February 18, 2017
Shortly after I was first ordained as a pastor and was settling into my call serving two small congregations in Calamus, Iowa, I found myself driving up to a tiny town called Charlotte with Roy and Ann Ihns, who had been married for over 7o years. We were driving to Charlotte, because there is a meat locker there which sold lard. Ann insisted I needed to buy lard there in order to make pie crusts; otherwise, I couldn’t consider myself a self-respecting baker. And so I loaded Roy and Ann up in my car, both in their late 90’s, and we set off on our hour-long journey to purchase lard.
We made it to Charlotte, I bought the obligatory tub of lard, loaded Roy and Ann back up into my car and set off on the journey home. Ann insisted we take the back roads home, and because it was a beautiful fall day, I agreed. You should know this was before GPS and you should also know I have zero sense of direction. It was some time before I noticed how quiet things had grown in the back seat, so imagine my alarm when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw both of them slumped into each other, eyes closed. As I pulled onto the shoulder, I panicked, fearing the worst, that they had somehow simultaneously expired right there in the back seat of my car…
After some significant shaking and shouting, it became clear they had both simply fallen asleep, which was wonderful and such a relief. However, when Ann finally rubbed her eyes, she looked out the car window and exclaimed, “Well, where in the HELL are we?” I didn’t know, because I’d been driving for a while as she slept and apparently should have turned but didn’t because my backseat navigators were, well, asleep.
The ensuing conversation went as follows:
Ann, “We’re LOST and you can’t help, because you’re blind as a bat!”
Roy, “Calm down, we’ll be fine!”
Ann, “We aren’t fine. We’re in a terrible mess now!”
Roy, chuckling to himself, “I might be blind, but it’s still a beautiful day for a drive. We might be in a mess, but we’re in a beautiful mess.”
And Ann punched Roy affectionately in the shoulder, as only a wife of 70 plus years can do. And we eventually found our way home, and I learned to bake pie crusts with lard.
I’ve remembered that phrase for about 16 years–beautiful mess–and I shared that same story in both of their funeral sermons, when I had the privilege of ushering them into the kingdom of heaven. It’s a good phrase to hold onto, for sure…a beautiful mess.
The phrase “beautiful mess” accurately describes human relationships, if we are honest…family life, work culture, the classroom, relationships, faith…it’s safe to say that every human relationship has some proportion of messiness. Don’t be fooled by relationships that look perfect on the surface, because underneath the surface you’ll find a mess. Whether the relationship exists between parents and kids, friends, lovers, spouses, whatever, human relationships are beautiful, but messy.
Lutheran Campus Ministry is no exception. We have our share of mess, we have our misunderstandings and drama. There is hurt and pain LCM just like there is in any home or any ministry or anytime people are in relationship. But it’s still a beautiful ministry, with truly beautiful people. Even in the mess that our world finds itself in, LCM is working hard to establish itself as a place where Love Lives. Here are the top ten things LCM is doing right now; in all of them, you will identify beauty and mess:
- Two weeks ago, we participated in the rally on the ped mall to demonstrate solidarity with immigrants, minorities and Muslims. Public outcry in the face of injustice is beauty in the midst of mess.
- Last week, 24 students from the U of I attended a retreat at Wartburg Seminary, several of whom are preparing for a life of ordained ministry in the ELCA. The question of vocation is messy, yet beautiful.
- Last Sunday, we hosted a community forum to give voice to those who marched in January and to connect participants with contact persons in the community who can lead them to legislative action. We had over 150 people in attendance. Public discourse and moral deliberation are beautifully messy things.
- Last week, we hosted the Midwest Coordinator for the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, an organization that is no stranger to messes in this world.
- In October, we hosted representatives from every seminary in the United States so that our students can continue their discernment as leaders in this church. Discernment is beautifully messy stuff.
- We are planning a progressive dinner on campus involving the Muslim Student Center, the Mormon Campus Ministry, the Hillel House Jewish Campus Ministry and the Newman Center Catholic Campus Ministry. Interfaith dialogue is messy sometimes, but it is beautiful.
- We are planning a junior and senior high lock in in March for churches in Iowa City and North Liberty, staffed by LCM students. Lock-ins are just plain messy.
- We are traveling in April to visit the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the University of Chicago Lutheran Campus Ministry serving the south side of Chicago. Outreach and ministry to the poor and marginalized is messy and beautiful.
- We are forming a partnership with the Secular Students at Iowa, an organization of atheist and agnostic students who seek fellowship and community with religious campus ministries for the sake of mutual learning. Bridging gaps is messy and beautiful.
- We are housing a brand new campus ministry called Love Works, which is choosing not to call itself non-denominational but rather cross-denominational. Taking a risk is messy yet beautiful.
