When Things Can Only Be Carried

April 9, 2019

Preached April 7, 2019
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Mark Chapter 14:3-9

I think often we read biblical stories with a somewhat numb mind. Many of us have heard them before. Often scriptures are often read out of context, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on in the broader scheme of the story. For those who have been going to church for a long time, maybe even since you were little, it can be hard to enter into the beauty and the holiness of the stories in the midst of our hectic lives.

Sometimes it is like if you eat a whole box of chocolates – or maybe around this time of year, a whole bag of king size Cadbury chocolate eggs. By the 15th chocolate egg you aren’t exactly savoring each and every bite.

This is not a criticism of us – this is part of life. If you don’t get to see your kids very often, you can appreciate all their sweet little idiosyncrasies – but by day nine of spring break when you’ve been spending every minute together, somehow you can’t quite treasure their little laugh or cute little pile of legos in the floor as much as you might otherwise have.

So as we join together on the last Sunday before Holy week, as we near the end of Lent, I want to invite us to slow down and really take in the amazing beauty and power of this week’s scripture.

It is two days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany visiting followers and friends at the house of Simon the Leper. Bethany is about a mile outside of Jerusalem. At this time in Mark, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, palm leaves spread before him. We know that sisters Mary and Martha and Jesus’s friend Lazarus also all live in Bethany. We can imagine the times are tense. Jesus and his followers know that Jesus’s message has spread far and wide.

Those who hold power are worried. They are trying to think of a way to arrest Jesus, to quiet him, to silence his message and to discourage his followers who are questioning the long-held power structures and rules of the authorities and they are envisioning that there might be a different way to live.

The son of God hangs out at the house of a leper.

Women have roles of leadership that they have never been allowed in other faiths and movements of the time.

The last are first. The poor are blessed.

The savior of the world doesn’t enter triumphantly into Jerusalem with weapons or pomp and circumstance, but humbly and beautifully on the back of a common donkey.

Things are different and people can tell.

Everyone is tense.

The time is coming. They know what is to come.

Sometimes there are no words.

A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.

Jesus is sitting at the table. We can imagine everyone talks in hushed voices, in the way we do when we sit and wait for death that we know is coming.

Have you ever held vigil for one you love? Have you ever known something will come and you know it must but you don’t want it to and you don’t know what to do?

They sat in Simon’s house around the table perhaps with little to say as they wondered what would happen and how. We have heard the story before, but they did not know how the story would play out exactly.

The woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

We can imagine it drizzling down slowly on his hair. She gently rubs his hair, moves her fingers over his temple slowly so the oil doesn’t get in his eyes. The fragrance fills the room.

Sometimes there are no words for the grief, and the fear, and the difficulties we face.

The people around get upset. What in the world are you doing? Wasting so much?! They chastise her. You can imagine everyone is stressed and perhaps a little on edge. People don’t know how to react to someone just walking up and putting oil on Jesus’s head. Maybe he isn’t going to like this. We could have sold that and given the money to the poor they snap.

When we are hurting or scared, we often lash out at those around us. When we are aren’t sure what will happen or what to do, we often aren’t our best selves.

Have you ever lashed out in your pain?

How often are we hurt by those who are in pain who don’t know what to do?

It was no different around this table many years ago in Bethany.

But Jesus speaks up. Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me, he says.

He knows what she has done. She has anointed him with oil, an act of hospitality, a gesture of affection, and ceremonially preparing him for the burial which is to come. It is a silent acknowledgment of what is to come, an acknowledgement that a serious situation sometimes requires more than we can afford to give, an act of love, a holy act.

She has done what she could, Jesus says. She has done what she could.

In a time when we are to slow down, and contemplate what is to come, this story of anointing reminds us of the ways that the church and the church’s people can break down barriers and build bridges, particularly in moments when people are scared, when people are hurting, when they are longing for comfort and care and answers and safety. When they either don’t know quite what is to come or perhaps they do know what comes and it feels unbearable.

There are so many ways that we love people and are there for people without words. When words aren’t really enough. Megan Divine who writes about grief in her book It’s OK that You’re Not OK says that there are some things that cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. They will be with us always, but we can learn to journey with them, and over time, we can learn to journey with them with some measure of peace, or even with a little joy eventually.

