Tikkun Olam- Healing the World 9/20/15
Isaiah 61:1-4 (I will restore their devastations); Mt. 10:38-39
I was interested to read the Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal last week by the former Host of Meet the Press, David Gregory.[i] David Gregory worked his way up the ladder at NBC, covering national politics for the past couple decades until he got a job that a lot of people would covet, being the host of Meet the Press.
You get to interview the Secretary of State, the leading contenders for the Republican nomination, the representative from the Vatican on the Pope’s visit to New York. It is a pretty heady atmosphere with the players that are making history at the moment.
Gregory has been on a longer pilgrimage to make faith relevant in his life. He grew up Jewish but never went to synagogue to speak of. He married a Methodist girl who agreed to raise the kids Jewish but wanted him to take the lead in the development of their family spiritual life and he realized he didn’t have much of a skill set.
President Bush actually got his attention a few years ago, following an interview they did at the White House. The President said to him, after the interview was over, “David how’s your faith?” He didn’t have much of an answer to a question that religious people in the South routinely ask one another. And he realized that he wanted to have more of an answer to that question than he could articulate.
He starts going to some classes on Judaism that are offered at his synagogue in Washington and the Rabbi asked a question in one of them, ‘Who would you be if you lost everything?’
We see pictures of these refugees, but it is really hard to put yourself in their position at a deeper level. Our identities are so grounded in these pretty secure things like our career, where we can afford to live, the vacations we take, the people that we socialize with, the groups we belong to. Who would you be if you lost everything?
Then Gregory lost his job at NBC. I don’t know the details. Viewership was down for a prolonged time. Way led to way and he got a call on vacation that it was over and he was out.
What was interesting is what Gregory didn’t write about. It was obvious that it was only in his loss, only after he was really humbled that the power of faith became tangible in his life. He didn’t really say what his faith did for him, only that it was activated.
Jesus spoke of the need for us to lose our lives and then find them again in God. That is when redemption takes place for so many of us, after we have stripped away the insulation and security that inoculates us from authentic spirituality.
Alice, you may recall from childhood, had to become small before she could enter Wonderland. As David Brooks put it recently, ‘we have to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.”[ii]
We are in a life-long struggle with ourselves. In that vein, the mystic monk Thomas Merton was right. He said, “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers”.
For so many of us, it is not so much the things that we started out and planned to achieve that become the hallmarks of our lives. It is the unexpected, often devastating things that happen to us, and how we respond that shapes our character. We wouldn’t choose this, but looking back on it, after much maturity and healing have taken place, we see these challenges and tragedies as more significant for our personal development. Ernest Hemingway once observed, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward some are strong at the broken places.”
David Brooks says that people who have lived through that kind of loss and redemption live through a process that brings them to a strange, new ‘beauty’. It is not something that they would have chosen. But… “in the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.
When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in. They found themselves helped by people they did not expect would help them. They found themselves understood and cared for by others in ways they did not imagine beforehand. They found themselves loved in ways they did not deserve. They didn’t have to flail about, because hands were holding them up… Such people don’t come out healed (exactly); they come out different… They find a vocation or calling… they earn a certain self respect… produced by inner triumphs not external ones… [they become] better than they used to be.”[iii]
It was broken when we got here, or it will become broken somewhere on the way, and our calling is to fix what is broken right in front of us and through that we find our real spiritual growth. It is where we invest our energy, our passion, our focus.
The scriptures presume this as the starting point for most of us. So all four of the gospels have a saying like this from Jesus. Even if you’d like to, almost all of us can’t really hold on to the person we started off to be. We have to rebound, responding to something broken in ourselves, something broken in our world and let that work become a passion unto a calling. It becomes what grows us up. “He who finds his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for God’s sake will find it.”
Or that wonderful promise of redemption that God makes in Isaiah 61 “I will lift up your ancient ruins. I will your ruined cities of many generations. I shall raise up that which has been devastated.”
Judaism teaches us this concept of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means “the repair of the world” or “healing the world”. It presumes that whatever is around us was already broken when we got here. Our societies are broken and so we see refugees from across the Middle East fleeing violence, terror, and the chaos of civil war. Our families are broken. Our institutions are broken. We know this. Our media is sometimes one long catalogue of different levels of brokenness in our world.
It is the subject of the mystical writings in Judaism called the Kaballah. One of the mystical Rabbi’s of the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria, said that at the beginning of time, God’s presence permeated the entire universe, and that it was such a concentration of light that it exploded. And this light blew out into the darkness. Pieces of it are as disparate as the universe itself. Our job, he said, is to collect the pieces of light together where we can.
It is beautiful image. And here is what is interesting. Rabbi Luria used that image to explain why it is that Jews are scattered to the utter ends of the earth. In the bible, God chooses the Israelites. God liberates them from slavery. “I will be your God and you will be my people”. A wonderful sentiment.
Except that it is a little more complicated than that in lived reality. The Israelites, the chosen people, look like anything but chosen if you review their history. They are overrun by one enemy after another. They are exiled by the Persians and finally they are driven from their homeland by the Romans, some go to Europe, some to Russia, some to North Africa. Everywhere they are a minority community. Everywhere they are persecuted and subject to pogrom.
