Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Coming Out--A Guide"



A note to the reader:
  • A few words of warning—this is not meant to be comprehensive, or legal advice, or any of that. This is more of  a “I wish I had known” list of suggestions and thoughts. Some of them I learned from direct experience myself, and others from what I have seen others deal with. Tailor this to your situation/needs/circumstances.
  • For my non-LGBT readers and friends--please take this as an education. Some of you are very aware of the issues and concerns I am discussing. Others may not be. 
  • And this is, of course, not the last word. There are many books out there on the coming out process; this is meant as a quick once-over--have you thought of this? What about that? Things I wish I or others had thought about before we came out the way we did.
  • And for all of you--any constructive suggestions for improving this are gratefully accepted! 

First of all, I’m discussing the practical aspects of coming out—not the emotional/spiritual/psychological sides, which are several posts—heck, several books—in and of themselves. Some of this practical stuff will affect and is affected by the other aspects, naturally—again, take what you need how you need it.
 

Much of it is applicable to any major life change—divorce, serious illness, birth of a child, etc. So it won’t all be geared to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues by any means, although that is the main focus. These are things to think about, consider, plan for, as you contemplate coming out. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

And of course, consult a professional for advice specific to your situation—lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, etc.

Finances
A very basic question: do you have enough independent income to live on? If you currently share expenses with someone else (spouse, partner) or are still living at home with parents/guardians, and you are not sure you will be able to continue in that living arrangement if you come out, you must be sure you can survive on your own. Add up all your expenses on a yearly basis—mortgage/rent, insurance (car, homeowners/tenants, life), car payment, utilities, amount spent on groceries, cell phone, medical care, pet care, home/car maintenance (tune-ups, furnace inspections, etc.), membership fees (professional associations, union dues, gym, etc.), condo fees, holiday gifts, birthday presents, vacations, savings—everything that you pay for throughout the year. If you’re in school, you’ve got tuition, room, board, fees, books, etc. Will you have enough money? What is “enough” will, again, depend on your situation. You may be willing and able to survive on noodle soup and a mattress on the floor of a basement apartment in order to live your truth. But if you have children, are finishing your education, or have a medical condition, you will want to be sure you have a safe, healthy place to live and a way to pay for your schooling and medical care. Only you know what your absolute rock-bottom needs are—make sure they can be met.

Remember, if you are currently married, and you end up divorcing, your spouse may or may not have to pay child support and/or maintenance—this varies depending on circumstances, including where you live. You cannot count on that income, and again, depending on circumstances, you may have to pay child support.

Some advice from that above mentioned experience, mine and others: before you make the coming-out statement, before you begin anything irrevocable, set your financial house in order. Pay down or off on your credit cards, pay off your car, make sure your insurance is paid up, be sure your have enough in your savings account to cover six months with no income plus the deductible on your car insurance…put yourself in a position of financial strength. We all hope that all will go well and those who are in financial partnership with us or are supporting us (parents/guardians) will not be vindictive or use finances as a way to control us. But we do not know how someone might react or what circumstances might arise. Look at it as starting your life anew, afresh, and that includes your finances.

Career/employment
This is related to finances.  Think about both your current job and your long-term goals or your occupation. Are they places where you will feel safe coming out? Your profession as a whole might be accepting, but is the company or office you are a part of comfortable with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people? You may want to look for a job in another company in the same field or another office of the company that you currently work for that is more accepting—make that part of your coming out. If your work location is not accepting and changing work locations or company is not feasible, how will you handle it? If you are part of a union, what are the union policies? Coming out to the union steward, if she or he is supportive, before coming out to your boss or HR head is wise. If you are self-employed, will coming out affect your ability to attract or retain clients/customers/patients?

You may find that you have to change professions or field if you come out—for example, some religious groups will not allow LGBT people to serve as pastors or even as lay leaders in congregations or in the administrations of churches or denominations, and until recently, the US military banned LGBT people from serving. Some school districts or principals will not be comfortable with an out LGBT person in the classroom, especially if you teach physical education. And so on. How will you make such a change? You may be able to transfer to another church or school district—but do you know what is required in order to do that and how long it might take? How will you find out what is needed? How will you support yourself if you must return to school or undertake an internship or other training program?

