Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Long Run

Sermon preached on April 5, Palm/Passion Sunday

Scripture readings: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 15:1-15

I hold in my hand a startling document. I know you can’t see it from there so I need to tell you it is not startling because of the language used or any inappropriate images. It is startling because I can’t believe it came in the mail for me this week. It is an AARP card with my name on it! I turn 50 later this year and apparently that is when one becomes eligible for membership in AARP. This is an unmistakable sign that I am getting older, not exactly news, I guess.
I admit I used to hate it when people would say to me, in my younger years, “you will understand this when you get older” or “it will make sense when you are older.” It bothered me, I think, because I could look around and see people who had gotten older, but had not necessarily grown in wisdom. I experienced what Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about in his book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, when he says there is a “difference between the person who has grown up and the person who has only grown older” (109).
This AARP card tells me I have grown older. I have also learned that some things make better sense with age. Maturing takes time. Learning and growth often happen in the long run, and not just in the short run.
I think I discovered something of that when I was a youth minister in my late twenties and early thirties. I was twenty-eight when I became the youth pastor at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX, and I was thirty-five when I left that position. I enjoyed working with youth a lot, and still enjoy working with youth. One of the things I discovered in those years was that some of the problems my kids had were magnified by the brevity of their life experience. For teens, everything is the short run. When your heart first gets broken, you haven’t yet had the experience of a heart healing and of finding a new romantic attraction, and the hurt is magnified. When you experience your first failure, you have not yet had the experience of picking up the pieces of a broken dream and creating a new one, so the pain of that failure is magnified. When hurts are magnified, responses to them can be more extreme and that is one root of some of the challenging behaviors of teenagers. We need to be careful about characterizing these years as particularly problematic. A person writing about teen spirituality reminds us: “Every teenage problem is finally rooted in and perpetuated by the adult world problems…. American adults have as many or more of most of the problems with which youth struggle” (Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 187). While the problems of youth may not be unique to youth, the fact that everything is seen in the short run can make the response to those problems more challenging.
Holy week, this time beginning today with Palm Sunday and extending through Saturday night, Easter-eve, is a good time in the church calendar to consider the contrast between the short run and the long run. That contrast is compressed in the story of the week, but I think it is there and has something to teach us.
Consider the events we will remember this week. It begins with a parade, Jesus riding in to Jerusalem with a great deal of fanfare. However, this is not the only parade in Jerusalem that day. Pilate is arriving in Jerusalem, too, and he would have been greeted with a royal parade and fanfare as a representative of the imperial government of Rome. There is a contrast even on Palm Sunday - a parade celebrating the kingdom of God, a parade celebrating the empire of Rome.
As the week moves forward, contrast turns to confrontation. Jesus confronts the religious establishment in the Temple, and this is also a political confrontation. Rome is keenly aware that the Jews in Palestine have caused problems for them before and any ruckus in that community becomes an issue of governance. This is something that must be dealt with. The story continues. There is an arrest, a trial, an execution – we call it “crucifixion.” The final words in today’s reading: “Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). In the short run, things seem pretty grim, at least if you’re rooting for Jesus. As Christians we know there is a long run, another horizon. We call it Easter, but if we are to be faithful to the story, we shouldn’t get to Easter too soon. We need to get through the short run of this week before we see the new horizon, the long run of Easter. In the short run, life can be difficult, can be like a wilderness, and this in our last week in the wilderness of Lent.
In the short run, relationships can be difficult. Here is the story told by a Catholic nun about family relationships that are a part of her life history. There was plenty of pain and abuse in my family’s past…. I grew up in an alcoholic family, from at least my grandfather on down, and the sense we had of ourselves was shame-based. When it arises strongly enough, none of my practices and prayers work; I just don’t feel good enough about anything. I’ll be praying and a voice comes: “You are a disgrace compared to what you should be. You are not using your gifts; you are not enough.” Never enough! In the short run of her family relationships – shame. In the short run of her own prayer life, there was also sometimes shame. In the short run, relationships can be difficult. The nun’s story continues as she shares that through therapy and a great deal of inner work she’s come to understand this as just part of a cycle of shame, so that when she experiences it, she can let it go more easily – “Oh it’s just another cycle of shame.” (Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, 221)
Harold Kushner wrote about relationship difficulties in this week’s First and Ten reading. Judith Viorst: “In a grown-up marriage, we recognize that we don’t always have to be in love with one another… But a grown-up marriage enables us when we fall out of love with each other to stick around until we fall back in.” (111) Diane Rehm: “Any relationship involves at times just sticking it out, no matter how difficult those times are.” (115) In the short run, some of our most important relationships are not easy.
In the short run, our desires can be a tangled mess. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Loving-kindness writes, “Lust cracks the brain. All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy a sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure.” (175-176) Harold Kushner tells the story of a husband and wife. They had twenty years of a stable and gratifying marriage, but one day the man received a call from an “old flame,” someone with whom he had been deeply in love with in college. She had broken his heart, then, by marrying someone else. Now she arrives back in town, newly divorced and has been in touch with the husband, just wondering how he is getting along. Since the initial contact, the husband has had several long phone conversations with the woman and met her once for lunch. The man’s wife is worried that he has never gotten over the dream of this woman loving him and may be willing to sacrifice their twenty-year marriage to pursue that dream. In the short run, our desires can be quite a tangle.
Advertising plays on that very human quality. We are influenced from many quarters to buy, and even more to see ourselves by what we have not who we are or what we have done to make a difference in the world. In the short run, the tangle of desire can leave us confused about who we are and the kind of life we want to live.
In the short run, greed and excess seem to make sense, at least that seems to be one of the lessons of our recent history. Remember the movie Wall Street from the early 1980s – “greed is good.” Apparently many people took that to heart – Bernie Madoff being only one of the most glaring examples. As a nation, in our recent past we became dissatisfied with profits of 5-7%. 15-20% was marginally acceptable and we asked too few questions about the long run. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme court in the case of Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp ruled that Minnesota could not impose its limits on interest rates on a bank located in another state. States began competing for banking business by passing lenient interest laws, allowing credit card companies to hike interest rates. Some of the recent crisis in consumer debt and bankruptcy can be traced to the exorbitant interest rates that were once illegal. In the short run, it made sense to let interest rise to previously unknown levels.
In the short run, as well, we let profit trump environment. I was listening the other day to a radio program on ethanol, and one of the person on the program said something like, “Well, the environmental concerns have just emerged in the last year or so.” I wondered where they had gone. In the short run, we are all too willing to ignore them in favor of profit and excess.
Of coruse, now, in the short run, we are all living with the economic hangover from a time of excess – inflated home prices, inflated stock prices, an auto industry too focused on big vehicles.
If we take the Bible seriously, we know the short run can be difficult, can feel like the wilderness. As Christians who take the Bible seriously, we should be honest about that. We also know that decisions made when we think only of the short run are not always the best. Jesus will struggle with that on Thursday of this week. He knows that being true to his mission has led him to a difficult place. He has stood against all that is unjust and unloving, and he knows that unjust and unloving powers don’t take being challenged lightly. Should he retreat, go into hiding and forget his sense of God’s mission? He agonizes in prayer on Thursday night.
The short run in life can be difficult, painful, can require courage and patience. We need to hear some good news, and I have some to share. God is with us in the pain and struggle of the short run, when the short run is painful, and when it is a struggle - - - and the pain and struggle are real. We cannot deny that. God is with us. God is, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands” (Process and Reality, 351).
God is also this Spirit on the horizon, inviting us into the long run where life may be different – where the Spirit of God might just break out of the bleak tombs that can exist in the short run and shine powerfully with the light of love and life. But that’s next week’s story. Amen.

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