Sunday, January 17, 2010

Child, Where Were You??

Click here for disaster relief programs for Haiti, centered around women and children. There are several organizations and a list of supplies needed. TinyChurch will be accepting donations of items on the list for the next 2 weeks. Feel free to have things sent to the church or bring them to me personally. We'll take a load to Haitian Woman for Haitian Refugees in Manhattan the following week.

Please keep the people of Haiti in your prayers. Today is the 5th day since the earthquake and time is running out to find survivors in the rubble. There are still huge needs for food, water, and basic medical care. Without the basics, more people will die. Here are two excellent organizations:

Direct Relief International: A U.S. based non-profit that supplies local partners with medical supplies.  They have been working in Haiti for years and have existing partnerships in place to accept and distribute supplies. Nearly 100% of donations go to relief work as they have an endowment which funds their administrative costs.

Partners In Health: Based in Boston, PIH provides healthcare in 9 countries, including Haiti. Several of their hospitals and clinics are in outlying areas outside of Port au Prince and are able to provide medical care. The U.N. is working closely with them to provide triage care in Port au Prince as well.

So then, today's sermon, written with a prayer that I do no harm.

January 17, 2010
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 18:1-19
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 2:39-52

This week, as images of the destruction in Haiti have poured through the television and internet, I have been struck by this persistent question: "Where is God?"  I know that this is not everybody's question or reaction to the death and destruction occurring in Haiti, but it is my question and so I bring it to you this morning.  Others have said to me this week "Why does God let such things happen?" or "We cannot know the mind of God." or "There is no God, it's just tectonic plates." or "This is God's judgment on the Haitians, the French, the United States, the bourgeois, the rich, the greedy, the corporate, the poor ."  I have heard people say on both ends of the political spectrum in the U.S. that the other side will use this disaster in Haiti to perpetuate agendas. I have listened to Haitians say they do not wish to be used in this way.  This week I have heard people praising God for their survival next to the strangled cries of those who are dying or have lost loved ones.  I have noticed extraordinary acts of heroism and watched others walk away. I have struggled with my own guilt and helplessness that I cannot do more--that I cannot fly to Haiti yesterday and fix everything, because it seems like we should have that power.  And so in the middle of this, this question haunts me, "Where is God?"

As I pondered the text for this week, I found my question becoming rather parental, and my anger with God took on the dimensions of Mary's frustration with Jesus, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."  And I think to myself, "God, why have you treated us like this? Look, the whole world has been searching for you in great anxiety."  Where is God when people are buried alive, starving and thirsting in the rubble of fallen buildings? I'll try to get somewhere with this question this morning, but I make no guarantees. Human tragedy is the place where our theologies and platitudes fail us, and perhaps the only faith I am capable of in the face of this is the ability to keep asking the question "Where are you?"  I have heard stories of the Haitian people singing praises to God this last week, but I have also heard of anger, grief, sorrow, and fear. So I am turning to this gospel story today as it brings us a picture of our humanity. And a picture of the humanity of God.

Today's scripture is considered one of the "infancy narratives" of Jesus' life. That is, it's a story of the time before he became an adult and assumed full responsibility for his ministry. This story is in fact the only story we have of Jesus growing up in the four gospels of our canon.  Matthew begins with the birth of the Messiah and the visits of the wise men, the flight to Egypt and eventual return to settle in Nazareth.  And then Matthew moves on to John the Baptist in the wilderness and the beginnings of Jesus' adult ministry. Mark's blessedly short narrative does not even begin with Jesus' birth.  He simply dives right in and begins with Jesus' baptism and temptation in the wilderness.  John tells us the story of the coming of Jesus, but he tells it in lofty poetry: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." And then the next thing we know, Jesus is selecting disciples and changing water to wine.

Of the four gospel writers, Luke is the only one who concerned himself with telling a story of Jesus' youth. It stands out in tradition; it serves as an intermediate text.  This was a time in Jesus' life where we are unsure how much he knew of his mission, of his identity, of the joy and struggle to come.  He was still under the protection of his parents, and yet he had autonomy, wisdom, and foolishness like any grown human.
The story goes like this. After Jesus had been circumcised according to tradition, Mary and Joseph took the baby back home and raised him.  He grew strong and wise, and God was pleased with him (sounds like an easy child, doesn't he?).  When Jesus was 12 years old, his family joined a caravan of people traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  It might be something like joining a group of people going to New York City to watch the ball drop on New Year's Eve. A large, noisy group, with plans to celebrate and feast in the big city. The city braces itself every year for the celebration with extra trains, buses, cabs, and staffing to make the flow of people as efficient as possible. And yet it is a busy, crowded time in New York City on New Year's Eve, and it is easy to get separated from the rest of your group.  After the Passover celebrations were complete, Jesus family rejoined the caravan to go back to Nazareth.  Jesus had not been with them all day, but they didn't worry until nightfall.  Stopping for the night, they realized that he was not present. Perhaps they had assumed all day that Jesus was playing with cousins and friends, throwing rocks at the side of the road or telling stories as they walked.  Visiting with extended family brings relief to parents of children as there are many other watchful eyes to supervise.

Every large family I know has a story about losing one of their children on a road trip.  Usually it goes something like this: "One time when we were driving on a long trip, we stopped to get gas.  I went into the restroom, and when I came out it was just in time to see the family station wagon pulling away from the gas station.  It was an hour before anybody noticed I wasn't in the car. The guy at the service station gave me a coke. When my parents came back for me, they hugged me tight and then yelled at me for being irresponsible. I used that incident for years to inspire guilt."

I confess that I have lost my children once or twice in their history. As we traveled from California to New Jersey, we took an eight week road trip to see what the northern part of this country looked like. Somewhere in South Dakota we stopped at a hotel for the night. My oldest son was out the door of the room before I could even put our bags down. He likes to buy things from vending machines. Twenty seconds later, my little guy darted out the door after his brother. I figured they were just around the corner and didn't mind. Until my oldest walked back in the room without his brother. "Where's your brother?!?" I asked. He just shrugged and said, "I dunno. I'm not in charge of him." I dashed out into the hallway to look for my little guy, but he was nowhere. For 15 minutes, I looked all over the hotel. The front desk staff looked. The maintenance and cleaning staff looked. He was nowhere. And for 15 minutes, all of the horrible, terrible, worst case scenarios floated through my head. He had been kidnapped. He was dead. He had fallen down an elevator shaft. He had been eaten by coyotes. And then he walked back in to the hotel room and smiled. I shrieked "Where have you been, child?!?" He didn't say anything, just held out his hand and showed me two quarters, as if to say, "Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I'd be scavenging the vending machines for quarters?"

Mary and Joseph hurried back to Jerusalem after they realized Jesus was not in the caravan. A full day out on the road, then a full day back.  Surely the ride back to Jerusalem seemed longer as they fretted and worried about the safety of their child.  And then a day to find Jesus.  By the time they found him in the temple, Mary and Joseph had spent two full days imagining every possible scenario of what had happened to their son. But Jesus had just spent three marvelous days entertaining himself with the rabbis, asking questions and conversing.  It is the only time in scripture that we find Jesus functioning as the student instead of the teacher, soaking in knowledge.

Scripture says that all were amazed by Jesus' questions and knowledge.  I knew someone on Sunday School like that.  Actually, I knew a few.  They were the people who could recite the books of the Bible in order. Or in alphabetical order, if you preferred. They were the people who when you said, "Turn to Leviticus, chapter 8," they said, "Oh, you mean the section on the rites of ordination where Moses anointed Aaron and his sons and consecrated the temple?" I envied those people with a passion that bordered on sinful. And always I was amazed at their comfort and facility with scripture.

When his parents saw him in the temple, they were astonished as well, but not in a good way.  For Mary said, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Or in other words, "What were you thinking? How could you just take off and not tell us where you were? We have been worried to death about you!" And Jesus says, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"  As if their fears were unfounded. As if they should have known where to look for him.  As if they were over-reacting. Jesus might as well have said, "Relax Mom, Geez." And all of us with mothers know how well that would go over. This wouldn't be the last time Jesus spoke flippantly about his parents. Later in Luke, chapter 8 somebody tells Jesus that his mother and brothers are looking for him and he responds, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." A pastor friend of mine, Melissa DeRosia, wrote a brief poem in response to this passage:
If I were Jesus' mother, the word of God would have come to me real fast. No crowd would hold me back from letting him know that is no way to speak to your mother, son of God or not.
How's that for doing it?
No wonder a storm follows.
It seems to me that this story reflects a very real, human tension for all of us in our familial relationships.  We expect our children to behave in certain ways. We spend an inordinate amount of effort and time training them to behave in certain ways.  From the moment of conception we begin to envision what this child might look like, act like, grow up to be like.  How many of us have fought off our own parents' expectations for our lives?  This is not confined to just parent-child relatioships, we do this in our friendships, and with our lovers as well.  The people around us become extensions of our own desires and hopes, and when they are not where they are supposed to be, doing the things they are supposed to be doing, it is jarring. And we come face to face with the realization that the other person is not our possession.  The other person, child or no, has their own autonomy, their own agency, their own desires and hopes and dreams. Some children express this rebellion at younger ages than others. Some are more vocal and obnoxious about expressing this rebellion than others.  Some of our children do stuff like run away for three days, driving us up the wall with worry and fear. Some of our adult children and friends and lovers run away for longer, disappearing without warning, driving us up the wall with worry and fear. I could list the ways young people express their individuality and rebellion against our expectations, but we would be here all morning with such a list. A part of the human spirit is to refuse those expectations from others. Jesus' rebellion mirrors our own. His humanity is unquestionable.

