The life was seeping out of her. Some rupture in her life, some wound within her body failed to close, and the blood just kept draining from her in a slow drip drip. At first, it terrified her, for it seemed as though something external was draining her of vitality, slowly robbing her of her will, her drive, her very spirit. In time, over the course of twelve years, her condition became more or less permanent, a constant and unwelcome companion. There were days that she wasn’t able to get out of bed, for the energy to do so just wasn’t available. There were other days that she did manage to get up, rallying for a brief instant to find help from a healer. She delivered herself to doctors, and she delivered herself to those promising cures by alternative means. She delivered herself, and she delivered vast sums of money, but it was for naught. The life kept drip, drip, dripping away, until it was all she could do to perform the basic tasks of existence. Friendships, like her vitality, began to drip away. Family stuck around longer, but after a while, they too kept their distance. The woman understood why, for there were long passages of time in which she tired of her own company.
Still, she nurtured some tiny reserve of inner strength, given to her from she knew not where, a small and fleeting resolve to recover a sense of vitality. Perhaps it arose from memories of the way life had been prior to the rupture, prior to the continual hemorrhaging of blood and of life. Perhaps it arose from fantasies of what life could become if she could stop the bleeding. When rumors of the healer from Galilee began to circulate, and when they reached her ears through the kindness of another woman bringing food, something arose within her, like a tiny rebellion. If only, if only she could get to him, something might change. It wouldn’t need to be much – not a procedure, not an exorcism, not a spectacle. It would be enough simply to touch the hem of his robe. Doing so might restore to her that which she grieved the most, that which she missed the most, that which she longed for most, which was touch. Of all that had been drained from her, it was ordinary touch, contact, that she missed most, reminders that she didn’t dwell beyond the living in the land of the shades, a reminder that she remained human, that she hadn’t become a ghost, not fully, not yet. It was touch that she craved above all, for it would serve as a recognition, not least to herself, that she did in fact exist, that not everything had been drained away.
And so on a morning when the healer is said to be near, she leaves her house, shrouded and veiled, so as not to be recognized, and shunned. She slowly, ever so slowly makes her way toward the center of the town, where the merchants sell their wares and where the rabbis and the learned speak. She finds there a great throng, at the center of which is a figure who must be the healer. It’s all she can do to move. But she does move, lowering her head so as not to be noticed, but inserting herself into the throng all the same. The healer begins to move, and the crowd moves with him, crowding and pressing in upon so that even he becomes agitated by the claustrophobia. He moves in her direction, even as she presses toward him, and then she freezes, uncertain about what to do. He’s near, his entourage is with him, they’re trying to whisk him away, but they pass by her, and instinctively, without thinking, as if someone else was doing it, she reaches out her hand and she grasps his robe, just for a second. She tugs it, and then lets go. It’s as if a burst of electricity passes through her. The healer stops. He turns and he searches the faces of those near him. “Somebody touched me,” he says. “Was it you?” he asks, gazing at her downturned face. She raises her eyes and returns his gaze. “It was me.” “Your faith has made you well,” he says in response. And then he is gone.
It’s worth imagining this woman’s story in detail for several reasons. First, she’s a figure who represents each one of us at certain moments throughout life, who feel our vitality being sapped away by forces beyond our control. Second, she’s an exemplar of a holy desire, stirring within her like a hot coal in a cooled fireplace. She offers instruction for those of us who chase healing, or wholeness or the fullness of life in ways we don’t fully comprehend, in ways that lead us to confront that which diminishes us. But third, I believe we can read this courageous, and yet nameless woman, as an avatar for the women throughout the world right now who have felt the life being drained from their lives and from their communities, and who possess the courage to risk finding a source of healing, to risk contact, to risk touch with those who may make a difference. Let me say a word about each of those areas.
First, the hemorrhaging. I wonder how many of us, male or female, can recognize ourselves in this woman’s struggle. To do so, it helps to understand her condition as a metaphor for those periods in each of our lives when flourishing seems beyond us, when for emotional reasons, or material reasons, or because of some complex chemical reasons beyond our control, a sense of well being seems to drain from us in a steady drip drip drip. It can happen as a result of a sudden rupture or trauma, like a powerful wound that never heals. But it happens in all sorts of other, more subtle ways as well. Illness or pain can do that to us. The loss of mobility as we age can do that to us. A steady infusion of unbearably painful news can do it, in ways that I don’t think many of us fully comprehend as yet. Fractured relationships can do it – the sense of having screwed up in friendship or marriage or with one’s children. Guilt can do it, and shame as well, steadily draining us of our sense of value or worth – I don’t deserve whatever good is out there, we sometimes think. I’m not really worth it, we think. And depression…that unbearable abyss into which so many of us slide – it threatens to drain us of every last drop of vitality. I know that there are many among us at the moment confronting life situations that seem remarkably akin to the hemorrhaging woman, feeling the life drain from us moment by moment, and wondering how or if we’ll ever emerge.
This story, which all three of the synoptic writers repeat, is a way of speaking into that situation. It’s a way of describing an all too familiar part of the human condition. And it’s a way of encouraging each one of us to trust that in ways we can neither schedule nor predict, relief will come. Trusting, as I do, that Jesus both lives and finds ways to touch us in the places that hemorrhage life, I believe the story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus is an indication that there is healing and wholeness to be found for each of us. That doesn’t mean that our struggles will cease outright. It doesn’t mean that life will never drain from us again. It does mean that in God’s own way and in God’s own time, a touch of grace will restore to us the sense that we do not carry our burdens alone. It means that in ways we may not comprehend as yet, we shall be given the power to endure, and to move forward with our lives.
But there’s another important part of the woman’s story that we should attend to. It has to do with that ember kindling within her which pushes her to extend herself, propelling her out of her bedroom, out of her door, into the streets, in search of that which will make the bleeding stop. I think of this as a holy desire. And here too this woman in search of life becomes our guide. In my estimation, religion is about nothing if it’s not about desire. All of theology can be summed up as the working out of a desire that burns within our hearts, moving us, stirring us, drawing and luring us out of our stasis and toward that which we dare to name God. Sometimes that fire within roars hot, and we know exactly the direction we need to go if we are to flourish, and sometimes, like the woman in the story, the fire cools to a faint ember, so that it must be fanned a little bit, brought back to life. Sometimes our desire gets away from us, and we wind up chasing the wrong things, that which we thought would bring life but in truth only draws the life out of us. To have faith is to undergo a therapy of desire, examining what’s worth desiring and what isn’t, what brings life and what doesn’t. It might be that what you’ve been chasing for most of your life isn’t bringing you life at all, but is leaving you as drained as the woman suffering continual hemorrhaging. It might be that your career is killing you, draining your soul. It might be that a particular relationship is destroying you. It might be that the success you’ve been taught to desire is a vampire, eating you alive. And it might be that something within you, in the midnight hour or in moments of unguarded truth, is stirring, saying, is this it? Is this all there is?
In a hypercapitalist society such as ours, nearly everything is seeking to activate our desire – billboards, radio ads, flashing windows on every website we open, television ads, magazines, everything. I remember years ago finding myself at a professional baseball game in Cuba. I’ve been to plenty of ball games in my life, but this one felt both similar and utterly strange. The game was played exactly as it is here in North America, and I sat for a while trying to figure out why it felt so different. And then I realized: there are no advertisements here. There’s nothing flashing, nothing blinking, nothing blaring, nothing that’s seeking to stimulate my desire beyond the game itself. There were no ads for donuts or office supplies or gasoline or sports equipment, nothing. Say what you will about Cuba and its policies, but I have to tell you that that absence of assaultive stimulants felt really, really good. Most of us no longer notice or appreciate how immersed we are in such coercive environments. We no longer notice the way our desires are being worked upon in minute detail nearly every waking moment until we step out of such environments, and experience something utterly different. We’re suddenly invited to consider that which is worth desiring and pursuing, and that which isn’t. The baseball game in Cuba didn’t reorient my life. But it did serve as a reminder that perhaps the human heart contains desires that can scarcely be heard amidst the voices that compete for our attention, our dollars, our values, and ultimately, our lives. It was a reminder that perhaps there is a faintly glowing ember of desire underneath all the ash, still pulsing with life.
And isn’t church, at its best anyway, about precisely that? About thinking through what sorts of things really are worth chasing? Isn’t it about being reminded of a world of touch, a world of connection, a world where healing and hope and flourishing can and do occur? If church is about anything, isn’t it about reminding us of that which is worth desiring – things like compassion and hospitality, forgiveness, generosity, and mutual support in the journey of life? Much of the time, we exist in the world as those akin to the hemorrhaging woman, having the life drained from us. Meanwhile, something does kindle and stir within us. Meanwhile the Bible and theology and the very Spirit of God draws us toward moments of touch, moments of tender embrace with one another and with those unlike us, who live in places unlike Old Lyme. The woman in our story is a reminder to stir those embers, to blow on them, and to let that holy passion stir within us, lest our lives slip away. The woman in our story is a reminder to notice and to cultivate that holy desire that stirs within us, that which leads us toward what exists beyond us, and then to find the courage to chase it.
Finally, this. I believe the bleeding woman provides a framework by which we can read a powerful change occurring throughout the world. In one of his Beecher lectures down at Yale, Allan Boesak shared that it’s women who are actively changing the world right now. He used the story of the Hebrew midwives in the book of Exodus, and how it was they, far more than Moses or Aaron, who organized the uprising of the Hebrew people in that book. The same is true today. From the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. to Black Lives Matter, and from some of the best work occurring in Palestine and among First Nations peoples, some of the most important social justice work taking place right now is conducted by women. It’s not that men are uninvolved or unimportant. We’ve just been slower to respond. Meanwhile, like the unnamed woman in our story, it’s women who seem to sense the hemorrhaging of the world around them, of the people around them, and they’ve chosen to do something about it. They’ve roused themselves and they’ve sought out help. Like that unnamed woman, they seek to touch and to make contact with those who have power, forcing them to say, “Somebody touched me. Was it you?” They seek to make the bleeding, the hemorrhaging, stop.
A recent documentary was made about women in Haiti who are doing just that. It’s called Poto Mitan, and it documents the way women in sweatshops are circumventing male dominated unions, and male dominated bosses, to change the living conditions of workers in free trade zone sweatshops in Haitian cities, where much of our clothing is made. A Poto Mitan is the central post or column within a Vodou shrine, at the foot of which an altar is set for the spirits to be honored. It’s said that the spirits travel down through the poto mitan as individuals dance around that column. The poto mitan is thus the portal by which spirit enters the world. So it is with these women. They’re the central pillars by which spirit enters the world to say, “I am here. Notice me. I exist. We exist. Help us to stop the bleeding.” Is that what it means, finally, to be spiritual? To let the cares of the world flow through us, thereafter animating us and all those around us? Is that what it means to catch the spirit? It is in the film about these remarkable Haitian women.
That emphasis on spirit is a part of the Tree of Life program we’ll be hosting later this afternoon, entitled Courageous Women of Resistance. Madonna Thunder Hawk and Farouz Sharqawi are two such courageous women who have kindled an ember of holy desire within them, a pulsing flame that they have nurtured into a fire. Like the woman in the story, they have known the hemorrhaging of their communities, whether in Palestine or on the Plains of the American West. And they possessed the courage to rouse themselves, in hopes of making the bleeding stop. We’re among those privileged to hear their voices. We’re among those who may yet feel the tug upon our own garments, the tug upon our own hearts, so that we too may stop and say, “Somebody touched me. Somebody made contact with me. Was it you?”
In truth, I think that’s what many of us desire most of all. We long to be touched. We long to make contact. We long to have our energies drawn toward that which is significant, and real, and meaningful. Because in truth, we occupy both roles in the story, the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus himself. Sometimes we’re the woman, trying with everything within us to stop the bleeding and find resources that will upbuild and sustain our humanity. But sometimes we stand in the role of Jesus too, those who possess resources, and who wish to be touched, who wish to offer what life we have in service of another. Sometimes we’re both.
If you’re bleeding a little bit today, if you sense the life being drained out of you by something or other, I want you to know that Jesus is there for you, awaiting your touch. If you’re the one who has the capacity to offer healing, to offer your presence, to share what gifts or resources you have within you, then I want you to know that the hemorrhaging woman awaits you, in all her many guises. May we all have the courage to nourish the embers of desire burning within us. May we all have the courage to reach out and touch the beating heart of the world, whether sitting right next to us, or dwelling half a world away. We long to be touched, and we long to make contact.