If you are in school, think about these same ideas in terms of school. What is the climate like at school? Does homophobic bullying occur? How do teachers and staff handle it—do they stop it, ignore it, say something but not follow up? Are there any out staff members? A gay-straight alliance? You probably cannot transfer schools easily, but if you can, you may want to consider it. If you are in college or university, the same questions apply, but you may be able to transfer schools or campuses more easily. Consider the possible effect on your student aid package—if your parents choose to discontinue paying part of your expenses, you may be eligible for more aid. There are also scholarships specifically for LGBT students.

Friends/Family
We always hope for the best reaction from those we care about the most. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it. Think about your family and friends. How do you think they will react when you come out to them? It can be very painful, but think hard about which of your friends and family will stick with you—will you have a support system? You will need one, so look for four or five friends and family members  you know will be rock solid support for you and who can keep a confidence—maybe your parents, or a grandparent or uncle or aunt, maybe a former teacher, or your friend since grade three… They are the ones you will want to tell first. If you cannot come up with some friends and family who you are sure will support you, you may want to wait to come out to them until you have more of a support network.

Community
If you are active in your local community, think about how coming out will be received by others in the community—the parents of the Little League team you coach, the other members of your Bible study group, your book club. If you hold offices in any organizations—from PTA to Kiwanis to a professional organization—how will the organization receive your coming out? Will you be asked to resign, to move to a less visible position in the organization, or will it have no effect?

Health
Both physical and mental—how is your health? If you have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or fibromyalgia, you will need health coverage—how will any possible changes in your income or profession affect your health insurance? If you have had a serious illness that requires follow-up and continued care, such as cancer or HIV/AIDS, this also applies to you.

If you are subject to depression or another mood disorder, know that coming out can be very hard on your mood—expect changes, not always for the better. Your therapist should be one of the first you can and do come out to. If you don’t feel safe doing that, find another therapist! He or she can help you navigate the reefs of coming out into a new identity with your sanity intact.

Protection before coming out
Until you are ready to come out, be cautious. Not only do you need a support system, but you need to be ready, and to be outed before you are ready is devastating both for you and potentially for family and friends. You may face job loss, or upset family and friends, or comment in your local community. If you are married and your spouse does not know, there are even more potential issues. Therefore, I say be careful. I am NOT saying it’s OK to sneak around and intentionally deceive people. But you  have the right to maintain your own boundaries and come out when it is right for you—unless not coming out would hurt others more than coming out would.

Be aware that going to LGBT community spaces (bar, community center, support group) may expose you; visiting LGBT web sites may too, as may having a same-gender relationship. I am not saying you should not do these things—but be aware of possible consequences and plan for them.

And one more form of protection—if you do decide to engage in sexual behaviour, use protection—a condom or dental dam. As difficult as it is to come out safely, you do not want to add the stress of having to deal with a sexually transmitted infection on top of it—especially if you have had another relationship outside of what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship.

Reality check
Coming out will NOT solve all your problems. You will feel lightened, relief, as if a burden is gone. But you will also feel grief for the losses and changes in your life—even with the best outcome, there are always losses and changes. You will also find that while most people in the LGBT community are warm, kind people (one of my friends was hurt and upset that I came out to a mutual friend first, instead of to her), you will also find there are as many needy, clinging, arrogant, rude, and downright nasty people in the LGBT community as there are in the rest of the world. Simply because someone is LGBT and out does not mean they are friend material, much less potential partners. It can be downright depressing. But always balance that against continuing to live in the closet—coming out generally wins.

And what if you are “outed?”  Hopefully, you have been able to put some of this planning into action—you have people you know you can confide in, you have safe spaces, at least some of your work/school colleagues know and are supportive, and you have already contemplated the effect of coming out on your relationships—work, family, home, school, etc. If not, you will have to do a lot of work in a short time. Generally, even if people are not accepting, they are as upset that they didn’t know as they are about the fact that you are LGBT. With that in mind, have those conversations with crucial people—your boss (if it might affect your work), your spouse, parents, children, best friends. You may find that they suspected all along. If not, you have done your part—you have been honest with them. If they are upset or angry that you did not tell them earlier (before you were “forced” to), explain to them your fears and anxiety, and describe how the world still is not very hospitable to those who are different. If they still do not understand, keep an open mind and try to be forgiving. This is something you have known about yourself for a long time—they are just finding it out/having it confirmed. It will take them time, as it took you some time, to assimilate this new information about you.

