Monday, February 25, 2019

To Love as Called, Part II

Matthew 18:15-22

Luke 6:27-45

Last week I preached on how loving one another is hard and involves being patient, kind and truthful.  I said that sometimes the being truthful part is especially difficult.  But that loving one another doesn’t just mean being nice, but really means being willing to help one another grow – which sometimes means telling people truths that may be hard to tell, truths that may be hard to hear. 

Well today I want to follow up on that with the other side of the coin, because, as some have pointed out, there are some people who, in the name of “truth,” are also nothing but critical.  Often these people are also critical in a way that is impossible to hear, and impossible to actually grow from.  And I just want to assure you that this was not what I am advocating.  Again, if loving is working towards the highest spiritual good for the other, we have to find ways to live in truth and peace with one another that won’t tear each other down.

Todays’ reading from Matthew is very clear that we are to confront each other when we have been injured by one another – something we’ve talked about not just last week, but other times as well.  Still, when we do tell the truth, when we do confront one another, we have to find loving ways to do this.  Because while the passages that encourage truth telling are important, we have more passages that tell us that first and foremost the job is to support one another and uplift one another. 

For example, Romans 14:10-13 says, “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written:  'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'  So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.  Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way.”

Romans 12:9-10 “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”

Romans 12:15-20  “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.  On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."

And, as we read from Luke today, Jesus is clear that we are not to be critical of one another without serious introspection, and self-reflection first.  We are to look at our own flaws first and work hard to remove them, before we ever even consider saying something to someone else.  Jesus still says that we do this in order to help the other.   “first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.”  So, we still aren’t let off the hook from helping one another grow, too. 

But again, we are first called to look at our own flaws, our own challenges, our own areas of growth.  These, then, can help us to help one another. 

 A young couple moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap."

Her husband looked on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hung her wash to dry, the young woman made the same comments. A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? "

The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows."

But today I especially want to talk about how we discuss our criticisms with others.

            In book two of  Anne of Green Gables series, Anne of Avonlea, Anne has made friends with a crotchety old man who is very critical of others.  (p.66 – 67)

“That old nuisance of a Rachel Lynde was here again today, pestering me for a subscription towards buying a carpet for the vestry room,” said Mr. Harrison wrathfully.  “I detest that woman more than anybody I know.  She can put a whole sermon, text, comment, and application into six words, and throw it at you like a brick.”

…(Anne replied), “The trouble is, you and Mrs. Lynde don’t understand one another,” she explained.  “That is always what is wrong when people don’t like each other.  I didn’t like Mrs. Lynde at first either, but as soon as I came to understand her I learned to.”

“Mrs. Lynde may be an acquired taste with some folks, but I didn’t keep on eating bananas because I was told I’d learn to like them if I did,” growled Mr. Harrison.  “And as for understanding her, I understand that she is a confirmed busybody and I told her so.”

“Oh, that must have hurt her feelings very much,” said Anne reproachfully.  “How could you say such a thing?  I said some dreadful things to Mrs. Lynde long ago but it was when I had lost my temper.  I couldn’t say them deliberately.”

“It was the truth and I believe in telling the truth to everybody.”

“But you didn’t tell the whole truth,” objected Anne.  “You only tell the disagreeable part of the truth.  Now, you’ve told me a dozen times that my hair was red, but you’ve never once told me that I had a nice nose.”

“I daresay you know it without any telling,” chuckled Mr. Harrison.

“I know I have red hair too.. although it’s much darker than it used to be.. so there’s no need of telling me that either.”

“Well, well.  I’ll try and not mention it again since you’re so sensitive.  You must excuse me, Anne.  I’ve got a habit of being outspoken and folks mustn’t mind it.”

“But they can’t help minding it.  And I don’t think it’s any help that it’s your habit.  What would you think of a person who went about sticking pins and needles into people and saying, ‘Excuse me, you mustn’t mind it. It’s just a habit I’ve got.’ You’d think he was crazy, wouldn’t you?  And as for Mrs. Lynde being a busybody, perhaps she is.  But did you tell her she had a very kind heart and always helped the poor, and never said a word when Timothy Cotton stole a crock of butter out of her dairy and told his wife he’d bought it from her?  Mrs. Cotton cast it up to her the next time they met that it tasted of turnips and Mrs. Lynde just said she was sorry it had turned out so poorly.”

“I suppose she has some good qualities,” conceded Mr. Harrison grudgingly.  “Most folks have….”

As Anne put it so eloquently, it isn’t the whole truth to just criticize.  And we have to be careful about judging others.  You know the quote, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind.”  Wayne Dyer. 

