Without love, all is lost

On Monday I wrote a sermon.  I drafted it, let it sit overnight, worked on it some more, and then had Jill read it.  She gave it the clergy spouse seal of approval, so I was ready for today.  It was a pretty good sermon.  As I always am, I was relieved when it was neatly printed and placed in the center of my desk.  (I’m fastidious like that.)  But I’m not preaching that sermon.  Late in the week I deep-sixed it in the recycle bin.  I’m preaching something different.

Usually, I preach on the Gospel.  Occasionally, I preach on the Old Testament text.  Almost never do I preach on the epistle.  At three of our four English-language services on Sunday, most weeks we don’t even read the epistle.  But last Sunday afternoon, when I read today’s propers for the first time, I dutifully read the epistle, and as the week wore on, it tightened its grip on me and wouldn’t let go.  More about that in a moment.

And then, on Tuesday evening Barbara Bush died.  I only met Mrs. Bush once, and then only in passing.  Her death ought not to have affected me beyond being a notable headline.  Perhaps it was because so many broadcasters referred to Mrs. Bush as “America’s Mom.”  I’m not sure.  Regardless, as I pondered her gentility, her civility, her empathy for those around her, I began to lament.  The loss of Barbara Bush strikes me, if you’ll allow a crude analogy, the way that the loss of a white rhinoceros strikes me: There are too few of them remaining, and we can’t afford to lose another.

Barbara Bush

I don’t mean to idealize Mrs. Bush unrealistically.  I am told that she could be a pistol in private.  My deeper lament is for the state of our culture, which the loss of Mrs. Bush accentuated for me.  It seems to me that, in our culture, our capacity for empathy is failing us.

I am not alone in my lament.  Gary Olson, author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain says that our society increasingly “displays an anethetized conscience towards the suffering of others.”[i]  Olson goes on to say that we hear the cries of those in all sorts of need around us, but our “moral sound waves are muted as they pass through powerful cultural baffles.”[ii]

That resonates with me.  At every turn in our culture, it seems, something discourages empathy.  Politics is now so divisive, with a vanishing sense of the common good.  Officials elected to represent a constituency increasingly refuse to receive comments or concerns from constituents not of their political party, as if they only represent those who voted for them.

Sarcasm—vicious, biting sarcasm—is the lingua franca of the day, from politicians, late night television hosts, and even in common conversation on the street or around the water cooler.  Increasingly, people will malign anyone, irrespective of the cost to that person, as if zingers score some sort of cosmic points.

The author Peter Bazalgette points to the unempathetic nature of the internet as the drain down which our capacity for empathy is spiraling.  Bazalgette says, “If you take the average working environment now, you spend most of your time not talking to people or even phoning them but sending them an email. Without facial expressions or tone of voice, you’re not aware of the impact of words. [We] see this with cyber bullying and revenge porn, [where people] don’t see the victim of [their] bad behavior.”[iii]

Gary Olson might agree that the internet is a contributor, but he believes the problem is much more pervasive.  Olson says, “We [have] come to view our ‘selves,’ our identities, as based primarily on market values, especially ‘Only care about yourself and a few persons close to you.’ One advances in society via rugged self-reliance, and individuals are basically hypercompetitive, perpetual consumers.”

Olson may be right.  I remember a time when the media used to refer to the American public as “citizens,” whereas now that term has been completely supplanted by “consumers.”  We approach the world by what use it is to us, and too often the real and sensitive lives of other people are barriers to be avoided or overcome, not empathized with.

What is empathy?  I know of no better definition than Harper Lee’s, placed on the lips of Atticus Finch and spoken to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Atticus says to his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”[iv]

atticus and scout

When was the last time many of us really, truly did that?  Empathy is more than charity or sympathy.  Empathy is more than doing a kindness.  Empathy is being vulnerable enough to see the world through the eyes—the experience—of another.  Empathy is an act of love.

And that’s why today’s epistle lesson grabbed hold of me this week and would not let me know.  Today we read from the First Letter of John, which reveals to us a few verses after today’s reading that “God is love.”[v]

Note John’s language carefully.  John does not say that God loves.  Loving is not a thing God does, like brushing God’s teeth or mowing the grass.  John says that God is love.  That is who and what God is in God’s very nature.  God’s character is love.  God’s passion is love.  God’s commitment to the world is love.  And God carried out the supreme act of empathy when God, literally, took Atticus Finch’s advice.  In Jesus, God climbed into our skin and walked around in it.  God experienced the world as we do, with our confusion, our vulnerability, and our pain.  Today John says, “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us.”

