Friday, October 24, 2008

Sermon: "You Are Driving Me Absolutely Nuts!" (Delivered 10-12-08)

Opening Words
“Hello Saints!” It is a greeting that you hear in some African-American church communities.

“Hello Saints!” When this greeting is spoken it says several things at once. It is a way of addressing someone with respect, a way of saying that I see the divine within you. At the same time, it is also a way of honoring the fact that we are of the same community; a way of affirming that you and I belong to the same body. And, finally, it is also a charge, a way of reminding each other to live in a saintly way.

“Hello Saints!” That is the greeting you hear, not another greeting which would work just as well in most forms of Christian theology… you never hear somebody say, “Hello Sinners!”

And yet, and yet, although we don’t speak much of “sinners” here in this church, I am moved by that old saying that claims that, “Churches are homes for sinners, not museums for Saints.” We can translate this sentiment in a way that would work here in our religious community. We would say, “This church is not the place for the already perfected, the people who have already figured out all the answers. This church is not the place for those who have attained some level of enlightenment that cannot be surpassed, who merely exist here in stasis. Rather, this church is the home for those who are still trying to figure out the answers, who are committed to working on themselves a little bit, and who freely choose to dwell among other imperfect people because we can all learn something for each other.”

To paraphrase a little poem by Kurt Vonnegut,
When I was young, I was young and mean
I used to get in trouble like Augustine.
But Augustine, he became a Saint,
So if I do to, Mom, don’t you faint.
Let us worship together.

Reading: Matthew 5: 21-26
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

I want to share with you a piece of advice I received early on in my ministry. The advice came from a celebrated senior colleague with over thirty years of meritorious ministry in our movement. He said, to paraphrase,
“If you wake up in the morning and make a list of all the people who are angry at you, who are upset, who complain, who make your work difficult, and you decide to go heal their anger and satisfy their complaints, you will wind up surrounded by angry, difficult people. But, if you wake up in the morning and make a list of all those who bless the church, who are generous and kind, who do amazing things each and every day, you will wind up surrounded by kind, generous, nurturing people. There is not enough time in the day to do both, so you must choose to whom you will give your time and your attention.”
The colleague then went one step further and said, if you spend your time trying to make the angry people less angry and trying to address their complaints, everybody else will observe this and decide that the way to get attention is to complain and get angry. On the other hand, if you spend your time working cooperatively with those who are happy, and constructive, and inspired, everybody else will observe this and decide that way to get attention is to be cooperative and kind.

That was the advice, I received. And, I will have to admit, there is something to be said for it. And yet, I want to challenge this received wisdom. The advice was practical. It was certainly strategic, perhaps even efficient. But, does faith call us to act in only practical ways, to be efficient and choose the paths of least resistance? Do our guiding principles ask us to avoid the people and the issues that trouble us?

This morning I want to draw on several different sources: from our own guiding principles, from the Jewish tradition and Christian scriptures, as well as from more contemporary voices who advise us on how we should interact with those who aggravate us. Wayne Oates has written on The Care of Troublesome People and Arthur Boers has published a book with the eye-catching title, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior.

In Jerks, Boers relays a story about famed educator Parker Palmer, a story that may sound familiar to anyone who has ever taught:
“[Palmer] visited a university campus where he was given the opportunity to teach a political science class for an hour. Of two-and-a-half dozen students there, Palmer noticed only the ‘Student from Hell.’ He became obsessed with this student, who slouched at the back of the room, had neither pen nor paper, kept his cap pulled over his eyes, and wore a coat as if he meant to escape at the first possible opportunity. Palmer writes, ‘I committed the most basic mistake of the greenest neophyte: I became totally obsessed with him, and everyone else in the room disappeared from my screen.’”
Later, Palmer is picked up in a University van that is being driven by none other than the “Student from Hell.” On the way to the airport, Palmer and the student talk. It turns out that he “was having great trouble completing college, that his unemployed, alcoholic father made life hard for him and actively discouraged his studies.”

It is interesting that this story seems to both confirm the advice I received from my senior colleague and challenge it at the same time. By focusing his attention on the most dysfunctional and inappropriate student, Palmer did lessen the educational experience of the other 29 students in the class. He also created a dynamic that told those other students that if they wanted attention, they should acts as disruptively, if not more disruptively, than the student that claimed his attention. And yet, at the same time, with the “Student from Hell” there was a brokenness that called for intervention instead of avoidance.

I am sure that those of you who have taught have all had your share of “Students from Hell.” For everyone else, we all have somebody whose life crosses paths with ours, someone who aggravates and annoys and angers us. That other person makes us feel, to turn to the thesaurus: bothered, bugged, chafed, disturbed, exasperated, irked, irritated, nettled, peeved, riled, ruffled, and vexed. We all have somebody in our life at whom we want to scream, “You are driving me absolutely nuts!”

What do some of the world’s religious traditions say about this? A close reading of the Gospels reveals that they are full of teachings and instructions about dealing with the people who drive us nuts. Matthew 5 puts the onus on us to reconcile differences with those who take issue with us, or else we risk an imprisonment, which in this passage is clearly metaphorical. Those who drive us nuts can drive us nuts; can imprison our spirits and make our focus too small and too narrow.

But the lessons go far beyond Matthew 5. Matthew 18 contains some of the most challenging instructions on dealing with those who aggravate us. Matthew 18 contains the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus speaks of leaving the 99 in search of the one stray. But we learn in this passage that the lost sheep is not lost on account of a bad sense of direction. The sheep does not need a Garmin GPS device.

No, the parable of the lost sheep is followed by a discussion of conflict. The lost sheep has gone astray because of some amount of anger or annoyance. Matthew 18 follows with Jesus’ instructions about what to do if you have problems with someone. Jesus instructs us to first deal with the person directly. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three others to help you mediate. If that doesn’t work, involve the whole community. And, if that doesn’t work, the gospel tells us to treat the person who offends us like a gentile or a tax collector or, in other words, like Jesus’ preferred company.

Matthew 18 continues with Peter asking Jesus if he should forgive someone who offends him seven times. Jesus’ reply is that he should forgive seven times plus seventy.

In the Jewish tradition, the high holy of Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur was observed this past week. Part of Yom Kippur involves setting your affairs in order, seeking out forgiveness and making restitution to all you have wronged. This atonement, this act of cleansing, cannot be completed if you only consider those whom you have outwardly wronged. You also need to look into your heart and set things right with those with whom you have not shown patience, those who have driven you absolutely nuts.

The Jewish prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur contains the following prayer,
“O source of peace, lead us to peace, a peace profound and true; lead us to a healing, to mastery of all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others. May our deeds inscribe us in the Book of life and blessing, righteousness and peace! O Source of peace, bless us with peace.”
I enjoy challenges. The advice of my senior colleague was itself a sort of challenge. It was a “turn the other cheek” sort of challenge, to focus on positive things even as others criticize and complain. But, it seems to me like a much greater spiritual challenge to master all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others.

So how do we do this? How do we face those who drive us absolutely nuts?

I think that there are a few helpful hints. The first thing that may be helpful is to cultivate a little bit of self-awareness. I think it is fair to say that we all annoy somebody. I don’t think we can help it. I think we all have some aspect of our personality or our behavior that challenges other people to accept us. If I can return to the Gospels for one last time, I think this is what Jesus was speaking of when he talked about not pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye while you are in denial about the beam in your own. Self-awareness allows us to realize that we ourselves are not always the cat’s meow, and maybe we should be a little bit more tolerant of others who show the same imperfections that we do.

Another helpful hint is to hold the person who drives us absolutely nuts in our mind and really dare to see that person. I invite you to do this. A lot of our own judgment of that person may be a story about them we have created, so it is always fair to look for examples in that person’s life that might call into question whether that story always accurately describes that person. I invite you to think about a person that drives you absolutely nuts. In your mind, take a look at that person’s life. Does that person have friends? Does that person have people who love her or him? If you see the negative in that person, who sees the positive? And, if someone sees the positive in them, is that person just deluded? If we dare to go down this road we mind find some startling things. The person who aggravates us to no end may have more friends than we have. They may have areas of their life where they are respected, even esteemed. This understanding is sobering.

Finally, we might turn to our own Untiarian Universalist Principles and Purposes for some direction here. Our Seven Principles speak of every person having inherent worth and dignity, and they also challenge us to cultivate acceptance of one another. I don’t think we are called to accept every behavior or even every thought. But our principles do challenge us to accept every person.

How does all that I have been talking about this morning relate to the greater cultural forces that we are facing as a country? I think that many of our problems, especially the economic problems we face, will draw us into greater proximity with one another, will require cooperation and working together in close quarters. We will be stretched, I predict, to be with others in more closely knit ways as opposed to being dispersed in our own private individualities. Our capacity to not allow others to drive us absolutely nuts will be a basic life skill.

My fellow Saints, and those growing in saintliness, I ask you to consider the more challenging path. Instead of dividing this world between friends and enemies, between those we tolerate and those who drive us nuts, may we move in the directions of unity and greater connection. And, may we also realize that this church is not a museum for the saints. It is a home for those who fall short of perfection. Thank goodness. I’d rather be a companion than a curator.

Namaste. The God inside me sees and recognizes the God inside of you. Namaste.