How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?
Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…
And the moral of the story is…Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.
The folk tale goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
It was a really nice Instant Pot.
But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.
How could that be possible?
The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.
And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:
I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.
Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.
Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.
I, he told them, am going to build a tower.
So start digging and hammering.
And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
And then he added:
Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.
This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.
God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!
But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.
And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.
Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.
And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?
His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.
But even the rich man knew that this was not true.
And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.
A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:
I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.
And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.
Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.
The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.
For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.
We are in the bustle and the heat that is Jerusalem, the most distant and forgotten corner of the Roman Empire. Inside the headquarters of the occupying forces, Pontius Pilate sits at his desk. Pilate is thirty-five years old. He is a mid-level government bureaucrat here in the Middle East on a resume building exercise. He is a busy man and, when he gets back to Rome, he hopes to be an important one. In the meantime, Pilate wants things and people to proceed in a orderly and sensible manner. He doesn’t want to have to do paperwork. He doesn’t want to have to work overtime. And he wants the headache that has been building all day to stop.
On this day, Pilate has been struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s not just the headache – he has those all the time. Something else is nagging at him: an old memory. His mind is pulled back in time, skipping like a stone across the waters of his recollection, to the days of his childhood – to a time when he lived in a world of wonder and of imagination. Pilate keeps pushing the memory down, trying to bury it under the dust that coats everything. He just about succeeds.
Pilate is ready to go home. He is ready for a drink. It has been a full day of administration: of seeing prisoners, of determining who will be flogged, who will be released, who will be crucified. But there is one more interview. It’s with a carpenter and a disturber of the peace. The note on his desk says: The King of the Jews.
Pilate stands up and starts walking towards the interview that will haunt him for the rest of his life. An interview in which his atrophied imagination will entirely fail him.
And then he is in the cell with the prisoner. Pilate experiences a dim awareness, a tug, like something moving in the corner of his eye. An awareness that the man who stands before him is extraordinary. There is a gravity pulling Pilate towards this man. Pilate has the sense that, even though he holds all the power in this relationship, including the power to pronounce death, that this man, this calloused and dirty carpenter, somehow, holds all the authority. That it is as though this man were interviewing him. Pilate fights this awareness off.
A moment of heavy silence passes between them. They are alone. And Pilate can say or ask anything that he wants. He begins:
So. You’re the King of the Jews.
This is when most prisoners start to weep, or to rage, or to beg for their lives. But not this one. The serenity in his eyes is his terrifying. This man does something that no prisoner ever does. He looks right at Pilate. And he asks him a question:
Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?
Is that what it was like?
It is hard not to speculate about this scene, about one of be the most iconic exchanges in all of scripture. Pilate gets the rarest of things in all four of the Gospels: the opportunity to secure a private interview with Jesus – to secure the opportunity to talk, by himself, with God. In just about every other conversation that the Gospels record with Jesus (save, perhaps, for Nicodemus and for the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of), there is someone else hanging around – the disciples, the crowd, the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees, the centurions. Pilate, by contrast, holds Jesus alone for as long as he wants.
How tantalising is this? For the Christian, the idea of being alone with Jesus is awesome. Consider what you might ask – what you might say – you would be limited only by your imagination. What would you say to Jesus?
Now, hold those words in your mind – all the possibilities of what you might ask or what you might tell Jesus. And then consider what Pilate asks about. He asks about personal power: So, you’re a King. You have a place on the top of a hierarchy. You have money, you have property, you can tell people what to do, you determine who will serve and who will eat, you can control people’s lives.
Jesus responds to Pilate’s question the way that he often responds to questions. He poses a question of his own. John 18:34: Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? The folks who translated the New International Version of the Bible give us a lively alternative: Is that your own idea?
Through this question, Jesus is pushing Pilate to resuscitate his almost deceased imagination, to call it forth like Lazarus from the tomb. This invitation to imagine – to say “what if?” or “I wonder?” – is one that he has extended throughout his earthly ministry. He has extended this invitation by telling awesome and playful and paradoxical stories, by asking provocative and even intemperate questions such as this one, by taking actions which tossed expectations on their side, like a ship in a storm. Do you ask this on your own? Is that your own idea? This is the question on which the whole interview hinges. And Pilate refuses to answer it. He is irritated that Jesus even poses it.
I suspect this is because Pilate is a man who has been taught to hold his imagination at bay, to fend off the very thought that the world could be any different than it is, that he could be any different that he is. He has been taught to retreat into a sad world of permanence, a world predicated on power, a world in which the Roman Empire will last forever, a world in which it is impossible to imagine anyone being motivated by anything other than fear and selfishness.
This is a picture of a world in which faith is obscured, in which it is been hidden by certainty. And Jesus challenges this certainty because he knows that faith is predicated on the imagination. Faith is all about possibility; it is about the wonder of change; about the dance of beauty; about encountering something new; about trust in possibility; about reversal; about the first being last; about meeting God in the persons of the least of these, our siblings; about experiencing the Kingdom of God not as something that happens after we die but is something that, with God’s help, we can build right now.
Those times when the Kingdom has cracked through our permanence and changed this world were made possible by the imagination – by acts of faith. By individuals saying, You know, we actually could do this. This is possible! We are few years past the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, a structure that mere days before it fell, we expected to stand for generations; that we expected to stand forever. I remember seeing the images of the wall falling and saying: That’s impossible.
Before the wall, there was a time when the end of slavery was impossible, when women getting the vote was impossible, when the end of apartheid was impossible, when the remarriage of divorced people was impossible, when broader marriage equality was impossible, when contraception was impossible, when the ordination of women was impossible, when we all knew that this county would never have an African American president.
Each act of imagination falls like a snowflake onto the roof of a prison. By itself, it looks like nothing. But, as it joined by another drifting piece of imagination and then by another, the snow of possibility builds up, higher and higher. And then, in what seems like an instant, the weight is too much. And the roof is down and the prisoners climb up and out into freedom.
When you talk to someone who has lived through such a moment – especially those who were in the prison when the moment came – they will often express a thought which is equal parts gratitude and disbelief: we never thought we would live to see this moment come.
So. What is impossible today? What is unimaginable? What have you been told is never going to change? Do you think this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is it impossible that hunger will ever end, that unemployment will ever end, that there will ever be a real place of dignity for the poor in our wider society or in the church, that economic vigour could mean anything other than frantic environmental degradation, that we might understand health care as a human right, that this country might have a healthy and sensible relationship with guns, that there might be a rule of life beyond selfishness and fear?
I’m glad that folks go to football games and hold up signs proclaiming John 3:16. It’s a beautiful passage. But the passage that I want someone to hold up at the next Seahawks game is this one: John 18:34. Is this your own idea? Did you think of this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is Jesus really that small? Is the kingdom really that distant? Can we really imagine nothing else? Is this how we thought the world was going to be when were were children? Are we so busy looking for Jesus sitting on a throne and holding a scepter that we don’t notice when he stands before us as a prisoner?
Let’s imagine for a second what Pilate cannot: that the impossible has happened – that the carpenter who stood before Pilate on that day was God. That God lived with us. And, now let us imagine something even more impossible: That, after Pilate sent that carpenter to be legally executed by a perverse justice system that he was resurrected. What if that were true? What else would be possible?
