(You can watch video of this sermon and the rest of our church service here.)
Back in October I posed the question within our church community and on social media, “What have you been learning about yourself during the pandemic?” I shared folks’ responses in my sermon video for online worship, which I encourage you to check out if you didn’t see it because you all shared some really wise and honest reflections, and funny and poignant. There’s a lot we can learn from each other.
Now that we as a church seem to have gotten a foot on to the other side of this pandemic river crossing, it’s important to check back in with this kind of question of what have we learned and how have we changed, and especially what is most important to us, what are our enduring values we want to hold on to and be led by as a community of faith and as individual people of faith?
We are still in an in-between time. Even though we are returning to “normal”, that “normal” is not normal, as if normal ever was … we are very much still in the midst of change. As we’ve learned, in liminal times it’s important to keep reminding ourselves clearly who we are and what values guide us as a church community centered around the reality of the infinite and intimate God of love.
When I posed the question in October about what you’ve been learning about yourselves through the pandemic, there were several big themes, that are all worth exploring, but today I’ll focus on two that are related. Many of you expressed how you have been taking heart and taking courage in the care and compassion that has been abundantly on display as folks have stepped up and helped each other through this difficult time.
And at the same time, another theme was the distress of discovering just how vicious the selfishness in our culture can be. Some of you had some really poignant expressions of wrestling with the reality that so many of our neighbors and leaders have proven to be irresponsible. Then you reflected on your own anger and judgment in light of our Christian values of mercy and grace and moral courage.
Wise stuff, you all. And important to the question of what does it mean to live out our values in these times as the kind of church community that we are.
I have a little parable about this, from my own recent experience.
Earlier in the spring I went on a walk with someone from the church, like I’ve been doing. In the course of walking around town we passed by some litter on the sidewalk. The person I was walking with stooped down and scooped up the crumpled slushy cup and when we passed by a trash can, they dropped it in. There.
A little later in the week I went on another walk with someone else from the church. In the course of walking around town, we passed by an empty can of malt lacquer and a potato chip bag. The person I was walking with just stooped down and scooped it up and when we passed by a trash can, they dropped it all in. There.
Okay, Nathaniel, great story. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that it wasn’t me picking up the trash. I had to realize that if I had been alone, it wouldn’t have gotten picked up. I had stopped doing that. I had stopped bothering to pick up the random bits of litter that came across my path.
I had been raised to do that, you know. You help keep your neighborhood clean, you help keep your city clean. When you see litter, you pick it up. That had been my way of being.
But the course of this past year, I’d stopped doing that. It’s not like I had decided to stop doing it. I had drifted into it.
So, I had to take a good look at why.
The reason is that I had grown cynical. I had become fed up with taking responsibility for someone else’s irresponsibility. I had grown weary and resentful and resigned and cynical and disgusted about people just doing what is most immediately convenient for them without regard for the problems that causes for others.
You may be gathering at this point that this is not just about trash. It partly is – it is distressing to me how much we are trashing our earth, and in the big scope of things, random litter is not the deadly problem, and I’m just as complicit in the bigger problem as the litter bug I may cluck my tongue at. But I’m usually motivated to care to try to do something about it.
The resignation, the cynicism has come because of what several of you have so poignantly named: It’s been so deeply disappointing that during this pandemic there’s been so much shortsighted and selfish behavior, and there hasn’t been an overwhelming shared spirit of Let’s All Pitch in to take responsibility for the common good.
Now, of course, to respond to that by throwing up my hands isn’t a faithful or mature reaction. Someone has to pick up the trash – and if you see something that needs to be done, you now have the responsibility to help make sure it gets done. And publicly I think I have managed to stay faithful and responsible. But I’m confessing before you all my private struggles, because I suspect that I’m not altogether alone in feeling resentful sometimes, feeling dispirited and cynical. And I wouldn’t be doing my job as a pastor if I were to make it seem as if it ought to be so easy all the time to be compassionate, just, and merciful, as our God leads us to become. No, it can be really hard.
This is why it’s so good to keep returning to the wisdom and practice of our faith. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right” as we “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:9–10).
But what about when we do grow weary? Well, we recognize that, we are honest to God about it. And then we let go of it, and simply keep on doing what is right, for the good of all – whether we feel like it or not.
It helps to continue to remind ourselves that we are in no position to stand in judgment of others or to feel resentful, for we too can do things that trash the greater good, we too have benefitted from others cleaning up our messes, we too have relied on the free grace and undeserved generosity of others, much less of God.
It helps to open my weary and resentful heart to remember what Jesus taught …
“Love your enemies, and show them kindness, and lend to them, never despairing. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Learn to be merciful – even as your Creator is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and others will give to you. A generous measure, pressed and shaken down, and running over, will they pour into your lap; For The standard you use will be the standard used for you.”
So, I am resolved to pick up my neighbor’s trash, and to do so as a spiritual practice, with a free and open heart. I am resolved to try to deal responsibly with my own trash and not dump it on someone else. I find when I do that little concrete practice, it helps me to be much more open to bigger ways of doing my part to be responsible for big problems that I may not be directly responsible for, I may be able to point to others who bear more guilt, but problems that I do contribute to, that I am complicit in, messes that do need to be cleaned up for the sake of our neighborhoods and our world… problems like the living legacies of racism.
It helps to have a little concrete daily practice that keeps us responding to the needs of the moment by doing the right thing as best as we can figure, with a heart that is humble and free of bitterness. The Way of Jesus, is a good and sure guide for this.
Thanks be to God.