Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Lev 19: 1-2, 15-18; Ps 1; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22: 34-46
This has been a tough few weeks. Something about this war in the Holy Land seems to have tipped many of us into a space of extreme fragility. I’m seeing it in conversations, in which people who are usually grounded become fractious and testy; we seem to have lost our generosity of heart. I’m seeing it online, where even the most anodyne post attracts a torrent of criticism or abuse. I’m seeing it in myself: one of so many people who are going about our business as if we’re fine, when actually we are overwhelmed by two wars and climate change and pandemic and economic stress and the ordinary tasks of our lives. Many weeks, we come to church because we want to be here, or we promised to be here. This week, I suspect many of us came because we need to be here.
When I was studying for ordination, I spent a year at a church which specialized in people who needed to be there. The extraordinary church was located in a hardscrabble neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, and it was a place of spiritual power. All day, every day, our doors were open, and the neighborhood streamed in. They came for food; they came for counseling. They came for jazz and drama and help with addictions. Every afternoon, children came to find a haven where they could do their homework and eat a snack in peace.
I still remember one of those kids, a boy named James. I hadn’t paid him much attention until the afternoon I cut through the sanctuary and saw something dark lying on the floor, right up against the wall. I assumed someone had lost a jacket, but when I came near to pick it up, I realized it was a kid: James, curled into a ball there on the floor, there where the lights wouldn’t find him. I knelt down and touched his shoulder, asking if he were OK. (He clearly was not.) He asked for Pastor Barbara, our Rector, then added, “Tell her my mamma’s dead.” I went to find Barbara, running through what I knew of James. He was black; he was poor; he was thirteen years old. His father was in prison; his family had nothing. And when the bottom dropped out of his world, he came to the church, because that was the safest place he could think of to be. It was a place where messed-up people tried to learn to love.
That is the essential work of church: to teach us how to reach beyond our sharp edges and our blunt convictions and find a way to be human together, mess and all. When the Pharisees came to Jesus, they asked him a question: “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” It’s a great question; it is the question. It invited Jesus, and invites us, to name what is essential in our lives, so that we can put first things first.
Here at the Cathedral, we have so much to choose from. We try to live into Jesus’ teaching in so many ways: by feeding the hungry, by advocating for the environment, by offering beautiful worship, by teaching and by learning — at times like these, it can feel like we asked to give and give and give, when we are already at the end of our tether.
Underneath that frantic activity, there is a simple mandate, one that James understood: a church must be a haven, a place of sanctuary and of love. A place where we can be held when we are in pain. A place of joy, in which the darkness of the world does not overcome the light and hope of God.
Being that for one another, being together in that way, involves getting out of our heads and into our hearts and our hands. Not in a way that makes us foolish, but in a way that allows us to be wise. Not all of us can set national — or even local — policy, but every one of us can give a plate of food to someone who is hungry. We can hold the hand of a person who is weeping, or give them a kleenex, or ensure they are not alone the first night they’ve been bereaved. We can practice kindness and gentleness with one another, in ordinary times and especially when the world becomes fractious and tense. Those simple acts breathe life back into faltering souls.
So many people right now are demanding that we pick sides. But, friends, our God is Lord of everything. Our God made everyone. Do you really think God loves one group of traumatized children more than another? That she has less compassion for certain widows than for others? Friends, the teams and camps into which we divide ourselves are of our own making. But God does not see “sides”; God sees only human beings, people whom God loves.
God was with the children who were killed in Kfar Aza, and with the young people who were dancing at the music festival to celebrate Sukkot, and God is with the children who are being killed in Gaza, with those who are desperate for food or water, and with those who are trying to preserve life in impossible circumstances. And God has been with them all along as this conflict tangled and deepened, all the way back to when Abraham fathered both Ishmael and Isaac and could not figure out how to love them both as God did and does. That may not be the God we want — a god who has shared our death. Sometimes, I’d much rather have a warrior God, a God who comes at the head of an army of angels and crushes all those who seek to harm the innocent and the unprotected. But violence leads only to violence. It is compassion which can lead to peace.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself no stranger to conflict, preached once that Cain’ question — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — is never answered. It hovers over the entire Hebrew Bible, over every word, every action, until it receives its response in the life and death of God’s Son. No, we are not our brother’s keeper. We are our brother’s sibling, and our neighbor’s neighbor, and our friend’s friend. That is why we are here.
The Sunday after I found James curled in the church, he came back and played the drums for Jesus. It was his first time, and although he had been preparing, he wasn’t very good. I was astonished he was there at all. The beats were faint and the rhythm faltered. But then the congregation began to sing back, at first faintly, then gaining in volume and speed: Halle-halle-halle, lu-u-yah. And as we sang, our words sang heart back into that child; his beats became firm, his rhythm steadied and gained speed, even his shoulders began to straighten. He was still poor, still an orphan. But he knew that we were with him, that he had a place with us, that he was not alone.
That moment defined church for me. It’s the yardstick against which I measure all that we do, because it went right to the heart of the Gospel, which is not ultimately about what we do, but about what God does. When humankind was like James, lost in utter darkness, with no place of safety and no reason to hope, God came to us. God put on our flesh and sang our songs and entered our desolation. And by that supreme act of mercy, we know that God is with us still, that we are not alone.
The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim describes this radical empathy as the key movement in all psychiatric care. He writes, “The mental patient lives as if in a deep, dark hole without exit, imprisoned there both by his anxieties and by the insensitivities of others…We have to invent and construct for him a way out — let’s say a ladder. We have to build this from our own past; our knowledge; our personality; and our understanding of the patient; but most of all through our empathy that tells us which unique, and uniquely human, ladder will be suitable for this particular patient. Contrary to his old belief that there is no exit, the patient must first come to believe that on this ladder he can climb out of his prison, and then eventually try to do so…The patient will try to destroy the ladder, convinced for a long time that we do not fashion it to help him climb to liberty, but only to induce him to move into a worse prison…After all, the patient knows his old prison, terrible as it is, and somehow has learned to protect himself against its most painful features through his symptoms….Again and again it has been our experience that only after our willingness to join the patient where he dwells emotionally has been recognized by him as genuine, will he consider also joining us…where and how we wish to live….He will do so only if we as human beings meet him as a human being.” (A Home for the Heart, 7-8)
He will do so only if we as human beings meet him as a human being. That’s what God does for us, and what we must learn to do for one another. Learning takes practice. We practice gentleness when times are gentle so that, when we are under tremendous pressure, we will still be able to be kind. We practice empathy, knowing that is the opposite of purity; purity culture divides us from one another, but compassion unites us in loss and shows us the necessity of hope.
And so we come to church to be bent back into the shape of a human being. That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? That in this community, we honor one another’s dignity and hear one another’s cares and tend one another’s heart. We share not only the gospel, but also our own selves, just as Jesus did. (2 Thess 2:8) And when the beat falters, when our hearts are broken, then we sing the more loudly to remind one another that in God, there is hope: Halle-Halle-Halle lu-u-ia.
 Bettelheim is, as many know, a controversial and tarnished figure. Like many historical figures (including many significant theologians), a modern reader will find it necessary to sort through what of his legacy is good and what needs to be discarded. When I quote someone in a sermon, it is never meant as a blanket endorsement of their teachings or of their life, but as an acknowledgment that I found a particular set of words life-giving or thought-provoking.