Sunday, August 31, 2008

A: Proper 17 (31 August 2008)

Matthew 16:21-28

While I was on my recent vacation, one of the children of our parish underwent an emergency appendectomy and one of our senior members suffered a health crisis that put him in Intensive Care for several days. Just after my return, another parishioner underwent surgery for a life-threatening condition. Over the past three months, at least three of our members who are “breadwinners” for their families have either lost a job or come very close to doing so. Each of these experiences has involved pain—either physical pain or emotional pain, or both. And the pain has been borne not only by those who were directly involved, but by those who are directly involved with them, spreading out like ripples on a pond.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual or extraordinary about any of this. Suffering and pain are all around us, part of the daily fabric of our lives. We suffer personally, for ourselves, and we suffer vicariously, along with others, both those whom we know and love and those whom we only read about or hear about. We suffer in trivial and minimal ways—a knick from a shaving razor or a traffic signal that turns red just before we get to the intersection, and when we’re late for an appointment. We also suffer in profound and tragic ways—losing a loved one to death, particularly if that death is, as we say euphemistically, “premature.” And we certainly suffer in countless ways that are neither trivial nor tragic, but just ordinary. Relationships go sour for any number of reasons, we don’t make the team, or get into our first choice of college, or get the job we knew was perfect for us. As the years pile up, our minds and bodies slowly work less and less efficiently and effectively. Suffering in all these ways is just part of life.

At times, Christians have believed that suffering is invariably sent by God as a punishment for sin. During my vacation, I read a novel about life in an English cathedral city in the fourteenth century. When the Plague arrived and people started dying in droves, the first conclusion most people jumped to was that the victims—or the town collectively—had displeased God in some really major way, and sickness was a just punishment for their sins. But this has never been a very satisfying explanation. In the first instance, epidemics seem to be no respecter of moral status; both the just and the unjust fall victim. Saints get sick and die in epidemics with the same frequency as sinners.

And when we simply take suffering on its own terms, the outlook seems even gloomier. When we accept suffering as something that just is, as morally neutral, then it is difficult to see in it any meaning or significance. The best we can say to the families of those who were killed when a plane crashed in Spain a couple of weeks ago is, “Well, accidents happen. Get over it.” The most we can say to those who lost loved one when the earth quaked in China earlier this year is, “Tectonic plates shift; move on.” By this account, when cancer cells metastasize or someone gets behind the wheel drunk, or a quarrel with his wife the previous night causes an airplane inspector to miss noticing evidence of metal fatigue, we are nothing more than helpless victims. Our suffering has no meaning, no purpose, no significance. It’s just a fact. And this is a singularly depressing thought. It leads eventually and inevitably to terminal despair, and despair—loss of hope— is a spiritually fatal condition. It separates us from God as surely as the very gates of Hell.

This is how it must have seemed to Peter and the other apostles when Jesus announced to them his impending suffering and death. He had recruited them on a mission that they presumed was going to culminate in Jesus somehow seizing political power, kicking out the Roman occupiers, and re-establishing God’s righteous rule over Israel through a royal descendent of King David—namely, Jesus. So when he starts talking to them about going up to Jerusalem and suffering at the hands of the Jewish religious establishment, and finally getting killed, they thought he must have eaten the wrong sort of wild mushrooms for breakfast. He was departing from the script that they thought came directly from him. Peter in particularly could not abide the thought of everything Jesus had said and done (and everything he had led Peter is saying and doing) simply ending with Jesus’ suffering and death—nothing accomplished, nothing brought to completion, no grand triumph, just senseless suffering and meaningless victimhood. The thought filled him with despair.

But if we pay close attention to what Jesus says, we see the seeds of something different: Jesus will go to Jerusalem, not be taken there. It is something proactive and voluntary on his part. He is no mere helpless victim. And then Jesus counsels his followers to take up the cross: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He’s not talking about accepting the cross, or having it laid on them. I’ve always been struck how, when we walk the Stations of the Cross during Lent, the traditional name of the Second Station is “Jesus takes up his cross.” There’s nothing passive about it. It’s by an affirmative act that he ends up on the cross.

