Princeton University Chapel
September 12, 2010
Ex. 32:7-14 and Luke 15:1-10
Each summer, my family looks forward to having some weeks of vacation time, all together, in beautiful Downeast Maine. On the first Saturday of August each year, the little white clapboard Congregational church that we attend there has its annual Church Fair. It is a much anticipated event by many in the region, particularly for its renowned yard sale. Bargains galore! It opens at 8:00 a.m. and well before that time, there must be 75 cars parked along the road, full of people, waiting for the chance to get at the merchandise. My two children also love this yard sale; they’re 11 and 12 years old now. In the past, they have found treasures there, and so this year they insisted that we get there for the 8:00 a.m. opening. They brought money from their allowances. They couldn’t wait to get there. They dashed for the tables full of stuff and scoured them for treasures. Within minutes, however, we were making the walk back down the road past the long line of parked cars, back to our own. We were empty handed. As I turned on the engine my son Timothy said, “Wow; that was just a whole lot of junk this year.” And I said to him, “Buddy, it’s a whole lot of junk every year; you’re just old enough to know that now.” His face broke into a big smile.
We become more aware as life goes on. Some things we learn are humorous – broken lava lamps are junk; Thanksgiving at the home of a beloved grandmother was an affectionately dreaded event because she was such a terrible cook (examples from my own family). Some of the things we come to know leave us disillusioned, or angry, or feeling betrayed. Some of the things we learn break our hearts. Some of the things we learn give us hope, give us faith. And some of the things we come to know change the way we understand ourselves and the world.
Our biblical texts for today, like many other passages of scripture, speak of knowing, of awareness, of coming to understanding, and of the responsibilities and challenges particularly of knowing when we are wrong. The Hebrews being led through the wilderness by Moses have been told not to worship anything or anyone but God Almighty, and they do it anyway – they make a golden image and they worship it. A group of scribes and pharisees – religious leaders – castigate Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners; those very people sufficiently aware of their sinfulness that they embrace the opportunity to sit at the feet of Christ. If only the scribes and pharisees knew to join them there.
These texts challenge us, I think, to question ourselves fully about what we know, to own what we know, and to live in faithful response to that. The texts ask us not simply to acknowledge the fact that, to quote scripture, “all have sinned and fallen short,” but to name what our own sins are, to dare to live in awareness of them, and then to live out a faithful response to them. It is not enough to say, “My sin is greed.” Knowing that, the Gospel compels us then to a life of radical generosity. It is not enough to say, “My sin is prejudice;” the Gospel compels us to a life of loving and of justice-making. It is not enough to say, “My sin is indifference.” The Gospel demands that we make a difference.
I wrote this sermon yesterday, hours after returning with 18 university students, faculty, and staff from a two week trip to Nicaragua and Honduras, and it is through the lens of that experience that I interpret our biblical texts for you now. I am so “claimed” by what I saw, heard, and felt in Central America that I can do no other. We were there to learn about the current situation in each country, about human rights and social change, about the work of religious communities, and to learn especially from the people whose voices are not heard here – people who will never give a lecture at Princeton, or be quoted in the New York Times, or be represented in any group of experts consulted by policy makers or aid agencies. We listened to all sectors of society, but especially to the powerless, the poor. As the days went by, we gave ourselves over to the experience of truly listening to them, knowing them as sisters and brothers, which left us vulnerable to having them break our hearts. We sat on the dirt floor of a woman who has organized her community of desperately poor squatters in Managua, getting them property rights, electricity, and a cupboard of basic medications to share. They aspire to running water. We have all these things. We don’t notice them. To Maria’s community, they are massive achievements, hard-won from a large landowner, an electric company, and an area clinic, all who did not want them to have them and, even now, put limits on each “privilege.” In Honduras, we met with many who are threatened with violence in the wake of last year’s military coup. A civilian government is now in power, but many in the country – especially the least powerful and wealthy – have organized themselves into political and social movements to insist on the rule of law and a national assembly to draft a new and more equitable constitution. For these efforts, some of those with whom we met receive death threats. Murders and disappearances are now a fact of life. The group Reporters Without Borders call Honduras the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. At a meeting there with the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, we learned that the country now has the highest murder rate in the world. The judicial system is non-functioning and, many told us, for sale. Murders are committed with impunity, and the victims are often from the most vulnerable and marginalized groups – women and peasants, gay men and lesbians – who dare to be activists in the movement for human rights.
What do you do when you know? In rural Nicaragua, we lived for three days with very poor families, two members of our group assigned to each house. My host family lived in a tiny house of brick and planks with a corrugated tin roof, dirt floors, a light bulb, and a starving dog. Asención, the father, is overjoyed to have a temporary job in road construction because it earns him five dollars a day. His family of five eats a small meal of rice and beans three times a day, pays for the electricity in the light bulb, and for the bus fare that takes the kids to the high school ten miles away. That’s it. “We are poor,” says Juana, the mother. Their house, like many of ours, is full of love, and dreams – some realistic and some not, just like us – of what, through hard work, the future could bring.
In the capital of Nicaragua, we went to the city dump, not to throw out our trash, but to learn about the people who live in and around the mountains of garbage and make their living from it, extracting anything recyclable for money. It is the source of their food as well. One woman told us of rubbing leaves on the rotting meat and vegetables that get dumped by the grocery trucks so that it all might taste less putrid to her children. Of all the amazing people – children of God – whom we encountered on our trip, the one who is most present in my heart is one we did not meet. I saw him out our bus window at the entrance to the dump. He looked to be about 15; he was a good-looking boy, handsome, and a kind-looking human being. His hair was scraggily and filthy; his face and clothes streaked with dirt. He was sitting on an upended bucket, flipping the pages of a discarded, torn magazine. But he wasn’t looking at the pages he was turning (maybe he couldn’t read). He was looking around at passing traffic, walking people. He looked curious, he looked intelligent; he looked like he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Was he taking a break from running his hands through a city’s unfiltered trash? Looking at him, my heart cracked open with the awareness of the waste of humanity that is extreme poverty. All the capabilities, the gifts, given by God to this young man, all that God has equipped him to do, and endowed him with, to contribute and to serve and to grow, all squashed and suppressed. He reminded me of my own handsome, gifted son, whose only experience sifting through what others throw away is on the tables of the Church Fair. I pray that the young man has love – no depth of poverty has to take that away. I have wanted to say to him, “I saw you. I saw you.” And your humanity registered with mine. I know you are there. I saw you. I can’t literally tell him this, of course, but through faith perhaps the testimony of my life will show it.
What do we do when we know? The Apostle Paul took comfort [I Tim 1:12-17, e.g.] in reminding himself that when he was persecuting the followers of Jesus he did not yet know – he was not aware that Jesus was the Messiah of his longing. And once he did know, he made of his life a testimony to that truth. What do we do – what do I do – knowing with a cracked-open heart that I and we share the globe with children of God whose lives are diminished by so much preventable suffering? Extreme poverty, death threats – how easy it would be to sink into the ease of the sin of indifference. Indifference is a mighty sin indeed; Jesus’ great teaching on this is the appointed Gospel lesson for two weeks from today – the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. What do we do when we know? Jesus says to respond with love-in-action.
In these days, our community is coming back together. New students have been arriving and are starting their formal Orientation. Older students filter back in the next few days; teachers, administrators, neighbors, and friends return from many adventures. I’d like to say now to us all, but especially to the new students among us, that I hope that the total education you receive here will not only fill your mind with information but will also make you knowledgeable – that it will make you know. I hope and pray that it will make you aware. This can be instigated by your teachers, mentors, and friends, but in the end it’s really up to you – it depends on whether you will permit yourself to see others, if you will permit your heart to crack open. I hope and pray that you will make yourself this vulnerable, that you will let what you come to know shape the kind of person you are becoming. I hope and pray that it causes your heart to grow in love (it is the cracked-open heart, after all, that has the room to grow.) And as you grow in love, you will only grow, each day, more into the likeness of Christ himself, who so loved our suffering world that he gave his very life for it.
Several days ago our group visited the staff of Caritas in the capital of Honduras. Caritas is the programming organization of the Catholic Church there, working to bring relief and justice to the poor and exploited. On the occasion of this visit by university students, the staff closed our meeting with a prayer they had written especially for us, and it said (my humble translation):
Lord, we pray to you for the young people who visit us today.
Strengthen their decision to be men and women of peace
And heralds of a new hope.
Compel them to work generously for the common good,
For the inalienable dignity of all people
And for the fundamental rights that come from being the image and seed of the Creator.
Grant them wisdom and perseverance.
Let them not be discouraged in their hard work
Of building the enduring peace longed for by all peoples.
Guide their steps towards truth and love.
That with one heart and one mind
They work for a world that is a true home for all.
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