Sunday, July 31

Homily  July 31, 2022

Do you know why political campaigns produce negative ads?

They’re not to convince voters from the other candidates to reconsider their choices because of new, and damaging, information. They’re designed, instead, to keep their own people in line by using fear, personal fear of the other candidate, fear of their character, and fear of imagined consequences should they win. If they can’t herd you by their virtue as sheep dogs, they can at least try to keep you in the flock for fear of imaginary wolves.

We live in an age of “they” and “them” of people put into easy categories often because of superficial differences and membership in these often-imagined groups comes with presuppositions about a person’s history, their mindset, and their personality. How far we’ve come from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s admonition to consider each other not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Now everyone has to belong to a group, and membership in that group whether by race, sexuality, politics, ethnicity, any host of things, even if requires a heaping pile of intellectual sloppiness to pound the square peg into a round hole, is all that matters.

There are powerful people who want it that way because it makes it so much easier to both sell to, and control, people who think in this manner. Fear of the other is the first tool of the propagandist and the last refuge of the scoundrel. It kills humanity from the inside but makes a lot of money for people who know how to exploit it. Old men use it to wage war and young men die because of it. Those who are conditioned to be reflexively afraid of the ”other” are easy prey for slaveowners.

But what if it was different?

What would it be like if we saw everyone else in the world as Christ sees them, as objects of God’s love, as those for whom our Lord sacrificed Himself, as not “other” but neighbor, not as members of any particular group but rather as a person created, regardless of their differences from us, in God’s image?

And what if we determined that because of this we would try to, in love, help them bear their burdens, we all have them, and give ourselves, even if we had legitimate personal reservations, to their betterment, to their thriving, and most especially to their ultimate salvation?

What really would happen if we tried our best not to judge the entirety of a person by one specific characteristic, even if our standard was legitimate? How different would the world be if we saw the person who lets their dog go to the bathroom in our yard with Jesus’ eyes? And how about that politician who makes our skin crawl, you know the one in the nasty ad? Are they my enemy or are they a potential neighbor, a fellow human, and an object of God’s love even if their behavior and votes seem grievous? And the person who sits next to us in church. Do we just disagree with them or are we trying to help them bear their burdens in the spirit and love of Christ?

I can tell you what would happen.

First there would be astonishment. We’re so used to living in the world at each other’s throats, emphasizing what is disagreeable and avoiding seeing each other’s humanity in the image of God, that being well, whole, and good, looks like abnormality. Imagine if in a political debate one of the candidates, upon hearing the other’s answer, would truthfully say “Well, you know you have a point there…”   We’re so used to fighting, to hating, to blaming, to holding grudges, that any kind of effort at reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, mercy, or even gratitude seems like maladjustment.  

Yet, that astonishment would be the seed of a joyful revolution because each gracious thought directed to the other, each act of kindness, each bearing of each other’s burdens in the spirit and truth of Christ would plant the possibility of something else, something better, in the heart of the world. Hating, bitterness, doing violence, not doing unto each other as we would have done to us, is unnatural, inhuman, and debilitating to body and soul.  

Serving the other lifts us up, humanizes us, and makes us whole.

You see, as Orthodox Christians we have a different basis for seeing the people around us. All the human definitions and categories are insufficient and often dangerous ways to see each other. What we are called to see is the image of God in everyone and every other label as secondary at best, perhaps a part of who people are but often a mere stereotype. This standard applies to everyone, even those who disagree with us and even those who would do us harm. This applies even in the church where there should be no Democrats or Republicans, no masked or unmasked, no distinctions or privileges based on wealth or position, and no ethnic or racial superiorities.

Yes, we do have our teachings, our moral standards, the high calling of God that we’re not to compromise in the winds of history but at the core of each of us, central to our identity and central to that high calling is a human being, made in the image of God, broken and challenged sometimes for sure, but also never completely extinguished. It is to that image that we appeal, it is that image we respect even in those who may hate us, and it is that image of God that makes all other categories, no matter how much the powers that be may insist, that turns everyone who we’re told is “other” than us into “neighbors” and even, by grace, brothers and sisters whom we can love and serve with the fullness of our heart.

And in seeing the image of God in everyone this is how we can bear each other’s burdens, and love, and be at peace, and let go of our fears.  Rather than tearing down in endless competitions we can build up. Forsaking old animosities, we can find peace. By choosing faith over fear, we can set ourselves free from those who control us by keeping us afraid. And by rejecting the darkness we can become children of the Light.

T0 Make Unhuman

Human beings have an instinctive, some would say “God given,” revulsion to killing other humans. It appears to be as ancient as we are and the vast majority of human cultures have seen such killing as among the ultimate offenses and apply penalties appropriate to the crime. Such is our instinct.

So those who wish war for whatever reason have a hurdle to overcome. War requires young, healthy, bodies to fuel its ambition and under normal circumstances those people aren’t primally directed to kill and for the comfort of those who send them. Thus, that basic taboo about taking human life must be overcome.

Here lies the work of the propagandist, government, corporate, ethnic, it really makes no difference because to move a normal human being to kill requires a single outcome, the dehumanization of the ones those in power wish to die. If it is deeply and inherently wrong somewhere deep inside the average human, then that is an obstacle that must be overcome so a generation will be willing to endure and inflict trauma for those who wish it.

Witness the horribly racist pictures of slant eyed, buck toothed, Japanese of WW2. Witness again the spiked helmeted Germans tossing babies on their bayonets and raping the innocent of WW1. The Vietnamese became “Charlie” or “Gooks”, people from the Middle East become “A-Rabs” and the list could go on. Almost any or everything goes if the powerful want to condition young minds to see the people they wish dead as something less than human and, by doing so, give them a pseudo-moral framework to justify the horrors they wish to make real. Every side plays the game. Sadly, it seems to be one of the great commonalities among us as a species. If the powerful want to keep or increase their power, they need willing bodies with willing minds shaped by and endless flow of information to overcome a sense of common humanity with the desire to kill.

Sometimes, of course, the programming won’t work, or it takes reinforcement. Witness the executions of French soldiers in WW1 who, seeing the slaughter and stupidity, refused to continue to perpetuate it. Witness, too, the moments of humanity in any war where people faced with the flesh and blood reality of things find ways, large and small, to be humans even as those above them try to keep them animals. Witness, as well, the veterans of long-ago wars who somehow, in reflection recover that which the state tried to strip from them, namely the understanding that the folks shooting at them were, in the end, just “Little people” doing what the “Big people” told them to do and even discovering friendships with those they had been told were not even worthy of life. Witness, finally, those who never recover, people for whom the programming “took” and never let go of its grip, people who spend the rest of their lives embittered at people they never met who were actually more like them than they ever knew.

One must kill in their heart before they can kill in the physical world and that death of the heart is probably the worst part of war and the place where war, even the “good” ones, most violates the Christian conscience. In war one must kill twice, first in the soul and then on the battlefield and even those who survive it all never quite leave that ugly place no matter how many parades are held or how shiny the headstones are kept.

Still, our basic humanity is strong because it is God given, it is part of the image of God that now even war can ultimately remove. And when war is upon us perhaps this is also where we can all agree. We can pray that somehow in a secret place in the heart those who instigate war and those who choose or are coerced into accepting it will have a tiny light inside that allows a single question “Why?” and from that “Why?” they’ll see what they are becoming, what they’ve been told to be often by those who are far away and very safe from where they are and their humanity will return.

The Pacifist Inside…

Growing up in the Plymouth Brethren, a loose confederation of “assemblies” deeply flavored by Anabaptist thought, the whole idea of war seemed remote to us. As I recall, it was considered a “worldly” thing, something the devout should be wary of and even though there were military personnel in our community, they were rare, mostly because of the draft, and I never recall a career military person among us for all the years I was one of the “Brethren.”

My father, who had actually enlisted in the Marines before he and our family joined the Brethren, made a sincere effort to keep us from the military and even forbid us from playing “war” with our friends because he didn’t want us to make a game of such things. Presumably he had seen enough and he often warned us about being “cannon fodder.” So even though there was a war going on in Viet Nam, without a TV and with a deep sense of trying to not be like the “world” the whole thing was distant from us.

Flash forward to seminary when the Evangelical Left was in an 80’s ascendancy. The Cold War was hot on our minds and the effects of things like war and hunger and global economics on the poor and disenfranchised of the world were front and center. Starting to experience an age when images of such things were not being carefully crafted by governments, the full picture started to emerge, especially of war. War is nothing like the movies, not even the graphic ones, and those who fight in them never really come back no matter how many parades we have.

One step forward to serving as a Chaplain in health care and taking care of the men who had been front and center, even in the “good” wars. I remember an older man speaking to me of how he was horribly wounded (he still had shrapnel in his body courtesy of the Nazi’s) and then had to wait for three days to get help because another soldier who came to his rescue was shot dead, fell on top of him, and he didn’t have the strength to get his decaying body off his own. Yet another sweet man, the kind you’d think of as your grandpa, breaking into tear as he recalled his buddy in the artillery spotting team here one moment and missing his head the next while they stood together. And then, my brother-in-law, a Navy corpsman who saw every bit of trauma there was to see in Viet Nam while his own government exposed him to Agent Orange.

That is war.

One last step forward to Orthodoxy where what I had seen in types and shadows before was given depth and dimension. The ancient Way is a way of peace

Now, when the TV tells me to hate, to wish the death of others, I think of those stories and more and how incongruent they are from the simple, earnest, messages of the Gospel in my childhood and the person of Jesus I try to serve today. I know much about war, at least from afar, because to be a student of history is, unfortunately, to be a student of war. None of it impresses me and I see nothing holy or ultimately good in it. Hell gets fed, the demons get their souls, and the only benefit is that it may delay the next one for a short time. Meanwhile everything God hold precious is trampled, including my own soul to the extent that I glory in it.

