Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gossip, Truth Telling, Protection, Betrayal and Violation

           When I was in college I lived in a house church with 19 other students.  It was the campus ministry center and on staff were several pastors who did ministry not only for the 19 of us but for the college campus.  One of the years that I lived there, the campus ministry center hired a seminary intern to do his practical training on our site.  A very nice young man, charming, warm, newly married, very gifted. He was well loved by all the other staff as well as the students.
            He was also emotionally inappropriate with me in a way that was not only very confusing but deeply devastating.  We've heard much about clergy misconduct over the years, but we have yet to address it in all its forms.  And for those who are not clergy, sometimes the power plays involved with these violations of trust are overlooked, mostly because they are deeply misunderstood.  I have a very dear friend who, along with other women who had been violated, tried to prosecute through the church a campus pastor who had violated her not only emotionally but sexually as well.  She found that it is still the case, even now, that the victims are often blamed, and that the real understanding of how devastating and harmful these violations of trust are is rarely understood. All those with authority over us, but I would say especially clergy, who are supposed to represent God, lead us deeper into a relationship with God and help us find our way through difficult times, truly devastate the lives of those they violate when they abuse that trust.  Their power in those relationships, their leading us into compromising situations and their ability from that place of trust and power to take advantage cannot be understated.  Those they abuse are NOT to blame.  They have used their power to harm.  Trust has been broken.  And the havoc they leave in their wake is not easily healed, if it ever is.  The damage they do to bodies, minds and souls is beyond what I can describe in a few short words.  I will just say again that it is far too often minimized if it is taken seriously at all, something we should and must change.
          But the focus of this article is a little different.  I was "only" violated emotionally.  None the less, it was very hard.  And when he had gotten as far as he could with me and moved on to someone else, I shared my experience and my devastation with only one other person at the time: my best friend.  My best friend was very caring, very supportive, very understanding.  But it happened that the young woman he was dating happened to be the person that this clergy intern targeted next.  My friend saw what was happening and he begged me to talk to his girl-friend about my experience.  He begged, he pleaded, he insisted, he even threatened.  "Please tell her your experience!  You need to tell her your story!  If you don't tell her what happened to you..."
         But I wouldn't do it.  There are many reasons for this.  Looking back I can have compassion for my decision, recognizing that the seminary intern still had power over me and I was afraid he would use it.  I was afraid he would use it emotionally, to alienate me from my community, to isolate me from my friends, to mark me as a bad and catty person.  I was also afraid that he could affect my life beyond college and could block my applications to seminary, and to further programs.  I was a kid, 19 years of age, and I was worried from a practical place.  But I also felt that talking to my best friend's girl-friend about my experience was the same thing as gossiping and I had been well taught that gossiping, that talking about others, that sharing negative things about another person was wrong, was a sin, would harm another who, no matter how they had hurt me, did not deserve to be damaged by me. I learned well that I would have been in the wrong.  And so I said nothing.
         As a result, my best friend's girl-friend was also violated, and this time not only emotionally, but sexually as well.  The seminary intern took it to the next step with her.  She informed me that a few years later, after she had gained a better understanding of what he had done, of the power dynamics involved and the violation that he had committed through that breach of trust, that she did try to report it, but again, the reports went no-where.  There was no comprehension of the violation done, of the deep trust broken. There was no attempt from those with authority who knew about it to stop further power abuses and violations.  I have no doubt that he did the same with countless others after he was ordained and went on to do campus ministry in other communities around the country.
         Recently a friend sent me an article in which Theo Wildcroft wrote this, "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) the only reliable social technologies we’ve evolved to cope with (the violence, the broken trust, the threats to vulnerable lives) are gossip and gut instinct."
        These words, I'll admit, hit me with a force I could not have anticipated.  They rang deeply true. The evil that is condemned in scripture again and again is slander, is lying.  The sin that we have to be careful to avoid is telling untruths, half truths, or even exaggerations that condemn others with inaccurate and false tales of what we perceive to be their flaws.  Gossip, when it is simply talking smack or telling stories on others, is extremely harmful and can tear apart communities.
       But, in a society in which violence against women, children, people of color, LGBTQ folk and people of different faith traditions is on the rise; and in a society in which the victims of this violence are the constant targets of blame for their own victimization, sometimes the only way we can protect one another is by sharing our stories.
       I do not expect our condemnation of our sharing to go away quickly.  I imagine that women (and others) who share their stories will be accused for a long, long time of the sin of gossip.  But, I also think that I will take more seriously the stories that are shared with me as signs of trust, and as offers of protection.  I will no longer see or experience sharing of the times we have been harmed by those who cannot be held accountable as signs that the tellers are gossipy, sinful, catty people.  I will understand that the trust in sharing our stories is more about building safe communities for all of us. And while I still believe we must be very careful to share only the truth, and to not exaggerate or vilify others, I will trust my gut and my experiences more fully as well.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Much to Complain About

