Category Archives: Hard Times and Tragedies

A Voice in Ramah

This is an excerpt from an older sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents…

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Matthew 2:13-23

Did you hear it? That voice? Not Herod’s voice or Joseph’s, for neither of them speaks in this passage. Not the angel’s voice either, although Gabriel speaks twice, first ordering Joseph to take the family to safety in Egypt and then ordering him home again when Herod dies. No, it’s a voice Matthew reaches far back into the Hebrew scriptures to retrieve and play back for us. It belongs to a woman who at the time Matthew wrote this story had been dead for a thousand years. The voice of Rachael, the great matriarch who died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, whom she intended to name ‘son of sorrow.’ Rachael, the personification  of maternal grief.

Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus via the prophet Jeremiah, who remembered her as he wrote about the calamity that had befallen God’s people when they were overrun and driven into exile. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it was there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages ‘for her children…and she will not be comforted, because they are no more.’

She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses to diminish the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering by the attempts of the well-meaning to assuage or explain it, to make sense of it or sublimate it. Rachael is a witness to things in human life that are so awful they cannot be soothed or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, and comfortlessly mourned.

Rachael’s weeping is the voice of all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, bigotry, or crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. Her anguish will not be pacified.

These days we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices. By knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity. By cool voices that prettify what violence actually does and paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. By the pandering voices of politicians.  The smug voices of the self-made. The dismissive voices of the privileged. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the church and the self-involved bromides of the world.

On the cusp of a new year, one that will almost certainly see some new atrocity unleashed upon this gasping planet, the liturgy does not give us assurances that hope is rational or that better days are ahead. What we hear instead is the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children. Rachael’s tears telling us to resist comfort. To refuse explaining, justifying voices and listen instead to hers over every bland dismissal of the real needs of real children, over every empty proclamation of concern uncoupled from policy and deed, over every thought or prayer offered for their brutal, preventable deaths. Rachael weeping: listen for that voice, and refuse to be comforted.

Listen for her weeping. And join her. Rip apart with lamentation the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie: that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with no supplies in Syria, by famine in Sudan, in school buses in Tel Aviv, in shot-up elementary schools in quiet American towns, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

Rachael makes only a brief appearance on the Christmas stage, but when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a Virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded that what our feeble words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the Word we experience in Jesus, can. The Babe who escaped this time; the Child who one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then; this  Word is God’s decisive Word to our world.

It is also, perhaps, a Word of comfort all the world’s Rachaels might finally be willing to accept, because it is a Word of justice. A Word profound enough, courageous enough, persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present. Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, when we pick up its resonance, welcome its light, echo its truth, and live on its dangerous edge.

No, Not Now

This sermon was preached on the occasion of the great Asian tsunami at Christmastime in 2005.     It may have some relevance to the horrific shooting in Connecticut today.

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–Pablo Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Psalm 69:1-3, 13-18

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the South Asian tsunami, by now you will surely have seen something that has torn your heart out –- piles of bodies unceremoniously bulldozed into mass graves; a child with impossibly big eyes standing alone, staring into the distance; the stunning before-and-after satellite photos of a ravaged coast.

Or perhaps you saw the report in which a journalist is speaking with several Indonesian survivors, some of whom have lost entire families. They tell their stories to him, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Then, in the background you hear an unmistakable sound. It is Friday, and somewhere in that desolate place, a muzzein is calling the faithful to prayer – as if to remind the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.

Allah akbar! God is great! There is no God but God. Come to salvation! Come to prayer!

Hearing the call to prayer, the reporter asks the men if they are going to the prayers. Some nod yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his family are dead, shakes his head. Through the translator he says simply, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”

When I heard the call to prayer invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, I felt something rebel in my stomach. In spite of my deep conviction that God had nothing to do with making this horror happen, my mind filled involuntarily with the age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who seems to have stood by and done nothing while it unfolded?

In that moment, it was not enough for me to answer myself by saying that God was not responsible when tectonic plates collided, and the sea floor rose, and the displaced water needed somewhere to go. It was not enough for me to affirm, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” When my stomach lurched at the call to prayer, it was because my soul needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that about God; to be able to say not only where God was not, but also and more importantly where God was.

And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. Everything that came to mind seemed inadequate, even repulsive. I went down the long list of standard explanations and theological considerations, each one leaving me emptier than the last – until I heard that poor man say, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”

His was not an answer, not a solution, not an explanation. But it rang true – a simple acknowledgement that there are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything can be done but endure it.

And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will serve only to shield us from reality, our prayers will be only a game of “make nice,” and our faith will only separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the carnage of war, a mindless mass shooting, the stupid waste of a death by drunk driving, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s untimely passing, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be before God in our truth and to allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass in us for faith is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.

