The Liminal Millisecond of Risk: Luke 19:1-10

A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Kenny Smith could have been a teacher, a preacher, or a politician when he grew up. Last week on the phone, he said, somewhat ruefully, “Wouldn’t you know I’d choose the worst of the three…” He’s a city council member in Charlotte, North Carolina; a white conservative representing a majority-white, mostly, prosperous district in a city that recently joined the ranks of those communities rocked by racial unrest after the shooting death of a Black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by a police officer. Not long after the shooting and the street protests and violence that followed, the Charlotte City Council met to discuss a way forward. The council chamber was full to overflowing, mostly with angry citizens demanding justice for the Black community. Kenny was a target of much of their anger as people demanded answers and vented their frustration. According to a news report Kenny’s family had been threatened. He was a despised government official.

As the meeting approached its end without resolution and with tempers and anxiety still running high, Mayor Jennifer Roberts and the council were advised to leave by a side door. But Kenny stopped and looked again at the angry crowd. Even as his wife, at home and watching the meeting on t.v., texted him to lay low and play it safe, he rose from his chair to speak.

images-1Had Zacchaeus been in that city council chamber he might have known what Kenny was going through. He knew what it was to be despised. He too was a government official; a tax collector for an occupying authority who made his money, and plenty of it, by cheating people. That’s the way it worked; as long as the Romans got their cut, anything else the tax collectors could squeeze out of people was theirs. That’s why Luke regularly refers to tax collectors and sinners in the same breath.

We don’t know what prompted Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus. It may have been simple curiosity; he knew the Teacher was coming to town and he wanted to see what the fuss was about. Or it could have been something deeper. Perhaps he knew his own need for healing; he surely knew that his stature in his community was as minuscule as his own physical height. But whatever prompted his interest, he was energetic in his pursuit of Jesus; he ran ahead of the crowd. He climbed a tree to see over the heads of the others. And Jesus saw him in the tree and beckoned to him. By name.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Let’s rest for a moment in this liminal millisecond between Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus and the tax collector’ scramble down to the ground. In the space between the tree where he perched and Jesus was a crowd of people who hated Zacchaeus. He represented the Roman occupation. He had stolen from these people. The wealth that he had—that he wore in his nice clothes, that he displayed in his comfortable home, and possibly extra land and livestock— Zacchaeus had effectively taken all of this from the mouths of his neighbors and their children. Imagine looking down at these people as they stare angrily back at you, grumbling in wonder that Jesus had chosen to honor you with his presence at dinner, and not one of them.

It looks like a pretty hostile gauntlet to run, doesn’t it?

What happened inside of Zacchaeus’ heart in that liminal millisecond? Did he look into the eyes of Jesus and see God’s mercy? Did his soul break open to reveal a well of gratitude for God’s abundant love and compassion—God’s ‘tender competence’, as we have heard it called? Whatever it was, it was strong and compelling, and it was enough to propel Zacchaeus down from that sycamore, sending pieces of bark flying hither and thither, straight. through that hostile crowd to stand breathlessly before his Lord. He had figuratively leapt into the arms of God, somehow knowing he would be caught and held safely and securely.

And his grateful response was to give. To give half of his wealth and to repay fourfold what he had taken from his community. And Jesus’ response in turn to the questioning crowd was that Zacchaeus, one of the lost, had now been found.

Kenny Smith wasn’t in a sycamore tree in 1st century Jericho, but he might as well have been on that recent Monday night in Charlotte. He sat on a dais behind a table in the council chamber; looking at a crowd of people who projected upon him all of their feelings of years of neglect and injustice toward their community. And when he looked back, in that liminal millisecond after the council was told to leave by a side door, what did he see? What happened inside of his heart?

When Kenny and I spoke about it last week, his voice was reflective. He said, “It must have been some kind of divine inspiration.” Even as his wife was frantically texting him from home not to do it, he did it anyway.

Peter St. Onge, the reporter who wrote the story for the Charlotte Observer, tells it this way:

“I heard your anger,” [Smith] said. “I have three kids. I heard your damn anger.”

Then he stood up and walked toward the crowd. As council member Vi Lyles started speaking, Smith met a black man at the first row of seats. They hugged, and Smith reached for his business card. Then he did it again, a couple steps higher.

