April 19, 2014: The Great Vigil of Easter
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Church, Newton Centre, MA
Alleluia, Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed! And how good is our life-giving God!
Although……if God is so very life-giving. If God is so very good. I mean, if God truly loves us…loves us unto everlasting life, I am wondering, with all due respect to the Almighty, what is up with the world in which we live?! I mean, there are those of us, in fact multitudes of us on this good earth who would gladly trade everlasting life in a heartbeat, maybe the last heartbeat, for a crust of bread, or a sip of clean water, or a day without the fear of losing a child to street violence, or the resources to afford life-saving cancer treatments, or a wink of sleep in a war zone, or whatever despair permeates the consciousness of existentially suffering souls. So, forgive me God of our Salvation, but how can we even speak of You in this broken world in which we live? How can we even imagine that God exists in a world so filled with such violence and injustice and pain? In a world that permits atrocities like the genocides of the Holocaust and Rwanda and Darfur? A world in which 925 million people will go to bed hungry tonight….on this night of the resurrection. A world in which one day after the tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT the sale of automatic assault weapons hit a new all time high in this one nation under You. A world in which in 2013, the taxpayers of the State of New York paid $140,000 for food stamps for tellers who work for Bank of America, a company whose fourth quarter earning alone, were $3.4 billion, a five fold increase over the previous year.
How do we reconcile the reality of our world with the promise of Your resurrection? If you can accomplish our life ever lasting, why can’t you put an end to our suffering right here, right now?
Which of course, is the $64 gazillion dollar question, isn’t it. If our All Redeeming God can lift Jesus out of that sealed tomb, why can’t God fix even a part of this broken world? And despite this collar, and five years of seminary, and seven years of ordination, and a lifetime of study and thought and prayer, all I can say is……good question!
I don’t know. But I do know that there is some peace to be had, that there is a way to hold our faith and our doubt in a healthy tension. I know that because for several years I have been studying the “audacious theology”[i] of Rabbi Abraham, Joshua Heschel. Yes, I have been finding my Christian legs through the theology of a Rabbi. Sound familiar? It is a Christian paradox! But I think that Heschel’s theology has a particular credibility on this topic, in addressing the question of how we can believe in a God that allows the brutality that has overtaken our world, because Heschel lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And so he wrangled with this question of a loving God who could allow such suffering, in the context of both his theological grounding and his family history. And among the graces of Heschel’s theology is the space that he leaves for doubt and uncertainty….space…..like an empty tomb.
One of the spaces where Heschel says our doubt and uncertainty should be more front and center is in our reading of the prophets. Because, says Heschel, they deliver an utterly astounding message. For they almost never talk at all about the goodness of God. What they talk about is the disappointment of God, the sorrow that the God of heaven and earth feels when human beings refuse to serve as God’s partners in making this world a better place, the place it was intended to be. Heschel says that, as it turns out, the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth, the purveyor of all of those huge sweeping acts just recounted in our salvation history, actually does care about each and every one of us, cares deeply about widows and orphans, cares sincerely about those who are marginalized, cares personally about you and about me; and equally astoundingly, depends on us to complete the work of creation. God Cares about individuals, and in fact, God needs us. This is an utterly scandalous idea!
We were created to have more than a bit of responsibility and agency on this world. And so, as it turns out, God could easily have read that litany of brokenness in the world to us, to humanity. God could easily say to us, if you truly love Me, how can you even speak of Me in the midst of this broken world, this world that you are destroying, this world that was and is My creation? How can I even imagine that you care anything about Me in a world so filled with your violence and your oppression and your exclusion and your hatefulness? How can you even think of Me in the weariness of the world that YOU have created?
And so, even though tonight we celebrate the goodness of God in the everlasting life that is offered through the resurrection, we must never forget that it is offered on the heels of a disgrace; our dis-grace; the most brutal and violent act of human disregard for life and love that can be imagined. And as that old Buddhist saying goes: the way we do something, is the way we do everything.
And so I think there is no more appropriate time than this night to start to think about how, in the face of such pervasive dis-grace, can we begin to turn ourselves around? To begin to work with God to address the seemingly overwhelming task of cleaning up this weary world? Where do we even start?
Well, many religious folks would probably say that we need to stop sinning. Stop violating God’s laws. If we can just stop sinning, then God will look favorably on us and stop the madness. The problem in this world is the prevalence of sin. But sin is a very slippery slope. Because it describes a host of “immoral” actions that come with a host of qualifications and exceptions, that we featherless bi-peds are ill equip to referee. Is it a sin to lie if we tell a lie to protect someone’s feelings or self esteem? Is it a sin to steal bread if our children are starving? Is it a sin to kill in self-defense, or to prevent greater killing, like killing the perpetrators of genocide. You see what I mean? It is a slippery slope to try and pin sin. And so it is very hard to know how to begin to stop do something that we cannot even adequately describe.
Maybe what we need is a new approach. Maybe we need to find a more productive, appropriate word than sin to describe our transgression. Maybe we need some language for the problem that is grounded in the effects of our actions rather than the description of our actions. Maybe a better word for what we need to stop doing is violence. Violence in the Gandhian sense of the word, that is, violence as anything that causes harm to any living being, whether that harm is intended or not. Maybe it is our violence to each other, rather than our sin against God, that is at the heart of our dis-graceful behavior.
