The Both Ands of Crises

Sermon 8/4/19 The Both-And of Crisis

Posted by St. Athanasius at the Cathedral Center on Sunday, August 4, 2019

080419 Pentecost 8c 

Psalm 107; Hosea 11:1-11


Yesterday 9 members of St. Athanasius joined 23 others to visit Tijuana. We went to see what has been called a border crisis. And without a doubt it is a crisis. And not only for people from Central America and the governments of Mexico and the US. There are migrants from several African countries and other places. All are fleeing persecution, hunger and violence. They risk their lives and that of their families to many dangers seeking a place of security – a home – for their families. When they reach our southern border, they meet another crisis created by the governments of Mexico and the US.

The prophet Hosea and the Psalmist show two ways to respond to that type of crisis: insist on obedience, or show mercy, even when people are disobedient. They reveal a God who responds to the tension with mercy. The Psalmist tells us that from their fear our Lord has rescued them. God hushed the storm into a gentle breeze, and the storm winds then were still. Hosea’s God says, How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. We saw that God at work in Tijuana yesterday

We saw no evidence of governments struggling with the tension. They  are responding by insisting on obedience. If you want to see the consequences of the policy of Stay in Mexico go see the thousands of children and adults living on the streets of Tijuana, without food or baths. But you also might meet 3 strong people who have chosen to show mercy; and people in crisis finding a home in that mercy. We met a woman who’s been working as an immigration lawyer for refugees on the southern border for 17 years. She formed an organization that provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers – the only one in Tijuana. We met a man who had a corner lot in a poor neighborhood who opened a shelter on a cement pad where tents are set up, edge to edge, to house 70 children and 70 adults, and to feed them and provide medical and legal help as available. And we helped at a feeding center run by the Methodist Church that serves dinner to 200 immigrants three times a week. The bishop said they are building similar centers on both the southern and northern borders of Mexico, and in the town where the train known as La Bestia splits into different routes on its way north. The souls of these people shine the light of mercy into this crisis, even though the crisis continues. 

What do we do when God doesn’t seem to be around when we’re in crisis, whether we turn to God or not? The Psalmist describes a life pattern that most of us have experienced. It looks like this: 

  • we start out on some life course with self-confidence and sense of adventure. They who sail on the sea in ships; they who trade across deep waters; these have seen the works of the Lord, and God’s wonders in the deep. We start on a dangerous journey to find a better life; we begin a marriage, launch a career, pursue a course of study or initiate a project. Along the way we appreciate the beauty and joy of life around us. 
  • But then we get tossed about by some crisis which sinks us into depression and fear. God’s command raised our storm wind, which tossed its waves, on high they mounted up; And then they sank into the valley of the sea, and their hearts did melt within.
  • So, we cry out desperately to God for help. They cried out to the Lord in their distress; and from their fear our Lord has rescued them. God hushed the storm into a gentle breeze, and the storm winds then were still. Our god or idol might be a drink, a cigarette, a drug, sex or a religious god; many of us might turn to Jesus to satisfy the hurt.

Most of us have walked down a path somewhat like that. The final lines of the Psalm describe a way that happens for some: from their fear, God has rescued them. God hushed the storm into a gentle breeze, and the storm winds then were still. You may remember God’s gentle breeze at certain times. Even more you may remember times it didn’t come. In both, the psalmist invites us to respond: Give thanks to the Lord, for God’s love is everlasting. But that’s precisely what’s hard to do in that sinking moment when God seems nowhere to be found to rescue us from our fears, hush our storms, satisfy our longings and restore our sense of adventure and self-confidence. What do we do then? 

The Psalm and Hosea give two different answers. I call them the Both-And of Crisis. The Psalmist gives one answer: whoever is wise will ponder these things, and consider well God’s mercies. Be wise! Reflect on life! Pay attention to the pattern of life! The truth is that sometimes we are like princes where everything seems to work for us; things go well, we’re confident and don’t really need God. At other times we are needy, down and out, helpless and hopeless. The Psalm says God gives the right response in each case: contempt is poured on princes and on us in our princely arrogance; they and we are made to wander in trackless wastes. That’s what gets us back on track. But with the needy God raises them up from their distress with mercy making their families abound. That’s what they need. The wise recognize and follow the pattern, for themselves and for others.

That is where Hosea’s answer comes as great relief. What do we do when God doesn’t seem to be around, and we can’t turn there for help? Hosea says that if people act like princes for too long, and don’t respond to the medicine of contempt and wandering in emptiness, and don’t turn to the true God from all the false ones, God doesn’t abandon them, even when it’s justified: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. Hosea’s answer is that even if we reject God, even if we don’t sense God’s mercy, God will eventually find us and allure us back home. The Body of Christ should incarnate that mercy in our treatment of others, including asylum seekers. 

The both-and of responding to crisis is this: do whatever you can to return to your spiritual center, and whatever you can do to return a needy person to safety. If we seek God and recognize God’s hand of mercy, and give thanks for what we have received, that usually turns out best. Even if we can’t do that authentically, God will bring us home – whether we accept it or not. The home Hosea describes is a place where people truly belong, even when they don’t seem to deserve it; it’s a place where we’re insiders, fully accepted as we are. Nothing upsets religious folks like Jonah more than God forgiving sinners. They spend their lives going to church and serving on committees. Then God ushers in some rebellious teenager who doesn’t even want to be here and seats her at the head table and says, welcome home.  

Strict religionists probably said Hosea was giving away the store. But Hosea knew that the quest to satisfy people’s needs and longings for security, sex, comfort, meaning, belonging, excitement and adventure is part of being human. God’s sadness and anger don’t come from our having those needs, but from the false satisfiers we seek that will never give us what we seek. Satisfaction can only be found in the arms of God, our loving parent.

God was torn between the covenant that set boundaries in the relationship with people, and the quality of mercy that led beyond the covenant. A covenant is a commitment by two parties to live within boundaries. A border is a kind of covenant between nations. Those of us who went to the border yesterday witnessed first hand the tension between honoring boundaries and showing mercy. Every generation and culture struggle with boundaries – ours included. 

I spoke last week about another crisis: the loss of certain values in the country in recent years. Our values were part of a covenant for the people of the US. A letter by the staff of the Washington Cathedral entitled Have We No Decency got a lot of press last week. It wrestles with the question of boundaries around these values: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough? These faith leaders answered the question for themselves: As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. The end of the letter remembers when the National Cathedral hosted an interfaith prayer service to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation and promote the dignity and freedom of every person. That remains our prayer today for us all.

Hosea would have been pleased with that letter. It has the both-and of covenant boundaries and boundless mercy. He would also have been pleased with Erica, Jose and Felipe, who started three programs to bring mercy to refugees in Tijuana. May we all find the capacity to hold the both-and during life crises, both our own and those of others, and to act with mercy when that is what is most needed.