Learning on the Way about Humanity

July 12, 2020
Reverend Meghan Gage-Finn

Michah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-25

The clergy met in mid-June to share ideas around the summer theme for worship: Learning on the Way. Things kicked off so well last Sunday, with Alanna guiding us in the morning toward seeking out and learning from thresholds and those places of intersection in our lives and our communities. Sarah’s conversation at Gathered at Five invited us to think about things that we might need to unlearn or relearn.

As I sat and listened to the wise reflections of my colleagues several weeks ago, I found myself drawing a blank. I struggled in the midst of the upheaval and disorientation of this time to identify what I was learning, what this season has to teach me, and to teach all of us, beyond the critical matters of racial injustice and the myriad of inequalities we can choose to face, or not, each day.

I felt like I should have a truly creative and dynamic idea to share about what I was gleaning from this season. Instead, I believed I could not hear even God’s still small voice.

I thought feeling stalled out was just fatigue or my own inner entropy mirroring an outer one. In reality, my belief in having nothing to say was a tactic to deflect the inevitable. I tried to convince myself that I could avoid the glaring lesson plan that has been right in front of me for weeks and months, and actually much longer than that.

I blame my neighbor.

It was the night of Friday, May 29 and our beloved city, and in particular our neighborhood, was reacting to the murder of George Floyd and the outcry for peace, justice, and change. We live about a mile from where a lot of the activity that weekend was localized, and as a block, we were listening to the needs of the community while also trying to support one another. The sounds of sirens, the constant thrum of military helicopters overhead, and the regularity of blasts off in the distance were registering as new experiences for many of us.

I walked across the street at about 2am to check in with my neighbor and we both just looked into the darkness and found ourselves empty. How did we get here? How were members of the human family turning against one another in such a time as this with a level of violence and rage we could not comprehend? How were the lives of black, indigenous, and people of color so devalued and disregarded? How could one human being keep his knee down on the neck of another child of God for any amount of time, and long enough for him to die?

To be clear, these were the desperate questions of two white women. This was not our first encounter with such questions as individuals, but the need to understand and process some deeper meaning felt more urgent than ever before.

My neighbor is a gifted artist and a preschool teacher who sees the fundamental goodness in all people, especially God’s littlest ones. She spends her days helping children build upon and further develop the kindness, hope, and joy that is already within them. I was looking to her for answers, even as she was expecting me, perhaps the closest thing to a resident theologian on the block, to be able to offer the same.

But just like seminary didn’t give me all the answers to complicated questions around God’s presence in the face of human suffering, fifteen years of ordained ministry hasn’t either. Neither has witnessing the uprising in our community, and a national and global response to the moment becoming a movement for reconciliation.

I hesitated to talk about this today because it does not feel like the sign of a good sermon if I have to tell you at the outset all the things I won’t deliver at the end of the next twelve minutes or so.

I have the advantage of knowing how this sermon is going to turn out and, spoiler alert, I will not provide definitive answers to complicated theological conundrums scholars wiser than I have struggled with for centuries.

I cannot say that by the close of our time, I will have reassured any of us about the complexity of goodness and evil, suffering and hope, and the inherent nature of God and God’s people. Nevertheless, these are the matters I bring with me to you today, stumbling every step of the way. It does feel like if we are going to move through this together, I might as well start with honesty.

What my neighbor and I were lifting up to the smoky, star-filled sky that night six weeks ago was our stuckness in our need to believe that a good God creates good people for love, but that at the same time we see God’s people hurting one another and the whole of creation again and again. We were losing a sense of perspective on humanity.

For as long as people have felt the darkness of human suffering and had language to name the existence of a Creator God, humanity has wrestled with the coexistence of the two. What we are talking about is theodicy: how to understand an all-loving and all-powerful God, while also acknowledging that there are injustices, tragedies, and broken systems in our world. Different approaches to theodicy posit that there are limits to God’s sovereignty, or that humans are created incomplete and that through free will, we must participate in becoming the people God desires us to be.[1]

A liberation-oriented theodicy approaches the question by claiming that God is at work in the world liberating those who are poor. James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, focuses on the participatory nature of God against suffering, and that humans are actively participating right alongside God. This is a theodicy in the black religious tradition that sees in the cross God’s struggle against evil. It sees in the resurrection of Jesus God’s promise of final victory.[2] This is not a theodicy that leaves humanity as passive in the face of pain, malice, and hate. It is born of a God who, as Matthew’s Gospel describes it, sees the helpless and the harassed and has compassion, which turns into action.

