Monday, September 22, 2014

Earning our Due

Exodus 16:2-15
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 we lived in CA, Jasmyn attended a very elite private school in Oakland.   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 her 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 she 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 she had.  And instead of her 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, she 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 her fair, of somehow being deprived in a world in which she felt, as a peer to these other children, entitled to have “more,” and what was of more concern, she began to devalue herself 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, he or she is 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.
The last church I served was near a mega-church that had several pastors and one of the pastors was bitterly complaining to Sarah, the other pastor with whom I worked, about the amount of pay she receives.  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 Sarah 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.  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. 
            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.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Risking it all for something better

Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

As I reflected on today’s lectionary scriptures, they all seem to me to be calling us to take risks, to reach out in trust and faith for that better thing, that wholeness, that new way of being that God calls us to.  Not easy.  Never easy.  But it is what I hear, in different ways, in all three of today’s scriptures.
The Israelites were called to risk everything in order to no longer be slaves in Egypt.  More, they were called to risk everything so that their children would no longer be slaves in Egypt.  For as we know, they were in the wilderness for 40 years, a generation and more passed before they came to their own place, their own home.  They risked everything so that their children might no longer be an enslaved people.  How scary for them!  How terrifying to leave everything they knew, everything they trusted, everything they experienced and understood and lived, for the risk of a better life for their kids.  Of course it was hard, horrible, and at times they expressed great anger at Moses, at Aaron, at GOD for leading them out, for encouraging such a rick.  There were many, many times when they felt, and said, and yelled that it would have been better to just stay slaves than to go through the painful, difficult transitions of risk, of change, not knowing for sure that they would have something better, but instead only hoping, trusting, having faith that they would.
Then we come to the passage in Romans.  And at first it does not seem to be talking about risk.  But it, too, is.  The new Christian community in Rome was called to take the risk of letting go of some of their principle ways and principle beliefs about what could be eaten, when and how.  Those who grew up as Jews had strong opinions, based on their Torah, our first five books of the Bible, about what was legal and okay to eat, when, and how.  But those who joined them from the Gentile community did not share those beliefs or practices.  This was very hard on many of the people who came from the Jewish tradition.  They felt that the writings of what we now consider the Old Testament were as important in this new community as they had been before.  The laws written in scripture about what could and couldn’t be eaten, they felt, must be upheld.  They were willing to fight for these laws, insisting that those who did not follow them were not true Christians, were not people who should be part of the church.  But Paul challenged that, saying that Christ was about Love and only about Love and that these laws about eating (and other things) that people held on to so strongly had to be released.  These new  Jewish Christians were called to let go of some of their ways, or at least let go of the judgments of others that accompanied these hard and fast beliefs.  They could continue to practice their eating laws and other laws, but they could no longer judge, attack, or exclude those who would come to the faith who did not practice these same laws and rules.  But what Paul was asking of these Jewish Christians was hard.  He was asking them to take a huge risk of letting go of judgment.  That might feel so small to us.  But for them it was huge.  HUGE.  It meant letting go of who they WERE at their core, letting go of being JEWISH in their veins, or at least of being part of a community in which everyone followed the same rules.  And again, many of them simply could not do it.  They heard and knew and understood that they were called to LOVE and not to judge.  But some couldn't do it.  It was simply too hard to take that risk. 
And then finally, lastly, we come to the gospel story for today.  And we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive.  And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us.  This is calling us to a radical forgiveness.  And that, too, is an invitation to risk everything that we hold on to, to risk the anger and the judgments and the fear that we hold on to, to risk letting all of it go in the reach for a different way of being in the world. 
