October 6, 2013
The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Although we began our Recommitment Season at the beginning of September, it is usually about this time, when there are only two more Sundays left before Recommitment Sunday, that I get serious about preparing. I take out the questions that have been in the bulletin for weeks now and finally put them in my purse to take home and review. I look at my calendar for the next two weeks and try to figure out how I am going to squeeze in my hour in the chapel contemplating my commitment to God and to this community. Every year I am pretty certain that I am going to renew my commitment. It all seems rather perfunctory. After all “We are all in this together,” right?
That phrase has crept into many portions of our life together. We say it here in worship, we say it in Stewards meetings – and for sure in SLT meetings – on a regular basis. In our SLT meetings it usually comes up after we are finished with our meeting and gather in a little huggle – and after some prayers we say this phrase together as both prayer, blessing and benediction. It is a way of reminding ourselves that we can’t do it alone, that we need help and that there is help if we can just look up and see the “we.”
But who is the “we?”
This week with another government shutdown, and the looming debt ceiling crisis we are getting ring side seats in the definition of “we.” Our Founding Fathers recognized the perils of the “we” by having a body of government that is representative of different districts based on population and another body whose members represent the state as a whole. However, the Tea Party Republicans who are holding firm in representing their constituents have somehow lost sight of other “we’s” who are suffering by their actions.
But not knowing who the “we” is, is not just a recent problem. The psalmist in our selection for this morning writes eloquently of their tears and grief, mourning the loss of Jerusalem and their exile in Babylon. Then at the end a chilling sentence says, “Happy is the man who pays you back for what you have done to us – who takes your babies and smashes them against the rock.” The psalmist is totally absorbed in an “us vs. them” dynamic, and calls for the destruction of innocents, just because they are the children of their enemies.
What must God have felt when she heard that prayer?
The reality is that it is easier to stay with people who are your own kind, whatever that kind is. They understand you, know your history, know your values and your stories. There is a danger in letting “them” come into the “us.” The stories are not the same, the ways of doing things could change, and also the smaller our “us” the fewer we have to take care of. It is just much easier to keep those “them’s” away from us. The problem with that is that it results in a dichotomy that never ends and results in war and destruction, as we see around the world. But it is not simple to change. You have to overcome a lot of basic inertia and resistance to include a “them” in your “us.”
I occasionally worry about Seekers being a bit too specific and not broad enough. That maybe we have a bit of us-vs.-them going on here as well, or that maybe our “we” is a bit too small. Maybe I am sensitive to this because of my conservative background, or maybe it is because I am in Koinonia where we try to be aware of the barriers that we as a community raise consciously or unconsciously that prevent people from finding a place here among us.
I sometimes play a game with myself trying to find various values that someone might show up with and see if Seekers would still welcome them. I call it the “Would We Be Welcoming If…?” game and it goes something like this…. What if a wealthy, born again, Tea Party member, driving a Mercedes Benz SUV and wearing a fur coat came to a service here and wanted to invite all of us to a beef-and-pork barbecue with their fellow Tea Partiers? Or what if a large Hispanic family came and wanted us to have some part of our service in Spanish? Or what if…, but you get the picture.
It sharpens the focus, doesn’t it? What are our limits? What is the extent of our “we”?
I don’t know if everyone knows this story, but over the course of several years Seekers supported a conservative evangelical missionary family who worked in the Baja area of Mexico. Keith and I have known Lois since high school in Japan, and when she married Steve and they became missionaries we supported them. At one point, as our theology diverged significantly, Lois challenged me on my acceptance of gays and was rather contemptuous of my explanation, but in spite of that disagreement, we continued to support them. Sometime later we got a prayer letter from them saying that they had become involved in trying to help abused women and children in their Baja community. They were trying to create a safe house where women and their children could stay and through other programs were trying to empower them to leave abusive relationships. They had tried to get help from other religious groups in the area but had been turned down by other evangelicals who said that they could not get involved in social issues, as they were just there to save souls, and were rejected by the Catholic Church who said divorce was a sin and it was the duty of the wife to return to her husband and ask forgiveness. After reading their letter, I decided to ask Seekers to support this effort. Giving full disclosure about the differences in their theology and ours, I asked that we consider them a “we,” and Seekers agreed. Later we visited them on one of our trips to Mexico, and Keith and I were able to see their work with a number of women and their children. One of the things that stays with me from that visit was Steve saying, “We can’t just save souls, we have to help people who are in desperate need as well. That is what Jesus taught.”
