Saturday, July 26, 2014

Proper 12A, Sighs Too Deep for Words

When Paul authored the letter to the Romans, he addressed a community which contained a large number of both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  And, as this community sought to live into the way of Jesus, it is theorized that there was significant conflict.  We get hints of this when Paul uses the language of calling to describe the gathered community, when Paul reminds them that they are called according to God’s purpose (and not their own), when Paul makes clear that they are not to accuse, nor are they to condemn--because such is not the way of God.  Thematically, Paul reminds the community again and again of God’s impartiality--and in this he argues for the full inclusion of all.  

And, then speaking to this factionalized communities need for reconciliation, Paul theologizes around a truth of shared brokenness--brokenness between each other and between us and God.  

I have spent a great deal of time considering this brokenness over the last two weeks.  At the conclusion of last Sunday’s sermon, I encouraged people to read the paper (yes, in church) and then spend time in silent prayer for the hurting places in the world.  When I read the propers for today, I was struck that last week when I encouraged this silent prayer I was not thinking of Paul’s description of “sighs too deep for words” nor was I thinking of the importance and centrality of recognizing our shared brokenness in the work of reconciliation.  

That sense of helplessness when we see another's tragedy and feel we can do nothing to correct or influence the outcome...and out of our exhaustion and the deepest part of our being we sigh...

Sighs too deep for words...

Sometimes the being there is enough with these sighs too deep for words.  Expressing our fellowship, our empathy, grounded in shared grief and understanding

When I worked as a pediatric chaplain, I saw this fellowship.  Parents who shared nothing but adjoining hospital rooms and the experience of a sick child found themselves friends--offering support through the long nights and compassion during the long days.  

While the majority of the patients I worked with identified as Christian, there were times when I was called for people of other faiths.  As a renowned Children’s hospital, we often had patients from other countries.  Usually, these children arrived accompanied by their mother--leaving the rest of the family at home.  These moms rarely spoke English and I can only imagine how frightening and isolating the experience of being reliant upon a translator was.  In the case of women from the Middle East, the interpreter was an Arabic speaking volunteer from a local mosque.  A kind and compassionate man, I had great respect for the care he provided--but, given the reality that he was a volunteer, there were times when it could take awhile for him to get to the hospital.  

So, one day, I was called to the room of a very sick child whose mother spoke only Arabic.  She was clearly frightened and I remember seeing her and thinking of how very alone she must have felt.  

And so, I joined her in the window well seating area immediately outside her child’s room.  She wore a hijab, the traditional scarf worn by Muslim women, and I wore my clericals--black shirt and white collar.  She was literally shaking as she wept and while I waited with her, I used the only Arabic I knew... 

Insh’allah, insh’allah, I said.  

I invoked God's blessing and will, insh’allah.  And, then when I did not know how to pray as I ought, I remained silent...

There were no other words but tears and sighs.  She clutched my hand and with the only words I could speak spoken...we sat--two women worried over a child, forgetting all that might divide us.  

Sighs too deep for words.

As I ponder these moments of empathetic intimacy, I consider the publicity drawn when those who culture deems enemies engage in what seem to be extraordinary acts of forgiveness.  

The father of a slain college student meeting with the father of his son's killer--sharing in the pain of losing a son--and out of their pain calling for reformation of gun laws.  

Stories of Israelis attending the funerals of Palestinian children.  And of Palestinians offering their condolences to grieving Israeli parents.  In a recent National Public Radio interview of a Palestinian child, the interviewer asked the child if he wanted the Israeli children to suffer too.  The child, in great seriousness, said, and I paraphrase, “no, they are children like me, they do not want this and they have not caused this--my mother says they are frightened too”.

Mutuality emerges, I did not wish that for them.  I do not wish this for me.

When those separated by culture, by tradition, by war, by history, by death and by vengeance are united in the grieving, in their shared experience of brokenness, reconciliation can happen.

Brene Brown, a social worker who has studied vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame speaks of the importance of leaning into the discomfort of making ourselves vulnerable because, ”connection is why we are here, it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives...the ability to feel connected is neurobiologically how we are wired and why we are here...[but, just as] when we ask people about love they tell you about heartbreak, when you ask them about connection they tell you about order for connection to happen we have to make ourselves open to being really seen”.  

And, I would add, that for reconciliation and new connection to happen, we have to be open to really seeing.   

When we make ourselves vulnerable in shared presence and shared pain we bring into the experience the grace and love of the kingdom of God.  Brene Brown writes that those who feel love and belonging feel themselves worthy of love and belonging--in this passage from Romans we are reminded most vehemently that God considers us worthy of love and belonging.  

