I have a terminal case of people pleasing, but my quality of life has been good so far, and then Gen Z came along. It does not matter how you try to please these people, they will see right through all of your tricks.
The other week I was talking to a couple of my college students and one of them, in that moment, thought to invite me to an improv show that was happening at the university -- it started at, I dunno, 9 or 10pm, and it was on my day off. People pleaser though that I am, of course what I said was "aww that sounds,, fun,,,, yeah I might be there!" and with one voice everybody in that room says together "ohh he's NOT coming, wowww, he doesn't want to come." And they were right (!)
Fr. Ethan, we should get a bounce house for the next Blessing of the Pets --
yeahhh, that would be wild huh. I'll, uhh think about it; / ohhh god he hates my idea, wowww,
I hope it's not just me though, how many of you have been asked by a friend
"will you help me move, I'll buy you pizza?"
"can you give me a ride to the airport on Sunday at 5:45am?"
"hey would wanna hike old rag with me on saturday, it's only seven or eight hours to the top"
and you said
"umm yeahhhh, that sounds so fun, umm, lemme check my calendar and I will let. you. know. :))"
and you had no intentions of letting them know..."
I don't want to criticize this way of communicating, of course, bc I am an expert practitioner in it myself, but I suppose I want to name that this is a way that we communicate -- we say yes when we mean no, we say yes because we want to save face, we simply fail to give an answer at all which is itself an answer. Sure it is a common way of communicating, but pertaining to this sermon, in this place, I wonder if you have ever encountered churches that communicate this way too.
I wonder if you've ever encountered a church that has touted it warm hospitality, and it's friendly members, you visited, and nobody talked to you. I wonder if you have ever encountered a church that touted it's emphasis on community and relationship, and it was a place that you found yourself to feel very alone.
I wonder if you've ever found a church that telegraphed it's broad and generous and compassionate theology, and it's open-mindedness and than BAM, the sermon on abortion, or why women can't be leaders, or how unless you believe what the pastor believes you're going to hell. I wonder if you've ever been to a church that self-assessed high in the areas of anti-racism, anti-ableism, or LGBTQ+ advocacy, and then you subsequently experienced things there that suggested they self-assessed poorly.
I don't say any of this to say -- fibbing bad, churches bad -- but rather to say that it is a deeply normal thing to slightly misrepresent ourselves, I think it is a deeply normal thing to give a yes that actually means no, to give a "here's where we are," that means "here's where we wish we were," I think it's deeply normal to give a "this is what I have to say" that really is a "here's what I know you want to hear." We want to be able to be people who are good, who do not disappoint, who can say yes to every invitation, who can assuage every anxiety. We want to be a Church that is good and that does not disappoint. And that is a lofty expectation that we put upon ourselves.
I think this is in part what Jesus is talking about in this week's Gospel, he's saying, great, I know that we're all clear that MURDER and ADULTERY are BAD. But who are you to say that you are not a murderer when you remain a grudge-holder. What does it mean to say that you are not a murderer if you haven't the time or interest in the hard and on-going work of reconciliation in big ways and little ways every day of your life, what does it mean that you do swear to God or on your great uncles grave, if sometimes your 'yes' means 'well sorta' or 'not really', what does it mean if your 'yes' sometimes means 'no' ! It feels a bit extreme, because the ten commandments are kind of like the biggest most obvious examples of sin, but Jesus says that what we are doing here is not just threshing the big sins, the big misbehaviors from our lives, but also the little ones. We are not just following the letter of the ten commandments, but the spirit of the ten commandments. We are called not to just love and see and care for people in big ways, but also in small ways.
This feels hard because it feels like it needs us all to admit that fibbing and grudge-holding and disloyalty all fall into the same veins as murder and disloyalty and swearing. It feels bad because we want to be able to say squarely and confident I am Good, we are Good, and not give caveat. Can you imagine having to walk around naming -- well I'm not a murderer but I do gossip a little and God said I need to work on that.
This kind of thinking about our sin feels bad because we want to be able to confidently say we are good, we are a people that are trained, inculturated to need to see ourselves as good, as the good ones. And Jesus is saying, well, if you're good you're good and if you've got more work to do then you've got more work to do. It's our challenge from Jesus t let our yes's mean absolutely, let your good mean here's what I've done, let your warm and welcoming mean 'here's how you can expect to be greeted and incorporated when you get here', let your I am paying attention to the big things also mean I am paying attention to the little things.
I say all of this simply to mean that sometimes the longing to be good can actually keep us from getting better -- the longing to be good, can be a blind spot to the things we still have yet to attend to. The good news is simply that we do not have to already be perfect, we do not have to already be capital G, capital O O D GOOD. We do not have to already be spotless, we do not already have to be above criticism or above growth. If we were already good -- if we already had nothing left to attend to -- we would not be here. I would be sitting on a rock in the middle of the Rappahannock river radiating psychic energy, if I was already Good and without any need for improvement, I would have a booth set up at Hyperion dispensing my chaste and inculpable advice at $10 a person. If we were already good, we would have no need of this church or of our God, and in fact if we already had to be impeccable and immaculate, Jesus would not have called Thomas or Peter, Jesus would not have gone to Zaccheus' house, Paul would not have found himself writing his epistles to our early church.
We do not have to already be above reproach, we have simply to know that God made us in God's image, that makes us good, it makes us worthy of redeeming, and it means that our work is simply to want to try to live into the calls that God made for us, to want to be just a little bit better, and to have some sense of the direction we're moving to get there.
One of the ways I see this happen in the Episcopal church is in the matter of LGBTQ inclusion -- we know that as a denomination besides maybe UU and UCC we are the most consistently safe choice for queer folks to come and see themselves affirmed, represented, and celebrated. And it is easy for us to think that we have actually already done all of that -- "we've won" already, we got the A. We already elected our first out gay bishop, and a half a dozen more since then, we already had our schism, we already passed gay marriage. In some places we are already ordaining trans and non-binary priests, in some places we are celebrating liturgies of renaming for young people in the midst of transition. And I would ask us simply to reframe the good work that we have done, from thinking "we've done it" to "we are doing it, and there is more to do."
We are already good and there is more to do -- can we be sure that our yes mean yes. Can we be sure that the trans and non-binary people that come here won't be misgendered once or repeatedly, can we be sure that we aren't minimizing the mortal terror felt by queer people who see their very existences debated in city council meetings and congressional hearings all over the country, can we say confidently that we accept everybody exactly as they are even if they say or do or wear things that fall outside the bounds of standard Episcopal church propriety, do we understand the nuances of the prejudices faced by gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer and non-binary people face even under marriage equality, or that marriage equality doesn't even register as a top 5 issue for a lot of queer people? In our care and love of one another, the big things really, deeply matter, and we're pretty good at getting them right, and I hope that you hear that the little things matter very, very much too.
If I'm honest, I will probably never be the type of person to be able to say flatly "oh sorry i don't want to go, have fun tho" without the bottom of my stomach falling out, but I think with the courage that we give one another by being friends and partners in communities shaped like this one, it might be just a little easy to say, together, rather than alone, (I might not murder, but I sure do gossip sometimes,,) "we don't always get it right, but we sure do try hard."