Sunday, April 06, 2014

Journeys to Resurrection

I delivered this homily as a guest preacher at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno.  Lutheran homilies are somewhat longer than Episcopal ones, as you'll see; I recycled two previous sermons I'd given in my home parish.  The family story I tell is one nearly all of my friends already know (and one my mother gave me permission to tell).

Here are the readings for Lent 5; both Episcopal and Lutheran churches use the Revised Common Lectionary.


“How could God let this happen?”

We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. During the seven years I volunteered as a lay hospital chaplain, I heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.

The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week.  Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God.  After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.

As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.

Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?

Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.

But those of us who do believe, who have seen God working in our lives and those of our families, are left struggling for reasons, railing at God. “We knowyou can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. So where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”

Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says.   I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”

Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right.  He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.

Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here.  This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.

The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will tell us how to unbind what has been resurrected. God will show us what we need to do to make that new life possible.

The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe.  Look at this morning’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. This is a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages. Going from bones to rebirth isn’t like going zero to sixty. First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.

That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray – our souls waiting for God more than watchmen for the morning – God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.

But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.

My family’s resurrection story began on a winter day in 1964, when I was three years old. My sister, who was twelve, remembers watching our mother being wheeled out of the house on a gurney. She had been a chronic drinker for twenty years. My father had put her in fancy private psychiatric hospitals. They hadn’t helped. Several times she’d tried AA. It hadn’t helped. In 1964, residential treatment centers didn’t exist yet. Employee Assistance Programs were still in the future. AA and the psych wards were the only games in town.

And so my father, in despair, decided to send my mother to the state mental hospital, which wasn’t fancy at all.  He didn’t think she’d ever get better, and neither did anyone else. Everyone thought she was dying. My sister, watching the gurney roll out of the house to the waiting ambulance, told herself that Mom was already dead. I’m sure she wept.

At the state hospital, the doctors said my mother’s case was hopeless. One recommended a lobotomy, a procedure that wasn’t banned until 1967.  My father said no to the lobotomy, but he still planned to have my mother locked inside that building for the rest of her life.

Inside the hospital, my mother got hungry one night. Recovering alcoholics from the community had brought an AA meeting to the hospital, and Mom knew from her past AA experiences that there would be cookies there. She decided to go.

This time, it took. No one believed it; I don’t know if she believed it herself. But she kept going to meetings, and one evening a few weeks later, a visiting AA member sat down and talked to her. He learned that she was terrified of being committed for life, of never seeing her daughters again. He learned that no one in her family thought she would ever get better. They believed she was already dead.

The visitor went home and wrote a letter to my father. In an act that was even braver in 1964 than it would be now, he identified himself both as a prominent local businessman and as a recovering alcoholic. He told my father that he had been in a hospital like the one where my mother was. He told my father that sometimes it takes many attempts to get sober. And he asked my father to give Mom another chance, if only so that she could see her children.

“Unbind her, and let her go.”

My father agreed.  This time, it worked. Five months later, the visitor wrote a second letter.   This one, addressed to my mother, compliments her on her continued sobriety, on her new job, and on her joy at spending time with her daughters. The woman everyone expected to die when she was thirty-eight lived to be eighty-four. This past January 25 would have been her fiftieth anniversary of sobriety.

My mother’s drinking tested the strength and patience of everyone in the family. None of them were believers, but if they had been, I’m sure they would have said, “How could God let this happen?” Mom was brilliant and beautiful. It must have been agonizing to watch her killing herself.

And yet even at her lowest, when everyone who loved her had lost hope, good news was coming. The visitor was going about his own life: eating breakfast, going to work, getting ready to go to the state mental hospital. Even when my mother was locked up, trapped in a place where no movement seemed possible, she was already on a journey towards resurrection.

Her resurrection was a process. Her sobriety involved a lot of meetings and a lot of time on the phone with her sponsor. Because my father had divorced her, she had to find housing and get a job. To earn custody of her daughters, she had to stay well and keep functioning. Her vow of sobriety wasn’t enough: she had to put sinew and skin on those bones.

And her resurrection was a community project. My father and her doctors had to agree to release her. Her father and brother lent a great deal of practical and emotional support. Her AA friends were a constant blessing and source of strength, and my sister and I were her inspiration.  When she died, I inherited the bracelet she always wore to AA meetings.  It’s a gold chain with two charms:  her AA 90-day pin, and a locket with pictures of me and my sister.

As people who believe in God, we are called to be patient with God, but we are also called to help release the resurrected from their winding sheets. We are Christ’s hands in the world. Because resurrection does not happen in an instant, we need to be faithful to the victims of violence and the survivors of disaster, to recovering addicts and alcoholics, to the lost and lonely, and to all who grieve. When we hear people demanding, “How could God let this happen?” our job is to go to them, to weep with them, and then to help them recognize and nurture the new life that God will call forth from their despair.

And if there are times on these journeys when our own belief is tested, that is part of the process, too. Resurrection is coming. It will arrive in God’s good time. Our doubt will become delight, and our pain will become praise, and belief will be reborn from the tomb of tears.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

All Our Eyes

Here's today's homily:  not one of my best, I think, but, as Gary says, it's solid and gets the job done. Several people at church said they needed to hear this message today -- funny how that always happens -- and quite a few folks were very intrigued by the Kansas story.  So it's a good-enough homily, even if it's not a great one. And good-enough's very fitting for Lent, isn't it?

