Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Atherosclerosis of the Soul

         The phrase “hardened hearts” appears all the way through the Bible.  In the Exodus story it is used to describe Pharaoh as he fails to see and understand the plight of the Hebrew people he has enslaved.
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus refers to a conversation among the disciples and asks:  Don’t you know or understand even yet?  Are your hearts hardened?

            April 24th was both Armenian Martyrs’ Day and Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).  We remember so that we can never forget what happened to those two communities of people.  We remember so we can never forget that we as human beings are capable of genocide.  And yet these are not the only examples of genocide.  Nor did genocide end with the liberation of the last death camp.  We remember so we can never forget – but do we remember so we can care and prevent.  Or have our hearts hardened to the brutal treatment humans have the capacity to inflict on one another?

            It is so easy to read the Bible and shake our heads when we read the phrase “heart was hardened” and assign that capability to the really “bad” people of the world.  And when we read that phrase in relationship to us it is too often with a particular biblical interpretation that suggests the hardened heart is when we refuse to accept Jesus as a personal Savior. 

            Sisters and brothers a hardened heart is possible with each one of us, and it has nothing to do with a ticket to heaven.  Each one of us is susceptible to the condition of a hardened heart because each one of us carries the vulnerability to that spiritual disease, atherosclerosis of the soul.  Our spiritual arteries get clogged by the gradual build up of complacency, disengagement, disdain, prejudice, assumptions.  These insidious little pieces of death build one upon the other until the life giving flow from our hearts to one another is stopped in its tracks and our hearts are hardened to the pain of the world.

            The disease creeps up on us. 
·      We hear that there is going to be a special commemoration of the Holocaust somewhere and we sigh “not again – that happened 70 years ago – time to move on – ‘they’ got Israel”.  Or even worse some say the Holocaust was a myth. 
·      We might see an article about the Armenian Genocide and we ignore it because we haven’t a clue whom the Armenians were and are nor do we know anything about that piece of history.  And even here, some give more value to Turkey’s interpretation of events.  What’s more we pay little attention to a growing autocratic government in Turkey that has little tolerance for those who do not agree with them.
·      We see articles about sex trafficking and dismiss it as an isolated incident even though it is a major problem that is only getting worse
·      We commemorate with great love and honor those World War II veterans that are aging and now dying at a steady rate.  Yet we who are not part of the Jewish community give little thought to those Holocaust survivors who are also aging and now dying at a steady rate and who have powerful stories to tell us.
·      We might see a news story of starvation in Southern Sudan but that seems so far away from us and so inconsequential.
·      We hear of the plight of the Syrian Refugees and we want to postpone any thoughts about how to ease this humanitarian nightmare.

            The disease of atherosclerosis of the soul creeps up on us.  Each bit of indifference adds another clogging element.  Each bit of rationalization on behalf of those who victimized others narrows our spiritual arteries.  Each bit of moral or religious presumed superiority over the “other” tightens the arteries.  Until finally we just ignore those difficult realities and our hearts are hardened to the sufferings and the memories of others. 

            I want to prescribe some spiritual anticoagulants for us, including for myself.  It is my intention (and I hope the good folks at St. Paul’s UCC will keep me honest in doing this) to provide a focus for the month in our prayer list.  That focus is to be around one of these situations, realities, concerns.  It is my hope that we not only lift that specific focal point in prayer, but that we also take the time during the month to learn more about the situation or the event.  And then, if our individual research and our praying lead us to some concrete action we feel called to do we will answer that call as individual people of faith.  The preview for May is going to be the Holocaust.  It is my prayer that all prayer and contemplation will lead us to a renewed sensitivity to the rise in anti-Semitism hate speech (a rise of 86% in the first three months of 2017). 

            May prayer and changed behaviors become the spiritual anticoagulants to a destructive epidemic in our world – hardening of the heart because of an atherosclerosis of the soul.  Let us open the vessels of our souls to let God’s healing love flow out of us and into a wounded world.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Clara

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mandate to Love


            Maundy Thursday – Holy Thursday – the beginning of a twenty-four hour period in the Christian tradition where we who profess our faith in Jesus Christ come face to face with all the implications of that confession.  We stand at the precipice knowing that Easter is coming.  But we know also, so very well aware, that all the forces that brought us the passion of Christ are still at work within our world, including within our own hearts.  God in your mercy, forgive us.

