Saturday, September 13, 2014

How can you sings as the works of my hand are drowning: Empathic Imagination in Scripture

Proper 19A, St. Clement’s 

The traditional Haggadah, the service booklet for the celebration of the Passover, lists the ten plagues.  In college, when I attended the Passover Seder, I was struck by the solemnity that marked the recitation of the plagues, a solemnity that edged on mourning for the suffering of an ancient enemy. To quote from a contemporary haggadah

“Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, "My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?"

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe.

Our rabbis taught: "The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied."

To remember upheaval that follows oppression, we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

A full cup is the symbol of complete joy. Though we celebrate the triumph of our sacred cause, our happiness cannot be complete so long as others had to be sacrificed for its sake. We shall, therefore, diminish the wine in our cups as we recall the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, to give expression to our sorrow over the losses, which each plague exacted. We now recite the list of the ten ancient plagues, pouring off wine as each one is mentioned.

Dam, Blood
Tzfardeah, Frogs
Kinim, Lice
Arov, Swarms
Dever, Blight
Sh'chin, Boils
Barad, Hail
Arbeh, Locusts
Choshech, Darkness
Makat B'chorot, Death of the Firstborn”

What a remarkable act, to mourn over the death of an ancient enemy and, in that mourning, recognize the dignity and sanctity of all lives.  

Moving the conversation from a place of vengeance and into a place of compassion.  One drop of wine spilled for each plague and a double portion spilled for the death of the firstborn.  

What if all suffering, was met with such sorrow?  Do we spill a double portion, do we weep, over the suffering of our enemies?  If we are to pay any attention to the news, it is the rare event that calls this empathy out--as words like retribution are tied to words like justice and making amends becomes coded language for punishment.  

In the Jewish tradition’s frank acknowledgment that the Israelites freedom came at the great cost of another’s suffering we see a longing for reconciliation and making sense of tragedy.  We see a longing for those caught in the throes of violence to find a way out--a way out that does not destroy others, a way out unmarred by destruction.  We see a community that marks, in ritual, the importance of being able to imagine and recognize the sufferings of others, friend or foe.    

Being able to imagine the feelings, the emotions, the suffering of another human being is a critical skill in this violence marred world of ours.  Some refer to this skill as having “empathic imagination” 

Yann Martel, author of “The Life of Pi” is emphatic that what we call empathic imagination is critical to the cause of peace.  In an interview he suggests that, “if you are an Israeli you should imagine yourself a Palestinian.  Then you will understand why the Palestinians are angry.  If you’re a Palestinian, you should make the effort of imagining yourself an Israeli, and then you will understand why the Israelis are afraid.  If you’re a man and you become a woman, you understand.  If you’re white and you imagine yourself black, etc. Such an approach will not only make the universe more peaceful.  It’s also very enriching.” (Interview, Canadian Literature 177/Summer 2003, p25)

In the Talmud the rabbis are doing this work--this work of imagining, “if you are an Israelite, imagine you are an Egyptian”.  And, in turn, we are invited to do the same--imaging ourselves as the individual or group with which we are in conflict...

This act of imagining ourselves as the other, this empathic imagination, allows us to feel an “an essential connection not only to our closest family, friends and community, but to humanity as a whole, and to other sentient creatures . . .”

And out of that connection, we are able to act with compassion, and work towards reconciliation and forgiveness.  Out of empathic imagination we can see our calling to work towards equity and the general welfare of all people.  

If we can imagine ourselves impoverished we work toward ending poverty; if we imagine ourselves oppressed we then find ourselves working to end oppression; if we can imagine ourselves as a parent of one lost to gun violence, we then work to end gun violence.  

Our baptismal covenant of seeking and serving Christ in all persons and honoring the dignity of every human being requires empathic imagination--we can only see Christ in another when we can imagine Christ within them.  And, if we can do so, we can see that advocating for another is advocating for Christ in the world.  Our faith asks us to make a stand against injustice and work towards the general welfare of all people BECAUSE of God’s own saving work in the world.  

And, arguably, this is what the slave has failed at in in the Gospel today...he fails to see that his own freedom demands that he do the work of freeing others.  Rather than freeing others, he uses his freedom to destroy another, and in destroying another, he destroys himself.

When the slave is unable to express compassion rooted in empathy, he finds himself imprisoned within the cycle of violence, revenge and hatred.  If you are free, imagine that you are enslaved...and then act accordingly.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes that, “ if you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering.  As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for him is there. Jesus calls this “loving your enemy.”  When you are able to love your enemy, he or she is no longer your enemy.  The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone who is suffering and needs your compassion.”  

If we fail to recognize our shared identity, we imprison ourselves within the torture of anger, enmity and isolation which results from our own perversion of God’s grace. 
When we can replace anger with empathy, we are able to act with the compassion which emerges when we can see that the one who suffers is one of God’s creatures too.  

In the talmud (Megillah 10b), the earliest rabbinic interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, God’s reaction to the drowning of Pharaoh’s army is stated as follows
“How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning?”

How indeed...


For references:  (a contemporary Haggadah) (an introduction to empathic imagination) Ted talk by Dr. Robin Meyers - "The Empathic Imagination: Escaping the Prison of Self" Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Holy Dunderheads

Proper 18A, 2014

A few weeks ago, Mary Fred referenced the Greek word Ecclesia in her sermon.  The word Ecclesia occurs in only two places in the Gospel of Matthew--Ecclesia means “gathering” and the use of this particular word gives us some insight into the context in which the Gospel of Matthew emerged...

One in which small groups of followers of the way, of Christ, gathered together as a community---and as in any community, there emerged norms for how members of the community are to treat each other.  

Recently, a colleague referred to the dynamic of “belonging, believing and behaving” that marks community life.  And in Matthew, a Gospel whose authorship occurred during a time of regularizing the fledgling Christian community, we see woven through the text instruction as to both belief and behavior for those who participate in the Ecclesia or gathering of early Christians.  

When people claim belonging to community, it can follow then that people ascribe to roughly the same sets of belief and have norms of behavior that are meant to govern life  together.

In this case, we hear instruction for how to handle conflict within community--a process of confrontation, negotiation and adjudication.  

All with the same goal in mind--the restoration of the offender to the community.  Much of the scripture we adhere to shares this goal of reconciliation--and many of my sermons have touched on the idea that central to who we are as Christians is an identity as a reconciling people.  We are called to unity and called to reconciliation of the broken relationships amongst us and the world we live in.  

The trajectory of our liturgy EVERY SINGLE WEEK points in this direction.  We begin by reminding ourselves what we gather for--the blessing of God.  Then, we hear the story of God’s work in scripture.  We then reflect upon how the work of God continues in our own lives. Following these actions of hearing and reflecting on the story we are given the opportunity to reflect on the brokenness in our lives and then reconcile with those in our community with whom we may have broken relationship.  The peace isn’t intended as a “stretch” break or chance to catch up with friends--but as a time of saying that regardless of what has happened before we are at peace with each other.  

Then having made the point that we’ve worked towards reconciliation of broken relationships, we have the opportunity to participate in another essential symbol of our unity--the broken body of Christ manifest as bread and united again through the one body of the church.

As hymn #305 puts it, “One Body we, one Body who partake, one Church united in Communion blest; one Name we bear, one Bread of life we break, with all thy saints on earth and saints at rest.”  

Given that what we do and say, what we pray and believe, points us towards reconciliation--given this, how is it that we so often struggle with this central act of our faith?

I have heard people, often folks who have been wounded or alienated by conflict within the Christian community, point to the Church’s brokenness as a sign of the hypocrisy of Christians...that our conflicts and the manner in which we treat each other gives every indication that, those things we claim to hold sacred have no authority or bearing in the world.  

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest googling “conflict in the church” or “Christian hypocrites”, but if you were to do so you would see a search engine litany of woundedness.  

And, I wonder if part of our trouble is that we are really lousy at conflict.  We avoid it, we ignore it, we let things fester...until some crisis, some straw on the camel’s back, serves as the catalyst for explosion.  And, at that point, people walk away--disengaging completely from relationship (regardless of who was in the wrong) and the body of Christ becomes further fractured.

Or, blame is placed on one person or group...and in the scapegoating of an individual or discrete group, no one else in the community has to own their part in the conflict.  And, since the conflict doesn’t actually get dealt with through scapegoating it’s only a matter of time before conflict bubbles up again.  

Now being lousy at conflict is not new to the modern church.  And, it does not surprise me in the least that in some of these earliest texts of our tradition we see the community--the gathered people, the ecclesia--being instructed in how to deal with conflict.  It seems right and fitting that as the community wrestled with what it meant to actually be in community, we see emerging rules of life for community.  The ordering and structuring of the ecclesia intended to perpetuate the community as a place where Christ is made manifest in the actions of Christ’s body on earth. And, because we are people making manifest God’s will in the world--well, we aren’t going to get it right all the time.  I mean, really, if you want to see a bunch of dunderheads messing things up, take a look at the disciples.  Scripture doesn’t hold up the disciples as perfect--it holds them up as people.  This is critical to me, because in their imperfection we can see that God calls each and every one of us--not just the best, not just the perfect (as if there were such a person!).  And out of our imperfection comes the potential for transformation and affecting change in the world we live in.  

In our brokenness, we as Christian community are given the opportunity to model how God calls us to be in relationship.  We are given the chance to teach the world what peaceful reconciliation can look like.  If we can shine light on our conflicts, we are then able to shine light on what we do about them--or as those who’ve made their work that of teaching parenting would put it, kids who see the beginning of an argument ought to see the end of the argument as well.  Because, in seeing how grown-ups in healthy relationships handle conflict, they will learn how to handle conflict.  

Times of transition can be times when the uncertainty and anxiety of change lead to conflict.  As you know, the transition team is currently requesting that members of this community participate in the online survey they are conduction as well as attend one of the various listening sessions being offered.
And, as this process of discernment continues, I would encourage us to consider how we are called to be in relationship a reconciled and reconciling people.  I would encourage patience and an intentional focus on the work we are called to do in the world--because if we remember that we share a goal to make God’s love manifest to the world, perhaps we can be more forgiving when our attempts fall short.