The readings are Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17.


Our Scripture readings today begin with a long, arduous journey.  God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Abram’s travels will include famine in Egypt, the terrifying destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the heartbreaking test of being commanded to sacrifice Isaac.  Through many of these trials, he must have wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off just staying where he was.  He had only his faith to assure him that he was indeed moving towards a better place.  Although God had promised him a great name, he could not have foreseen that, under his new name of Abraham, he would become the forefather of three of the world’s most enduring and influential faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  

This morning’s Gospel also describes the beginning of a journey.  Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, has come to Jesus at night to attest to his faith.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a great teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus’ response is more than a little puzzling, and Nicodemus proceeds to ask a series of questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  How can these things be?”  Nicodemus’ bewilderment about the spiritual birth of baptism reminds us of the literal, astonishing births granted to Abraham and Sarah, who were given children in their old age.

We don’t know if Nicodemus was satisfied with the answers Jesus gave him, but we do know that his faith remained firm.  He appears twice more in the Gospel of John.  The second time we see him, he’s defending Jesus to his fellow Pharisees, this time in broad daylight.  The third time we see Nicodemus, he’s helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial.   He brings almost a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, and wraps Jesus’ body with the funeral spices in linen cloths, and lays the body in the tomb.   That’s the last time we meet him in the Bible, but it’s not the end of his story.  Christian tradition holds that he was martyred during the first century; the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches venerate him as a saint.

Nicodemus’ first journey, to visit Jesus at night, ultimately led him to the Cross.  The Cross, in turn, leads to the glorious rebirth of the Resurrection, the birth that undoes death forever.  No one who journeyed with Jesus could have foreseen that outcome.  They didn’t believe it even when he told them it would happen; they couldn’t imagine it.  But they believed in him, and they stayed with him.  On Good Friday, they must have wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off staying where they’d been, working as fishermen and tax collectors.  Easter swept all of that away.  Once they had witnessed Jesus’ rebirth, once he had broken bread with them and fried them fish for breakfast, they knew the journey had been worth it.

Every year, Lent asks us to set out a hard journey through difficult terrain.  Unlike Abraham and Nicodemus, we already know our ultimate destination, and yet we may still find ourselves beset by questions.  Isn’t life already hard enough?  Does it really need to be harder during Lent?  Can’t we just skip to the good part, to Easter?

One answer to these questions, of course, is that since Jesus couldn’t skip the hard parts, we can’t, either: if we truly want to be his followers, we have to follow him all the way, even into deserts and darkness. Perhaps the most fundamental truth of Lent, the paradox at the heart of Christianity, is that we can’t reach Easter without first enduring Good Friday.  And that is ultimately a promise, a reminder during all the other Good Fridays of our lives, whether they fall in Lent or not.  Where there is death, God also promises resurrection. Our job is to look for it, and not to succumb to despair or turn away before it arrives.

My homily preparation process usually involves some browsing on the Internet, Googling key names or phrases to see if anything interesting comes up.  When I Googled the name Nicodemus, I discovered a town called Nicodemus, Kansas.  Mildly amused, I clicked on one of the links, and found a story that fits perfectly with today’s Scripture lessons.

Nicodemus was settled in 1877 by a group of African-Americans who had traveled west from Kentucky, trying to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow laws after the Civil War.  The 160-acre town was named for a legendary slave, the first who bought his own freedom.  The trek to Nicodemus was sparked by W. R. Hill, a white land speculator, and W.H. Smith, a black homesteader, who visited black Kentucky church congregations with the simple question, “Why stay here?”  Some in the pews responded to that question, drawn by a vision of a town where they could govern themselves.

It was a difficult journey.  Angela Bates, the great-great-granddaughter of one of the original settlers, talks about what a shock Kansas was after Kentucky, where the land was “lush with trees, rivers, and streams. Nicodemus was . . . what they called then the Great American Desert.”  The first pioneers lived in dirt-floored dugouts roofed with sunflowers and weeds.  Bates recalls the reaction of a great-cousin, Willianna Hickman, to her first sight of the town: “I looked with all the eyes that I had and I still couldn’t see Nicodemus.”  When she got to the town site, she broke down and cried.  Dozens of other settlers turned back, returning to Kentucky or to eastern Kansas.

The town grew, though, only to face further setbacks during the Dustbowl and the Great Depression, when the population fell to forty people.  Nicodemus continued to struggle; its post office closed in 1953, its school in 1960.  But in the 1970s, former residents donated money to repair damaged town buildings, and in 1976, Nicodemus was named a National Historic Landmark. The town became a retirement destination for former residents.   Today, in partnership with Kansas State University, Nicodemus sponsors agriculture and history summer camps for kids.  In July of this year, it will celebrate its 136th Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration, a reunion of the town’s descendants that draws visitors from around the country.

Williana Hickman, even looking with all her eyes, could not have imagined this history from the seeming wasteland that greeted her when she arrived in Kansas.   Abraham, even looking with all his eyes, could not have imagined what would befall him when he accepted God’s call, or the many consequences of those events.  And Nicodemus, even looking with all his eyes – peering through the darkness at the prophet he had come to visit – could not have imagined the end of his own long journey.

Lent and crucifixion, burial and rebirth, are not one-time events. The cycle of the church calendar requires us to make this journey every year, but it occurs in many other forms in our lives.  This sequence happens to everyone, and it happens everywhere.  Even looking with all our eyes, we cannot always imagine how or where it will occur; even looking with all our eyes, we cannot always see where it has occurred.  Like Abram facing famine in Egypt, like Nicodemus bewildered by questions in the dark, and like Williana Hickman sobbing in the Great American Desert of nineteenth-century Kansas, we are called to have faith.  We cannot see everything, but the One who sees and knows everything knows that we are where we need to be, and will guide us on the long, difficult journey to rebirth.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Eight Words

Here's today's homily, posted later than usual (and without links) because I'm buried under grading and have to get ready for classes tomorrow.  I may or may not put in links at some future date, but the stories and quotations I use here are easy to find via Google.

I also couldn't find a good image for this post.  The Gospel is Matthew 5:38-48, the one about loving our enemies.


When I was a volunteer chaplain at the hospital, patients sometimes said, “I don’t think you want to talk to me.  I’m not Christian.”

My response was always, “I’m trained to talk to everyone.”   When I wasn’t familiar with a particular faith tradition, I’d ask for information.  “Tell me about that.”

During the seven years I volunteered, I visited (and often prayed with) Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and atheists.  And I met a handful of patients – always cheerful young men, clean-cut and polite -- who said, “Oh, you don’t want to talk to me.  I’m a Satanist.”

“Really?  Tell me about that.”  For one thing, I wanted to show them that I wasn’t shocked.  For another, I was genuinely curious.

All of them -- every single one -- said the same thing, in the same words:  eight words, to be precise.  It turns out that, at least for the young men I met, the definition of Satanism is very simple.  It doesn’t involve pentagrams, upside-down crosses, or conjuring tentacled demons.  It’s much more ordinary than that, and much more frightening.

“Christians believe in love,” the Satanists told me.  “We believe in vengeance.”

By that definition, I know a lot of Satanists.  So do you.  Many of them go to church.

Vengeance is everywhere in our national landscape:   in military rhetoric, in sports competitions, and in the violent fantasies of popular entertainment, where a personal loss at the hands of an adversary grants the survivors license to go on a hunting spree with guns blazing and explosives detonating.  We cheer for Vin Diesel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis when they get the bad guys.  We’re happy when the bad guys suffer.  We scarf down our popcorn, confident that justice has been served.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel, which can also be summarized in eight words.  “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.”

This is, hands down, the hardest commandment in the Bible.  Sometimes it feels impossible.  It always requires thought, prayer, and imagination.  It’s a discipline, a task of discernment, and it takes different forms in different situations.  Here are three.

In 2006, a man named Charles Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and shot ten young girls, killing five of them, before killing himself.   The Amish community responded by visiting Roberts’ grieving family to comfort them.  They set up a charitable fund for his widow Marie, who was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of their children.  Thirty of them attended his funeral.   One Amish father said, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God."

Some observers criticized the Amish approach.  How could they forgive someone who had expressed no remorse?  Didn’t forgiveness deny the existence of evil?  But people familiar with Amish culture explained that this emphasis on forgoing vengeance doesn’t undo the tragedy.  It doesn’t pardon the wrong.  Instead, it represents a first step toward a more hopeful future.

Well, sure, I find myself saying, but Roberts himself was dead.  It was easy to be compassionate to his family.  They weren’t the killer.  What do you do when the killer’s still alive?  How can you possibly love that person?  What does loving that person even look like?

In 1995, fourteen-year-old gang member Tony Hicks shot and killed twenty-year-old college student Tariq Khamisa, who was delivering pizzas in San Diego.  Tariq’s grieving father Azim, a Sufi Muslim, turned to his faith.  For several weeks after Tariq’s death, he says, “I survived through prayer and was quickly given the blessing of forgiveness, reaching the conclusion that there were victims at both ends of the gun. . . . I decided to become an enemy not of my son’s killer, but of the forces that put a young boy on a dark street, holding a handgun.”  Azim reached out to Tony’s grandfather, and the two of them worked together on programs to teach children that there is an alternative to violence. Azim says, “Tony has helped us deliver this message through letters and messages he sends from prison. We use these letters in our programs and they are having a positive effect on other kids. Think of how many kids he may save.”

Well, sure, I find myself saying, but Tony’s in prison.  He was the first minor in California to be tried as an adult.  He’s locked up for twenty-five years.  Justice was served.  What do you do when your enemy is right in front of you?  What do you do when your enemy is hurting you right now, and you have no guarantee that there will ever be justice?

In 1942, while serving as the captain of a Scottish military regiment in WWII, Ernest Gordon was captured by the Japanese and marched with other British prisoners into the jungle to build the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.  As a prisoner of war, he endured both physical and psychological torture.  He watched many of his friends die.  He was expected to die himself.

Years later, after Gordon had been ordained in the Church of Scotland and had become Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, an interviewer asked how he had survived.  Gordon said, “I practiced the discipline of remaking the face of each torturer into the face his mother had seen cuddling him in her arms.  It is very difficult to be swallowed in bitterness when you can do that, and it is the bitterness that would have killed me, even had I lived.”