Can we do this?  We are not being asked to leave our country of origin.  We don’t have the same judgments about food.  But we still have beliefs and judgments and practices that God may be calling us to risk changing.  When Jesus calls us to love and to forgive, even our enemies, even people we fear, can we let go of judgment and risk loving?  Can we let God be in charge of holding people accountable? 
We hear the passage from Exodus and we can only imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have been for the Israelites to pack up their stuff and to leave their homes in search of something better.  We know that people throughout history have done the same, packed up everything, without a job waiting for them or a home already picked out, without a clear image of where they were going or if there would be a place for them, or a welcome, or food to find along the way.  And we know it must have terrifying.  Many of our ancestors came to this country in a similar way, escaping persecution and risking everything to start a new life.  If you are like me you think of those people as people of great courage and faith, being willing to leave behind a country that was their own in search of something better.  But my guess is that it is even harder to risk giving up our most deeply held beliefs, rituals, and practices, in search for something better – community, a new way of relating to God.
               I think about people who spend years in counseling, in therapy, and how hard it is to look at the old stuff, to work it through so that a new way of relating to the world might be found.  I think about the stories plastering the news this last week about Domestic Violence, and how hard it is for these beaten and abused people, mostly women, to leave their partners, their spouses, even when they are being beaten up regularly.  I volunteered for a time on a domestic violence hotline and it was the very, VERY rare victim who would find the courage to leave.  I think about people choosing to make friends and cross cultural, religious, ethnic, etc. boundaries with people who are different from them, people whom they normally judge.  All of this is hard, hard stuff to do.
               Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.  Usually I hear this quote as meaning that faith in God requires believing in something that can’t be proved either way.  But this week I heard this very differently.  I heard it being about everything else that we hold dear.  When we have faith, we are called to risk our certainty about how we see things, who we judge, how we do things, how we live, and we are called to instead rely on the faith that when God calls us forward into a new way of being, that God really does want and intend the best for us.  That no matter how hard it can be to take those risks, that is what faith calls us to do. 
               As I thought about this risk that we take, the movie the Spitfire Grill came to mind.  The movie is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life.  She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill.  And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is.  There is one exception in the movie, however.  Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town.  He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat.  He doesn’t want to know her story, or really anything about her.  He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm.  In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town.  I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to risk forgiveness, to risk love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being.  That failure to risk a new vision leads to the tragedy, a deep loss for everyone in the town. 
               Most of what we fail to miss by not having the faith to trust in love, in forgiveness, in God’s call to us to be open to both, most of the results of that are only personal.  We miss risking and living for something bigger and better, but it mostly only impacts ourselves.  Still, God calls us to something better.  But sometimes those risks are not just personal but communal as well.  I think about this in terms of Church.  As denominations and as the Christian Church on the whole, are we willing to take risks to be more what God calls us to be?  Are we willing to take stands to say, “we are God’s people and we will stand up for the oppressed, the mistreated, the outcast!”  Are we willing to risk praying, and listening and following God’s call even when it seems scary and threatening and open-ended; even when we cannot see where we are going or what God is leading us to?  Are we willing to take the risk, knowing that God wants the best for us, for our children, and for our communities? 
               I want to end this by simply inviting us into a period of silent listening.  I invite you to simply open yourself to hearing what God is calling you to do, calling US to do. 