Matthew 11:16-30

Jesus says a great deal in this passage from Matthew.  But throughout the passage he is consistent.  When people fail to see the amazing blessings that surround them, when they fail to really see it and get it, they are in danger.  They are in danger of losing their very souls, not because God will take their souls from them, or punish them for their failure to see, but because in failing to see God in front of them, they fail to truly live in faith, live in connection to the Divine, live in the fullness of life that God wants to give us, chooses to give us, every day.  Jesus said, “Woe to you…to Chorazin and to Bethsaida because they didn’t see the miracles that were performed right in front of them.”  They did not see them.  They did not take them in.  The experience of being near and around these miracles, these life-changing, wonderful, beautiful experiences of healing and transformation, of God’s wanting the best for God’s people, of God wanting and making wholeness and life happen for people whom everyone else had abandoned or given up on – these experiences did not CHANGE the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida.  Witnessing these miracles did not make them want to be the best they could be, did not move them to a gratitude that would cause them to change, to “turn around” which is the actual meaning of repent – to go another way.   They were not changed by witnessing these miracles, which said to Jesus they did not really accept them, did not see, did not choose to experience God, experience Divine love through these events.  And that failure to change in response to the blessings of their lives lead Jesus to say, ‘woe to you.”
Jesus also compares his generation to what?  To whiners.  “We played the pipe for you, and or you did not dance.  We sang a dirge and you did not mourn,” the people complained. They complained that others did not respond to them in the ways they wanted, that they had worked hard, given much, and that others did not do what they expected, did not respond in the way they’d hoped to what they had done, what they had given.  The irony of it:  They complained that others were not moved by what they did.  And yet, they, were not moved by what Jesus and John did.  They complained about John because he ate differently: eating only locusts and wild honey and refraining from drinking.  They complained about Jesus because he didn’t refrain from eating and drinking.  And they dismissed the words of both people based on things that had nothing to do with what they were saying.  Who cares what John and Jesus ate?  But all of these people found ways to not see the blessings that surrounded them.  They focused on what did not fit into their ideas of what people of God should look like, act like, what they thought people of God should do or be. They focused on their judgments of others and dismissed them accordingly. They failed to see the miracles, failed to see the beauty, failed to see God in what was around them.
               Do we do this?  We’ve discussed before how Fear can lead us to see and focus on those things that are going wrong to the exclusion of the wonders and miracles around us.  Our human instincts to complain can lead us to focus on things that are not being done the way we want them to, or expect them to be done.  We want Jesus to not “party” during his life but instead to be serious and self-sacrificing at every turn.  We want John to not be “different” or eat strangely.  We want things to fit into our ideas of how they are or should be.  And if they don’t we complain.  Actually, even when they do live up to our expectations, we also complain.  And again, the problem with that is that in focusing on what we are uneasy with, we fail to see the blessings that surround us, we fail to see the good, we fail to see God, we fail to experience God’s love.  And we are lessened by that failure.  We are the ones then who do not experience Christ, or God in our midst because we are too busy focusing on the problems and not seeing the gifts to experience the blessings, love, joy, peace, compassion, peace, and ultimately the grace that God offers us every single day.
               Rev. Craig Barnes, writes, "… we assume we can make our own lives by the way we construct them for ourselves." Barnes goes on to say this: “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it... (That is why) to be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners' complaints about the church. –
               The truth is, we are often guilty of seeing what we know, what we expect and what we are used to looking for rather than knowing what we see.  (As a side note, children are much better at seeing what is around them.  The kids this week in music camp kept seeing things around the campus and in the building that I had never noticed – a ball on top of the arbor, for example.  The seed pods hanging down from the Wisteria.  The metal lights around the court yard. I don’t know exactly when and how our seeing stops, but it does.  We can learn a lot from the observations and noticings of our youth.)  Add to that that when fear is involved, it is even harder to actually see the blessings God surrounds us with. 
               About eleven years ago now my family went through a very challenging time financially.  My husband was out of work and we were trying to support our family of five on my half time pastor salary in San Leandro.  We had bought a new house right before he had lost his job, one with three bedrooms as opposed to the one we had before which had only two bedrooms and was therefore a bit tight for our family of five.  But at the last minute in the sale of our old home, the buyers had pulled out.  As a result, we were paying two mortgages, again in this unbelievably expensive part of the country.  This was right before the housing market crashed.  Add to that that the shower pan in our new bathroom cracked and we had to replace the entire bathroom, with money we just didn’t have.  It was a truly, deeply frightening time.  Because of that, complaining was at the top of my list of daily activities.  Everywhere I looked and each day there was more to complain about.  A child got sick, I left my wallet at the store, Trader Joe's stopped carrying my favorite breakfast cereal – whatever little thing that occurred was just another weight on shoulders that were already carrying far too much.  The main character in the book, Life of Pi said, “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling”.  I found this to be absolutely true.  It was the little things, the things that I knew were so very small which would send me over the edge during this time.  I simply could not bear anything more because I was deeply frightened.  I was reassured by Biblical passages such as we find in the psalms that allow for us to voice and share with God our complaints, our fears, our concerns, with full knowledge that God does indeed hear them, care about them, want us to talk to God about them; and I took full advantage of that to complain loudly and often, to express my fear and to pray, fervently and often for our house to sell, for my husband to find employment, for us to make it through this financially terrifying time. 
