The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”

Believing in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do:  believe in impossible things.

I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence.  Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance.   The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith.  Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.

ImageA few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades.  For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.

Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction:  distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.

What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience?  Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart.  When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble.  We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads.  We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score.  We have never had proofs.  We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.

Mother Teresa was a witness.  Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing  – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away.  “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.  In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love.  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights.  Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them.  Far more convincing is the sight of  “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses   That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.

Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things.  The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway.  And that makes all the difference.

Gospel for Insiders and Outsiders

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Jesus and the Canaanite Woman* (Pentecost 15A)

I am not preaching tomorrow and have the luxury of simply noodling around in a difficult text, i.e., the story told in Matthew’s Gospel about a woman who accosts Jesus while he is trying to take some down time from his own unbelievably stressed daily life.

If you know the story, then you know that the scandal of this invasion of Jesus’s privacy is not only that the accoster is female, but that she belongs to an inferior group of people – the Gentiles. Since most of us are Gentiles, we may not immediately realize what a bad and alien thing that is in Jesus’s particular First Century Jewish culture. Jesus’ disciples rudely prevent the foreign woman’s access to their group.

The woman responds to their jeers by shouting that she needs to see Jesus because her daughter is “tormented by a demon.” Jesus has a popular reputation for curing people of diseases and infirmities and she wants his help. Jesus answers by calling the woman’s people “dogs,” the woman seems to make a witty retort, and Jesus ends up healing the daughter because, he says, the woman has great faith.

That’s the story. And very often, in dealing with this text, preachers claim that Jesus was just kidding or that he was testing her, and, anyway, that the reference to “dogs” can be explained away and is not nearly as derogatory as it sounds. I’ve done it myself so I can quickly get to the punch line of how the woman’s insistence in addressing Jesus ultimately changed his mind about his mission.

The problem with deflecting attention away from the actual letter of the text is that it blatantly disrespects the word, treating it, as Augustine scholar Robert O’Connell once put it, “as a trampoline, [the] occasion for an impatient leap into the discarnate realms of spiritual interpretation.”**

The text, O’Connell argued, deserves respect. And so do the “real, historical things” dealt with in the text – the context, the town, the earth, etc. — which ought not simply be “sublimated into symbols.” Id. The fact that a biblical text offends our own sense of possibility is not sufficient reason to treat it as spiritual metaphor.

The truth is, this gospel of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is patently offensive and needs taking seriously because it is offensive to us. What Jesus says to this woman sounds racist. At best, he seems to have adopted a stereotyped bias against an “outsider” – non-Jewish and non-male – who is not entitled to respect or attention.

Moreover, and this also is offensive to us, the woman in the story debases herself by making a witticism to mask the insult of Jesus’ rejection of her personhood. I thought immediately of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late 19th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” which describes black people smiling to mask their anger.*** And I thought of how women, historically, often have played dumb or ditzy in order to have any power at all. The truth is, I suspect, that oppressed people smile and shuffle a lot.

What is interesting here is Jesus and I think of St. Paul’s comment that “he became sin for our sake.” Jesus is human, and therefore tribal, and therefore benefitting from the accidents of being Jewish and male in a society that values and rewards Jewish males: I cannot, he says, “take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” He will not, he says, take the salvation and healing intended for the Chosen People and dispense it to infidels and outsiders.

One of the reasons scholars are said to accept this story as true is because they think it is so unflattering to Jesus that it’s unlikely to have been kept in if it didn’t really happen. Ah, but it raises uncomfortable questions about our own place in this story. What, e.g., enabled Jesus to empathize with this woman who, moments before, was – as far as he was concerned — essentially subhuman? Was it her persistence in coming at him? There was a Stanford study reported by ABC News last year which concluded that people who are targets of prejudice confront a bigot only when they think the bigoted person can change. Is that what happened? Did she see his possibilities before he did?

Did this unnamed woman show Jesus his “dark side,” the Jungian Human Shadow that we are told we must all face if we are ever to understand our humanity and vulnerability to being outsiders? And is our own knowledge of suffering and victimhood actually necessary to acquire the gift of compassion?

I continue to ponder… .
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* Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-282.

** This wonderful phrase is from his 1978 article, “Art and the Christian Intelligence” (in St. Augustine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 138).

***  “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

Human Violence and the News, Part 1

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Perhaps when distant people on other planets pick up some wave-length of ours all they hear is a continuous scream. 

 •  Iris Murdoch, The Message to the Planet (1989)

As I browsed through the news on Twitter and Facebook and the New York Times this morning, Murdoch’s statement felt profoundly apt.  The Syrian government attacks and murders and pursues its people across borders while the U.S. refuses to call for its dictator/president to “step down.” Robert Mugabe’s forces in Zimbabwe systematically brutalize and torture citizens rather than cede the power he was voted out of three years ago. Northern Sudanese paramilitary forces maraud and burn towns and crops along the infamous Tenth Parallel, anxious to grab as much territory as possible prior to the South’s vote for secession.   Libyans live with the cruelty of both chaos and violence while Quaddafi’s government hangs on by its fingernails.  Somalia is in trouble, as always.  We have simply become accustomed to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And in truth, we cannot point to any spot on the globe that lacks deep experience with human violence and cruelty.

It’s hard to believe that a continuous scream is not rising up from our planet.

However, Harvard professor and psycholinguist Steven Pinker makes claims to the contrary. Pinker’s argument (made originally at a TED Conference in 2007[1] and widely presented in various venues since that time) is that human violence is at the lowest level it has ever been in the entire history of our species. Twitter evidence and our own intuition to the contrary, Pinker has statistics and specific history[2] demonstrating that over the millennia of our existence, we have become measurably kinder and progressively less violent.

So, why are our perceptions about violence and the facts about violence so dramatically different?  While Pinker points to both our cognitive limitations and our own moral psychology, he also suggests a more basic reason:  the “news media,” he says, “has the unprecedented ability to send cameramen to places in the world where violence takes place and beam them back to our laptop screens or television. Moreover, they have the programming philosophy ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’”

All of which is true.   But does it make any difference in broaching the subject of evil?  And why don’t I feel more comforted?

To be continued…


[1] TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”  TED is a non-profit organization started in 1984 and committed to sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  The organization holds one conference each year in the U.S. and Europe, bringing together, in their words, “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).”  For more information, see www.ted.com.

[2] The substance of Pinker’s presentation at TED and elsewhere can be read here: A History of Violence The New Republic, Mar. 19, 2007 (downloadable PDF) or at:  Edge, online here.