Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Lament for the City

A Lament for the City

The Lament is an exquisite literary form that expresses something deep in human experience. There are times when it seems appropriate for a lamentation: such as when we saw the Twin Towers fall in New York. Thousands died. Heroic first responders gave their lives for those that were doomed as well as those who could be saved. The image of those towers gleaming against the clear blue sky and airplanes hurtling toward them will be forever fixed in our collective memory. And so we lament our loss.

So too those who live in Baghdad; they too grieve a grief too deep for words. The city is in ruins. The Great Museum is all but bereft of her treasures. Explosions kill innocents in the marketplace and worse still in the holy shrines. Terrible mistakes are made by the occupation force. A foreign army is misunderstood and resented and its commander in chief seems out of his depth in managing its deployment. And we, desperate to support our young people are so divided over whether we know what we’re doing there. And on and on it goes without an end in sight.

We will remember Pearl Harbor forever, and certainly our parents and grandparents will never forget. Those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are swept away with a blast that humankind had never seen before. London’s fearful nights and the dreadful incendiary attack against Dresden during World War II also elicit a profound lament from the human soul.

Jerusalem has seen it all too often, and the Walls of Jericho, that ancient city, have fallen at least 28 times if the archeologists are right about the way they read the Tell that is there.

And so the lamentations of human kind are all too pervasive in history. Can we find a way to sing the songs of our lamentation to God that can bring us hope or do we only find despair in our human experience?

Jesus tells us all we need is the faith of a mustard seed to make the mountains move. And Jesus goes one step further. He assures us that we already have enough faith to take us all the way to our deepest hopes. The greatest mountain to be moved is the rock that was moved away from the tomb in which Jesus lay.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thus the Lamentation is written in the human heart and in the heart of God as something to remind us of something larger still. The Lamentation is only one verse in the Song of God. This week let us sing on toward the place where God’s hope and ours meet even when it begins with the sorrow of our common Lamentation.


Imagine if you will what it would be like to be taken “en masse” from our homes and placed in slave labor for an enemy under force of arms. Imagine if you will, our faith taken away from us, and our holy places left in a heap of ruins. Imagine generations and generations of our people thus kept for many, many years. That is exactly what did happen to the children of Israel and thus the book of Lamentations came into existence. The prophets were never trusted after that. They were often anti-war activists and were considered unpatriotic.

One after another, the prophets railed against the corruption of the Kings of Israel. Each king was a little worse that their predecessor, according to the record of the kings and the theological proclamation of the prophets. And to be faithful to God meant to tell the truth, even if it was at the cost of personal freedom and safety. Jeremiah and a host of prophets were thus quite shabbily treated by their own people. It is remarkable that their writings have reached us.

It was in the crucible of this kind of conflict that the Lament was developed as a literary art form. To be able to be so utterly honest with God in our spirituality, ultimately also assists in the discovery of the grace of hope.

The alternate Psalm for the day, Psalm 137 is another articulate lament, but in this case it culminates in a dreadful imprecation on the enemy.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

Understandable to be sure; it was entirely likely that Israel’s precious little ones were likewise treated. And so the ethic of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was thus proclaimed. But as history’s tiresome repetition shows, such an ethic leads only to a world where everyone is blind and all are toothless, as Gandhi so succinctly pointed out in the wisdom and humor of his understanding of the human heart.

St. Paul urges his people on in his letter to Timothy, with comforting and inspiring words. He is, interestingly enough, quite affirming of the feminine spirituality of Lois and Eunice, which belies his own admiration for those of faith whoever they are. In his better moments, Paul does see that we are one in Christ whether we are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. Even more astutely Paul encourages us not to succumb to cowardice, but through faith and the laying-on-of-hands to receive a “spirit of power, love and self-discipline.” The abolition of death then ultimately gives us heart…courage if you will to profess the faith and to engage the “powers and principalities” with the sprit we have in Christ.

