“Blessed, Broken, and Given” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 15th, 2017. (Readings for 23A: Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14)
I enjoy wicked humor, humor that is uncomfortable, because it often gets us to laugh at the pains, absurdities and horrors of life.
For example, Moms Mabley used to tell the story about a man on his death bed. Faced with death the man is filled with contrition for all the things he’s done wrong and so he begins to confess them to his wife. He says: “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry I should have treated you the way you deserved, but you know how I claimed I would bring home all my weekly paycheck, well I got the boss to give me two paychecks and each week I would bring home one, but the other I spent on myself. And his wife says–“It’s okay baby– don’t worry about it.”
The man was surprised and grateful about his wife’s gracious response and says “And you know honey, those nights I claimed I was working late –most of the time I was really out drinking and gambling with my buddies.” She respond’s “It’s okay honey– don’t worry about it.”
Finally the man says, “And honey, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but all these years I’ve been with other women and spent on them what I should have spent on you. ” His wife says, “That’s okay honey, don’t worry about it, that’s all over now.” The man says, “I cannot believe that given my lying, stealing and cheating ways you can be so forgiving.” His wife says– “I am forgiving, but that’s also why I poisoned you.”
For this second story you need to know the word “wasi’chu” which is a pejorative term that the Lakota and Dakota peoples sometimes use to refer to people of European descent. It literally means “takers of the fat” as in those who take the best part for themselves.
A white man is waking into a trading post as an Indian man comes out and blows his nose on the ground by pressing one finger against his nostril. The white man says to himself–“damn Indians, always making a mess of things.” Later this same Indian man is sitting in front of the Trading Post when the white man comes out and blows his nose into a handkerchief. The Indian man says to himself. “Damn waisi’chu— try to hold onto everything.”
Reading the gospel of Matthew it is pretty hard to understand how Jesus ever got portrayed as being meek and mild. Matthew’s Jesus is tough as nails. He’s a truth teller and these painful truths comes through the stories he tells and to whom and how he tells them. Underlying many of those stories I find a kind of wicked humor that we often miss because we can no longer hear the laughter that I suspect followed them and they have instead been turned into deadly serious morality plays.
Take this awful story of a man who gets invited to a wedding banquet only to be thrown out because he’s not wearing a wedding robe. As a person who grew up in jeans and t-shirts and bare feet and who still struggles to dress appropriately that’s like my worst nightmare —so it makes me laugh. Or the story of the man who thinks he’s going to escape the risks and horrors of life by burying the treasure he’s been entrusted with under the ground so no one can blame him for losing it–only to be told he did exactly the wrong thing and that he was supposed to take his treasure and risk losing it to amke something of it. Or the way Jesus likes to tell the Puritans of his time that notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes are going to get into heavenly banquet before them, or that heretics like the Samaritans know more about loving their neighbor than they do. Or like the story we heard last week in which Jesus tells a bunch of landlords the story of wicked tenants, who ultimately kill their landlord’s son, and only after these landlords declare that these tenants will be killed do they realize Jesus has told the story about them. To me–that’s funny.
Mathew is passionately concerned about the reign of heaven on earth, which he calls the “Kingdom of Heaven.” For Matthew, this is not some magical realm, it is a realm where love and justice reign on earth. Paul preaches there is no more law, but for Matthew the law will only come tumbling down when the reign of love and the spirit has made it irrelevant, i.e. if we’re loving people we’re not going to be killing them, stealing from them, mistreating them etc. Paul and Luther say God’s “Yes” comes first and that we are only empowered to do the right thing through God’s acceptance and affirmation of us. The Jewish Christian Church, represented in the New Testament by Matthew and James say “Yes, that’s true. But if you really hear the ‘yes’ you will respond and change, so if you haven’t changed you apparently haven’t really heard the good news.” As a person who before his conversion fled the plague in terror and after his conversion went to work with those suffering from the plague, it would be hard for Luther to argue with that.
As I read the parable we hear in Matthew’s gospel today everyone is invited to the banquet of God, this heavenly feast of love and justice, but you need to be wearing the right clothes. What’s Matthew talking about? Is he suggesting that those who don’t dress up shouldn’t come to church? Absolutely not. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to honor yourself and honor God by dressing up, showing your self love and self care in a world that has so often demeans and despises you and says you are not worthy, but Matthew’s not talking about literal clothes. Matthew’s talking about our need to have clothes that correspond to the spirit of the occasion. The feast of love and justice requires us to do deeds of love and justice. As James says, “For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, they are like one who observers their natural face in a mirror ; ..and then goes away and at once forgets what they are like.” (James 2:22-24) It is a kind of forgetting that doesn’t allow the Spirit to transform us.
