Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An uncommon common life

Matthew 18: 15-20 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 10, 2017

            How many of us have left a church because of hurt feelings? Rally Sunday or Homecoming Sunday may seem like the wrong day to be asking this question, but the gospel often compels us to look at things from a different point of view. How many of us have left a church because the church or a group of church folk or someone in the church sinned against us? How many of us stayed, despite our hurt? How many of us have allowed our hurts, our wounds to fester rather than heal?

         Eugene Peterson uses the word ‘hurt’, but the more traditional phrase ‘sinned against’ means “missed the mark”, “crossed a line or a boundary”, “to wander off the path of righteousness”. Every week we say the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus isn’t talking about egregious actions like abuse or assault or oppression or institutional racism or sexism or homophobia. In this instance sin is the missteps, the unseeing ways, the ways we allow fear and ego to take control when we live in community.

         Often these missteps can hurt, as though someone didn’t see us, acted like we weren’t there. We feel like our community, our tribe let us down.
We feel vulnerable as a result, and so to protect ourselves, we can throw up a wall of anger and resentment, often resulting in conflict. But we can’t sustain that wall indefinitely and so we leave community, we leave church, we leave the group, we unfriend, or just disappear without a word.

         We know all this, but it’s hard to remember when we’re in the midst of it. The hardest thing of all to remember is to not take any of it personally. Even when someone’s missing the mark or crossing a line is about us as a person. What others say and do is a projection of their own inner life, their experiences, their wounds, their fears. Ironically, people project that stuff because they’re feeling vulnerable, unsure, awkward, which ramps up anxiety and a need for control. The limbic brain takes over, and once that starts it can be hard to stop.

         Which is why it’s important for us to not take things personally. When we do, our limbic brain gets involved—the center of our primitive emotions—and it all goes downhill from there.
Not taking it personally, going high when they go low, engaging in the spiritual discipline of forbearance is the grinding, tough work of following Jesus; you know, the one famous for saying, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” while being executed by the state. If the thought of Jesus on the cross stops us from anything, it ought to at least halt our self-pity in its tracks.

         That dang Jesus. He’s weird. Anne Lamott in her book entitled Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith says “Why couldn’t Jesus command us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed? Maybe in some translations he did.”

         Not taking things personally is what makes it possible for us to go to someone who hurt us and to try to work it out. Jesus isn’t trying to get us to humiliate or abase ourselves. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of them.
~ Frederick Buechner
And the one who hurt us is often the most lost of all. Someone who won’t listen to you when you’re trying to work it out has lost their way in the relationship, in themselves, in community, in our nation, our world. Every day it can feel like our moorings are being snapped, one by one. Those identities like gender and sexuality and belief we thought of as rock-solid now feel like shifting sand. All kinds of climate are becoming more volatile and unpredictable. We’re all feeling a bit lost these days.

         About ten years ago when I was between ministry gigs and staying home with children, I volunteered to be a deacon in my home church. During our first meeting, we introduced ourselves and said a few words about why our church was important to us.
One longtime member said the reason church was important to him was that in such a changing world, church was the one thing that didn’t change. I inwardly cringed because the reason church is important to me is precisely because church is about transformation—about changing in such a way that we are saved from ourselves, from our missteps and our unseeing ways, from our fear and our egos. And in turn the church changes, because our lives change. It goes on from there out into our homes and our relationships and the places we go to school and work and volunteer. A changed life can change the world, because our little corner of it is no longer enough. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of us.

         So when someone is on our last nerve, when they’re being obnoxious or just rubbing us the wrong way, when they forget to do something we’ve asked more than once, when we want to use the word ‘lazy’, when we feel like we’re being picked on, instead of making assumptions about someone or taking any of it personally, we need to scrounge up some courage to ask questions.
“Are you okay?” “Is there something you’re worried about?” “When was the last time you ate?” “What kind of day are you having?” “Can I help?” And then listen to what they say. And if all you get back is more flack, Jesus says to treat that one as a Gentile or a tax collector. And we all know how Jesus treats outsiders. He forgives them, heals them, and turns them into disciples.

         All of this may seem like small potatoes but conflict is conflict, and this is how it gets started. And if it’s one thing the world needs, it’s less conflict. A whole lot less.
People are fond of using the phrase “slippery slope” but not in reference to our own behavior. When we think less of someone, we don’t allow them to be human, like us. In the truest sense of the word, we dehumanize them. We demonize them. Which means we get to treat them any way we want to with impunity. They become lost to us, and we become lost to ourselves.

         We’d like to think this evil is elsewhere, but it resides in all of us
And as it gets potentially harder to live in this world—wildfires, earthquakes, devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, and how those affect our economy, our food supply, and energy production—we can’t afford to treat each other as anything less than who we are. We’re human. We are flawed, fearful, angry, suspicious, anxious, but we are also courageous, generous, kind, compassionate, forgiving. We can choose, every day. We have the capacity to evolve beyond our knee-jerk reactions and assumptions about others. Jesus thought so.

         So if we are to say ‘yes’ to anything, if we are to take anything personally and take it with us into eternity, let it be love and all that comes from it. Anything less than that requires a resounding ‘no’. And if there’s going to be more than one of us on the journey, let’s take Jesus with us. We’re going to need him something fierce.


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