When we are stuck in a small “we” we lose opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in the world. By helping in their efforts, we made a small difference in the lives of people we could never have served on our own, but first we had to become a “we.”
Paul certainly experienced this too. After being arrested and sent to Rome he writes to Timothy: I have been abandoned by everyone in Asia, but Onesiphorus who heard I was in Rome fearlessly tracked me down and visited me in prison, cheering me up many times. Paul, a leader of the church, abandoned and no longer a “we” among those with whom he had been working – alone and in prison until Onesiphorus finds him and cares for him.
Gordon in our reflection piece says:
In the struggle to become Christ’s Body, we have only one weapon and one alone: Love…. Love is what first softened your heart and mine. Love brought us into the struggle. Love alone has the power to break hearts open so that we will all lay down our defenses and join in the cosmic movement toward a new heaven, a new earth, in a Holy City whose foundation is Love.
To become Christ’s Body, to join the cosmic movement – to become a “we” – love is what we need.
Anne Lamott in her book Help, Thanks, Wow! The Three Essential Prayers says:
I have seen many people survive unsurvivable losses and seen them experience happiness again. How is this possible? Love flowed to them from their closest people, and from their community and surrounded them, sat with them, held them, fed them, swept their floors. Time passed. In most cases the pain evolved slowly into help for others….
My own personal belief is that God looks through Her Rolodex when she has a certain kind of desperate person in Her care and assigns that person to some screwed-up soul like you or me, and makes it hard for us to ignore that person’s suffering, so we show up even when it is extremely inconvenient or just awful to be there.
In the Luke passage, Jesus says that “when you have done all you have been told to do, say, We are ordinary servants; we have only done our duty.” Of course I know that we are to be of service to the world – to be God’s hand and feet in the world. The problem is that most of the time I think I am alone, just me, doing what God has called all of us to do. That myopic viewpoint is deadly. We become resentful, burned out, lashing out at everyone around us for not doing enough, and in general acting like real jerks. But Jesus said, when you have done all you have been told to do, say “WE are servants.” And there it is again…the we. We are not alone on this journey; God calls us to be a we. There are many hands and feet who are willing to be of service and are serving, if we could only just look up long enough from what we are doing to see them.
Recommitment is about the we. Every year we make a choice of whether to do this or not. When we say yes and sign the book we are saying that we are a “we” again for another year. Signing up means that we need to be aware of the work that needs to be done and to do our share, and not wait for someone who can do it better to do it instead. In a “we,” everyone is important and not important – we are all essential and not essential. Signing up means that we are all relying on each other, hoping that when we get in over our heads someone will be there to help us. It means that we want to serve each other and the larger world as God’s hands and feet – God’s servants in this broken and desperately beautiful world.
Being a we means that we can do more, be more aware; we can empower and challenge, and.…
Wow! Can “we” really do this? Look at what we face?!
The disciples ask Jesus, “Give us more faith.” And Jesus says, “If you have the faith of a mustard seed you can tell this mulberry tree to get up and move and it will do it.” I’m sure the disciples asked each other after that, “Do you have that much faith?” “Do you?” (How many mulberry trees do you think they spoke to before they realized it was a metaphor?)
Well, I know I don’t have that much faith. I probably don’t even have one-billionth of a mustard seed of faith.… But I am convinced it doesn’t matter how much faith I have, because I am a part of a “we.” A large “we” called the Church, that in spite of its brokenness and waywardness has been a witness in the world of God’s love and has caused mountains to move. It hasn’t always been enough, but I trust that by pooling and gathering those little bits of faith, we will have enough to move MOUNTAINS…but maybe we should start out just moving the pile of dirt in our own small part of the world.
Each person who joins is one more voice, one more pair of hands and feet in this suffering world that desperately needs to be claimed as a we! Each “we” that gathers is one more voice, one more beacon of change, one more light in the world. We really are ALL in this together!