               But as Craig Barnes suggested, looking back, the complaints were all hiding a deeper spiritual issue – and that is that I was living in fear, I was consumed by fear instead of living in faith and trust.  Not that I think God is a magician who takes away all our problems.  Not that I think God micromanages our lives.  I don’t.  We have free will, as do the others around us, and sometimes that means times get hard.  But trust and faith require seeing that each moment, each second, we are surrounded by love, care, presence, that will sustain and carry us and guide us through the hardest times.  Looking back, I can see God’s presence, God’s blessings.  Looking back, now that I am beyond that moment of fear or terror, I can see what I could not see then, that, in so many ways, we in fact were carried through that time.  We had savings that saw us through, and the old house did sell, right before the market crashed.  My husband did find employment right before that savings would have run out.  Yes, we used it all.  But we had it to use.  And we were okay in the end.  I can see, looking back, that we were surrounded also by love and fellowship of people who would have been there for us had things become desperate.  We were held through this time by friends and family who expressed their care in ways both “normal” and amazing.  I’ve shared with you before about that one day in particular when the outpourings of love from the community and from my own family were so deeply amazing that they were nothing short of miraculous.  I won’t share them again, because that one day is not the point.  In looking back, the bigger thing to be seen was that we were cared for daily.  Daily there were overflowing signs of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them.  The love, too, is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it.  Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we allow ourselves to see them, if we can face the spiritual issues such as fear that prevent us from seeing, if we pray and open our eyes to seeing God because God is there, all the time, with blessings in abundance.
               As I was standing in line in the grocery store yesterday,  I overheard someone complaining loudly.  The teller was complaining about her husband, describing him in terms that would make him sound abusive.  But when you really listened to the words, it became clear that what she was actually complaining about was that he didn’t pay for an incredibly expensive luxury for her that she wanted.  Instead, she complained, her son had to do it.  And as I listened, I found myself reflecting again on how much we like to complain and how much we fail to see the beauty and good around us.  There were three different ways she could have told that same story.  In the complaining version, her terrible husband wouldn’t buy her this thing she desperately wanted and so her son had to do it.  In a second version, the husband didn’t pay and the son did – just the facts.  The third version I believe is the way we are called to look at the wonders of life, of God’s presence, of beauty and joy: she had this amazing son who was able to buy even expensive things for her and chose to do so.
               With David’s permission, I want to tell you about a conversation we had yesterday.  A similar situation, but this time about something essential.  David was telling me that he was incredibly lucky and blessed because he had a grandmother who would take money out of her tiny income and buy food for their family.  As many of you know, David grew up extremely poor.  Food could be hard to come by.  They lived from day to day, shoes were a once a year purchase at the thrift store and when they were outgrown, the kids did without.  But David was not focusing on complaining about his childhood, he was focusing on the gift of his grandmother’s help, coming at especially needed times.  He does this with other things too.  He shares with wonder about the church down the street from them that also helped provide food and other essentials.  He describes the care of the community, the wonder of those who held them up.  He does not complain about what his life was like living in that poverty.  He has chosen an outlook of seeing the good, of seeing the Divine, of seeing God.
               How do we describe the events in our lives?  But more deeply, how do we see the events in our lives?  Do we see the gifts and blessings God has given us each and every day?  Or are we so distracted by the things that are hard that we simply cannot see the miracles?
               Connie Schultz wrote that we all have stories of things we can’t explain, wondrous amazing stories that we want to tell but are afraid of being doubted.  Still, they stick with us as signs of something bigger, something that “coincidence” doesn’t quite cover.  She tells her own story this way:
               “Soon after my mother died, I was driving and listening to NPR like I always do when, inexplicably, I reached down and switched the radio station.  “I know you’re watching over me from heaven,” the singer crooned.  Still raw with grief, I sighed and said out loud, “I miss you, Ma.”  Then I looked at the license plate on the car straight ahead: MISS U2.”

               Sr. Joan Chittister once shared this story: Once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."  Sometimes I think the will of God is nothing more than looking and seeing with God’s eyes where love and compassion and grace are all around us, and helping others to see it too.
In today’s passage from Matthew Jesus challenges us to put aside our expectations, our fears, our complaints and to look instead for the good, for God, for God’s love that surrounds us.  But the Good News is that Jesus also knows that isn’t easy for us, this people of God, to always do successfully.  So even after we are scolded for our complaining and scolded for failing to see the miracles that surround us and allow them to change us, deeply, from within, Jesus ends the passage with these words of reassurance, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  When we can’t let go, we can turn to God with our fears, with our complaints, with our burdens.  God wants to hear from us all of what we are feeling, all of what we experience.  We can lay the burdens at Jesus’ feet.  And when we do we will find that God will help us to carry them, God will show us the good that goes alongside our hardships, God will remind us that in every moment there is something both to complain about and something to be thankful for.  God will show us the face of the Divine in those around us, and God will love us into seeing.  Because that’s what God does.  God’s promise is clear: in God’s loving arms, we will find rest.  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Immigration

Hebrews 13:1-2  Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.

Leviticus 19:33-34  When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any resident alien who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Exodus 22:21 Do not mistreat or oppress a resident alien, because you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.


This last Sunday was national immigration Sunday in the Church, big C.  The reason is obvious: this country was founded with immigrants, and so it is appropriate that the week of July 4th, we reflect on our history, on our beginning, on how we came to be in this place and to be the people we now are.
The three scriptures I posted above all say very similar things:  Don’t oppress the stranger, the foreigner, the “resident alien” - in other words, the immigrant: the one who lives in your country but is not a citizen in your country. Why? For the Israelites the reason was that they needed to remember that they too had been immigrants. They needed to treat others remembering once again that time is the difference between us: that they had also been in those situations and they were to treat others as they would have others treat them. They had been the immigrants before, and in remembering that, they were called to treat those who were the “new” immigrants with the same welcome, acceptance and compassion as they had sought to be treated. 
What does this have to do with us?  With the exception of full blooded Native Americans, all of us were also either immigrants (or our ancestors were) or we were brought here against our will. “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
But, as you must all surely acknowledge, as a country, as a people, we have struggled, from the beginning, in our relationships with the newest immigrants or newest arrivals to this country. Who those immigrants are has changed and who we struggle against therefore has changed. But the struggle itself has not. For a time, the immigrants from Ireland were oppressed and rejected. Did any of you come across with the Irish immigrants?  And were your ancestors treated well? Then it was immigrants from Italy: also abused, mistreated, threatened.  Again, any of you have Italian ancestry? Currently, it is immigrants from Central and South America as well as immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries with whom we struggle. The faces have changed, the group we struggle with has changed, but the problems: the discrimination, the fear, the abuse - it is the same, each and every time.  What’s interesting is that we still have undocumented immigrants from Ireland and Italy.  Apparently, we have 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, 10, 000 of those are in San Francisco alone. But we no longer struggle against them. No, our focus has changed. Or the deeper reality: our fear has changed.  Because when it comes down to it, that is, always, the reason we struggle against immigrants. We are afraid. We fear many things, but it comes down to fear.  Perhaps we are afraid that the United States will become too crowded. Perhaps we are afraid that their way of life is somehow different from ours and will be threatening. Some would say we are afraid of an increase in crime, though the statistics over the last twenty years tell us the exact opposite is true: 
Immigration-crime research over the past 20 years has widely corroborated the conclusions of a number of early 20th-century presidential commissions that found no backing for the immigration-crime connection. Although there are always individual exceptions, the literature demonstrates that immigrants commit fewer crimes, on average, than native-born Americans. Also, large cities with substantial immigrant populations have lower crime rates, on average, than those with minimal immigrant populations. … Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/fact-check-immigration-doesnt-bring-crime-u-s-data-say/)

In some cases we fear that the level of education in this country will decrease.  This too is countered by the facts:
Compared with all Americans, U.S.-born children of immigrants are more likely to go to college, less likely to live in poverty, and equally likely to be homeowners. Thirty-six percent of U.S.-born children of immigrants are college graduates—5 percent above the national averagehttps://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2017/04/20/430736/facts-immigration-today-2017-edition/  

The biggest fear I think is just plain racism. This is supported again by our behavior towards our immigrants. Because as I mentioned above, we aren’t talking about deporting the Irish “resident aliens”. To put this in bigger perspective, CNN reported that a PEW research study indicated that in this country right now there are between 475,000 - 500,000 undocumented Europeans.  Again, there is no conversation about blocking or deporting them.  Less than half of this country’s undocumented folk are from Mexico, and most undocumented folk come into this country legally and simply overstay visas.  Yet, we persist in ideas of building walls. (http://gothamist.com/2017/01/09/undocumented_immigrants_nyc.php)    
Perhaps we are afraid of how they will impact us economically. A news program that I heard about a month ago was discussing the finances that go along with the current immigrant situation. There has been a lot of “scare”, again, around the idea that somehow undocumented persons are taking our money or costing this country a great deal.  But the truth is that undocumented persons are paying taxes and many are paying into social security; every time they buy anything they pay taxes, and most have taxes taken from their pay check as well, by giving false social security numbers or in a variety of ways, they are actually paying taxes, often more than most of us. But these are people who will never be allowed to withdraw any of that as social security or many of the other benefits that come from our taxes. While this in itself is a severe miscarriage of justice, none the less, when the money numbers are punched out, the fact is that our undocumented persons contribute a great deal more to our economy and our taxes and our social security than they will ever receive or take.
In addition, as you know, our undocumented persons are currently doing jobs that most documented persons in the United States just plain won’t do. Sometimes they are severely abused, taken advantage of: hired to do work for which they are not paid, knowing there is no legal recourse for them. Or being paid so little that they can barely feed their families.  But the economic reality in this country is that California provides over half the agricultural food for the rest of the country, and most of the work on that food is done by undocumented persons.  If our immigrant workers leave, the cost of our food will rise exponentially. This, too is a severe injustice and has created almost a slave caste of people in the United States. Rev. Anthony Robinson, a UCC pastor in Washington says,  “Injustice anywhere leads inexorably to injustice everywhere. If there is a class of people without rights, without voice, without legal recourse and protection, it puts not just that group at risk.  It puts an entire society at risk. It becomes a cancer that eats away at the whole social body. If a certain group can be exploited, then exploitation begins to infect the whole society. Its overall standards of justice and fair play are lowered and distorted.” In the face of this, while treated amazingly unfairly, these undocumented persons still choose to come here, which tells us that at some level even this is better than what they have left behind.
But whatever it is we are afraid of, (and I think it is important to look at what it is we actually fear and to find out if those fears are real or imagined) the God who is God of all people, including these people, is a good God and when we decide that “these people” (whoever that is…whatever group that is) will somehow affect us negatively we are forgetting first that they, too, all of the “theys” out there are God’s children, and second that they are our brothers and sisters whom we are called to love and care for no matter what.  “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
While I realize that we could, and no doubt will, argue over the politics and economics of immigrant rights, really this is a much more basic issue about how we are to treat one another, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. We often feel a sense of deep entitlement to this land, to this country, to the things we have here as legal immigrants (because again, we are all immigrants whether in this generation or previous). But where do we get this sense of entitlement?  Certainly not from God. We don’t own this country. We don’t own the land, we don’t own the resources. All of these are on loan from God.  Given to all people to use well, to care for responsibly, to be stewards over.  Who are we to decide who is acceptable to live here, who can go where, when and how?  “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
When I was a seminary student, half of my internship involved working with the immigrant population in an area of San Rafael known as the Canal district.  During one of my first days there, I met a wonderful woman named Maria.  When I met her she was working her little plot in the community garden of the Canal, while watching her four year old and six year old play ball together in the nearby park. She was very friendly, but even so, it took her some time to open up and tell me her story.  It seems she and her children had escaped from Guatemala after their village had been destroyed by the military, after her husband and brothers had been disappeared, after she heard the rumor that they were looking for her too. It was hard to understand why her family had become a target of the military. They had not, like some Guatemalans, dared to speak out against the military oppression in Guatemala. She and her husband had, though, been organizers of the people, beginning community projects such as childcare cooperatives and a community garden that would raise them out of the deep poverty that they all experienced, the day to day doubting whether they would have enough food to live.  Average income in her village was about $3.50 a week, almost enough to buy a pound of meat, but certainly not enough to raise her four children.  Still, the military had felt threatened.  They saw too much power in this poor Guatemalan family’s ability to organize the people.  But now she and two of her children were living in the Canal district.  She tried unsuccessfully to keep a smile on her face as she told me she had had to leave the other two children in Guatemala, with friends, there just wasn’t a way to get them all out. Their new life here wasn’t the life they had known.  The United States wasn’t and would never be, home.  Rather than being seen as a leader of her people, here she was an outcast; considered illegal, she was marginalized, refused services, anonymous, and often unseen.  Still, she told me that she didn’t mind too much, that in a way it was nice to be unknown for a change, not sought out.  She did worry about their illegal status.  She had tried to apply for asylum, but the U.S. didn’t recognize the oppression of the Guatemalan military and so asylum was denied.  Still she was here.  Yes, they were poor and illegal refugees.  Yes, they lived in what many felt was a dangerous part of town.  But she told me she was okay; her family was safe so far, and thank God, while finding work was difficult, they had enough to eat, enough to get by.
I saw Maria a lot at first and her love and commitment to improving the lives of those around her, even in the United States, was an inspiration to me.  But there came a day when I stopped seeing her around.  After a while I noticed that her little plot of land had fallen into ruins.  At first when I asked about her all I got were anxious looks.  But finally in answer to my persistent questioning, one of the other women came forward.  She told me that one day while Maria was working in the garden, Miguel, her four year old, had run into the street to get his ball and had been hit by a car.  Maria was not fluent in English and she did not have a car, but she managed to get Miguel to the hospital.  The hospital did save Miguel, but they had felt it necessary to call immigration as well which had promptly picked her up and sent her back to Guatemala, leaving her four and six year old children here because they had been born here, without parents, without family.  I never found out for sure what happened to Maria, but I was told she disappeared soon after her return to Guatemala.  Unless her kids are extremely lucky, the life they face will be extremely hard. 
This story may leave you with mixed feelings.  You may feel it is an extreme story, but unfortunately, it is not.  People come here, making the often extremely dangerous and risky trip here to the United States for many reasons - all of them about survival for themselves and their children.  Who are we to decide that we are somehow more deserving of a life that is safe, that is economically sound, that has hope and a future than some other child of God on this planet?  The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
Many of my children’s friends are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  While many of these have been the top students in my kids’ classes, the fear for their families has caused some of their grades to plummet.  The school district has also reported that many children of immigrants have dropped out of extra curricular activities because of that fear.  My daughter’s best friend was born in this country, but her parents were not. At one point when I went to pick Aislynn up at her house, her friend's mother met me at the door in tears, “Why do all white people hate us?” She demanded. “we are not all bad!  We work hard, we pay taxes, we never do anything wrong!” For all my assurances, she was not convinced that we did not all feel this way.
Still many cling to stereotypes that tell us they are “other” and not as good somehow.  Because we are afraid.

