17 January 2010

Confused by the Spirit: a sermon for Haiti

Originally preaching on Sunday, January 17 using the Epiphany 2C lectionary readings. The service that had been planned for this Sunday was scrapped the day before in light of the tragedy of Haiti.

Confused by the Spirit

Before I begin, I’d like to present a small disclaimer.  This is in no way the sermon I intended to write.  This service is in no way the service any of the staff intended on having today.  In fact, the title listed is more a reflection of my personal feelings in preparation for this morning than the actual sermon.

But as the reports continued to flood in and the scale of the tragedy in Haiti began to come to light, there was simply no way we could gather today and sing “Joyful, Joyful.”

If you have a TV or a radio, surely you’ve seen or heard of the devastation.  Streets lined with bodies.  Children orphaned. The elderly unable to help themselves.  Destruction at every turn.

Many of you may not realize this,  but I have a brother in Haiti. A brother whom I have not heard from. A brother who worked at one of the resorts that crumbled on Tuesday.

I also have a sister who works in Haiti.  She was one of the UN staff who died.

My mother is there too, still searching the body-lined streets to find her other children. She and my uncle have found a few of them alive, but most are dead.

You see, we all have family in Haiti.  In the gospel of Mark, we are told of a rather tense interaction Jesus has with his followers around the idea of family.1 The story opens with Mary and her other sons standing on the outskirts of the crowd that had gathered around Jesus.  His family sends to him, and the messenger tells Jesus “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Do you remember Jesus’ reply?  It’s shocking, not at all the good ol’ boy we’ve made Jesus into over the years.  His reply is a simple question: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?”

What? Who are your mother and brothers? Easy--your mother is the one you gave birth to you. And your brothers are her other children.  Right?

Jesus doesn’t seem to think so.  He looks at those who are surrounding him, the ones who have come to hear him speak words of wisdom and of truth. “Here,” he exclaims, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”   Realizing that he’s probably lost some of his followers in this statement, he adds “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

What, then, does it mean to do the will of God?  Despite a myriad of possible answers to this question, there is only one true response. It’s the action that we see prevail time and again in the Bible. It is the theme we see over and over and over again in the Gospels.  Jesus sums it up in his teaching about the two greatest commandments.

In the New Testament canon we are first introduced to these commandments in Matthew.  The writer of the gospel of Matthew tells us that it was the Pharisees who brought about this teaching.  You see, the Pharisees were trying to test Jesus’ knowledge about the law, or Torah.

This particular pharisee, a lawyer, asked him this question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Now a lawyer in Jesus’ day was not a lawyer as we think of them. A Lawyer was someone concerned with the meaning of the law. In a sense, he was a theologian.  The question he asked in no way was a serious one. He starts by addressing Jesus as Teacher, a obvious and insincere shift from Jesus’ believer’s use of Lord.

This conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus is a recurrence of a common theme in Matthew. Once again the Kingdom of God is at odds with the kingdom of religion.

The way the question is phrased is an attempt on behalf of the pharisees to catch Jesus off guard.  Traditional understanding of the law is that all 613 commandments found in the Torah are equal in stature and value.  Asking Jesus to choose one commandment or one kind of commandment over another is essentially trying to ask him a trick question.

Jesus doesn’t skip a beat. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Now this is part of what is known in Judaism as the Shema. This statement of faith is the closest thing to a creedal statement in Jewish tradition. The Shema is spoken upon going to bed and upon waking from sleep.  It is even uttered with one’s last breath.

In the Markan account of this story, we hear the whole of the Shema as the first commandment: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Jesus knows of its importance, and offers it as the most important commandment, but then he adds his own explaining that “the second is like it.” Jesus isn’t suggesting here that the second is similar to the first in meaning. Rather, he is emphasizing its equal importance. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus the love of one’s neighbor is inseparable from the great command to love God.  One professor writes “To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and to love one’s neighbor is to love God.”

Jesus isn’t finished quite yet. Just to hammer home his point, he adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”6 Essentially, love God and love others. The rest is commentary.