I’ve gone through all this not to tell anyone when they should or should not come out, much less how to come out or to whom. There are some bedrock ideas—think and prepare before you come out, be sure you are in a safe place emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually before you do so, and that you have a support system in place, but also do come out as soon and as safely as you can. You will be healthier for it!

"Are You Ready? Pack Your Bags!" Advent 1A (November 27, 2011)


Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O God, you are our Maker; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O God, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Human One coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Saviour, but only the Creator. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
***
Will you pray with me? God who journeys with us, open our ears and hearts to your message; give us grace to listen with accepting spirits and to speak with ready words the message you have for us today.  In all your names, amen.

Doom, desolation, and grief; earthquakes, fire, the end of the world—these seem like strange readings for the first Sunday in Advent! Aren’t we supposed to be looking out for joy, delight, hope, peace, a baby in manger with shepherds keeping watch and angels singing of heavenly peace? What happened to swords into ploughshares and Joseph’s dreams and a young woman expecting the anointed one, the child of God?

Jesus’ coming is exactly what all this—the earthquakes and fire and desolation and whirlwind and so on—are about. We who know that Jesus was born once are awaiting his return—and until he returns in that final glory, we prepare for that return by remembering his first arrival among humans, much quieter and unheralded, as a baby in a manger. But one day he will come again, and it will be in a firestorm, whether literal or metaphorical.

No one knows when—and Jesus emphasizes this—no one knows the time, not the angels, not humans, not even Jesus Christ himself—only God the creator knows when Christ will return. Many people have tried to predict it over the centuries. The early Christians thought it would be right away; then maybe after 100 years, then maybe in the year 1000. Various dates have been popular, including 2000, and most recently, October 21 of this year. Obviously it did not happen on any of those dates! But it will happen, and since no one knows when it will be, we had better act as if it has already happened, or is about to happen, so we will be ready.

What does it mean, to behave as if God’s realm had come on earth? We pray for it every time we say the prayer Jesus taught us. “Your dominion come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But what does that mean, to ask that God’s will be done on earth? What will God’s realm, God’s dominion, look like?

We’ve been hearing a lot about it in the last few weeks. God’s realm is like young women prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, the VIP; God’s realm is everyone being paid the same wage no matter long or short a time they have worked; God’s dominion is sharing our gifts and talents so they produce good results, it’s seeing Jesus in everyone, and serving him in them. It’s all those things—recognising God’s presence in the world, living open-handed with all that we have been given, because all that we have and are comes ultimately from God.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent; the first of the four Sundays that lead up to Christmas. Advent means “the approach,” in other words, it’s the time of preparation for Jesus’ arrival among us on Christmas. A journey is a powerful metaphor or symbol for Advent—after all, Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for his birth, and Jesus himself travelled throughout his ministry, as did the early disciples and the apostles. Our lives are often described as journeys, too. How do you prepare for a journey?

First, you prepare for the trip. When you go on a trip, you don’t just go to the airport and see where the planes are going. You know where you want to go—Key West, or New York City, or Paris or Italy. You make reservations at a hotel or make sure it’s OK with your friends for you to stay with them; maybe you reserve a rental car. Maybe you are travelling for a family wedding, or a vacation, or for business. And so you pack what is appropriate for the trip—shorts, flip-flops, and sunblock for Key West; your best suit for a wedding.

Then you begin your journey—you head to the airport or finish packing the car, and back down the driveway and head off. You know you have what you need, so you start off with excitement and a sense of expectation and hope.

Third, you sometimes have a crisis in your trip—luggage is lost, there’s a fender-bender with your car, a plane is delayed, the hotel loses your reservations, your friend can’t pick you up at the airport after all and you have to take a taxi, or maybe you get lost in a strange city. Something happens to trip you up, to make it difficult to remember the purpose of your trip, to remember that hope and excitement.

And finally, you arrive at your destination—and sometimes it isn’t what you had hoped for. It rains for three days straight, you catch a cold, the show you had hoped to see is sold out, the hotel isn’t as advertised, you argue with the friends who are putting you up… But often it is—the wedding is beautiful, the weather is perfect, you reconnect with your friends, the hotel is so great you don’t want to go home. And you celebrate your journey, your trip to this place, to this time, with these people, the love and happiness and joy of your arrival in the place you were meant to be.

