Aug 172015
 

 

Perhaps some of you are familiar with this little prayer by John T. Baker that periodically makes the rounds on the interned:

  Dear Lord-

 I’m proud to say, so far today, I’ve got along all right;

I have not gossiped, whined or bragged, or had a single fight.  

I haven’t lost my temper once, nor criticized my mate,

I have not lied, not cried, nor loudly cursed my fate! 

So far today I’ve not one time been grumpy nor morose,

I’ve not been  spiteful, cold nor vain, self-centered nor verbose.

But Lord, I’m going to need Your help throughout the hours ahead,

so give  me strength, Dear Lord, for now I’m getting out of bed.

How easy it is to have good intentions as we wake to each new day.  Intentions to live as the writer to the letter of Ephesians puts it “not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time.” Then come the words from this lesson that make me pause: “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  How are we to understand the will of the Lord?  And what does that mean for the way we live our life once our feet hit the floor each morning?  What does it mean to live with wisdom and make the most of our time?  Does God have a plan for our life that we must somehow discern and follow?

A few years ago now, Martin Smith SSJE wrote this about his understanding of God’s will:

“A lot of conventional religious talk about obeying ‘God’s will’ implies what I sometimes call the ‘filing cabinet theory’.  It is as if God had already fixed a vast master plan for the future- an interlocking series of decisions about how we are all to act, within which each of us has a file of instructions…

Prayer and the work of discernment is then represented virtually as the means of downloading our instructions or getting a glimpse of the next page of our orders from our file.

The very phrase ‘the will of God’ is so smothered by associating with these notions of a vast master plan and sets of instructions that it is important to shake them off.  I want another word of phrase, apart from ‘the will of God’ to suggest the wanting-to-be of God in our lives.

It would be good to have such a word and perhaps the nearest would be God’s desiring.  God’s desiring.  God’s Eros is at the heart of classic Christian spirituality of the early church.  God’s desire is not to control us but to indwell us, arouse us and welcome us into a dynamic relationship and action which is co-creative and not merely passive…

Why should we think that God has always done all the choosing and deciding in advance of us, when God’s actual desire may rather be to awaken within us wisdom, initiative, imagination and risk, and to draw us into a relationship of dynamic cooperation – synergy – not unthinking military obedience? God ‘commands’ us, but that command may be less a matter of giving orders and more one of rousing us to the challenge of using our talents and being creative.”

(Martin Smith, SSJE, in Episcopal Life, February 2000)

Could that possible be true in your life and in mine? Can we understand God’s will for us not as something that is already determined, but rather as an invitation to create our lives in partnership with God?  If so, then we begin to understand that the wisdom we need to live in that co-creative way with God is not something we can manufacture and possess.  It is not something we can use to figure out all the right answers to life’s questions.  Rather the wisdom needed for this journey with God is free gift.  Our first lesson today from the book of Proverbs points to this.  There we read:

Wisdom has built her house,

she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,

she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls

from the highest places in the town,

“You that are simple, turn in here!”

To those without sense she says,

“Come, eat of my bread

and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

and walk in the way of insight.”

 

This seems to say that true wisdom is not something that can be downloaded.

Rather, true wisdom longs to feed us a the table of her bounty, like a parent providing for beloved children,  And if we turn in and take nourishment at that table, we will meet there the One who is the very bread of that board- our true and living bread – Christ Jesus.  And there he will feed us on his very self and surprise us once again with the depth of his love and self -giving.  There he reminds us time and again that sharing his feast is our way to share in the eternal life of the realm of God – not just in the age to come but here and now also.  Paradoxical wisdom that seems like foolishness to many – wisdom that if we are honest can sometimes seem like foolishness to us.  Yet, all the wisdom we need for our journey with God.

Which is a journey of living that has nothing to do with getting a high grade on some sort of moral litmus test.  A journey of living that has no prepackaged outcome.  A journey rather that each day requires us to make responsible choices to the best of our abilities and with God’s help.  A journey that teaches us to live gracefully with our limitations and those of others.  A journey that takes us into the heart of an imperfect and broken world and provides us with all we need to thrive there and share God’s abundance with others.  A journey on which we will be set at tasks that will demand our best efforts – sometimes leading us to accomplishments and will satisfy and delight us and at other times leading us through disappointments and failures that will lead us to acknowledge our depended on God alone.  An unpredictable journey that can only be lived one day at a time.

But how does this vision of God’s will- not as master plan but as journey in which we co-create with God – how can this vision fit with our traditional view that God knows all and sees all?  How does this fit with the conventional view that God knows about everything even before it happens?  The best sense I can make of it is that those notions are time bound notions.  They are the way we see things form the human dimension, stranded in time as we are, living only in the here and now.  God on the other hand is not time bound.  In the traditional language of the church, God is the alpha and the omega – alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and omega being the last.  So, God is the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  God is the page on which all time is written, so God is already present at all points in time, even though we humans are only present one moment at a time.  So, this idea that God already knows what will happen even before it does makes sense, but does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God makes everything happen the way it does.

So often at times of tragedy, in the midst of confusion and in the face of events that grieve our hearts, for which we can find no explanation, we utter the words, “This must be God’s will”.  I have said it myself.  But now as I stand back from those times, I wonder what I really meant.  For what I believe is that God never intentionally grieves our hearts.  And I do not believe that God causes tragedy to punish or to teach a lesson,  What I know is that there is evil in the world and hat human beings have free will, and that there will always be both good and bad things that happen that we cannot explain.  Yet what I believe most deeply is that no matter what happens, God is with us, joining us in our tears and in our laughter, longing for us to seek a divine partnership of wills.  Challenging us to take up the cause of love in this world.  God help me to remember these deep down convictions each morning as my feet hit the floor!

Well this sermon has been far from a conclusive dissertation on the will of God or the desire of God, or of our journey to and with God in Christ, but may these thoughts spark further thoughts in your minds and hearts.  I want to end now with a prayer that speaks to these matters in a profound way.  It comes from the spiritual giant Thomas Merton. Merton prayed this:

          “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I belief that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may see to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 

(From Thoughts in Solitude, p. 103)

In the name of Christ Jesus, our bread for the journey.  Amen+

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The readings we have heard from the book of Second Samuel last week and this are disturbing.  They make us look closely at a very unflattering moment in the life of King David, and I do not like what I am forced to see.  I see a king, disregarding the humanity of two of his subjects with nothing but selfish and lustful intent. In a reflection on these passages in the Christian Century Magazine, Teri McDowell Ott, Chaplain at Monmouth College writes:

“I am angry with David after he rapes Bathsheba.  Even when he is told that she is the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah-a woman with a family, a woman of standing in the community- none of this matters to him.  Bathsheba herself does not matter, beyond David’s desire for her.  Uriah doesn’t either.  This Hittite is a leader in David’s army, and he remains loyal even when he is drunk. Uriah’s uncompromising sense of duty highlights a stark comparison: a drunk foreigner is a better man than the great King David.”

 

And then David has Uriah killed through the power he wields as commander and chief of Israel’s army – scandal upon scandal. But David could not see it in himself.  His absolute power as King of Israel had deluded him into thinking that he deserved to have who and what he wanted whenever he wanted.  As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  David is not alone in this – it is a dynamic that has been played out over and over again throughout human history.

For David it took Nathan, being sent by God to him – with the story of how the rich man took advantage of the poor man, slaughtering his beloved lamb – it took Nathan telling that story to David, for David to see what he himself had done.  The passage tells us:

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

And in that moment it was as if scales fell from David’s eyes and he was able to see the horrible reality of what his actions had meant in the lives of Uriah and Bathsheba.

I can relate to David.  There have been moments in my life when I have been jolted into understanding about how my actions have affected the lives of others negatively.  It is never easy to take in that sort of information.  It is uncomfortable, and my usual first response is to want to justify or explain.  But when the evidence is persuasive, justifications and explanations fall silent soon enough.

I had this sort of experience recently when I was on our parish trip to El Salvador.  Our group of 4 from this parish were joined by 7 others from our region and once in El Salvador by 8 other North Americans and 7 Salvadorans for a course on the topic of Human Trafficking and Forced Migration, put on by Cristosal, our partner organization there, as part of their Global School.  Our group’s initial interest in this course began last summer when an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children and youth from Central America reached Mexico / US border and made headlines.  Who were these children and why were they coming unaccompanied to our border?  Where were their parents – didn’t they know how dangerous it would be for their children to make this sort of journey alone?  And we in the US were left with the quandary of what to do with all these children.  So, when Cristosal offered this course, our Global Outreach Committee decided we should go to try to learn more.

And boy did we learn. In the very first session of our course we were given some eye opening information and statistics. We learned that we are living in an unprecedented time of human movement across the globe.  There are currently 60 million people displaced worldwide – this is the highest level since WWII.  Some of the Cristosal staff had just been to a United Nations summit in Geneva, Switzerland, and they told us the international community is unable to solve the multiple and complex crises that generate forced migration – that is the movement of people from their homes and homelands against their choice.

