Sunday, February 21, 2016

2 Lent

February 21, 2016

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.31-35

+ I don’t think I shared this with many of you. But…I may have. About nine years, I had a very unpleasant situation take place in my life. It was a situation that, even now, when I look back on it, seems very unreal. In about 2007, as I was serving as a priest at another congregation, I had a stalker. A pretty awful stalker actually. A very unstable person. He was bi-polar and was purposely not taking medication for his illness.

After I had to confront him when his erratic behavior become inappropriate, he turned his anger on me. And he manifested this anger in some very disturbing ways.  He began keying my car. Not just once. But many times.  After several months, after some five or six times, he did over $3,000 worth of damage to my car. That wasn’t all he did. He would call my house and leave very confrontational messages to me. He would show up at places he knew I would be and park his car in a way that he knew I would see it.  He was menacing. And he was frightening.

But, I was more afraid of what he was going to do to me. I really thought he was going to hurt me or kill me.  I imagined every kind of scenario. I imagined he was going to sneak into my bedroom at night and kill me. I imagined him surprising one day and stabbing me on the street. I went through it all. I had never experienced a situation like this before, so I didn’t know what could happen.  

And, what was even worse about it all, was that none of my superiors did anything about it. I went to them and asked them to help. And what happened?  Nothing happened. They didn’t help. They turned their collective back on me.  Although this happened on church property, involving a parishioner of that church,  the church did nothing to help pay my bills, even though this was all part of my job as a priest. Only when this particular person finally acted out against another person at the church (he stole her purse), was there finally some action.

It was a frightening and isolating experience for me. I felt alone. The only time I ever felt that frightened and alone before was 14 years ago today, when I had surgery for cancer.

With the stalker, the police couldn’t do anything because he wasn’t caught in the act (though they knew all about him). The Church, sadly, chose not to help until it was someone else who needed the help. And everyone who had not experienced it couldn’t even imagine the reality of this bizarre situation.

There were many nights in which I lamented and cried out to God and begged for God’s strength to keep me sane and strong.

Eventually, after the church finally stepped in as a result of this other person’s purse being stolen and put a restraining order on him, he eventually left me alone, although he did eventually contact me (he left a message on my answering machine about seven years ago) to tell me he was back on medications, although he never admitted he did it or apologized.

I thought about him a lot and kept up on him. I kept up on his multiple arrests for harassment, for terrorizing other people. And I wondered about him and, yes, even prayed for him over the years.

Well, this year, right before I left on vacation, I saw his obituary in the paper. Seeing that obituary, I reacted in a way I did not expect. I thought maybe I would feel relief. I thought maybe I will feel as though there was a great weight lifted off me.

But no. I felt genuine sadness. I felt a real sorrow for this person. And I felt as though I had failed this person in some way. I don’t know in what way or how I did—I couldn’t articulate exactly how I felt I failed him—but I felt I had. I still don’t know why I feel that way.   And all I could do was pray for him, remember him at Mass and hope that he finally found a peace he was unable to find in his life.

One of the lessons I learned from this incident—among several lessons—was a very hard  lesson on living with the threat of real violence. Violence, I realize, is something most of us don’t even consider in our lives. It very rarely rears its ugly head in our lives. But let me tell you, when it does, it is terrible. And you are not the same person afterward that you were before. 

And also, very importantly, we realize that violence is not always expressed physically. Violence can be expressed in multiple ways, including through intimidation, bullying and downright terror.  There’s no getting around violence in our lives.  We see it in the news. We, as a community here in Fargo, have seen it in the very recent shooting of Officer Jason Moszer and in the suicide of his assailant.

And even today, in our scriptures readings, we get some violent images.  First, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis. In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham).  God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.

Violent and strange, yes. But the really strange part of the reading is the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces.

If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut up animals—then the story makes little sense.  It’s just another gruesome, violent story from the Hebrew scriptures.

But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning. Covenant of course is not a word we hear used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures. A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animals and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.”

