Sunday, July 19, 2015

Empathy

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Are you planning a vacation this summer? Do you want one? A chance to “get away” from the busyness - or just the sameness - of work and daily life?  Looking for refreshment and renewal?
I am.
I’m going to the beach in August.
And so are the disciples.
Not going to the beach, but looking forward to vacation.

They’ve been very busy roaming the countryside: calling for repentance, healing people, evicting demons, and teaching about Jesus’ good news.  
Now they’re back reporting to Jesus, so successful that they don’t even have a chance to eat - too many people are responding to their work and clamoring to know Jesus, to hear more, to be part of this fabulous thing that God is doing in the world.

That’s great for the gospel, but the disciples are stressed, so Jesus tells them all it’s time for vacation. “Come with me,” he says, “to get away from it all.”
But when they get to their retreat, what do they find?
Crowds.

You’d think they’d gone to Disney World. Or the O’Hare pickup circle on a holiday weekend.
The crowd heard they were going away and rushed to get ahead of them.
They want more good news, more inspiration, or healing, or a personal moment with the chance to say I got to talk to the famous rabbi (if they’d had selfies in those days, you know everyone in that crowd would be angling for one with Jesus).

Maybe you actually love crowds, but if your mind is on getting away, the most human reaction would be some kind of cranky: annoyance, frustration, even turning around and walking away.

Mark doesn’t tell us how the disciples reacted to the crowd, but Mark does tell us what Jesus felt. “He was moved with compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
His gut and his heart respond: it’s empathy.

You’ve felt empathy before, right?
You hear about a child’s illness, and your heart twists for the child and her parents. A friend is unfairly fired, and your gut fires up with anger and sympathy on his behalf.
Or you’ve rejoiced with someone, sharing elation and a feeling of success: when the Hawks win the Stanley Cup, when a friend gets engaged, when your child triumphs in a game or lands that fabulous new job.

It seems to happen to Jesus a lot in the gospels, and all the time when he’s confronted with crowds, but for most of us, empathy’s less likely, less automatic  when we’re faced with a crowd in need, instead of one friend or even one stranger.

Last weekend the New York Times ran an article about that.  Studies show that when the people in danger or need are not like us, our empathy doesn’t trigger as readily. When it might cost us more — when we might need to spend money or use more of our time, our skill — empathy is harder to trigger, and we’re less likely to try to feel it.

So I think it’s a fair bet that a bunch of hard-working, exhausted disciples who have spent themselves taking care of people’s needs for healing and inspiration to the point that they didn’t even eat didn’t feel like they had a lot of empathy to give.

Jesus had taken them away for Sabbath, for rest,
and then actually plunges them right into more need, more work.

Perhaps he wanted to teach them something the authors of that New York Times piece say they’ve just started to learn: that we can actually grow our empathy, our compassion, that we can feel and care more, or more deeply just by wanting to.
Even just by knowing that we should.

That we can genuinely feel more, open our hearts more, build up all the benefits of trust and health and understanding and unity that empathy provides, just by wanting to, just by knowing that we should.

And it’s possible that this - this growing empathy - is the kind of Sabbath rest we sometimes need the most.

I know that when I’m worn out, when I’m ready for vacation or just busy busy busy, I feel my heart contract, withdraw, and get grumpy when I turn on the news and it’s full of shootings, economic crisis, arson, environmental mess, and all those other needs or sorrows.
I want to put off until later the needs of my family and friends, or just not worry about everyone’s feelings.

But when my heart does open when I’m tired and busy; when my gut is moved with your pain or joy, with the needs of whole nations struggling to survive, or strangers fighting prejudice or ignorance or hate, I’m actually happier.
I feel my relationships deepen and grow, and know I can make enough difference; that I can - and we can - change the world, even just a little bit at a time.

We promise this at baptism, actually.
You promised, or your godparents promised for you (or you’ll promise today, when we renew our baptismal covenant) to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We’ve actually promised to keep on growing our empathy,
to seek the image of God in people who are nothing like us, and to love them as ourselves.

So I tried it out this week.
I listened to the news, and actually felt more optimistic about all that debt and austerity chaos in Europe, because feeling for the pain of the pensioners and the politicians caught up in that mess actually helped restore my faith in humanity.

I read - instead of skimmed - Facebook posts and comments from the many friends or acquaintances who are dealing with illness and family crisis and loss, and was surprised to realize that I felt more whole, even refreshed, when I responded — even if I was clumsy or cliched — than when I passed on by because I was tired or just don’t know what to say.

I can’t promise that it will work for you, but both the New York Times and Jesus seem to think it will, so for Jesus’ sake I think it’s worth a try.

Take one of these cards and put it in your wallet, or on your TV remote or computer keyboard. Slip it in next to one of the ways you interact with the world.
It’s the words of Jesus that we heard today, the invitation to “come away, and rest awhile;”
and on the other side, the words of our baptismal promise:
to seek and serve Christ in all, loving my neighbor as myself.

Use this as a lens to look at others, and into your own heart.

Because I think that Jesus is telling us that in the end these two things are one and the same:
that we’ll find rest in giving love,
that love lasts longer and renews us better than any vacation.

And that’s good news, now and always.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fault Lines

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Mark 6:14-29

If I’ve learned one thing from the scripture we hear this morning, it’s that partying too hard can be dangerous. That’s a story I heard a lot in high school, when we had presentations from Mothers Against Drunk Driving; but the Bible isn’t warning us against drinking and driving, 
but rather about what we find in ourselves when we let it all out.

Take Herod.
He’s having a great time at his birthday party.  The feasting is fabulous, and when his daughter starts dancing, Herod’s so happy he can’t contain his delight - he offers her half his kingdom, anything she can imagine.
(Don’t get wound up in interpretations of the story that focus on incest and lust - the context is just as suggestive as a proud papa watching his daughter kick the most important goal in a soccer match as anything else. “Great job, honey! I’m going to buy you a new car!”)

The party has gone to his head and Herod has lost his sense of perspective.
And he suffers for it.
Daughter consults mother on how best to use this blank check; mother seizes the opportunity for revenge; and now Herod is on the hook for murder. Required to kill the prophet he kind of likes and respects - his best connection to God, however uncomfortable - and give the bloody head of John the Baptist to the women in his life. 
He can’t go back on his word in front of his guests, so he gives up John to satisfy his wife’s desire to avenge her humiliation. An insult to her that was really earned by Herod in the first place. In first-century context, it’s definitely Herod who is at fault for breaking Torah and marrying his sister-in-law, though when John the Baptist calls him on it,  her reputation gets tarnished even more than his.

It’s nasty, all around. It’s stupid, vicious, creepy, and the only gospel story I’ve ever found where half the resource websites suggest you shouldn’t even preach on it.

Parties are dangerous.
You can lose your head.
You don’t even need alcohol to get yourself in trouble.
It can happen when you’re high on God.

That’s what’s up in David’s story this morning.
He’s gone out to bring the ark of the Lord, the physical symbol of God’s presence, to a new home in Jerusalem, where it will bless God’s people and underline the success of David’s reign.

They know it’s dangerous - the ark has already killed a man who merely tried to keep it from crashing to the ground - but it’s also blessed the man who kept the dangerous box safe for David. So he goes off to get it in a joyful procession - a moving party, complete with band and feasting - and he’s dancing along the way because he’s caught up in the exhilarating moment.
He brings it into Jerusalem with music and spectacle, free food and public celebration (think Stanley Cup rally and ticker tape parade) and more dancing in the streets.
And David’s wife sees this, and despises him.

The text implies that he’s been partying in his birthday suit, naked as he was born - just with a sort of liturgical apron wrapped around him - and that it’s the last straw for Michal, who loses her respect for him, calls him on the embarrassing nature of his public display,
and starts the fight that ends their marriage.

You can’t really blame Michal for this.
She was in love with David once, when he was a musician in her father’s court and she was a princess, and David fought a hero’s battle against the Philistines to earn the chance to marry her.

But politics are messy, and God picks David to replace Saul.
So Michal’s father and her husband battle to the death.
And her father uses her as a pawn, marrying her off to someone else, while David’s off risking the life she saved for him when her dad was after him. And when the two are finally reunited, David’s already got six other wives and a bunch of kids, and shows no inclination to stop marrying all the pretty girls in sight.
It was a mess before he went dancing in the street; it’s just so clear to her now.

The parties show up the fault lines in families that were already there.
The parties show up the messiness of our human attempts to have our relationship with God work out comfortably, and according to our own moral judgements.

These parties are dangerous, because they expose us to ourselves and one another.

There’s no simple gospel in these stories
No simple takeaway about abundance and generosity.
No healing; no redemption.