We’ll be exploring all those phases of the journey in the next few weeks, but today let’s look at preparing and packing. Naturally, once you know where you are going and why, a lot of decisions are made easier. Key West means no sweaters or gloves; a wedding means your suit, and so on. You don’t need to rent a car on Key West, once you are there; nor in New York or Paris. But if you plan to tour the Tuscan countryside, you had better make arrangements for a car! If you hate to fly and are going to drive yourself, you make sure the oil is changed and the tires are in good shape. You prepare.

So where are we going, this Advent, and what will we need when we are there? In common with every Advent, we are heading to the realm of God, wherever that is and whatever it looks like. Even Jesus couldn’t describe it except in terms of metaphors and parables. “It is as if…” he says. Or, “The realm of God is like…” It’s not that he doesn’t know what it will be like, but more that the human language does not have the words to describe it.

It will be a—well, we can’t really say place, because it is out of our time and space, isn’t it? It is where our human failings are gone—all those miscommunications, all the times we said one thing and meant another, when someone said or did something hurtful—maybe for the best of reasons!—when we hurt others or were hurt, where hunger and injustice and pain and illness are no more, where there is perfect understanding between people, no fear of judgement or conflict or hatred or anger. Even predators will be at peace with their prey—Isaiah says the lion will lie down with the lamb.

Wow. I can just barely imagine a place like that.  How do you—we—prepare for a place like that? How do we pack? What will we need to bring with us? What should be in our suitcases?

First is confidence and reliance on God’s love for us. We belong in God’s dominion; the decision does not lie with any human being, but with God and God has welcomed all creatures into God’s realm. So begin with that sure knowledge that we are welcome there and no one will reject us or tell us to leave—because we belong there and no one doubts it. With that confidence, then, we do not need to bring fear or anger. Nothing can harm us, we cannot harm anyone in God’s realm—so there is nothing to fear. No hate—hate comes from fear and anger, from a lack of understanding that God created all beings good and loves all that God has created. Even those we hate or fear or are angry with—the parent or boss or sibling or friend—may well be present in God’s realm—remember, the decision is God’s, who most truly knows each person’s heart; the decision doesn’t belong to us humans, who can only judge by what we see on the outside, and so do not really know the other person. If we want to be forgiven by others, then we must also forgive.

What else should we bring? Wonder—the wonder of a child, a phrase we often hear around Advent and Christmas. Children don’t doubt—the day a child begins to doubt her place in the universe is the day she is no longer a child. Sadly, that day comes too soon for many children, made to feel less than, unwanted, rejected. But unless and until that day arrives, children have a certainty that they belong, and the knowledge that God loves them, and that amazing things can happen if we can keep that certainty of God’s love for us in our hearts.

Well, my friends, it’s time to get ready—pull down your favourite suitcase or backpack or bag from the closet or under the bed, and start packing. Put in all your wonder, all your certainty that God loves you, your forgiveness, and your hope. Leave behind your fear, your anger, your doubt, your uncertainty. Pack it up, get ready to go on this wonderful Advent journey.  The taxi will be here soon; are we ready?

In the name of God who journeys with us, amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Giving Our Gifts" November 20, 2011, Reign of Christ

Ezekiel 34:11-24
For thus says the Holy One, our God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Holy One: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Holy One, will be their God, and my servant David shall be ruler among them; I, the Holy One, have spoken.

Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Human One comes in glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the Ruler will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by Abba-God, inherit the realm prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Teacher, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the Ruler will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Sir, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Please pray with me. Holy One, open our hearts to your grace. Give me your words to speak so that our spirits and minds are moved by your truth and love. In the name of your child, our saviour and friend, Jesus the Christ, amen.