This morning we welcomed Rev. Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak to the pulpit. Dr. Boesak served as Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis from 2012 to 2017. He has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on liberation theology. Boesak studied at the University of Western Cape and earned his doctorate in theology from the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands. His early activism and service led to international recognition as an influential leader in the fight against apartheid. During the 1980s he worked alongside Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela to lead efforts against apartheid and promote reconciliation.
How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace. So says the prophet Isaiah. Those words were later applied to Jesus. How difficult it is to hear such an announcement these days. Such an announcement comes to us now as if through static, like a radio station long out of range. Every so often, a moment of clarity occurs. Only to fade again. I’m trying to hear the voice of Jesus right about now. It’s hard to hear that voice across so much static.
Let’s begin our litany of static in 1998. April 20, 1998, Littleton, Colorado. Columbine High School. 13 dead. 24 injured. July 29, 1999, Atlanta, Georgia. In the stock exchange. 9 dead. 13 injured. September 15, 1999. Fort Worth, Texas. At a Baptist church. 8 dead. 7 wounded. November 2, 1999. Honolulu, Hawaii. At an office building. 7 dead. December 30, 1999. Tampa, Florida. A hotel. 5 dead. 3 injured. December 26, 2000. Wakefield, Massachusetts. 7 dead. February 5, 2001. Melrose Park, Illinois. An office building. 5 dead and 4 wounded. July 8, 2003. Meridian, Mississippi. At a Lockheed Martin plant. 7 dead. 8 wounded. December 8, 2004. Columbus, Ohio. At a concert. 5 dead. 7 wounded. March 12, 2005. Brookfield, Wisconsin. During a church service. 7 dead. 4 wounded. March 21, 2005. Red Lake, Minnesota. At a school. 10 dead. 5 injured. January 30, 2006. Goleta, California. In a post office. 8 people dead. March 25, 2006. Seattle, Washington. In a public space around Capitol Hill. 7 dead. 2 injured. October 2, 2006. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In a one room Amish school house. 6 children dead. 5 injured.
A moment of clear reception, born of a scene from the 1985 film Witness, starring Harrison Ford. It’s one of the most sensitive treatments of gun violence, or indeed any violence, in popular culture. A Philadelphia detective hides among the Amish in Lancaster County, a religious community dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. My mother’s family comes from an old order Brethren tradition, close cousins of the Amish. I once lived in Lancaster County, and when I was in 5th grade, my parents let me see Witness, despite its “R” rating, because of the film’s obvious devotion to the Amish. To this day, I maintain a deep and abiding respect for the Amish. In one scene, a young boy discovers the detective’s gun in a drawer. The detective unloads the weapon, and after unloading it, tells the boy that it is safe, letting him handle it. The boy does so with fascination and awe, until his mother enters the room, and sees him. She takes the gun away, holding it in front of her with two fingers, as if it were a soiled rag. She knows that it is not an object fit for a human being. Later, in the scene shown on your bulletins, the boy sits with his grandfather, who explains why guns must never, ever, be handled. His reasoning is born from Scripture. A gun is designed to kill other human beings, the grandfather tells the boy. We cannot, we must not, participate in that, he tells his grandson, for the Scriptures command that we must never kill. He quotes a verse of Scripture: “Therefore come out from among them (meaning, in this context, those addicted to violence), and be ye separate.” God always opens to us a way other than violence, the old man says. I watched the film last Sunday night after we rang our church bell 59 times. That scene, the one on your bulletins, with a boy and his grandfather, working through the implications of an American epidemic, moved me to tears.
Static again: February 12, 2007. Salt Lake City, Utah. An open public space. 6 dead. 4 injured. April 16, 2007. Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech University. 32 dead. 23 injured. October 7, 2007. Crandon, Wisconsin. A public space. 6 dead. 1 injured. December 5, 2007. Omaha, Nebraska. A mall during Christmas time. 9 dead. 4 injured. February 7, 2008. Kirkwood, Missouri. A city council meeting. 6 dead. 2 injured. February 14, 2008. DeKalb, Illinois. At Northern Illinois University. 5 dead. 21 injured. June 25, 2008. Henderson, Kentucky. At a plastics factory. 6 dead. 1 injured. March 29, 2009. Carthage, North Carolina. A nursing home. 8 dead. 3 injured. April 3, 2009. Binghamton, New York. At an immigration center. 14 dead. 4 wounded. November 5, 2009. Fort Hood, Texas. An army base. 13 killed. 30 wounded. November 29, 2009. Parkland, Washington. A coffee shop. 4 dead. 1 wounded. August 3, 2010. Manchester, Connecticut. A beer distributor. 13 people killed. 30 wounded. January 8, 2011. Tuscon, Arizona. A press conference. 6 dead. 13 injured, including Rep. Gabriel Giffords.
