Monthly Archives: October 2016

Sermon for October 30, 2016: Lamenting Together (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

Let’s see.  In today’s lessons, we have strife and contention, pride and indignation, injustice and impatience, and a vertically-challenged rich guy with small hands.  Okay – I made up the small hands part – but for a group of writings designed to address the needs of people who lived two to three thousand years ago, today’s scriptures are remarkably relevant to what many of us are feeling right now, ten days prior to our national elections.

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from Habakkuk, a minor prophet who lived in Judah in about the seventh century before the birth of Christ.  In it, Habakkuk is having a conversation with God called a “lament.”  Laments can be songs or poems and are usually voiced when a community is facing some kind of significant threat or disaster.  They serve to fortify and unify people when they are afraid or despairing.  Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, people could be seen singing together as they dug through the rubble.[1]  In our own history, we can trace the origin of the music we call “the blues” to the singing of slaves in the fields of the American South.  In the case of Habakkuk’s people – the Judeans – they were bemoaning an imminent invasion from the Babylonians.

Lamenting is a public activity.  It serves as an acceptable outlet for the extreme feelings that people experience in times of communal stress.  “In biblical times the social settings for lament singing would have been in informal gatherings of the community and also in formal temple …Laments are largely anonymous. Members of the community…likely created and innovated upon lament psalms as offerings to worship. Priests and prophets may also have contributed their voices to the laments because of their responsibility to address the people’s concerns.”[2]

It seems to me that the complaints of Habakkuk’s people are pretty similar to ours.  “Why are you not saving us from the violence in our world”? “What are you going to do about all of those people getting away with such terrible stuff”?  And, most often, “When will you answer our prayers”?  God’s response to Habakkuk is unsurprising, but still frustrating.  “Tell the people to be patient,” God tells the prophet, “The good guys will win in the end.”  What an unsatisfying answer – for Habakkuk and for us.  Given what we perceive of as the desperation of our situation, the least God could do is to answer our prayers in a timely way.

Ours is a society that has little tolerance for waiting.  In a world filled with a vast variety of instant communication methods, most of us see little reason to wait for anything.  We have “fast food” to quickly satisfy our appetites, “Fast pass” to get us to and from work more expediently, and even “speed dating,” to expedite our desire for lasting, meaningful relationships.  We can’t take time for long, meditative prayers which may or may not provide results.  We need someone to give us peace of mind, spiritual fulfillment and patience – right now!

Our inability to wait has eroded our capacity to believe in what is not right in front of us.  When we feel angry and helpless in the face of the persecutions and afflictions of this life, we look around for instant solutions to our problems, instant relief for our painful emotions, and instant proof to soothe our doubts.  And by refusing to consider the possibility that the answers we are seeking require us to be both patient and participatory, we start to believe that we are helpless against both the real and imagined terrors in our hearts.  “Fear is in the air, and fear is surging. Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time: Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime, numbers that have surged over the past year to highs not seen for more than a decade. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.  Fear pervades Americans’ lives.”[3]  Like the psalmist, we are consumed by righteous indignation at the repulsive behavior of those around us, but see ourselves as small and of little account.  We can do nothing alone and we wonder if God is doing anything at all.

In his memoir, “Night,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells about seeing the hanging of a young man in a Nazi concentration camp.  During the long thirty minutes it took the boy to die, someone in the watching crowd cried out “Where is God now”?

This seems to be a question many Christians are asking today.  Although our political rhetoric is focused on fear of outsiders, those of us who have committed ourselves to a way of living based on the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves, are also beleaguered – overwhelmed by the violence, prejudice and hatred we see demonstrated by those who live among us.  Where, we ask, is God now?

Jesus might have asked the same question from the cross.  Having done all that God asked of him, even unto death, Jesus cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me”?  Why, at his most crucial hour, could he not feel the presence of God?  I wonder if it was because Jesus was facing the moment of his deepest terror and darkest desolation alone.  Deserted by his followers, betrayed by his friends and plagued with self-doubt, even his ability to hear the comfort and solace of the voice of God was lost in the noise of the crowd.  And if Jesus succumbed to that despair, why shouldn’t we?

Because he didn’t.  Jesus’s cry on the cross was his lament – his expression of fear and anger – and by expressing it, he conquered it.  That is the true value of lament; it reminds us of who we are and what we believe – because there is no lament without faith.  Think about it – if we did not believe that God could help us, why would we be so angry when God doesn’t?  Surveys suggest that most Americans believe in some version of God – but few belong to communities that profess that faith – which is a shame, because faith in community is what Christianity is all about.

