Sermon: January 30, 2011
Epiphany 4, Year A
Text: 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25
Matthew 5: 1-12
A lot of people have been very good about asking me how I’m doing in the wake of P. K.’s suicide. You know that P. was a friend as well as a member of the parish, and I am grateful for your words of support.
The very first thing we need to keep in mind, of course, is how our friend S. is doing, and her son, D., and P.s’s two children, G. and J. We need to be supporting them, sending them our love, praying for them. We can only imagine what they are going through.
Speaking for myself – and I do so only because I suspect I am not alone with these feelings – I have felt the presence of God throughout this time of terrible grace.
P’s memorial service was as healing for me as I hear it was for many of you. And I want you to know that I have taken my own advice – I have been spending more than the usual amount of time in retreat and prayer; I have been talking to friends and opening myself to the consolations of God’s healing love.
But I also want you to know that I am not “fine.” This is hard for me. I know that I will get to the point when I’m not thinking about P. pretty much every 30 seconds, but that seems a long way off for me right now. I have been opening myself to God’s gift of acceptance but I’m not there yet.
I found myself the other day dreaming about an exotic vacation – getting away to someplace else, someplace nice; someplace where it doesn’t hurt so much. Like anyone who is in pain I want the pain to go away. But I realized I could go to the other side of the moon and this pain would follow me there.
As a preacher once said, “There’s no geographical solution for the human condition.” There is no amusement park or shopping center or movie theater that lets you check your old coat of grief at the door and just leave it there. There’s no drug, no TV show, no job that is powerful enough to make us forget our pain for good.
Since the beginning of time we humans have been trying to run away from our pain. If we could just make more money; if we could just get that new house; if we could just move to the south of France….
Well, who can blame us for trying?
So where do we go with our pain?
There’s something to be said for the Buddhist approach – if life is suffering, and suffering is inevitable, then cultivating a capacity for detachment makes sense. Christians could all learn a thing or two from the Buddhists about how this is accomplished – and of course, learning to let go is at the heart of all Christian prayer. So that’s one place to go: detachment.
But then we have St. Paul – mad, whimsical, difficult Paul – who dares suggest another route. A different kind of geographical solution, if you will. He suggests we travel to the lovely vacation spot of Golgotha. The place of the skull. In the depths of our suffering, he says, travel to the cross.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…”
Foolishness – no?
Some scholars believe the place where Jesus was killed not only served as a place for executions; it was also a place for dumping your trash. It was a place outside the walls of the city; a place of filth and devastation; packs of stray dogs on the loose, birds picking at the corpses.
Why would anyone want to go there?
Paul had one of the finest educations of his time. He had studied the Greeks; he had been a star pupil in his studies as a Pharisee; he had traveled widely, enough to meet plenty of rich, well-educated, well-fed people who were also despondent. He saw that their learning had not solved the uneasiness of their hearts.
When I was a young man, searching for God and the meaning of life, hitch-hiking all over the United States, living in communes and ashrams and homeless shelters, sleeping on beaches and under freeways, I kept thinking there must be some religion out there that had the key. I imagined a place somewhere – somewhere, perhaps, over the rainbow - a community of enlightened souls; a place where Wisdom was cherished and nurtured. I would find a guru who had found the right meditation, the right technique, the right teaching, and I could go there and be with him, and find the Truth that would set me free.
But everywhere I went, I kept running into the human condition. Gurus who slept with their disciples; disciples who were just as petty, and shallow, and anxious for status, just as manipulative and dishonest as anyone outside the ashram.
In other words, I kept running into the human condition.
But the alarming thing was how everyone in the ashram would practice a careful kind of blindness with respect to this condition; they kept nurturing the fantasy that someday they, too, would lift themselves by their karmic bootstraps and slip the bonds of the human condition, like Harry Houdini escaping from a straight jacket.
And so it seemed to me there was a kind of state of denial about the fact that, at least as far as I could see, they were still pretty normal, flawed people. One minute they would be describing their latest ecstatic epiphany, and the next minute they’d be bitterly complaining, or furiously gossiping, or sneaking off to the 7-11 for a Hostess Twinkie.
And then I met some Christians. I was suspicious; I didn’t want to get too close to them; I disagreed with some of them about their interpretation of Scripture and it seemed to me that many of them were in the thrall of a homophobic panic; I saw that they, too, were no better or worse than the disciples in the ashram; there was just as much pettiness and hypocrisy among the Christians as anywhere else; but the only difference was they freely admitted that they were just as full of it as the next person.
Someone once said that the only thing that distinguishes Christians from everyone else is that they know they are sinners.
Nobody is better than anyone else.
The homeless folks who show up here on Sunday morning for food and hot coffee – the thing about that ministry is not that we feed hungry people. Anyone can put food out for hungry people. What makes it Christian is that we all know that not one of us is any better than any of them.
We are all equally full of it.
On one level, that’s not very encouraging. But you know what? As a starting point, it’s not a bad one. When I saw that in my Christian friends, I could see some wisdom there.
The cross, raised high for everyone to see – set in the middle of a dump.
I heard a preacher, admired and celebrated, who spoke openly about his struggles with depression. I had never heard a guru admit to any such failing. That impressed me. He said that a lifetime of prayer and meditation hadn’t achieved what six months with good therapy had. He said that if we didn’t pay attention to the simple basic rules of mental and physical health, we would only be chasing our tails. He talked about paying attention to the body – and not some impressive athlete’s body; not the body we think we should have, or will have as soon as we get around to going back to the gym and losing those 10 or 20 pounds – but our bodies as they are: flab and wrinkles and all. He talked about how facing down our shame about our bodies and honoring the blessing of our bodies was the beginning of wisdom.
That impressed me.
I read the writings of Martin Luther and how he wrote his sermons while sitting in the outhouse.
What kind of religion is this, I wondered?
Well, it seems to be a religion without illusions. It seems to be a religion without pretense; a religion that has come to terms with the human condition. A religion where I could begin to just be… myself. With all my insecurities and failings; all of my anger and all of my shame and all of my selfishness – I could take it to the town dump; I could take it to the cross. And there, at the heart of this religion, there, at the very beginning of it all, I would find all of it –the worst of the human condition – all the crap of the world: lust for power; violence against the innocent; persecution of the poor; public humiliation; judgment and shame in every shape and form; abject failure; including the ultimate failure - death itself – there it all was.
All of my pain. All of my suffering. All of my bruised ideals and crushed hopes. Everything that I had ever been ashamed of. Every bit of myself that was death to me.
Blessed. Forgiven. Made whole.
What happens when the worst thing in the world takes place: Christ has died. And worse, we’re the ones who betrayed him. What happens when even that crime is forgiven, and blessed?
What happens when everything you’ve been ashamed of is suddenly made whole?
What happens when everything you’ve been trying to let go of is suddenly ...gone?
Maybe what’s left is the only thing that ever existed in the first place: love.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.
"Blessed are those who mourn.
"Blessed are the meek.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
"Blessed are the merciful
"Blessed are the pure in heart.”
That’s the starting point: blessing.
Where we go from there – well, that’s the great adventure.
All I know is that we’ll get there together.
Somebody say, AMEN.