Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Respecting the Call

I have this friend who recently changed jobs.  Having been in academia for a number of years, she has now moved 1,000 miles away to pursue life as a housewife.  This has been a difficult transition for her.  Of the things she misses about her previous job, it is status and respect for her position that I hear her mention most.

And I've been rather miffed by this.

Because I didn't understand it.

I grew up in a family that was neither respectable nor respected.

First off, we were poor.

Secondly, my father is an alcoholic who was actively using drugs and alcohol through most of my childhood.

Thirdly, he was a violent drunk.  It wasn't unusual for the police to show up at our house.  Or for my father to have standoffs with them in the street, waiving a(n) (unloaded) gun at them in a threatening manner.

As a result of these factors, among others, it comes as no surprise that three of the four children also turned out to be addicts and alcoholics who have had significant trouble with law enforcement officials.

And when you come from a small town, and have a specific and easily recognized last name, it was easy to choose to be blind to the looks of pity and disgust that were often cast my way.

I couldn't wait to get out.  And I thought surely education was the key.

So, I pursued it.  I pursued it out of my small town, and out of my rural state, all the way to the glorious metropolis of New York City where I met people who thought my last name was something I had made up and which would most likely be found in a fairy tale as opposed to real life.

I met people who had no idea who my father was, or who my sister was, or who either one of my brothers were.  People who for a very long time were not aware that I had any family at all, because I spoke of them so rarely.  I love my family.  But I wanted to be known first and foremost for who I was, not for who I was related to, and this was finally my chance.

And then, I ended up back in my small town, in my rural state, in my home church where sidelong glances had been endured or ignored for years.

Except, now I was an intern.  Now, I was in a transitional position between congregant and pastor.  Now, I had status.  And that status brought with it respect.  And I was blind to it.  I didn't even realize it.

Until Christmas morning.

There is this family in my home church who are like royalty.  They're the quintessentially good family.  Good parents, good kids, successful, wealthy, and multi-generational.  There are currently three generations of them attending our church.  I secretly think they need to change their last name to "Jones."  As in "Keeping up with the Joneses" because they are those kind of people.  They set the bar, and no one can quite match their perfection.

I know this is all illusion.  I know that no one, and certainly no family, is perfect.  But these people are intelligent, attractive, wealthy, kind, generous, well liked, and respected.

And growing up in a church alongside that, with certain members who did not always seem so kind or generous only served to accentuate how incredibly poorly equipped I was to do anything life.  Because I came from that other family.

I know that this is an illusion to.  God equips whom God calls, and thus, I must be equipped, because Baby, I have been called!

But none of this was really evident to me.  It was always simmering just below the surface.  I was never fully comfortable around them, but I could never articulate why.

Until Christmas.

I was serving communion.  By intinction.  The pastor was handling the bread, as I refuse to touch it.  I was holding the wine.  And as each person walked by, breaking of a small piece of bread to the pastor's, "The body of Christ," and dipping it into the chalice of wine to my, "The blood of Christ," nearly every single person's gaze was on their hands.

Now, I don't know how many of you have experienced communion by intinction, but we're a church that typically passes the elements in trays of bread cubes and tiny glasses (think about 1/5 of a shot glass) of wine or grape juice, each person holding the elements until all have been served and consuming them communally.  I love communion.  I love taking it as a community.  As an entire community.  I love the ritual, and the intimacy of sharing it as one big group, collectively acknowledging who God is and what God has done throughout history and specifically in the person of Jesus.

But communion by intinction, though each person consumes the elements individually, is incredibly intimate.  A one-on-one exchange of blessing and God-ness in the body and blood of the Christ.  And though I'm sure it's more just the quietness of the act that leads people to stare at their hands, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them did so, because the intimacy of the act is uncomfortable.

But not so one individual of this family.  And for the record, this is the one person in this family whom I have always found intimidating to no end.  Utterly terrifying.  When I applied for ordination, I almost threw up when I had my interview with the deacons because he asked me questions.  When I preached my first sermon, I almost threw up because he was sitting in the audience.  When I was pulpit supply for the first time, I wanted to cry because I was so stressed about doing it on my own for the first time.  And because he was in the audience.

There are reasons for this.  And I know what they are.  But this is not the forum in which to discuss them.

The point is that when I served communion to this member of the royal family, he made eye contact.  He caught my gaze and held it, while I served him the wine, and uttered, "The blood of Christ," softly to him.  And he smiled at me through the process.

And I felt accepted.  I felt respected.  I felt affirmed.  More than any of that, I felt validated.  I felt as though he was recognizing my authority as a person in a pastoral position within the church.  And my throat tightened and the corners of my eyes pricked with tears.

I had no idea that some part of wanted this family's approval.  They are, after all, the royalty of our little rural church.

Suddenly I had it.  And I wasn't sure what to do with it.  Or why it meant so much.  But it made me think maybe I can do this.  Maybe answering the call wasn't a mistake.  Maybe someone who has known me whole life can see in me what those who have known me only a few years are convinced of: that those whom God calls, God equips; and I'm equipped, because, Baby, I have been called!

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Response

I feel blessed today.

Actually, I feel blessed almost every day.

And in feeling blessed, there is nothing I enjoy more in life than passing those blessings on, in blessing others.

I have come to realize that in the wider world, this is unusual.

Not so in my corner of the world, by any means.  And so it confuses me when people are astounded by acts of kindness and generosity.  Doesn't everybody do this kind of thing?  Doesn't everyone seek to bless others?  Don't all people attempt to meet the deficit of others by giving from their own abundance?  Well, don't they?

Apparently not.

And the first time I realized this was when I was catapulted to the upper echelons of friendship by . . . giving someone a ride to a funeral.  It was a bit of a drive, Manhattan, NY to Delaware.  But seriously, I was in graduate school and I only had one class that day.  I skipped it, hopped behind the wheel of a car and drove.  All I really missed out on was a lecture and time to do homework.

Those of you who know me at all know that means I missed a lecture and time reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince again in anticipation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release a few short months hence.  Seriously, who has time to study when there's good literature available for reading?

But this blew people away.  First, the friend I drove to Delaware felt that this put him forever in my debt.  Second, everyone I was introduced to by this friend after the fact said, "Oh!  You're MB...  P told us all about you!  What you did for him...that's just...it's amazing!  I mean, who does that kind of thing!?  I don't know anyone who would do something like that for another person."

Seriously, who are you people?  And how have you been so deprived of acts of kindness that driving a person to a funeral makes that kind of impact?

When I was finishing up my Master's degree, I had a friend who regularly told me how unusual I am.

Now, for the record, I consider myself a pretty thoroughly average individual.  I figure I'm about as average as you're likely to find anywhere in the world.  And while it's true that I have certain gifts and skills of a highly unusual nature, I figure my core, my center, who I am in my heart of hearts isn't anything particularly unusual.

When my grad school friend would remark about how extraordinary I am, I accepted it graciously, but figured, "Well, sure.  But everyone is extraordinary.  Anyone, provided the right circumstances, would resopnd in precisely the same way."  Wouldn't they?

And I guess I'm coming to realize that this is not necessarily the case.

Some background:

I grew up in the great state of Iowa.  In a rural community.  Of 50.  Yep, that's a period after that zero.  Not 50,000 as some unfamiliar with Iowa have assumed.  Just 50.

I grew up attending a conservative congregation in a liberal denomination.

I grew up in an aloholic household rife with abuse--physical, emotional, sexual.

I grew up as a welfare kid.  Free school lunches.  Food stamps.  Section 8 housing.  Title 19 Medicaid.

I grew up in poverty, a house where there was never enough.

Yet, somehow, I grew up in a home that operated from an economy of plenty rather than an economy of want.

Part of that is due in no small measure to the extraordinary people in our church.

One year, my father was arrested for drunk driving the morning of my birthday.  I think I must have been turning 5 that day.  Of course, one of the downfalls to small town Iowa is that damn-near everyone owns a police scanner.  This means everyone knows everyone else's business.  And they are a gossippy bunch.

But this day, one of the women in the church gathered the rest of the women in the church and they brought over pizza and Pepsi and made sure I celebrated my birthday.  And they loved and supported my mother, too.

The people in my life during my childhood weren't always so forward in their support.  Often when it comes to family secrets, things that are typically considered shameful, they would not step in.  But they were there, in the wings, just waiting to respond if ever someone asked for help.

Throughout the years I've continued to be surrounded by people like this.  People who operate from an economy of plenty, often choosing to postpone their own wants to meet someone else's need.  People who know what lasts (people) and what doesn't (stuff).

I've striven to be this sort of person.  As one who currently lives in poverty but who is ineligible for any kind of assistance programs, it is not often that I have the opportunity to bless others with material goods.

Oh, I've got some skills in the kitchen, and for $20.00, I can make Christmas gifts for a whole legion of people.  And I do.  In part because I love cooking and baking.  But mostly because I love to feed people.  Because I love to meet needs.  Because it happens so rarely that I have something to give.  I delight in the opportunities when they present themselves.

It happened recently, however, that someone I know, and about whom I care quite deeply, was suffering.  The holiday season is never quite as bright as it should be for those short on family.  Add to this dire financial straights and things were looking quite bleak.

Now, it just so happened that I have an occasional job on the side that provides a very small amount of recompense.  It isn't much, and it's inconsistent.  And in the way many small churches run, it's never truly clear how much time will pass between service rendered and payment received.  There is simply no way to plan or budget for this.

And so it happened that while I was waiting for a check to arrive, I discovered that a friend was in need.  And as I had no immediate need for the funds--I was planning on sticking them into my savings account for a long-term goal--I began to pray about it.  I was struck by the thought of providing for the needs of another.  It wasn't much, and it wouldn't go far.   But it was all I could do.

I decided to do it.  Coming up on the holiday season, I said to myself, "If that check comes before Christmas, I'm passing it on.  The whole of it."

So, when I showed up to church on Sunday, December 11, 2011 and found a check, that's exactly what I did.  I passed it on.  All of it.  Because I saw a need, and I knew that I had the ability to meet it--at least in part.

Because this is what has been modelled for me by others in my life, through the course of my entire life.

Those who have loved me have done a greater service to the world by enabling me to love others.  And all of it is founded in word's of Jesus, which I'll paraphrase:  The Greatest Commandment?  Love God.  Love people.

But how do we love God?  By loving people.

Whatever you do to the least of these....

Seems pretty simple to me. 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We all carry the divine spark.  In choosing to invest in people, we place our hearts in the very center of God-ness.

It's not rocket science.  But it is awfully rewarding.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Success! A Hat That Fits!

I have a huge head.

It's true.  And it's okay because my huge head matches my gigantic man hands and my huge feet.

I have to buy men's athletic shoes, because I cannot often find women's shoes in my size.  I have to buy really cheap, crappy women's dress shoes, because higher end shoe makers don't make women's dress shoes in my size.

On the rare occasion that I find myself thinking, "Gee, I'd like a warm pair of gloves," I have to buy them in the men's department as well.

But hats?  Warm, winter hats?  Forget it.  There is simply no manufacturer out there who makes a hat big enough for my huge head.

Oh, I've tried.  Lots of time.  And it always ends the same:  with a red pressure mark across my forehead from the band of the hat, which, inevitably has squeezed my head until it's bunched up, slid up my head, and fallen off.

This experience, repeated many times over the years, had, I thought, permanently put me off the hat-buying habit.  Really, who wants a red stripe across their forehead, mussed up hair, and no hat to show for it?

Then, Friday night.

My parents and I were on our way to dinner to celebrate my mother's birthday.  In a recent dish-washing accident, the crock-pot had been broken, and so we stopped at a local department store to pick up a new one.

Now, my father decided this was the perfect time to find himself a new stocking cap.  I tagged along to the men's department to see what they had, knowing it would be a fruitless and disappointing trip.  After all, it's not like winter hat manufacturers have changed all that much over the course of time.

Oh, was I ever wrong.

Turning the corner, what should I see but this:



That's right!  A hat, in the image of a cow's head with attached mittens!

I decided to try it on just for fun.  And can you imagine my delight when I realized for the first time in my life I was wearing a warm winter hat that actually fit!  Sadly, the flaps are not long enough to reach the ends of my arms, so in order to wear the mittens, I have to keep my elbows bent at 45 degrees or greater.  But who cares!?

This is the  coolest winter hat EVER!  (In my not so humble opinion.)  And at $14.20, tax included, how could I possibly pass it up?

Yep.  I bought the hat.  The first winter hat that has ever fit my ginormous head.  And what a sweet hat it is.  I can't wait to wear it to the office on Monday.

Warm ears.  Stylin' good looks.  And it doesn't muss up my hair.  What a fantastic Friday buy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Christmas Wish List

Dear Santa,

As you know, despite popular belief, I'm not actually good with people.  Oh, I'm very good at socializing, and helping, and entertaining.  And I do TRULY enjoy it.

However, I have an anxiety disorder.  And that plays out when meeting new people en masse.  Especially if I do not have the opportunity to decompress before meeting the next batch.

So, Santa, this year, I'm hoping to speed up the "decompression" process.

As such, here is my Christmas wish list:

1 Sensory Deprivation Tank fully installed in my living room and enough cash in my account to maintain it.

That's it.  I don't think it's too much to ask.

Thanks,
Sunshine

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rejected Via Cookie

I baked cookies.

This may not seem like much to those who don't know me.

This may seem par for the course to those who do.

For those who do not know me, the next bit of information to this story will probably seem like no big deal.

To those of you who do know me, you'll understand that this next bit of information was the worst experience of my weekend.

The intended recipient of the cookies....did not want them.

Big deal.  Right?  Someone didn't want the cookies.

It was foolhardy to bake them anyway.  The chances of delivering these cookies in person was a long shot.  I knew that when I started.  I was hopeful, optimistic, planning for the possibility.  And it did not come to pass.

There was not any significant amount of disappointment.  I understand why a personal delivery was not an option.

So, I did what I always do.  I decided to send a care package.  All I needed was an address.

Which was not forthcoming.

I'm not really sure I believe the reason given.  History has taught me to doubt such responses.  I want to trust, to believe, to accept that it really is about not wanting stale cookies.  I really, really do.

But I don't.

I fear that the exchange of addresses at this point in a new friendship is simply too personal.

I feel rejected.

And do you know why?

Because a cookie, in my world, is never just a cookie.

A cookie, in my world, is an act of philea (φιλíα).

This comes, I am sure, as no surprise to those who know me.