               I pray we will have the hearts to risk it all for something better.  That something better is God’s kingdom.  Every week we pray that God’s Kingdom will come here as it is in heaven.  We help bring that about by being willing to risk listening to God’s call and God’s will, by being willing to forgive, no matter how hard that is, by being willing to LOVE.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Codependency

Matthew 18: 15-18, 21-22
(The Giving Tree)

I would like to start by asking you a series of questions that I would like you to think about for a few minutes.

Do you feel responsible for other people--their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being and destiny?
Do you feel compelled to help people solve their problems or to try to take care of their feelings?
Do you find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others than about injustices done to you?
Do you feel safest and most comfortable when you are giving to others?
Do you feel insecure and guilty when someone gives to you?
Do you feel empty, bored and worthless if you don't have someone else to take care of, a problem to solve, or a crisis to deal with?
Are you often unable to stop talking, thinking and worrying about other people and their problems?
Do you stay in relationships that don't work and tolerate abuse in order to keep people loving you?

These are a few of the classic questions of a group called CODA, a 12 step group that tries to identify and look at behaviors knows as co-dependency. While I don’t see a lot of what I would call classic co-dependent behavior in this congregation, I wanted to give you that list of questions to think about for a few minutes. We’ll return to this later.

In the mean time, I want to tell you the story of a friend of mine from a long time ago, who gave me permission to tell her story and whom, for the purposes of this sermon I will call Katy. Katy was one of the most loving, giving people that you would ever meet. She gave to any who would ask her, anything that they asked. If George needed a ride to church, Katy would give it. If the congregation needed food for a potluck or if anyone in the church was sick, she was sure to be there with a hot dish. When Dana needed someone to listen to her troubles, Katy was always around with an open ear. She sewed the costumes for the Christmas pageants, she held the women’s annual tea at her house and would not allow anyone else to bring anything to help. She ran the annual food drive, taught Sunday school, and was pretty much a fixture at the church. Whenever anyone needed anything, they knew they could count on Katy. It wasn’t just at church that she was so giving and caring, either. Although Katy had a fairly demanding job, she still found it possible to volunteer at the local soup kitchen, and serve on the PTA. And in these areas too, people knew that if they needed anything, they could count on Katy. At home, she was always in command with her caring. Her children lacked for nothing: their financial and emotional needs were always completely met, their rooms were always spotlessly maintained... by Katy, no household chore was ever left undone, because, as Katy stated, she wanted the children to be free to focus on their school work and on being children. Her husband, too was always cared for to the best of her ability. When he came home from work, he was free to put his feet up, to relax, because even though Katy also worked, she would tend to his every need, most of the time anticipating those needs before he even asked.  Everything seemed so perfect, so well maintained. And that was how Katy understood her Christian calling. She took the Shel Silverstein book, “The Giving Tree” as her model for how Christians should be, and she gave everything she had, everything she was, to the care of others.

There was only one flaw in this perfect scene of hers. Katy’s best friend at church and work, Samantha, occasionally drank a little too much. As Samantha explained it, her job was hard, her life was stressful and she just needed to unwind sometimes. Katy could understand that.  So she did her best to “help” Samantha by covering for her when she was hung-over some mornings and couldn’t get to work, by hiding the alcohol when she felt Samantha had had enough, by getting Sam’s kids out of the house when things started to get ugly. But what started as an occasional drinking binge began to be more and more frequent. Eventually Samantha lost her job and then her husband left her and took the kids. But Katy was there to the rescue even then. She took Samantha in to her own house, she tried to bolster Samantha’s self-esteem thinking that if she only felt better about herself, maybe she could get out and find a job; she took on more and more in her fight for her friend, in her efforts to continue to be ‘giving’ and supportive.

Samantha’s life was falling apart. Finally she began to realize it and decided she had to stop drinking. Samantha tried to stop, but in those first few days and the end of that first week she became so ugly to Katy, her kids and Katy’s family, that eventually Katy went out and bought her a bottle of wine herself just to “get her to normal up” as she said it.

At that point Katy’s husband Dan stepped in.  “Katy, Sam’s life is falling apart.  She has to stop drinking.”
“Yes, but she was acting horribly!”  Katy retorted.
“So, you’d rather have your friend’s life be a mess than to support her through this terrible time?” Dan asked incredulously
“But it’s not just for me,” Katy said. “I’m protecting you and the kids too.  She’s horrible to you, too, when she’s not drinking!”
“So let’s go away for a week or two. You know it will get better once the physical addiction is broken,” Dan said. “She is your friend!  She has to stop drinking!”

But Katy was so caught up in all of this that she could not see it. All she could see was that she had to support her friend. And at that moment “support” looked like providing the alcohol that seemed to calm and stabilize her. Katy’s life was also now spinning out of control.  And the life of her family was very closely following.

At church she found herself beginning to talk about Sam, even though Sam was also a member there. Of course Katy did. Katy needed someplace to process all of this. Who better to process with than those who also knew and were trying to support Sam. Katy talked about how Sam was “making her” take care of her in this terrible way that was destroying her own family. She talked about how Sam should just suffer the consequences of her own behavior. Katy talked and talked. But she did not change her own behavior towards Sam. She could not stop enabling Sam’s addiction. Katy could not say no. She could not set limits. She was sinking with Sam.  To use the book that Katy herself was so fond of, she was reduced to the stump of the Giving Tree, but was still trying to give.
What does this story about my friend have to do with today’s scripture lessons?

