Cindy’s religious childhood was first Mormon, and then evangelical for a while. Her memories seemed to be a mash-up of prayer meetings and Sunday school flannel boards and red punch. Nice people, nothing shocking, nothing very exciting either. Over time she fell away. Believing, but not belonging; curious but living beyond any organized spiritual practice. She grew up, and married, had children, divorced, remarried, and still she was a n-o-n-e.
You may have heard the advice that there are two things you do not discuss in polite company. Religion and politics. Cindy was my hairstylist and she owned the salon. This advice was important to her livelihood. As we got to know each other, she began to murmur simple religious questions beyond the full roar of many hair dryers. Eventually, she began scheduling my appointments after hours, when she could ask all the politely undesirable religious questions she wanted. A short while later her husband would join us too, and when my regular appointments were not enough, She would call and say, ‘I need to practice prom up do’s’, when are you available? Cindy needed a way and a place to have the conversations she felt were unmentionable during business hours.
Our lessons today are highlighted with a variety of undesirable subjects and polite company unmentionables. Scanning the lessons on Monday, I asked across the office: who our lectors are this week? I was uncomfortable with the idea of having these lessons read by a child. Yet right there in the Colossians reading is the transformation of that gut reaction. The fullness of God was pleased to dwell and live and be fully human in Jesus. A human who burped and had fungus between his toes, and did all sorts of unmentionable and very human things. Again and again in Christian history we have forgotten this part, we clean Jesus up, think his space cannot bear messier words, and we settle for a philosophy that offers a precious plastic Jesus who has no scriptural heart.
Colossians is asking the Christology question, and the Christology question is why Jesus matters. For me the answer is that, Jesus continues to hold my curiosity and love because he is God who said bad words and sneezed up flemm and ate things that gave him heartburn, and whose disappointments kept him up at night, just like you and me. I love this God, this God in Jesus who is foolishly human. All of which means that all the unmentionables of our lives are capable of bearing the divine. All these lost and defeated and demeaning moments, are beloved by God.
The prophet Hosea is telling a hard story about how precious we are to God, it is an extended metaphor which rightly accuses us of being broken, cruel, wanton and sold out. It says something like, I set you down a miracle among miracles and you don’t love yourself like I love you. Hundreds of years later Paul is rebuking another foolishness saying, Jesus became one with us, he wiped the slate clean, and you think you can find eternity through secret paths or magic words or clean diets??? Paul and Hosea, like late night comedians, they grab our attention with cringeworthy metaphors on topics you might rather have left unsaid.
While Cindy and I had our religious salon in the evenings, I served a church where part of my duties were supervising a tutoring ministry. One day one of the students didn’t show, but her tutor Ella did. Ella asked if I had anything else she could help with, and I did, so she went to work in my office assembling binders or something like that. At some point, my young friend Darla passed through a doorway of my office. Darla was 13 and active in the choir and youth group,and the most common answer uttered in our time together was you don’t love yourself as much as God loves you. As was typical in our life together, her conversation wandered from unmentionable question to an undesirable story as salacious as any cringe worthy word in our lessons. This wasn’t a teary confession or a fearful drama, instead a casual conversation. Which concluded when Darla cheerily said, ‘I have to get downstairs for choir’ and bounced out the other door.
Now you may remember that the doors were wide open and a stranger, a guest was sitting in my office the whole time Darla was speaking. I could see and feel that Ella, sitting there with her binders and hole punch, was stunned by what she heard. I said to her, ‘the rule around here is that they can say anything in my office.’ Ella’s reply was something like this. ‘Oh I’m not offended, that was awesome. That she could be so honest, and you wondering when she would make the better choices, and so nonjudgmentally! I just never in a million years would have shared those things, said those words, to anyone at my home church.’ Growing up I thought the same sort of boundaries applied. Church was glistening brass and frosted cupcakes where cringeworthy things were left unsaid. I was mistaken.
This is not a place for unmentionables. The fully human Jesus is who we bind ourselves to in Baptism and Eucharist. We bury ourselves in the earthy holiness of all of it, Jesus nails himself to our disturbing stories, to our hungers and our plasticity and our ungratefulness. And his being there with us, is the forgiveness that raises us with him. Maybe we need to be better at telling our whole cringeworthy story, just as it is. Maybe I need to give you the same permission I give young people, maybe I need to say it out loud. Anything can be said here, anytime, anyplace. Maybe the space you need to name and pray through the strange discomfortof fractured dreams is small and personal, like Cindy’s salon. Or maybe the space you need to speak of sad memories is more open, like Darla,who would breeze through my office and freely speak all sorts of honesty's.
So that rule about my office? It was more about permission than the office itself. It looks like we have walls and doors, but truly we do not. Brokeness is inside and outside and Jesus redeems it all when we name it as our truth. Church isn’t a building word, it is a relationship word. So even though you can see the walls and the doors and the locks, in Christ’s church, they are not really there. The rule is that you can say anything here, wherever here may be.
The open doors didn’t change the choices Darla had already made. It didn’t solve anything in the short term. It was an ongoing relationship and dialogue. One of love and honesty, about how she confessed things like this because they didn’t meeGod-given given expectations for herself. Flannel board and red punch Jesus is too flimsy and sweet to meet the challenges of this day and time. Our God given expectations take whole hearted courage: and all of it grows out of our union with him. Union with a vulnerable, honest, forgiving and storytelling human Lord. Does your nose run or are you embarrassed by the sound your stomach just made? Me too. Do you forget to floss or fail to live up to expectations? Your neighbor does too. Does your heart burn or are your hands scarred? Jesus’s too. Knock, Open, Ask, Share. Alleluia.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
July 24, 2016