“It’s Nice to Be Nice”
A sermon by
The Rev. Keely Franke
September 4, 2011
Well tomorrow is the last day of the Great Minnesota Get-together and you know what that means. Kids will be going back to school and fall is in the air. I’m sure many of you have made your way to the State Fair, some of you more than once. Personally I was not planning on going to the fair. I don’t know about you but the idea of spending a day with thousands of hot, sweaty people milling around eating greasy food on a stick just doesn’t sound appealing. But sure enough another priest friend of mine talked me into it and so off we went Friday night.
Once there I went in search for a t-shirt I had heard about. “It’s nice to be nice – Minnesota” it read. When we moved to Minnesota eight summers ago one of the first things I learned about Minnesotans is that they are nice. They didn’t call me sweetheart or invite me in for sweet tea like my own people in the south would have done, at least not right away. But they are nice. There is even a name for it, Minnesota Nice. But we all know it has a flip side to it as well, Minnesota Ice.
I quickly learned that this translates into “passive-aggressive”. I’m sure none of you know what I’m talking about. The biggest problem with passive-aggressivity is that it’s contagious. Where I was once direct and straightforward with people, not afraid of confrontation, I quickly found myself avoiding any confrontation.
For example. A year after we moved to Minnesota we moved into the house we live in now. When we moved in we had one of those neighbors. You know the kind. The neighbor where when anything moved, a trash bag, one of the many cars, we held our breath and hoped it meant he was moving. This neighbor had tendencies to do things that just got under your skin.
When we first moved in I believe our neighbor was especially testing us. That first summer we noticed he was in the habit of throwing his Pepsi cans and cigarette butts in the small space between our garage and our fence. Maybe he thought we never looked back there, that we just didn’t care or maybe he was simply testing us.
So, I let this go on for a few more weeks until we had collected a good number of cans and cigarette butts. And what did I do? In good Minnesotan form I waited until he left one day and set a pyramid of cans out in his driveway. In front of the pyramid I placed a pile of cigarette butts for him to either run over with his car or to at least see when he pulled into his driveway.
It worked, he backed off. However a few days after my new found way of dealing with my neighbors I began to feel quite embarrassed and was a little shocked at my behavior. What had happened, I thought? It was official I had now turned into one of those Minnesotans. Passive-aggression was around to stay.
It doesn’t matter where we live, though, in Minnesota or in the north, south, east or west. Somehow conflict in general has been given a bad name. Our mothers after all taught us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And the Christian Church has come to consider any kind of confrontation leading to conflict to be a sin. We are after all followers of Jesus and we’re supposed to be nice. Because Jesus was nice wasn’t he? This is something I get all the time especially as a priest. Even my friends will say “you have to be nice, Keely, you’re a priest.” Jesus was loving and ever so compassionate towards the human condition. But he was not necessarily nice all the time.
If we remember the gospel last week just after Jesus got finished calling Peter the rock upon which his church would be built, Peter questions whether Jesus really has to die. And Jesus retorts “get behind me Satan” severely confronting Peter’s misunderstanding of what Jesus was all about.
“If you want to gain your life you must lose it,” which Jesus also says and other not so nice propositions challenging Peter further. For Jesus, living in community and being willing to lose your life for another is the most important thing we do. But Jesus also recognizes it’s the hardest thing we do and you can’t always be nice about it.
In our gospel today Jesus outlines a process in fact for dealing with members of a community with whom we are in conflict. If someone sins against you talk to them first in private. If they don’t hear you bring in two or three others to keep you honest. If they still don’t hear you take them to the church. And if that doesn’t work then let them go.
I would venture to say that the thing which sets us apart as a Christian community is that we are communities in the business of reconciliation and healing. This involves truth telling. Or as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, we are a community called to speak the truth in love. This is tough love as some people call it but it is also real love.
Henri Nouwen, a well know Catholic priest and author, was asked to give a speech on Christian leadership. He turned this into his book “In the Name of Jesus.” In it Nouwen reflects on his time at L’Arche, a community made up of people with disabilities and people who come to share life with them. Nouwen was getting to a point in his life where his accomplishments were grand, he was well published and well known, but he was finding himself lonely and burnt out and so he went to live in community.
While there he learned a whole new level of responsibility for living in community. Used to traveling all over for a couple days here and there to give speeches and presentations, Nouwen didn’t think twice about leaving and not telling anyone. But the first time he did he received a disappointed phone call when he arrived at his destination from his friend Trevor – “Henri, why did you leave us? We miss you so much. Please come back.”
Nouwen reflects “When people have little intellectual capacity, they let their hearts – their loving hearts, their angry hearts, their longing hearts – speak directly and often unadorned.” I would add so it is with children as well. They speak from their hearts and tell it like it is.
We oftentimes forget that Jesus sent us out two-by-two. To be in relationship with one another, to love one another as God loved us, and because we don’t always do this well to forgive and be reconciled with one another. It is nice to be nice but being nice won’t always do.
If you’re going to the fair today or tomorrow enjoy. It should be a beautiful couple days for it. Even if you’re not I encourage you to pay attention to the people around you and those with whom you come in contact. Notice those relationships where you stack up cans. You will find there are many opportunities for telling the truth in love. And this is the most important thing we do. Because as Jesus says, where two or three are gathered God is there in the midst of them. Yes, perhaps even at the Minnesota State Fair. Amen.