You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘grief’ tag.

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.

 

Advertisements

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:29

“But wanting to justify himself…”

Did you hear that?

The lawyer, so well-versed in scripture, so sure of himself, is testing Jesus. Putting himself in the position of power. Jesus does not let him remain there, but turns the question around… and, put on the defensive, the lawyer seeks to justify himself and how he was living; he who knew the correct answer.

And Jesus told a parable, of a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Of two leaders of the injured man’s own people, who saw him there and distanced themselves. After all, someone in a ditch must have done something to deserve being there. Not to mention that the suffering of others tends to make us… uncomfortable.

And then along came a Samaritan, who not only stopped, but climbed down into the ditch with the injured man. The Samaritan got blood on his hands and dirt on his clothes, gave of himself in time, and heart, and money, for the sake of a total stranger.

Here’s the thing Samaritans and Jews were both Israelites, both descendents of Abraham, both people of the covenant. Samaritans were those who were not deported to Babylon, during the occupation and exile. But essentially, they were the same people, on the same land, with different experiences historically. They had been treated differently by those in power regionally, and had different responses to the powers around them in the region in Jesus’ time. Now, generations after the exile, the differences between the two groups were not simply respected as such – as elements of diversity between members of one family; rather, they were seen as the basis of moral judgment, as the divisive basis between right and wrong. And so these differences between those who should have been kin, one to another, led not to understanding but to distrust, judgment, and fear.

Sound familiar?

It’s probably a good thing they didn’t have guns.

Despite generations of Christianity, we are no different from those ancient people. We, too, seek to justify the ways we use difference to excuse violence. We pass judgment. We blame the victims, with phrases like “he should have just done what he was told…” and “she should have worn something more modest…” We scour the victim’s past… to find many of the same mistakes we ourselves made, but which in these cases become excuses. We find or create reasons that the traveler lies bleeding in a ditch: reasons that they deserved it; reasons to pass by, eyes averted.

And I am tired of it.

I am tired of hearing us prop up a violent system, in which minor infractions get the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a culture in which existence in wrong place at wrong time gets the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a world in which tell ourselves only way to be safe from violence is to carry instruments of death –death on a large scale – and to kill before we can be killed.

I am tired of hearing the justifications for violence that have sprung up just in the three years since the last time this text came up: days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in death of Trayvon Martin.

I am tired of the many people who have been reduced to hashtags. I am tired of having their names etched in my soul. I am tired of the justifications that dismiss the lived experiences of our kindred, that insists that equality necessarily means uniformity.

I am tired of the “thoughts and prayers” that don’t change a broken system, that don’t come close to healing this broken body of which we are a part.

I am tired, to my very bones, of the grief to which we have become accustomed; the violence that has become a daily occurrence; the culture and society that we justify, even though we know the answer.

I am tired of preaching a variant of this very same sermon, every single week.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself, we are told, and we, who do not want to do the self-examination, ask who our neighbor is. We look for loopholes, seeking to justify ourselves.

And Jesus tells us a parable.

A child of God lies bleeding by the side of the road, and a religious person comes by, engrossed in a facebook argument. They see the person in ditch, and mumble something about sin and what-can-you-expect, before they go back to posting “all lives matter” on social media.  Moments later, a politician comes by, notices and shows their child the person in the ditch, as though the person were not human, but simply an object lesson: don’t let that be you. The politician offers their “thoughts and prayers for the victim and their family,” and goes on their way.

But there is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, battered and bruised and certain that no one cares.

There is still a child of God: wearing a hoodie. Listening to music in his car. Seeking help after a car accident. Selling loose cigarettes or CDs to survive. Playing shoot-’em-up on the playground. Pulled over for a taillight, or a failure to signal. Attending Bible Study. Holding his wallet or cell phone. Doing exactly what he was told.

There is still a child of God: drunk at a party. Walking home alone at night. Minding their own business on the subway. Being female. Being trans. Simply existing.

There is still a child of God: trying to maintain a good relationship with a distrustful community. Trying to protect innocent lives and the right to free speech and peaceful demostration.

There is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, waiting for someone who will call them neighbor.

There is still a child of God.

There is still a member of the body of Christ. 

In justifying the violence done them, we do violence to Christ.

In dismissing their experiences of suffering, we dismiss the suffering of Christ.

We follow a brown-skinned low-income, unarmed homeless man who was executed by state for insisting that marginalized lives mattered; that we needed to pay particular attention to those who had suffered most and repent clearly and specifically for the love we had failed to extend, for the neighbors we had refused to recognize. We follow a man who believed deeply in the radical notion that love means we climb down into the ditch; that we get bloody and dirty for the sake of the stranger; that we take the time to learn their names:

Alton Sterling
Philando Castile
Brent Thompson
Patrick Zamarripa
Michael Krol
Lorne Ahrens
Michael Smith

We follow a man who insisted that we see victims of violence as humans; as kindred to us; as being of one body with us; as those whose lives, whose experiences, whose stories matter. Even if these experiences convict us, even if these stories change us. 

