September 2, 2018
Proper 17, Year B
I have a story to share with you this morning, with the permission of the author, whose name is Amy. Amy and I were part of a cohort of pastors who gathered down in Washington D.C. this past week for a 4 day intensive training called the “Foundations of Christian Leadership.”
As part of our work together we each had to share a story from our ministerial context and when Amy began, I thought I had a pretty good sense of where her story was going.
Amy is a lay person with a call to work amongst the poor, people experiencing homelessness, and people in prison. She is a big hearted, whip smart, no-nonsense kind of woman who began her work by joining “the homeless ministry” team at her church.
Every week they served a meal at the local shelter, but as Amy got to know the guests on a more personal level, something began to stir in her. Something didn’t feel quite right. She began to wonder if her church was actually helping people as much as they thought.
So she started reading – which you all know can only lead to trouble right? Yeah. Amy read books like “Toxic Charity,” “When Helping Hurts,” and “What Every Church Member Needs to Know About Poverty.” And then she started speaking up, a known side effect of education.
“I was learning that churches are sometimes the worst offenders when it comes to toxic charity,” she said. She noticed that people in her church already engaged in outreach ministries had huge hearts but very little knowledge or education about how to help people in healthy ways.
So she approached the elders in her church and proposed a plan for urban ministry that would actually help people rather than do more harm. She started teaching classes in her church. The congregation engaged in a massive overhaul of their outreach ministries and before Amy knew it, she has been hired as the part-time urban outreach minister.
“The decision was made that I could handle these situations in much healthier ways,” said Amy. “I thought that because I had read all the books, attended seminars…and taught the classes, that I had everything I needed (to do things right)… This couldn’t be further from the truth!
The knowledge was there, but what I lacked were two of the most important things you need to minister to people… things that today I would teach anyone are most important in ministry…. compassion and empathy.”
And then Amy told us what happened. One of her first steps was instituting safe church policies – rules and boundaries – to protect both the congregation and the people they were seeking to serve, many of whom had criminal records. So far so good.
They started a Wednesday night dinner for the whole community, and quickly drew in people from the surrounding neighborhood. Soon, “It became normal for a large number of people from the homeless community to come earlier than the scheduled dinner time, usually just to charge their phones and relax in a safe space.
(That was totally ok, said Amy.) What wasn’t ok, was when they started helping themselves to food before the dinner had officially begun.
“This is where my situation with Cowboy started,” she said. “One Wednesday he came early and was sitting in the hall with his friends. I noticed him go over to the dessert table and take one off. At that moment, I decided I needed to start enforcing our rules…and I would start with Cowboy.
Walking over to him I said, “Cowboy, you need to put that back and wait in line at 6 pm just like everyone else does.” He said, “It’s just a piece of pie, no big deal.” I said, “that isn’t the point. You have to follow the rules just like everybody else, no exceptions.”
At which point he got really mad, grabbed his back pack, and headed off to the minister’s office. I texted the minister,” said Amy, “to let him know he needed to back me up on this” – which he did – “and Cowboy left in a huff.”
Amy took a breath and looked up from her paper at us. “I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see him alive,” she said.
“Oh Amy,” I said.
Well, it wasn’t long after this that she heard Cowboy had been arrested. “I was sorry to hear this,” said Amy, “but I thought to myself, “Dude, you have to get that anger issue under control!”
“If I’m being honest, said Amy, “I’m sure I thought, serves you right!” And then several days later she read in the paper that a body had been found at a campsite where he often stayed.
“I immediately recognized his name,” said Amy. It is hard to explain what I felt in that moment. Homeless people die everyday, but this situation hit home…it had a personal element. It was different because there was relationship involved. I knew him personally and our last exchange had not been pleasant.
Amy became filled with a deep desire to learn more about Cowboy, and she wanted his friends to have a place to mourn. “One things Cowboy had was loyal friends,” she said. He always took care of the people he surrounded himself with and they took care of him.”