The fact is, the person for whom I baked cookies, is a new friend.  We don't know one another all that well.  And so, this person is blissfully unaware that a cookie is never just a cookie, that a cookie is an act of philea, that rejecting my coookie is a fundamental rejection of an offering of myself.

I know that's probably weird to most of my readers.  I know that this will not make sense to anyone who does not know me really, really well.  I admit that I'm something of an odd duck.

Cookies = Philea?  Seriously?

Yep.  They sure do.

And after a long, difficult day that included conversation with a family member who is mentally ill--always a frustrating experience--and another family member rejecting the proper timing of a meal I had prepared as an act of storge (στοργή)....  Well, having my cookies rejected hit deep.

So, I curled up in bed, and I cried myself to sleep.

And try though I migh to tell myself, "It's just a cookie," it really isn't.

McG 1, I miss you.  You ALWAYS ate my cookies.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

And the Moral of the Story Is

Matthew 25:14-30

*****

Our gospel lesson today is another parable. Jesus seems to like this type of teaching tool. Tell a story. It has a point, but you actually have to think about to understand the message. It’s like the Aesop’s Fables or Little Bunny Foo-foo. The last line is always, “And the moral of the story is….”

In today’s parable, we read about a man who is going on a journey. Prior to leaving, he takes aside three of his servants and entrusts each with a portion of his property. Each servant is giving a share of the property “in accordance with his abilities.” To one, the man gives five talents, to another two, and to the last one. We are not told that any of the servants was given instructions with what to do with their portion.

Whereas today, we think of talents as gifting and abilities (our God-given Talent Auction, for example), in the ancient world, a talent was a unit of weight. Because a talent measured weight, the value of a talent varied. A talent of gold was more valuable than a talent of silver or bronze. Thus, assigned a specified value to a talent is not possible. Theologians generally agree, however, that a talent in this context would have indicated approximately 20 years wages for a common laborer. This is a significant portion of wealth the landowner has entrusted to this servants.

What we see in this parable is that immediately, the servant entrusted with five talents and the servant entrusted with two talents each go work, investing their talents and doubling their initial wealth. The third servant, however, chooses to bury the talent which has been entrusted to him, hiding it rather than investing it. Something is clearly going on with this servant.

Next, we learn that “after a long time” the landowner returns. There is no indication of precisely how much time has passed, or whether the servants were even aware of the master’s return. We simply know that he came back, and his first order of business seems to be settling accounts with the servants to whom he has entrusted the talents.

Now, the first one comes in and shows the reward for his work—he has turned his 5 talents into 10. This is a 100% return! This is ridiculous! I’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, every payday, I try to put a little something in the bank, and at the end of the month, I’ve made $0.12. That’s a $1.44 at the end of the year. Interest rates on savings accounts these days are less than ½ of 1%. The stock market fluctuates from day to day, but even at its peak, watching stocks rise, most stocks never gain more than a few percentage points over any length of time. Yet this man shows his master that he doubled the amount which had been entrusted to him.

The master is overjoyed! He commends the servant, declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” Similarly, we see that second servant has doubled the talents that were entrusted to him! And the master is equally pleased! Again he responds, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Again, there are many things about this parable which are not totally clear. We do not know where the master has been. We do not know how long he’s been gone. We do not know whether his return was known or a surprise. We also do not know what it means for a servant to “enter into the joy” of this master. We do know, however, that having shown themselves to be trustworthy—investing their talents, using the abilities they already had to do so wisely—they honored their master and in return were honored by him. The master chooses to entrust even more to them. “You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

Last comes the servant to whom the master entrusted but a single talent. The servant who chose to dig a hole in the ground and hide his master’s money. He comes before the man and is totally honest about what he’s done. “Look,” he says. “I know that you are a harsh man. I know that you reap where did not sow and gather where you did not scatter seed. And because I am afraid of you, I went and I hid. Here. Have it back. This is the talent you entrusted to me.”

This is a servant who clearly does not know who his master is. The first two take the talents and invest them. They make excellent investments with high returns. But there is no guarantee that this is going to work out for them. Any time we choose to use our resources, putting them to work, there is an element of risk. Whether it’s investing our time, our money, our skills, or our abilities. There is always a chance that things will not work out in our favor.

But in this parable, it seems that these servants did not worry about that risk. They appear to have had no fear of what their master’s response would be if they risked everything and failed. They immediately went to work trading their talents. There is no indication that they even gave a second thought as to what would happen if they returned empty-handed.

The third servant, however, demonstrates that he is full of fear. Not wanting to risk the ire of his master, he chooses not to use the talent at all. Instead, he buries it. He hides it. He chooses to not use the talent. And an unused talent serves no one.

The master replies with anger. And though there are many ways to interpret a text, and though there is no narrative indication as to the master’s tone of voice, I think he responds with biting sarcasm: “You knew, did you that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.”

I don’t think the master is really giving advice here on how to make low risk investments. I think he’s turning the servant’s own unfounded and unjust fears against him, and pointing out the fallacy of his actions. If the servant is so afraid of this master, this master is going to give the servant cause for fear. “You think I’m a harsh master?” he seems to be asking, “Let me show you how harsh I can be.”

Though the master is portrayed as angry, I rather think he’s deeply grieved to be so misunderstood by a servant whom he has trusted. Now, it would be easy at this point to say, “Well, sure he trusted his servant—with a single talent. He gave the others far more. How much did he really trust this guy?” Except, the mater gave this servant 20 years worth of wages. And while other two were entrusted with far greater wealth, each was entrusted with an amount “according to his ability.”

This is kind of like freshman orientation at college. A group of 18 year old kids are thrown in a room together and told, “Here’s an outline of the next four years of your life. Twelve credit hours—usually four classes—is full time. Most people take five classes. In your junior and senior year, if your academic advisor approves it, you can take even more classes.”

Everyone has different abilities. Someone who with a learning disability who needs extra time to read texts, finish assignments, and take tests is going to take fewer credit hours than someone who is capable of reading a book a day and finishes tests in half the time allotted. Each is given an education. But each is educated in a fashion that fits their abilities. If the first were to take six or seven classes in a single semester, they would likely fall behind and seriously risk their academic standing.

So it is with the servants—each has been entrusted with a portion of the master’s property. But each has been given an amount that is designed to enhance their experience, not overwhelm them with the responsibility of managing something far beyond their skills or training.

And when the third servant chooses not to use his abilities in investing the talent, but chooses instead to bury it, the master takes the talent away from him and gives it to the first, declaring, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.”

Inevitably, in studying this passage communally, the question is always asked, “How can those who don’t have anything have anything taken away?” Except, I think there is an implied thought in the master’s words: To those who have been faithful, more will be given and they will have an abundance; but from those who have not been faithful, even what they have will be taken away.

Everyone has gifts, skills, talents to invest. We all have resources. The questions is: How are we investing these? Are we using our talents, exercising them, and building on our skill sets? Or are we hiding them? Do we choose to bless others when we have the chance, or do we make excuses as to why we can’t or shouldn’t?

Do we risk big with thing with things God has given us, trusting that God will provide an abundant return? Or do we keep our giftings to ourselves, afraid of failing even in the little things? Do we trust that our God is a God who can work miracles and wonders and who is more interested in effort than outcome?