Yes, it’s good for the long arc of Israel’s history to have both God and David reigning together in Jerusalem; good for us to be warned by John the Baptist’s fate about the risks of trying to get other people to follow God’s law, but there’s a reason the online resources told me not to preach this stuff.
It’s not good news.

Yet that might be exactly why we need to hear this.
Because I’m pretty sure that lots of families have fights,
and lots of marriages have problems,
and I’m not the only one who’s ever woken up regretting what happened at a party.
(Right??)

There are fault lines in my life, messy compromises in my relationships, plenty of semi-conscious attempts to make God’s way go my way.
If that’s not true for you, you can stop listening. But if it’s even a little familiar, then it’s worth noting that we’re hearing our own story in the Bible today.

We’re hearing the fault lines that are already there, family history that stresses and strains us, in spite of and even because of love and good intentions.
Seeds of bitterness and danger lurk in our lives, the reality of fragmentation and broken relationships, even death, sometimes.
There’s a lot in our stories that’s like the stories of Herod and David: mess ups that just aren’t redeemed; ugly episodes that aren’t good news.

But the news that’s worth listening for today is that our guilt and grief and hurt and errors are part of God’s story, too. That even if they are not healed, even if the losses are not redeemed,
the rifts that don’t get reconciled are still in the story.
God’s story has the bitter regrets and nasty insults and dumb mistakes that my story has,
and that yours might.
And God’s story doesn’t fix them all, heal everything, or wash it all away.

And that’s what I want you to take from this Sunday into your Monday afternoon, or Thursday morning, or the uncomfortable hours of the Morning After - 
wherever failure and regret and guilt and anger show themselves in your life.

Work to redeem and reconcile, with all your heart, but remember that all that broken mess is in God’s story too.
Not because it’s good news,
not because it’s redemptive,
but because you’re in God’s story.
I’m in that story, we are in it.

And when God doesn’t fix it,
God still tells it like it is.
God isn’t embarrassed by our nakedness or our shame,
doesn’t hide from our faults or help us hide them from ourselves,
doesn’t smooth out the bitter and rush to put the pain behind.

The truth to listen for today is the assurance that even when it’s not good news,
God tells it like it is, and gets on with the story — that powerful, holy story which will never, ever, leave us out.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Spine-tingling

1 Samuel 17:32-49, Mark 4:35-41


It can’t really have surprised the experienced fishermen among Jesus’ disciples when a storm blew up and started battering their boat on the way across the Sea of Galilee - sudden and violent storms are normal if unpredictable on that lake - but the terror they felt was appropriate and real.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, even if you’re close to shore, even it’s normal, water is deadly when it churns and blows. But when the disciples wake Jesus up for help, they seem to be looking for comfort and assurance more than rescue.  Instead of calling "Lord, save us," they ask "Teacher, don't you care?”
So Jesus is exceeding expectations when he gets up - turns right into the face of the storm - and says,“Sit! Stay!”
(Literally translated, it’s “Silence! Be muzzled!”  — sharp, severe commmands.)
And the storm obeys. The calm is sudden and paralyzing.

Until he asks them about faith, and all their anxiety returns as awe and wonder, and they shy away from the realization of just how close they’ve been sitting to God’s power: the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything obey.

That same unreasonable power is on display when David faces Goliath.
The Philistine champion is genuinely unbeatable - stronger than any other man, experienced, skilled and well-armed. The terror of Israel’s army was appropriate and real, and King Saul was quite right to try to protect the crazy young boy who volunteered to fight the champion.

Saul suits young David up in his very own armor - the best protection and weaponry to be found - but David strips it all off.  “I can’t walk in this,” he says, and sets out to confront the impossible with one slingshot, five stones, and theology.

In the face of the champion’s deadly strength and skill, it's not the slingshot, the weapon, that knocks down Goliath. It’s the theology.
It’s the way that kid leaps without a net, takes a hopeless stance, because he alone remembers the terrifying power of God, and is willing to shed all the assumptions and protections that stand between him and that power, protections most of us are so used to we can’t function without them.
While Saul, and his army, and everyone else around them  forgot the sheer power of God;
the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything stop and listen.

It’s actually easy to forget how powerful God is.
Even when we pray for miracles,  even when we recite the Creed — full of impossible things we declare that we believe — even when we talk and think about God’s power, it can be easy to forget the raw reality:
forget that direct exposure to God’s power turns your bones to jelly and runs tingling down all your nerves, the way you feel after a screechingly narrow escape from a car accident,
but more so.