Our call is so simple.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It is not an easy call.  It is not easy to step outside of our fear of the unknown, our fear of the “other”.  It is not easy to remember that this is God’s land, not ours.  It is not easy to remember that we too were foreigners in this land.  But it is simple.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It's that clear.  It's that simple.  Get to know your neighbors, get to know those who are different from you.  Talk to those whom you fear.  Learn to love them for the people they are.  Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Being Humble

Genesis 21:8-20
Matthew 10:24-39

            Have any of you, like Sarah in the passage from Genesis, ever felt jealous and/or threatened by the power, popularity, achievements or even just the potential of others?  Even those who have less power and stature, like Hagar, who was not Abraham’s wife, but his slave: still, Sarah felt threatened - threatened that he had another child by another woman: threatened enough that she wanted Hagar and her son sent away - in other words she wanted them dead for a woman and her son would not survive in the wilderness apart from the tribe.  She felt so jealous and threatened that she wanted Hagar and her son to die.  She must have felt an amazing amount of pain to feel so vindictive against Hagar and her son.  And while we may not act on feelings of jealousy or threat in such a way, almost all of us experience some degree of jealousy, or threat to our sense of place and status at one point or another.  Most of us, I think, experience situations and places where it is important to us that people know who we are, what our status is, what our accomplishments are.  We feel threatened and even angry or lost when others don’t value us in the way we would like, recognizing us as loved, as successful, as... whatever it is that matters to us. 
            When Jonah was eight he broke his collar bone at school.  The school called me, told me he had fallen running and that I needed to pick him up and take him to emergency.  When I got to the hospital, though, before I could tell the doctors and nurses that this had happened at school, I found the general assumption was that I had been abusing my child and that this was how his collar bone was broken.  The hospital personnel had their minds made up from the second we walked into the hospital as well.  They barked at me, treating me as if I were an uneducated, uncaring, awful mother who deserved to lose her child.  They put him in a room that I was not allowed into while they "interviewed" him.  I was already going through a horrible time because I was worried about my son. But it was also a matter of humiliation for me.  I wanted to shout at them that I had a degree in psychology, that I had a doctorate, that I was a pastor, that I had three children and all of them were wonderful and amazing and brilliant despite the tragedies they had experienced.  I wanted to shove layers of credentials in their faces because they made me feel little, small, unworthy and un-valued. In the end, I found myself grateful that his accident had happened at school, even though he did not have the comfort of a parent with him, because the possible consequences of this having happened at home were made absolutely clear to me through that experience.
            But I am not alone in this need to be seen and valued.  When I had surgery a dozen years ago: the doctor came out to talk to my family about how the surgery had gone, he still had on his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, the little mirror thing around his head: My family got a clear impression that this was not so much that he felt in a hurry to talk to them as it was important to him that the other people in the hospital know that he was a doctor, not one of the patients, not a nurse, but a surgical doctor.  
            At Jasmyn’s school at one of the back to school nights, I found myself talking with another parent whom I did not know before and found that she was very quick to make sure I understood that she was not just a mere parent at the school, but a teacher as well.  Her sense of identity and sense of accomplishment needed to be validated by my knowing she taught as well as parented. 
          At many programs where the poor, homeless or marginalized are served, the volunteers all have name-tags stating their status as volunteers - distinguishing them from those who are being served.  There are always reasons for doing this, some of which are good, valid, helpful.  But at some level one has to ask what import it serves to separate us into categories in this way?  For some of the volunteers, this distinction is important.  For the newest volunteers especially, it can feel important to not be mistaken for a person in need.
          Again, I think we all have felt some sense of threat to our identity at some point, some need to stand up and say, “Wait!  That’s not who I am!  Look at what I’ve done, or who I know or who I am!”
            But today’s scriptures point out several things.
            We are told, first, that whatever is not known will be known.  All will be revealed.  In this context that means that our real selves will be known, will be measured, will be opened for all to see.  And that real self is not going to be judged by our status, our job, our accomplishments, our wealth or our popularity.  Our real self, our core self, has to do with our care and love to God and God’s people.  And by “care” I don’t mean the good works we do so much as how we approach God’s people, all of God’s people every day.  Even more, our real worth is a gift given to all.  For our real value, our worth is actually about the fact that we are God’s children - all of us - none of us loved more highly than another, none of us loved less highly than another.  Jesus assures us in this passage from Matthew that all will be known.  At that time, we will be measured by our hearts: and we will be found valuable simply by the fact that we are God’s children.  Those who would judge us then, who would hurt us, who would take away our wealth, our popularity, our health, our status, we are told, should not be feared because eventually their worth, too, will be shown and all those marks of status we value so much in this life will be found to be meaningless: those who would hurt us will also be shown as the equal children of God that they are.  Even family connections, we are told, will be brought to nothing.  Those then, who would separate us out, by our lack of these things: connections, popularity, fortune, these who judge us and put us down, who disrespect us, who treat us as “less than” are not to be feared.
            As the beginning of the Matthew passage says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”  In other words, all our attempts to be of more value than someone else have no worth.  God calls us to be God’s servants, doing the work of loving and caring for God’s creation.  That is our job.  And that work is not neat or tidy or beautiful or glorious: that is not work that will earn human praise or honor: but it is the real work of being God’s people. 
            One summer while I was in college I went to the most rural part of Alabama as a Volunteer in Mission for the Methodist church.  I worked that summer for a parish - or a group of ten very small congregations spread out over this very rural area: some of these churches had only 4 or 10 members, but they kept on meeting, worshiping together.  The parish center united these ten churches but it did more than that.  It ran a clothing thrift store, it kept a food pantry, and most importantly it ran a building program.  Groups of youth from around the state would come to this parish spot for a week or two and help repair and build houses for the poorest of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly: those without education or income or anything except the little pieces of land or house passed down through the generations.  I came to this program full of myself as a person who would go to seminary and become a missionary, for that is what I believed I would do at the time.  I went ready to be a community organizer and to work hard with these youth groups and with this building project.  But one week Dorsey, the pastor in charge of this project, asked me to help out with the thrift store.  I went in and Dorsey’s wife, who ran the thrift store, asked me to go into the back room and sort through boxes of donated clothes, helping to sort them by size, checking for holes, making sure they all had price tags.  I went back and began to do as she said, but found that there wasn’t a lot for me to do.  Most of this work had already been done, and I began, after time spent mostly waiting and watching, to feel resentful and even self-righteous about this.  I was a college student at Cal, I was going to be a pastor, I was going to be a missionary, they were putting me in the “hang out with thrift store clothing” box because I was female when I was just as capable as men to do other more useful work, I was....this and this and this...all reasons why the work of waiting, and the work of looking to see if anything else needed to be done, the work of looking at old discarded clothing felt somehow below me.  I hated this, and I made sure that message was conveyed. 
            The next day Dorsey asked me to go with him to a building site for a potential house.  We went out and Dorsey and another man talked about water and pipes while I stood impatiently to the side, uninvited into this conversation, and standing around waiting once more.  After twenty minutes of standing there Dorsey said, “Barbara, please go get me my wrench.”  So I walked the two feet over to his tool box and brought him back his wrench.  I continued to stand there and after another forty minutes had gone by he again addressed me, “Barbara, please bring me my measuring tape.”  I did so and again stood around waiting.  After another half hour had passed I finally lost it and said, “Dorsey, is there something useful I could be doing here?”  He looked up at me sternly for a minute, then excused himself from the conversation with the other man and took me around the corner for a lecture I will never forget.  “Who are YOU?” he demanded “that this work is too good for you?  Who are YOU that you decide what is useful and what is not?  Who decides what is God’s work?  Who decides what is needed?  You will never be God’s servant until you are able to see that God’s work is often the most humble of work, often the least recognized work, often the least glorious work.” 
            He was right.  And that day I learned a most humbling lesson.
            But it wasn’t the last day of my lessons on humility for this summer.  Remember, as I said, the houses we were building and repairing were for people who grew up in a very different culture and place than this.  Many, most, had no education at all.  Many times their rural southern accents were so strong that they were almost speaking another language.  This particular week the house the team needed to repair belonged to an elderly man who had probably never been farther than five miles from his little run-down house in his entire life.  He had been born there, he had been raised there.  He lived in extreme poverty and even squalor.  And we came that week, with a team of youth from the city to replace the original roof on this 100+ year old tiny and run-down abode.  The roof that was there hardly existed anymore.  So up we climbed onto the beams of the house, me and a team of six teens, one of whom was an African American girl, no more than 14 years of age.  And as we laid black roofing material in 100 degree humid weather and pounded nails into this man’s new roof, he stood at the bottom, on the ground and shouted up at us about how evil black people were.  He quoted scriptures that in his mind were proof of their inferiority and even their lack of humanity.  He stared at the African American girl as she built him a new roof and cursed her, again and again.  And as I listened and watched, incredulous, I noticed that the African American girl, who clearly heard every arrogant, prejudiced word that this man said, still, despite everything, put 100% of her effort into doing a good job for this man.  She never quarreled with him, she never challenged his words: she just did her work.  I tried to challenge the man and was told by her to stop.  At the end of the day we discussed the situation and she told me that she did not believe this man would change through argument or anger.  She did not believe the man would change old ingrained beliefs even through other scriptural quotes.  She said her job and our jobs that week were not to change this man, to “educate” this man.  Our job was to love this man by building him a new roof.  Our job was to be God’s hands and feet and do our best to care even for those who would hate us.  If God used that to change him, so be it.  If the man never changed, so be it.  But our job was clear. 
            Doing God’s work is not pretty or glorious.  Sometimes it looks like waiting.  Sometimes it looks like fetching objects.  Sometimes it looks like pounding nails into a roof while being cursed at from the bottom.  Sometimes doing God’s work of caring for the least of God’s people - the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the children - sometimes that means losing friends, or losing a job, or losing connections or losing popularity, fame, glamour.  It is messy work.  It is hard work: it is not easy to stand up to someone you care about.  It is not easy to keep building on the roof even when you are being cursed from the ground.  But this is God’s work.  And we are called to do it without asking for recognition or popularity or glory.  We are called to do it as servants - servants who are loved beyond anything we can imagine.  Amen.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sermon - Sight