I know I’m not always good at this. I know there are times when I shrink back, when I shy away from trying something new, because I’m not sure I’ll succeed. But I truly believe that if we choose instead to love others, to keep the faith, to hold to hope; if we choose to encourage one another and build each other up; then we’ll succeed every time. Even if we never see a final result. Be encouraged today! The work you do for God is valuable! And the investment will reap a return in the proper time.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

My Jesus Is a Short, Fat, Gay Man

I consider myself more fortunate than most.  I have been extraordinarily blessed. At times, it simply leaves me speechless.

I am deeply and profoundly loved.

And I know what that means.  And I know how incredible it is.

I sit in awe, wonder, and amazement sometimes. Why me?  Why am I so incredibly blessed?

In particular, there is this man who loves me.  Oh, how he loves me.  Our relationship is special.  It's different.  And everyone knows it.  Other have seen and remarked.  "I love Tim.  You know I do," Meagan once told me.  "But your relationship with Tim is different from anyone else's."  And she was right.

Tim's partner of 22 years comforted me.  I made sure to introduce myself, to let Rob know who I was.  He pulled me into an embrace and said, "Tim loved you so much."  Rob knew that our relationship, mine and Tim's, was different.  It was incredibly special.

When it happened, an email went out to inform the whole community.  Kim and Michael came to my door to tell me in person.  They knew my relationship with Tim was different.  It was special. And everyone knew it.

This man loves me.  It is a love that is extraordinary, powerful, transformative.

I remember when I fist met Tim, I just wasn't sure about him.  He was the director of CPE and I needed the course for my degree.  I just wasn't sure who he was or how he operated.  I was apprehensive and simply wanted to get through the class so I could walk across that stage at the end of the year.

Our phone interview a few weeks later was simply the most awkward experience of my life.  I am not good on the phone.  And I do not, by and large, enjoy talking to anyone on the phone.  There are very few people, with whom I can simply talk on the phone, and you know who you are.  But the vast majority of people--awkward and uncomfortable.  I finished that conversation and thought, "Four months.  I can do anything for four months."

But then we met in person.  We had our first class.  It was all business, and I thought, "Maybe this won't be so bad.  He seems genuine."

And then, we met in person.  One on one.  Just the two of us.  In his small office.  With just a low desk lamp for lighting.

And my heart was heavy.  And my soul was crying out.  I was hurting, and I needed someone, anyone, to hear my story.  To know that I had made a mistake.  And to help me figure out what to do.  How to handle it.  How to fit this new fact into my oh so carefully constructed and fiercely protected idea of who I was supposed to be.  Because quite suddenly, I wasn't perfect.

And everything changed.

Tim loved me.

The biggest moral failure of my life, and Tim loved me anyway.

I did not have to earn it.  I did not have to deserve it.  Nothing could alter or destroy it.  Tim loves me.

Not perfect.  And wholly and holy loved.

How did I get so lucky?

And when I got sick, and landed in the hospital?  Tim is the one who took me to the Emergency Room.  Tim is the one who refused to leave my side for twelve hours while I waited to be seen by a doctor and admitted before being transferred.  Tim is the one who heard my whole story.

Sitting there, I told Tim who I was.  And I told him of my disappointment at suddenly finding myself alone on a journey.  And as I closed my eyes, I saw myself walking down a lane in a wooded glen, Tim walking beside me, and I heard Jesus whisper, "Tim is walking with you on this journey."

And when I told Tim of this vision, he said to me, "Just what you wanted: a short, fat, gay man."

And Tim told everyone "She's my intern."  And because they knew him, and because they knew what that meant, they treated me with far more dignity and respect than my previous experiences with hospital ERs had led me to believe I would receive.  "She's my intern," he would tell them, and they would look at me, and their faces would soften, and they'd tell him, "We'll take good care of her."

And so, when I sat there, waiting to be seen, they checked on me more often than was strictly necessary.  They let Tim stay with me despite the fact that had he been anyone else, he'd have been required to leave.  Twelve hours.  I think he headed home after midnight.

When you are admitted to the hospital for any length of time, they take all of your belongings that came with you and lock them away.  When you are admitted through the ER, you haven't necessarily had time to think through the process, and you end up having to turn over things you might otherwise have left at home.

The hoop earring that used to rest in the upper cartilage of my left ear.  I haven't worn it since.

The ring I used to wear on the second toe of my left foot.  I haven't worn it since.

The small, sterling silver, 2 mm band with a 5 mm square portion from which was cut the outline of a cross.  The ring I used to wear on the ring finger of my left hand.

I had turned over my shoes, my clothes, my cell phone, my earring, my toe ring.  The security guard looked at my finger and said, "That has to go, too."  And I slipped it off my finger and I started to cry.  I held onto it, and looked at the guard, and with tears streaming down my face, I said, "Please.  Please, can I give this to Tim to look after instead?"

"Sure," he told me.  "I understand.  We can have Father Tim hold onto it for you."

And Tim did.  He kept it on his nightstand at home so that he wouldn't lose it.

And everyday, for fifteen days while I was in the hospital, Tim made certain I had visitors.

More fortunate than most who could only have visitors during visiting hours, I was part of the elite.  I was Tim's intern.  Which also meant that those he sent to me were either other interns or other chaplains.  Any time, day or night, if they had a chance to visit, they were permitted.  Hours did not apply.

And when I got out, my extended stay having required me to drop classes for the semester, Tim continued to mentor me.  I was still his intern.  He still loved me.

To everyone else, he was a boss, a teacher, a colleague, a friend, a son, a partner.

He was my mentor.

And that is a different type of relationship.

Tim loved me.

He continued to walk with me.  Figuratively.

And literally.  Every other week, through Riverside Park, as Casey and Willy Wonka, his Golden Retriever and my Yorkshire Terrier, played.

Tim continued to love me.

Tim never turned me away.  He answered my calls, he read my stories, he held me when I cried.

That last night, five hours before it happened, I showed up at his class.  I needed a hug.

And though I had hugged several people throughout the day, I knew it was Tim's hug I was waiting for, it was Tim's hug that would heal the ache in my heart.

And it did.

Tim hugged me.  Tim held me.  Tim breathed with me.  Tim breathed peace to me.  And hope.  And love.  Tim's love for me.  All of it.  And it was hot and strong and smelled of iris.  And I ought to have known at that point that it was coming.  But I missed it.  And then I breathed in laughter.

I headed home, and Tim taught a class.

And five hours later, it was over.  Tim was gone.  He had died.  Suddenly.  With no warning.  In the space of a single instant.  A moment so short, there is no way to measure it.  He was simply gone.  His life here was over.  It was over.

But our relationship is not.  Tim is still with me.  The relationship continues.  It's simply different now.  Tim is still with me.  The relationship has changed, but it has not ended.

I carry with me the love he bestowed so freely upon me.

I carry with me the knowledge of my worth and value as Tim taught me, as only he could.

I carry with me the memories of who I was, and I see within myself the transformation, the resurrection of my true self, that Tim's love called out; peeling away the layers of scars, the scales that had distorted my ability to see myself as I truly am, as God has created me to be, as Tim saw me, always.

Not perfect.  And not needing to be.

Because I am loved.  Wholly, perfectly, holy loved.

And because my faith is an incarnational faith, I know that for exactly nine weeks, six hours, and thirteen minutes, in the autumn of 2007, Tim was the incarnation of Jesus in my life.

My Jesus is a short, fat, gay man.

And because my faith is a resurrection faith, I know that when I too have "shuffled off this mortal coil," I will see Tim again.  Because the relationship hasn't ended.  It's simply changed.