As we think about barriers and bridges and how we love and how we welcome as the hands and feet of Christ, this week we might especially attend to the non-traditional ways that we do this – not just with our words, but with our actions, with our holy rituals, for Christianity is a deeply embodied faith. In what ways do we and can we respond to others when they are hurting and unsure, that follows the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar who offered hospitality, gentleness, care, and preparation?

One way that we do this is through the open table. Each week, we feed each other. An intimate act. Everyone is welcome, everyone can serve, everyone can eat. We can say we are as welcoming as we want, but we also show this by a table that doesn’t just say, “Well, perhaps you can join us if you believe this,” or maybe in the future you might believe what we want you to believe or do… No. It is a no questions asked act of love and welcome and nourishment.

We also break down barriers sometime by simply bearing witness, gently and quietly.

The last time I preached here was June 24, 2018. I remember the date perfectly because it was also the day that the child I was pregnant with died. We knew the pregnancy was struggling and Megan offered to cover for me, but I told her I could do it. I preached, in somewhat of a daze, knowing what was to come in the days or weeks ahead, but not sure how or when and perhaps still hoping that there would be a miracle I knew was not really possible.

After church I went home and by that afternoon I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I spent my last hours with my baby to-be here on this altar.

I really thought I would die of a broken heart, our sweet little boy was wanted so very much.

I didn’t want to speak to anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t know what to make of it, really.

Perhaps many of us here have faced a loss that hurt so much that our words failed us. That we didn’t know what to do.

That we were speechless. That it felt as if there was a hole in our heart or a brick in our stomach.

Megan brought over tea and an orchid and left it on my porch, honoring my need to be alone.

I drank the tea, lying in bed, with my red nose and empty heart, wondering how I could go back into the world, but thankful to have the comfort of something warm from people who cared.

I haven’t been to church as much as I was before that day. I haven’t known exactly why, I’ve felt guilty, unsure of what to say to people about my absence. About our baby. In my life, there will always be the before and the after that day.

And yet, I have been so welcomed because no one has pressured me to be here before I was ready. I am warmly hugged and greeted when I can come. Whenever you’re ready, we’re here, Megan has told me as I’ve worried about reentering life after my loss.

Building bridges sometimes means waiting, it sometimes means silent acts of vigil and love, knowing that there are not words adequate to heal the pain that people face. Sometimes we bring them tea, or flowers, or a homemade blanket, a dish of food, or knitted scarf or an alabaster jar.

Sometimes breaking down barriers means we do things that seem out of the ordinary. She has done what she could, Jesus said of the woman with the alabaster jar.

I have spent the year reading about grief. Reading about the way we try to fix it when people are sad, doing our best to console them, but often putting our foot in our mouth, struggling with the right words because we live in a culture that often wants us to sanitize the struggles we face, to heal faster, to cheer up, whispering only to those closest to us, often not naming the miscarriage, the affair, the addiction, the depression, the loneliness that so many carry with them.

And, to be honest, churches don’t have the best track record of holding these pains well. There are too many stories of shaming, of leaving out, of rejecting, of glossing over, of gossiping, of judging, and of mistaking ourselves as God.

So this morning as we think about the barriers we might put up – around our church or around ourselves – and the bridges we might build – among each other and with those around us – we can remember the woman with the alabaster jar.

She knew that should could not fix things.

She did not offer cheerful platitudes that everything would be okay or reassure everyone that it would be all turn out well. Because she did not know and because, in many ways, it would not be okay. It was not okay when Jesus was taken away from his people and tortured and killed, when Jesus cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It was not even okay after the empty tomb and resurrection because… well, look around us. Even in the midst of the risen Christ, our world still struggles and God still weeps for all of our sweet souls who go on hurting each other and being so hard on ourselves.

The woman with the alabaster jar simply did what she could – she gave what she had – in fact gave lavishly in an act of hospitality, of affection, and consecration of Jesus’s body and his path, honoring his death which was to come.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity School and her area of focus is in the study of the prosperity gospel, Joel Olsteen, the idea that fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune is a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in Kate’s life seemed to point toward blessing. She was thriving at her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and has a newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forced her to realize that she has been inadvertently subscribing to the prosperity gospel, the idea that if we do the right things, things will be okay. Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, there is also the darker side of that… that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you may just have done something wrong. What does it mean to die, at 35 she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved she asks what happens when we let go of platitudes about death and loss and and don’t immediately put all bad things under the category of “God’s plan,” and live into the mystery of an existence where we don’t explain our struggles and hurt away and instead sit with each other as we acknowledge the ways that beauty and struggle are woven up together in a mystery that is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and bear witness to this among each other.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. And with Jesus reminding us that when we proclaim the good news, we also must tell the story of those who bear witness in times when words are not enough. When we proclaim the good news, we must also remember the importance of unexpected acts of care, of preparation, of quiet affection and hospitality that punctuate the ebb and flow of grief that our people face day in and day out.

Sometimes breaking down barriers and building bridges is slow, quiet work among aching or grieving people whose pain it is hard to know.

We remember today that we do not have to fix things or have the right answers. We can feed each other at the table, we can wait patiently on each other, sit quietly with sweet gifts of tea and orchids and handmade quilts and home-cooked meals, being present. Anointing in our own ways with our own oil.

In memory of her.

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When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free

July 20, 2015

When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free
Preached July 19, 2015
at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about an experiment that was trying to get a sense of why people make the decisions that they do. Subjects in the experiment were offered two dollars if they would sign a piece of paper that said:

I [name goes here] hereby sell my soul, after my death to the leader of this experiment for the sum of $2.

If they signed the paper, they got $2. There was a line for the subjects to sign and under that line it read: “This form is part of an a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”

They were told that they could rip the paper up as soon as they signed it and still get their two dollars. Yet only 23 percent of the subjects were willing to sign the paper. After some pressing from the experiment leader, another 17% were willing to sign the paper, but that still meant that 50% of folks were not willing to sign a meaningless paper.

When the experimenter asked people why they wouldn’t sign it – knowing that it could not possibly be real or binding, most people couldn’t really explain it. Even several atheists who didn’t even believe in souls said they just didn’t feel right signing it.

Haidt recounts other experiments like this. In some, the researchers control for plausible good reasons not to do something, and then ask people to do it, like the sign your soul away experiment. There was also one where a dead cockroach was sterilized, and quickly dipped down in some water and then out again. People were offered money to drink the water, and few would, despite the fact the researchers assured them and explained how it was impossible for any germs or cockroach pieces to be in the water.

In other experiments, they construct stories and scenarios where people do things that just “seem” wrong even though the researchers are careful to construct the stories so that there are no actually harmful consequences. Yet people continue to refuse to do things even when they cannot explain why and continue to insist that something is right or wrong just based on how it seems to them, without being able to offer plausible reasons.

It raises the important question about why we do or don’t do unreasonable things, or things that seem to make sense.

This matters to us for a couple reasons. First, most of us know people who make decisions that seem atrocious. They live lives that seem unreasonable to us, off the wall, abhorrent, or just plain wrong. We think to ourselves, “There are obvious reasons for them not to believe that or do that and they do it anyway!?!?” We also may think this about some politicians who take positions or make decisions that appear to make no sense whatsoever. While sometimes this can be attributed to pandering to their base, often it seems that the positions they take or decisions they make don’t even help them strategically. They just seem to be unreasonable positions with no apparent strategic benefit either.

So it is important – as individuals and as a church – to think about how we might respond to people when reason is not enough.

And, it may or may not be the case that some of us look at ourselves and give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Good thing we are reasonable and have thought out all the pros and cons of this or that and come to a calm, measured decision about things.”

Yet, for some of us, for those non-saints among us today, we actually may have a few things in our life that we do that are counter to reason. Where we know the right thing to do, the right way to act, the right thing to say, what we really should be doing, and yet we do something different.

It might be as benign as, for instance, procrastination where we know there will be negative consequences for us in the future that outweigh the short term relief we get from putting something off. We know what the consequences will be. We know we will have to stay up late, and be tired the next day. We even know we will regret it, and yet we keep on waiting to write that memo, do the dishes, write that paper – or sermon – or make that phone call that we need to take care of.

