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Hoops – Br. Mark Brown

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Job 3:1-3, 11-23; Psalm 88:1-8; Luke 9:51-56

“Bait and switch” is one of the oldest tricks of trade: pull ’em in promising one thing, then switch to something else. We may be guilty. This evening being a “First Tuesday”, invitations went out advertising a “meal with the monks”.  And some of those invitations went out promising “Good Food and Good Company and Good Fun.” Good fun. This may be a historical first for the SSJE: a promise of some Good Fun.  (I’m so glad for that qualifier….)

But what we’ve just been through is Job cursing the day he was born, then the most bitter lamentation of the entire 150 Psalms, and then Jesus “setting his face” toward Jerusalem (we know what happens there…).  I don’t know…maybe the fun comes later—I’ve heard a rumor of hula hoops, but I don’t believe it and neither should you.  But I guess we’ll find out—I have no idea what’s been planned. 

Whether it was the promise of Good Fun or Good Food or something more mysterious that drew us together this evening, the readings we’ve just heard bring us face to face with suffering humanity: Job’s cries of anguish for the afflictions visited upon him, the psalmist’s lament from the depths of the abyss, Jesus “setting his face” toward his Passion. “Let the day perish in which I was born…why did I not die at birth…?” Job’s prayer is not my prayer today. “I am full of trouble, my life is at the brink of the grave…you have laid me in the depths of the pit…my friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” [Psalm 88]  This is not my prayer today. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not my prayer today.

We may be of good cheer; we may have a sense of hope and possibility. We may be neither hungry nor thirsty nor naked nor in prison nor sick. Job’s prayer may not be our prayer today.  The psalmist’s lament may not be our prayer today.  Jesus’ words from the cross may not be our prayer today.

But they are someone’s prayers.  Somewhere, someone is so beaten down that Job’s bitter words would be an honest prayer.  Somewhere, someone is in such a dark night that Psalm 88 would be an honest reflection of their feelings.  It may not be my prayer today, but it’s someone’s.

Sometimes we Brothers are asked why we recite all the Psalms (almost all, actually)–even the cursing Psalms. We usually answer along these lines: praying the Psalter is a way of holding up the whole human condition—a stylized, poeticized, set-to-music way of lifting up the whole human condition, the full range of experience from darkest night to brightest day. It’s a way of praying with and for the whole of humanity.

Even those troubling curses. “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them…Let them be wiped out of the book of the living and not be written among the righteous” [Psalm 69: 26, 30]. Somewhere, someone has been so damaged, so degraded, so horrified by the violence of this life that curses would be an honest prayer. The parents of Syrian children tortured in prisons have every right to curse the perpetrators of these atrocities—at least for a while.  Not our prayer today, perhaps, but someone’s.

Which is why we pray this way, using the very words of Scripture.  Because we pray as a body, on behalf of the body. The prayer Jesus taught us is an “our, us, we” prayer. “Our Father…give us today…forgive us as we forgive.” In our prayer we lift up the whole human condition, from one end of the spectrum to the other.  We pray as a body—we are a body.  St. Paul speaks of the need to “discern the body” when we receive communion, referring not to the consecrated bread, but to the Body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, the whole people of God [1 Corinthians 11: 29].

And the Scriptures call us to face the reality of suffering of this body—even when we’re having a hula hoop kind of day. The Scriptures also call us to know and claim the possibility of joy—even when we’re having a sufferings-of-Job kind of day.  And the Scriptures invite us, encourage us to a level of transparency and emotional honesty in our prayer.  The Psalms are, among other things, models of emotional transparency in prayer.  Joy, thanksgiving, exultation—sorrow, despair, even rage, even fear.  “Unto everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” [Ecclesiates: 3] And it’s all the stuff of our prayer: our prayer as a body, as the body.  Even when alone in our rooms.

We are, in a sense, the very flesh and blood of Christ.  The body still suffers, the very flesh and blood of Christ still suffer.  And if one suffers, all suffer; if one is degraded, all are degraded. But, like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, our humanity itself is on the altar of transformation.  Our flesh and blood, Christ’s flesh and blood, are on the altar of transformation, the altar of transfiguration, some might even say the altar of transubstantiation. As a body, over aeons of time. The bread and wine are changed in a moment.  Our humanity is transformed over millennia, over many generations.  A moment, a millennium: it’s probably all the same to God.