For, unlike sin, violence is relatively easy to identify. For it is measured not by an objective action, but by a subjective result. That is, our intention is less important that the impact of our action; if a creature created by God is hurt, we have crossed the line. And so, what if, everywhere we speak of “sin,” we simply replace that word with “violence?”
Our Creator who art in heaven…forgive us our violence as we forgive those who use violence against us.
Mahatma Gandhi thought that violence was at the heart of every one of those tragic social statistics that I listed a few minutes ago. That violence, in one form or another, is the underlying reality behind every one of the evils in this world. And so he wrote that, “non-violence is the only true life force…..when the practice of non-violence becomes universal, then God will reign on earth.”[ii] According to Gandhi, our human transgression, our human trespass is not sin, it is violence.
Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, has something to say about that. He is the founder of the Institute for Non-Violence in Memphis Tennessee. He tells the story of his childhood experience with his grandfather who helped him to understand the pervasive and insidious nature of violence. Arun says that when he was a boy, his family lived in South Africa, and he was a bit of a handful…in and out of detention at school and even in trouble with the law. So his parents, at their wits end, sent him to India to spend some time with his grandfather….if Gandhi could pacify all of India, perhaps he could have some peaceful effect on this young…handful. And so as Arun tells it, his grandfather set aside a full hour every afternoon to spend with his grandson. And the first thing that Gandhi did with Arun was to have him draw a “violence tree” on the wall of his bedroom….like a family tree. His grandfather said that before he could understand peace, he had to understand violence….and that included his own violence.[iii]
There were two main branches on the violence tree. One for physical violence, which we know quite a lot about. We hear about it on the news almost every day. The other branch was for passive violence, about which we tend to be much less aware. Passive violence includes all of the non-physical wounds we inflict on each other like oppression, exploitation, discrimination, unkindness, selfishness and the list goes on. The tree was to contain all forms of harm done to others, intended and unintended alike. And so Arun’s assignment was, every night before he went to bed, to add to the tree every experience of violence that he had perpetrated that day. Every time he did or said anything that caused harm to others.
And at first, Arun thought that the exercise was…..well, lame. He said that he did not consider himself a particularly violent person. And so he thought that the tree would be bare for quite some time. But not so much. As you can probably imagine, it did not take long before Arun’s tree of violence was blooming all over his room! And he was shocked….I suspect like the shock that comes when Weight Watchers makes us write down every bite we take in the course of the day. Right? I ate how many calories?!!!! It was only a handful of M&M’s…. I had no idea!!!!!!! And neither had Arun. For when he began to log every time he shoved someone on the playground, every time he cut someone off in line at lunch, every time he said something that hurt someone’s feelings, intentionally or not, every time he inflicted pain or harm on another sentient being…it counted as violence, and the tree grew. Every time he made an off-color joke, every time he taunted a stray dog, every time he sat with his friends at lunch and excluded the unpopular kids…it counted as violence, and the tree grew. And so, says Arun, he was shocked to see that soon his entire wall was covered with a testament to his own acts of violence….large and small….intended and unintended….but violence nevertheless.
This, I think, is the message for which Jesus of Nazareth died and rose. The message that we human partners of God are falling desperately short of our intended purpose: which, as Jesus said at John’s Last Supper, is simply to love each other as we are loved. Gandhi would say that we were created to promote the reign of non-violence…..which may well be another way of saying, we were born to love each other. Maybe the commandment to love each other is really a commandment to stop violating each other.
Every indicator in this Holy Week we have just walked with Jesus, tells us that our Christian paradigm is deeply rooted in the notion that the ultimate evil is violence, in the Gandhian sense of the word. Which is why, despite our grounding in love, our Christian logo is not a heart, it is a cross. If there is any symbol in this world that stands for violence, it is the cross. And so the cross is our ever-present reminder that God’s reign will not come on earth until non-violence comes on earth.
The resurrection then, the denouement of our salvation history, is the promise of life without violence. And the veracity of that promise is what we celebrate this night. That outrageously hopeful promise that reconciliation is the governing property in God’s world; that the same God who was so viciously and violently disrespected, disregarded, and disposed of via the most excruciating death on a wooden tree, that same God still yearns for us and cares for us and needs us to complete the building of the kingdom.
And isn’t it just like God to give us a passive assurance of the abject power of everlasting life; an empty tomb. That empty tomb is the assurance of that we can still count on a loving, yearning God; it is our assurance that our own violence will not, in the end, overcome us. The empty tomb is our assurance that non-violence, the peace that passes all understanding, will, in the end, prevail.
How good is our life-giving God!!!
Alleluia! Christ has risen! Amen.
© April, 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
[i] Name coined by Krista Tippet in her On Being segment on Heschel, 2012.
[ii] Gandhi on Non-Violence, edited by Thomas Merton, New Directions Paperback, 1964, pg. 25.
[iii] From an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, December 2013