Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.
This is the sermon I preached with great joy at the ordination of one of my dearest friends, Diana Hultgren, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Lexington, Kentucky. May it also touch your heart, as Diana has touched mine.
I’m so grateful to be here in Lexington, (the heck with Storm Jonas!) and to bring greetings from your friends and colleagues in Alaska. Also, thank you for getting me out of experiencing a 7.1 earthquake in Alaska this morning. Happily, by all reports, people seem to have weathered the quake just fine. In particular, I am delighted to bring you greetings from Providence Alaska Medical Center, where we are so grateful to have shared in your formation, your gifts, and particularly your friendship.
Diana, a week ago I asked you about particular themes or readings for your service today – I am a Lutheran preacher, after all, and we preach from texts! You said “Oh, community” and “justice.” You’re right, I probably didn’t need to ask. And everything about this celebration says both those things: community and justice. But, and rightly so, there’s another overriding message – love. And that love, truly is (and must be) the basis both for our community and our justice-seeking.
I heard this story from Pastor Robyn Hartwig, when she preached at my ordination service in August of 2000. She heard this story from Fr. Dale Fushek, when he coordinated Mother Teresa’s visit to the United States in 1989. She filled a stadium with two days notice. On the first day of her visit, she raised $33,000 for her ministries.
Fr. Dale was looking forward to celebrating mass for Mother Teresa and her traveling companions –together, Mother Teresa was staying with her sisters in a small house. On the day of the service, there were about 24 police officers outside the house, screening and admitting the approved people to the house – those who were traveling with her were allowed in, some special visitors from the diocese. And finally, when about 2 dozen people had gathered, Fr. Dale began the mass. Everyone was seated … except Mother Teresa. When he got to the first reading, he noticed that Mother Teresa was not only standing, but beginning to pace a bit. By the second reading she was pacing back and forth across the room, and he began to wonder if he’d become the priest known for presiding when Mother Teresa finally lost it! Soon she was rearranging people in the room, and finally she went to the doors to the room, threw them open, and waved everyone in. She waved nearly 400 people into that small house. People were leaning in through the windows, crowded in the bathrooms, on each others’ shoulders. But once the people were gathered together, all welcome, Mother Teresa finally sat down.
So long as anybody was excluded, Mother Teresa could not sit down.
So long as anyone did not experience the fullness of God’s love, healing, grace, Mother Teresa would not sit down.
And Diana, this is also true from what I know of you. As long as someone is lacking justice. As long as someone is lonely or in need of compassion or healing, you too will not sit down.
Compassion: The Legend of the Lamed-Vov
(by Rachel Naomi Remen, in “My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp 8-9)
Rachel’s grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish teachings of Judaism, once told her a very old story that dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. In the legend of the Lamed-Vov, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of 36 good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These 36 are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than 36 such people alive, the world will come to an end.
“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, certain that he would say “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Rachel,” he told her. “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”
It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Rachel, anyone you meet might be one of the 36 for whom God preserves the world,” her Grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so.”
Rachel sat and thought about this story for a long time. She’d heard lots of stories with happily-ever-after endings. But her grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.
Suddenly, Rachel realized that she had no idea what “it” was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?” Rachel’s grandfather smiled at her very tenderly.
“Ah, Rachel,” he told her,” They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”
Diana, your compassion blesses and sustains the world. Just as your passion for justice and commitment to community bless and sustain the world.
But I hope that you will also hear this from this story: Rachel’s grandfather emphasized that we must treat ALL people as though they might be one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. When I think about how I’d want to treat a Lamed-Vovnik, I’d want to make sure that she is welcomed. Encouraged. Nourished. Responding to suffering with compassion may be far more about “being” than it is about “doing,” but after nearly 12 years of chaplaincy, I’m pretty sure there’s still nothing easy about that task.
And you may already know this about Diana, but let me tell you a couple of stories. When she was in Alaska, she would housesit for me when I traveled, taking care of my three kitties, enjoying my house despite all the clutter, and, probably most important, getting to use my car. I’m still not sure where all she went those times I was away, but I’m pretty sure my car saw parts of Alaska that I’ve never been.
And when Diana lived in Colorado, I came to visit her for a week. We started in Denver, drove up through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Steamboat Springs, west to UTAH to Dinosaur National Monument, back down to I-70 past Vail and back to Denver. We had lots of great plans to hike, but mostly we drove. I saw a LOT of Colorado. Diana likes to fit it all in. And rest is not her strength.