Nativity icon 2

“In Jesus, God climbed into our skin and walked around in it.  God experienced the world as we do, with our confusion, our vulnerability, and our pain.”

God’s empathy for us becomes our model and calling.  And not only because the world needs it.  Remember, God himself is love, and 1 John tells us that the way we meet God, and know God, and deeply encounter God is through our acts of empathy and love.  When we love, God flows through us.  John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not [only] in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Why, so often, are we unable to do this?  Why are we susceptible to the anonymity of the internet or the consumerism of our culture as barriers between us and our fellow human beings?  David Niose, who blogs for Psychology Today, believes our lack of empathy has its roots in fear.[vi]  We are fearful of the world’s cruelty and of the things we have being taken away from us.  The irony is, of course, that our fear creates the very cruelty of which we are afraid.  The irony is that without empathy, without the capacity to love our fellow human beings, we lose our relationships with them and we lose, by definition, our relationship with the God who is love.

In the novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky, the priest Father Re says to the teenager Pino, who is afraid to help Italian Jews escape to Switzerland over the Alps, “We can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened.  If we lose love, all is lost.”[vii]

Earlier in 1 John, John says, “We pass from death to life because we love one another.”[viii]  Those are the truest words I know.  If we lose love, all is lost.  So let us go from this place with the willingness to climb into one another’s skin, to see through one another’s eyes, and to allow the God who is greater than our hearts to swell those hearts with empathy and love.

_____________________________

[i]https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/01/14/why-so-little-empathy-and-compassion-within-american-culture.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/as-a-society-are-we-losing-our-empathy-1.2947921

[iv] Lee, Harper.  To Kill A Mockingbird.

[v] 1 John 4:8.

[vi] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201603/beware-americas-shocking-loss-empathy.

[vii] Sullivan, Mark.  Beneath a Scarlet Sky, 102.

[viii] 1 John 3:14.

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April Fools

This holiday is unlike any other.  Over the years, people faithful to this day have observed it in myriad unforgettable ways.[i]

I suppose its unavoidable that the day would become commercialized, but at least in this case companies that hope to capitalize on it have been creative.  For instance, in 1998 Burger King used the holiday as the opportunity to advertise the “Left-Handed Whopper,” a brilliant culinary move from the standpoint of this left-hander, who has suffered under the discomfort of eating right-handed foods my entire life.

A couple of years before, in 1996, Taco Bell announced on this very day that the fast-food chain had purchased the Liberty Bell and rechristened it the Taco Liberty Bell.  Remember that?  It’s great for our national treasures to have corporate sponsorship.

This is sometimes a day for big sports announcements, too.  Back in 1985, Sports Illustrated released a holiday story about that great rookie phenom pitcher, Sidd Finch, who could throw a 168 mile per hour fastball.  Just think if he were in the Astros bullpen today!

Taco liberty bell

Going back even further, and increasing the sophistication substantially, in 1957 the BBC used this holiday that in many ways marks the beginning of spring as an opportunity to shed light on agricultural practices by airing a documentary on the spaghetti farmers of Switzerland.  The televised film showed Swiss peasant farm workers carrying out the delicate but exhausting spaghetti harvest, in which each noodle must be carefully hand-picked from the spaghetti trees, lest the strands be bruised or broken.

Yes, what a holiday!  What a day!  You might say that up is down, and backward is forward.  You might say that this is a day on which anything can happen.  So, I’ll say to you with joy and enthusiasm, happy April Fools Day!

Most sources say that the origin of April Fools Day extends back to 1582, the year France officially switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent a few years earlier.  On the old calendar, the new year began on March 25 and was celebrated during that week, ending on April 1. Change is hard.  It takes effect slowly and isn’t immediately accepted by many, especially in the hinterlands.  Many French folk liked their New Year’s celebrations on April 1, thank you very much, and they refused to concede the new date of January 1.  These obstinate folks became the butt of jokes and pranks and were known as “April fools.”

Spaghetti farmer

Swiss spaghetti farmer, from the BBC “documentary”

There may be factual accuracy in that legend, or it may be just another April Fools hoax.  Who knows?  As for me, I contend that April Fools, at least as we celebrate it on this particular year, goes back much further.  Two thousand years further, in fact, to an early morning moment at the entrance to a garden tomb within eyesight of three rough-hewn crosses standing atop a rocky hill.

Three women visit that tomb to anoint a corpse with aromatic spices.  Theirs is a sad and lonely task, but one as old as humanity itself.  In this case, the man they go to anoint was beloved by them.  Earlier, he had met them where they were in life, changed them with his words, and beckoned them toward a day when God’s greatest hopes for the world would become reality.  But then Jerusalem’s leaders conspired with the Roman occupiers to kidnap him, beat him senseless, and crucify him on one of those crosses just beyond the tombs.  It appears that what the women thought they’d encountered in him was unreal, and he is dead.

Nevertheless, the three women go to the tomb on Sunday morning as an act of respect, devotion, and love.  But when they arrive, the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body of Jesus is gone.  Instead, a young man is waiting for them in the tomb, and he says to the women, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

What has happened?  Has the corpse been stolen?  Is this a vicious prank on those who are already spiraling in grief?  Is this April Fools?

The question is left open-ended.  Mark’s Gospel ends by saying, “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  That’s it.  In other words, in Mark there is no post-Easter scene of Jesus meeting the disciples in the upper room, or of Peter encountering the risen Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  There is only the missing body, the encouraging young man, and the women amazed into silence.  And so, the question remains: Was Easter the first April Fools, or did the dead rise?  Was the empty tomb a hoax, or was it a world-shattering miracle?

As time passed, the world outside the circle of Jesus’ followers certainly had an opinion.  St. Paul reports that the Easter story was, “foolishness”[ii] to many in his day, and it is still so today.  To those looking in at us who gather in churches today to celebrate Easter, we might as well be lumped together with the people who believe spaghetti noodles grow on trees.

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

Maybe.  How can we know?  I suppose the answer turns on whether or not we have heard the young man in the tomb’s words, followed his directions, and discovered them to be true.  The young man says to the women, “Jesus is not to be found in tombs.  He is alive, and he has gone ahead of you to Galilee.”

So we must ask ourselves before we ask about the reliability of Easter:  Have we walked out of the tombs in our lives, whatever those places are in your life and mine where we have stagnated and perhaps felt trapped?  There is no stone blocking the door.  The way is clear.  So long as we have failed to emerge from our tombs, failed to step through the open door and into the sunlight, of course we’ll call Easter foolish, and of course we won’t meet the risen Jesus.  We’ve already been told that he will not be found in tombs.

But if we do walk through the open door from which the stone has been rolled away, and if we do begin to walk in the direction of Galilee—if we quit looking for signs of Jesus in a decaying life and instead look for him ahead of us, beckoning us toward a different and brighter future—then what had seemed like foolishness will begin to feel like hope.

And as we walk that way, as we take each step down that road toward Galilee, the musty air and moldering dank of the tomb will waft further and further away.  Where we had felt dead, emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps almost physically, we will realize in our own amazement that we are newly alive.  We will experience resurrection—perhaps some already have—and in that experience, we will encounter the Jesus who is very much alive.

St. Paul tells us that through Easter, God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  So this is, indeed, April Fools Day.  We are fools for Christ, people who refuse to concede that the tombs of this world are shut fast with stone; people who will walk from this place along the road of resurrection.  We are Easter people.  Christ is risen, indeed!

Amen.

__________________________

[i] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/april-fools-tradition-popularized

[ii] 1 Corinthians 1:18

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.[i]

 

These are G.K. Chesterton’s poetic words that grant us a glimpse of the Palm Sunday procession from a different perspective, that of the donkey on whose back Jesus rides.  As Chesterton’s unlikely narrator admits, the donkey is a most maligned animal.  It receives the world’s opprobrium on every level.  The donkey’s physical appearance is derided. It is a parody of the horse, with the same general features but all in ridiculous distortion.  Rather than a thing of grace and beauty, the look of the donkey is laughable.

donkey

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you see the images of beauty and grace in our culture and then shy away from the morning mirror?  Do your clothes seem not to fit, not to hide the bulges or wrinkles you wish were smoothed away, the hair or bald spots you wish were covered?  Do you feel physically laughable in a world that bears a pretense of perfection?

The donkey’s voice is abrasive.  It lacks the melody of the birdsong, the inspiration of the horse’s whinny, or the mystic lure of the wolf’s howl.  The donkey’s bray is noisome and harsh.  It grates on the nerves.  It jars.  It repels.

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you sometimes sense that no matter how loud you cry out, your voice goes unheeded if not unheard?  Or, do you feel that the voices of those around you are sonorous and compelling, while your words fumble over their meaning to no effect, leaving you feeling ignorant or stupid?  When you speak, do you get the impression that others back away, not wanting to engage the sound of you, leaving you voiceless in the face of everything the world throws at you?

Finally, the donkey’s every impulse seems to be contrary to other creatures.  Its current flows crosswise to theirs.  When the donkey’s master bids it move, the donkey prefers to stand still.  When the rest of the train comes to rest, the donkey trudges doggedly ahead.  The donkey just doesn’t fit.  It seems to have been some cosmic mistake in the grand circle of life.

Do you ever feel that way?  Are you out of step with the world around you?  Have you awakened one day to find that the people you thought you knew as companions on the way see things utterly differently than you do?  Does it seem that you are alone with your passions and values, even from those you thought were closest to you?  Do you sometimes suspect—or worry—that you are a mistake?  I do.  In all these ways, I do.  And I suspect you do, too.

“The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord: the King of Israel!’

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.  Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’  His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”[ii]

To whom does Jesus tether himself for this most important procession of his ministry and life?  On whose back does Jesus ride into Jerusalem, into the very maw of those who wish to end him?  With whom does Jesus wed his identity, redeeming that one in the eyes of all?  It is the donkey, who is, indeed, a most maligned creature, the butt of jokes and recipient of abuse from impatient handlers.  But Jesus sees what others do not see.  It turns out the donkey is also far stronger, with far more endurance than the horse.  It turns out the donkey is not skittish and will not bolt at the first hint of danger.  It turns out that the donkey chooses its companion and becomes fiercely faithful.  It turns out that that, through the call and grace of Jesus, the donkey is among God’s most blessed creatures, chosen for this great task on this great day, a more stalwart disciple than any other.

And so it can be for me and for you.  You are beautiful, regardless of what you think the mirror reflects.  Your voice is a song, and it is worth hearing and heeding.  Your path may be prophetic, even if no one yet seems to follow.  It is not for the world to cast aspersions or grant you value, because the world’s judgment is not true.  The only truth comes on this day, in this procession:  Will you bear Jesus?  Will you blaze the trail for him and with him into Jerusalem, as he moves toward the Passion?  Will you be fiercely faithful?

For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

______________________________

[i] Chesterton, G.K.  “The Donkey.”

[ii] John 12:12-16

The Ten Commandments

Many of a certain generation will remember the scene from the Mel Brooks film History of the World: Part I, when Moses stands atop Mount Sinai looking down upon the Hebrews with three large stone tablets balanced precariously in his hands.  Moses (played by Brooks himself, of course) says to the Israelites, “Oh, hear me!  All pay heed!  The Lord, the Lord Jehovah, has given unto you these fifteen…” At which point Moses drops one of the three tablets, and it shatters.  He pauses sheepishly, mumbles “Oy,” and then says, “Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!”

Mel Brooks, fifteen commandments

In 2006, Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland sponsored a bill declaring that the Ten Commandments are “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstone of a just and fair society.”  Congressman Westmoreland’s bill would also have required that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol Building.[i]  In an interview, Westmoreland explained, “Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect.  Where better could you have something like that than a judicial building or a courthouse?”

Whether or not one agrees with the placement of religious monuments on public property, surely most would agree with the

Congressman’s sentiment about understanding and respecting such a foundational part of our religious and cultural tradition.  So far, so good.

But then the interviewer asked the obvious follow-up: “What are the Ten Commandments?  Can you name them all?”

For just a split second, Congressman Westmoreland looked stupefied, as if it never occurred to him that the interview might take such a turn.  He then responded, “What are all of them?  You want me to name them all?” (A pregnant pause.)  “Don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t steal…Um…I can’t name them all.”[ii]

The point is that the Ten Commandments, like so much else in religious life in different eras and at different places, have themselves become a fetish, a symbol of something that bears very little relationship to the content of the commandments themselves.  It seems to me that if we take the good Congressman at his word that the Ten Commandments are a cornerstone of a just and fair society, that they deserve our understanding and respect, then the first step is not to chisel them in marble and set them on the courthouse lawn but to know what they say and, with God’s help, follow them.

Ten Commandments on capitol grounds

So, today’s sermon is going to be a bit different from the norm.  No narrative story-telling; no attempt at deep theologizing; no soaring words that seek to inspire.  Instead, we’re going to look at the Ten Commandments.  We’ll consider what they actually say and why they might matter in our lives.

