October 11, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz
Text: Hebrews 13: 1 – 3 & Romans 15: 1 – 7
Last week we discussed Barbara Brown Taylor’s inspiring book An Altar in the World, a geography of faith focusing on the importance of being present to God….the practice of waking up to the Divine Spirit that is present in all things…..especially in small, ordinary things…..to recognize the sacredness of all life. We read the story of Jacob and his ladder of reconnection with God. In the midst of a stony wilderness, fleeing from a crime he committed against his father and brother, Jacob encountered God. “ Surely God is in this place and I did not know it….did not recognize it!” Once Jacob experienced the healing, loving, forgiving spirit of God in a wilderness time in his life, he wanted to mark that place with an altar of stone, that he would never forget it and it would be witness to others that something transforming happened there.
Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of the importance of awakening to these sacred God encounters, which may/do happen every day and we are too busy to recognize them. And when we do recognize them, how do we mark them, so we never forget?
The chapter we are focusing on this week is entitled The Practice of Encountering Others. The way we see and hear each other, how we relate to one another and are present to each other….. the ways we create community and family are critical to our happiness and wholeness. Do we look into each other’s eyes and really listen to each other, making connections with others that enrich us all.
“Somewhere in our brains we carry a map of our relationships. It is our mother’s lap, our best friend’s holding hand, our lover’s embrace – all these we carry within ourselves when we are alone. Just knowing that these are there to hold us if we fall gives us a sense of peace. “Cradled,” “rooted,” “connected” are words we use to describe the feeling that comes of this knowledge; social psychologists call this sense embeddedness. The opposite is perhaps a more familiar term – we call it loneliness.
Thus a person, sitting by herself in a room, may appear to others to be quite alone; but that person, if embedded, will have a world of relationships mapped inside her mind – a map that will lead to those who can be called on for nurture and support in time of need. But others, the Gatsbys among us, might be among a crowd of dozens and yet feel very much alone” . …(..psychologist Barbara Fredrickson)
Today we have an incredible web of electronic connections….facebook, twitter, tweet, skype….. a good thing in many ways. .However, face to face connections critical! Put down the ipads and iphones and look at me!!
― Deepak Chopra, in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams wrote: We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert in her popular book, Eat, Pray, Love wrote: “[Saint Anthony] said, in his solitude, he sometimes encountered devils who looked like angels, and other times he found angels who looked like devils. When asked how he could tell the difference, the saint said that you can only tell which is which by the way you feel after the creature has left your company.”
I find that a very profound and true comment…. that started me thinking about how I feel after encounters I have with others…and how they may feel after an encounter with me. Important to ponder, I think. Don’t you?
How does the person at the check out counter, the person who served me in a restaurant, on an airplane , in an office, a person I sit beside on a plane, train or automobile or in the waiting room…feel after our brief encounter is over. Better or worse? Have I shared positive or negative energy? A smile or a frown? Have I been truly present? How about a person I encounter on the street….. hurting, homeless perhaps? Do I pass judgment or offer compassion? Do I follow the wise advice of Michael Chase and ask myself, Am I being kind?
The people and situations we encounter daily on the news are really quite upsetting, I’m sure you agree. We are continually thrust into the throes of controversy and conflict over gun control or lack of it, immigration practices, political and governmental ethics…and the list is extensive. How do we diffuse the hatred and judgment…stop the counter-productive name calling and mud slinging?
Of course we will disagree on the issues and have different opinions. That is a healthy thing and can be a productive exchange of ideas…without the hatred and anger, the my way is the right and only way attitude!
Barbara Brown Taylor describes herself as an introvert who prefers to remain in the kitchen with the “help, instead of socializing with the invited guests. She describes herself as a “ Martha “ personality. Yet in spite of her preference for solitude, she writes a whole chapter in her book on the importance of community. …. of making deep connections with others that draws us out of our self imposed prisons….. our me, me, me mentality… and challenges us to learn to really see…. and truly love the other as we learn to love ourselves. True community, which embraces the idiosyncrasies of each of us, is a rare and precious thing!
It takes commitment…open hearts and minds. It requires receptive, honest communication, tendered with love.
Here’s some interesting communication between a husband and wife:
Wife: “How would you describe me?”
Wife: “What does that mean?”
Husband: “Adorable, beautiful, cute, delightful, elegant, fashionable, gorgeous, and hot.”
Wife: “Aw, thank you, but what about IJK?”
Husband: “I’m just kidding!”
That my dear husbands…..will not foster healthy community in the home…or anywhere else!!
We may be guilty of describing community relations in terms of “us” and “them.” We divide the world into artificial and arbitrary classifications. We speak of the West, and the East and the Third World, often referring to the latter in condescending terms. Or, we divide the world into the so-called “developed” nations and the “developing” nations. There are very definite lines drawn between political parties,…. using rhetoric like “left wing liberals or right wing fundamentalists” , lines drawn between religious groups, races, sexual orientation, genders …and I’m sure we can name other things which divide us into camps….some of our own making and some we were born into.
In the Apostle Paul’s day, the first Christian century, the Greeks divided the world into two categories: Greeks and barbarians. If you were not part of the riches of Greek culture, then you were simply an uncouth barbarian. The Jews also made sharp distinctions: Jews and Gentiles. If you were not a descendant of Abraham then you were a Gentile, ignorant of the covenant promises.
Paul’s great passion, reflected in all his letters, including the portion of the letter to the church in Rome that Deirdre just read, was to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles and to convince them that they are included in the scriptural promises.
I grew up in an American Baptist church in Chicopee Falls, MA. Chicopee had a very large Polish population….who were all ( oh no!) Catholics. ( great kielbasa though!) I was a card carrying Protestant. My Catholic friends were forbidden to enter my church even for social events. Big time sin! I was discouraged from going into any of the Catholic churches, even though I was curious about the ritual, the statues, their love of the Virgin Mary and liturgy of the mass. I was discouraged from dating Catholic boys….though I ended up marrying two of those naughty devils!