He found some who had singled him out earlier. He told them what he had tried to say on the dais, that he’s a conservative from a part of town where people are angry at the demonstrators, but that those constituents and those demonstrators need each other if we want repair.

“I told them we needed to talk,” he says now.

It’s a simple thought, maybe a little quaint. It’s also true.

…Maybe this was a political maneuver, you think, a way for a Republican to look better in a Democrat-heavy city. …But no matter what you think, you should also see this: That moment you most want to retreat to safety might be the moment you most need to reach out.

Because without that, no one will reach back.

Kenny Smith was up against it. He had a choice. He could retreat into safety or take the risk of leaping forward into the unknown. He realized, in that liminal millisecond, that safety was the dead end, while taking the risk—the leap—admitted of the opportunity for the arc of history to bend just a hair closer toward justice and reconciliation. He says he didn’t have a clue how it would turn out. He was terrified. His family had been threatened—his wife was panicking—but somehow deep down he knew that he could depend on God’s sustaining mercy—God’s tender competence. And in that millisecond he was transformed from a despised politician into a catalyst for healing.

And so, he leaped.

And his neighbor caught him by the hand. And another, and another. And this tentative group of former adversaries continues to hold on to one another to this day; meeting for coffee, lunch, conversation. There is still so much work to do, and a great deal to learn on both sides, but they have made a beginning by first getting to know each other.

Zacchaeus’ tale isn’t as open-ended as Kenny’s. We have a distinct sense of a happy ending for the wee little tax collector: salvation has come to his house. Kenny’s story, on the other hand, and that of his community, is still to reach its final chapter, and it is probably quite a ways down the road. We so yearn for a happy ending here, and what we have heard so far—this story of humility and courage, and the generosity born of a heart broken open by the Spirit, gives us hope.

Kenny’s story could easily be ours—the facts and names may change, but perhaps we can identify a time when that liminal millisecond has been all that stood between facing a fearful dead end or accepting an invitation to open our heart to God’s grace and abundance. We look out and see every reason in the world to cling to the status quo arrayed against us, glaring angrily and pronouncing our inadequacy for the task ahead. And then by the sheer grace of God we see beyond that to the truth of belovedness that challenges all of that anxiety; we see through to the healing and wholeness that comes from welcoming God’s tender mercy, offered to each of us by name.

And we take the leap.










Gratitude: Reflected in 3 Movements

First movement

On the 22nd of December 2008, Al and I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with an astonishing number of bags; many more than two people could reasonably manage. In those days, we were frequent transatlantic travellers, visiting our young family who until the previous year had been living in College Park, Maryland and now in Phoenix, Arizona. This time, however, we were embarking on a journey of a different kind, one of those great life journeys, the destination of which remains unknowable at the time of departure. Until our granddaughter Claire’s birth in 2005 it would have been inconceivable to either of us that we should ever leave London. Yet, after 35 years we were nevertheless, leaving.

In our different ways, Al and I both represent a particular kind of migration experience. London represented a particular time earlier in our lives when we risked making new beginnings. Now, at a later point in life, when according to conventional expectations we should have been comfortably drifting towards the enjoyment of the fruits of years of hard work and effort, we were throwing the pieces of our lives up into the air with no sense of how or where the pieces might land in a reconfigured life.

In a highly mobile society, our experience is not in any way an uncommon one. Countless others have similar stories of uprooting and transplanting to tell. Millions of these stories are infinitely more traumatic than ours. At the start of our 2017 annual stewardship campaign I share my experience because the theme and title of our campaign is Tender Competence.

Second movement

Tender Competence is a phrase I associate with St Benedict when he instructs his monks in the art of right relationship with one another and tender care of the structures supporting their common life. Tender competence, in the form of hospitality becomes charity. Charity-Caritas is one of the objective actions of love. Benedict’s experience was that when a community practiced tender competence in all aspects of life then charity would flow out through the gates and into the needy world beyond. Essential to Benedict’s thought is the adage charity begins at home. For if we cannot practice tender competence in the ordinary places, in the everyday mundane experiences among the familiar faces that people our lives, then we fool ourselves. Charity without engagement that roots it in time and place; without relational involvement fails to awaken in our fearful and barricaded hearts, the fruits of gratitude.