“Behold what you are,” the celebrant says when presenting the consecrated bread and wine.  “May we become what we receive,” is our response.  “Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.”  We are the very flesh and blood of Christ; we are becoming the very flesh and blood of Christ.  On this good earth, the altar of our transformation.

Could it be that suffering is a necessary component of this dynamic process? This is difficult to understand, but could it be?  Is it not often suffering that breaks open our hearts to receive love.  Is it not often the suffering of others that draws us into compassion?  To receive love, to express love, to be broken as the bread is broken, to be poured out as the wine is poured out: this is to become the flesh and blood of Christ; to become the Body of Christ: this is to participate in the Divine Nature (as 2 Peter puts it). [2 Peter 1: 4]

To participate in the Divine Nature—now, I suppose that could be considered Good Fun.  More fun even than hula hoops, maybe?  On the other hand, the sheer silliness of hula hoops just might be another good way of participating in the Divine Nature.  A hula hoop may not have done Job much good, but for us a few gyrations might be just the thing.

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12 Comments

  1. Marta Engdahl on July 9, 2017 at 13:31

    Thank you for your focus on the function of the Psalms in our worshipful prayer experience. I have had trouble for a long time getting past the sadnesses of life and living. However, recently I have been able to reach to find some joy. It has taken patience and work, but I may yet get there. Thank you.

  2. Jane Goldring on March 16, 2017 at 17:34

    Thank you for that information Brother Mark. The Psalms mean a lot more to me now. Thanks very much. Jane

  3. fred on February 25, 2017 at 16:30

    Thanks, Brother Mark. I often wonder about the psalms, so THANKS for the answer. I needed that; I can use that. Also thank for the hula hoop analogy. Helps me connect the fun with the Divine.
    Can’t thank you Brothers enough for the daily BGUAW.

  4. Rhode on February 25, 2017 at 09:00

    When I was in my late 20s I joined a group of women who had been abused.
    I quickly found that there was no limit on suffering. My own troubles were factually so much less than what these women experienced. Yet in the midst of our painful witnessing and grieving we became each others broken bread and wine. I began to realize how much God loved and actually protected me ..I saw how God was working in other shattered hearts to reveal and remove great weights of despair from women who felt God had abandoned them. But, within that circle of acceptance, compassion and hope there were many halleluja moments as God was helping each of us be there for each other. Your sermon reminded me of grace given and received …thank you.

  5. CR on February 25, 2017 at 08:22

    Such a wonderful sermon. Thank you. I am especially grateful to have been reminded today that the pain of witnessing the suffering of someone else does in fact serve a purpose. As Br. Mark says, it often “draws us into compassion.”

  6. fred adams on July 3, 2016 at 17:57

    Br. Mark. You answered what I wonder about so often when reading the psalms. … and talking about the whole body. this makes a difference for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  8. Ruth West on September 16, 2015 at 10:21

    Br. Mark, thanks for your interesting homily. As I read the first paragraph, I was reminded of the “bait and switch” tactics of so many teacher retirement programs, not my own, thank God. But, sadly so, the teachers in many states have been victims of promises that never came to pass, and the money switched to another supposedly more urgent need. We shall witness many of these “bait and switch” tactics during this present change of administrations, as we have in the past. Sad!
    The lamenting Psalms and Job’s cursing is so typical our human condition. It is noteworthy to remember that Job finally said, “Though he slay me, yet will I serve him.” Through suffering we come to see the truth. We cannot survive without His grace and mercy.

  9. Anders on September 15, 2015 at 13:03

    Thanks for your thoughts how we should embrace the fullness of our humanity. Jesus was perhaps a bit of a court jester—pointing out painful repressed truths and suffering and lightening up the world in the process. With his close relationship with his father, he got away with it a dual king/jester role, though the authorities had a different take. We can mourn together and then all laugh more after that. Hula hoops are a wonderful reminder that we are all one.

  10. Joseph Webb, SSJE Assoc on September 15, 2015 at 12:12

    I have been reading/praying the Psalms for 40 yrs…they sing & lament .& speak of my voice, too. Yes, they speak of all of us …thank you Br Mark.

  11. Michael on September 15, 2015 at 11:41

    Your honesty has helped me to see some fundamental issues from a different perspective. A re-vision in our perspective may open the door to some new approaches to old problems. Thank you

  12. Phil Flaherty on September 15, 2015 at 10:28

    Thank you, Br. Mark. I frequently avoid the psalms, but you have put them in a new light for me; seeing them as an instrument for sharing in the despair and pain of others is a helpful approach to prayer.

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