Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Suffering: From Kvetching to Compassion

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Poor Moses. If we think that unifying Episcopalians is harder than herding cats, Moses has his tales to tell, and we hear one today. He’s trying to lead into freedom a multitude of Hebrew slaves, refugees from Egypt, and anxiety among them is running high. They complain about his so-called freedom that requires them to put up with lots of hardships, like having no water in the desert. They quarrel among themselves. They kvetch. I gather that’s not a Hebrew word, but a good Yiddish word that means to be a grumbler, moaner, sniveller, squawker, whiner, bellyacher, complainer, crybaby. Its root in high German means to squeeze, to pressure, and today we hear them putting the squeeze on Moses.

They’re just about ready to stone Moses, as if that would have been a good idea—Moses was their global positioning device, and without him they would have been really lost. Moses agonizes with God: “What am I to do with these people?” And God promises him that at Mount Horeb they will find a rock. Moses must strike that rock, and water will flow.

It is an ancient story from the rabbis that not only did those refugees find water there at that rock, but—you must put on your imaginations for this—that rock followed the Hebrew people throughout their long years of being homeless in the wilderness.

How do you imagine that? Everybody takes ten steps forward… they turn around, and the folks in the back row shout out, “Yep, it moved!” This sounds like the stuff of cartoons. Every time they break camp and resettle a few miles north, that rock is with them.

These rabbis loved to tell that tale to make their point that this is just like God, isn’t it? God with us, Emmanuel, whose amazing grace at just the right moment is so etched in memory that it follows—or leads—God’s people forever.

And sure enough, in one of his letters St. Paul dusts off that great old tale and reinterprets it by saying, “And that rock was Christ!”

That’s all he says about it… doesn’t explain himself…figures that if the elder rabbis could appeal to people’s imagination, so can he.

As we hear today’s Gospel story about a woman who comes to a famous well in Samaria, we won’t be too surprised to find Jesus there. Emmanuel is where the water is. “The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Water saves the lives of refugees in the desert; water becomes the sacramental sign of salvation in Jesus Christ.

But let’s see if that rock is still following us. It is. What offers more solid footing than rock? Until it moves in its most massive way, tectonic plates deep in the earth sliding, falling, rising, squeezing the surface, grotesquely distorting whatever man has built on that surface, as happened in Japan two weeks ago. Seven hundred times more powerful than the big earthquake in Haiti, hundreds of aftershocks repeating the message that rock is not the most solid footing, after all.

In his Letter to the Romans that Jim read today, St. Paul says that we stand in the love that God has poured into our lives in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Emmanuel, God-with-us in Jesus, the Savior with the wet feet, is the solid ground of our being. To walk in his love is to have peace, says Paul, not because we wish it were so but because God has made it so; not because we did anything to qualify for this change that puts us on firmer footing than rock. In fact, in Paul’s version of the Good News, when God acted on our behalf it wasn’t at some moment when the human race was at its best, but exactly when we were at our weakest, so anxious in our suffering, so anxious and kvetching that we were, says Paul, enemies of God, opposed to God.

It was then that Jesus Christ laid his life down to make the way of the cross to be the way of new life. I think of his strategic selflessness when I hear about the nuclear reactor workers in Japan harrowing that hell, standing in that breach, entering those deadly places to get water cooling those overheated radioactive components. They risk their health, they dare to live and die in hope that what they do will save the lives of countless people, their people, their children, their communities.

Peter Abelard, twelfth-century French philosopher, argued with traditional atonement theory that saw Jesus’s death on the cross appeasing a wrathful God. Abelard insisted instead that the purpose of our gazing upon the crucified Christ is to be so moved by compassion that we will recognize the power of selfless love and choose to bravely give such love when it is asked of us.

If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, why can’t he design the created order without human suffering? That’s a powerful question I’m hearing in the Foundations group. My hunch is that no answer will fully satisfy anyone asking this question.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tries. In his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” he pulls apart the premises of that question. Freedom of will cannot exist if God knows all. The unbendable laws of nature that allow the created order to exist put the squeeze even on God. Not all-knowing, not all-powerful, nonetheless God is all-loving, all-encompassing, all-compassionate.

Let’s hear a different way of approaching the question. Suffering is indispensable to the human quest for wisdom. We must suffer into truth, suffer into mature human ripeness, suffer into blessing. That’s the thinking of Aeschylus, Greek playwright in the fifth century before the common era. He wrote plays for the festival of Dionysus, god of transformation, putting suffering on stage to cause the audience to feel empathy, to strengthen the bonds of Athenian citizenship and leave no one alone in his or her sorrow or suffering. He resolves one of his plays by appeasing the terrifying Furies, gods of wrath, giving them their own shrine and renaming them the Eumenides, the compassionate ones—as much as to say that citizens in a civilized society must make a place for suffering and darkness in their own minds and hearts, transforming primitive passions into a force for compassion.

