«How to Love Annoying and Difficult People A Sermon by Jeff Carlson St. Pauls United Church of Christ, Chicago July 28, 2013 Text: Luke 6:27-42 We ...»
How to Love Annoying and Difficult People
A Sermon by Jeff Carlson
St. Pauls United Church of Christ, Chicago
July 28, 2013
Text: Luke 6:27-42
We continue our summer sermon series on topics that you all chose for us to preach on, and I
have to say that I found preparing for today’s topic to be really annoying. The more I thought
about what annoyed me, the more I was aware of how easily I am annoyed, and that’s an
annoying thing to know about yourself.
Amplifying the annoyance, I traveled last week to visit a friend in Massachusetts; and although I love to travel, nothing can annoy me more. I arrived at the airport an hour and a half early to check a bag, but was annoyed to pay $25 because I lack status; I was annoyed by the long line at security and the man in front of me talking on his cell phone for the entire time; I was annoyed at the overpriced airport food, the delayed flight, and the kid in the seat directly behind me tapping out a beat, beat, beat on his tray table; I was annoyed that although I had arrived an hour and a half early and the flight left an hour late, my suitcase that I had paid $25 to check had not made it onto my flight; finally, the delayed flight and lost luggage caused me to miss my bus. And that was only the first day of vacation.
There were other annoyances that weren’t caused by humans: the weather was stifling hot, really annoying, so I went to the beach, but found that particular stretch of the Atlantic to be as cold as ice water. So I stood on the shore in the coolish breeze until I felt a sharp sting on my ankle, and I looked down to see that I was being swarmed by biting flies. No one had told me about the greenhead flies in New England. So I ran up into the sand dunes to escape the greenhead flies, only to find myself attacked by dive-bombing piping plovers. Apparently I was annoying them.
Then it began to rain.
When I got back to the car, a family was arriving at the beach, and the mother was yelling into the backseat of the car, “Remember! This is my vacation too!” I can only imagine what was annoying her.
That night, I looked forward to falling asleep in the comfortable bed my gracious host had provided. But I couldn’t sleep. I live in the middle of the city. It’s noisy at night. So, I lay in bed in the silence, reaching down occasionally to scratch one of the itchy welts left on my ankles by a greenhead fly, and reflected to myself what an easily annoyed man I am. I even get annoyed at absolutely nothing at all, like the sound of silence.
Annoyances are inevitable. Being annoyed by other people is inevitable. The things that annoy us are often irrational and they’re as individual as we are. That’s why we call them pet peeves.
We like to pet our annoyances, caress them, stroke them, stew on them, and tell others about them. There’s a fine line between annoying and amusing. It can be very entertaining to watch annoying people – like Felix Unger or Fran Drescher - as long as they’re annoying somebody else.
Being annoyed is part of living in a free creation where human agency matters, a world in which two people can’t stand on the same piece of pavement at the same time. A world without annoying people would be a world without people. It would certainly be a world without me.
The word annoying is rarely used in the Bible. Annoying is just not a way that scripture tends to categorize people. It’s found only two times in the New Testament.1 Unsurprisingly, both times the word “annoyed” is used are when somebody is said to be annoyed because somebody else is talking too much and won’t shut up.
While I was on vacation I read a book written by two correspondents for NPR, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. It’s called Annoying, the Science of What Bugs Us. Yes, people are actually researching why and what annoys us. I found the book annoying. It didn’t offer much help for how to love annoying people. They did say that one of the most highly sited annoying behaviors is hearing someone talk loudly on a cell phone in public. Our brains are wired for listening to the human voice. We try to make sense of what we’re hearing so we can communicate. So, when you hear just one side of a conversation while, say, trying to read your book on the train, that one-sided conversation you overhear distracts your brain, because you’re trying to fill in the blanks.
That’s why it’s much less annoying to overhear half a conversation in a foreign language, or a persistent hum in the background. It’s easier to ignore. It’s also why people who talk too much annoy us, because our brains naturally respond to human speech. And, supposedly, that most annoying sound of all - fingernails on a chalkboard - is at the top of the list because it’s at the same sound wavelength as a human scream, something we’ve evolved to respond to immediately.
The other thing research has shown is that annoying people don’t realize they’re annoying.
That’s right. We don’t usually know when we’re being annoying. Although we’re very aware of people who annoy us, we can be oblivious to the ways we annoy others. In other words, we are all annoying people that others must learn to love.
And perhaps that’s the best place to start in answering the question of how to love annoying people. It begins with taking a good, hard look at our own annoying selves. Today’s reading ends with a parable Jesus told. The Message version of the Bible speaks of trying to clean a smudge off of your neighbor’s face while yours is covered with dirt. The traditional language is about reaching over to remove a splinter out of your neighbor’s eye, oblivious to the log sticking out of your own.
Acts 4:2 and 16:18, if you’d care to look them up.