We follow a man who believed so deeply in love that he refused violence, even when he knew that he himself would die, a victim of the very violence he refused.

Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? And Jesus, who believed more deeply than any of us that all lives matter, replied: “Samaritan lives matter.”

Gentile lives matter.

Women’s lives matter.

Marginalized lives matter.

The lives that you do not acknowledge, the lives that push you to justify your own judgment, matter. To say otherwise, to dismiss these lives, is to do violence.

But I tell you: love your neighbor as yourself. For a man of Samaria stopped, to tend to the wounds of the bleeding man, not caring for the dust, the blood he got on his clothes; finding that giving two days’ wages for the life of a stranger was worth it.  For a black man stopped, to feed the hungry children before him, and he learned all their names, all their allergies, all their needs; their grief at the death of Philando Castile suggests his love was worth it. For a police officer stopped a black teen in a drug store, the day after Dallas, simply to ask how he was, for both were grieving; and the willingness to engage in mutuality is always worth it.

Who is my neighbor?

Who is our neighbor?

The one who has been hurt. The one who has reason to fear. The one against whom we try to justify violence. The one against whom we try to justify complacency. The one whose difference you see as inherently wrong or threatening. The one you’d rather pass by.

Who is my neighbor? 

The one I should love as myself. The one whose life matters, no matter what society says.

Jesus said, to the one who sought to justify himself: who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

He said, “the one who didn’t judge, but got down to the messy, sacred business of caring for the wounded.”

Go and do likewise.

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37

The stories abounded this week.

I was 8 years old, in church, when I was first told we could love the sinner and hate the sin.

I was 22 when a pastor told me I couldn’t join the church until I’d been cured, because even Mary Magdalene couldn’t follow Jesus until he’d cast out her demons.

I was in college when my roommate’s response to my coming out was to ask if she could pray over me, to be healed of my sin.

I was 48 when a church leader interrupted a free community meal to try to perform an exorcism on me.

I was 32 when the church refused to baptize my child because my husband and I “hadn’t renounced Satan.”

I was 27 when I stopped allowing my church to abuse me with the notion that I could “pray away the gay”

I was the age I am now when I last heard I was an abomination.

The stories broke my heart this week.  It was hard not to hear them, as I read through Luke text, in preparation to preach. It was hard not to identify, on some level, with the man possessed, locked away, excluded; the man seen as dangerous, unclean, dwelling in death. But it was even harder to know that that identification would be more clearly made, between sexuality and sin, in pulpits around the nation. The very identification that has, indeed, been made,this week and in the years leading up to this week: made in a way that directly blamed the possessed man, that blamed the victim, that made the demons the sin, rather than the exclusion, shaming and rejection that he experienced.

Because this story isn’t really about one man and his demons. It’s not about one person being healed. It’s about the community that chose fear; it’s about the community that chose complacency. 

It’s about us.

In each generation, we see certain things as inherently evil; as “incompatible with Christian teaching” to borrow a phrase. We see certain behaviors as the workings of the devil – evil incarnate – in this world. In each generation, we identify this particular man of the Gerasenes, or anyone else in scripture noted for having demons, as representative of our modern views. Yet in so doing, we reinforce the boundaries that we have, ourselves, created between us and the “other”. We reinforce our human boundaries between those whom God loves, and those whom we do not want God to love; those who follow Jesus and those whom we do not want to follow Jesus. We reinforce the boundaries that enable us to talk about them without having to include ourselves, without having to examine ourselves.

The funny thing is that every time we draw a boundary, Jesus ends up on the other side.

It’s easy to suggest that the demon-possessed man totally unlike his neighbors; that they – that we – are not held captive by external forces, the things over which it feels like we have no control. It’s easy to draw the boundary between us and him, to judge him as “other”, because it precludes our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It allows us to say that he needs healing, that he needs Jesus… all while ignoring our own needs for – and fears of – both of these. 

It strikes me that it is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; it is whether or not we are comfortable with the demons that inhabit our lives.

It is when our demons begin to sit uncomfortably within us, when we acknowledge that we want no part of them, that we become dangerous. It is then that we are cast aside, shunned by those who are comfortable. It is then that we are demonized, shackled and constrained by the words used to make us “other”, by the confines of “polite society”, by the fearmongering and vitriol that have become all too prevalent around us. It is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; rather, it is when we choose self-examination and self-awareness. It is when we name the demons that live within us, when we reject the demons that fill the world around us. It is when our choice to reject our demons calls those around us to the frightening experience of doing the same uncomfortable work: of naming that which possesses us, the ways we’ve become so comfortable in possession that we internalize it, justify it, participate in it.

It cannot be overlooked that the one we demonize in this text is the one who is the one aware of, and at war with, his demons. The one we demonize in this text is the one who has done the painful work of grappling with the forces that held him, the one who has dwelt among the dead: looked death in the face, and acknowledged his own participation in its culture. The one we demonize in this text is the one who recognizes Jesus, when even the disciples do not; the one who calls him “Son of the Most High God.”  The one we demonize in this text is the one who has  the wherewithal to approach Jesus, just as he is, unapologetically; his vulnerability made clear in nakedness.

The one we demonize in this text is the one who is able to name his demons, and have them banished.

While the townsfolk, prey to those same external forces, see in Jesus someone more fearful than their demons: someone who could remove from them the demons with whom they’d become comfortable; rip them open to the unimagined possibility that they began to see in the healed man –  the possibility of who they might become, in vulnerable relationship with Jesus. Of who they might become in the presence of the love so powerful it can drive out all else. Of who they might become when faced with a God whose only two options are unconditional love and extravagant welcome.

In this moment of healing, of the rejection of demons, the townsfolk see before themselves another way, but one which requires vulnerability and self-examination; the refusal to remain comfortable, complacent, complicit with the demons of this world.

This is really their story, our story, the church’s story. That much becomes more clear, in weeks like this one, when violence collides with stories of demons, and we begin to truly see where we locate ourselves within the story: as those who shun and oppress, shackle and demonize; as those who do the ongoing, often painful work of self-reflection, of choosing to reject the justifications for, and the comfort with, the demons of this world – even as we ourselves are called possessed. 

This is our story: the story of being willing to acknowledge our participation in the culture of death, and to spend our time in prayerful repentence among its victims.

For the demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, but the beliefs and fears that do violence on those bases; the ones that fuel the stories that started this sermon, the ones that lead to the violence we have seen this week, the ones that lead to the erasure of the voices and the identities of those who were most directly impacted by violence.

The demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, for those do not keep us separate from the love that Jesus embodies, but recognize the power of standing, in love, on the side the oppressed.

The demons of this world are racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which our culture justifies in the fear-mongering and the hate which have become so pervasive, so subtle that we no longer see them, but accept and even justify them as comfortable. These are demons we are afraid to acknowledge, because grappling with them, recognizing our role in maintaining them, is painful to us, and threatening to those who remain comfortable. And we are afraid of being shackled or ostracized. We are afraid of dwelling among the tombs, among the victims of our hateful demons and our inability to let them go.

And so I hope we will all come to identify with this demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, who grappled with the demons, despite the pain. I hope that we will all identify with this man who recognized Jesus and called out to him, despite the fear; who named his demons, the sins that kept him separate from God’s love: the love that does not call anyone “other.” I hope we will have the courage to see the demons with whom we have become comfortable. I hope that we will find the strength to call them out, no matter who tries to shackle us, to demonize us. I hope we will have courage to tear down the barriersour demons have prodded us to create, so that we might find Jesus standing, as always, on the other side with the queers and the Latinx and the undocumented, beloved and grieving. 

I hope we will have the courage to come before Jesus, just as we are, but prepared for the grace that can  change us; the grace that can transform us; the grace that can encourage us; the grace that can clothe us in God’s abiding, unconditional love.

 

When grief hits – really hits

when finality folds in upon you

with all its echoing emptiness

Some people run, just for the sake

of moving

of having something to do

with still-living flesh

arms and legs that cannot contain

the unbearable.

And I watched as the men looked

rummaged, flailed, fled

I, whom grief turned to stone

unmovable but for the flood

pouring down my cheeks

clinging to my lashes

until the world blurred:

lost its form in a haze

of light and water.

Movement again, yet not

with the speed of whirling grief.

My eyes, half-blind, streaming

saw first the dirt

upon the stranger’s hands

as though he’d been entrusted

with coaxing new growth

from fertile earth.

Between tear-shimmer above and below

he appeared,

walking through the garden

in the cool of the morning

radiant with the first light of day.

“Where is He? For I know

He Is

somewhere

and I promised to follow.”

And he spoke, and the world became

perfect,

as on the first Day.

One word, and I was made new.

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.

But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’  -Matthew 28: 5-7

There was a fair amount of angst in my circles, this week.  Something about having to preach a sermon to a larger crowd than usual had a lot of clergy more anxious about Sunday morning than they might usually have been.  The sermon this week had to be spectacular – something that would really speak to those whom we don’t see every week, something that would get them through until Christmas.  This week’s message had to be a homerun… and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.

But really?  We all know that’s silly.  No matter who is sitting in front of us, there’s only one sermon we should ever preach, and we should preach it all year.  For if we preachers are doing our jobs well, then we’ll simply say this, every Sunday, in different iterations: death has lost its power, and love prevails.

It’s the simplest sermon ever, and the most complicated.  Because the questions that this statement brings up are both simple and complicated; these questions of life and death that speak to us from the empty tomb.  And because, as it was noted at a recent church gathering, the whole idea of resurrection is huge and kind of scary… perhaps because death and life are also huge and kind of scary, so the eventual reversal of them becomes overwhelming to us.

Because the resurrection is more than “Jesus died so we get a ‘Get out of Death Free’ card”. If that were the case, our lives would have no meaning – we could be as crazy as we want, as selfish and hurtful as we want, for there would be no finality, no consequences.  Yet that is not how we are expected to live, even now.  We are still called to follow, to live as disciples.  We are called to be people of the resurrection, people who live in the promises of new life, here and now.  We are called to leave the graves we have constructed for ourselves, to roll the stones away and step into the light.

We are called to leave the grave of power, and of privilege, and of comfort, where we, like Romans, believe in power of force to change the world; were we, like religious authorities who manipulated the crucifixion into being, grant ourselves power to rule over others, and judge their actions.  To leave the closed-in space from which we can believe that we are better than those whom we might encounter: that we are right and they are wrong, without having to understand anyone else’s point of view.

We are called to leave grave of economic status, and to abandon both our love of money and the concurrent fear of never having enough: the let’s-leave-enough-aside-just-in-case attitude that keeps us not only from frivolity, but from doing the good that we might otherwise do.  We are called to abandon the reduction of everything to economic value; to be the ones who would not only allow, but welcome the anointing of Jesus, rather than resenting (as Judas did) the waste of costly ointment and the pouring out of a possible source of revenue.  Let us not be like Judas, who could measure even human life in monetary terms; let us not be those who are blind to less tangible returns on our investment: returns like equity, justice, opportunity, or life.

We are called to leave grave of anger and resentment; that place where we trap ourselves in an us-vs-them mindset, and where we perceive difference as akin to attack; where it is unthinkable to break bread with those whose fear might lead them to hurt us.  Rather, can we be people of the open table, willing to incorporate Christ? Can we be people who set aside anger; who can be gracious when attempts to understand and be supportive, are exhausting? and when those whom we have asked to watch, and to pray with us, fall asleep instead?  Can we, in the light of a new day, choose forgiveness of betrayal over resentment, and welcome those who abandoned us?

We are called to leave grave of fear; to set aside the fear of what others might say or think; of what might happen to us.  To abandon fears that keep us from speaking up, from doing what is right; the fears that keep us feeling alone, and that make us deny our best selves – that make us say, with Peter, “I don’t know him!”  Can we let go of the fears that keep us silent in the face of suffering and despair: distant from one another and from God?  We are called to abandon even the fears of our own suffering, for some discomfort on our part – refusing the pleasures of power and status, choosing to set aside fear and anger, being willing to dwell in the unknown, uncertain spaces outside our comfort zone – may have us praying “let this cup be taken”, indeed, but might bring us to the new understandings that permit the rest of that prayer: “not my will, but thine be done”.  We are called to uncurl ourselves from the confinement of fear, in order to open doors to new light; to roll away stones to new life.

Can we abandon these graves for the love and grace that we are offered this day?  The love that can walk us through the valley of the shadow of death, but by which we cannot be held there?  The love that no power, no money, no anger, no fear can kill?  The love – grace and forgiveness – that mark us as disciples and invite us out of the graves we are so adept at digging, and into new life?  Can we accept the love that reanimates us, reinvigorates us, so that we may follow anew the one who is love incarnate, into the resurrection that may seem huge and scary and overwhelming, but that is ours to choose?

Can we accept the forgiveness offered this morning: forgiveness of all that kept us back, during the bleak times of despair?  Can we accept the grace that invites us out of ourselves, into relationship with one another and with God?

For the tomb is broken open: death has lost its power over us and love prevails!

Christ is Risen! do not look for him in places of death: in those small, human graves we frequent.

Christ is Risen! and we by grace are called to share in the new life of the resurrection.

Christ is Risen! may we follow where he leads us: out of the death we would so often choose, and into the grace of new life.

Alleluia!

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  -Matthew 26: 40-41

Were you there?

It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week.  It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there.  There is tremendous desolation in the way that  the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals.  Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.

Were you there?

It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago.  Of course none of us were there.  But if we had been?  For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come?  Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?

Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss.  We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.

Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present.  Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all.  This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences.  We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo.  We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.

Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:

This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing.  We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…

Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…

The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.

 Were you there? Are any of us?

It seems an odd question, but it is the right one.  Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware.  Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo.  Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us.  Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our  energy, our attention, our love?  Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know?  Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?

Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone?  that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us?  Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?

The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us.  We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong.  We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.

We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”

“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9

 

I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people.  The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example.  An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.

In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile.  The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire.  These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land.  It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them?  Was the covenant broken?  How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?

The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung our harps.  For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4)  Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God.  Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment?  I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?

I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.

Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the  most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face.  It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk.  The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos.  It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?”  If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?

Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.

The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly.  The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement,  “it could happen to you!”  Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out.  Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.

We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.

Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us.  But it is not true.  There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago.  There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility.  The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.*  The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime.   There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight.  But when fear is internalized, where do we flee?  We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church.  It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them.  We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.

Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first.  We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security.  We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.

On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem.  It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with.  Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough.  We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God.  After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there.  We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless.  It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the  songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic.  And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another.  I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope.  I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.

There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians.  People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.

Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us.  We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe.  We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another.  We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest.  We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.

We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us.  We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.

We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.

God, who doesn’t play it safe.  God, who went to the cross.  God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.

God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection.  We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word.  We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety.  Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose.  Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility.  Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.

We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig.  We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.

We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.

We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.

Mortal, can these bones live?  O God, you know we can.

 

 

*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  Brazos Press, 2007.  p.15

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Luke 11:1

“So I say to you, Ask, and if will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 9, 13

One of the requirements of my MDiv program was to study one of the Biblical languages.  I took three semesters of Greek – just barely enough to scratch the surface.  It was mostly written exercises and translation, but once, during the second semester, we were actually called upon to speak: each of us had to memorize a passage from the Bible.  One of the options was the Lord’s Prayer – the version from Matthew, not this one – and I spent weeks working on it.

When called on to recite, I rattled off the entire prayer at top speed – much to the surprise of my professor.  (Who did note, however, that speed had not impacted upon accuracy.)  It’s quite likely that part of the breakneck pace had to do with nerves, but it strikes me that it might also have come out of habit: the familiarity of the words, even in another language, the rhythms at which I was used to speaking them during worship, all impacted upon my recitation.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, or in getting about as much out of such familiar words as I did when they were in a language I barely spoke.  I wonder if Jesus thinks about this moment with the disciples, when we pray, and shakes his head our rote, neat recitations of his prayer.  Because I don’t think that he meant for us to speak those exact words as often as we do.  It really wasn’t Jesus’ way, after all, to give clear, concrete instructions.  This, like his parables, like his metaphors, seems to be meant more as an illustration than as something to be repeated verbatim.  It would seem that what he hoped for was not that we would repeat the words of his prayer, so much as the emphases.

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,” said Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  And whether or not we recognize it, our traditions of prayer point us in this very direction.  How we hold ourselves as we pray – heads bowed, hands clasped, sometimes kneeling – these are physical moves, attitudes of prayer to remind us that, although to one who loves us, not praying to an equal.  That in this relationship, we are the humble supplicants, relying entirely upon the grace and love of a being we cannot, truly, begin to understand.  The very postures in which we pray should change the very nature of our prayer, if we recognized them for what they are: the consciousness that God listens to us not because we’re “all that”, but because God is.

But what Jesus is advocating in this moment with his disciples is not just an attitude of the body –  he gives no instructions, here, about kneeling or bowing one’s head or any other physical stance.  Jesus’ concern is entirely about the attitude of the heart.

Have you ever put off giving bad news, because it will make the news “more real”?  Speaking of death, of disaster, of diagnosis can force us out of a place of denial faster than just about anything else.  It is human nature: things we say become more “real”, and the more often they are repeated, the more ingrained into our lived reality they become.

This is true, of course, of joy as well as of pain.

While I was in school, I remember taking a brief informal survey of classmates one day; and the results were unsurprising.
Those who said grace before meals were more likely to think about origins of their food, the people who had picked it, shipped it, and prepared it.  Those who made mention of their own mortality in their bedtime prayers – the few who might still say, “If I should die before I wake” – were on the whole more appreciative of life, more cognizant of its brevity and value.  Simple words, thanking God for nourishment, recognizing a basic human truth – brought these realities into my classmates hearts in a more powerful, lasting way that informed everything else they did.

Words have the power to turn our hearts.

Which is, of course, what Jesus was usually trying to do.

“Teach us how to pray!” begged the disciples, wanting to be associated with Jesus in a way that was visible and obvious to all.  This was common practice among the religious teachers of the day; John had taught his own disciples a very distinct way of praying, one that would mark them as “followers of John the Baptist” to any who were “in the know.”  Jesus’ followers longed for similar signs – a secret handshake of sorts that would mark them as special.  But the prayer instructions they received – really, the vast majority of the teachings that they received – were not about the body, but about the heart.  Jesus, as he often did, skipped the superficial, outward markings of group membership, gently reminding his followers that membership in God was the greater truth that needed to become real.  And so Jesus taught his disciples to pray: to praise God and recognize God’s power and authority.  To recall God’s promises to care for us, and  our responsibility to each other – including an explicit reminder that how we treat one another is the clearest mirror into our relationship with God.  Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that calls us out of ourselves, that is all about relationship –  have you ever noticed that it’s a communal prayer, spoken in the second person plural?  It’s not “I” and “me”, but “we” and “us”.  That’s not accidental.  It puts us all in the same boat, and reminds us of our dependence upon one another and upon God.

Which is necessary context, given what comes next.

Because if we, indeed, wouldn’t give our own kids bad things, if persistence is rewarded, then I totally should have had that pony as a kid.

In order to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, we all have to take CPE – clinical pastoral education, usually in a hospital setting.  I had one conversation with a patient that I hope never to forget.  He was excited to see the chaplain, first of all, which made the setting a little unusual.  But he didn’t really want to talk about himself; rather, we talked about his late wife’s illness and death.  I don’t remember, particularly, what disease she had.  I remember mostly that he – my patient – had prayed incessantly after her diagnosis.  He had prayed that it was all a mistake – that he’d wake up and find that it had been a nightmare.  But mostly, he had prayed for a cure for her, as they moved from doctor to doctor, discussing treatment options and side effects.  He had prayed for a cure, but it was as though he was  talking to a wall; the prayers didn’t seem to be going anywhere, didn’t seem to be heard, certainly weren’t being answered.  He prayed, but mostly felt abandoned and empty.

Until one day, an impulse made him change the words that he was using.  One day, for no particular reason, he asked God not to “cure her” but to “heal her”.  And the brick wall vanished.  That prayer, with its simple change, opened his eyes and opened his heart, so that he could see more clearly what his wife needed – not a cure, but healing.  With this new understanding, he was able to arrange time for his wife with several estranged family members; to try to heal the breaches before time ran out, to try to finish some unfinished business.  None of it helped her live longer, but it all helped her to live better, and to die more peacefully.

I asked this man what it felt like, when he changed that prayer.  He took a moment to think, and told me that it had been as though God had been waiting for him to stop navel-gazing and simply pray for HER.  Nothing more complicated than that.

And I wonder if that was all that Jesus was trying to do.

In that time, the style of prayer marked the disciple – John’s followers prayed like John.  But Jesus said, in essence, “don’t worry about style, worry about content.”

Let your prayer change you.

Let your prayer lead you to others, to love, to the Kingdom.

Let your prayer lead you to pray for humanity’s most basic needs: for nourishment, and love, and safety – that we may be delivered from evil.

Let your prayer put your wants and desires in perspective.

Here, Jesus said: pray this, and then just try to pray for a pony.  Go ahead.

Here: pray this, and then just try to walk away the same person you were before.

If you can, it’s worth asking whether you were really praying.

Try this, right now: Pray for your loved ones, that they might be fed, and loved, and and safe.

Now pray for the person who drives you crazy – we all have people like that in our lives!  Pray that the person who drives you crazy is fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray for the faceless millions in Syria, in Zimbabwe, or right here in town: that they are, each and every one of them fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray until it changes you.  Until your heart is turned.  Until God’s kingdom comes.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  -Luke 7:9-10

I think there are certain passages in the Bible that we would prefer to skip, as we read through it; and it strikes me that this is probably one of them.  This is one of those passages that we have a hard time dealing with – that is easy to dislike – because I don’t think there are many people who have not had some experience, either in their own lives or with a loved one, with this kind of illness.  And so to hear about the grief and the desperation that drove the Centurion to seek out Jesus’ help – that makes sense to us.  Yet we feel this is unfair – a Centurion, a Roman soldier, occupying force within Galilee and Judea, not part of the in-crowd around Jesus, not part of the group we usually root for in the Bible, this is the guy who gets his servant healed.  And all of us, with our own experiences of grief and loss and desperation are left feeling rather deflated and hopeless.

Why can’t we have miracles now?  Why can’t we have these shows of power, of God’s holy and healing presence among us, that would make those whom we love so dearly rise, and walk?

It’s frustrating.

There are those, here in this country and around the world, who do believe that by acts of faith we can restore the health of a human being.  There was a couple in the news just recently – now, in 2013 – a couple in Philadelphia who were jailed for the death of their second child from bacterial pneumonia, who had not sought medical attention although they had seen this illness coming.  They had, instead, prayed that the child might be delivered from his illness, and that didn’t work out so well.

And we would like to believe that people like this are outliers, part of a minute fringe group that does not have a great presence, but in fact this is a good-sized faith community in Philadelphia.  It’s a church that encourages its adherents to this level of faith healing.  And so they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.  Seeking medical attention for this child might have meant being turned out of this community that they knew, and that held them, prayed for them, prayed with them… But as it was, they not only lost their child, but the very community that they had counted on, being told that they had not prayed hard enough, that the child’s death marked them as sinful people who deserved, somehow, to lose their child.

It’s a no-win scenario.