More static, this time disguised as a piece of vacation fun: A newspaper article, published at some point in the early or mid 2000s. It’s about a new phenomenon in Las Vegas, gun ranges that allow you to learn what it feels like to fire all the weaponry from your favorite action movie. Pistols, but also M16s, Uzis, AK-47s, and God only knows what else. I read it with fascination. A student of theology, with a heritage in the nonviolent Anabaptist tradition, I think to myself: I’d try that. It sounds like fun.
The static continues: September 6, 2011. Carson City, Nevada. An IHOP. 5 dead. 7 wounded. November 14, 2011. Seal Beach, California. At a hair salon. 8 dead. 1 wounded. February 22, 2012. Norcross, Georgia. A health sauna. 5 people killed. April 2, 2012. Oakland, California. A university. 7 dead. 3 injured. May 20, 2012. Seattle, Washington. A café. 6 dead. 1 wounded. July 20, 2012. Aurora, Colorado. A movie theater, during a late screening of a Batman film. 12 dead. 70 injured. August 5, 2012. Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A Sikh Temple. 7 dead. 3 injured. September 27, 2012. Minneapolis, Minnesota. An office building. 7 dead. 1 injured. December 14, 2012. Newtown, Connecticut. Sandy Hook Elementary School. 27 dead, most of them children. 2 injured. March 13, 2013. Herkimer, New York. A barbershop and an oil change facility. 5 dead. 2 injured. April 21, 2013. Federal Way, Washington. An apartment complex. 5 dead. June 7, 2013. Santa Monica, California. Another apartment complex. 6 dead. 3 injured. July 26, 2013. Hialeah, Florida. More apartments. 7 dead. September 16, 2013. Washington, D.C. The Naval Yards. 12 dead. 8 wounded. February 20, 2014. Alturas, California. A Native American tribal office. 4 dead. 2 wounded.
Something like clear reception again: On a journey through the American West – Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona – in the summer of 2016. We stop every few hours at gas stations to let the kids run, to stretch, to find coffee. The shadow of casual violence is ubiquitous. Every convenience store carries flashlights, fashioned in the shape of bullets. A rack of toy firearms is placed at a child’s eye level. T shirts are emblazoned with machine guns and threatening slogans about people who disrespect the flag. In Utah, rolling through a suburb on the way to a lakeside campground, a big sign at a strip mall, displaying a machine gun, invites any and all to a firing range, as if it was a bowling alley, or a movie theater. In West Yellowstone, Montana, a barbeque joint displays bumper stickers, most of them bearing slogans and images pertaining to firearms, and who ought to be at the receiving end of those weapons. Liberals. Foreigners. Hillary Clinton. An uneasy feeling spreads across my abdomen, into my chest. It stays with me, and no amount of beauty throughout that western landscape can shake it. I think to myself: I do not feel at home here. I wish to have no part of this. Something about the casual relationship to violence within America feels terribly wrong.
More static, more violence: April 3, 2014. Fort Hood, Texas. Again. An army base. 3 dead. 12 wounded. May 23, 2014. Santa Barbara, California. A university campus. 6 dead. 13 wounded. October 24, 2014. Marysville, Washington. A high school. 5 dead. 1 wounded. June 11, 2015. Menasha, Wisconsin. On a bridge. 3 dead. 1 wounded. June 17, 2015. Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel AME Church. 9 dead. 1 injured.
A moment of utter clarity: An October evening in 2016. Almost 25 people on our Wheels of Justice journey gather in Charleston at the Mother Emanuel church, sharing a meal with members of that church, eating in the same space in which the killing occurred. It’s impossible to forget that fact as we eat. At the end of our time together, a choir stands to sing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand.” What does it mean to sing those words in a church basement where a mass shooting has taken place? What does it mean to sing those words in America, where Jesus and guns exist side by side, with no evident tension, as in a sign for a gun shop I often see when I drive through Tennessee: Jesus Is Lord. Gunrunners. Can the two, Jesus and guns, be pried apart? Do you have to encounter a crucified and executed Jesus, shot through by bullets, in a South Carolina church, say, before you can see that in our age, Jesus is found among the carnage of torn human flesh? Is that the solid rock upon which we must stand?
