Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On complaining, community and God's grace...

NOTE: This week in worship I will begin a series of conversations about our emerging mission statement which reads: In community with God and each other, we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and share compassion. It is a simple and action oriented way of reshaping our work as a faith community. For the next few weeks I will consider some of the implications of "gathering together" as a Christian faith community.

Ellie Wiesel is one of my favorite thinkers and story tellers, a true moral compass for me. In his book, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, he tells a story that has shaped my understanding of community for more than 25 years – and has great value for us as a congregation at this moment in our lives, too.

It begins with a young Hasid – a passionate, committed young man of faith who devoted himself to study and prayer and experiencing the ecstasy of God’s grace by dancing out in the forest on the fringe of town – who finds that he has fallen in love with the daughter of his small community’s mayor. Now it is important to remember that Hasidim began as a mystical movement in 18th century Europe – a beautiful corrective of the heart by Baal Shem Tov – who sought to help his people experience the love of the Holy One as well as the wisdom of God’s law.

Which meant, of course, that the early Hasids were outsiders – the faithful on the fringe – who challenged the status quo by insisting that God’s presence could be found in the ordinary events of everyday life as well as the extraordinary: they danced in the forest, they were mystics and maybe even the Zen masters of their time and place. And so it is important to know that the hero in this story begins on the periphery – on the fringe – when he falls in love with this woman from the heart or core of society.

Well, as I understand it, the young Hasid was so smitten with this young woman that eventually he asked for her hand in marriage so they might court and mature according to the customs of the day. “You may have my daughter’s hand in marriage,” said the mayor, “on one condition: you must sever your ties with your rebbe and leave the Hasidic way behind.” In agony, the young mystic wrestled with this demand but eventually he agreed and the young couple was married.

Now as you might imagine, all was well for a while – it always is, right – but eventually the young man heard the call of the forest in his heart. For a time he resisted but the sweet grace of the Living God is too strong to ignore. So, quietly and carefully, he began to sneak back into the woods to pray and dance with his old friends.

And as also always happens, there came a time when the mayor discovered that the young husband had broken the family wedding contract – so he was hauled before the town rabbi and put on trial. Now it was all too clear that the evidence against him was strong – and the young man did not deny it – so the marriage was ended, he was thrown out of his home and eventually took to begging on the street. In short order, he became frail and sickly and when winter came, he died. (Now here is where the story gets really interesting for me…)

While in heaven, he meets the Messiah who asks about his broken condition and wants to know why he died of hunger and disease. And as the young man’s story is shared the Messiah shouts, “Wait, let’s bring together all the players and talk about this again.” So, that is what happens: the Messiah calls together the Mayor, the lawyers and rabbis and asks them to present this case again – which they do. For a long time there is silence in heaven as the Messiah takes it all in.

Then he turns to the father and says, “You, you are right.” And he turns to the lawyers and rabbis of the town and says to them, “You, too, are right.” And to the people of the town who supported casting the Hasid out into the streets he says, “And all of you, you are right: you were right in the way you upheld the contract. You were right in saying that the young man had broken his commitment.” And then he turns to the young, broken mystic – and embraces him tenderly – saying, “But I came… for those who are NOT right.” And he dresses the wounded one in heaven’s finest clothes and sends the rest away empty.

Quite a story, yes? “But I came for those who are NOT right” – sounds rather like Jesus in this morning’s reading from Matthew when he talks about welcoming ALL the workers into the vineyard no matter what time they showed up – and paying them the same wage, too. “This is the great reversal!” God said. And many of the first shall end up last and the last first because… can’t I do what I want with what is mine? Let’s not be stingy with one another because my very core is generosity.

Scholars agree that this selection of scripture is meant to tell the disciples that living the Jesus life not only subverts the normal way of operating, it turns everything upside down by welcoming strangers as equal, it also sets into motion what they call the “eschatological reversal” wherein God’s judgment at the end of time shakes creation to its core.

“Jesus explodes the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of his day,” writes one sage, “ by instructing disciples in a more egalitarian pattern: Husbands are not to rule over wives but to participate in a "one-flesh" relationship (19:3-12); all disciples are children, there are no parents (19:13-15); following Jesus, not procuring wealth and status, defines discipleship (19:16-30); and all disciples are to become slaves or servants to one another like Jesus so that there are no masters (20:17-28).” In a word, we’re being told that authentic followers of the Jesus-life make something of heaven visible now by living like it is the end of time. Remember the prayer? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now let’s be clear about this: kingdom living does not happen by accident – nor does it occur because of good intentions – any more than Lou can play the organ or I can play the guitar because we want to. How does the old joke put it: a young woman carrying a violin case is running down the road in New York City and stops an old man to ask, “Sir, can you help me please: how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” To which the old one replies, “Practice, my dear, lots and lots of practice.”

