What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Someone to Watch Over Me

I preached again at my internship congregation. Here's the text of what I said for those who are interested! Scripture texts were Ruth 1: 15-18 & 1 Corinthians 12: 14-26

I’m about to tell you a shocking fact about myself that you probably won’t believe. It is something that many people, even my closest friends, don’t believe about me. It is something that I do my best to hide from people because of the stigma attached to it. However, I think this is as good a place as any to just outright admit it. Alright, here it goes. I am an introvert and a bit of a loner. Don’t believe me? No worries, I’m not offended. I know I fake it pretty well and make myself out to be this big extrovert who loves being around people but the truth is I actually find myself drained by being around people. I crave my solitude and alone time. I crave those moments when I can just keep to myself and not have to interact with anybody. I crave my evenings alone with just a book.
Here’s something I guess I should also mention about myself, something that perhaps openly contradicts what I just stated. For the past four years, I have lived in intentional Christian communal living. I realize that many of you in the congregation do not understand any of the words that I just said so allow me to define what intentional Christian communal living means. These are best defined as communities of people who covenant to live together and agree to share various responsibilities like chores, grocery shopping and meals. We meet together every week or so in order to discuss various issues that have come up since our last meeting but also to just update each other on our lives and what we would like for the rest of the house to pray about in our lives.
I lived by myself for most of college. I had a house all to myself during most of my adolescent years. Thus, I’ve become really good at and really used to living alone. So, what has it been like for a loner and an introvert to live in intentional community with other people? In a nutshell: an incredible blessing for my life with its share of challenges and difficulties as well.
I first moved into intentional communal living when I moved to Chicago. I had covenanted to live in community with five other people my own age. I had literally no idea what I had signed up for or what I was about to get myself into. Yes, it was rough. There were times when it was downright challenging. Even now, four years into living in intentional community, there are still times when it is rough. There’s still times when I contemplate getting my own apartment or times when I just crave more alone time or times when I just don’t want to interact with another human being the rest of the day. Yet, in the end, I have found myself feeling greatly rewarded by my communal living experience and honestly can’t even think of my life without it.
What does all this have to do with our Scripture texts for today? How does my rambling about the benefits of living in community relate to our Scripture passages for today?  In our first Scripture reading, we hear a strong statement about what community can and should look like through the lens of Ruth’s vows to Naomi. “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Now, these just happen to be some of my favorite verses in the entire Old Testament. That’s not, however, the reason why I chose them. These verses have a lot to say about the nature of community. Naomi was urging Ruth to return to her homeland and be with her own people. This was actually the custom of the times back then so it wouldn’t have been unusual at all for Naomi to tell her daughter-in-law this. Ruth defies convention, though, and insists to Naomi that she will stay with her and will follow her even unto death. She will forsake her old ways and live in new ways because she has such respect and deep love for Naomi. Keep in mind that this was a very patriarchal culture and the very idea of two women traveling together without a man to accompany them would have been considered quite scandalous and even slightly dangerous. What can explain this desire on Ruth’s part to buck conventional norms and stay with her mother-in-law? The Hebrew word for such a concept is hesed, which is usually translated as loving-kindness. It is normally understood as a kind of love that goes above and beyond all reason or rationale. It is the kind of love that would cause a young woman to break with tradition and stay with her mother-in-law rather than return to her native land.
Hesed is also the kind of love that would cause someone to choose to live in such an unusual living arrangement like intentional Christian community. When you think about it, how counter-cultural is it for someone to do that? We live in a society that prizes individuality over anything else. A society that tells us that we should value our privacy and mocks those who choose to march to the beat of their own drummer. We have labels for those people. “Freak”; “weirdo”; “non-conformist” are all insulting labels that we attach to people who go against the grain. I mean, why would somebody choose to live in such an odd arrangement when they could just as easily live by themselves? Why would somebody defy social conventions like that? There must be something wrong with them, right? Why would a woman, who has just lost her husband, want to remain with her mother-in-law and travel to a foreign land rather than head back to the safety and security of her own land and the stability and strength of a man’s presence? Why, indeed?
Hesed, that’s why. It is the kind of love that can’t be explained or understood or comprehended. It is the kind of love that just makes you do things that might be slightly unconventional but that you know will benefit you in the long run. Things like staying with your mother-in-law or living in an intentional community that requires praying for others. These things aren’t always going to be understood by others, nor should they be. Hesed, or loving-kindness, is the only thing that could possibly explain it.
I’d like to shift now to our New Testament text and talk a bit about its contribution to the concept of community. First, though, I’d like to introduce you to another unfamiliar word. The Greek word “koinonia” has many different translations but the definition I like best is when it is translated as “fellowship” or “community”. The concept of koinonia is one that permeates the New Testament and is widely identified as the idealized state of unity and fellowship that should permeate our Christian lives together.
  We see that concept on display here in this passage from 1st Corinthians. While Paul never actually uses the word koinonia in this particular scripture passage, the idea of it is clear throughout it. To Paul, community or koinonia means that we are all a part of the body of Christ and that we all matter. Even though some of us may fulfill different functions or serve different purposes, his point remains that we are all one. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Thus, we see here that the concept of koinonia to Paul means that we each play a role and we each have importance in the body of Christ. When one of us is hurting, we all are hurting. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. This is what being in community means. This is what being in community looks like. This is what being a Christian means. Rejoicing with other people’s joys and crying with other people’s pains.  That’s the type of community that we are called to live into.
How does this play out, though, in our everyday lives? More specifically, how can we do a better job of practicing the concepts of hesed and koinonia in a world that doesn’t even know what those concepts mean? For that answer, I turn to a classic George and Ira Gershwin tune. The song “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a beautiful well-known ballad about a woman who is waiting for the love of her life to come find her and be the someone to watch over her. What I’d like to focus on from that song is the concept of someone to watch over me. When taken out of the context of the song, it actually could be about how we are called to live with each other in community. We all need someone to watch over us. We all need someone to hold us accountable. We all need someone to practice hesed and koinonia with us. Naomi had Ruth. The disciples had Jesus. We, too, all have people in our own lives that can be that person for us. It could be a significant other. It could be a best friend or a parent or a sibling. My point being that even those of us who claim to be loners and introverts still have need of people to watch over us. I don’t mean that they discipline us or punish us or anything like that. Rather, these are people who are part of our cloud of witnesses. People who are part of our body of Christ. People who are our community, our koinonia.
This is what living in community has taught me. Yes, I may still be an introvert. Yes, I may still sometimes be a bit of a loner. Yes, I may still have times when I just want to be alone. Yet, living in community with other people has taught me so much about the value of community. It has taught me the value of having someone to watch over me; to pray for me; to hug me when I am at my lowest point. I saw the benefits of community when I was violently mugged a few years back. My housemates supported and helped me through that very difficult time. I saw the benefits again when one of my best friends died just a few weeks after I started seminary. Over and over during the past four years, I have received the benefits of community. It has both blessed and enriched my life in countless ways. My koinonia has shown me the benefits of hesed and for that I remain grateful.
I want to encourage you to show hesed toward others. Be like Ruth. Show others the same kind of loving-kindness that Ruth showed to Naomi. I’m not saying you have to leave everything behind and defy convention like she did but think about the ways that you can better enable others to be a part of your community.
Where is your koinonia? Do you have one? Take some time this week to sort that out. If you don’t have it, what steps can you take in your life to find it? We all need the blessings that community can provide. We simply can’t live without it.
If you take away nothing else from this sermon, take away this: hesed and koinonia. What are we doing to both affirm and support those things in our lives? Without the blessings that community and hesed has given me, I would not be the person I am now. Neither would any of us. Find your koinonia. Find someone to watch over you. “Won’t you tell them please to put on some speed? Follow my lead. Oh, how I need someone to watch over me.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Let It Go?

I preached at my internship congregation today! Here's the sermon for those who would like to see it. Scripture text is Matthew 18: 21-35.

         I have a confession to make. It is not one I make easily or lightly. It is one that I would prefer to never state publicly but in the interest of full disclosure, I think it is necessary that I reveal this to you today. I hope that what I am about to say won’t shock you or make you love me any less but if it does, I accept that as my punishment for what I am about to tell you. Are you ready? Are you sure? It is going to be quite shocking and maybe a little scandalous. Okay, here it goes. I have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness. The old saying, “Forgive and forget”? I can do the forgetting easily enough but the whole forgive part is something I struggle with.
I suspect it is the same with many others, perhaps even many of you in the congregation. What is it about forgiveness that we find to be such a challenge? Why is it easier and sometimes better for us to continue to hold a grudge for years, rather than simply forgiving those who trespass against us? 
Perhaps I should back up a bit and first define what forgiveness actually means. According to Webster’s Dictionary, forgiveness is defined as “to give up resentment of or to cease to feel resentment against”. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? All it requires is that we give up our resentment of another. Yet, this seemingly simple act seems so hard for so many of us to do. 
Here, in this Scripture text, we hear Jesus’s words about forgiveness and how important it is to the Christian lifestyle. Peter asks him, “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus replies, “No, you shall forgive him seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus isn’t saying that you should literally only forgive your brother 490 times and then at the 491st time, you can say, ok, that’s it. No more forgiveness. It is a metaphorical meaning implying that we should forgive without ceasing. We should forgive without any limitations on it. 
I have to stop here and ask, though, really? Is it really supposed to be that way? It is easy for Jesus to say that we should forgive our brother or sister when they have done us wrong, like when they talk about us behind our backs. However, I wonder if Jesus would say this to a woman who was sexually abused by her brother. Would he tell a woman who’s been raped that she should forgive her rapist? Would he tell an abused child that they should forgive their abuser? Jesus’s platitudes about forgiveness might have worked fine for the community he was in and the times he was in but they seem to bear no relation to the world we live in today. Instead, they come off as cheap and empty and hollow and don’t seem to offer much comfort to our modern day troubles.
Or do they? A few weeks ago, Rev. Fred Phelps passed away. For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid knowing who Fred Phelps is, he was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. This church has single-handedly promoted hatred and intolerance and is infamous for their picketing at Matthew Shepard’s funeral and also at funerals of military personnel. The church has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is generally seen as an extreme example of the conservative Christian movement.
Now, I’m about to say some stuff that you might find controversial or perhaps even surprising. You might think that when I first heard that Phelps was on his deathbed and had entered his final days that I was happy or excited or perhaps wanted to perform a cha-cha on his grave! You might have thought that I would be the first to throw a party to celebrate the death of a man who has done nothing but spread hate and intolerance toward me and my fellow LGBTQ sisters and brothers. I’m not gonna lie, if this had happened a few years back, I might have done just that. It would have been very easy for me to simply wish for him to be suffering in hell. I don’t think anyone would have begrudged me that much. 
Yet, here’s what I have come to realize. In order to be a Christian and a follower of Christ, it is essential that I also be able to forgive others, even those who have deeply hurt me. Does this mean Fred Phelps gets a free pass and that we can excuse everything he ever said or did? No, it does not. Let me make this perfectly clear. I do not excuse, condone or in any way endorse anything that Rev. Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church does or says. This man spent a lifetime hating people that he probably never even bothered to take the time to get to know. He spent years spewing vitriol and promoting a false Gospel and a false God. 
Yet, and here’s the controversial part of my sermon, I forgive him. I hope that he is up in heaven partying with Jesus and Matthew Shepard and that he has found the peace in death that he so clearly never had in life. Best-selling author Anne LaMotte has this to say about forgiveness: “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person.” Would I want to sit down to lunch with Fred Phelps? No, I think not. I don’t think anything productive or healing would happen there. I no longer feel the need to hit back. I no longer feel the urge to wish him suffering and misery. I no longer wish him anything but peace. 
This next weekend at SFTS, we will be presenting our Fourth Annual Production of the Vagina Monologues. This is a show about female empowerment. It is a show about women who are willing to speak up and say that they are no longer going to allow the abusers to win. It is also a show about forgiveness. In the show, there are several monologues about women who experienced sexual violence against themselves. Women who were violated, raped, abused or otherwise broken down and told to be silent because their voices aren’t worth hearing anymore anyway. Yet, what the show acknowledges is the fact that this won’t be the case for these women anymore. They are about to rise up, speak up and declare their truth. The truth that they are beautiful and wonderful people just as they are and that no one can tell them otherwise ever again. 
What is most striking about the monologues, at least from my perspective, is the fact that none of these women seek revenge against their abusers. None of them declare any type of ill will or wish any sort of harm on their attackers. This, in its own way, is an example of forgiveness. The realization that they are strong and empowered in spite of what has happened to them is an example of what is possible through the power of forgiveness. They exemplify the idea that you don’t have to hit back. You don’t have to ever see your abuser again but you also don’t have to allow yourself to wallow in sadness and shame. 
What we see in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant is what happens to us when we are unable to forgive. We see a servant who is punished severely by his master because he cannot forgive his fellow servant of a relatively small debt, even after the master forgives him a relatively large debt. The master, in this case, is meant to be God. God can forgive us of anything we’ve done. That’s the very nature of God. God can forgive Fred Phelps. God can forgive an abuser. God can forgive anyone, no matter how large the debt or terrible the burden. 
Of course, we aren’t God. We are human. Humans are subject to all kinds of failings. Thus, I want to really emphasize here that it is okay to be unable to forgive. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be mad. It is okay to be feeling whatever you are feeling. Your feelings are valid and important and need to be acknowledged. As someone who spent years being verbally abused by people close to me, I totally get that anger. I totally get that wanting to see the abuser suffer or be punished. It makes perfect sense. It may even make us feel good. At what cost, though? 
The whole concept of forgiveness in the New Testament is based on the idea that those who are able to forgive others are also able to receive God’s forgiveness. When we fail to forgive others, we also fail to receive God’s forgiveness for us. We fail to be better than our abusers. We fail to be better people. 
Anne LaMotte also has this to say about forgiveness: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” We can’t continue to be in community with others if we aren’t willing to forgive them as well. Holding a grudge does a disservice to both parties. Are we willing to continue to be Christians? If so, we may have to make the hard choice to forgive not only others, but also ourselves. When we do, we open ourselves up to receiving God’s forgiveness. 
  What does this mean, then, for our modern context? Does it look like an abused woman forgiving her abuser? Does it look like forgiving Fred Phelps? Does it look like being willing to enter a church again, years after feeling driven out due to hatred? While it could look like any or all of those things, I hesitate to ever use the word should because I know that may not be possible for many of us. What I will say instead is that I think forgiveness looks more like being willing to move on with our lives without becoming abusive ourselves. We can break the cycle of abuse but only when we are willing to forgive. This doesn’t mean we have to ever see the person again. It does however mean that we have to be willing to let it go. Not in the sense that we can never talk about it again or that we should just shut up. Please don’t think I am ever advocating for that. Instead, I am advocating for us to love ourselves. For us to forgive ourselves. For us to find peace with ourselves and with each other. This is the true path to forgiveness. This is the true path to letting go. This is what Jesus was advocating for with each of us. 
We need to stand up and speak our truth. We need to stand up and proclaim our power. We need to stand up and proclaim that we forgive our brothers and sisters for what they have done to us. We need to create a new paradigm. Let us be more willing to forgive. It might not be easy. It might take some time. Yet, as Christians, it will always be the right thing to do. It will open us up to new things. It will open us up to receiving forgiveness from others. I encourage you to leave this place today and go forth sowing seeds of forgiveness. You just might be surprised by what blooms.