We know, of course, from hindsight, what the fruit, the long-term effect, of Jesus’ Passion turns out to be: the salvation of our souls and the redemption of the world; the conquest of evil and victory of truth and love. Included in all this, of course, is the cessation of suffering—both minor suffering and major suffering. Part of our incorporation into Christ is to bend our experience to the pattern of his life and death. This doesn’t mean that we seek out suffering unnecessarily. As most of us have learned, suffering will find us soon enough; we don’t have to go looking for it. But conforming ourselves to the redemptive pattern of our Lord’s suffering does mean that we embrace the suffering that comes our way intentionally. We don’t let it tackle us from behind; we turn and face it and embrace it. We turn and face it and say, “Hey! You lookin’ for me? Well I’m right here. Come and get me.” We “take it up,” even as Jesus took up his cross.

Such suffering—suffering that is molded to the pattern of Christ’s suffering—has the capacity to be not only “un-meaningless,” but actually redemptive. Suffering that we take up, and offered up, intentionally in union with the redemptive suffering of Christ—this, by the way, is exactly what we’re doing when we celebrate the Eucharist, particularly when we lay out gifts of bread and wine on the altar; they represent, among other things, our suffering, and we are offering them in union with Christ’s suffering)—when we do this, our suffering becomes a thread in the great tapestry that God is weaving as he brings light out of the darkest places in human experience, wholeness out of the most broken pieces of our lives, truth from the very midst of falsehood and confusion, life from the jaws of death, and hope from the deepest pit of despair. This is a redemption that is signed and sealed with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is delivered one day at a time, one life at a time, one hurt at the time. When we take up the cross, we participate in that delivery of redemption. We will probably not, in this life, see how that happens. We will not know the impact that every little decision we make to embrace suffering rather than let ourselves be passive victims has on the lives of others and the fabric of redemption. But it does. In that assurance we can place our faith.

Suffering, as we have seen, “happens.” We can try to evade it, and perhaps succeed at times for a while. But it will catch up with us all eventually. We can accept it passively or fatalistically, along the lines “Que serĂ¡ sera.” But that leaves us as victims and our suffering as meaningless. Nothing is more tragic than meaningless suffering! But as disciples of Jesus, we have the invitation to “read ourselves” into the story of Christ’s redemption of the world through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A: Proper 15 (8/17/08)

(I'm a week late posting this. Sorry about that. There's nothing from me for today, as I now have an Assistant, and he will be preaching about every third week.)

None of the artifacts of my childhood and youth are more obviously out of date than the maps with which I studied and learned world geography. Large sections of Europe and Africa and Asia have undergone political transformations. Old boundaries are erased in some places and in other places new boundaries are created. And when there’s a shift in power or a change in boundary, one or more countries gets a new name at the same time.

For instance, when I was young, there was a country called the Soviet Union—most of us called it Russia for short. It had borders, a flag, a capital, a national anthem, a seat at the U.N., and a well-known dictator for a leader. It was communist, of course, and that fact alone seemed to make everything else about the Soviet Union irrelevant. Most of us knew little or nothing about the ethnic and linguistic and religious diversity of the Soviet Union; all we could see were those nasty “Russians.” Then, with the collapse of European communism in the early ‘90s, we started to hear about Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and Belarus and Moldova and a bunch of other countries that has previously been subsumed into the Soviet Union, countries including—and this is a confusing one to American ears—Georgia. They all have different languages and different cultures and each one has a distinct sense of national pride. “Who’dve thunk it,” back when we were building backyard bomb shelters and practicing hiding under our desks at school in case the “Russians” attacked us.

But now, in the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing about a region even the Advanced Placement geography students were probably not aware of—a region within Georgia called South Ossetia. Apparently the majority of the people in South Ossetia are ethnic Russians, so their sympathies lie with Russia, while the President of Georgia is openly pro-western and pro-American. So they want to separate from Georgia and join Russia, and this is what has sparked the armed conflict that is making everyone who pays attention to is just a little be nervous because some think that Russia is out to re-create the old Soviet empire.

Now, I bring up Russia and Georgia and South Ossetia, not to offer my own commentary on world politics, which would be less than meaningless, but because I believe the situation in those places stands as a particularly apt metaphor, a model, a microcosm, an illustration, of the fundamental human condition of alienation and division. In the time and place in which our Lord Jesus walked this earth, it was the divide between Jew and Gentile that dominated the social landscape. It was this element that came into play when Jesus and his disciples made an excursion out of their native region of Galilee, which was predominantly Jewish, northward into what would now be southwestern Lebanon, an area that was predominantly Gentile.

A resident of that territory, a woman, approached Jesus and begged him to have mercy on her and deliver her daughter from the demon which possessed the girl. And when she made that request, Matthew’s gospel tells us, Jesus simply ignored her. He made no answer. Jesus and his disciples and this woman were experiencing the disconnection and brokenness that defined the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. But it was certainly nothing unique. We are estranged and cut off from one another in countless ways: person from person, family from family, region from region, race from race, generation from generation, women from men, nation from nation, and, sad to say, even church from church.

But, to her everlasting credit, this Canaanite woman seemed unwilling to simply accept the status quo of alienation. She persisted in her plea. She made a pest of herself—so much so that Jesus’ disciples seemed to get irritated at him for not acting more forcefully to send her away. But she persisted all the more. Even when Jesus himself made his discouraging remark that his mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and not to Gentiles like her, she refused to take No for an answer. In her steadfast resolve to be in relationship with Jesus, the Canaanite woman stands as an archetype, a shining example, of the kind of faith that moves mountains and changes lives, the kind of faith that sees participation in the life of Christ as the highest good of human existence. Her faith is an emblem to us of the only source of profound and lasting unity among human beings, the only antidote to the generational and ethnic and political and social divisions that characterize and define our lives, and that is common participation in Christ.

Jesus finally grants the woman’s request. For her and for her daughter, his merciful action was an occasion of deliverance and joy. But for the rest of humanity, it has a much larger implication. It strikes the first hammer blow against the dividing wall of hostility that separates us. The early church took this incident as implied permission—indeed, a mandate—to carry the gospel of Christ not only to Jews, but to the whole Gentile world as well. Perhaps they recognized that the seeds of Jesus’ radical action of responding to the cry of a mere Gentile are found several centuries earlier in the writing of the prophet Isaiah:

The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants . . .

those I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer.

It was certainly a concept that St Paul was familiar with, as he writes to the Gentile Christians in Rome about the eventual reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ:

If you [meaning his Gentile readers] have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted [that is, through faith and baptism] , contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree [that is, the heritage of God’s own chosen people, Israel], how much more will these natural branches [meaning, the Jews] be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Common participation in Christ, expressed in faith like that of the Canaanite woman, is the only source of profound and lasting unity among human beings. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of our Creed— a tree on which have been grafted branches from every people, language, tribe, and nation: Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka … every tribe and nation—the Church is the wrecking ball that assaults the wall of hostility that divides one person from another.

