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Showing up

As far as I can remember, I only got kicked out of Sunday School one time.  I think I was about middle-school age, and while I can’t remember the specifics anymore, if I had to guess why my teacher kicked me out of the class, it was probably because I wouldn’t stop talking.  I felt so ashamed that I went to the bathroom and cried.


I must have made a vow to myself that if I was the teacher, I would never kick a kid out of my class.  And now some thirty years later, I’ve led plenty of kids’ activities and taught lots of classes, and I’ve never kicked someone out of my class or cast them away from the group activity.  I can think of times I’ve invited kids to step away and take a break to calm themselves, or even to go outside the room to take some deep breaths.  But the goal is always to restore that kid back to the rest of the group.  


Kicking a kid out of class tells that person: you are unacceptable.  Showing compassion and care to help a kid reflect on their actions and re-center themselves tells that person: you are loved, and your behavior is unacceptable.  There’s a huge difference between dismissing an entire person and dismissing a person’s behavior. 


When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath—a gathering probably similar to what we now know as “Sunday School”—someone showed up to disrupt the class.  But Jesus, a masterful teacher, quickly recognized the real problem.  The person was not the problem; the unclean spirit was the problem.  Everyone who witnessed this event was amazed.  And I can’t help but think their amazement arose from their inability to tell the difference between a human and that human’s confounding and disruptive and problematic behavior. 


Granted, it's hard to know what to do when you’re not sure what’s going on with someone else. Is that person screaming because of an emergency, or are they in the throes of mental illness, or are they misusing some substance?  If I don’t know what to do to help, I might just stay away, keep a safe distance. 


But is any distance truly safe?  If I’m abandoning someone else in their time of need, I’m losing access to my compassion and drifting farther from my own humanity.  Does that help me or make me safe?  No. 


In his first letter to the Corinthians, which we read earlier, Paul cares so much about how the followers of Jesus take care of each other, that he suggests voluntarily giving up some of your own freedom if that will help someone else come to understand God’s love in Jesus.  Paul’s example is about eating meat sacrificed to idols, which was a topic of concern for followers of Jesus. 


I’ve heard that in ancient times, there was no prepackaged meat available at the local grocery store, and besides, meat is a pretty expensive protein. The only occasion for regular people to have meat in their diets was when an animal was sacrificed in a religious ceremony.  So if they’re gonna eat meat, that’s the main way—or maybe the only way—they would get meat. 


Paul essentially says, sure, you could eat meat, even if it’s been sacrificed to an idol we do not worship.  It’s not a sin to eat meat.  But if someone else sees you doing this and concludes that meat-eating and maybe even idol-sacrifices are fine, well then that’s the problem. 


And you could say, well, that’s unfair because how am I supposed to know who’s watching what I eat and how am I supposed to know what they understand about God?  So Paul is saying: look.  Everything is not all about you. 


This is a tough concept for us 21st century American Christians who tend to lean toward individualism and individual freedom as though that’s gonna save us, which it won’t.  Yes, we’re all responsible for our own actions, but do we need to make life harder for other people when they are already struggling? 


The situation of sacrificing meat to idols may not be an illuminating example of caring for one’s neighbor, but I can think of other examples.  Say you’re at a social gathering where alcohol is being served in a lawfully responsible way, and you know you’re the kind of person who can have one or two drinks and it’s fine for you.  But you see your friend at the same party, and you happen to know that this friend is struggling to maintain their sobriety.  Do you grab a cocktail because you can, or do you drink something nonalcoholic in solidarity with your sober friend?  Either way is legal, and it’s allowable for you, but which of these ways demonstrates compassion? 


Or how about an example of a fully legal activity: posting things on social media.  You could post that silly meme poking fun at people belonging to some political party or making fun of some elected leader—it may not be illegal, but is it helpful


As St. Paul said it: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Is your message flaunting your rhetorical zeal and building up barriers between people to reinforce the group of people who are “right” and people who are “wrong”?  Or is your message building up understanding among people or building up community in love? 