The Rabbi’s used to say that being chosen was really something of a burden because the Jews were supposed to live more morally than their neighbors. They were supposed to teach the rest of the world the divine moral perspective that would eventually raise the bar for human fulfillment for everyone. In the meantime, they were subject to all kinds of suffering and violence, that they did not want, did not deserve, like poor Job. Why? What are we to make of this blessing that looks like a curse?
The Rabbi said, “our calling is to collect together these remnant pieces of light and bring them together. Our calling is to gather the light, such as it is, and together we will become stronger as the light becomes concentrated. We have to pick up the pieces of our lives and figure out a way to go on.
It is a regular and recurring feature of our lives. Sometimes we live through it collectively like the day that two planes flew into the Twin towers and in a moment, our world was turned upside down. Mayor Walter Long called me that day and asked me if I would go to the train station and offer counseling to the commuters getting off the train. I thought to myself, no one wants counseling in the midst of sheer shock but I was glad I went anyway. I actually just stood there on the platform. Our EMT’s had set up these stations for cleaning people off. Half of the people that got off the train were literally covered in dust from the building collapse.
No one spoke really. But several of you stopped and touched me. For the most part, people drove immediately to their children’s school, got their kids out of class, went straight home, got under their covers and hugged.
The next day, everything was shut down in our whole region. The streets in our community were filled with families that were walking around seeing their neighbors, exchanging stories about the 9 people we lost in town and all of the people that we knew about that hadn’t been heard from, exchanging stories about the incredible number of one off tales of people who should have been downtown but weren’t, people who acted like hero’s and who woulda thunk they would play that role. Families checking on families, collecting these disparate pieces of light, gathering to put them together, and concentrate the goodness even before we actually understood the darkness that we had just been through.
About a month later, I was at a fund-raiser for Bridges, the homeless outreach ministry that started at Christ Church. They held it at the old train terminal in Jersey City. You could see Ellis Island and the Statute of Liberty looking east and if you looked back west a bit, there was the huge pile that was still smoking in lower Manhattan. You could see the worker and the fireman on the pile. It was all lit up with arc lights because the guys were working around the clock.
The entertainment for the night had been set way in advance. We had the Harlem Boys Choir come to sing for us at the end of cocktail hour. I was standing there talking with half a dozen Wall street bankers and lawyers when the Boy’s choir took to their risers. They didn’t intend this but they the pile was in the background, the guys moving around on it. The boys started to sing “America the Beautiful” and all of the hardened, tough deal makers around me stood there with tears streaming down their faces in stoic silence. I don’t think we actually said anything to each other but I’m pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing. Out of our grief, our frustration, our rage…. We are going to go on. We are going to collect the pieces of light. We are going to rebuild. We are going to channel this wound in a way that honors the dead. We will go on.
“I shall lift up your devastations. I will rebuild your ruined cities” says the Lord in Isaiah. And you, too, are a gatherer of the light. You too are a healer. You too are in the redemption business. We don’t choose this way of being. The situation of the world around us chooses us. This is not, “what do I want from life?” This is more, ‘what does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? It comes from the very specific time that you were born and the very specific environment you happen to be in. You look around, see what is wrong, figure out what resources you have at your disposal and you ask yourself the question that the Frederick Buechner asked, ‘At what points do my talents and my deep fulfillment meet the world’s need?’”[iv]
Albert Schweitzer started off his life as a classical pianist and he was very successful. He played in Paris, in Barcelona and would have been quite happy to devote himself to the aesthetic beauty of Bach’s music for his entire life.
But he had an awakening, despite being a very gifted intellectual and a great critical thinker, author of books. It started with him reading our verse this morning, “Whoever would finds his life would lose it, and he who would lose his life for my sake will find it”
That awakening took a longer time and the internal shape of it, only he knows himself, but eventually he decided to make a difference with deeds rather than words. He went to medical school and took an assignment in Gabon, Africa.
Europeans had a long couple centuries of colonial subjugation in Africa, France one of the leading countries. Schweitzer was not about to atone for the great damage that was done, but with such talent as he had, he decided to follow a new calling to heal and to help, to serve others and fix what was broken in his midst. And in that process, he stumbled on a ‘calling’, not just a job. He came to know the “joy of having his values in a deeper harmony with his behavior”.[v] He stumbled on a more profound, a deeper way of being.
When you survey your immediate world, what are the needs that you see around you? What calls out to you that is in need of a healing, a redemption that you could actually offer? Where is it that your talent, your deeper fulfillment meet the needs that are in your extended family? Where does it meet the needs of your community? Where does it meet the needs of the world?
My brothers and sisters, may you open the path towards a more profound way of living. May you become awakened, perhaps indignant at the suffering in those around you, perhaps filled with compassion and love. May you claim your giftedness, your grace, and the way that you channel blessing to others around you. And may these line up in a way that you are blessed to make a connection. May you grow and heal and become a conduit for the divine energy that sustains us. May you collect some pieces of light and concentrate it in the midst of the darkness around us. Amen.
[ii] I just started this book and I recommend it highly. Brooks and I read the same books. This sermon largely summarizes the ideas that he develops in the chapter on ‘The Summoned Self” in The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), pps. 14-48.
[iii] Ibid. p. 13-14.
[iv] Ibid. This is half a direct quote and half my editing a paragraph from David Brooks p. 23. The ideas are expressly those of Brooks and not myself.
[v] The phrase is from Brooks, p. 25.