The Gift of Being Let Down

Sermon offered December 2013

Reading: “Messy and Imperfect Beloved Community” by Laila Ibrahim
I have been going to the same church for nearly thirty years. I have filled a variety of leadership positions, from OWL teacher to Board president, usher coordinator, to stewardship co-chair. And in all those years, my congregation has had ample opportunity to disappoint me.

I am disappointed when people don’t think my justice project is the one we should collectively work on; I am disappointed when people want different music than I do; I am disappointed that we don’t all agree that our Children’s Ministry is the most important priority in the church; I am disappointed that people don’t give enough time, talent or treasure to the church as I do. I am disappointed…well, you get the idea. In nearly thirty years of relationship, there have been lots of disappointments.

Two or three times over the years, I have been so disappointed that I seriously questioned remaining in my congregation. I have doubted its ability to provide the salvation of which we speak: lived beloved community. On those occasions I have thought, screw it. I can just stop going to church for a while or….forever. But staying away has never helped me through such times. Rather, coming in closer, telling people about my spiritual crisis – listening, sharing, caring, and worshipping – have helped me know that this is where I belong, even when church is the source of my frustration and disappointment.

Because we are not in church to be with people who want to sing the same music, or rally for the same cause, or attend the same retreats. We are in church to learn to love better. And this can only happen when we love past our disappointments and return to a place of acceptance and affirmation. This is true in our personal lives, in our work lives, and in our church lives. It is a deep spiritual practice.

There is really only one choice: Between imperfect community and no community. Again and again, we are all called to choose to commit ourselves to building a more just, more diverse, and yet ever messy and imperfect beloved community.
Sermon – “The Gift of Being Let Down”

A couple days before Christmas, my 8 year old daughter was jumping up and down with antsy excitement -“It’s almost here! How many hours?! It’s taking soooooo looooooong!”

This had been going on with increasing intensity for the last three weeks. My partner and I started to call her our personal Christmas Countdown.

So here we were, less than 48 hours from the big day, and I started to worry. How could it ever live up to all her expectations?

And so I gave parental counsel my best shot: Grace. The sooner it is here, the sooner it will be over. And that will be sad, right?  So, how about let’s try to just be ok with it not being here. Let’s not rush so much!”

She was like: Ok, yeah yeah, but, how many hours now before Christmas? It was no use. With excitement and hope running that high, there was nothing I could’ve said to talk her down.

This type of no-one-can-talk-me-out-of-it-enthusiasm is one reason it has taken me five years to finally decide to deliver this sermon.

See, I started crafting it back in 2009, the first time I taught a Path to Membership class.

There’s such a beautiful enthusiasm and hopefulness usually present in these Unitarian Universalist newcomers’ classes. If you give people a chance to share what brought them there, most everyone will express an inspiring gratitude to have found a faith that affirms we need not think alike to love alike.

This enthusiasm isn’t actually what made me want to write this sermon. At least not in and of itself. No, it’s more the combination of these great hopes and positive feelings with the the stories I often hear from these same folks a few months or years down the line. Or, it is their sudden absence from the community a few years later.

From these stories and these absences, I have come to realize that what I really need to tell people, as they begin their journey with Unitarian Universalism generally, and with any congregation particularly, including this one, is that “We will disappoint you.” That’s the title of the sermon I’ve been thinking of writing. You might understand now my hesitancy. We will disappoint you. Often I say it in my head like a Queen song….We will, we will…disappoint you.

Not very inspiring, I know. And just like with my daughter, I have wondered if telling new folks would do any good?

Most of us, when we are experiencing and anticipating only the goodness, refuse, or are not able, maybe both – to imagine we will let each other or ourselves down in small or big ways.

But finally, after 5 years of thinking about it, in one of our Explorations sessions- our small group ministry for newcomers – I was talking about what it means for us to be a covenantal faith, and the deep meaning I found in the concept of covenant.

I told the group, that ultimately the best gifts of a covenantal relationship – that is, a relationship that is based in mutual big promises – are not realized when the relationship remains perfect, but are only truly felt when the promises of the relationship are broken, and you decide to keep going.

When everything falls apart, and you decide not to leave. When you decide the relationship matters enough to forgive. To stay put. To transform.

It’s when promises are broken, and you keep going – that’s when the real gifts of life arrive. And it is this understanding that made me decide to give this sermon once and for all.

Perhaps you know this story that is told in the Hebrew Scriptures. A long time ago, there was a man named Jacob. He was traveling with his big family, for a long time, trying to get to their homelands. One night, he sent most of his family to go ahead of him, across the river. Only he was left behind, along the river banks. As he started to sleep, a man came up to him, or maybe it was God.

The story as it comes to us, is not clear. In any case, Jacob begins to wrestle with this man, God. They wrestle and wrestle for many hours. Until at one point the man tells Jacob, let go. And Jacob says no, he won’t give up until he receives a blessing.  They keep wrestling, and Jacob gets injured, on his hip.

They keep wrestling, Jacob will not give up.  Finally, the man-God stops, and blesses Jacob, saying – you now have a new name. Israel. Which means, he who has wrestled with God and won.

So often we stop wrestling before the blessing comes. We feel injured and we walk away, believing the injury was lesson enough. And sometimes it is. But often if we can stay in it, there is a deeper and fuller gift, a life-changing blessing available for us.

As one example of these types of blessings, let’s talk about failure – those moments when we, or someone we love, makes a terrible mistake – or many mistakes.

In his book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community, religious leader Christopher Heuertz tells the story of when his close friend, Caleb, screwed up pretty badly.

