Thursday, October 6, 2016

Redemptive suffering in Jerusalem and our lives . . .

     I suppose I knew I would be preaching on Lamentations a couple months ago.  I was approached by a couple parishioners who wanted to explain to me that Lamentations was not appropriate in certain congregation settings.  Without going into too much detail, I think the underlying issue was whether it is appropriate for church to be a place where we mourn, where we acknowledge suffering, where we rage against injustice, and where we weep.  Most of us are used to messages about toughing it out, about having hope, about redemption.  Heck, we want to focus on answered Hail Mary’s in Athens rather than children casualties in Aleppo.  When we focus on the evil in our lives and mourn, though, such thoughts seem to run counter not just to popular culture, but to popular church culture as well.
     Then, during the course of the week, I met a new Adventer.  Betty joins us from Florida.  Her rector in Florida reached out to us to see if we could take her Communion.  She had recently moved here, was shut in, and still wanted Communion.  Such requests, as you all know, are no brainers.  Holly had bailed me out the week before while I was working around funeral rubrics, so this was my first opportunity to meet Betty.  Betty was very mournful.  Her husband of 70 years had died in the last month.  She had been hospitalized between the time he died and the day of his funeral, so she was unable to attend his funeral.  Upon her release from the hospital, she had interred his ashes.  Then, she had moved here to be with family.  On top of that, she had lost a son less than a year earlier.  And she felt like she needed to apologize for the tears.  Can you imagine?  I am certain many of us can.  Active mourning makes us uncomfortable.  Active mourning somehow makes us think we are not who we are called to be, and nothing could be further from the truth!   Remember, God caused Lamentations and the lament psalms to be written for us.  Better still, when He came down from heaven and walked the earth, He gnashed His teeth at the suffering He saw.  He railed against the perpetrations of evil that He witnessed like a horse chaffing at its bridle.  He even cried at the death of a loved one.  And we feel the need to apologize for powerful, mournful emotions when faced with hurt, loss, pain, or suffering?  As Percy Ballard reminded us a couple months ago, mourning is necessary for us, both for our physical and mental health.  Maybe, just maybe the Lord who created us understood that about us when He caused the laments to be written, collected, and preserved!
     Our reading from Lamentations begins with an acrostic poem.  Each letter of the stanza begins with the next letter of the alphabet.  We might say that the opening poem is the A-Z of suffering in Lamentations.  It makes sense.  We know the circumstances of its composition.  It was written somewhere around 567 BC.  Judah has been destroyed.  Its people have been carried off to different parts of the ANE.  The leaders have been killed or taken to the capital city as prisoners.  Many men have been killed in the battle and following bloodlust.  Women have been raped.  The economy has collapsed.  The Temple has been torn down.  Children have witnessed these atrocities.  And this has not happened in nameless cities like Aleppo, but in the city of God, Jerusalem!  Many in Israel believed that God would always protect Jerusalem.  Some believed He HAD to protect Jerusalem.  That was His holy seat.  What would happen were somebody to conquering it?  It would be a testimony that the foreign gods had conquered Yahweh in the heavens.  And, let’s face it, recent history seemed to have given that perspective confidence.  For some strange reason, Israel had already been defeated and carried off by the Assyrians.  Due to internal squabbling, Judah was left alone.
     Now, however, Jerusalem has faced the terror of God’s judgment.  God warned them through the prophet Jeremiah that this day was coming.  In fact, God promised them way back during the Exodus that He would punish them if they did not keep His instruction.  The Land that they so desired would disgorge them if they prostituted themselves and followed other gods.  God is nothing if not faithful!
     For generations Judah had ignored the warning of the prophets.  For generations, Judah had rejected the teaching of the torah.  For generations, Judah had proclaimed one message with their mouth and another with their actions and attitudes.  God’s patience had run out.  And this utter destruction, this terror, is the result.
     Our poem begins with the word How.  It is a fitting beginning.  How can this have happened to God’s people?  How can this have happened to God’s city?  How can this have happened to His home, the Temple?  How can the people of Judah and Israel still believe that God is good, that God loves them, that He still will keep His covenant with them?  How?