I don’t know if any of you know anything about William’s syndrome, but it is a disease in which the person who has it cannot be discriminating and instead just loves and trusts everyone.  There is gift in that.  But sometimes people become extremely uncomfortable with that kind of care and love from a total stranger.  There was a show on PBS that was talking about this disease and a mom was sharing that her daughter had this condition.  People who didn’t know that she was struggling with a condition would sometimes yell at the mother out of their own discomfort or fear for the girl, “Haven’t you taught her to be careful of strangers?  It is extremely dangerous for her to just walk up to someone and sit on their lap, or climb in their car, or take someone’s hand!  What’s the matter with you for not teaching her these things?!!”  And we understand their judgment.  When we do not understand the whole of any situation, it is easy for us to judge.  Who here does not have judgment about someone about something;  Something someone said, something someone has done, something someone believes, something someone is? 

I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the things that you judge in others.  Are there specific things or attitudes or behaviors that you find yourself judging in others?  Are there reasons why you have those specific judgments?  Past experiences?  Maybe it is hard to understand certain things?  As the Matthew passage tells us, even as the Luke passage tells us, in the case of our families, our friends, our church communities, and even others, there is a time and place for the gentle corrections that lead to growth.  But we have to speak without judgment.  We have to speak because of a genuine desire to serve the other.  We have to speak out of love.  If we aren’t, if we are speaking in anger, or judgment, or worse, in hatred, then we are not doing what we are called to do.  Speak your truth…speak with love….but try to speak the whole truth, including the good stuff. 

Psychologists give us a formula for this, a formula for confrontation which may seem hokey, but at least for me, I have found it to actually be very affective, very helpful.  It helps me to speak my truth.  More importantly, I believe it also helps the other person hear what I’m saying.  The formula is something like this: 1. You speak your care for the other person. 2.  You speak an affirmation about what is going well in the situation.  3. Then you talk about the thing that has upset you in terms of your own feelings and the way the other’s behavior has affected you.  For example, “I love you.  You are wonderful as a parent/teacher/friend.   AND, when you do x, I feel __________.”   

Today’s passage in Matthew follows the mandate to confront by telling us that we must forgive.  Forgiveness is also a part of all of this.  But as you see, forgiveness does not mean just forgetting about what someone has done, or failing to hold someone accountable.  Instead, it means dealing with a problem and then letting it go.  If you can’t deal directly with a problem because the person you are upset with isn’t willing or isn’t available, then you finally have to work it out within yourself, bring healing in yourself and forgive for your own sake.  As I’ve talked about before, our anger only hurts ourselves.  But most of the time, we are simply afraid to speak our truths.

Loving is not easy.  It involves kindness, it involves truth.  It is all the things that last week's passage from 1 Corinthians 13 mentioned: patience, faith, steadfastness.  But the author of love itself is there to help us.  And that is good news indeed.