Rabbi Sharon (BROWSE) Brous recently wrote a guest essay in the New York Times about this human instinct to determine who’s in or out.  She writes:

“Humans naturally incline toward the known. Our tribes can uplift us, order our lives, give them meaning and purpose, direction and pride. But the tribal instinct can also be perilous. The more closely we identify with our tribe, the more likely we are to dismiss or even feel hostility toward those outside it.


“One of the great casualties of tribalism is curiosity. And when we are no longer curious, when we don’t try to imagine or understand what another person is thinking or feeling or where her pain comes from, our hearts begin to narrow. We become less compassionate and more entrenched in our own worldviews.


“Trauma exacerbates this trend. It reinforces an instinct to turn away from one another, rather than make ourselves even more vulnerable.”[1]


Rabbi Brous admits that it’s scary to show up when your heart is broken or when you feel lost, but showing up—the hardest thing to do—is also the most healing thing to do.  She shares the inspiration she has found in an ancient text from the Mishnah, a third century compilation of Jewish teachings. 


The text, found in chapter two of Middot[2], describes a pilgrimage ritual of Second Temple Judaism.  Faithful pilgrims would enter the Temple Mount and turn right, walking around the enormous plaza counterclockwise.  Except the people who were in mourning, the brokenhearted, and Rabbi Brous would include those who are lonely or sick, would enter the space, turn left, and walk against the current of other faithful pilgrims. 


Each pilgrim who encountered someone in pain would ask “What happened to you?  Why does your heart ache?”  And they would respond with their story, and then receive a blessing: “May the Holy One comfort you.  You are not alone.”  Rabbi Brous sees this as a reminder of the importance of showing up—this year perhaps I’m the one giving blessings to others in pain, next year perhaps I’ll be the one in pain who is in need of blessing. 


Rabbi Brous writes what she learns from this ritual:

“…do not take your broken heart and go home. Don’t isolate. Step toward those whom you know will hold you tenderly.


“And on your good days — the days when you can breathe — show up then, too. Because the very fact of seeing those who are walking against the current, people who can barely hold on, and asking, with an open heart, “Tell me about your sorrow,” may be the deepest affirmation of our humanity, even in terribly inhumane times.


“It is an expression of both love and sacred responsibility to turn to another person in her moment of deepest anguish and say: “Your sorrow may scare me, it may unsettle me. But I will not abandon you. I will meet your grief with relentless love.”[3]


Rabbi Brous mentions another group of people who entered the sacred circle and walked with those who were grieving or unwell: people who have been ostracized from their community, a harsh punishment applied for people who “have brought serious harm to the social fabric of the community.”  Being ostracized was not a permanent condition, however—the hope remained that the person could be restored to their community.  Rabbi Brous writes, “This is breathtaking.  The ancient rabbis ask us to imagine a society in which no person is disposable.” 


Yes, indeed.  Imagine a society where no person gets left behind, no person gets cast out—only the unclean spirits are cast out.  Imagine a place where we can have compassion for one another and show up even when we don’t know how to fix the pain or help someone else—showing up really matters. 


This is what we confess about God: God shows up in Jesus Christ, even in suffering and death.  And Christ is known through the Holy Spirit, and if you’ve ever had an encounter with the Holy Spirit, you can testify to her persistence—she won’t leave you alone, even when you wish she would. 


I can tell you that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t leave me alone in calling me to follow Jesus.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit, I learned from my old Sunday School teacher what not to do in a classroom with a disruptive student.  Besides, jokes on you, teacher who kicked me out of class—I became a pastor, anyway. 


What I know now is that there are many better ways to deal with disruptive behaviors, and they all include showing up with compassion.  May we know God’s great compassion for us, each of us made in God’s image, and may we summon the courage to show up for one another, bearing God’s presence to one another, bringing healing power that unifies rather than divides.  Love builds up. 


Pastor Cheryl




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