This month, we have been talking about "right relationship". Our congregation has created guidelines that define how we agree to be with each other. These guidelines are meant to help us enter into community in a constructive and mutually beneficial way.
On the first Sunday of this month, we talked about unconditional acceptance - about how we can learn to accept people fully without necessarily approving of everything they do or say. Last week, we talked about conflict and how we can most healthily deal with the disagreement and even fighting that inevitably arises whenever human beings are in relationship with one another.
What is right relationship really? It be defined in a variety of ways... To me, right relationship is much more than good manners, although being polite is a good start. I suggest that a useful definition of Right relationship is "a way of being together in community that allows each of us to be ourselves, to grow, to be accepted, and to be safe." In other words, Right Relationship is what we need to create and sustain an environment that is nurturing and best allows us to accomplish our purpose for each other and for the world.
Our guidelines of right relationship comprises 11 items. I'm not sure if we had to add the 11th in order to avoid sounding like the 10 commandments, but there it is.
Prominent on this list is one item that appears in every such list in some form. Treat one another with respect. Who would disagree? To treat each other with respect would strike most of us like a very basic element of being in community.
Respect, however, seems to be one of those words that we use very often but whose meaning is more than just a little bit cloudy.
As often is the case, the opposite is more obvious.
I think we have a fairly clear idea of what disrespect looks like. If we ignore what someone says - that is disrespectful. If we speaking harshly or interrupt someone mid-sentence - definitely disrespectful. If we are excluded or not asked our opinion on something that involves us or not invited to a party where all of our friends are invited, we're pretty sure we've been treated with disrespect. We've been - as current vernacular would have it - dissed.
But these obvious examples of disrespect do not really illuminate what it is to treat someone with respect.
The behaviours we identify with disrespect basically come down to rudeness - they are the opposite of courtesy, rather than the opposite of respect.
Disrespect can also be about failing to give some special level of deference to others, where what is expected is in fact to lower yourself - show obedience, deference, don't speak until spoken to.
Don't talk back
Respect your elders
Respect your minister...
In our story this morning, a poor man treats his ox disrespectfully and respectfully. Respect in the story is kindness to the ox. The man learns that he must treat Great Joy as another being worthy of compassion, encouragement, and relationship.
Disrespect is treating someone like a thing.
Respect is treating someone like a person - a person like ourselves - a person with dignity, with worth, with needs and joys and pains and longings and sorrows and dreams.
Felix Adler put it better than I can:
"The conception of worth, that each person is an end per se, is not a mere abstraction. Our interest in it is not merely academic. Every outcry against the oppression of some people by other people, or against what is morally hideous is the affirmation of the principle that a human being as such is not to be violated. A human being is not to be handled as a tool but is to be respected and revered."
Sometimes, it is hard to remember that no person is or should be treated like a thing. Some of us may act and/or look like beasts, but respect is treating people like human beings nonetheless.
This kind of respect is not a respect we have to earn by being old or accomplished or highly educated or by having a particular position, such as minister.
This point is beautifully illustrated by a Nasreddin story from the Muslim tradition.
"Nasradin Odzha was a judge. One morning, he went into a cafe. He was dressed simply, like a peasant. He greeted the Turks sitting in the cafe, but nobody answered his greetings. He said to himself, "Oh, my old mother [like mamma mia!], this won't do!" He went home and dresed in a new fur coat, then returned to the cafe. He greeted the Turks and they answered his greetings in Turkish. They called to the cafe owner, "Make a cup of coffee for Nasradin Odzha!" He made a cup and brought it to Nasradin Odzha, who began to pour it all over the left side of his coat.
Another said, "Make a cup of coffee for Nasradin Odzha!" He made a cup and brought it to Nasradin Odzha, who began to pour it all over the right side of his coat. The Turks said, "Hey, Nasradin Odzha, what are you doing? We're treating you to coffee, and you're pouring it all over your coat!"
Nasradin said, "Well, you paid my coat more respect than you paid to me.
I came in here earlier, and you didn't even see me. I went home, changed clothes, came back and you paid respect to my coat. So, I figured the coffee was for my coat, not me."
Respect is not about the role, the age, or the clothes. It is not even about whether a person treats us with respect. Respect means treating people as though they are the sacred, worthy, precious beings we believe them to be - even though they may try to convince us otherwise.
Treating one another like human beings - treating with respect - means treating each other like we are precious. Assuming the best about each other, calling upon the best in each other,
As with Great Joy, respect brings out the best in others. Respect helps to create people who are whole, people who enter into right relationship. Respect helps to create the world of which we dream.