It’s been several weeks since my last sermon blog. I have been enjoying a rest after a solid three-month period of weekly preaching on the theme of discipleship. As I return to writing today, its early Saturday morning and as I settle to reflect on the thoughts concerning the Gospel reading for Advent III what is uppermost in my mind is yesterday’s tragic events in Sandy Hook elementary School.
The airways and internet buzz with analysis and comment. We feel sick to our stomachs as we identify with the grief of the parents, teachers, first responders, and of course, the children all caught up in this whirlwind of suffering. If past events are an accurate guide to the unfolding of analysis and comment over the days, weeks and months to come, the central question will be what can we as a society learn from yet another tragic mass shooting?
Opinion will polarize around two positions. Many will seek to build meaning out of meaninglessness by distinguishing this event to the deranged psyche of one individual. Still many others will seek to understand this event as a generalized symptom of an increasingly distressed society.
Polarizations stereotype real life. Between stereotypes there can never be agreement. Human beings stereotype real experience because this process offers the illusion of explanation and maybe even the more illusive illusion of understanding. As rational beings, we need both explanations and understandings. These enable us to feel the universe can still be predicted in ways that leave us feeling safe. Our desperate need to feel safe leads us to passionately defend our stereotypes as if they actually provide us with the potential to learn from our experience.
Stereotypes posse a semblance of the real truth of a situation. This is their danger. They seem on the face of things to be the truth. However, they are encapsulations that distort the reality they claim to represent through simplification and generalization. Both the shooter and the shooting have been described as evil – by no less a personage than the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia. The stereotype of evil is simply a way of saying the motivation and the act challenge understanding. To describe an act as evil closes-off any possibility of comprehending the meaning and restricts the potential for there to be any learning from experience!
To paraphrase Freud, experience that we cannot learn from is experience we are destined to repeat. My own background in Psychoanalysis confirms for me a truth that seems to be hard to learn. The only way we can begin to set ourselves free from the dark forces of our individual and collective unconscious is to allow that which can’t be thought about, and so, continues to be acted out, to become thinkable.
Our current difficulty as a society remains to allow the unthinkable to become thought. We can only allow this process to emerge if we resist our need to stereotype. The result is that we sit with complexity without the comfort of simple explanations. Only then might we begin to really learn from our collective experience.
The Gospel reading from Luke appointed for Advent III comes to us across 2000 years of transmission. We receive it as a stereotype. For us we have a mental picture of John the Baptist, dressed in a coat of camel-hair cursing and cussing-out the sheep-like crowds who flock to him. We have an image of hordes running out through city gates and traversing the rocky desert terrain to arrive at a place in the wilderness. Here, they yearn to hear what they hope will be John’s simple and uncompromising answers to the complex anxieties that fill their daily lives. Wilderness is not only the location of meeting John, it is also symbolic of where their lives are lived. The crowds revel, taking masochistic comfort from John’s firebrand style of collective verbal flagellation.
Although the crowds attending John are a mixed lot, Luke offers us an interesting profile of them. Once we get beneath our stereotype of the scene, we note Luke’s profile of the crowd. We see tax collectors and soldiers among the throng representing the powerful amidst the powerless, the exploiters among the exploited. Within the collective of the crowd, all come together to seek answers to the challenges of their lives.
The crowds who throng to John represent a conquered society disintegrating under the pressures unleashed by the destruction of the traditional checks and balances through which Jewish society has traditionally governed itself. For us this would be the equivalent of an invader abolishing our form of government, straining our society to the point where the mechanisms of civil society begin to unravel, i.e. the law, organized religion, education, economic regulation, the social contract.
The tax collectors are private entrepreneurs who buy the right to collect the tax owed to Rome. This is a lucrative franchise which allows several layers of middle men to add their inflated commission to the baseline tax. Not only do the people resent paying the tax to their Roman oppressors, but they also resent being additionally exploited by the tax collectors who, after-all are their fellow Jews. Occupation pits Jew against Jew. Likewise, the soldiers are the local thugs working security detail. They are the hired muscle used to intimidate the ordinary people. They practice free-lance intimidation and extortion of their own. Occupation pits citizen against citizen.
Luke identifies John as an Essene-like character. The Essenes, are known to us as a radical sect who sought out an alternative lifestyle in the back-blocks of the Idaho of Judea. We think they are the authors of the scrolls found at Qumran. Whether John was an Essene or not, we can’t really know. However, for Luke and for us, John represents the last of the great Hebrew Prophets. In times of crisis people rush to embrace the prophet’s uncomfortable message only to later disregard it when times improve.
John employs the ritual vocabulary (brood of vipers etc) of the prophetic genre and we can assume this would have been understood as the convention of prophetic speech, by his hears. However, the focus of his preaching is upon announcing the coming of Jesus as Messiah. He calls his hearers to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival. In answer to their question: what then should we do?, John abandons his ritualized prophetic language and addresses each category of questioner before him with surprising intimacy.
To the ordinary people he exhorts them to relationships of mutual support. To the tax collectors he exhorts them to ethical practice. To the soldiers he exhorts them to cease extorting their fellow citizens through force and to be satisfied with what they honestly earn. As we penetrate beneath the stereotype of our image of a first century Judean scene we find the question asked by the crowd becomes our question also – what then should we do?
Earlier this week I had an email from someone who has been attending the Cathedral fairly frequently over the last couple of months. In the email this person, with some sadness, reported that with the exception of the Greeters and the Clergy not one person from the congregation had spoken to them. We need to take this person’s experience to heart and I would like to invite us to wonder together about what this tells us about our community.
Episcopal Churches have an appalling record of welcoming strangers. I have shared with you some common jokes about Episcopalians and money – like: we give till it hurts- pity we have such a low threshold to pain. There are also jokes about the quality of our welcome. All our churches have a sign outside that says: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!- and the joke is: as long as you are like us. Another rather shocking aphorism runs: Everyone who needs to be an Episcopalian, already is. I don’t believe these witticisms in anyway reflect our actual attitudes at Trinity. In actuality we are a community of spiritual refugees. We are a warm community that welcomes diversity and intends to be a place of welcome for new people. However, it seems that our intention and our practice are out of sync.
So what then should we – the people of Trinity Cathedral- be doing? The answer this morning is to be a source for God’s expression of welcome to everyone whose path directs them to come through our doors. Through the warmth of our smiles, our readiness to speak to the visitor, our sensitivity that gently allows the newcomer to find their own level of comfort while leaving them in no doubt of our delight they have found their way to worship with us – we provide the human connection. While the visitor to our worship battles with the unfamiliarity and complexity of our liturgical expression, it’s the human connection of welcome that supports them as they explore the experience of being drawn to our Anglican transmission of historic Christianity.