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O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.

 

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When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’     John 2: 3-5

For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of  John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.

But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.

This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s  supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.

Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.

It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves.  Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.

Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.

And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.

This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action.  And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.

Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine.  Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him.  At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing.  At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.

The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.

I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities.  We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us.  We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are,  and who we might become.  For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.

However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out.  Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.

This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.

Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.

Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.

What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.

Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:

My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:

They should have done what they were told.

What can you expect from that generation?

We’ve always done it this way before.

Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.

Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.

But we come after.

The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.

For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.

And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love.  We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.

Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.

It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.

And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.

And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer.  We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.

 

sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.

 

While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a

It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples,  walking away from Jerusalem.  More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise.  We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end.  They knew the prophecies.  They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.

Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.

After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them.  After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed.  After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?”  What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?

This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels.  And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking.  “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?

Hope is such a terribly human emotion.  We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something.  In our hope, we maintain  certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes.  And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along.  We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.

In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses.  Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.

Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment.  Would any of us expect less?  After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!

Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?

These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day.  For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset.  And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered,  “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”

Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all.  For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”

And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves.  These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead.  When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.

Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.

We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining.  We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts.  We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour.  We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread;  in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present.   And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.

God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”

God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.

God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.

For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen.  So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.

That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.

That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.

We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.”  And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision.  For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result.  But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped.  May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.

And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Luke 24: 30-31a

We have been talking a lot, recently,about darkness.  Although the metaphor can give way to some problematic imagery, it is still a concept that resonates in many hearts.  We understand the idea of darkness in all the times we are as uncomfortable spiritually as we would be in physical darkness: when we are disoriented and confused.

Today, we continue in Eastertide darkness, dwelling still on the very day of resurrection and the great difficulty that the disciples had in leaving that place of uncertainty.  Today, we see two of Jesus’ followers road to Emmaus, discussing what had happened, and the strangeness that that very morning had held, when the women had come running back from Jesus’ tomb with incredible, fantastic stories of angelic visions and an empty tomb.  There were plenty of rational explanations, but these two men found their whole world shaken, found it impossible that anyone could be moving normally through their day when the very foundations of the world seemed unstable.  Their question to the stranger who met them is one we’ve often felt, in times of great emotion – how does everyone not know what has happened?

It calls into question yet again how many of the disciples had ever really gotten the death and crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus had warned them about?  How many had really believed what Jesus had told them; had understood that, for once, Jesus hadn’t been speaking in parables?  Not many, judging from the reactions: the disciples we hear about were fearful, uncertain: feeling their way forward in suddenly unfamiliar world.

In the darkness, even the familiar seems strange enough.  Have you ever tried to walk through your house with the lights off?  I tried it the other night, and immediately tripped over the toys that I knew were on the floor.  We move with less confidence, even in familiar surroundings.  Should something intrude on us, in that moment, wouldn’t we all be afraid?  Would we, any of us, recognize even a loved one immediately? especially if we weren’t expecting them? Wouldn’t we be too afraid to believe?

In the darkenss, would we recognize the Risen Christ, walking with us, speaking with us, opening our eyes to new ideas and new possibilities?

Throughout scriptures, from the first book of our Bible to the last, one theme infuses it all: Covenant. Throughout our scriptures, we are reminded of the promises that God has made to all generations, to remain with us and to guide us through this life.  It is that covenant, embodied by Christ, that we celebrate at the communion table: the reminder and the promise that there is presence; that we were – that we are – worth loving and dying for; that we are forgiven, that there is grace, always.  We gather at the table in celebration of covenant in the place where we, like disciples, know risen Christ in breaking bread.

But covenant endures even when we’re not expecting, and not looking for it.

Covenant endures even when the darkness seems oppressive, and we’re disoriented and afraid; even when crucifixion seems more present than resurrection in our lives; even when we’re on the road, more focused on other things; even when conversations with strangers lead us to new, strange, and disorienting ideas.

The question of covenant has been very much on my mind this week, because of the lawsuit that our denomination has filed.  The United Church of Christ, along with a few local Unitarian and Reform Jewish congregations, has filed suit in federal court against the State of North Carolina, in an attempt to overturn its ban on same-sex marriage.  Now, there are several states with similar bans, and the UCC has not sued any of them.  North Carolina’s law differs from the others in that it makes it illegal – punishable by a fine and a jail term – for clergy to perform any marriage-like ceremony that is not legally recognized by the state.  This includes commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, or for opposite-sex couples who, for whatever reason, choose to have their relationship recognized by the church, but not the state.  So the UCC’s lawsuit argues against the marriage ban, not only on the grounds of equal protection, but also on the right that we all have to free expression of religion.

Now, certainly, there are churches in the United Church of Christ that don’t agree – as there have been, in many stances we’ve taken as a denomination.  For every controversial stance that we take, there are churches who wish we wouldn’t, or hadn’t.  Yet of those churches, very few end up leaving our denomination: we remain together because we are in covenant, and our covenant is a reminder and embodiment of God’s covenant with us: unconditional and abiding, loving beyond the barriers that humans erect.  Even in disagreement, we remain bound together, bearing one another’s burdens, seeking God together, listening, learning, and walking together because sometimes, Christ is walking with us.  Sometimes, we might recognize Christ in our midst, not only in the expected, but in the unexpected as well; not only in light but in darkness; not only in faith but in doubt

As we gather at the table, we renew our covenant with one another and with God.  We renew our promise to love God by loving one another.  We renew our faith with God who promises to remain with us no matter what: despite our failures of love, God remains faithful; even though we hung God on the cross, God remains faithful.  And love prevails, over all we might do to prevent and oppose it.  God’s love is there waiting, even in unexpected places and forms, guiding us through the darkness back to the resurrection light.

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29

Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark.  We find ourselves closed  in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ.  They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.

These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries.  As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.”  That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.

Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color.  Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further.  For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”

It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God.  It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected.  So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God?  When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have?  When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room?  What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy?  How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?

How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?

It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity.  We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight.  We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations.  We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.

When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness?  No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way?  It’s disconcerting.  Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt.  And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us?  How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?

Brené Brown is a  professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of  shame and vulnerability.  Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love.  All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light.  Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?”  In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation.  Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”

I wonder what Thomas would think of that.

Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft.  Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues.  Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.

Thomas was called; and so are we.

As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light.  We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God.  We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.

And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception.  Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry.  I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment.  I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.

We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage.  We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark.  We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb.  For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.

We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.