“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Question of Anxiety, or the Way to Love?

A reflection on Matthew 22:34-46

One of my favorite television shows is found on the Discovery Channel from 6:00pm to 7:00pm Monday through Friday; it’s called Cash Cab. The premise of this show is a New York taxi driver who hosts a game show in his taxi.

The game show is simple to play. The host/driver asks the riders a series of general knowledge questions and the riders respond. Each time the contestant gives a correct answer they earn prize money. Each wrong answer is a strike against them. Three strikes and the cab ride is over, they have to get out of the cab immediately and they lose all their accrued prize money.

Once everyone agrees to the rules the cab starts the trip and the driver asks the first question. The first few questions are worth $25.00, then after awhile the prize money doubles to $50 and then the last few questions, if the riders get that far, are worth $100. I’ve seen people win over $1000 in just one cab ride. The questions are supposed to be general knowledge questions but the point is for the host to ask them in a tricky fashion in order to increase the confusion rate and cause the responder to doubt their answers.

Such was the technique being applied by the Pharisees when they approached Jesus in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees hoped to trick Jesus into an endless debate of confusion and misunderstanding. They asked a simple seeming question, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?”

But here is the tricky part. The Old Testament has 613 commandments, something the Pharisees knew and so did Jesus. The Pharisees hope that Jesus will pick one commandment as the most important, and in response they are primed, with 612 other options, to argue against what-ever he says.

The Pharisees were having a lot of concern about Jesus and were plotting against him. He was doing new and unusual things. They felt a need to question what he said and what he did. And the anxiety, for the Pharisees, was high.

Some days there is a fair amount of anxiety here, at large church too. But I want to assure you that, unlike what was going on with the Pharisees, who were full of deceit and trickery, the anxiety we are feeling is a normal response to our lives. A certain amount of anxiety is an appropriate response to our lives at this time. The reality is we have a lot to be anxious about. In addition to our health, and our finances, we are trying to settle into a new relationship between you and me. We are in the early stages of a new relationship, congregation and Rector. This kind of relationship is unique. It occurs on a corporate level and it also occurs on a one to one level.

Relationships of every kind take time to grow. We need to nurture them, which takes effort. Testing, too, is a natural part of relationship building – will you still love me if you know all my warts and pimples? Kids test parents, husbands and wives test each other, groups of people test the leader and one another this way.

The truth is, yes, I will still love you, warts and pimples and all. And, in time you will love me and my flaws too. At the moment though, neither one of us really knows the other. There is some uncertainty, and as a result some anxiety. In addition to being a priest, I have a Masters in Social Work. I have an understanding of group dynamic and parish life that is broad and deep and grounded in lots of parish life experience, some 20 years of it.

The point I want to make is, anxiety always likes to find a focal point. The Pharisees want Jesus to pick one commandment. It will give them a place to focus their anxiety and argue their point. It is very difficult for human beings to focus anxiety on intangibles, like the emotions and feelings of a new relationship. It is much easier to focus anxiety on things – what ever the “thing” may be. Focusing our anxiety on some “thing” enables us to think we can control that “thing” and as a result control the anxiety and settle down the anxious feelings. The problem is that the “things” are not the real issue. So trying to fix the “things,” what-ever they may be, will only be a temporary fix, soon the anxiety will crop up again. What will fix the anxiety is time. Time to grow into relationships of trust.

William Bridges wrote a book a number of years ago called, “Managing Transition.” This and other resources state that the transition time for a parish begins as soon as the incumbent rector announces his or her retirement and continues until 18 months after the new rector has come. In other words parishes are in a state of transition for the better part of two or three years every time the incumbent rector leaves and new rector comes on board.

We are only 7 months into the 18 month process of getting to know each other. You, see, we are normal and right on target, experiencing the usual kinds of anxiety in this process.