In realizing I couldn’t run away from the topic of God’s presence in the face of suffering, I thought I might as well throw in one of the more obscure and perplexing books of the Bible: Job. In all my years of preaching, I have never selected anything from Job. This book falls into the category of wisdom literature in the Bible, specifically poetry. I remember in Hebrew class in seminary learning about the mystery of the book of Job, that the language and the construct of it is so cryptic. Robert Alter says, “It resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers”.[3] Carol Newsom reminds those who choose to venture into Job that the book “offers a challenging exploration of religious issues of fundamental importance: the motivation for piety, the meaning of suffering, the nature of God, the place of justice in the world, and the relationship of order and chaos in God’s design of creation.”[4] Newsom’s description of the context of Job feels like what I find myself wrestling with in my own observing, listening, and learning in the context of these days.

We may sense we have familiarity with the story of Job, though the book comes up as a Scripture choice just seven times in the three-year lectionary cycle; a mere sixty verses from a 42 chapter book of the Bible.

It begins describing Job as a man from Uz, an obscure land far from Israel, and that he was “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1)[5]. The verses go on to describe his family and the extent of his wealth. For those who remember how the book unfolds, Job, his wife, and friends speculate on why he, blameless and upright, is suffering. His world comes crashing down around him. Raiders steal his belongings and kill his servants. Fire from the sky burns up his sheep and a mighty wind destroys his house and kills his sons and daughters.

We find Job this morning at the very end of the book, after God delivered a series of divine speeches to him. Job has accused God of not operating the world along the lines of justice, but in chapter 42, something has shifted, and Job says to God, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

How acquainted has Job become with his own humanity and that of others, in order to say that he has learned something along his own way? How well does he know his friends, and how well does Job know God, after all he has encountered?

Returning to Carol Newsom, she argues that the book of Job directs readers to not one but multiple perspectives. One must take into account Job’s point of view, that of his friends, and God’s, as well. Newsome says, “What gets challenged in the process is the very notion that discerning truth is a matter of choosing one perspective and rejecting all others…It may be that the truth about a complex question can only be spoken by a plurality of voices that can never be merged into one, because they speak from different experiences and different perspectives.”[6] This plurality is perhaps what is so hard. There are no easy conclusions to make when we look at our world through the lenses of a faithful, healing, and compassionate God at work in a hurting world. I wonder if I am the only one learning to live with this along the way.

Early in COVID days of staying home, I was trying to read more fiction to shift my focus and so I started Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. For those familiar with the book, you realize my selection was a bit misplaced, as it is not one that allows readers to escape the present-day matters of upheaval.

A dystopian thriller, the book calls into question everything humanity knows about how we are created and why and for what. The reader must process a myriad of atrocities humans commit against one another in the name of religion, power, and survival.

The book’s narrator is Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an Ojibwe woman in her mid-20’s, who describes herself as the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals. The narrative of the book is almost entirely in the form of letters to the child Cedar is carrying inside her in secret, as the nature of genetic order and evolutionary constructs is destabilizing. As Cedar says, “Apparently…our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped…what is happening involves the invisible, the quanta of which we are created.”[7]

Cedar has turned to Catholicism for a sense of community, connection, and practice, and at one particularly heightened part of her journey, she quotes Thomas Merton:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”[8] Here Cedar lifts up, as Merton names, Christ’s own humanity and the recognition of the human condition in others, even as humanity itself cannot accept and welcome him.

Erdrich paints scene after scene of the world seeming to be at its worst and getting worse, but there is this unresolved light in the unrest. Cedar says she finds, “a scrap of comfort…because I know this: there is nothing that one human being will not do to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched. One willing to share misery.”[9] She sees her fellow humans risk everything to save the life of a stranger, and others who function fully in a new world order based on power and control unhinged, and a willing God is there through it all.

