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.