So it’s a lot more comfortable to forget; to live without a constant shiver in your bones and trembling in your soul. It’s a lot more attractive to pray and discern God’s will, or try to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, than to expose ourselves to that power that’s impossible to resist or deny.
Most of us don’t actually have to experience that power directly as we try to follow Jesus or know God, but we get ourselves in trouble if we forget it’s real.

I’ve wondered this week if the people who gather regularly for Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston had a lot of practice being stirred by God's raw power.  Their history suggests that like the disciples boating on the Sea of Galilee, they knew that sudden, violent, even deadly storms are a reality of life in the systems of race and class in this country.

The forces that stir those storms, of course, are different from wind and wave, but they are as powerful, more dangerous, and often feel just as intractable.

But welcoming the stranger is something you do as a disciple of Jesus, just like crossing over the Sea of Galilee.
Most of the time you don't drown,
most of the time you don't get shot, or firebombed, or beaten.
But sometimes those predictably unpredictable forces kick up, the danger is real,
and the faithful cry out, "Teacher, wake up, we're dying!"

I watch this happen in the news, and I grieve and pray, but I suspect that - like the disciples in the boat - I've forgotten to call on God's power,
and only remembered to call for comfort and assurance.

I think I’ve gotten too used to grief and anxiety in the face of tragedy, and that experience has made me more comfortable with the subtle, impersonal forces of racism and violence that stir up the violent storms like Charleston and Birmingham and the arson wave of the 90’s, and the Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple shooting,
than with the spine-tingling power of God that shakes and challenges me to my core.

But that power is real,
and it's still possible for Jesus to stand up among us today and command our messy, dangerous, fragile, common life to heart-stopping calm.
I suspect, though, that this story today requires the whole body of Christ, the whole church together - black, white, brown, new, old, young, shy, evangelical, traditional, conservative, liberal, diverse as can be - that only the whole body of Christ can command this storm to still.

And we won't do that if we're not constantly re-opening ourselves to the nerve-wracking, sense-jumbling power of God.
Because just like David standing in front of Goliath, human power can't make the difference.
We have to strip away the armor of custom and expectation and safety, and leave ourselves vulnerable to the power of God.

And the armor we have to discard for that is any belief that these storms are localized,
any belief that the problem isn't ours,
or that someone in charge can solve it.

I doubt many of us consciously choose those beliefs - they are the armor given to us by life - by Saul, by powerful leaders who want to protect us. And good armor is complicated to remove. But like David we have to learn when that protection actually gets in our way,
when to choose to disarm,
so that nothing stands between us and God's hair-raising power.

I've got some pretty good armor of my own that says "you can't preach this one as racism and an epidemic of guns because inflammatory words will keep people from hearing the gospel. You can’t preach what will sound political."
And I might be wrong about taking off that armor now.
(You’ll let me know if I'm wrong.)
But I can’t knock this giant down on my own, even with the best armor, and maybe God can.

It's not even a very big risk to put that shield aside for a few minutes – I’m not dying, I’m not even taking down all the armor that protects me in talking about race and violence - but it still makes my spine tingle a little, because I love you and I don't want to hurt you by starting a fight,
and because I am afraid of both racism and guns.

And it's precisely the shiver in my spine I want to share with you today.
Will you, this week, find something to raise your goosebumps or shake your nerves,
a little, or a lot?

Stand outside in a thunderstorm (we have an abundance of opportunities for that!),
say something heartfelt but truly risky in conversation,
love a neighbor you honestly don’t want in your neighborhood.
Do something that lets go of your safety net just enough to feel it in your spine and skin.

Not because every adrenaline rush comes from God, but because it's prayer.
Because if we stay in our armor we forget to demand miracles and transformation from God, we think we can do it ourselves, and limit what God can do with our vulnerability.

It’s a lot easier here and now to stand in a violent thunderstorm or preach a sermon than to volunteer for single combat or to dissolve racism, fear, and violence throughout our country.
None of these are what we do for fun. But I believe it’s worth it to try.
Because right now people are calling out to the Body of Christ, “Wake up! We’re dying! Don’t you care??”
So it might be a good idea for you and me to get our nerves raw with God’s power, to renew that connection:
to remember that the fearful awe, the spine-tingling shaky reaction, is a reality of faith.
Because we’ll need that awe to be part of God’s great and life-saving miracles.