I have no quarrel with the people who got up to go to Friday prayers. I am glad for them that they could go to God as the one who saves. But I found a great relief and blessing in that grieving man’s refusal to worship God right now. I also found a great relief and blessing in his refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his implicit confession that it is not up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.

We Christians find it hard to refrain from overwhelming great empty spaces and terrifying silences with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence. We are people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is a second nature reflex, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when we rush too quickly to Easter, times when we take Jesus off the cross and usher him into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps this haste is a reason why, as Anthony Padovano once observed, Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and of all our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our lives, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. Times when we need the cover of night.

Sooner or later, we all wonder with Job why we were ever born. Sooner or later, we all pore over the lexicon for a word with which to fashion inconsolable laments—and we find, the cross. Padovano calls it Christianity’s most believable symbol, because it offers no answers. It offers instead a common lot: sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross. It is the gathering place for the world’s sorrow, its wasted efforts, its murdered children, its unimaginable catastrophes, its utter silences. When we arrive at its foot, we also discover its hope – not the hope of Easter so much, but the hope that comes from having a place to gather when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing.

It is not yet the dawn. Not yet. We need to be healed, and we will be, but not yet, not too fast. It takes time. We have to wait. And we have to stay together, bearing with every loss and horror creation has ever borne. We have to stay together so that it is not too frightening to wait, so that our waiting does not become despair. Like that inconsolable man in Indonesia, we may even prefer to wait, just as long as we are not alone. Together we will outwait death and come startled and blinking to Easter.

But no, not yet, not now.

A Prayer for Shoring Up

 

You surround us like the everlasting hills.

You build the storm-proof house on rock.

Sentries pace the ramparts of your love,

guardians with sharp eyes for trouble.

Even so, we wonder if we are safe.

We doubt you can be trusted

to shore up shaky lives.

Like careless feet on uneven ground,

hope slips out from under us,

and we lose heart.

O Rock of Ages,

take now the honest hands

we stretch to you in need.

Hoist us to your heart

and calm the frightened beating of our own.

Show us the deadbolts and the steel

that forever stand

between us and the soul’s despairing–

your Word,

your Promise,

and your lovely Child.

In his strong name we pray.  Amen.

Therefore Be Patient [James 5:7-10]

The first time I saw poverty, I was 19 years old. I’d been sent by my religious order to Mexico City to teach English to the daughters of the wealthy at a private school run by my community. We had several cleaners, local women, who attended to the school building and the teachers’ residence. They appeared at the gate at six every morning, Monday through Friday, and departed through the same gate every afternoon at four, right before the skies opened up and rained down the brief daily torrents that are typical in sub-tropical climates. The women were sweet and quiet and worked very hard, and they always left the place gleaming. I remember thinking that this was the cleanest place I’d ever lived in, a lot cleaner than my room back in Boston.

The school was located in the most glamorous part of the city, and so I assumed that the cleaning women did not live near us. I assumed that every day when they said good-bye with the soft politeness of Mexico, they got on a bus and returned to simpler homes in working class neighborhoods like the one my mother grew up in South Boston, with corner stores and local bars and a priest who knew your family. I did not know that there were no such neighborhoods there, and I did not know what the long high wall adjacent to our school was hiding.

Eventually I found out that behind the wall was what is called a barranca, a half-acre-or-so of littered open field dotted with cardboard shacks in front of which people cooked over open fires into which children routinely fell and were scarred for life, and where every Friday night most of what the women earned got spent by their despairing men on cheap, fast intoxicants. I also learned that in every rich neighborhood there were similar walls hiding similar barrancas. I learned that in Mexico City the typical distance between subhuman misery and superhuman luxury was the 8-inch width of a cement block.

The women who made our floors shine did not come by bus from across town. They ducked through a small opening in the wall of Hell, right next door. And I found that out because three Saturday mornings after I arrived, I was told to take some of our girls and go teach Christian Doctrine to the girls of the barranca. This we did weekly, ducking through that hole, sitting near those fires, teaching scarred children about God, the Virgin Mary, and the holy sacraments. And every Saturday afternoon when I got back to the residence, I would stand for 15 minutes under a hot shower, which was never hot enough or long enough to get the stench off my skin and the crawling feeling off my neck.

I hated that I could stand under hot water in a gleaming bathroom cleaned by women who had no running water, hot or cold, but you could not have gotten me out of that shower for love or money. And I used to cry myself to sleep at night over what I had seen, and I wondered what I was doing there, and where God was. And it was stunning to realize that this horror was what a great part of the world was like, and that it had been like this forever, and would probably not be changing any time soon. And I wanted desperately to go home, to New England, where it was possible not to know these things, and a lot easier to believe in God.

