Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Sound of Silence

Sermon preached June 20, 2010

Texts: I Kings 19:1-15a

When Elmer Fudd says, “Be very, very quiet” we know why. “Be very, very quiet. I’m hunting rabbits.” Many of us probably remember being told to be quiet as children, but no good explanation was given. Maybe someone offered the old saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” This originated in 15th century England and was supposed to apply particularly to young women. Makes it even less appealing, doesn’t it!
We have very contradictory attitudes about being quiet, about silence. On the one hand, we hear the proverbial saying, “Silence is golden.” Sometimes it is. On the other hand, we hear that silence is deadly. Sometimes it is, as when we keep quiet in the face of wrongdoing, injustice, prejudice, harm. The song, “The Sound of Silence,” from which I took my sermon title, captures something of this ambiguity. On the one hand, the songwriter has a vision planted in his brain within the sound of silence. On the other hand, he has a dream in which he sees “people talking without speaking, people listening without hearing.” His response is to cry out, “silence like a cancer grows.”
The words from the biblical wisdom book, Ecclesiastes, are wise indeed. “For everything there is a season… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:1a, 7b). “When” and “why” remain important. When should we speak or keep silent? Why should we speak or keep silent? There are multiple answers.
The story from I Kings 19 offers us a vitally important reason to find some time for silence in our lives. In the story, Elijah encounters God in “a sound of sheer silence.” Some translations render this “a barely audible whisper.” To feel the full impact of the story, it helps for us to pay attention to certain of its elements. Elijah is not in a good place. He has challenged the powers that be, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel wants to see Elijah’s life end. He was afraid. He fled into the wilderness by himself and “sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die.” This is the sound of discouragement and despair.
In the wilderness, Elijah encounters God – not just once but multiple times. First an angel, a messenger from God, speaks to him in a dream encouraging him to take care of himself, for he has a journey ahead. The journey takes him to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. There God meets Elijah in the question – “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This is not a GPS question, but a deep, existential one – what’s going on in your life? What’s happening with you? Elijah shares his deep sense of loneliness and loss. It is then that the most direct encounter with God occurs – not in a great wind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. One would expect God to show up in a dramatic way. It certainly would have helped Elijah, who felt alone and dejected. Instead God arrives in an unexpected fashion – in quiet, in silence. Elijah is not immediately changed in a dramatic fashion either, but something has happened, for God gives him some direction. Elijah is changed enough that God sends him back to work.
The sound of sheer silence. Be very, very quiet, for God may be trying to speak to you, to us, in those moments of silence and quiet. Not only may God be trying to speak to you, to us, but I trust that God is doing just that in every moment of our lives.
Hear these words from theologian Marjorie Suchocki about how God speaks in our lives. God’s creative word launches us anew in every moment of our existence, initiating the directive energy that aims us toward what we might become. This word is felt within the depths of the self, which suggests that God’s word comes to us as a whisper…. It is a quiet word, a suggestive word, an inviting word, not always easily noticed. (The Whispered Word, 4)
If God’s word for our lives comes to us as a whisper, barely audible, as the sound of sheer silence, we need, sometimes, to quiet ourselves so that we can listen, hear, and respond. What a challenge in our noisy world, in our noisy lives. Think of all the sounds we have around us. Think of all the ways we can keep sounds coming at us – telephones which we now carry with us everywhere (I saw someone running the marathon yesterday talking on her phone), portable music players (any number of runners used those), televisions, dvd players, computers. I can plug my i pod into my car, and cars can be equipped with satellite radio. How difficult we make it for silence, and yet in silence may be when we hear, feel, sense God best.
I need to add a caveat. I truly believe we all need some silence in our lives, for silence can be a moment of encounter with God. I also believe our need for silence varies. For a period of time in my life there was hardly spiritual advice given that did not seem to indicate that a truly serious spiritual life involved getting up early every morning for time alone with God. I never found that worked very well for me and it taught me something about our varying personalities and spiritual styles. So some of us may need and benefit from more intense, regular silent meditation and prayer. For others, silence can come in smaller doses.
Still, some silence, however brief or however structured, seems indispensible for hearing, feeling, sensing God and responding to God’s whispered word.
I recall a snowy night, traveling home from a meeting. Julie was worried about my safety, and I was driving cautiously. I love to listen to MPR and music, so my car is not usually a zone of quiet. Sometimes, however, I turn it all off just to listen and pray (eyes open). Well this night, I did that, and even more. At one point, near the tall pines on the border of Itasca State Park, I stopped the car, got out and listened to the wind. There was no word from God that brought dramatic change, but I felt intensely and intimately God’s presence. Silent prayer, for me, can be recalling those brief moments before I got back in the car and finished my journey home.
I was a candidate for bishop first in 2004, when we were still living in Alexandria. I remember some of the anxiety around all of that, unsure of what being a candidate might mean, nervous about putting myself out there. One morning, in the shower, in those few quiet moments with only water running, I sensed something deep within. To call it a voice would be too much. But that morning I had this sense that I would not be elected at that time, and that it would be alright – and a wave of peace washed over me as much as the water coming from the shower.
Sometimes sermon ideas come to me in a flash in silent moments – not the whole sermon, mind you, but an idea, even a series of ideas or outlines. Some of what happens with this can be explained by processes of human creativity, but human creativity is wonderful in its own way. There are moments in that process when I trust God’s Spirit is at work.
Our need for silence varies, but lacking all silence means we may miss the creative voice of God whispering to us. Shhh! Be very, very quiet. We are searching for God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is searching for us in the sound of silence. Amen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

Sermon preached June 13, 2010

Texts: Luke 7:36-8:3

Play a bit of “Pomp and Circumstance.” How many of you have heard this recently? It is a familiar part of the ritual, the ceremony, the customary practice of graduation, at least here in the United States. I asked Maximme if this was a part of commencement in Belgium and she told me that it was not. They must have other customary ways of getting all the graduates into the auditorium for graduation.
Another part of the ritual, ceremony, customary practice of graduation/commencement is the commencement speech. The quality of such speeches varies a great deal. If you were at the East High School commencement on Wednesday night you would have heard an excellent student speech given by Gretel Lee.
Most good commencement speeches have a bit of humor. “Remember the compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” (“Kurt Vonnegut” commencement address, but not really Vonnegut). Bob Newhart at Catholic University of America in 1997 shared a bit about his own Catholic upbringing. The hardest part I found in being Catholic was when you had to learn the commandments for your first confession…. One that threw me was “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Now I was 7 and I always thought the priest was saying thou shalt not “cover” thy neighbor’s wife, and I didn’t want to do that anyway. But apparently it’s only a sin if you cover thy neighbor’s wife. You can cover all the other wives in the neighborhood and you’re home free, but the minute you cover thy neighbor’s wife, you’d better get to confession. Jon Stewart, William and Mary, 2004: I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think back to the people who have been in this position before me from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place.
Many commencement speeches make use of stories, but I am guessing that no one ever used this particular story for a commencement address. It is a story about ritual, ceremony, common practice interrupted. A Pharisee asks Jesus to eat with him at his home. Meals in the ancient near east were surrounded by rituals and common practices of hospitality. It may also be helpful to know that many meals might have been served in an open courtyard with the guests reclining around low tables – we can picture the scene a little better that way. In any event, into this setting barges a woman – an uninvited and unwanted guest, “a sinner” that is someone who did not follow Jewish customs and laws - - - whatever else she may have done. The woman not only arrives on the scene, she creates a scene. The woman weeps, letting her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, and as the tears dampen his feet, she dries them with her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment. In a culture where the interactions between men and women were often governed by customary practices, this kind of contact, this kind of intimacy, would have been scandalous, and that the woman was a known sinner made the scene all the more troubling to Jesus’ host.
Commencement ceremonies, steeped in tradition, ritual, customary practice might not be the best place to tell this story where customs are flaunted, where practices are interrupted so egregiously. Yet the story has lessons, something we might expect from a commencement address – something we might expect from a sermon.
Perhaps the first lesson is found in the very scandal of the story. While ritual, ceremony and customary practice can facilitate an authentic life and deepen relationship with God, it can also get in the way. To read this story wherein a woman who interrupts the customs is the hero, along with Jesus, as a story that is against ritual and custom would be to misread it. Notice that one of the criticisms Jesus levels at his host is that the host was not very gracious. The host failed to offer the customary hospitality to Jesus – ho offered no water for his feet, he offered no kiss of greeting, he failed to anoint Jesus head with oil. Rituals and customs have their place in life and in the life of faith. At the same time, they can be used not to deepen our self-understanding or deepen our relationship with God, but can be used to evade richer self-exploration. It can be used as a way to distract ourselves making it more difficult to listen to God’s Spirit. When customary faith practices simply become things to check off the list, rather than moments to allow for deeper prayer, more searching self-reflection, then they are not serving their purpose, and it happens.
If this story were to be used in a commencement address, a second lesson offered might be about the importance of openness and inclusivity. In the religious culture of Jesus time, to label someone a “sinner” meant, among other things, that you did not have to pay attention to them. Their experience did not matter. Women, too, were marginalized. To have a woman who was a sinner be one of the heroes of the story speaks volumes about inclusivity and openness, about our need to listen to voices we might otherwise ignore, about our need to open doors to persons who might otherwise be excluded. The story is followed by a brief travelogue of Jesus’ ministry – noting that he was accompanied by the twelve and by a number of women!
We need to include others and listen to their voices. As a church we need to pay attention to each other, and to voices of those outside our doors who have questions to ask, concerns to raise. We also need to be open to new experiences in our own lives. In newness and otherness the voice of God is often heard, not just in the tried and familiar. When we shy away from what may be new and different, we risk missing the very movement of God’s Spirit.
If this unlikely story were to be used in a commencement address, another lesson offered might about the power of forgiveness. To be able to forgive and be forgiven frees us to love. Part of the lesson here is about the power of self-forgiveness. Jesus pronounces forgiveness for the woman who has come to anoint him with fragrant oil, with her own hair and tears. Then he tells her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Part of the meaning of that is for her to accept her forgiveness and forgive herself. When we cannot forgive ourselves we begin to hide our need for forgiveness. We are reluctant to acknowledge our own cruelties, mistakes, misjudgments. We need to be self-righteous because we cannot find forgiveness, and self-righteousness is the thing Jesus seemed to speak about most. He seemed to say that it was a major stumbling block to an authentic relationship with God. Self-righteousness is so problematic because it is a fundamental dishonesty about our lives. God wants to break through that. The voice of Jesus is the voice of God, “Your sins are forgiven.” When we hear that and welcome that for ourselves, we also hear the voice of God in the voice of Jesus say, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Forgiveness of self is not enough. We are also to be working at forgiving others. It is a process. It is difficult work, incredibly difficult work. People have hurt us, wounded us, and sometimes the most difficult thing we can do is to work toward forgiveness. It is the direction God’s Spirit moves us. It frees us to love, not trapped by our past.
Finally, a commencement address using this story might draw a lesson about passion. Now passion is not necessarily good in itself. Unfortunately phrases like “passionate skinhead” or “passionate terrorist” are not oxymorons. Our own culture is, in some ways, too passionate, that is, we are too moved by fear and anger – these passions are manipulated rather than thoughtfully explored.
Those cautions aside, however, we need passion, and we need to pay attention to our passions. I have for years appreciated Frederick Buechner’s definition of “vocation” (Wishful Thinking): The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Paying attention to our passion is one place to hear the voice of God in our lives. Again, what we seek is a thoughtful passion. Joan Chittister writes, Enthusiasm ought not to be confused with hysteria…. The world belongs to the enthusiast who keeps cool. (Living Well, 52-53) We need to be thoughtfully passionate and enthusiastic about our faith in God and in Jesus and about the way we live that faith together here at First United Methodist Church. If we are not passionate about our church, no one else will be.
This story has lessons for life, lessons that could find a place in a commencement address. I like the way that The Cotton Patch Version ends the story. Jesus tells the woman, “What you’ve just done has been the making of you; keep it up – with my blessing.” Openness, inclusivity, forgiveness, passion – these could be the making of us. These could be the making of an adventurous life with God. Not many commencement addresses begin with this story, but they could. Come to think of it, this story might be the start of a good sermon.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wanted Alive

