Sunday, 11 November 2018

"Got God?" (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 11, 2018, Proper 27)



“Do You Believe in God?”

Twenty-five years ago, almost to this day, the first “got Milk?” commercial hit the airwaves.[1]  I still remember it.  A historian sitting in his study begins to eat a peanut butter sandwich, when he gets a call from the local radio station with its $10,000 question: “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?”  The historian’s eyes open wide with delight.  He knows the answer is Aaron Burr.  So with a mouth full of peanut butter, he proudly responds: “Aan Buhh.”  “Excuse me?” comes the radio host’s reply.  The historian reaches for a milk carton, hoping to clear his throat.  But horror of horrors, the milk carton is empty.  “Aan Buhh, Aan Buhh,” the man cries hopelessly, as the radio host says, “I’m sorry, maybe next time.”  Then the scene fades to black, and the message “got Milk?” flashes across the screen.

As the “got Milk?” slogan gathered steam, a host of spinoff slogans appeared on t-shirts and bumper stickers.  One such spinoff has inspired what is likely the hokiest sermon title I will ever use, “Got God?” 

What fascinates me about the “got God?” slogan is the way we normally interpret it.  In most Christian circles, asking this question would be tantamount to asking the other person, “Do you believe in God?”  In other words, the implied correct answer to the question, is, “Yes, I’ve got God.  I believe in God.”

The Songs of Naomi and Ruth

Today’s scripture presents us with the conclusion to the story of Ruth.  Because we missed the opening to the story last week, here’s a brief recap to bring us up to speed.

Once upon a time, there was a famine in Bethlehem.  Lacking food, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons sought refuge in the land of Moab.  But tragedy struck again.  First Elimelech died.  Then Naomi’s two sons, who had since married Moabite women, died.  So Naomi was left alone in a strange land with no security outside her two daughters-in-law.  When Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Bethlehem, her hometown, she decided the best thing would be for her to leave her daughters-in-law and return home. 

Everything in the story turns on what happens next. You know how in a play the most defining moments are often expressed through music?  Well, in the Bible, it’s no different, except that poetry takes the place of music.  Poetry is the Bible’s way of telling us, “This is a really important moment in the story!”  In the story of Ruth, there are two expressions of poetry.  They both appear right after Naomi decides to leave her daughters-in-law and return home.

The first bit of poetry comes from Ruth’s lips.  As I’ve already suggested the analogy, let’s imagine for a moment that Ruth is a musical, and that the lines I am about to read are being sung with enthusiasm by the young Moabite woman Ruth.  Naomi has just decided to return home to Bethlehem, when suddenly the lights dim and the spotlight focuses on Ruth as she clings fiercely to Naomi, singing: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (1:16-17).  Strangely, there is no response from Naomi.  The scene simply fades to black.

The next scene opens with Naomi and Ruth trudging into the town of Bethlehem.  Several of the women there spot Naomi and begin whispering among themselves, “Is this Naomi?”  Again the lights dim and the spotlight settles on Naomi, and she begins to sing a mournful song: “Call me no longer Naomi [which means pleasant], call me Mara [which means bitter], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20-21).”

If I had to summarize the story of Ruth, I think I’d probably start with these two expressions of poetry.  They tell me what I need to know.  On the one hand, there’s Naomi. Naomi has no trouble talking about God.  Four times she says God’s name.  If they’d been printing the “got God?” slogan on t-shirts millenia ago, I don’t think Naomi would have had any trouble wearing one.  She’s got God.  She believes in God.  At one of the most defining moments in her life, she namechecks the divine multiple times.  (Incidentally, I might point out that Naomi’s belief does not inspire or encourage her.  In fact, her belief has made her very bitter.)

On the other hand, there’s Ruth, the foreign woman who presumably doesn’t know a thing about the God of Israel.  All she knows is that she and her mother-in-law have been dealt a tough hand, and they’re better off together than alone.  All she knows is that she’ll stay with her mother-in-law through thick and thin.

Where Is God?

As the story plays out in today’s scripture, Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi and ends up meeting Naomi’s distant relative, Boaz.  The two of them marry and have a child who will secure the land and lineage of Naomi’s deceased husband.  In other words, we are led to imagine that Naomi and Ruth, who had been dealt such a tough hand, live happily ever after. 

The most curious thing to me, however, is that the character of God does not once show up in the midst of the drama.[2]  When Naomi and Ruth are husbandless and without any guarantee of food or a home, God never appears on stage.

So where is God?