“We are more than conquerors, through him who first loves us”. All these echoing phrases come to us in a song of God, whatever fear of terror we face. These are good days for us to remember the courage of Christ and his early followers. We live in an age of fear and terror that will require tremendous courage.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that it will take but the tiniest seed of faith to move mountains; he goes on to say that we have that faith already, if we read the Greek phraseology correctly. Faith is a gift. It is absolutely free and with it we have conquered death and sin itself. What a gift! As we look to Jesus and ask for more faith, he looks back at us and tells us it is already there, sewn in our hearts by the free gift of his life.


In the year before the current “Intifada” in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I took a group of young people to the Holy Land. We visited a refugee camp outside Bethlehem that has been much in the news in the years since our pilgrimage. Our Palestinian hosts lamented the conditions they lived with on a daily basis. We saw it with our own eyes. Twenty eight families living with one bathroom, for instance: it made us heartsick. Yet for sixty years the people have been living thus. Our hosts asked “why should we be called on to pay the price for the holocaust?” Our Israeli hosts, on the other hand, spoke of the violence they lived with on a daily basis. Innocent people died in the marketplaces where people did their daily rounds. And in the exchange of insult and misunderstanding, accusation, and recrimination, thousands upon thousands die. The heart of God must break that people of faith must live so, and treat each other so.

The last century and now this new one is witness to far too many instances of genocide. What is occurring in Darfur now, as the world watches far too passively, is excruciatingly painful. And the tears of the people drench the ground as does too much innocent blood.

In our own experience, we have fought in Viet Nam and now twice in the Persian Gulf and very little is resolved or settled. This is not like the Second World War which seemed to call us together in a way that few other national emergencies have. Now we seem divided by political opportunists who use our conflicted experience to win elections. In an earlier time, folk singers, while not quite developing the literature of lament, did produce a host of anti-war songs.

What we have yet to do, is find a way to articulate an honest song to God about the times in which we live. We seem bereft of an honest spirituality. If we could form a lament in our hearts that we could sing with our lips, then perhaps we could find our way to God. If we were to do that we’d also find another song of hope that would lead us to peace with justice for many.

After 911 we did come together for a little while. Our national leaders gathered as one at the National Cathedral and spoke with one voice. It lasted all too briefly. We seem to have lost our way and our resolve has become diffuse. We are not a united nation. And now conservatives blame liberals; liberals blame conservatives and all the talk show hosts vent their spleens at American people who dare to disagree. What will it take to save the nation?


It must grieve the heart of God to see the human family behave so. In so many ways, and at so many times the very Name of God has been put to use to excuse our inhumanity to one another. Somehow a sense of righteous indignation seems to excuse terror and warfare, bigotry and violence.

It must grieve the heart of God to see the human family behave so. God sent the prophets to preach justice and peace. The very word peace, shalom and salaam, gave birth to the name of God’s own holy city Jerusalem. And there the holy city sits on Zion’s hill with Christians, Jews, and Muslim’s claiming her as their very own. Like little children playing “King of the Mountain” we push each other around and shame God’s love with our hatred.

Is it any wonder that the Lament has found its way into sacred literature? To be sure human beings do sing their songs of sorrow, but can you imagine God’s song when the blood of those same children spills into the sands and stones of Galilee. We call each other “enemy” like factious and feuding families. We refuse to speak to one another and posture our stiff necked hatred toward each other. The Lament we sing of our loss is only multiplied as God counts the losses even more exponentially for all the children of the human family are the flesh and blood of God.

Jesus came to give us the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus came to teach us to love our enemies. It is a difficult ministry. It may require the gift of a life. It required the gift of Jesus’ life to purchase the price of forgiveness. We are loath to pay the price, aren’t we? There are far too many willing to take our lives with glee for us to play into the hand of calumny and cruelty.

Perhaps if we were to sing sooner the song of God, we could find a way to Peace. If we could find a way to an honest articulation of Lamentation, then perhaps God could act. Perhaps God could direct our feet in the pathways of peace by showing us how to talk to one another. Better still perhaps God could help us by teaching us first to listen to one another.