            The unusual name given to Holy Thursday has its roots in the gospel of John, the 13th chapter.  There the Passover Meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the evening he was betrayed does not include the words that are the basis of what we call Communion or the Eucharist.  The familiar images of bread and wine become instead the images of a towel and a basin.  Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and tells them they are to be a servant people.  Jesus gives them a very clear directive, a command in fact, mandatum in Latin – the root of that word “Maundy”.  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

            Through the words of the gospel of John we are told that on the night, when Jesus was well aware that he would die, he shared a meal with his disciples and his central message in word and action was service and love.  He told his disciples that love was to be their defining characteristic.

            We have a sentimental tendency to place great value on last words.  Good Friday services will often focus on those Last Words of Jesus from the cross.  We ask those who are to face the death penalty what they want for their last meal as if they really cared at that point.  We write about deathbed confessions.  Within the Christian Church we have the sacrament known as “last rites”.  Once upon a time the church encouraged baptism as a person was dying so they wouldn’t live long enough to sin again.

            Here in the 13th chapter of John we have Jesus speaking to his disciples, not through the agony of the cross, but in fellowship with those who had been chosen to continue the ministry and witness Jesus had carried out the past three years.  According to the account in John, Jesus comes to this Passover meal fully aware that it would be his last.  Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.

            This last meal would not be steak and cake or some other favorite food of a lifetime.  This last meal would be meal filled with the food that told the story of the Jewish people – shank bone, egg, bitter herbs, vegetable and haroset.  There would be unleavened bread and chalices of wine.  The meal would tell the story of God’s action in history when the Hebrew people were freed from their enslavement by the Pharaoh.  The meal would include Jesus taking the unleavened bread, breaking it and offering it to his disciples – “This is my body, broken for you.  Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”
During the meal Jesus would hold the chalice of wine and offer the traditional blessing and give it to his disciples.  “This is the blood of the new covenant.  Drink of it in remembrance of me.”

            The bread and the cup are indeed defining symbols of the Christian faith.  In some churches, Communion is a part of each service where members gather to worship.  John’s gospel though has more to offer about what is to be the defining quality of a Christian.  After Jesus takes a towel and a basin and gets down on the floor in order to wash his disciples’ feet, he tells them that servanthood is to be a hallmark of their life moving forward.  A few verses later he gives his very clear command to love one another as he has loved them. 

            This past week my home church and the Jewish community center about a mile further down the road were vandalized with some of the most vile symbols and words of hate possible to imagine.  The community center was targeted because it served the Jewish community.  We as a church were targeted because we had put up a banner against hate and bigotry leveled against those who are Muslims.  Among the vile words leveled against us was that “we have been found wanting” (based on a verse in the book of Daniel) and that if we “know Jesus” we will hate Muslims. 

            What a contrast to the commandment Jesus gave on that Thursday evening before his betrayal!

            We are living in one of those periods of time when vicious language and hate are being leveled against groups of people because of their religion, their color, their sexuality.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 917 hate groups are currently operating in our country this very moment.  Sadly some of these groups are promulgating hate in the name of their interpretation of teachings of Jesus and the Christian Church.

            Against that reality we are confronted this Holy Thursday with the words of Jesus as recorded through the gospel of John.  We are commanded to love at the same level as Jesus has loved us.  We are confronted with Jesus hearing the abuses of the crowd assailing him as he stood in front of them stripped of his normal clothing, beaten unmercifully, wearing a crown of thorns pressed into his head.  He stood there absorbing their hate into his body and returning to them unconditional love.  We are confronted with Jesus on the cross still refusing to hate or retaliate.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  

            May we hear the words of our Savior this Holy Thursday and commit  to radical, inclusive, all-embracing love to each and every person, no conditions attached.  It is what it means to follow Jesus.  It is the way out of the tombs of our making to the new life Christ gives.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. C.