I wish that in 2013 stories like this were relics of the past.  I find myself being glad that this couple is being prosecuted for the deaths of their children.  I find myself glad that they are being held accountable.  I don’t know if that makes me a good Christian or not, but it’s how I feel.  And yet, I’m left very uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two stories, in the news and in the Bible, as they come out so close to one another, and leave me unsettled.  Because it doesn’t take a lot to hear in this Gospel story just what that couple heard, just what their community would have them hear: “Have faith and your loved one will be healed.” Doesn’t it sound like it’s all right there in front of us?  And I think it’s especially uncomfortable to so many of us Christians who wonder if we are walking the line of faith correctly: if we are really putting our faith in humanity more than we are putting our faith in God, if maybe we ought to be just a little more faithful, just a little better at this Christianity thing.

You’re not getting that answer in this sermon.  I don’t have it yet, sorry.

I do have a story for you, though.  You’ve probably heard it before, it’s made the rounds in some form after most major recent disasters.  There’s a flood – a huge, rising flood – and it threatens to swamp a man’s house. He goes up higher and higher in his house as the waters rise, until finally he’s sitting on the roof.  And he shouts out his prayer: “Okay, God, I have faith in you, and that you will rescue me! Please come rescue me!” At that moment a guy in a canoe comes paddling by in the flood, and calls out, “Hey, you look pretty stuck – let me take you to higher ground!” But the man on the roof refuses: “No, thank you, my God will rescue me.” So the guy in the canoe goes on, and as the flood waters rise higher, the man on the roof prays again, “Oh, God, I have faith in you and that you will rescue me! You can come on down and rescue me now… please!  Please?”  And a woman comes by in a motorboat and calls to the man, “Hey, you look like you’re pretty stuck up there – come with me, I’ll take you to safety.”  But again, the man on the roof refuses: “No, I’m fine.  I have faith in my God, and my God will rescue me.”  The woman shrugs, said, “Have it your way…” and goes on her way, looking for others who were stranded.  And the flood waters keep rising, until the whole house is underwater and the man stands on his roof, knee-deep in the flood, shouting to the heavens, “Okay, God, now would be a really good time! Please God, I have faith! Come down and rescue me!”  And as he is looking up to the heavens, he sees a helicopter descending, and a police officer sticks her head out and shouts, “Here, catch hold of the rope and we’ll pull you up!  We’ll take you to safety!”  Yet again, the man refuses, insisting on his great faith in God and his certainty of divine rescue.  So the rope gets pulled back up, the helicopter leaves… and the inevitable happens.  The man gets swept away in the rising flood waters and drowns.  And when he finds himself in the afterlife, face-to-face with God, he gets pretty annoyed.  “Alright, God,” he says, “What happened down there?  I had faith!  I never doubted that you would come rescue me!  I waited for you! and you let me drown?!” And God responds, “Look, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter.  What more did you want?”

The passage in this morning’s scripture lessons says more about our views of illness than about our views of faith.  Specifically, it says more about our ancient views of illness than about ancient practices of faith.  Because when illness is caused by demons and sin, of course you’re going to pray.  And of course you go to your local prophet to be your healer, and if the Son of God happens to be wandering around your neighborhood, so much the better. But the thing is that we don’t live in that kind of a world anymore.  In the words of John Polkinghorne, Cambridge astrophysicist and Anglican priest, we do not live in a world in which a Divine Being snapped Divine Fingers and create a world that was then exactly as it is now.  Rather, God created a world that continues to create itself; that would continue to involve us in an ongoing Creation. And as we continue to create ourselves and we continue to learn about this world, we discover that it is not, in fact, demons who cause illness; that the things that cause illness cannot necessarily be prayed away.  We know now about microbes, and germs, and little malignant cells with no sentience and no malice, and no idea what they are doing to the sentient beings that they are inhabiting.

So we don’t go to our local prophet.  And we don’t take our ill relatives to our local pastor (for which I am grateful).  We go to those who understand – with our current knowledge of illness – germs, and cells, and human biology and physiology.  We go to the people whom we know can help, in whatever capacity that looks like.  In other words, really, we do exactly what the centurion did.

Because, it’s funny, but this isn’t really a story about prayer. This isn’t really a story about one man being particularly “in” with the Divine – having such a good relationship with God, having such a powerful means of prayer that he could effect the healing of his slave.

