Loving Difficult People
LOVING DIFFICULT PEOPLE
“Newman!!!!!” With that one name fans of the 90’s sitcom Seinfeld are filled with ire, fury, and annoyance. Seinfeld was a famous 90’s sitcom about a comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, and his three friends George Costanza, Elaine Benes, and Cosmo Kramer, living daily life in New York City. Newman was a disagreeable mailman who resents Jerry’s fame as a comedian. He is Jerry’s arch nemesis on the show. One of the most famous episodes of Seinfeld was The Bottle Deposit. According to IMDB, “In this two-part episode, Kramer and Newman scheme to make money on recycling by taking a mail truck to Michigan full of bottles and cans. But their road trip takes a turn for the worst (literally) when Jerry’s car is stolen by a psychotic auto mechanic and they track Jerry’s car out in the Midwest. Elaine outbids Sue Ellen Mischkie by double her budget for JFK’s golf clubs and leaves them in Jerry’s car. George gets a project from his boss Wilhelm but doesn’t hear the other end of what he’s supposed to do. Steinbrenner sees the results of George’s project and has him committed to a mental hospital.”
My Dad, who lived in New York city as a child, loves Seinfeld. Growing up I would try to watch the show with him. But I just didn’t get it. I would tell my dad this show is boring what is it about? My father would tell me it’s not about anything, and that is the point. I loved Sci-Fi shows like the X Files and Star Trek. I loved stories about heroic people doing heroic things. But these people were not heroic. They were not even admirable. Watching them on TV I thought these characters were sort of annoying. I wouldn’t want to be their friend. They were difficult people getting in difficult situations of their own creation. Why I thought did people love watching a show about difficult people?
I think people liked watching Seinfeld because it was sort of like watching a funny train wreck. It reflected the little slights and weird behaviors we deal with a daily basis. It magnified these things and allowed us to laugh at them. A part of us loves watching a train wreck. That is why reality television has taken off. We basically reward difficult people who behave badly with multi-million dollar salaries because we like to be reminded that at least some people behave worse than we do. We love to watch difficult people fail at life. But do we love to love difficult people? Do we see that we can be difficult people ourselves?
If I were to put a contemporary title to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians it would be “Loving Difficult People.” The church at Thessalonica was one of Paul’s favorite churches, if not his favorite church. In Chapter 1 Paul says this of the Thessalonians, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from in in Macedonian and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10). Translation;
These are Paul’s BFF’s, (best friends forever)
Paul has a crush on the Thessalonians.
I know how he feels. As you guys know I have crush on Calvin Presbyterian Church.
And at first I thought Paul loved the Thessalonians because the church at Thessalonica didn’t have any difficult people. I thought people sang Kumbaya, got along, and did everything Paul said. They were the illusive perfect church with saintly people that we all church hop till we find. And yet our text today tells us there were those who were disorderly, fainthearted, and weak physically or emotionally. We are called to exhort those who cause conflict in the church, come along side those whose hearts are discouraged, and help those who are too weak to help themselves. Paul loved the church at Thessalonica because the church loved difficult people, not because there were no difficult people in the church. They gained the strength to do this by rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances, and praying without ceasing. We rejoice because the joy of the Lord is our strength, we give thanks for our Lord is worthy of praise, and we pray without ceasing because we recognize that we are helpless to do these things on our own.
In my first church internship I spent 20 months helping a woman who was homeless, obese, with physical disabilities, and a rather unflattering personality. She joined our church. She was one of our members. But she was in and out of jail. At one point she cursed me out over the phone and said she didn’t want anything to do with us. But when she came back and apologized we welcomed her back into the fold. I can’t tell you how much our church spent on that woman. It was a substantial sum. My last day on the job we helped her move back into an apartment. She had spent nearly two years homeless and my last day on the job I got to see her get back into an apartment her cat in tow.
I would return over a year later to check in on how things were going. And our church secretary told me that the woman’s mother had died and left her an inheritance. She had used that inheritance to pay back every dime the church had spent on her. I was astounded. We expect so little of people who annoy us and sometimes they simply live up to our low expectations. Sometimes I wonder if people don’t change because the people around them believe they can’t change and they are just too discouraged to try. Sometimes we just need those around us to believe in us. But that doesn’t always work.
Originally as I prepared this sermon I wanted to end with that story. Because if I ended with that story that would show. “Oh look the Pastor is right! We just need to trust people and it will work out in the end.” But the Lord told me I had to give up being right if we are going to rejoice in the Truth (1 Cor 13). And that is part of the story but not all of the story. And you deserve the whole truth.
