Is God Your Neighbor: The New American Dream
For a preacher reflecting on the scriptures can be a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s an incredibly easy process and everything falls into place. But there are times when it seems almost impossible. Much to my delight when preparing a reflection on the propers for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A), I was absolutely ecstatic when I read the first six words from the first lesson – Isaiah (58:1), “Shout out and don’t hold back.”
My first thought was here’s the justification for my being a big mouth and sometimes loud New Yorker. What more does one need than justification from a wise prophet like Isaiah? Then, I found myself reflecting on my ordination vows as a deacon of the church: “You are to interpret the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world to the church.”
These days that’s a real challenge. Recently, a colleague in Chicago stood in the sanctuary of his large church and told his parishioners that what he was about to say was inevitably going to anger some of them. “Reflecting on the current state of affairs in our country, it is becoming impossible to say anything, to express an opinion without someone getting pissed off and angry.”
We are witnessing a polarization like never before and not just in America. The entire global landscape is growing weary, distrustful, and withdrawing within. The mood is dark and gloomy, and hope seems to be at a premium while mistrust and fear are freely offered.
The following sums it up well:
“We no longer have to ask ourselves if we are approaching a state of emergency. We are in the midst of it, right here and now, and we expect the future to mirror the past…. It is in the midst of this dark world that we are invited to live and radiate hope. Is it possible? Can we become light, salt, and leaven to our brothers and sisters in the human family? Can we offer hope, courage, and confidence to the people of this era? Do we dare break through our paralyzing fear? Will people be able to say of us, ‘See how they love each other, how they serve their neighbor, and how they pray to their Lord?’ Or do we have to confess that at this juncture of history we just do not have the needed strength or the generosity? How can we live in hope so as to give hope? And how do we find true joy
Here’s the irony, perhaps even the rub – that passage was written 38 years ago by Henri Nouwan, priest and theologian, in Clowning in Rome first published in 1979.
How then does this deacon explain the anger that is gripping everyone to the church and to the faithful, deliver a message of hope, and not piss anyone off. I’m not too sure about the piss anyone off part.
Let’s begin by remembering that the Christian church is still celebrating the Season of Epiphany, and we are invited not only to perceive the light of Christ but to be the light of Christ. In today’s gospel, Matthew (5:13-20) reminds us that we are the light of the world. What gets in the way of our remembering that we are children of light and not darkness? What gets in the way of our ability to expose a way through the darkness? We are not meant for hiding nor meant to be overcome by anger, mistrust, and suspicion. Scripture and literature in general are filled with images of light and darkness. Although darkness is always the loser, it doesn’t give up its battle without a struggle; and all too often as history proves time and time again, it is nourished by anger and thrives in misunderstanding and intolerance.
What is it about anger that keeps its grip on us? I dare to say that identifying its grip may be as simple as our lack of willingness to take responsibility for it, and that alone may piss off a lot of people.
We can gain a great deal of insight from the 13th century Sufi philosopher and poet, Rumi. He writes:
“A monk decided to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He took his boat out to the middle of the lake, moored it there, closed his eyes and began meditating. After a few hours of undisturbed silence, he suddenly felt the bump of another boat colliding with his own.
With his eyes still closed, he felt his anger rising, and by the time he opened his eyes, he was ready to scream at the boatman who had so carelessly disturbed his meditation. But when he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that it was an empty boat that had struck his own. It had probably gotten untethered and floated to the middle of the lake.
At that moment, the monk had a great realization. He understood that the anger was within him; it merely needed the bump of an external object to provoke it out of him. From then on, whenever he came across someone who irritated him or provoked him to anger, he would remind himself that the other person was merely an empty boat, the anger was within him.”
Unless we own our anger and take responsibility for it, we will stay stuck as individuals, members of our communities, a nation and the world, and most importantly with our families and friends whom we hold most dear.
If we can’t live without our anger, can we at least learn to curb it some of the time? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
I recall God saying “love your neighbor.” I said “well, that’s not so easy. He replied: “Neighbor I know.”
February 5, 2017