The only character who professes to have an answer to this question is Naomi, the character who’s “got God,” who is no stranger to God-talk.  According to her, God is the cause of the problem.  “The Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (1:21).

Ruth, on the other hand, hardly says a word about God.  She hasn’t “got God” in the confessional sense, in the sense of, “Yes, I believe in God; yes I know all the stories about God.”  And yet the story hints that she is the answer to this question: “Where is God?”  One of the key words in the book of Ruth is hesed, which means something like “steadfast love.”  Elsewhere in the Bible, hesed is a defining feature of God.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his hesed [steadfast love] endures forever,” we hear again and again in the Hebrew Bible.  In the book of Ruth, where do we see God’s hesed?  In Ruth herself, who commits to stay with her mother-in-law through thick and thin: “Where you go, I will go…” (1:16-17).

In other words, Ruth hasn’t “got God” in the confessional sense.  She hasn’t “got God” in the sense of, “Yes, I believe in God; I know all the stories about God.”  She’s got God in a deeper way.  She’s got God inside her.  She lives out the steadfast love of God.  Where is God in the story of Ruth?  In Ruth.  God’s steadfast love takes flesh in Ruth’s steadfast love.

How Ruth and Etty “Got God”

You may have noticed the quote at the top of today’s bulletin from Etty Hillesum.  “If God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God.”  Etty died in Auschwitz.  She wrote these words about a year before her death.  Lately I’ve been reading her journals, and I’m utterly fascinated with her.  Etty, you see, was not a particularly religious person.  She was not an observant practitioner of her tradition, Judaism.  But as the world around her got darker, she seemed to become brighter and brighter.  As hate gathered around her and grew in intensity, she became more and more convinced of God’s love.

Her experience reminds me of Ruth, because while people around Etty talked about God—about whether God would come and save them—Etty gave flesh to God.  Others “got God” in the traditional, religious sense of having grown up familiar with God’s name and the many stories about God and the many customs of how to approach God.  But like Ruth, Etty got God in a deeper way.  God dwelt within her.  “There are those,” she writes, “who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings.”  “There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God.”  For Etty, the question was not, “Where is God?” or “Will God help us?”  The question was, will we help God?  Will we give existence to God’s insistence?  “We must help You,” she writes, “and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”[3]

In the last remaining letter that she wrote, she remarks: “Opening the Bible at random, I find this: ‘The Lord is my tower.’”[4]  I can’t help but think that God would say the same thing about Etty and Ruth, that they were towers for God, beacons of God’s steadfast love, strongholds of healing in a hurting world.

“To Help God”

The good news of Etty and Ruth is also an invitation.  The good news is that we don’t need to get God, in the sense of getting everything right about God, in order to have God with us.  God is already among us, even in the most bitter of situations.  The invitation, then, is that we welcome God into our lives and allow God to become a part of our world through our expression.  The invitation is, as Etty rather provocatively puts it, “to help God.” 

For Ruth, that meant showing the empty and lifeless Naomi God’s steadfast love, which brought new life.  For Etty, it meant showing God’s attention and care to the hopeless prisoners around her.  What might it mean in my life, I wonder—or yours?

Prayer

Faithful God,
Whose faithfulness we know
In the flesh—
In Jesus and in the saints,
Who have given existence
To your insistent love:
Inspire us anew
To embody
Your redemption,
Through which all things are made new.
In Christ, whose body we share.  Amen.



[1] It aired in October, 1993.
[2] Only at the end, once Ruth and Boaz are already married, does God appear on stage, and then only to ensure that Ruth conceives (4:13).
[3] This and the previous citations are from Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings (ed. Annemarie S. Kidder; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 59.
[4] Etty Hillesum, 157.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Life through Loss (Job 42:1-6, 10-17)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 28, 2018, Proper 25)



Happily Ever After?

“And he lived happily ever after.”

For many readers, that sums up the folkloric ending to the tale of Job.  Job keeps faith in God.  God rewards Job.  Given by God twice as much as he had before, and another seven sons and three daughters to replace the seven sons and three daughters he had lost in a deadly windstorm, Job lives out the last of his days in the company of family and in the comfort of fortune.

Our story paints the last years of Job’s life in the broadest of strokes, drawing everything into one happy summary.  But is it really that easy for Job?  I notice that he never says anything in this folkloric finale.  I wonder what he’s thinking.  If he still remembers his first seven sons and three daughters.  I wonder what he’s feeling.  If he still hurts from his traumatic losses.

I think he does.  The last recorded words of Job in the story are these: “I had heard of you [God]…but now my eye sees you; therefore I reject myself and I repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6).  These are not the words of a man who happily forgets his loss and finds comfort in new family and new riches.  These are the words of a man who has caught a glimpse of God in the deepest tragedy of his life, and what he has seen has left him at a loss.

Transmitting Pain or Transforming It

If you’ll remember with me, earlier in the story Job had believed in a fair world.  He had believed in a moral version of Newton’s Third Law, where every deed had a proper consequence.  Good deeds brought rewards, and bad deeds brought punishment.  But when his life fell apart for no good reason, when he lost nearly everything he had despite having lived a good life, his eyes were opened.  When God finally responds to his cries and rhapsodizes about a creation that is beautiful and glorious, but also marked with chance and chaos, Job sees for the first time that the world is not fair.  Disease and disaster are not part of a moral equation.  They simply are what they are: senseless suffering.

So when Job says, “Now my eye sees you; therefore I reject myself,” what I think he’s really saying, is, “Now I see a creation without equations, without a natural moral balance; therefore I renounce my complaints, my bitterness.”  And when he continues on to say, “I repent in dust and ashes,” which is a common ancient image for mourning a person’s death, I think what he’s really saying is, “This new awareness is like dying.”  Accepting the reality of suffering is not easy.

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests that our common response to suffering is either to play the victim or to make new victims.  In other words, instead of transforming the pain we transmit it.  We preserve it in our own lives or we push it onto others.  In either us or others, it prevents the gift of new life.  But in Job, we see something different.  Accepting the reality of suffering, he lets go of his bitterness and cynicism and ultimately he receives new life. 

Traditionally folks have interpreted the new sons and daughters and riches that Job receives at the end of the story as God’s reward for his faith.  “Well done, Job.  Here you go.”  But that interpretation undermines everything that the story has been about.  Job’s story suggests a world without moral equations, a world that is not fair.  For God to recompense Job for his faith, would suggest that ultimately deeds do meet with their proper moral consequences.

What if, instead, Job’s new life at the end of the story results from his acceptance of suffering and his faith nonetheless in the gift of life?  Would Job have had ten more children if he had been living in bitterness?  Would he have received the sympathy and support and gifts of family and friends?  In our gospel scripture today, Jesus tells the blind man, “Your faith has made you well.”  Perhaps because Job neither denies his wounds nor projects his wounds onto others, but instead accepts them as his need for new life—perhaps because of his faith, he enters into new life.

“We’re All Hurting and We All Need Your Help”

A couple of Thursdays back, Lu and I joined Rhonda Sneed for one of her food-and-clothing runs among the homeless of our city.  We have several stories from that evening, but today I want to share one in particular.  One of the first men we met, Jerry, had recently suffered from the senseless violence of a gang of youth, who had smashed his head in with a bag of bricks.  I don’t believe that Jerry is under any illusion about the reality of suffering.  What touched me the deepest from our encounter was Jerry’s faith.  I don’t mean Jerry’s religious knowledge or identity, although he clearly hails from within the Christian community.  By faith, I mean a deep, visceral trust in the gift of life, that wherever he is and whatever the circumstance, God is giving him life. 

When we were leaving, Jerry asked if he could pray for us.  We gathered in a circle, holding hands, and Jerry cried out to God.  “We’re all the same, Lord, we are all hurting and we all need your help.  That’s the only way we can live.”

I don’t know what will happen to Jerry in the long run.  He recently had a meeting with Commonwealth Catholic Charities to determine his eligibility for housing in light of this recent attack and his newfound medical needs.  What I do know is that whatever happens, Jerry’s faith is keeping his hands open to the gift of new life.  Rather than transmit his pain, he is transforming it.  Rather than deny it or project it onto others, he accepts it as his need for help, his need for new life.  And he has faith that new life is a gift that God is giving.

A Way Through the Loss

As a book in the Bible, Job sticks out like a sore thumb.  It sticks out like a wound that is not pretty to look at.  Among biblical stories of promise and hope, Job tells the story of loss and senseless suffering.  We all live with wounds.  Or as Jerry put it, “We’re all hurting, and we all need [God’s] help.”

The question, then, is not whether we can avoid loss.  The question is how to live with loss.  For many chapters, Job’s friends tried to rationalize Job’s loss, the same way we sometimes address suffering today with platitudes; and in so doing they deepen the wound, antagonizing and alienating Job.  For many chapters, Job himself claims to be the victim of an unjust judgment; and in so doing he keeps the wound open, living in bitterness and cynicism.  Both are responses to loss that block new life.

But at the end of the book, we see a different way, a way through the loss. Job lets go of his bitterness and accepts the reality that the world is not fair—not so that he can throw his hands up and say, “What’s the point in even trying?” but so that instead of transmitting his pain in bitterness or resentment, he might transform his pain through faith.  What we see at the end of Job’s story is neither a man who holds onto his loss and never really lives again, nor a man who has forgets his loss and lives happily ever after.  What we see is a man who lives with his loss and finds a way through it, a man with a faith as deep as his scars, a man who trusts that new life is a gift that God is always giving.

It’s very similar, I would suggest, to what we see in Jerry and also in Jesus, who do not deny the loss of the world, but live deeply in its midst in the faith that new life is a gift that God is always giving—in the faith that through God’s love loss can be redeemed.

Prayer

Holy God,
Who meets us in our loss,
Who stays with us
When “happily ever after” shatters;
Inspire us with the faith of Job—
In which we see also the faith of Christ—
So that we might not
Transmit our pain in bitterness or denial
But transform it
In the faith
That your resurrection love
Is redeeming all things
With new life.  Amen.


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Accepting Suffering (Job 38:1-7, 34-41)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 21, 2018, Proper 24)



Two Great Teachers:
Love and Suffering

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr shares that according to the great spiritual and mystic traditions of our world, there are two great teachers in life: love and suffering.  Both love and suffering awaken us from our sleep.  Both love and suffering derail us from our routine.  Both love and suffering rip up our scripts and throw us unprepared into a new scene on the stage of life.

Perhaps you can see this in your own life.  Perhaps love for a partner or a good friend has taught you about the joy of giving or about how to listen.  Or maybe it’s taught you the simple fact that people are different and that’s not bad but can in fact be quite beautiful.  Perhaps love for a family member has taught you patience or forgiveness.  In its many lessons, love teaches us perhaps more than anything to be present, to be with.  That is, after all, how we know God’s love for us.  In Christ, God comes to be with us.

But what about this other teacher, suffering?  Just to be clear, I understand that some people believe suffering is intended or desired by God.  I don’t share that belief.  I share the biblical hope for a time when people live peacefully and abundantly together, when there is no longer hunger or need that deprives people of life, when there is no more pain.[1]  I don’t believe God intends suffering.  But I do believe suffering is a teacher, and that just like love it draws us nearer to the heart of God.  Here’s why.

Life Is Not Fair

Like many of his friends, Job believed in a fair world.  He believed in the moral equivalent of Newton’s Third Law: that every deed had an equal and opposite consequence.   In other words, he believed that good deeds had good consequences and bad deeds had bad consequences.  Not much had changed by the time of Jesus.  You may remember how folks asked Jesus whose sins had caused the fall of the tower in Siloam that killed 18 people, or how they asked if a blind man suffered because of his own sin or the sin of his parents.  They thought that bad things happened because of bad deeds.  Even today, we see pockets of this belief in our own thinking, where people sometimes justify their wealth by pointing to their hard work or explain poverty in terms of laziness.

Because of his belief in a fair world, Job cried out bitterly to God.  He had done everything right—the Bible says he was “blameless and upright” (1:1)—but he still suffered unimaginable losses, including the deaths of his seven sons and three daughters.  Job believed in a fair world, but he experienced the opposite.  Something was wrong with the universal scales of justice.

In today’s scripture, God finally responds to Job.  In traditional interpretation, God comes off as a bully full of bluster, boasting of his power and chastising Job for even asking questions: “How dare you challenge me!” God seems to say.  “Be quiet and learn your place.”

But when I hold my interpretive stethoscope to this text, I don’t hear the heart of God beating in the boasts and behavior of a divine bully.  Even if that’s how the original author of this text intended to depict God, I don’t accept it.  I don’t see anything that resembles Christ, who is the clearest picture of God that I have, in the depiction of a tough guy God who says, “Tough luck!”

But!  I still hear a divine heartbeat in this text.  I hear a gentle thump-thump in each image of creation, which comes one after another: the morning stars singing for joy, the water tumbling down from above, the hunt of the lions, the cry of the young ravens hungry for food.  God’s speech reads like the script to a National Geographic documentary, as elsewhere in the monologue God enthuses over ox and ostrich, deer and horse, hawk and eagle, describing tender births and violent deaths, repeatedly depicting these wild animals as laughing in the face of fear—and it all crescendos in the picture of the Leviathan, the great sea monster of ancient Israelite folklore, of whom God confesses: “Who can confront it and be safe?” (41:11).  In other words, in response to Job’s complaint that the world is not fair, God shares with him a panoramic view of life.  It is beautiful and it is wild, it is glorious and it is chaos, it is life and it is death—and there is not a hint of cosmic justice in it.  It’s almost as if God is saying, “You’re right, Job.  The world is not fair.  It’s not under your control.”  And maybe I’m not hearing God right, but as God describes the chance and the chaos that are naturally a part of this world and its life, it almost sounds like God is also saying, “And honestly, it’s not completely under my control either.”

Addressing Suffering with Love

Before you throw me out of church, let me explain.  Jesus himself said that the disasters and diseases of this world were not the natural, controlled result of sin.  In other words, they were senseless.  They simply were what they were.  Disasters and diseases.  Perhaps what is most telling is how Jesus responds to them: he accepts them.  The irony is, people who want to believe in a fair world often deny the suffering of disasters and diseases.  Desperately trying to account for these things, they explain them away as the natural results of a person’s behavior.  The suffering becomes part of a moral equation, a bit of math, rather than plain and miserable suffering.  Only when suffering is accepted can it be addressed.  And that’s what we see in Jesus.  He does not deny or rationalize the pain, as much of our world does.  He accepts it.  He is painfully aware of it and honest about it, to the point that he seeks it out in others and touches it tenderly, to the point that he himself bears it unto death. 

Now if the Christ who suffers and grieves over the suffering of others really is the image of God, as Paul says he is (Col 1:15), or God in the flesh, as John says he is (John 1:14), then what this tells me is that suffering is beyond God’s control.  What this tells me is that God suffers too.  Suffering is something that God bears with us, a part of life that God enters into and shares with us.

Suffering, if we acknowledge it honestly like Jesus, teaches us that we are not in control and that in fact control was never the point anyway.  Suffering teaches us to relinquish our illusions and to accept the world as it is, in all its beauty and heartache—not so that we can wash our hands and say, “It’s beyond me,” but so that we can look the pain of our world square in the eye and address it with love like Jesus did.  Only when we acknowledge the wounds of the world, can we reach out and touch them with love.  Only when we accept death, will we discover resurrection.  Perhaps this is why our scripture from Hebrews says that suffering makes Jesus complete (Heb 5:8-9), or why Paul says that Christ on the cross is what reconciles all the world (Col 1:20).  Only when the suffering of the world is truly embraced, as it was on the cross, can it be transformed into new life.

Prayer

God who bears
The pain of the world,
What is senseless,
What is sinful—
Help us to see Christ
Wherever there is suffering,
And beckon us
To bear with him
Your love and new life
In difficult places,
Where it is needed most.
In Christ, our wounded savior.  Amen.



[1] Cf. Isa 65:17-25; Rev 21:1-4.


Sunday, 14 October 2018

Not the Hero (Deut 10:17-19; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:1-2)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 14, 2018, Proper 23)



Where Am I in the Good News?

Four weeks ago, I observed that God’s good news in the Bible is primarily for the poor.  The first words of Jesus when he begins his ministry, according to Luke, are these: “[God] has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  And that itself is a line taken straight from the prophets, who commonly cried out on behalf of the needful and neglected in ancient Israel.  A quick glance through the Bible’s pages will confirm its “preference for the poor,” as our Catholic brothers and sisters have come to call it.  The people who wrote the Bible and the people for whom it was originally written, were the losers of history.  They were slaves in Egypt.  They were exiles in Babylon, dispossessed and displaced from their homeland.  They were disenfranchised Judeans trying to scrape out a living under the heel of the Roman empire.  The Bible as a historical document is an enduring witness to the fact that God’s good news is for the poor.  History is usually written by the winners, who write to glorify their accomplishments.  The Bible is written by losers, who write to insist on God’s love and care for them.

A modern day equivalent to the Bible might be an American history written by Native Americans or undocumented migrants or African slaves.  Because the Bible is history told by the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed.  It is a testimony to the good news that God is with them and loves them.

But this has left me with the question, “Where am I in the good news?”  In other words, God’s good news is for the poor, and I’m not (poor).  I’m nowhere near poor nor oppressed, with my college diploma and my bank account and my clean record with the law and my passport that will take me anywhere in the world.  How can I, who live on the top, read this story written primarily for people on the bottom?