To Love as Called

                                                1 Cor 13:1-13

John 13:33-35

1 John 3:11-18, 4:7-12

Most of you are probably familiar with this First Corinthians passage on love.  Where is it most often used?  Weddings.  The first time a couple I married asked to use this Corinthian passage, I found myself thinking it was odd and ironic because this passage was written to a church that was undergoing strife.  Paul is talking to a congregation in which the members are fighting with each other and Paul is trying to tell them how, in the midst of their discord and disharmony, they are still called to love and care for one another.  He says in the midst of your anger, in the midst of your dislike, even, you are called to find patience, and humility, you are called to be truthful, to trust and hope and persevere and work towards harmony.  You are called in the midst of pain to avoid self-righteousness and keeping score of wrongs.  And twenty years ago, I thought, what an odd thing that a couple in the height of new love, in the high of falling in love, would choose a passage in which they are being lectured on how to survive, how to be loving, in the midst of pain and strife and struggle.
But the more I have worked with this passage, and no doubt with the longer I’ve lived through a marriage, a divorce and now in another marriage, I have come to see it as the perfect wedding passage, for exactly the reason that it was written to a congregation in strife.  For no marriage, no matter how ideal, is without conflict or difficulties.  No marriage should be without conflict because we are called to come to every relationship honestly and wholly ourselves.  That honesty will necessarily lead to differences with others.  Those differences will cause disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements will cause strife.
           But obviously, it is not just in marriage that we are called to work through conflict and find ways to love one another.  And as this passage and all of scripture shows us, learning to truly love others is not easy.  It is not easy.  Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  I love this definition and want to read it to you again.  Love, according to Peck, is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  This definition says several things which I think are valuable, two of which I want to point out today.  First, love is an action exercised by the will.  Love, in the biblical understanding of the word, is not a feeling, it is not a liking. It is a decision and then an act of the will.  We care for one another, we love one another not by feeling strongly about them, but by acting in the other’s best interest.  Secondly, this definition tells us that the highest end of love, according to Scott Peck, is growth - Spiritual growth.  We love by caring for and wanting the best growth for the person to whom we are extending love.  Notice that by this definition, acting loving does not mean making the other comfortable.  It does not mean flattering the other.  It does not mean making nice.  It does not mean leaving uncomfortable situations, either.  Is it loving to walk away from difficult people?  It isn’t loving towards those difficult people.
          We often hide our unloving behavior under the guise of “politeness.”  Of course, there are noted exceptions.  Have any of you seen the PBS miniseries of Jane Eyre that was originally aired about eight years ago, or even read the book?  In both I was struck by Jane’s refusal to lie to Mr. Rochester when he wanted to be flattered.  “Am I handsome, Jane?”  He asks.  “Not in the least,” she answered.  In the book, even more than in the movie, Jane is committed to Mr. Rochester’s highest growth, highest spiritual good, without regard of whether it might cause Mr. Rochester to care for her less, or whether her comments might hurt his feelings.  One conversation in particular struck me.  Mr. Rochester admitted to Jane that he had done a great wrong.  For many of us today, this would have been a solicitation for us to be comforting to the one who did the wrong.  “Oh, no, you aren’t wrong.” or “What you did isn’t as bad as you think.” Or, “Well, I’m sure it all worked out okay.” Or, “Even if it was bad, it’s okay because you didn’t really mean to hurt so-and-so.  And you’re really sorry now, so it’s okay.”  But Jane, instead, does not deny the wrong.  Instead she encourages repentance, reformation, the making of amends, and the commitment to do better.  This is love, truth, and a call for growth from one another.
           Have any of you seen the movie “Borat”?  Well, it’s actually a very offensive movie, but still, there is much in it that we can learn about ourselves, and about love. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the character of Borat, approached different people using highly offensive words and behavior.  The behavior of those he approached was then recorded, and generally speaking, their reactions fell into three categories.  Some responded to Borat’s offensiveness by acting in kind with similar racist, sexist, offensive and horrible behavior.  Other people, people who would take serious offense at the ideas Borat expressed, were simply ruled more by manners, or perhaps by fear of confrontation than by love.  These people allowed Borat to express his terrible offensive ideas and even to act on them, but did nothing to defend the people Borat would insult or even injure, did nothing to stand up for or care for those who would be injured.  Additionally, they could not see Borat as someone they were also called to love, someone they might help, however unlikely it might be, by presenting another view point, another choice of a way to act in the world.  While I agree it was unlikely that their expression of better thought would really have changed the Borat character, even if he had been a real person, not a character, God does not put us in charge of the outcome of our loving actions, God simply calls us to act in love despite all possible outcomes.  
           There was a third reaction to his behavior. There were a few people who chose a different reaction, a very few people who did chose to act in love.  When Borat approached women from a group called the Veteran Feminists of America, with sexist, racist, horrible ideas, these women did choose, articulately and respectfully, to respond to Borat by suggesting other viewpoints.  They acted in love, even in the face of horrible, insulting, attacking ideas.  And while the character of Borat did not respond to their loving behavior by showing change or growth, it is again, not our job to determine the outcome of loving efforts.  It is only our job to choose love.
             It is hard to act loving.
             Aikido is a martial art based on the principle of peace. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, said, “To control aggression without inflicting injury is the art of peace.”  It is in that spirit that he developed the martial art of Aikido.  It is a form of self-defense which attempts to respond to an aggressor’s attacks by moving the aggressor’s energy away from violence or injury into a movement in which aggression is diffused and diminished.  The word Aikido uses a combination of three Japanese characters - joining, spirit, and way.  It emphasizes one-ness or blending together rather than clashing.  Practitioners of Aikido attempt to join in the rhythm and direction of the other person’s energy, and in doing so, the aggressive action becomes more dance-like, it becomes a joining rather than a fighting.  Aikido then seems to me to be an amazing way of practicing love.  It takes a flaw of another - it takes aggression, or anger, or violence.  And instead of returning anger for anger, instead of seeking revenge or striking out, aikido works for the highest good of the other and attempts to show that anger or aggression a new way: to mold it, to turn it, to spin it into an act of peace, without injury.
           What would happen in our world if we genuinely embraced Jesus’ principles of love?  What would happen, if instead of responding to the violence of things like war with more violence, more hatred, more aggression, we instead committed to loving our enemies and working towards their highest growth and highest gain?  What if we found ways to take negative, aggressive energy and use it towards genuine acts of peace, if our goal in acting was that we “controlled aggression without inflicting injury?”  If we are truly about loving the other, loving our enemy, then we cannot respond to aggression with more aggression.  It is not loving to try to hurt anyone, anytime, anyway.  How do we act with love both towards those we would defend and our enemies whom we are also called to love?  Turning the other cheek, loving our enemy, turning aggression into something else, something beautiful, something unifying, something graceful may be the challenge we are called to as we are called to love one another.  It is hard to act loving.
           While I don’t really enjoy watching American Idol, there was a time, fifteen years ago or so, when it was often on in my house, through no choice of my own, so I ended up watching a number of episodes.  On one of these American Idol evenings, we watched auditions that took place in Birmingham Alabama.  One of the interesting things that seemed to separate out the contestants in Birmingham from those in other places was their responses to the comments of the judges.  In other cities, when the judges, Simon in particular, became rude, many of the contestants would argue with his critiques, or return insult for insult: they would strike out at those who had struck out at them.  But in Birmingham, many of the contestants responded to the critiques with simple, “Thank yous.”  And I found myself thinking that this was a case in which the loving thing and the polite thing were, in fact, the same.  Maybe they said “thank you” because they genuinely understood that they could learn and grow from the critique.  Maybe they said “thank you” because they were genuinely thankful for the opportunity to audition and for the judges spending a little time with them that day.  Maybe they were simply being polite.  But whatever the reason, their politeness had an effect on the judges.  Maybe not a long lasting one.  But again, we are not responsible for the results of our loving behaviors.  I saw surprise and moments of genuine reflection cross the judges faces as they had to ask themselves why people were thanking them, even for their cruel and insulting rejections.  What’s more, as the evening went on, their attacks became less cruel, and turned into more constructive critique.  And I have to hope that in the face of others behaving better than they themselves usually do, that maybe they might reflect on ways they could continue to present their critiques less hurtfully, less harshly, with more truth, and also with more love.    
            It is not easy to love.  It is not easy to be patient, and kind and truthful in the face of rudeness, in the face of aggression, in the face of hatred.  And yet it is our call: the only call besides loving God.  The passage we read today from John tells us this is the defining call of Christians: loving each other, this is what sets us apart from other people.  What sets us apart as people of Christ, as Christians, is how we act.  Choosing to love, choosing the hard task of working to care for one another and even for our enemies, that is what will show you to be a disciple of Christ.
          While not easy, the good news in this call to love is shown to us in the 1st John passage which tells us the reward for loving.  “If we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.”  This is our reward: we have God, God-self, living in us and making God’s love complete in us through our loving.  What an awesome thing.  What an awesome opportunity for us.
          So, go, love, and find God within you, building God’s temple, bringing love to completion.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Challenges of unkindness

