day the monkey finally made it all the way to the top of the tree.  He was so proud of himself and was dancing all around bragging and demanding to know if everyone had seen how high he had climbed in the tree, if everyone had witnessed how much higher than everyone else he had been able to go.  Finally, after demanding again and again from the grandfather monkey if he had seen, the grandfather monkey finally said, “Yes I saw it grandson.  But the thing is, the higher you get into the tree, the more your ass shows.”

            Let us strive in all things, not to be highest in the tree, but simply to serve God in all that we do, with all of our being.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Gossip


                                                     Proverbs 11:9-13

James 3:1-12



               I want to say that I don’t usually believe in focusing a sermon on a particular “sin” or error of behavior.  I don’t like this for many reasons, not the least of which is that I think we all must be extremely careful about looking at the specks in other people’s eyes without dealing with the logs in our own eyes.  Pastors are not exempt from this.  I was reminded recently story teller, Willie Claflin’s, twist on the Little Red Hen story.  His version begins the same as the one we all know:  the little red hen invites friends to help her in making loaves of bread from scratch: planting the wheat, harvesting the wheat, mixing the bread, baking the bread; but at every step of the way, all her friends find reasons why they can’t help: they are too busy, too sick, too involved with other things.  Then when the four loaves of bread are finally baked, she asks who will help her to eat them and everyone is suddenly available to share in the bread she has worked so hard to make.  But unlike in the traditional story, Willie Claflin goes on to say that at that point the little red hen gobbled down all four loaves of bread herself with the words, “then I will eat them myself!”  And the result is that she makes herself very ill eating all of that bread on her own.  The friends, it turns out, were just offering to try some of her bread to be polite.  They are not sad to have missed out on the bread at all.  They do have concerns over their sick friend, however, who has eaten herself into a coma.  Willie Claflin ends his story with this line, “and the moral of the story is, if you are doing something in order to teach someone else a lesson, it is likely that the one to receive the lesson will be yourself.” 

Given that, I find that the best sermons I’ve written are the ones I write to myself and that picking specific “flaws” or errors to confront in a sermon can be counterproductive.  Still, the lectionary passages for today all focus on the sin of gossiping.  And I think, honestly, that this is something we can all work on, including myself, so I beg your indulgence as we focus on gossip today. 

               When we look at scripture, there are many, many passages that tell us that God abhors gossip.  On one bible commentary web-site, I typed in the word “gossip” as a search and was rewarded with nine pages of biblical quotes that denounce gossip and lying. Some examples:

               Ephesians 4:29: let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.

               Proverbs 6:16-19: There are six things that the Lord hates…(and then three of those six things include..): a lying tongue, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among siblings.

               James 1:26: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

               Psalm 101:5: Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy.

               The list goes on and on and on. 

               It is clear: lying about other people, gossiping by saying untruths or spreading slander is anathema to God.  This is not surprising.  What perhaps, IS, surprising, is how hard it is to refrain from gossiping.  And how absolutely damaging it is to gossip.

               Almost ten years ago now I was invited to be part of a group of pastors who were experiencing crisis.  It was a small group that gathered together for a week to share experiences and to be gifted by the support of counselors, spiritual directors, and other helpers.  Within our group there was a clergy couple who shared a story about being the victims of truly malicious gossip.  The couple had just been let go, fired, from a church that had a history of firing their pastors after just a few years.  The process for booting the pastors at this church was always the same. This was a significant congregation in a very small town.  And there was a particular powerful individual who would decide when it was time for the pastor to go.  She was powerful and when she made that decision she always went about getting rid of the pastor in the same way: she would start spreading a rumor: something that was… well, it was a lie. She would take a kernel of something that resembled truth, but would twist and turn it into a falsehood and then spread it along.  She would start the gossip and it would morph, it would expand, it would take on a life of its own.  With each telling it would become more outrageous.  And it was always something that there was no ability to disprove, no way to confronting, no way to tear down.  Once these terrible rumors would take off, the story would be forever in the minds of the parishioners until the pastors were forced to resign.  Again, this was a pattern of behavior in this church.  But the originator of the story felt justified every time in her gossiping, first because it started with a grain of truth, and second, she deeply believed it was time for the pastor to go; and she told herself that the ends, of getting rid of the pastor, justified the means – the gossip that she began. We know that of course, this is false.  The couple that I met had been destroyed by these lies.  They had not just been forced to leave their church, but had been forced to move out of the area.  And still, with social media and the increasing small-ness and connectedness of the world, were being followed and haunted by these false lies, false stories.  Their kids had suffered bullying at school, one of the parents of this couple had suffered a complete break-down in health, a sense of safety and well-being for an entire extended family were destroyed, and all of them have left church, permanently, after seeing what churches can do to people through the simple use of gossip.

               The church also did not escape the damage of the gossip. Some people left the congregation, and the faith, entirely. But even those who stayed were damaged. Everyone knew the pattern.  And everyone knew who started the lies.  They also knew that if they went against the person who instigated the gossip, that they risked being the next to be torn down by this woman.  They all participated in the evil of the gossip because they knew to stand up against it meant they would become the next victims of it.  An entire community became entrenched in this evil behavior, and could not see their way out.

               I wish this story were unique, but it isn’t.  I know too many pastors who have gone through similar nightmares that all started because of gossip.  And as you know, this is not just limited to people in my profession.  It happens in our schools, it happens in all of our places of work. 

               Just this week I learned about this happening at a local school board situation.  Again, lies were put forth about someone who has been incredibly active but who was trying to become more involved in a position of greater authority. The lies were presented in a way that there was no forum for the person attacked to defend herself, to set the record straight or even to present a different opinion.  But those lies determined the decisions of the committee, to the huge detriment of the board who will miss out on the amazing energy and talents of the individual who was slandered.