The list goes on – we know that we are destroying our environment, but our actions are often, at best, slightly out of our comfort zone, and often they are simply token. This is both on an individual level – those of us in the room know that we live in houses that are bigger than is fair in terms of energy consumption… those of use who drive and fly more than our share, pumping out our greenhouse gasses by the ton.

And on a collective level – we want the economy to keep growing, we as a people want to live comfortable decent lives, and we kind of have this gnawing feeling that what we are doing is melting those polar ice caps, not to mention keeping lots of people in developing countries in slave-like working conditions to feed our hunger for affordable clothes from Target, yet… yet… yet… we kind of keep living mostly how we live, hoping that our diligent recycling efforts and occasional donation or protests or online petition signing on Facebook will atone for a life we know has dire consequences for others – today and in the future.

And so the question remains: what are we to do? We see others making terrible decisions that seem to defy logic and reasonableness, and yet also we ourselves are often not able to resist the sirens of a comfortable life, of addiction, of dishonesty, of yelling when it feels good even when it hurts others, of self-righteousness arrogance, of our knowledge that we know, and others do not.

The little voice in the back of our head tells us to stop, to change, to do better, yet we stuff it down, quiet it, we feel guilty and then ease our guilt with more of the same, or perhaps we have ignored it so long, that we cannot even hear that voice inside of us.

Haidt makes the argument that we are two: we are an elephant and we are a rider on that elephant. The rider on the elephant is a logical reasoning, the little itty bitty rider, and the elephant – the big big elephant – is our intuitive reasoning, our gut, our accumulated patterns of thinking and being. Haidt makes the argument that the rider often likes to think that he or she is driving the elephant around, telling him or her where to go, and occasionally maybe, it is true the rational rider can manage to get the elephant to do a thing here or a thing there. But, Haidt makes the argument that mostly the elephant is in control and our reasoning rider often believes himself or herself to be driving the elephant, but that neurologically the intuitive elephant is running the show, with the rational reasoning following our intuitive reasoning just a split second behind. Haidt makes the argument that the rider is a most often a function of the elephant. Almost as if the elephant walks to the right and the rider thinks, “Ah, yes, to the right. That’s where we need to go.” It happens so fast we don’t even realize the order it happens in.

Mostly, Haidt says, despite our fetishization of enlightenment rationality, we are what Hume called a slave to our passions. It is not that we don’t reason, but more like reason is not really a judge or teacher, weighing the evidence or guiding us to greater understanding. Rather reason is more like an attorney or a press secretary, justifying our actions and our intuitions.

There is an organization called The Frameworks Institute and they do a lot of good work with this idea. They point out that “when the facts don’t fit people’s frames, often they will changes the facts, not the frame.” That is, our feeling about what is right is so strong, our intuition – our elephant – is so powerful that when facts contradict it, people ignore the facts, they change the facts, not their frameworks and habits of thinking.

If we look at the environmental movement, it is a perfect example. For years, scientists have been telling us about the melting, the rising sea levels, the concerning weather patterns, the fact that Bangladesh will be fully under water in the lifetime of our children. They provide models, graphs, charts, studies. And yet. Go out on the streets of Bowling Green and people will tell you that global climate disruption is not a thing. It is an invention. Things are fine.

And yet, even those of us that believe that this is true, continue to live as if it isn’t so, ignoring the calls that radical change across large swaths of humanity is essential if we are to avert the destruction of the world as we know and instead we take our baby steps, hoping it is enough, but knowing that it probably isn’t.

We – we here – and we out there – are not an overall rational reasonable people despite our wishes.

And one thing that we often do is to tell ourselves that we – we good ones, we educated ones, we who listen to NPR and read The New York Times – we are different than those people out there. Yet, I want to suggest this morning that that kind of thinking simply worsens our predicament. It makes us feel good, yes, but it contributes to an us and a them, the good ones and the fallen ones, the wise ones and the unknowing ones – the very kind of separation and exclusion that so many of us have experienced in other contexts in our lives when we were told that we were other. That we were not enough. That we were not good.

I want to suggest this morning that in one way or another, we are all wrapped up in what Foucault calls the divine spectacle of humanity’s madness. But! You protest! Just like Alice in Wonderland, ““But I don’t want to go among mad people!””

Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Our madness takes different forms, yes, but we are all, in one way or another, riders on our elephants, struggling to wrestle a little control over our lives, over our collective future. Grappling to make meaning in a world that often seems mad.

And, so, again, we return: what are we to do?

The answer, of course, is not to throw up our hands and decide that reason and rationality have no place in the world. That data doesn’t matter. That our gut feelings are always right, that our collective madness is the best that we can do, but I want to suggest that we take reason and rationality off of its pedestal and realize that our world will change and our own lives will change when we realize that information is never enough and the best data will not save us. Despite our desperate wishes, the truth – or even THE TRUTH – will not set us free.

Reason is never enough because we – we in here and we out there – are a complex nexus of rider and elephants, of head and heart, of body and soul and mind and we – we who are here, we who fly gay pride flags, we who fly confederate flags, and we who fly American flags, we who support gay marriage, we who do not, we are all in this together. We are all trying to make our way in a broken, messed up confusing world where things are not fair, where things are not rational and where it feels so good to make an us and a them, a right people and a wrong people, a rational, reasonable people and those other people.

But we are all mad, my friends. We are all woven into this mad world, making decisions that do not make sense, and no matter how right we think we are, being right is not enough. Being right feels good, but being right is not a strategy to get to the world we long for.

In my classes, my students and I do deliberations. We take a contentious issue and have a short guide that frames three different options, outlining the position and then the tradeoffs of each position. The guides are designed to give a fair hearing to different viewpoints and a fair assessment of the pros and cons of each view. I ask my students, when people make a point, or a claim, even if it seems wrong, or absurd to ask what is behind the statement. You think that everyone should have a gun with them at all times? What values underlie that? What worries underlie that? The person is saying they value security. They are saying they feel insecure. Perhaps they long to feel more powerful. Perhaps they don’t feel safe. They are saying they value certain freedoms. We are not trying to agree or disagree with the values or the feelings that underlie the statement, but to hear them. To hear our neighbor where they are at. To pay attention to their elephant.

My students do not usually leave our deliberations with different viewpoints, but what they do say over and over is that they understand their classmates better. The liberals understand the conservatives better. The conservatives understand the liberals better. They are less other to each other. Which, I believe plants the seeds for hearing each other better. As one of my students said, it seems like in the U.S. we have lost the idea of an us. It seems like there is always a good us and a bad them, but we don’t have an us anymore.

We as individuals and we as a church can dig in our heals. We can insist on being right, on the truth that we know, on reason and rationality as our altar. Yet, if we cannot hear our neighbors – our most “other” neighbors, our confederate flag flying neighbor, our neighbor who thinks we are going to hell, how can we reach the world? How can we do anything but simply preach to the choir. If we are serious that we our faith is not just for some us, we must ask how can we be a church and a faith for all people who need love? Who need to be heard. Who feel like an other.

We do not have to agree with people’s elephants to pay attention to them, to speak to them, to acknowledge them, to tell them that they are inherent worthy and have dignity. And, if we are ever to corral our own elephants in the direction that we would like them to go, we must at least recognize that they are there, to learn perhaps to be friends with them, to recognize that they are part of us.

I wish that we would know the truth and we would be free.

But may we leave today, knowing we are not free. And the truth with not get us there. Freedom is a long, slow journey of learning to love ourselves, of learning to love others in all their messiness and brokenness, of listening, and reflecting, of letting go of our egos and our righteousness. Over and over again.

Perhaps it is the case that we shall never be truly free – not free from suffering, not free from our elephants, no free from our neighbors who seem crazy or drive us crazy.

Pema Chödrön says, “In life, we think that they point is to pass the test, or overcome the problem. Yet the real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, and then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Perhaps, if we are to taste a little freedom, it will come from this coming together, and falling apart, as individuals, as families, as a church, as a world, and not running from that. Letting go of how right we are, how much better we are, and seeing that we are all in this together, struggling together on this spinning planet to try to eek out something a little more humane, a little more beautiful, a little more worthy our years here. May we show care to ourselves in this messy journey, and care for others, even the most other others.

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