The sisters saw my distress and gave me the option of going home earlier than planned. Instead, I kept going back week after week with my satchel of catechisms. I don’t know why. Nothing changed because of it. I can’t even say that I made any friends in that awful place. The next time I’m in Mexico City, no nice-looking, well-dressed man is going to come running up to me to say, “You’re Mary Luti, aren’t you? I remember you! Oh, thank you, thank you, for when I was a boy you gave me hope and changed my life, and now I run a multinational!” All I did was to keep leaving the residence, and to keep going through the hole in the wall. I also kept hating every minute of it. I kept showering afterwards too, and I kept crying every night over what I had seen, wondering what I was doing there and where God was. Every week, the same, for months on end.

There’s no question in my mind that Christians are called to bold action in the world. But after Mexico City, and many similar experiences, I have to come think that we are also called to a peculiar form of patience that may appear at times like futility and helplessness, but may in fact be a kind of hope, even the foundation of action without which religious activism could eventually devolve into one more ideology projecting its rage into the world. The patience I mean takes shape in a persevering practice: the practice of being as simply and basically human as it is humanly possibly to be in the midst of an inhuman world.

While oppressors prosper and the poor die; while people are routinely sent to kill each other in war; while relationships break down and jobs disappoint; while our children elude parental shaping and go their own way into the world; while politics defraud, and leaders falter on clay feet; while all our choices limit us, and our futures will not bend to our wills; while our health slips out of our control, and God seems so indifferent to it all, the calling of every believer is at least to take up the discipline of un-protecting ourselves from our own fear; to take the hearts we normally try so hard to keep away from the fire of so much pain and disappointment, the hearts we armor against feeling, and march them right straight through any small opening we can find in the high walls that sin builds to hide its triumphs, and make some kind of human contact with the ones we find behind it, any kind of human contact at all.

The day of the Lord’s coming for which we pray every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer—“thy kingdom come”—is not only some great cataclysmic future event; it is also every moment in which we become, by grace, a little more able actually to see and feel and hear other human beings who live behind high walls. It is every moment we do not flee in horror from the terrible spectacle. The Lord’s return is also in our return, in the continuous turning we call conversion, which is nothing more nor less than a willingness to keep going back to the sights and sounds of real human life, in all its relentless pain, even if the only thing our returning produces is the tears of a shocked heart that flow down uncontrollably under a wasteful steaming shower; for all tears shed in the presence of human pain are a form of hope. As another preacher once said, if we enter, we can see. If we see, we can feel. If we feel, we can weep. If we weep, we are connected. If we are connected, we might be saved.

And isn’t this what we claim when we say we belong to the Incarnate One? That there is a God who came to the neighborhood, ducking in through a hole in creation, and stepped inside? A God whom we know in Jesus, who was born of Mary in a kind of barranca, out of sight behind one of the world’s high walls. Isn’t this what the church proclaims about him—that his nearness to us in true human flesh is able to make us also fully human human beings, capable of the most copious tears, capable of lament, capable of a peculiar kind of patience, capable finally of commitment, and of the joy that comes from indomitable hope?

Looking Up

Shower, you heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and righteousness also. [Isaiah 45:8]

Before the 11th day of September, 2001, if something fell from the sky, it was snow, rain, or hail. If in the night we caught a flare at the corner of our eye, it was a shooting star, and we felt lucky to see it. If we noticed a silver glint above us, it was only a jet, and we might have wished we were on it, escaping for a rest.

In the days before 9/11, we did not think that planes could slice into offices, nor that looking up we would see souls hurtling a hundred stories to the dust of collapsed futures. We didn’t know that the sky could rain a million memos, a pair of shoes, a menu with the specials of the day, a man we met on Monday for a drink.

It’s not Advent yet, but it might help us today to remember that on the last Sunday of that season, our ancient forbears raised their eyes and sang to their own sorrowful sky (for there is no time without sorrow) this urgent and insistent prayer: Rorate caeli de super, et nubes pluant Justum—You heavens, open from above, that clouds may rain the Just One!

So many awful things fell down on 9/11 that for a long time afterwards we might not have dared look up, as these scriptures imply we must. Yet this is faith’s posture—heads lifted, eyes on the high horizon, hands outstretched, hearts open. This is the world’s most needed gesture—to point to every cloud of sorrow and declare, despite all evidence to the contrary, that from such skies, even from these, the longed-for healing comes.

So pray today that God will give us a new sky under which all creatures may live without fear of falling objects. Pray that what falls from the sky from now on will be only the grace of our Savior, in whom are joined the hopes and fears of all the years. Pray that under God’s new, safe sky we who are witnesses to sorrow and to mercy will co-create with God a new, safe, just, and holy earth.