Sunday, May 8, 2011

Loving Fierce

Sermon, Sunday, May 8, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Reading: Luke 24:13-35

I struggled all week with this sermon. How much do I focus on mothers? How much do I focus on the news? How does scripture inform it all? What did the walk to Emmaus have to do with any of it? In the end, I decided to focus on the news. The best of our mothers is that fierce mama bear love that wants for the world a better place. May we all draw from our Mother God, who offers both refuge and strength for the journey.

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? I bet almost everybody here does. We are approaching the 10 year anniversary of that date, and for many of us that day remains etched into our memories. A day like that stays with us for many reasons; tragedy has a longer shelf life than joy, and the shock of death imprints itself on our hearts. It stays with us because grief and anger are tenacious in their grip, returning long after the actual event, recalled by a name (Osama bin Laden) or by fresh grief from later events or by the telling of someone else’s story. We store old trauma in our bodies, and a touch, a smell, a visual cue can bring memories tumbling back like fierce kittens tumbling after yarn.

The memory of where we were on September 11 stays with us because we tell the story over and again, creating out of that day a memorial of the lives lost. We tell the story over and again, trying to create meaning out of hate, some semblance of order out of chaos. We tell the story again and again, because for most of us, hijacking an airplane and crashing into buildings is an incomprehensible act of violence. So we tell our stories with the intention of never forgetting, to honor those who died with our memories, because the least we can do, it seems, is to not forget.

Sunday night President Obama announced an unusual late night press conference. By the time he actually spoke to the world at 11:30, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death had spread throughout social networks—the news broke first on twitter and quickly spread to facebook. I was away at a pastor’s retreat, and while most of my group had already gone to sleep, most of my twitter friends were awake and tuned in to the announcement. It wasn’t long before reactions to bin Laden’s death started rolling in: everything from jubilant celebration to mourning the 10 years of war that came out of 9/11; people dancing on the grave and people wagging their fingers at those dancing on graves; people declaring that they would mourn even bin Laden’s death and people wagging their fingers at those mourning this death. It was, like all human experiences, a hot mess, a soup sandwich, a loud, obnoxious, brawl over righteousness. And Christians are the worst when it comes to brawls over righteousness!

My twitter and facebook filled with Christians using scriptures from all the books of the Bible to justify and defend their positions (including me—don’t think I’m the righteous one here; here's a link to where I blogged my righteousness). Come the next morning, our pastor’s retreat kicked off with a session on transitional ministry. We talked about the stages of grief and how that can be applied to a congregation. We talked about life cycles and how that can be applied to a congregation. We talked about living well and dying well and how those can be applied to a congregation. We didn’t talk at all about Osama bin Laden, 9/11, the President’s speech, or the fact that all of us needed to go home and write a sermon for today that would somehow faithfully encapsulate the assassination of a political enemy, Mother’s Day, killer tornadoes, and a scripture on the Walk to Emmaus. We didn’t talk about how most of us were filled with emotion of one kind or another, having heard the news through our various social media networks before breakfast.

We didn’t talk about any of all that until we got to worship at 11:15. Our worship leader had the good sense to lay aside his worship plans for the day and created space for people to begin to process their reactions to the news.

Chris said something like, “Perhaps, in light of today’s news, we might set aside our planned order of worship and have some time to pray and sing, to tell our stories.” And then somebody bravely raised their hand and asked, “What news are you talking about?” It turned out three or four people in the room had actually followed the spirit of a retreat and left behind their social media and news sources. There was a sort of pause, and then someone else offered a summary of the President’s announcement. Like Cleopas walking on the road to Emmaus, the question hung in the room: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” We told the story again in different ways. There were a few reflections on 9/11 itself. And mostly there was reaction to the news of bin Laden’s assassination.

We are Christians, and so the stories we tell are always tied to the overarching story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have a habit of very quickly attaching our story to the Christ story and obliterating inconvenient or messy emotions. And when Christians gather, we have a habit of quickly determining what we should be feeling instead of what we are feeling. We have a habit of thinking that we are separate from the rest of the world, by virtue of our belief system. A group of pastors is no different, for all our ordination and education. For all that we had just finished a seminar on the stages of grief, there wasn’t much recognition in that worship service of anger, relief, and joy at the news of bin Laden’s death.

In this last week I have read a large number of commentaries on reactions to the assassination, mostly written by Christians, which suggest that it is wrong to rejoice in the death of an enemy. I have read commentaries challenging bin Laden’s status as public enemy number one. I have listened to people lecture how we should never rejoice in the death of an enemy. I have watched people who refuse to critically look at racial oppression (mis)quote Martin Luther King, Jr. saying that only light can overcome darkness, only love can triumph over hate. People who have never even been to New York have chimed in on what New Yorkers should be feeling. I’ve read articles explaining collective euphoria over an enemy’s death as a social phenomenon that is healthy for identity building. I’ve read others offering dire warnings of retaliation and fears over our own government gone rogue (both of which I am sure will happen, regardless of how somberly we react to bin Laden's death).

I don’t have a lot of answers about what people should be feeling at any particular moment. I do know that feelings are not the same as action, and that moral judgments about feelings are fairly useless. People feel what they do. The disciples, as they walked on to Emmaus, felt what they felt about Jesus’ death, even though Jesus had told them he was coming back. They mourned his death even though they were sent on into life with a mission, strengthened by that death. They were angry, distraught, distrustful, sorrowful. And that’s just scratching the surface. Grief is never appropriate in its habits, and it doesn’t run a predictable course, regardless of our attempts to systematize it, write about it, label it in stages, or dress it up to sell books. But we don’t like grief or anger much, so we put a time limit on it and shut it down when we see others acting it out.

As I was reading about the celebratory reactions to bin Laden’s assassination, I also found an essay from someone blogging about her experience with the destructive tornadoes in the south. That particular disaster is still fresh, a little over a week old. I found this post helpful to remember what it is like to feel fresh grief and anger over death, and also helpful to remember that many of the people who experienced 9/11 first hand have a more enduring memory of that event. I want to read you a bit of this woman’s story, because I think it’s useful to remember grief and anger in it’s fresh raw form. And unless we can access that grief and anger, either for ourselves or vicariously through another, it is not possible to understand the celebratory relief expressed last week over bin Laden’s death. I don’t think celebretory relief is where we end things—more thoughts on that in a minute. But I think it is a place to start, and probably a place we return to: grief is messy. So here are thoughts from Genevieve at A Light Slowly Growing, who could just as easily have been writing in the days after 9/11: (Go here to read the entire blogpost. It's excellent)
...Stage two is the stage that needs the name. Stage two, Anger, is coming on with full force. I want to scream at this storm. I want to take my fists fitted with brass knuckles to the face of that tornado and I want to know its name. I want to blame this all on it. I want to take all this pain and anguish and absolute fury and throw it at a name, a thing. I don't want to call it a tornado anymore. I don't want to call it a storm anymore. I want to name the thing that barrels through my dreams every night ripping everything away in its path.

God I am just so angry. Every conversation I am in or overhear, every sentence on every website, every text message and every call and every person I pass is talking about it, reminiscing in this memory I want to disappear. It's in my dreams, it's in my television, it's in my fingertips on this blog and it's in these crying spells that come on for no reason. I drive through my neighborhood and I just want to find the thing that did this, that hurt and ruined so much and so many. I want to rip out its insides and set them on fire... 
...I just wish we named tornadoes. I want to scream out a name when I wake up from these nightmares. I want to write a letter every day to a thing that I can blame. I want to have a word I can say that means more than tornado, that means more than storm. Something I can look at and say, "You won't win you selfish, cruel bastard. You won't take anything else from us.

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
It’s not a perfect analogy. Osama bin Laden was not a tornado, he was a man. There are complexities to the world situation that led to 9/11, ways in which we are all complicit in the deaths of millions of people world wide (including our own country). But what I am trying to say is that anger and celebratory euphoria are normal and appropriate.  What is more important is what we will do with that anger in the future. How will we channel our frustrations at the destructive nature of this world? If people really are against political assassination and war and terrorism, how will we actually live out a love ethic in our every day lives and in our politics?

In 2003, women in Liberia won a hard-fought political battle to end the violence of civil war in their country. They crossed ideological and religious lines to stand against rape and murder, assassination and beatings, poverty and starvation. Weary and agnry at their men warring against one another and using women and children as objects to be used as war prizes and discarded in the dirt, the women decided they would not take anymore. In an excellent movie called Pray The Devil Back to Hell, one woman said, "Liberia had been at war for so long that my children had been afraid and hungry for their entire lives."

In their anger and grief they decided it was worth the risk to be heard. And so they began to protest. They protested in the streets, in their churches, in their women’s circles. They read together, prayed together, sang together, marched together. They told their men that if they had any political power, any connections through friendship or business, any way of ending this political struggle that they had better utilize those connections and end this war. Because there would not be peace (and sex) in their homes until the men ended the war.

Over time, the women’s efforts yielded fruit and peace talks were held between the government and the rebels. The women went and stood in the streets outside the peace talks. At one point the peace talks were not going well, and officials tried to leave the building. The women rose up and blocked the men from leaving. One woman walked up to the door of the building and confronted an official directly. She said if he abandoned the peace talks she would take her clothes off then and there in the street, publicly shaming him with her nudity. Their stubbornness, their refusal to accept more violence, their determination that there would be no more rape and murder and starvation and death led to significant political and social change. That conviction did not come from setting aside anger. It came from loving so fiercely and with such fire that they refused to accept oppression and violence without a struggle.

Life is not perfect in Liberia. As in other places, including the U.S., there is still sexual assault, abuse of power, starving children, and unnecessary death. Justice is not a one time event or march, but an ongoing practice of saying no to abuse and degradation. Sometimes that means saying no with anger—fury even. And sometimes it means joy and relief when individuals who have caused death and suffering cannot cause further harm. But always it means acknowledging the complexities of our grief, our own complicitness in oppressive structures, and resolving to channel our anger and grief (at both the other and ourselves) into creative rebellion against injustice.

What does that have to do with the walk to Emmaus? I’ve wandered pretty far afield. But it has to do with this: when we walk along together seeking out the meaning in the days events we are acting faithfully. When we express our emotions, however varied and complex, we are acting faithfully. When we seek through our scriptures for truth and justice, we are acting faithfully. And when we break bread with strangers and discover Christ in our midst, we are acting faithfully. Jesus did not ask the disciples to stop feeling, thinking, or processing. He simply showed them that in the midst of their wrangling he was still present. He held out hope for how we might come to love one another better, but he never said it would be without the journey to get there. He showed that there is more to life than fearing death. He reminded us that anger and grief are part of the process. Only a part, but definitely a part. And that anger and grief, coupled with love can lead us forward into justice.

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