Jane Costlow – 6/19/16

Labyrinths and our “ordinary” world

For me this Sunday is framed beautifully by two of our scripture readings:  My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? – which is the beginning of the Psalm we read just a few minutes ago – and the extraordinary, visionary words of Paul’s letter to the Galatians:  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

My friends, this is the world we have lived in this week, stretched out between those two scriptures, between despair and a profound and earth-changing truth.

It was almost exactly a year ago that nine people were killed in Charleston, S.C. by a white supremacist who had joined in a Bible Study group at a Baptist church…  And then just a week ago 49 people were shot in an Orlando night club…  We are at exactly the same point in our liturgical calendar as we were a year ago…  “ordinary” time, the season of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is supposed to be among us.

The Holy Spirit of course IS among us, it’s just really, really hard to tell some times.

I’m not sure how or where you found out about the murders in Orlando, but I was with my husband David at the airport in Paris (France).  We had just spent two weeks on vacation. The first eight days we were hiking in amazingly beautiful countryside, and then we spent three days wandering through the medieval streets of Toulouse, one of the largest cities in France.  We had walked along the rocky ridges of ancient volcanoes. We had listened to cowbells chiming in lush meadows.  And then we paid a kind of pilgrimage to the monastic cloisters and churches of Toulouse, where we saw the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas, chapels to Joan of Arc, and long, long lists of the war dead from WWI.

This, too, is the world we live in, stretched out between extraordinary beauty and legacies of loss and violence that seem like they will crush us.

The part of France that we were in includes pathways that are part of what was once the greatest pilgrimage route in Europe, the “Way” of Campostello.   The paths lead from tiny villages in France through cathedral cities and then into Spain.  We actually saw several pilgrims on our travels, including a man in a French train who had a big backpack and a walking stick and lots of maps.  He and my husband David – who has the same kind of backpack – chatted about the pack’s design.  This man was on his way to Campostello.  He’s out there somewhere now, walking, and will continue walking into July and August.

Maybe because of having done so much walking over the last few weeks, and those meetings with pilgrims, I’ve kept thinking this week about labyrinths, and our lives as pilgrimage.  I put an image of the labyrinth on our handout this week.  The most famous one is at Chartres Cathedral in France. It’s an image traced on the floor of the cathedral, in the transept, and it’s a vehicle of prayer and meditation, but it’s also supposed to be a reminder of our LIVES.  The path wanders.  We approach the center, but then we turn away from it.  We don’t know quite where we’re going, but we have faith – we have a kind of blind hope (hope is always blind) – that we’re not wholly alone on the way.  And that’s the other thing about labyrinths.  You walk it alone, but there may be many other people tracing the path at the same time you are.  And God – the Holy Spirit – who is with us in this “ordinary time” of our lives – is always there.  Every step of the way.  Not just in the center, but on each pathway.  But our lives being what they are, we may not be able to see or feel that Spirit at certain moments.  And at that moment the labyrinth asks us to keep on going.  The way itself will carry us.

The other thing I’ve been really aware of this week is how richly we are accompanied, in our pilgrimages, by the resources of our religious tradition.  You could think of today’s scriptures as being food and drink in the backpack you carry on your pilgrimage – the labyrinth of life.  They are food for the journey.  Each one of them, for me, speaks to the horror and tragedy of Orlando.

Isaiah.  The speaker is filled with fury and frustration, outrage at the people’s complete disregard for God’s will, their hypocrisy and obstinacy.  All this leads to the desire for vengeance, for “paying back” in kind.

The Psalm.  This is the Psalm we read on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is being stripped, after we’ve read through the story of Jesus handed over to death.  It’s a raw howl of despair, the voice of someone who feels completely abandoned.  At the end of the Psalm there are glimmerings of hope – or something like a bargain with God: if you save me I’ll sing your praises.  But the emotional power of the psalm, at least for me, this week, is the howling despair.

The Gerasene Demoniac.  This striking, bizarre story seems like a parable for our time.  A man possessed of a whole legion of demons.  A man who lives not in houses but in the land of the dead.  A man who whole armies can’t tie down, whose demons make so strong he breaks all holds.  He can’t be contained, can’t be held back, seems beyond help.   I’m sure there are lots and lots of ways we could understand and interpret this story.  The Russian novelist Dostoevsky used it as the basis for his novel about political radicals – the terrorists of his day.  For me, this week, the story is about the apparently uncontainable power of some raw, elemental madness.  Try as we might to analyze and understand, rationally, what happened last Sunday, there is an element of brutal demonic energy in the murder of 49 people, the injuring of many more.  All sorts of different pieces are there – homophobia, misogyny, an abusive background, claims to affiliate with terror organizations, easily available guns – but there’s also an element of sheer madness.  Call it  “possession.”

