generous listening, precise and living giving stories...

NOTE:  Here are today's worship notes for the second Sunday of the summer using Krista
Tippett's new book, Becoming Wise, as a starting point.

Introduction
One of my political and ecclesiastical colleagues from Cleveland, the Reverend Dr. Marvin McMickle who currently serves as the President of Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary, recently wrote these words to his friends on Facebook:

At times like these when the world seems to be at its darkest, it is essential that our faith in Christ shines forth at its brightest level. Whatever we say or do about the hateful and hurtful events occurring around us in this country and abroad, we must always remain faithful to the core teachings of Jesus. This is no time for foolishness and frivolity in the pulpit. This is a time for prophets to rise and for God's message of justice, love, mercy, and grace to be declared. Many people will be protesting many things over the next two weeks. I hope the words of the gospel can be declared and heard above the shouts and chants of the moment. The prophets always began by saying, "Thus says the Lord." Preachers, please don't step outside of your authority and become just another news commentator. Tell the world what the Lord says.

Brother McMickle knows that words matter:  as Krista Tippett sp carefully articulates in her new book, Becoming Wise, “words make worlds… and our words can either help us repair the world or tear it further apart.” Today as I press on with part two of our worship series constructed upon the insights of Ms. Tippett’s text in dialogue with the appointed Bible reading for this day, there are three broad points I would like us to consider:

·    First, the importance of knowing, telling, hearing and sharing life-giving stories and poems in community – especially in times of trouble and anxiety – as an alternative to fear.

·    Second, the imperative of listening carefully and generously to all people – but especially those with whom we fundamentally disagree – and responding to them with vulnerability and humility rather than anything even remotely resembling arrogance.

·     And third,  the  indispensable urgency of honing our verbal skills in public with precision and probity so that creative alternatives to hatred, panic and chaos are birthed among us.

The Word made Flesh never asked us to agree with everyone we meet nor find common ground where it does not exist. But we have been advised to become wise as serpents and gentle as doves in pursuit of shalom and this cannot come to pass without clarity.  Our words make worlds – and our world’s a mess partly because of our sloppy, ugly and dangerous words – speaking without thinking as a Polish dissident once said to me in Warsaw.  “Americans do it all the time,” he said, “You are privileged to live in a place where your words seem to have no consequences – or so you think – but that would never happen here in our police state.”  So, using Tippett’s book as a launching pad, let’s talk together about this morning’s stories from the Bible and tease out a few implications for living into these challenging times.

Insights
The first narrative we are asked to contend with speaks to Tippett’s point about sharing
creative, nuanced, poetic and life-giving stories if we are ever to move beyond our culture’s current starvation for fresh language.  We live in an era drenched “in the failure of official language and discourse” to tell us the truth. She writes:  “We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth – and there’s so much baloney all the time… the performance of political speeches you see on the news (are so often double-speak) that it feels like there should be a thought bubble over the head of the speaker saying “what I really would say if I could say it is… this!’”

+ That is part of the attraction and appeal to Donald Trump’s stream of consciousness shenanigans:  his words may be filled with lies, hatred, dangerous and incoherent free associations – they may be jingoistic and soaked in white supremacy code words – but they are passionate and hit some of us in the gut.  The same was true for many of the speeches shared at the Republican Convention in Cleveland: they were crude and often vulgar diatribes, hardly what we have come to expect in public presentations, but they were saturated in deep experiences of loss and anxiety and thus articulated authenticity.

      + I don’t think I heard one talking head get behind a podium and use policy wonk during that whole event. It was reality TV on steroids – immediate, passionate and forceful words.  What it wasn’t, however, was compassionate or even life-giving. It was rant without reason, coarse rage without constructive alternatives, a public temper tantrum in prime time that never moved real people beyond their grief to lament and then the humble and complicated reconstruction of our common lives.

That’s why all the world religions insist upon telling and retelling the time-tested stories of our respective traditions.  These stories keep us from becoming too self-absorbed and offer broad, poetic language that annihilates ideology.  Professor Walter Brueggemann put it like this:

The Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.” What they’re doing is going underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be gotten at in elusive or poetic language.  Sadly, the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues. And when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power because then it is ideology against ideology and that does not produce very good outcomes for anyone.