And now, let’s do something that Jesus did a lot of. Let’s tell a story about reversal in which we imagine that this peasant carpenter whose life was predicated on living with, and healing, and telling stories to the most suspicious of sort people is the king. Not Pilate’s kind of king, but another kind – one who believes that, in the greatest of kingdoms, the role of the king is to serve.
And, now, imagine that this king stands with you, close enough to touch. You are alone, he looks you in the eye. And he smiles.
What do we do when we hear a reading like the ones that we encounter today in Daniel in and Mark? Daniel says:
Michael shall arise. There will be anguish. Many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
And then Jesus describes war and earthquakes and famines and he says:
This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.
What do we do with apocalyptic Biblical passages? There are lots of them in scripture to choose from. What do we do with passages in which the Bible sure appears to tell us that God is the catalyst for violence, that God requires violence, sometimes that God is an active participant in violence?
This question is more or less inescapable at this time of year in which the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from Sunday to Sunday, gives us one apocalyptic reading after another. For many Christians in parishes such as this one, these readings are variously troubling or embarrassing to us, maybe because we associate them with the Left Behind series of books and movies, with the notion of the rapture. Although, like a lot of troubling or embarrassing things, these passages are simultaneously fascinating to us.
Well, here is one of the things I believe. When someone or something leaves me feeling troubled or off balance, repelled and fascinated, that is an invitation to pay attention. Experience has shown me, for instance, that I when I notice feelings of dislike aversion in myself for another person, that person almost always has something to teach me. I remember some years ago asking for a meeting with a former boss – some things had happened since I had left that workplace – and opening my conversation with him by saying,
I knew that I had to talk to you because I really didn’t want to.
Apocalypse is similar. If we have a reflexive “yuck” feeling about this part of the Bible, if we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these passages, then maybe that is an invitation to pay attention, to ask:
What does this have to teach me about God and about my neighbour and about myself?
Now, I want to say something early and explicitly: what these passages do not and cannot teach us is that God is in the violence business. The cross makes that clear and irrefutable. Jesus suffers the worst possible humiliation, he endures the greatest possible agony, and after his return he refuses to respond to this violence with violence of his own. The resurrection is not about God coming back and exacting revenge on those who killed him. It is about God bringing new life and new light into the world.
The cross tells me that Richard Rohr is right when he says that the test for an authentic understanding of scripture and, more broadly, an authentic understanding of God is this: if an interpretation, a teaching, an action is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that thing isn’t from God.
Jesus coming back to torture or kill all the people who have believed wrong and lived wrong? That’s kind of less loving than the most loving person I know. So that can’t be how to understand Daniel, it can’t be how to understand Jesus when he talks the way that he talks today.
The word “apocalypse” translates into English as something like “unveiling” or as “revelation.” Hence, the final book of the Bible is sometimes TheRevelation of John and sometimes The Apocalypse of John. It could just as well be The Unveiling of John.
And what is being unveiled when we encounter violence in the Bible? Well, as the theologian Mark Heim puts it, violence in the Bible is unveiling the truth, it is telling the truth. It is telling the truth about the human condition, about the conditions that lead to bloodshed, and in particular about the old connection between religion and violence.
Because religion, when it gets bent, when it loses sight of God and gets distracted or seduced by what St. Paul calls the world, has ended up in the violence business early and often. Somehow, when Emperor Constantine came along, when the other kings and emperors followed him, the symbol of Jesus – the symbol of the one who is murdered by the government for telling stories of freedom and handing out free food and health care – ended up on the banners of soldiers marching into battle.
There is no way to tell the truth without unveiling these things. As Mark Hein goes on to say, when we complain that the tales of Genesis, that the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, that the fire for revenge in the Psalms, that Jesus talking about the birthpangs is too much, that these things are too sordid and too human to have any place in a book as holy as the Bible, then maybe we are admitting that these texts reveal the human condition altogether too well.
In Mark, Jesus says that the temple will be torn down, brick by brick. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when this will be. And Jesus, who has elevated the non sequitur to an art form, who often answers questions with statements or stories that, at least at first, don’t appear to answer the question at all, says:
Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and they will lead many astray.
And then he goes on:
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?
Don’t be alarmed.
Wars and earthquakes and famines – this stuff going to happen. It is part of the human condition. Let’s name that, let’s unveil that. But let’s also, Jesus says – and this is fascinating and maybe surprising – not be alarmed by it.
Now, “do not be alarmed” cannot mean, “do not care,” or “do not take action.” Because we know that Jesus takes action in response to suffering early and often and always, that he calls us as his disciples to do the same. Maybe, therefore, “do not be alarmed,” means, “do not attach theological significance to this stuff, do not imagine for a second that this is something that God is doing or that God wants or that God requires or that proves that God is coming.”
If that’s right, then Left Behind and the televangelists and the door-to-door religion peddlers who love to point at this passage to prove that, well, the end is nigh, have things backwards. Violence isn’t telling us anything about what God is doing or when God is coming. Violence is telling us about humanity and about how far we sometimes stray from leading the lives of grace and mercy and kindness and love and freedom that God wants for you and for me and for everyone.
There is an amazing line that shows up today in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture, when I last saw it printed in a bulletin or leaflet I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. It goes like this:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Not let us encourage one another, not let us teach one another, but let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Weird as it is, maybe that line makes perfect sense. Because I think we all know about being provoked to goodness and to love. I suspect that all of us, as young people, received the difficult gift of a teacher or a parent calling us out on our behaviour, telling the truth about our behaviour, unveiling our behaviour and thereby provoking us to be better. I think that all of us, to this day, know about encountering art – several of the artists from PHAME are with us this morning and will be sharing their art with us as part of this service – that provokes us to be better. I think that all of us know about hearing someone’s story, a story of maybe searching or injustice or healing – I remember the woman who came here on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago and who told us about what it was like in Portland to try to function on minimum wage – and being provoked to being better.
And maybe that is what stories of violence in scripture, including stories – maybe especially stories? – that attribute that violence to God are doing. Those stories unveil human violence and they unveil our tendency to project human violence onto God, to make God in our own image, to say that God – who goes to the cross innocent and yet who will not make resurrection into an occasion of revenge – somehow wants and needs our violence. Maybe these stories provoke us to say no! That isn’t and never was who God is. Maybe these stories of apocalypse and there to provoke us into following Jesus, into joining him in building a Kingdom of non-violence, of goodness, and of love.
Near the turn of this century, the theologian Belden Lane wrote a provocative book called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. In it he explored what he recognized to be the theology of desert and mountain landscapes, landscapes that are unsparing, wild, and fierce.
In his estimation, when we enter these landscapes, because of their danger and their sublime beauty, they teach us truths that we would otherwise choose to avoid.
This past week, yet again, has been a journey through fierce landscapes. We endured one of the most divisive election cycles in modern history. And, once more, we reeled from the senseless destruction of human life. 12 people killed with unfathomable precision.
And so we find ourselves in the wilderness yet again. We struggle to comprehend how a fellow human can enact such wanton cruelty. We struggle with the proliferation of guns solely created to killing humans as efficiently as possible. And we struggle to see how we will do this, see as a fundamental truth that we are in this together.
