(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.