I want to start at the end of my story with Katy and work backward. While her behavior at church here may be the least of the problems, we have to start there, I believe, to get at the root of the issues. So let’s go back to Jesus words in Matthew. Jesus words here give us one of the few if not the only time that Jesus actually tells us how to treat each other within the walls of the church. Most of his words have to do with how we are to treat people who are not necessarily in the church: love your neighbor, especially the stranger, feed the hungry, visit those in prison, etc.  But here we have Jesus telling us how to treat each other within the fold, within the family. What did he say?
He says that if someone hurts us, or “sins against us,” we are to talk to that person DIRECTLY. Not to anyone else, but directly. If that doesn’t work, then what are we supposed to do? Bring a witness or two and talk to the friend DIRECTLY!!! If that doesn’t work, what are we supposed to do? Involve the church and talk to the friend, how?  DIRECTLY!!!

Are we supposed to process the situation with the witnesses before we go to talk to the friend? No. Are we supposed to let the church know what is going on before we go to talk to the friend? No. Here’s a harder question. Is there room here for processing with another church member? Of course, but in the company of the friend! There really might be times when we need to process more than this. Jesus doesn’t offer this, but I would suggest that a co-dependents anonymous group is a wonderful place to do this kind of processing. Processing with a counselor is also a good idea. Is it hard to talk to a person who has upset us directly? Very, very hard. I think most of us struggle with this at some point. It is so easy, so tempting, especially when we want to support each other by listening to each other, to talk to other people about someone in the church or something that has upset us. It is really hard to talk to a person directly about upsetting behavior. It is especially hard to talk to them directly without processing the information with others first. Can you imagine saying directly to a person who has really hurt you, or even just really bugged you, the things that when we are angry or hurt are so easy to say to someone else? Can you imagine having to process the hurt and pain directly with a person who has hurt you before you even talk through it? Sometimes we don’t talk to a person directly because we think we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. But if we find ourselves talking to someone else about it, then clearly some talking needs to be done and that talking should always be done with the person it involves. I think for the large majority of us, this is really hard.

The listeners at church also have a responsibility here. When someone approaches us to complain about another member of the church, should we allow them to process it through with us? I don’t really think there’s space for that in light of this passage from Luke. What we might perhaps do instead is to suggest that while we would love to listen to them, it would be better to have this conversation if the person being discussed were present. This is perhaps even harder to do than confronting in other situations.  It is very, very hard. But it is something we are called to strive for in our relationships with our church-mates.

I believe the main reason Jesus asks us to do this is very simply that talking to a person directly about something that has hurt or upset us is respectful of the person, our brother and sister, who has hurt us. If Jesus was about anything it was about giving dignity and respect to every individual no matter what they have done or failed to do. When we talk behind someone’s back, when we “process” a person and their issues, we are putting ourselves in the position of judge, in a position of power in which that individual, who doesn’t know we are talking about them, or isn’t there to hear directly what is said, has no way to defend themself. That’s one reason Jesus asks us to do this.

Another reason is what we discussed last week, that the church is supposed to be about the spiritual welfare of each individual. If we don’t confront people by telling them when they have hurt us, or, to use Biblical language, when they have sinned against us, we are missing an opportunity to be about supporting each other in our spiritual journeys. Spiritual growth, growth of any kind, requires change and sometimes we need each other to help point the way that we need to go. We confront each other lovingly to let go of our anger. We confront to grow and walk together in our spiritual journeys. We confront as a sign that we think that brother or sister is important enough to deserve direct, caring, loving communication, and even correction at times. We also confront directly as a way to make sure we are accountable for our own behavior. When we talk directly to a person it becomes much harder to hide our own choices that often contribute to a situation behind blame.

Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The key words for Katy and for us here today are “AS YOURSELF.” When we start loving others to the point that we are giving up ourselves; when, like the tree in the Giving Tree, we have given our fruit, our branches, our trunk, everything that can give life, when we give it all to another person, there is nothing left of us to give. God does not want you to give to the point where you are spent and can give no more.  Giving, loving - these are life time jobs. We are not asked to burn ourselves out to the point of destruction.