And we struggle to figure out what could heal this madness, the possessed among us.

How do we get from Paul’s visionary declaration to a safer, saner world?  How do we make our way through this labyrinth?

I look to Trinity – to YOU – for help thinking about how to answer that question.  But I also found responses from many people of faith this past week, as perhaps you did as well.  Here are just a few that offered solace, strength and challenge.

James Wellman, a professor of American Religious History at the University of Washington, suggested in a column on line that we as Americans live in “haunted houses” – haunted by various forms of violence and hidden pain.  Americans fall too quickly, he suggests, into accusation and looking for someone to blame…  Instead we need to grieve:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Our presiding bishop Michael Curry was in Mississippi last Sunday. Episcopal churches there were holding what has become an annual liturgy of reconciliation.  They were commemorating the death and witness of Mississippi civil rights activists Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  In a brief podcast Bishop Curry offered prayers for the Orlando victims, for the victims’ families, and for the whole nation… And then he prayed the Lord’s Prayer (as though no other words are adequate…)

And our House of Bishops this past week urged us all, as people of faith, to contact our elected officials and urge them to pass gun safety legislation.  The resolution they refer to was passed in 1997.   That was twenty years, and many, many lives ago.

Our scriptures today – and these words from our religious leaders – don’t offer any easy answers to the dilemmas of violence that we live with.  There simply are no easy answers.  What the scriptures DO give us is testimony of the range of emotions with which our forbears have responded. And they give us a strongly worded imperative: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And we extend that vision: there is no longer gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor.  All of us are one in Christ Jesus.

One of the things I encountered this week is the Litany for Gun Violence Prevention written by our own Bishop Lane, that I’ve printed on the back of the handout.  I thought we could read it as a way of ending.  I need to tell you, though, that when I went back to the website yesterday, it turned out that the litany had provoked a range of responses, many of them angry – including people who insisted that the problem isn’t guns.  Or that Episcopalians need to be praying for aborted fetuses.  Or that the litany is too affectionate toward President Obama.

This is where we live.  In a violent, contentious, world.  Where all of us can feel like Isaiah, or the psalmist, or the demoniac.  Where there’s precious little experience of the spirit of Galatians.

But here, at Trinity, we can struggle and speak, mourn and lament, question and listen.  We can travel our labyrinths in each other’s company.  And each of us, in our own way, can discern how the Spirit draws us toward a life of healing.  I hope that we can do that, as always, by praying together. Whatever our differences may be, here, in the space of Eucharist and common prayer, we are all one in Christ Jesus.

I’d ask you to stand and join with me in reading the litany – I’ll ask you to respond with the words in bold, “Make us instruments of your peace.”

Litany for Gun Violence Prevention offered for use in Sunday services

Bishop Stephen Lane [http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com]

Giver of Life and Love, you created all people as one family and called us to live together in harmony and peace. Surround us with your love as we face the challenges and tragedies of gun violence.

For our dear ones, for our neighbors, for strangers and aliens, and those known to you alone, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God of Righteousness, you have given our leaders, especially Barack, our President, the members of Congress, the judges of our courts and members of our legislatures, power and responsibility to protect us and to uphold our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For all who bear such responsibility, for all who struggle to discern what is right in the face of powerful political forces, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God of Compassion, we give you thanks for first responders, for police officers, firefighters and EMTs, and all those whose duties bring them to the streets, the lobbies, the malls and the homes where the carnage of gun violence takes place day after day. Give them courage and sound judgment in the heat of the moment and grant them compassion for the victims.

For our brothers and sisters who risk their lives and their serenity as they rush to our aid, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

Merciful God, bind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence, those maimed and disfigured, those left alone and grieving, and those who struggle to get through one more day. Bless them with your presence and help them find hope.

For all whose lives are forever marked by the scourge of gun violence, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God Who Remembers, may we not forget those who have died in the gun violence that we have allowed to become routine. Receive them into your heart and comfort us with your promise of eternal love and care.

For all who have died, those who die today, and those who will die tomorrow, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God of Justice, help us, your church, find our voice. Empower us to change this broken world and to protest the needless deaths caused by gun violence. Give us power to rise above our fear that nothing can be done and grant us the conviction to advocate for change.

For your dream of love and harmony, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

All this we pray in the name of the One who offered his life so that we might live, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.