Sermon preached June 6, 2010

Texts: I Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17

Over thirty years ago, a book became a national best-seller with a very unlikely beginning. Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. Thus began M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. His words echoed words of others in his field of psychology – D. W. Winnicott: Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning (Winnicott, 31). A psychologist whose works I have discovered in recent years and have come to value deeply, Michael Eigen, expresses something similar. There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life (Conversations, 113). One cannot experience without suffering (Feeling Matters, 2).
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun whose writings on the spiritual life continue to shape my spiritual life. She has a couple of books out that use a single verse of Scripture as a springboard for a month’s worth of meditations. She begins each month with a longer story, and this month’s story is about loss and trauma. I have yet to meet a human being who is not in some way still dealing with traumas, most of them garden-variety incidents, perhaps, but traumas nevertheless. Every one of us goes through some kind of personal pain of psychic wounding in life that changes us. She goes on to relate a story from her life, acknowledging that it does not fall under the category of great tragedy, yet was traumatic nonetheless. Joan was ten years old, new to her school and eager to become a part of that community. But when acceptance came I was not available. The night before I was to be the angel who would lead the procession of first communicants to the altar is a sweep of white satin and glory, my appendix heated to the bursting point and all my dreams came to a crashing end. While another girl made the grand entry in my place, I was being prepared for surgery amid a flurry of tense doctors and the protective presence of anxious parents. They were all worried about my dying; I worried about having to live with such a loss. (Living Well).
We could each fill in here with our own stories of difficult moments, small sufferings, garden-variety traumas – and that is for the fortunate, because some of us may have deep tragedy and trauma as a part of our history - - - untimely death, abuse, deep physical pain inflicted, scarring war zone memories. Life is difficult. There are no trauma-free spaces in real life.
With each trying incident, larger or smaller there is the possibility of a kind of death. There is the possibility that we will close ourselves up, wall ourselves off from some part of our own life experience. Maybe we all experience a bit of that as well in our lives. If we can’t feel it it can’t hurt, though we forget that if we can’t feel it, it cannot produce joy either.
Mr. Y lived a charmed life. From childhood on he was good in everything; he was a star athlete, at the top of his class academically, and everyone liked him. His charmed existence continued through adulthood; after attending the best schools, he got the best jobs,, and people gravitated to him and made life easy. Yet he felt he wasn’t living his life; he wasn’t “in” it. It was as if his life too off without him…. Mr. Y felt good but complained of deadness. The good feeling he felt numbed and deadened him. (Eigen, Psychic Deadness, 41).
This morning’s texts speak to this feeling, this experience of deadness, which tempts us all, which is probably a part of most of our experience. Yet we risk dismissing these texts as fanciful. People raised from the dead – what has this to do with us? People die and we do not expect to see them walk among us again. Just Friday, world famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden died. We don’t expect to see him on the UCLA bench next March. Closer to home, two friends of mine died Friday – Jean Noren, former editor for the Minnesota United Methodist Reporter, who is also Mary Beamish’s aunt; Toby Horst, retired pastor – a kind person and role model. Jean won’t be editing more editions, nor will Toby preach again. What do these texts have to do with us?
I suggest we engage these texts with imagination, that we don’t set them aside, but risk letting them speak to us, risk letting them transform us. Let us listen to them with the soul and the heart.
When we do we hear something that speaks to us in those dead places in our lives, in those places that need healing if they are not to harden, deaden. God’s deepest desire for us is life – full, rich, abundant life. We are wanted – alive. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus put it succinctly and well: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” We are wanted – alive!
These texts also suggest elements of a life fully alive, the kind of life God desires for us.
Fullness of life is to be open to amazement. I am reminded of a short poem of Mary Oliver (Red Bird, 37):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Each of the stories ends with people being amazed at the life-giving power of God – the widow of Zarephath, the crowds in Nain.
Fullness of life involves being willing to take risks. Some risks are foolish, but being unwilling to risk at all is death in life. Elijah risks traveling outside the holy land. He risks speaking to a non-Jewish woman. He risks staying in her home. He risks speaking to God in what may seem an ill-fitting manner. “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” What are you up to God!? This is reminiscent of so many Psalms, where the psalmist addresses God in remarkably bold language – like Psalm 35 where the writer cries out to God to look, to wake up (35:22-23). Jesus risks, too. In Haggai (2:13) we read that contact with a dead body makes one ritually unclean. Jesus risks that to bring a young man to life. In our lives, in our church life, we need to take some risks if we are to live fully.
Fullness of life means extending God’s work of raising the dead. God gives us the power to extend life. When we do that, our own lives are made richer. We raise the dead when we feed the hungry. We raise the dead when we befriend the lonely. We raise the dead when we work for justice and peace. We raise the dead when we share hope. We raise the dead when we love. We raise the dead when we act with courage to make the world better.
Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to be allowed to play major league baseball – the year was 1947. He was not warmly welcomed. Some ball players threatened to boycott. National League president Ford Frick helped by declaring that any player who went on strike because of Robinson would be banned from baseball for life. On the team’s first trip to Cincinnati, fans shouted racial epithets from the stands. When shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a man from Louisville, Kentucky. heard this, he walked over and put his arm around Robinson – demonstrating that this was his teammate. Reese later admitted that this action did not make him very popular with some of his own relatives.
Life is difficult. There are no trauma free zones – not even the green of a baseball field. We know hurt, pain, disappointment, suffering and we can recoil from life into kinds of death in living. But God’s deepest desire for us is life – full, rich abundant life - - - life where we stay open to amazement; life as an adventure where not everything will succeed, but where we keep trying, keep risking; life where we share life with others.
The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Be a part of the glory of God. I say to you, rise. You are wanted – alive! Amen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Crown of Creation

Sermon preached May 30, 2010

Texts: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, John 16:12-15

I enjoy Peanuts – yes, the food, but also the cartoons. The comic strips are often a rich source of theological insight, and they make me smile. Nice combination. As a for instance, there was the time Linus was sharing with Charlie Brown. My dad and I got into a theological argument last night. He was looking at my report card, and wondering why I was the only one in my class who didn’t get an “A” in spelling. I said, “Isn’t it wonderful how each of us on this earth was created just a little bit different?” That’s when we got into the theological argument.
On another occasion, Charlie Brown is talking with Linus’ sister, Lucy, in a conversation that has an echo of Psalm 8. Charlie, looking out at a starlit sky – looking at the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars: You know what I think? I think there must be a tiny star out there that is my star. And as I am alone here on earth among millions of people that tiny star is out there alone among millions and millions of stars! Does that make any sense, Lucy? Do you think it means anything? Lucy: Certainly… It means you’re cracking up Charlie Brown!
Of course there is the night time self-talk of Charlie Brown we already read in our invitation to worship. Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, “Does anyone remember me?” Then a voice comes to me out of the dark that says, “Sure, Frank, we remember you.”
Who are we? What is our relationship to creation, to the cosmos, to those stars that light up the night sky? Are we alone? Will anyone remember us?
These are religious and theological questions – ancient yet ever new. The writer of Psalm 8 certainly pondered such questions. Considering the grandeur of God and the awesomeness of the heavens at night, the psalmist wonders, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Then the writers wonder turns from the heavens within. “Yet you have made them [me] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” That’s us! We are the crown of creation! (Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation” – 30 seconds)
We are the crown of creation. The other texts read this morning testify, in their own way, to this same truth. Wisdom calls to us, meaning we are capable of hearing wisdom’s voice. The Spirit will come to us, Jesus says. We are capable of being people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion.
Art Linkletter died this week at age 97. He was born the same year as my grandmother. Sometimes I ponder all that has happened in their life time: wide use of the telephones to cell phones, radio broadcasts bringing news of the world closer to television bringing pictures of the world into our homes, personal computers, portable music from records to CDs to Mp3s, ice boxes to refrigerators, the vast expansion of the use of automobiles. Think of the creativity, energy and imagination represented in all these inventions.
We are not only creative and inventive people, we have an enormous capacity for empathy, compassion and care – even to the point of sacrificing ourselves for others. In 1347, King Edward III of England laid siege to the French town of Calais. Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out, but Philip was unable to end the siege. Starving, the people of Calais sought terms of surrender. Edward told the city that he would spare most of them if six top leaders would surrender to him. He wanted them to come out of the city nearly naked, with nooses around their necks carrying the keys to the city and castle. Pierre, one of the cities wealthiest men, was the first to volunteer. Five others soon followed. These men assumed that they would be executed. So impressive is this story that centuries later the French sculptor Auguste Rodin memorialized it in his work, “The Burghers of Calais” (1889). By the way, the story has a happier ending – the Queen of England prevailed upon her husband to spare the six.
Human beings are creative, imaginative, energetic. We are able to empathize, to care, to live with compassion, to sacrifice for others. The story of Calais is an archetypal story that has been repeated in our own history. Memorial Day, which we remember this weekend, is meant as a commemoration of persons who have given their lives in service to our country. We stand in deep appreciation for their sacrifice.
Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we need also to admit that we keep the voice of wisdom crying in the streets without listening to her. We resist the Spirit’s work in our lives. We use our capacities for creativity and imagination and inventiveness to do harm rather than good. We can take good ideas and turn them in destructive ways.