A transcendent love that does, in fact, transcend time, and distance, and even death.

How did I ever get so fucking lucky?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Secretary: Advice on Rejecting Women

I watched my favorite movie the other day.

More than being my favorite movie, it is, hands down, the greatest film ever made.  It's sheer perfection on the big screen.

Secretary starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, released in 2002.  I saw it for the first time in 2004.  I was totally hooked.

I now own two copies of the DVD.

For a very good reason.  One copy got packed away during my last move and is now in some box, somewhere, toward the back of my closet, underneath several boxes of other stuff I do not use on a daily basis.  I never expected to be where I am for as long as I have been, which is why it is packed away at all.

Wanting to watch it again, and now wanting to spend a solid week pulling out boxes, opening boxes, digging through boxes, re-organizing boxes, returning boxes to the closet, and suffering from allergy induces asthma for a month, I simply bought another copy.

I hadn't watched Secretary in several years when my new copy arrived from Amazon via the USPS.  Oh, heaven's delight!

Actually, the previous occasion on which I watched Secretary was when I was in Hawaii visiting my now ex.

He had never seen the movie.  I am absolutely LOVE the film.  For a number of reasons.

But the reason about which I am writing today is this:

Secretary tells men everything they need to know about how to tell a woman he is not interested in a romantic relationship with her.

Now, this information is demonstrated in a single scene in the film which is, without a doubt, my favorite scene.  It is a scene my ex absolutely hated.

I think it's one of the best scenes in the entire film.  He thinks it's the worst.

My response when watching it:  Thank God for simple fucking honesty!

His response:  What a fucking bitch!

And here it is people:

Well, first, let me set up the background:

Lee Holloway has fallen in love.  But the man with whom she is in love, Mr. E. Edward Gray, has rejected her because of his own feelings of inadequacy and shame.  So, she continues to see the man she's been seeing casually, Peter, because he's there.

It is obvious from the get-go that Lee is not at all interested in Peter.  She lacks any enthusiasm for him at all.  She is bored and invests no time or effort in the relationship.

And Peter proposes.  Lee accepts because, "I didn't know what else to do."

Later, standing in a wedding dress Lee realizes that she can't go through with it.  Running from the house, she pauses long enough to return the engagement ring to Peter, and goes to see Edward.

In the following scene, Peter comes to see Lee at Edward's office.  This is the scene that tells you everything you need to know about telling a woman you're just not that into her.

"I don't want you."

Four simple words.  I.  Don't.  Want.  You.

It's just that simple.

Direct.

Honest.

True.

It's just that simple.

I don't want you.

That's all you have to say.  No excuses.  No explanations. 

Excuses and explanation suggest circumstances might change.  Things might be different someday.

Except, they won't.  And we all know it.

But suggesting that they might, leaves women confused at best and hopeful at worst.  In the long run, excuses and explanations only hurt women.  They don't "let a girl down easy."  They dishonor a woman.  First because they're dishonest.  And second because they suggest the someday.

Four simple words.

I don't want you.

Someone said it to me once.

I appreciated it.

I felt respected.

I felt honored.

I walked away with my dignity intact.  No questions.  No false hopes.

I don't want you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wearing the Clothes God Gave Us

Exodus 31:1-14
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

*****

Once again Pastor Bob has decided to take off and leave me with a set of scriptures that deal with a feast. A year ago it was Lazarus and the Rich Man; in February it was Salt of the Earth; today, it’s a Wedding Banquet. For a man who has never eaten a meal I’ve prepared, he has an uncanny knack for leaving me with the food metaphors. Which is, at the very least, somewhat interesting, and may be an indication that I ought to play to my strengths.  

After all, our Exodus reading tells us that the Lord filled Moses with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge, and with all kinds of skills. Now, I don’t know about wisdom, or understanding, or knowledge, but I know, and I don’t mind sharing with you (yet again) that I have got some made skills in the kitchen. And I love it!

As I was reflecting on the scriptures for today, I was trying to find some way to get at them, to enter into them, to make them come alive for me as I read them. I was kind of at a loss. What do I know about weddings and wedding feasts? I’ve never been married. I’ve never even been close. A number of my friends are married, but I’ve been to very weddings. Time and space have, on occasion, prevented me from celebrating the marriages of those I love.

And then I remembered. I’ve actually baked for weddings, plural. Three, in fact. When I was still in college, a friend of mine was getting married. She and her fiancé decided they didn’t want to do a big fancy wedding cake. It really wasn’t their style, and they wanted to share their love of other desserts with their guests. So, I was commissioned, and invited to do whatever I wanted using as much chocolate as the check they cut me would afford. Now, the groom’s favorite dessert is chocolate chip cookies. So, I baked a couple. Probably 10 cookies, actually. Which might not seem like many. Except they were pressed into 12-inch pizza pans. 10 giant chocolate chip cookies! They were awesome.

And cheesecake. Chocolate cheesecake. And tortes. And French Silk pies. And truffles. The hardest part was delivering it all, in searing July 4th heat, from my kitchen in Buckingham to the reception hall in Iowa City. Fortunately, it all held up, and people feasted on some of the best desserts ever beheld at a wedding a banquet.

Seven years ago when another friend got married, I actually got to make her wedding cake! It was quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had making a cake. Pink Champagne cake, filled with raspberry cream, and frosted with pink champagne buttercream. Decorated with flowers. De-lightful! I can’t even begin to tell you! There are pictures of it somewhere. I’ll have to see if I can’t find those one of these days.

Again, three years ago, when another friend was getting married, she asked if I would assist her mother in the kitchen. She and her husband decided to have a mini, cookies and coffee reception before the dinner, so that she and her husband could have their wedding photos taken. An entire day was spent making her and her husband’s favorite cookies from their families recipes. I really do LOVE to bake.

And in today’s gospel lesson, we have a king who has prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He has invited his friends, and is expecting their presence. Now in the ancient world, two invitations were sent when it came to wedding feasts. A first was sent to invite the guests, to let them know that a feast was being prepared and that their presence was desired. A second invitation was sent out after the feast had been prepared, to let the guests know the time had come, and it was appropriate for them to arrive.

At the same time that the initial invitation was sent out, the host of the wedding feast would also send garments to be worn to the banquet. Being a party, in a culture where hospitality is a fundamental value, the host would provide appropriate clothing so that no one would feel ashamed of their dress or status and refuse to come.

So, here we are. The invitations have been sent. The guests have been informed that the feast is prepared, the oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered. Everything is ready. And those to whom an invitation was sent all refuse to come.

So, here we are. The invitations have been sent. The guests have been informed that the feast is prepared, the oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered. Everything is ready. And those to whom an invitation was sent all refuse to come. Instead, they go elsewhere, one to his field, another to his business. The rest killed those who came to fetch them for the feast.

So, the king sends out a new batch of servants. He tells them that the feast is ready, and they are to go out into the streets and gather all of the people they can find, and to fill the wedding hall with guests. And so, the servants go out. They gather all the people they can find. They present them with the wedding clothes, and bring them to the feast. The wedding hall was filled with people! It was time to party.

But then the king stumbles upon a man who is not wearing the wedding clothes. And the king asks the man, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” And having no answer, the man is thrown out of the banquet. He has indicated, by his dress, that he does not respect the king or the gift the king has given him.

Now, in the book of Ephesians, Paul compares Jesus to a husband, the church to his wife. If we are a part of the church, we’re all kind of hanging out at the party. And we’ve been given good food to eat and fancy clothes to wear.

And I sometimes wonder if we realize it. We have been filled with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge, and with all kinds of skills. And like Bezalel, who was given these gifts to honor God by building a resting place the Ark of the Covenant Law—the very thing that was believed to hold the presence of God—we are called to use our gifts, skills, talents, knowledge to honor God by building a world in which the presence of God is experienced by all. These, I believe, are the clothes the Lord has bestowed upon us.

And the good food, on which we get to feast, is being of the same mind in the Lord—having the mind of Christ. And in choosing this, we are truly able to “rejoice in the Lord always,” no matter our circumstances or struggles. We do not need to be anxious about anything. Because we can always present our requests to God.  When we do so, the peace of God will guard our hearts and our mind in Christ Jesus.  

And how do we share in this mind of Christ? By choosing to follow the directive Paul gives us in Philippians: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Do you know what I believe to be true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and worthy of praise?

These three simple facts: You are acceptable. You are worthy. You are loved. Just the way you are. And how do I know this? Because God said so. And once we come to believe these truths ourselves, we become uniquely equipped to use the gifts which God has bestowed upon us to share these truths with others. So today, may you know how truly acceptable, worthy, and loved you are, and may you share that truth with those around you, that someday the love of God may be experienced by all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

New Panties!

Yes, this blog posting really is about new panties.  And old panties.  A post entirely devoted to panties.

And since it's been awhile since I posted about panties, I'll just say it up front:  Panties are my favorite accessory.

Now, there are some, and I know SEVERAL who would happily argue 'til the cows come home that panties are NOT an accessory.  They are a necessity.

Well, I disagree.  And I disagree for one reason, and one reason only.  At one point in my life, I went an entire year without wearing a single pair of panties.  My friends who knew of my panties-eschewing, commando were somewhat horrified.  Who could possibly go a day without wearing panties let alone a year without wearing panties?!

Well, 4% of the American population, including me apparently.

But I didn't give up panties for any great love of freedom and breezy nature of skirts.  My reasons for not wearing panties are far more entertaining.

I lost my panties.

Not in a "Where did they go?" kind of way.  But in a "I've quite literally lost them off my body" kind of way.

I had spent 18 months diligently eating healthy and exercising like a fiend.  I had lost 165 pounds.  My panties were officially 8 sizes too big.

And I wear skirts and dresses with relish.

So, there I was, a fine fall afternoon, walking down Broadway in Morningside Heights, and my silky string bikini has suddenly worked its way to my knees.  I know that in another three steps, it'll be around my ankles and two steps after that in a satin puddle on the sidewalk, brown background and colorful butterflies for all the world to see.

What exactly does one do in this kind of a situation?  Well, I clamped my knees together like doing so was going to save my life, and I dashed, er hobbled, into Barnard College courtyard, straight into the first building I could find, to the ladie's room.  Sure enough, as soon as I unclenched my knees my panties were on the floor.

I stepped out of them, tucked my in my shoulder bag, and headed on my way.  It was a breezy day.

This is when I first learned that panties are not a necessity.  And if you can't afford to buy a new pair, they are quite a luxurious accessory.  And I'm not the $10 for a 6 pack at Wal-Mart kind of girl.  I'm a $14.50 a pair but when they're always on sale 5 for $30 kind of girl.

So, having spent the last few months diligently eating healthy (no more refined sugar) and exercising (hey, I've graduated from working with 8-lb free weight to 10-lb free weights), my waist band was getting looser.  And after a year and half, there were stains and worn out elastic and holes.

Thus, yesterday, I went shopping!  And I bought panties.  And it was a blast.  I found a great sweater and the world cutest cotton nighty, too!  White cotton, spaghetti straps, with purple and green cross-stitched flowers and hem line.  It was a very fruitful trip.

My panty drawer is now full of beautiful accessories that fit, and will continue to do so for another several months.  And when I put on a skirt for church this morning, I was sure to grab from the side of new panties.  Because losing your panties on Broadway is one thing.  Losing them at the Communion table?  Something else entirely.

God bless those new panties.  They stayed in place.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Side God's Standing On

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

*****

This morning’s readings are all fairly incredibly to me. In one, we read the story of the Israelites’ flee to freedom. In another, Jesus tells a parable of a man who is forgiven much, but is unable to forgive a little. In the last, Paul discusses what it means to the church body if one person eats meat but another only vegetables. At first glance, it might appear as though these readings have little, if anything in common. After all, a few thousand years passed between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus. Paul’s missive to the church was likely another decade or more removed from Jesus.

I believe, however, that these three readings have one very fundamental theme in common—which side of the divide God is standing on. In our Exodus readings, the Israelites have fled Egypt. They have been led thus far by an angel of the Lord. The angel, though, is no longer before Israel. It is now behind Israel, standing firm between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And a pillar of cloud which has been before them all this time has moved behind them as well.

This angel of God and this pillar of cloud are standing in a divide between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and they are standing on the side of Israel. The cloud is providing light to one camp and keeping the other in darkness, and preventing the Egyptians from stealth maneuvers and nighttime sneak attacks against the Israelite people.

Now Moses, in obedience to God, has come to the edge of a sea. The Israelites are cornered. An expanse of water before them, the entire Egyptian army behind them, they have nowhere to go. So, Moses stretched out his hand over the watery deep, and God drove the sea back with a mighty wind, dividing water from water, and creating dry land, on which the Israelites were able to walk to safety and freedom. A mighty wind all around them, the angel of God and a pillar of cloud behind them. God, is standing somewhere in this gap, and it’s on the side of the Israelites.

And the Egyptians, seeing that the Israelites were passing through the sea on dry land, a pillar of cloud behind them, a wall of water to their left, a wall of water to their right, the angel of the Lord their rear guard, the Egyptians follow. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly certain that if I were standing on the beach, at the edge of the ocean, watching an entire nation of people walk through on dry land, walls of water on either side, I’d be thinking two thoughts.

1. This has got to be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

2. There is no way on earth I’m following!

The whole of the Egyptian army, it seems, did not follow this thought pattern. Because they continued to pursue Moses and the nation of Israel, between those walls of water, walking on dry land, and with no indication that they gave even a moment’s hesitation. I sometimes wonder if this is because they were operating from a mob mentality—having lost all sense of themselves as individuals, they are wholly devoted to their Pharaoh and the cause their Pharaoh has taken up, and all independent thought has stopped.

Now, the simple fact is, it takes a lot of courage to fight and risk your life for a cause. But to do so without careful thought and without consideration for the lives you may be taking in that fight, lacks honor. But that is another sermon, for another day.

As Pharaoh’s army followed the Israelites, God in a pillar of fire and cloud cast the Egyptian army into a panic. God bound the wheels of the chariots so that they would not move. At this moment, the Egyptian army realized that God was standing in the gap between them and the Israelites, and they recognized that God was standing on the side of Israel, declaring, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting form them against Egypt.

And Moses, having reached the far side of the sea with the whole nation of Israel, obeyed God’s command, and stretched out his hand over the sea and the walls of water returned to their bed. The courage of Pharaoh’s army, though, left all of Pharaoh’s horses, and chariots, and chariot drivers awash in the deluge. The entire Egyptian army was dead. God was standing somewhere in the gap, and it’s on the side of the Israelites.