        Last week we received two difficult phone calls at the church.  The first one was from someone who said, "I don't go to church.  I never go to church.  I don't believe in all that stuff.  But I'm so glad you took down that flag because churches should not support people like that."  The call came in early.  Early enough that I was the one who answered the phone (long before our secretary arrived), and as he spoke, I could feel the anger and "fight" mechanism within me rising.  I was just about to launch into a lecture about the primary call of being a Christian is to love everybody, even those we might not like, which would have been followed by a speech about how Christians are called to work on changing ourselves and helping others, not trying to judge others while helping ourselves; but I started by saying the simple truth of, "We didn't take down the flag: a storm took it down."  His response was to hang up, so I never was able to launch my angry sermon...
        Then later that morning, my secretary received a phone call from someone in the community who was upset because we are having a swing band come and play for our concert series this Saturday evening and he believes dancing to be a sin.  Our secretary came back to talk to me about it and as I was whipping out my list of all the scriptures that encourage, and even mandate dancing as an expression of praise (mostly psalms, but there are others, too), he, too, hung up.
       Then this week someone sent us in the mail all kinds of "literature" to tell us why we are all going to hell for loving people who don't look like we do: might be different color, different gender, different faith, different orientation, different socio-economic class.  Apparently loving those who differ from us is a bad thing.  Hm.  Apparently the gospels aren't part of her regular reading regimen.
        There are so many different opinions in this world, different view points, different understandings of what it is to be people of faith.  And yet, every time someone takes the time out of their day to be judgmental, attacking, rude to someone else, I find myself more than a little flabbergasted, confused and, frankly, discouraged by what humans are: what we remain, what we have become, what we seem, inevitably, to be.  There are so many real injustices in the world: people being killed by other people, people being abused and mistreated and dismissed and blocked from full living by other people.  Why are there still people who waste their time being angry about things that don't hurt anyone else?  I wonder why, if they have all this energy to fight and to instruct, they don't choose to fight poverty, or war, or racism and why they don't use their desire to instruct to teach about loving, caring, and being kind to one another.  Why is it, with the limited time we have on earth, they want to yell at people, try to change people by bashing them over the head, upset other people about making choices like enjoying the life we've been given through dancing; when they could instead choose to make each day brighter and better and more joyous for someone else?
         I know we are supposed to meet unkindness with kindness, to meet hate with love, to meet violence with loving care.  Or as Jesus said it, "To turn the other cheek".  I know this.  I work on this.  But it is exhausting sometimes to have to swallow or at least just accept and try to allow the anger, hatred and attacks of others to just roll off our backs.  It wears me out.
        Still, when I am able to center, my first feeling about these folk is great sadness for them.  What must have led a person to believe that anger is the only way to make positive changes?  What leads a person to a belief in a hateful, judgmental god?  What kind of deep trauma makes it more important to someone to judge others than to help them, to attack people who are happy and doing what they love instead of going after problems that truly injure other lives?  What profound fear makes a person anxious about those they don't know or understand, rather than open to learning from them, growing with them and loving them?
        And then, from that place of centeredness and compassion, I find myself moving into a different place as well: one not of judging or condemning those who would judge us, but instead into a place of wanting to offer love and support and healing to those who are so broken that they cannot find a way to begin to "love your enemies" as Jesus commands us to do again and again.  It is hard to offer that care when those who would attack hang up or send mail anonymously.  But I hope that when I am in that situation in person, I will be called to re-center and to choose love and help instead of judgment and anger.
       In the midst of my angst about all of this, I found a poem called "Lo and Behold" by Ann Weems, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,2010. p 90)  part of which I want to share here:
In the land of Lo and Behold,

Where Jesus healed the sick,

Even on the sabbath,

And ate with tax collectors

And befriended prostitutes

And outcasts and children,

And cleansed lepers and stilled a storm,

And he told the people to love one another

As much as they wanted to be loved,

And not to judge each other, and not to worry,

And not to store up treasures on earth,

But to give from the heart,

And Jesus told them: Feed my sheep,

And he was grieved at their hardness of heart

       My prayer is not just for those who send and call these messages of anger, but for all of us.  Let our hearts, too, be opened even when we interact with folk such as those who are angry and attacking.  For it is only our open hearts that can have any chance of opening the hearts of others.

Monday, February 11, 2019

God's Call for Our Lives

 Isaiah 6:1-8

Luke 5:1-11

            Today we have two scriptures that both show a strong call from God to follow.  Unlike many of our other call stories, in both of these stories, those called also easily take on the call they’ve been given.  Isaiah, we are told, readily jumps up and proclaims, “here I am, Lord!  Send me!”  And in the Luke passage, we are told, “As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.”  Unlike with most of our prophets, like Jonah and Jeremiah, for example, in neither of these stories is there hesitation or even a moment in which those called think twice. And perhaps that is because the calls in both are so clear, so forceful, so undeniable.  In the Isaiah passage, he is given a vision of deep, complete and life-changing forgiveness.  And in the story in Luke, the fishermen have this amazing example of the abundance and life-giving fulfillment of fishing with complete success, after a long time of failed fishing, when they choose to follow what Jesus has asked them to do.  So both most of felt like pretty safe calls to accept.  One chooses to follow someone who can completely erase one’s past.  The others choose to follow someone who provides abundance for them.

            Have any of you ever had an experience like that?  Where the call was so clear, so undeniable and so compelling that you simply could not refuse?  These are not times when prayers were answered.  This isn’t about asking for something and having it show up.  In neither of these situations did it appear that the people approached were the initiators.  They weren’t asking someone to show them the way, they weren’t asking for Jesus or God to throw their lives upside down and bring them into a new calling, a new situation.  But in both cases, they were called in amazing and undeniable ways.  For Isaiah, his choice to say “yes” meant a life time of confronting injustices and declaring that God cares what people do to and for those who are poorer, have less power and fewer resources, those being treated unfairly or oppressively.  For Peter, James and John, we are told that they left everything they had: family, work, their homes – everything to follow Jesus. 

            Has there been a time when you have felt so moved, so called that you left everything in order to start something new?  There probably has for a few of you.  And for many more of us there have been smaller versions of this, perhaps.  For example, moving to a new country or across the country in order to start something new, not completely leaving behind family, maybe, but still taking a big risk in order to start something different.  It is still the case that immigrants often struggle unbelievable hardships in order to come here, risking everything in order to do so.

            It is much easier to take those risks, and to jump into something new when there has been a deep sign, and when there has been a promise of abundance (especially in a time of scarcity or deep struggles and pain), like Jesus gave to the disciples or like God gave to Isaiah with his abundant forgiveness.  But those just don’t come as clearly or as often for most of us, do they? 

            The call of most people we would consider to be heroes in some ways does happen like this.  A job shows up, a situation presents itself, and our heroes are those who step up to meet the challenges set before them, who may feel they have no choice but to respond in those situations, when they show.  I realize this is just a story, but when I think about people responding to a call that shows up in front of them, the Dr. Seuss story, “Horton hears a Who” often comes to mind for me first.  Horton was just minding his own business when he heard the cry of distress from a tiny person on a clover flower.  He could have ignored it, but he chose not to.  As he says, “because a person’s a person, no matter how small.”  He protects the people who are so small they can’t be seen by him, but only heard, from the elements, from other animals, from unkindness again and again.  He, himself, suffers pain and humiliation but he isn’t willing to give up caring for the Whos because he knows that to do so would mean their destruction.  He is the hero in the story not because that’s who he has always been, and not because he sought out being a hero, but because he wasn’t willing to allow the destruction or harm of these very small people that couldn’t even be seen.  That’s what heroes do: when they stand up for injustices, they often are standing up for those whom we would see as “small” or unimportant or not valuable.  That stepping up and standing up when there is an opportunity to do so: that is the difference between a hero and someone who isn’t.

            But while our calls may not look heroic, still, every single person has a call.  I’m sure you are all probably familiar with Frederick Buechner’s comment that call is where a person’s deepest passion and the world’s deepest need meet.  I always add into this that our deepest gifts need to be part of that too.  And the example I most often give is of the people on American Idol who have the passion for singing and see that the world is fed deeply by art, but who can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Our gifts must be part of any true calling.  And a true call does not usually leave us alone.  Most of the time God gives us more than one chance to say yes to those calls.

            As I was thinking about call, I was reminded of this page in Mitch Album’s book, Have a little faith (p234. New York: Hyperion, 2009):

It is summer and we are sitting in his office.  I ask him why he thinks he became a rabbi. 

He counts on his finders.

“Number one, I always like people.

“Number two, I love gentleness.

“Number three, I have patience.

“Number four, I love teaching.

“Number five, I am determined in my faith.

“Number six, it connects me to my past.

“Number seven – and lastly – it allows me to fulfill the message of our tradition: to live good, to do good, and to be blessed.”

I didn’t hear God in there.

He smiles.

“God was there before number one.”

I believe that is true for all of us, whether we are aware of it or not.  When we are really, truly, deeply fulfilling the call of our hearts, the call that God placed there before we were born, before we were made, before we knew ourselves that we had a passion or even a purpose, then it shows.  It shows in the passion with which we work.  It shows in the love with which we tackle any calling.  It shows in our joy and in the time we commit to our work.  It shows in all that we are and all that we do. 

I think about certain people I’ve met who are absolutely doing the work of a calling.  It doesn’t actually matter what the work is.  You can see it in a person.  My kids had a preschool teacher who was so incredibly gifted at her work.  She loved the kids, the kids loved her, and that love and care shone from her on a daily basis.  A real estate person I knew years ago absolutely loved helping people find homes that would work for them. She did her work with passion and joy.

How do you tell the difference between something you just simply love to do and a real call?  I think it comes down to whether or not the particular task you are doing does, indeed, meet a need of the world.  Does the task you are doing just serve you?  Or does it really help people, feed people, care for people, provide for them?  Even the real estate agent I mentioned: she took her work as a call: she worked hard to make sure that people found houses that they could afford but that also would serve them long term.  She didn’t hesitate to tell people, even if it meant loss of a sale for her, when she thought the neighborhood was questionable or the house wouldn’t grow with a growing family.  She didn’t hesitate to give realtor discounts if she thought it would help a family get into a house that would work for them.  She really saw her work as a call and she lived that out fully.

That doesn’t mean that when we are following a call, we are happy all the time.  It doesn’t mean that our work is easy all the time.  In the movie, Keeping the Faith, there is a wonderful conversation between a young priest and an older priest.  The young priest doubts his call into the priesthood after falling in love with a woman who is his friend.  Nothing happened between the two, but he found that the very fact of falling in love made him doubt a call that included celibacy.  He said to his older priest mentor, “If she had kissed me back, I would have given it all up.  She didn’t, but I keep thinking about what you said in the seminary that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself doing anything else you should do that.”

The older priest responded, “Well that’s my recruitment speech which is good when you are starting out because it makes you feel like a marine!  But the truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one that you could be.  If you’re a priest or if you marry a woman, it is the same challenge.  You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it is a choice that you make again and again and again.  I’ve been a priest over 40 years, and I fall in love at least once every decade.”

That is part of call too – those doubts, those times of struggle.  The older priest in the movie went on to say that God would give the younger priest his answer.  And I think that in times of doubt, God ultimately does give us answers: but often the answer comes in the form of a deeper question: what do I do, what can I do, that serves God and God’s people the most?  Where do we find God the most in our work, our tasks, our lives? Where is our passion and gifts that meet the world’s deepest needs?  And how do we do that work to the best of our ability?

Josie Jones was a very rich woman who felt and answered God’s call to serve the homeless population in Oakland.  She felt certain that God was calling her to do so out of her own resources.  So, she gave everything that she had and opened a transitional house for homeless women trying to move out and beyond their situation.  She got them into job training programs, enrolled in school, she helped them to take control of their lives and to move permanently from homelessness into full and productive living.  When Josie heard this call, she had everything.  She had a huge mansion and very nice cars.  She had a good job as a lawyer, but she was also independently wealthy and very, very comfortable.  Still, she heard God’s call.  And so she began by taking out her savings to being this program.  But as she served and worked with these women, she ended up giving more and more to fund it.  She did not want to take funds from government grants because she found that most grants came with a great deal of caveats, demanding a list of specifics that would not have given Josie the freedom she needed to really serve, empower and change these women’s lives.  Josie became materially poorer and poorer, personally, giving up her cars, her large house, her beautiful clothing, everything, until she lived truly as poorly and simply as the women she was serving with her care.  But in becoming like them, she was able to serve them and relate to them and care for them in a way that truly

transformed lives.  Josie died just a few years ago, and until the very end she described herself as one of the richest women alive.  God had not filled her life with popularity, with fame, or, in the end, with wealth.  God had instead filled her life, daily, with visions of the resurrection as she saw new life beginning and transforming around her and within her: bringing her life meaning, love, life.

As I think about people like Josie Jones, I am reminded of an Amy Grant/Gary Chapman song that I have always loved entitled, “All I ever have to be”: 

When the weight of all my dreams is resting heavy on my head,

and the thoughtful words of help and hope have all been nicely said. 

But I'm still hurting, wondering if I'll ever be the one I think I am…

Then you gently re-remind me that you've made me from the first,

And the more I try to be the best the more I get the worst.

And I realize the good in me, is only there because of who you are. Who you are...

And all I ever have to be is what you've made me.

Any more or less would be a step out of your plan.

As you daily recreate me, help me always keep in mind

That I only have to do what I can find.

And all I ever have to be:

 All I have to be:

 All I ever have to be Is what you've made me.” 

Beautiful words about a life lesson to let go and let God so that God’s purpose can be made manifest in your life.

Sometimes we look too hard for the right call when if we were to relax a little and see what comes before us, we would know what it is we are being called to do in any one moment.  I think about this with my own life.  I would hope that being a pastor is a call: I’ve always wanted to be a pastor, I love my work, I enjoy almost all aspects of it.  But there is another part of my work that I also think is a call and that’s the one I want to talk with you about today.  The one job that I have never sought but that keeps coming to ME, is that of playing the piano (and organ), or, in particular, accompanying church choirs.  Even when I think, again and again, that that part of my work is done, it pops up for me again.  When I was serving my church in Ohio as pastor, our organist graduated and moved on to another state for graduate school.  My congregation asked if I would fill in until they found someone else.  Months later, they finally admitted to me that they didn’t want someone else and hoped that I would continue to play.  Then, as many of you know, I was asked this last fall by one of the choir directors at St. Bonaventure if I would be willing to accompany their resurrection choir that primarily plays for memorial services.  I struggled with this decision.  Even after I had asked session approval and had played for them for a few weeks, I struggled with this.  I’m already so busy after all… But it is an ecumenical choir and a few of our members sing with that choir.  One Monday morning when I was just on the verge of deciding that this was not something I could continue to do, one of our members who sings in that choir approached me and told me that the work we were doing, of giving music and meaning to people who were grieving, was deeply important, was a true calling from God.  In particular, he said, my using my piano playing in this way was what God was asking me to do.  I am sure he has no idea how much those words hit me, or that it has kept me playing for this choir.  Playing music is not the job I think I should have.  It’s not the work I want to say that I am “called” to do, and yet it keeps presenting itself: showing up before me in ways I don’t ask for or expect.

