ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 6, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram World Communion Sunday
WELCOME A CHALLENGE
Romans 5: 1 – 5; Matthew 5: 1 – 12
This week I received an email, the subject line posed the question: Is stupidity a cause for a pastor to murder the stupid person? Since the person who sent it was feeling badly about something they’d forgotten to do, I sent an appropriately pastoral response: No. Don’t be so hard on yourself. However, if I’m honest (and this is no reflection on the sender of the email), my initial thoughts were” “if only…” followed by “if it were there’d be dead bodies everywhere, including my own.” I may not be a brilliant theologian, but I had a vague sense that murdering stupid people was probably contrary to the gospel. The problem is that people who irritate us abound. They may not be stupid, but they can be trying and annoying. They can be self-absorbed and needy. They can be phony or back-stabbing. They can be boring or erratic. They can be self-pitying yet aggressive. They can talk in circles or be critical. Murder is out of the question, yet we can’t help but wonder why God dislikes us so much as to have brought them into our lives.
While challenging people may seem like they are getting in the way of our spiritual growth, they are often a gift from God in disguise. Some people tempt us to step out of the flow of the Holy Spirit; so we resent them for it. I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite virtuous if it wasn’t for people. Yet God puts them in our lives to help us become the best version of our self that we can be. A man prayed for patience and the Lord agreed to grant his request. He left his house the next morning and got stuck in traffic; he was late for work and his boss docked his pay; at lunch time the office gossip sat beside him and talked his ear off. After work he stopped at the barber shop and got the barber with bad breath. He arrived home hoping to unwind, only to find a note from his wife that said, “out with friends – dinner’s in the freezer”. After supper, his oldest child ignored his directive to wash the dishes and his youngest two got into a squabble about a toy. When he finally got to bed, his neighbour cranked up his music and hosted a noisy street party. All through the day the man was aggravated, edgy, and exasperated. Lying in bed with the pillow over his head, he confronted God saying, “I asked you to give me patience and all I’ve gotten all day is stress and frustration, thanks for nothing.” To which the Lord replied, “Why are you so miserable? You asked for patience and I gave you all kinds of opportunities to practice.” If we need to develop love, then un-loveable people are a training ground. If we need to be more assertive, bossy people are a bonus. If we need to be more hopeful, a discouraging person can push us to rise above our own inner negativity. Just as exercise builds up the body, dealing with difficult people can build up our spirits. Like them or not, difficult people may be a gift from God.
Before I continue, I want to be clear that there’s a difference between a challenging person and a dangerous one. A challenging person is someone we don’t particularly connect with or like. They may irritate us or try our patience. We may find them difficult to love. A dangerous person is destructive, threatening, abusive and toxic. Years ago, I had a friend who was controlling. She organized every event and they had to be done her way. That was challenging. As time went on, she used me and betrayed my trust. She also spread ugly and untrue gossip about me. That made her dangerous. The abusive spouse, the accusatory co-worker, the back-stabbing friend, the harassing boss are not difficult people – they’re dangerous people. While we’re called to pray for, pity, forgive and even love them, we also need to protect ourselves from their influence. We owe it to ourselves not to give them power over us and that may mean getting as far away from them as possible.
On the other hand, difficult people are part of life. If God were to get rid of all the difficult people with their flaws, quirks, annoying habits, ugliness and sin, there’d be no people left – including you and me. We may wish that God would give us a life with only lovely, easy to love people, but, when God wants to refine and sanctify our spirits, difficult people are his tools. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.” In Romans 5 we read that, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (vs 4). God uses many forms of suffering to refine us, and difficult people are one of his favorites. You may find consolation in knowing that you too are a difficult person whom God uses to transform someone else. The spiritual challenge for each of us is to have rivers of living waters flowing through us, not only despite these people, and not only because of them, but also towards them. If we can have a generosity of heart and learn to embrace people whom we find difficult, we become an unstoppable force for God’s kingdom.