     We face the same questions both in our own minds and in the voices of those who know us.  For as much as we like to pretend we are so much more advanced that our ancient spiritual ancestors, we are far too alike.  We claim a God who loves children and instructs us to let them come to Him.  How can we claim He is who He says He is when see tragedies like Aleppo unfolding before us or we reduce our children to “not seen and not heard” status within our churches?  How can we say He wants nothing but good for us, when we have experienced similar economic meltdowns, when some of us must work two or three jobs to pay the bills, live in fear of hospitalizations and the out of control medical bills, or think the American Dream has simply faded?  If God is real and good and wants all humanity to come to Him, how do we explain current societal trends?  We, the Church, are losing members consistently.  Heck, it was just reported in Detroit last week at the House of Bishops’ meeting that our denomination’s losses in 2015 exceeded its baseline loss trend in a year where we were not fighting.  No parishes or dioceses left in 2015, and still our losses were higher than our baseline.  How do we reconcile that reality with what we think we know about God?  If we believe in the saving work of Christ, why is it more people are leaving our story than entering it?
     Personally, we all have issues which make us wonder about God’s omnipotence or omniscience.  Some might just lament our current political situation.  Others are struggling with far more oppressive realities.  Cancer.  Death.  Privation.  Loneliness.  Depression.  Other forms of mental illness which make us question whether we are truly loved by God, whether we are, in fact, loveable.  Some of us may be fighting with parents, with children, or with grand children.  Heck, this afternoon I will be leading a service at a wonderful assisted living facility.  Truthfully, it is in the top ten of such locations I have seen as a priest.  I would bet you big money, though, that none of the residents pictured such an existence in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s.  I am certain many would tell us that Norman Rockwell never painted such a scene as idyllic.  Maybe they envisioned family around them.  Maybe they envisioned a lost spouse with them.  Maybe they envisioned traveling the world as they got older, saving their money for such wonders, only to find their bodies have betrayed them and require more help than they ever thought possible.  I know many feel cut off from their communities of faith.  They have shared.
     Later this evening, the youth and I will head over to Murfreesboro for the Compassion Experience.  I have never done it before, but I can well imagine what we will see and hear.  We will hear tales of how Compassion has helped to begin to break the cycles of poverty and dejection in some of the poorest societies in the world through education, food, and letter writing.  We may meet children or adults who were rescued from slums the like of which we cannot imagine in the States.  We may meet youth or young adults who are disfigured or injured from their work in their childhood.  That’s right.  While we are going to elementary school and griping about it, some children are working dangerous jobs, poisonous jobs, to support their families.  Six, seven, eight year old kids supporting their families because the poverty is crushing.
     How?  In just three or four minutes of highlighting, I have described world that is . . . wrong.  I have described lives that are . . . horrible.  I have described systems that crush rather than help, grind down rather than support.  Imagine what picture I could paint in your minds if I took more time.  Imagine how others, who have no idea of a loving Father in heaven, must see the world.
     I have shared several times over the twenty months or so that I have been here that we gather as God’s people for several purposes.  Chiefly, we gather to celebrate what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, of how we are all sojourners bound for a better home.  But I have also reminded us that we gather to celebrate life’s joys with one another and that we gather to mourn with each other.  We, more than anyone in the world, are called to realize that this, whatever the this is for each of us, is not all that there is.  For those of us who have money and health and beauty and all the advantages of this world, even those pale when compared to what our Lord has planned for us.  But those of us who suffer, those of us who battle disease, privation, loneliness, depression, or the effects of death on our life are reminded that this is not all that there is. 
     In fact, we gather to remind ourselves that our Lord understands precisely what we are experiencing.  When He walked the earth, He had the same emotions, the same responses, and even the same hurts.  Jesus’ life on earth was every bit as challenging as our own.  His apostles made fun of His hometown.  One of His closest friends betrayed Him.  Those who should have recognized Him, the priests and scribes and king, worked to have Him killed.  The soldiers mocked and spit upon Him, pulled His beard, punched Him and challenged Him to prophesy who did these things to Him.  Eventually, He was hung to die between two thieves, even though the judge, Pilate, recognized He had done nothing wrong.
     Yes, our Lord understands our hurts and our fears, but even more.  Remember, He was the Messiah, God’s anointed, who was entering the world to save us.  And how did we respond?  By falling on our knees?  By raising our hands in thanksgiving to God?  No, by challenging Him and His claim.  You saved others, save Yourself.  If You are the Son of Man, come down.  Unlike you and me, who must continue to bear suffering and pain even when we want it to stop, Jesus had the power to end it by force of will.  He could have lightning bolted those mocking soldiers.  He could have called angles to defend Him against the militia that arrested Him.  He could have shouted “never mind!” instead of “It is finished,” and who among us would not understand?  Yet He stayed.  By force of will He bore the hurt, the pain, and the suffering.  He stayed on that Cross because He loved us, because He knew how important it was and taught us that He could redeem all of that.  Every bit.