In our reading from Romans, Paul encourages the church to accept those who are weak in faith. Now, “Faith,” Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Those who are weak in faith may not be so sure of what they hope for, or so certain of what they do not see. They may not have the confidence to live fully in freedom, and thus, are more likely to hold quite stringently to rules and regulations.

The weak, Paul tells us, eat only vegetables, which in a culture concerned primarily with ritual purity is significant. The weak do not yet know who Jesus truly is. They are still convinced, it seems, that they are saved by what they do or by what they refrain by doing. They do not yet understand that it is not what you do or what you believe that saves you. It is Jesus who saves you.

Thus, those are strong in faith, must accept and not judge those who are weak in faith. The Lord, it seems, is sitting at the table. God is sitting in the gap between those eat meat and those who eat only vegetables. It seems clear to me that God is sitting on the side of those who eat vegetables.

The same holds true for those who set aside one day as holy as opposed to doing no such thing. Paul tells us that “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” There is no hard and fast rule for when we are to worship God. What is clear, though, is that we follow the rule of conscience, holding to what we have decided to be most important to us, and we are called to treat those who think differently with respect.

We are no to judge our brother or our sister. We are to accept them as they are, where they are, in that state of faith in which they find themselves. Strong or weak, we are all in this together. Those who are strong in faith, therefore, bear the greater responsibility to honor those who are weak in faith. And it seems clear to me that if faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, then being strong in faith is less about the intensity of our convictions and more about our trust in the Lord.

It has been my experience that those hold so tightly to the rules tend to be afraid—of doing the wrong thing, of speaking the wrong words, of appearing foolish or immature. Often those holding most tightly to the rules are afraid to have fun, to delight in the ridiculous, to let go of their notions of how responsible adults conduct themselves, are truly and deeply terrified that Jesus is not who Jesus claims to be. Those who hold so tightly to rules and regulations are basing their sense of self-worth and hope for salvation in what they do and say, not in who they are as one created by God, and not in whose they are a child of God.

And those who are strong in faith, who acknowledge that while they may make mistakes along the way, while they might not do everything just right 100% of the time, also trust that God is good, and the Jesus is the only source of salvation and so have freedom to risk big whether they succeed or fail, they succeed or fail for the Lord. And these, we are told, are called to bear with those who are weak in faith. God is standing in the gap between the freedom of the strong and the fear of the weak, and God is standing on the side of the weak.

Finally, our Gospel lesson for today tells the parable of a man shown incredible grace and incapable of showing any grace to others. Now, Jesus tells this parable in response to a question from Peter: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

Now, Peter, for all intents and purposes, is being quite generous. Rabbinic teachings during the first century indicated that you were to forgive those who sin against you three times. Three times and no more. Here Peter is suggested that we forgive those who sin against more than twice that amount! Surely this generosity of spirit that Peter demonstrates would stand out.

Jesus, however, indicates that this is not enough. You must forgive seventy-seven times. Now, Jesus is not indicating that you should carry a notebook with you and tally every time a person sins against you and when they hit number seventy-eight, you are to immediately retaliate. Rather, Jesus was using Peter’s own language—speaking in sevens—to indicate that there really is no acceptable limit. You forgive, and you keep forgiving, as often as is necessary.

And why do we forgive other an infinite number of times?

The parable Jesus shares next answers this for us. We are all debtors. Every one of us. We have all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We are like a slave, called before our king to settle our account. In this parable, you and I are the slave. God is the king. Our debt, those 10,000 talents, amounts to twenty years worth of wages for a laborer. Now, if a common laborer today makes somewhere in the realm of $40,000 a year (which was case in 2009), this would amount to a debt of $800,000.

And this slave is called upon to pay it all, immediately, or he, his wife, his children, and all of his possessions will be sold to cover the debt. The slave, however, pleads for mercy, begs for a little more time, and promises to pay the debt. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s quite unlikely this man will ever be able to pay this debt in full. And the king seems to think so, too. Moved with pity, he forgives the man’s debt. God is standing between the debtor and the lender, and it’s clear to me that God stands on the side of the debtor.

This is rather how God treats us. We are utterly indebted to God. God created us, loves us, saves us, and we have nothing to offer in return. We owe an unpayable debt. And God, out of deep love and compassion for us says, “It’s alright, my child. You’re debt is forgiven. You owe me nothing.”

And how are we to respond to this incredible grace that God showers upon us? Well, in our parable, the slave goes out and finds a contemporary who owes him about one hundred denarii. Which equates today to about $160.00. The man demands immediate payment in full, and though his debtor pleads for mercy and a little more time to pay it back. But the first man does not listen throws the second into prison.

Now, the king, upon learning of this incident calls the first man before him again and reminds him of the grace shown, and challenges his unwillingness to show such grace to another. In great anger, the king hands the man over to be tortured until he can pay his debt in full. God is standing between the debtor and the lender, and it’s clear that God is standing on the side of the debtor.

But what does it mean that God stands on the side of a debtor, a vegetarian, an Israelite? It means that God stands on the side of the oppressed. God stands on the side of mercy and justice. God’s interest is in the weak, the least, the lost. The Israelites were oppressed in Egypt and God stood between them and the entire Egyptian army. Don’t think vegetarians are oppressed? Have you ever tried to abstain from meat at a Sunday dinner in Iowa? One man owes his entire life’s wages and is forgiven, but cannot forgive a man who owes a day’s return. The oppressed turned oppressor.

God is standing between the oppressed and the oppressor, and it is clear that God is standing on the side of the oppressed. As the people of God here on earth, where are we standing?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Let's Matthew 18 This Thing!

Matthew 18:15-20

*****

Today’s gospel lesson is about how we, as Christians, choose to reconcile broken relationships. This is something I have a lot of experience with. One of my friends has told me that my dedication to reconciling my relationships borders on pathological. And she might be right. Reconciling broken relationships is of incredibly high value to me.

But it isn’t always easy. Reconciling broken relationships, as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 demands that we be honest and vulnerable with someone who has hurt us. It demands that we confront their actions and place ourselves at risk for greater injury.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with my best friend. We were standing around in her kitchen talking about a new movie that had just come out. Mama Mia. It’s a musical. She told me that she had gone to see it with a mutual friend of ours. I was rather surprised, as this other person just did not strike me as the type who would be really into musical. Turns out, he is. He loves musicals. And my best friend went on to mention some of the titles he had seen and loved.

1776. A musical based around the story of the Declaration of Independence. It was her mention of this particular musical that immediately left me teary-eyed. The astute observer that she is, she asked why the mention of 1776 had upset me.

See, someone of enormous significance to my life, me mentor, had been a Broadway star. He had been part of the cast of 1776. He had passed away the year before, and the mention of anything that reminded me of him always left me in tears. Because I missed him.

When I mentioned to my best friend that my mentor had once been in the cast of 1776 she immediately responded, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?”

Now, immediately, I stopped crying. I was shocked beyond words. And I looked up her and I said, “I would really like to believe that when you said, ‘Do you thing there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?’ what you meant to communicate was, ‘MB, I love you. And I want good things for you. And I hope some day you can think back on this person and the impact he’s had on your life, and you’ll remember him with joy, rather than sorrow,” because what I actually heard you communicating was, ‘He’s been dead for 10 months now. Get over it already. You’re grief is an inconvenience to me.’”