Isaiah 9:2
Luke 24:13-25

We read today’s story as part of Easter-tide, but I found myself coming back to it again.  Because it is an odd story that calls us to look deeper. The disciples were walking with Jesus.  But they did not recognize him.  How could they not recognize Jesus?  Why did they not see? Just as on Pentecost I talked about how sometimes it is really hard to hear and understand one another, sometimes it is also very hard to see. So I ask you to take a moment and reflect on these questions: What do we fail to see because we don’t expect what is actually there? What do we fail to see because we don’t want to see it? What do we fail to see because we don’t believe it? What do we fail to see because something isn’t where we expect it to be?
There once was a little boy named Sam who was very excited about Halloween.  But his parents kept putting off getting his costume until finally the day of Halloween his mother came home with a costume that Sam hated. It was of some comic book character who had been big once but who now was seen by all the kids to be ridiculous and only for the littlest of children.  Sam was devastated. How could he ever wear this?  He couldn’t possibly go out on Halloween in this costume!  He was so upset, he ran down the street to where an older couple who had become surrogate grandparents to Sam lived.  He ran into their house and cried and cried about the terrible costume his mother had picked out for him. Well, Norm, the older man thought for a few minutes and then he said to his wife, “Don’t we have some old costumes up in the attic from when our kids were children?”
“Why, I believe we do!” she replied. Up they all went into the attic and down they came with an old ghost costume. Really, it was just a sheet with holes cut in it for the eyes. But Sam was so thrilled with the costume, he just couldn’t wait to put it on. With a look of awe in his eyes, he pulled the sheet down over his head and before anyone could stop him, he went running out the door to go trick or treating and ran straight through the yard and bam into a tree!  Norm saw this and he dashed out after him, picked up the little boy, but before he could stop him, there Sam took off again, running as fast as he could until bam he ran smack into another tree!  This time the force pushed him flat onto his back where he lay still until Norm came running up.  Norm wondered what on earth was going on until he looked into Sam’s face and realized that Sam had not lined up the eye holes to match his eyes. He had been virtually blind, running around the yard, completely unable to see where he was going. Norm gently but firmly took hold of the sheet, pulled it around until Sam was able to see through the eye holes, tied a rope around his waist to hold the costume in place and sent Sam off on a much more successful and enjoyable Halloween evening of trick-or-treating!
One day a boy was walking down a road when a frog called to him, “Boy, if you kiss me, I will turn into a beautiful princess.” The boy picked up the frog, smiled at it, then placed the frog into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, and I will stay with you for a week.” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled at it, then put it back into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled, and put it back. Finally, the frog cried, “Boy, what is the matter, I have told you that I am a beautiful princess, and if you kiss me, I will stay with you and do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket and said, “Look, I am an engineering student, I have no time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog is cool!”
The boy saw a different reality from the frog.  The boy saw farther, or at least he saw differently. 
About twelve years ago, on my birthday, Jasmyn brought me a present wrapped up.  Jasmyn was the ripe age of four and a half.  She was little and she was a typical young child who couldn’t really see beyond herself in so many ways.  I knew it was a store-bought present, as opposed to something made for me.  And I had been told by all of the adults who knew what the gift was that I should not to expect much in this gift because Jasmyn had insisted on buying this particular present despite being strongly encouraged to pick something else.  It was given to me with looks of apology and even discomfort from the adults who knew what the gift was.  So I opened it without much hope or expectation.  This is the gift (show them the miniature).  What do you see in this? 
I’ll tell you what I see.  I see Jasmyn herself.  Especially at that age…a little dancing fairy girl.  She found a replica of herself at that age, what I saw most profoundly, most deeply within herself at that age. And that is what she gave to me: a memory of Jasmyn at the age of almost 5.  And I felt that in her insistence on this particular gift, she actually had a deeper insight into what I loved most than anyone else around her at the time.  She had sight into who I was, into what I saw, and into what I valued, that the adults around did not see.
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something so very precious -  Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
Sometimes the darkness or the challenges in life themselves carries a gift for us.  I am reminded of a MASH episode in which Hawkeye had a stove explode in his face which caused eye damage in both eyes.  He lost his vision and he didn’t know if that loss was permanent or temporary.  The day before he was to see the doctor to have the bandages removed – the day before he was to discover if the eye damage was permanent or temporary – he seemed in a frantic mode of insisting on walking around and moving around. BJ confronts his frantic walking around and going out saying, “Hawkeye, I know what you’re trying to do. And I know how you feel…You don’t want to think about what might happen, so you keep running.”  But Hawkeye insists that that’s not the case.  He says, “Look, when Dr. Oberman comes in here tomorrow, and unwraps my eyes, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But… something fascinating has been happening to me…One part of the world has closed down to me but another part has opened up.  Sure, I keep picturing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I’m going through something here that I didn’t expect. I spent two incredible hours this morning listening to that rain storm.  And I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they’re barbequing. Or that thunder seems to echo forever.  And you wouldn’t believe how funny it is to hear somebody slip and fall in the mud…  This is full of trap doors, but I think there has to be some advantage to this.  I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.”
            When we are given the opportunity to see things, hear things, understand things from a different perspective, it is an incredible gift.  It helps us to see, to really see, beyond what our eyes tell us. And sometimes our eyes get in the way.  I have a friend who did some work helping people fix up their houses.  She was painting rooms in a house one time and told me that the old paint in one room had had to be scraped off before they put on the new paint because the wall had been textured.  However, the previous paint had been sponge painted on.  That meant that the wall looked textured even where the texturing had already been scraped off.  She told me she had to scrape the walls with her eyes closed because her eyes did not tell her the truth about what she was seeing, about whether the wall was still textured or just looked that way because of the sponge paint. 
As you know, World War I was a very bloody and aggressive war, a time of great death and tragedy and loss.  At the Western Front it was bloody and violent like everywhere else.  But on Christmas Eve, 1915, things changed for a moment.  Soldiers heard across the lines, across the divisions in politics and beliefs, other soldiers singing Christmas carols.  In listening to one another, the German soldiers from Saxony were inspired to make a brave choice.  Bringing food across the front, and singing Christmas Carols, they came to the British soldiers they were fighting in a Christmas spirit.  The British soldiers, shocked at first, were also moved and found themselves responding by joining in the singing and offering up what they had to share in the festivities as well.  After a time of singing and faith celebration, pictures were shared, personal stories began to be told, sometimes only through hand signs, between people of many different nationalities.  In one version of this story, officers had to break up the comradery as they realized fighting would soon become impossible between these two groups if they continued to get to know, share and celebrate with one another.  In another version of the story, the bonds made that night were so great that those soldiers could not be compelled to continue fighting those they had come to see as human brothers and sisters.  These soldiers, then, on both sides, would no longer kill each other and had to be moved off the front.  In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war, in the midst of violence and death and anger, new sight was gained, new vision given, through sharing, through seeing one another as the human beings that we all are.
A mother told this story: We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly sitting and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said, 'Hi.' He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray. His eyes were crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin, as he wriggled and giggled with merriment.  I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man whose pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map.  We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled.. His hands waved and flapped on loose wrists. 'Hi there, baby; hi there, big boy.. I see ya, buster,' the man said to Erik. My husband and I exchanged looks, 'What do we do?' Erik continued to laugh and answer, 'Hi.' Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man. The old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. Our meal came and the man began shouting from across the room, 'Do ya patty cake? Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek- a-boo.' Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk. My husband and I were embarrassed. We ate in silence; all except for Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring skid-row bum, who in turn, reciprocated with his cute comments. We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot. The old man sat poised between me and the door. 'Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,' I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing. As I did, Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's 'pick-me-up' position. Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man. Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby united in love and kinship. Erik in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor, cradled my baby and stroked his back. No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time.  I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, 'You take care of this baby.' Somehow I managed, 'I will,' from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest, lovingly and longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, 'God bless you, ma'am, you've given me my Christmas gift.' I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly, and why I was saying, 'My God, my God, forgive me.' I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a suit of clothes. I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child who was not. I felt it was God asking, 'Are you willing to share your son for a moment?' when God had shared God’s son for all eternity. How did God feel when God put Jesus in our arms 2000 years ago. The ragged old man, unwittingly, had reminded me, 'To enter the Kingdom of God , we must become as little children.' Sometimes, it takes a child to remind us of what is really important. We must always remember who we are, where we came from and, most importantly, how we feel about others. The clothes on your back or the car that you drive or the house that you live in does not define you at all; it is how you treat other people that identifies who you are.
            A blind person asked God once, is there anything worse than losing your sight?  To which God responded, “yes, losing your vision.”
            When we try to see with our eyes, we often fail to do so. That blindness, that inability to see without help is a common problem for humans.  We walk around in the dark, not because it is dark, but because our vision is covered, obscured in some way. It can be obscured by our politics, obscured by our beliefs, obscured by what we expect to see or what we fear seeing.  It can be obscured by our pride, or even by our shame. Oftentimes this blindness causes us to err, to sin, to take a wrong path so that somebody gets hurt, ourselves or someone else. We all have blind spots, we all need God’s help to see.   

