Saturday, August 24, 2013

Proper 16C--the Same Goal

Proper 16C, 2013
The propers (readings from scripture appointed for today) can be found here

The Same Goal

My first call following seminary was as the chaplain at a level 1 pediatric trauma center.  It was, and is, the most prestigious children’s hospital in Northeast Ohio and people from all over the world would arrive seeking care for their children.  I had the opportunity to work with people of all faiths--all of whom were centered on, and praying for the same thing, the healing and comfort of their children.  

Because of my experience at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, I have developed an uncomfortable relationship with the healing narratives in scripture--and whenever I read or hear one of these stories I can’t help but remember the broken hearted young mother who hurled a Bible at the resident--adamant that if Jesus could heal in scripture, certainly Jesus could literally heal her son.

It was heart breaking, and there were times I was angered at how these literal renderings of healing inspired what so often seemed to be a false hope--based in a kind of magical thinking,  “If I pray hard enough, if I am good enough, my child will be well”.

I walked gently through this theological understanding, expressing again and again that healing can take many forms, in comfort, in forgiveness, in reconciliation.  In providing comfort and presence, in learning that love too shall endure and that, and painfully so,  some things are too much to carry on our own.  In my time there, I found my own comfort in the image of Mary holding the body of her broken son--God’s intimate knowledge of the depth of human suffering became a comfort.  

It was often horrific, often heart breaking, often just too much and too awful.  And, in the midst of it all I found fellowship with the staff, all working towards the same goal--bringing healing when possible, providing comfort at every turn and accompanying everyone on the journey, no matter how that journey might end.   

The same goal.  No matter the path we walked in faith, no matter the clothes we wore, no matter...we shared the same goal.  

So often in our day to day lives, we are distracted by trivialities.  As a supply priest serving parishes throughout the greater metro, (“substitute preacher” I quip) I find it fairly easy to adapt to the peculiarities of place--customs differing from place to place and community to community.  When folks wonder at my preferences (which I do have) I am honest, but also long as everyone is still alive at the end of the liturgy I am thrilled.  Working on the cusp of death does that to a person.

But, really, aren’t we all just on the edge...the edge of finding ourselves and everything we know upended.  The edge of pain, the edge of death--but also life and creation.  Now, this isn’t some great nod to moral relativism...rather it is seeing ourselves and God’s love for all creation in those surrounding us.  It is breaking out of the tempting dichotomy that sets up the Pharisees and Sadducees as somehow “evil” and the followers of Jesus (those folk who came to call themselves Christians, those folk who generally identify with Jesus and his disciples in this narrative) as somehow “good”.

It is seeing the truth that we walk this journey through life together, holding life and hope and fear and worry in our hands.  Holding the power to destroy and the power to’s a tenuous balance.  

I can only wonder that the religious authorities held the same balance in hand.  As they served their people, they used the law and the prophets as a means by which to give form and structure to a world that was so often broken and chaotic.  So, the mandate to observe the Sabbath wasn’t just an arbitrary was a commandment founded in the very origin of creation.

After God’s creation of the world, when it was all good and bathed in the perfection of the unbroken vision of God, God rested.  

And when we rest, we are called to observe and honor the holy work that has been done.  Work that we have done in mission and ministry those other six days.  Sabbath becomes a creative act and affirmation all at once and completes the circle of the creative energies of the divine.  Sabbath completes creation.  

So, when Jesus healed the woman broken and bent--making her physically whole in a culture that saw deformity and illness as a sign of both spiritual and physical degradation--the religious authorities saw a tenuous balance upset.  Perhaps their question was “she’s been broken for 18 years, why did you wait for the Sabbath to bring healing?”  Perhaps they wondered, “is it about the healing or proving some point, what are your motivations?”  Or, I wonder, were they afraid that if this one work was performed that others would quickly follow until there was no Sabbath and the circle of creation would be rent beyond repair?

But, I wonder as well, if they were stuck in a definition that was wrought by human hands.  If perhaps their concern with the “liturgy” of the week’s cycle had blinded them to their own deep concern for healing.

Because, their business was about ensuring the wholeness of the community and the continuation of the faith.  Their business was the rituals that restored the ill, infirm and those considered impure to the community following acts of healing.  Their business, like Jesus’, could be described as making the broken whole and lifting up praise to a God whose fire consumes not in any act of destruction but in an act of creation as the broken pieces are refined and the remainder reflects God’s original intention in creation.   

Now, in reflecting on the Gospel today, I remember a conversation I had with one of the interns.  A person of devout and public faith, he and I could clearly identify each other as followers of God in any gathering--his kippah capped head and my clerical collar publicly marked our devotion.  And, we worked together, walking in what we called “other people’s nightmares”.  After sharing in one particularly awful death bed moment we found that we could wrestle together with some of the questions and challenges that we faced as people of faith, people trusting in a good and loving God, who witnessed death after death and suffering tempered by the touch of what felt like helpless hands.  On one late friday afternoon I encountered him in the hallway--wishing him “shabbat shalom” I asked, “so you’re on call in house tonight, what about the Shabbat?”  He paused and related that it wasn’t fair to the other interns to never have to work weekends--but that he focused on the fact that saving lives and providing care would always trump the mandate not to work.  Life saving activities, and the alleviation of suffering were to take priority.  Jewish law, as it has developed over the centuries is adamant “we violate Shabbat to save any human life; that's the Halacha, that's the practice, that's what we do.”