Consider the deeper truths offered to us in the story of Abraham on the road to Sodom.  Please
note that this is still chapter 18 of Genesis – this is still a narrative about God doing extraordinary and surprising things in our lives – like what has just preceded today’s text. Those of you who were here last week, do you remember what happened during the story of Abraham and Sara in their old age?  God’s promise of progeny was delivered in the form of a baby named Isaac, right?  And what does the name Isaac mean, if you recall? He laughs – laughter – one who is surprised by God’s extraordinary gift of life even in the most unexpected situations.  So, while the action we going to hear about today moves beyond the laughter, the surprises born of grace are still be held close and not forgotten, ok? And they include: first, a story that speaks of God’s commitment to share the fullness of life in all its complexities with Abraham and Sarah and by implication you and me, too. 

·     Verses 16-19 tell us: “That the men (the angelic messengers of the Lord) set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

·     Do grasp what’s taking place in these three sentences?  Abraham is given an awareness of the cruelty and sin taking place in Sodom and Gomorrah – the wickedness and offense – but it has nothing to do with the homosexuality we were once taught. Rather the sin of Sodom is their wanton selfishness, greed and the total absence of hospitality – especially to the poor. The prophet Ezekiel was explicit in chapter 16: This was the sin of your sister Sodom – she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned – self-absorbed – for they did nothing to help the poor and needy in their community. What this story is telling us in vibrant detail is that we are intimately tied into the healing of the world – tikkun olam as the Hebrew prophets put it – the repair of the world.  It begins with understanding both the brokenness of our sisters and brothers and the complexity that informs this breech.  In our text we are told that Abraham has been charged by the Lord to do righteousness and justice – tzedek and mishpat – advancing merciful and true relations between kindred flesh and healing acts of fairness in real time. So in conversation and questioning, God and the angels decide that Abraham cannot be kept in the dark about the wounds of the world.  That’s one truth we need to reclaim in this story.

The other is that there are precious few easy answers in the work of compassion and justice – rarely are their satisfying short-cuts or one size fits all solutions – so we need all the rigorous conversation and questioning of one another and God we can muster if we’re serious about repairing the world. That’s the second insight:  Abraham openly argues with the Lord and raises questions NOT because he knows better than God, but because this is how wise people learn and clarify what is true and possible. He isn’t playing “gotcha” but searching out the meaning of loving kindness in the real world.

That means Abraham has to listen generously, like Tippett urges, and speak with precision in order to come to some sense of what compassion and justice could mean for his moment in time: Platitudes and official political language or ideology do NOT save the day. Plagiarism doesn’t advance the cause much either. Only conversation impregnated with personal vulnerability and genuine generosity cuts the mustard.

      And that’s what we get here:  Abraham realizes that there is going to be bewildering collateral damage in God’s proposed destruction of Sodom, so he challenges the Lord saying, “I grasp your need to act, O Lord, but do you have to destroy everyone? What if I can find 50 just and loving people? Will your loving kindness trump your anger? Is your mercy greater than your wrath?”  Good questions and they cause God to reconsider the excessive implications of even holy anger. “Well, no I don’t actually have to act that way….” Then the real parsing begins:  well how about 45? Or 40?  It is the origin of sacred bargaining with blood and lives hanging in the balance: suppose I find 30?  Will you still be cruel in the name of loving-kindness?  20? 15? 10?  Will you hold off your righteous anger, Lord, for just 10 loving people?

This is a GREAT story if we’re paying attention that points to the way wisdom takes up residence in the human experience. It urges us to honor gracious questioning in community and prayer. It pushes us past “debating issues by way of competing certainties… so that we sense what is at stake for real human beings.”  And it emphasizes that our “well-being is linked to that of others in wider and wider circles, beyond family and tribe.” But we only comprehend this if we’re willing to wildly raise questions and then listen with intense generosity. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:

Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers (all at once) which could not even be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. For the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.

We tell and retell and insist on telling again the life-giving stories and poems of our tradition so that we can move beyond egocentricity and immature fears into the adult realm of ambiguity, paradox, surprise, generosity and compassion.  This takes practice – and time – and commitment, virtues and disciplines that are in short supply these days.  Small wonder we no longer know how to listen to one another with generosity or speak to people we mistrust or disagree with patience, precision or vulnerability.  The way of the Lord, you see, is NOT about winning or being snarky.  In fact, our Savior Jesus was the biggest loser ever born:  his life didn’t wind up at Trump Towers but in the shame of death upon the Cross.  So let’s be clear that if we are going to experience and honor the counter-cultural compassion, justice, mercy and peace of the Lord, we need to practice it. Make it a priority. Commit to learning it as a discipline, a goal and a life standard not a hobby or an occasional distraction.

+ Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, believes that in the 21st century that living as one of Christ’s disciples has become a lost art:  “The notion that we need to be skilled, need to be wise in order to be God’s creatures, has been discarded and abandoned.”