Now, my best friend, being the extraordinary woman that she is, listened to me. And when I was done, she said, “You’re right. I didn’t state that well. When you repeated it back to me, I realized exactly how that would sound to you. Of course your grief isn’t a burden or inconvenience to me! I do love you! And I do want good things for you. And I’m so sorry that you’re hurting. And I’m sorry that I hurt you with my words. Will you forgive me?”

And thus, Matthew 18:15 was fulfilled.

To be totally honest, though, not all of my experiences with Matthew 18 have been on occasions where I was the offended party. Believe it or not, and I know this will come as a real shock to most of you, I have actually, on occasion, offended others. I have sinned.

Now, let me start by saying that I am a bit neurotic. I have a very structured way of doing things, and a very structured way of ordering things. This includes who I allow into my living space. So, imagine my surprise when, while in seminary, I come home one day to a common room that has two strangers in it. One I recognize as a fellow student who lives elsewhere. The other is a person I’ve never seen.

This fellow student said to me, “Hey, my boyfriend and I were about to watch a movie. I know I don’t live on this floor, so I hope you don’t mind. But you’re totally welcome to join us.”

To which I responded, “Actually, I mind greatly. You live on another floor. If your floor doesn’t have common living space with a TV and VCR, that’s your problem. Choose more wisely where you live next year. As for tonight, take your movie somewhere else.”

Oh, yes. Definitely not one of my finer moments in life or ministry.

Now, this first year student, who initially appeared quite meek, informed me that I was being petty and mean, and she and her boyfriend were going to watch the movie there that night, and nothing I said was going to change this. And I totally respected her for it.

It took me a few days to finally track her down—having never gotten her name—but when I saw her in the library the next week, I approached her, told her how sorry I was for the way I had treated her and her boyfriend, and extended an open invitation to watch movies in the common room of my dorm floor anytime they wanted. I was met with a rather icy indifference.

This, however, did not deter me. See, remember when I started this sermon, I told you that one of friends believes I have an almost pathological need to reconcile relationships? Well, this is but one example, and an odd one at that, because I had committed the offense upon first meeting this person.

But something happened during that interaction, and I was determined to make things right. After much persistence, I finally won this woman over. By the end the year, we were regularly dining together, she and her boyfriend would hang out with me when he visited her, and we’ve become life-long friends. We still talk on the phone and email as often as we can.

Neither of these examples were easy experiences. It takes a lot of courage to say to someone, “I messed up and I know I hurt you.” I think in some ways it takes even more courage to say to someone, “You’ve hurt me.” In the first, we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism. In the second, we make ourselves vulnerable to further hurt from the person we are confronting.

And, so Jesus tells us, “If they will not listen, take one or two others along.” See, Jesus isn’t interested in us making a single effort at reconciliation. If we get rebuffed, he says, “Get back up and try again.” Now, this actually takes less courage, in my mind, than the initial contact. You’ve got support going in. One or two other people who are committed to listening to both perspectives, and hopefully, sorting through some of the distractions to get at the heart of the matter. One or two others who can skillfully discern what is being communicated rather than what is being said, and who can assist in clarifying intentions, goals, and next steps.

Let me be clear.  Jesus not saying, “Hey, grab a posse and start a brawl.” He’s also not saying, “Go to all of your friends and neighbors first, tell them your side of story, and start a witch hunt.” He’s saying, “Have one or two witnesses, preferably neutral individuals, who can clarify things for both parties. And, if the other person listens to you, you’ve won them over.” Be honest. Act with integrity. Be direct. If someone has sinned against you, take it to the person first. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others along, but not your whole book club.

If that doesn’t work? Well, Jesus tells us to take it to the church. If a fellow Christian sins against you, and refuses to hear you, and refuses to hear you with one or two witnesses, bring the matter before the church. Why? Because relational health is foundationally important to the health of the church. Schisms within the church and worse have occurred because one or more people have not been willing to be honest about how another person had wronged them. Or because the other person refused to own up to having wronged the first.

American folklore tells us just such a story—two feuding families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, who lived near one another across the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Neighboring families who declared all out war on one another in the late 1870s.

The feud continued to escalate until, between 1880 and 1891, the feud ended in the deaths of more than a dozen members of both families collectively. It became headline news around the country, and led the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. What started it all was the question of who owned a pig—those who had marked it as their chattel, or those who had found it wandering in their yard.

Now, it is true that history often sensationalizes stories. And I’m sure that there is much in the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys which has been lost. But what we do know about the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is that rather than attempt to resolve a dispute between themselves (who owns the pig), they took it to court. The court proceedings were overseen by the only local judge—a member of the Hatfield family, hardly an impartial party.

And it ends in the violent murders of more than twelve people, the sentence of life imprisonment for seven more individuals tried for those murders, and the state sanctioned execution of an eighth individual who was tried. All of this over the question of who owned a pig.

And I wonder if all of it couldn’t have been avoided if the McCoys had simply said, “Hey, I see my pig wandered over to your side of the property line. I sure would appreciate it if you’d send her home first chance you get,” and if the Hatfields had replied, “Oh, this is your pig? I didn’t realize when I found her wandering that she belonged to someone. But now that I take a closer look, I see your mark on her ears. We’ll bring her over right after supper.”

Now, it’s unlikely in our church today that anyone is going to take up arms against their neighbor because of a wandering hog. But how many other hurts and offenses have been committed that have led to people leaving the church? That have led to gossip, slander, infighting, and bickering? How many other hurts and offenses have led to relationships being broken and even ended?

When my best friend said to me, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?” I could have walked out of her kitchen. I could have left then and never talked to her again. I had the option.

And when I said to this first year seminarian, “You really are not welcome on this floor,” she could have walked away and never spoken to me again. She had the option.

Both of these stories have a happy ending, though. One relationship was restored because of a mutual commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18. Another relationship was built because of a commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18.

But what happens when you go to someone and they don’t listen to you? And you bring one or two others, and they still refuse to hear? And you bring it to the church and they refuse to listen even to the church? What then?

Jesus says, “Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” And do you know how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors? He treated them with respect. He treated them with dignity. He acted with integrity. He acted honorably. He treated them with love. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry hanging out with pagans and tax collectors. It’s one of the reasons the religious elite took issue with him.

In my experience, the root cause of most conflict is a cultural difference. Jesus’s culture, as the Son of God, was different from the religious culture of first century Judaism. And the religious elite killed him for it.

We experience cultural differences every day of our lives. We come across something that is being done differently from how we would do it; we find a stranger in a place we had thought was secured from outsiders; we hear someone’s words through our own filters, while they speak those same words through a filter of their own, and at times it is a vastly different filter than ours. Cultural differences and misunderstandings. And for that, we often punish others, and treat them as something less than human, less than deserving.

But, Jesus never gives us a reason or an excuse to treat any other human being with anything less than the utmost dignity and respect. He never grants us permission to be vindictive, spiteful, or mean. Instead, he invites us to choose to know others better, to engage their culture, to love them regardless of whether we believe they deserve it or not. He invites us to risk big, and he promises that the rewards are big as well—whatever we hold to be true on earth will be held to be true in heaven.

If we are willing to choose to hold love and forgiveness, compassion and grace, kindness and generosity as core values to our Christian faith, then all of heaven will hold to those values as well. And in doing so, we have the ability bring the Kingdom of God here to earth.