And I believe that this is also a part of the Spirit of God. A refusal to confine itself to our expectations and demands. We ask, "Where is God?" and the answer we get back is "Didn't you know I'm over here?" We ask "How can you let this happen?" and the answer we get back is "Sssh. I am tending to this girl in the rubble, the man on the street, this politician who must make a hard decision."  We say "I cannot see you, God. I can no longer believe." And sometimes God is absolutely silent in Her weeping for those in pain and death, and we fail to see.  And yet we do not stop asking "Where were you? How could you?" And God always responds with "Didn't you know I'm right over here?" It is maddening. It adds to my grief and anger. "What kind of God are you anwyay?" I sometimes ask. And all I get back is "I'm here."

So in times like this week, when I have no easy answers, no way to help other sending my change to relief agencies and taking care of my sons, I turn to the psalms. For they were written by people who also knew human grief and fear, terrible anger and sorrow.
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of  my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord...the cords of death encompassed me...the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help...
He reached down from on high, he took me, he drew me out of mighty waters...
He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
What do these words mean for the Haitian people who have been crying out for centuries in their pain and suffering? The history of Haiti is suprising and refuses to conform to the historical narrative taught to our school children.  It is surprising both in its plain facts and also in our role in that history as citizens of the United States. In the early hours of this disaster, a narrative is forming of Haitian history and our involvement in their woes, but the history of Haiti rebels against that narrative. I encourage you to take this moment in time to look closer at U.S. involvement in Haiti. As part of your relief efforts, read a book, visit some blog sites, collect stories about this tiny nation. For when we ask why this could happen, we must acknowledge the ways in which our nation has contributed to this crisis.

Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti in 1492. At that time there were an estimated 8 million Tainos (native peoples of the island). 50 years later, in 1542, only 200 Tainos remined. The French repopulated the island with slaves from Africa to provide labor for plantations. Conditions were terrible, and the slaves organized. In 1803, they rebelled succesfully and drove out the French. The slave revolt began in 1791. Britain and France sent two armies of 60,000 soldiers, and the slaves of Haiti fought them back. It was the only successful slave rebellion in the western hemisphere. And it made many other countries very nervous. 

The U.S. refused to recognize the new government. Trade embargoes were enforced. France agreed to allow Haiti her hard won freedom--if they agreed to pay 150 million francs for the privilege.  In order to pay the loan, Haiti borrowed from U.S. and French banks. The payments on those loans broke Haiti economically. The last payment was finally made in 1947, leaving Haiti destitute with no way to rebuild.

As a close and powerful neighbor to Haiti, the U.S. has been intimately involved with the economics and politics of that country. Our involvement in Haiti is well documented and interpreted widely, but we cannot deny that our lives are intertwined with the fortunes of our brothers and sisters in Haiti. (Much of this information is available easily on the internet with some variation, but I took statistics from An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson)

As we grieve with the Haitian people and offer assistance for their recovery, we must be careful.  We must read, we must listen. We must ask Haiti what she wishes from us. For the people of Haiti, like all other human beings, like Jesus, and like God, will refuse to be constrained by our expectations and demands. Our gospel story for today reminds us of this essential dignity of the spirit that will not be owned by another.

Links to information and opinions about Haiti. This is only a sampling, but it will get you started.

An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James

What Is Haiti Owed? (on the more "liberal" side)
The Underlying Tragedy (on the more "conservative" side)

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