Seventh Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 13, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Psalm 1

The Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that when she welcomes newcomers to the parish at which she serves, she always shares with them the same message:

I want to guarantee you one thing, she tells the newcomers.

I want to guarantee you that this church will disappoint you.[1]

I love that line. I love it for its directness, its vulnerability, its raw honesty. It is a line that I may start plagiarising when I welcome newcomers here to Grace. Although maybe I shouldn’t limit it to the newcomers. Maybe I should share this guarantee, this promise more broadly with everyone at Grace. Why not? Here goes:

I want to guarantee you that, whether this is your first week here or you have been here a year or ten years or sixty years, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church will disappoint you.

You will be disappointed when I say something foolish or, at least, something that doesn’t sit right with you. You will be disappointed when someone whom you love or respect or look to for approval does something or leaves something undone that leaves you feeling sad and stung. You will be disappointed when there is a power struggle over… What? What are the sorts of things that parishes have power struggles over? How the flowers are arranged or how coffee hour is set up or what kind of music we sing or what subjects we are allowed to talk about or what colour we paint the building.

Perhaps you have your own additions to that list of disappointments.

What will you do when the guaranteed happens and Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappoints you? Or wait, that’s not right: I shouldn’t be phrasing Bolz-Weber’s question as though it were hypothetical. Unless you are really new here, this question isn’t hypothetical at all. It certainly isn’t hypothetical for me.

So:

When Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappointed you, what did you do?

I guess that I am captivated by Bolz-Weber’s powerful and dangerous and mischievous question, not only because it offers insight into this beloved and flawed community that we call church, but because it offers insight into our broader web of relationships within the world. You could apply her question to any cherished relationship, to any human connection that we hold in such high esteem that, whether or not we name this expectation out loud, we expect to be the kind of context in which disappointment doesn’t happen.

This is church. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is a marriage. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is my country. Disappointments shouldn’t happen here.

In a way, these relationships or people or places or ideas are victims of the very high esteem in which we hold them. When they turn out to be flawed, as everything this side of heaven is flawed, it feels kind of like a betrayal. As a consequence, we sometimes commit to these relationships with an unspoken reservation:

I am here, I am with you – until you disappoint me.[2]

That’s why every good set of marriage vows names disappointment: We are together for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; for better and for worse.

Now, I want to throw in a significant caveat here before I go any further. What Bolz-Weber is talking about and what I am in turn talking about is not a scenario in which we stick it out no matter how screwed up it becomes. Sometimes a marriage dies. And the most compassionate and loving thing to do is to name that death via divorce. Sometimes a church has so unmoored from the Gospel that it is stuck a place in which it is celebrating patriarchy or homophobia or Islamophobia; in which it is preaching consumerism as though buying stuff were the Gospel; in which it is utterly forgetting its duty to the poor. If that church is unwilling or unable to change, then the most faithful thing you or I can do may be to move on and to respond to the Gospel of Christ elsewhere.

What we are talking about, in other words, is not a scenario in which we stay in a relationship not matter how great the cost to our integrity or to our joy. What we are talking about, rather, are the mostly healthy relationships in our lives (and I don’t know if this is pessimism or realism, but I’m going to suggest that our very best earthly relationships are mostly healthy; mostly healthy is the apex of what we will achieve during our sojourn on this earth) in which we periodically, predictably, and inevitably encounter disappointment.

What Bolz-Weber goes on to tell the folks at the newcomer gatherings is that when we encounter disappointment but we keep on showing up, then the Holy Spirit shows up as well.

Bolz-Weber’s advice is consistent with my own experience. A number of months ago, someone asked after my life, asked me how I was doing. And I told them: these days, I am having a lot of generative conflicts.

What I mean by “generative conflict” it is the sort of intense or fierce conversation, maybe even the sort of fight, that when you risk having it, teaches you a whole bunch about your neighbour, about yourself, about God. It is a conversation that is hard work. But it is a conversation that generates stuff: it generates compassion, connection, communion. It generates love.[3]

These are the sorts of conversations of encounters in which we remember that we are made by God for interconnection, for relationship. These are the moments in which we catch a glimpse of what, in South African theology, is called Ubuntu. Not Descartes’ hyper-individualistic, “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am because you are.” Ubuntu says that it is in encounter with the other, including disappointing encounters with the other – maybe in a way that we can’t quite name, especially in disappointing encounter with the other – that we see that the other is made in the image of God, and that we, too, are made in God’s image.

The Gospel of John is perplexing and surprising and beautiful and paradoxical. This is the Gospel in which Jesus doesn’t tell parables. It is the Gospel that maybe features the most human, down to earth Jesus: in John, Jesus starts his earthly ministry at a party; and it is John that contains the staggering words, Jesus wept. And it is the Gospel in which Jesus, when he talks, sound most like a mystic, most like someone plugged into a cosmic secret.

Today we hear him say to the one whom he calls Father: Protect my disciples so that they may be one, as we are one.

Maybe it is that awesome oneness that Bolz-Weber is getting at when she says that the Holy Spirit shows up when we power through disappointment and keep on showing up ourselves, maybe that is what Desmond Tutu and others are getting at when they speak of Ubuntu.

I can’t quantify this. But I know that I have experienced it. I know that when I have risked an intense conversation, when have I risked conflict, when I have risked telling the truth and deeply listening for the truth in return, when I have listened to another human being in love – a human being with whom I felt disappointment and, as or more often, a human being who felt disappointment in me – God has been there. And something has shifted.

When we show up after the disappointment, Jesus shows up too. And if we let him, Jesus will do what he does: he will heal and teach and maybe even cast out a few of our demons. And we are surprised to realise that our disappointment has turned into understanding, surprised to notice that we are there, that we are one, that Jesus is with us, together.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 54-55.

[2] This line – and much of the thinking that surrounds it – is indebted to: Ron Rolheiser, “Fidelity – Our Greatest Gift to Others,” Ron Rolheiser, OMI, accessed May 11, 2018, http://ronrolheiser.com/fidelity-our-greatest-gift-to-others/#.WcUonoprxE4.

[3] On Sunday morn, I had an unscripted thought here about my own history of conflict avoidance. You can hear it on the recording if you like.