By Morris DuBose, Relational Narrative Consultant
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47 and Luke 10:26-27
Love requires self-awareness
Love requires effort and intentionality
Love requires sacrifice.
“I know my rights.” In movies, television, and youtube clips, this sentence is often a comical utterance of people unprepared to suffer the consequences of their actions. But the line elicits a laugh because it falls into the category of, “it’s funny because it’s true.” At an early age we’re taught about our rights. From the bill of rights, to the Miranda warning, to the Unalienable Rights, we are constantly reminded that having and protecting our freedom to do, and have, and say… anything is the most important thing.
Here’s the problem. The life to which Christ calls us by his living and dying example rejects any notion of protecting, enforcing, or utilizing our rights. The church in Acts Chapter 2 is lauded as being the pinnacle of Christian fellowship and it is described as being a place where they cared for each other’s needs in spite of any property claims, or other rights. And Jesus who by virtue of his status as God could lay claim to any and every right we have or could imagine, aggressively eschewed the rights which we call Unalienable. Surrendering the pursuit of his happiness, his liberty, and even his life. In my quest to bring others closer to God or each other, what rights have I willingly sacrificed? An even more damning question lurks just behind that one, In my quest to bring comfort and convenience to myself, what rights have I protected?
During my elementary school years our house was the one to play at. If there weather allowed the backyard of the DuBose residence was always full. My parents, both by their words and their model encouraged us to invite in, anyone who sought to join us. There were a few rules of the premises, prohibitions against bad language, or fighting being chief among them.
Nick lived nearby. He came to the yard from time to time, but he wasn't part of the regular group. No one had seen his house. No one knew his family. And even though I didn’t know him, I didn’t really like Nick. He was kind of a bully, but in a way that made him more of an annoyance than an actual threat. One day I was in, if not a bad mood, then at least a irritable one. Nick as he was wont to do, skirted a line of appropriate behavior.
I caught the ball, halting the game in progress. “Get out,” I said to him in the flat tone of an unwavering decision. There was posturing on his part but it was still my yard and he had no leverage, so eventually he left. If I ever saw him again, I can’t completely recall.
Exicising him from our fellowship made for a more pleasant play experience. That kid was a jerk. And frankly, he got what he deserved.
On the other hand, Jeremy’s family lived right across the alley. We spent as much time at each others houses as our own. I knew his sisters. And his mom even spanked me once.
So one day, when Jeremy had an inexplicable and explosively violent fit of rage wherein he tried to fight me, I just let him. He flailed at my back as I just turned to safely absorb the blows. Tears of rage flooded his eyes as he swatted at me. He quickly tired, because relentless pounding can tucker a guy out, and ran home still in tears.
Agape, the other children asked why I, both bigger and stronger than he allowed that to happen. My answer came in that same unwaveringly decisive tone, “He needed to do that.”
If instead, I had given him a solid smacking around, no one would have faulted me because I would have been well within my rights, and he would have gotten what he deserved.
But I knew that Jeremy was stressed... as much as an second or third grader could be. There was tension at home, not to mention his sisters, and older foster brother, making his life worse. He was a coiled spring. Someone was going to get snapped. In that moment, I decided, it may as well be me.
Let’s jump back to the Nick situation for just a moment. Looking at that through the lense of adulthood, there is a blaring siren screaming, “unhealthy, unsupportive, or possibly even unsafe homelife.” So by flexing I kicked a vulnerable person out of a safe haven to wander the street or, more frighteningly back to a home environment posing an emotional or physical danger.
It would be very easy, in fact it is the reflexive thing, to assert that I was a kid, and I had no way of interpreting those signs at such a young age.
And even though you may be right, that act kept me awake at night, because even though I didn’t know the signs, I knew that Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself.
But, I’m in my thirties now, and here’s where the real takeaway comes, what lays in the wake of my protected rights today? When I insist, and demand? When I assert, or defend? When, “I know my rights?” Is someone else made less. When I pull out my sword to protect myself, and my loved ones… does someone lose an ear?
The most generous thing you could say about my relationship with the church, throughout my adult life, is that it’s complicated. My feelings have ranged from indifference to outright hostility. So even when I found sanctuary within the walls of Trinity I still had… reservations. I started to connect to it as an institution, Choir, and the Dream Team. But what I didn’t do was connect to it as a body of humanity. I was nice, and polite and even enthusiastic, but not available. With a few exceptions I would find some excuse when someone invited me to things outside of the church and offer them my regrets.
I’d made it about a quarter of the way to my car, one morning after service, when I heard the sound of leather soles hurriedly slapping the pavement, followed by my name. I turned to see Ivy Meyer. I like to say, Ivy decided that I would be friends with their family, because in that awkward moment, she asked if I would have dinner with their family. In the shock of the moment, I couldn’t think of an excuse that didn’t sound idiotic, so I said yes. Despite the fact that I was still in my church clothes when I arrived at their house, I was relieved, if slightly surprised to discover that they didn’t wear bowties and pillbox hats when lounging around the house. We had a great time including food and games. They were fun, and engaging, and accepting, but before all of those things, they were intentional. Then I began to engage with this church as a body of humanity… made in the image of God.
