Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sermon: "Beyond Comfort and Affliction" (Delivered 10-3-10)

From A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century by Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens
Facing into human suffering is necessary. In communities of justice and compassion, God’s presence can be manifest as people offer loving presence to one another. Such presence heals and transforms, and elicits surprising revelations of life’s resilience and grace…

Is it reasonable to believe in God? The question “Does God exist?” can be a metallic, hard-edged question about what is factually true. As if scientists in a glistening clean lab, peering through microscopes, could settle the matter. Is there any evidence? But the question “Does God exist?” arises in another way—not as a cool inquiry into the nature of ultimate reality. It arises in the messy, painful dead ends, on the cold winter afternoons where life is exposed to the raw elements. It arises among the communities of those lacking the bear necessities. It arises among the lonely, the hungry, the frightened, and those without voice. In such settings, the question is not about metaphors or about rational arguments. It is more elemental. It is a question borne in the suffering souls of human beings, and its meaning is a cry for hope: Is there any help for pain? Is there anything that will spring green from this bitter winter, with its dirty ice and slush? Is there any hope for the disempowered and the silenced? The abandoned? And when everything human fails, and nothing that is within the power of human beings to do can be done, what then? Is there a source of healing and transformation? […] Is there reason to trust that there is any help available?

Finley Peter Dunne was an author and satirist who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. He was most famous for a syndicated a column in which he published the thoughts and opinions of a fictional character named Mr. Dooley, an Irishman who wrote to him from an Irish Pub on the South side of Chicago where he weighed in on current events. Mr. Dooley’s letters even spelled out his Irish accent phonetically.

One of Mr. Dooley’s famous letters was a warning about the power of the media: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce, an’ th’ banks, commands the milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Although this line was intended as satire, it caught on. In the film version of Inherit the Wind, Gene Kelly plays a journalist who declares that it is the duty of newspapers to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The great community activist and labor organizer Mother Jones declared that comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable was her business. The Archbishop of Canterbury once proclaimed that it was the job of religion to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And, indeed, generations of clergy have wrestled with these dual impulses: to comfort and to afflict.

The tension in this duality is found in the Biblical tradition. The God we encounter in the twenty-third Psalm is a soothing God. “You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters… Your rod and staff they comfort me.” Yet, in the prophetic texts we encounter a God seething with anger because of the injustices and iniquities practiced by the people.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to care for the sick, the widow, and the orphan. But we also find Jesus overturning tables and casting moneychangers out of the temple. And, it wasn’t as though Jesus had run out of lepers to cure.

Several years ago there was an email chain letter describing “The Perfect Pastor.” The email contained a bunch of little humorous lines: “The perfect pastor is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.” “The perfect pastor is passionate about working with youth and spends all his time with senior citizens.” And, one of its lines showcased this tension between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. “The perfect pastor makes fifteen house calls and hospital visits every day, is always available in his office, and frequently is observed working for justice in the community.” The chain letter concluded with the warning that you needed to send it to six people or else you would get your old minister back.

Three weeks ago our church engaged in an exercise that we called connecting conversations. In these connecting conversations you were asked to speak to each other from the depths of your being about what you treasure most in our congregational life together and what you want most for our church. The “pulse committee,” a subcommittee of the board, is still sorting all of the input we received and the board will be meeting at the end of this month and will use your responses to establish goals and objectives. I’ve seen only a portion of the responses, but many of the responses indicate either a desire that the afflicted be comforted or a desire that the comfortable be afflicted. Some responses speak to the depth of friendship, support, and healing that our people find in this church community. Some responded that they are most proud of the church when we are out making a difference in the world. They desire for this church to be a more powerful agent for societal change.

All of this would seem to indicate that the Archbishop of Canterbury was on to something when he borrowed Mr. Dooley’s words and proclaimed that it is the role of religion to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. But, there is a problem here. Exactly who among us is comfortable? And, who among us is afflicted?

This morning and next Sunday the worship service deals with themes of vulnerability and intimacy. Next Sunday my words are going to take the form of an argument. I am going to make a case for the necessity of vulnerability. My words this morning are intentionally more impressionistic than argumentative, more evocative than persuasive.

Yes, I do know that community and authentic spirituality can ease a troubled spirit and can soothe a furrowed brow. There is a balm in Gilead. And, yes, I do know that community and authentic spirituality are supposed to challenge us and shake us. There is both a time for troubled waters and a time for bridges over troubled waters.

But, I worry about the damage caused by judging. Who am I, who is anyone, to tell anyone else they are comfortable? If we are going to afflict the comfortable, we need to decide who the comfortable people are. That means we have to label someone.[At this point I looked around the congregation, picked three people at random (including a first time visitor), pointed my finger at each of them, and declared, “You are comfortable.”]

Let us pause for a second. Let us process what just happened. I was being a little playful, a little facetious. But, what happened when I labeled someone else as comfortable? It felt uncomfortable. It felt awkward. It felt dismissive. It felt like I was negating a part of that other person’s experience, that other person’s selfhood.

I don’t know if you are anything like me, but if you are anything like me you may find yourself labeling others as comfortable. In this context, the term “comfortable” often implies something socio-economically. The socio-economic implication is that a family is free from financial anxiety, living well within its means, and so on. I don’t want to say too much more about class and comfort at this moment, except to point out the obvious fact that whenever someone labels someone else as “comfortable,” there is, more often than not, an economic judgment attached to the label.

Who else is labeled as comfortable? It is often someone who disagrees with you politically. It is often someone who disagrees with you on a social issue. It might be someone who agrees with you on a political or social issue but you feel doesn’t demonstrate sufficient urgency or passion about that issue. And, it is almost always someone whose pain is not evident to you.

Next week we are going to talk about what leads people to describe themselves, as comfortable. But, for right now, I just want to say that I don’t see any good in attaching the comfortable-label to someone else.

So, that means we are all afflicted, right? In a way, yes, and in a way, no. The rock group R.E.M. once sang that “everybody hurts” and I believe this to be an absolutely true statement. Labeling someone as “comfortable” denies that person’s own particular experience of universal human suffering. But labeling someone as “afflicted” can be tricky as well.

We can use the same exercise that we tried before. I can select three people from random and judge them and attach a label to them. And, of course, I am not really approximating real life here. Of course we are in church and there is a general weirdness, namely the fact that you may have trusted me to listen to you talk about times in your life when you have experienced pain and not announce the details of your hurt to the entire congregation. It has been my experience that people don’t like to be labeled in general, and especially don’t like to be labeled by their pain or their afflictions any more than they like to have that hurt denied.

Everybody hurts. There is not a single person alive who does not live without affliction. Most people also experience some degree of comfort in some aspect of their living.We are neither fully comfortable nor fully afflicted. We are both and we are more than both.

I was planning to save this story for next week, but I think it fits here. It is the story that inspired my idea for the topic for this week’s and next week’s service. The story was told to me by a community organizer who worked organizing faith communities in the greater Boston area. At a meeting, she brought together mothers and grandmothers from both the inner city and from some of the surrounding affluent suburbs. At the meeting, the participants were asked to reveal the struggles they face. The women from the inner city were quick to speak, identifying their frustration with the schools their children and grandchildren attended. The problems that they focused on included—as you might expect—gangs, guns, and drugs. Safety was an elemental concern. The women feared for the lives of their children.

When it came time for the suburban women to speak, they drew inwardly. After hearing the stories of gun violence, what right did any of them have to kvetch about the issues in their own lives. The dynamic became unbalanced. The inner city women named their hurt and affliction. They became vulnerable. The suburban women withdrew, putting up walls of invulnerability. There is more to the story than this, but I want to jump ahead.

In a debriefing meeting about what had happened, the suburban mothers reflected on what had transpired. One of them spoke up and admitted that she had wanted to add something, but that in the meeting it was somehow unspeakable. She talked about a high school student who was a friend of her child who was rumored to be gay and was facing aggravated bullying. She talked about how the response of the school had been to trivialize the bullying. What she shared led others to begin to name some of their concerns both around homophobic bullying and other issues. It led them to take action which led the school administration to institute firm anti-bullying policies and to develop resources for GLBT students.

I tell this story today for a reason. [Note: I preached this sermon on October 3, 2010.] If you have been following the news over the last several weeks, you may be aware that the mainstream media is beginning to cover the stories of a number of gay teens in high school in college who have committed suicide following nasty bullying and harassment. Educators and youth advocates know that this isn’t anything new. What is new is that the mainstream media is willing to pay attention to it and to begin to take it seriously.

I know many of my colleagues have joined with me in reflecting on how our congregations, our church communities, and our youth groups are often life saving for the queer youth who come to our churches. It has begun a discussion about how we can do something more than be secret hate-free stops on the underground railroad for GLBT youth who need to escape persecution. It has begun a discussion about how we need to evangelize, how we need to make our existence more public.

In the coming days and weeks and months we are going to see an outpouring of public attention to the issue of bullying. One of the first campaigns I became aware of was launched by Dan Savage, an openly gay syndicated advice columnist. He created a channel on YouTube and he posted a video of himself and his partner talking about both the hell they endured as high school students and the meaning and beauty and joy and life that they have found because they survived. The YouTube channel is called the “It Gets Better” project and Dan Savage invited people to create their own videos talking about the struggles and hardship they experienced as youth and the meaning they have been able to create in their life later on.

The videos are deeply powerful. I tear up watching them. It is powerful and amazing, and for the purposes of what I am talking about this morning the really beautiful thing about the “It Gets Better” project is how these video testimonials transcend categories of comfort and affliction. They name pain, hurt, struggle and suffering. But they also name what life can be like beyond the pain. They speak to the reality of a present comfort, however imperfect, as well as a past affliction.

In the reading this morning I quoted Rebecca Parker. In the reading she describes how she approaches theism not from a clinical and detached perspective but from a place where she is standing hand-in-hand and hip-to-hip with suffering and resistance, pain and healing.

It occurs to me that what she is really doing is making a case for vulnerability, for the mystery that becomes manifest when we tear down walls. Walls of detachment. Walls of distancing. Walls of invulnerability. Walls of labeling. Walls of concealing pain.

I end by re-invoking her call for a “presence [that] heals and transforms, and elicits surprising revelations of life’s resilience and grace.” What is needed of us is not to differentiate between and label and categorize the comfortable and the afflicted among us. What is needed is a radical naming of our own experiences, our struggles as well as our successes.