And there are SO MANY GOOD THINGS to DO. This might be why Diana and I share a mutual longing for days in a blanket fort. We’ve planned – kitties, snacks, coloring, rest. And, frankly, with what I know about each of us, we could use more blanket fort time.
I have absolute confidence, Diana, that you will never fail in your justice-seeking, your offering compassion and love for the poor and vulnerable. But my hope for you, and what I suspect will be your greatest challenge, is to treat yourself as though you are one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. Take the time to welcome yourself home. To be nourished. To be a beloved part of community, with others who share in your burdens and joys. To rest. It is not about the doing, but about the compassionate response to suffering.
Helen Keller reminds us that the world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.
Today we recognize your God-given gifts and calling, and celebrate your vocation as chaplain to the poor and vulnerable. Your compassion sustains the world. You contribute to the overcoming of suffering. But remember that you are not alone. You too are worthy of compassion, of rest.
The Lutheran in me feels compelled to remind you that the heart of my theology is that it is not, in the end, about what we do, so much as it is about what God does. The God of justice and compassion also calls us to rest, and most of all, calls us to life – abundant life.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. (attributed to the Talmud)
Pastor Brian talked at the beginning of this service about having a foot in both the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and loving them both.
You may have heard Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” But as I did some research this week, I learned that in fact that’s actually a paraphrase. In fact, I think I like the original better. Emma Goldman, apparently was once admonished for dancing at a party in New York, and was told “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” She was furious, and said “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy … If it meant that, I did not want it.”
Dance on, my friend. Dance for justice. Dance for community. Dance for love. Dance for compassion. Dance for the Lamed Vovniks. Dance until everyone is included. Dance with reckless abandon. And remember that we are all one body – we all dance together.
This sermon was preached Aug. 9, 2015 at Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska, based on John 6:35-51.
Yesterday I spent my morning at the Walk to Remember, an annual event for people who’ve experienced the loss of a child, to remember, to grieve, to share, and to know they aren’t alone. After being the Children’s Hospital Chaplain at Providence for 11 years, I got to reconnect with families that have been coming every year for nearly a decade, and families I’ve known for just a few months. This event, sponsored by the Children’s Hospital at Providence and Hospice of Anchorage, breaks my heart and fills my heart. We remembered Charlie. River. Isabelle. Shalom. Avery. Jude. Owen. Skylar. Samuel. Nicholas. And so many more.
And it’s because of experiences like the Walk to Remember that I love this reading from John, for it’s promises of hope, for a day when no one will be hungry or thirsty, for Jesus’ promise that “I should lose nothing of all that (God) has given me but raise it up on the last day,” that one may “eat of this (bread of life) and not die.”
And I struggle with this reading, because it’s hard to find hope and comfort in a promise that “you will not die” as I walk with grieving parents and grandparents and siblings and friends.
And I’m apparently not alone in struggling with this teaching, because immediately the people who were listening to Jesus pretty much said “Wait a minute. Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s kid? We know them … how can HE say ‘I’ve come down from heaven?’” And a few verses later, the disciples say “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
But first a little context. We come to this teaching after Jesus has just fed 5,000 hungry people miraculously with five loaves of bread and two fish. And for those listening to Jesus, the talk of the “bread come down from heaven” would have echoed back to the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness. When they were starving, God “rained down bread (manna) from heaven,” and fed them. Always enough.
I appreciate this, because whether we’re talking about literal or figurative bread, literal or figurative life and death, it is clear that God DOES care about our physical needs, about the very literal feeding of the hungry.
This text also echoes for me back to a previous chapter in John’s gospel, when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, alone at a well. They have an amazing conversation despite the potential walls of her being a single, Samaritan woman who has had five husband, and Jesus being a single Jewish teacher. And in that conversation (John 4), he tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this (well) water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And she goes on to tell the people of her city, people who likely had previously shunned her, to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” He changes her life, and she becomes essentially the first witness to who and what Jesus is.
There’s a lot to love about these teachings. Over and over again, Jesus is clear that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. Everything that God gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.
The bread that I will give for the life of the world – the whole cosmos – is my flesh. Whoever believes has eternal life.
And yet, for those of us living in the here and now, sometimes those promises of eternal life are not so comforting as we, with our human hearts, grieve the losses of people and things that we lose to which we have become attached. Lives, relationships, places, work.
Frankly, as I sat with this teaching this week, I felt like I had more in common with Elijah, who (1 Kings 19:4-8) went a day’s journey into the wilderness, after having his life threatened by the queen, came and sat under a solitary broom tree, and asked, “O Lord, take away my life.” Elijah didn’t see any hope or comfort, and I wasn’t sure I did either.
But then I had a powerful conversation with a friend dealing with a difficult illness, a scary illness, and we talked a lot about what it’s like to feel vulnerable and helpless, not knowing what the immediate future holds. She said “I wish someone would just say to me ‘It must be really scary being discharged home when you still feel so helpless.’ ‘It must be really scary to know that your life has been turned upside down, that you’re dependent on other people suddenly to take care of you, pack up your things, make sure you’re eating safely, take care of your child.’” My friend knows she’s improving. She knows there’s hope she’ll get better, and that this is temporary. But, as we talked, sometimes we just need some empathy.
I spent a lot of time this week with Martin Luther, and his writing “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics,” and was struck by his reminder that
“God is the sort of person who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” In other words, God is the sort of, well, God, who meets us precisely in those weak, vulnerable, scary moments. Those death and loss times.
To the “fanatics” who argued that it “is not fitting that Christ’s body and blood should be in the bread and wine,” Luther responds “I might say equally well that it is not reasonable that God should descend from heaven and enter into the womb.” Likewise, it makes no sense that Christ “should thus humble himself below all men and allow himself to be suspended upon the cross as a most notorious evil-doer.
Jesus himself knew death, and not just any death, but a humiliating, suffering death. And it strikes me that in asking why we die, when we’ve been promised that we will live forever, that we’re asking the wrong question.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very reasonable, human question. It’s the same question that a few chapters later in John 11, sisters Mary and Martha both ask Jesus – Lord, if you had been here, my brother (Lazarus) would not have died. It’s a question we’re likely to keep asking, because, how can we NOT ask?
Of course we want to keep asking this question, because death – the death of loved ones, the many losses we experience, our own mortality – death makes us vulnerable and often experience pain.
Social worker and researcher Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says “…After years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our __________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, 60-hour work week) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using _____ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?” (p. 72)
And I would add, does it separate us from God? Does it separate us from God’s love, God’s grace, God’s transformation in our lives?
She continues that “Understanding my behaviors and feelings through a vulnerability lens rather than strictly through an addiction lens changed my entire life. It also strengthened my commitment to sobriety, abstinence, health and spirituality. I can definitely say,
‘Hi, my name is Brene, and today I’d like to deal with vulnerability and uncertainty with an apple fritter, a beer and cigarette, and spending 7 hours on Facebook.’ That feels uncomfortably honest.”
Similarly, as Lutherans, we are called to understand our behaviors and feelings through the lens of the cross. Through the lens of that “God …who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” And that same God meets us exactly in those intensely vulnerable places.
Brown reminds us that “There is a full spectrum of human emotions, and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. … When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.” (p. 73)
I think we’re asking the wrong question. While we would rather find the magic key to avoid suffering and death, instead, perhaps we need to pay more attention to where God is. Perhaps God calls us to a different question — not why must we die, but how do we see God at work in our lives, lives that despite the interruption of death, are eternal. We want so much to be in control and to not feel pain, and yet we turn to God trusting that we are in the hands of a great, grace-filled mystery of love.
Luther reminds us that we may trust that “the body of Christ is present in the bread and that his blood is truly present in the wine. This does not mean that he is not present in other places also with his body and blood, for in believing hearts he is completely present with his body and blood. … For that he enters the heart through faith is a much greater miracle than that he is present in the bread.”
Luther reminds us that we find God’s presence in the Eucharistic Meal, because the living Word points us there. And that in hearing the gospel, Christ is brought into our hearts, the true Christ. “How that comes about you cannot know, but your heart truly feels his presence, and through the experience of faith you know for a certainty that he is there.”
As I think about the grieving people I walked, literally, with at the Walk to Remember, I think about the stories and messages I heard. People who said “It seems to get a little easier every day.” People who said “It feels like it’s harder every day that passes.” People trusting that they would be reunited with their beloved children one day, and couldn’t wait. Others who find comfort in knowing that through organ donation, their beloved brought life to eight others. Or that through a foundation made in a loved one’s memory, Owen’s Milk Money brings tangible support in breastfeeding to countless mothers, improving the lives of so many babies and families. And so many people told me how much it helped to realize they were not alone in their grief.
We may find Christ anywhere. And I hope we do. But we are promised to find Christ in the living Word. In the bread and wine we share. In the water with which we are baptized. And as Luther reminds us, “As (Jesus) gives himself for us with his body and blood in order to redeem us from all misery, so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor.” May we too be signs of God’s hope, life and love to the neighbor, and indeed, find Christ there as well.
In the meantime, let us find Christ here. As the angel said to Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Come and eat. Taste and see. Thanks be to God.