Bringing it down from the global scope to the reality in the nation of El Salvador, we learned that in 2014 289,000 Salvadorans were displaced by violence within El Salvador.  For a country that is roughly the same geographical area and population as Massachusetts, that is a hair raising number.  And this is not displacement based just on fear of violence.  In El Salvador in the month of June this year there were 677 murders.  That is an average of 22 a day.  This is the worst it has been in El Salvador since the end of their civil war in 1992.

The reasons for this high rate of violence are of course complex, but they are related to the iron clad hold that two rival gangs have on Salvadoran society.  There are only 2 out of 12 of the states within El Salvador which are not under gang control.  The gangs make a regular habit of extorting money from citizens through threatening the lives of those who will not pay and of their families.  Threats that Salvadorans have learned the gangs are not hesitant to follow through with.  While the government and police try to combat this gang violence, the resources they have to do so are meager and the corruption that takes place at all levels make the efforts less than successful in many, many cases.  It is a desperate situation to say the least.

So as we learned this information, the answer to last summer’s question “Why are all these unaccompanied children at our border coming from?” began to take shape. Those children were sent north to seek shelter in the US because they and their families were running for their lives!  Now all of this was really disturbing to me and hard to hear, but the thing that made me have the kind of “You are the man!” moment that David had with Nathan, came when I learned about something called Border Externalization.  Border Externalization is our government’s current strategy to extend our ability to repel immigrants from ever reaching our borders.  And it seems to be working. Have you noticed the change?  Not nearly as many stories of kids showing up at our southern border.  This is how we – the US- accomplished it: We give monetary aid to Mexico and we tell them they should help us with the migration problem by dealing with the migrants before they even get to our border.  And so, Mexico deported a record number of Central American children in the first half of this year.

Learning that was the “you are the man” moment of the course in El Salvador for me because I recognized that as powerful a nation as we are, we chose to use our power not to help those children fleeing for their lives from Central America, but rather to pass the buck to Mexico to deal with the situation so that the whole politically difficult situation would just stay away from our borders and out of our headlines here at home.  This is my government that chose this course of action and so it is my course of action too!  I am the man.

Now please understand that I am not saying I have a solution to the crisis of forced migration across our borders.  Lord knows I learned in my week there what a complex and entrenched problem this is.  There is no easy fix – indeed it was interesting to speak to others on the trip who come from a different political vantage point from my own about the different ways we think about solving the problem.  But one thing we could agree on – we all saw the problem for what it was – a desperate situation for the people of El Salvador and the whole Central American region.  And forcing migrants back either at our border or Mexico’s is not a long-term, viable, humane policy.

So if we are the man in this way what are we to do?  This week in the podcast of Radiolab an NPR show I like to listen to, I heard a woman say this about what she had learned recently in her life:

“I used to feel like I was a boat on an ocean that was rocky and choppy with waves, but I have begun to feel l am not the boat, I am the ocean.  The decisions I make are affecting other people, rather than me being a boat that is getting slapped with waves all the time. It has made me feel powerful.”

I think I resonated with what she was saying because having the “I am the man” experience of seeing how our current policy of border externalization is affecting others, I could see a possibility for me to be able to make a difference in a desperate situation the dynamics of which are so much bigger than me.  Seeing where our government is acting a bit like King David – choosing not to see the harm our behavior is really doing in the lives of others – is a place I might be able to exert some power.

I aim to do that first of all through this sermon – through getting out to anyone who is listening what some of the realities are of the lives of the friends we have in Central America.  And I aim to exert some power by encouraging each of us to do what we can to change the tenor of the immigration conversation going on in this political season in our country.  A very simple start would be for us to speak about undocumented workers rather than illegal immigrants.  An action can be illegal but a person cannot be.  Through our language we have criminalized people who are fleeing here for their lives and that is not helpful to any of us.

I hope to exert some power through helping to organize a conference to share what we learned in El Salvador more broadly in this region. I also hope to exert some power by working with others to craft a resolution to come before our diocesan convention this fall on the topic of migration from Central America.  I hope to work with people from all political perspectives to make sure that our national policies work toward the protection of migrant’s basic human rights as outlined in the United Nation’s charter of Human Rights.

I hope that if you have strong feelings either positively or negatively about what I’ve said in this sermon, you will talk to me further. As the relationship between David and Nathan shows, it is in conversation that shared truths are found.

When David heard Nathan say, “You are the man!”  He knew he was

Right and he repented.  May the same Spirit be with us as we take in hard truths about how our national policies impact others, and may that Spirit dwell among us as we seek to be God’s instruments of peace for our brothers and sisters in Central America.  In Christ’s name. Amen+

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 Sermon for Sunday August 2 2015, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 3-Aug-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday August 2 2015, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost