Do you walk around your neighborhood? I walk my dog, Briar, on the sidewalks around our part of Needham, passing one house after another. Sometimes, we encounter a house whose people have parked their car across the sidewalk, blocking it completely. I am annoyed. We may also pass by some shrubs that have overgrown the actual yard in which they are planted so that they require that Briar and I again detour off the sidewalk. Again, I experience annoyance. I may begin to have an opinion about how "some people" have a sense of entitlement that I do not admire. One more real-life example you say? Fine. We are on an evening stroll, when suddenly, someone's automatic lawn irrigation system clicks on, throwing arcs of cold water across the sidewalk and even into the street. And I haven't even mentioned snow removal, dog-unfriendly salt, and barking dogs outraged that we are inches on the wrong side of an invisible "fence."
It is not hard to grow annoyed with this suburban world. It is not hard to grow annoyed with the people we encounter. After all, we're just trying to mind our own business and get on with our lives, right?
The first point I'd like you to consider is how, when we are annoyed, we are likely to have an accompanying rationale for how right we are to be annoyed. We may even have a mental dialogue going on wherein we make the airtight case against those who have failed to get in the right line at the checkout or pick up after their dog. The person who is annoyed sees himself or herself on the moral high ground.
Perhaps at this point, you would expect the minister to point out how Jesus taught us not to be annoyed at small inconveniences. Well, there is that business about "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," and "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…" from Matthew 6 and 7. But, let's be clear, beloved. Jesus is not Oprah. Oprah and her posse are a great source for strategies and philosophies for living life. Jesus is up to something related but distinct from good advice. What could it be?
Debbie Watters and I attend a community Messiah sing as part of each year's season of Advent and Christmas. This year, we went to the one in Lexington, attended by a thousand people, diverse in too many ways to recount. At a very quiet, beautiful moment, someone's baby let out a couple of fussy shrieks. Shortly after that, the two Chinese women behind me had a chat, none too quietly. There were some "shushing" sounds then. Places like concerts and churches are full of annoyances aren't they.
Then it hit me.
The baby had been audible just when the contralto was singing, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, 'God with us.'" Of course! Any baby worth his onesie would fill his tiny lungs with air and holler at that! Then I also realized, that baby was waiting for the moment when everyone would be paying attention. And he, or she, nailed it. I began to smile more.
The two women behind me had never been to a Messiah sing before, clearly. I'm pretty sure only one of them spoke English. Of course! They were trying to figure out where they were in the huge book that one gets at a Messiah sing. They should be asking questions! I turned and showed them how to relate the bulletin to the score, and how there were high and low parts to sing, and how the music moved very fast. I kept checking with them and kind of laughing with them. So I was really smiling now.
My neighbors who always have a car parked across the sidewalk have an extra car in their household because their son is home, for now, and, having no other place to park, brings that extra car with him. They are so glad to have him there and to be able to help! You gotta love family.
The woman whose shrub sticks out across the sidewalk loves the flowers on that bush. She can't bear to cut it back but she doesn't mind if you take some blossoms for your house. She is kind of amazed that the bush is so healthy. It makes her smile.
When the automatic sprinkler came on, I yelped and broke into a run. Briar figured that fun had just broken-out and she ran with me but in that kind of bouncy, joyous way that dogs sometimes run when the game is on. That made me laugh and whoop it up some more. We flew down the block and some folks in a nearby yard turned to watch us. They began to laugh: at our ridiculousness? Sure. And maybe at seeing the sheer joy of running down a street whooping.
What changed annoyance into something else?
Somehow, the child born in the hay of a manger grew up to tell stories with a twist, the ones we call parables. In Luke 6, he spoke to crowds about how to see the world with a twist:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh."
This is a different expectation about bad, sad things. This is a twist on reality. And then he said this:
"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Jesus wanted to show his listeners how the world works when you see it through the eyes of the one who made it and makes it all. He called it the kingdom of God. Because they didn't understand his twisted view of the world, or maybe because they did and grasped how it threatened the status quo, they killed him.
We who have so much choice about how we greet each other, greet each change, greet each annoyance, we can choose to ignore his view of things, to silence his clear message, to behave as if he meant nothing and does not require of us that we see things in any way other than the way we always see them. Or, we could make a different choice.
As you move away from shepherds, angels, twinkly lights, and Christmas songs, don't leave behind the newborn child, even though newborns can be annoying. Use your heart's imagination, your religious insight, and your curiosity to turn what annoys you into that which is a blessing. When you find yourself ready to judge, set your well-earned wisdom aside and consider that there is probably a different story to be learned. And when you are about to object that something isn't the way it should be, pay attention to that dissonance. It is in twisty times such as those that we glimpse the effect of some other force of light and life than our own. If you can open yourself to times like those, get ready to smile. Get ready, beloved, to laugh out loud.O Holy One, protector of "the other side of the story," defender of the annoying and the annoyed both, get us ready for whatever's next. We want to be prepared to laugh, to listen, and to love as you love this twist-ridden, surprising life, this blessed world. Amen.