With no partiality, with a uniting Spirit interceding in our human brokenness--we receive the gift of abundant grace from a God who loves us as we are.  In our brokenness and in our wholeness, in our sighs and in our breath--we are loved and we belong.  

Paul is adamant that, no matter how broken we may be, God’s love is fundamental and unbreakable.  God’s grace is radical.  God’s grace is victorious, God’s grace is all-encompassing--for as Paul writes,

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

I am convinced that neither death nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And in this, 

God's grace, like the mustard seed

God's grace like the leaven

We will always have grace enough

This grace, which is our treasure, this grace abundant...

Even in those moments of sighs too deep for words

Perhaps especially in those moments of sighs too deep for words.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Proper 11A, Being a Blessing in a Heart Rending World

The pervasive feeling of helplessness that I’ve been experiencing this week has been frustrating and heart breaking.  

As I read the news, the strong sense that history repeats itself, that our culture has learned nothing about help for the helpless, that children matter less than acts of revenge and that children seeking sanctuary are denied safe shelter, that taking a stand becomes more important than acting with mercy.  

For awhile this week I tried to ignore it.  

I googled "Minnesota refugee children", and when I found nothing I thought, well this situation, this situation is not relevant to us in the far reaches of the north.

(And, don’t deny it, even Southern Minnesota sits in the far reaches of the North!)  

But, then, letters appeared in my newsfeed from the Episcopal Public Policy Network requesting advocacy on the part of children and refugees.

Then, I read the essay by the President of the House of Deputies in which she reminds us that Jesus was an infant fleeing violence in his place of birth.  

A friend and colleague posts a picture she took in the Garden of Gethsemane on her recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

And, moments later a picture of a Palestinian hospital destroyed by bombs.

And, then, and then...

Brokenness leading to more brokenness.  

And, the lamentations of the psalms comes to mind, “how long O Lord, how long?”

And, I got stuck in that place of lamenting, seeing no way out...and the scripture appointed for today irrelevant to the pain of the world.

But, in the midst of this seemingly inescapable litany of tragedy this week,

I read an interview with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams in which he references theologian Karl Barth in his charge to any potential Archbishop,

'You have to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other'."You have to be cross-referencing all the time and saying 'How does the vision of humanity and community that's put before us in the Bible map onto these issues of poverty, privation, violence and conflict?' And you have to use what you read in the newspaper to prompt and direct the questions that you put to the Bible: 'Where is this going to help me?'

So, I charged myself with this task this week, looking at the scripture appointed for today and listening, listening to what it says as I hold this newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  

And, this is what I heard...

We are a people called to be IN the world.  When I speak of faith as a verb, when we leave this place we are reminded to serve the Lord.

And, as much as I want to filter away the broken bits and focus instead on the good and the whole and the holy.

If I pretend the broken does not exist I lose the opportunity to be part of the healing.  As Christians, we are charged with bringing the good and the whole and the holy to this broken world we live in--to bring reconciliation, to bring peace, to embrace mercy.

The act of making whole what has been broken...the work of reconciliation lays before us.

So holding the Bible in one hand...

In Jacob’s encounter with God, he is told that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring”.  

Will we, the people of St. Clement’s, be a blessing to all the families of the earth--regardless of race, nation, creed or class?  Will we as a community advocate for the marginalized, will we lend voice to the voiceless?  

Will people look upon us and see us as a blessing, will we exist as the hope of creation? 

For as Paul writes, “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”.

As we work towards God’s kingdom--the indwelling grace and love made manifest through our efforts--will we be the children creation longs for?  

As ice melts, as sea levels rise, will we be careful stewards of this longing creation?  Will we bring healing to the earth?  Will we raise awareness of the reality that the earth carries the burden of our lives and lifestyles?  Will we seek change for the good of all creation?  

Will we grow ever closer to the God of all and claim our place as children of the kingdom?  Children of the kingdom spread out throughout the world--concerning ourselves with the work of creation rather than destruction.  
And, when we let go of destruction can we then nourish weed and wheat together, knowing that if we seek to destroy that which we deem evil we will also destroy that which we deem good?

Scholars note that the weed to which this passage refers looked much like growing wheat.  So, if the weed was pulled up there was risk of pulling the wheat as well.  
And thus in the terms of this parable, in taking revenge and exacting judgment we risk destroying ourselves.  

Will we work for peace in the world and counter evil with mercy?  Will we see Christ in every human being and mourn each one dead as our own? 

Holding the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other...

Our stories.  These are our stories.  This is the world we live in.  And, in just these few words of scripture today--we are reminded that we are called to be a blessing, we are called to set creation free from bondage, we are called to nourish and not to judge and we are called to trust in the ever present God of creation--knowing God’s presence at all times and in all things.