At the outset, it is important to remember the context in which God issues these commandments.  The Israelites have just been redeemed from bondage in Egypt.  After many generations of slavery, they are free, and yet they have no idea what it looks like to live as a free people who serve under no one’s arbitrary yoke.  God grants the Ten Commandments not as a stifling burden, but as the broad, corralling boundaries within which the life of free people can be lived in mutuality, respect, and joy.  They intend to provide for us the same.

We’ll save the first three commandments for the end.  The fourth commandment is “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  Throughout most of human history, when labor was grinding, back-breaking and incessant, the sabbath day was, literally, life-saving.  It gave the body time to heal and restore its energy.  But in today’s world the sabbath is equally crucial.  We are workaholics.  With email, cell phones, and social media, our work creeps into every facet of our lives, including the dinner table and bedroom.  And this phenomenon includes not only our paid labor.  Even our recreation increasingly has a job-like quality to it (think: kids’ sports).  In everything, we want to accomplish, achieve, and do more.  Consequently, we are perpetually fatigued, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  We are weary, but we do not rest.  God understands our human need, and God commands us to observe sabbath.  Imagine how different our lives would be if, for twenty-four hours a week, we shed the need to do and concentrated on being: being present to ourselves, to God, and to those we love.  If nothing else, our blood pressure would benefit from the change.

The fifth commandment is “Honor your father and mother.”  In our psychological age, this one can trip us up because, frankly, some among us endured bad fathers and mothers.  Healing psychologically from abuse can be a lifelong effort.  But even for such people, the importance of the fifth commandment is the reminder that none of us is entirely self-made.  Where we love, we have learned from someone to love.  Where we have advantage, we have benefitted from someone who sacrificed to grant us that advantage.  It is our sacred responsibility to maintain a posture of remembrance and response to the generation from which we have sprung, not to ignore its faults and flaws, but to nevertheless acknowledge our gratitude by granting it grace.

The behavioral commandments come next.  They are basic and unassailable, which is exactly why humanity has always been mystified at its inability to keep them.

The breadth of the sixth commandment—”Do not murder”—is a topic of endless theological debate.  Some believe it intends a blanket prohibition against all killing; others believe it is more specific, referring to unlawful killing while acknowledging in our broken world that there are circumstances of justice that require the taking of a life by appropriate authorities.  In either case, the commandment demands that life belongs to God and not us, that life—all life, not only the lives of those we love—is to be treated with awe and reverence.

The seventh commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” could not be clearer, it seems to me.  A priest once said to me, “Half the world’s problems would be solved if people would not have sexual relations with people to whom other people are married.”  Let that sink in for a moment before we move on.

The eighth commandment, “Do not steal” means do not take as your own those things that are not yours, or are not yours entirely.  In our world, with our sometimes scarcity of resources, this is doubly important.  Failure to share those things we hold in common is another form of theft, as surely as theft is me pick-pocketing your wallet.

The tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house,” concerns “the destructive power of desire.”[iii]  Though it comes later in the list, it is the precursor to “Do not steal.”  If one indulges a covetousness for what belongs to another, then over times one will rationalize stealing that thing, through either unlawful or lawful means.

Sandwiched between these two is the ninth commandment against bearing false witness.  This does not mean lying-in-general.  It refers to claiming as true a depiction of reality one knows is false.  The commandment prohibits falsely marring another’s reputation, either in malice or ignorance.  It condemns distorting the truth to prop up one’s ideology.  I wish Congressman Westmoreland and all his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would learn this commandment most of all.

warm sunlight

The Ten Commandments begin with the most important three, which are prioritized even before the laws against murder and theft.  The commandments begin with God saying, “You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  These three commands are the backdrop of the other seven.  They tell us that we must not consider God peripherally, casually, or flippantly.  We must not use God or God’s name as a tool, a means to our own ends.  The theologian Paul Tillich famously said that our god that that in which we place our ultimate concern.  We could each ask ourselves, “What is my god?  To what do I give my greatest attention, energy, money?  What is my ultimate concern in my daily life?”  If the answer is anything but the God of love, then our lives are askew.  All of the other commandments will then be more difficult to keep, because love is in not the center, the core from which all our living extends.

To live as a free people, in ancient Israel and today, means to live attentive to, grounded by, and centered in the God of love.  When we are so, we will care for ourselves with rest; we will respect those from whom we’ve come; we will honor the vows to our loved ones; we will revere life; we will be satisfied with enough in life; and we will speak the truth to ourselves and others.  This is not bondage; it is freedom.  It is the gift to us from the God of love and the invitation to live our lives in God.

______________________________________

[i] http://www.ethicsdaily.com/baptist-congressman-cant-name-ten-commandments-cms-7527

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, pg. 849.

The Great Leveler

My mother walked into my grandparents’ house sometime in 1994, and my grandfather Pop’s gruff voice called to her, “C’mere, I want to show you something.”  He directed mom to the kitchen cabinets, opened them incredulously, and there, from bottom to top, end to end, were stacks of canned tuna fish.  Dozens and dozens of cans.  For weeks, it seems, my grandmother Boo had been going to the grocery store, forgetting why she’d made the trip, and at a loss for what else to do, buying tuna fish.  It was the first sign that something was wrong.

Over the course of the next eight years, Boo slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease.  First, she’d repeat the same stories within the span of a ten-minute conversation.  Then, she’d become confused in her surroundings.  Eventually, one night she looked across the den at Pop, who had been her love and her life for more than fifty years, and wondered who that strange man was in her house.  In 1997, Pop’s heart couldn’t bear to watch Boo slowly erased in front of him, and he died.  By the time of Boo’s own death in 2002, she recognized no one.  She forgot even herself.

______________

In a bible study in which I participated twenty years ago, the leader said of the Noah story, “Water is the great leveler.”  That is true, in more than one sense.  As we all learned last August during Hurricane Harvey, water shows no partiality.  If affects all socio-economic strata, all ages, all races.  But water is also the great leveler in the sense that it, quite literally, levels.  The surface of a calm sea is a level plane.  The stones in a flowing stream have their edges smoothed.  Water, given force or time, overwhelms everything in its path, erases distinctions, levels all.

This truth has been experienced and known throughout human history.  Virtually every ancient culture had its own foundational flood myth.  Other than our own, the best known is, perhaps, the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, which predates even the Noah story in Genesis.  In Gilgamesh, a man builds a boat to save his family from a global flood.  The water comes and washes away everything.  The man sends out birds to scout for dry land.  And once the family disembarks the boat, they make sacrifices of thanksgiving.  (Sound familiar?)

Gilgamesh

The Gilgamesh flood story

That there are other such stories in other religious cultures shouldn’t make us doubt the veracity of the Noah story, but rather underscores its truth.  The flood story is about, at root, the existential fear of being leveled, overwhelmed, drowned, erased.  Who among us hasn’t had the occasional crescendoing panic that all we are about in this world will eventually be as forgotten as all those things the water has submerged over time?  It is this universal foreboding that inspired every age’s flood story.  Water is the great leveler, and it symbolizes for us that we, too, will eventually be washed clean from this earth, that our greatest accomplishments will be smoothed down to nothing, our highest aspirations will drown, and our most cherished legacies will be erased.

Is this bad news on a Sunday morning?  I actually don’t think so.  The truth is never bad news, when we approach it from the correct perspective.  Bad news is telling ourselves a lie, especially a lie that may lead us to live in this world more self-importantly than we merit, to drink our own Kool-Aid so to speak.  Bad news is when the lie of our own permanence causes us to valuate ourselves over and above others, subtly assuming that, due to circumstance or merit, we are worth abiding while they can just as well wash away.

That is why the lectionary reminds us of the flood story on this first Sunday in Lent, just as that smudge of ash on our foreheads this past Wednesday reminded us that we are dust, and to dust we will return.  Water is the great leveler, and the flood story dredges up in us, as it has for all people everywhere, the reality that we are not permanent and we not the center of all things.

This is a good topic for our Lenten meditation.  To have the courage to dwell upon it may lead us to live more of our lives for others than for ourselves.  It may also grant us the grace not to cling, even to the things we love, which paradoxically will enable us to love better.  And when the time of our death comes, it may empower us to meet death not in fear, or as something to resist, but as a natural part of both individual life and the ever-renewing life of the cosmos.

I believe all of this, but then I think of my grandmother, Boo.  In her case, her erasure didn’t take eons.  It didn’t even require her own death.  As Alzheimer’s Disease flooded her brain with plaque, it was as if we watched her disappear before our own eyes.  To do so was deeply sad.  At times, the panic would well up in me not for me, but for her, and that was far worse.

boo teaching me

Boo (left, in green shirt) teaching me something, as she always was.

Some have heard me say that Boo is the best person I have ever known.  That is in no way an exaggeration.  She was patient.  She was attentive.  She was kind.  She loved those whom no one else would love.  That she faded even while she lived; that my own fragile memory of her will not outlive me; that Boo will, in other words, eventually be erased entirely from this world makes my soul rebel.  (Just as I must add at the 11th hour that something deep in my soul rebels against the notion that those seventeen children gunned down mercilessly in Parkland, Florida, have been erased from the world.)

Easter always follows Lent, and knowing our fragility God (and the lectionary) also grants us today the end of the flood story here at the beginning of this season.  Though water is the great leveler, and though the truth of our transience is something we best acknowledge and even embrace, the flood story ends not with the deluge, but with the rainbow.

In today’s reading, the flood has ended.  In the aftermath of the world’s erasure, Noah and his family have stepped back onto dry ground.  And God sees, as if for the first time, the impact that the leveling waters have had on the human survivors.  God perceives the anxiety and the panic that the recognition of human transience causes.  In response, God establishes a covenant—God makes a promise—to God’s children, a promise punctuated repeatedly by two crucial phrases: Never again and I will remember.  Never again, God says, will our destruction be ultimate.  Never again will we—and God importantly includes the diversity of animals here along with human beings—be erased the way that water levels all.

rainbow

And how will God ensure this covenant?  How will God keep this promise?  Through the gloom of every storm, including those that threaten to drown us entirely, God pierces the clouds with the arc of the rainbow, which stretches, as we know, from here to eternity.  The rainbow symbolizes the second covenant refrain of God:  I will remember.  Though from this life we will all fade to nothingness, in the memory of God we endure.  And what endures there is the all of us, in our wholeness, our vitality, and our strength.  My grandmother Boo abides in the memory—the heart—of God not as the shadow of herself, but as the fulfillment of God’s purpose and hope for her.  She is not less, but more.  And that is the promise to each of us and to each of those we love and have loved.  God remembers; God does not forget.  The mosaic that is our lives on this earth, with our loves, our commitments, our passions, and our relationships lives on in God and no flood can ever sweep it away.

We are but dust, and we endure eternally.  This is the flood and the rainbow.  This is the paradox of our creation.  This is the journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  If we will travel it, we will live in this world more lightly and more honestly, shedding our pretension to permanence.  But we will also face our mortality without fear, knowing that, as sure as the rainbow appears after the storm, God remembers us always and forever, and God’s promises are unbreakable.

The Threshold of Faith

Often when this passage from Mark comes up in the lectionary—this account in which Peter brings Jesus home to meet his mother-in-law—it gives rise to all manner of mother-in-law jokes.  I happen to have the world’s best mother-in-law, and consequently I find mother-in-law jokes to be boorish and uncouth, especially from the pulpit.  I just don’t understand why some of my fellow preachers would tell a joke like, “Do you know the punishment for bigamy?  Two mothers-in-law.”  Or, “Jim and Bob were having a drink after work, when their mothers-in-law came up in conversation.  Jim said, ‘My mother-in-law is an angel,’ to which Bob replied, ‘Lucky.’”  (Think about that one for a moment.)  But I’m not going to tell such jokes in this sermon, because they are distractions.

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This is a notable story in Mark today, though, and for many reasons.  First, Jesus is in Capernaum.  He arrived there for the first time in last week’s Gospel reading, and this town—moreso than Bethlehem or Nazareth—is central to Jesus’ life.  Capernaum is the town (the only town) that the Gospel writers refer to as the adult Jesus’ “home”[i] Capernaum is where Jesus could most be himself, surrounded by friends.  And the dwelling in which he relaxed (to the extent that he could relax) was Peter’s house.  The very house still there.  Whereas the vast majority of biblical sites in the Holy Land are attributable only to later tradition, the ruins of Peter’s house in Capernaum have been visited by Christian pilgrims since the years just after the crucifixion, when it was still an inhabited home.  It is almost certainly the actual house into which, two thousand years ago, a rough fisherman named Simon walked across the threshold with an itinerant carpenter’s son who was preaching an earth-shaking message of grace.  I have been to Capernaum.  I have stood at the edge of that house and stared at that threshold, wondering what it would have been like to walk across with Jesus and enter into his intimate life.

