Sunday, August 26, 2007

Loving Them Whole

A reflection on Luke 13:10-17

One of my greatest fears is that I will become a hunched over old woman. We see them all around us, a few people whose spines have degenerated and they can no longer walk up right. Men and women both suffer from this ailment. It looks terribly uncomfortable to walk, and painful to live with.

Whenever I see someone hunched over from spinal disease, I avert my eyes, I don’t want to stare. And as uncomfortable as this makes me today it was even worse for people in Jesus day.

A person with any ailment or disease was considered impure, unclean, and forbidden to be touched. These people were often banned to the outskirts of town, rejected by the community, viewed with disdain. Soon the person would become invisible. Certainly if one lived with the ailment for 18 years there would come a point when no one noticed the person any longer.

Think about it. How long does it take us to stop seeing things around us? How quickly does the extraordinary become ordinary and then blend into the landscape? War, violence, rain, destruction, even these we can become accustomed to. It’s not so unusual to reach a point where we fail to see people. It may be even easier to do this if we are taught that it’s the right thing to do.

Walter Wink, in “Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament,” suggests that the bible reality has an inner aspect and an outer aspect. The outer aspect is its material shape and organizational structure. So, the temple has the building and the rooms, the priests, the hierarchy of authority, and the people. The inner aspect is its spirit that determines the purpose, direction, and meaning of the outer aspect. This aspect is how people worship God, nurture their faith, and live their lives.

The same would be true for us today. We have the outer aspect of church, either this particular church or the National church, or Christianity broadly speaking. Each has its structure of leadership. For us this means Bishop, priest, deacon, people, rules – which we call canon law, and norms, that which is the normal way of governing ourselves and being community. And we have an inner structure which is the way we understand ourselves as a people of faith and what we do day in and day out to nurture and practice that faith.

These realities can be inherently good or evil depending on what’s inside, what the intention is. So from Wink’s perspective governments, institutions, and cultures that oppress people have an inner evil spirit. Evil, Satan, is not some disembodied thing floating around in the world. Nor is it a specific being. Rather evil, or another way of stating it, sin, lives in the individuals and social realities that embody acts of oppression. Sin manifests in brokenness of relationships, whether it is in our families or on a larger scale the marginalization individuals and groups. The Holocaust is the modern world’s most potent example of this – but that kind of genocide happens every day around the world: in Darfur, in Iran, Iraq, and countries in Africa, Central and South America. A more subtle form happens in this country with racial and ethnic, social, economic, and cultural, divisions.

In order to get at what’s going on in this Gospel reading this morning we need to remember that he stories in our gospels always point us to multiple layers of truth. Taken at one level this is a story about a hunched over woman. She exemplifies for me one of the things I worry about while growing older. But we know that the stories are not always about specific individual people. Rather the stories are intended to use ordinary examples of life to point us to something deeper. In this case the woman’s bent-over posture symbolizes that she is oppressed by her society – think of it this way - she is not eye level with others, nor they with her. In our society we honor someone by looking them in the eye and speaking to them. Not seeing someone allows us make them, or keep them, nameless and faceless. And if we don’t see them then they really don’t exist and the problem they bring is not ours to deal with.

We have all kinds of nameless, faceless people in our midst. We can easily pretend that domestic violence is not the biggest problem the encountered by the police in this suburb of big city by the lake. We can deny addiction and mental illness and ignore the homeless, hungry of this country. It’s even easier to ignore those made homeless and hungry by violence in another part of the world. We can pretend that the 8 million refugees are not our problem because we don’t see them.

When Jesus talks to this woman he breaks the custom of his society’s oppression. Traditionally women were not spoken to in public, in fact they were invisible. This tradition still exists in many parts of our world today.

So when Jesus addresses her as “woman” he moves her from being invisible to being visible – he sees her and names her; she is a real person. This is the essence of Jesus’ ministry – the invisible become visible. Then when Jesus touches her, according to the synagogue reality, he is again breaking with tradition – touching the sick means touching something impure, and that is a sin.

The real conflict here is between how the temple leaders understand God’s intent and how Jesus understands it. At this point in time the temple leaders have no problem with the fact that Jesus touched and healed this woman; for whatever reason touching and healing is not the issue. Now, notice that the leaders do not address Jesus directly, they speak to the crowd. They point out that he could have healed her on any one of the other six days of the week. So, the issue they are arguing is that he healed her on the Sabbath and one was not to work on the Sabbath. The 8th Commandments says: “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” The question from our readings today is, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? Healing, they argue is a form of working. And apparently working is not holy.

In our modern world we don’t spend much time debating the Ten Commandments, per se. Oh sure there was the issue of the judge who wanted them posted in the Court house, but other than that they really don’t come up much. I bet most people don’t even know more than one or two of them. Don’t ask me, I can’t recite them either…But most of us do spend time debating theology – how we know God in the world. Some of us are holding firm the Letter of the Law through the particular lens of theology through which we understand God. The thing is, there are lots of different theologies out there: Moral, Process, ethical, liberation, feminist, contemporary, atonement, systematic – just to name a few. And each offers us a method, a way to get a handle on the mystery that is God. Most of us know and live by several theologies that have been woven together by what ever spiritual leaders have been our teachers over the years. And, as I’ve said many times in the past, it helps to remember that we all have a lens, a bias, through which we understand life. All theology is a human construct designed to help us understand the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation, especially to humanity. Because it is created by humans no single theology is complete in and of itself. All theology has limits. When we bind ourselves to one or two particular theologies we limit how we see God and understand God’s action in the world. Even as we embrace a certain theology to ground us and give us a foundation to live and work we need to maintain a degree of suspicion of that theology in order for us to be open to what God is really doing in the world around us.

The problem our Gospel presents us with today deals with how the outer reality of our world, the way we construct our society, church, and individual lives expresses itself in how we actually live and care for others in this world. All of our theology needs to be understood through the teaching of Jesus that he uses to summarize the Ten Commandments, in fact he says this to summarize all 613 commandments found in the Bible: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the very prayer we pray ever Sunday in Lent to remind ourselves what we are about. To help us remember how we are called to balance the inner and the outer aspects of our lives.

The temple leaders have lost sight of this. They are focusing on only one aspect, how to keep the Sabbath holy. Jesus argues back that he is in fact keeping the Sabbath holy because he is doing what God intends. From the beginning of our tradition God has been about freeing God’s people from oppression. God frees Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, and now, in this Gospel reading, God is freeing people from the limitations of society and cultural prejudice. This gospel story is a good one for us to remember as we ponder what is going on in our world and our church today. Jesus is living the Spirit of the Law by seeing people for who they are. Jesus models for us how to love people just as they are, in all their brokenness. In the process Jesus is loving them whole again.

It seems to me that we are called to do likewise.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Passion Like Tongues of Fire

A reflection on Proper 15C Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Luke 12:49-56

Erin Gruwell was a high school English teacher for 9th and 10th grade students. She taught at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, in the 1990’s following the worst outbreak of interracial gang fighting in that area.

A few days into the school year Gruwell and her students got into a discussion about racism, spurred on by a caricature of a black student with big lips, drawn by one of the kids in class. Gruwell compares this caricature with what the Nazi’s did to Jews, a degradation which led to the Holocaust.

Eventually this kind of discussion in her class helps Gruwell understand how these kids feel abandoned by adults and society, and how deeply fearful they are of one another, blacks of Hispanics, Hispanics of whites, and so on. The efforts to manage desegregation, balance school enrollment, and expand education opportunities have led to only deeper rivalry and anger. In large part this is because the school administrators are angry that they have lost their status as a school of overachievers. By taking in these underachieving kids the school is more diverse, and theoretically the underprivileged kids will have a better shot for a good future. But none of the teachers or administrators really understands these kids, nor knows how to work with them where they are in their lives.

It reminded me of church summer camp. This diocese is pretty diverse socially, politically, economically, and ethnically. So, church camp gets suburban kids, rich kids, inner city, poor kids, kids of all sizes and colors. One year when the Bishop was at camp he was startled to witness some kids punching each other. Startled because this is not how we work out conflict. But for these kids it was. The ones involved were inner city poor kids and the way they knew to work out conflict was to punch each other. Eventually one of them would win. Conflict over. It became the task of the counselors to help all the kids get along, and to teach these kids to find ways to manage and work through conflict with out hitting. It was an eye opening experience for everyone and took a lot of diligence and creativity.

The administrators at Gruwell’s High School aren’t interested in creative responses. They have decided to just warehouse these kids until they graduate. And the kids are just trying to live long enough to turn 18, no other goal in mind.

But Gruwell won’t settle for that. She takes on two part jobs in order to buy the kids what they need to learn the way she wants to teach. She helps them understand what each of them has in common, and how they are a part of the brokenness of the world. She connects them to the Holocaust to help them learn the depth of ethnic and racial violence in a global context. They go to the Holocaust Museum. They meet with Holocaust survivors. They read, “The Diary of Anne Frank”. They raise the money to bring to their school the woman who tried to save Anne Frank and her family. They become a class united by what they have in common.