To quote again, Archbishop Rowan Williams, 'How does the vision of humanity and community that's put before us in the Bible map onto these issues of poverty, privation, violence and conflict?'

In your pew you will find newspapers alongside your pew Bibles (and if you read the news on your smartphone feel free to pull up your newsfeed now).  I invite you to take some time to notice some story, some piece of the world’s brokenness and then in the silence that follows...

Take some time to pray upon the truth that we are a people called to the work of reconciliation.

Proper 9A, 2014, Discernment

Proper 9, 2014, St. Clement’s 

Several years ago now, I had the opportunity to see an off-Broadway production of the musical “Avenue Q”.  To give you a sense of this satiric musical (one which riffs broadly on Sesame Street) I offer the names of a few choice musical numbers: "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?", "Purpose" , "There Is Life Outside Your Apartment", and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College".

At the time, I was a relatively recent college graduate with a B.A. in English and Religion and I resonated with the words of the protagonist of Avenue Q:

“What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.

I can't pay the bills yet,
'Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

But somehow I can't shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.”

Now, whilst I must agree to disagree with the notion that a B.A. in English is useless, my grand, post-college, plan was “I want to help people” juxtaposed with “I really like church”.  

I’m sure I gave my college’s “Career Development Office” a lot to work with...    

Which brings me here, last Sunday we had the opportunity to welcome Dan Shoemake, our seminarian, as a newly ordained transitional deacon.  Dan spoke about being “called” to ministry--and after the service I was asked by a congregant about this phrase “being called”.  He asked, and I’m paraphrasing here, if sometimes a calling just feels like a chore.  

Those exploring holy orders with the church are taught very early on that holy orders are something to which you are called by God.  That what we are doing is “vocational discernment” and it is our role to be open to where God might be calling us to use our gifts.  I remember being chastised by a clergy woman with whom I served for referring to my role in the congregation as a “job”.  It’s not a job, because you are not hired, you are not an employee.  You are called, this is your calling.  

But, what on earth does that mean?  Does it mean that we spend our time in some beatific light?  That choirs of angels conduct the melodies that get stuck in our heads?  Ummm, no.  Sometimes a calling involves the tedious or the unpleasant or the burdensome.  But, the difference therein is that the tedious, unpleasant or burdensome become part of something beyond ourselves--the burdensome things become things given meaning by the larger context of seeking to serve God.

However, discernment and vocation and calling are not exclusive concerns of those seeking holy orders.  By virtue of our baptism, we are all called into a life of seeking, serving and proclaiming.  In our baptism we make the promise that we will follow Christ.  Discernment is the act of listening for Christ’s call and vocation then becomes the work we do to go where Christ leads us.      

This is a community in the midst of intentional discernment as we prepare to work with the results of the Mission Assessment Process and support the on-going work of the transition team.  A body of Christ, the church, exploring vocation--the work to which we are called by God.  And if God calls, we are called to respond.

At this point in the process of call and response, we are trying to figure out how each of our activities makes manifest God’s love in the world; if the actions we take are the best way to do this; and what actions we might be called to in the future that will further manifest the work of God in the world.  

When the Mission Assessment Process team presented, they did so with a reference to theologian Frederick Buechner who wrote:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

Deep gladness aligning with deep hunger--in today’s Gospel we might find the good news of this calling in that place where our burden feels light and our yoke easy.  It is the place in which we hear the challenge to participate in that which is hard while at the same time being open to the truth that we have been given joy and grace which are cause for rejoicing.  “Neither hair shirt nor the soft berth.”  

But, how do we discern?  How do we figure out what we are called to as a community?  

The Ignatian approach to this question is one grounded in the sense that God calls and we respond with service.  And, in figuring out what our response is to be we are asked to look at the decision prayerfully.  We can see this modeled by the servant in Genesis today--who approached his task and decision with prayer.  

And, then we give ourselves time to make a decision, being patient and trusting that ultimately we will end up in the right place if we do the best we can.  We consult those we trust and consider all of the data we can obtain.   I like to imagine that Rebekah spoke with her family and friends, consulting them and making the decision to leave based on what she knew.  

Ultimately we follow our heart and do what seems right.  Complete certainty is a rare occurrence and if we wait to feel completely certain it’s far too easy to get stuck in in-action.  We act in accord with the “good we want”, trusting that God’s got this.  And, when Rebekah leaps from the camel to meet Isaac she is met by someone who markedly, in a context in which decisions about marriage were largely economic ones, loves her.  

That leap from the camel’s back is a literal leap of faith.  

So, pray, be patient, and do what seems right.  And, when you can’t shake the feeling you might make a difference to the human race--well, think of that as the compulsion to respond to God’s call with more love made manifest in service.