In the Gospel today, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus has been teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, a stone’s throw from Peter’s house.  While Jesus is there, he rids a man of a demon, and Peter, whom Jesus has only barely just met, then invites Jesus home.  Peter’s motives are mixed.  First, Peter has been mesmerized by Jesus and followed Jesus from his fishing boat the day before.  Peter wants to know Jesus deeply and well, to figure out and learn from this remarkable traveler.  But Peter’s mother-in-law is also ill with a fever.  She needs help, and after witnessing what Jesus does to the demon in the synagogue, Peter suspects that Jesus can heal his wife’s mother.  They walk the short distance to Peter’s home, and they cross the threshold together.  Jesus enters into the intimacy of Peter’s world and Jesus heals the mother-in-law within.

First century Capernaum is not a huge town.  It likely has twelve hundred citizens, and word of the healing spreads quickly even on the day of Sabbath rest.  But Capernaum’s residents are faithful and observant people.  Mark tells us that only “at sunset”—meaning when the Sabbath is officially ended—do they come to Peter’s house from every corner of town.  The Gospel tells us at this point: “The whole city was gathered around the door.  And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

Peter's house at Capernaum

Peter’s house at Capernaum, surrounded by the ruins of a Byzantine church built around it.

It is worth noting that in the first century as now, the end of the Sabbath was often observed with a service of Havdalah, which celebrates God re-creation of the world for another new week.  Yet, in Mark, the physical needs of Capernaum’s residents are so pressing that they skip out on Havdalah in order, as soon as the sun sets, to stand outside the door of Jesus.

 

They are not so unlike us.  What is it that most often causes us to drop everything and approach God?  (You know the saying about atheists and foxholes?)  It is in our need that we drop everything.  It is when we are in physical pain, when we encounter loss, and when we are crippled with anxiety about life that we suddenly seek to make a connection with the One who creates us.  We want the pain to go away, the loss to subside, the anxiety to quell.  We want God to fix us, to heal us like cosmic Tylenol, and so when we are in need we will, indeed, approach the threshold of God.

And God now, like Jesus then, responds.  To all those standing just outside the threshold of Peter’s house, Jesus is willing to provide balm.  He meets them where they are, and he heals them.  But notice: Mark tells us that the “people of Capernaum do not come to Jesus because of who he is but because of what he can do for them.”[ii]  They do not enter the house.  They stop short of the doorway into Jesus’ intimate life.  They do not cross the threshold.

And the first night in Capernaum is no aberration.  The people are desperate for help.  The next morning, the Gospel tells us, Jesus slips out of town in order to pray, and the people hunt for him.  The Greek word here is not “search” or “look for,” but “hunt” as in hunting down an animal.[iii]  The people are desperate to hunt down Jesus, but again, only for what he can do for them, not because of who he is.

Threshold

Will we cross the threshold into the intimate life of God?

That, too, is often like us.  We seek to know God only to the extent that we tend to know our physicians.  We want God to cure our spirits as our physicians cure our bodies.  But God wants, and offers, much more.  It is the desire of God’s own heart that we not huddle just outside the door.  It is the desire of God’s own heart that we cross the threshold, that we enter into God’s intimate life and being.  In fact, that is the alternate model that Jesus himself gives us.  Whereas the people huddle at the door, clawing at Jesus in their need, Jesus slips away to a quiet place to commune with God and be intimately present with God.

When we do this, the transformation in our lives is much more than the assuaging of our pain or the quelling of our anxieties.  The irony of the scene outside of Peter’s door in Capernaum is that, though the people have skipped the service of Havdalah, which celebrates the re-creation of a new week, they are right on the cusp of a re-creation that is personal and much more than liturgical.  Stepping across the threshold into the intimate life of God would take them, and take us, beyond immediate need to the very re-creation of the self, to the new life that is defined by communion with the God of love.  It is not cosmic Tylenol, but a cosmic transplant of the heart.  It is total.  It changes everything.

Like Jesus in Peter’s house at Capernaum, God makes his home here.  Into this intimate space, God invites us also.  If we come only in our need, God will respond to that, because God is faithful.  But if we cross the threshold beyond our need, through the doorway into the intimate life of God, we will know God for who God is, as love incarnate, and we will experience the re-creation of our spirits, our own Havdalah.

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[i] Mark 2:1

[ii] Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni.  Preaching the Gospel of Mark: Proclaiming the Power of God, 29.

[iii] Ibid.