Year A, Proper 25 October 29, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…we had courage in our God to declare to you the Gospel of God in spite of great opposition.”
With apologies to the historians among us, I am not going to talk about the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary. That is not what we need to talk about this morning. That could be the wrong choice, but what we need to talk about today is Jesus. We’ll have to keep it to the fact that a mighty fortress is our God. Jesus was a reformer, too. He protested. He called out the authorities of His time for their corruption and hypocrisy. Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve been hearing about his confrontations with the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Chief Priests, the triune establishment of power in Israel of His day. His protest, His calls for reform escalated as He entered Jerusalem. Jesus brought the fight to them.
Think of the readings these past few weeks. The Vineyard owner and the wicked tenants, then the King’s wedding banquet ending with the outer darkness and gnashing of teeth. Last week we heard about whether it was lawful to pay taxes. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” And today we hear him slam dunk them over who David called Lord. From that day no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This is all happening in Holy Week. Jesus knew where this was leading. These parables, each told in direct response to challenges by the established, institutional leaders, were fighting words. Jesus was there to pick a fight. “You hypocrites!” “You brood of vipers!” “For many are called but few are chosen.” (And you ain’t the chosen). Those are hard words. It was a hard moment, a hard moment that led very directly to the hard wood of the Cross.
This is all very uncomfortable, this hellfire and brimstone Jesus. This angry Jesus. This condemning Jesus. A lot of us in the progressive Main Line protestant churches aren’t very comfortable with this side of Jesus. “Separating sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, isn’t everyone welcome?” “He doesn’t really mean ‘unquenchable fired’ does He?”
You know that famous picture of Jesus, Sallman’s “Head of Christ”? Long, flowing light brown hair, a long flowing beard and he is looking up slightly with a kind of glow all around him. At least He doesn’t have blue eyes, but it is a distinctly European looking Jesus. It is a comfortable picture of Jesus for white folks. He looks so gentle. It is the “welcome them as little children” Jesus. The “come to me all that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” Jesus. And we need that. Heavens to betsy, in this world, in being mortal creatures facing the great unknown of suffering and death, we need the comfort and encouragement of God through the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus and His apostles offer that in so many of the comforting words found in Scripture. In Rite I, right after the confession, there is a part called the “Comfortable Words.” They are reassuring lines of scripture. But as these Gospel passages the past weeks show us, as the long walk to the Cross teaches us, that is not the whole story. Jesus, the world He inhabited, our world, is not always comfortable.
There are some things bubbling over into our public discourse right now that are very uncomfortable. Issues concerning race, the abuse of immigrants, endemic harassment and assault of women. These are very uncomfortable realities that are seeing the light of day in new ways right now. None of this should be surprising. None of this is surprising to anyone who suffers, has suffered, likely will suffer abuse and discrimination at the hands of the dominate culture. The dominant, the default culture of this nation is (obviously) male, white, straight, native born, educated, financially secure, healthy… the categories go on and on. That is the default of what is “normal” in America. Women, you are not surprised by anything in the news right now about how men too often treat women, are you? People of color, you are not surprised by anything in the news right now about how much race matters, are you? Or if you are gay in a straight world, or Muslim or Jewish in a Christian world, you are not surprised that hate crimes happen and are happening more frequently, are you?
You can’t prioritize racism or anti-Semitism or any of the other categories or forms of oppression, they are all evils, each in their own special and insidious ways, but this morning I want to talk specifically about women, about what happens to women, or more directly, what too many men do to too many women.
A woman, my wife, sent me an article by another woman, Courtney Martin, a widely published writer. Her article is addressed specifically to men. She writes,
“If you are capable, and even if you aren’t sure you are, feel the sadness of being a part of the group of people that has most violently and repeatedly created and maintained a world like this. Feel the excruciating pain of complicity.
Don’t soothe it with thoughts of your own exceptionalism. Don’t jump to perform your love of women. Don’t talk about your mother or your sister or daughter. Just sit. Feel the feelings.
You honor the pain that has been expressed so courageously by giving yourself over to the discomfort of actually feeling what it is to live in this world — a world filled with sexual harassment and assault — as a man. Sitting with that discomfort will change you. And the changed you can then take action with a different kind of wisdom.”