Maybe a little after or a little before I heard about this woman repaying all we had done for her I received a call from another woman we had helped at my first church. This woman hadn’t attended regularly or joined, she just came for hand outs. And I had shown mercy on her. And after I had moved on from my first internship that woman came back to my church and someone decided to give her my cell phone. She called me. I was in a bad place in my life. I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go. Ministry can burn you out. And I was pretty burned out. But I thought by helping this woman I could give my life purpose.
It started off small at first. But soon she was fleecing me for all I was worth. And being in a hole I kept digging. I even used funds my father had given to me while I was trying to figure myself out. I thought I could pay him back if this woman would just pay me back. I was very trusting of people back then as I am now though I have become a better judge of character then I was then. There was a time that if you told me gullible was written on the ceiling I would believe you. And even today I might believe you for a split second before I realize you are kidding with me. It got bad. I wasted a large sum of my father’s money. And finally my father called me one night to confront me. I was so ashamed. My father had trusted me and I had betrayed him. It was the worst thing I had done in my life. It was a substantial sum. He had every right to disown me. But he simply said to me,
“Will I would have helped you if you asked. But the money wasn’t yours to give.” And indeed it was a gift he had given me for a purpose. And we should always use gifts for the purpose for which they have been given.
And I am reminded of what the Father said to the good son when he refused to welcome back the prodigal.
You may have noticed that I don’t talk about my father much. That’s because I have had issues with my father in the past and I have always been closer to my mom. But my father’s birthday was in May and the Lord reminded me of my mistake. He reminded me of how my father had forgiven me and provided for me. And I saw that despite my mistakes I have never been in want because of my father. He has always provided for me. And in that way my father is like our Father in Heaven. So I called my Father on his birthday and I told him I loved him. I thanked him for all the ways he had provided for me and forgiven me.
I believe there is a reflection of our heavenly Father, our heavenly mother, in each of our parents if we are willing to look. If only that reflection is the fact that they gave us life. For the Lord loves life and we are here for a reason even if we think we are a mistake. And we must honor the instruments by which the Lord gave us life so it may go well with our lives. You may not be able to call your mother and father up and tell them you love them. But you can forgive them. I talk about this often because the Lord showed me this in my own life. And when I recognized the good in my father and that my father is only human I forgave him, and I even loved him more than I did before, and I was set free.
Life and ministry is about loving difficult people. But sometimes that love is learning when to say yes and learning when to say no. It is learning what and who to put your time, talent, and treasure into. It is building boundaries in love. It is building bridges in love. I have learned that some folks are just discouraged. And a little encouragement can change their lives. But other people are like the prodigal son. They don’t know what their issue. And the good Father in that parable waited till the prodigal son realized what his issue was. The question is how do we know? How do we know when to say yes? How do we know when to say no?
Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from evil.” The word prophecy here is just a fancy way of saying God talking to us in our daily lives. He may do that through a scripture the Holy Spirit highlights, or through the Words of another. In the Reformed tradition we believe God speaks to us through the preaching of the Word. That is why we pray a prayer of illumination. Because we hope God will speak a living Word into our lives.
Here is how I do it. I plan sermons two weeks ahead of time. I listen to you all and I listen to God. I edit it over seven days. Then I stand up and take a risk. I make a decision. I don’t know if I am right. Afterwards, I evaluate. Is this what the scripture is saying? If it is I rejoice. If it isn’t I repent. And if I don’t know I wait to see if the Word bears fruit. We must give time for that decision to bear fruit. Often we turn back before we know the results of our decisions. We cut the tree down before it has a chance to bloom. If we get it wrong we admit our mistake. If we get it right we give glory to God. But again the key is to love. For if we have not love we have nothing.
This church. I love this church. From the depths of my heart. I cry sometimes for how much I love you. For I see in your hearts a heart of love. Love for each other and love for our community. And I believe that one day they will speak of us as they did of the Thessalonians. Our city will give thanks, our neighborhood will give thanks, and our nation will give thanks, and they will glorify God for what we do, I believe it. We shall reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9). I believe it. If we let the love of God flow into our lives he can reshape our lives. He will make it all work together for good for His love will make it work for good (Romans 8:28). My friends I say to you today whatever you are going through we are no longer slaves to fear we are children of God and we have an inheritance (Romans 8:15). Christ died for us when were being difficult people (Romans 5:8). So let us learn to love as God loves. Let us love difficult people.