There once was a little boy named Sam who was very excited about Halloween. But his parents kept putting off getting his costume until finally the day of Halloween his mother came home with a costume that Sam hated. It was of some comic book character who had been big once but who now was seen by all the kids to be ridiculous and only for the littlest of children. Sam was devastated. How could he ever wear this? He couldn’t possibly go out on Halloween in this costume! He was so upset, he ran down the street to where an older couple who had become surrogate grandparents to Sam lived. He ran into their house and cried and cried about the terrible costume his mother had picked out for him. Well, Norm, the older man thought for a few minutes and then he said to his wife, “Don’t we have some old costumes up in the attic from when our kids were children?”
“Why, I believe we do!” she replied. Up they all went into the attic and down they came with an old ghost costume. Really, it was just a sheet with holes cut in it for the eyes. But Sam was so thrilled with the costume, he just couldn’t wait to put it on. With a look of awe in his eyes, he pulled the sheet down over his head and before anyone could stop him, he went running out the door to go trick or treating and ran straight through the yard and baminto a tree! Norm saw this and he dashed out after him, picked up the little boy, but before he could stop him, there Sam took off again, running as fast as he could until bam he ran smack into another tree! This time the force pushed him flat onto his back where he lay still until Norm came running up. Norm wondered what on earth was going on until he looked into Sam’s face and realized that Sam had not lined up the eye holes to match his eyes. He had been virtually blind, running around the yard, completely unable to see where he was going. Norm gently but firmly took hold of the sheet, pulled it around until Sam was able to see through the eye holes, tied a rope around his waist to hold the costume in place and sent Sam off on a much more successful and enjoyable Halloween evening of trick-or-treating!
Blindness. The inability to see without help. Walking around in the dark, not because it is dark, but because our vision is covered, obscured in some way. The darkness of failing to realize that we could see, if someone were to just help us adjust our costumes, adjust our outlook, adjust our approach, just a little bit. Oftentimes it is this blindness which causes us to err, to sin, to take a wrong path so that somebody gets hit, whether it be just a tree or another person, someone gets hurt: and we obviously do as well.
We all have our costumes a little bit askew. We all think that we are speaking the same language, like the little boy knowing it is Halloween, knowing he is supposed to wear a costume and go out into the night. Sometimes when we come thinking we know how things are supposed to work, we miss the very cues that tell us our eyes are not seeing clearly right now.
Similarly, when new people come into our spaces, it is sometimes hard to read them as well and so we have a goal for ourselves to see our vision of God’s hand at work in this place and to try to interpret that for any who are new coming into our space. But regardless, I think it is important that we treat one another with patience, always, knowing that even as we speak the same languages, and even when we’ve known each other a long time, we never completely understand one another, we never completely can see with the same vision as one another. So we struggle at times to walk together, learn together, work together, as we learn to see through the eye holes of our new trappings. We try to respect different traditions, try to honor different values in ministry, recognizing that by the very nature of our being different people, with different church experiences and, raised with different values and different visions, we will do things differently, but we know that as people, we do and will step on toes, we do and will create and experience challenges that help us all grow, and we do and will undoubtedly make mistakes. Part of what helps is to share with one another our stories, sharing what matters most to each of us about your lives, striving to trust one another with honesty, openness, to be the people who, when we have run into a tree can come and adjust the eye-holes and with grace and forgiveness, set us going on a path that will make our walks easier, cleaner, straighter and will involve us hitting as few trees, or even people, as possible.