We see this in our politics.  We’ve come to a place in our country where we no longer know what to believe, what is true.  We assume that those who disagree with us are lying or are misinformed by lies.  And those who disagree with us assume that the news that we read is false.  Slander, and the quick choice to lie when we are in a tough spot, when we are caught, when we are confronted with something we don’t want to admit, has muddied the waters so much, has become so rampant, that we just no longer know what to believe, who to believe.  It is separating us from our brothers and sisters within our own families, let alone within our communities, and in the larger world.

        While gossiping gives us something to discuss, while it may feel good to be on the “inside” of a story about someone else, while being able to separate the world into “us” and “them” may give us a sense of security and power in the world, there is a good reason why the Bible is so extremely hard on gossip.  It is evil.  It is harmful.  Any “gain” for one’s self made through the use of lying, gossiping and slander does not only harm the one we attack, it harms everyone touched by the gossip.        
           Frankly, our gossip reflects more on ourselves than on those about whom we are gossiping anyway.  And if we were actually aware of how true that is, we probably would refrain from gossip.  Some examples: someone I knew kept saying about other people, “that person is so power hungry.”  “That person is all about getting power.”  And finally, “it all comes down to power you know.”  And it was very clear that actually, it was all about power FOR HIM and that is why he was so focused on that being the case when it came to other people.  We see this regularly.  When someone repeatedly focuses on a particular “problem” with those around them, often that reflects back on who the speaker really is, where his or her focus lies, what really matters most to that person.

               I’ve shared with you that in one early episode of Joan of Arcadia, Joan was trying hard to get in with the “popular” crowd.  And the popular kids basically told her that if she wanted to be one of them, she needed to find out who her friend, Grace, “likes”.  In order to do this, Joan sidled up to Grace and talked to her about how much Joan herself had this crush on one of the other guys at school.  She didn’t really have a crush on the guy, didn’t even know who the guy is, he was just a name of someone that was supposedly popular.  Grace didn’t give anything away.  The next day, people were giving Joan a hard time for having a crush on the guy she mentioned to Grace.  Joan assumed Grace has been gossiping about her and went after Grace, telling her to stay out of her love life.  Grace responded, “I don’t care about your love life and haven’t talked to anybody!  However, it is clear that you have been talking about ME and trying to find out about MY love life so you can share it with your friends!  YOU are the one gossiping here.”  Grace understood that Joan’s accusation said more about Joan than about Grace.

             I'm certain we can all think of people we know who attack others through gossip, by accusing the other of being a gossip.  Most of us see through this, though it is clear that it is difficult for the one gossiping to see it in themself. 

               Some of the Biblical passages tell us to not even associate with those who lie and slander and gossip, and this too is for good reason.  As I mentioned in my first story, an entire community became caught in the web of slander and gossip that one individual perpetuated.  If those in the community had stepped away, or better, confronted it the first time it happened, it never would have grown to the repeating evil that it has become.  But now, in associating with the gossiper, the tangled webs of lies and gossip have become so entrenched that no one knows how to step out.

               It is not easy to step out or to confront someone who is gossiping or lying and tell them that they have it wrong.  But it is necessary.  I remember a situation I was in, in which someone was badmouthing me but made the mistake of doing it in an email to several other people.  I will always be extremely grateful to the person who responded to the email by INCLUDING me in that response and inviting my answer so that I could see the lies, could see the gossip, could see the slander and could address it directly.  The decision my friend made to include me in the email was not an easy one.  It could have ended his friendship with the originator of the email.  But he made that choice, which led to the truth telling, and eventually healing of all involved in the communications.

               There is another side to all of this.  I read an article a while ago that focused very specifically on the fact that women are discouraged from sharing with other women about predatorial men.  According to this article, women who share their experience of being victims are often accused of being gossips, and the social pressure to avoid being labelled as a gossip can prevent them from telling their stories.  Their silence, in turn, has prevented other women from knowing about unsafe men and has led to other women therefore being victims as well.  While I realize there is a gender bias here, this would apply to people of all genders and situations.  The author, Theo Wildcroft, wrote, “A teacher of mine once said that gossip had to be made a sin because it’s a social survival mechanism for the almost powerless. For good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, gossip is the glue that kept traditional communities together, an early warning system and in extremis, call for sanction. Of course it’s traditionally our sin, a woman’s sin.”  But what the author is confronting is a social stigma against the sharing (which becomes labelled “gossip”) of our feelings and experiences.  That is very different from what the bible is confronting when it talks about lies, slander and gossip.  The base difference is truth. What the bible is confronting is the passing on of lies. But there is another difference as well.  Discussing one’s experience is very different than talking about others with condemning words. “I felt x because this happened.  I experienced a because b took place.” These are important experiences to share.  “That person is a blankety blank” or “that person did x” when it is a lie, is not acceptable, has no real experience connected to it, is simply name calling, it is childish and it is wrong.

               The bottom line: God condemns gossiping, lying, slandering.  And that can be hard: hard to follow, hard to practice, hard to change within ourselves.  But it is essential, not only for others but for ourselves as well, that we strive to refrain from gossip, from slander, and from lying.  We are more centered and whole when we speak from our own experience rather speaking words that attack others. No ends justify a means of lying and condemning others with hateful, hurtful behavior that is damaging to our very souls.  It is hard to speak truth all the time, but it is a goal worth striving for, especially when the alternative choice is so harmful.  Gossip is not okay.  Lying is not okay.  AND, the more we speak truth, the easier it is to recognize it spoken by others too.  Thanks be to God.