The Holiness of our Fragility

November 8, 2007

A sermon preached to my Biblical Interpretation for Preaching Class, Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest

Austin, Texas

November 8, 2007 

Proper 27B
Gospel:  Mark 12:35-44

A show started airing on a cable channel last year that I just can’t help myself from watching.  It’s a show that is based in what they call “postmodern humor,” a genre I still haven’t figured out yet.  Most days I think whoever invented that term did not have a really sound basis in postmodern philosophy but rather just wanted to invent an excuse to create humor without any limits.  Anyway – the name of this show that I started watching is The Sarah Silverman Show, maybe some of you are familiar with it.  It is a very “no holds barred, everything is in limits” kind of show.

Well, that is the kind of humor that really does it for me.  It makes me laugh because it brings to light so many of our society’s contradictions, so many of the things I hadn’t realized were ridiculous, or ironic, or horrifying.  I find myself laughing at those situations just for lack of any other productive outlet for the emotions they bring up in me!

I was watching a particular episode of The Sarah Silverman Show a few weeks ago that I want to describe a little bit for you.  I get that this kind of humor isn’t for everybody and that there is a certain kind of depravity embedded in it—that is kind of the point of postmodern humor, after all.  So please don’t think I’m asking you to rush out and watch Sarah Silverman; you may find it tremendously offensive!  This is just an illustration.

This particular episode opens with Sara watching T.V., and an infomercial comes on for an effort to feed underprivileged children.  Sara is very disturbed by the images she sees of the underprivileged children.  She does not want her daily life to be interrupted by these images, and so she reaches for the remote to tune them out.  Unfortunately, the batteries in the remote control have gone out, so she figures that she now has to be inconvenienced to go to the store to buy new batteries for the remote control so that she can remove the offending images from her television, and thus from her daily life.  Of course the obvious irony is in the huge distraction she creates for herself with her inability to see the logic of just walking to the T.V. and changing the channel manually or even just unplugging it, but of course that is part of the humor, and if she realized that, the basis of the rest of the plot for this episode would be ruined.

Believe it or not, I thought of Sara Silverman when I read today’s gospel lesson.  Mark opens the scene with Jesus talking to a large crowd, railing against the hypocritical scribes first for the logical inconsistency of who they say the messiah must be and then for their neglect, even their destruction of widows’ lives.  Clearly the Torah calls for the care of the most fragile in society, including widows, and Jesus calls out the scribes for their concern with appearances; they are much more concerned with their own daily lives than with the real impact of the tradition.

After the scene with the large crowd, there is a turning point.  The whole passage hinges on this one verse:  “He sat down and watched the crowd.”  Jesus, now that he has taught, grounds his life in observation.  He turns toward finding the holy in the fragility of daily living.  He had a large crowd as pupils.  Now he looks to a crowd to extract lessons.

He finds there a tragic beauty.  He finds a woman, a widow, who should not have to contribute all that she has.  She should be taken care of by the system—the very system he has just condemned through the scribes.  Of course, the widow is not being taken care of at all.  In this neglect, Jesus laments.  The widow has little, and she gives it all.  And in faithful giving, Jesus rejoices.

The most fascinating thing about the whole passage to me is Jesus’ use of time and observation.  Jesus comes into the situation and seeks not to change the channel, as Sara Silverman does, but to watch it very carefully.  He seeks to appreciate both the true suffering of the widow, identifying it and naming it for what it is, for what the scribes have done to her without minimizing it in any way.  AND he also names her faithfulness, her humanity in all that she is making it to be, by living into it fully and faithfully—with all of its fragility– in a beautiful way.  He is with her and she does not even know it.

Suffering is such a difficult concept.  We bring it on each other, and it is so easy to find culpability and put people in the place of the scribes, to make somebody else, whoever it is, responsible for our problems as this human family.  How difficult it is to stand in the place of Jesus.  How difficult it is not to change the channel when we see what we do not like.  How hard it is to see—to really look at and appreciate– the tragic beauty and fragility of our condition as we go through this life together.