Same is true for disciples: how do we live into the promise of Christ’s love and the very kingdom of God within and among us? Practice – which is why we have this faith community – church is a place to practice our deepest and most sacred values and commitments. I like the way Marcus Borg talks about church in The Heart of Christianity:

In my judgment, the single most important practice (in living into the way of Jesus) is to be a part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you… The goal should be to find a group of believers that makes your heart glad so that you can wake up on Sunday morning filled with the anticipation of the psalmist who said: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Church is not primarily about feeling good, of course, but church is meant to nourish us, not make us angry or leave us bored.

He then goes on to offer a few valuable clues about how being a part of church subverts us with the values of God’s kingdom and stretches us into our best selves:

+ First there is worship – all kinds of worship – and during worship we praise God. “And praise not only draws us out of ourselves, it also… affirms that God alone is the source of all blessing." Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to say, “Worship and Sabbath remind us that the world can get along without us for 24 hours because God is God… and thanks be to God, we are not!”

+ Second, there is formation – or education – that stretches beyond our opinions and habits. And third, church gives us a chance to work together for compassion and justice – not simply as individuals – but as a community. That is to say, church trains us in being a community – a gathering that practices the Jesus life together – and shows something of heaven to the world. Which is probably where our first reading for today – from Exodus – deserves mention: this story about the people of Israel complaining about wandering in the wilderness – and aching and carping about the good old days – is filled with wisdom for you and me at this moment in the life of our church.

First, it tells us that complaining and fear is natural, right? It would seem that God’s people have been doing it for a LONG time and we’re not likely to stop anytime soon. It isn’t pretty – it isn’t fair or even helpful – but it is a fact. Second, whenever there is complaining or to use the biblical expression – murmuring – it is important for the community leaders to understand what is at the heart of the complaint. In the story from Exodus the heart of the murmuring is fear – and a little bit of selfishness – because it is uncomfortable and uncertain and just hot and cold and confusing to be out in the desert for all that time.

And third wise community leaders need to be able to distinguish between the presenting issues of a complaint and the truth. In the desert the people said, “Look, back in the good old days things were better than being out here in the desert! Back in the good old days we had lots and lots of food to eat – why didn't God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You've brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel! – and on and on it went.

But did the slaves in Egypt have lamb stew and all the food they could ever desire? Did they have security and freedom and hope and all the rest? Of course not but in their fear and discomfort... well let’s just say they exaggerated the blessings of the past. It is normal, it is to be expected and… most of the time it doesn’t help because it isn’t true.

So listen carefully to what the scripture tell us happened next – after the people make their complaints known to Moses and Aaron – there was prayer and discussion and then Moses said: Tell the whole company of Israel: 'Come near to God. He's heard your complaints.'

And when Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud. And God spoke to Moses, "I've listened to the complaints of the Israelites. Now tell them: 'At dusk you will eat meat and at dawn you'll eat your fill of bread; and you'll realize that I am God, your God. And that evening quail flew in and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, man-hu (What is it?). They had no idea what it was. So Moses told them, "It's the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God's instructions: 'Gather enough for each person, about two quarts per person; gather enough for everyone in your tent.'"

God is faithful, yes? God will provide, right? God acts in God’s way – not ours for there are blessings God brings to each day that we may not initially comprehend: man-hu – what is this stuff? And yet… it is God’s very nature to make certain we have all that we need for a full and abundant life. That was true in the early and formative days of Israel, it was true when Jesus was training his disciples to live into the generosity of God that always trumps the selfish status quo, it was true when the Hassidic master, Ellie Wiesel, spoke of the Messiah who stands up for those who are NOT right… And it is true for us – right now – at this moment in our lives.

In times of transition – in times of uncertainty – people tend to slip back into what they know best and if today’s scripture is at all illustrative that would surely include complaining and murmuring. There is even a temptation to romanticize the past as the glory days. Well, apparently God understands this human reality and has created synagogues, mosques, ashrams and churches as a corrective – not to fortify our murmuring, mind you – but, rather to grow our generosity. That is why it is no coincidence that our emerging mission statement begins: we gather together with God and one another… We gather together to practice what doesn’t come automatically. We gather together, as the old pilgrim hymnal puts it, to ask the Lord’s blessing, he hastens and chastens his will to make known. We gather together because it’s NOT my sister, nor my brother but it’s ME o Lord that’s standing in the need of help when it comes to living with generosity.

And so we gather – together – to practice the Jesus life: where the first become last and those on the fringe are welcomed as long, lost friends; where wisdom is shown by trusting, leadership is cultivated by serving, offenders are handled by forgiveness and money is handled by sharing. In the Jesus life enemies are handled by loving and violence is managed with suffering because in the Jesus life everything is changed – and you repent NOT by feeling badly, but by thinking and living differently. And that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

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