The last thing I will do before I break you up into groups and invite you to think about all of this is read you an excerpt from an old blog of mine.
Over a Cup
Shortly after I settled into my DC digs, I stopped going to church. It was a decision, part antagonist, part apathy, part internal conflict. But for more than a year, I wasn’t attending any church regularly. When I was in a church it was as uncomfortable as a badly cut suit. If I was lucky, there was the awkward visitor glad handing, big toothy smiles, knuckle crunching greetings, and the stilted conversation which shields us from penetrating conversations, deep thoughts, or worse? Silence. You have to give them marks though. Enthusiastic, but a touch overwhelming. The other option is even less appealing. You walk in alone. You sing the songs. You listen to the message. And you go home alone. No greetings. No goodbyes. And lucky for the congregants, you didn’t upset the balance of their days. You could have watched a TV church service to the exact same end. After a few such visiting experiences, I settled into a regular living routine, and the church wasn’t a part of that routine. Work, write, sleep, play, repeat.
Life goes on and my roommate and I moved from our little place on the outskirts to a microscopic place, right in the thick of it. I was still workin’ near the old place, so on a regular day, getting to work was an hour long trip of a train and a bus. On an irregular day it was three busses and two and a half hours of think time. And on those irregular days, I passed this church called Mosaic. It reminded me of a cool looking church I’d read about, over on the west coast. I thought about stopping in some Sunday. But, the people on the bus go up and down, and it was never more than a thought.
Half a year elapses and I’m living and working in the thick of it, but some of my friends and thinking spots were still in the outskirts. So, every once in a while I found myself repeating my “irregular days” on purpose. All the while Mosaic sat at the side of the route, beautiful older architecture and an inviting new sign. I was going to go on Sunday, but I overslept Sunday School, and didn’t want to make myself, “that guy” as soon as I walked in... Maybe next week.
Days and months roll on and I’m headed up to New England to be in the wedding of two very good friends. 688 miles from my childhood home, Canton, and 436 miles from DC. So the bride introduces me to her former roommate from her off campus semester in Michigan, of whom she’d spoken years ago, because she was attending Malone College in Canton where I grew up. And now when she introduced us at her wedding, the roommate is living in…DING! Our nation’s capitol. Our shared connections get us started, we chat over the course of the festivities,
“Do you go to a church in the area?”
“No. I visited a few. I’m kinda passively looking, at this point.”
“Well, you should visit my church, it’s called Mosaic?”
Let’s recap, shall we? So I went to New Hampshire for a wedding, met a girl who grew up in my hometown, who roomed with my friend, who studied in Michigan and, who lived in DC, AND attended the only church I’d considered going to. That’s a little much to be just a coincidence. So, immediately, upon my return, I didn’t go. I waivered and waffled, and stayed home.
I decided to go to church again, one Saturday night, the same way people give up smoking. Only this time, when I woke up late on that Sunday morning, despite my guarantee of tardiness, and at the risk of being, “that guy,” I dusted myself off and hopped on the bus, for the longest trip of my life.
I rolled along, as uncomfortable as anyone can be. While on a purely social level, large groups are my favorite, there’s something raw about being in a church. All the more, for a church one has no knowledge of, save the captivating sign, and the hope that a single familiar face may be among the gathered.
When the bus arrived at my destination, I didn’t know what to do. I walked over to the front of the building and just stood there, staring up at the building. The doors were open and I gazed through the foyer into the sanctuary. And I started in. Every step a hesitation. Not sure why I’m here, and not sure where to go next. Starbucks and the book in my bag are sounding more and more appealing.
I stepped through the foyer into the back of the sanctuary, and I just stood there. My head on a swivel, I teetered on the edge. A stiff breeze and I was gone with the wind. The people in the church weren’t doing the typical pre-service milling; they were gathered around two large round tables eating breakfast. They’re eating. I’m standing. And I don’t know what to do. There’s a young woman, maybe thirteen years old, standing in the corner rocking out on a by the cup coffee maker. I watched her for a second, “HI! Would you like some coffee?” She offered, with a smile that did not say, “Welcome to our church.” Her smile greeted me like family, “We’ve been expecting you. We’re so glad you made it.
I will never be able to encapsulate, the warmth that washed over me, in words. I felt what I can only express as God’s love radiating off of her, like the light of the sun off of the moon. Years of cynicism and disillusionment came off like the armor of battle which has been won. And, for the duration of my time in DC, the church enfolded me into its body. Mosaic is a collection of broken pieces that come together in their brokenness to create something bigger, something beautiful, something eternal. Being a part of that community, reminded me why I want to be a Christian.
As we continue in this morning of reflection, I will invite you to converge in groups of at least 4 and no more than 5. To respond to the following questions two of which are the ones printed in your bulletin:
In my quest to bring others closer to God or each other, what rights have I willingly sacrificed?
In my quest to bring comfort and convenience to myself, what rights have I protected?
When I insist, and demand? When I assert, or defend? When, “I know my rights?” Is someone else made less.
How have others exercised rights over me which have made me less?
How have others’ intentionality helped me to grow and/or understand love?
Where will I lay down my rights at the altar of love for my neighbor?
Where will my intention transforms happy thoughts into love?
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