Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

 

In her marvellous book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown tells the story of a question that haunted her and that, ultimately, ended up setting her free. The question was initially posed to Brown by her therapist. And it goes like this:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

One day, Brown is standing in line at the bank. And maybe her therapist’s question is running through her head, as it has been often over the past few weeks. A lot of things have been going on for Brown lately, including witnessing some pretty boorish and even destructive behaviour from a colleague. And as a consequence, her estimation of humanity is perhaps not at the high water mark.

Brown is maybe one or two people back from the teller’s window, when she hears the customer in front of her begin to aggressively and loudly question the employee behind the window.

“What happened,” the customer demands, “To all of my money?

“I didn’t make these withdrawals!”

The customer grows more and more agitated.

Now, the customer is a white woman in her late seventies. The teller is an African American man in his late twenties. As she becomes more and more agitated, the customer demands to speak to a manager. And when the teller indicates his supervisor – an African American woman – the customer says,

No! I want another manager.”

Eventually, the manager convinces the woman to come to her office and to talk things over. And Brown makes her way up to the teller where she says to the young man:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

The teller smiles.

“Did you see what just happened?” he asks Brown.

“I did see that,” Brown responds. “She didn’t like what you were telling her. And she wanted a white supervisor. It was horrible.”

The teller raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Yeah. She’s scared about her money.”

The two of them talk for a while. Brown learns that the teller is a veteran who served two tours in Iraq and who came home to find that his wife had an affair with someone whom they both new. “That did a number on me,” the teller explains. The two of them have that kind of immediate, intimate, and fleeting connection that sometimes happens between two strangers. Several minutes pass and Brown becomes conscious of the growing line behind her.

And so she begins to leave when the teller says:

“The thing is – you never know about people. That lady could have a kid on drugs stealing money from her account or a husband with Alzheimer’s who is taking money and not even remembering. You just never know. People aren’t themselves when they are scared. It might be all they can do.”

Over the next several weeks, Brown poses her haunting question to more than forty folks.

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

And while forty is not a statistically significant sample, Brown does begin to discern a pattern. There are those who respond like the teller, who say that, yes, they believe that people are doing the best. These folks tend to qualify their answers, they are almost apologetic in their responses. “I know it sounds naïve, but…” they will say or “You can’t be sure, but…” or “I know it sounds weird, but…”

Brown has the impression that these folks have perhaps tried to convince themselves that people aren’t doing their best, but that they somehow couldn’t give up on humanity. They often add that they do believe that people can grow or improve or change. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, that any given time, people are generally doing the best that they can with the tools that they have.

Then there are those to whom Brown speaks who immediately respond: No! No, people are not doing their best. This, by the way, is the response that Brown herself gives: Heck no, people aren’t doing their best. Brown notices two things. First, the equivocal nature of the response is gone. These folks are certain that people are not doing their best.

Second, the folks who answer this way – like Brown herself – tend to struggle with perfectionism. When they look for an example of a person who assuredly isn’t doing her or his best, their primary example tends to be themselves. I know that I’m not doing my best. So why should I think that other people are?

Several weeks in to her informal experiment, Brown realises that she has never posed this question to her husband, Steve. Steve is a pediatrician and, as Brown puts it, his job means that he sees the very best and the very worst in people. And so she asks him:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

Steve thinks about this question for a long time. He stares out the window for perhaps ten minutes. Eventually, he says:

I don’t know. I really don’t.

All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment. And it lets me focus on what is, not what should be or could be.

And Brené Brown says that Steve’s answer feels like truth to her. Not an easy truth, but truth nonetheless.

Today, we begin a run of six Sundays on which we will read from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians is probably Paul’s most well known letter and maybe also his most beloved. Famously, it features the passage that is read at more weddings than any other (“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…”).

Scholars figure that 1 Corinthians is written in the year 53 of the Common Era, two years after Paul visited Corinth and maybe twenty or twenty-five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is likely one of four letters that Paul writes to the young church in Corinth, two of which survive and are preserved for us in the Bible.

Corinth, the city where Paul’s letters are going, is a port town. And like port towns across history, there is a lot going on here: here is wealth; here are sailors and merchants from all over the place who bring with them their culture, their practices and habits and values and ideas; here is a loosening of sexual morality, and in particular, a lot of prostitution; here are athletic spectacles; here is diversity in religious practice.

In many ways, Corinth is as much like a contemporary American city as any place that you could find in the Ancient Near East.

In part because of the nature of Corinth, Paul’s letters to this city encounter a lot of questions that you may recognise:

What does it mean to be church in a context where a lot of folks aren’t Christians? More specifically, what does evangelism look like when a lot of folks don’t know much about Jesus and, maybe, have some pretty different values than you or me?