It troubled me then and troubles me now, how quickly we size up, pass judgment and categorize people we encounter as worthy or unworthy…. how prone we are to make assumptions that all Muslims are evil terrorists, for example…that everyone who is either registered as Republican or Democrat….all think exactly alike! As a youth pastor for years and years, I was frequently called to be an advocate for the teens in the church who were unjustly blamed for every mess, every light left on, anything that got broken in the church! They were considered guilty until I could prove them innocent! Another sad stero-type….. teens are trouble-makers, untrustworthy and interested only in obnoxious loud music and the latest electronic device! We are frequently too eager to place blame and pass judgment….without any direct communication with the person or group.
How do we get beyond this way of thinking and acting? Certainly it is not Christ-like! Does not emulate Jesus way of thinking about or relating to people. It is not conducive to creating the harmony and peace God wants for Creation.
William Ritter, a Methodist pastor wrote:
A colleague of mine who has spent his entire ministerial life pastoring in the South, writes:
I remember the first church I served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund, which had about $100 in it. They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions. So I said: “What are the conditions?” The chairman of the committee said: “Under no circumstances are you to give money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.” I said: “Well, what else is there?”
As far as I know, they still have that money.
Which, if true, is not all that surprising, given that there is a very human tendency (for institutions as well as individuals) to draw very tight lines around very good instincts.
Consider this business of hospitality, introduced by this morning’s text. Have you ever encountered a congregation that set out to practice inhospitality. Every church believes itself to be friendly, welcoming, warm and open. Almost every church has a sign out front (or a notation in the bulletin) that reads: Come as you are.
Our home is your home.
Strangers are simply friends we haven’t met yet.
How do people who attend worship or a function at our church, feel when they leave?
There’s an amusing story of two strangers who attended the same church for several Sundays. No one spoke to either one of them, so one lady decided, “I’ll give this church one more chance. If nobody speaks to me next Sunday I’ll never go again.” The other lady said, “I don’t like this ‘no speak’ situation in church. If no one speaks to me next Sunday, I’ll break the ice and speak to someone myself.” The next Sunday the ushers happened to seat the two strangers on the same pew. Once more nobody spoke. But, as the first woman rose to stalk out forever, the second woman turned, put out her hand and said, “Good morning, I’m glad to see you.” Both were pleased at having met a friend and they continued to attend.
Surely, Union Church is experienced as a warm and welcoming community of faith…where strangers are welcomed and invited to feel at home.
I hope you all experience it this way. Are they ways that we need to extend this warmth and hospitality into our daily lives…..to our school, workplace, community, home?
Hebrews 13: 3 offers to us a daunting challenge that I believe could make a difference in the way we relate to one another:
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
And an additional challenge and daily prayer from Paul’s letter in Romans 15: 5 & 6: May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Jesus had….so with one mind and one voice you may glorify God.
It is easy to get discouraged….to abandon the hope that peace on Earth is possible, when we are confronted daily with evil acts of terrorism and hatred. And yet, there is much powerful energy for peace happening all around us. It’s imperative that each of us carries the light and energy of peace within us and offers it to everyone we encounter in our daily lives. It is an energy of love that is transforming and the Divine Spirit will be at work within us to make it happen.
One of my favorite…and most important quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor is on the back of your bulletin…..so you and I can read it often:
“What we have in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get – in the eye-to eye thing, the person-to-person thing- which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.”
Think of how very true and wonderful that is. If we can only get to the incredible point of being able to see each other as one created by God and dearly loved by God.
We can easily see the face of God in the beauty of the Autumn foliage, the sparkling sea and windswept beach, in a glorious sunset, on a starlit night, on a mountain top or walking woodland trails. God’s creative presence is everywhere in the exquisite beauty of the universe.
Can we also see God in the anguished face of homeless person or struggling addict, in the angry face of an enemy, in an outspoken political opponent? Can we find God in all the dirty, wounded, desperate places and people in our society? Can we see the face of God in our neighbor?
Can we see the face of God in ourselves?
Frequently, our belief systems set us in opposition to one another, as we each claim to be on the correct path…..the only right path. It is critical, as we encounter those from different cultures, races and religions, that we embody an energy of peace that will destroy the barriers that separate us and build bridges to community and greater understanding. Perhaps, too often we avoid the stranger, not recognizing the angel he or she really is and the opportunity that could be awaiting us if we encourage the encounter.
In his award winning book, Exclusion and Embrace, Bosnian-born theologian Miroslav Volf says, “ It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.” Citizens of the United States, which is presently the most religiously diverse nation on the face of the earth, would do well to pay attention to that claim. As children of the covenant and inheritors of the gospel, we might also understand that we do have the resources to do so. The Holy Spirit is our resource and our strength, helping us to embrace the stranger, to welcome the outcast, to forgive the wayward ones….to be a presence of love and peace.
When fallen TV evangelist Jim Baker was released from prison, he got a call from Ruth and Billy Graham. They helped him find a place to live and invited him to worship with them at Montreat Presbyterian Church the following Sunday. “I had been out of prison less than forty-eight hours and there I sat next to Ruth Graham as she announced to the world that I was still her friend,” said the humbled evangelist. “They invited me up to their cabin for lunch and began to help restore my soul.”
The Bible is full of one anothering, love one another, pray for one another, care for one another, bear one another’s burdens. Jesus told us to practice hospitality….to welcome all to the table. So be it. Amen!
Hebrews 13: 1 – 3 (NIV)
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Romans 15: 1-7 New International Version (NIV)
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[a] 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.