That is what the author of the letter to the Thessalonians was trying to explain to his people.  The way of Jesus cannot be practiced alone.  It is about growing in love and faith in community – because, despite what American mythology may tell us, standing alone does not strengthen us.  Standing alone weakens us.  Standing alone defeats us. When we insist on standing alone, we are demanding to stay broken.  We may be at the top of our professions, but we are on the bottom rung of the climb to salvation.  Just like Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was a member of one of the most reviled groups of his time.  He was a tax collector, roundly considered to be both greedy and dishonest.  In today’s parable we heard that Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus, who was passing through his town.  We don’t know whether Zacchaeus wanted Jesus to notice him or not, but Luke makes it clear that Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus, because, you see, Jesus already knew him.  He saw him for who he really was.

The people were dismayed by Jesus’s choice to dine with Zacchaeus.  They didn’t have anything to do with this sinner and they didn’t see why Jesus would want to either.  But Jesus knew that Zacchaeus was not the person his neighbors thought he was.  In the translation of the gospel we read today, when Zacchaeus was greeted by Jesus, he vowed to give up half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone he had cheated.  But according to some scholars, when Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus he was not using the future tense, but the present.  In other words, he was not saying that he would give to the poor; he was saying he already did – and far more generously than his neighbors. Jesus knew that it is not Zacchaeus that needed to be healed but the people of his community.

Jesus knows us too.  Jesus knows that, like the Judeans and the people of Jericho, far more than needing whatever is wrong with each of us to be fixed, what we really require is for our relationships to be healed.  Jesus knows that our society is broken – and it cannot be fixed by individual righteousness.  That’s why God often seems to fail to answer our individual prayers – because God answers our prayers in the way she wants us to live – in community.  When we become frustrated with God for not answering our prayers as quickly as we’d like – when we are tired of patiently waiting for the Lord – when we fail to feel God’s presence – we need to think about what we are praying for.  We need to ask where our prayers fit into our calling as a community of faith – because we may not, as individuals, be able to wait for God to answer our prayers, but if we share our suffering –and our hope – with others, the answers come easily.  The proof of the existence of the benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing God – and the answer to all of our prayers- is actually quite readily available.  It happens each time we look at one another and see the face of God.  AMEN.

[1]Nancy C. Lee, “Lament in the Bible and in Music and Poetry across Cultures Today,” in Teaching the Bible: an e-newsletter for public school teachers by the Society for Biblical Literature, https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/TB7_LamentMusic_NL.pdf.

[2]Nancy C. Lee, “Lament in the Bible and in Music and Poetry across Cultures Today,” in Teaching the Bible: an e-newsletter for public school teachers by the Society for Biblical Literature, https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/TB7_LamentMusic_NL.pdf.

[3]Molly Ball, (September 2, 2016), “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear,” The Atlantic Online, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/donald-trump-and-the-politics-of-fear/498116/.

Sermon for October 9, 2016: Now thank we all our God (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

sermon-for-october-9-2016-now-thank-we-all-our-god

I have a sign in my kitchen.  It says: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention.  Anything else that you get is a privilege.”  I got it in the gift store at Alcatraz after a particularly long day during which my two children seemed to be complaining incessantly – about their food choices, the amount of walking we had to do and, most frequently, about each other.  “Why,” my son wanted to know, “do we have to stop in all the stores she likes”?  “Mo-om,” moaned my daughter, “tell him he can’t do that!”  Cries of injustice rose again and again as each suggested that the other was getting some kind of advantage.  I was not, they told me, being fair.

They are, of course, not the only ones who decry the unfairness of the world.  Although some psychologists think that “fairness” is an advanced human construct, I think that the desire for justice is an extremely basic one.  You tell your two year-old that he needs to give up the bigger cookie to his cousin because she’s a guest and I guarantee you will get a loud chorus of, “But that’s not FAIR!”  And the desire for fairness is not limited to children.  I’m sure that every person in this room has at least one story of being passed over for a promotion that we felt we deserved, or being blamed for something we didn’t do, or seeing something we love end up in the hands of someone we think is unworthy of it.  Our desperate longing for fairness shows up regularly in our conversations about schools, sports, public policy, and yes, religion.