     Brothers and sisters, I know the church culture likes to claim that everything is hunky dory, that’s a theological term, once we have accepted Christ as Lord.  Church culture likes to promote the idea that “real Christians” cannot be sad, cannot be despondent in the face of overwhelming loss or evil, cannot have any doubts.  If you accept Jesus as Lord He takes away all your problems.  We tacitly accept the idea that our condition reflects the concern our Creator has for us.  If we are suffering, He is distant or I am displeasing to Him.  If things are going well, then He must love me.  Most of us figure out a few minutes or hour after our baptisms that bad things still happen.  We may no longer be of this world, but we sure as heck live in this world as we pass through.  Sometimes I wonder whether the church world does a better job of afflicting His people than the powers and principalities of the world around us.  The teaching of Lamentations and of all the lament psalms is that wonderful reminder that God uses suffering for His purposes and redeems it.  At times, He does let us bear the consequences of our sins.  In fact, much of Lamentations is a reflection upon the failure of God’s people to honor Him as they promised.  Put differently, if we stick our fingers in the socket, He sometimes lets us feel the sting.  But those punishments are never mean.  He chastens those whom He loves.  And for those who call upon Him, there is promise and hope even in the face of death.
     Other sufferings, however, are not of our doing.  Other sufferings arise because of the sins of others or because sin is in the world around us.  Sometimes, He allows us a share in the ministry of the Son.  Lamentations speaks to the fact that those who were faithful, who tried to keep the torah, suffered along with those who were hypocrites or evil.  Sometimes, He allows us to be the redemptive sufferer in the lives of others.  How we face cancers, how we face privation, how we face broken relationships become shadowy incarnations of the work of our Lord.  And they are powerful testimonies for others.  How can you stand at a grave and say an alleluia?  How can you face cancer and not lose hope?  How can you have lost your job and not be worried where you will live, what you will eat, or how your family will see you?  It is at those times that we are able to give an accounting of the ultimate joy that is within us.
     I can face whatever tragedy that befalls me because I know my Lord loves me and will redeem whatever suffering I face.  How do I know this?  Because, two thousand years ago, when He took that suffering upon Himself, He chose to suffer because of me, He chose to hang on that cross and die for me.  He proved His love for me then.  And because He has been raised from all that suffering and even from death and sits at the right hand of my Father in heaven, I know that one day He will call me there to share in that glory, too!  He has promised.  That’s how I bear whatever tragedies that befall me in this life.
     Brothers and sisters, we live in a dark world.  The forces of evil conspire to convince you and me and all those whom we encounter in our daily life and work that there is no God or that He does not care for them.  Often, circumstances seem to be on the side of evil.  In the Gospel stories, we will speak of storms and wind and waves and the threats to our boats and our very survival.  But you and I have been given a better song, a better voice.  We can look on the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem and know that God eventually restored her.  We can look on any number of the redemptive stories in the Bible and know that the barren were given children, the food never ran out, the family was redeemed, and so on.  We can look on the horror of the Cross and know that God raised our Lord from the dead.  And, with that redemptive perspective in mind, we can face the horrors and tragedies which beset us today, not sure how our Lord will redeem them, but confident that He will.  And that, my friends, will be the best sermon your friends, your families, your neighbors, and your co-workers will ever hear!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Wolf of Gubbio

     I am often asked for tales and stories from my trip to Rome, now just less than a couple years ago, in the Church’s fight against Human Trafficking.  One of my favorites took part as the Holy Father and Archbishop of Canterbury’s effort to pastor those of us engaged in silo ministries around the world.  We were taken for a retreat to Assisi, to hear the stories of Clare and Francis, and to be reminded that our Lord has already conquered the world with His death, resurrection, and ascension.  The timing was perfect as we had been engrossed in some of the horror stories from around the world and we had watched, in what remains to this day in my life, the worst example of human depravity.  Francis and Justin thought the stories would nourish us.  On this day when we remember Francis, it seems appropriate to share one.
      People often wonder why Francis is pictured either with birds or with a huge wolf.  Those who do a bit of digging learn about the Wolf of Gubbio.  As with many tales, it is hard to separate what is true from what is the stuff of legends.  Once a play is crafted around a story, much like a movie in our time, facts can be blurred or lost altogether.  Who is to say that Brother Francis did not sit in the fields with birdseed scattered about and around him?  Who is to say he was not an animal whisperer of sorts?
     The basics of the story are pretty much the same.  The village of Gubbio loses livestock and then humans to a huge wolf prowling its environs.  The terror gets to the point that the village would shut down in terror whenever the wolf was thought or heard to be about.  At some point, either Francis hears of the wolf and the accompanying terror or faithful villagers approach Brother Francis with the tales.  After some prayer, Francis decides to go to the village and see what he can do, if anything, to help the situation.
     Upon his arrival at the village square, Francis is told of the evils of the wolf—how livestock has been killed, how humans defending their herds have been killed, how children have been snatched at night, and even how militias sent after the wolf have all been killed.  Francis determines to go and find the wolf.  Depending up on the version of the story, Francis finds the wolf quickly or it takes some time, enough time that the people of Gubbio presume he has been devoured.
     After sufficient time to increase the tension, Francis returns to the village with the enormous wolf walking beside him.  Both walk to the center of the village, and Francis relates the bargain he has made with the wolf.  For injury of whatever reason, the wolf is now living a solitary life.  It has need of a pack.  The pack provides comfort, strength, food, warmth, companionship, protection, and other such benefits.  When attacking the livestock, the wolf was only hungry.  When attacking the herders, the wolf felt it was only defending itself.  Francis proposed to the wolf that the people of Gubbio would be the new pack of the wolf, and the wolf would be a defender of Gubbio.  If rival villages or brigands attacked, the wolf would defend his new pack.
     Despite the reasons that screamed that such an offer should be rejected—some had lost family members, others had lost livestock—Francis prevailed upon the people to accept the newest member of their village and for the wolf to accept the villagers as its new pack.  Rival villages new to avoid Gubbio’s territory for fear of its beast.  Brigands were said to have left the village alone for some years.
     There are a number of gospel lessons to be told about this story.  Francis and Justin had us hear it to remind us that God calls even the wolves of humanity to repentance and reconciliation.  For a group of people who spend a great deal of our time dealing in the quagmire of human existence, who see human beings treated unconscionably, who see other “good” human beings think nothing of ignoring the pleas for help or even contributing to the circumstances that lead to such misery, the story was a powerful reminder of the reconciliation we are called to offer all of humanity, even the slavers.  Perhaps, if we were to model the life of Brother Francis, some of the wolves would join us in the effort to end slavery . . . As I say, it was incredibly powerful and incredibly necessary at the time we heard it.
     Obviously, on this day when we celebrate the life and witness of Saint Francis, the story still has much to teach us.  What if we loved our enemies?  What if we prayed for them?  Served them?  Incarnated Christ’s love in their lives?  Would these evils plaguing us today be as prevalent?  As a student of human thought and behavior, I have no doubt that evil would still exist—it will until His return and Final Judgement, but would issues of racism plague us as badly?  Would the divisions in politics be so strident and so dehumanizing?  Would we ignore the killing and maiming of children belonging to the “other”?  Would we accept corporations preying and playing on the least among us?  Would we accept systems and institutions as they are?  Or would we insist that His values govern everywhere?
     Obviously, to some, I have described a fanciful world.  To others, I have simply described the new heaven and the new earth that is to come.  So long as human beings are human beings, maybe this is the best that it gets.  But I leave us all with one reality that Archbishop David shared with us when telling us the story of the Wolf of Gubbio in light of the fight against human trafficking.  Our jobs as Christians, particularly those of us as Christian leaders and pastors, is to be reconcilers of humanity.  We are called to call humanity to repentance before God and to repentance to one another.  Slaves.  Slavers.  Users.  And those indifferent to the plights of others.  Whatever is true of the story and whatever is myth is for others to figure out.  But we were left with a challenging image.  A few years ago, when the church in Gubbio was restored, the altar had to be moved and refinished.  Upon lifting it out of its foundation there were found the bones of a large wolf.  What must have moved through those people and that wolf nearly 800 years ago to cause them to bury that wolf under the altar of their church?  Their dreaded enemy, the terror in the night, was entombed in an incredible place of honor, forever with his pack.