Laura's sermon at Community of Hope, UCC, this Sunday, June 29th, 2014.
Tales of a Packer Laura Komai
I hope you didn’t think I was going to talk about football. I was actually thinking of myself recently as “one who packs.” I particularly excel at packing a lot of things into little spaces and at packing a lot of activities into small amounts of time. I’m notorious for packing too much when I travel. I’m a packer. That got me thinking about baggage, emotional baggage that is… and that’s how you get a sermon topic.
So, here’s my baggage. The scripture reading from Matthew speaks to a deep sense of welcoming, that in welcoming, we welcome not just those who enter into our lives, but God who sent them. But what else do we welcome? To my mind, this passage speaks also to what we welcome of ourselves that we, or others, consider the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, our emotional baggage as it were. If we are all creations of a loving God, than should we not heed the words about welcoming ALL those aspects of ourselves and others? Well, we’ll see.
First suitcase. Fairness. A friend blames this on having only one sister. However it came to be, I have a strong sense of competition and of fairness - developed mostly with respect to which Komai sibling got the bigger piece of cake. I can very easily extend this to which customer spends more money at my shop, how the amount of energy I expend on a person is “paid back.” It’s the people who seem to benefit from my work more than I do from theirs; it’s how many letters I used to write, how much time I used to spend with my friends’ children. I know, it’s not pretty.
But I am reminded of someone who once told me that she believes God gives us ideas and then if we don’t use them, God takes them away. When I heard this, I shifted immediately into packing mode, writing down all my ideas so that I would have them in my suitcase. You can imagine that I very quickly had about four lifetimes worth of ideas. And that is the lesson of that brief period of hoarding ideas: there is NO shortage of ideas, and it is much more useful to revel in the abundance than to focus on packing your suitcase.
This can be extended to my time, my energy, my affections. Do I consider everything to be finite and limited, requiring a careful build-up of the contents of my suitcase along with judicious doling out? If you think about this theory, it basically suggests that God is an accountant, tracking who gets what, how it is used, what debts are created or repaid. But that’s never how I’ve thought of God. In truth, God promises and asks the exact opposite of us. God promises us abundance, generosity, grace, forgiveness of debts.
The point, as I have come to see it, is not about a simple one-to-one exchange. It is, as the passage on the front of the bulletin states, not that we are precious and separate vessels, but that we are doorways, opening, connecting, sharing, reaching to that which is greater than ourselves. It has never been the accumulation, the lists, the suitcases or the debts. Just as my artistic inspiration comes from a tremendous variety of sources and can thus never easily be paid back, so, too, the gifts and favors in my own life can’t be so easily tallied and repaid. If I am going to carry this suitcase, I must be rigorous about how I measure fairness.
Not just the size of cake I get or the ways that I give without reciprocation, but the ways I receive without any ability to repay and the ways that I am inspired without any expectation of reward, the constant gifts of grace and love and beauty that happen throughout our days.
Second suitcase: Sin.
When I mentioned this to my mom, she said: you’re bringing THAT in?! But bear with me.
Recently, I listened to Brene Brown’s TEDtalks on vulnerability and risk. She draws a distinction between shame, which arises when we think of ourselves as bad people, and guilt, which arises when we think of ourselves as committing a bad act. It seems to me that too often we portray sin in ways that generate shame, that is, arising because WE are inherently bad or deficient. However, I’m having trouble reconciling our selves as Godly creations with such a notion. I prefer to think of sin in terms of committing bad or erroneous acts. That kind of sin is not nearly so inescapable. We can apologize, atone, forgive, fix. There is room for redemption. And the suitcase feels lighter.
Additionally, I think it is ok to leave this suitcase open. It is ok to share our mistakes, to be together in our imperfections. We can learn from each other, we can learn OF each other. We can see the fears and pains underlying the sin, and we can shed the light of God’s love upon them.