“We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” That’s Paul again.

His words could make us furious, if we hear him being dismissive and unfeeling. But I hear him building the case for compassion. Hope does not disappoint because hope is what keeps the doors of our hearts and the windows of our minds open, open to recognize pain and promise, need and opportunity. Hope is the spark of energy that makes me rise from the throne of me-first and give that place to someone else who needs my attention, my care.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all…

That’s Emily Dickinson commenting on hope not disappointing us. But if hope sings the tune without the words, there is the task of compassion: finding the words and the actions born of feeling, empathy, love, the strong ground on which we stand, the only firm ground on which we walk.

(Karen Armstrong’s book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, was very helpful to me in the preparation of this sermon.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Facing Biblical Temptation

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5A:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

If you were here on Ash Wednesday, you heard about an initiative by two dozen Chicago-area Episcopal parishes. Each sent a team of lay and ordained leaders to offer the imposition of ashes at public transit platforms. “Ashes to Go” is the name they gave to the project. One parish led the way last year. They placed ashes on the foreheads of 37 strangers. By that arithmetic, organizers this year hoped to reach hundreds.

Ashes can be administered in a variety of ways. The standard approach has the officiant make the sign of the cross in ashes on the recipient’s forehead, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That may or may not be the best Good News the Church can impart. I prefer to say to people, “Remember that your body is dust, and to dust it shall return; and remember that you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I think that message reflects a more faithful Christian anthropology.

Poor attendance at Ash Wednesday services prompted last year’s action. As did a desire to bring the church out into the public square—and what’s more public than the transit system? One might add, what’s a more vulnerable and guarded moment in a person’s day than the commute to work?

Simultaneously, student ministry groups at the University of Northern Illinois and Northwestern University in Evanston brought Ashes to Go to Starbucks at their student unions.

Tunnel City Coffee, anyone? Paresky snack bar? Stop and Shop?

I’m thinking that religion in the public square could become a fraught issue. If we admire our Episcopal compatriots for their chutzpah, how comfortable are we with a free-market approach, any and all religions conducting their rites on public property or in workplaces and facilities giving permission? I’d guess the blogosphere could barely contain the arguments, pro and con.

Our own Diocese is one of several that offer outdoor liturgy. The Rev. Christopher Carlisle, our Missioner for Higher Education, in teamwork with a Lutheran pastor and a UCC minister, has launched Cathedral in the Night, a portable outdoor church setting that uses lighting to create holy space, and has the purpose of engaging students and young adults in reaching out to community residents in need or crisis. The debut took place in January on a side lawn of St. John’s, Northampton, notwithstanding the thermometer reading of five degrees. If this venture reminds you of the outreach of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, offering eucharist to homeless people on the Commons, I believe it’s meant to.

The church that lives unto itself will die by itself. The church that does not engage children, youth, and young adults creatively, on their terms and in their public spaces, neglects Jesus’s call to let the young come to him.

The church that does not locate itself in the community where people are hungry, unemployed, unwell, unsheltered, rejects Jesus’s call to find him and love him where he is. The church that lives unto itself will die by itself, having deprived itself of the true passion of Christ for making right a world gone wrong.

Later in this service today, we will thank God for showing us concrete instances of divine justice being made real in the world. Tahrir Square was on my mind when I chose that prayer. I’m not sure I always know what people mean when they call a contemporary event biblical, but that’s exactly what I want to call that improbable, inspiring, wondrous rebirth of a nation that is so wanted by so many that they have demonstrated multiple gifts of the Spirit of God. Can we imagine a holier liturgy than what happened near that public square, culminating in a moment on the Friday of Rage when soldiers swiveled their tank turret guns from facing into the square, aimed at the people, to face the presidential palace where Hosni Mubarak would soon be dislodged? True biblical justice requires the beating of swords into ploughshares (and tanks into who knows what); but turning a turret gun into a lever that lifts a people from bondage is biblical enough for me.

In Tahrir Square, Muslims turned east to pray. Coptic Christians encircled their praying compatriots, to protect them. To meet the requirement that hands be washed before prayer, the demonstrators rubbed the paving stones of the square to let the grit of sand clean their hands (the prophet provided that option somewhere in the holy writings of Islam, that where water is lacking, sand will suffice, an eminently practical leeway for desert people).

Is there much difference between that sand and those ashes we employ in the cleansing of hearts that Lent invites? The next state of this year’s palms from Palm Sunday will be the ashes of next year’s Ash Wednesday, evidence that the Spirit transforms, and the universe wastes nothing.

Matthew’s story of our Lord’s temptation, however, reminds us not to take for granted either the Spirit’s work or the universe’s bounty. If this story, worn smooth by the wind-devil of annual familiarity, if this story doesn’t convey to us how Jesus could have scrubbed his whole mission, could have lost the leverage of his forty days’ fast, could have blown it all by a poor choice, a false choice, then let’s hope the desert sand roughs us up enough to reconsider what we’re hearing.

The tempter waits to the 41st day—likelier, night—to attempt to mislead Jesus, whose body is so weakened because he is famished: he joins the countless millions victimized by famine. While we think of famine as what happens when the rains and the crops fail, famine is more often what happens when tyrants neglect their people, re-routing daily bread to private accounts. Jesus chooses to know what it is to be famished. And in that natural state of fixation on food, he hears the tempter offer him a way out, a way to regain strength for his mission: command some stones at hand to become bread. “If you are secure in your identity,” hisses the serpent, “use your power for yourself.”

I borrow the serpent not so much from the first lesson as from Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, an astonishing book. In the film, it is a viper that rises to this conversation with Jesus, suggesting how the conversation, the temptation, is ultimately an interior one. The serpent is the presence of very real threat, but the words project our Lord’s own struggle with the nature and purpose of his power and his mission. This story is replete with a devil and a host of hovering angels, but let’s reject the temptation to externalize this drama and realize that the war is being waged within.

Delusion and hallucination transport Jesus to the highest turret of the temple in Jerusalem, the very place where his days will end, the place where true dangers lurk. Again, the tempter appears in this premonition of the final temptation that Jesus will face when the devilish mix of organized religion and imperial power will set him up for what they hope will be his fall. “If you are certain about your relationship to God, don’t you imagine yourself immune from death?” hums the voice that would mislead.

As he handled the first temptation, so Jesus reconciles this second one by asserting what he knows of God. These temptations are like shifting winds filling the sails of a small boat on a vast sea: the sailor navigates by sighting the pole star, the guiding principle.

And it makes sense that the third temptation requires a very high mountain. The dominant spirit in human life is revealed there. God is encountered on mountaintops in so many religions. Pride, hubris, motivates climbing as well. Americans can’t be the only nation to think of themselves as a city built on a hill, a light shining on a mountain. From a high place boundaries blur and imperial pretensions extend. Such is this third critical question Jesus must face: is his kingdom of this world?

Today, biblical temptations face the people of Egypt. At first, in the early days of their revolution, Egyptians took care of one another across social divides. Not only did Coptic Christians encircle Muslims to guard them while at prayer; Muslims encircled Coptic churches, when threats were made to attack the Christian community. But this past week, both Christians and Muslims have yielded to temptation, and at a time when security forces are few, violence has flared between the religious communities and lives are being lost in chain reactions of violence, perpetuating ancient feuds.

In our own country, a congressional investigation of Islam tempts some to generalize, judge, and blame. Legislators are tempted to balance budgets on the backs of the poor. Some are tempted to demonize collective bargaining as a quick way to turn stones into bread.

In Japan, an untold number of people may be tempted to give in to despair in the wake of such massive violence in nature. A catastrophic earthquake demolishes the most basic security we take for granted, that the earth will support us. To call this calamity biblical is a misnomer. What may be called biblical in this national tragedy will be the rising of its victims from the ashes, the inspiration of courageous leaders, the compassion that will care and carry, the hope that will dare navigate the future by spiritual powers that are the gift and work of God.

And each of us faces temptations to make a poor choice, a false choice, a wrong choice. In Matthew’s story of Jesus in the desert, his interior struggle culminates in the sudden appearance of angels waiting on him. Hidden in the swirling burning sand that roughs us up is God who, our collect tells us, knows the weaknesses of each of us. What we are able to find in our temptations is God, at work in a mighty way to set right a world gone wrong.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exposed to Blinding Light

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes Exodus 24:12-18; II Peter 1:16-21; and Matthew 17:1-9

Poets have the opening words in this sermon today. First, Wendell Berry, who now lives in a milder climate than ours but, as you’ll see, knows the lay of our land:

Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth.

“We walked above the ground on fallen sky…” That makes me think of an elderly person I visited, who couldn’t seem to retrieve the word “snow” and kept speaking about “the white, the white…”

Emily Dickinson is the second poet I bring with me today:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present in the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows upon the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay—

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

You will have understood already that it is the dazzling white light, and the suddenly bright cloud in Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration that deserve to be approached by verse.

But if I were to write a poem about light while it is still winter, I would write about something that might surprise you, and that is the danger of being suddenly blinded by glare on winter-wet roads. That happened to me on Cole Avenue one day in early February. I’d just turned in from North Hoosac Road, and as I ascended the rise of the bridge I saw it start, as if a massive paintball had exploded onto the pavement, radiating in all directions. As I came down the decline, brilliant impenetrable blinding light washed everything everywhere and for about four or five seconds I was traveling witless, unable to see if the road was clear for me to proceed, equally clueless if it was safe to pull over. All I could do was keep moving, slow down, and trust. Then, as if all that radiance had been sucked down a drain, it disappeared, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

This gives me a new way to appreciate the experience of Peter, James, and John. I now believe they were terrified, helpless, then relieved. And I can imagine how that felt.

My few moments of winter danger draw me into this Gospel in a fresh way. When I hear that Moses and Elijah appeared to them, iconic representatives of the Jewish law and the Hebrew prophets, what I hear now isn’t the stock commentary, that these two old-timers summed up all that Jesus would fulfill. Rather, I hear Moses and Elijah summing up the risks, the dangers, inherent in leading people and representing the future.

Elie Wiesel helps us appreciate Moses. Having gotten all those Hebrew slaves out from under Pharoah’s tyranny, having led them out of Egypt into Canaan, having witnessed at every turn one hair-raising miracle after another, each uplift gave way to letdown, as Wiesel puts it: “This people he had chosen never gave him anything but worries. There was no pleasing, no satisfying them. Forever complaining, grumbling, protesting, missing the stability—however precarious, even miserable—of the past… Moses’ chosen people showed no faith, no joy in being partic ipants in the making of history… Poor Moses, who had dreamed of inspiring them, elevating them, transforming slaves into leaders, fashioning a community of free and sovereign men and women. Here was his dream—broken, shattered. His people, unchanged, were still absorbed in their sordid intrigues and in-fighting. They had seen God at work and had learned nothing. They had witnessed events of cosmic importance and had remained unaffected. They were already doubting God’s presence in their midst. They were already doubting their purpose, their very memory.

“And when God said to Moses, ‘Your people have sinned’—Moses replied with a sudden display of humor: ‘When they observe Your Law, they are Your children, but when they violate it, they are mine?’

“In spite of his disappointments, in spite of his ordeals and the lack of gratitude he encountered, Moses never lost his faith in his people.” But it sure can be a risky thing, downright dangerous, to lead people and to represent the future.

Elijah knows it, too. Do you remember the time when he alone faced 450 prophets of Baal who were in the employ of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel? A blinding light figures in that story, too: in a life-or-death contest, lightning came down from heaven to consume the offering Elijah laid on his altar, while the altar prepared by the prophets of Baal was a non-starter. Then Elijah is said to have single-handedly slaughtered every one of those 450 false prophets. No wonder he became a fugitive, wanted dead or alive. He is remembered for appearing in a flash and disappearing just as fast. It is a risky and dangerous thing to lead people and to represent the future.

What kind of conversation is going on within this trinity of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? Are the old-timers witnessing to Jesus, encouraging him by reminders of the divine energy that made them able to endure? Are they coaching him as he faces the certain dangers before him, hazards that will mark his Lenten journey to Jerusalem, and Gethsemane, and Golgotha, and the garden tomb?

And is Jesus getting in some pointed questions of his own, such as, “Moses, you led God’s people to a land of milk and honey which they took by the edge of the sword, colonizing Canaan in the name of Israel’s God. Violence begets violence, and here we are with the sharp blade of Rome’s emperor at our throats. How am I to build God’s kingdom that is not of this world?”

Though neither of these ancient worthies had much to teach him about the beating of swords into ploughshares, they must have talked long into that night of the steady faithfulness of God shining brighter than the sun, the moon, the stars. They must have made that night glow retelling the ancient truth that God empowers whomever God calls, God’s ample grace exceeding all the risks, all the dangers.

The content of this conversation is the new creation God is building, reordering, in this world by the life and death of Jesus and the resulting transfiguration even of death. Imagine the letdown when Peter, James, and John finally find their tongues…

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

“Lord, it’s so good to be here!” So dazed, he has no idea where “here” is…

“We’ll make three shrines to capture this moment, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” What do men do when they’re overwhelmed, but retreat to their workbenches and build something?

Their true place, their honest task, will be found in just a moment, right after a bright cloud has overshadowed them and from that cloud a voice has been heard, “This is my Son, marked by my love, bright with my delight. Listen to him.” They fall to the ground, or, in Berry’s language, return to earth. There they feel the touch of Jesus and hear him say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Let this Gospel shape your resolve to keep a holy Lent. You who come from root and leaf, not just air and weather, understand the touch of ashes crossing your forehead as your being marked by God’s love. Look for light in the gift of these Lenten days and nights, to find your true place, your honest task—to listen to the Christ who is worthy to be trusted, whose touch and word we need, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Wendell Berry's and Emily Dickinson's poems appear in "Earth Prayers from Around the World", HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Elie Wiesel's characterization of Moses is found in his "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976.