Static, fuzz, violent confusion: July 16, 2015. Chattanooga, Tennessee. A military recruitment center. 5 dead. 2 wounded. October 1, 2015. Roseburg, Oregon. A community college. 9 dead. 9 wounded. October 31, 2015. Colorado Springs, Colorado. A public space. 3 dead. November 27, 2015. Colorado Springs, Colorado. Again. A Planned Parenthood Clinic. 3 dead. 9 wounded. December 2, 2015. San Bernardino, California. A Christmas office party. 14 dead. 21 wounded. February 20, 2016. Kalamazoo County, Michigan. A shooting spree in several public places. 6 dead. 2 wounded. February 25, 2016. Hesston, Kansas. An office building. 3 dead. 14 injured. June 12, 2016. Orlando, Florida. A gay, lesbian, trans, and queer nightclub. 49 dead. 51 injured.
December 29, 1890. The Wounded Knee Massacre.
A clear signal: One week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, a group of travelers from Old Lyme stand at the foot of the mass grave at Wounded Knee, struggling to comprehend how the Army Cavalry could have opened fire that day in December, slaughtering more than 300 people, the vast majority of them women and children. To this day, Wikipedia declares that it was a victory for the United States. But what kind of victory? As we stand there, I wonder aloud if there is a through line, extending from the slaughter at Wounded Knee, to the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where in America it becomes first thinkable, and then doable, to shoot and kill that which we do not understand, that which we do not fathom, that which we wish to replace. I ask our group to stand at that mass grave for a long time, as long as we can stand it, in hopes that somehow, by confronting the tragedy of firepower, one more Golgotha, one more site of crucifixion, the illusion might be broken. Soon though, it’s time to go. We can’t stay there forever. On our way out, I purchase an overpriced dream catcher from a Lakota craftsperson, an amulet in the greater dream of overcoming the American violence represented at that site. The man who sells it to me stands at Wounded Knee most every day. He and a few others are there as witnesses. They carry their own dreams. Some of those dreams, I expect, are closer to nightmares.
The signal fades again: July 7, 2016. Dallas, Texas. A public protest. 5 dead. 11 wounded. July 17, 2016. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 3 dead. 3 wounded. September 23, 2016. Burlington, Washington. A mall. 5 people dead. January 6, 2017. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. An airport. 5 dead. 6 injured. April 18, 2017. Fresno, California. A downtown shopping area. 3 dead. May 12, 2017. Kirkersville, Ohio. A nursing home. 3 dead. June 5, 2017. Orlando, Florida. An awning manufacturer. 5 dead. June 7, 2017. Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. A supermarket. 3 dead. June 14, 2017. San Francisco, California. A UPS depot. 3 dead. 2 injured.
October 1, 2017. Las Vegas, Nevada. 59 dead. 527 injured.
Is it possible to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through all that damaged flesh? It’s hard, I know. Maybe it comes to us in the following way, through the writings of the Apostle Paul, himself haunted by a murder he once helped to instigate. It’s his writing about food and eating that intrigues me right now. Paul addressed disputes that were occurring about the eating of particular foods in churches in one of his letters. Some people thought particular animals were unclean to eat. They not only wished to refrain from eating those animals themselves, but argued strenuously that others should do so as well. Others understood themselves to be free to eat this or that, and wished to demonstrate that freedom. Paul asked those individuals to exercise their freedom by refraining from eating food that would be offensive to others, for the sake of those with a weaker constitution.
It’s an argument that’s often cited around those with a weakness for alcohol. Sometimes it’s teenagers. Sometimes it’s those who suffer from addiction. Those who have the freedom to partake choose to voluntarily refrain, choosing to abstain, because of the damage their freedom may cause to those who struggle to regulate themselves.
I’ve come to wonder if the same argument should be made for guns and firearms in America. I’ve come to wonder if even those of us who enjoy recreational shooting, who enjoy hunting, who occasionally visit firing ranges, who let our kids play with toy weapons, might need to refrain from doing so. I’ve come to wonder if we need to do that as a way of insisting not upon our own rights, or our own pleasure, but deferring to the weakness and fragility of the culture we inhabit. I’ve come to wonder if the Amish are right, knowing they must not even handle a weapon, because of the way their souls will become contorted.