In 2008, our coming to America was a decision shot with the perils of uncertainty and unpredictability. Our same-gendered relationship enjoyed all the legal recognitions and civil rights afforded all married persons in the UK. Despite Al being a US citizen, in 2008 no such rights and recognitions were accorded us under Federal immigration law. This meant for me that the only way to come to America was as a student on an 18-month study visa. What was to happen after 18 months – neither of us knew?

What we did know was that our desire to be an active part of our young family’s life meant that coming to America was more than an 18-month experiment. For us leaving London was a decision upon which there was no going back. So began an 18-month period in our lives when we ate, drank and breathed the corrosions of uncertainty amidst the anxieties of waiting; waiting for the yet to become known to emerge into focus.

My relating this brief overview of my experience in the context of the start of our 2017 annual stewardship campaign is an attempt to embody that which I invited all of us to consider in this Thursday’s weekly E-News Epistle.

I invited us to use this short three-week campaign as an opportunity for taking a spiritual inventory of the role of gratitude, generosity, and service play in our lives. I offered three suggestions to assist our inventory process:

  • Recall a past experience when you took a risk to be generous. Remember how risky it felt. After taking the leap, how did this leave you feeling? Conversely, if you were afraid to leap, how did you feel?
  • Or, remember a time when you really felt up against it- in the sense that you knew you were totally dependent on God’s generosity for your hope or desire. Looking back how did a sense of reliance on God bear fruit for you?
  • Another approach – recall the consistent generosity that God has shown towards you throughout the ups and downs of your life. As you ponder, can you locate a deep source for gratitude? That no matter how often you have feared or doubted that you would be all right, that things would be OK, with hindsight you can see that God was caring for you, has always been, and therefore will continue to care for you.

First movement returns

In sharing my story of coming to America I want to give an example of the operation of gratitude, at least in my own experience. 2008-2012 represented a period during which my sanity was preserved in the face of the enormous uncertainty by the discovery of an that at the heart of stress lies and invitation. The invitation was to accept my experience of being utterly dependent upon God’s sustaining generosity. It’s only when the illusions of self-sufficiency fall away that the full power of God’s tender competence breaks into our barricaded hearts. It was at this point that I was reminded that God’s generosity towards me had always sustained me again and again throughout the ups and downs of the whole of my life, and would do so now.

When I speak of gratitude for God’s generosity I speak of several interconnected and interdependent elements. I speak of the people around me who through affection respect, and generosity encouraged, supported, and facilitated unfolding processes and events that opened doors to my future. But chiefly, I speak of an experience of the cultivation within of a deep trust in God born of utter dependence. This is not the fruit of my ability to trust, but is an experience of trust being cultivated within me by the tender competence of God.

Third movement

imagesIn the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we are invited into the pitfall of making moral judgments. Our 21st-century ears have been conditioned by the unrelenting drumbeat of anti-Semitism, the roots of which undoubtedly have been fed by a willful misinterpretation of the Gospels. Therefore, we are automatically predisposed against the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, and in so judging him commit the same error we condemn in him, i.e. that of self-righteousness.

We should remember that the Pharisees were the good guys. They aspired to live faithfully and with integrity. They shared with Jesus a progressive and compassionate understanding of Torah as a response to, rather than an imposition riding roughshod over the demands of everyday life. In his speech before the altar, the Pharisee rehearses the values he aspires to live by. He does not rob, exploit, or extort. He remains faithful to his wife and seeks an honorable accommodation with the Roman occupation that enables him to stay on the right side of the civil authority while keeping God as the focus of his ultimate allegiance.

The tax collector trades in a dirty business that often involved threats, extortion, and robbery. He is one of Rome’s debt collectors and he made a comfortable living out of his fellow citizens as an extortionate middleman.

So what is the deciding factor between each man for Jesus? It’s clearly not integrity and honesty. It’s not fidelity and fulfillment of duty. For Jesus, one man stands within a framework of comfortable self-assertion, confident in his ability to do the right thing and win God’s approval, while the other bows low, consumed by the realization of his utter helpless dependency upon the generosity of God. He is the one Jesus tells us goes home justified – made right again with God.

Utter dependence flows from the painful realization that there is nothing we can do other than to entrust ourselves to God’s tender competence. The tax collector has nothing going for him except he knows his need of God. It’s the very protections of an upright and faithful life that insulate the Pharisee from this crucial experience. He remains righteous, yet not justified.

Finale; first, second, and third movements combine

Are we not both Pharisee and tax collector? From my perspective in 2016, with the passing of time, the rawness of the time of uncertainty and vulnerability fades allowing the Pharisee in me to once again come to the fore. The Pharisee in me asks: am I not the author of my successful migration? Is not all I enjoy the fruits of my own success? After all, I am someone capable of risking, someone able to navigate complex bureaucratic systems and cultivate crucial relationships to help me at each step of the journey. In short, as Pharisee, I can see my successful migration to America and eventual arrival at St. Martin’s as the evidence of my undisputed qualities of discipline, diligent hard work, and personal social and relational skillfulness, not to forget access to the financial resources to make things happen. Viewed from here I am simply enjoying the desired reward that comes to a capable and resourceful person like me.

But is this really how things work? The tax collector in me knows that underneath my Pharisee facade there lies an experience of utter dependency on the generosity of God’s tender competence towards me. The tax collector in me knows only too well the encounter with helplessness. I was surprised by the power of love for our granddaughter. I felt compelled by that love to throw life up in the air without any idea of how this was actually going to work out. In doing so, I came to know the intensity of utter dependency on God generosity. Within all of us, the Pharisee’s self-confidence is always at war with the tax collector’s dependence upon God’s tender competence.

We face together the responsibility of rising to the challenges ahead in 2017. Speaking personally, I face into the challenges ahead with my sense of gratitude in the forefront of my awareness. I feel so privileged and thankful for having arrived at this point in my life. I feel a deep gratitude to God for calling me to be a part of this community. I am energized by the opportunity to build on our community’s past in order to prepare us for a future in which we will only grow more and more fit for the purpose God intends for us. In short, it is from my experience of gratitude that I find the energy to invest myself measured out within time, talent and treasure- in the life of the St. Martin community.

At the start of our 2017 campaign of Tender Competence, my theme is that of gratitude, which is the first impulse of the spiritual life. Over coming weeks I will speak about generosity and service as the other points in the virtuous cycle flowing from an awareness of gratitude for God’s tender competence. My charge to us all is to connect with the sources of gratitude in our own experience and at least between now and November 13th to make the cultivation of gratitude our enduring meditation. As we do this we will discover we are in for some surprising discoveries.

Will he find faith on earth?

Sermon for October 16, 2016,  from by John P. Reardon


“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” How odd to hear Jesus ask such a question. I’ve always assumed it to be a rhetorical question. After all, if you take Scripture as a whole, there is no doubt as to the outcome of history. God wins. Indeed, in Christ, God has already won. But what if, in the midst of his historical, earthly life, Jesus really doesn’t know? What if he is left to wonder, like the rest of us, what the human race will do with its history, and whether upon his return he will find anyone having kept faith?

As the calendar and liturgical years come to an end, it is natural for our thoughts to be directed toward ultimate things, to the end of things, to the outcome for which we hope and the outcome we fear. The readings we encounter on Sundays begin to speak more of end times, of judgment, of Christ’s Second Coming. They invite us to contemplate the ultimate meaning of history—of our personal stories and of all history. They invite us to take stock of our faith.

That is a particularly vivid challenge in this year, this most surreal of election years when so much of what has been our common life appears to be coming unraveled. In this country and throughout the world, there has been an intensification of verbal, physical, and emotional violence, a hardening of hearts and minds in which beliefs are presented as caricatures of themselves. Amplified by social media, we appear to be at one another’s throats a good deal of the time. Reflecting on the current tenor of the times in which we are living, I find myself contemplating a nearly 100- year-old poem written by William Butler Yeats after the end of the first World War, as discord was heating up in his native Ireland. He, too, found himself contemplating the idea of a Second Coming. He, too, felt that the outcome had to be framed in the form of a question.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again;  but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Jeremiah tells us that the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. What a visceral image for the ways in which one generation seems only to benefit from its negative actions while future generations are stunned when the bill comes due. Whether it is the cycle of war, terrorism, and other forms of violence, the increasing fragility of our environment in the face of our demands, or the pent-up rage of people on the short end of things—the economically destitute, people discriminated against due to race, gender, or sexuality, or people who feel their familiar culture and mores slipping away and hear themselves accused of bigotry for espousing beliefs that were considered common sense when they were growing up—our world is finally vexed to nightmare by the rocking cradle of injustice, and we all find our teeth set on edge.

