Monday, February 17, 2014

Solace in the Night

Isaiah 61:1-4
Psalm 42
Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”   In other translations, those who will be comforted are those who grieve or are sorrowful. 

As with all the Beatitudes, there is a communal meaning and a personal meaning.  Remember that Jesus is speaking to a people who live under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  Roman soldiers walk the streets, Roman taxes and temple taxes have increased poverty.  Family lands have been lost through corruption.  There is a constant undercurrent of revolt for which the penalty is crucifixion.  The crowd listening to Jesus on the mountainside hears the word mourn and they know in their bones the sorrow behind the cry at the beginning of the 137th Psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”  Those listening to Jesus were no longer exiled in Babylon; their homeland was captive.

I took a graduate class on grief, trauma, and loss in which about a third of the students were South Korean nationals studying in America.  The professor introduced the class to the Korean concept of han, a word for which there is no equivalent in English.  Korean has been invaded and held captive over 300 times in its history.  We have nothing in our history that compares.  Even the sorrow and fear that we experienced in the aftermath of 9/11 does not begin to help us understand the collective cultural experience of Koreans.  When the professor mentioned the word han, the Koreans moaned as one with deep anguish on their faces.  They see half of their country as captive now and their grief is both ancient and current.

In refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa, children cry because they want to go home, but they cannot go home.  Their home is gone.  Their family has been decimated by war and the grief is palpable in every shelter. 

How are they comforted?  Where does comfort come from? 

Consider praying the lament of Psalm 13 with those who mourn:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

How long, O Lord, how long?  The same words rise up whether the grief is communal or personal.  Most of us have known grief, some of us more than others.  Parker Palmer, and educator and author, describes a time of deep clinical depression in his life.  During what he called a “living death” he withdrew, finding even movement difficult.  Many friends and coworkers reached out to him with words of comfort and encouragement.  But one friend, a man who understood, began to come every afternoon.   With permission, he would gently remove Palmer’s shoes and socks and massage his feet, seldom saying anything.  Palmer credits that silent companionship as an anchor that allowed healing to begin.[1]  I believe comfort begins in mediating the compassionate presence of God.  There are no right words.  In fact, there are no words necessary. 

Ann Weems is a poet whose beautiful poems I share with you during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  Let me read part of the preface to her book Psalms of Lament, published in 1995. 

This book is not for everyone.  It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep.  It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities.  This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.
         On August 14, 1982, the stars fell from my sky.  My son, my Todd, had been killed less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday.  August 14, 1982 . . . and still I weep.
         Many were there for me . . . family, friends, and people I didn’t even know who sent their loving-kindness by mail or phone or in person.  These tenderhearted ones were God-sent, and they have no idea how deeply they walked into my heart.
         One of these people was Walter Brueggemann.  He was enormously present to me and to my family.  Concerned and caring, he kept in touch long after the sympathy notes stopped coming.  One day he called and said I certainly didn’t have to answer his question if I didn’t want to, but he was working on Jeremiah and wanted to ask me, Will Rachel be comforted?  I remember answering with little hesitation: No.  No, Rachel will not be comforted.  Not here, not now, not in the sense of being ultimately comforted.  Of course, those people who are surrounding me with compassion are doing the work of angels, and I bid them come, but Rachel will be comforted only when God wipes the tears from her eyes.[2]

What follows are psalms that are raw and wrenching as she fires words of anger, blame, and desolation at God, wrestling with her emotions and her faith, and holding on to God with sheer desperation.  Weems closes this introduction to her psalms of lament with this poem:

“Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.”  Someday.  Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls
of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.[3]

May we be those who weep with those who weep. 

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 63.
[2] Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), xv.
[3] Ibid., xvii.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Repent—The Beginning Is Near

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:1-3, 13-16

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (or is at hand).”  We usually think of the repentance message coming from John the Baptist, but that is, at its core, Jesus’ message too.  Turn around!  Go in the opposite direction!  Live in such a way that the Kingdom of God is revealed; live in such a way that makes the earth heaven instead of hell.  Matthew is writing to a Jewish Christian audience.  He combines many of Jesus’ teachings into one sermon and locates Jesus on a mountainside, to elevate Jesus’ teachings to equal the teachings of Moses.  Jesus begins his sermon:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible, translates the first Beatitude:

         You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

Peterson reads “poor in spirit” as being at the end of your rope.  At the end of all your ordinary resources, at the end of your strength or wisdom, when your options are all gone—then God has room to work in your life.  I think that’s true.  When we give up trying to play God in our lives, there is finally room for God to reorder or lives so that we really can be healthy. 
         I’m going to come back to that idea, but first I want to try to honor the original context in which Jesus delivered his sermon.  The first century in Palestine was a time of religious and political turmoil.  Poverty was a stark reality for the peasant class.  The temple was as deeply in Rome’s pocket as the political leaders.  Corruption was a fact of life and life was brutal.  In a context in which many claimed to be the messianic leader of a rebellion, Jesus’ sermon may have sounded more like the speeches at Occupy Wall Street, than spiritual platitudes we hear.  Jesus may have sounded more like the student leaders of the doomed rebellion at the heart of Les Miserable.  That’s how the words might have been heard and even shared.  But in the mouth of Jesus, the intent would have been to encourage those at the end of their rope to non-violent resistance, which Martin Luther King Jr. imitated in his call for the end of racial discrimination,    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  It is rare for the privileged to rise up on behalf of the poor.  Unjust systems (economic, educational, taxation, immigration) often obscure the vision of those of us who are born into privilege and we simply do not see it.  We really do respond to one of our neighbors who finds him- or herself at the end of their rope.  It’s just so much harder for us to see broken systems that shorten the rope of people we don’t know until they rise up and name the brokenness that may have even benefitted us.  Blessed are they for knowing that God’s Kingdom belongs to them too! 