All this! Wonderful, beautiful things, but still messy. But why is there mess in human relationships? Simply put, it is because of failed expectations–whether we are talking about failed expectations between people and people or people and God. In our reading from Matthew today, Jesus tells us plainly what he expects from us. Don’t return violence with violence; turn the other cheek. Don’t just love your friends; love your enemies. Be perfect, says Jesus. This is what Jesus expects from us. But you don’t need me to convince you that there is no way we can possibly meet these expectations. I can’t even walk a dog without getting frustrated; how can I possibly succeed in human relationship? If Jesus expects perfection from me, he’d better prepare to be disappointed. So, then, there’s no way to meet these expectations; it’s impossible to keep God’s law, even if we want to. We know that, even when we want to keep the commandments, we have broken them in our hearts, if not with our hands.
What’s God doing–can God possibly understand how difficult it is to exist in messy human relationships?
Yes, God understands the messiness of human relationship. Our relationships matter to God, we see this over and over in the Bible. God is not some remote God, observing creation from a distant corner of the universe. And God goes even further than just empathizing with human relationship, God enters into human relationship by becoming human. And so God is born, and becomes a son named Jesus, with a human mom named Mary and a human dad named Joseph and sisters and brothers; Jesus has plenty of human friends and plenty of human enemies and plenty of people who simply have no idea what to think about him. God becomes fully human and therefore fully experiences the relational things of the human heart, including passion, love and longing. In Jesus, God experiences human loyalty towards his friends and human grief when he is betrayed and abandoned. In Jesus, God experiences human anger towards hypocritical religious authorities. In Jesus, God experiences human empathy for the sick and human tenderness towards those whom society despised. In Jesus, God gathers the ones whom the culture of his time despised–the prostitute, the tax man, the diseased, the minority, the immigrant–and includes them, eats with them, loves them. In Jesus, God reaches out his hand and touches the diseased, heals the sick, embraces the despairing, feeds the hungry, plays with the children. Finally, in Jesus, God turns his cheek towards the kiss of betrayal and dies for his enemies. In Jesus, God exists fully in human relationship.
There is nothing we can experience in human relationship that God has not experienced. God has absorbed all of human relationship into himself and redeemed those things we cannot help but break. In other words, it is because of who God is that we are able to love others, not because of who we are. Human relationship is only made whole in God and by the grace of God. Because God takes relationship to those places we cannot go. God does not expect too much from us by demanding perfection; rather, God draws us into relationship with Jesus, who embodies perfection. In baptism, we are joined to the one who can love and has loved perfectly.
So rather than give up hope when we hear Jesus’ expectations of human relationship which are up here when we know we’re down here, we give God thanks that he has become a part of this beautiful mess of human relationship, not to judge it, not to condemn it, but to redeem it, to sanctify it, to make it holy. God is not setting us up for failure by asking us to turn the other cheek and love the enemy–God draws us into relationship with himself, who is able to do these things and has in fact done them already. God’s love succeeds when our love fails; God’s love is infinite when ours is inadequate. Jesus is the new definition of human relationship, and in him, victory is won not through violence but by opposing it; in Jesus, God’s kingdom breaks open on this world, revealing to us that our ways of relating to one another through exclusion, prejudice, judging, terror and tyranny are NOT the ways of his kingdom, and that these things need to be confronted, challenged and overthrown so that all people can know the lose of God through us and how we relate to them and the world.
But lest we begin to think this sounds cheesy or hippie or sappy, be assured that turning the other cheek and loving the enemy are not acts of submission; they are acts of power, they are acts of revolution in that they are counter-cultural, even as Jesus was revolutionary, just not in the ways people expected him to be. There is power in this selfless love that Jesus models for us. I participated in the Women’s March on Washington in January and saw a man standing on a corner holding up a sign that said, “You Deserve Rape” and saw a woman walk up and hug the man…that’s the love Jesus is talking about that there is power in that love, not submission! Her hug was more transformative than a slap, if not for him, then for me…
The path of revenge is easy; it’s easy to return violence with violence. Loving your friends is easy; it’s easy to love ones who are just like me. But Jesus did not take the easy path; and neither do we, his sons and daughters. And what’s great is we don’t have to worry about failure or not meeting expectations of other people or meeting God’s expectations; God knows what you are capable of and gives you the power and the strength to do your part in sharing his love to the world, as he does, unconditional, unrestrained, unending. Martin Luther was no stranger to the collision of politics and faith and said, “A Christian cannot do everything; but a Christian must do something.” Let your something be about drawing others into relationship with Jesus, who gives power in weakness, hope in despair and courage in injustice. This is the path of powerful evangelism and it has nothing to do with conversion or church membership, it has everything to do with embodying the same selfless power and courage that Jesus embodied. It’s not an easy path, but it’s not impossible. Jesus’ his path took him straight to Jerusalem and Golgotha and the cross. He invites us to follow. But remember his powerful revolution of loving the enemy didn’t die on the cross, it was born on the cross. Birth is messy, but it is also beautiful.
Christians belong in the heart of the messiness of the world. We belong in the messiness of relationships. We can’t fix it, but we can point to One who can…we point to One whose kingdom has already begun to come to this world. We point to One whose kingdom brings those in power to their knees, a kingdom where those who are always last in line are now first, a kingdom where the meek are given places of honor. God’s kingdom recreates the definition of power by beginning with human relationships. Yes it is messy, but it is in the mess of this world where the beauty of the cross shines most brilliantly.