In the cacophony of angry voices trying to make sense of their grievances, it is hardly surprising that, as Saint Paul tells Timothy, we have arrived at a time when people coming from multiple perspectives and experiences are no longer able to put up with sound doctrine and wander away to explanatory myths spun by would-be demagogues who know how to tickle people’s ears. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In this painful context, it is vitally important to hear the encouragement today’s Scripture readings offer us, cheering us on to pray always and never to lose heart. Jeremiah tells us that God is at work in all the messiness of human history, even ascribing negative events and destruction to God’s overall purpose would-ber away what has gone bad and to plant anew. Jeremiah tells us of God’s purpose—not just the restoration of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the full restoration of both the Southern and the Northern Kingdoms. No dream is too big for God.

Jesus tells us of a tough and determined widow who will not quit until justice is done for her. To be a widow in Biblical times was to be utterly vulnerable and helpless, dependent on the protection and care of others. The Torah commanded special care for widows. But the world often does not conduct itself according to divine precepts, and this widow’s fate lies in the hands of a corrupt judge who has no regard for God or for other people. But even if that judge cannot be inspired, he can be worn down by persistence. If the persistence of a powerless widow can get results from a corrupt judge, how much more can our constant return to prayer, alone and together, accomplish, when the God to whom we pray is the very one who cares for us and has chosen us to live in God’s Kingdom and to accomplish God’s work in the world? This is the God who, the Psalmist tells us, neither slumbers nor sleeps.

Returning again and again to prayer, we can find the strength to steer clear of the temptation to become one more loud voice in an ongoing squabble. We are able to persist, in a spirit of patience, in the holy work of convincing, rebuking, encouraging, and teaching, not our own views or agendas, but the truths of God’s reign that manifest themselves through Scripture. And we can hear and respond to God’s voice speaking to us through the voices of those who, like the widow in today’s Gospel story, do not give up demanding justice.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Of that there is no doubt. As we know, God wins. But will he find your faith? Will he find my faith? He will if we follow the example of this poor widow and pray always, never losing heart.

Only One in Ten: Luke 17

Francis of Assisi provided the focus this last week for my E-news epistle that comes out imagesevery Thursday. In it, I asked do we have the courage to allow ourselves to be touched by the generosity of God? Like Francis, to be touched by the generosity of God is to become a conduit for the flow of God’s generosity into our spiritually parched world? Individually, we may not match up to Francis. Yet, as a community, we can become opaque screens upon which God projects the change he longs for us to be. As Pope Francis seeks to do, we too must strive to emulate Francis’ in the face of the calculated hardness of the human heart. Do we have the courage to take such a risk?

Stepping into the text

The middle chapters of Luke’s Gospel describe Jesus on the move as he makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. In chapter 17 Luke places Jesus in the no-man’s-land region between Galilee and Samaria. Only Luke reports a number of encounters that Jesus has along the way, either with Samaritans or in the region of Samaria.

Samaria was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed by the Assyrians in 721. The Samaritans of Jesus day were the descendants of the Israelite peasantry left behind when the nobility was sent into captivity, never to return. The Assyrians resettled Samaria with foreign groups with whom over time the Israelite peasantry intermarried, thus defiling themselves in the eyes of Galilean and Judean Jews.

Luke 17:11-19

The particular story in chapter 17 involves Jesus healing of ten lepers. The gist of Luke’s account is that of the ten who follow Jesus’ instruction to go show themselves to the priests as a confirmation of being healed, only one returns to give thanks. You guessed it. The one who displays gratitude is not a Judean or Galilean, but a Samaritan.