Military action, political power, and diplomatic initiative are all part of a seamless piece when placed in the hands of God. Placing these matters in the hands of God is often the last thought of the expert in these disciplines. We ask God to be on our side and seldom honestly ask if we are on God’s side.

It is so easy to blame “the other” through our failure to see the humanity in the flesh and blood of our brothers and sisters. Some may wonder what color God is. Perhaps God is the color of America, or Britain. Others would say that God is the color of Arabia or Judaica. Some say that God is the color of Jesus, Moses or Muhammad. The laws of the universe that God created must find such parochialism too narrow. God is much, much bigger than any box we may seek to put God into.

God created the whole world according to the creation accounts in Genesis. Therefore it stands to reason that the color of God is far more diverse in hue than merely one particular color. As God sees the globe it has no national borders. As God created human beings there is only one flesh and blood, one heart for all, and one hope for all, and only one love to make everything possible.

When we were in the Holy Land an old Arabic woman asked us if we knew the color of God. We shrugged our shoulders. She said that the color of God is the color of water. It stands to reason when you think of it. More than 60% of the human body is water. And it is given life by electrical impulses to make the mind and heart work to the glory or the shame of the Creator.

Thus we come to this moment in time and still we need a savior. Moses taught us obedience through the law. The Prophet Muhammad taught us that God is the All Merciful. Jesus taught us that God is the All Loving.

We are a disobedient, unmerciful, and unloving lot because we refuse to listen to those God sent to us. May God have mercy on us ALL!

Perhaps there is time for us to sing the song of God’s own heart of sorrow as we mourn the terrible losses that we and God have suffered. If we sing that song with any skill we will learn to listen to the hope of God for a new tomorrow. Perhaps we will get a glimpse of the Dream of God to take the human hearts of stone and make it a heart of flesh and blood that beats with love for the whole human family.

We are servants of God as the Gospel points out. It is our duty to sing our song in such a way that serves God’s purposes on the earth. It is our duty. May it be said of us that “We have only done what we ought to have done”.

Thank God that the Lament is part of our sacred literature. May it teach us the way to God’s broken heart so the healing balm of God may help us sing on to other verses where the hope and love and forgiveness of God gives us all a way to Peace and Justice for all.

To Make a Saint; Start with a Sinner

The Only way to make a Saint:

Start with a Sinner

How many of our great leaders have fallen from grace? I remember how crestfallen I was when I learned as a young man that apparently John Fitzgerald Kennedy had some indiscretions with Marilyn Monroe, only to learn some years later, that this was but the tip of the iceberg. Then come to find out, no less a personage than Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself was thought to have had some liaisons with a “lady” or two at the White House. The revelations just seemed to multiply as we entered a period of “debunking” of our heroes. Even Abraham Lincoln did not go unscathed as he was reputed to have had a dalliance or two with a close male associate. That accusation is vehemently denied by many, doggedly insisted to by others.

On and on and on it goes, it seems, in a rather tiresome sequence of unending disappointment. Bill Clinton’s presidency will forever have the cloud of the Lewinsky episode as his legacy. At the same time so many so-called pro-family evangelicals have found themselves sullied by personal indiscretions. Newt Gingrich was busy with his mistress as his wife was dying of cancer at the same time as he vigorously led the charge against Clinton. More recently, Senators Foley and now Craig while seeking a constitutional amendment to deny same sex marriage for others, were themselves compromised by moral disgrace; in the former case with page boys in Congress and in the latter at a men’s room in a Minneapolis airport..

Now come to find out that no less a light than Mother Theresa had nagging doubts about God until the very day of her death. How in the world do we find redemption in a world where sin is so ubiquitous and where doubt is so real? I take some comfort in the notion of the potter in today’s Old Testament lesson. God is not finished with us yet. And too I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s famous quote; “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.

That being the case, there is no better place for God to begin than with you and me!

Today let us consider how being a sinner can lead to sainthood…and if we’re not careful, vice versa.