While in Israel, we encountered some difficult people. Pushy merchants; mouthy children; inhospitable hotel managers. These we expected. What we didn’t expect were difficult Christians. On day two, our tour took us to Mount Carmel, the site where Elijah had challenged the Prophets of Baal. Our bus arrived at the same time as 6 other buses. As we disembarked so did our fellow pilgrims. By the way they were dressed, we concluded they were likely from India. Both groups began to move towards the entrance gate. Our bus load quickly found ourselves pushed out of the way. We couldn’t get in the flow of the foot traffic without being jostled to the side. It was annoying. We realized we’d need to be more assertive, so as I got near the gate, I stuck my arm out on the gatepost to prevent anyone else from pushing ahead. They still pushed! I thought they’d break my arm. Once we were finally inside, the site was small and so it was very crowded; it was impossible to see anything or to get a quiet moment to meditate – resentment was percolating. Then I realized we were dealing with a cultural difference. I’m a (normally) polite Canadian whose country is spacious and whose stores are well stocked. These brothers and sisters in Christ live in a crowded country where you may miss out on bread for the day if you don’t get in there and assert yourself. I became more gracious, more accepting, more loving. I was even excited by the thought that these Christians were part of the body of Christ and we shared a common Spirit and a common faith. As we went from site to site over the next few days, we saw Christians from the Philippines, China, Africa, Europe, Australia, the US. We met Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, and Orthodox worshippers from every country around the globe. It occurred to me that these are the people who sit down around the Lord’s Table with me every year on World Communion Sunday to partake in the sacrament that binds us as brothers and sisters. I was in awe of how our faith is shared across the globe.
I wish I could say I’d learned from this revelation; that something in my Spirit shifted, but it was short-lived. On the day we went to the site of the Beatitudes, we were entering the small, hive-shaped chapel. Once again, there were many Christians of every persuasion. A little nun was by the doorway, reminding people to observe silence. Then she looked me in the eye and said, “God has a message for you.” I was filled with anticipation. I entered the chapel, took a seat and sat quietly, focusing my mind on God and opening my heart to hear God’s message. I hadn’t been there 3 minutes, when a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians came in and began to chant. All I could hear was chanting. God couldn’t get a word in. I wanted to tell them to shut up. I wanted to point out that their worship was interfering with my worship. Worse still, it was interfering with God’s message for me – because it’s all about me. I grew angry, then frustrated and then I gave up. I vented to Terry for a while and then a light went on and I said, “Maybe God’s message to me was: ‘blessed are the meek…’ ” I reflected on what an up-lifting experience it may have been if I’d just enjoyed the chanting; maybe God was trying to speak to me through that music. All I could hear were difficult people, and I allowed my attitude to ruin the moment. But as the Spirit whispered to me (giving the message God had for me), I was once again able to marvel at the richness of worship throughout all the Christian traditions. The chanters went from being difficult to being blessings, not because they had changed, but because they had helped to change me. The thing is: other people don’t “make” my spirit a certain way, they simply reveal the spirit that is already within me. When I can be honest with myself, then the Holy Spirit changes me and I am once again in her flow.
Time and time again, I’ve witnessed congregations reject, shun or ostracize someone who was difficult, or didn’t fit in, or got on people’s nerves. Some people are simply easier to love than others. Time and time again, I’ve reminded brothers and sisters in Christ that we don’t get a choice about who God sends our way – our job is to reflect the kingdom of heaven by loving that person, including that person and seeing Christ at work in that person, and through them at work in me. As Paul reminds us, God has “set us right with himself, made us fit for himself —we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus” (Romans 5: 1). We are included in the Body of Christ, which is visible and invisible, which is now and eternal, not because we’re easy, flawless, normal, compliant, sinless people. We’re included because regardless of how difficult God finds us, God set us right with himself through faith in Christ, by grace. We’re called to welcome and bless all whom God sends us with the same grace we’ve received.
As we come to the Lord’s table today, let’s remember that we come with Christians of all persuasions from across the globe. We are a gift to one another, warts and all, because God uses us to form the best “me” each of us can be. Together we’re not only something strong and beautiful for God, we are a blessing, albeit sometimes in disguise, to one another. In Christ, we are each other’s hope. And “in alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Romans 5: 5).