Sunday, September 30, 2012
Proper 21, Year B
Blessing of the Animals Sunday
St. Mary's by the Sea, Northeast Harbor, ME
When I was running a church summer camp, we had a camper-led evening prayer service every night. The small group responsible for worship on a given day had a period of the afternoon where they met with the chaplain to discuss the readings we had chosen and decided how to present them. I remember one night at dinner I checked in with the chaplain, who was someone I didn't know all that well and definitely hadn't ever discussed theology with. I asked how her planning time had gone that day, and she said, “well, when we were reading through the parable we forgot to stop at the end of the reading and the gospel goes straight into a bunch of hell stuff, about weeping and gnashing of teeth. They really wanted to talk about that, so we didn't end up with much time to plan a skit of the parable.”
“Hell stuff.” I think the campers' ears perked up because “hell” is a word very rarely heard in their, or our, Episcopal churches. What does it mean? Is it a literal place with literal unquenchable fires and literal undying worms? What sins are bad enough to land you there, and who decides? The idea, the cultural idea that my campers wanted to pick apart, is that the afterlife contains rewards and punishments for what we've done and left undone in this life. Good behavior = eternal life in heaven, bad = hellfire. Like Dante's Inferno. Notice that while today's passage says, “it's better for you to enter life lame than have two feet and be thrown into hell,” it doesn't end with “when you die.” All three times, Jesus says, “it's better for you to enter life/the kingdom of God (blank—this way), than be (another way), and be thrown into hell.” It seems to me that if we assume he's talking about a Dante-style scorekeeping system and giving afterlife travel advice, we're assuming an awful lot.
Since I believe God desperately loves the whole world, bad behavior and all, the Dante way of looking at hell doesn't ring true for me. Here's another perspective that's well rooted in our theological tradition, and I find more helpful: hell is separation from God. The Prophet Muhammad is remembered to have said, “heaven is closer than your sandal strap. So is hell.” We experience some days in this life that are heavenly and some that are hellish and fiery, and spiritual maturity is a lot about being able to distinguish the bad pain, or fire, from the good. Jesus talks in today's gospel both about the fire of hell and about the fire of sanctification, that which cleanses us from sin and ignorance and gets us closer to God. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” he says. Sanctification, getting clean from mistakes we've made, or working to restore harmony in relationships with God and with each other, is hard work. It can feel almost as painful as “hellfire,” as the pain of separation from God and from each other.
I have a very early memory of learning that some pain can be good for you. I remember whenever my mom patched up my scrapes and cuts, she explained to me what she was doing and why. Like “this is peroxide, it's going to sting a little bit, but it's good because it's killing any of the germs that may be in there.” I remember being very proud of myself for coming up with a theory of why this was: “Oh, that makes sense, Mommy. Because it hurts when you die, right? So if the little germs are dying in there it would hurt me a little bit.”
I'm not a parent, but I know that being a caregiver to a human or animal can come with huge amounts of good and necessary heartache. My boyfriend and I have been planning and preparing for months to welcome a dog into our little family, and he has told me stories about the last time he had a puppy, a Shiba Inu named Izzy. This particular breed goes through separation anxiety when very young and first leaving their pack. Izzy spent most of her life as a sleep-in-bed-with-the-people dog, but first she needed to be crate trained to help her learn that she could sleep on her own and she would be okay. As she was learning that, she did some of what's known as “the Shiba scream,” waking up scared in the night like some children do and making blood-curdling sounds. Art says it was incredibly hard to hear, but he knew she'd be happier in the long run if she was able to face her fear. The fire of sanctification takes many forms. Little Izzy was certainly learning to “have salt in herself, and be at peace.”
I read a theologian who said this is how God teaches us, like a parent who stands just out of sight of the toddler learning to walk, but close enough to intervene in case of danger, silently loving us and cheering us on.
But as parents and caregivers also know, the line between good pain and bad pain can be very thin indeed. Sometimes we, like the disciples, want to teach or comfort or help others but don't understand what they really need. Sometimes feeling good about ourselves for trying to help is more important to us than whether we've had a positive impact, whether we've succeeded in casting out the demons.
We find the disciples at the beginning of today's gospel feeling just that way. They're nearing the end of their journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, and they're starting to hear his warnings about how they'll have to go on without him before long. They're hoping for validation from the Teacher, both individually and as members of the group. One very human way to do this is to draw some boundaries that separate insiders from outsiders. They come across someone they don't know doing the good work they've been doing with Jesus, easing the suffering of his neighbors, and rather than celebrating that they've found a kindred spirit, the disciples get a little mean. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
They may have thought they were being good teachers, and would be helping their new friend by keeping him from blasphemy. But Jesus very clearly pointed out that they had crossed over from good pain to bad pain: they weren't practicing tough love, they were just being jealous. And Jesus knew that jealousy eating you up from the inside feels like hell. Feels like having a millstone hung around your neck and being thrown into the sea.
We heard about someone else this morning, too, who crossed that threshold without knowing it. Queen Esther stood in a fire of righteous indignation to stand up for her people and free them. But later in the story we learn that her anger was not quenched. Like many others with deep wounds, she stayed angry and felt she needed vengeance. She asks for a second day of retribution against the enemies of the Jews and gets it. “We seem to be in a time like that of the Judges,” says commentator Telford Work of this story, “in which God raises up deliverers whose lives are puzzlingly and distressingly unfaithful to and even ignorant of the covenant.” It took great courage to turn her fear and anger on behalf of her people into a way to use her power to help them. But the fire of her courage and toughness also threw her into the hell of vengefulness, and helping and healing others wasn't enough for her to heal herself. This is a very familiar story, isn't is? Kings and queens, of the Jews and every other nation, who defend and rescue their people from danger, sometimes feel they haven't done enough, and ask for their second day of retribution.
So for all of us, wholeness and holiness comes with some pain but it mostly comes with awareness. All the awareness we can muster. Asking all the questions we need to see if we're speaking and acting with integrity, or if we're just being jealous disciples. Bringing ourselves back, over and over again, restoring our deep unity with God and one another, against great odds. Today's readings have beautiful images of getting overwhelmed, by fire in the gospel, and by waves of anger and hatred in the psalm. Then the psalm ends with a beautiful contrast to those: a bird, flying free away from a broken snare that had held it hostage. In the name of the Father and the Son and that free-flying Holy Spirit, let's get free.