Sometimes in loving, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King Jr., like many saints and good people in history, sometimes in loving completely, we do lose our life. But our job is not to seek out death. Our job here is not to become martyrs. Our job is to love God, neighbor AND SELF to the best of our ability. Loving self starts with knowing our limits.

I’m not saying that we should not strive to give more to others. We should strive to give more.  Most of us tend to err on the side of not giving enough, materially as well as in our care for others. But when we get to the point of burnout, when we get to the point where we feel we need to process by talking behind someone’s back, we are not loving ourselves as our neighbor, or loving our neighbor as ourselves since we are forgetting Jesus’ directive to talk directly to those who hurt us.

Fortunately for my friend Katy, she finally did get help. She finally went to a group called Al-anon, which is a twelve step group for people with loved ones who are alcoholics, and later she joined a group called “CODA” or co-dependent’s anonymous- another twelve step group. While Al-anon and Coda are not affiliated with any particular religion, she told me later that the main lesson she learned in these twelve step groups was the lesson we read today in the Luke passage. In Katy’s case, she learned to love herself as her neighbor. Katy discovered that she had been trying to hold on to Samantha’s love at any cost, even the cost of Samantha’s broken life, and that was why she could not really help Samantha give up her drinking. Katy learned the hard lesson that all of her “care,” not just for Sam, but also for her children and many of the other people in her life, actually prevented those she loved from growing. While she thought she was caring for them, in fact she was enabling them to stay dependent, in the case of her children to fail to learn care for themselves, in the case of her husband, to fail to learn to carry his weight, and in the case of Samantha to stay addicted. She learned that this was not love.  Love was helping them to grow. Sometimes that meant saying “no” and letting the other suffer the consequences of their actions. Sometimes it meant saying “no” and forcing the other to learn to do things on their own. Sometimes it meant saying “no” just because she had to care for herself too. This was not easy. Sometimes the other became angry, even threatened to take away their love. But she also learned that love so easily lost was not love that she really had in the first place. As the CODA saying goes, “People don’t love or respect people they can use. They use people they can use.”

Katy has not stopped being a giving, loving person. If anything, she is more giving in that her care comes from a place of gratitude and genuine care, rather than trying to earn love or approval. She has stopped giving in such a way that it keeps those around her from growing, that it enables her family and friends to be stuck in addictions and lazy behavior, that she herself is in constant burn-out. She is learning, slowly but surely, her own limits. As a result, she is no longer resentful to those around her for using her. And she has found not only real love between friends and family members, but respect as well.  May we all continue to strive for respect, love and genuine caring for God, neighbor and self.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Did it really happen?

I keep reading on facebook and other places lately a great deal of questioning about the validity and veracity of stories.  Did the "deer crossing" lady really exist?  Did the story about the man who gave the robber his coat, too, really happen?  Did the story about the homeless people returning hugs really happen?  And finally, even, did Jesus really exist?  People are very concerned about the reality of these stories, or rather, their historicity.  People are also concerned about the historicity of things other people actually still remember.  Did the Holocaust really happen?  Did the moon landing really happen?  Are these things real?  Are they historically accurate?

Personally, I think all of these things really did happen, they really are historical events.  But to me the bigger question is not "Did this really happen?" but rather, "Is it true?"  And to me, these are VERY different questions.  A friend and fellow pastor has said to me on more than one occasion, "I don't know if it happened, but I know it is true."  Again, while I believe the above things did historically occur, it doesn't really matter.  What matters is the truth they give us.  The deer lady crossing gives us the truth that humans are sometimes silly, sometimes miss the obvious, sometimes not always brilliant and sometimes in our blind spots we make ourselves look ridiculous (but also can bring great joy in the form of deep laughter to many others).  Who cares if it was real or not?  I don't.  It gave me a great laugh, and that's what mattered to me.  The man who gave the robber his coat shows us the truth that sometimes kindness can make a real difference in the life of another human being, especially when that other human being is not deserving of that kindness.  Taking the risk of greeting meanness with love does sometimes change people in radical ways and has the potential of changing the world.  That truth shows itself again and again.  It just doesn't matter if this particular example of it is historical or not.  The truth of the homeless people returning hugs while the people who have a lot of "stuff" won't is that it is often the people who have the least who are willing to give the most.  This too is a truth that shows itself again and again in the world.  Did this particular example really happen?  Who cares!  We need to be reminded of its truth regardless.  The same with all of the other examples.  People can do horrible things, like the holocaust.  People can do amazing things, like the moon landing.  And yes, God comes to be with us and shows us a path of love and healing and radical peace.  God brings resurrection out of death when we look for it, when we choose to participate in it, when we keep our eyes open to see it.  Do I believe it was historical?  Yes.  But it doesn't matter to me as much as the fact that it is TRUE.

