What are the most significant relationships in your life? For some, you may have immediately thought of your partner, your spouse, your lover – the person whose presence adds more to your life than you ever thought possible. Adrian and I have been married for almost 14 years, and occasionally we will talk about just how thankful we are that we found each other and that as we’ve grown and learned more about our selves and one another, our love has deepened and strengthened. Marriage, intimacy, partnership can be such a gift.
When I consider my most significant relationships, I also think about my sister. Meg is about 20 months older than I am. When we were younger we competed with one another which sometimes made the sister the enemy, but especially because our family moved every few years, we learned that the sister was one of the few constants in life, one who was unwavering. As we went to college and entered adulthood, marriage, children, and life...Meg has become one of my very best friends, who celebrates life’s joys with me and together we navigate the hard.
I also think about my friendships – with clergy colleagues, a few from high school and college, some former parishioners – friends who are there through thick and thin. This past week on my days off, I ran away with two of my former student pastors to Atlanta to explore and laugh and eat and be a little warmer. Some of you might think, wow, that’s a long way to go for not even two days...but these friends have become some of my most trusted confidants. In Bible Study this past week, we considered the relationships – spouses, family, friends with whom you can completely be yourself, no pretense, no bravado, no make-up or forced smiles -just be. One persons described the feeling like being “home” with those persons. Those relationships are gifts, and they are to be treasured.
Relationships have the power to bring peace, comfort, sanity...accompaniment through this roller coaster of life. However, being in relationships has a cost too – it takes time and energy. Allowing yourself to love someone means opening yourself to being vulnerable – so that your emotional wellbeing can be totally discombobulated because of theirs. Have you ever been having a nice day, and then you get a call from a friend who is devastated, and all of a sudden, your heart is breaking with them. Or, you’re having a fight with your love and all of a sudden, going to work, thinking straight... is just so much harder. Our relationships impact our wholeness – for better and for worse.
As we try and live whole lives, finding abundance and balance...it’s important to consider ways of prioritizing relationships. Maybe it’s a scheduled thing – making a weekly phone call at the same day and time, maybe it’s spontaneous surprise to remind your friend just how much you value their perspectives, maybe it’s intentionally saying the magic words – “I love you,” or “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”... if you were to give your relationships a grade right now...how would they stack up, and which ones of your closest, most significant relationships could use more care?
The Sermon on the Plain – an Alternate vision
The scripture lesson from Luke 6 comes in the middle of what’s called the “Sermon on the Plain” or the sermon on the “level place”...this is comparable to Matthew’s version of Jesus preaching on the hillside – or the Sermon on the Mount. The fact that Luke has Jesus teaching from the level place is important. It’s important because the original readers of Luke would have understood what the level place was – it’s code language to indicate that he was in the middle of the world’s brokenness. Ezekiel was in a level place when he saw a valley of dry bones representing the people of Israel, in need of resuscitation. In the middle of the level place, or real life, things are not perfect, relationships are often filled with greed and envy, transactional relationships are the norm, and we use one another simply to satisfy what we need for the least amount of input possible, we are keenly aware of our own unsatisfied desires and don’t have time to focus on what anyone else may need or how we might help...it’s in the middle of it all when Jesus stands up and preaches about a different way of being. In this sermon, Jesus is trying to teach his followers what it means to live a life of love.
It means relationships are going to be a little different. He expected them to exude a different kind of love and care...to all. As I read these words of what Jesus is inviting the people to- a part of me thinks that sounds pretty unrealistic. When someone treats you badly, you’re supposed to still be kind? Do unto others as they do unto you...isn’t that how it goes...and yet Jesus offers an alternate way of being, where we operate with a sort of kingdom of God vision, seeing one another as beloved children of God. Jesus asks us to do better even in the midst of the level place. Even in the midst of national crises and emergencies, to stop the rhetoric and critique long enough to hear the cries of the needy and respond with generosity and care. Not focusing on the speck in the other’s eye before doing the work on ourselves first.
While I was in Atlanta, I had the chance to go to the Civil Rights museum. There were three exhibits, one that went documented the ways that athletes have stood up and shown another way – by resisting homophobia, by sharing their stories of abuse, by resisting racism, by standing up for equal rights and pay for female and male athletes, and by using their position to raise money and awareness for causes of justice. There was an exhibit on human rights, where situations and people from around the world were highlighted for their role in being an oppressor or being a defender. As I read stories of women and men from South Africa to India to Guatemala to China...I realized these were people who were willing to rise up in the level place, and do better in how we treat our fellow human beings. The last exhibit we went through was the Civil Rights exhibit called “The Meaning of Hope” in which the stories of freedom riders, speeches, lunch counter sit ins, marches, and assassinations were told. More than once tears rolled down my cheeks as I read and heard stories, and hope that America could do better.
These stories, to me, demonstrate the capacity for humanity to do better, even in the middle of the level place. The faith and courage of men and women, black and white, young and old, and everyone in between demonstrated that what Jesus was preaching about IS possible to embody, and when people do – the world is changed.
People of God
At the end of this week, I will head to St. Louis with thousands of United Methodist lay and clergy from around the world as we gather to consider the position of the United Methodist denomination on human sexuality. I grew up in the United Methodist tradition, am ordained as a United Methodist elder, and prior to serving here have always pastored in United Methodist churches, and I go to this General Conference not as an observer, but as one of 7 clergy elected to represent the Northern Illinois region. My heart and my gut are all tied up as I prepare because I want to have hope that a room full of Christian people could choose love, could embody an expression of faith that includes every single person, no ifs ands or buts about it. And yet, I know all too well that the church generally has messed up and we have failed to honor our relationships with one another. We too easily slide into judgement, whereas Jesus taught a way of radical, inclusive love.
We find ourselves, in the church and in our lives in a level place, a place where we are keenly aware of brokenness and hurt, wounds that are new and wounds that are old. And yet, it is in the midst of these level places that God’s work is the most transformative – where we are recreated and experience the Spirit doing the impossible. People of God, we have been invited to love – to experience the Divine in the midst of our relationships – with loved ones and strangers alike. I hope and pray that we would have the audacity to live lives and tend to our relationships with abundant care, forgiveness, and generosity. When we do, we experience wholeness ourselves and help bring about wholeness to our aching world. May it be so. Amen.