And in response, he decided he should write him a letter that detailed all the accusations that he was hearing about him, “neatly structuring them in topical order, starting with the lesser sins and ramping up to a heartless crescendo of judgment towards his most humiliating failures.”

And then he sent copies of the letters to a bunch of Caleb’s friends- he wanted to hold him accountable after all. And then he sent it to Caleb himself.

Reflecting many years later, Heuertz says he realized, “I failed my friend in his most vulnerable moment. I held my beliefs over his belonging and used his inability to live up to my standards as an excuse to exclude him. I demonstrated fidelity to a set of behavioral expectations rather than taking the opportunity to love.”

In stark contrast, Heuertz tells the story of when he found himself at a similar low point to Caleb’s. He says, “To my great surprise, most of my friends didn’t mash me deeper into my failures, over-identifying who I am as a person with my actions. They talked me through the pain. They gave me the courage and hope that I would find my way back,
and that even if I failed again, those things wouldn’t define me.”

How we respond to failure – our own, or others’ – can mean the difference between despair and transformation, between isolation and beloved community.

As Heuertz says, “Communities [and relationships] don’t fail when they experience failure. The real and lasting failure comes when we use our broken and wounded members’ mistakes to control them. When we do that, we perpetuate the strangling nature of failure,
using someone’s behavior to stoke the fires of shame, guilt, humiliation, fear, disappointment, or resentment.”

Thinking back to moments of failure in your own life, how have you or others responded?
Has it been an opportunity to come in closer, to struggle and wrestle together, or has it caused further separation?

Unitarian Universalism affirms we are defined not by our best or our worst actions, but by our inherent sacredness.  Living by this affirmation invites us to accept one another as we are, broken and blessed, failing and succeeding, at our best and at our worst. To be in relationship with all of these truths on the table.

Which means, we should be very practiced at forgiveness. Not an easy forgiveness, not automatic forgiveness. But forgiveness that wrestles and struggles together, forgiveness that affirms that none of us is beyond the reach of love and its redemption.  None of us, at any point.

As another example of these unexpected gifts, let’s talk about betrayal. Betrayal is a kind of failure, but failure that got personal. It’s failure that’s done to YOU, even when you are the one doing the betraying by not living up to your commitments.

Heuretz says that “If you stay in any relationship or community long enough, you will experience betrayal. All of us betray our communities and friendships, and all of us are betrayed by them. It’s part of the meta-narrative of all great human stories. Betrayal is one of the perplexing and peculiar gifts that comes from weaving our lives together with others.”

And like with failure, it is how you respond to this inevitable betrayal that will determine who you and your community will become. Often we experience a sense of betrayal when we’re in our most difficult moments, which usually means, we aren’t our best selves, and when we aren’t easy to love.

That our friends respond to us in these moments not by coming in closer, but by stepping away; that they talk about us with others rather than to us directly; that they seem to act in cross purposes from us after having aligned in so many ways for so long…..These things feel like betrayal.

And so being in a not so good place ourselves, we transmit our pain outward, relieved to have found a place to put the blame for our misery. But, given that most of us struggle with how to respond to our own vulnerable moments -it should be no surprise that we are relatively clueless when it comes to walking with a friend or partner when they are in a bad place.

Sometimes what we experience as betrayal is actually misguided attempts at love, or attempts to say, “I see your struggles and I don’t know what to do. I feel bad.”

As with failure, rather than allowing the pain of betrayal to pull us apart, we might imagine it as an opportunity to realize just how woven together our lives are.  There is no betrayal, after all, without relationship.  Feeling betrayed teaches us who we care about,
and what we need from them.  What a gift it would be to be able to say with some clarity to someone we love – here, precisely is what I need when I’m struggling.

And the best way to know what that is, is to pay attention to when you feel betrayed because your friend did the opposite.  As I’ve been describing these gifts available when we “keep going” or continue wrestling, I want to clarify that I’m not advocating to stay in relationship no matter what.

Sometimes it is only the ending of a relationship that will allow life to flourish. Discerning the difference between when you need to stay put and when you need to let go is never simple or straightforward, and is surely the topic of a whole other service entirely.

Let’s agree that sometimes you need to change jobs or roles, friendships and marriages need to end, and people need to leave community.

What’s more, I do not mean to be advocating that suffering is a necessary and good thing in the ways that Christian orthodoxy has sometimes asked its followers to suffer as Jesus suffered.

That good can come from betrayal does not make betrayal good. That transformation can be found in the midst of pain does not justify pain.  I only mean to recognize that life does include suffering, and rather than imagining we will be able to make a life that avoids the messy and imperfect, or the disappointing and the painful, we can walk through these struggles knowing there are gifts there too.

The changing of the calendar is often a time of assessment, of looking back, and looking ahead. Perhaps 2013 has brought you many gifts, or perhaps immeasurable loss. Likely your year has been a mixture, as all life is.  And in any case, you likely look ahead with hopeful anticipation.  For our church community, even with the news of Marc’s pending retirement, so much of this year has been good, and there has been a steady sense of optimism and faith in our continuing capacity, a great hope for where we will go together in the coming year, and beyond.

And yet our optimism need not blind us to the likelihood of disappointment.  If we – in our church, as in our lives, are to truly seize our greatest potential, and pursue our most visionary dreams; if we are to learn how to love better – then the messy, imperfect beloved community – will surely show itself.

We will, we will, disappoint you. We will fail and betray each other and ourselves. We will have our hearts broken. You, me, all of us. And when those moments happen, we will have a choice – to stay, or to leave. And what I want to invite you to do, is to consider the possibility of coming in closer rather than fleeing.

Wrestle with us, with each other, with your selves, until we together discover the blessing. Wrestle with us until we transform.

May it be so, and amen.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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