When I was about five years old, my family lived in an L-shaped house—a long ranch style house with the living room and bedrooms that was the upright part of the L, and a garage, joined to the rest of the house by a breezeway, or closed porch, that was the short part of the L. Inside that L was a patio, partially paved, where we had a sandbox and a swing set and my mother had a garden. One very hot summer afternoon we set up a wading pool and filled it with water. Two of my older sisters, me, and my younger sister took turns jumping into the water. Over and over we jumped into the pool, splashing water everywhere. I got the bright idea of running and jumping into the pool, and stood by the back door to the breezeway, giving myself plenty of room for a run. “Geronimo!” I shouted, and flung my arms back, ready to run.  Crash! My arm broke through the glass on the door, and gashed my arm deeply. Blood was everywhere. My younger sister—all of three at the time—stood and stared. One of my older sisters ran, screaming. The other one, cooler under fire, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my arm, calling for my mother. My mother, after one glance at the carnage, called a neighbour, Mrs. Barber, to ask for a ride to the doctor, since my oldest sister had the family car. Now, Mrs. Barber’s daughter had recently been in a terrible car crash, and Lori needed someone with her on a regular basis. But when my mother called her, Mrs. Barber came, without hesitation. She drove us to the doctor and waited to find out if the doctor would stitch me up or send me to the hospital, so she could take us to the hospital if that were the doctor’s verdict. She didn’t refuse at the sight of the blood; she didn’t plead her daughter’s need of her; she didn’t even ask us to put a towel on the seat. She simply drove us to the doctor’s office.

When Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” that is what he means. That free giving to the person who needs whatever it is you have to give. We had a desperate need of the doctor and no way to get to him; she had a car. She drove us to the doctor’s office and waited to see if we needed to go anywhere else. We needed a car, Mrs. Barber had a car, and she gave it to us. Not literally—she didn’t just hand over the keys. She knew that Mom was in no condition to drive, and besides, Mom had to calm me down. She couldn’t do that and drive, too. Mrs. Barber gave us what we needed, not because she owed us anything, or because we offered to pay her—although I think my parents took her and Mr. Barber out to dinner a few weeks later—or because she was counting up her brownie points towards heaven. Mrs. Barber helped us because we needed help and she could give it.

This passage from Matthew is difficult for many people, because it portrays Jesus as a judge who decides who will have everlasting life, and who will not. It’s hard to think of Jesus, who loves all God’s children, as a stern judge. But who better? Jesus is the child of God; he is human and divine. Jesus knows what it is to be human; at the same time, he is God. And so we know that Jesus is not arbitrary or without understanding of human failings. But—there’s always that, isn’t there? The fundamental requirement is still there. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says we are to love one another as we love ourselves. Well, this is how we show it—this is how we demonstrate our love. We can’t just talk the talk—we can’t just say we love others—we have to walk the walk; we have to show that we love others by our actions towards them.

 You know, I could say I love my neighbours, I love everyone—but if I don’t help people, if I don’t show that love, then how can anyone know that I really do love my neighbours? It’s easy enough to say that I do, but to show it, to live it—that’s a bit harder. Jesus as ruler is judging us on our behaviour not because God doesn’t know what’s in our hearts and has to go by what we do. God knows us intimately, and God knows what is in our hearts. But that’s not enough, to simply have that intention or that thought, or belief. We have to act it out, make it real and tangible, in this world, not hidden away in our hearts. What’s the Rogers and Hammerstein song say—“love’s not love until you give it away?” Our love has to be visible in order for others to see it, know it, benefit from it. If I’m hungry, don’t tell me how much you love me—give me a meal. If you want to set an example, you don’t just lecture—you do.  It doesn’t do any good to tell people to “do as I say, not as I do.”

Another thing about making our love visible: we have to do things simply out of love, not because we expect anything back, not even the satisfaction of having helped someone. Anyone who has worked with the public, or in social services work can tell you that even when you have helped others, it is not always appreciated or even recognized. We do things out of love for love, not for anything at all in return, even our love returned. Once we expect something in return, the relationship becomes an economic one—“I give you a drink of water and you give me gratitude.” “I give you a place to stay and you give me $100;” well, that’s a hotel. Or “I give you a meal and you give me a morning’s work in the yard.”  Those are trades. Love simply gives: “You’re hungry; here’s a meal.” “You’re ill; let me bring you some soup.” When I was going through chemotherapy, one of my friends called me on Friday afternoons to find out what I wanted for dinner—and then brought it by. She didn’t want me to pay her, she didn’t even expect me to sit and visit with her for  a while—she simply dropped the food off, without coming in, simply giving me what I needed, without any expectation of return or an exchange.

Notice something else here—we’re not expected to solve the person’s problem for them. We give them water to drink; we don’t dig a new well for them. We comfort people who are sick; we aren’t expected to heal them. My friend couldn’t ease the side effects of chemo, but she could help me deal with them.

