Sept. 13, 2020

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35


I once disappointed Margaret Rose.  It was horrible.  She was the resident saint of my last church, a grandmotherly figure who even in the old photographs looked grandmotherly.  She had been at the church forever and had taught at the pre-school for just about as long.  Generations of Sheltonites knew her and loved her.

I ended up having to let a staff member of the church go.  Margaret came to my office with a shaky voice and watery eyes and told me that I lacked sensitivity.  I tried to explain how I made the decision in collaboration with a committee that was in agreement, how the decision was sad for us too, and how we broke the news as compassionately as we could.  She replied simply, “Thank you for your opinion.”

I recall her words because I remember thinking, “None of what I just said was an opinion.”  But, I also remember not saying that or anything else because Margaret was hurt and grieving and because she was about the last person anyone would want to disappoint.

Margaret loved dancing, and the color purple, she loved Mickey Mouse, and children, and that guy who played Dr. House on TV.  She had pretty simple desires and lots of enthusiasm in pursuing them.  I remember when she first told me that she wanted to host the youth group at her home for a Christmas party.  We had plans already and she hadn’t been a part of the program at all, so the invite seemed to come out of the blue, and though I didn’t really know what to expect you couldn’t tell her, no.  So, we went.  We packed 15 youths into her tiny home filled with Disney Christmas ornaments and a picture of Dr. House.  We sang a goofy version of the “12 Days of Christmas,” played games with silly grab bag prizes, ate casserole dinner and dessert.  And, we returned every year for the next 9 years because we all agreed that it was one of the highlights of our program.

I’m happy to say that Margaret didn’t stay upset with me.  We were good friends for a long time, and one of the saddest moments of my ministry was the look she gave me in the hospital just a day before she died.  She seemed to know she had come to the end and I think my arrival consummated a goodbye that she had fought off for years by a sheer love for life.

At the funeral her adult son spoke.  Apart from the packed house and the abundance of tears it’s the only thing I remember of the service.  If it is okay to say, he was a bit rough around the edges, kind of a tough exterior with kind eyes if you took a moment to see.  He talked about growing up with Margaret Rose as his mom, how his friends always wanted to hang out at his house because she was there, how no matter who he brought home and what kind of trouble it was clear they were into his mom looked at them with respect and appreciation and fondness.  She wasn’t naive at all, but she was absolutely non-judgmental and through the fondness and respect that she showed those kids she always brought the best out of them, which in many cases (according to her son) was a significant accomplishment.

Her son talked about his own children and how they too became very close to her.  Then he shared the story of his son getting a tattoo.  He had objected, in fact, he had forbidden it.  He thought tattoos were ugly and a waste of money and he wouldn’t tolerate his son becoming the kind of person who would do that to himself.  He shared the rant he went on when he learned what his son had done it anyway and how dismissive and angry he had become.  It took him a couple of weeks before he could bring himself to talk to the boy, who was somewhere in his teenage years.  Finally, he asked to see the tattoo and as he told us the story he broke down in tears.  The boy lifted up his shirt and across his back were the words, “Margaret Rose,” there to be with him for the rest of his life.

I think he cried a bit because at the unveiling of that tattoo he realized that what his mother was able to give him he hadn’t been able to give his son.  I think he cried a bit also though, because that moment changed him.  Seeing how the judgement-free love of his mother had impacted his son, I got the sense, was one of those moments that reshapes your life.  I think he was thanking her by sharing that story, saying how he was different because of it.

From time to time the Christian Century magazine asks popular authors and theologians to reflect a bit upon, “how my mind has changed.”  I’ve not read anything by James Alison before, but I found myself completely absorbed by his story.  The son of a fundamentalist Anglican father and a zealot evangelical mother, he begins his reflection, “As it turns out, my mind is of little importance.  What is important is who has changed my mind.”  He continues with a discovery made at the boarding school his parents sent him to.  “At this boy’s school, at age nine, I discovered the struggle of my life.  I fell in love with a classmate of, to my eyes, astounding beauty.  It was an utterly wrenching experience because, although it was in no way reciprocated and I had no language to match the feelings, I knew it was real.  Here for the first time, reading the Bible after lights out (for we were sent to bed at 7pm, but in the summer darkness fell only after ten) I realized that there was something true about the gospel, that it had something to do with what I was experiencing, and that this was surely not the same thing as my parents’ religion.

A few months later, I was told by a slightly older contemporary what a queer was.  Instantly I knew I was one – with relief that there was a word to match my experience.  Almost as instantly came the realization that now I was cast adrift on a sea of impossibility, was an abomination, would never arrive at a safe port, had lost my parents, and worse, that my love would – could – only do harm.  I would need to protect those who I loved against myself.”[1]

Can you imagine, at the moment of your most profound recognition of God in association with your realest experience of love beyond your own family you also realize the impossibility of that God’s love for yourself and find it replaced with condemnation?  What a torturous thing for a 9 year old child to go through.

He continues, “The sheer panic of this experience between the ages of nine and 11, along with the inability it provoked in me to form stable relationships, either personal or work-related, is only finally dissipating 50 years later.”  Throughout the rest of the article he goes on to name the people whose grace-filled version of the faith carried him to life.  There was an adolescent friend, and an Oxford professor, and an ancient Jesuit.  My favorite is the Mexican host family from an exchange study he did.  “I was invited to live with my Mexican friend’s family – and to them I owe my survival.  Their gentle, unpressured company brought me back from the pain…, opened me to friendships that have endured a lifetime, and pointed me toward the… Dominicans [which would later become his order].”[2]

The Apostle Paul’s words to the Romans are what has inspired me to share these stories with you today.  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he asks.  If we tend to the details of Paul’s letter we see that it’s not simply because none of us is perfect and those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  There’s something bigger going on.  “We do not live to ourselves,” he says.  “We are the Lord’s.”  The Lord can judge and we can let that go; we are called to something else.  Our work is different than that.  Our work is to “welcome those who are weak in faith.”  It is to “forgive not 7 times but 77 times.”  It is to be the grace of God, to see others through grace’s leans, to be about the ministry of bringing out the best in others like my friend Margaret Rose and “gently bringing one another back from the pain” like Alisons’s host family did.

“Love uses us for its own purposes,” says spiritual teacher James Finley.  He uses God and a capital ‘Love’ interchangeably as in the eternal Truth that creates, sustains, and defines us all.  I heard him say these words in an interview after his interviewer told the story of enrolling in a school wherein he was one of the teachers.  She was committing to a course of spiritual care which kicked off with a big conference of students and teachers.  She came to the course in grief because despite her heart’s desire and much striving she couldn’t have children.  When Finley sat next to her she said, “Oh James Finely, your teachings have been such a help to me in these recent dark times.”  He said, “That is wonderful!  Would you like to have lunch?”  She reported, “And with that the remaining heaviness lifted and a peace came over me.”  It was a shift that happened because this person who’s spiritual teachings helped along the way also wanted to share the simple joy of table fellowship with her.  I’m always amazed (though by now I shouldn’t be) by how profoundly powerful the simple things of grace can be.

Love uses us for its own purposes.  God uses us for God’s own purposes.  We need to be careful about our judgments, not simply because we may be wrong, but because they keep us from the more joyful, more Spirit filled, more life giving (and sometimes life-saving) work to which we’re called with God.




























[1] James Alison, “Brought to Life by Christ,” The Christian Century, Aug. 26, 2020, page 31.

[2] Page. 32.