I think we get so caught up in the question of historicity that I fear we miss the meanings in these events. We miss the deep truths of the stories.  We miss what they have to teach us and show us about life, about humanity, about what is possible and what must be confronted and changed, about the very nature of God.  I would almost rather we all decided these stories weren't true so we could stop arguing about their historicity and get back to the fact that every one of these stories has meanings that can deepen and enrich and teach and lead us fully into the life God wants for us.  When we are so focused on whether they are historical or not, we miss the messages God gives us through these awesome events; through the beautiful, the horrible, the precious and amazing, the warnings of what can happen and what can be, and the possibilities of what we can do with God and with one another.

Look deeper.

Look beyond what happened or didn't happen.

Instead look for truth.

Our stories, historical or not, are full of truths.  Thanks be.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Taking Offense and Turning it to Good

Genesis 45:1-28, Matthew 15:10-28

What do we take offense at?  What do you take offense at?
Now, a more important question that I don’t need you to answer, but just ponder to yourself for a few minutes: Does it help to take offense?  Do problems get solved?  Injustices corrected?
In the face of injustices, sometimes it feels like there are only two responses.  The first is to get angry.  And the second is to turn that anger inwards and to just accept the pain and injustices that come our way, often accompanied by a sense of helplessness or even hopelessness.  Anger often involves lashing out.  And one or both of these responses may include walking away, leaving the situation that has offended us.  Sometimes anger can make a difference.  Sometimes speaking out the truth in anger, like Jesus did as he turned the tables of the money changers in the temple, will make a difference, affect change, challenge and overcome injustices.  We don’t know the results of Jesus’ actions on that day, but we do know that the story of his turning those tables continues to inform us, educate us, make a difference in how Christians understand their church buildings and what they can and should be used for.  But other times anger does not actually make things better.  When anger is not accompanied by something productive, like ideas about how to change things, a direction for ways in which something might be done differently, or an offer of help for ways in which something could be done differently, then it tends to also be simply destructive.  And that other option of just accepting the injustices?  Of walking away?  That doesn’t help either.  Walking away doesn’t make things better.  And as Christians we are called to do something about injustices and to change the pain or cruelty that we experience or witness.
But what I would like to propose today is that there is at least one other way to deal with injustices, both personal and communal.  Today’s scriptures gave us two stories.  The first is the story of Joseph.  The kids showed us this story in their production of Joseph: from the Pit to the Palace.  But for any who might have missed it, Joseph was not very popular with his brothers.  He was favored by his father, which led to his brothers not liking him very much at all.  But he also chose to share with his brothers that he had had dreams of them bowing down to him.  This, too, failed to make him a very popular member of the family.  So the brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him as a slave to Ishmaelite traders, telling their father he had been killed.  This was an amazing injustice that lead Joseph into slavery, and then into prison.  Eventually he ended up as Pharaoh’s helper – in charge of Egypt’s land.  But not before a great deal of suffering had taken place.  How did he feel towards his brothers?  How did he handle all that had been done to him?  How did he treat those who had almost killed him and sent him to a life they knew would be horrible?  When they came to him begging for food, not recognizing him, what did he do?  Here was the perfect opportunity to get his revenge, to act out in anger and revenge.  He could have turned them away.  He could have announced, “as you did to me, so I do to you” and refuse to give them food.  He could have locked them up, or sold them as slaves.  And truthfully, he didn’t let them off easy.  He wanted to be sure they had changed.  But once he had seen that their hearts had changed, that they were no longer the young men who had done this terrible thing to him, he forgave them and acted towards them with grace and love, providing food during the famine, rescuing those who had wanted him dead, providing for these his torturers for years – caring even for those who had hurt him so badly, recognizing and remembering that in the end the path they forced him down, while not an easy one, led to life for all of them.