Isn’t that what we are all called to do?  To let go of the trivial, to let those things burn away, to participate in creation and liberate those trapped--even if it means violating the truths and the laws we thought we knew?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Last Week, Whoredom--This Week, Hoarding: A Sermon on Proper 13C

The scripture for today can be found here (click the link if you want to read the scripture before the sermon ;)

Years ago as I thumbed through a catalogue, I laughed at a t-shirt with a cartoon graphic of a woman standing in the center of giant piles of belonging.  Her arms were spread asunder and she was proclaiming boldly, “I’d like more things, please”.  
This is not a specific request or petition--rather it is a general desire to be surrounded, to be filled up, to be fulfilled by an ever growing, never ending, infinite longing for stuff.
And I get it, I get the desire to be able to purchase or acquire more and more and more.  Whether we call it retail therapy, a shopping spree, or merely “running errands” (you know, those times when you run into Target for something and somehow emerge with 90 dollars worth of stuff you didn’t know you “needed”)--it is easy to justify and engage in this sort of compulsive acquisition of things.
In fact, not only are we given constant opportunities to get more stuff, we have been told that this acquisition of stuff is what drives our economy and keeps our country running.  A friend of mine still owns the very expensive boots she purchased following September 11th--she calls them her “patriotic boots” and partially in jest, she justified the purchase as a means of supporting the economy in a scary and uncertain time.    More, more, more we say...and gradually, our wants become our needs in an endless cycle of black friday’s and cyber mondays.
Stuff.  There is actually a book on the subject of stuff, or rather on the compulsion to acquire and keep stuff, it’s entitled, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,”.  The authors of the book, both psychologists, spent time with compulsive hoarders and sought to understand the psychology behind hoarding.  They describe, “the emotional or magical quality that possessions have.  The connect people to the world.  For that particular hoarder, her possessions connected her to the world around her and without them she felt she would somehow lose that.  They were also a part of her identity; if she got rid of them she would lose a piece of herself”  
Now, we are obviously working with extreme examples of possession--very few of us are actually what we would call hoarders.  But, I think part of our contemporary fascination with hoarders (there are entire television shows devoted to people who suffer from hoarding) is colored by a sense of how perilously close we ourselves come to that edge where clutter becomes pathologic.   And, as we ponder our own understanding of our belongings--how often do we define ourselves by the stuff we have?  How often do we find ourselves feeling adrift or anxious because we have lost a particular item, a piece of memorabilia, a photo, a keep sake?  
Or to take this concept to another arena, how often do faith communities hold onto “stuff” because the stuff defines who they are as a faith community?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without a lich gate?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the pews?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the altar?  What about the parish hall, the sacristy, the offices, the good silver and the stained glass?  
Now I am not attacking this building or the beauty that surrounds us--but seeking to remind us that we are called to gather as the body of Christ.  Reminding us that our baptism is into a community of faith not into a particular building--we are called to proclaim the Gospel, not the architecture of the building.
And, here I pause, and find myself blushing a bit.  To be completely honest, all too often I have described St. Clements’ by proclaiming the beauty of the building, the uniqueness of the architecture and the elegance of the liturgy.  Perhaps, the Spirit is nudging me in today’s Gospel to take a harder look at how St. Clements’ proclaims the Gospel--so that in response to folk’s inquiries about where I am “working now” I can describe the beauty of the care you show each other, the passion you have for mission and the intentionality of discerning where Christ is calling this community next.  
So today, I hear a Gospel that asks us to define ourselves by God and not by the stuff we possess.  When Jesus uses the parable of the wealthy man who saves up his surplus he is using a story that would have been familiar to his audience.  It’s a stereotype of sorts--the rich man would have been understood as morally bankrupt, because in the world in which Jesus lived “stuff” was a finite thing.  Like a pie, if one person has a larger piece that means someone else’s piece would be smaller.  Acquiring “more” in Jesus’ community meant that someone else was exploited or impoverished.  And, with this information I am once again reminded that belief in God demands action in the world.
Because, what if we were to take a look at our own acquisitions in that way?  What if our own economy was ruled by the understanding that when we get whatever we want, someone else does not get what they need.  For example, as much as I love a bargain, when we buy cheap goods somebody else was not paid a living wage to produce those goods.  
It may be hard to understand how our acquisitions affect others, but part of what we are being reminded of in this Gospel is that when we acquire without regard to the needs of others, we are isolating ourselves from participation in the greater community.  The critique of the rich man in this parable is grounded in his failure to give from his abundance and in his inability to engage with his community in such a way that he is able to see and then respond to the needs of the poor.  
One of the churches I had the privilege of serving early in my calling had a vestry with a large number of members with backgrounds in finance.  During one particular vestry meeting the vestry was celebrating the financial prudence that had led to a 20,000 dollar budget surplus that year.  The rector interjected strongly at that point in the meeting stating “that’s 20,000 dollars of ministry we have not done”.  
Greed seeks to possess for self alone, and when we are governed by greed we find ourselves standing alone with our stuff.  In an interview, the authors of “Stuff” relate that, “[people who hoard] become more isolated as they get older and that’s in part because family members try to help them, then problems break out and the family fractures and eventually rejects the hoarder because they can’t tolerate being in their home.  And then, because the hoarder can’t have anyone over, they don’t have the ability to reciprocate friendships.”  
When we find the need for stuff trumps our need for each other--we find the sin that breaks relationships and fragments communities.  Colossians warns ”Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”  This list consists of things that break down relationships and divide us from each other--objectification, using people for our own desires without regard for their dignity, pursuing stuff and in that greedy pursuit exploiting others.  
Perhaps today can be an opportunity to fling our arms asunder and petition for more mercy, more justice, more connections, and more love--because it is this richness that God truly calls us to.