In my field parish this past Sunday, we had guest musicians.  In place of a Gospel hymn, we had a cello and piano piece by Rachmaninoff.  It was beautiful.  I tried to “sit down and watch” the music.  It was a deep lament.  It contained suffering, and suffering is hard.  There is no justification for the widow’s suffering, and we would all relieve it if we could find an easy answer.  But there is something beautiful about it also. There is something beautiful in that Rachmaninoff piece, there is a deep hurt, a deep ache, a crying out from the depths of the human heart—from the very depths of the human condition—which is both tragic and beautiful.

I find that the very fragility of life, the very delicate condition we find ourselves in, is holiness itself.  Just as when the widow gave all that she had, Jesus is there when the song goes to the depths of the human condition.  Of course Jesus is also there when the song becomes joyful and exuberant.  There is a beauty—there is holiness–  in both of these places.

Consider some random images:  Picture a homeless woman, looking for shelter on a cold night.  Or the faces many of us saw on our trip across the border in Mexico, or other places of utter poverty.  Or the face of starving child, smiling.  Or war-torn Iraq.  Or people recovering  from Katrina in New Orleans, or from the tsunami in Thailand.  Or continued efforts to integrate in post-Apartheid South Africa, or in Jenna, Louisiana.  Or a classic image that won the Pullitzer prize:  a nine-year old girl, naked, fleeing the wrath of the savagery of war in Vietnam.

There is such tragedy in each of these stories.  There are some days when we simply cannot bear it and have to change the channel.  How many of these images have we really studied?  But as we look ahead, as we discern our call to service for the world, we sit down and watch.  Do we have any other choice, really?

The reason the Sarah Silverman show is funny is because there is so much a part of us that wants to change the channel when those commercials come on.  It resonates in us—touches a part of our condition.  We hope we can change the channel.  We don’t want to face the systems we participate in that contribute to the tragedy in the world.  We don’t even want to look at the potential beauty that is there despite or even in tandem with the tragedy.  We just want to look away—to be dulled with the preoccupation of looking for batteries, or chasing remote controls, or whatever other mundane tasks we can find to fill the space.

But the fact is that the very face of God is found within our daily lives.  In those commercials, on the streets, in our classrooms, in our homes—holiness is to be found everywhere.  If we focus not on changing the channel but on becoming present, really present, if we focus on sitting down and watching the crowd, and then naming the beauty before us, no matter how dark and fragile, we become more aware of the God embedded within us and around us.

We are all ministers of some sort in this room.  We are all here to find or deepen our place of ministry.  We spend a lot of time in this place critiquing the world, finding the scribes, naming them, and seeming to figure out what if anything we can do about them.  Certainly part of what we must do is be engaged at that level, particularly when we are trying to raise awareness in a large crowd, as Jesus did in front of the large crowd in our gospel this morning.

But is seems to me that there is something… deeper here.  Jesus showed a deep love of the world.  He was not just critical of it from a distance—he engaged the world, interacted with it, he loved it.  He sought out the holiness of our humanity.  He embraced those dark places of our existence that we would rather just not look at sometimes, while calling us to make them better at the same time.  He saw the beauty in the horror—the dark tragic beauty of the human experience—while seeing the hope in the human potential.  It seems to me that to engage humanity critically without mirroring also Jesus’ love for humanity—all of humanity—in the same way, falls somehow short.  It is like the art critic, who always finds something to say about how a work of art could have been better but can never quite stand back and say, “you know, all in all, I really rather like that piece.”  Wouldn’t  an effective ministry that involves any type of analytical criticism, like that of Jesus to the scribes, necessarily be based and rooted in a deep love of our very humanity, with all of its fragility and potentiality?  I certainly hope so.  If not, perhaps we had better change the channel away from the widow.

Thanks be to God.



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