In the gospel lesson for today we have two examples given to us of ways to respond to things we don’t like.  We first have the Pharisees.  They are offended by what Jesus says and they react with OFFENSE.  They react by being angry, by pulling away, by plotting his destruction, and in the end by having him put to death.  In contrast we have the Canaanite woman who asks for help for her daughter.  Even though Jesus first ignores her and then insults her, she, in great contrast to the Pharisees, does NOT choose to act with offense.  Instead she acts with gentle, non-attacking, straight-forward persuasion.  She does not get angry.  But neither does she crumple, give up, or walk away.  Instead she offers a different perspective.  The Pharisees became offended but nothing came of that reaction of offense except, in the end, the crucifixion of an innocent man.  They did not get Jesus’ attention by acting offended.  And they certainly didn’t persuade him to change his tactics or change his mission or his approach or anything.  Jesus’ response when his disciples mentioned the Pharisees offense was to tell the disciples to leave them alone.  “The blind are leading the blind,” he said. Their offense came to nothing except anger and pain for themselves, and dismissal by Jesus.  But in contrast, the woman who chose to not act with offense, the woman who instead gently but persistently chose not to leave, not to act in anger, not to get mad NOR to just accept what came her way and in helplessness to walk away, the woman who instead showed up and asked for what she wanted with determination but again without becoming angry – this woman, THIS woman got what she wanted, challenged Jesus and changed his approach to her and to all the other gentiles who followed in the gospels.
How do we respond when people offend us?  Do we pick up our toys and go home?  Do we feel helpless and hopeless?  Do we act out in anger?  Or can we choose this other way, speaking our truth in peace, with determination but also without attacking, without rancor, perhaps with humor and with the simple but powerful act of being present?
I read in the news that a high school student in Tennessee was suspended this last week for saying “bless you” to another kid when he sneezed.  Apparently the teacher was offended by this and considered it an infringement on the separation of church and state.  While I personally believe very strongly in a separation of church and state, the purpose of that separation is to allow each person to practice and live out their own faiths, whatever they may be.  To suspend a person for an act of kindness that originated from their faith (and that’s assuming that it wasn’t just a flippant automatic response, which is also a possibility), is to fail to understand the purpose and reasoning behind a separation of church and state.  It is, instead to impose on an individual rules about where and how they can express their faith, the exact opposite of what the separation was intended to do.  Putting my strong opinions about this aside, a teacher’s offense at an act of kindness will no doubt have lasting negative effects on those around her.  Already, the community has become more divided around this issue.  Instead of people talking to each other, listening to each other and growing in that listening, people are entrenching in their own opinions and acting out with anger, with aggression, with attacking, accusing, hurtful words.  An act of kindness has become the center of a controversy that has turned people bitter, angry, has made enemies out of friends and created a stubbornness and unwillingness to hear each other that will be HARD to overcome.  I wonder what would have happened if, instead of suspending the girl, the teacher had used the moment to open a conversation about separation of church and state, what that means, how that should be lived, the history of that policy, and where it has taken us now.  People might still have disagreed, but if the conversation were set in an atmosphere of exploration, people might have learned and grown from it.
When I was in college I lived in a Christian co-op with 19 other students in what was the campus ministry center.  Living in this center involved a commitment to participate each week in one of the regular programs of the campus ministry center.  It also involved committing to attending a weekly potluck and each week one of us put on a program for the others to consider some aspect of faith or living out that faith.  The community I lived in was very diverse, ethnically and in every other way.  And while we were supposed to be committed to growing together as a community and as a body of faith, there were divisions.  There were smaller groupings of friends within the community.  One week, the woman leading the conversation was a white woman who had felt excluded by the rest of the community.  She led a program in which we were all invited to pick someone we didn’t know well and try to get to know them better.  I don’t remember all the ins and outs of this conversation.  But I do remember that about a year later, one of my friends, a Latino man, shared with me that the people of color within our community had felt the presentation was racist and excluded THEM.  I was stunned.  I was shocked because they had said nothing at the time.  They had left the community at the end of the year, found housing elsewhere without ever explaining why they left, without ever telling the community that they were angry or hurt or upset.  I asked Mike why this group had never voiced their feelings.  And he told me “we, people of color, do not believe it is our job to have to educate white people on their racism.”  Well, they are right.  As people of color, it is not their job to educate the rest of us on our bad behavior.  Women don’t have the JOB of educating on sexism.  Poor people don’t have the job on educating about poverty. People with disabilities don’t have the JOB of educating those who don’t.  It is not the job of people who might have experienced any kind of injustice to educate those who perpetrated it.  However, as CHRISTIANS, as people of FAITH, it is our job to act with love towards ALL people.  It is not an act of love to walk away without talking to people.  It is not an act of love to refuse to engage one another, even our ENEMIES in open and honest conversation.  Scott Peck defines love as “working towards the highest spiritual growth for the other”.  It does not work towards the others’ highest spiritual growth to walk away.  It does NOT work toward the others’ highest spiritual growth to hide behind feeling “offended”.  We are called to move beyond that.  To instead find peaceful, humorous, loving but truthful ways to be present and open and real with one another.
I will admit I do not always find this easy.  Not at all.  When Jasmyn received a 75% on her assignment the first day of class which was to have her parent sign her syllabus, a syllabus I did in fact sign, I found myself quickly moved towards feeling offended.  This was MY assignment.  Had I spelled my name wrong?  Why did I get a 75% on signing her syllabus?  But my decision to be offended started me off on the wrong foot with Jasmyn’s teacher.  Instead of being present, again using humor, or simply asking if there had been a mistake, I approached it with my bristles out.  This served no one.  Least of all Jasmyn.
There are so many things we could be offended by on a daily basis.  So many.  That person turned without using their turn signal.  That person snarled rather than smiling.  That person failed to invite everyone to their party.  That person wrote something that could have applied to us.  That person failed to remember that someone was gifted in a particular way and to include them in a project.   That person gave an excuse that we know was an untruth.  Well, again, we can find things to cause us offense daily.  And when we fail to speak up, sometimes those little things start to add up until we are so offended we explode or leave.  Hanging on to our grievances isn’t the solution.  But reacting with offense or walking away are not usually productive options either.
So what do we do when we are feeling offended?  Well, first I think taking a deep breath is a always a good start.  Remembering the Canaanite woman, remembering Joseph, remembering how others responded without a sense of being offended when they could easily have done otherwise, remembering our call to forgive, remembering our call to love even our enemies, remembering that we can do a lot more good and spread a lot more love by choosing something other than offense.  All of this can help.  But the bottom line is that I think it takes practice.  And looking at the good models we have in some people helps.
Ben Weir is one of my truest heroes.  He was one of the Lebanon hostages in 1985.  He was held for 16 months and suffered cruelly.  He is also a friend.  And truly one of the kindest, gentlest spirits I have ever met.  I remember one time when I was with him he was confronted by an angry attacking young man – “what kind of God do you believe in anyway?  You went over there as a MISSIONARY to try to convert people to a hurtful religion and you were punished because of it.  You got what you deserved.”  And Ben’s gentle, quiet, but listening response… “I’m sorry that you are feeling angry.  For me, my faith got me through that time.  But I understand that can be hard for folk going through hard times.  I would be happy to listen any time to what you have experienced.”  I never once heard him snap or respond in anger.  And even after his cruel treatment, he remained one of the world’s most respected advocates and workers for peace in the Middle East.  His gentleness permeates everything about him.  And through his actions he modelled for me, as for many, a person I would like to be.  One who chooses a different way.  Who listens.  Who loves.  Who sees.  And who shows up, no matter what injustice or offense is aimed his way.
My prayer for all of us is to find that kind of peace, that kind of wisdom, that kind of LOVE.  Amen.