Rather, it’s about a man in relationship with his community.  This is about an outsider – a Roman, an occupier – who came in and did not see the occupied as inherently “other”, or as less-than, or as necessarily even different, but who came in respectful of those whom he served near.  He came in serving them, helping them to build a synagogue.  I think it’s worth noting that this man – this manifestation of the occupying force – managed to have two sets of friends that he could send ahead, to see Jesus on his behalf; the first set being the Jewish elders of the town, who pleaded in a totally unscripted moment on behalf of the occupying power.  “This man is not one of us, Jesus, but he is a good man, and he is a loving man, and he is worthy of your attention.”  We see in the centurion not a man who sits idly by his servant’s bedside, head bowed in prayer, sweating with the intensity of his praying.  We see a man whose prayer is in his very action, in his choice to send his friends out to Christ.  We see his prayer in the choices that he makes – to ask for the help he needs – and in the relationships that he has formed. We see this story as the story of one who recognizes that answers to prayers do not necessarily come in a divine flash of lightning that ZAP! heals the slave – in the way, perhaps, that we would want it to happen – but that healing and answer to prayer and divine presence come more often through human hands.  This is a man, probably, who would have gotten on that canoe – let alone the motorboat or helicopter – as the flood waters rose.

And that faith, that Jesus commended so highly? That faith that he had not seen, even in Israel? I wonder where he heard it.  Was it in the second message, a verbatim message from the centurion, delivered in the first person and saying, “We’re a lot alike, you know. I have authority over the men that I lead, you have authority over the powers of this world. We’re similar, you know that, Jesus?  So I think you can help me out here.”  Or is it in the inherent similarities that the centurion leaves out?  The similarities in their perspective – in not looking at people as “other”, the implied statement from the centurion that he is friends with the Jews, to the point of helping them build their synagogue; the implication that “I am going to you even though I am not one of yours, because I don’t look down on you.  I am asking for help from my slave, because even though he is ‘lesser’ than I am, I see him as a full human deserving of healing and deserving of love.”

Does this remind you of anyone? Maybe?  Just a little bit?

This is a story of Jews and Gentiles coming together.  This is a story of free men and slaves coming together and seeing one another as human and seeing one another as made in the divine image.

This is a story of someone who really gets it, very early on in Jesus’ ministry.

And we – most of the time – pretty much get it.  We hope.  This should be – this is! – very helpful to us as we read through an otherwise rather difficult text. Until we remember once again that God’s not so into these feats of power and these displays of miracles that show off what a great God we have.  But that’s kind of Luke’s point, throughout the entire Gospel: we have to remember that Luke himself was a Gentile, writing to Gentile audiences, and that the underlying argument throughout the Gospel is that the God of Israel is a way-more-powerful God, and a way-more-worthy God, than any of those piddling little gods that the Greeks and the Romans and everyone else in the Mediterranean basin are currently worshiping.  So everyone really ought to convert to this new Christianity thing.

We don’t really need that now, though. We don’t get the same displays, we don’t get the same emphasis.  The whole divine healing thing is a rarity, at best.  But in this moment of worry and fear, of wishing for those miracles, we are in great danger of being stuck up on that rooftop, letting the help float past us; refusing the very relationships – the experts and the friends – that actually will bring us the healing that we’re seeking.

And it makes me wonder: if those parents in Philadelphia had just taken the help that is out there – there’s a lot of help out there, for little kids who are sick – might they have experienced the very healing presence that they were so ardently praying for, in the hands, and in the smiles, and in the compassion, and in the wisdom, and in the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who could have restored life to their child?

For it is actually faith in God – not the lack thereof – that gets us to put ourselves and our loved ones into the care of those who are actually called to be healers; those people in whom we see the compassion and the presence by which we recognize God in this world.  And we remember that we cannot always separate faith in humanity from faith in God – that only suggests that God can’t work through us, which we all know isn’t true.  And it strikes me, from what I have seen, that there is a whole lot more presence in the hands of a nurse, or of a doctor, or of any compassionate person, than there was in the church that cast such judgment upon those parents; the church that would put the grief of parents aside, and cast them out of community.

And it strikes me that there is more healing presence in this space and in this time here today – in the letters and notes that I know you send to one another and to our loved ones; in the calls and the visits to those who are ill or grieving; in the prayers that we offer here every single Sunday as a community and that we carry in our hearts throughout the week.  I know there is more presence here in the healing that we can – each and every one of us – offer, whether it takes the form of a canoe, or a motorboat, or a helicopter, or whatever the situation calls for. There is presence, and there is healing, right here.

And there is one more thing I know: that centurion’s slave, who was healed by Christ and by faith, is not still walking around Galilee and Capernaum. It’s two thousand years later – you know he didn’t make it that long.  You know that the life that Jesus gave to that poor slave only extended a life that must, still, necessarily end.  Jesus did not grant immortality to anyone.  But I know that the love that is palpable in this story continued to be present. That the community that surrounded the centurion, and that went out seeking healing on his behalf, that same community gathered around him when, inevitably, he grieved. What survives, in these miracles and in this healing presence; what survives to this very day is that love and is that community and are those relationships that make God’s healing presence known to us, here and now.  In this very place and in this very moment, in the sacred meal of which we will partake, and in the coffee and the cookies that we’ll have after that.  In the parking lot on a Sunday, or on the rooftop, with the floodwaters rising. For as long as love prevails, God’s healing does as well.