Does that make you feel uncomfortable? It does me. I know exactly what she is talking about. I read the articles, hear the stories, talk with Windy about all of this, and the feelings I am flooded with… All the pain women have to hide. Shame on us, men. I feel shame. There is a lot of that. Self-doubt, “where in my life have I failed? How do I continue to fail?” Flashes of defensiveness, “Yah, but I didn’t…” Roiling feelings, so many of them. It is so uncomfortable. There are so many things I want to say, do, change in the world. Sure, I want this world to be better, and I really, really want these feelings to go away… Now that is some male privilege blatantly on display, thinking I/we can choose to make those uncomfortable feelings go away. Because we can. Because we do. Survivors can’t choose that. No, we must not make those feelings go away.
Feeling these feelings is the first step. And it is monumental for it is the root cause of all of this. The lack of feelings, the lack of empathy for those we share the world with is exactly why it is so easy for so many of us to be so horrible. It is impossible to overestimate the extreme measures we will go to to avoid feeling feelings like these. Feelings like the shame and guilt of complicity, the feeling of powerlessness, and maybe most powerfully (and most shamefully) the alienating feeling of it not being all about us. We are the cause; this is about women.
In our culture as a whole, and I think particularly for men, we go to incredible lengths to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings. All of this is a lot like grief. We are collectively terrible at grief. Someone dies and what do we say? “They passed away.” We even avoid the word death. We try to comfort each other with statements like, “They are in a better place.” “They are at peace now.” Yes they are and their resurrection in the fullness of time is assured. And that loss hurts right now. And there is nothing you can do about that. Yes, you can make up stories, you can bury the feelings, think about other things, busy yourself with the details of life, but it is still there, that void, that person now missing from your life and the lives of those you love. And there is nothing you can do about that and those feelings can be overwhelming and overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
Grieving, true and honest grieving is simply letting all of the feelings you have happen as they happen. Grieving, you sit there, in the ash heap like Job, and you feel it. Feel it all. The loss. The regret. The could’ves and should’ves. The relief… that’s a hard one to feel in the wake of a death. You can be all over the place, feelings changing minute to minute sometimes. Letting that all happen, letting what you feel be what you feel, that is grieving. And it can be incredibly hard. It can be desperately uncomfortable, but that is the way we heal. It can be a way that we grow. But it is a long and daunting path, especially if you don’t want to go down it. But all of us, men in particular, must go down this uncomfortable path.
Jesus, specifically our worship of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is a guide for us. His story is a map, an example of going down the path experiencing, feeling the fullness of the human experience. His is not just a story of a baby in a manger and easy yokes and loaves and fishes for everyone who needs them. His is also a story of punishing fasts in the wilderness, torment, abandonment, death on the cross.
One of the most powerful moments of the church year comes at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. We have an Agape feast downstairs, our remembrance of the Last Supper; it is bright and fun. We move up here, the light dims, the energy starts changing. We wash each other’s feet and it gets more and more quiet as the line gets shorter and we sit together in the failing light. The altar guild, women of the church, they do what women have done for so long, they clean up the mess. They strip altar as the words of the 22nd Psalm are said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” In the end a single candle is left on the Altar of Repose right next to the Body of our Lord. It is silent. And some of us sit with that all night. Unsettled. Bleary-eyed. Tired. Uncomfortable.
Holy Week is a ritual of grief. It is a practice of sitting with uncomfortable things. So is the Mass. What’s the story? The world is amazing! “Galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses and this fragile earth our island home.” It is fabulous, the creation, wonderful, a miracle, but… “…but we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another…” and we, humans, we destroy the thing most precious to God: Jesus. And each week, we break that bread, we break Jesus’ body week after week, and in that silence at the fraction, the breaking, right before we sing “Halleluiah” imagine yourself on the edge of the abyss, sitting in the dim light on Maundy Thursday with a candle flickering on the bare altar. “Sitting with that discomfort will change you. And the changed you can then take action with a different kind of wisdom.”
Men, maybe we need to grieve the loss of the world that we benefit from. That is where so many the uncomfortable feelings come from, that is why we avoid them so violently. We need to sit on the edge of the abyss and feel everything that we will feel. We caused this problem, but we cannot fix it, not alone, and we don’t get the last word. I’ll end with the words Ms. Barnes ends her article with. “Yet, this moment could be the first one that you choose to do something different, to lay the first brick in a world that is built differently, a world safe for women’s bodies and men’s feelings, a world worthy of everyone’s wholeness.” AMEN