What are you called to do?  Whatever your gifts, your purposes, your life lessons, God calls you to use them, to see them, to grow with them and to work with them for the common good.  So my challenge for all of us is to look this next week, is to reflect on the callings God has for you specifically.  Thanks be to God for the prophets, the teachers, the nurturers, the servers, for all God’s people, since we are all called.  God help us to fulfill Your purposes for us.  Amen.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Taking Offense and Turning it to Good

Genesis 45:1-28

Matthew 15:10-28

Luke 4:21-30

               What offends you?  What do you get upset about and defensive about and irate about?

               Now, a more important question: Does it help to take offense?  Do problems get solved?  Injustices corrected by our becoming offended? 

               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 flipped over 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. 

For those of you who read my blog, you know that this week started in a very unpleasant way for Aislynn and I.  I was driving Aislynn to school Monday morning when a ridiculously large truck started riding my bumper.  When I finally pulled over because he was scaring me, he drove as close as he could to my car, nicking the mirror even, to express his outrage, and then slowed to a crawl when I got behind him.  When he came to a stop sign, he refused for several minutes to drive through.  Clearly he was expressing his anger at me about something, but I’ll be honest and tell you that, first, I don’t know what he was angry about!  I was driving behind someone else and it was impossible for me to go any faster, if that was the problem.  I know I didn’t cut him off since I was in the same lane the entire time.  Secondly,  this behavior did nothing of good.  It only succeeded in scaring myself and my young daughter, upsetting me for most of the day actually, and causing worry (since once I was behind him, I saw that he was dropping off a kid at the same school I was) that I would run into him again the next day (which, in fact, I did… so now I’m anxious about driving Aislynn to school at all).

               We see this same rage behavior in the Luke story today.  They didn’t like what Jesus said about it being challenging to bring healing and help to those in one’s own town.  They didn’t like it and they responded by driving Jesus out of town, which meant that there really was absolutely no way, now, that he could help them. 

               Our responses of rage, of yelling, of doing damage: these hurt people, hurt relationships, cause a lack of trust and a lack of honesty from those we are engaging who then become afraid of speaking their minds or being present in any kind of real way in the world.    

And that other option of just accepting perceived injustices?  Of walking away?  That’s frankly not very effective either.  Walking away doesn’t make things better.  And as Christians we are called to do something about real injustices and to change the pain or cruelty that we experience or witness.  When the injustices aren’t real, when the slights that offend us aren’t genuine, it does even less good to rage or walk away because we never have the opportunity to learn when our assumptions are wrong.

This morning Upworthy posted a story about a man who was offended by another man.  The offended man was taking a class and every time he approached his seat, this other man’s stuff was on the seat.  As soon as the other man saw him, he would say, “oh, you are here” and move his stuff, but, as the offended man said it, “He knew I would be there every day, so why didn’t he just keep his stuff off of my seat?!”  Then one day he was late for class.  And as he walked in, he saw that someone else was trying to sit in his seat and that the man who offended him by putting his stuff there said to this other person, “I’m sorry, this seat is saved for my good friend!” and then moved his things when he saw the author of the article walk up.  His offense had kept him from understanding that the man’s stuff was there as a way to save him his seat.

               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 first scripture reading was the end of the story of Joseph.  To recap the larger story: 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, ended in new opportunities and life for all of them.

               In the Matthew passage for today we are given two examples of ways to respond to things we don’t like.  We first have the Pharisees.  They were offended by what Jesus said and they reacted with offense.  They reacted 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 out of offense or anger.  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 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 faith, 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 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 woman 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, know that it is not 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 men on their sexism.  Poor people don’t have the job of educating wealthy people about their privilege. 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.  Education should be done by other people who have those privileges.    

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 from a situation without talking to people who may be unknowingly doing harm.  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 honest and real with one another. 

               I will admit I do not always find this easy.  Not at all.  I remember several years ago 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 wasted our time by refusing to use 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 anger or walking away are not usually productive options either. 

               We see this more and more in our culture, in our community.  The divisions between world-views and thinking is expanding in this country and becoming more volatile, more violent, and more permanently damaging.  We have stopped being able to hear each other or communicate in ways that bring learning, growth and understanding.  Instead we attack what we don’t agree with and end up increasing the divisions, entrenching in our own worldviews without possibility of growth or change, and tearing families and other relationships apart in the process.

               So what do we do when we are feeling offended?  Well, first I think taking a deep breath is  always a good start.  Remembering the Canaanite woman, remembering Joseph, remembering how others responded without a sense of righteous outrage 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 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 was 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.  He also 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.