Preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way on December 16, 2012.
Advent 3 (Year C)
It’s just too awful, isn’t it? Too awful to talk about; too awful even to think about. But too awful to avoid. I was chatting with my daughter online, Friday morning, scrolling through my email when “Breaking News” from the Seattle Times caught my eye. I clicked and learned about the shooting at the elementary school in Connecticut. It was like someone sat on my chest – you know the feeling, I’m sure – that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach. My heart broke as I looked at the pictures of children, walking in a line, eyes closed to the horror around them, each holding onto the shoulders of the child in front of them as they were led to safety. Even the survivors are victims. They will never “get over” what happened that day at school.
And this happened right on the heels of the shooting at the shopping mall outside of Portland. Which came right on the heels of the shootings in the U District last week. And the nightly reports of violence in Syria, and Israel, and Afghanistan, and the list goes on and on.
A couple of years ago, I saw the play, “Equivocation,” with a group of young adults. In our discussion, afterward, I asked them, “What does it mean to be human in inhumane times?” a central theme of the play. One young woman responded, “When has there ever been a time that wasn’t inhumane?” She has a point.
All we have to do is look around us. We humans have a long history of inhumanity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question. In fact, it probably means it’s even more important that we ask it and keep asking it and do our absolute best to answer it and then live the answer.
In today’s gospel, we hear John the Baptist preaching to a people living under oppressive occupation by the Romans. Some of their neighbors even participate in the oppression. He’s talking to tax collectors and soldiers, religious leaders and regular folks. These are people who have direct experience with inhumanity; with the awfulness. They are caught up in a system of inhumanity. It’s not simply a matter of individual people making isolated, sinful choices; They are all caught up in sinful systems. And it’s not so very different from our world today.
The same was true of the people in Zephaniah’s day. He prophesied at a time in history between the time when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel sending the people all over their empire, and the time when Babylon conquered the southern kingdom and took the people into exile. In the rest of the book we hear him railing against pretty much everyone and telling them that the Day of the Lord is coming and only a few will be saved; a faithful remnant.
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you ever feel that you are caught up in systems that you know are harmful but that you can’t avoid? We DO live in inhumane times. Awful stuff happens all the time.
So what does it mean to be human in times such as these? One thing that reassures me that we have not lost our humanity; that there is indeed reason for hope is that we are shocked and outraged by awful events. Our compassion is stirred. Our hearts and prayers go out to those in pain and we reach out to help however we can.
Perhaps this is what it means to be human in inhumane times. To continue to be shocked and outraged at the inhumanity, the evil around us. To reach out in compassion to those who suffer and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering. To work to dismantle the systems that create the situations that cause suffering by standing up to power to say “This. Must. Stop.” To cry out to God.
And, To repent. In the Confession of Sin in Enriching Our Worship,
“we repent of the evil that enslaves us;
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.”
John the Baptist tells the crowds that come out to the desert, that it is not enough to flee in fear of the wrath to come. They must instead “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” or as it says in the New Jerusalem translation, “produce the fruit of repentance.”
So, I guess a companion to our question about what it means to be human, would be, “What does it mean to repent? What does it mean to produce the fruit of repentance?”
In her book, The Way of Repentance, Irma Zaleski writes,
True repentance is not an expression of fear, self-hate or of a neurotic sense of guilt, but an ordinary, simple, natural way of loving God. It is a meeting with God, who has loved us infinitely, whom we love,… from whom we are separated by sin. True repentance, holy repentance, is the way of love. It is only possible when we stand before the face of God and are moved “out of our minds,” beyond the confines of our little narrow selves, by our longing for [God].
So, we might say that repentance means to re-orient ourselves – our minds, our hearts, our bodies, even, toward God and God’s love. We might even say that it means to become human in the face of the evil and inhumanity around us.
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nanzianzus wrote this about what it means to be human,
… we must set before others the meal of kindness no matter why they need it – whether because they are widows, orphans, or exiles; or because they are brutalized by masters, crushed by rulers, dehumanized by tax-collectors, bloodied by robbers, or victimized by the insatiate greed of thieves, be it through confiscation of property or ship-wreck. All such people are equally deserving of mercy, and they look to us for their needs just as we look to God for ours.
The meal of kindness. When it’s just too awful, we don’t have to just throw up our hands in defeat, in helplessness or hopelessness. We re-orient ourselves once more to God’s love. And we reach out in compassion, even as our hearts are breaking. We offer a meal of kindness to one another and to those in pain. We remember that God is already there and so we pray.