Let this violence come upon me if I break what we have sworn.  What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God.  God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “my word is good. If this relationship between the two of us I breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

As Scot McKnight writes in his wonderful book, 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed: “What appears to us as gruesome was normal for Abraham; what was great was how graphic God got in the act of promise.”

Then, we come to our Gospel reading. Here too, we find a sense of impending violence.
 The Pharisees ominously come to tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod.  This is real danger. Life-threatening danger.  And how does Jesus respond to this danger and impending violence?  He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight as he was speaking. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. His violent death.  

As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments.  He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is beautiful.  And it is powerful.  It’s incredible poetry.  Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. In Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”

Lamenting is one of those things we don’t like to think about as Christians.  After all, it is a form of complaining. And we don’t like to complain. We, for the most part, shrug our shoulders and soldier on. And when it comes to our relationship with God, we certainly never think about complaining to God.

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually despair occasionally.  Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly do find ourselves crying out in despair, saying, if to no one else than ourselves, the words from our psalm today:

“Deliver me not into the hands of my adversaries.”

Let me tell you—that has often been prayer. It was definitely my prayer nine years ago with that stalker!

“Deliver me not in the hands of those who hate me.”

It’s good, honest language and it’s good to be honest about those negatives feelings we feel occasionally. It’s a strange moment when, as we examine our scriptures readings for today, and we ask ourselves: who do I relate to the most from our scriptures, that we find ourselves relating more to the cut-up animals than anyone else.  

It’s hard to be in such a place.  It’s hard to realize: people out there hate me, or don’t like me, or want to do me real harm.

So, what do we do in those moments?  Well, most of us just simply close up.  We put up a wall and we swallow that fear and maybe that anger and we let it fester inside us.  For the most part, we tend to deny it.

But what about those feelings in relationship to God? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our fear or our anger or our pain before God nor do we bring them before God.

And that is where Jesus, in today’s Gospels, and those lamenting Psalms come in.  It is in those moments when we don’t bring our fear, our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s  Gospel and Psalm. When we look at what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel and what the psalmist is saying today’s Psalm, we realize that, for them, it was natural to bring everything before God. It didn’t matter what it was.  And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading today.

Jesus is letting us see his fear and his sadness.  Jesus is letting us see the fear he has in knowing that he, in a sense, has become the sacrifice that must be cut in two as part of the covenant God has made with us.  He is letting us see him for what he is about to be, a victim of violence.

In fact, Jesus lays it all out before God and us. He wails and complains and lays himself bare before God.   He is blatantly honest in his lamenting.  

The fact is: sometimes we do fear and despair.  I despaired and feared when I had to deal with that weird sort of violence in my own life… I despaired and feared when it seemed I was alone in the face of all of that.  Sometimes we do want to pray to God,

“Hide not your face from me…”

It is in those sometimes awful moments, that it is completely all right to complain to God. It is all right to vent and open ourselves completely to God.  Because, the important thing here is not how we are praying or even what we are praying for.  It is important that, even in our fear, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world, that we come to God.  We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities, exposed and vulnerable.

Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God. Because God knows. God has stood in the midst of that violence.  God, in Jesus, has experienced that violence first hand.

And what we might sometimes find in those moments of complaining and ranting is that the words coming out of our mouths are not ugly, bitter words at all.

But sometimes the words coming out of our mouths in those moments of despair are beautiful poetry. Sometimes, even in those moments, God takes our fear-filled words and turns them into diamonds in our mouths.  See what we find in this morning’s Psalm.  After all that complaining, we find the Psalmist able to sing,

“O tarry and await the LORD’s pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

See. Diamonds. 

So, when we pray these psalms together and when we come across those scriptures full of violence that might take us by alarm, recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of violence and death, was still able to open his heart and his soul in song and poetry.  More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life,  pray those psalms when we are afraid or angry or frustrated.  Let the Psalms help us to release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows us more completely than anyone else.

In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives, God, as a bright light, passes back and forth.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that even in that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light. All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness. And in doing so, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.

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