Jesus knew that we’re usually much harder on others, more critical, than we are on ourselves. A little later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story directed at people who are overly concerned with the annoyances of others: Two men went to church to pray. One was a fine, upstanding citizen, the other a no-good tax collector. The morally upright man prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like other people, annoying people – people who clip their fingernails in public, who cut in front of lines, who talk incessantly about themselves, and god-forbid, like that cheating tax collector over there. I lead a good, moral life. I play by the rules.” Meanwhile, the tax collector, slumped in the shadows of a back pew, prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Learning how to love annoying people begins with taking our eyes off of them and taking a good, hard look at the logs in our own eyes. I am easy on myself, because I know that I’ve had a tough day, I’m hungry, my time is important, I’m entitled to some peace and quiet. Yet I have no idea what kind of a hellish week that jerk who just cut me off in traffic has had. Like the tax collector’s prayer, a good sense of my own sin is a step toward compassion for others in their weakness.
At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus gives his disciples three things to do that will help them learn how to love an annoying person: do good to them; bless them and pray for them.
Jesus, though, doesn’t say “annoying person.” The term he uses is enemy. Jesus just assumes that we’ll have enemies in life. He doesn’t use the categories of annoying and difficult for people.
People are either friends or enemies. There doesn’t appear to be a middle, neutral ground in which we can just ignore somebody. But the important thing isn’t so much whether a person is my friend or my enemy. The important thing is whether I am being a friend.
It’s easy to be gracious and charitable to people we consider friends, to people we love to spend time with, people who are part of our social circle. We invite them to dinner because they add to the conversation, without monopolizing it. We have a drink with them because they’re people like us. We pray for dear old Aunt Edna’s broken hip because we love her. But there’s nothing special about that. Everyone, Jesus says, finds it easy to love the lovable.
Here’s how he says to love your enemy: do good to him; bless her; pray for him. There’s nothing particularly complicated about that. It’s just that those reactions don’t come naturally to us.
That’s not how our culture works. We have learned to react in the same way that we are treated.
An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. A cold shoulder for a cold shoulder.
Somebody flips me off, I return the favor. Somebody cuts me off, I lay on the horn as angrily as possible. Somebody curses at me, I don’t bless him. I respond with something from my own arsenal of epithets.
The problem with that is that the annoying person sets the terms of engagement. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he isn’t telling us to be doormats. By telling us to do good, to bless and to pray he’s empowering us. He’s telling us to not accept the terms of engagement that the difficult person has set. Let love set the terms.
Do not return evil for evil, Paul says. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, invite him over to dinner.
If she’s thirsty, take her out for a drink. Don’t let a jerk write the script for your behavior. Treat the difficult person in the same way you’d treat a friend.
Jesus said that by returning evil with goodness, with blessing and with prayer, we will show that we are children of God, because that’s exactly how God treats the ungrateful and the wicked.
The character of God, ultimately, is the grounding for this free and radical and generous love.
God loves annoying people. God is gracious to difficult people.
God has no credit limit when it comes to mercy. If we really believe that we are God’s children, then we can trust that we have God’s credit card of grace in our back pockets, and there is no spending limit. We can pick up the tab on love. We can pick up the tab on generosity. We can be profligate, wasteful spenders of God’s grace, because God’s amazing grace will never run out.
There is a constant supply for us to draw on.
So, here’s something practical that you can start doing today to help you to love annoying and difficult people. Later, when you get home, make a list of the top annoyers in your life.
Tomorrow, when you get up in the morning or before bed at night, whenever it is that you say your prayers, pray for the annoying people on that list. If you’re serious about love, then it will become a habit. This is the Jesus way of learning to love annoying and difficult people. Prayer.
And I can tell you that it has made a huge difference in my own easily-annoyed heart. By praying for someone, you are standing with them in the place of prayer, and the person I find difficult and annoying needs prayer as much as my dear Aunt Edna does, probably even more so.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that prayer is no more than bringing our brother or sister into the presence of God: “to see him under the cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in her that repels us falls away; we see her in her destitution and need.
His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray: Lord, you, and you alone deal with him according to your severity and your goodness. To pray for another means to grant our brother or sister the same right that we have received. Namely, the right to stand before Christ and share in his mercy.” Praying for an annoying and difficult person may not change her or him. But it will change you.
It will change your heart. Prayer opens up the horizons of what’s possible in our hearts, because it refuses to be defined by the enemy’s terms. Instead, our hearts are defined by the deep love of God.
It’s God’s love, in the end, that makes it possible for us to love annoying and difficult people.
Because God loves annoying and difficult people like us.
I hope I didn’t annoy you too much with this sermon. But if I did, now you know what to do.
Pray for me. I need it.
Luke 6:27-42 from The Message version:
"To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you;
then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.
I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.
Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way.
Generosity begets generosity."
He quoted a proverb: “‘Can a blind man guide a blind man?’ Wouldn’t they both end up in the ditch? An apprentice doesn’t lecture the master. The point is to be careful who you follow as your teacher.
It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-thanthou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor."