Sunday, June 23, 2024

Sermon: “Unexcused Absence”, Leviticus 26:2-5, 10-20, 34-35, 40-45 (June 23, 2024)

As you all know, I’ve been directing a youth production of “James and the Giant Peach, Jr.” at Boise Little Theater this summer. This is my first time directing, and I’m learning most of it as I go – mostly that there’s a LOT to do. I’m responsible for shaping the whole show: I direct the actors, of course, but I also give feedback on the set design, lighting, costumes, props, sound, and so on. Fortunately, I have a wonderful team committed to making it all happen, but at the end of the day, it’s *my* vision that guides everything (which is all pretty daunting for a first-time director, to be honest).

Despite all of that, the largest task (and greatest frustration by far) has been determining the rehearsal schedule. I have 43 cast members to coordinate between the ages of 9-18 years old, which would be difficult enough on its own. But it’s also summer, so each actor’s schedule is already peppered with sports, camps, and family vacations. Combine all this with the fact that there’s a different combination of kids in each of eleven scenes, and you can start to imagine how much of a challenge I’ve been facing!

At auditions, I asked each family to list all of their conflicts – as expected, there were a lot! – and I combined them all into a master calendar. Then, I compared all of these future absences to the list of who was needed for what scenes, and I created a schedule. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it maximized the number of actors present and minimized the number of times we’d have to reteach anything. It ensured that everyone would get the help and attention they’d need and that the cast could function as a whole to put on a successful show.

Now, this delicately balanced system *should* have gone relatively smoothly. But I’ve repeatedly run into a problem that I somehow didn’t anticipate: last-minute plans. I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has come to me mid-week and told me that they’d need to miss Friday rehearsal because their family is going out of town for the weekend. Or that they’d just gotten tickets to a concert, and is it okay if they miss rehearsal for it? Or that they’d somehow forgotten to tell me about an out-of-town doctor’s visit they couldn’t reschedule. I’m sure that these families mean well, but all of these unexpected absences together have had a negative impact on our rehearsal schedule.

As difficult and frustrating as this has been for me (and I can’t even BEGIN to tell you!) I’m sure it pales in comparison to the frustration that God must feel with humanity. God has set up an astoundingly complex system (even more complicated than a schedule for 43 kids!) in order to ensure the well-being of all creation. In this system, each piece is interconnected – they rely on and support each other. The non-human aspects of creation – the earth, water, animals, plants, and air – they all faithfully follow this balanced plan that God has established. But humanity is a wild card. Although we’re just as much a part of the system as the earth or the animals, we have free will, which means that we’re able to choose whether or not we want to participate.

We’re lucky. We don’t have to just guess at the right thing to do. God gives us rules and commandments to make sure that we know what our role in this system is supposed to be – kind of like my rehearsal schedule. Our reading tells us that if we follow them – if we show up and do what we’re supposed to – then we can trust that the system as a whole will work. The rain will fall, the land will produce food, and everyone will eat their fill. On the other hand, if we DON’T choose to live according to God’s “schedule”, terrible things happen: diseases, conflict, exhaustion, barren land and unyielding sky, just to name a few.

These may sound like rewards and punishments, [1] but in reality, they’re just natural consequences of humanity choosing to abide by or deviate from the divine plan. When we follow it, our actions become a part of the clockwork of God’s creation and everything flows smoothly, allowing all the good things that God desires for creation to come to pass. On the other hand, if we choose to work the land incessantly without allowing it to lie fallow,[2] it doesn’t have the chance to replenish its nutrients and it can no longer produce the same volume of crops. If we choose to funnel all of our water into unnecessary irrigation, it disrupts the water cycle and the supply of drinking water. If our food and water supply is compromised, then we become more susceptible to illness and disease. And if there’s less to go around, friends turn into competitors and eventually, enemies. Any time one part of the system chooses to be absent, the system inevitably falls apart.

There are natural consequences to the unexcused absences in my show, too. They throw a wrench in the system, and suddenly, we can’t learn that number because the soloist is gone, or we can’t choreograph that one because the spacing is off, or we can’t practice that scene because one of the characters isn’t there. The music is unbalanced, the choreography has holes, and lines are missing. The show as a whole suffers.

The problem in both of these cases is that human beings tend to be short-sighted – and we’re not especially good at recognizing it. Our choices have farther-reaching consequences than we tend to realize. We either can’t see past our own concerns, how the system serves us, and what we get out of it, or else we truly believe that we’re more important than everything and everyone else – although I prefer to give us all the benefit of the doubt and believe the former. In order for any complex system to work, we HAVE to think about the whole instead of just our own part – but somehow, we rarely seem to understand that.

Although we’re no longer an agrarian culture, we still use the same tired excuses that have been used for centuries to justify our “unexcused absences” from God’s Law. Centuries ago, we said, “It’s just me,” or “It’s just this once,” in order to rationalize overworking the land and hoarding food; today, we use those same excuses to justify things like littering or wasting resources, not considering that thousands upon thousands of people are making the exact same choice. Our ancestors said, “It’s too much work,” or “I’d rather do something else,” to excuse sharing surplus harvest with neighbors; today, we use those same excuses to explain why we collectively are willing to sacrifice the well-being of our neighbors and the rest of creation in pursuit of profit, ignoring the evidence that these actions are slowly making our planet uninhabitable. The consequences of these excuses are dire. These choices are awful, short-sighted, and incredibly selfish.

Now, the good news is that just because one part of a system chooses not do their part, it doesn’t mean that the rest of it is out of luck. A good leader does their best not to let the choices of a few disrupt the whole. Since I have access to the bigger picture of EVERYONE’S schedules, I can do some quick pivoting to maximize the benefit for those who ARE at rehearsal – maybe practicing a different scene, or helping them dig more deeply into their characters, or even building the set. Things would certainly go more smoothly if the whole cast were able to be present, but instead of canceling rehearsal entirely, I work to make sure that we can make the most of our time for the sake of those who ARE there.

God, of course, is better than a good leader – God is God. And a just and merciful God would never let the consequences of our bad choices punish the rest of creation. So, because God can see the big picture, the land is still able to “enjoy its sabbaths,” as Leviticus puts it, despite the disruption to the system. God has engineered it so that, when we try to exploit creation for our own benefit, we wind up bearing the brunt of the consequences. Without us, nature will eventually recover from the damage we’ve done – but humanity won’t survive for long without respect for the rest of nature.[3] As someone who’s only ever had to coordinate the schedules of 43 people and not multiple ecosystems covering an entire planet, I can assure you that this is an incredible feat.

Now, it’s good news (at least to those of us who care about such things) that God ultimately won’t let the rest of creation be penalized our collective misbehavior. But the even better news is that, even when we make choices in our own interest instead of the interest of the whole, taking the equivalent of an “unexcused absence” from our role in the system that God has built, God always gives us the chance to repent – to “make up” what we missed. I know this, because as frustrating as scheduling this show has been, I still haven’t kicked anyone out for prioritizing a last-minute vacation over rehearsal, and I haven’t given up and quit myself (as much as I may have wanted to at times). And God is infinitely more patient, merciful, and loving than I am.

None of this means that humanity won’t ever have to face the consequences of our choices. We’re already experiencing the serious ramifications of global climate change, and there will almost certainly come a time when those of us living today have passed the point of no return. But remember that unlike us, God sees the WHOLE picture, for all eternity. And if we take the steps to repent, to reorient our actions and our ways of thinking, to start caring about the system and not just ourselves, then Leviticus promises that God will remember God’s covenant with us and will not abandon us.

I’ll be honest with you – I’m not entirely sure whether or not I’d be willing to direct a youth show again anytime soon. There’s just too much stress, too much heartache, too much frustration, too much responsibility for me. But I will tell you that this experience has led me to a newfound appreciation for all that God puts up with from us, as well as God’s relentless faith in us and God’s eternal hope that we’ll do better. And I can guarantee you that the reason God does it, the reason God puts up with our unexcused absences and stubborn misbehavior, is the same reason that I agreed to take on the role of director in the first place: out of love. Irrational, intentional, stubborn love. So, then, let’s do our best, if not to earn that love (how could we?) then to respond to it in kind – for the sake of all creation. Amen.



[1] As an aside, I will concede that verse 16 says, “I [God] will do this to you,” but if God is the one who established the system, then God is also the one who established the consequences of not following it. God can cause things to happen THROUGH natural consequences – these are not mutually exclusive ideas.
[2] Exodus 23:11.

No comments:

Post a Comment