So, if we are to be family in Christ, then we should do God’s will. And from what we just discussed, it seems like a pretty fair statement to say that God’s will is for us to love God and for us to love one another.
But what does that look like? This is our true challenge: what does love look like? What does love of God and love of neighbor look like? Notice what Jesus doesn’t talk about. Jesus doesn’t seem to believe that our job is to judge our neighbor or blame them for their misfortunes.  He doesn’t even seem particularly concerned with their past. Time and again, we hear stories of Jesus calling people from their tragic past into a hope filled future.

So how, then, do we figure out what love looks like? Lucky for us, we’ve got a whole book of clues.

As we read the pages of the Bible, we are presented with answer after answer to this question.  The reading from Isaiah that we heard this morning is one answer: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”7 We flip to Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”8 The psalms speak of love as refuge and shelter: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”   

We flip to the New Testament and find Jesus’ words reminding us of what our call to love means.  Every time we face a tragedy, these words are at once words of comfort and words of action.  Hear these words:

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
    “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
    “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
    “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 It seems to me that almost every time we hear these words spoken we dismiss them as some sort of hippie speak.  We live in a world of concrete success.  Spiritual things are rarely touted as markers of success.  Rather, we look to salaries and bonuses and cars and houses and trips.  But we look at these teachings, the beatitudes, and hear nothing about split-levels and Mercedes.

Then we hear these words in the midst of crisis and they take on whole new meaning.  What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” Could it mean being so broken by the devastation around you that all you can do is fall on your knees and wail? What does it mean to mourn when a whole society has been torn apart? What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a country not ripped apart by war, but by brute natural force?

Hidden in these words of comfort are words of action. They are statements that urge us to be a merciful people convinced of the importance of peacemaking. They are statements that not only affirm the hardship of life, but call us to respond to them.

But there are also more direct calls to action.  Take the story of Jesus teaching his disciples about the return of “the Son of Man.” As part of this teaching, he tells us that the sheep will be at his right had and the goats at his left. He explains that those at his right hand are blessed by his Father. Why?  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

The righteous, confused, ask him “When did we do any of these.”  And the king will reply “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

These aren’t menacing instructions. If anything they are empowering. Often God’s greatest commandment: to Love God and your neighbors is intimidating.  Exactly how can we ever repay the love God has shown us.  The short answer is: we can’t. But we can try.  And Jesus gives us a starting place.

How can we repay that love? We can feed those who are hungry. We can care for the sick. We clothe the naked. We can lift up the downtrodden. We can be merciful. We can be a refuge. We can love kindness.  We can work for justice. We can shout of love and truth and hope from the mountaintops.

Yes, it is a daunting task. But Paul reminds us that we are equipped for the job. The words from his first letter to the church in Corinth which we heard earlier remind us that we share a variety of gifts all inspired by the one Spirit. In times of need or distress, we can claim these gifts and use them to lift up a world which is broken and hurting and in desperate need of help.

You see, the Good News here, is not just some heady theological notion that Jesus came to save the whole world. The Good News is that we are equipped to aid in this salvation.  I’m not talking about bringing people to Christ. While that is a good and worthy endeavor, its not what is needed here and now.

Our call today, in the midst of this crisis, is to be the hands of Christ in this world--to not remain silent when hatred is spewed about reasons for this catastrophe. To send aid--to send as much aid as we can as fast as we can. To pray, to pray hard, and hope against hope that more living are found. To hold the families who’ve lost loved ones in our hearts and lift them in God’s grace. To remind ourselves that God has indeed been our help in ages past and is our sure and confident hope in the days to come. To look toward the day with our faith may become sight and all will be made well.

Friends, can you see it? Can you see our call to be the light of Christ in this situation? Can you see our call beyond the politics of money and government to help those in need?  Can you look at the people in Haiti and claim them as your own family?

 For in Christ, we each have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and children and god-daughters and nephews to call our own. What will you do to help them?