“The deepest grace and healing comes from being present to each other in communities of holy companionship.”
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Blessing of the Animals Sunday, October 1, 2017, by Mike Kinman.
“Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus: Christ, though in the image of God, did not see equality with God something to be clung to – but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind.”
This past week, I was part of a delegation from the World Council of Churches to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. On Tuesday morning, we sat down with Anastasia Crickley, the chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to talk with her about the ongoing and increasing discrimination and violence against people of color in the U.S.
Now, the UN has extremely limited power to influence US policy. Our seat on the security council and the economic power we have within the institution prevents the UN from taking on the United States in any substantive way. However, one area where the UN can exercise some moral authority in demanding change is in the case of torture – practices that are so cruel that there is broad agreement that their inhumanity compels action.
This caught the attention of one of our delegation, who immediately saw an opening and jumped in with a question. She asked:
“Is solitary confinement considered torture?”
Ms. Crickley didn’t even have to pause to think.
“Well, of course,” she said, as if the answer was self-evident.
Solitary confinement is common practice in this country. According to the ACLU, “44 states and the federal government have supermax units, where prisoners are held in extreme isolation, often for years or even decades. On any given day in this country, it’s estimated that more than 80,000 human beings are held in solitary confinement.”
And whom do we torture in this way? According to a 2015 study from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School, Black and Latinx persons make up two-thirds of those held in solitary confinement in the United States. Here in California, Latinx persons make up 86 percent of those in solitary confinement while Whites make up only 9 percent. The justice and policy implications of this as a case of racial discrimination and human rights violations are clear. And … there is a deeper theological point.
Solitary confinement is torture because we are not meant to be alone. It is literally cruel and inhuman to force someone to be alone. And yet it happens all the time. Not just in our supermax prisons of concrete and steel, but every day in countless ways in our homes, on our streets, in our workplaces and schools and throughout our lives.
Solitary confinement is torture. And we torture one another and ourselves all the time.
Now, most of us need and many of us even love solitude. I know I sure do. Jesus went off by himself all the time and especially the introverts among us can find social interaction downright exhausting. But solitude is different than isolation. Isolation is torture.
Isolation is contrary to our nature. When our ancestors wrote our creation myths, they knew this and reminded us that God, who at each stage of the first creation story looks at what she has created and says over and over “it is good, it is good, it is good, and finally, it is very good,” that in the second creation story God in creating a solitary human looks on that creature and says “Something is missing here.” God doesn’t say “it is good” but instead she says “It is not good, not good that the human should be alone.” And so the very creation of every animal on the earth and ultimately humanity as plural is about the necessity and the holiness of companionship.
Solitude can be a wonderful gift, but isolation is indeed torture. Even monks and nuns live in community. We are made for one another. We are made for one another. We are not meant to be alone.
So it is with us. And so it is with God.
In this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul literally sings this. It is the earliest recorded Christian hymn, and Paul sings:
“Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus: Christ, though in the image of God, did not see equality with God something to be clung to – but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into the human condition, found in the likeness of a human being. Jesus was thus humbled – obediently accepting death, even death on a cross!”
God not only says it is not good for us to be alone, God gazes on us lovingly, passionately and says I cannot, I will not leave you alone. God has that lover’s hunger in her heart, that hunger that knows her heart will absolutely shatter if she cannot be with us, her beloved. And not just one of us but all of us. And especially when we are most convinced of our worthlessness and unlovability. God says show me the loneliest, the most isolated, the most rejected, the most vulnerable of my children and I will go not only and be with them, I will be with them as one of them. Today. Tomorrow. Forever.
Listen closely to what Paul is singing and also to what Paul is not singing. Paul is not singing of an effective useful God, promising to fix everything that is broken and create paradise with a wave of her hand. Paul is singing of a God of holy companionship, promising only to be with us. To feel what we feel and never, never, ever to leave.
And Paul bids us not only to trust that is the depth of God’s passion for, the depth of God’s desire for holy companionship with us … but to trust that God dreams for us to have that same depth of passion, desire and embrace of holy companionship for one another. In a Christ who gave the divine self up to death on a cross, whose entire life in the eyes of the world, ended up in humiliation and failure. In that Christ, God bids us remember that faithfulness and success is not about our own effective utility – about how successful we are and how many problems we solve — but about the depth of our love and commitment to holy companionship with one another.
Above all and through it all, the most important thing is just being together as deeply and fully as we possibly can. To be with one another in our moments of greatest joy and triumph and in our moments of greatest pain and need. And we know this instinctively, deep inside, don’t we? We know that beauty and joy not shared rings out in hollow tones. We know when we see our siblings suffering, be they in Puerto Rico or Northwest Pasadena or at the desk next to us at work or in the pew in front of us at church, the best of our humanity is our hearts yearning to reach out in compassion to one another.
And yet we live in a world that is so convinced that success is about effective utility that once we get there – or even before we try but we just think about reaching out to our fellow image of God in pain and need, we can be consumed by our own feelings of helplessness. Feeling like we are useless because we can’t do anything, because we can’t heal the pain or fix the problem. Afraid not only that we don’t know the right thing to say but that we might say the wrong thing and make it worse.
Too easily, we forget from our own lives that if we were blessed enough to have someone who even just once kissed our scrapes and made them better that what made them better was not some magical medical power of that person’s lips but their presence, the love of the embrace and the promise that no matter how deep the wound, that the love, the presence, the holy companionship was there and wasn’t going to leave.
Too often, in our helplessness of feeling like we won’t know what to say, we forget that it’s not about saying anything. That there are no words that will take the pain away or that will fix the problem or heal the wound. But that grace exists and abounds in holy companionship. Grace exists in saying I cannot prevent you from going through this storm, but I can promise you that you will never go through it alone.
Too often, other’s pain connects with our own in ways that are too difficult to bear. So we shrink away from one another because we cannot face ourselves and create solitary cells of suffering walled off from the healing touch and holy companionship that could be our mutual salvation.
We shrink from each other in other ways, too. When those among us commit crimes or have words and actions bring shame upon them, we fear guilt by association so we practice ostracization. We lock our wounded away at the time when we most need the balm of one another’s touch, the healing grace of one another’s met gaze, the life-sustaining power of the silent presence of a companion who refuses to let us sit or stand or lay alone.
We do it to one another and we do it to ourselves, silencing ourselves in shame, relegating ourselves to the supermax prisons of deep, dark closeted lives. In pain living in the self-imposed exile of not being able to trust that God could possibly love us and want to be with us when we struggle so mightily with loving and being with ourselves.
Too often, we forget that the deepest grace and healing comes not from having the answer to the problem or the most effective strategy for change, but merely from having that same mind and heart for holy companionship in us that was in Christ Jesus.
And part of why we bless animals not just on this day but recognize the blessing animals are every day is because animals teach us and remind us of this. They teach us the deep love of holy companionship. There is not one of our problems that they can solve. There is not one of our wounds that they can heal. They cannot cure our cancer or stop a hurricane. They cannot find us a job or repair our marriage. And yet their holy companionship and love enriches our lives and is deep blessing.
Our animals remind us that it is not good for us to be alone and that God longs for us not to be. In their love, they remind us how we can be with one another. That’s why when they die, we grieve them as our own children. Why we feel their absence as keenly as we feel their presence.
Yes, solitary confinement is torture. And so are all the other types of extreme isolation, all the ways we ostracize and other each other, all the ways we pull back from one another in our own sense of helplessness and fear.
Solitary confinement is torture, and this morning, Paul reminds us that God is singing that the days of torture must come to an end.
This morning, Paul reminds us that in a world that tells us that success is about effective utility, that in becoming human in Jesus and dying on the cross, God reminds us that her dream for us is something different.
This morning, Paul reminds us that God’s deepest dream for us is not that we are the most effective political agent, not that we create the most beautiful worship and raise the most beautiful voices in praise. Not that we preach the most eloquent sermons or have our pews filled and our coffers overflowing. All these things are good and holy and important because they too are about love incarnate in powerful self-giving ways. But I am convinced that God’s deepest dream for us is for us to more and more be God’s beloved community of holy companionship. Where we strive to have the same mind in us as Christ Jesus. Where we are beloved community for each other and we are beloved community in the world. Where we give our holy presence and companionship to one another in this place and where we stand in the streets and in the prisons, in the hospitals and in the courtrooms, in the classrooms and in the bedrooms and wherever those among us who are most ostracized and marginalized are standing and standing with them and as them.
Standing in love not because we know how to fix every problem and heal every wound but because the greatest gift we can offer is our loving presence, our holy companionship.
Because when we stand together in love. When we truly believe that what happens to one happens to all, incredible things will happen.
When we overcome our fear to be with one another in our despair, we find the salve that eases our pain.
When we see the deep brokenness of the world not as faceless problems like homelessness and racism, militarism and misogyny but as the human faces and cries of our beloved, the solutions and strategies become self-evident because in our passion and love we will not permit these atrocities to continue.
When have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, when we truly trust that God loves us without end and we can love each other just the same, God’s dream for us all comes true. Amen.