Further lightening comes with grace. I heard something recently: “You can never make the same mistake twice, because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” What you CHOOSE to do after the first time is really critical in my mind. Do you choose, as the passage from Romans describes, to live a life where sin exercises dominion over you? Or will you choose to be enslaved to the grace of a loving and forgiving God? The weight of the suitcase is not so much that the sin was committed, it is how you choose to hold onto it and in what ways you let it reverberate in your life. And so, while I acknowledge the existence of the sin of bad actions and choices, I’m just not sure we need to pack them all into our suitcases. We are still children of God, after all.
To be honest, this is something I have to work at constantly and in the smallest of ways. For example, once I found a journal in our shop with a big ol’ ring of coffee staining the cover. In my world, that IS a sin against me. I’m quite sure that no one’s Mother ever told them to put their coffee cup down on other peoples’ paper goods. Now, the question is: what do I do with that? Will I sulk over the notebook that was damaged? When I see someone else with a coffee cup, will I forbid them entry?
My old boss would call this punishing good customers for the actions of bad customers. It was to be avoided. Otherwise, this allows single instances to taint everything that comes after. Every day I am faced with this choice of holding on to sin, to be on guard and wary OR, I can look beyond the potential for sinning, holding love and patience in my heart for myself, for people carrying coffee cups, for sins committed and for all those that I imagine might someday be. THAT is to resist the call to be enslaved to sin. To resist adding more to this particular suitcase.
Third Suitcase. Risk. This is the suitcase that holds my dream job, the shop I own with my sister. It’s what I believe God calls me to do. There is financial risk, of course, but the bigger risk is to set your heart out there, unlock the doors, and let anyone have at it. This goes back to my first suitcase: What I am risking is the generosity of sharing myself with no guarantee of return. Sometimes people don’t even walk in the door before making a face and turning around. That makes me feel rejected on a very personal level. It makes me feel like… crawling into a suitcase and shutting it against the world. It would be cozy in there. But, yeah, it doesn’t really work that way.
Brene Brown says: “to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest, is our most accurate measure of courage.” It’s really terrifying. Still, I remember the first year that we opened - the one where I cried on the phone to the IRS, and thought about getting a second job as a grocery-store stocker. As hard as that year was, I was on a constant high. Every Day, people came into the store: their purchases affirmed my work, their compliments reached me at a deeper level. They were, in effect, saying to me: my heart sees your heart and it is good. Isn’t that all we are really after? But how can we see anyone’s hearts if they are shut away in a suitcase?
Fourth suitcase. Creativity. This goes back to what I believe about our role as those who have been cast in the likeness of God, God who spent those first days creating, forming, making. But this suitcase is not without weight. It carries plans and intentions, thoughts of imperfection, comparison. It also holds a huge pile of projects that have been started but not finished. I am slowly learning to trust the entire contents, including the gap between intention and reality, to be comfortable with the process AND products, which might not be so great in and of themselves, but which ARE always building upon each other.
To give you an example, these garlands hanging behind me. They started as a smaller project at the downtown public library. The garlands themselves were beautiful rainbows of hand-batiked paper that made me oh-so-happy. However, it was hard for me to hang them, there was a lag between the initial idea and the finished product, and people kept pulling them down. Overall, I felt both proud and crabby about the results.
But it turns out that was just the warm-up. Months later, with leftover circles and the need for something to hang in this room, I knew the project would not be time-consuming in terms of design and planning. I had some idea that the garlands would translate to the bigger space, but I never know for sure until I see them all in place, after a substantial amount of work has already been done.
In the midst of all that observing and planning and working, there also has to be empty space. That space allows for the unplanned, for change, for uncertainty, for the moments when suddenly the Divine speaks to me and says: “you know what would add a perfect bit of sparkle to these garlands? gold origami paper.” You might not think that the Divine speaks of such things, but, trust me, that’s exactly how we talk to each other. Leaving space in my suitcase for serendipity and intuition usually brings exactly what is needed to the process, in this case adding just the right spark to catch the light as flame on the day we would celebrate the Holy Spirit, our Pastor, and each other.
So, there you go, four of my suitcases. By no means all of them.
As I continue on my journey
I hope that I am able
to welcome all aspects of my Self and others, including baggage,
to appreciate the flow of gifts and energy that defies packing,
to mindfully choose what is packed and what is left behind
and to move through the world with Love and grace
with the help of God.