Beyond the List

Beyond the List

After a quarter of a century of preaching, I’ve developed a reluctance to recite what can be called “the List.”  I don’t mean the “Great Litany:” the ancient list of prayers and thanksgivings on behalf of the world, the church, and our selves, found in The Book of Common Prayer that we often chant in procession in Advent or Lent.  The List that I try to avoid repeating in preaching is the one that wants to be said when we bring the newspaper into the pulpit.  It’s the list of all the crises we face as human beings living on this planet at this particular time.  

This morning’s list is long because this has been an especially cruel summer in our world.   Here it is: the ignited tinderbox of the Holy Land with its disproportionate suffering of children caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israel; the war in the Ukraine that has claimed the lives of nearly 300 civilians downed on a jetliner shot out of the sky by a missile; the rising number of Central American children hoping desperately for safety at the Mexican border and the obscene claim that Christians have no obligation to respond with compassion; gun violence has reached an epidemic in our cities and communities, claiming the lives that surpasses American casualties in the wars in Iraqi and Afghanistan combined; persecution of religious minorities in Iraq, including Christians, is on the rise; a growing consensus of environmentalist tell us that the fight of avert global climate change has been irretrievably lost and that we can at best mitigate the suffering of the those most vulnerable; and human trafficking, including the sexual slavery of children, is not only a phenomena of the developing world; it’s here in the “land of the free.”

There. That’s the list of the morning.  And it’s not exhaustive.  I know I’ve left out items that people close to me are passionate about.   

I’ve come to realize that people don’t come to church to hear that List.  People bring their own Lists with them that include with the more private concerns of their own. The List include the challenges and struggles, real or perceived, that their children, their spouses, neighbors, colleagues, that they themselves face.  It includes the ways sin has come into our garden, like poison ivy.  Or cancer.  That Lists include the fear losing a home or livelihood, debilitating shame or grief, crushing debt, a spouse’s oncoming dementia or physical impairment, the safety or errancy of children.  

A reading of the Gospels will reveal that the only real list that Jesus recited while preaching was the Beatitudes.  You could include the list of woes that follows the beatitudes, but in each case, he wasn’t just cataloging what was wrong with the world.  He was describing how to live in the awareness that God promises to show up, both in the turbulent here and now and in the glorious hereafter, and that promise won’t fail.  Those sermons, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, are the most enduring ones we have.  They don't list particular events and cruelties of the time.  And yet there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus knew his audience and the burden on his hearers’ souls.  As a result he gave a vision that strengthened people to face their Lists with courage, hope, and compassion.  Do we do that? 

Some Christians, myself among them, harbor a kind of fear of irrelevancy.  We wonder if we don’t roll out the List, we’ll be dismissed as not being in touch or being detached from what really is going on.  In the back of our minds are the starstruck words of churchgoers who praised our predecessors for dealing with the issues of the world.  Or we imagine what the great theologian Karl Barth meant when he said that the sermons should be written with the Bible on the one hand and the newspaper on the other.  (But what hand is left to write with?  Or to gesticulate, as I, and many, do?)  As it turns out, Barth didn’t actually say that.  Instead, he urged,  “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”   

If the Bible gives us a way to interpret the sufferings of the present time it’s in seeing that human kind has chosen to see ourselves as separate from the Presence of God.  The Human Condition is more than a list, and yet we are so often tempted reduce it to a catalogue of causes to “like” on our computers.  Remotely.  Sin is the wedge driven between human kind and God, between humankind and creation, between human kind and itself.  We are urged to define our identities by drawing lines around ourselves, our families, clans, neighborhoods, races, class, nations, and environment.   I am not you.  You are not me.  I have no relation to the child of Central America, the children in Gaza, the air or water above or below the Bow power plant. Separate craves further separateness in order to protect and perpetuate itself.  Adam and Eve buy into the lie that God is not in the Garden with them, and so wanting more, they get much less.  Feeling shame (the most powerful emotion of separateness) they cover themselves in order to hide from their own sight.  And things devolve from there, from the fratricide of Abel by Cain to the horrors of Auschwitz (from where a young girl recently posted a smiley “selfie), to this morning’s incomplete List.

But then, the Bible goes on to say, God enters this heap of alienation, this mound of dry bones, and infuses it with life.   Becoming naked himself, he enters the human race, showing us that God will not be ashamed to be one of us.  Jesus comes restores the bond that the Divider (devil=divider) accomplished by seducing us to the lie that we are all we have to rely on in this world.  Instead, when we find and re-define ourselves in relationship to God, then we can, like Thomas Merton, “wake from our dream of separateness” which remains the chronic crisis facing humanity.  

Oh, Jesus, you are the Vine in whom we can re-connect with our deepest truest selves.  Reach out again to our fallen, divided humanity.  Illumine us to see not just endless lists of suffering, disease, and violence. These lists too often only tempt us to see your people and this planet as problems to be solved rather than openings for us to walk with you among your children.   Show us that we are linked to each other in you.  And then restore our joy, our health, our justice, and our life.


The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire