Monday, June 11, 2018

A Labortary for Relationships

I initiated something with my twenty fellow pilgrims after we returned from Scotland.  I made up a list of the Top10 things never said as we walked the Way of St. Cuthbert.  Things like, “What do you mean we don’t get to walk up that step hill!”  Others quickly responded, adding their own statements to the list.  One of the slower walkers offered this: “I must be the first person here.”  I won’t read the list to you because, as they say, you had to be there to get it.

About half of our group also walked the English Way of the Camino in Spain in 2016.  Of them, half are clergy who I see a couple of times each year at diocesan meetings and functions.  It is always a reunion of sorts when we are together, punctuated by joyous hugs and good-natured ribbing about something funny that happened on the trip.  It is fascinating to me how ten days and 60 miles of walking can forge a group of people into a community.

Last Sunday I talked about negotiating two realities in our lives.  First, we are lovingly created by God to be a one of a kind masterpiece.  And second, we are a communal people who live in complex relationships with others.  We are created in the image of God and just as God does not exist as an isolated singular, but rather is revealed in the Holy Trinity as existing in relational harmony, so too we have been designed to be connected to other people.

In today’s gospel reading we get a sense of just how complicated this can be.  Scholars attack Jesus saying he is in league with the devil and his own family states publicly they fear he has lost his mind.  The first accusation must have been infuriating; the second must have been devastating.  

In developing his hierarchy of human needs, the psychologist Abraham Maslow held that after addressing our physical need for things like food and water and after making provisions for our personal safety and well-being, our greatest need is to secure a sense of belonging; social connectedness.  Typically we make these connections through friendships, co-workers, and family. 

These relationships are not luxuries.  They are a human need.  If you deny the body oxygen – a physical need – it will surely die.  If you deny a human being of vital relationships, it will have an intensely detrimental effect on a person’s well-being.  Given all of this, it is no exaggeration to say Jesus is facing a very real personal crisis in his life in today’s reading.  

In her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, the social scientist BrenĂ© Brown states “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.”  Certainly this seems counter-intuitive because we grow up believing fitting in to get along is essential if we are going to be accepted and incorporated into a group, be it friends, coworkers, or family.  But through her research Brown discovered the people with the deepest sense of belonging have the ability to stand alone when necessary.  They will risk disconnection in order to maintain their own authenticity and integrity.  Last Sunday I named this as personal authority.

Brown notes, “We are more sorted than we have ever been in the history of our county.  We have built ideological bunkers.  We are more likely now to live with, worship with, and go to school with people who are politically and ideologically likeminded.”  Rather than fostering a sense of belonging, Brown notes this sorting has not resulted in deeper connections, but rather in what she calls “Common Enemy Intimacy” – being joined together only because you hate the same people.  And just as some said Jesus did the work of the devil or that he had lost his mind, today’s language about the other is largely dehumanizing.  The less human we think of a person or a group the more inhumane we are likely to treat them.  Brown says as a society we are being driven away from one another by fear.

Fear is a subtext in today’s gospel reading.  The Jerusalem scribes are afraid of Jesus even though it is very early on in his public ministry and all he has done is heal a few people, defy certain societal conventions, created a buzz, and attracted a few followers.  No doubt Mary and her children – Jesus’ brothers and sisters – are afraid of the attention he is drawing and for good reason suspect it will not serve well either him or them.  Fear ratchets up the drive to disconnect.  Think about Maslow – personal security comes before social belonging.

I suspect there is not one of us here this morning who is not experiencing some kind of social disconnectedness in life; some kind of estrangement from a person or group where once there was, or should be, a relationship.  Somewhere in this brokenness I guarantee you is a fear.  It may be complicated and disguised or obvious and open, but fear is a tremendous threat to relationship.

In my first years of ordained ministry I worked for the most dysfunctional person I had known up to that point in my young life and I was completely unprepared to negotiate this relationship.  I sought the counsel of a priest I trusted who suggested I refocus the emphasis on my ministry to serving the rector while I quietly looked for employment elsewhere.  It was a brilliant suggestion, but at the time I said I was afraid if I devoted myself to what my boss needed from me I would be swallowed whole and disappear.  Well, lets just say our ‘relationship’ did not end well and leave it at that.  But, as time has gone by, I don’t blame him or focus on his dysfunction.  I think about how inexperienced I was and how fear disabled me and limited severely the range of my possible responses.

Well, back to Jesus and today’s reading.  He dismisses the criticism of his ‘peers’ by noting the obvious: if he is creating health and well-being in those who are suffering he can hardly be in cahoots with the author of misery and pain.  More difficult to dismiss is the criticism of his family.  But Jesus has experienced in much greater intensity what I experienced with my fellow pilgrims and you have found to be true through manifold relationships in your life.  Our social connectedness – our sense of belonging – manifests itself in a variety of ways.  

Perhaps the deepest, most enduring level is spiritual.  Jesus found his connectedness neither through genetics or professional associations, but through shared, deeply held beliefs and experiences.  “Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my father, my brother, my sister.”  

Why are we at St. Paul’s bound together in social connectedness?  It is not because we share the same history.  Some of us have pedigree in Suffolk going back generations while others have not yet been here a calendar year.  We do not see eye to eye on politics.  We do not gather arm-in-arm singing Kumbaya every time the Episcopal Church makes a statement about our society.  

What binds us together?  Well, it may seem simplistic, but we are bound together because we are in the same place week in and week out.  We recognize how each of us – although flawed – is attempting to honor God and do God’s will.  Here is something I love about St. Paul’s: this is not a place of sorting.  We are not perfect, or perfectly diverse (whatever that means), but we come here to be with the people God is bringing here – all of the people.  This is not without its challenges, but it is not without its blessings.  If every child of God is welcomed here – no matter what his or her foibles me be – than guess what… I am welcome here, just as I am.  I do not need to boast about why I belong.  I do not need to grovel for acceptance.  I just need to present myself as a child of God desiring to be in relationship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  

Here, you can be yourself.  You are welcome to stand apart, should you feel the need to do so.  But you have to be willing to allow another person to stand up and speak a word you struggle to accept.  In the end, we are a laboratory for relationships and belonging.  This is not a place to be coddled.  It is a place to be challenged and refined all the while being loved with the deepest love God has for each of us.  We are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.  We belong to one another.