If I have to die, let it at least be in the pursuit of peace because I’m not sure that it would be good for me to face my Lord with another person’s blood on my hands and my only defense was “The TV told me to do it…”

There are times…

when I feel the urge to hide from the whole world and my imagination creates a mythical place far from everywhere, a place of peace and immeasurable quiet. And, for a moment, that “happy place,” which for me looks like a cabin by a small river at the edge of a woods, can be at least a temporary balm for those days when the world just seems too twisted to ever heal back into shape again.

It’s short lived, of course and my 4th floor apartment, nice enough with its view of the last remaining suburban corn field, rushes back the minute I open my eyes again. All I know, sometimes, though, is that I want to go somewhere or anywhere which isn’t whatever “here” is, a place far from voices, sales pitches, political yellers, and bad music made by thoughtless people.

Such a mystery it is, how God places people and times together. Of course, there’s never been a perfect time anywhere along the path of history so why should this “now” be the exception no matter how much I wish it so? Therefore, my only thought is that this time and this moment were somehow where I’m supposed to be and have become, in the great vastness of God’s design, the arena for my life and salvation. There will be no “long ago and far away” and perhaps no “happily ever after,” just responsibility to make the best of things and the promise of God’s presence as I try.

And I can survive if I remember the secret place of joy has never been “out there” so much as in a heart resting in God.

Too Fast…

I want things to happen too quickly. Good things, for sure, but at too fast a pace.

What difference would it make if even the very best happened but there was no love, no time to reflect, no humility and awe at things eternal? Rushed for the sake of rushed is still rushed, and incomplete, all the stress of an emergency without the actual event.

Slow down, good soul, slow down. Everything good need not happen to day. Recall that God leads but the devil stampedes and rest.

I remember Russell…

He was younger than I was, late 20’s, early 30’s. At least it seemed that way. A vivacious personality, quick with a joke, sarcastic in a funny way. Too young, though, it would seem, to be in a nursing home.

Decades ago, as a young Chaplain, I was part of the team that spearheaded a program to accept HIV positive Residents into our inner city nursing home. There was, sadly, a need in the 90’s for such services as the advanced meds that hold HIV at bay today didn’t exist. You don’t have to be old to be in a nursing home, just over 18 with a need for continual care, and our facility just south of downtown Minneapolis cared for everyone from young men paralyzed by gunfire to seniors living with mental illnesses, and Russell, our first known HIV positive.

And he brought a certain kind of life to the place. He was ambulatory, verbal, bright, witty, and more peer than Resident in many ways. Perhaps because he was living with death he wanted to make the most of the days. Perhaps it was just his personality. But I remember Russell as at least having a fairly bright public face even as he came to us for all the usual reasons people eventually live in nursing homes, being ill and being broke.

I also remember a certain sadness about him. He had the purple blotches of sarcoma, a symptom of AIDS, he tried to hide. The face is the hardest and even makeup fails to undo what has been done. I was told there were times when he would, in unguarded moments, weep as he recalled how the man who claimed he loved him, wanted him, needed him, also betrayed him, given him the illness that was taking his life. Whatever promise was to be had for the future erased and, in the quiet moments, that hurt could not be concealed.

My hope is Russell is with God now and at rest. He was a candle in the wind, but most candles in the wind are not like the lyrics of a glamorous pop song as the winds that extinguish can be very cruel and HIV was, and still can be, very bitter. There’s no judgement either, each of us has a path made up of things we do and things done to us and that synergy is our life. Every sin destroys each of us in its own particular way even as every little bit of goodness gives us life and, looking back, I’m reminded that Jesus is the only antidote for us all.

Still, I remember Russell and the others who came to us in those days. I hope we did well by them and gave them some comfort. I hope in our own way we became a kind of Jesus to them providing oil and wine for the many wounds. I hope they all, eventually, found the love they were craving, not in the passing sensual, moment but rather in the arms of God where all who seek the truest love, no matter who we may think we are, find it.

If I could…

go back I think I’d only wish to change the times I did hurtful things to others or said unkind words. Everything else could stay the same.

The difficulty with that, of course, is the impossibility of it happening. Hard things done and hurtful words said are released into lives and can never truly be retrieved. Three things, though, provide some hope.

The first is that from time to time a person actually does get the opportunity to apologize and at least try to make things right. Seize those moments whenever you can.

The second is that time, the medium into which hard deeds and hurtful words is cast, is also a potential healer. Time gives people, even the hurting, a place to reflect, to understand, to grow, and to overcome. Time does heal, not always, but it can.

The third is heaven. For those wounds inflicted for which there is no possible apology or those which time cannot heal there is a place where, as we often say, “All sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…” If life takes those I have hurt beyond my reach and time cannot heal I, at least, can pray fervently that those who I, in my own brokenness, have inflicted myself upon could at know and find heaven after the brevity of this life and perhaps there we both can find what eluded us along the journey here.

Adios Facebook!

I’m weary of the noise, weary of the half baked conspiracies, weary of the anger, and thinking about how much of my life was wasted has wearied me even further. It’s time for some detox, time for pure water from the Scriptures and the Saints to wash over and through me. Time for rest. Time to do good things. Time to exchange meaninglessness for grace.

Adios Facebook!

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