23 October 2011
The 19th Sunday After Pentecost
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Holy One, and to this expression of the Body of Christ, whom I love and with whom I am deeply in love.
Unlike our friend Paul speaking to the Thessalonians, my prayer and my sermon are not only an offering to God, but an offering to each and all of you, without whom my life would not be possible. Recently, the day’s reflection from Inward/Outward was a quote from one of Gordon’s sermons – “A church is a group of people collapsing into God and collapsing into one another.” I believe that, and I hope that some of what I have to say illuminates that as I bring you my reflections at this juncture in my life, which like my life, and the questions I’ve been asking myself forever, go from here to there and back again.
Today marks the beginning of another one of those quirky liturgical seasons unique to Seekers Church – the season we call Jubilee. Jubilee naturally calls to mind celebration, and indeed in Seekers we have much to celebrate. We celebrate that last Sunday many of us, and I dare say most of us here today, committed or recommitted our intention to be God’s children, blessed by Christ into this expression of his body.
In this season of Jubilee we rejoice, as Jews across the world have just done in their celebration of Sukkot, the harvesting of the last of summer’s bounty and the covenant between God and God’s people. According to Zechariah, in the messianic era Sukkot will become a universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there, understanding Jerusalem as the city of God. How close are we to Zechariah’s vision in our own celebration of Thanksgiving? When we open our hearts, our eyes, and our ears we can not pretend that the city of God has been established across the lands and the seas to every corner of creation, and imbued every creature with love.
From the vantage point of where we stand here in 2011, we see a broken and hurting world filled with broken and hurting people, and we have to ask, are we like Moses? Are we being asked to walk to the precipice, to work for and have the possibility of the realm of God spread out majestically before us from the top of Pisgah, but not be invited to cross over into the promised land and celebrate with all of God’s people? My answer is yes and no to that query. I believe that we are being asked to live in the tension that holds today’s reality in relationship to another view of today’s reality. The promise is in the far off future and in the here and now.
How do we celebrate what is at hand when what isn’t yet is so often obliterated by brokenness, let alone hold them in tandem? How does our life in Seekers Church, in the larger Body of Christ, and in the world make celebration possible? Perhaps, for you as it is for me, at least a part of the answer lies in our life together.
We made a host of promises as members of Seekers last Sunday, out of our faith and aspirations, that we pray hold our hearts and actions moving towards a kindom of God. Together we said:
“I am a Seeker. I come today to affirm my relationship with this Christian community in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour, linked with the people of God through the ages. As a member of this church, I will deepen my relationships in this local expression of the Body of Christ, sharing my gifts from God with others who worship with Seekers Church, and in the wider world. I will:
• Nurture my relationship with God and Seekers Church through spiritual disciplines;
• Care for the whole of creation, including the natural environment;
• Foster justice and be in solidarity with the poor;
• Work for the end of all war, both public and private; and
• Respond joyfully with my life, as the grace of God gives me freedom.
These promises are a restatement of what Jesus held up for us as the greatest commandments when questioned by the Pharisees: “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Through our Jubilee liturgy we are being invited this season to ask ourselves how we live out those commitments, that is, “How can We Love?” This question has been playing games in my overwrought brain. I find myself asking myself “how can we LOVE?” wondering if we even know what love is. Assuming or dreaming that we have the barest glimmer of what love is, “how can WE love?” wondering if we are even capable of love. And if the heart stirs and we feel the love of God inside us “how CAN we love?” wondering if we the capacity to express God’s and our love to each other and to the world. I am challenged to celebrate anything when faced with all that.
The evening of August 30th I was upset and confounded by the late night noise of the world outside my cozy apartment, intruding even over the sound of the television, and wrote:
Too many sirens splitting the night air
like a cleaver passing through meat and bone.
Or maybe it’s more like Moses
striking the ground with his staff
and parting the Red Sea by God’s charge.
Does anyone decide who passes through crisis
and is saved like the Hebrew people,
or who dies like the innocent young men
of Pharaoh’s army consumed by the water?
Where’s the love in that? Is it in the possibility that one of the ambulances responded to a knifing that was a result of a lover’s quarrel? Unfortunately, not an unlikely possibility since I live near one of the busiest emergency rooms in DC. I fear that what love I do have will be obliterated by the overwhelming poverty of spirit that exists in the world. Or is it in the dedication of the EMTs and doctors and nurses that will respond to the emergency? I weep in the face of it all and remind myself that God wept as Pharaoh’s army was drowned.
Through the tears that often burst forth with the least provocation, I look for ways to hang on to what I know is good. One thing I know is good is my life in and because of this church community, in ways that are larger, or at least provide a counterbalance to the despair I am prone to give into. I am reminded of the line from our Recommitment liturgy that God’s compassion bursts forth like a spring of fresh water, and so I honor my tears as holy ground. Each time I am privileged to stand as liturgist in this community, I am called to live in the tension that holds today’s reality in relationship to another view of today’s reality, as I write the prayers that call the community to praise and petition, and that come through me by way of the Holy Spirit. A year ago today I brought an invocation as liturgist that illustrates the counterbalance to the tears of despair:
God of jubilation and transformation,
you invite us to celebrate the signs of the season
that are harbingers of change.
A golden leaf drifts on the air currents
of the noon heat meeting a cool breeze,
while squirrels harvest the bounty of acorns
in anticipation of the coming dearth.
And we, we wonder at the coolness of the morning air,
bask in the sun of clear, warm afternoons,
and welcome the warmth of blankets on crisp nights.
Summer and fall are jitterbugging and waltzing
their way to the end of one and the beginning of the other.
Through it all there is the promise of the welcome table,
the promise of Christ to come, the promise of God in our midst.
Let us welcome the Holy One.
I myself am jitterbugging and waltzing, as well as marching to the saddest dirge you have ever heard, towards Jerusalem. I went to bed Friday night, despite a wonderful evening at Carroll Cafe and the sweet sounds of Claudia Schmidt, mightily worried about having to write this sermon, but I woke up yesterday with the strains of the Hal David and Burt Bacharach tune in my mind of:
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.
Which brings me right back to the question of the season personalized, “How Can I Love?”, which is never a settled question. If I believe that the kindom of God is at hand, and the kindom of God is the brass ring, I find I am riding not on a carousel going round and round on a horizontal plane with a real opportunity to grab that ring, but I am riding round and round on a spiral cycle of life that is my lot as a human being. Sometimes the ring is just out of reach, other times it is so far away I can’t see it at all, and sometimes I actually have it hard in my hand. In my worst moments I am angry and aggravated with God for having a bad sense of humor, and in my better moments I can celebrate even the irony of the situation. Having said all that I have also to say that mostly I live in despair, not at all recognizing those thin moments when I am in Jerusalem, and not knowing how to live in the tension between now and then.
Eyes to See, Ears to hear Peace Prayer Mission Group has been reading Parker Palmer’s new book Healing the Heart of Democracy. Relevant to living in this tension he wrote something helpful that I am trying to hang onto:
“…we regard “tension” as a condition to be relieved, not an energy to hold in our hearts. Tension creates stress, which leads to ill health, so we must reduce or eliminate these enemies of well-being. That is good advice if our stress comes from a toxic workplace, an abusive relationship, or some other assault on body or soul. But the stress that comes from being stretched by alien ideas, values, and experiences is of a different sort. This is why some psychologists distinguish between distress (which is negative and destructive) and eustress (which is positive and a prod to growth). It is important to know the difference. Positive stress may try our patience, and yet it can help our hearts become more spacious and generous. Refuse to hold stress of this sort, and our society as well as our souls will suffer from shrinkage and stagnation.”
Palmer’s illumination helps me make the tension a useful tool in the ordinary structures of my life, yet it doesn’t go far enough to assuage the hurt and pain in my own life, let alone the world. If my heart becomes more spacious and generous, certainly it will be more easily broken. Why would I willingly make myself more vulnerable than I already am? Happily, something else he wrote casts some light on this dilemma:
“If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death.” No kidding! “ What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.”
In the wake of all that I have said, what remains is the question, how can I love? The answer isn’t in a litany of my actions in the world. And I don’t fail to love by my inactions or missteps in the world, which for better or for worse are part and parcel of my flawed being. The answer lies in whether or not I feel that my heart has been broken up or broken open, and whether or not I am willing to let it continue to be broken open day after day after day. Maybe there’s a hint of an answer to what I hold true in my innermost being in a poem I wrote in May:
Morning comes too quickly
nipping at the edges
of my deep sleep and my eyelids,
dragging, dragging, dragging
at my feet
so slow to move.
Standing in the shower,
baptized yet again
into the Body of Christ
I recognize the dawning
of coming awake,
and knowing that
I will make it through
Some days, that’s
as far as I get,
putting one foot in front of the other,
addressing one work task at a time.
But spring has had
a long run this year
and the walk that starts my day
in the world is easy.
For now, by the time
I walk out the front door
I come fully awake into myself,
my day, my life,
and I feel a goodness
that has been absent
for some time.
A goodness with a yes
wrapped up in it
that holds me to my center
despite the sirens
screaming about the needs of my neighbors
that pull prayers out of me,
despite the challenges
of my surroundings at work
where the tug
on my heartstrings
to yank my heart out of
the safety of my wholeness,
despite the brokenness inside me,
and the near and far flung corners
of the world.
I pray that we can all be broken open, spilling our love out to each other and the world.