By the Sweat of Whose Brow

February 22, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I have this awful feeling that if I did something old school like give up candy or booze for Lent that you all would think I had gone over to the dark side. How quaint. How old fashioned. How continuous with decades if not centuries of Christian practice. After all, we are a church that is somewhat different and dedicated to making a large difference. Therefore we should observe Lent in as Avant garde a way as possible.

Since the most avant garde thing I can think of to do is to root us in the traditions that we question, as those radicals so perpetually described as the people who root around, let me give old fashioned Lent a try. Or at least tell you what it is I think we were trying to do when we gave up candy for forty days.

I am going to take this approach not because I want to judge Micah’s addition, rather than deletion of a practice, so well preached last week. I am certainly not going to give Sara, my liturgical partner today, a hard time about her announcement last week, about how Ash Wednesday was going to be different than anything you ever experienced. I already gave her a hard time about that and because she is so gracious, she more than accepted my miff. Nor do I want to quarrel with Holly, something I am smart enough not to do, about her Lenten series on nourishment, instead of repentance, which started this morning. Why not nourish ourselves during Lent? Why not? My explanation of the good old days of Lent is not intended to be competitive with other views. I just thought it would be interesting to say what it used to be.

I am actually fascinated by old-fashioned Lent because it receives such brilliant reactivity. I also know my audience. Every time I do a little test here, I discover that most of you are liturgically and biblically unschooled. You either weren’t raised in a church or if you were, you didn’t like it. Let me take a test. How many of you think you know what old fashioned, traditional, dorky, nurdy Lent used to be? Ok, leave out the defensiveness. How many of you think you know what old-fashioned Lent is? PAUSE

Maybe I missed my audience. And maybe I know you. Maybe I think there is sweat on your brow.

Here I go. Lent is a rehearsal for death and suffering. It is the time when we die in, as we did so meaningfully on Ash Wednesday night. Many of you have died in on the streets of New York City in appropriate protest of the shootings of black men by police, a really fine and excruciating example of human suffering if there ever was one. Out there on the streets, I think we have found the laying down as though we too were dead to be very meaningful. Out there it has a freshness, an ethical spectacle, a meaning. Out there it is actually new and God knows many of us are so weary of carrying signs, being penned in, “hitting the streets,” that we were glad for something that had a time limitation and that the police didn’t know what to do with. But in here, lying down on the floor – how many of us did it – PAUSE had a unique meaning. We were rehearsing for our own death.

Lent is a rehearsal for inevitable death and inevitable suffering. Death rates remain at 100%. We all know this and yet we construct so much of life – including the end of life and its medicalization – to make sure we don’t die.Surely First Worlders can’t be the first people who are going to make it out without dying?

Lent is not just a rehearsal for inevitable death but also a rehearsal for suffering. No matter how many chickens there are in your pot, you will still suffer. Lent universalizes suffering. You are going to suffer whether you are a black man or not. You are going to suffer with or without oppression, with or without liberation. You have sweat on your brow. It is not just on the brow of the people who shovel your snow.

Lent is most easily accessed by we first worlders in the therapeutic language of “stay with the feeling.” When therapists advise us to stay with the feeling, they are encouraging us to experience suffering. Why do they have to insist so that we do? Because we don’t want to, that’s why. Because suffering hurts. Failure hurts. Betrayal hurts. Bunions hurt. Cancer hurts. Depression hurts. Some things just hurt.

On our side of the theological street, most of us understand the suffering caused by injustice. We know how hard it is to read if no one has to taught you to read. We know how hard it is to eat if you don’t have the right credentials for a decent paying job. We know how hard it is not to take a job with the military if there are no other ones in sight.

What we understand less is that being able to read and eating well, if not luxuriously, or not having to go to war because you are classed out of it is not an exemption from suffering. Suffering and death are universal. We may want the sweat on the brow to be someone else’s but likely you will find some sweat on your brow. A certain meaninglessness may deposit itself into your bucket, whether you are rich or pooor.

Lent imitates the forty days in the wilderness which the Jews know very well. It imitates the forty days of reflection, which Muslims know very well. Lent is like the 40 days Noah spent on the ark, not knowing when or whether a dove would appear. It joins Christians to a universal feature of religion – yes I mean religion here, not spirituality – which is that religion exists to be a metaphor to manage human suffering. Even saying that which we love to repeat, “I am spiritual but not religious,” is a kind of shield against acknowledged suffering. The New agers love to do this, as though chanting OM will keep chemo from hurting. Chanting OM while suffering through chemotherapy and death’s loud knock on your door will help. Don’t get me wrong. But chemo will still hurt.

When we hear the helicopters in the sky over Manhattan, we know that the police are watching, in the same way that Pilate watched, to make sure Jesus’ movement didn’t get out of hand. When we hear the Pope beg us to give up indifference for Lent, don’t you have a little shiver, hoping that he will not be assassinated for driving us to a love that will surely punish? Didn’t you for years now wonder if Obama wouldn’t be shot for being a man who drives certain kinds of people crazy, for reasons despicable? When something good starts to happen, doesn’t it make you afraid? This is Lent. It is raw fear. It is insomnia. It is fear joined by trembling. Lent is the practice of fear and trembling for forty days a year.

Your life may be in a good place this Lent. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want a rehearsal. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to be ready for suffering and not act surprised when it knocks on your door.

Lent is also a rehearsal for Easter. It wants you to get ready for the life beyond death by making sure you know helicopters, chemo, the betrayal of your friends and the crucifixion your mother may have to watch. The cliché is that you can’t get to Easter if you don’t go through Good Friday. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this cheap grace, the kind that refuses to suffer, the kind that cherry picks the divine promise of life everlasting. Many get lost right here. So, understand: Lent is a rehearsal for suffering. It prepares you to suffer. Without preparation, you will suffer like a novice, spending most of your time whining about why this had to happen to me. With preparation, you will suffer like a pro, or at least not like an amateur. You will be more ready for that which you cannot be fully ready. And, I’m not going all the way to Easter today, as that would be ingenuous, you will get a glimpse of what it means to go through the tunnel, to discover that New Jersey is on the other side and that New Jersey is the human condition, despite any and all attempts to live only on the island of Manhattan as exceptionally gifted human beings.

Lent and religion are mastery by metaphor. Nothing personal about New Jersey.

We say that weeping endures for the night and joy comes in the morning. That means that weeping can be at 1 a.m., 2 a.m 3 a.m,. 3:32 a.m. 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Dawn does come but weeping endures. We say that the tomb has an opening. We say that nothing, not life or death or powers or principalities can separate us from the love of God. And we mean that. We also mean that we won’t know, on the cross, that this promise is true. We will see 3:32 a.m. as separation from the love of God and the love of others. Lent is rehearsal for 3:32 a.m., the dark night of the soul.

Today we are also arguing that Lent is a kind of composting. Lent is the rehearsal for that day when all waste will become energy. When all dirt will become energy. When those orange peels and coffee grounds and egg shells will decompose sufficiently to create new dirt. But if you know anything about compost at all,you know that it takes time. Easy forty days. On the way to its decomposition, it is not pretty.

I have told you the story of the Holy Shit project in Tucson before. Youth group composted in the church parking lot, made money for their urban immersion trip to San Francisco. Lovely story. Lots of fun. Good laughs. But I haven’t told you what really happened on the trip. In a way it was a Lenten trip – and those of you who have been youth workers or camp counselors won’t be surprised at what happened. You who have prepared yourself by Lenten rehearsal will not be surprised. Basicly on the last night of a week spent in the San Francisco Morgue, sleeping in its shelters and eating in its soup kitchen, the group had 400 dollars left. A huge painful fight broke out between the kids about whether to eat at the Top of the Marc or not. Lenten prepared people aren’t surprised.

So I have put myself on a kind of budget about the cold. Like many of you, I’ve had it. I’ve had it with the dressing. With the blast of wind. With the slipping and sliding. And I have also had it with the way we have all had it. Thus my complaint budget. Five whinings a day and that’s it. Usually I have spent my budget by lunch time. In a funny way, this grim joke is a way to approach Lent. It says that finally we only have so much budget for suffering. Let’s do it all in forty days. Let’s give it a number, a pattern.

James Baldwin argued that it is very expensive to be poor. We know what he means. It is also very expensive to live in denial. Baldwin means there is a lot of month left after the money runs out. Lent is, similarly, a point of view about costs and benefits. It says we want at least 40 days of suffering every year. Forty days without sweets. Forty days without meat. Forty days without beer. Suffering is way too expensive, unbidden and unacknowledged. Lent is a management by metaphor strategy. A budgeted ritual. Otherwise you are headed straight to that tunnel of cheap grace, the place where you just wear an Easter bonnet all the time until somebody knocks it right off your head. Grace is not cheap. It too is very expensive.

In case you haven’t noticed, self-help books are super popular. You can get books that take you from forty days to thin thighs. Maybe they are a parody of Lent? And maybe they are the practice of Lent. One title I really like is “If you are in the driver’s seat, why are you lost”. Publisher’s weekly argues that this title is a great one because the author uses the metaphor of driving throughout 12 easy to understand chapters. If you think you are better than easy to understand chapters, be careful. Lent is for those of us who are in the driver’s seat and who are lost. Lent is for those of us in New York, scared to death of being in New Jersey. Lent is for those of us who would like a different shaped body and would love to get one in 40 days. Another title that amuses me is “Taming your Alpha Bitch,” which I love because of its sneaky way of attacking we alphas. Lent is something that Alphas do. It tries to control material, ritually. It tries to control material, which can’t be controlled, ritually. Have you ever tried to write a play? That’s what plays do too.

Sometimes NPR can drive me right out of my mind and off my budget for righteous indignation, which is also limited to about five such experiences per day. They come on the radio and say as though this were perplexing, “¼ of Indians have no light at night. Therefore they dry manure pies. Therefore they have terrible indoor pollution. Therefore there is no literacy -- as though literacy and electricity were the very best things in the world, as if we could always live in the light, knowing the difference between good and evil.

Lent tries to manage the reality of human suffering and depth and of course fails. Yes, I write a lot of self-help books. They are rarely successful. The sweat on our brow is real, it is universal and it is differently appreciated. When we think ourselves above Lent or better at it than others have ever been, we find ourselves on the wrong side of right. We detour instead of drive to Easter. We end up on that cul de sac, called denial, called misreading of the situation.

Don’t get me wrong. By Easter, even the poor Indians will have light and the poor first worlders will know how to make manure pies to cook their food. By Easter, we will understand what Paul Krugman means when he says global warming will be much less expensive to fix than it will be to continue. By Easter we will learn just how expensive cheap grace really is. We will understand how metaphors can master reality.

By Easter, we will understand how useless helicopters are in the sky and how dumb control and oppression and jailing and policing really are. We will live on the other side of suffering in a peace that passes understanding. Like dawn coming or the albatross on our back dropping into the sea. I like to think that we live from here to maturity. Even the orange peels will decompose and become the Aurora Borealis. By Easter we will understand how much waste our worry really is, especially if we fantasize that we are not worried at all. Denial will disappear and the wasted energy of denial will become Easter Energy. You started as dirt, and you will end as dirt, will become the great news of the resurrection. We will stop trying to be above nature and try to live within it. Will observing Lent help you understand beheadings? No. And that is the good news about Lent.

Now we live in a world of wasting lay people. Wasting the incarcerated. Wasting immigrants. Wasting non-profits. We waste them by not understanding both how limited they are and how magnificent they are.

What if it was true that it would cost less to resolve the environmental crisis than to sustain it? Less in human suffering to end poverty than it costs to sustain it? Paul Krugman of the New York Times seems to think so. What if grace is the only thing worth dedicated your suffering budget to? What if everything other than the grace of God is too cheap with which to bother?

When you try to avoid the suffering and death you cannot avoid, you tax yourself with a very high price. You contribute to the helicopters. You contribute to the waste of immigrants and the incarcerated. You contribute to your own 3:32 a.m. with no where to go and nothing to do. That is expensive. Forty days? Not a bad price at all to pay, especially since it is not for sale.

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