What If the Story Is Not Always About Me?

Whenever I read a story, it is only natural for me to read myself as the hero.  When I read The Lord of the Rings, I identify with the hobbits.  When I watch Star Wars, I feel the drama according to the experience of Luke Skywalker and the rebels.  I am always the hero.  I wonder if this tendency to identify with the hero isn’t reinforced by living as a citizen of the world’s ruling nation.  Just as Rome presented itself as the savior of the world, so too our nation tells a similar story.  Think about how we present our history.  The first chapter is about how the shackles of injustice are thrown off and independence is achieved.  We are the heroes, the good guys.  The next chapter is about the frontier, or as it commonly is called, “how the west was won.”  Again, it is a tale of victory and we are the stars, riding off into the sunset.  Then the story becomes about how international villains are vanquished and freedom is fought for across the globe.  My friends and I grew up with GI Joe figures that only reinforced this story.

Whether I am reading a story, or telling my own story, I am the hero. 

But I’ve noticed something very peculiar about the stories that I’ve read since that Sunday four weeks ago.  It was perhaps most peculiar in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  If you’ll remember with me, that’s when Jesus ignores a Canaanite woman, then refuses her request for help, and then insults her, calling her a dog.  But she persists.  And her words touch the heart of Jesus and change him.   

How bizarre!  This is a story where the hero—because isn’t Jesus always the hero?—this is a story where the hero is not the hero.  I’m not sure I would have picked up on this, except the same thing happened last week, when Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan.  In that story too, the Israelite is not the noble hero.  The Samaritan is.[1]

These stories prompt me to ask, “What if I’m not always the hero?”  In other words, what if there are moments in my life when the hero is the person on the other side of me?  What if the story at that moment is not about me, but about them? 

From Philadelphia to Philoxenia

That, I believe, is the lesson that I am learning as I read the Bible from above, from a place of power and privilege.  The story is not always about me. 

I love how the Greek of our scripture in Hebrews puts it: “Let philadelphia continue.  And do not forget philoxenia” (13:2).  That first word, philadelphia, which means brotherly love, is not just a city in Pennsylvania.  It is the way of our world.  Philadelphia is the picture of our present national and political divide, where people self-segregate into clumps of folks who are like them.  Philadelphia is when you connect with someone who remembers watching the same TV shows as you.  Philadelphia is when you connect with someone who shares the same fears about the future.  Philadelphia is when you connect with someone who votes like you do.  Philadelphia is loving people who are already like us. Philadelphia is safe and secure.  Philadelphia is saying, “We’re on the same side.  We’re the good guys, the heroes.”

I think the real twist of the kingdom of God comes in the second Greek word, philoxenia.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’re probably familiar with the word xenia from a different word in English: xenophobia.  The fear of the stranger.  Xenophobia is often built into philadelphia.  We love people who are like us, but we stay away from people who are different. 

But philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia: philoxenia means the love of the stranger.  And it’s not a new concept in the Bible.  In fact, it appears that philoxenia has long been part of God’s plan for the redemption of our world.  Only once does the Hebrew Bible issue its well-known command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  But thirty-seven times it tells us to love the stranger.[2]  Our scripture today from Deuteronomy provides a reason: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

In other words, Deuteronomy begs us to identify with the experience of strangers.  Deuteronomy asks us, “Do you remember the most difficult and trying time of your life?  Do you remember when you had to rely on God?  Do you remember when only by faith in God you could make it through the day?  Well, that’s when you were truly the hero.  And that’s someone else now.  Now they’re the hero in the story.  Now God is on their side.  So welcome them.  Listen to their story.  Find out where God is today.”

Are We the Supporting Cast in the Kingdom?

For me, this sermon series began when I observed that God’s good news in the Bible is primarily for the poor and asked, “So where am I in the good news?”  Perhaps you wondered to yourself, as I confess I did: “Well isn’t the good news for everyone?  Isn’t it just as much for us on the top as for those below?”  Of course it is.  My suspicion, however, after reading these stories, is that the good news is even bigger than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine.  It’s not simply a personal salvation project, or heaven when we die.  It’s the kingdom of God on earth here and now, as it is already in heaven.  It’s beloved communion now with all the world.  It’s realizing that we’re not the heroes all the time, but in fact the supporting cast for others who are hanging by a thread of faith.  We are the supporting cast for the stranger: the dispossessed and displaced, the homeless and the refugee, those in memory care and those in intensive care.  They are the heroes.  God is with them.  And we can be too.

When we live by philoxenia, when others are the heroes and we are the supporting cast—well, that, I imagine, is just what the kingdom of God will look like.

Prayer

Big-hearted God,
Whose love encompasses
Not only our stories
But the stories of strangers—
How grateful we are
For your steadfast care
Which has sustained us
In difficult times.
Give us eyes to see
Your steadfast love
Sustaining others,
And hearts willing
To become your supporting cast.
In Christ, our help.  Amen.




[1] In the scripture we looked at three weeks ago, we saw Jesus tell the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  In that story as well, the hero was not the person with might and means but the homeless man Lazarus.
[2] Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 78.


Sunday, 7 October 2018

Whose Wound Is It Anyway? (Luke 10:25-37)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 7, 2018, Proper 22)



Our Shared Scatological Humanity

By now, you’ve heard me talk about my studies in Sheffield enough to know that I had a meaningful time there.  Not only academically, but also socially.  I traveled with fellow fans to Liverpool soccer games on several occasions.  I journeyed to Scotland, Slovakia, and Romania, where friends from Sheffield warmly welcomed me into their homes.  And a few of these friends have made it the other way across the Atlantic, so that I’ve had the opportunity to introduce them to all the wonders of American culture that they’ve seen in movies but never experienced themselves—like the Olive Garden and Waffle House and gas station beef jerky.

But looking back on my experience, I am surprised at the friendships that blossomed over the course of my graduate studies.  Because at first, I found the graduate academic atmosphere rather stifling.  The world of academia—like any field of work, I imagine—is competitive.  The conferences and colloquia and lecture halls that I attended were filled with posturing, pretension, and the putting on of appearances (which is to say, tweed jackets).  If you wanted to make it in your field, you had to prove that you had something groundbreaking to contribute.  You had to prove that you belonged.  You had to sell yourself.  Even in the bathrooms of the university—the one place maybe I expected for these social standards to slip—even there, I found the walls plastered with stickers and posters about poetry journals and reading groups and requests for human test subjects in edgy new experiments.

How in the world did I make genuine friendships in such an ambitious and at times artificial environment?  Well, I have a theory.  I can trace nearly every sincere Sheffield friendship back to a potty joke.  Nothing off-color, of course.  By potty joke, I just mean a story or an observation similar to the one made in that coffee table bestseller (which you probably don’t have on your coffee table, and I don’t blame you)—Everyone Poops.  Potty humor broke through the pretense of it all.  Laughing about the common experience that we all try to hide, about our shared scatological humanity, somehow loosened us from our academic posturing and drew us closer together.

Now I know that potty humor doesn’t translate to everyone.  But I wonder if perhaps you can observe something comparable in your own experience.  Have you ever noticed how the sharing of embarrassing or blushable moments, instead of separating us and sinking us in shame, can summon us closer together?

One Wounded Man Helping Another Wounded Man

These last few weeks, I’ve been wrestling with a basic question.  As I observed first four weeks ago, God’s good news in the Bible is predominantly for the poor—and I’m not (poor).  So I asked, “Where am I in the good news?”  The next week, I found myself identifying strongly with the rich man in Jesus’ story about poor man Lazarus.  I found myself with the rich man in front of a chasm.  A chasm of security and strength and self-sufficiency—and great loneliness.  Last week, however, I gleaned a piece of good news from the experience of Jesus, who himself faced a similar chasm.  For Matthew tells us that he rejected and even insulted a Canaanite woman because of her ethnicity…and yet he also listened to her cry and changed his mind.  In other words, Jesus changed, and so can I.  I too can come to see the poor, the homeless, the regularly drunk and hopeless, as my brother, as my sister.

But how does that change happen?  What does it look like in living color?

In today’s scripture, a very respectable religious man asks Jesus how he can inherit the life of the age to come, the life of the kingdom, the life that is abundant and worth living.  Jesus answers with a story.  A story that invites change.

A man is beaten, robbed, and left half-dead by the roadside.  Later two very respectable religious men walk by the injured man.  They see him and they keep walking.  Jesus doesn’t explain why, but we can take a good guess.  These two respectable religious men, both active servants in the temple, had not achieved their station in life by accident.  They would have both been focused on their accomplishments, on maintaining their ideals of purity, on preserving their pious appearance.  To help this injured man would threaten their place in life.  It would render them unclean and they would be unable to serve in the temple for a period of time.  It would certainly make other demands on their time, too.  Instead of teaching and leading others, elevating their image in the public eye, they would be thanklessly serving the needs of a stranger.  (And this, of course, was before the time when pictures could be taken and posted to Facebook to celebrate their own virtue.  There would be little reward in this.)