            I find this very comforting, because it means I don’t have to take on the world. If I thought I had to take care of each person’s problems, help him or her solve all the issues in their lives—well, I wouldn’t get very far, would I? Elsewhere Jesus says that we will always have poor people with us. He didn’t mean we should give up on the issues of poverty! He meant that poverty is not our problem to solve; it is beyond our capabilities to eradicate it completely. What we can do, what we are called to do is to make the sting less, ease the burden on those who are poor. Now, that we can do.

Think about this. Jesus himself did these things. He reached out, he comforted and fed and encouraged. He loved others, and acted out that love in tangible ways, most powerfully and ultimately on the cross. He did not expect anything back from anyone. He knew what he had been called to do through love, and he did it.

And there is this too, my friends. We all are called to something—each of us has gifts and talents to use in God’s service. And those gifts may not be the obvious ones—the ones you use to make a living or that you share every day in your family. While it is good to see the retired high school teacher lead the youth group, it is, to me, even more fulfilling to see him head up the altar guild or coordinate the care of the memorial garden. But whatever it is, God has called you to—something. And when we are called, we have no option, in the end, but to answer that call—because that is only way we feel fulfilled. And so we respond to that call, and act, and do.

Now, before anyone starts thinking “Works righteousness” at me, let me say that the works alone are not the answer, either. “Works righteousness” is the idea that all the good deeds we do are marked down to our benefit in a sort of heavenly ledger or bank account. We cannot earn our way into God’s realm by doing good deeds. We do these things because we love God, because we love another. There’s a real question as to the understanding of what Jesus says—are the sheep blessed because of what they do, or do they do those things because they are blessed? Which came first? Or do they feed each other?

We are saved by grace through faith, as shown in our works, in what we do for others. It is because we have faith that we do works—we do not do these works to gain faith (although works strengthens faith), nor to earn grace. You cannot earn grace—it is freely given, before we are even aware of our need for it. When we care for others, when we love our neighbours as ourselves, it is because we first loved God, and then we could love our neighbours and ourselves. We are blessed by what we do for the least of these our sisters and brothers, and because we are blessed we do these things for our sisters and brothers.

It goes without saying, I think, that those who “butt with head and shoulder,” who push away the hungry sheep in order to eat all the grass themselves—they are not doing the works of God, and that is why Ezekiel reports God as saying that “I will save my flock and they shall not be ravaged;” God will not allow God’s children to be destroyed.

Mrs. Barber loved my mother and me. She drove us to the doctor because it was what we needed—not what was convenient for her, but what we needed. She couldn’t stitch up my arm, but she could take us to the doctor. Mrs. Barber reached out in love and did what she could, what she saw that we needed.

Remember what Jesus did. Remember what he says to Peter elsewhere: “Feed my sheep.” Remember that he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Remember that when we feed or clothe or visit the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it for Jesus. Jesus, the child of God, who fed the hungry and strengthened the weak and loved every other child of God.
           
Go thou, and do likewise, in all God’s names. Amen.                                                         

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"You've Got Talent! Now What Are You Going to Do With It?" November 13, 2011; Pentecost 22

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of God will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Saviour Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

***
Will you pray with me? Generous-hearted God, open our human hearts to receive all that you want to give us today; bless our hearing and speaking and doing, so that all our works and prayers may be a blessing to others, and thus acceptable in your sight; in the name of your child and our friend, Jesus Christ, amen.

What do we do with what we have? How do we spend or use what is ours—our money, our possessions such as our home, our car, clothes? How about our friends, our families—how do we treat them? Do we get all the use we can out of them and then toss them aside like a used Kleenex? That might be OK for clothes or a car, but not people—nor ideas or emotions or relationships. We feel a responsibility for those, don’t we? We know that how we treat people and feelings matters.

The talents Jesus is talking about—in the parable, a talent is an amount of money, a lot of money—a year’s salary. Imagine someone giving you a year’s income, all at once—a lot of money. Now, the first two servants invest the money they are given, and so get a return, and have something to give their master when he comes back—even though there is some risk involved, as with any investment. But they take that risk; and for both of them, their investment doubles. Now that last man—he buries his talent, rather than risk losing it. And yet what happens? He’s the one who is condemned, who did not do what he should have done.

This parable is where we get our modern meaning of “talent;” people over the centuries have understood that Jesus is talking about our gifts—the skills and capacities and abilities God has given us. It matters what we do with them, whether we use them or do not use them.