I read an article in a church publication back in the time when the former Yugoslavia—another exaple of what we’re seeing now in the former Soviet Union---when Yugoslavia was torn and bleeding, an article that first warmed my heart, and then disturbed me. It talked about an Episcopal parish on the east coast with a wonderful ministry of hospitality toward refugees from the former constituent parts of Yugoslavia. They supplied housing, food, clothing, and companionship for individuals and families whose lives have been uprooted by armed conflict in their homelands. This is wonderful, and is of the very essence of the Church’s mission.But one of the parishioners was quoted in the article to the effect that their goal is “not to make Christians” out of the refugees. I think I understand the motive behind that comment, and it’s a good one. It expresses a desire to respect the freedom and dignity of the refugees, to honor the faith tradition which may already have formed them, to not be coercive in any way or to attach strings to the help they were providing. But it made me sad, nonetheless, because it reflects an attitude that robbed that parish’s refugee ministry of its potential to be a sacramental sign of the ultimate reconciliation that the gospel brings us. It’s like trying to breathe with one lung, or walk around town with only one shoe. It’s better than nothing, but it’s less than the full deal. A dry roof and a full stomach and a helping hand is a good start—probably even an essential start—in the process of overcoming the radical estrangement that divides us. But it falls way short of accomplishing the mission. Without a common relationship with God in Christ, there is only a superficial basis for unity. It is temporary, and will not stand up under pressure.

Under the communist government of the Soviet dictators, the Soviet Union convinced the world—maybe even convinced themselves—that they were one people, one nation. But when that system and that dictatorship fell, the unity of the Soviet Union proved to be a mirage. It vanished like smoke on a windy day. We hear a lot today about “diversity.” It is commended to us as something to “celebrate.” To the extent that this means there will be an array of different ethnic cuisines available for my palate to appreciate, I’m all about celebrating diversity! But celebrating diversity will not cure what ails us as a human race. It simply attempts to make a virtue out of necessity. It throws in the towel on unity and just accepts division. In the end, it only prolongs our agony.

The great faith of the Canaanite woman is a beacon to us today, a beacon drawing us to “holy communion” with Christ, and thereby with one another, calling us to be grafted on to the one tree that is the Tree of Life. In the words of our Psalm:

“Let your ways be knows upon earth,

your saving health among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;

let all . . . the peoples praise you.”


Friday, August 15, 2008

Showing My Work, Part III

Waiting for me on return from my vacation was the task of taking the simple declarative sentence articulating my message for Year A: Proper 17 (August 31 this year) and flesh it out into a narrative structure that bears the elements of literary plot: Situation, Complication, Crisis, and Resolution. Here's what's cooking presently:

Random examples of the ubiquity of suffering, both minor and major

At times, Christians have believed the suffering is invariably sent by God as a punishment for sin … but we can think of too many examples of this patently not being the case for this explanation to be very satisfying

At best, taken on its own terms, suffering just is … it’s devoid of meaning … we are just helpless victims. This is a singularly depressing thought leading potentially to fatal despair.

This is how it seemed to Peter when Jesus announced his impending Passion (briefly recount gospel narrative). He could not abide the thought of everything Jesus had said and done (and everything he had led Peter is saying and doing) simply ending with Jesus’ suffering and death—nothing accomplished, nothing brought to completion, no grand triumph, just meaningless victimhood.

But if we pay close attention to what Jesus says, we see the seeds of something different: Jesus will go to Jerusalem (not be taken there), and then he counsels his followers to take up the cross (not accept it, or have it laid on them). [N.B. the second of the Stations: “Jesus takes up his cross.”]

We know, of course, from hindsight, the fruit of Jesus’ Passion: the redemption of the world, the salvation of our souls. Part of our incorporation into Christ is to bend our experience to that pattern: Suffering that is intentionally (not proactively, but intentionally) “taken up” has the capacity to be not only “un-meaningless,” but actually redemptive, in union with the redemptive suffering of Christ.

Suffering, as we have seen, “happens.” We can try to evade it, and perhaps succeed at times for a while. But it will catch up with us all eventually. We can accept it passively or fatalistically (“Que serĂ¡ sera”), but that leaves us as victims and our suffering as meaningless. Nothing is more tragic than meaningless suffering! But as disciples of Jesus, we have the invitation to “read ourselves” into the story of Christ’s redemption of the world through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.