The Word

The Jeremiah passage about the Potter’s clay is a wonderful resource for a preacher. I also like his turn of phrase “The word of the Lord came to me”. The way he uses the language, we come away with a sense that God speaks to the human heart not to the ear. God gives the sense of what the message is rather than giving a word for word directive. The warning that God is articulating in today’s lesson certainly needs to be given to Israel. But it can be given to any nation. It can be given to any individual, or family. The scripture becomes profoundly symbolic for me as we read it in this way. I hear God speaking then in my heart as God speaks for the poor, the outcast, or as God speaks to me and soberly invites me to honesty. It is a wonderful passage.

So too the psalm: here the psalmist postulates that God’s knowledge of us is so intimate and so close that God ends up knowing us better than we do ourselves. That’s often true. There’s much of ourselves that we often don’t want to face. But God will not let us get away with that. God’s will be done, because God presses in before and behind, and ultimately this knowledge is so wonderful that it becomes my salvation.

The passage from Philemon is a charming piece of redemptive literature too. We don’t know what there was about Onesimus but we do know that he once was utterly useless. Somehow, God found a use for him. Somehow this sinner became one of the saints and no less a light than Paul spoke up for him. He had to press the point. His “indiscretion” or “sin” must have been noteworthy, but ultimately he became another one of the redeemed of God.

The Gospel is difficult today. Taking up the cross to follow Jesus must ultimately rest on an honest appraisal of where we stand on our own with Jesus. No one in the family can stand in for us. We’re on our own. There’s no way to finesse our way to God. There is only the way of the cross. We cannot buy our way there. We cannot earn our way there. The only way to the heart of God and to the kingdom is through the reality of our own hearts and the truth of who we are.

The World

It is very sad, isn’t it? Senator Craig denied it. Foley denied it. Vitter denied it. Gingrich, Clinton, Nixon all denied it. My grandmother used to say “Denial is not a river in Egypt”. Denial is covering up something that needs a dose of truth. If there was one thing that my grandmother couldn’t tolerate, it was a liar. It is as if the lie is itself becomes a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, because the lie prohibits grace from doing its wonders. That’s what we find out in the 12 step program. Once we admit that we are powerless over our addictive behaviors; that is the moment of Grace. That is when God can get to work on us and make saints out of the sinners that we are. The sin never goes away, but God can make something beautiful with the sinner who has the courage to be truthful.

Crafting the Sermon

Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the United States often and once I heard him speak at Trinity Institute, one of the finest clergy conferences of the Episcopal Church held annually at Trinity Church, Wall Street. It is the place to be if an Episcopal Priest wants to be at the center of things in that church. The focus of the particular conference I attended was the ordained ministry. Ramsey loved the one liner and he had quite a few in his repertoire. Near the top of the list was the one about the quality of the clergy these days. Even then, in the seventies, there was quite a fuss about the “run of the mill” that ended up ordained. Ramsey flashed his twinkling eyes at the assembled gathering and said; “When people complain to me about the quality of the clergy, I respond rather sharply”, he quipped, “If you want better clergy, give us a better crop to pick from!”

It seems to me that the bishop was right on. When it comes to picking out clergy to lead us, we have no one to pick from but ourselves. The same can be said of politicians, diplomats, corporate leadership, teachers, or any other profession that is held to careful scrutiny these days. If we don’t offer ourselves for leadership, someone else will lead. All that apathy guarantees is that someone other than ourselves will lead. They will often not be up to our standards. But we ourselves often don’t want to get our hands dirty in the grit and grime of leadership.

And so yes we see a spate of revelations about clergy, politicians, corporate heads, teachers, and the list goes on. They all come from the general population. And we’re all tainted with the reality of human foibles. The only doctrine we can prove in the Christian experience is sin. There is ample evidence of it every day in the newspaper and on CNN. All other doctrine we must take on faith.

And so one by one our heroes fall, as their Achilles heels give way under the pressure that each of us brings to our several endeavors. It seems that it is when we cannot be honest about who we are, that sin gains special power over us. It is that so called “secret” sin that gains traction in its ability to corrupt us or to hide behind our own hypocrisy. We pick specks out of other human eyes while we cannot see the log that renders us blind in our own eyesight. (Loose paraphrase of Matthew 7:3) Never did Jesus speak more aptly to the human condition than in that famous “one liner”!