Individualism, individual autonomy, individual responsibility – these are all wonderful ideas and they are an important part of the character of our country. Since our beginning we have sought to be a nation where a person could make their own way, where a fresh start was always possible. These are good things. But has a good idea begun to run amok? Are we becoming, in the words of Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, a nation of “petulant individuals convinced that they can do anything themselves if only they are left alone”? Lilla expresses concern about an attitude he observes has grown quite pronounced in our country over the past fifty years – “a blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing – and unwarranted – confidence in the self.” (New York Review, May 27, 2010) Human beings have a treacherous capacity to overuse a good idea until it becomes harmful. Loyalty, when it excludes constructive criticism becomes stifling. Self-sacrifice can become self-destruction. Rugged individualism can become selfish disregard for the common good and a denigration of our common life.
We can take good ideas and twist them in harmful ways. Humans also have a tendency to use their creativity to hide or minimize the potential harmfulness of their activities. In light of the massive oil spill we are contending with in the Gulf of Mexico we should be asking ourselves if we have willfully turned away from the potential harm our insatiable appetite for oil might create in the world. Did BP executives turn away from the potential harm that might be caused by skimping on maintenance in order to sweeten the short-term bottom line?
The oil spilling into the Gulf and the circumstances surrounding it are also evidence of another human failing, use of our creativity and intelligence to put blame someplace else. It remains to be seen how BP will finally respond to this spill. Some indications are that they will, indeed, accept full responsibility, but the signals have been mixed. Initially blame was being cast elsewhere, on contractors and the like. We use our creativity and intelligence to evade responsibility sometime.
Most detrimental of all is the human capacity to use its incredible talents in the creation of outright evil. The most glaring example of this is the Holocaust. Human creativity and ingenuity were harnessed for no other purpose than the destruction of human life. “Mass murder carried out through state-of-the-art industrial methods was a unique innovation of the Nazi regime” Gideon Greif, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, 227).
What are human beings that you, O God, are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Human beings can use some of these same gifts of creativity, imagination and intelligence for destruction, harm, devastation. We can be intentionally obtuse and actively evil. We can turn from the voice of wisdom and the movement of the Spirit.
I think we need Christian faith to remind us of both our best and our worst. If we see only our worst, we become discouraged and defensive and cynical. If we see only our best, we may be blind to the places where we might fall. We need to listen to the voice of wisdom and the truth of the Spirit. When we do, we know that we matter. The voice that calls in the night does not forget our name. When we listen to wisdom and the Spirit, we know that we are the crown of creation. In all creation only humans have the deep self-reflective capacity to consider who we are and what we are doing. When we listen to wisdom and the voice of the Spirit, we also know that as the crown of creation, we can wreck havoc on each other and on creation, and we need to be mindful and watchful. We need Christian faith to be reminded of who we are, and to be encouraged to choose Spirit, to choose wisdom, to choose compassion, to choose goodness, to choose kindness, to choose justice, to choose peace, to choose love.
Wislawa Szymborska is an Eastern European poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature. In one of her poems she captures beautifully the wonder, mystery, beauty, and complexity of being human. I think I shared this not long ago, but I think it is worth repeating – “In Praise of Self-Deprecation” or “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself.”
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the sun.

What are human beings that you, O God, are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Human beings can use some of these same gifts of creativity, imagination and intelligence for destruction, harm, devastation. We can be intentionally obtuse and actively evil. We can turn from the voice of wisdom and the movement of the Spirit. But in all, we can know ourselves at our best and at our worst – we are the crown of creation in that, and we are invited to choose life, to choose wisdom, to choose Spirit, to choose justice, to choose compassion, to choose love. Amen.

Jefferson Airplane, "Crown of Creation"

The Burghers of Calais