Near the end of the novel Cedar offers this affirmation, “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” This is a perspective on humanity as hardness and endurance, misery and beauty, wretchedness and love, with God somehow actively intertwined in it all.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, told the story in a recent interview of a similar mix of horror, tragedy, and hope and humanity responding in love. On September 11, 2001, as people found themselves trapped on the island of Manhattan after the Twin Towers were hit, with all public transportation shut down, people walked. They walked for hours out of the city, trying to find their way home. Disoriented by smoke and dust, they could not see where they were going and some headed south and others north. Those who went north could travel across the Brooklyn Bridge and out of Manhattan. Those who went blindly south, eventually found themselves in Battery Park, with the East River on one side and the Hudson River on the other. All along the shoreline masses of shell-shocked people, some lining up in places ten deep, continued to gather. Trapped.

“All available boats, this is the United States Coast Guard….”

This radio message went out asking for evacuation help, something never done before, and thus began the 9/11 boatlift. Tugboats, ferries, small recreational boats, yachts of all sizes, all responded to the call and began transporting as many people as possible to safety. Over the course of nine hours, 800 mariners rescued more than half a million people, the largest boat rescue in U.S. history. In a panic, some people jumped into the water and began swimming out to approaching boats. There were no drownings. All 500,000 people survived.

It is an extraordinary story, and Dr. Murthy’s point in sharing it was to stress his belief that humanity can be at its best, even during the worst of times. “In that moment,” he says, “if you are sitting in a boat on the Hudson, and you see this inferno growing in front of you, are you going to move your boat toward the inferno, or are you going to head for the safety of home?”

He goes on to argue that in this moment right now, as truly interdependent creatures, we are seeing humanity at its best.[10]

For me, it does feel like we are seeing our fellow, beloved children of God at their best, and God as present in that work.

But…

And here is the rub, it isn’t all one or the other. Our lexicon and headlines are also full of words like: genocide, war crimes, police brutality, transphobia, child soldiers, border detention centers.

It isn’t one or the other, as I am learning to face on the way. It is both. As a person of faith, a child of God, a follower of Jesus, it is hard to hold together all of that truth.

Carol Newsom closes her introduction to the book of Job by saying, “Every person must choose how to live…choosing how to live involves deciding about the character of God, the structure of creation, the place of suffering in the world.”[11]

And the book closes without giving us any easy answers or way forward. It is a mix of past suffering and future promises, as Job’s fortunes are restored and the Lord gives him twice as much as before, and Job died, old and full of days. Czech philosopher Erazim Kohak reminds us, in commenting on Job, that “a human alone…cannot bear the pain…When humans no longer think themselves alone, masters of all they survey, when they discern the humility of their place in the vastness of God’s creation, then that creation and its God can share the pain.”[12]

Learning along the way is choosing to hold onto multiple perspectives, sometimes in conflict with each other. It is embracing that a compassionate God has not created humanity to face pain and suffering alone.

I would like to close by sharing the text of the Offertory piece we will hear in just a few moments, a recording of the Voices of Hope Choir at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee, under the direction of Dr. Amanda Weber. These words have lived on for decades to help us to continue to learn along the way, written during WW II by a prisoner in the Cologne concentration camp:

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,

And I believe in love even when there’s no one there.

And I believe in God even when he is silent,

I believe through any trial there is always a way.

But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair,

My heart cries for shelter, to know someone’s there.

But a voice rises within me saying hold on my child,

I’ll give you strength, I’ll give you hope,

Just stay a little while.

May there someday be sunshine.  May there someday be happiness.

May there someday be love.  May there someday be peace.

May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen

[1] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1991), 112-113.

[2] Ibid., 114.

[3] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, volume 3: The Writings (New York: Norton,

2019), 457.

[4] Carol Newsome, “Job,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 4

(Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 319.

[5] New Revised Standard Version.

[6] Newsome, 338.

[7] Louise Erdrich, The Future Home of the Living God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2017), 3.

[8] Ibid., 153.

[9] Ibid., 153.

[10] Summary of information from Armchair Expert Podcast, June 18, 2020, and

https://insh.world/history/the-great-boat-lift-of-911/.

[11] Newsome, 339.

[12] Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 45-56.

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