As we go along we will find things we like about each other and things we don’t. Its ok, we’re human, not perfect. We will try things together. Some of the things we try we will really enjoy, and so we will do them again. Some of the things we try we may discard, and then try something else. It’s a learning process of getting to know one another. Slowly we will begin to feel less anxious and more trusting.

So, back to Jesus and the Pharisees’ question. Jesus gives them an answer they were unprepared for, a brilliant, absolutely right answer. And the answer Jesus gives offers us good direction as well. Instead of choosing any one of the commandments, instead of focusing on a “thing” Jesus recites for them the Shema, the summary of all the commandments, a prayer well known by any good praying Jew: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all strength, and with all your soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This prayer points us to the ultimate truth of God’s desire for us, love. But the trick to understanding it is to know what love really means.

Love is risky. Love is challenging. Love changes us. Our love for another person enables that person to become most fully who they are able to be. We do not and cannot love instantly. True love takes a long time to grow, and ripens as it lives through challenges, uncertainty, anxiety, joy, hope, and patience.

Here is an example of this love: A woman has a stroke. Her daughter takes her into her home and cares for her, helping her recover. Despite the steady loving care a fight breaks out between this mother and daughter. Finally the mother yells, “Why are you doing this?”

The daughter offers a variety of answers about helping her mother get well, about trying to make up for past hurts and painful memories of her childhood, of not wanting her mother to go to a home, and so on…her reasons were numerous. Finally the mother said, “Junk.”

“What!” said the daughter. “Junk” said the mother. “You don’t have to have all those reasons. We love each other, that is reason enough.”

Relationships are complicated. We have a tendency toward temper tantrums and stopping of feet when we don’t get what we want in a relationship. This is true in churches, in marriages and families, and in friendships. But being in relationship is not about getting what we want. It’s about growing in and through one another, in and through our experience of each other, and ultimately growing into being deeper richer fuller human beings. And most importantly being Church is not about getting what we want, but about doing what God desires of us.

Beverly Wildung Harrison, a Christian Ethicist, wrote the following in her essay, “Making the Connections.”

“I believe (she writes) that our world is on the verge of self-destruction and death because the society as a whole has so deeply neglected that which is most human and most valuable and the most basic of all the works of love – the work of human communication, of caring and nurturance, of tending the personal bonds of community. This activity has been seen as….too mundane and undramatic, too distracting from the serious business of world rule….This urgent work of love is subtle but powerful. Through acts of love…we literally build up the personhood of one another. It is within the power of human love to build up the dignity and self respect in one another – or – to tear each other down. We are better at the latter (at tearing each other down) than the former (of building each other up in love). However, literally through acts of love directed to us we become self-respecting and other regarding persons, and we cannot be one without the other….”

Today we baptize another person into the Body Christ. Christ, who is himself the embodiment of God’s love. In Christ God’s love pours into our world, and into our lives, seeping into the broken places and holding them, seeping into the anxiety and bringing peace, seeping into our joy and celebrating with us. God’s love in Christ is a mystery and grace, the fullness of love. In baptism this love is given to us. As Christians God’s love lives in us in particular ways, defined as much by the quality we bring to it through an open heart, as by its innate quality. This love is not to be limited by our own inward focused neediness.

Today V S comes to us as an adult seeking baptism. He has spent a life time looking for a community in which to live a life of faith, a family of faith to help deepen his understanding of what it means to love as God loves. For years God has been speaking into his being and V has responded, searched, prayed.

Now, today, he chooses to enter into a particular expression of his life-long faith, an expression grounded in baptism, the fundamental Christian sign of God’s love. In our baptismal preparation on Friday I told V he would be asked six questions. “Oh,” he said, “How will I know the answer?” And then I assured him that they were not trick questions, the liturgy provides the answers. The process of question and answer will provide him an opportunity to remember that what he promises, will happen, “with God’s help.” Through this baptism V S will be blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Just like the rest of us he comes into this relationship: vulnerable and anxious and yet, hopeful. And, just like the rest of us, he comes seeking to love and be loved.