Sunday, August 31, 2014

All the little boxes

In the name of God who is the great I AM. Amen.

This past week I was at a conference for Latino ministries in the episcopal church. One of the keynote speakers, who happens also to be a priest in Houston, talked about how Latino cultures are put into boxes by Americans because most Americans do not spend any time trying to learn about the cultural differences between different groups and nationalities. People see dark skin or hear a different language being spoken and make assumptions. But no one deserves to be put in a box. Mexican culture is different than Peruvian or Dominican. Not all Latinos like Mariachi bands, are Catholic, and eat tacos. Just like all Texans do not drink Shinerbock, drive trucks, and wear cowboy hats. Some do, but not all. I have learned.

Another speaker, this time a woman bishop, talked about how we need to get out of our boxes. A slightly terrifying idea for an introvert, but it goes both ways, it seems. We hide in our own boxes putting other people in boxes. Both ways, we lose the real connection with other human beings.

Boxes I can work with.

There is only one room in my apartment that does not have any boxes in it, my bedroom. I couldn't sleep peacefully with unpacked boxes in it, so stuck them all in closets or in the other rooms. Putting things in boxes usually connotes packing away, getting rid of, moving out of sight, storing and unnecessary. We put lots of things in boxes, nouns, objects, ideas. Literally putting a person in a box seems slightly inhumane. No air, no light, closed in, no space, claustrophobia sets in. We don't make a habit of doing it literally, but we all make a habit of doing it in our minds. Packing up people in nice labeled boxes so that we don't have to deal with them more than we have to. We assume everyone we meet on a daily basis has enough food to eat, we assume everyone else has someone else to take care of them, we assume all our classmates have money to buy clothes. Our assumptions make space for all the other things we do have to deal with. And we do all have a lot to deal with. I'm not against categorizing and organizing. But when we label too much, it becomes limiting, and people end up in boxes they do not belong in. Even more so, boxing up God is a huge problem.

While studying the passage from Exodus this morning, Rabbi Arthur Green once wrote, 
"God is a verb. The Hebrew name for God, which I still do not pronounce but which is transcribed in English as YHWH, is an impossible compilation of the verb "to be." Haya is past and hove is the present and Yihiye is the future. If you take past, present and future all together and put them in a firm form that does not exist, you get YHWH, the name of God. It really should be translated not G-o-d but "Is was will be." "Is was will be" all at once. You cannot say that, of course, so we substitute for it ... It is too holy to be spoken by mere mortals like us.

When Moses goes down into Egypt, God reveals the name to him and then Moses says, "If the people ask me, who calls you? What do I say?" and God says, "I am that I am" or "I shall be what I shall be," which means "I am really a verb. Here is my name. But if you think that my name is a noun, which is to say, if you think you can put me in a little box and say, 'I have God,' my answer is, "I will be what I will be. I will go conjugate myself and become a verb again. I will fly away and be a verb again. I will be a verb, which is to say, I am the one you cannot catch."" The one you cannot fit into a box. 

It's a serious risk. Taking God out of the box we have put God in. It's a risk to allow people to be free, let alone the inexpressible magnificence of the holy. 

But when we take that risk and allow others to be free, we are given freedom ourselves. When we do not put others in boxes, we are given and we give ourselves the gift to be ourselves. It can be hard to do in our society, we are asked to be labeled and to conform to what people want of us. We judge others, label them, and never really see the people who are standing before us. God heard the cries of all the people that he knew in Egypt waiting to get out of the boxes that the Egyptians had put them in.  But every time we learn some thing new about another, we are given a gift. God gave the people in Egypt many gifts. God loved them and said, I know the man to see them free. He's a convicted felon with a speech impediment, but he is the man for the job. Oh yes, Moses killed an Egyptian, that's why he is now a shepherd with the Midianites and Moses has to have his brother Aaron speak for him most of his life because of how he feels about how he speaks. But God doesn't stop at the labels. 

God works with and through a convicted felon with a speech impediment to change the world.  Moses trusts God and takes the risk because God who knows all is not daunted by his sin, by his inadequacies, by his fear. God knows who Moses is, and what he could be, and loves him fully without reserve. This grace allows the slaves of Egypt to be set free, to break out of the boxes the Egyptians had packed them into.

But what do we do with all the boxes?! Cats and those of us who are children at heart know exactly what to do with empty boxes. Empty boxes are fertile grounds for imagination. As a friend of mine says, "you don't have to sit in a refrigerator box and pretend to be a fridge." After we have played and built new things out of them, we break them down and recycle them, knowing we do not need them anymore. 

We will never understand another person or God, unless we are willing to not put a label on them right away or willing to remove labels once we have learned something new about them. Josh and I would love for this congregation to grow. I think many of you would like this congregation to grow. However, that requires risking our labels and our boxes. We are going to have to risk talking to new people who wander into our church. We might have to risk tangible things like our parking spots or our seats in church. We are going to have to risk inviting other people to church with us. We are going to need to risk changing our perceptions about other people in order to grow. Actually seeing the people around us. Seeing who they are, seeing how they respond, seeing what they are looking for. It usually is all a matter of paying attention and appreciating who they are. How can we appreciate anything held in a box? All we can see are the labels written on the plain sides. It's like Christmas presents, or birthday presents, or just presents in general. The outside of the box is not the special part. It's what inside of them is what is amazing. It's a gift, a joy, to open a plain box and find something surprising and beautiful and wonderfully made. Most people find the most exciting thing about being handed a box is discovering what is inside of it. Who will be a gift to you today?