Matthew and James would totally reject the idea that you really love others if you don’t work to ensure that they have the same things you want for yourself, things like: a decent place to live, work that is sustainable, health care, freedom from oppression. Matthew and James say those who say they love their sister or brother but don’t help them when they are in need—are hypocrites and liars. Their faith is basically dead for it bears no fruit. Thus what passes for Christianity so often in this country would be absolutely unrecognizable to Matthew and James who would call it for what it is, the religion of empire dressed up in the language of Christianity.
As Matthew and James insist our participating in the feast of heaven on earth is partly dependent on our actions, but it is also evident whether we participate in this feast of love and justice has everything to do with what we’re bringing to this feast.
Our parable today says that everyone is invited to the feast, the good and the bad. Elsewhere we hear Jesus say that this feast is especially for “the poor, the maimed, and the blind”–that is those who have been viewed as impure and marginalized within his society. Here’s where we can maybe understand another dimension of what it means to be wearing the right clothes to this feast because while everyone is invited to this feast, across all our differences, many of those differences have been invested with social meaning such that they define who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, who is listened to and who is not, who is honored and who is shamed. Because of these realities, which at times can be the difference between life and death, surviving or not surviving, those invited to this feast are filled with of feelings of anger, rage, fear, terror , resentfulness, sorrow, hatred (including that self-hatred we call shame), arrogance, denial, sensitivities, insensitivities. And it’s not as simple as one group having one kind of feelings and another group the other, for nearly all of us are among the privileged, the in-group, in one or more ways, and nearly all of us have been among the discriminated against, the out group, in one or more ways, based on our race, class, gender, ethnic group, nationality, income, employment status, educational attainment, disabilities, birth order, something that’s happened to us, or something that didn’t happen to us and a variety of other factors. We are invited to this God feast in which, here on earth, all are to be loved and the dignity of each is to be respected and yet as the guests who are to make this feast one minute we are angry because others are unwilling to try to understand us and the next moment we’re unwilling to extend understanding to others and what they’ve been through.
Now perhaps for this reason, it seems to me, most churches want us to leave our feelings at the door. Feelings like anger or rage, fear or terror, shame, sadness, loneliness, resentfulness, the desire for revenge, are to be rejected which essentially means most of us don’t really feel welcome at the feast because so many of these feelings are so intimately connected to what we’ve experienced in our lives that you can’t separate them from who we are. They are a part of us.
Here is where, I want to suggest that the verses leading up to our gospel today hold the key to understanding the implications of this parable. In them, Jesus quotes the lines from Psalm 118 that say: “the stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23, Matt. 21:42). Jesus didn’t say to the poor in Spirit, those experiencing all these feelings that make us feel bad, “stay away until you feel better,” he said “Blessed are you” and “Come unto me”. I believe Jesus offers us a way to transform the very feelings we’ve rejected into something that helps make the God feast. Jesus wants to turn the ways we’ve been cursed into blessings for others.
Our reading from Isaiah today speaks of the heavenly feast as a feast in which the mantle of shame that has covered the peoples of the world will be removed. What I want to suggest is that this happens, in part, as the very feelings we were ashamed of are welcomed to this feast so we no longer have to be ashamed of them. This means we no longer have to be ashamed of, despise, cut ourselves off from—who we are.
Now, it might be nice if this was the end of the story. We are welcomed to this heavenly feast with all our baggage and that’s the end of it, but remember we’re taking here about an earthly heaven. Jesus is not talking about blessing the poor in Spirit after they die–he’s talking about blessing us here and now. He’s talking about taking the ways we’ve been cursed and transforming them into a blessing for others–here and now. If this earthly feast is going to happen it is going to happen in part through us and this means that it must be a feast of transformation, a feast in which God invites us to come as who we are, with all these feelings life has left us with, and invites us to offer them up, to be blessed and broken and transformed such that they become part of the blessing that draws us together in love and community, so that they help to fuel the movement of revolutionary love.
How can this happen? Here again, we need to turn back to the verse leading up to today’s parable where, talking about the rejected stone, Jesus says, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken into pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
It’s a violent metaphor. For a moment I think it worth our remembering how often our gospels suggest that the reign of heaven happens in and through things that are described in violent terms. For example, in Mark’s gospel, as Jesus comes out of the waters of his baptism, just before he hears the voice of God proclaiming him as beloved, it says the heavens were torn open or broken open. This also prefigures the way the veil of the temple is torn in two after Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus crucifixion, death, and resurrection are a violent story and yet this story is presented as having the ability to transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
I think our gospels are talking about how we, and all these feelings we have, need to be broken open and blessed so that we can participate in this new. free and loving. creation God wishes to build in us and through us.
