Sunday, April 10, 2016

God's Reentry Program


Here's today's homily. The readings are Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19.

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I’ve never seen a completely convincing explanation for why we humans love the number three so much. Everyone acknowledges that we do, though. Three winds its way through history and across cultures; we find it in our legends, our riddles, and our theology. It shows up in the three Fates, the three little pigs, and the Christian trinity. Fairy-tale swineherds can’t win the hand of the princess without completing three tasks. No joke is complete unless three people, rather than only two, walk into a bar. Three strikes in baseball and you’re out. We can’t have blood and sweat without tears, and we can’t have friends and Romans without countrymen.  


And, according to today’s readings, we can’t have Peter and Paul, two of our most important church ancestors, without lots of threes. Saul, who will take his new name of Paul any minute now, is blind for three days after his conversion on the road to Damascus, a calamity echoing the three days Jesus spent in the tomb. The resurrection story in the Gospel is the third time the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, and his conversation with Peter is a set of three questions. Jesus’ thrice-repeated “Do you love me?” is an explicit undoing of the three times Peter denied Jesus after his arrest by the Romans. Even the 153 fish are divisible by three, and then by three again, seventeen groups of nine. We’re drowning in trinities here.


Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor has suggested that the number three has been lodged in our imaginations ever since the earliest humans studied the sky and realized that the dark of the moon lasts three nights. People who study writing note, more simply, that lists of three make points both more forceful and easier to remember. Whatever the explanation, it’s undeniable that three means business. If something comes in threes, we sit up and pay attention. Whatever this three-part sequence is, it’s important.


Today’s Scripture stories would probably get our attention even without all these threes. They’re about two of the most important leaders of the early church, and they’re both about crucial turning points, moments of repentance and conversion. Saul has been actively persecuting Christians. Peter, the most zealous of the disciples before the events of Holy Week, betrayed Jesus and his own sense of himself by running away, by denying Jesus rather than remaining loyal to his Lord. Both men must feel acute shame. Indeed, Peter is so deeply ashamed that when he realizes who’s on the beach, he covers himself -- as Adam and Eve did in the Garden after their own transgression -- and jumps into the water to get away from Jesus. At least, that’s how I read this passage. Maybe he’s rebaptizing himself. Maybe he’s just really clumsy. But if I were Peter, confronted with the person I’d denied three times, I’d run away.


We all know that there’s no running away from God, though:  not from God’s wrath, and not from the love, healing and mercy we see in today’s lessons. God sends Ananias to heal Saul, who regains his sight and feels much better after a meal. Jesus fries up some fish for his friends, including the sopping, bedraggled Peter. God gives both men food for the journey. I wonder if Peter, chewing his fried fish as he dripped dry on the beach, remembered that Jesus also fed Judas -- the ultimate betrayer -- at the last supper. If Peter did remember that, I wonder if he felt more hopeful, or only more ashamed.  

And I wonder what he felt during that chat with Jesus. “Do you love me? Do you love me? No, really, Peter, do you love me?” Maybe at first Peter was happy to assure Jesus of his love after his previous shameful behavior. But by the third time we know, because the text tells us, that he’s hurt at having to answer the question again. He just wants to be forgiven. He just wants to put that whole horrible episode in the past. Why does Jesus keep harping on it?


Jesus keeps harping on it because he has a job for Peter: “Feed my sheep.” That gets repeated three times, too. “Hey, Peter, are you enjoying that fish I cooked up for you? Feed others as I have fed you.” Paul will receive a similar commission.
 
All of us have done wrong. All of us, at some point, have betrayed ourselves and those we love. All of us long for forgiveness. But in these two stories, Jesus does more than say, “You’re forgiven.” He says to both men, “I have work for you.  I’m giving you a job.” And he tells Peter, in effect, “I’m saying it three times so you’ll get it.  This is important.  Pay attention.”


Being forgiven means that we’re accepted: that we’re loved again, or still. But being given work means that we’re trusted, even when we don’t quite trust ourselves yet. “I have a really important job for you. I know you can do this. I know you won’t let me down.”
There’s another layer here, beyond the personal healing of Saul and Peter. People who’ve done terrible things themselves will be that much more likely to forgive others with shady pasts. Saul and Peter can be counted on to be compassionate to wrongdoers. They’ve done wrong, too. They know what guilt feels like, and they know that loving their neighbors -- loving others as God has loved them -- means offering second chances, including meaningful work. Having lain in their own tombs of shame and darkness, having been restored to love and light, they are the best possible choices to spread the Good News of resurrection.


That’s as true now as it was two thousand years ago. Let me introduce you to a woman named Rhonda Bear. Rhonda lives in Oklahoma. In 2000, in her mid-twenties, she was a single mother of three children. She didn’t have a job or an education. She did have a meth habit. She couldn’t even see her children because she was wanted on multiple drug charges, and she knew the police would catch her if she visited her kids. Desperate to be a mother again, she turned herself in, promising her children that she was going to change.


In prison, Rhonda attended a Kairos weekend, the prison ministry you’ve heard Mike talk about. She was amazed by the unconditional love of the Kairos volunteers. They didn’t say ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Shame on you.’ They said, ‘Come on in. Let’s love you with the love of God and let the love of God impact your life.’”


Rhonda was released nineteen months into her ten-year sentence. Three years later, she too became a Kairos volunteer. She also ran halfway houses for former inmates, but she wanted to help with employment opportunities. "In order to stay out of prison," she says, "you have to have safe housing. You have to have a job. You have go have community support." So, starting with $300 and a flea-market booth, she opened a coffeeshop called She Brews. She has employed twenty-four women, all former offenders, all of whom are currently working, although most have moved on from the coffeeshop. Three of them are now in college. “We help them with employment,” Bear says. “We help them with education. We help them set goals so that their lives and their children’s lives can be different.” Bear mentors these women because it was transformative for her to have someone believe in her.  Being trusted changed her life. Today, reunited with her children and grandchildren, she helps others reach that same state of grace.


The number three runs through Rhonda Bear’s story, too. Sit up. Pay attention. This is important. When we accept not just God’s love and forgiveness but the work God gives us, we find new life both for ourselves and others. Feeding others as we have been fed, transforming our shame into compassion, and offering the healing balm of trust, we embody resurrection.
  

Let us behold Christ in his redeeming work, and let us do likewise. Amen.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Sundays


Here's today's homily. The gospel is Luke 19:28-40.

*


I have always been acutely attuned to bad news, keenly aware of the abyss into which any of us can plunge at any moment. Some of this is a function of family history: from a very young age, I knew the story of how my mother’s mother died suddenly in a car accident when my mom was twelve, how my father’s mother died suddenly in his arms of a massive stroke. Some of it’s a function of neurochemistry: along with grim family stories, I inherited depression and anxiety. All of this meant that as a kid, I moved through the world like some combination of Eeyore and Wednesday Addams. I’ve often heard people say that children never think they’re going to die. I always knew I was going to die. I knew that everyone around me was going to die, quite possibly within the next hour, especially if they did anything foolish like getting on an airplane or crossing a street.

As you can imagine, this made me really popular at parties. My father was an attorney, so I got dragged to quite a few tony Manhattan cocktail parties. The other children at the parties did frivolous things like play games. I’d find a family pet to cuddle, or a bookshelf to browse, or just stand in a corner feeling lonely and doomed.  How could these people be so happy? Didn’t they know they were going to die?  

I’ve gotten a little better at navigating parties as an adult, but they still make me uncomfortable. I’m much happier in places other people would consider stressful or depressing, like volunteering in the emergency room, where I never have to make small talk about sports or the weather and where no one ignores mortality.

I’m saying all of this to explain why I’ve never liked Palm Sunday, which is nothing if not a party. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, riding the Donkey of Prophecy, as people cheer and sing and throw down their cloaks, the equivalent of a red carpet. Picture me standing at the back of the crowd, feeling lonely and doomed. How can these people be so happy? Don’t they know Jesus is going to die?  

And there you have it, the paradox of Palm Sunday. Just as Jesus has entered the gates of Jerusalem, we have now crossed the threshold into the heart of the liturgical year, the series of services -- Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday Easter Vigil -- that will culminate in Easter Sunday. Today is a happy day:  a parade day when we sing and wave palms. Next Sunday will also be a happy day, the happiest in our calendar. In between, things get dark.

Palm Sunday poses a worship quandary. People who only come to church on Sundays -- who go from Jesus' triumphant procession into Jerusalem straight to his triumphant departure from the tomb -- miss a lot of the story. Such people might be inclined to think that Christianity's just one triumph after another, all joy and light. Many churches, to prevent this misconception, perform the Passion on Palm Sunday, so that people in the pews will have some idea what happens between the two Sundays. But that creates liturgical whiplash, leading worshippers in the space of an hour from the joy of Palm Sunday to the despair of the crucifixion. 

St. Paul's is one of the churches that has decided to keep Palm Sunday for songs and hosannas, trusting its congregation to actually come to Holy Week services. If you've never attended them, they're beautiful and ancient, deeply moving. If you miss them, you're really missing out. Please do make every effort to join us for those other services this week.

In the meantime, here we are, on Palm Sunday, cheering with the crowd as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on that donkey. But we also, like Jesus himself, know what comes next. We know that the crowds that love him today are going to turn on him, because he isn't the militant Messiah they want, the one who'll violently overthrow Roman rule. We know the religious establishment will turn on him because he threatens their fragile peace with Roman rule, and we know the Romans will turn on him for being a dangerous criminal element, a revolutionary.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing that he would die there. He'd tried to tell his closest friends, but they didn't believe him. For him, Palm Sunday must have been a very strange celebration, a tug of war between joy and grief.  

Here's a story about another celebration like that. On Christmas Eve, 1934, a priest named Frederick Graves celebrated mass at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Reno. We can imagine the candlelit sanctuary, the joyous carols, happy families wishing Father Graves a Merry Christmas as they filed out of church to go home. What none of them knew, because he hadn't told them, was that a few hours earlier, he'd gotten a phone call. His daughter Mary, a young mother who lived in Berkeley, had been killed when her bicycle brakes failed on a steep hill.

Frederick Graves left that Christmas Eve service to drive straight to California. He was a woodworker, and when he came home from his daughter’s funeral he began carving an altar as a memorial to her. It featured scenes from the life of Jesus, and in one corner he inscribed the words, "Erected to the glory of God in gratitude for the joyous life of Mary Graves Dunn."  St. Stephen's still used that altar when I began attending in 1999, and continued doing so until the parish closed in 2010. I believe the altar has now been donated to a church in another state.

Frederick Graves must have been heartbroken that Christmas Eve. He knew something his joyous congregation didn't: he would be leaving them that evening to mourn the death of his child, the most painful thing any parent can experience. But he also knew something else. He knew the good news I hadn’t yet learned as a child in a secular household. He knew about resurrection. Despite his anguish, I'm sure he celebrated that Christmas mass with whatever joy he could muster, the same joy he celebrated in his inscription to Mary.

Resurrection took several forms, in this case. It took the form of the altar itself, which helped feed and succor so many people for so many years. And it took another form. Peter Dunn, the little boy whose mother was killed on Christmas Eve in 1934, grew up to marry a woman named Sharon. At first, neither Peter nor Sharon were churchgoers, but in due course, she became an Episcopalian. They moved to Reno, and she started attending the church where Peter's grandfather had been a vicar. When I met Sherry Dunn, she was a priest at St. Stephen's, celebrating the Eucharist at the altar dedicated to the memory of her husband's mother.

Palm Sunday is a joyous party, and we should indeed enjoy ourselves today. But we also need to resist the temptation of believing that Christianity is nothing but joy and light, one triumph after another. Our faith doesn’t promise us fame, fortune, success, or even happiness. It promises us resurrection, and resurrection doesn’t happen at triumphant processions. It happens at tombs. If you want to see God bringing things back to life, you have to go to the places where it looks like everything’s dead. You have to go to all those scary, inconvenient places, the ones that fall between Sundays:  the Garden of Gethsemane, the foot of the cross, the tomb.

These places don’t feel like parties.  There are no cheering crowds or red carpets.  But if you walk to what looks like the end of the story and wait there, you’ll see something that will change your life: the reason for all our hosannas, the reason we are still waving palms two thousand years after that first Palm Sunday.

Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Desert Places



Here’s today’s homily.  The Gospel is Luke 4:1-13.

*

Today, the first Sunday in Lent, is also Valentine’s Day. It’s actually quite fitting that we’re hearing about Jesus’ trials in the wilderness today. The devil’s temptations boil down to one basic promise -- “I can solve all your problems and fill all your needs” -- and popular culture encourages us to believe exactly the same things about romantic love. The right partner will solve all our problems, fill all our needs, and give us everything we’ve ever wanted, along with roses, chocolate, and Hallmark cards.  

These promises aren’t limited to Valentine’s Day. I recently read that forty to fifty percent of popular songs address romantic love, and if you’ve ever listened to the radio, you know that they do so in some pretty scary ways. Too many of those song lyrics translate into, “I can’t live wthout you. You make me complete. I’m only happy when I’m with you. I’ll do anything for you. I’ll never leave you. Get away from that schmuck you’re with right now and accept me as your destiny.” If a live person showed up on our doorstep and said anything like this, we’d call the police and get a restraining order.  

Most of us also know, if only from hard experience, that no human relationship is perfect or all-fulfilling. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that marriage, instead of easing every burden, “halves our rights and doubles our duties.” But if intimate partnerships are hard work, they can also be sources of great joy and comfort. We’re social animals. Connection to other people is a deep human need. That’s why Valentine’s Day can be so difficult for people who are alone and who have been told, or who believe, that they can only be complete with a partner.  Under those conditions, it’s a lot more difficult to recognize, and dismiss, the inflated promises of Top Forty love songs.

Jesus, who is fully human, has spent a long time alone in the wilderness, and the devil is appealing to deep human needs:  physical hunger, the desire for power and authority, and the urge to test limits. All of us need to eat. All of us need to feel as if our influence matters. All of us need to take risks sometimes, because that’s how we grow. But Jesus recognizes the traps here, swatting away these false promises as easily as he’d brush away a fly. He knows who, and Whose, he is. He knows he is loved. He doesn’t need to prove himself. He will indeed feed the hungry, but not on the devil’s dare. He is already the ruler of creation without having to worship false idols, and God has already kept him safe through dangerous trials.

Jesus knows that he is not alone. He knows that God is with him even in this loneliest and driest of landscapes. Dates with the devil pose no temptation.

This morning’s Gospel is from the fourth chapter of Luke. In the tenth chapter, we will be reminded that the first commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and that the second, which is like it, is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love of God, neighbor and self are the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Lent is an invitation for us to recognize, and dismiss, anything that distorts or distracts us from this trinity. And sometimes Lent comes to us in different forms and at different times of the year.

Last fall, I took a class about addiction to help me in my volunteer work in the ER.  One of the course requirements was an “Abstinence Experience.” The professor asked us to choose something important to us and give it up for ten weeks, as a way of increasing our empathy for addicts trying to give up alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. What most of us learned -- and I suspect this was the real point of the assignment -- is that nearly everyone is addicted to something.

I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t eat dairy or gluten. A few months before the class started, I’d been diagnosed as prediabetic, so I’d already cut way down on my beloved chocolate. My options for the Abstinence Experience were to give up coffee or Facebook. If I gave up coffee, I’d live in a permanent state of migraine and my brain would stop working. This seemed like a bad choice in the middle of a challenging semester. If I  gave up Facebook, I’d theoretically free up an embarrassing number of hours every day. This seemed like a good choice in the middle of a challenging semester. Facebook it was. No problem. I’d give up Facebook for ten weeks! I’d get so much more done!

I gave up Facebook for ten weeks. I didn’t get much more done. What did I do with the free time? I daydreamed. I stared into space. I discovered that I felt unaccountably anxious and lonely. Eventually, I realized that my online activity had been one way of filling what 12-Step recovery programs call “the hole in the soul,” a sense of deep inadequacy, the bone-deep belief that I am not and have never been enough: not smart enough, not kind enough, not good enough. I remembered favorite lines from a Robert Frost poem I read in college:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

I realized that Facebook was only the latest in a series of efforts to fill or flee my inner wilderness. Since childhood, my escape vehicles of choice have included books, writing, academic overachievement, shopping, exercise, and, yes, romantic relationships, not to mention chocolate. If I immersed myself in imaginary adventures, if I got perfect grades, if I found the perfect shoes or the perfect workout or the perfect lover or the perfect Godiva truffle, then I too would at last be perfect, or at least good enough. But none of those things ever fully filled that internal void, which some psychologists believe is the root of all addiction. Trekking through my desert places for ten weeks last fall, I finally realized that the only thing big enough to fill that emptiness -- to make me feel complete and heal me of my self-hatred -- was God.  

By myself, I am indeed not enough, because no one is. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. It’s how we’re made. We’re designed to need God as much as we need our neighbors. Our seeming inadequacies are cause not for mourning, but for celebration. When I finally understood this, I invited God into my wilderness and prayed for transformation. I found myself filled with peace, with the certainty that God loved me and had been waiting a very long time to be welcomed in, to make my desert places bloom into what looked suspiciously like Valentine’s Day bouquets.

Lent isn’t a one-time journey. I’m back on Facebook now, for an embarrassing number of hours a day, and I still find myself tempted by shoe sales and Godiva truffles. But now I’m better able to enjoy those things for what they are, instead of feeling that I’m nothing without them. I have a better sense of who, and Whose, I am. I feel less need to prove myself. I know that I am not alone. I know that God is with me even in the loneliest and driest of landscapes, and I know that if you pay attention to the desert instead of desperately running away from it, you learn how much can grow there.

This Valentine’s Day, I wish all of you a Holy Lent. May everyone here know the embrace of the one, true source of Love:  the One who solves all our problems, meets all our needs, and fills all our desert places with flowers.   

Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome, Child


Here's today's homily. The readings are Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37.

*

Dear child:

There you are in Jesus’ arms. We don’t know how old you are; we don’t even know your gender.  We don’t know if you were a cherished heir, a beloved child of the family who owned that house in Capernaum, or a slave. Whatever your status, you would have been considered the legal property of your parents, not yet a person in your own right.
 
That’s also true of your mother, whether she was a servant or the “capable wife” celebrated in today’s reading from Proverbs, who acts almost entirely for the good of her husband and family.  It sounds like this wife loves her husband, and we have to hope he loves her back, because she’s his legal property too. That’s going to last a long time. Where I live, in the United States -- a country that doesn’t exist yet, in your time -- the law saying that a wife is her husband’s property won’t be declared fully unconstitutional until 1981. Where I live, so far in your future you couldn’t even imagine it, women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. My country has never had a female President. In some quarters, the view that women are people too is still controversial.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? You don’t know about any of that, don’t care about it. You’re in Jesus’ arms, enjoying the attention from his friends. They’ve just been arguing about who’s the greatest -- the most famous, the most influential -- and Jesus is using you to make a point. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to take care of you. They have to welcome you. They have to treat you like a person. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to treat you as if you’re him:  the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace.

Jesus knows about being a child. Jesus came to Earth as a child, a baby, and even though he was a cherished heir, he was also poor. His mother wasn’t like that ideal wife in Proverbs, with her servants and vineyards. He was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a room. Some poor shepherds knew who he was, and so did some rich kings, but a lot of other people didn’t, and still don’t. The Messiah is supposed to be great and powerful. Children aren’t. A lot of what Jesus does looks upside-down to everyone else, even his closest friends. He wants them to use their power to give, not to take, but he has to keep reminding them how it works.  That’s why he’s holding you, now, and telling them to welcome you.

What do they do, I wonder? The story doesn’t tell us. Do they ask your name? Do they play with you? When Jesus puts you down again, what happens? Will you ever see these men again? What does your future look like?

Child -- boy or girl, slave or free, EveryChild -- I wish I didn’t know as much about your future as I do. Where I live, here in the United States in 2015, we still haven’t fully learned what Jesus was trying to teach his friends. We welcome some children, our cherished heirs. As I write this, my niece is about to deliver her first child, a little boy named Charlie, and our family and friends can’t wait to welcome him. But yesterday in the news I read about a five year old refugee who drowned trying to reach safety in Europe. In my own country, more than 21% of children live in poverty. That’s the highest poverty rate of any age group. In my country, the average age of a homeless person is 11, and one in thirty children is homeless. Poor children are often hungry, and hungry children can’t learn, and that puts them at risk for other problems, terrible problems happening right here within our own borders, like the sex trafficking we hear about on the news that makes us shudder and hug our own kids more tightly and thank God they’re safe.
 
Remember when I talked about women, about equal pay for equal work?  These things are connected. Women and their children bear the brunt of poverty, and income inequality is part of the reason why.  

I’m talking about politics now, and there are people who say it’s impolite to talk about politics to anyone, let alone children. In my country, we believe in the separation of church and state. But Jesus was a political figure. He’s just told his followers that he’ll die a political death, although they don’t want to believe it. He’s trying to teach them about the proper uses of power, and you can’t get much more political than that. If we’re going to welcome you, child, it can’t just be in our own families. It has to be in the rest of the world, too:  in stables and homeless shelters and hospitals, in refugee camps and war zones, and in poor and struggling neighborhoods here at home. We say we care about children in my country, but we don’t fund education the way we should.  We don’t respect teachers or pay them as if they’re important. We don’t have universal daycare to make it easier for parents to work and feed their kids, or universal healthcare to keep children and their parents healthy. Two years ago, the United States ranked 34th out of 35 countries in child welfare; only Romania ranked lower.
Please don’t get me wrong. A lot of us do try to welcome you. We donate money and volunteer and support programs and agencies that help kids. When we see a child right in front of us -- a child who’s hurt or hungry or frightened or poor -- we offer every comfort we can.
I remember a child I met in the ER where I volunteer. The little boy was a year old, maybe. A foster-care caseworker had brought him in for an evaluation. X-rays showed signs of earlier abuse:  multiple healed fractures of the long bones of his arms. A tech who had to start an IV on him asked for my help, because the baby liked women. He lay quietly on his gurney, but when he saw me, he smiled and reached out his arms to be picked up.  He played with my hair, my glasses, my ID badge. He never cried, not even when the tech started the IV.  Most children scream during that procedure. They buck and bite and kick. They have to be held down by five adults. Somewhere, this baby had learned to stay completely still and quiet.  His silence haunts me. How much pain do we never hear, because the children and adults suffering it have learned that if they cry, no one will come? How many have learned that if they cry, anyone who answers will only hurt them more?

Child, we help you when we can see you, but so often you’re invisible to us. A lot of that is political, too. Some of our leaders want us to care more about some children than about others. We need to learn to look out for all, and to act for all. We need to vote for school bonds even if we have no children in those schools. We need to support political initiatives that will help parents and children. We need to resist the lie that children from other families or neighborhoods, countries or religions, matter less than our children.  

All children are our children. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us. All children are his children. All children are him.

Child, we don’t know your name, your gender, your parentage.  We don’t know what your life was like before Jesus picked you up, or what it will be like after he puts you down.  We don’t know if you’ll remember him when you grow up. But we know that right now, you are safe and loved, cherished and nurtured, held in the warmth of Jesus’ arms while his friends smile at you.  And for his sake, we promise to do our very best to offer that same love and welcome to every child we meet.

Amen.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten Years After


The Biloxi Bridge after Katrina

In 2005, my father (83 at the time) was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the Villa Maria Retirement Apartments:  a low-income senior building, a concrete high rise, that was four blocks from the water and one of the tallest things in town. He lived on the top floor, with a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast and its casinos, which often shot off fireworks on Friday nights. Villa Maria was a mile, maybe less, from the U.S. 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. He adored living there. He’d been even happier living on his sailboat in Biloxi, but health concerns had forced him off the boat and into an apartment. He’d had quadruple bypass in 2001, and in 2005 he often used a wheelchair and was also on a feeding tube -- which he hated; the man loved his food and especially his drink -- because of swallowing problems after a stroke.

I don’t clearly remember the sequence of events leading up to Katrina. We were all concerned about the storm, but Dad’s building wasn’t under mandatory evacuation orders, and he had no plans to leave. I remember at some point hearing that storm damage hadn’t been that bad and being relieved. We weren’t yet worried about not being able to reach Dad; we weren’t surprised phones were down. Then, on Monday morning, my sister called me and said, “Susan, New Orleans is flooding. The levees broke.”


My father was ninety miles from New Orleans, but reports from the Mississippi Gulf Coast were grim, too. That bridge I mentioned?  It’s the one everyone saw on the news, the one reduced to rubble by the storm. What were the odds that Villa Maria, so nearby and with such a high profile, hadn’t also been demolished?  “He has to be dead,” my sister said. “I just hope it was quick.”


We started a frenzied search for information. There was no getting through to anyone in Ocean Springs, but I found an online bulletin board where relatives and friends of people who lived in the Villa Maria were posting queries and sharing whatever they’d heard. No one had heard much.


Then, on Wednesday, a friend of Dad’s drove by the Villa Maria, saw people there, and realized that the building hadn’t been evacuated, as he’d assumed. He raced up to my father’s apartment, handed Dad his cellphone, and said, “Call your daughters. They’re going to be frantic.”


Dad called my sister. She heard his voice and started crying.


To hear him tell it, the storm had been a jolly romp. “They told us to go down to the lobby, so I went down there in my wheelchair with my mattress and my pillow and my Ensure and a bottle of vodka, and I poured Ensure and vodka through my feeding tube, and I was fine!” Whatever gets you through the night, Dad. Remarkably, the Villa Maria had suffered only minor roof damage, perhaps because the strongest winds had flowed around it rather than hitting it head-on. Dad was back in his apartment within a day.


We were very lucky. Millions of other people weren’t.


I flew down to Ocean Springs for Thanksgiving that year. Ocean Springs itself had been largely spared, although all of the beautiful old trees had trash in their topmost branches: clothing, children’s toys, kitchen utensils. Dad and I went for a drive along U.S. 90, the road to New Orleans, taking a long detour around the ruined bridge. Before the storm, the road had been lined with floating casinos on one side and antebellum mansions, surrounded by venerable trees, on the others. All gone. We drove through a moonscape littered with unidentifiable sticks and scraps.  A few staircases rose alone into the air for a few feet. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to tell that the area had ever been populated.


Our drive back to the Villa Maria was very quiet.


Everyone I talked to in Ocean Springs had a Katrina story. Almost everyone knew somebody who had died; many people had harrowing evacuation stories. No one had anything good to say about FEMA. No one had anything bad to say about the National Guard, hailed as heroes and saviors. One woman told me she’d complained to a Guardsman about the Meals Ready to Eat that everyone had been given. “It’s too much food! I can’t eat all that!”


“Ma’am,” the Guardsman said, “MREs are designed for the nutritional needs of soldiers in combat. You’re sitting in your living room reading a book.”


My favorite National Guard story came from Dad’s friend Darlene, who taught art at a local at-risk school where most of the students were black and very poor. The Friday before the storm hit, she’d gotten her classroom ready for the beginning of school the following week. She’d cleaned, put up student artwork from the previous year to inspire her new pupils, and left a to-do list on the corner of her desk. 


School didn’t start the following week. Darlene learned that her school was being used to billet National Guard troops, and assumed that the place would be a shambles. As soon as she could drive safely again, she went to the school and asked if she could visit her classroom. Yes, of course she could.


The room was pristine. The to-do list was still where it had been on her desk, and the Guardsmen had used the blackboard to leave notes for the children, telling them how beautiful their artwork was. I’m not sure if Darlene cried when she told me this story, but I cried when I heard it, and I’m crying now, typing it.  


The Villa Maria instituted a new policy that in the event of a hurricane, all residents would have to evacuate and wouldn’t be able to return to the building until any repairs were completed. Because evacuation wouldn’t have been feasible for him, Dad decided to leave his beloved Gulf Coast. In 2006, he moved to live near my sister in Philadelphia. On his birthday that year, he sent me $300 and asked me to research Katrina charities and send the money to the ones I considered worthiest. In 2008, he moved to Reno to be near me and Gary. He died in 2009. He wasn’t technically one of the displaced because he left shelter that was still habitable, and he didn’t apply for or receive FEMA money, but there’s no doubt that he was part of the larger Katrina diaspora. He was never as happy as he’d been on the Gulf Coast. (After he died, our plans to scatter his ashes in the Gulf were defeated by another disaster, the BP oil spill. I was glad he wasn’t alive to see that; it would have left him sickened and despairing.)


Meanwhile, in 2006, my novel The Necessary Beggar won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and I flew down to New Orleans to accept the award -- one of ten given to adult books with YA crossover appeal -- at the ALA convention. We were the first convention to meet there after Katrina, in the infamous convention center which had gotten so much press, and which was now as bland and antiseptic as most facilities of that sort. On the shuttle ride from the airport, my driver pointed out storm damage, implored us to spend as much money as we could in the city, and thanked us fervently for coming.


Everyone thanked us for coming. Shop windows displayed signs: “We love you ALA.” The city was desperate for business. Many people at the convention took storm tours of the hardest hit parts of the city; I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could bear it, but I wandered through shops, searching for anything I wanted to buy, fighting my guilt when I found only a bracelet, a Katrina memorial t-shirt, and a souvenir voodoo doll for Gary.  


For several years after the storm, I occasionally met Katrina survivors in the ER. One patient told me he was from Biloxi, and we had a long, lively conversation. “Sure I know the Villa Maria! You can see that building for miles. I’m so glad your dad was okay.” Although we’d never met before, and although I’d never actually lived in those communities, it felt like a family reunion. The patient had gone through, was going through, agonies I'd been spared; even so, both of us understood things that other people around us didn't.  


My family was very lucky. My father was in the right place in the right circumstances; even with limited income and mobility, he was less poor and had more options than many of the people (black and terrifyingly poor, left without any money because the storm hit at the end of the month) who died when the New Orleans levees broke. We were grateful for our privileges and enraged on behalf of those who didn’t share them. We mourned those who had died and gave thanks for those who hadn’t.  


I live in the desert, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast. I know some people might challenge my belief that Katrina is part of my history, too. I’m white and affluent; I wasn’t there; the person I loved who was there made it through largely unscathed. Other people lost and suffered so much more. But I’ll always feel a connection to that terrible time, and I’ll never hear a hurricane forecast without thinking about Katrina.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Contaminated by Christ


Here's tomorrow's homily.  The Gospel is John 6:51-58.

*

Here we are, almost at the end of what I like to call the bread line: the five-Sunday series of Jesus’ proclamations about being the Bread of Life. Last week, Kirk told us that Jesus is the opposite of boring, nutrition-free white bread. Jesus is yummy. Jesus is chewy. Next week, we’ll hear how deeply offensive many of Jesus’ listeners found this part of his teaching, so much so that many of them, unable to accept it, walked away. This week, we’re in the middle, somewhere between fighting off boredom and being scandalized.

Many of you may indeed be bored with bread by now, and we’re beginning to see the beginnings of distaste in the surrounding crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Cannibalism was no more acceptable in the first century than it is now; Jewish dietary mores forbade it as firmly as everyday ethics do today. Jesus, as usual, was violating all the purity codes that allowed the religious elite of his day to feel safe, secure, and smug in their own good behavior. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Even if you interpret this symbolically instead of literally -- and Christians are all over the map on where they draw that line -- this is, well, startling. Even if it’s not disgusting, it’s weird.  

Jesus’ first-century followers weren’t the only ones to recoil. I know people who’ve left the church because thinking too hard about what communion was really supposed to be made them sick to their stomachs. Those of us who stay may still be cautious about how we take the Eucharist. Many of us, me included, intinct rather than sipping from the common cup, even though chalice bearers are trained to wipe the rim of the chalice and rotate the cup so that the next person in line won’t come into contact with the previous person’s germs.

The question is where we draw the line between communion -- where two different entities merge lovingly into one -- and contamination, where one entity infects and pollutes the other. Many in that first-century crowd were worried about contamination, about both spiritual and physical illness. Ever since then, contamination has been communion’s shadow.

In the earliest days of the church, when Christians were still actively persecuted, clergy took communion before everyone else, so that they would be the ones arrested if any spies were watching the service. That changed during the AIDS era, when many clergy began taking communion after everyone else had partaken, as a way of showing that they were not afraid of catching anything from the common meal.

Years ago, I read a book called Whitebread Protestants, a social history of food in American mainline churches, and learned how deeply the fear of all kinds of contamination has shaped Eucharistic practice. Welch’s grape juice was invented as an alternative to communion wine because temperance crusaders feared the physical and moral dangers of alcohol. The practice of intinction – dipping rather than sipping -- as well as the tiny, individual plastic cups used in some Christian services, all sprang up as a response to fear of germs.

One of Jesus’ missions on Earth was to dismantle purity laws. We’ve been busy rebuilding them ever since.

I don’t mean to minimize health concerns. Alcoholism is a real and terrible condition, and it’s why many Episcopal churches offer a non-alcoholic chalice, or emphasize that the bread alone is sufficient to make us part of the Body of Christ. Wheat disagrees with many of us, which is why St. Paul’s offers a non-gluten option. Germs are real. No one wants to give a neighbor -- or get from a neighbor -- a cold or the flu, let alone anything even more serious.

But even as we maintain our emphasis on health, I think we need to remember that hygiene often masks a fear of difference. Contamination is the card many of us play when we’re scared of communion, afraid that merging lovingly with other people will force us into contact with what we’d rather not face.

Back in 2000 or 2001, St. Stephen’s, the church I was attending then, became a host congregation for Family Promise. I believe St. Paul’s participated, too. For those of you who weren’t here then, Family Promise was an outreach ministry to homeless families, parents and children. Up to four families at a time, fourteen people, were housed for a week at a time in church or temple buildings. Sunday School classrooms were converted into bedrooms; volunteers supplied meals and donated bedding. Because many faith communities took part, each congregation only had to host every three or four months. During the day, children went to school and parents went to work or to a Day Center, where a social worker helped them locate jobs and apply for low-income housing. The goal was to get these families off the streets, and it worked. The program has, sadly, since closed in this area, but it’s still active nationally.

Some people at St. Stephen’s thought Family Promise sounded like a wonderful ministry. But when we had a parish meeting to discuss the issue, the room filled with fear. Let those people stay in our classrooms, where our children spent time every Sunday? The social worker explained that the families were thoroughly screened for medical problems -- no germs; for addiction -- no drugs; and for legal issues -- no crime.

Lice. What about lice? Were the families checked for lice? Our children would surely get lice from those children. Well, no, said the social worker, there was no specific screening for lice, but if lice did appear -- which was most likely to happen at the schools the parish’s children were already attending -- they’d be dealt with.

Lice! The homeless families instantly transformed into a parade of giant, two-legged lice traipsing into our parish hall and Sunday School rooms, infecting everything in sight.

Somehow, we voted to become a host congregation anyway. The families came. We never saw a single louse. We saw a single father supporting four children, including a newborn, while his wife was hospitalized. We saw a single mother with a broken arm who’d been living in a van with her month-old baby before finding the program. We saw two-parent families, each parent working two or three jobs, struggling to get back on their feet after medical and financial disaster.  We saw kids of all ages: kids doing homework and watching movies and having fun in our playground and looking forward to dinner. We ate with the families, asked how their days had gone, rejoiced when they shared good news. They’d found an apartment. Someone was starting a new job. A child had gotten an A on a spelling test.

The program was as life-changing for volunteers as for the families themselves. Many of the people who’d been terrified of lice at the beginning grew to cherish their time with these parents and children. “They’re just like us.” The fear of contamination had given way to communion.  Fear itself had been the most dangerous infection we faced, and by the will of God -- and the faces of new neighbors breaking bread together -- it had been overcome.

I came to believe that the initial fear was, in fact, the fear of similarity.  The homeless weren’t that different from the housed. Anyone’s family, after a layoff or medical emergency, might become homeless too. Facing that reality is terrifying. But volunteering with the program also showed us that if that happened, loving neighbors would be on hand to help.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus says. Wherever we draw the line between the symbolic and the literal in this statement, let us remember that we are called to be one body: infected with the love of God and each other, contaminated by Christ, spreading the dangerous desire to heal the world.

Take. Eat. Begin.

Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

God's Triage




Here's today's Gospel lesson, one of my favorites. It's from the fifth chapter of Mark:

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat* to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing* what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Below is my homily, which I delivered as a guest preacher in a Lutheran church this morning.

*

For many years now, I’ve volunteered in a local emergency room, offering spiritual care to patients and families. Most of you probably know that emergency rooms use a triage system. The most critical patients are seen first.  This means that someone with a painful but non-life-threatening fracture may wait hours for treatment, while an unconscious patient, or someone with severe chest pain, is seen immediately. I spend a lot of time explaining this system to irate patients who are tired of waiting, and who don’t understand why somebody who just showed up five minutes ago is being seen first. “That means that the person who just got here is sicker than you are,” I tell them. “Believe me, you never want to be sent to the front of the line in an emergency room.”

Much less often, I spend time with the relatives and friends of patients who have been sent to the front of the line. Being first in line in an ER means that you’re probably in immediate danger of dying. It means that you’re the center of a buzzing hive of doctors and nurses doing invasive, painful things to you that you probably can’t feel, because you’re probably unconscious. If you make it out of the ER alive, you’ll almost certainly go directly to the Intensive Care Unit.

The friends and family of these patients wait in a small, private room called the Family Consult Room. The Consult Room has subdued lighting, soft couches, a phone, and several boxes of tissues. Waiting here is agonizing. A doctor will race in, ask urgent questions about the patient’s medical history, deliver a five-second update on the patient’s condition, and race back out again. If the doctor approaches the room slowly, the news usually isn’t good. There are no words to describe the tension and terror in this place. Hell is a Consult Room.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel, which – if you’re Jairus, anyway – makes Jesus look like the world’s worst ER doctor. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, which makes him a VIP in the Jewish religious establishment. The fact that he’s willing to beg a street preacher for help shows how desperate he is. He’s already tried everything else he can think of, and it hasn’t worked. He’s prayed, made sacrifices in the Temple, and called in all the best specialists, to no avail. His beloved daughter still lies dying.

So Jairus humbles himself. He leaves behind his safe, respectable piety to seek out the renegade healer from Galilee. People do crazy things to get close to this guy, to get through the crowds surrounding him. Just last week, some people cut a hole in someone’s roof to lower their paralyzed friend into the room where Jesus was. It worked. The paralyzed man can walk now.

Right now, Jairus would give anything to see his daughter walking again, instead of lying in bed, thrashing and moaning with fever, too weak even to sip water. So he ventures into the streets to find the healer, and he grits his teeth and forces his way through the crowd surrounding Jesus. Jairus has to use his knees and elbows, and he probably wouldn’t be able to get through at all, if his social status didn’t make him an object of respect and a little bit of fear. Finally Jairus reaches Jesus, and asks him for help, and Jesus says, “Yes, of course I’ll come to your house.”

Jairus has made very clear to this slightly disreputable street preacher that his daughter is dying. If Jesus were a good ER doctor, Jairus’ daughter would immediately go to the front of the line. Everyone else can wait. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. It’s incredibly hot, and the crowd stinks of sweat and bodies. Jairus feels like he’s going to be sick, and his daughter has no time to spare. Can’t Jesus walk any faster? But he doesn’t walk faster: he stops. And then he turns around to ask, “Who touched me?”  

“Are you kidding?” his disciples ask. “In this crowd? It could have been anybody. Jesus, what are you doing? Come on. We have to go to Jairus’ house.”

But Jesus is still standing there. He’s talking to somebody, a gaunt, filthy woman who’s kneeling in the street, weeping and babbling. She tells Jesus that she’s been bleeding for twelve years – that’s as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive -- and Jairus can’t help but wrinkle his nose and take a step back, because according to Temple law, bleeding women are unclean.