Gordon’s story recalls the words of novelist Anne Lamott, who writes that “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”  Our vengeance ultimately hurts us the most.   The extraordinary stories of Ernest Gordon, Azim Khamisa, and the Amish community in Pennsylvania show that it is possible to avoid maiming our own souls this way.

And yet I often find it difficult to love even ordinary, everyday enemies:  the former friend who has betrayed me; the co-worker who slights me; myself when I’ve done something wrong or acted against my own best interests.  The urge to punish and belittle, to seek revenge and payback, can be very strong.  Those messages are all around us.

And, certainly, we must remember what loving our enemy doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean looking the other way, condoning terrible behavior, or shortchanging justice.  It doesn’t even require us to like our enemy. But it does demand that we see the enemy as human, as a fellow child of God.  It forbids us to wish our enemy pain or to delight in our enemy’s suffering.

I’ve often heard that it is presumptuous for Christ’s followers to call themselves “Christian.” We can’t claim that label ourselves; it can only be given to us by others who observe our behavior and recognize it as Christ-like.  Perhaps the only person who can ultimately make this call is Christ himself.  “Hey, I know you!” he might say.  “You’re one of mine!”

Whenever I hear about yet another hideous tragedy -- another shooting or bombing or act of inexplicable cruelty -- I picture everyone in some vast spiritual version of a high-school gym, waiting to be chosen for the softball team.  In one corner is a scruffy guy in sandals and a robe, who says softly, “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.”  ln the other corner is a polite, clean-shaven young man who calls out, “Hate your enemies!  Curse them and seek revenge!”

Which eight words will I respond to?  More importantly, which team will I be on?  Which of these two figures will say, “Hey, you’re one of mine!”                                        


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Calling Names


Here is tomorrow's homily.  I'm not talking about MLK Jr. -- I just couldn't find a non-clunky way to work it in -- but certainly the story at the end deals with the themes of freedom and overcoming oppression.  (That story may need to come with a trigger warning.)  The readings are Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42.

Today’s readings are obsessed with names. “The Lord called me before I was born,” Isaiah says; “while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”  In the Gospel, John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God,” “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” and “the Son of God.” The disciples call him “Rabbi” and “the Messiah.” And when the disciple Andrew shows up with his brother, Jesus looks at the man and says, “You are Simon son of John,” and then gives him a new name, “Peter.” I know who you are now, Jesus is saying, but I also know who you will become.

Names are powerful. They describe and define us. Most cultures have naming ceremonies for children, and anthropologists know that important life transitions – marriage, coming of age, college graduation – often include new names or titles.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we hear Jesus’ impressive new string of names right after his baptism. Baptism is in part a naming ritual.  Although Episcopalians usually don’t take new baptismal names, names are still at the heart of the sacrament.  At my own baptism, when I was thirty-nine, I heard the words, “Susan, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”  Hearing my given name, “Susan,” assured me that I was known and loved as I was by God and by the church.  And the new labels I received that day -- “sealed with the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever” – told me my new identity, who I was becoming.

My baptism represented my formal acceptance of God’s call, but the call had begun long before. Other people recognized my faith, and named it, long before I did.   In college, one of my professors kept calling me a Christian because I wrote about Christian themes in literature, even though I kept telling him that I wasn’t Christian; I just liked the symbolism.  In graduate school, a devoutly Jewish professor marked me down on a seminar paper because it wasn’t academic enough; it was really a homily.  At the time, I was deeply insulted.  Now I know that he was saying, “Hey, maybe you should be a lay preacher.”  And when I was looking for a teaching job of my own, one of my best experiences was at a tiny Christian school called Hope College.

I applied for the job at Hope because I was applying for everything. When I had the initial interview, I told the very nice people on the search committee, who happened to be Episcopalian, that I wasn’t Christian. They didn’t seem to care.  When they invited me for a second interview, on campus, I reminded them that I wasn’t Christian. “That’s all right,” they said. “We’d still like you to come.” During the campus interview, I very carefully explained to the department chair and the dean that although I admired certain aspects of Christianity, I wasn't Christian.   They smiled at me.  The dean told me gently that, based on what I’d said about my own beliefs, my theology sounded strongly incarnational.  I wanted to punch him.

The job went to someone with more teaching experience.  But I had fond memories of the really nice people on the search committee, and when I decided to be baptized – more than five years after those interviews at Hope – I sent two of them e-mail and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but you may be amused to learn that I’ve become an Episcopalian.”

Both of them wrote back. Both of them said, “Of course we remember you. Of course you’re Episcopalian. We knew that. We’re really glad you’ve figured it out.”

Sometimes, to learn who we’re becoming, we need other people to tell us first.  But that’s the second step, the one that begins our new journey.  The first is simple recognition of where, and who, we already are: “Susan, I baptize you.”  All of us yearn to be known by name.

As a college teacher, I have a problem with this, because I’m terrible at remembering names. I’m so name-challenged that I warn my students about it on the first day of class. “If I don’t remember your name, please don’t take it personally.  It’s not you.” And then I do my best to learn all the names as quickly as I can, because many studies – and my own experience -- have shown that students respond better to, and learn more from, teachers who know and use their names. My most dramatic example of the power of recognition, though, doesn’t come from the university.  It comes from the hospital.

Back when I volunteered as a lay ER chaplain, I met a woman covered with bruises. For privacy reasons, I can’t tell you her real name. I’ll call her Polly. I talked to her for a long time. No one had ever loved her or stuck up for her or treated her well except her grandfather, who had died when she was a little girl. She’d been with her husband for decades, and life with him was both grim and dangerous.  He battered her.  He belittled her. And he isolated her: she wasn’t allowed to see friends, or even go to a movie.

Although she’d fled to the ER in fear for her life, we couldn’t convince her to press charges against her husband, or even to take a pamphlet from CAAW, the Committee to Aid Abused Women, which runs a safehouse for battered women here in Reno. But in my conversation with Polly, I learned that she loved to draw and paint. As an ER chaplain, I always carried crayons and paper for children, so I gave some to her. “Will you draw me a picture?”

“It won’t be very good,” she said, but she drew a face in profile – a woman’s face, maybe her own – and signed it with her name, and gave it to me.

“I’m going to take this home and put it on my bulletin board,” I said. “Every day when I look at it, I’ll pray for you.”

And I did, which meant that I looked at her name every day, which meant that I actually remembered it when she came back to the ER a few months later. “Polly!” I said. I was both upset that she was back in the hospital and relieved that she was still alive. Was she ready to leave her husband for good? Could we convince her to press charges this time, or even to take a pamphlet?

My heart hammering with the urgency of her situation, I was startled when her eyes widened in wonder. “You remembered my name!” She didn’t sound like someone impressed by a social pleasantry. She sounded like someone who’d seen a miracle.

“Of course I did.  Remember the picture you drew for me?  You signed it.”

“You kept my picture?”

“Of course I kept it. It’s beautiful. I’ve been praying for you, like I promised I would.”

She shook her head. “I can’t believe you remembered my name.”

Polly left the ER a few hours later. Again she went back to her husband. But this time  she took the CAAW pamphlet I gave her, with its call to empowerment and safety. While there was more to our conversation than that first exchange, I think the fact that I remembered her name made her keep listening to me.  Hearing her name told her that she was known and cared about, that someone wanted her to be whole and cherished. Taking the pamphlet was the smallest of gestures. I don’t know – I will probably never know – what happened after that. I can only pray that somehow Polly found the strength to leave her husband and forge a new, more joyous identity.

As we journey through the reason of Epiphany, let all of us listen for our names. Who are we now? Who is God calling us to become? But let us remember that we are also called to love and name those around us, and to help call them on their own journeys to new life.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survival Stories

Here's tomorrow's homily; the Gospel is Matthew 3:1-12.  Advent's my least favorite liturgical season, and I've never found John the Baptist very appealing, so finding my way into the readings is always a challenge. Gary thinks this works.  I hope other people will, too.


Happy New Year! This is the second week of Advent, the beginning of the church year, and you know what that means. John the Baptist is back, chomping on locusts, howling about the end of the world as he exhorts people to save themselves through baptism and repentance. The Kingdom of God has come near, and the approaching messiah is one scary dude.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

In his day, John was hugely popular. On the face of it, this seems odd. John preaches a gospel of fear lightened with just a little good news: the world’s ending, but you may be okay if you repent and get baptized. I wonder, though, if John was so appealing because he got people’s adrenaline going while also giving them a simple way to save themselves.

Remember the Y2K crisis? Fourteen years ago, we were warned that on January 1, 2000, computers everywhere would crash, hopelessly confused by the logical problem of moving from the double-nine of 1999 backwards to double-zero. Planes would fall from the sky, banks would fail, personal electronics would become useless hunks of metal and plastic, and civilization as we knew it would grind to a halt. People who knew a lot about computers – like my husband, who’d spent years working as a programmer -- believed this was a real danger. We, along with many other people, laid in extra food and water and a Coleman stove, just in case the power grid failed and we couldn’t use our mostly electrical kitchen.

Nothing happened. Either the threat was overstated, or programmers around the world spotted it early enough to have time to fix it. Computers kept working. Banks stayed open. Stoves and coffeemakers remained operational.

In the weeks before Y2K, a few lonely voices had suggested that the new year would not usher in doomsday. My husband dismissed these people as ignorant optimists. “It’s a really complicated problem,” he said, and of course I believed him.  Mixed with my alarm, though, was a kind of thrill. This was an adventure. I was preparing for life after the apocalypse. Everything was heightened by the adrenaline rush. Planning for the end of the world was exhilarating.

I don’t know if that’s how the crowds following John the Baptist felt, but there’s no denying that we humans love scary stories, especially about apocalypses. Look at the current obsession with zombies. We love to imagine ourselves in danger, especially if someone gives us some simple, decisive way to survive. Lay in emergency supplies for the year 2000! Flee zombies so they won’t eat your brain! Repent of your sins and be baptized in the River Jordan!

The people warning us about the year 2000 were wrong. So far, there’s been no sign of zombies, either. But back in A.D. 29 or so, very shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist was right. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Someone greater than John was about to appear. Repentence was -- and is – essential.

What John got wrong were the special effects. The messiah had already arrived, three decades earlier:  not as a gigantic striding figure with a winnowing fork, tossing unbaptized and unrepentent sinners left and right, but as a human infant, vulnerable and needy. This was not a towering, threatening figure. This was a God of love, not one of fear: not a God who condemned us, but one who became us, putting on our fragile flesh, opening himself to weapons and wounds.

The end-of-the-world stories we enjoy tend to start with the world wiped clean by plague or war or winnowing fork. These stories radically simplify the landscape of survival. When you’re juggling a job, bills, growing children, aging parents, health problems, car problems, and Christmas shopping, zombies can seem almost restful. When zombies show up, all that other stuff no longer matters. All you have to do is outrun the zombies. Stories like this paint the world in stark either/or terms: right versus wrong, us versus them.

The Christian story is a lot more complicated. Christ requires us to welcome strangers, rather than locking them out because they might want to eat our brains or steal our bottled water.  Christ requires us to recognize our own role in harming the neighbors we are called to love, our own complicity in other people’s apocalypses. Each of us participates in systems that oppress God’s children, harm God’s creation, and threaten our own wholeness. We can’t turn on an electric light, fill up our car’s gas tank, or shop in any kind of store without raising a swarm of ethical questions. Am I being as energy-efficient as possible? How can I reduce my dependence on dwindling resources? Was my Thanksgiving turkey humanely housed and slaughtered? How can I be sure the coat I’m buying wasn’t made by children in a Third-World sweatshop?
There are no clear, easy lines here: not between us and them, rarely even between right and wrong. We live and work in a complicated society that always pulls us into murky territory. Nothing we do is pure. Everything is interconnected. No one is completely innocent.

This entanglement in messy human systems and institutions is my current definition of original sin. We are all born into it. We cannot move outside it. All we can do is repent, pay attention, and do the best we can, knowing that we can’t walk without taking at least a few wrong steps. We cannot save ourselves. Only God’s grace, mercy and love can save us.

John was right that we need to repent, because we never know when our personal worlds will end. John himself would only be alive for another few years. But this is still a story of hope. God loves us and yearns to save us. God’s love shines through the darkness of John’s tragic death, through the darkness of our tangled relationships with ourselves and other people, through the darkness of mortality. God’s light leads us to the ultimate happy ending:  Easter, the impossibly empty tomb, the final triumph of love and life over fear and death.

In the fiction workshops I teach at UNR, my students often write very dark stories. They love tragic endings, especially ones where everybody dies. A few years ago, in a class where the stories were even more depressing than usual, I asked about this. Why were happy endings so unpopular? Why not write stories where everyone survived, where things got better?

My students thought about this for a while. Then one of them said, “Well, you know, that kind of happy ending is what you find in kids’ books. Those are the kinds of stories you hear when you’re a child, so telling them feels childish.” These students, eager to be sophisticated adults, were as disappointed by happy endings as I had been secretly disappointed when nothing happened on January 1, 2000.  Happy endings can seem like a letdown.

Jesus says that unless we become as little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe part of what he means is that we need to reclaim our joy in happy endings. After John the Baptist -- the wild man gobbling locusts and thundering about the end of the world -- a baby sleeping in a manger can indeed seem like a letdown. It’s our job to remember what John himself knew and proclaimed, even if he got some of the details wrong: that the approaching messiah offers us the best kind of survival story, although it is neither the easiest nor the simplest.  This is the story where, even though we die, yet we shall live.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Making it Stop

Here's tomorrow's homily.  Longtime friends and blog readers have already heard the personal story I tell here, but it's worth repeating anyway.  My church is in Sparks, not far from the school where the shooting took place -- although no kids from the parish are currently students there -- so this was an especially tough pastoral challenge. As a licensed lay preacher, I'm no longer required to run my homilies past ordained folks for approval, but I showed this to our rector ahead of time anyway.  I'm grateful that he gave me the go-ahead.

The picture above is an AP photo taken at a candlelight vigil for the victims this past Wednesday.

The Gospel is Luke 18:9-14.

Note:  I've had to disable blog comments because I was getting too much spam, but you can reach me on Facebook or via e-mail if you feel the need.


We are all too familiar with horror in the news.  Last week, it came home.  A twelve-year-old shooter at Sparks Middle School killed a beloved teacher, wounded two classmates, and killed himself.  In the next few days, another beloved teacher was murdered by a fourteen-year-old student in Massachusetts, and a thirteen-year-old boy carrying a toy gun was shot dead by police in California.  As numb as we’ve grown to horror, stories like this would break our hearts even on a week when our own community wasn’t traumatized and grieving.

Make it stop, we plead.  This is all too much.  How can we make the horror stop?

When horror happens, there’s a natural tendency to seek causes, to lay blame. According to some accounts, the Sparks shooter was bullied, so we blame the bullies for driving the youngster to violence. We blame his parents for leaving the gun where he could get it.  We blame him for pulling the trigger.  Or, wary of blaming individuals for something we rightly recognize as a social epidemic, we blame large groups of faceless people.  It’s the fault of the liberals, the conservatives, the NRA, oppressive gun laws, lenient gun laws, careless  parents, kids these days, declining morals, junk food manufacturers, designers of violent video games.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”  Our natural tendency is to try to distance ourselves from whomever we blame. We would never bully a child; we would never leave a gun where a child could find it; we would never express our rage and despair in violence.   As natural as this response may be, today’s Gospel tells us that it’s wrong.  The Pharisee listing his virtues is not the good guy in this story.  Our model is the despised tax collector who acknowledges his wrongdoings and prays for mercy.

Many years ago, I took a course on the Gospels at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  Talking about how one Gospel story can produce many different interpretations, our teacher said, “Which character are you in this story?  In whom do you see yourself?”

I want to see myself in the tax collector, who’s clearly on Jesus’ good side.  If I’m honest, I have to admit that I often act more like the Pharisee instead.  But let’s look at another story, the one that’s been haunting us all week.  Some children bully another child, whose parents have left a gun where he can get it.  He takes the gun to school.  He uses it.  People die.

Can you see yourself in the parents who take imperfect safety precautions?   Can you see yourself in the bullies who use cruelty as power?  We all want to identify with Michael Landsberry, the heroic teacher who sacrificed himself to protect students. We want to believe that we’d be as brave as he was, and maybe we would. But by the time he showed up, the gun was already in the child’s hand. How do we keep the gun out of the child’s hand?

If we want to make the horror stop, we have to begin where it begins.  We have to seek ourselves, not in the innocent, but in the guilty.

The cruel bullies.  The careless parents. The violent victim.  Who am I in this story?

When I was twelve years old, I got beaten up or teased or mocked almost every day. I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily, and very visible facial hair.  This last earned me special torment, both verbal and physical, from other kids. Most of the adults who witnessed the abuse did nothing, except sometimes to tell me that I just had to learn to defend myself.

The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha.  We had French class together.  She was as skinny as I was, but as bold as I was awkward.  She was sly, fast, scornful.  Every day she came up to me, grabbed my upper lip, pulled it – hard – and delivered a jeering commentary on my mustache.  The French teacher comforted me and tried to make Tasha stop.  It never worked.

I hated Tasha more than I have ever hated anyone.  I prayed for her to die, terribly and in pain.  I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if ... if what? I didn't have the physical skills or strength to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me.  My powerlessness filled me with rage and self-loathing.

Now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean.  But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as a child, as a little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.

Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to a gun, someone might be dead now?

I didn’t have access to a gun.  I still had violent thoughts.  What kept me from acting on them?  A few adults, notably my French teacher, showed me that they saw what was going on and knew it wasn’t right.  A few kids stuck up for me against bullies other than Tasha. These bystanders gave me hope that if I could just survive middle school, I might find a kinder world.  They told me I had allies. They walked in compassion and acted in love.

And so, on a handful of occasions when I’ve seen a child being bullied in public, I’ve said something.  Once, on a bus in New York City, I witnessed a tall, quiet young woman being harangued by her parents, who told her loudly – who told everyone on that bus – how stupid and ugly and boring she was, how being accepted to the American Ballet Theater at the age of sixteen was no big deal and she needed to get over herself.  I sat down next to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re a ballet dancer, and no one has the right to talk to you that way.”  She and her parents both looked embarrassed, but the adults stopped insulting her, at least on that bus ride.

I now know that this is called bystander intervention, an approach based on the fact that people make decisions, and continue behaviors, based on the reactions they get from others.  Ignoring bullying won’t make it go away. Confronting it may not, either, but at least that young woman knew that someone else saw what was happening to her and thought it was wrong.  She wasn’t invisible. Other kinds of behavior were possible.  The world contained allies.

I have performed several of these small, simple bystander interventions over the years:  not because I’m good, but because I too have felt ashamed and powerless and full of violent rage.  I do what I wish more people had done for me.  I do this not because I believe bullied children are innocent, but because I know they aren’t. I know their hunger to hurt others as they have been hurt.  I know how easily they can lash out at their tormenters, or at themselves.

I have never systematically bullied anyone, but I’ve certainly committed my share of unkindnesses.  I don’t own a gun, but I’ve certainly had my share of thoughtless or careless moments, including some that could have resulted in real harm.  God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  Or, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Identify, don’t compare.”

How do we make the horror stop?  I don’t have any easy answers. Any approaches I’ve suggested here are tentative and partial; all approaches rely on God’s mercy and grace.  But I do have Jesus’ assurance that the way out of sin and pain isn’t to assign blame while holding ourselves blameless.   It’s to take responsibility.  It’s to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s to love our enemies, that seemingly impossible task, by recognizing ourselves in them.

The bullies.  The parents.  The shooter.   In whom do you see yourself, and what can you do to love that person?


Sunday, July 21, 2013


Here's today's homily.  The readings are here; I'm using Track A.


Many years ago, when I took my Preachers in Training class, I was given the story of Martha and Mary as a homework assignment.  I was supposed to think about how I’d write a homily about it.  As someone who’s often been criticized for being a dreamer – my mother once commented to my sister, “Susan has many skills, but none of them are practical” – Mary had my full sympathy, and I had to struggle to see the other side of the story.

And then, in one of those coincidences that may not be coincidence at all, my husband and I had a dinner guest.  The nephew of a friend, he had just gotten back from ten months working for an oil company in Algeria. As the three of us sat drinking iced tea in the living room, I asked him what it had been like living in a foreign country.  “What taught me the most,” he said quietly, putting down his glass, “was seeing the effects of a totalitarian government first-hand.”

He began talking about the sufferings of his Algerian friends, but suddenly I couldn’t concentrate.  He’d put his glass, dripping with condensation, directly on the oak coffee table, and all I could think about was water stains on my furniture.  I sat paralyzed, wondering what to do.  Should I say something?  Should I snatch up his glass and slide a coaster under it?  Surely those actions would be rude: I felt honored that he was sharing his experiences with us, and I didn’t want to interrupt his story.  But because I was distracted by, and worried about, water stains, I wasn’t listening to his story as closely as I would have liked to, either.  I was more worried about my house than about my guest.  In Gospel terms, the Martha in me had won out over the Mary.

Today’s readings are about generosity and hospitality.  In Amos, God thunders at people who care more about making money than about helping the poor.  In Genesis, Abraham famously offers hospitality to three strangers and receives a great blessing in return.  And in Luke, Martha and Mary demonstrate two different kinds of hospitality.

This story speaks directly to our baptismal covenant, which charges us “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.”  It’s no accident that there are two verbs in that sentence.  “Seek” is Mary’s verb: go find the guest; sit down next to him; listen to what he has to say.  “Serve” is Martha’s verb: make sure that the house is clean, that there’s food on the table, that the guest doesn’t need another glass of wine or cup of coffee. The two verbs are joined by an and, not by an or: “seek and serve.”  Both forms of hospitality are essential components of Christian discipleship, but they function properly only in balance.

Listening to this story, it’s easy to think that Jesus is valuing Mary’s hospitality over Martha’s.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  But Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to sit down and stop working entirely: rather, he tells her that “there is need of only one thing.”  One dish would be enough, but Martha’s preparing a seven-course gourmet meal.  She’s so busy serving that she’s forgotten to seek.  She’s replaced that and with an or.   It’s only fair to point out that Mary seems to have done the same thing; my mother, at least, would certainly understand Martha’s exasperation with the dreamy relative who’s too enthralled by a guest’s stories to help clear the table.   But today I want to talk about Martha, whose anxious efforts to welcome God, to be good enough for God, actually take her away from the God who’s sitting in her living room, right under her nose.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  The ultimate Martha of our culture -- the uber-Martha, if you will -- is, of course, Martha Stewart, who has spawned an entire industry devoted to preoccupation with miniscule details.  Toronto columnist Donna Lypchuk has listed the symptoms of Martha Stewart disease.  “You polish every lettuce leaf with a clean white cloth before you put it in the bowl.”  “You save snowballs from last winter in your fridge, in case you need them to create an ice-sculpture centerpiece.” “All of the grass in your front yard is braided.”  This kind of hospitality quickly becomes aggression, competitive performance:  it’s a perfectionism designed to make the guest feel inferior to the host.  While Lypchuk’s list of symptoms is funny, her suggested cure offers a withering commentary on how Martha Stewart disease blinds its victims to more pressing concerns.  Says Lypchuk, “Buy the afflicted woman a one-way ticket to Bosnia, Bangladesh, or any other Third World country, so she can appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’” Lypchuk and Amos are on the same page.

Most of us, I think, do appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’  We recognize the gifts we’ve been given, offer thanks, and try to share what we have.  These are, after all, among the most basic tasks of the church. But today’s Gospel story challenges us to ask ourselves how our personal definitions of being good enough for God interfere with our ability to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  If your idea of being good enough for God is having spotless white carpets, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone with muddy feet.  If your idea of being good enough for God is being well dressed, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone wearing rags.  If your idea of being good enough for God is having furniture unmarred by water stains, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone who has just put a dripping iced-tea glass down on your coffee table.  Our definition of “good enough” needs to be as various as the Christs who come to us, and always it needs to include the willingness to listen, both to strangers and to friends.

Mary, after all, already knew Jesus.  She wasn’t gazing starstruck at him because she’d never seen him before.  She listened so raptly because he brought news, the news he spent his life proclaiming: the Good News, the Gospel.  She refused to take for granted the astonishing fact that God was sitting in front of her, telling her a story.  She refused to consider her house more important than her guest.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, observes that “preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same.” Listening the way Mary did takes courage, because the news we hear often requires us to act, to change – even if only to change our minds about what we thought we knew.  Seeking God, we often discover that God asks us to serve in ways we may not have originally planned.  It can be easier, safer, to remain preoccupied with the finish on the furniture or the polish on the lettuce leaves.   It can be safer to hide from the astonishing fact that whenever anyone speaks to us, stranger or friend, Christ is there in front of us, telling us a story.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  I’m not sure we worry less when we learn to listen to God.   There are a lot of worrisome things in the world, after all.  I do think we worry about different things: less about lawns, and more about love; less about canapes, and more about compassion; less about furniture, and more about freedom.  As worrisome as Christ can seem in his more unlikely disguises, Christ himself has promised us that those who seek shall also find.  Seeking Christ in all persons, we will surely find our own ways to best serve all of Christ’s creatures, to help transform the world into the welcoming, hospitable Kingdom of God.