Gratitude is the key

Gratitude touches the most unlikely of people. Gratitude is encountered often in those areas of our experience in life where we might least be looking for it. For gratitude and the experience of outsider-ness and exclusion seem to be universally connected. Surveys reveal that gratitude lies not among those who enjoy abundance but flows among those whose experience is marked by limitations of various kinds. Likewise, within ourselves, we encounter our gratitude not so much in the areas of personal experience where we feel confident and strong, but in the areas where we feel most vulnerable and aware of our poverty.
The healing miracles of Jesus are not the equivalent of medical cures. Their primary function is to signal the boundless extent of God’s generosity. God’s unbounded generosity is an offer requiring an act of acceptance. Without our acceptance, God’s generosity remains only something offered; not yet realized. The realization of God’s generosity comes only through our encounter with gratitude. The stronger our gratitude, the more open we are to receiving generosity, making us more likely to risk living generously.

Forging connections

ten-lepers-iconWhat distinguishes the Samaritan who returns to give thanks is that his whole perspective on life is radically transformed by his experience of gratitude. We don’t know about the other nine lepers who went off to show themselves to the priests. Yet, we detect a hint of something provisional about their healing. Jesus tells the Samaritan who returned to give thanks to God that his healing is the result of his faith, which alone has made him well. This raises the question about the other nine. Is it possible they were cured but not healed? Jesus’ final command to the Samaritan is: Get up and go on your way; you faith has made you well. The man is not only cured of his illness, he is made well. In other words, his return to give thanks for God’s generosity, occasions his healing!

Cure, healing, and human well-being

In our materialist medical worldview to be cured is seen as the miracle. If we long to emulate the magnetism of Francis then we will find ourselves longing for more than cure. For us, the longed-for miracle is to be healed of what ails us. We long for wellness, a quality of wholeness. In our pursuit of becoming whole, we want something beyond an eradication of illness.

Amazing advances in the ability to cure more and more illness marks the achievement of medical science. We thank God for such advances. Or, do we really? For most of us, after an initial sense of relief, in a loose way of speaking we are thankful for a return to the status ante, i.e. life, as we knew it before illness struck us down. I say, thank God I have my life back. Yet in so many instances to be cured of illness is not the same as being healed of what ails us.

Human well-being sometimes referred to as wellness or wholeness, or as Francis demonstrates holiness, requires the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. A physical or somatic cure can be part the process of healing but healing may also take place without being accompanied by a somatic cure. For healing is a holistic process of realignment that affects body, mind, and spirit, – soma, psyche, and pneuma. Wholeness-wellness -holiness – the interconnected elements that when realigned produce a transformation of perspective we call, healing.

It’s this transformation of perspective that is hinted at in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan. He is not only cured of his leprosy, his life is transformed in a new way that is so much more than the absence of illness. This is the experience of healing as practiced by Jesus. To be healed is to be ushered into a new dimension of perception and perspective that unblocks the wellspring of gratitude to overflow in us, and it is this that results in our becoming healed – reclothed in gratitude for God’s generosity.

Healing’s fruit

My reflections this last week on Francis reminded me that if we as a parish community are to meet the challenge facing us it will require more than the good stewardship of bricks, mortar, and institutional life. It will require of us to risk becoming healed. Francis was touched by the generosity of God and this made him a conduit through which the generosity of God flowed into a spiritually parched world. A man who in many ways remained a broken human being became a magnet for others drawn to the experience of God’s generosity.  Do we have the courage to allow ourselves to be similarly touched by the generosity of God? Individually, we may not match up to Francis. Yet, as a community, we can display Francis’ quality of magnetism and so change our world as he changed his? Do we have the courage to take such a risk?

Our materialism hides so much from us concerning what truly ails us. Cure for whatimages-1 afflicts the body brings us no nearer to a healing of that which ails our hearts and souls.The fruit of gratitude is to no longer resist new opportunities to be generous. As we transition from October to November, towards our great act of national Thanksgiving, the interconnections between gratitude as the response to the experience of generosity and generous living as the fruit of gratitude – form a virtuous cycle. A virtuous cycle that we will need to more fully explore.

In the meantime let’s meditate on the question: Will we be the one who returns to thank God?

Where Does It Hurt?

Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Pentecost 20, Year C (Proper 22)                                    Lamentations 1:1-6 & Psalm 137


Of all of the comments that I have heard regarding the Bible over the past few months, the one issue that rises to the top of the list in frequency and level of concern is that of violence. Though it has been phrased any number of ways, the question is basically: “How can this sacred book, the inspired word of God, contain scenes of such brutality and cruelty?” The usual response of people who encounter passages like the ones that appear in, to name a few, Joshua, Judges, Esther, Kings, Psalms, and Revelation is to figuratively squeeze their eyes shut and stick their fingers in their ears as if to block out the offending words and images; to declare that such images don’t reflect our faith and therefore we can safely ignore them.

