Monday, October 11, 2021

Earning our Due

 

Exodus 16:1-18

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Matthew 20:1-16

 

            As a people we have a really hard time with grace.  Or rather, we have a really hard time accepting that God is gracious to those we feel do not deserve it.  At the same time, we do want that grace for ourselves. 

            I think about when I was a 19-year-old working as a volunteer in mission in rural Alabama for a summer.  One night I was driving home very late to the house where I was staying. I was driving on abandoned, empty, quiet, dark, rural roads.  Apparently though I ran a stop sign.  Suddenly out of no-where there were sirens and I was pulled over by a Sherriff.  He explained to me that I’d run a stop sign.  I told him, honestly, that I didn’t see the stop sign and wasn’t aware that I’d run it.  He still would have been absolutely within his rights to give me a ticket, but instead he offered me grace.  He let me off with a warning and sent me on my way.  That was the first time I had ever been pulled over, and I was deeply grateful that he had not given me a ticket.  It was grace, pure and simple.  I had not deserved that response, but he chose to give it anyway. 

            Still, despite the grace that was offered me that day, there are times when I see a car speeding down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, often blaring music without regard for others, that I find myself wanting them to be pulled over and given a ticket.  I did not get a ticket I deserved, but it is still hard for me sometimes to want that same grace for those around me.  I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are.  I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments.  I want justice, and I forget about grace.

            The grace of God is so evident in all three of the scripture readings for today, as well as the human response to that grace.  In the passage from Exodus, we continue the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt.  They’ve been rescued by God from slavery, but now they are struggling against the difficulties of the wilderness.  They don’t think it’s fair.  They’ve been in the pain of slavery and now they are in the pain of being in the wilderness.  We might see it differently.  They’ve been led out of slavery and they are STILL complaining.  But God doesn’t have the same sense of justice as we might.  God listens to their complaints, listens to their whining and gives them what they ask for, providing for them again and again.  It is grace, pure and simple.  They haven’t earned that kind of care.  They haven’t deserved to have their every prayer and complaint answered.  But God provides it none the less.  Out of grace and out of love, God provides.

            Then we come to the story of Jonah, and I think Jonah’s reaction is so very, very human.  Jonah has been sent to warn his arch-enemies of God’s coming wrath.  Jonah doesn’t want to do it and we can understand why.  Nineveh was the capital of Israel's greatest enemy, Assyria. Nineveh's deliverance in Jonah's lifetime meant that Assyria would go on and destroy the northern kingdom and put all of Israel firmly under the thumb of Assyria as its vassal. God sending Jonah to Nineveh would almost be like sending a Jewish person into a Nazi camp with the message that God was going to punish them unless they changed.  It would have been terrifying, it would have put his life at risk, and for what purpose?  But he went.  God offered Jonah grace by seeking after him even when Jonah had said “no”.  God offered Jonah grace by rescuing Jonah from the storm in the belly of a fish.  God offered Jonah grace by providing a plant to give him shade.  God offered Jonah grace again and again and again.  But when, out of gratitude for that grace, Jonah does eventually do what God has asked and goes and confronts the people of Nineveh, they actually do listen and then God offers THEM grace.  And Jonah’s response?  To become angry, hurt, surly, defiant.  Jonah willingly accepted the grace that came to himself.  After all, God is a good God, a loving God, a God of the Israelites and Jonah is working FOR this God.  So of course God would not punish Jonah for his rejection of God’s call, of course God would not exact justice on Jonah for running away.  God would offer grace.  Of course.  But to the Ninevites?  That’s a whole other animal.  And Jonah becomes enraged.

            Finally, we come to the gospel lesson.  And we have workers on both sides who may have felt the situation was unfair.  We have those who have worked hard in the sun all day long.  And we have those who have waited and waited to be hired but weren’t hired until the end of the day.  Both sets of workers need to feed their families.  And in the end, God’s grace, the grace of the master in the parable, is extended to all of them.  All of them are given the wage that will feed them and their families for that day.  But inevitably someone was unhappy.  And declared in loud and strong voices that life just isn’t fair. 

            The truth is, from a personal perspective nothing is EVER fair.  When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair.  We don’t get what we think we deserve.  Others seem to get more than we think they deserve. 

As some of you know, when Jasmyn was very young they attended a very elite private school in Oakland.  Head-Royce.   This was an amazing school academically that had a strong vision for social service and for caring for those in the community, and made it part of their curriculum for the kids to be involved in service to the less fortunate.  I loved that about the school. They valued giving opportunities to kids of all kinds, so Jasmyn was on full scholarship to attend this school, and I felt incredibly grateful that they had that opportunity.  At the same time, personally, I struggled on a daily basis with the decision to send Jasmyn to this school, because Jasmyn was surrounded at this school by others who had so much more than we had.  And instead of Jasmyn realizing that we are incredibly wealthy when we look at the big picture, the world, and that we therefore have a huge responsibility to care for the world and to share our resources with those who have less, instead, Jasmyn would come home with things like, “Sophia has her own little house in the back yard.  Why don’t I have my own house in our backyard?  Amanda has a hot tub and a swimming pool and a play room in her house.  Why don’t we have those things?  Julia lives in a five story castle.  Why don’t we live in a five story castle?”   She was walking away from her friends and playmates not with a sense of gratitude for the abundance that she had in her life, but with a sense of life not being fair, not treating Jasmyn fairly, of somehow being deprived in a world in which Jasmyn felt, as a peer to these other children, entitled to have “more,” and what was of more concern, Jasmyn began to devalue Jasmyn’s self as somehow being a child that must not be as worthy as these other kids with all of their wealth.

How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”?  In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film.  After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe.  There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, they are paid for it.  If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation.  But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film.  So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common.  It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made.  But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough.  But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film.  In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe.  And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid.  Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things.  People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed.  Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.

One of the churches I served was near a mega-church that had several pastors and one of the pastors was bitterly complaining to the other pastor with whom I worked, about the amount of pay she received.  She was complaining because she received less than one of the other pastors at her church.  But the pastor who was complaining was making twice what the pastor I was working with made, four times what I was making, simply because her church had more money - though she worked no more than either of us.  It again was a matter of relative position, though I have to say it was very ironic that she chose to complain to a person who was making about half of her income.  And that my senior pastor then chose to complain to me who was making half of HER income.  It is easy to get on board the entitlement train.  It is easy to see in what ways we are not being cared for as others, rather than seeing how even more people have even less than we do.

            Again, it is a matter of perspective.  But the bottom line is that our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude, and of being aware of the amazing grace that God gives us every week, every day, every moment.  I want to say that again.  Our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude and an awareness of grace.  When we start feeling that life is unfair, that we don’t have what we deserve and that others are getting more than is “just” it becomes harder to see the riches and blessings in our lives, it becomes harder to connect with grace, it becomes harder to connect with God. 

            I remember hearing a wonderful skit done by comedian Louis CK on a tonight show episode.  He said this, “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.  In my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible.”  He goes on to talk about the telephone and how much it has changed over time.  About banks and how to obtain money then versus ATM’s now and the ability to charge things so easily now.  “And now we live in an amazing, amazing world and it is wasted on the (worst) generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care.  Because now people with their phones are like… ugh… Give it a second!  It’s going to space!  Can you give it a second to get back from space?!...  I was on an airplane and there was high speed internet on the airplane.  This is the newest thing that I know of that exists.  You can open up your laptop on an airplane and get on the internet.  It’s fast, I’m watching YouTube clips and I’m on an airplane!!  And then it breaks down and they apologize, “The internet is not working.”  And the guy next to me is like, “pshaw!  This is B.S.!”  Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!  Flying is the worst one because people come back from flights and they tell you their story and it’s like a horror story.  They act like their flight was like a cattle car in the 40s in Germany.  That’s how bad they make it sound.  It was the worst day of my life!  First of all, we didn’t board for 20 minutes.  And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes!”  “Oh really?  And then what happened?  Did you fly in the air, incredibly, like a bird?  Did you partake in the miracle of human flight while contributing zero?  You’re flying!  That’s amazing!  Everybody on every plane should just be going “OMG!  Wow!”  You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!  But no, “The seat doesn’t go back a lot!”  People complain about delays.  New York to California in 5 years.  That used to take 30 years and a bunch of people would die on the way, and have a baby.  You’d be with a whole different group of people by the time you got there!  Now you watch a movie and you’re home!”  But yes, we have this sense of entitlement, and we don’t seem to be able to let that go.

            So in the face of this, my challenge to all of us is to recognize that we have a choice about how we deal with life.  Will we choose to focus on what feels unfair?  Will we focus on the hardships we face unfairly while others seem to have lives touched by undeserved rewards and grace?  Or will we choose to see the grace that is given to us, to celebrate it and to pass it forward to others?  To celebrate the times when others also receive that grace, even when it is undeserved? 

            I’ll admit, celebrating the grace, the second chances, the opportunities, the gifts that others receive when they don’t deserve it is not easy, at all, for any of us.  On a daily basis, I hear people stating what so and so deserves because of things they’ve done that were evil or bad or wrong.  We want to see people punished.  We want JUSTICE, again, at least for other people.  When we make mistakes, I think we want forgiveness and grace.  But it is rare, RARE to hear people celebrating the grace that others are given undeservedly, especially when that grace comes in the form of forgiveness or lack of punishment for misbehaviors.    

            We are not living in a gracious world.  But we are called to follow in God’s ways, in Jesus’ ways and be graceful.  We are called to celebrate God’s grace extended to all of us.  We are called to extend that grace ourselves.  So that is my challenge for all of us, each of us today.  To be more graceful and less judging.  To be more grateful and less complaining.  To let go of feelings of entitlement and instead to celebrate each and every gift that we have been given.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Gratitude Does Not "Jinx" Us

    Yesterday I was driving home from the store with Aislynn and David in the car.  We were listening to music and the song "Good Life" came on.  Here are some of the words:

"Sometimes there's airplanes I can't jump out
Sometimes there's b*** that don't work now
We now got stories so please, tell me
What there's to complain about
Oh, this has gotta be a good life
This has gotta be a good life
This could really be a good life, good life
I say oh, got this feeling that you can't fight
Like this city is on fire tonight
This could really be a good life
A good, good life"

Or something like that...that's what I hear anyway.  I like the way I hear it, even if the words aren't quite right.  At any rate, it caused me to stop and pause for a moment, and think.  
    In that moment I was truly happy.  I had two of my very favorite people in the car with me, we were driving home at dusk, a beautiful time of day, we had music, we were safe, the drive was very pretty.  More, as I reflected in the moment, we have more than enough to eat, we have a lovely home, our family is whole and healthy.  We have friends, we have extended family.  We have work we enjoy.  Aislynn is learning, and has amazing opportunities, really.  She is in the drama program at school, she takes Aikido after school, and these are things we can afford.  We are putting two kids through college, one of whom will graduate in the spring, both of whom are launching into life successfully and well.  The weather is starting to turn into lovely fall temperatures, we have opportunities to walk and to sing.... I could go on and on.  The reality is we have SO MUCH that is so easy to take for granted.  Health, limbs that work, brains that work, air to breathe, good foods to eat, clean water to drink, community.   
    I talk regularly about the importance of gratitude. Being grateful, remembering all the ways in which we are blessed, and taking time to be thankful actually improves quality of life, helps with depression, helps with anxiety, helps us to really see where God is, where good is, where love is.  
    But I realized as I was driving home that there is a part of me that has held that off: that is afraid to sit in the joy, in the gratitude.  In those times of well being I'm afraid I might "jinx" my current life.  What I mean is that there is a part of me that worries that if things are going well, it is a sure sign that something terrible is about to happen.  This life, after all, seems to be about growing and learning.  We grow most from the challenges, the hardships that we must face.  So if I'm happy, maybe I'm not doing the work of this life, facing the rough patches that will help me to learn and grow.  Maybe I'm only supposed to focus on gratitude when things are hard: looking for what is good in the midst of the struggles, rather than seeing what is wonderful in the good times.   Because maybe if I name a time in my life as "good" I will lose it to another growth opportunity. 
    Rick Warren talked about how he used to see life as ups and downs but now sees it as a railroad track: one rail of the track is everything that is good and beautiful and the other rail are the challenges and hardships that we face.  He said he had come to realize both tracks are constant.  There is always something to be grateful for and always something difficult to face.  And while I experience the reality of this (even now there is a handful of things I am deeply worried about), there are still moments of pure joy that seem to release me from the hardship track, at least for a moment.  Am I to ignore those moments, to avoid being thrown head first back onto the rail of pain and/or fear?  
    I believe the only way to change our thinking is to look honestly and deeply at our feelings and thoughts.  It was a breakthrough moment for me to realize my fear that happiness would jinx my life.  I do not want to be held back by that fear.  I don't want to miss the beauty, the good, the awesomeness of my life now because I am worried that it will make whatever is to come harder to bear.  I think remembering and sitting in the good can empower us to walk with strength through the challenges.  And yes, those challenges will come.  But they will come whether I enjoy today or not.  They will not be harder because I have rested in the gifts of now.  I believe they will be easier to bear as I remember that good things are also always around me to be enjoyed, to be celebrated, to experience in awe and with gratitude.  
    So, for today, I am choosing to delight in the good.  Thanks be to God for this wonderful, beautiful, challenging, and amazing life!

"I Am"

Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17

John 8:58

Psalm 46

World Communion Sunday

 

What are some of the ways that you come to know God?  Scripture, nature, worship, prayer, meditation, fasting, spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina and clearness committee and ....  Do you have one or two ways that speak to you more than others?  That you tend to gravitate towards?  Are there other ways of knowing God that are less comfortable for you?  Or ways that you avoid?

               You know the familiar story about the blind men and the elephant.  I read it to you in January.  But I think it’s a story we should all be remembering on a regular basis, especially as we seek to cross our differences, to be in relationship despite our disagreements, to work to love those who don’t see things the same ways that we do.  So here it is again:

It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,

Who went to see the elephant (though all of them were blind),

That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall

Against his broad and burly side, at once began to call:

"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a wall!"

The second, feeling of the tusk, cried, "Ho! What have we here?

So very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear

This wonder of an elephant is very like a spear!"

The third approached the animal, and, happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake,

"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a snake!"

The fourth reached out his eager hand and felt about the knee:

"What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain," said he,

"'Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree!"

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, said, "E'en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most. Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an elephant is very like a fan!"

The sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,

"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,

though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

So oft in group endeavors, the members of the team

Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,

As if it were an elephant not one of them has seen.

               So, too, I think we are all limited in our knowledge of God by many things.  For example, our circumstances in life limit what we see of God.  The limits of our experiences, the limits of the time that we can give over to our spiritual lives, these limit our understanding of God.  We are limited by our beliefs in seeing the whole picture of God.  The really wise person is the one who recognizes they lack knowledge because that is the person who is open to learning and experiencing more.  Our "knowledge" of God can often limit what we see of God, what we hear of God.  Let me give you a specific example - those who "know" that God is only male miss seeing the feminine or even binary or fluid aspects of God.  Those who "know" that people are made in the image of God may miss seeing aspects of God reflected and alive in nature or in other ways that are beyond human. 

               We see this with scripture too: if we only take scripture as literal and historic, we frankly miss the deeper messages within it.  When we miss those layers and layers of wisdom and meaning, we also miss out on deeper and different ways to see and understand God. 

               We also limit God by what we leave God out of in our lives, or what parts of our lives we keep separate from our faith.  Can you think of areas people hide away from God?  Can you think of areas that YOU keep separate from God?  Or areas of our lives in which it might be a challenge to include God in?   

               Besides all of these things that limit our relationships with God, I would also say that spending time with God only in the ways that are familiar and make us comfortable also limits our understanding of God.  We only see the part of God that we are touching, that we are exploring in those moments.  For example, when we only know God through prayer, we may come to see a God who listens, a God who loves, but we may miss that God also instructs, also guides, also has words to speak to us.  We have heard some people say they don't come to church because they find God better on their own.  Well, I suggest that only finding God in church, and conversely, only finding God outside of church - both of these limit our vision and understanding of God.

               The scriptures we heard today present two ways that people might meet God.  Moses met God in a burning bush.  The Psalmist tells us to meet God in silence.  Both are important.  Both give us information about God.  God appearing in the burning bush tells us that God is amazing, can do anything, can appear in any form, and that God does speak to us, does come to us, does have instruction for us.  It shows us the drama and wonder of God, the ways in which God can be so obvious, so hard to ignore, so beyond our expectations.  God telling us to be still to know God tells us that God is also gentle, and at times is not dramatic, but calls us into a stillness and into a place of listening and being present in the quiet and stillness.  That God is as close to us as our own breathing and heartbeats, if we but quiet down for a moment to experience God.

               In the book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert takes a year "sabbatical" or pilgrimage to explore her spirituality.  This was not always a comfortable experience for her.  She found herself confronting difficult parts of herself within her spiritual journey.  And some of the things she tried - extended periods of meditation for example, were downright frustrating and uncomfortable at first.  But she continued to try them, to work with them, to give them a chance.  It took time, it took commitment, it took a real desire to see God, to know God in a different way, in a fuller way, in a more complete way.  When we strive to know God in a different way, she discovered, we cannot just try something new for a minute or an hour, a day, or even a week.  It took months, but she was blessed with a deeper, broader, new look at God.  And she found that not only did she encounter God in new ways, but through her encounter with the Divine, she came to understand herself better, to heal some deep brokenness within and to find the courage to heal some brokenness outside of herself, in relationships, as well. 

               This is not surprising.  When we come to know God in a new way, we also come to understand ourselves more deeply, because we are made in God's image.  Similarly, we can come to understand those around us more deeply as well.  We can grow in our capacity to love and to care as we encounter Love itself, as we strive to know God better and in different ways.

               On this, World Communion Sunday, we remember that other Christians around the world, Christians who experience and celebrate God in different ways than we do, are also part of our faith family, part of the family of God.  In their different ways of worshiping and celebrating their faith, they have things to teach us about who God is and where God can be found.  In hearing and learning and experiencing the ways others do worship differently, and understand God differently, we come to see more aspects of God, more nuances to the face of God, more parts of who God is.  I would say this also expands beyond Christianity.  When we encounter and talk and interact with people from different faith traditions, even atheism and agnosticism, we can also learn from them.  Even those who say there is no God or that they don’t know if there is or they don’t care if there is, there are still things we can learn about God even from them!  As I worked on my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed a number of atheists and learned that those I interviewed had a very specific vision of God as a white bearded man sitting in the clouds, literally making the world in 7 of our human days, that they couldn’t accept.  Well, I can understand that.   I tend to agree with them on that.   

These beautiful passages in which God says God’s name is “I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I am becoming who I am becoming” tell us that God is so very much bigger than we can imagine.  God IS, and in that BEING we find God.  It is not just God’s name.  It is who and what God is.  God IS being.  God IS.  We find that God in the burning bush and in the stillness and in so many ways.  Jesus, too identifies as “I am” repeatedly, “I AM the bread of life,” “I AM the way, the truth and the life,” etc.  Jesus also says this BEING existed from the beginning.  But we humans, we have a hard time with just “being”.  We want to define things more tightly.  We want to assign qualities and attributes.  And those qualities and attributes limit who God really is for us.  If you are happy, you are not sad.  If you are a democrat, you are not a republican.  If you are an athlete, you are not a coach potato.  Whatever it is: our attributes, even of God, limit in our minds not just who we are, and who other people are, but who God really is.  But God IS.  God IS.  And so, we expand our understanding by taking the time to intentionally see other sides of God that may not be as comfortable or easy. We expand beyond the boxes and the attributes and into the BEING of God.

               And so, my challenge for all of us is that we take the risk, and take the time, to try to know God in a way we haven't encountered God before.  I encourage us to try something that we may not have tried before.  We can try a classic spiritual discipline such as daily meditation for a month, or we can try a 24 hour fast.  You can invite someone to be your prayer partner, especially someone you don’t know very well, or someone you’ve had issues with.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be someone you pray with, but someone you can check in with about your prayer life and that can help hold you accountable to daily personal prayer.  You might try a Taize service, or attending one Sunday a service that is completely different.  You could help serve a meal with Winter Nights, or volunteer to help with our laundry program.  You can commit to reading a part of the Bible with which you are unfamiliar, to study it, to discuss it with a small group.  I would be happy to help you form that group.  You might take a journey or pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine.  You might talk to someone that you don't think you like.  Or simply make a commitment to take the time to be still, even amidst the crazy business of our lives.  But the challenge is not to just try this new thing one time, but to really give time to whatever you are trying that is new.  Give it time, give it space, give God time to talk to you through your new experience and to reveal God-self to you in a new way.  Whatever it is, I invite you to seek to feel more of the elephant...or rather, to seek to see more of God and who God is in your life, and in the world.   God is waiting to be known more fully by you, and God promises that in return you will know more of yourself as well.  Amen. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Dangerous, angry times

     Aislynn and I went up to Old Sacramento on Saturday afternoon to have some mother-daughter time.  We went to the Crocker Art Museum and then walked down to the train museum and wharf to get some ice cream (because in my mind Old Sacramento means trains and ice cream).  As we walked into the ice cream store, we saw a sign in the middle of the entrance that read "Masks must be worn, as per state mandate.  Anyone failing to comply with this mandate will not be served."  We were wearing our masks, so not a big deal.  We walked up to the counter, ordered our ice cream and stepped aside for the next person to order.  Apparently the people who walked in behind us were not, however, wearing masks.  One of the workers (my guess is the manager) said to the woman behind me, "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but masks are required by state mandate within this facility.  Please put on a mask.  I believe I have one I can give you."  After a minute, though, he said, "Oh, I'm sorry.  It appears we have just run out.  If you do not have your own mask, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."  

    I don't know about you, but if I were asked to leave a facility, I would.  I would do it out of embarrassment if nothing else.  But also, I am lacking that sense of entitlement that some people apparently have.  This woman was one of those people.  "Well @#$% that!"  She said, "I'm not going anywhere!"

    She stepped up closer to the counter to order.  The worker said, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but if you do not leave, I'm going to have to call the police."

    "You do that!" she said, and then proceeded to call him a list of nasty discriminatory slurs that I will not print here.  She then turned to two of the other workers insisting that they take her order.  The other workers both shook their heads and backed up, frankly looking a little scared.

    The first worker responded by saying that yep, the slur she had used absolutely applied to him, and that as a result he was better at certain graphicly described behaviors than she was.  He then repeated that if the woman did not leave, he was going to call the police.

    The woman responded by approaching the counter and knocking everything on it to the floor, spilling the tip jar, scattering coins, making a huge and violent ruckus.  The worker then bounded over the counter, the same counter that Aislynn and I were standing in front of (which we both quickly stepped back from), to move towards her, threatening to kill her at the same time and saying, "Don't think for a second that I won't do it!"  She laughed and ran out.

    Whew.  Situation over.  But frankly, Aislynn and I were so shaken by the incident that we did not have the ability to taste our ice creams at all.  

    While it is a challenge for me to NOT express some of my thoughts on all of this, today I am working hard to face that challenge because I don't see that as productive in this moment.  What I want to focus on instead is this: I think the divisions in our country and in our society, the divisions that I saw escalate in that store, reveal a much larger issue.  

    We have forgotten that we belong to one another.  We have forgotten that the person in front of you with whom you disagree is still your sister, is still your brother, is still your sibling.  We have forgotten that we are to be kind and loving to others, even when they disagree with us, even when we don't like what they believe or what they do, even when we are embarrassed or uneasy, or hurt.

    To put this a bit more forcefully: while it takes effort on our part to respond to anger with compassion, this is the job of being an adult.  Having no self-control or ability to respond to anger with a calm and listening presence can only increase the divisions and the struggles in our world.  To be kind, to be caring: these are not easy, but no one ever said that life would be easy.  Just as you can spread violence by reacting with more violence, you can spread kindness by reacting with a calm and caring presence.  YOU have the power to diffuse violent and scary situations with your very demeanor, with your caring, with listening deeply and responding with compassion.

    So once again we have a choice to make: do we add to the pain, anger, and panic of the world by responding in kind when others lose it?  Or can we be part of the solution and movement to make the world better by staying calm, by hearing one another, and by acting with love?  

    We won't always be able to do the right thing.  I know this.  As always, I'm preaching to myself here and I know that it is not easy to respond to nastiness, to hurtful comments or actions with kindness.  It takes practice.  But, for better or worse, we are getting a whole lot of practice of late!  So take it for the gift it is: to practice taking the high road in the face of anger.  People are stressed.  People are scared.  And ultimately, people are just people: flawed and trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances.  Try to picture each person as your mother, or your sister, or your best friend: someone having a hard day.  You may disagree with them, but you can still love them.  

    If we can do anything to help the current situation in our culture, it's worth the effort.

    That interaction that Aislynn and I witnessed did not just upset the manager and the customer.  An ice cream store full of customers and employees were affected by what we experienced.  And while, fortunately, no one was hurt, things could have gotten worse, they could have escalated even more.  I am thankful that they didn't.  But also saddened that it happened at all.  It would have been so easy for either of the two main characters in this incident to take a different path.  The woman could have just left when asked to do so.  The manager could have stayed calm and just said, "I hear you are upset, but we are required to follow the law."  So much could have been done differently.  But it wasn't.  So I'm just taking the lesson for what it was: a chance to think through my own reaction for the next time someone acts out.  How will I respond?  How will you respond?  How will we make this world better together?  

Being Blessed

 

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

Mark 9:38-50

John 1:50-51

               Today we hear a story about Jacob stealing his brother Jacob’s blessing from his father.  This follows after Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright, too.  Jacob is a trickster, he is a con.  He lies, is disrespectful to his father, cheats his brother, schemes and steals and in every way is NOT the hero we would expect to be the patriarch of Israel, but in fact he is exactly that: the patriarch of Israel.  It is later in Genesis that Jacob’s name is changed, in fact, TO Israel. 

The truth is this whole story may seem very strange to us.  It may seem strange to us at many, many levels.  First of all, why can’t Isaac bless BOTH sons?  After all, they are twins.  Esau was born only minutes before Jacob.  What is this blessing that is so important but also so limited in who is to receive it and who can receive it?  And if it is created simply by a word, why can’t Isaac take back those words, change those words, amend those words?  If he was tricked by lies, why can’t he reciprocate and say the words spoken in response to a falsehood are therefore themselves false?  And then, why is it that God seems to bless Jacob, this trickster, to choose him to become Israel, to BE Israel and to lead the people forward?

These are all legitimate questions.  Real questions.  Some of which can be answered by saying that these ideas of blessings rested on social conventions which were difficult to challenge.  That the blessing was a promise of inheritance, in this case land and power.  That once those promises were made, the only thing that Isaac could then do would be to offer mitigating promises in addition. 

In terms of God’s response, Lewis Hyde stated, “Tricksters always appear where cultures are trying to guard their eternal truths, their sacred cows. New cultures spring up whenever some trickster gets past the guard dogs and steals those cows.”  And this is what Jacob does — He breaks the rules, creates a new pathway and therefore opens up possibilities.  The implication here, then, is that God uses tricksters to break us out of our cultural ruts, to challenge the paths we have gotten stuck on and to encourage us to see life and rules and even conventions from a new vantage point, one that is willing to alter, change and amend things.  In this case, Jacob actually challenges the idea that it is always the first son who gets everything.  In this case, Jacob and Esau were twins, born moments apart, so the idea that one son gets it all and the other nothing appears especially ridiculous.

But I think the bigger question for us today is what does it really mean to be blessed, in the first place?  I don’t mean what was this blessing that Jacob stole.  I mean, we all seek blessings, God’s blessings.  We want them.  We invoke them for others, “Bless you” we say when someone sneezes, which was supposed to be a way to ward off death.  But we also use it in other ways. “God bless you!” we say when we are leaving or sending someone off.  “Blessings,” we may say to sign our names at the end of correspondence.   We also use it in sentences such as “bless his heart” by which we often mean, “That person can’t change, won’t change, so the best we can do is bless him and send him on his way.”  

But again, what do we really mean by that?  And what really is a blessing?  We experience God’s blessing in places that we don’t expect, in places that don’t look familiar to us.  We also experience God’s blessings in ways that we don’t usually call blessings.  Jacob, though he stole the “blessing” from his brother, ended up out in the wilderness: running away from his family out of fear that Esau, out of anger, will hurt him.  He struggles, he does not have an easy life.  The “blessing” that he stole cost him everything that he valued, at least for a time.  And we know this often plays out for us as well: that which we strive for, work for the most, sometimes ends up costing us a great deal, costing us everything we thought we valued most. 

I remember reading this wondering article by Scott Dannemiller entitled, “The one thing Christian’s should stop saying” (click to read article):

Whew.  And Amen!

But it is also important to note that “blessing” does not mean ease of Life.  Jacob’s life after this is not easy.  Just as he tricked, so too will he be tricked.  He will be tricked by his uncle in trying to marry Rachel.  He will wrestle with God and be forever limping afterwards.  He will be tricked by his own sons who will try to kill his favorite, Joseph, and sell him into slavery instead, telling their father only that he has died.   

But still, is he blessed? 

Yes.  And not only by his father.  He is blessed by God’s presence with him, and that takes many forms.  Sometimes it is God’s presence in the struggles.  Sometimes it is God’s presence in the good times.  The blessing is the ability to experience God in those times, to hear God, to see God and to choose healing and growing that God offers.  The alternative is to become bitter, cynical, angry, cranky.

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”  Well, isn’t that an incredible blessing?

 

I think the bottom line is that when we say “blessing” what we mean is “gift”.  But our ideas of what are gifts, what comes to us through grace and not just LIFE, has to grow, has to expand a bit.  And the lesson for us today in this is that we should not miss out on a blessing because it isn't packaged the way that we expect.

I’m reminded of a lovely poem by an unknown confederate soldier:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.

I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things.

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy.

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

 

I want to end with a poem by Jan Richardson called

 

Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light

Blessed are you

who bear the light

in unbearable times,

who testify

to its endurance

amid the unendurable,

who bear witness

to its persistence

when everything seems

in shadow

and grief.

 

Blessed are you

in whom

the light lives,

in whom

the brightness blazes --

your heart

a chapel,

an altar where

in the deepest night

can be seen

the fire that

shines forth in you

in unaccountable faith,

in stubborn hope,

in love that illumines

every broken thing

it finds.

 

- Jan Richardson

 

The thing is, we are most richly blessed when we are giving and caring and loving others.  That is when we are most richly and most meaningfully blessed.  And that is a blessing we bring to and on ourselves through our own choices and our own decisions to care for and offer care for others.  This is a blessing we can claim for ourselves, not through the trickery of Jacob, not through the anger of Esau, but through the decision to love.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Assumptions We Make About Others Say More About Us

        I've said many times before that the things we attack in others are usually parts of our own shadow side: that part of ourselves that we cannot face we project outwards and seek to destroy in the other.  But to take this a step further, the assumptions we make about others also reflect much more on ourselves than they ever do about those our assumptions target or encompass.  We therefore betray our own worst selves with our assumptions.  

        I found myself reflecting on this more strongly yesterday.  My health insurance offers classes that you can take to reduce your co-pay and I'd taken one of their classes which happened to focus on forgiveness.  There were MANY wonderful suggestions about how to forgive in this class, but the one that I felt was most helpful and most profound still surfaces from time to time.  We were told to write down the story or scenario that was causing us to feel resentment, anger or any other long-held emotional baggage.  We were then to highlight or underline everything that we had stated as fact in our story.  Then, we were to take a huge step back and ask ourselves honestly, looking at each "fact", “Do I actually know this for sure?  Is this really a fact or is it my perception?”  If it was just a perception or if it was based on assumptions, we were to cross it off, and then write on a separate piece of paper what we know to be actually facts – the things that we know to be absolutely true.  So any motivations we assign to the other, any thoughts of the other, any feelings of the other - all of these we would have to cross out as things we could never actually know.  Any conversations that we "heard" about but weren't actually privy to, any stories we were told but didn't actually experience: all of these we would have to cross out.  Any assumptions we made about why things happened would have to go.  The only things that would be left would be just the facts of behaviors, what happened, what was said TO US.  Our assumptions even about what those words "actually meant" would also need to be crossed out.  Our interpretations of what was actually meant would have to be crossed out.  Then we were to write on a separate paper only those things then that were really facts.  And finally we were to get rid of the original story: burn it, shred it, whatever it takes.  

    This exercise is amazing and I would encourage each of you to try it.  

    In my own life, I recently found myself repeatedly having a conversation in my head with someone whom I had come to believe was intentionally hurting me.  What was ironic is that in this "conversation" she was making all sorts of assumptions about me that weren't true.  And I found myself becoming more and more upset about these assumptions she was making about me in my head.  (sigh).  Again, we can be our own worst enemies: and again putting out there onto other people what we are doing ourselves is oh-so-common a theme.  So I stopped.  And realized that I was getting upset because of assumptions that I was making.  I was assuming that she was assuming things that were just not true.  (As if that isn't confusing enough).  Thank you, God, for reminding me of this practice and also encouraging me, always, to look deeper at what my own assumptions had to tell me about myself (NOT about the other person!).