The grandfather in the film Witness tells his grandson that God always provides a way other than violence. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wish to believe it. I wish to be among those who live as if that was true. In the final scene of the film, as gunfire erupts on the Amish farm, the grandfather gestures for his grandson to ring a bell. The bell brings all the neighbors running. It’s a sign that something is wrong, and they gather as a community as a man with a shotgun threatens another. They stand as witnesses, and their gaze prevents another killing.
Might we, here in Old Lyme, stand as those witnesses now? Might we be the ones who heed the warning of Jesus, that those who brandish swords shall die by the sword, or, to put a contemporary spin on it, that those who brandish guns shall die by guns? Might we be the ones who resist the seductive lure of violence in all its forms? Might we be the ones who come running to stand as witnesses to an American epidemic? Might we be the ones who practice an alternative way found in the Scriptures and in some of the best parts of our history? Might we serve as witnesses?
I don’t have solutions to the problem of gun violence in America, or other kinds of violence either. But I wish to be among those who practice another way. I wish to help create and mold another way, like the one the old Amish grandfather shares with his grandson. Perhaps that’s the enclave we need to create here in Old Lyme.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who comes to announce not violence, not warfare, not the love of firearms, but the practice of nonviolence, the gospel of peace. I’m straining to hear the signal. I’m trying to hear the announcement of peace. I think I hear it. Can you?
 Statistics compiled from a list published by Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/
This morning we welcomed the Rev. Dr. John Selders to the pulpit. John is the minister of Amistad United Church in Hartford, and the leader of Moral Mondays CT, along with his wife Pamela Selders. John and Pamela traveled together on our most recent Tree of Life Journey, and John will be one of the leaders on our upcoming journey in January 2018. We were privileged to have John with us today!
Click below to hear his sermon, No written text is available.
On what do you depend? On whom do you depend? What is it within your life that you cannot live without, that you gives you reason to be? What is it that you depend upon for a sense of well being in the world? What do you depend upon in order to stay alive?
Those are questions with an old lineage, extending back to antiquity, and perhaps beyond that as well. But it was in the early 19th century that the question was given its fullest expression in the writing of one of my heroes, a man named Friedrich Schleiermacher. He’s relatively unknown in American churches, but he deserves to be enshrined in every progressive congregation throughout the land, for he is the architect of liberal Christian thought. He was a theologian and philosopher at the University of Berlin, but he was also a pastor of a large and thriving congregation in the city. He was one of the founders of that great university, and he carried on a friendship with some of the most vibrant poets and novelists in the Romantic period. He was a lover of music, a family man, and a dedicated friend to many. When he died in the 1830’s, a parade of some 20,000 people followed in his funeral procession. Schleiermacher was a giant of a man, and he deserves to be known by those of us who navigate the streams he charted. Specifically, he deserves to be known for a formulation embedded in his theology. Religion, he says, springs from the feeling of absolute dependence. He builds everything upon that foundation. Religion begins from the feeling of absolute dependence.
It’s a formulation that still resonates, even after all these years. We need theologies of dependence and absolute dependence – rather than theologies of autonomy or independence. Such a theology resonates with the deepest knowledge of what it is to be human. We come into the world as tiny infants, absolutely dependent upon others for our well being. If we’re not held, if we’re not touched, if we’re not spoken to, let alone fed or clothed, something within us withers and dies. We come into the world as dependent creatures. But it’s also true that we leave this world as dependent creatures, whether that happens in old age or sometime before that. We leave the world much as we enter it, requiring care and support, and a good deal of love. In between, we grow toward greater degrees of freedom and autonomy, something worthy of celebration. Even so, we forget our earlier dependence, and we bury the knowledge that such dependence will, one day, come again. Not only that, too often we ignore the ways we actually are dependent, even in the prime of our adult autonomy.
Schleiermacher would have us become aware of how dependent we are within the world, how each of us is a fragile, delicate, and beautiful node within a complex and systematic web of planetary interdependence. He would have each of us trace and map those webs of dependence, beginning with the most elemental things. We depend upon food. We depend upon water. We depend upon air. We depend upon shelter. But we depend upon far more than those basic elements. We depend upon love and the nurturing care of at least several important individuals throughout our lives. We depend upon those older than us to teach us things. We depend upon our bodies, to do the work we need to do, to remain healthy. But we depend upon more still. We depend upon institutions, governments, universities, businesses, to create a stable framework within which we can live. We depend upon an economy – but not just one economy, but many interconnected economies. We depend upon the knowledge and skills of other people, to grow our food and to build the things we use, and to fix those things when they break. Beyond that, we depend upon culture, to provide expressions of emotional depth that somehow resonate within us – culture is that which keeps us from killing ourselves, Cornel West tells us.
But then we can keep spinning the web of dependence farther and farther out, this complex and organic system of interdependencies that extends past physical and biological dependence and into the very cosmos. It’s here that Schleiermacher leaps, pushing farther still, asking if even that complex system of interdependencies extending into the cosmos is itself dependent. He wonders if even that complex web might be dependent upon a transcendent reality, which we call God, a reality that somehow and in some way holds that delicate web together, even as that transcendence bends back, becoming interlaced within that delicate web. To be confronted not only with one’s dependence, but absolute dependence, is to be humbled, for humans are but small nodes within a complex whole. But it is also to be empowered, for humans thus become integral to the functioning of that whole. It means that everyone and everything plays a part in the cosmic drama.
In the 21st century, I can think of no greater symbol of absolute dependence than that of a simple cup of water. Water is something that most of us in affluent communities in North America take for granted. But water is also that upon which each and every one of us is absolutely dependent. Indeed, water pollution, or water scarcity, is something that will likely affect all of us at some point in the not too distant future. For many, it’s already a dire threat, or an ongoing predicament affecting everything about their lives. And it’s poised to become one of the major drivers of geopolitical conflicts around the planet, as communities compete for water resources and water security. Some years ago, Kofi Annan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, stated that “fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.” 85% of the world’s population resides in the driest half of the planet, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 1 billion people across the planet do not have reliable access to clean drinking water, and between 6 and 8 million people die every year as a result of water born diseases. Water is that upon which every one of us depends, but it’s also that which exposes the massive inequalities that bedevil our planet.
Nowhere is the disparity of water scarcity and water abundance more clear than in Palestine. If you’ve traveled with us on any of our Tree of Life journeys, you’ll know that many villages in the West Bank receive no more than two hours of flowing water every week. If you want to know whether you’re looking at an Israeli settlement or a Palestinian village, you just look to see if there’s a dark cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. If there is, you can know for certain that it’s a Palestinian village, for every drop of water that falls must be collected and stored. A normal occurrence throughout Palestine is to shower, if you can, with a bucket at your feet, to collect runoff water so that it can be used for other ordinary tasks. Meanwhile, it’s possible to gaze across the walls of Israeli settlements that have full swimming pools, and to see sprinklers keeping plants irrigated. The Negev desert has been made to bloom with agricultural crops, all of which consume immense amounts of water. It’s a microscopic version of a global pattern, by no means limited to Israel and Palestine, where wealthy countries control and consume water supplies with profligacy, while poor or dependent countries suffer the consequences of that profligacy.
The prophet Amos writes that justice will one day flow down like water. But in our time, justice is flowing water. The planetary dependence that we all participate in can be demonstrated by no better symbol than a cup of water. That cup demonstrates how each of us depends upon clean water to survive. It reminds us of the human solidarity we share with others for whom water is scarce. It reminds us of our planetary obligation, of our global interdependence with people and cultures unlike our own. The cup of water that we share in communion today reminds us of the fragile and interconnected web that we participate in. And the cup warns of the consequences of failing to appreciate our interdependence.
When Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, wine became a reminder to look for the risen Jesus in the common elements, the common dependencies of life. Water is such an element today, a reminder of all we share in common on this World Communion Sunday, and of all we stand to lose.
But the wider question, rooted in the engagement of a 19th century theologian, remains: on what do you depend? On whom are you dependent? In what ways are you absolutely dependent? Learning to answer that question well is at the heart of what it means to be human in the world. On what, and on whom, do you depend? May the water we share today guide you in your own reflections on those questions
I conclude with words from Green Grass, words from the Standing Rock Camp, where water became precious: Mini Waconi. Water is Life. Amen.
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