But what do we really mean when we say we want things to be fair?  For some of us, “fairness” is about making sure that everyone is equal – leveling the playing field.  For others, it’s about treating all people the same, without regard to their innate human differences.  But for many people, especially in this country, fairness is about making sure everyone gets what they deserve.  Or, as Sally Brown puts it in “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” “All I want is what I have coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”   For better or worse, we live in a political system in which earning what you have is highly valued – where even a billionaire who has lived a life of incomparable privilege feels it necessary to describe himself as a self-made person.

The Apostle Paul was certainly a hard-working Christian.  Most of his letters contain at least some references to the hardships he endured in his efforts to spread the gospel.  Today’s reading from Timothy – which was probably not written by Paul – places the apostle in chains, having once again been imprisoned for his faith.  According to the writer, Paul is able to endure his suffering because he knows it will lead others to salvation through Jesus Christ.  He is “approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed” – an example of one who is willing to die for Christ in order to live with him, who, by enduring, will reign with him.  It seems like Paul has definitely earned his salvation.

This idea, that the Bible tells us that salvation can be earned, is very dangerous.  It can be blamed at least in part for both the sense of entitlement that leads to religious intolerance and the unhealthy glorification of suffering.  Throughout history, the Christian precepts of hard work and sacrifice have been taken to dangerous extremes by those hoping to earn salvation through acts of self-abasement.  The notion that suffering is beautiful and holy has also created the myth of the “blessed” poor, whose anguish in this world will be offset by glory in the next – a view that some Christians have used to excuse themselves from helping those in need.

None of this is justified by this passage, which does not suggest that Christians should seek out suffering, nor does it tell us to die so we can be like Christ.  What it says is that suffering and dying are part of being human.  What is important is how we understand our human condition.  What is important is that we have faith – because it is by faith that we know that we will never suffer or die alone.  It is by faith that we recognize that all that we are and all that we have are part of something vastly greater than we can achieve on our own – and that the truest, best essence of who we are will live on in that holy communion.  That is what it means when Jesus tells the lepers that their faith has made them well.

Lepers, in Jesus’s society, were at the bottom of the social ladder.  They were not even allowed to come near healthy people.  They had to rip their clothing and announce their arrival in any populated location by calling out the word, “Unclean!”  Their illness was not just physical, but emotional, social, and spiritual.  They were so unwell that they did not even ask Jesus to heal them, only to have mercy on them.  This story is not, then, about their prayers being answered.  It is not about their faith being rewarded.  It is about the simple fact that Jesus had mercy on them, just as Jesus has mercy on us.  This story tells us that faith is not about believing our prayers will be answered.  Faith is believing that our prayers have already been answered. 

The lepers demonstrated only the most basic faith – the belief that Jesus would show them mercy.  But that simple understanding was more powerful than all of our sophisticated efforts to earn salvation by saying the right prayers, performing the most beautiful ritual, and offering the right interpretations of scripture.  Notice that the story does not distinguish among the lepers.  There is no good leper or sinful leper, because it is not what they do that matters – it is who they ask.  Because salvation is not something we can earn.  Salvation is a gift – and whenever we decide that we can earn it – that we have to earn it – we are rejecting that gift – and denying the power of Christ -the power to make us well – the power to make us whole.

That is what God wants from us – simply to accept the gift of salvation that we have already been given – and to accept it with gratitude and joy.  That is what made the Samaritan leper different than the others.  They were made clean through Jesus’s gift of mercy.  He was made well – in body, mind and spirit – by demonstrating the joy that comes through true faith – faith expressed not just in gratitude, but in praise.

We can do the same.   Instead of asking God for what we want, we can thank God for what we have.  We can live our entire lives with gratitude – by practicing our faith – by freely sharing our lives and our livelihood with one another with no strings attached.  We can stop and recognize the Amazing Grace that is already part of our communal lives – and we can remind one another that when we ask for God’s mercy we do not – praise Jesus! – get what we deserve; we get much, much more.   When we begin to live into the gratitude that comes from knowing what we already have, we stop worrying about what is fair – and we no longer need signs that tell us what we are and are not entitled to.  Instead we can focus on a much different message – the message that I posted right beside my sign from Alcatraz.  That sign reads, “But you always have love.  Love is neither an entitlement nor a privilege.  Love is always free.”   AMEN.