Homily by Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022
The person who goes to the doctor because of not feeling quite right and who receives the diagnosis that they have stage 4 cancer that has metastasized to several organs – this person faces some immediate choices. Do they passively accept the diagnosis and give up? Do they lean into the diagnosis and try their best to cope? Or do they gain a certain clarity about the time they have and live their best quality of life?
Recently, this happened to one of my co-workers. Her immediate response, as she said to me, was, “This is a nightmare I cannot wake up from.” Now she must choose how she will respond.
This morning I would like to take a look at that 3rd alternative – To gain clarity and to live the best quality of life possible. The clarity that truth brings is a powerful force. To know the concrete situation one is in and to respond with action that treasures one’s own life and the people in one’s life.
I believe this same dynamic happens with the cancers that attack the social body. A cancer like the Ukrainian people are experiencing today, just like the cancer of war and barbarous attacks on innocent people from Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, South Yemen, Syria – and the list goes on and one. When a government leader becomes distant from the everyday life of people and solidifies in the conviction that they have the clear vision and possess the truth that, “I alone can fix this,” that leader turns barbaric. When the leader believes that he is the embodiment of Czar Peter the Great, it’s quite likely that he is really removed from the people. For all our talk of the evolution of the human species and the vision that God is the saturation reality in which we live – that we are part of divinization, it is clear that we are not fully “there” yet. It is the truth of eschaton, the already and the not yet. How much further we have to go because humans are capable, this side of fulfillment and complete transformation, of such evil.
The bombardment and killing in Ukraine is such a cancer of war and violence, the response to which is to achieve the clarity of the truth of what is right and what is wrong. To initiate war is to immerse oneself in lies, to distort the truth and to disengage from real people’s hopes for the future, especially the future of their children.
Here’s where we consider this conversation between Moses and Yahweh that we heard read from the Book of Exodus. (Exodus 3:1-8,13-15) Because it is a conversation we should not overlook it as such. After all, this God who speaks, this is the Great & Glorious Jehovah. This all-powerful One could have bypassed conversation and proceeded immediately to demand and command; this One could have instructed Moses and brooked no hesitancy. And, God forbid that Moses would have the audacity to reply as a peer. But this is a conversation. The voice from the burning bush invites Moses in. This man who was making a living by tending the sheep of his father-in-law – he didn’t even have his own flock – this man turns out to be a curious person who is intrigued by an invitation to come closer from a voice coming from a burning bush.
What a revolutionary way to relate to God – to converse as with a friend. Next, let’s be clear that the voice points out the rightful position in which Moses finds himself, namely that he is in the presence of the God of his ancestors. However, even then what transpires is a conversation. God says, “I have seen the affliction of my people.” (Exodus 3:7) This God cares. This God will lead them to a good and a spacious land.
In his “Ethics,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this of truth. “The word of truth is founded on the basis of experience and the knowledge of the real.” In light of this conversation between Moses and God, I think we can see that Moses finds the word of truth here. The basis of this experience is the God of the ancestors and the knowledge of the real is God’s reassurance of his witnessing the people’s struggles in Egypt. The clarity of the truth which is revealed to Moses is that God loves and is compassionate toward the people. This loving God who converses with regular folks provides the clear example of the leader who leads by truth. This cancerous war in Ukraine – as well as all the places in the world where greed, violence, and power give permission to some to cause affliction on others – this is clearly not truth.
The clarity of the truth we are dealing with here is so clear and so true that it is particularly difficult to write a homily about it. The clarity of this truth forces us to single out true leaders from the barbaric ones. In this Ukrainian war we have on the one hand a leader who sees the affliction of his people and who stays with him – creating videos on the streets of Kyiv while he stands in front of structures that possess deep cultural significance for the people – giving them cause to resist and to defend themselves. And on the other hand, we see a man who has become so isolated from real people and reality that he is supported by the Russian Patriarch Kirill who has said that this “special military operation” is a metaphysical necessity. In this world of isolation to use the term metaphysical supposedly addresses how reality is structured, as in creating a new world order. A metaphysical war, in this sense, doesn’t need to be concerned with actual human lives – neither with one’s own military nor the targets on the ground.
In Jesus’ parable from Luke’s Gospel today we are told that truth requires care and tending for the long-term. (Luke 13:1-9) The tree-dresser rescues the fruitless tree from the short-sighted vineyard owner by committing to pruning, hoeing, and tending the tree. With such care they will both wait until the next season for the fruit to emerge. Growth takes time. Destruction takes less than a minute. This is the concrete experience which affirms the speaking of truth.
The final essay in Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” is titled, “What is meant by ‘Telling the Truth’? It actually is one of the final, unfinished pieces he was working on at the time of his execution. He was able to write down an insightful view on the distinction between speech, as in telling, and action, as in living by truth. As we have considered here, one may make truth claims in well crafted speeches but it’s the concrete living by truth that clarifies real truth.
In the end, to live by truth these days has rarely been so clear.
A Prayer (Prayers for an Inclusive Church)
Living Mystery, whose way transforms ours,
whose name is I AM:
lead us from justice without compassion
and sacrifice without mercy
to a love which nurtures and a peace which strengthens;
through Jesus Christ, the true Bread.