      + The Lord’s disciples in the other story for today, found in St. Luke’s gospel, tells us precisely this truth: teach us to pray they ask!  Show us the way!  Help us to learn what we do not already know. In this we see the value of humility and trust and even fortitude in pursuit of serenity.

And Jesus delivers in two illuminating ways: He  gives them first a prayer outline to master by practice – what we call the Lord’s Prayer – and then speaks to of living with into life’s questions:  ask, search and knock and it shall be given to you.  These are not stream of consciousness ramblings or off the cuff remarks, but the careful distillation of sacred wisdom. 

The poet, Susan Stewart, said “that hearing is how we touch one another at a distance.” Jesus gave his followers precise words to practice – and in the hearing of these words as well as their spoken repetition – the disciples found themselves touched by God’s wisdom rather.  Specifically, when the disciples listened to Jesus, they were practicing a spiritual discipline that included:  trusting a love greater than their imaginations, surrendering to an authority built upon love and compassion rather than competition and forgiveness within and among others even those who wound us:

Father – our Father, not my father nor my possession, but our shared source of life beyond all
control – open us to your kingdom – your truth – your vision for creation that is not narrow or ideological – but pregnant with possibilities and peace for all.  Unlock for us a life of trust and hope that transcends anything we can control. In fact, let us live as if you were already the Lord of the earth as you are now in heaven. Let us only be concerned only about what we need for today – our daily bread – not hording or greed like Sodom and Gomorrah – but simple satisfaction like your children in the desert with Moses – where sharing by all meant scarcity for none and hording turned your holy manna into maggots. Let the totality of our lives, Lord, be guided by forgiveness – not shame or guilt of competition or winning – but tenderness within and humble generosity beyond for that is what you require:  do justice, share compassion and walk with me in humility.

Jesus taught them – instructed them – and insisted they not only learn these words by heart, but practice expressing them in their own words and actions; so that over time, but within history, these words of love would become flesh.  The Lord’s Prayer is a parallel New Testament story to the Hebrew Bible’s tale of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham pleads over and over for mercy as if he were saying: Lord, you are the one who forgives us as we have forgiven others, so let your judgment pass that grace may rule this day as it already does throughout your kingdom in heaven.  Today’s Psalm tells us much the same thing: the steadfast love and faithful-ness of the Lord endures forever. They are greater than God’s anger and wrath and at the heart of all that is holy.

Conclusion
We tell life-giving stories and poems to nourish our better angels.  We practice listening to others with generosity for this is how we touch one another at a distance beyond time and culture.  We cultivate precision in our words so that we bring healing rather than cruelty to creation.  I love the stories of the Hebrew Bible. I cherish the words of Jesus. And I give thanks to God for wise teachers like Krista Tippett who remind me that our words create worlds so our words, stories and poems must be generous and vast enough to give shape and form to the mercy and grace of our God.  Let me leave you with a story from the late Elie Wiesel that has guided my heart for nigh on to 35 years. It comes from the Hasidic master Israel of Rizhin born in Eastern Europe in 1797. He is the last undisputed leader of the Hasidic tradition – and a master story teller.  He used to speak of a young Hasid, a student of the second great rabbi Maggid of Mezeritch, who married the daughter of an opposing school of spirituality, who “forced him to choose between his family and his Rebbe.”

The son-in-law swore that he would not return to Mezertich and the wedding took place. But after a few months – or perhaps years – the young groom could not resist the impulse to join his companions and their Master as they prayed and danced in the forest. When he returned home his angry father-in-law marched him to the local rabbi for a judgment.  The rabbi consulted the Shulkhan Arukh (the 15th century guide to Jewish law in Europe) and issued this verdict: since the young man had broken his promise, he was to give his wife a divorce at once. Overnight, the young Hasid found himself homeless and on the street. He had no means of his own, no relations. Inconsolable, refusing all nourishment, they young mystic fell sick and with no one to care for him, died shortly thereafter.

“Well,” Rebbe Israel the Rizhiner used to say, “when the Messiah will come, the young Hasid will file a complaint against his father-in-law as well as the local rabbi charging them both guilty of his premature death. The first will say: “I obeyed the rabbi.” And the rabbi will say: “I obeyed the tradition.” And the Messiah will say: “The father-in-law is right, the rabbi is right and the Law is right, too.” Then he will kiss the young plaintiff and say: “But I, what do I have to do with them? For the Messiah has come for those who are not right.”

Let those who have ears to hear: hear.

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