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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 54-55.
 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.
 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.
From the reading today, from the Revelation of John, we hear the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega” the Beginning and the End.
Love is the word that Jesus speaks to today from the Gospel of John. He is telling us that the love of the father is known in the person of Jesus and is to be reflected in all that know him. That is our task as Christians pure and simple, to show the love of God. There is a song that we still sing, “and they will know we are Christians by our love”.
Have any of you tried to define time? I know scientists go round and round with theories about time and space. We believe that time is a part of the creative order and the mystery of God creating out of nothing is well beyond our imagination or knowledge. We know time because we experience it. I would offer also that we know God by experiencing the God of Creation. We have learned to divide time into years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Ancient people had their own definitions of time and their calendars.
I have always been fascinated by time since we are all creatures of time. Saint Augustine, in the 4th century was asked by a student the question, “What was God doing before the creation?” Augustine’s response was to say, “God was making Hell for people who asked such questions.”
But we do wonder about time and space. We define ourselves by time. How old are we? We began life at a certain point in time. We did not choose to be born but we do have choices of how we spend our time. We find our freedom to choose one of the great gifts that God has given to humanity. We can choose to be a reflection of God’s love or choose to bring hell on earth by our bad choices.
We lost a real prophet this past week. Daniel Berrigan, a 94 year old Jesuit priest spent his entire life defining issues of justice, war and peace and got in trouble many times over the years. Arrested many times, he leaves quite a legacy in the Catholic Church. You could hate him or love him but he and his brother, Phillip, were not timid in confronting the powers that be whether it was the Church or governments. He was honored on the front page of The New York Times on Wednesday and his life was full of meaning. He used his time well with us and made a difference to the world whether you agreed or disagreed with him. He will be remembered because of his simplicity of life style as a Jesuit priest and his prophetic message.
Yes, time is a part of creation and we experience it. Next time you look in the mirror,
remind yourself that the reflection you see was at one time much younger. And the hopes and dreams of the past are being lived out even now as the song goes, “time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.”
So here we are and what are we doing with our time?
First of all, we need to define who we are within community. Whoever we are, we come together as a family of some type. We grow up in relationship with mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, playmates, and slowly we learn to love, usually because we have experienced love from people who love us. Today is Mother’s Day and we have our special memories to reflect on with our Mothers living or dead. A life was born and we are here today out of that moment that brought us into the world.
And by extension of the love we have received, we learn to love and experience God as a reflection of that love. We can even learn that God loves us so much that he loved us into existence. He even loves us to the point of joining with our life and death struggles in the person of Jesus. “So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them”.
We are creatures intended to be in community. We belong to many communities.
Our town or city.
And now we feel a deeper knowledge and connection with the universe and the mysteries still unfolding as we probe more into space.
We are meant to be participants in community. To be members or leaders of groups, committees, make decisions, vote, give money, eat together, worship together, sing together. My own commitment for the past 35 years is with the Palestinian Christian community and learning so much from them as to their commitment to faith and to justice. It gives me life to learn from those who reflect the present of Jesus in their own lives. Each of us needs to find how to give of ourselves to others and receive from them. Many people today are isolated and do not relate to community. Again, it is the task of Christians to break through isolation and help others find community. Grace Memorial has a fine history of doing just that.
I believe we are meant to live out life together with our unique diversities and find ways to make sure all people are an important part of society. We are testing that expectation in our political life even now.
Within the various communities of our lives, we live out our time on earth. Hopefully making a difference for the good of humanity.
If God is love and we are to reflect that love, how do we go about life?
There are two primary parts of each of us.
(1) We are takers. We take from others and some of this is very very good. We learn from others, we are recipients of gifts from others. We are people who need to be in relationship in order to take and receive what others offer.
We are takers in a harmful way also. We use others for our own benefit that might be harmful to them. We take advantage of trusting relationships and we gossip or tell lies or manipulate in a way that harms them. We think of ourselves only and do what it takes to further our own needs. We do not stop long enough to say thank you. We just take what we want and forget about others. The other can often be another person….the other is also God who gave us life.
(2) We are givers. We learn in life that it is important to give of ourselves. We give of ourselves in various ways. We learn that we have a gift of teaching, a gift of relationship, a gift of organizing, a gift of substance…money, a gift of knowledge, a gift of sharing, and on and on and on. We learn to give away these various gifts or talents and make life easier for others. That part of us that gives may never know how much our gifts have meant to the recipients.
I can remember this learning in my life. I had a scoutmaster in high school. He was a doctor. He gave of his time to our scout unit. Our scout unit hiked from the north rim to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We took rubber rafts and floated the Rio Grande through the magnificent canyons of the Big Bend National Park in Texas, (when the Rio Grande had water). We took a dozen horses for two weeks of camping in the Big Bend National Park and we would ride across into Mexico. What a wonderful experience with his leadership.
In my senior year of college, I set down at my desk and wrote him a letter of “thank you”. I expressed all that I had learned from him and let him know how grateful I was. I was to experience his death and funeral the following year.
I had taken and received from him. I was able to let him know how important he was in my growing up years. If I have learned anything in life, it is to seek relationships with meaning and find how to take and give in each relationship.
And, so, love is the name of the game. It is a word that includes so much of what we experience in our time with each other and with God. Jesus gave of himself so that we might know life.
Lets find meaning in all that we do in the time ahead. We call it the future.