It is thus that several senators have lined up to fight for family values and personal probity, while they themselves were engaged in some decidedly compromising and bad habits. Gingrich and his affair while he chased down Clinton for his indiscretion, Foley and Craig fought for a ban on gay marriage while they themselves were reputed to be involved with pages in the former case, and lewd behavior in an airport in the latter. These are but a few of the kinds of cases we see where “the speck and the log” axiom seems to be at work.

But God does not create junk. And the Potter is busy at the wheel making beautiful things.

There is a case that leads to a better place it seems to me. Mother Theresa, come to find out, had her doubts about God. Her “Dark Night of the Soul” has come to light now on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. The article quotes Mother Theresa as follows “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” This exquisite woman of faith opens her heart to us now even in her death. Her heart is like the hearts of so many, bleak not only with doubt, but sometimes even with a form of certitude that there simply is no God.

Part of me is disappointed. She looked so peaceful and serene…although as I think about it, she may have looked more holy, than peaceful or serene. She had so much to come to terms with. How could she work so closely with the utterly destitute and have faith? That really was the question. When the poor are so utterly cast away, how can we believe?

In the NY Times piece that appeared on August 29th, Fr. James Martin, a perceptive Jesuit priest, points to the vital role of Spiritual Director for the child of God who dares to be honest to self and to God. “In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.”

What is missing for so many of us is the honesty and truth that facing sin can give us. Whether it is addictive behavior around drugs, sex, alcohol, or perhaps greed, or an obsession with power and violence, we cannot even begin to find our way to forgiveness without at first being honest with ourselves and with God. The role of Confessor, and Spiritual Director, valued companion or “heart other” as it is called in spirituality is a well documented resource within the tradition of faith. “Come let us reason together” has been the dictum of faith it seems forever.

The prophet Isaiah gave us a first glimpse at the idea in the first chapter at the 18th verse “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.?”

And thus we come to the thesis of this sermon idea; to make a saint God must begin with a sinner. Kierkegaard said it. I’ll repeat it. It is what Jeremiah had in mind when he wrote of God as being like the potter at his wheel fashioning clay vessels. He works by the hour to make something beautiful. But something goes wrong. He breaks the pot and starts again. So it is with us. We are clay in the hands of God. And so long as we can be honest to God and with ourselves, the hand of God can indeed touch us and make of us something that is pleasing to see, and something pleasing to be. Thus God makes saints out of sinners. There’s no better place to begin than with you. There’s no better place to begin than with me. The pathway toward holiness is not to pretend we have no sin. The pathway to holiness is to be honest to God and to ourselves about who we are. That is what we learn from the saints. They too were sinners each of them just like us. But they found a way to be honest about who they are.

It is interesting to me that when God revealed the divine personality, the verb “to be” is used. Hebrew is tough to translate on a good day, but the mood of the verb used in Exodus to Moses is roughly translated “I AM who I AM”… or “I AM whatever I WILL BE” or just “I AM”. You see, God was honest about the divine nature. No adjectives or adverbs were used, just a very tentative mood of the present tense that can be rendered perhaps a future conditional of some undetermined influence. That is precisely who God is. God will be whoever God will be! If we’re honest about it, the same must be said of ourselves. And at the very least the Bible is honest. The pathway to God’s redemptive power then is through this very kind of honesty.

Another bishop I know was fond of saying; “It is not the mission of the church to make good people better; it is the mission of the church to make bad people holy”. That’s why the first step in the recovery process is overcoming denial. It is to admit that I have no power over the sin that has me in its grip. Once we say that we’re on our way. The truth shall make us free. (John 8:32)

God, make of us what You will but please do make of us, and not as we will but as You will. Take Your hands and we will be clay for You. Mould us to Your purpose so that we can be something beautiful for you as Mother Theresa was something beautiful for you in her time.