Saturday, February 11, 2017

Promised Lands

Here's tomorrow's homily. I can't believe that I haven't preached since last May, and I'm very happy to be doing so again, but Matthew 5:21-37 is a bear. The other reading I talk about here is Deuteronomy 30:15-20, a much smaller bear.


A few weeks ago, my friend Shira asked her friends on Facebook if they’d help her teenaged daughter Valerie by buying containers of chili. Valerie is raising money to visit detainee camps on the Texas-Mexican border with a Methodist youth group. The group will meet with agencies to discuss how to help families released from the detention center. They’ll be bringing things like craft supplies and soccer balls to help them make friends with the children of these families.

This is a wonderful project, but I was a little confused. Shira and her family are Jewish. How had they gotten involved with the Methodist church? “Valerie's part of the group even though we're not members,” Shira told me. “She went with them to build in Appalachia. She went on a civil rights trip last spring break. She went to Washington to advocate for the SNAP program.” After noting that she doesn’t see any other faith organizations, Jewish or Christian, doing similar work in her area, Shira added, “It's maybe the only church I've been to where I actually feel welcome. Plus they say you can replace Jesus with love in prayers.”

This conversation reminded me of Kirk, last week, wondering what might happen if we replaced our crosses -- symbols of execution -- with glow sticks, symbols of God’s light. Would wearing glow sticks make people outside the church feel  more welcome?  

Welcome, something our own parish has been emphasizing for several years now, makes all the difference for people searching for a faith community. All of us want to find the place that welcomes us and feels like home. It’s worth noting, though, that welcome isn’t the same thing as comfort. Shira and Valerie feel welcome at the Methodist Church not because they’re being coddled or sheltered, but because they’re being challenged: to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned. Confronting and relieving suffering, our own or others’, is rarely comfortable. It involves sacrifices of time, money, and privilege. It involves looking at things we’d rather not see. In the short term, it may make us more unhappy, rather than less. That was certainly the experience of the Isrealites, whose flight from oppression involved forty years of hardship. No one reaches the promised land overnight.  

Promised lands take many forms: geographical, cultural, personal, political, vocational. Setting out for any promised land requires courage, planning, and the ability to persist without guarantees. Not all of the Isrealites crossed the Jordan. Moses himself didn’t, although his work made the journey possible for others. His exhortation in Deuteronomy -- “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live” -- reminds us that our actions affect future generations. Even when we won’t see the results ourselves, we work for a better world for those who will come after us.  

Choosing life is also, less obviously, at the heart of this morning’s Gospel, another in our continuing series from the Sermon on the Mount.  Among the “hard sayings” of Jesus, today’s are among the most difficult. I don’t know anyone who’s never been angry, but Jesus equates anger with murder.  I don’t know anyone who’s never been attracted, however briefly, to someone outside a primary relationship, but Jesus equates fantasy with literal cheating. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t sinned, but Jesus commands us to perform self-mutilation rather than continue to do wrong.  

Jesus is telling us to take God’s law to heart, to police ourselves rather than relying on other people to do it for us. He is telling us to address problems at their source. Everyone knows we aren’t supposed to murder, but Jesus’ followers also need to root out hatred and anger. Everyone knows that cheating is a terrible betrayal, but Jesus’ followers need to be as faithful in thoughts as in actions, because unchecked thoughts ultimately express themselves in action. We have to be willing to confront our darkest selves, the impulses that polite, respectable society would prefer to ignore.  

Fair enough. The problem, though, is that the lord of love and forgiveness seems neither loving nor forgiving here. I can’t imagine my friend Shira being comfortable hearing this passage in church. I’m not comfortable hearing this passage in church. There are no glow-sitcks anywhere in the vicinity. This is desert territory, hard and stony and parched. Jesus may be drawing us a map about how to reach the promised land, but getting there involves a lot of forced marching under a merciless sun.  

Next week, in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will command us to love our enemies. That’s hard, uncomfortable work too, but at least we’ll be back to talking about love.  Next week, Jesus will once again say things that sound at least somewhat comforting. But that’s not much help to us today.  This Sunday is a kind of mini-Lent, practice for the real thing coming up in three weeks. This Sunday, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to confront our sins -- our disconnections from God, from other people, and from ourselves -- and to do whatever we need to do, no matter how difficult, to make those relationships healthy again.  

Sometimes becoming healthy involves the agonizing process of cutting away diseased tissue. Sometimes it involves sacrificing things that mean a great deal to us, things that polite, respectable society tells us should make us happy. I suspect that everyone in this room has a story about doing that. Here’s mine. Please be assured that this story has a happy ending.

Almost exactly six years ago -- just before Valentine’s Day in 2011 -- I went through a very dark time. For fourteen years, I’d been an English professor at UNR.  I’d worked very hard to get the job, which paid nicely and gave me good benefits. I had tenure, which meant that at least in theory I had lifetime job security. I worked with lovely colleagues and taught excellent students, people I really cared about. By the standards of polite society, I should have been happy, and for ten years or so after starting the job, I had been.

But by 2011, I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy teaching anymore. I wasn’t doing the kind of service work my department wanted me to, which made me feel incredibly guilty, but thinking about doing that work made me feel like I was being crushed by boulders. My husband had given up his own lucrative job in New York to follow me to Reno, where he couldn’t do what he’d been doing before. I was supporting both of us. If I stopped doing that, we’d both be miserable, and I’d have broken my word. I felt trapped. I couldn’t see a way out.

For about five days that February, I seriously considered suicide. I had a plan, one that could have worked. That very week, the same plan did work for someone else. I saw the story in the newspaper and was instantly shaken, completely horrified. I felt sick for the person who’d died, sick for that person’s family and friends, sick that I’d been contemplating the same departure. My thoughts had almost led to a catastrophic action.

The good news is that they didn’t. Remembering that week, I’m still horrified at how close I came. But as scary as the episode was, it was also a major wake-up call: a summons not to death, but to new life. I obviously had to find another career, however difficult that seemed. After considering several other options, I hit on the idea of medical social work. For financial reasons, it’s taken me a while to translate that thought into action, but I’m now on my way. With my husband’s blessing, I’m in my last semester of teaching at UNR. I’m already taking classes in UNR’s Masters of Social Work program; this fall, I’ll enroll full time. I’m glad that getting here took only six years, not forty. And I’m grateful that my dark thoughts six years ago will help me understand clients who are struggling with their own. That terrifying time of darkness and disconnection will connect me to people who are suffering.

But while this absolutely feels like the right move, it also involves a lot of scary sacrifices. For at least the next two years, I’ll be cutting our family income by at least two-thirds. I’m trading job security and seniority to go back to square one in a poorly paid profession, in an era when healthcare and social services are on newly precarious ground. I’ll be giving up tenure, summer vacations, and quite a bit of social prestige. To a lot of people in polite, respectable society, this would look crazy.

I don’t think it’s crazy. I think I’ve chosen life. I can breathe again. So far, I feel very welcome in my new profession. I hope I reach my promised land, and I hope my journey allows me to help other people. But the process isn’t comfortable.

I’m being called to something new, and I’m on a long, uncertain road to get there. Maybe some of you are, too. In one way or another, all of us are. We can’t take comfort in any guarantee of earthly safety on these journeys, for there is none. Our comfort is in the one who walks beside us and ahead of us, showing the way:  the one who endured his own trials in the desert, and who reminds us that our true job is to find our own path to loving God, and others, and ourselves. Our comfort lies in knowing that even when our road takes us to the foot of the cross, there will still be life beyond it.