Jesus keeps talking to her. She was the one who touched him, and the minute her fingers brushed the fabric of his robe she felt the bleeding stop, felt herself healed, and Jesus felt something happen too, which is why he turned around. And now she’s kneeling there, telling Jesus the entire twelve-year saga of her symptoms and sufferings, while Jairus’ child lies at home, dying. This no-account woman has already stopped bleeding. She’s not dying. She can wait. But Jesus just stands there, and listens to her.  

Take a moment now to imagine what Jairus must have felt as Jesus stood there listening to the bleeding woman. Imagine what Jairus must have wanted to say.

Well, probably Jairus did say all that. He probably yelled a number of things we don’t feel comfortable even whispering in church.  It’s entirely likely that he started tugging on Jesus’ sleeve, at the very least.  But Jesus didn’t budge; he stayed there, listening to this woman with no money and no social status, who until a little while ago also had no hope. Yes, she was already physically cured. Her bleeding stopped the moment she touched Jesus’ robe. But healing and cure are two different things. Healing takes longer, and goes deeper. Jesus listened to her until she’d told “the whole truth,” Mark tells us, and then he pronounced her well, and Jairus must have let out a huge sigh of relief and thought, “Finally!  Now we can get moving!”

But that’s the moment when the messengers come to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead.

I’m not going to ask you to imagine what Jairus must have felt then. I don’t think we can begin to imagine it unless we’ve been there.  Jairus didn’t have the privacy of a Consult Room: he had to go through hell in public.  He must have thought, “If only Jesus hadn’t stopped to listen to that unclean woman who’d already stopped bleeding, my daughter would still be alive.” When Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe,” Jairus must have wanted to punch him. How could he believe? What was left to believe?

We know how the story ends. It’s the happiest ending, the child raised from the dead. But I wonder if Jairus ever really recovered. How do you ever get over hearing that your child is dead, even if she’s then given back to you? How do you ever get over seeing her dead, even if a few minutes later, she’s skipping around the room and munching on a piece of bread? What lessons about God do you take away from this heart-breaking, terrifying episode?

Some of the lessons are obvious. The first and most important, I think, is that God wants all of us to be whole and healed. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Like a good ER doctor, God treats everyone, both nameless outcasts and the children of the rich and famous. The lesson also reminds us that healing takes different forms for different people, and – just in case we’ve forgotten – that God’s time and priorities aren’t ours. How often, in extremity, do we abandon our illusions of power and control and beg God to help us, please help us, but God, you have to do it now, because there’s no time left! And how often, when God doesn’t answer on our timetable, do we rage and curse and despair?  

But another obvious lesson here is the value of perseverance. Both the bleeding woman and Jairus are stubborn and fiercely determined, pushing through huge crowds towards the One they know can help them.  Both of them have to wait: the bleeding woman for twelve years,Jairus for probably less than an hour. Neither of them likes waiting, but neither of them gives up and goes home before being treated, as I’ve sometimes seen angry ER patients do.

All of us can probably see ourselves in one of these characters, either the bleeding woman or Jairus. All of us need healing from something. And important as physical healing is, our afflictions and suffering take many, many other forms. The bleeding woman’s joy when she is healed is the joy, this week, of every gay couple in this country who has waited so long for marriage equality. It’s the joy that people of color – still facing violence, discrimination and institutionalized racism – can still only hope to feel, someday, when we finally manage to overcome our racial schisms.  Activists of all stripes need tremendous faith to believe that such joy is possible. That kind of perseverance takes more energy than many of us can imagine; anger, exhaustion and despair are ever-present temptations. Many of my friends, both gay and straight, never thought they’d see marriage equality in their lifetimes.  

But today’s Gospel offers another, subtler lesson. Because it’s so easy for us to hear this as a story about competition for apparently limited resources, we may overlook the fact that it’s also a story about people being pulled out of their usual social circles, out of their comfort zones, and into a space of common humanity. The bleeding woman, stigmatized and untouchable, normally wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a leader of the synagogue. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, normally wouldn’t have anything to do with such a woman. Their pain and desperation lead them to the same place. For a few moments, they are visible to each other.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us if they acknowledged or spoke to each other. The Scripture story is about Jesus’ relationship with each of them, not about their relationship with each other. But that story happened centuries ago.  Here and now, our faith calls us to be Christ to, and to see Christ in, everyone. We are Jesus in the crowd. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hearts but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and ours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

Our world, like that of the Gospels, is filled with all kinds of pain and tragedy: with people who need life-saving care in the next ten minutes and with people trying to overcome decades, if not centuries, of oppression. Seeking healing, we often wind up side by side with people whose own pain has made them desperate. How do we respond? Do we shut them out, or do we listen to them? Do we seek healing only for our own pain, or for everyone’s? Do we view our unexpected glimpse into other people’s lives as a startling gift, or as an unwanted curse?  Do we ignore those other stories, or learn from them?

ER waiting rooms are some of the most diverse and democratic places in the United States. On any given day, at any given hour, they are filled with people waiting in agony and in hope, the rich side by side with the poor, everyone desperate to be next in line. In the waiting room, and in the ER itself, I’ve seen predictable and saddening acts of selfishness: people cursing those who are seen before they are, threatening the staff, accusing doctors and nurses of every kind of favoritism.  But I’ve also seen acts of compassion and humanity: strangers from different walks of life giving each other cabfare, watching each other’s children when someone has to go to X-Ray, and – maybe most importantly -- listening to each other’s stories. I can’t tell you how often an ER patient, when I offer prayer, has said, “I want to pray for the person next door, who’s dealing with so much more than I am.” In the name of the One who wants all of us to be whole and healed, let us go and do likewise.

Amen.