My favorite magazine is The Sun. The Sun is a literary magazine with no ads, only poems, short stories and interviews with interesting people. Each issue has a section in which readers may submit a story that has something to do with the subject for the month. For example, this month’s subject is “Learning the Hard Way.” Next month’s will be “Tattoos” and in December the topic will be “Dating Apps.” Ordinary readers may write a brief story about these topics.
Reading this month’s topic on “Learning the Hard Way,” I was caught by one particular writer. Her story was that she entered the 9th grade as an honor roll student, but by the end of her first semester, she had a “D” in algebra. She went to see her teacher and he explained that she really only earned an “F”, but he didn’t want to flunk her. She began to cry and the teacher put his arm around her shoulders and said, “It’s OK. Girls can’t do math. Just don’t take any more math classes.” She took his advice and did not take any more math during the rest of her high school years.
Later, she married and had children. One day her husband was laid off from work, so she took an entry-level job at a small manufacturing company to help make ends meet. When the purchasing manager left, she was promoted to his position. She was afraid she might need math skills, but she also knew she understood the inventory and could learn the previous manager’s system.
Very quickly, she realized that the previous manager had no system. Not only that, the position did require math. But, she was up for the task, so she created her own method, however, it was not good enough. She was staying up late at night after the children went to bed to organize herself for the next day with all sorts of ways to get the job done. But, she was failing. At the height of her stress, she went to her boss and told him she was not doing well. She even told him the story of her high school teacher who told her she couldn’t do math because she was a girl.
She said her boss stared at her for a long time and then said he needed a cigarette break and for her to go back to work. She walked back to her office and sat there waiting to be fired. An hour later her boss called her back into his office and proceeded to tell her how he couldn’t believe a teacher could be so ignorant and that the ability to do math had nothing to do with her gender. He told her that he would teach her the skills she needed to do the job.
For the next six months, she learned the ropes and when she finally, truly understood the process, she began to find ways to make the system more efficient and save money. Shortly after her tutorial sessions ended, the owner of the company promoted her and gave her a raise. When she expressed her gratitude, he told her that it was he who was grateful for her willingness to hang in there.
The reason this story reached so deep with me is because it is my story. I know the effects of someone’s words that are sharp and careless. I have been on the end of such critical language and I’m sure I to have spoken too quickly without thinking of the consequences to others. How many of us have carried around, far too long, hurtful words spoken to us? You see, what we say matters and reaches beyond our intent. Making pronouncements without considering the other person can have lasting effects.
If you have been following the lectionary for the past several weeks (and I’m sure you all have) you’ve noticed we have been in parables which are teaching tools Jesus used for our benefit. They were and are meant to instruct us in right ways of living as followers of Jesus. While today’s gospel reading is not a parable, I believe all of Jesus’ teachings are bound up in the opening sentence of the reading, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” It is love, the love of God as witnessed through the face of Jesus that we are being redeemed over and over again every day.
The theme for this convention is “Always We Begin Again.” These words are taken from John McQuiston’s book of the Benedictine Way of Living. I was given a copy of this book when it first came out and the title has never been far from me. The title is a reminder that every day we begin again hoping to have learned a kernel of truth from the day before. It is the story of humanity’s desire to take a step forward after we have taken two steps backwards. Every day we have another opportunity to make a difference in this world to love. Some days are better than others, and yet, in God’s infinite grace, no matter where we have fallen short, we can begin again. Throughout scripture, the rolling theme is beginning again, and again, and again. From Adam and Eve through the second testament, God’s children were falling and getting up, over and over. It is true for us today.
The other day in the process of boxing books I came across the journal of my first year as your Bishop. Thumbing through, I found entrees that pointed to successes and then I found some that were failures. That was not really a surprise. But what caught my attention was the first line: “What is the invitation God is giving us? As I sat on the floor thinking about the beginning of my work among you, I think I can say God is still inviting us, inviting us to love one another as God loves us.
Loving is not easy. It is messy, demanding and sometimes painful, but in the end, it is life-giving. For love produces love upon love. It is when we step back and think we don’t need love that we fall pray to our own desires and direction. Like the math professor who told the young student she couldn’t do math because she was a girl. That comment was not “for” the young girl but against her, and building up one another is part of loving others.
If you look at the two men we remember today, St. Jude and St. Simon, they were two opposite individuals, yet they worked diligently to spread the words of Hope and Grace and Love. So were the rest of the Disciples. What a mixed group of guys, and yet, they found ways around their differences to tell the story of Jesus’ love for them and for us. This is the work you and I have shared for the past 12 plus years. We didn’t always agree, yet we found ways to continue the call of discipleship. I would like to think we tried because the other mattered more than the issue itself. The other mattered.
In the Mockingbird, Zadie Smith wrote, “I think the hardest thing for anyone is accepting that other people are real as you are. That’s it. Not using them as tools, not using them as examples, or things to make yourself feel better, or things to get over or under. Just accepting that they are absolutely as real as you are and have all the same expectations and demands. And it’s so difficult that basically the only person that ever did it was Christ. The rest of us are very, very far behind.”
So many people think the days of the organized church are on the downslope. I disagree. This is our time to show an angry, judgmental, self-absorbing, fearful world that there is a better way to live. It is living the way of Jesus. Jesus sees us for who we are and loves us anyway. He understands that we are the same, in need of love. This is our calling. This is what we promise in our baptism vows, that we accept the way of Christ, the way of love, to respect the other as real as we are. To bring to the table justice and hope and a longing to be invited into the community of beginners.
On my ordination as a bishop, Presiding Bishop Schori gave me a framed quote from Don Helder Camara:
“The Bishop belongs to everyone. Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone!”
These words are not just for Bishops, but for every person who desires to be called a child of God. The doors of our hearts must always be open to those who seek shelter from life’s darkness. We do this because the other is as real as we are. We do this because our hearts’ yearning is to love as Christ loved us. We do this to lift up our neighbor.
Which brings me back to where I began. Jesus said, I give you a new command that you have love for one another.