And in my home state of California, just within the past several days, horrific fires are burning faster than we had thought possible, leveling entire towns, taking the lives of those unable to flee fast enough.
This week has left many feeling lost in their own land, and I, for one, am grateful this morning to worship God in this place, coming together, seeking solace.
And I am grateful for the wisdom that emerges from the desert. Because in the end, Belden Lane writes, when we open ourselves to fierce landscapes, two questions emerge:
How much can you give?
How much can you love?
How much can you give?
How much can you love?
Well this is a particularly uncomfortable Sunday to be wearing long robes and offering robust Eucharistic prayers, seated in a choice chair. Because that seems to be one of the threads running through our Gospel passage this morning–– the danger of appearing to be righteous.
It’s what Jesus says some of these scribes are doing, by wearing long robes of respectability, by the sitting in the seats reserved for those who know the Law best, by uttering long, impressive prayers. It’s not that these actions in or of themselves are at fault, but more that they can be used to cover practices of deceit.
These appearances mask the destruction of the widow, that iconic image of the vulnerable who is to be protected, but instead is systematically preyed upon until they are destitute. Beware disciples of the Christ! Surface appearances do not necessarily signal true righteousness. What does?
Being righteous, as Kathleen Norris, among others, reminds us, is consistently defined throughout scripture as being willing to care for the most vulnerable, the widow and orphan, the resident alien, the poor. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, the suit it wears, the status it holds, the power it commands. It asks those same questions,
How much does it give?
How much does it love?
GIVING WHAT YOU’LL NEVER MISS
To make his point clear Jesus turns our attention to money.
Funny thing about Jesus––he is not afraid to talk about money. Continuing this teaching about the appearance of a righteous life, he has his students watch as people put money into the temple treasury.
When you see rich people pouring in large sums, he says, it might appear that they are righteous. But then you might miss this widow. Now it’s likely that she is always overlooked, both figuratively and literally, I can’t imagine that her two pennies made much of a sound.
But if you judge a righteous life by appearances, you’ll miss a lot. And here’s where I appreciate the recently deceased biblical scholar Eugene Peterson. In contradistinction to the widow who gave her all, Peterson’s paraphrase reads that, “All the others gave what they’ll never miss” Gave what they’ll never miss.
How often have I done that? Given what I won’t miss? The scraps, the left-overs, the left behinds? Because of fear? Or protection? Security? Pretending that what I have is mine alone?
Maybe that’s why the tithe, or other proportional giving is so instructive. Because by nature of this spiritual discipline you know what you are doing, you can’t help but miss it.
When my wife Sarah and I began this practice of tithing I wasn’t sure at first. It wasn’t clear what this would mean for our student debt, or the little things––our nights out together, our cable. What I remember is the distinct feeling being able to trust that our money won’t own us. It’s not over, of course, I don’t know that it ever is. But year by year I have been taught that what I have–– my home, my money, my life itself, is not mine, but has been given to me that I and others might live.
A POOL IN THE DESERT
Belden Lane concludes his book on the solace of fierce landscapes with this ancient story of a community of monks living in the desert. For years the brothers chose one of their members to go into the city to beg. It was a difficult task, but one old monk took it on without complaint, enduring abuse in the city as he begged for the food and coins that the monks needed to survive.
But every trip was made more worse on his return to the monastery, as the afternoon sun beat down upon him and the burning sands met his every step. Marveling at the monk’s faith and endurance, God created a pool of cool water to refresh himself.
But the monk, thinking himself unworthy of this miracle, always passed by the well, stopping only to express his thanks and joy. Each night as he lay down to sleep, he’d look up through the window of his cell, and see a single bright star, giving thanks that God had placed it there for him to see.
After years of making this arduous trip into the city, as the monk was full of days, the brothers chose a younger monk to go with him to learn this task. They set off, and that day in the city the younger monk found it hard to persist in begging, accepting the abuse of some of the people of the city, and especially the grueling trek back under the harsh afternoon sun.
But then, on the horizon, the younger monk sighted a pool of cool water! He ran quickly to it, knelt down and began drinking deeply from the cool, clear water. As the the older monk passed the pool, he was torn. If he refused to drink the water, this miracle in the desert, he would have to tell the young monk why he did so. And it was likely that the young monk would feel ashamed of his impulsiveness and lack of devotion.
And, if the older monk did drink, he wouldn’t be able to offer to God the gift of sacrifice that he had been offering to God for so long. In the end, his heart remained with the young monk, so the old man ran back to the pool knelt down beside him and drank the cool, clear water, offering God glory for what had been given them.
But as they made their way home that evening, the old monk fell into a deep silence. He feared that he had disappointed God by what he had done. As he lay down to sleep that night, he looked through the small window of his cell, and this time saw the whole night sky lit by stars, just for him. His joy was overwhelming, too much to contain. He slept with the greatest peace, and his brothers found him dead in his bed the next morning.
And if they’d been able to hear the words on his lips that last fell from his lips, they would have heard the words of the prophet Hosea, that love is always better that sacrifice.
GIVE FOR LOVE
For we do not give simply out of sacrifice.
We give because we love. We give so that any child, regardless of their families’ income, can encounter art and beauty, trust and caring. We give so that for anyone who walks through these doors, the kingdom of God can be realized. We give so that one day on this block there will be space for the widow to be cared for. We give because we love.
You see, those two questions asked by the fierce landscapes of our lives are intrinsically and essentially connected,
How much can we give?
How much can we love?
Try as we might, we cannot ask one without the other.
The last thing I do before I leave the sacristy to begin a service is to check my cell phone to make sure it’s turned off. Cell phones are a wonderful form of communication, that give us access to all kinds of information anywhere in the world. But they are also a major source of distraction for us. It turns out (I looked this up on the internet) that the average 40-something user looks at their phone 35 times a day, and the average 20-something looks 75 times a day. The latest iPhone operating system tells you every week how much screen time you had on average. Last week mine was 2 hours per day. Wow. My excuse is that I was following the World Series a lot last week.
Human beings are highly distractible creatures. We take in all kinds of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch – and our minds are active all the time. It helps make us the creative, imaginative creatures we are. But we can also be overwhelmed by everything around us. We know how critical it is, in work or in relationships or at church, to be able to focus on the main thing and not get bogged down in distractions, but it’s hard to do. If I ask you NOT to think about elephants for 15 seconds [pause] you just can’t do it. Your brain is telling you, “Don’t think about elephants! Don’t think about elephants!” It doesn’t work.
So we have to find ways to manage distractions so we can focus on what’s most important. Any teacher can tell you that highly distractible students need to find techniques to help them focus. For some it turns out that doodling actually helps them concentrate on what’s happening in class – which seems counter-intuitive. Others become adept at twirling their pencils in their fingers, which may be a distraction for the teacher but helps the student pay attention.
It’s not just students. We all have to find ways to manage the myriad of distractions that bombard us constantly. Across spiritual traditions, people have developed techniques of prayer and meditation that allow them to focus on the divine. Finding a quiet place away from daily activity, concentrating on one’s breathing, using a short repetitive phrase, walking slowly and mindfully – these are all ways of managing distractions and training ourselves to focus better.
Distractions surround us even in church. How often have I, sitting in the pew, come to the end of listening to a lesson and realized I remember nothing about it. Our attention inevitably wanders. “What a cute baby.” “I love the flowers on the altar – I wonder what kind they are.” “This music has too many notes.” “I wish that guy would stop coughing.” And in our church community life it’s the same thing – it’s easy to get bogged down in relatively small things and lose sight of the main thing, which is being the presence of Christ in the world.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with the gospel lesson this morning. The story of Bartimaeus is a perfect little allegory of how we come to faith in Jesus. Bartimaeus is blind – blindness is often used in the scriptures as a metaphor for not seeing or understanding God, of being blind to truth. He calls out to Jesus for mercy – the first step in faith is the appeal for help. Jesus responds by calling him to come and then asking what he wants. So faith involves movement towards Jesus and asking for what we need. Jesus restores his sight – he is able to see the truth and can go on his way.
It’s a beautiful story, but I want to consider it from a different perspective. What if it’s actually Bartimaeus’s blindness that allows him to focus on Jesus? Imagine the scene: it’s a crowded main road, with people doing business, going to market, people having conversations, children and dogs running around. Into the midst of this comes Jesus with his small band of followers. Perhaps people give him a look, but then they turn back to whatever they’re engaged in and let Jesus pass by. But Bartimaeus has no such distractions. He hears Jesus coming and is totally focused on him. When he hears Jesus’ voice among all the other voices, he goes straight to it. So in this case faith comes from not being distracted and focusing on the main thing. Not being sighted helps lead to faith. I’m reminded of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1)
To be able to do God’s work in the world we need to be able to put aside distractions and focus on the main thing. I think about that in the context of our parish planning about how to develop the church campus. To do this brings up all kinds of issues and problems – many of them important to different individuals. “How many bathrooms will there be?” “What about parking?” “How big will the stove in the kitchen be?” “What about air-conditioning?” But as important as all these may be, they are not the main thing. So we need to learn to develop the discipline of always coming back to the main thing, which is, how can we develop the campus so as to be the presence of Christ in this city, in the world?
It’s not easy to see God in the midst of the world. I think it’s a little like trying to tune into a radio station in the car in a remote area. There’s a lot of static and competing signals, and you have to adjust the tuning very carefully to finally zero in to hear the station you want. The world is full of noise. Tuning in to God requires focus and concentration, and it requires the discipline to be able to manage all the distractions of everyday life, in order to hear that “still, small” voice.
The comedian Hasan Minhaj is a second generation American. His father, like me, is an immigrant to this country. I come from Canada: Minhaj’s Dad, Najme, comes from India. Unlike me (I grew up in a stable and peaceful context in Vancouver, BC), prior to coming to the United States, Najme lived through some of the worst days on the Indian subcontinent. He saw awful violence after the departure of the British and after partition, violence that claimed north of a million lives.
Minhaj, like a lot of people of colour in America – like every person of colour in America – experienced racism growing up, he experiences racism to this day. Similarly, like many members of an immigrant family, Minhaj did and does experience xenophobia. Minhaj tells the story, for instance, of being an adolescent shortly after the September 11th attacks and hearing a strange noise outside. He and his Dad went out to investigate what had happened and found that someone had smashed the windows of their car. Shortly thereafter the phone rang and a laughing voice on the other end demanded:
Here’s the thing. Minhaj’s Dad had a totally different reaction to the vandalism and to the phone call that followed it than Minhaj himself. For Minhaj, as you might expect, as you could likely understand, this event was profoundly upsetting. He was shaken by it, angered by it. His Dad? Not so much. He just swept up the glass and went on with his day.
Compared to the violence that Najme had seen in India – well, this just seemed like no big deal. Getting your windows smashed occasionally, his Dad reckoned, was the price of admission for being brown and being an immigrant in America. It was a reasonable price to pay for the brutality that he had left behind and for everything that he had gained by coming to this country.
Minhaj found that this disconnect with his Dad just kept on happening, and not just in the disorienting days after September 11th. When Minhaj would experience the small and everyday acts of racism that someone who looks like him encounters in the United States, when he would endure the thousand paper cuts that we call by the name micro-aggressions (sometimes the aggressions weren’t micro at all – sometimes they were macro-aggressions), he would tell his Dad, he would relay these stories with anger and sadness. And his Dad simply couldn’t understand what Minhaj was so upset about.
No one is trying to kill you, his Dad would say to Minhaj in essence. What are you complaining about?
I heard Minhaj interviewed, I heard him telling these stories, on the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. The episode was about what psychological researchers call a human being’s Frame of Reference or, sometimes, simply their Reference Point. Our frame of reference is the perspective, the baseline against which we measure other experiences. And Najme’s baseline, his frame of reference, was of such radical suffering and injustice in post-partition India that every wrong that he encountered in America seemed kind of small and trivial by comparison.
In that interview, Minhaj is pretty deeply ambivalent about his Dad’s perspective on reality. On the one hand, Minhaj believes – rightly – that micro-aggressions are not okay, that small acts of racism, such as a clerk assuming that a brown-skinned customer is more likely to be a shoplifter than the white customer standing beside them, are wrong. On the other, he is glad for his father’s perspective. Glad for the reminder that it holds that, as much we get wrong in our country, we get a whole lot of things right. More than that, Minhaj is glad for his Dad’s reminder that life is good, glad for his Dad’s invitation into gratitude, glad for his Dad’s serenity.
Consider this: if someone smashes the window of your car and you feel neither fear nor anger, if the only cost to you if the cost of replacing the glass, well, that’s a kind of superpower.
The encounter that we witness today in the Gospel between John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and their teacher Jesus is about competing frames of references. In this conversation, the speakers apply two radically different reference points to the question: what does a good and holy and joyous life look like?
For the two brothers, for John and James, their point of reference for this conversation is worldly status and power. Growing up in the home of a modest fisherman, John and James have looked out the window and seen people with power, people who drive past their house in high-end carriages, people who are followed by servants, people who inspire not just respect in others but fear in others. And like many of us who have seen these things, maybe like you and me leafing through the catalogue of things that we can’t afford, John and James want in.
And so they go up to Jesus, full of eagerness. Their opening line is greedy and innocent at same time. Here is an echo of a pair of children trying to scam their way into the cookie jar:
Teacher: we want you to give us whatever we want.
Is Jesus smiling as he replies? What do you guys want?
And so they tell him: We want to sit on your right hand and your left in your glory.
Are he two of them are rubbing their hands in glee as they speak? Are they are dancing from one foot to another in anticipation?
Jesus, smiling no more, says:
You don’t know what you are asking for.
That’s because Jesus’ point of reference for a good and holy and joyous life isn’t power. His point of reference is the cross.
In all four Gospels, Jesus speaks with this amazing and terrifying clarity about the cross as his future. It is an awful inevitability for him. And this knowledge, this reference point, profoundly shapes how he encounters reality.
When Jesus sees a suffering person – someone who is hungry or sick or lonely or lost or carrying a demon – because Jesus’ reference point is not money and privilege, he does not ask, “What can this person do for me?” and turn his back when the answer is “nothing.” Because his reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his hurting neighbour with the compassion and solidarity of one who knows all about hurt himself.