So Amy set up a memorial service. She kept digging until she found contact information for Cowboy’s sister. When they finally connected by phone, Amy listened for over an hour as his sister told her about their upbringing and the dad who had abused Cowboy so badly from the day he was born that he left the house at 15 and never came back.
“At that moment the Holy Spirit spoke loud and clear to me,” said Amy. “Cowboy reacted the way he did to me that day because I was exerting this authority over him that he disdained so much. In a very real way, I became his father that day.
I had triggered a deep trauma that he had buried and never dealt with in a healthy way. I became a part of the hurtful practices that I had educated myself about and become obsessed with correcting at our church.”
“Something changed in me at that moment. I was painfully aware that I had failed to do the most basic thing in ministry. I didn’t take the time to build relationship with Cowboy. I made decisions based on learned knowledge and not truth.
I saw him as a project, not a person. I had failed to get to know him on a deeper level, to understand what made him who he was so I could best serve him….Everybody has a story, just different settings and details. It’s the details that help us understand who people are and how best to serve them.
It was through relationship with this man that I learned more about compassion and empathy then any book could ever teach me!”
Amy took another breath and said, “I knew from that moment on that the ministry I was involved with would only succeed if I became more like Christ and less like me.”
I was crying by the end of her story. Not just tears of grief for Cowboy, but tears of awe and wonder for what it must have cost Amy to tell us all that. Her ability to be that humble before God and that vulnerable before us, the courage it must have taken to lay her mistakes out on the table and show us what she had learned from them…it was a gift. But it was a gift that left me with an even bigger question.
“Amy,” I asked, “this compassion Cowboy taught you, have you also learned to extend that same level of compassion to yourself? I mean you were trying so hard to do the right thing. You didn’t mean to hurt him and you learned so much from this. Have you been able to forgive yourself?”
She looked at me and very quietly said, “Yeah. It hasn’t been easy, but yeah. I get why I did what I did and I’ve been able to forgive myself, too.”
Hearing Amy’s story and reading the story before us today about Jesus and the Pharisees, is a good reminder that at the end of the day, most of us really are trying to do the right thing. Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have. And sometimes, in spite of our good intentions and best efforts, we hurt and disappoint one another anyway.
I think the Pharisees were really trying. They get a bad rap, but all in all, they weren’t bad guys. They were so big on the rules – like Amy was at the beginning of her story – because they cared.
They really just wanted to do things the right way, and that’s a good thing. Jesus lays into them for being hypocrites in this reading, but I firmly believe that one of the primary reasons he is so hard on them is because Jesus knows they are so close to getting it right.
It’s easy to miss, but just like the Pharisees, Jesus also thought the laws and the tradition of Judaism were important. He wasn’t angry at them for upholding the rules. Jesus became upset with them because they were upholding the right things for the wrong reason.
They thought doing the right thing was important because it made them righteous. And, to paraphrase a recovering member of the Westboro Baptist church, they thought their rightness justified their rudeness.
But what Jesus wanted them to understand is that being good person -religious or not – is not just about following the rules – going through the motions of doing or believing the right things – but about allowing those motions to shape you and change you into a more loving and compassionate human being.
The sort of person who is quick to lift others up when they fail rather than put them down… even when that person is you.
Because the truth at the heart of Amy’s story and this one is that we all fail. We all fall down. But the truth at the heart of the gospel is that when we fall, it is ever and always into the arms of grace.
Friends, Jesus lived and worked for 3 years amongst people who were truly seeking to know God and do the right thing. In the end, for all their good intentions, every last one of those people failed him. But thanks be to God, he never failed them. He fed them anyway.
Jesus left us this bread and this wine to remind us that none of us are perfect and yet all of us are forgiven. None of us are perfect, but all of us are loved.
Sometimes God alone knows why we do what we do, but God always forgives us.
The harder part is forgiving one another.
And sometimes the hardest part is forgiving ourselves.
So know there is grace for you here.
Grace to feed you. Grace to restore you. Grace to redeem you.
And enough grace left over for you to give some to someone else. Amen.