I was in a store three weeks back, and I said to the salesman, “Sure is hot out there!” He saw that I was a minister, so he kind of grinned and said to me, “Yeah, well, compared to where most folks are headin’ this heat won’t seem so bad at all!” My Jones ancestors were Virginia Baptists going way back, so I knew what he meant.
Funny enough, a few days later, in a small, dark teepee in South Dakota, I found myself in a place so hot it made Richmond summer seem like Sping time in Maine.
It was about 150 degrees in there–maybe more with the Heat Index. I really don’t know. But it was something else.
It was a powerful experience. Imagine ten white people from Richmond, Virginia sharing an absolutely tiny space on the ground inside a small teepee with three very large Lakota Sioux religious men and their friend from South America. That’s interesting enough. Then add several hundred degrees of heat, a lot of singing, a beating drum, a tobacco pipe, a bunch of steam pouring off some red-hot stones, and you begin to get the picture.
It was so hot in there, we were sweating like rain clouds.
Now we were cautioned by the leader that the ‘sweat’ was going to be hard on everybody. So we were counseled that it was not about competing with others in a test of endurance. Rather, we were invited to submit ourselves to the rigors of a deeply cleansing steam bath for the purpose of prayer, a heightened awareness of God, and to share with friends and strangers in a kind of Holy Ordeal. So that’s what we did; we entered into a Holy Ordeal, and we sweated, and we prayed, and we became—for a little while—very close.
In a strange way, despite the heat, and the steam, and the absence of visible light, the experience was so spiritually powerful, that it occurred to me that that red-hot little space was more like heaven than hell. And I wasn’t alone. Amazingly, just as I was thinking this, one of the Lakota singers said, “If you think it’s hot in here, think about how hot it must have been up on that cross.” That’s when I began to understand a little bit more about the mercy of God.
The scriptures today present us with the assurance that–above all of trials of this world—God is merciful. God is steadfast. God abides with us in the Wilderness of Sin, on the grassy deserts, in hunger, in the midst of sorrows, in death. Nehemiah and the Psalm remind us of how Yahweh brought the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom, only to hear them grumble about how thirsty they were. In the Wilderness of their journey to the land of hope and promise, the people of God rebelled against God, because they were too hot and thirsty. They turned away from Yahweh to worship a god of their own design.
Yet even then, God in his mercy fed them with the food and drink of Heaven. Because God abides—even when we do not abide with him.
The Letter to the Romans reminds us that even though Paul and the small band of Christians in Rome faced persecution and death, they, too, could testify to the mercy of the God. Even though Paul suffered in body and mind, and was killed for his faith in Christ–yet he could testify that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is why in the Gospel Jesus does not let the disciples send the 5,000 away to fend for themselves as a divided and dispersed group. Instead, he calls on the disciples to keep the 5,000 together, in one body, to sit down on the grass and share whatever there is to share between them.
Yes, gathering together as one body is the will of God, testified to by Jesus in his life and teaching, and in the mystery of his resurrection from the dead. It is for this work that God’s Holy Spirit binds us together as the Body of Christ. And it is why the divisions which abound between people in this world testify to the shattering powers and principalities which make this such a bent and broken place.
When Anita and I first opened the door of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Bear Creek, South Dakota, our hearts sank deep within us, and our jaws dropped. The place looked as if it had been hit by a tidal wave– even though it’s thousands of miles from the coast. The ceiling was all over the floor in a dusty heap of sheet-rock, water damaged insulation, broken boards, and mildewed fabric. The altar was in disarray, covered in dust and splinters of wood. The ceramic chalice–a gift from our parish on a past visit– was on the floor in many pieces.
As it turns out, the roof had been damaged in a storm well over a year ago. After some heavy rains, the ceiling was ruined. The lone, circuit-riding priest died around that time, and no one had yet taken his place. Likewise, after this, the diocese decided it would close all of the churches in remote towns. So as the people of the parish waited on the insurance money, they met in the community center of the town, or they did not meet at all.
In many ways the depressed physical state of the Episcopal Church at Bear Creek is indicative of the state of life on the reservation in general–where unemployment and substance abuse are major problems, and the average young person simply doesn’t have much opportunity to excel at anything except humility. This situation shouldn’t surprise anyone, I suppose. After all, Bear Creek is surrounded by the grassy desert of the Great Plains, not a bustling economic landscape.
And certainly the broken promises and violence which characterize our nation’s historic relations with Native Americans have not helped matters on the reservation today. Indeed, though it was almost a hundred and ten years ago that Union soldiers rounded up and massacred some 300 Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Bill Clinton is the first U.S. President to make the trip to a Sioux Reservation in all that time.
So the divisions and dejection on the reservation are no surprise. They are sad, and they are depressing. But we decided that our mission wasn’t to get depressed. We realized that God had called our group–also from a St. James’s–to be agents of gathering, connection and unity. So we finished the job that the Senior Warden had begun at the little church. We removed all of the ceiling rubbish that he had taken down himself, and we cleaned up the damaged church.
And even though the church was still unusable as a gathering place, we took the broken chalice, and some Elmer’s glue, and we put it back together into one piece. And seated together on a Sunday afternoon, outside on the grassy hillside, thirty of us shared in the Eucharist, with the once broken chalice as a powerful symbol of God’s reconciling power.
After that, we met every morning for a week with some twenty or so small children, for several hours of Bible School, games, songs, and interaction. We ate meals with the adults of the community. We participated in one of their traditional ceremonies. We rode some horses with teenage boys, and we even played basketball with some of the young men.
The ten of us, some all grown up, some in college, some in high school, went out to South Dakota to make connections with a people whom our ancestors regarded as enemies. We gathered together on the grass of the Great Plains, and we all ate, and we were all filled.
It was our last night that we shared in the sweat ceremony. And it sure was hot. But even scripture tells us over and over again that God himself is a consuming fire. And that’s good. As Thomas Merton wrote, the fire of God does not destroy us but melds us together into one body–much as gold is refined from various pieces of ore.
In the merciful mending and fusing together of a broken word, there is pain. Christ in his mercy died on the cross amidst great heat, and great pain.
Indeed, it hurts to love – doesn’t it? Isn’t it hard to forgive loved ones and friends when they hurt us? Isn’t it hard to reach out to strangers, and even near impossible to reach out to former enemies? But that’s our calling, is it not? Isn’t this what mercy means? To reach out in sympathy–to connect, to understand, to forgive, to love, to forebear, to abide?
I think that’s what we saw out in South Dakota. Despite all the history between our two peoples–and let me tell you, we are two distinct peoples–the four years of mission trips by the young people of this parish have begun to bear some fruit. At least that’s what I heard from Matt Odom, and Sloan Crawford, and the others who have gone again and again.
Finally, the connection has borne some fruit. Not a great harvest perhaps, but maybe five loaves and two fishes’ worth. Enough to feed people, anyway! They cooked us a couple of great meals. They invited us into their children’s lives, onto their basketball court, into their homes, and even into their traditional religious practice. They even gave us gifts to take home. For me, aside from the beaded green baseball cap I was given, the most important gift was the “sweat,” which I believe is a powerful symbol, and a Holy Ordeal. A reminder of what Jesus went through on the cross, and of what many Christians have gone through since the days of Paul. A reminder that God is not passive and breezy, nor cold and aloof. A reminder that the Holy Spirit of God seeks to gather us together, as through in the heat of a melting fire, not to destroy us, but to unify us in Christ.