Next a Samaritan walks by.  He sees the man, and his reaction is the opposite.  He is moved to compassion.  Literally, his insides—his guts, his stomach—are disturbed.  Again, Jesus doesn’t explain why.  But I think we can take a good guess.  This is a Samaritan in enemy territory.  Samaritans don’t worship in Jerusalem.  They worship on another mountain.  So I think this Samaritan in enemy territory is intimately familiar with the experience of being beaten and bruised, if not physically, then at the very least verbally and emotionally.  When he sees this man, whose body has been wrecked, his own body churns within him.  He identifies with the wound of this man.  It matters not that the injured man is a Judean, an enemy of Samaritans.  That is the label of culture.  And the body knows something much deeper than that. 

This is one wounded man helping another wounded man.

And that, Jesus suggests, is what it looks like to inherit the life of the age to come, the life of the kingdom, the life that is abundant and worth living.

Of Maga Hats and Muslim Hijabs

The Bible doesn’t tell us how the respectable religious man responded to Jesus.  Perhaps he was speechless.  Perhaps he was pondering whether he could change his life and live this way.  Whether he could drop the pretense of his personal aims and his professional ambition, so that he might share the brokenness of strangers, even enemies.  So that he might identify with their wounds. 

I read recently a story about an anti-Trump rally in Austin, Texas.[1]  Amina Amdeen, a Muslim student at the University of Texas who was attending the rally, recalls a moment when she saw a Trump supporter wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.  “I noticed [him], with the hat,” she said, “and I noticed that [he was] surrounded by some people, and I noticed that they were kind of threatening.” 

The Trump supporter, Joseph Weidknecht, recalls the moment from his own memory: “I heard a click of a lighter right behind my ear, and there were about three people trying to light my shirt on fire with lighters.” 

Amina describes what happened next: “[T]hen somebody snatched [his] hat off [his] head….  And that’s the point where…something kind of snapped inside me because I wear a Muslim hijab, and I’ve been in situations where people have tried to snatch it off my head.  And I rushed towards [him] and I just started screaming, ‘Leave him alone!  Give me that back!’”

After the incident, Amina and Joseph got to talking.  Swapping stories, they discovered a shared brokenness.  Joseph had grown up home-schooled and recalls not having many friends.  Amina had grown up with a hijab in Texas, where she stuck out like a sore thumb in middle school, the worst time to stick out like that.

In that moment at the protest, Amina was moved to help Joseph.  When she saw his dignity snatched off his head, she felt the pain in her own body and she rushed to his side.

She was one wounded person helping another wounded person. 

Not by Our Achievements but by Our Brokenness

When I discovered in my PhD that potty humor could cut through the pretension and ambition of academia and bring people closer together, I think I was learning the good news that Jesus proclaims in today’s scripture—albeit in a rather scatological tenor.  What we all share—friend, stranger, and enemy alike—is our brokenness.  No matter our ideals, no matter the self that we tirelessly work to construct, no matter our ambition, we are all at the end of the day the same: frail, fragile, fractured humans.  That is what we share.

“How do I inherit the life of the age to come, the life of the kingdom, the life that is abundant and worth living?” the respectable religious man asked.  The answer Jesus gives is not to achieve your goals, or to reach new heights, or to become your better self now.  The answer Jesus gives, is to identify with the wounds of others.  To share your brokenness together.  Friends, strangers, enemies alike.  This is what Jesus himself does.  As the Bible puts it, we are healed “by his wounds.”[2]  It is not our achievements but our brokenness that will bring us close together.  It is not our accomplishments but our wounds that will gather us into the communion of Christ and the kingdom of God. 

Prayer

Wounded Christ,
Who crosses over
To be with us—
Help us to shed
The ambition, achievement, and ideals
That covers our own wounds
And keeps us from communion,
So that we might draw near
To the wounds of others
And in our shared brokenness
Gather together at your banquet table.
Amen.



[1] “An Unlikely Pair Share a Moment That Goes Beyond Politics,” https://www.npr.org/2018/09/28/652195464/an-unlikely-pair-share-a-moment-that-goes-beyond-politics, accessed on October 2, 2018.
[2] Cf. 1 Pet 2:24; Isa 53:5.