It also involves forgiveness, and seeking to heal relationships when things have not gone well, when we have hit trees, when we haven’t been able to see correctly. One of the wisest sayings I know is that you never understand what someone else is going through. We never do, so seeking to remember that, to have compassion for the other, to be kind, is essential. Giving the other the benefit of the doubt is absolutely necessary if we are to find peace in this life-time. As I’ve shared with you before, it is extremely important that we forgive, not for the sake of the one we are forgiving, but really for our own sakes. Studies are showing more and more exactly how important this is. Our physical well-being seems deeply connected to forgiveness. The lack of forgiveness increases blood pressure, increases chances of stroke and heart disease, and greatly affects people’s chances of surviving cancers. Emotionally, the lack of forgiveness can lead to bitterness, depression, and an inability to move forward. But we often don’t know HOW to forgive. I’ve been taking a weekly course through the Board of Pensions on forgiving and forgiveness. And this last week in my webinar, they gave us an exercise to do. They told us to write out a story about something we were having a difficult time forgiving. Then they said on a separate piece of paper, take out of the story we wrote only facts. Not guesses about what the other person thought or what their intentions were or what they believed or didn’t believe. Just write down the facts of what happened. And then take the original story and throw it away. I tried this exercise and found that it was AMAZING. That most of what I had been upset or angry about were things I had assumed, guessed, “intuited”. Similarly, I have been attacked and accused of feelings or thoughts or ideas that were never my own: that other people’s anger at me usually is based on something unreal.
About two years ago I went for a hike with a friend from college. She was asking me about mutual friends whom I was more in touch with than she was. And then I asked her about mutual friends with whom she had closer connections. When I asked her about one friend in particular, she told me that “oh, yeah! I called her about a year ago but didn’t hear back, and then I tried again about 6 months ago. It’s time for me to try to reach out again!” She said this without critique, without judgement, and what struck me more, without any kind of pain or sense of being ignored. If I had reached out to someone repeatedly and they had not responded, I would have felt rejected, intentionally attacked in a passive-aggressive way. I would assume that the person I had tried to contact was sending me a very clear message of “I don’t care about you. I don’t like you. I don’t want you in my life.” So I asked her about it. And SHE was stunned by my reaction. “Oh!” she said, “I just assume she was busy and meant to call me back but got distracted by other things.” My friends’ different approach, different assumptions, different understanding caught me off guard. It showed me once again that the things that often offend me, or hurt me, or get my “ire” up – the things that may lead me to feel hurt and to hold on to grudges: these are often, if not always, a matter of my own interpretation.
Today is baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is the day when God comes and washes the dirt from our eyes. It is the day when we celebrate that God offers us first, calls us first, even before we are able to ask for it, the gift of being made new, being made clean, of being given the possibility of different sight, different vision. It is the second Sunday of epiphany, an appropriate time to recognize that Baptism is a gift we receive from God. With its cleansing and renewing waters, then, we can see enough to strive to talk to others, to build relationships with others, to give to others, to forgive others and ourselves.
Part of learning to walk with one another with our costumes on straight has to start with knowing who each other are, getting to know each other more deeply as individuals within a community. But then it must continue with forgiveness, with the willingness to recognize our assumptions that are blocking our ability to forgive, to understand, to truly see and love one another.
Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us. It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God. It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again, because I always look for the best of who you are and forgiven and erase the past that is the worst; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people, caring back, giving second chances to others, forgiving, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.”
Often when we are meeting together on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I choose to do some kind of remembrance of our baptism and baptism vows. We are apart this year, which makes this more difficult. But instead, I want us to do two different things in our separate spaces. First, I am going to reread to you the promises that we make during baptism.
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Secondly, I would invite you to do the exercise that I was taught in my forgiveness webinar. Think of someone you are struggling to forgive. Think of what exactly it is that you are having trouble forgiving and write it down. Write all of it down: all your thoughts, all your ideas, all your assumptions about their thoughts, their motivations. “He was a selfish jerk and he just wanted to make my life miserable” kind of stuff. Write it all down. Once you have finished with that, take a separate piece of paper and write down only the facts, the things you absolutely know. What was said, what actually happened, what actually took place. Not what you’ve heard, not what you’ve assumed, NOT what anyone else has told you, but the actual facts that you witnessed, that you saw, that you know. Then take the first story that you wrote and throw it away. Let it go. Forgive. By the way, that same forgiveness needs to be offered to ourselves as well: we often have the hardest time forgiving ourselves.
This giving the benefit of the doubt, this erasing of the past, this creation of new relationships, new possibilities, new life – this is what God offers us. And we are called, as I said, to do the same. Take this remembrance of Jesus’ baptism, of your own, to remember all that God has done for you and to celebrate and offer the same to those around you. Amen.