    My own assumptions spoke to me of my fear: fear of being misunderstood, fear of not being given the benefit of the doubt, fear of never being forgiven for being the human me that I am, fear of always being a disappointment and never being enough.  Once I was able to dig down that deep, I was also able to remind myself that I don't believe God calls us to be perfect.  We are just called to be who we are, and to strive to grow in love, compassion and the ability to offer grace to others.  That's all we can do.  That's all we can be.  I believe God cares more about our efforts to be kind than about being "right", and God certainly cares more about out intentions to be loving than about our efforts to be perfect.  And THAT reminder has allowed me to let go of the assumptions that have been fueling this imagined and internal conversation with this other person.

    I don't know what has led to the behaviors of the other that caused me pain.  Until the other chooses to talk to me about it, I can't know.  I am going to stop trying to guess, stop trying to make assumptions that I can't validate or check out.  I will rest in the grace of God and stop trying to guess about someone else's thinking.  That's the best I can do for now.  

    I encourage you all to likewise put aside assumptions.  The practice of discerning what is a "guess" and what is a fact is an amazing practice.  I wonder if more of us did this what we might be able to accomplish in the world in terms of peace-making, reconciliation and healing.  Until we try it, we will never know.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Expectations of Clergy And Other People of Faith

            I've heard several people lately say something to the affect that they left the church at some point in their lives because of the way other people in the church behaved.  They left because of a pastor, or because of the way members of the congregation behaved towards the pastor, or they left simply because members of the congregation were unkind towards other members of the congregation.  And the conclusion of each of these folk was something along the lines of "people in the church shouldn't behave that way."  After all, if we strive to follow God, shouldn't that make us better?

            I've been sitting with this question for years, actually.  It's common that people leave because of the hypocrisy they see in the church: so after a pastor messes up, or after mean people in the church do something unkind, or because of the judgmental stance of some churches or congregations.  Shouldn't we who profess to follow a loving, compassionate, gracious God work harder to do right?  To avoid hurting people?  To build people up and care about those who need our care?  Shouldn't our weekly time remembering what we are called to do and who we are called to be make some difference in our lives?

          My answer has changed over the years, some, but here it is as I think now:  Yes, our time in the church should make us better.  But it should not make us better than other people.  It should just make us better than we ourselves might have been had we not been in that place of remembrance and support for being the best we can be.  None of us will ever be perfect.  And I don't think we can ever compare ourselves to other people.  The best we can do is compare ourselves to ourselves.  Have we grown to be more loving, more forgiving, more gracious than we were before?  Or than we might otherwise have become?    

        I think about what Jesus himself said on this subject, (Luke 5:31-32): "Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”  

        People come to church for many reasons.  But for many of us, it is because we are striving to be the people God calls us to be and we know we need the help and support of the community, of the time of worship and joint commitment to serve the poor and oppressed.  We need the time together to both reflect and work together to bring justice and peace to the world.  We can't do it on our own, or certainly we can't do it as well on our own.  For those who can, more power to them.  For the rest of us, our time in community and in church is essential for us to be the best we can be, for us to continue on the journey to be more whole, more caring and more loving.  That's all we can do.  We will never reach that goal, we will never be perfect.  But church allows us to grow towards it, to remember to self-reflect and work harder to be better.

        Some of what angers people is how big the mistakes are that some people within churches make.  I understand that.  But I have two responses to this.  First, I don't think God ranks "mistakes" or "sins" (to use a churchier word) in the same way that we do.  In the ten commandments, for example, murder is not listed as a worse sin than forgetting to take a day of rest.  I want you to think about that for a minute.  Murder is not ranked higher in the ten commandments than forgetting to honor the Sabbath.  There's no "ranking" of sins in scripture.  WE do that.  WE rank things and sometimes we really get those rankings off in some very strange ways.  Some Christians think that loving someone they have decided is inappropriate is worse than murder, for example.  We know this because they will KILL LGBTQ folk and feel justified in doing so.  But God wants wholeness for us and that means working for good in every aspect, working towards love and care, compassion and understanding in every way.  When we fail, we fail.  God forgives and we move on, hopefully having learned from the mistake.  

         The second thing I want to say about that is that again, we cannot be comparing people against other people: only against themselves.  And since we do not know what they would have been like had they NOT been in church, who are we to say that church has made no difference for them?  We can't know this.  

        Churches are human creations.  And as such they will be imperfect just as humans are imperfect.  They are there to build up, to honor God, to create community, to encourage us to be the church in the world, lifting up the oppressed, empowering the poor.  We who are in the church are part of that.  But because we are part of it, church will reflect our gifts, and our weaknesses.  We continually strive to do better, to make church better.  But it will never be perfect just as we as individuals will never be perfect.  

         I say again, church will make no person perfect.  It just won't.  But it can help.  At least it can help some of us.  And that's enough for me.