Gruwell approaches her teaching with a deep passion. She is determined to change the lives of these kids. She is determined to not write them off, as the school has done, but to reach them where they are in their lives. And she succeeds at this. You can read about her work in the book, “The Freedom Writers Diary”, or see the movie, called, Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank. From this experience Gruwell, and this class of students, have created an approach to teaching racially diverse classrooms with the intent of bringing about unity not division, hope not despair, success not failure.

There’s a scene in the movie where Gruwell realizes that, because of her dedication to these kids, her marriage has fallen apart. She comes home from work one day to find her husband at the table, his bags packed. He was her biggest supporter at the beginning of the movie, but at this point, about 2/3 of the way into it, he has decided to leave her. It’s not the life he wants. He can’t support her passion and her dream. It’s ok that she has it, but he wants a different life.

That scene, I think, helps us see what Jesus is saying in our Gospel reading this morning: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two, two against three; they will be divided…”

Because passion is like that. When we are filled with a driving passion to make a difference in the world around us some will get it but others will not.

Jeremiah the prophet is filled with the passion of God. But he does not want to be a prophet. Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet right from the beginning of the book. The opening verse, often used in ordination services, has Jeremiah saying “no God you can’t choose me, I am only a child.” In the 20th chapter he says, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot!” (Jer 20:9). Called by God to warn the people that their behavior was leading them down false paths Jeremiah was beaten and rejected by the people. Yet, inside of Jeremiah a fire burned, God’s words resonated in him, and had to be spoken. Jeremiah did his best to push God’s words away, to tuck them deep inside, to refuse to say them. Who wouldn’t feel this way, if being God’s prophet meant beatings, abuse and rejection. The pull of God working inside Jeremiah was so powerful he could not contain it, though he tried.

Many people, when they experience God’s call resonating in them, find comfort and reassurance in the words of Jeremiah especially his desire to stifle the call. Recognizing that God is calling us to a certain kind of life, a ministry, a work, whether it is a lay ministry or an ordained ministry, a call to social justice or proclaiming a spiritual truth; the call from God nudges and nags and will not be ignored. Its passion builds and eventually it must be expressed. It is not always easy to live into what God calls of us. Which is obviously why people fight against it.

Jesus has a similar sense of burning and pulling in him. God resonates powerfully in Jesus. But unlike Jeremiah Jesus does not try to contain God. Jesus is filled with a passion, a fire, and it must be expressed. He uses the words, “casting fire on the earth,” to express this. To our modern ears, with the influence of 21st century apocalyptic literalism, we think that this means destruction and death. But for Jesus it may also mean that the Holy Spirit is pouring out from him.

First, in the Incarnation, born into this life as a human, Jesus brings the Holy Spirit to earth through his ministry of healing and reconciliation. Even John the Baptist proclaims that the one who is to come after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire – passion. Fire – a flame that burns inside.

Then, following Jesus’ death and resurrection he releases that same Holy Spirit as a gift given to us in baptism. Why? The answer lies in God’s actions. The greatest sin of humanity is to reject the love of God given to us in life. For Christians this means, in particular, the life of Jesus. Jesus bears within his life the fullness of God’s love. But humanity rejected that love; crucified and killed it. Sadly, humanity continues to do this, over and over…

In an unbelievable act of mercy and love and forgiveness, God brings that love back to life in the resurrection. God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace, cannot be killed by any act of humanity. It lives on in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The passion, God’s passion, which gives life to the Holy Spirit, is experienced by us as fire.

Later in the Acts of the Apostles we hear that the disciples have been filled with the Holy Spirit through tongues of fire. Our scripture points us to see that the casting of fire is the Holy Spirit being released into the world, filling all creation with God’s passion, empowering people to do God’s work.

The passion of God, the flames of the Holy Spirit bring action: people are stirred into action to do God’s work. And that work is all about bringing forth justice, healing, mercy, and forgiveness.

The problem with passion, as it lives in human beings, is an inability to sustain it. Eventually passion fades, our energy wanes. Perhaps we think this means its time to give up, move on. And sometimes that’s correct. Everything has a life span. Things do die: ministries, people, institutions, even countries can die. But the end of passion is not necessarily the end of life. Often an ember remains softly glowing. This ember, any fire fighter will tell you, can re-ignite and the flame can start all over. The really critical time in life is how we mange to sustain the ember days, the days when the flame is just a glow. Do we rally forth and do something? Blow on the ember? Fan it with our lives, our hopes, our dreams?

The question for us as Christian communities today: are we going to live as a house divided, our passion waned or split? Or will we live as a house united, passionate about the work God has called us to do – Loving God, loving self, and loving our neighbor? Will we claim the passion given to us in baptism and work to make a difference in the world?

Portions of this sermon were inspired by John Shea's reflections for Proper 15 in "The Relentless Widow: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Luke Year C"