Today’s story on the road to Emmaus is a human story.  A human story of failing to see God, to see Divinity, to see Christ, in the one who is with us, in the one walking along by our side.  The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus.  And we often don’t recognize the God in the person we are with.  But it is our call to try, to crane to see a little deeper, a little more where, what and who God really is.  It is our call to see God in the ones we are with, no matter what road we walk.  My prayer for all of us is sight, is vision.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Forgiveness, again.

I love Don Henley's song about forgiveness: The Heart of the Matter.

        All the words to this song resonate with me.  But there are a few in particular that really speak to me:
Ah, these times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
...

There are people in your life
Who've come and gone
They let you down
You know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you, baby
'Cause life goes on
You keep carrying that anger
It'll eat you up inside, baby

I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness,
Forgiveness
Even if, even if, you don't love me anymore.

     I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I've hurt people I've loved.  I've also been hurt by people I've loved. But while it may be that the losses or rifts or hurts that one person experiences may be more or less than what another person experiences, all of us suffer at the hands of one another, and all of us injure each other.  It's part of being human.  And we therefore have to make choices. Do we live lives of anger, bitterness and cynicism?  Do we nurse every pain we've experienced and carry grudges to our death beds?  Or do we learn how to forgive, to let go, to honor what was good and to move on from what was hard?
     Some people are better at this than others.  I recently read a story about a man who had contracted AIDS through a partner who knew he had it but who had chosen not to share that knowledge. The man who was now dying of AIDS harbored no anger or resentment, however. He didn't have room in his life for that kind of pain. He chose instead to spend his remaining days sharing laughter and stories and songs with his friends and family.  
      I envy that level of serenity.  I crave that ability to let anger pass through and out and on so that life can be lived in the "now" with joy and peace rather than anxiety, fear, and pain.  Anger hurts. And the one it hurts most is the one carrying it. It hurts us inside as it tears at us, increases blood pressure, blocks rational thought, impacts memory and cognition, causes ulcers and other physical damage. It can also destroy relationships, or stunt them, or damage them in such a way that they cannot be mended. It can affect how we deal with other people.  People who are very angry carry chips on their shoulders that do not allow them to form positive relationships with others. Anger can prevent us from trusting or from risking deep caring. That is tragic.  The inability to forgive is a fatal human flaw.  It eats us from the inside and creates shell-people: people who cannot see the blessings around them, who no longer delight in the beauty of life, and who often spread more pain and damage to others.
     Anger is meant to be a gift: it lets us know that something is unjust and should be changed.  It is a strong emotion because it must be in order to motivate us to do the work of changing that which is oppressive, dis-empowering and unfair.  But there are things that cannot be changed.  Once the man in the story above had contracted AIDS, his anger could no longer help him. In recognizing that truth, he chose, then, to let the anger go.  That ability to discern when anger can help us to do what needs to be done, and when it is simply a destructive and poisonous emotion can be elusive, however. Moreover, even when people realize their anger is not serving them, the ability to walk through it, out the other side and into freedom from that kind of imprisoning rage is not always easily gained.  
     And there is the other side of this as well: the other people with whom we interact also may not have the gift of being able to forgive. When we love someone who cannot forgive us, we are called to a deeper level of forgiveness yet: one that requires us to both forgive ourselves for our piece in the damage to the relationship, and to forgive the other's inability to forgive: to let go of the relationship or what we had hoped or envisioned the relationship to be: to forgive into finding peace with the schism, with the rift. 
      What helps us to be able to do that?  Number one thing that I've found to help is meditation: centering down, spending time in quiet; praying, if that's what it is for you; listening, as it is for me. Intentional calming of the heart and mind helps me more than anything else. There are so many ways to do this: centering prayer, Tai Chi, Yoga, breathing meditations, guided meditations. But besides meditation there are other things that can help: long hikes or runs where one's heart rate is really increased and the muscles are truly working. Dancing does the same. Playing the piano, writing, creating poetry or art. Finding a hilarious movie or song or joke and just enjoying some intensive laughter.  Notice that none of these things actually focus on the anger itself. And yet they all help more than anything I know.  There are other things that do involve focusing on the anger: talking to a friend, talking to a counselor, journalling about the experience and the feelings.  If there is a way to address the problem directly, it is important to try, but I think calming down enough that the anger is not leading the conversation is crucial. As I said before, anger actually blocks our ability to think clearly.  So when we are reacting from anger, we often end up saying or doing even more unforgivable things. Calming down first is therefore essential.
      All of these help us in striving to forgive.  But underneath there are two other things that are essential:  Time, and a commitment to forgiveness. Time does not heal all wounds.  But it does help. And sometimes that time is the only thing that can move us from anger into peace.  But along with that there must be a commitment, a decision, an intention to forgive.  Without that, there is no chance, no hope for reconciliation, for healing, or for peace with that which can't be reconciled or healed.  
      I continue to work on this, both forgiving those who've hurt me, and letting go of the need for healing and reconciliation from those who cannot forgive me.  It is a process.  And time is with me.  I rest in the time, I let go in meditation, and I walk forward in the hope of a more forgiving existence for all of us.

Monday, June 5, 2017

sermon - Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

What is Pentecost?  It is the birthday of the church.  But as the two Biblical stories for today show us, Pentecost is also a reversal. It is reversing the story of the tower of Babel. So let’s review for a minute. What is the story of Babel about? What happens in the story? People start united.  They all speak the same language; they all understand each other.  But then something happens and the result is, what?  They no longer speak the same language.
Whether or not you take this story literally, there are oodles of deeper meanings here, tons of insights into the human condition through this story of the tower of Babel.  Because we still don’t speak the same language, do we?  Even here in this church, even when we are all appearing to speak English, we don’t always speak the same language. We misunderstand each other, we hurt each other, we mis-communicate, we argue, we struggle.  We don’t speak the same language.  We are torn apart in this world, in families, in cultures, in groups by our inability to hear, to speak clearly, to be understood and to understand.  
To give some funny examples: When I was pregnant with Aislynn, I went in for a blood test that required fasting for the 8 hours before the test. While on my way, Jasmyn or Jonah asked for some goldfish crackers. While handing some back to the kids, I automatically popped one in my own mouth before remembering that I was not supposed to eat anything before my exam. 
When I went in to take the test, the nurse asked me first thing, “have you eaten anything in the last 8 hours?”  “No,” I replied. But then remembering the cracker I added, “Oh, except for a spare gold fish.” Well apparently this was someone who did not have kids and was not familiar with the goldfish snack crackers. He blanched for a minute, looking a little pale, and then quickly moved away like he had just met some crazy woman who might say something else off the wall or do something even more strange. I was confused by his response at first, and I only realized as he was leaving the room that he thought I meant an actual goldfish. I’m sure hearing my hysterical laughter after he shut the door behind him did nothing to improve his image of the crazy woman behind the door. We were both speaking English, but we were not speaking the same language.
When Jasmyn was in kindergarten, I showed up to be a volunteer for her library time, only to discover that the kindergarten library time had been moved to another day.  When I asked Jasmyn why her library time had been moved, she told me in all seriousness that they had to move the library time because her library teacher had to “run up and down the stairs during her normal library time.”  “Oh,” I said, “Ms. Roby was really busy doing other work at the school.”  But no, Jasmyn was insistent. They changed the library time because Ms. Roby literally had to run up and down the stairs during her normal library time. I’m certain the children were told exactly what Jasmyn repeated to me. And little kids are literalists. If Jasmyn was told Ms. Roby had to run up and down the stairs, then that must literally be what Ms. Roby was doing. Our little literalists often don’t speak the same language as we do.
When I was a kid I remember being told that the world was round.  I thought we were all on the inside however, and kept looking up to see if I could see the people on the other side of the world.
A few years ago I was running an errand at Office Depot when the cashier asked to see my driver’s license.  I flipped open my wallet, showing the cashier the license through the little window in my wallet.  After looking at it for a moment, the cashier suddenly said, “Why don’t you have more tigers?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Why don’t you have more tigers?” the cashier insisted.  “Every time I go to the zoo,” she continued, “I want to see the tigers and I can never see them because there just aren’t enough.  Why don’t you get more?” 
For a moment, this monologue just puzzled me until glancing down at my wallet I noticed the picture space across from my driver’s license held our Oakland Zoo membership card.  The cashier had seen the card and instead of recognizing it as a membership card, she had assumed that I was an employee at the zoo. That was an easily cleared up mistake. But for that moment at least, we were not speaking the same language. There was a gap in communication. We did not understand one another.
David, as you know, spent most of his life in Ohio.  The first time I took him to San Francisco, at one point after we had been walking through Golden Gate Park, he asked me where all the Rice-a-Roni stands were.  Childhood commercials had miscommunicated to him the belief that just as there are taco trucks in other places, in San Francisco, there were Rice-A-Roni stands on each corner.
Sometimes our failure to understand one another is not so funny, though.  Sometimes it is downright tragic.  In foreign affairs, there have been far too many wars started over miscommunication: sometimes this miscommunication is as simple as a non-intended slight or failure to recognize the necessary manners and customs of another culture.           More immediately, how many divorces are caused by failure to communicate well?  How many broken-hearted children have been punished over misunderstandings with parents or teachers?
I went to Korea while I was in seminary, with a group of students.  We had spent the semester studying Korean culture, and had been told on countless occasions that dressing up for church in Korea was extremely important.  People would feel it was disrespectful to do otherwise and would be highly offended.  None the less, one of our group failed to bring anything nicer than jeans. When we had offended and this offense was being explained to this young man, his response was, “Well, I would have known if I was being offensive!”  He failed to understand all of the communication he had been given through our readings and lectures and from the responses of the people themselves, about the differences in our cultures and what would offend and he stubbornly insisted that his way of seeing the world was the only way.
People who suffer from schizophrenia often have an incredibly difficult time being understood. They speak our languages, whatever they are. But we struggle to understand people with schizophrenia, to make sense of what they say. I had the privilege while studying in college of volunteering with an amazingly loving, intuitive, giving Chaplain to the Homeless in Berkeley. 
Alexia met people of all kinds, and she really listened and heard them in ways that were deeply profound and truly life-giving. One time when we were together, a schizophrenic homeless woman approached Alexia. Alexia and I were deep in conversation and Alexia knew that for me, people who said things I could not understand were probably the people I feared most in the world. So at first it looked like Alexia was going to put this woman off for a moment, when suddenly Janet blurted out, “I am God.” Her statement made me uncomfortable. I stood up and was ready to be on my merry fear-driven way. Here was the thing I feared most: craziness, unpredictable behavior: that which made me most uneasy, that which I did not choose to deal with, right in front of me, demanding my energy and attention, and I could not accept her. But Alexia gently indicated to me that I was to stay. She turned to Janet, “Tell me. I’ve always wanted to know...what exactly does it feel like to be God.” Janet looked straight at Alexia with relief in her face, but also urgency to speak, to tell. She sighed a big sigh, “I care and love and care and love but no one pays any attention to me.” Alexia gave me a very poignant stare as we both nodded our heads in understanding. This woman I was about to dismiss because I had no energy for her great needs, had deep needs, but also had gifts for us: gifts of insight, gifts of wisdom.  This woman felt ignored, unseen, unvalued. I am sure she was also accurate that God must feel ignored at times, too. Until she said it, I never knew the god right in front of me and present in this woman.
I learned in my psychology class shortly after that event that the ramblings of schizophrenics are not recognizably different from quotes from poetry.  No one, not even the most highly trained psychologists and psychiatrists can tell the difference between phrases of poetry and schizophrenic phrases. Schizophrenics talk in poetry. But Chaplain Alexia was a person of Pentecost. When she was faced with a person whose language seemed different, other, hard to understand, Alexia listened, asked questions, and came to understand. Though we would think Janet was speaking in a different language, for those with ears to hear, for those Pentecost people, she was speaking the language of God.
 In the story of the tower of Babel, the creating of multiple languages, the destroying of people’s ability to understand one another - this was a story about people losing power, losing strength, losing focus and the ability to be united and together!  The story of the tower of Babel tells us God created many languages so that the people could not “do anything” - could not become like gods and accomplish anything they put their mind to. 
So if the Pentecost story is the reversal of that, what does that now tell us?  God has given back to us the power to understand one another. God has given us the ability to choose to listen to what we are really saying to one another. With that power, we can do anything! We can choose once again to be united. And as a united people, we can be part of healing this earth. We can be God’s hands bringing peace to the world. We can do God’s will and love God’s people and bring the world together. It is out of this experience of unity and understanding that the church was born.  It is out of this love from God; the love that gives us the understanding and power to love and unite with others that our church has come into being.
Before I conclude I want to tell you one more story.  In this story, about a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. The Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.
The Jews realized they had no choice. They chose a middle-aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate - to make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope reluctantly agreed. The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite one another for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed at the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled
out a wafer and a glass of wine.  Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said, "First I held up three fingers, representing the Trinity. He held up one finger to remind me there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my fingers around to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.  He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything!  What could I do?" 
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. They also asked what had happened. "Well," said Moishe, "first he said to me that we had three days to get out. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he said the whole city would be cleared of Jews. I told him we were staying right here." "And then?" asked a woman.
"I don't know," said Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."

So as we celebrate the birthday of the church today, do we choose to remain a people of Babel, lost in the confusion of voices and understandings?  Or do we choose to remember the miracle of Pentecost?  Do we choose to speak the same language, or rather to do the work to truly and deeply understand one another across all barriers knowing that God has given us that gift of hearing, of listening, of understanding?  Do we choose to turn from Babel and claim the new life, the birth of our church, the new way of being in this world, knowing that the reward is heaven itself? Yes! And again I pray, Yes!