How do we explain the cross and the resurrection to others and to ourselves – how is a religion whose central figure is a murdered peasant anything other than absurd or pathetic?

Are there people who are “in” or “good” with God and other people who are “out”?

How does the church respond to conflict?

There is, in other words, a seminar’s worth of stuff going on in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, way more than we could hope to encounter in a sermon. So what I would like to do is to zoom in on one question in particular. It is a question that Paul encounters throughout this letter and, specifically, it is question that he encounters in that famous passage that we hear at weddings:

It is the question of spiritual gifts.

Now, in many respects, Paul’s assumptions, his cultural context, is pretty foreign to us. For Paul and his contemporaries, the presence of the supernatural, of the miraculous, in everyday life is a given. He talks about speaking in tongues, for instance, a practice that shows up in very few Episcopal Churches. And he assumes that the church is the healing business, something which those of us who live in West Coast cities a few centuries after the Enlightenment often regard with reflexive scepticism. (Although if you have ever participated in a healing ministry, such as the one that Corbet and Myra and Mariann lead on Sundays, you may find that you have witnessed or experienced things that challenge your scepticism).

In other respects, Paul’s experience is universal or eternal. Because what is it that he says underlies and activates all of the spiritual gifts? What does he say will outlast all of the spiritual gifts? What is the greatest of these three? Faith, hope, and…

Love.

This morning, I am wondering if we can use Paul’s language and understand the habit or the perspective or the world view that Brené Brown explores in her book – the habit of looking at our fellow human beings and saying that, generally speaking, these folks are doing their best – and understand that habit as a spiritual gift, as a practice that is grounded in God’s love and, thus, as a practice that holds the potential to transform ourselves and to transform the world?

What happens when you say, In general, people are doing the best that they can?

Well, I think that Brown’s husband, Steve offers a pretty good answer to that question: it keeps us from judgment, it allows us to see things as they are not as they ought to be. I’d like to use his answers and to flesh them out a little.

This assumption invites us to escape from a place in which we are judgmental. And being set free from judgment is a choice or a way of being ripples through our lives. Because escaping from judgment typically also means an escaping from cynicism, escaping from embitterment, escaping from apathy. Notice, as Brown discovered when she surveyed her forty-odd friends, that part of the judgment from which we are liberated is self-judgment or perfectionism. To believe that people are doing the best that they can necessarily means believing that you – a person – are doing the best that you can. To assume that all of us are doing our best most of the time is to immediately be gentler and more patient with our neighbours and ourselves.

This assumption allows us to meet people as they are, not as we wish them to be. I want to underline this point, because a reflexive critique of this assumption is that it lets people off the hook for their bed behaviour, that it gives folks some kind of a pass, that it turns us into pushovers. I want to suggest that it does the very opposite. I think I have told you before about the employee at the theatre that I used to work at – he was routinely belligerent and rude with clients. It was a big problem. I kept on talking to him and working with him. But his behaviour just wouldn’t change.

The day that I realised that he was doing his best was the day that I fired him. I recognised that his best was a bad fit for the theatre. And what I’ve heard since is that he’s doing great in another workplace – that the act of difficult compassion that was letting him go was freeing for him and for us alike.

Last of all, this assumption allows us to meet people who make different choices than we do, maybe even choices with which we disagree, with generosity and curiosity and patience. I cannot help but wonder how it would transform politics if we got out of the habit of assuming that the party for which we didn’t vote is motivated primarily or exclusively by base emotions, by fear, by anger, by selfishness, by stupidity. (I can’t help but wonder how it would transform, Thanksgiving Dinner.)

This assumption doesn’t mean, by the way, that we waive our right to critique other folks’ decisions, that we uncritically agree with whatever they have to say, that we engage in a lazy moral relativism where everyone has their opinion and they are all equally valid. It does mean that we allow the possibility that folks who are different from us have good intentions, that they experience the same hopes and longings and anxieties as we do. It allows us to respond to people with whom we disagree without feeling like we need to mirror their anger or add to their anger. And that is game changing. What kind of conversations become possible when we sit across from someone and say: this person – like me – is doing her best?

Across his ministry, Jesus encounters people with this lens, with this assumption. Jesus encounters people – including people who are doing selfish or even evil things – with this remarkable openness. Think of how he meets Zacchaeus the tax collector, think of how he meets the woman accused of adultery, think of how he even meets the two thieves that hang beside him on the cross. Now, to be clear, Jesus does push these people – he does push you and me – to grow and become more moral.

As my friend Jenny says, God loves us just the way that we are: and God loves us too much to let us stay that way.

Jesus meets you and me where we are. Jesus meets you and me in love. Jesus says to you and to me and to everyone: You are doing your very best. I know that you are. And with my help, you will grow and learn and evolve. That is, as Brené Brown says, a hard truth. But it is a truth that just might set us free.