Here I think it is important to say that while this transformation is often spoken of using violent metaphors and this process may indeed start with some kind of violent experience, like the death of a loved one, a relapse, a breakdown, an illness, an arrest, losing a job, in my experience this kind of breaking only leads to an opening when we are met in that place with some kind of love and acceptance. For example, a woman I knew was at one time so detached that she didn’t experience any fear when she and her gang raided drug houses to steal their drugs and money. She was so cool and collected that at one point she shot someone in the legs when they were trying to run away so she wouldn’t injure them too badly. When she got to prison she loved solitary confinement because it confirmed all her anger and bitterness at life and the world until the day another older woman adopted her as her daughter and Chris’s stone cold heart was smashed to pieces, it broke her open, and she emerged a sweet, kind, honest and loving person. Some of you may remember her as for a time she was part of this community.
If we are going to be able to fully participate in God’s heavenly earthly feast, if we are going to be able to participate in the movement of revolutionary love—the ways our hearts have grown hard as stone need to be broken open and any illusions that are keeping us from seeing or thinking clearly need to be smashed.
I heard someone recently say “life is either going to break us open or break us closed.” The bad news is that it seems one way or another life is going to break us. The good news is this breaking can be a means of grace which leads to greater openness and our becoming more human.
This past week I’ve been struck by everything that’s come out about Harvey Weinstein. For decades he’s produced some of my favorite movies, but now we’ve learned that while doing that he’s gone around in some kind of delusion that’s kept him from seeing and experiencing how he’s been really victimizing women. It’s horrifying that it’s possible for us to be so sensitive and insightful in some ways and so totally numb and blind in others. If Harvey can see the grace in the breaking process I believe he must now be going through–maybe he can help us better understand how to help each other wake up to help prevent more of that kind of harm in the future.
This week I’ve also been struck again by the challenge of becoming the beloved community. It is so hard for us not to be possessed by the ways we’ve been victimized in a way that leads us to be closed to others. This is part of why it is so hard for us to trust those who are different than us. It’s a reminder again that when we don’t offer up our feelings to be blessed and broken by God and offered up for the sake of others–so often we end up possessed and imprisoned by them.
Part of why I am so inspired by the New Poor People’s Campaign is that it is challenging all of us, on both the individual and tribal levels (that it who we identify with), to offer up our distrust of one another, our fears of one another, our desires to punish one another, even though these feelings are so often rooted in very real, very concrete, personal experiences and collective histories, so that that we can work together to successfully create a new nation, a nation freed from the paradigm of domination and all that ways it privileges some and demeans others.
I want to close just by reminding us that offering up our feelings to God cannot only free and humanize us, but it can also be of such benefit to others and the work of the Holy Spirit.
A group of us heard Danielle Sered speak this week. She’s been able to take the ocean of feelings that come from being the child of crack addict and losing your father, from being a victim of violence, but especially from the feelings she was left with when as a teenager she got caught up in crime and then witnessed how she was given a new chance at life (as she put it she was offered an off-ramp from the idiocy of adolescence), while her co-defendant, a young black man, was incarcerated. The injustice of a system that could see in her a human being with the potential of redemption, while simultaneously not seeing the humanity of her co-defendant, left her with a fiery sense of injustice that she has transformed into a funny, gentle, loving, way of engaging others and absolutely determined to bring down the system which she sees as a direct descendent of slavery and Jim Crow.
As a young man, Martin Luther King was as angry as he could be. He tried to kill himself twice, by throwing himself out of second story windows, by the time he was twelve years old. But through the grace of the Holy Spirit, Martin was able to carve a diamond of hope out of his mountain of anger and despair. That deep well of passionate love and mental clarity that you hear in his voice didn’t come from no where–that’s the voice of rage and anger, fear and sadness, broken, blessed, and transformed into revolutionary love.
Mother Theresa’s vocation apparently began with a vision of a God forsaken world, literally a world without God. She received that vision as a gift and it apparently empowered her to create a Godly embrace for all she encountered. She’s a vision of how abandonment can be transformed into the ability to create the power of belonging.
Pope Francis’ integrity seems directly related to the shame he felt for not having done more to speak out against the military junta in Argentina. It tells us that shame, blessed and broken and offered up, can become integrity.
Dorothy Day was able to let her experience of great loneliness be transformed into the power to create real community.
I think also think of so many people I know who have lost people who were so absolutely vital to them that they could do nothing more than offer up their helpless brokenness, but in the process they have become the kind of people who with quiet humor and dedication and ferocious passion, show up again and again when someone needs to be loved, or cared for, or spoken up for.
Friends, where ever you are coming from, whatever you are feeling, you are welcome here and I’d invite you to consider offering up, in this feast, yourself and whatever you feel, to be blessed and broken so that it can become the heavenly food that sustains, heals, and liberates as it transforms us and our world into being God’s beloved community.
For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen