Sunday, February 18, 2018
The Old Testament reading was the story of the flood in Genesis on this First Sunday of Lent. For forty days and nights, the earth was covered with water. The animals are gathered together in the ark with Noah and his family. Creation is made new in this story. The flood was thought to be a purification of the human race after a time of great wickedness. After the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah, all people, and even the animals to never destroy the earth again with a flood, and the symbol of this covenant is the rainbow in the sky: “This is a sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
We heard this story as our campus is covered with snow from winter storm Noah. Is this a coincidence? I think not.
I don’t think we can ever hear this story the same way again after our own experience with a flood in January here on the Housatonic River. It was a complete interruption in our daily lives as we dispersed from the school to higher ground in the surrounding communities. When you have an interruption like a flood, it makes you look at your life from a new perspective. What did we learn or come to understand? I think we learned to have deeper appreciation for mother nature; that there are natural forces alive and at work on this planet that make our own agendas and worries seem small and puny when we look at the big picture of the natural world. The interruption pulled us out of our daily routines and made us see reality in a new way. Is there now a rainbow in the sky for us, as there was for Noah and all the animals? I will scan the skies, and let you know. Our small flood definitely pales in comparison with the great flood described in Genesis. Yet our lives were interrupted. We learned that we are not wholly in charge of our world. We have to respect nature, its beauty and its sometime peril.
My life has been pleasantly disrupted by the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, during this month of February. So many of the winter sports require physical courage. I mean, how do you do aerial skiing or the luge for the very first time? It must be terrifying. And then there is curling. I still don’t understand the rules, but I can watch it for hours. I love the manic sweeping of the ice that they do. I could definitely use these athletes to clean my house. The Winter Olympics reminds me that I can do more than just survive during the winter months. I can thrive, and maybe even excel. And so can you in the weeks ahead.
The season of Lent, which began this this week on Ash Wednesday, is a kind of interruption in our daily lives, if we take it seriously. With the imposition of ashes on the forehead, we are reminded of our mortality with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The tradition of giving something up as a daily discipline frames the personal experience of the season. Like the flood story, the season of Lent is 40 days long. The number forty comes up with all the readings this morning.
In the same spiritual pattern, Jesus intentionally interrupts his life by spending 40 days in the wilderness where he fasts and prays. He is both led by the Holy Spirit and tempted by Satan, according to Mark. Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness invokes the tradition of the vision quest. For Native Americans, a vision quest was a time when you left the tribe to be alone in nature. A chief might do this if he were facing an important decision, or a shaman, the religious leader, might practice this discipline as he sought the well-being of the tribe as a whole. Jesus seems to be doing the same thing in the mystical Jewish tradition. This is a time of purification for Jesus when he draws near to the ultimate reality that is God. For Jesus, God was as near as the blood that runs in our veins, and he experienced this first in the wilderness. He had to interrupt his life to find his true spiritual path with God. He had to leave society for a time. In the flood story and the gospel, the great interruptions in our lives are deeply cathartic and creative; these are the moments when our character is forged before God. Interruptions can be holy if we let them guide us out of the water of suffering to higher ground. The flood was the last thing we needed this winter as a school, but there are important lessons in the experience of having our daily routines disrupted if we seek them intentionally.
This morning I would like to share with you a significant interruption in my life. Everything came crashing down around me. At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with cancer. My childhood was permanently interrupted, and I was sent to Stanford Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. My schooling was interrupted on a weekly basis; every Wednesday I missed school to go to Stanford. Why me? I must have asked myself that a hundred times, and I never got a direct answer from God. For Native Americans, the shaman was often a person who encountered a near death experience; one that introduced him to the spiritual reality that feeds our planet. Why me? I remember one morning when I was asking myself this question while I waited for an x-ray at the radiologist. Waiting with me was a girl who had recently had one of her eyes removed. She was laughing and joking with her mother, while I was feeling sorry for myself. At that moment, while listening to the girl’s trilling laughter, I stopped asking why me and began to look around. So many children—these tiny old people, bald and beautiful--were in worse shape than I was; and some of them wouldn’t make it. At the age of nine, I learned there is something universal about being a patient in a hospital. We’re all going to end up in one. When you’re young, it is hard to understand that. In my childhood interrupted, I had to integrate death into my personal cosmos. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, I learned.
My memories of chemotherapy are powerful, though they happened four decades ago, when I was just a confused boy afraid of dying. I used to run from these memories. Now I embrace them. I didn’t talk about my experience of cancer for nine years after I went into remission. Then it all came flooding back, but it wasn’t bad. It was kind of beautiful. There is physical healing, which medicine accomplished, but there is also spiritual healing, which was given to me by God. My memories help me remember how I got here, even to this pulpit this morning. I will never forget the doctors and nurses who cared for me. I discovered that when we are most alone, we are not alone. My mother was always present during my chemotherapy treatments, but so was something else, something transcendent, but also deeply present in the moment. The presence of God, like for Jesus in the wilderness. I had help in my suffering. I had a higher power. I also discovered that compassion and vulnerability are deeply related, and there’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable. I discovered my deepest values as a human being. Making money was not going to be the purpose of my life. Though I am a flawed person, I would follow a path where I could be of help to others as my life discipline. Most childhood cancer survivors are overeducated and underpaid, and many enter the helping professions as adults.
Interruptions in our lives can be painful, but they also can be holy. They can be the moments when our character is forged before God. In the overflow of water, both in biblical times and our own, the love of God can come flooding back to us. God loves each of you if you were the only person on the face of the earth, and grace flows through the broken places in our lives. May God bless all of you during this holy season on the banks of the Housatonic.