How many of you have heard of sins of commission and sins of omission? A sin of commission is when you do something you know you should not do—steal, for example. That’s a sin of commission—you did something, you acted, you “went with it.” Commit comes from the Latin, ‘com mitteo,’ to go with something or someone, to act or to do. A sin of omission is when you do not do something you know you should have done—ignored an opportunity to help someone, perhaps. You did not “go with,” you did not act or do—‘om-mitteo,; in the Latin. And that third man, my friends, committed a sin of omission. He had the opportunity to use the gift he was given, and he did not; instead, he fearfully hid it away.

Notice that he is the only one who says that the master is harsh and unforgiving—the others don’t seem too worried about the master’s reaction, because they both risked large sums of the master’s money. If he was as harsh as the third man says, would they have run that risk? I don’t think so—they had much more at stake than the third man, and if he was really as harsh and cruel as the third man says, would they have risked so much money, run the danger of his fury for an even greater loss? It sounds to me like rationalising—that third man wanted an excuse not to do anything, he was afraid of risking anything at all.

We all are given talents by God, and in different measures. Maybe we have only one talent or gift or skill or ability; maybe we have two or three; and maybe we have six or eight. The question is not how many do we have, but—what do we do with them? By the way, this applies to finances too—it is not how much money you have or give, but what you do with it….

By the very fact that we are given this gifts, we are also given the responsibility to do something with them, to use them, and to use them for good, as the first two men did, and as the third man did not.

A tremendous tragedy was revealed at a US university this past week. We do not know all the details, we probably never will—and that’s OK, for the sake of the victims. I am not here to say who is wrong is and who is right, or where the fault lies. But it raises urgent questions about responsibility, doesn’t it?

To those whom much is given—athletic, creative, or musical skill, leadership of a nation, university, corporation, church, spiritual sensitivity, a calling—much is expected—honesty, reliability, respect for justice, courage. Somewhere along all the line, this seems to have failed in that university. If some people in authority knew of something—and it seems that they had to have known something—why did they not report it to the proper authorities? When momentary expediency or fear or arrogance take the place of justice and protection of the helpless, in other words, responsibility—simple humanity has flown out the window.

If someone suspected something, it should have been acted upon—not reported up the authority chain, but action, and follow-up and protection. As clergy, I am what is called a mandatory reporter in many of the states of the US--everyone is a mandatory reporter in Canada, as you know. If I even suspect abuse of any kind, I must report it—by law. I don’t really require the law, I would report it in any case, but the fact remains that somehow the system broke down there.  Someone didn’t report what they should have, or someone didn’t respond as they should have, or someone didn’t follow up, or a combination of those.

I am not trying to be the judge here—that is up to someone else. But I do want us to see the point here—people who had responsibility, who had gifts and skills—of leadership, teaching, guidance—did not use those skills as they should have. It seems clear that some people knew there was a possibility of child abuse, and yet they did not act on it. Those who did not report or follow up on what they knew or suspected bear a heavy burden of responsibility; they may have allowed further abuse.

A lack of responsibility for the gifts they were given. Most of us don’t face situations as horrendous as that revealed last week. But nonetheless, we do sometimes abdicate responsibility for our skills, graces, gifts, talents. We decide we are too tired, have too much else happening, are too important, too poor, too rich… to do whatever it is. There are other things that are more important, or safer, or will give us more prestige or a better reputation. In effect, we bury our talents, whether we have one or many. We bury them.

Whatever our gift or talent might be, we have a responsibility to the One who gave it to us, gave them to us, to use those gifts and talents properly. To do otherwise harms us and others.  I don’t think we need to look any further than Pennsylvania to see the results of gifts misused. 

You all know what your talents are—your gifts--and if you are not sure, let’s talk. There are spiritual gifts inventories available online, and we offer one as part of our membership classes. What gives you energy to get up in the morning? What keeps you working when the others go home? What pulls you to sing or dance or cook or study or create even when you are tired or have other things to do or the other people in your life have other things they want you to do? You know what your passions are—that is where your gifts lie. Use them—use your gifts, your talents—don’t bury them. God has given them to you for a reason. Finding that reason, learning how to use your gifts in God’s service, and then doing so—that is the responsibility of God’s gifts to us.

Do not bury your talents. Use them. In all God’s names, amen.