Would that it were that simple. Yes, God is good and we are God’s beloved people; after all, Jesus called us Children of Light. But to ignore the presence of violence in the Bible would be the equivalent of ignoring the fact that light casts a shadow. Our sacred scriptures contain violence because they are about US. They are about God’s love and call to us in all of our sinfulness and frailty. And cruelty to each other. We can’t ignore it. Violence is in the Bible because violence, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, is in us, like it or not.

So rather than set aside the difficult passages, we’re called to the challenge of engaging with them; understanding first that the inspiration of Holy Scripture didn’t stop with the writing. It continues with the reading and the wrestling. And when we engage this way, in this community, we can become better equipped to engage with the violence and suffering that confronts the world outside these walls.

There are two strategies that I find helpful in engaging with Scripture. One is imagination; being able to read between the lines and to place oneself in the narrative. This is actually a part of Ignatian spiritual practice, and it is valuable for gaining new perspective—seeing things from new points of view. The second strategy is interrogation. I’ve always maintained that the most important part of a life of faith isn’t the answers; it’s the questions. So what is the question today? A Good question!

But first, the passage. Our psalm for today—Pslam 137 is notorious in psalm-reading circles as one that could be classified as a Text of Terror because of one verse. One verse that I confess I left out of our reading this morning, because it is that disturbing. You can find it on page 792 of the Prayer Book. The revenge hinted at in verse 8– Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!– is detailed in verse 9 –a horrid description of killing children, and it makes us wince. It should. And the first reaction is to turn away. But we want to know how God can possibly be speaking to us through these words; between these lines. And to discover that, we go back to the beginning.

In 587 B.C. the kingdom of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judah’s capital of Jerusalem, and took the people of Judah into captivity. The Book of Lamentations which we heard from this morning is an expression of the wrenching grief that Judah bore. And psalm 137 is an even more personal and intimate view of Judah’s trauma, from the point of view of those who were forced to walk over 500 miles to a hostile foreign land, without a clue as to what fate awaited them. This psalm draws us into a scene of heartbreak and exhaustion. Imagine enduring such a journey, coming to rest for awhile in a grove of willow trees somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Imagine the sense of desolation and loss—the bitter tears shed at the memory of the traumatic destruction of home and Temple. And then to be bullied and ridiculed by your captors: “Our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” The resentment and anger build from a slow simmer of defiance to a rolling boil of rage as the writer remembers witnessing the destruction: “Tear it down! Tear it down!” Emotionally out of control, the writer vows revenge, not just upon the enemy standing over him, but upon the enemy’s children—revenge upon generations to come. The psalm ends violently, with an image that makes us recoil. And then silence.

We’re called to enter that silence, not to walk away. We’re called to ask a question. Where does it hurt?

Ruby Sales was seventeen in 1965 when a young seminarian named Jonathan Daniels threw himself in front of the shotgun blast that was intended for her. He was killed instantly. Ruby is now a public theologian and one of 50 African Americans spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an interview she tells a story of being in the hair salon one day when a young woman, the daughter of her hairdresser, came through the door. She looked terrible, from self-neglect, illness and self-destructive behavior. Ruby speaks of this defining moment in her ministry: “And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs. So something said to me, “Ask her, ‘Where does it hurt?’” And I said, “Shelly, where does it hurt?” And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother…[S]he literally shared the source of her pain.”

Ruby entered the silence of one in pain and sat with her. And listened to her story. Listened to grief, fear, disillusionment, anger. Listened to a cry for help.

Might we see this psalm as a cry for help? Might we see it as a call to us to come between the world and its pain; to try to transform that pain into generative and healing relationships?

To enter into that space of silence and hurt, with a simple question, is a risky proposition. We become vulnerable to the heart and pain of another, and the risk is that we can become weighed down with it. The thing to remember is that we are never alone in that silence. God is there. God has been listening through it all; through the lament, the memory of trauma, and the angry lashing-out. God hears the cries of the abandoned and the suffering.

God listens between the lines. We’re invited to do the same.

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon—untitled1
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows[a] there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

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