Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What can we do about the world's troubles?

Kurt Nelson, 11/2/10
Rollins Chapel.

John 2: 13-16

Richard has often reminded us this term,
that 10 minutes on a cold Wednesday morning,
is not a lot of time to address such big questions.

Thankfully this morning,
we have no such problem.
I fully expect that we will come to terms,
with what we can do about the world's troubles this morning,
in 9 minutes or less,
and have a plan of action implemented by the end of today's service.
(please plan to come next week with relevant assessment data,
so we can implement necessary changes).

I suspect few of you need convincing,
that the world does indeed have problems.
And here in the land of the phrase,
“the world’s troubles are your troubles”
I suspect you don’t need much convincing,
that said troubles are at least something of our business.
So we’ve come a long way already.
Perhaps for you the phrase "world's troubles" brings to mind issues of global concern
like war, or poverty, or environmental degradation.
Or perhaps it's more local, like family troubles, or academic struggles.
Or perhaps the problem on your mind is more internal,
like illness, depression or even apathy.
The troubles are many,
and the solutions seemingly few.
But the real problem with the world's problems,
it seems to me,
is not simply the problems themselves,
or that there are so many of them,
but also the problem of despair.
I suspect we've all faced,
or will one day face,
the problem of despair.
The feeling that there's nothing that I can do,
or indeed nothing at all to be done.

And that's why I selected this week's passage.
For it's not only a terrific example of righteous and holy anger -
which, in moderation, can be a truly helpful motivator  -
but is a story about taking first steps down a journey
when the outcomes are far from known.

For much of my life, I imagined this scene,
of Jesus and the money changers,
as it's depicted in various films and paintings,
where Jesus is some kind of divine super hero,
armed with righteous rage, and a whip of cords,
utterly disrupting the Temple business of the day.
Driving out every single money changer,
and effecting significant change in the course of a moment.
But the more I think about it,
the less I think that's the point.
For the temple was too large
– nearly the same size as Hanover’s entire bustling business district -
with too many points of entry,
for one man,
no matter how angry or how holy,
to disrupt.
Weary, poor travelers making their pilgrimage to the temple,
would have found their way to another point of entry,
and another greedy, dishonest money changer willing to take their hard earned money.
This isn’t a story about one man taking on a corrupt system,
and changing the way business is done.
It’s a story about noticing a problem,
knowing that it can’t be solved immediately,
and doing something anyway.
And I find great comfort in that.
For it seems to me,
that the only remedies to despair,
are hope and faith.
They allow us to keep walking
keep working,
Faith is, as Dr. King said, taking the first step,
even when you can't see the whole staircase.
And so our task,
I think,
is to cultivate those things that allow for taking those steps,
small as they may be.
Often, such steps will arise from good, holy, anger,
grounded in justice, and love for the world.
And other times they will be grounded in joy.
I had the great honor recently of meeting the Dalai Lama,
with a small group of college chaplains.
And what struck me most about him,
was his authentic laughter,
even when discussing deeply troubling and divisive issues.
And lately,
I've been pondering the profound Christian witness,
of Saint Stephen T. Colbert,
who took up the "Take My Job" challenge,
and spent a day as a migrant worker.
on deeply troubled issues of migrant labor.
He recalled to the suffering and lack of basic rights of migrant workers,
and to his duty to the "least of these"
always, somehow, with a smile.
And I suspect his witness will matter in time.
But most often,
I think our ability to take those small steps,
and turn over a table or two,
stems primarily from community,
perhaps even a community such as this one.
Places where we can sing, and pray, and support one another.
Where we can lift each another up,
and send one another out into the world.
To take small steps.
Places where we can feel, and believe, and know,
that there is more grace in the world than there is hurt, and trouble.

And when we’re done with our table turning moment,
we have yet one more task.
We must tell the story.
We must narrate those moments of hope and success.
And that,
in the midst of our action-oriented campus,
can be a hard thing to do.
But ponder for a moment if the good doctor, Luke,
has simply decided to continue doctor-ing.
instead of telling his Gospel story.
Stories matter,
and we have an ethical responsibility to tell our stories,
of changing the world,
one person,
one turned over table at a time.
Howard Zinn wrote:

" TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

Luke's story and John's story could have been about death and failure and despair.
But instead they wrote of resurrection and hope.
And they are ours to tell still.
Stories which I hope and believe were not simply true
about one man, 2000 years ago,
but stories in which we are to play a part, here and now and always.
Even in the face of all the troubles the world has to offer.

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