When Jesus sees a wealthy and unjust person, because his reference point is not worldly status, he does not ask, “How can this person help my career?” and then begin to network. Because Jesus reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his neighbour as one who knows all about what it is to endure injustice, and he challenges us and calls us to be better.
And when Jesus comes to a party – and this next part might be counterintuitive, I’m not sure, let’s run with it – because his reference point is not consumerism, where there is always something more and better waiting somewhere else, Jesus does not participate halfheartedly. Rather, because his reference point is the cross, because suffering and finitude and injustice are so clearly in his field of vision, he participates in celebration with gusto. Jesus is immune to what the kids call FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. He does not spend the party on his phone looking for something better to come along. There are an amazing number of passages in the Gospels about Jesus eating, an amazing number of passages about Jesus delighting in celebration within community. Jesus gets that this life is a fleeting gift to be lived fully right now.
Jesus tells his disciples, John and James and you and me, that following him means drinking from the same cup as him, being baptised the same way as him. That it means taking up your cross. He doesn’t warn us that grief and loss and hurt might be part of following him. He guarantees it. But here is the amazing thing: when our reference point shifts from worldly status and power and money and stuff to the cross, we may just be surprised to find that we discover not only hurt but also freedom, justice, and joy.
The blogger and comedian Gaby Dunn talks about engaging in a do-it-yourself social experiment. Dunn’s experiment involved going up to strangers in coffee shops and other public contexts and saying:
Can I ask you two questions?
Most folks said “yes,” and so Dunn began. Her first question (and forgive me in advance if this is a little raunchy for church – you can plug your ears if you want, or you can plug your neighbour’s ears) was:
What is your favourite sexual position?
What Dunn discovered is that, by and large, folks responded to that question with enthusiasm, not only giving her an answer but volunteering a reason for their answer. The strangers would say to Dunn, O, my favourite position is this – and here’s why…
The first question completed – and sometimes it took a while for folks to tell Dunn everything that they wanted to share, they liked this question a lot – the strangers energetically asked Dunn:
What’s the second question?
And so Dunn asked them:
How much money is in your bank account?
This is the point at which folks became shocked and appalled. They couldn’t believe that Dunn would have the rashness, the uncouthness, the rudeness to ask such a personal question. This was the moment, if we lived in another era, in which the strangers would have slapped Dunn with a glove and said:
How dare you, Madam! I challenge you to a duel.
We talk sometimes about how nothing is taboo anymore, about how we can now say or print anything, about how we can show anything on TV. But that’s not actually true. There are some taboos today that did not exist 20 or 50 years ago, and often we are richer for that. A generation or two ago, smoking was a marker of sophistication: today it is a marker of poor judgment. That’s probably mostly a good thing. And then there are other taboos – like the taboo around talking about money – that persist and remain powerful.
I’m not convinced that the taboo against talking about money is so healthy.
Here in the church we more or less mirror the culture around us when it comes to talking about money. (I would venture that virtually all of us in this room participate in this taboo to a significant extent. I tell you what: if you don’t participate in this taboo, just shout out how much money is in your bank account.) Talking about money is something we’d just rather not do. Sometimes we even feel more strongly than that, sometimes we feel like money is something we ought not to talk about.
And like a lot of taboos, the emotion that we feel around this monetary taboo is simultaneously vague and powerful. We will say, often with a bunch of intensity but usually without a whole lot explanation, I just feel like that money is something that is private. I remember a number of years ago at the Cathedral in Vancouver when a fellow parishioner, in a state of anger and annoyance and agitation said to me:
The church should not talk about money.
I suspect that this taboo – inarticulate and powerful as it is – is the reason that so many Episcopalians kind of dread the fall financial stewardship campaign in their parishes, a campaign that we are starting here at Grace today. The campaigns are either boring because the leaders choose to honour the taboo and never end up talking about anything real. Or they feel kind of dangerous because the leaders choose not to honour the taboo, and we’re not sure what to do with that.
In case it’s not obvious, our financial campaign this year will be in the dangerous category.
However. My hope is that the campaign will also prove to be spiritually rewarding and maybe even fun.
Here’s the curious thing. We in church who participate in this taboo are disciples of Jesus, we are followers of Jesus. And Jesus, our teacher and model? Well, he doesn’t participate in this taboo at all. Jesus talks about money early and often and openly.
In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says when people want to borrow money, you should go ahead and lend it to them. Later on in the same book, Jesus says we ought not to store up riches on earth, but to store up riches in heaven. In Luke, in the story that we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ definition of a neighbour is the one who generously makes their resources – including all of their financial resources – available to someone in need. Elsewhere in Luke, he says that you and I cannot serve both God and money.
And here today in Mark, Jesus encounters a man. A rich guy who asks him a question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a question, by the way, that for our ancient ancestors does not mean, “How do I get into heaven?” It means something more like, How do I participate with my whole life in what you are doing, Jesus? Eternal life, the age to come, is what happens, as the Lord’s Prayer has it, when things on earth are as they are in heaven.
Wait a minute. “Don’t defraud”? That isn’t one of the commandments, is it? There is a verse in Leviticus that says something like “don’t defraud,” but it sure isn’t chiseled onto the stone that Moses brought with him down from the mountain. Jesus is doing some on the fly editing of scripture here.
When he does that there is usually something important going on for us to notice.
Jesus says all these things and the rich guy responds: I’ve kept all of those commandments since I was young.
And then the text says that Jesus loved him. This, by the way, is the only time in the whole Gospel of Mark that scripture says that Jesus loved anybody. Apparently, Jesus is moved in a big way by speaking to this man. So he says to him:
Sell everything you have. Give it to the poor. And follow me.
And the guy does what I would probably do and, maybe, what you would do if Jesus said the same thing me. He goes away grieving.
For he has a lot of stuff.
Then our Lord looks around at his friends and he utters what might be my favourite Jesus zinger, my favourite Jesus one-liner in all of scripture: It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.
Now, maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Maybe I have actually just explained why most American Christians, like most of the rest of our culture, don’t want to talk about money out loud. Because the way that Jesus talking right now? This is kind of squirm-inducing stuff. Jesus sure appears to be saying that being rich isn’t very good for you. Jesus’ implication sure appears to be that, just by being wealthy, by being on the rich side of what we would today call the income divide or wealth divide or, to use another contemporary economic term, by having equity that is working harder then labour, this man – and by extension you and me – are defrauding our fellow children of God. We are breaking God’s commandments, and therefore we are doing damage to our souls.
I don’t know what we do with a message like that in America, where being rich is everything, where being a winner while other people lose is everything.
If we take this passage seriously (and a number of our fellow Christians have worked pretty hard not to take it seriously – the same folks who will tell you that 1 Timothy’s prohibition on women teaching or holding authority over a man is eternal and universal will tell you that Jesus’ instruction to the rich man is only about that rich guy, not about you or me; and even those of us who don’t make that argument are likely to rationalise that we aren’t really rich because there are other people who have more stuff than us) then what does that mean as we embark upon this year’s financial stewardship campaign?
Well, there are probably, assuredly a number of answers to that question. But I’m just going to explore two. First (and maybe this is obvious, but I think it bears saying out loud), the example of Jesus is that money is something that disciples talk about directly and honestly and in an unvarnished way. Maybe – and let’s try this idea on – one of the things that Jesus wants us to know if that money is too unimportant to be a secret. We give something big power in our lives when we refuse to discuss it. Let’s not, Jesus says, give money that kind of power.
Second – and this is where I am going to spend a little more time – Jesus’ teaching, his example, is that how we spend our money is a spiritual exercise that shapes our capacity to participate fully in the Kingdom of God.
Whether or not we reckon that Jesus’ words today are directed at you and me, whether or not we think that he is really telling you and me to sell everything and give it to the poor (and let’s be clear, there have been Christians, like St. Francis and his friends, whom we remembered a couple of weeks ago, who figured that these words absolutely did apply to them), what is clear is that the Western way of clutching on to money and stuff, of living lives of anxious scarcity as opposed to lives of holy generosity, comes at a cost to our souls.
When we clutch on to material possessions and money, when we store up treasures on earth rather than in heaven, our hands become too full and too clenched to hold the Kingdom of God. They become too full and too clenched to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, to participate in building the Kingdom of God.
There is a thread. A thread that goes back into the past, way back to Jesus, way back before that to the beginning of time, when God created and said:
It is good. It is good. It is good.
For most of us, for all of us, the thread passes into the clouds and out of sight long, long before its beginning. Maybe as far back as we can see is 100 years or so, back to the place where people whom we know and loved walked and whose stories we have heard.
100 years or so ago at Grace, some people had a holy vision – a vision for a church building in this place. And so a woman by the name of Angeline Berry made a gift. Through that gift, she was for a while the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. In the 1980s, some folks at this parish decided to stretch their financial resources and purchase the parking lot outside. For a while, those folks were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. Around the same time, Bobbi Anderson’s family made the gift that made this stage or platform that the altar sits on possible. How many people’s theology has been shaped by having the altar in our midst rather than way back there? For a while, Bobbi’s family were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day.
None of these people – let’s be clear about this – bought God’s love through their gifts. God loved them unreservedly no matter what. Rather, through their gifts, they participated in God’s love, responded to God’s love.
And then we come to here. This amazing moment that we call now. This is the moment when, if you and I want, we can be Christ’s hands and feet in this world for a while. If we want, we can, with God’s help, shape what happens further down the thread. Perhaps one day – 10 years from now, 100 years from now, further down the thread – someone will say your name and say thank you.
In a month’s time you and I will be invited to make a pledge to Grace. Between now and then, we will be engaging in a spiritual practice together, a time of discernment together. We’ll be reflecting on questions about how we have experienced God’s generosity, about how we spend and save and give money, about how we want to spend and save and give money, about being Christ’s hands and feet in this world.
On November 11th, our discernment will end as we bring our pledge cards to the altar. This year as we do so, our pledge cards will look slightly different than in years past. There will be a check box on the card that says: This is a proportional gift. That statement is deliberately ambiguous. For me, when I check that box, it will mean that our family has made a tithe to the church. I have a gross salary of approximately $80,000 a year, and so our family’s pledge will be $8,000. Phoebe has income and we tithe that as well to God’s work outside of this parish.
I am aware that the subject of tithing leaves some of you here grinding your teeth. I am aware of that because you have told me. But I would be remiss not to talk about tithing. Friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding parts of our family’s spiritual practice. It is a way of making sure that our first fruits go to God, it is a way, as my friend Caroline McCall puts it, to stop haggling with God about how much God’s church is worth to us. Should I give what I gave last year? Should I give three times what I give to me alma mater? That’s not discernment. As Steve Lovett, our Senior Warden says, that’s just math.
Regardless, I encourage you to find your way to a place where you can check that box. Where your gift, in a way that makes sense to you, is proportionate to your income, to your spending, to your wealth, or to something else.
If your experience is anything like mine, a proportional gift will change your relationship with God. It will help the parish, yes. Imagine what this parish could do if we all became proportional gives, let alone if we all became tithers! We could dream big. But more importantly, a proportional gift will open your hands. It will declare that your money doesn’t own you. It will free you up to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Jesus is a lot like Gaby Dunn. He will talk to you directly about money. He will ask you how much money is in your bank account. This fall, may you and I discern a gift to God’s church that, when Jesus’ question comes, will allow us to go away from him not like the rich guy, not grieving but, rather, will allow us to go forth rejoicing.
String or thread going into the past
Opportunity to shape reality and to shape ourselves
Tithe – I’m not ashamed to ask you for one; I know this bothers some of us
Series of questions, encountered by lay people and by you and me
Done haggling with God
Pledge card – proportional gift
Relationship with money that will leave us not going away from Jesus grieving but, rather, allow us to go away rejoicing
The chance of winning the Powerball lottery is 1 in 175 million. Yet people play. A LOT of them play. We take our chances.
The chance of being struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 14,000. Yet people walk in the rain, attend sporting events in the rain, and go storm watching. We take our chances.
The chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 88. Yet people drive, even some without seat belts or too fast (not something that is advisable). Sometimes good or bad, we take our chances.
For women, the chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 8. Over 41,000 people in the United States alone die of breast cancer yearly. Yet many women do not get screened with exams or mammograms.
My name is Rachel Sanborn. I am a medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute. The term “medical oncologist” means that I am the type of doctor who helps coordinate chemotherapy, immune therapy, and other systemic treatments for cancer. My specific subspecialty is in treating lung cancer and working with early phase clinical trials for people with advanced cancers. Basically, as a group, we recognize as specialists in this field that we are the doctors no one ever wants to have to see.
In times past, there were no methods for treating cancers, let alone screening for them. Cancers were diagnosed when very advanced, and almost universally became a death sentence. History can become folklore, folklore can become pattern, and pattern can lead to sometimes unshakeable perceptions.
Times have changed. Science has changed. Treatment options for cancer have changed dramatically over the last decades. Many cancers, if caught early, can now be cured. Even when not curable, most people can live longer and with better quality of life having their cancers treated.
The term “cancer screening” means attempting to identify a cancer when it is still small, when potentially more easily treatable, and when the chance of cure is greater. The goal of cancer screening then is to find a cancer at an earlier “stage”, meaning before the cancer has had a chance to become large, or to send seeds in the body to other more distant locations. Smaller tumors in general can be more easily removed, and have had less time to send those seeds in the body to spread.
The first paper describing the use of xrays of womens’ breasts to identify breast cancers at an earlier stage was published in 1959, and thus mammography came to be. Today, mammography uses ultra-low-dose radiation to generate very high-quality and sophisticated images of breast tissue, with the images looking for small calcium deposits where they do not belong, pointing out areas of potential problem.
The fact is, most abnormalities identified on mammography are benign, meaning, not cancer. Cysts, scars, and other non-cancerous findings may show up on a mammogram, which may require further evaluation and testing, such as ultrasounds or biopsies, in order to make sure. This is the case with any screening test; in looking for the real problems, other abnormalities may be found, but you need the test to be sensitive enough that real problems are not missed in the process. In general overall concept, and to use an analogy we are used to hearing in church, with a screening test like a mammogram we will still need to separate the wheat from the chaff. But we don’t want too much wheat to escape.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force has found that mammograms have reduced mortality, the chances of dying, from breast cancer. The amount of benefit from mammograms can vary by a number of factors, such as age, family history, and a woman’s general health status. This has led to different organizations making slightly different recommendations for timing of having mammograms, but the overall message is that mammograms are important, and for a woman it is important to talk with their doctor about recommended timing of mammograms and breast cancer screening. For a relatively quick test that has been around for almost 60 years, there are some estimates that 1/3 of eligible women don’t get tested. In some groups, this number can be even higher.
This is particularly important when we look at the fact that in the US, African-American women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer, meaning that breast cancers are diagnosed more often at more advanced stages, with more aggressive cancers, and African-American women have higher mortality rates with breast cancer.
Why do women not get screened? The answers to this question can be many and complex. There is fear: the test might hurt, it might be embarrassing. There is nihilism: finding the cancer won’t change the outcome, I don’t want to know. There is lack of awareness. There is concern for cost.
The last part of that issue is a challenge in every society worldwide, and our relatively affluent country is no exception. Many people in the US are without health care coverage, or fit into a category we call “underinsured”, which can make the out of pocket costs for mammograms and other basic health screening prohibitive.
For the last part, at least, there is good news. There are services that can provide financial help or even free mammograms for women without adequate insurance coverage. There are people and organizations willing to help. Having a mammogram does not need to be financially out of reach for a woman who may be recommended to be screened. In the coffee hour today, there will be information provided specifically about resources in Oregon and Washington to help cover the cost of mammography for women who need it.
Chances of surviving 5 years with stage I breast cancer, the earliest stage, is close to 100%. Chances of surviving 5 years with stage IV breast cancer (cancer that has spread to other areas of the body) is about 22%.
If a woman has a mammogram, there is a chance something will be found. There is a chance she will need more evaluation. There is a chance she will even need to see a doctor like me. There is a chance the news will be bad. There is a (pretty good) chance that in most situations, she may still be able to be cured with treating the cancer, and will be able to live the rest of her life cancer-free. It may be scary, it may not be easy.
I’ve been struggling these past few days. Maybe you have been struggling too.
Watching and listening to and reading about Thursday morning’s hearings was hard. Witnessing the kind of pain we saw on Thursday morn, the kind of grief that we saw, the kind of anger that we saw, the kind of trauma that we saw; well, I think that many of us paid a price for our witness.
I know that many of us paid a price for our witness.
I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I know that there are survivors here this morning. And I know that all of us have survivors whom we love in our immediate network. I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. As paltry as that is, I am sorry that these past few days have touched such profound wounds in so many lives.
The price that we paid for watching these hearings was magnified for me and maybe for you by the deep mistrust and even contempt that it is apparent that many of our elected officials feel for one another and that many of our fellow citizens feel for one another. The marriage researchers, John Gottman and his spouse and collaborator Julie Gottman, have learned that contempt is the most consistent and reliable predictors of a divorce. What does this kind of mutual contempt mean for our country?
I realised how much all of this was weighing on me when I got up on Friday morning in a state of amorphous anxiety and anger. I was pissed off at nothing, at everything. I felt like I had been mainlining the news, that the reports out of Washington were an IV running directly into my arm and leaving me dangerously off-balance. On Friday morning, it felt like losing my keys or stubbing my toe might be the sort of thing that would be too much, that would leave me shouting and my hands shaking.
I remembered the scene in that movie About a Boy, in which a single Mom, played by the incomparable Toni Collette, is unable to fit a dish into her kitchen cupboard. And so she just begins to sob.
What do we do with an experience like this? How do you encounter it and not feel despair? How, in particular, do we encounter it as church?
Here’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to regurgitate something that you have heard elsewhere, somewhere outside of church, except dressed up in religious language. There is a quip from maybe 50 years ago that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer. Here on the West Coast in 2018, our danger is almost the opposite, our danger is in becoming the Democratic Party at prayer – and the left wing of the party at that.
That’s not any better.
When a preacher, when a Christian, takes pre-existing taking points and then proof texts them with the Bible, when they enlist Jesus to back up whatever they were already going to say – that’s something that I have probably done, that I have assuredly done – well, we fail as disciples when we do that.
Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I’d like us to notice that this is the day when the church is full of an unusual number of furry parishioners, the day when we talk about and celebrate St. Francis. On occasion of shared hurt, I’d like to wonder about what this gentle Saint from the town of Assisi might have to teach us.
Generally speaking, we don’t spend a whole lot of time remembering Saints these days. Gone is the time when Feast Days were a big part of our shared life, when an English village would turn into something like a carnival when the Feast of St. Lydia or St. Stephen or whoever came along.
But Francis remains kind of a big deal. You see his statue in a lot of places, including Grace’s own garden. And on this day, we move his readings from mid-week to a Sunday in order to specially remember him. (That practice, by the way, while widespread is authorised nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer. This is a total deviation from the rules.)
Why do we do it? Is this just kind of harmless fun?
Maybe it is that. There is something wonderful about the prayers of the people when the congregational response includes a few barks. But I think that there is more than that going on. I think that this is a day that reminds us of who God is, of what God is like, and of what God thinks about us.
Every now and again, you’ll encounter one of those bumper stickers that says Dog is my co-pilot. And I have at least one friend who finds those stickers offensive or blasphemous.
But actually, I think that they might be okay theology.
What if the love with which a dog looks at the members of its family is a lot like the love with which God looks at you and me?
I have heard folks say that what they value so much about their pets is that their pets love them unconditionally. But as a theologian observed a while back, putting the word unconditional before the word love is actually a redundant. Love that is conditional isn’t love at all: that’s just approval. Genuine love is without limit or constraint. That is the kind of love that God has for you and me. We see that love made manifest in our pets.
In this season of hurt, know that you are loved. You are loved absolutely and without reservation.
Maybe that is a platitude. But it’s also true. And Francis knew that it is a truth that, should we come to believe it, should we come to trust in it, will change everything. Imagine what the world would look like if we all knew ourselves, knew in our bones, that we are God’s beloved children, and that our neighbours are equally beloved.
Francis was not, is not, a naïve saint. He knew about suffering, he lived in poverty, he worked for justice. Late in his life, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. His body bore the hardship of being alive, of risking love. But he also was and is a saint who knows that this life is so, so beautiful. And that Jesus is with us every step of the way, whispering God’s love our ears, challenging us to grow in faith and in compassion, to grow not so that God might love us, but to grow because God loves us.
We have big work to do. Big work as individuals, as a parish, as a county, as a human family, as a family of all of God’s creatures. If we are to do that work, the work of bringing justice nearer, of bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, we need the strength of God’s love. We need to voice of Jesus, which never ceases to say:
A professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia by the name of Dennis Danielson has taken on an unusual retirement project. Danielson decided to examine curricula and student handbooks from educational institutions across Canada.
Danielson reviewed these documents looking for a particular word. Late in his career, he had started noticing that this word was appearing over and over. And he had a hunch that he would find it similarly repeated across the nation. The word that he did indeed find in one context after another was the word inappropriate.
Certain conduct when writing an essay is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your fellow students is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your professors is inappropriate.
Prior to his retirement, Danielson was a professor of literature. He was and is, like me and like many people in this room, someone who loves words. And he was and is, also like me and like many people in this room, someone who knows that words play a huge role in creating our understanding of reality. How we tell a story plays a huge in creating reality.
When we use the word waterboarding – waterboarding sounds like some kind of sport, like it might be fun – to describe simulated drownings that sometimes turn into actual drownings, that shapes how we think about the actions of our country. When we use the term collateral damage to talk about accidentally killing civilians in a bombing raid, that shapes how we think about war. When we talk about an allegation of sexual violence and our words focus primarily the harm that might be done to the alleged perpetrator’s future or how the incident in question happened decades in the alleged perpetrator’s past rather than on the trauma of his victim, those words shape how we think about justice.
Danielson’s thesis is that the educational documents he reviewed are doing something similar, that their heavy use of inappropriate in lieu of words that would have been common a generation or two ago – words like wrong or immoral or in a church context, sin – is shaping how we think about right behaviour, about just behaviour, about loving behaviour.
Inappropriate is a word that has a bland, conditional, equivocal, punch-pulling flavour to it. “Plagiarising your essay is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “plagiarising your essay is wrong.” “Engaging in vicious gossip is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “Engaging in vicious gossip is immoral.”
Now, I understand how we got to where we are. (I think I can safely use the word “we” here – while Danielson’s study focuses on Canadian educational contexts, but my guess is that it is not a stretch to say that American syllabi and employee manuals newspaper articles use inappropriate as early and as often as Canadian contexts.) Words like wrong and immoral and sin have a pretty long history of being used in a poisonous way, especially here within the church.
I have an acquaintance who says that it is almost impossible for her to hear the word should (as in, “you should clean up your room”) without all of the guilt of her conservative church upbringing crashing over her like a wave. That’s not an accident. These words are used by people in positions of power – people like pastors – to induce shame and the off balance state and the compliance that comes with shame.
These words are used as well to shut down debate. “Homosexuality is wrong” is a statement that doesn’t invite a whole lot of conversation. Or let’s track back a generation or five: “Women having the vote is wrong” or “Ending slavery is wrong.” How do we respond to statements like that?
I guess what I’m saying is that I get the instinct to excise these words from our vocabulary. Reaching for inappropriate early and often, by and large, is a choice that comes from a place of good intention.
However, it is also a mistake.
One of the most important things that the GLBTQ community and that other marginalised communities have taught to me is that we are not required to cede the meaning of words to anyone, including to people with power or privilege. The GLBTQ community has said, for instance, that we refuse to allow words referring to gay men to be insults or to be diagnoses. That is not and must not be cannot be what those words mean.
Inspired by my GLBTQ friends, I’ve wanted to ask the question: Do we want to cede control of church words and/or moral words to people who use them in a screwed up way? Does evangelism need to mean aggressively pushing your faith on people who just wish you would get off of their porch? What if that word meant loving Jesus so much and finding so much freedom and joy and meaning in following Jesus that you want everyone to have what you have found?
And could words like should, like wrong, like immoral (or for that matter right or moral or grace) function not as triggers for shame, not as devices for shutting down debate, not as perpetuators of patriarchy but, rather, as catalysts for moral clarity?
The problem with inappropriate and its wishy-washiness is that all but invites one of the great rejoinders of our time:
That’s just your opinion.
Whatever the moral question is that may be before us, your response to it is just your opinion, it is one opinion amongst many, all of which are equally valid. And sometimes that’s okay, I guess. But sometimes it really isn’t.
I remember vividly my professor when I was in first-year university doing a thought experiment with our class. Imagine, he said, that there are a row of babies sitting on the floor, babies of every gender, every colour, every everything. And now imagine that I walked down the row of babies, kicking each one in the head.
Would any of you think that was okay?
No! Kicking babies is wrong. It is evil. That is not just my opinion. Such an action would be categorically, unequivocally evil.
Taking children away from their parents at the border is wrong. Selling guns that meet three-quarters of the test for being assault rifles to the general public is wrong. Snipers gunning down unarmed protesters as they near the Gaza Strip border is wrong. The way that human beings treat God’s creation is wrong. Allowing people to sleep on the streets of Portland because the rest of us more or less like things how they are is wrong. Marching through the streets of America with a Nazi flag and a Tiki torch is wrong.
In his marvellous sermon last week, Corbet talked about Jesus as teacher and, in particular, about Jesus as asker of questions – sometimes a great teacher will ask a question that just opens everything up, that changes everything. This week we see Jesus using another tactic of the great teacher, and that is he employs the strong moral language that we have been talking about, accompanied by a strong moral image.
Sometimes Jesus says to us, to his students, You brood of vipers not You people who are behaving inappropriately.
So, the disciples are walking along. Jesus has just told them that following him means taking up their crosses, but they have no idea what this means. We know that they have no idea because the text says so – they did not understand what he was saying. We also know that they have no idea because, talk of the cross notwithstanding, they start arguing about which one of them is the greatest. James says to Peter: I am way more holy than you. And Peter says: Are not. To which James replies: Am so.
Are not. Am so. Are not. Am so.
And Jesus interrupts them and he says:
What are you guys talking about?
And they immediately clam up. They are like, O crap. He heard us.
Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they were talking about. And so he says:
They sit down and Jesus sits in the middle of them. And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last. Not “it would be appropriate for the first to be last,” not “This is just my opinion, but maybe the first could be last.” But the first must, must be last.
And then a child runs into his arms. And the two of them sit there for a moment, in the middle of the disciples, Jesus holding the little girl or boy.
Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.
So, whoever welcomes the one without power or status or money or fancy words, welcomes me. And this teaching is underscored by where Jesus and the child sit, here in the middle of the circle of disciples. Is this the place where the teacher sits? Maybe it is. But remember that Jesus has just been talking about the cross, so maybe the circle represents something else. Because the middle of the circle is where the one who gets stoned by the mob stands, it is where the first martyr, Stephen, will die in a few years’ time. The symbol backs up the words: I am with those on the margins, I am with those who suffer violence. If you are my disciples, you must be here too, you should be here too.
The institutional church has worked pretty hard to make words like wrong and immoral and sin refer overwhelmingly to sexuality and then to make that into a source of shame. But the example of Jesus is that sin refers to something way more important than that. Maybe we could venture that sin is another way of saying selfishness. Sin is refusing to be last, refusing to serve. Sin is when we abandon Jesus and the child in the middle of the circle. It is when we say that I am safe where I am and I’m going to stay here.
We need words that talk about our calling, about our mortal duty as disciples. These words have been used in defence of a bent theology. But we don’t need to let that bent theology own them.
It is wrong, it is immoral, it is a sin to hang back on the edge of the circle. It is right to stand with Jesus, that is something that we should do. It is right to stand with the child, to be Jesus’ arms and hands holding that child within this hurting world. And here is the good news: when we say yes to that calling, when we risk stepping into the middle of the circle with Jesus, when we risk becoming last, we will find God’s freedom not only for that child but God’s freedom for ourselves.