         As with almost every one of Jesus’ teachings, there is a macro application and a micro application.  The micro application takes us into our spiritual centers.  We have a tendency to fill up our spiritual core with messages and beliefs that are not healthy.  It’s a lot like eating junk food that not only doesn’t satisfy, but damages our bodies over time.  We live with messages of inadequacy, of not being loved enough, not being understood, of not being enough, or we build ourselves up by putting others down with messages of superiority, being worth more, deserving more, and a need to acquire.  All of those messages appear as the illusions that they are when we get to the end of our rope.  When every artifice we’ve created stops working, we finally have room for God to reveal the treasure of our souls and fill us with light and life.  It is true that when I get move away from the center of the universe (I don’t know about you, but there are definitely times I am at the center of the universe), I see others as beloved and my compassion grows.  When my spirit loses the bling of its prosperity and I get off the treadmill, I know my dependence on the Source of my very being and I don’t have to work so hard to love and be loved.  Maybe there is some part of your life that needs to stand up and say, “The Kingdom of God belongs to me too!”  

         Only when we know that we are beloved, can we be the God flavor in this life.   You are salt, even those of you who are poor in spirit.  You are light, even those of you who are at the end of your rope.    You are God’s beloved, even when your resources are gone and you may not believe it.  The Kingdom of God belongs to you.  Claim it and don’t surrender to anything that is not God’s love.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Could We Be Wrong about Worship?

Psalm 15
Micah 6:1-8

I thought we’d talk about the Seahawks this morning. That’s what we’re all thinking about anyway, right? I’m not a sports fan, so I’m really in no position to say anything meaningful about how the game might turn out, and I certainly don’t understand very much about what’s happening on the field, but when your home team gets to the Super Bowl, everybody’s a fan. At least this year I know which team I want to win. But I’m not a real fan. I’m not a 12th man. Bless you if you are! I’m intrigued by the whole 12th man frenzy. Certainly it’s made our fans the loudest in the nation. This is what interests me: How is it that fans ascribe the work of the team, individual they have never met, as a personal victory or defeat? Why do we get so invested in someone else playing a game that we feel like we have won or lost with them? It’s the players and coaches on the field who win or lose, whose decisions and actions make a difference in the outcome of the game.

I wonder if sometimes we come to our faith and worship more as fans than as players. I think that’s what Micah’s getting at in his imagined court room drama. God calls the mountains to witness and judge his complaint. The people of Israel worship God, but they live as practical atheists—as if God does not exist. God says, “I rescued you from slavery in Egypt and now you have become as brutal as your Egyptian oppressors.”

The context is 8th century BCE Israel, in which the wealth was being redistributed from family farms to wealthy land owners who moved to urban centers. The money was moving out of the rural areas into cities and poverty was growing. Micah’s accusations:
The powerful “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away” (2:2)
They “tear the skin off my people” (3:2)
They send violence on the poor (3:5)
The political leaders take bribes, and the religious leaders sell out for money (3:11)

Micah envisions all the sacrifices that have been made on the altar and the rivers of oil that have been poured out as an offering in worship that idolizes God, but does not take God seriously. In Micah’s drama the people are surprised that they have been accused and ask, “How shall I come to worship? What pleases God if not sacrifices and rivers of oil?” And Micah delivers the word of the Lord:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
  and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

The most vulnerable person in the community, in fact the person you might see as your enemy, is also God’s beloved child—and your brother or sister in sharing a common humanity.

“God desires more than empty words. God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community, a loyal love that is commensurate with the kind of loyal love that God has shown toward Israel, and a careful walking in one’s ethical life.”[1] But as the members of the Bible study on Wednesday discussed, doing justice and loving mercy are not easy. Caring for the vulnerable in the community is more complex than we imagine. Systemic injustice is not readily corrected. Perhaps that’s why humility is so necessary in our work. We have to work at creating justice and acts of mercy together with a real sense of humility because none of us has all the answers. It’s often easier to see what doesn’t work than what does. Sometimes what works in one community or within one population, is a total disaster in another place and time.

My point is that it doesn’t work to worship God and assume that God will take care of all of our social ills. It’s like being a 12th man and partying in the parking lot, and cheering in the stands, and wearing our team’s logos, and even getting wet and cold as we cheer. The real work is going on down on the field where the game is being played, in the mud or the heat, in the blur of mixed signals and unexpected hits; where good calls don’t always play out the way they were intended; where gains may be small or even lost and the goal can seem elusive. Our worship is not about cheering for God or for Jesus; it’s about preparing to play the game. It’s more locker room than tailgate, more huddle than pep rally. We show up to learn the plays and practice our skills so that we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, knowing that the abundant life is a team effort.

Our songs, prayers, and gifts don’t please God unless they change us. We worship so that we will come to know God and to conform our lives to God’s very practical vision for the abundance of Creation. We come to understand our blessing so that we might bless others. We come to know that we are loved and treasured so that we can love and treasure others, even those we might think of as enemies. Our worship is an offering of ourselves to be transformed so that we might be effective and useful partners with God in the care of all Creation. We are called to be players and coaches and sports physicians, not spectators or even fanatical fans. We are not consumers or appreciators. Our worship should send us out on the field with a position to play and a goal in sight. We come before God ready to see who God is, to know who we are and how God loves us, and to learn how we are to live so that the world might be full of the abundance of God’s love.

Are you ready to play? Then let’s pray.

[1] Andrew Foster Connors, “Micah 6:1-8,” Feasting on the Word, year A, volume1, 292.