Sunday, August 17, 2014

Daily Bread




Here's today's homily.  The Gospel is Matthew 15:21-28.

*

Today’s Gospel is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and the Canaanite woman is one of my favorite characters in Scripture. She is alone and despised, an outcast, a mother desperate to find healing for her sick child. She is the kind of person we expect Jesus to embrace and include, but when he doesn’t, she thinks on her feet and challenges his rejection of her, his cruelty. She is the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with Jesus. She proves that people can sometimes teach God a lesson.  

Jesus is tired, overwhelmed. Fully human, he needs a vacation. He has told his disciples, just as he tells this nameless woman, that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. The frantic mother isn’t the right nationality. She’s from the wrong place. She doesn’t look like him. Her child isn’t one of his children. And so he tries to dismiss her. “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Fully divine, Jesus snaps to. He admits that he was wrong. He blesses the mother and heals the child. From now on, his ministry will be much more inclusive. This moment marks a change in how he sees both himself and the people he has come to save.

The lesson this nameless woman teaches God has been articulated more recently by a man named Paul Farmer, an American doctor who  does remarkable work in Haiti, and elsewhere in the world, treating the poorest of the poor. Paul Farmer has written, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” That could come from the Bible, couldn’t it? It sounds like something Jesus might say. It sounds like things Jesus did say, but only after his encounter with the Canaanite woman. All lives matter.

God has learned that lesson, but the world still hasn’t gotten the message. The news this week has been particularly grim and despairing. Stories from Gaza and Missouri, from the Mexican border and from a private home in Tiburon, California, all attest to how easily we fall into believing that some lives matter less. Whether the lives we dismiss are our own or other people’s, the root tragedy is our failure to cherish all of God’s beloved creation. We are all God’s children, whatever the nationality or economic status or skin color of our human parents.

The Canaanite woman taught Jesus this lesson millenia ago. Why haven’t we learned it yet? What will it take to get it through our thick skulls and into our hardened hearts?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have an observation. The story of the Canaanite woman occurs in both Matthew, where we heard it today, and in Mark. In both Gospels, it is preceded by the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand. And in both Gospels, it’s followed by a lesser-known miracle, the feeding of the four thousand. Once again, Jesus is faced with a huge hungry crowd. Once again, the disciples panic at their lack of supplies. Once again, Jesus commands them to feed the crowd anyway, and once again, a few measly fish and some crumbs of bread stretch to feed the multitude.  

I’ve read various commentaries on this curious repetition. Some scholars believe that the same miracle is being described twice. Others point out that the differing details -- the numbers of people and fish, the amount of bread -- suggest two discrete events. I think we’re being taught a lesson:  namely, that humans have to learn the same lessons over and over again, and that they have to be fed over and over again.  We can’t eat just once.  That’s why we take Communion, our food for the journey, every week. That’s why we pray to receive our daily bread, the crumbs we need to keep going.

A feminist Catholic scholar named Megan McKenna has pointed out that in all four feeding stories, the two in Mark and the two in Matthew, we’re told that the crowd numbered however many thousands, “not including women and children.” She points out that women with children are usually carrying diaper bags with snacks. She suggests that those measly fish and crumbs stretched so far because the crowd shared what it had, because mothers shared their own children’s food with other people’s children.  

If you share with strangers, even if you’re afraid there isn’t enough, you’ll discover that there is. The feeding miracles teach us that; so does the story of the Canaanite woman. God’s healing grace doesn’t need to be rationed. There’s enough to go around.  

But we need to be reminded of this, sometimes every day. And sometimes the people who do the reminding need to be persistent, even unpleasant, because that’s the only way to get the attention of the people controlling those crumbs. The Canaanite woman runs after Jesus. Yelling, she chases him down in the street. She’s so noisy and annoying that the disciples tell Jesus to send her away, but if she weren’t that noisy and annoying, Jesus would have kept ignoring her, and her daughter wouldn’t have been healed. The Canaanite woman challenges the notion that only men are entitled to public space, public speech, public advocacy. Among other things, she’s a model of feminist activism.

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, the heyday of feminism, when women in the United States were marching and burning bras and publishing manifestos about how their lives mattered as much as those of men. My stepmother was annoyed by these women. She thought they were obnoxious. My father said, “They have to be.  That’s how you get things done.  The leaders of revolutions can’t afford to worry about manners.”

That was in the seventies. In 2004, I took a summer course in the Gospels at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Our teacher, a Lutheran, was a famous Gospel scholar who believed that his ideas mattered far more than those of his students. The class met for four hours a day. The teacher lectured for four hours straight. Students weren’t allowed to speak. If we raised our hands, he ignored us. Finally, a small group of us -- both women and men -- started calling out our own ideas, ignoring the fact that he was ignoring us.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was one of the noisy ones.

One day he lectured about the Canaanite woman, about the two different versions of the story in Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the woman’s less noisy and annoying, more polite. Our teacher said that her abrasive behavior in Matthew is a lesson about how gracious and loving Jesus was to pay attention to her even though she was so unpleasant and persistent, so rude. 

After class, I went up to the teacher and said, “Her daughter was sick. Come on:  how could anyone blame a frantic mother for trying to get healing for her child? Of course she did whatever it took to get Jesus’ attention!”

The teacher looked at me. He sneered. He said, “Well, Susan, I’m sure you don’t have trouble with obnoxious women.”

He may have been an expert in the Gospels, but he missed the point of this passage.

The point is that we need to be persistent, sometimes even obnoxious, in insisting that everyone matters. We need to be persistent in our faith that there is enough to go around, that even crumbs will multiply to feed multitudes. We need to be persistent in insisting that all of God’s children deserve a place at the table and a generous portion of daily bread.

Amen.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saving Isaac


"The Binding of Isaac" by Adi Holzer, 1997
Here's tomorrow's homily. The readings are
Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:40-42.  I take a certain perverse pride in not ducking tough readings (as I could have, this week, if I'd chosen the second track in the lectionary), but this one's definitely a challenge.

Atheist Gary, after he'd edited this for me -- and it required more editing than usual -- said, "Do you think it will be controversial?  I mean, you're kind of saying God's being a jerk."

"I've said that before," I told him, and we both laughed, but it's a good question.  We shall see.

*

This is the season of hard sayings. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He went on to promise that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own  household.” This week, as if to fulfill that promise, Abraham has bound his son Isaac -- his only son, whom he loves -- to an altar, and is standing above him, ready to bring down the knife.

This is an appalling story. Now, in 2014, we would never consider “God told me to do it” an acceptable reason to threaten a child. We call people who act on such commands mentally ill. They wind up on the evening news. They wind up in prison, or in hospitals. And yet this reading is at the core of the three Abrahamic faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham is our revered spiritual ancestor. Around the world, many people have had to struggle to make sense of how he could even begin to go along with the charade of sacrificing a child.

The situation’s all the more incomprehensible because just four chapters before this reading, in Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God to spare the lives of the residents of Sodom, people he doesn’t even know. But when it comes to Isaac -- the child of his old age, the son he and Sarah had despaired of ever having -- he’s willing to follow God’s orders to take his life?

As long as the faithful have been hearing this story, we’ve been trying to find ways to make it less horrible. One common strategy is to turn it into an uplifting story about trust in God. According to this interpretation, Abraham trusts that God will ultimately spare the boy, which is indeed what happens. Abraham has passed God’s test by exercising blind trust and following orders no matter what. Hurrah for Abraham. Enter the angel. Enter the ram. Happy ending.

But what about Isaac? What does this ghastly incident teach him about trust? If people threaten to sacrifice you, just go along with it, because somehow you’ll get out of it at the last minute? Do you think Isaac ever trusted his father again? Would you trust a parent who threatened to kill you? If that parent said, “I was faking, the knife was just for show,” would you say, “Oh, good, I feel so much better now”? One school of Jewish scriptural interpretation holds that Isaac never spoke to his father again after this day. Who could blame him?

Christians often try to take the sting out of this story by making it a metaphor for the crucifixion. I’m not comfortable with this strategy, either. Jewish author Elie Wiesel says that the Isaac and Abraham story is better than the crucifixion, because Isaac doesn’t die. I think it’s worse, because adult Jesus knew what was going to happen. He went in with his eyes open. Isaac didn’t. Isaac asks Abraham,“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” He doesn’t understand what’s happening, and he hasn’t consented to any of it. He’s been lied to. He’s been tricked.

I think the best way to deal with this hideous story is to ask questions about the test at its heart. The text says that God is testing Abraham’s faith, but a Jewish friend tells me that her favorite question about this passage is, “Did Abraham pass God’s test, or fail it?” Maybe the way to pass this test is to say, “No God worth following would command me to sacrifice my beloved child. No, I won’t do it.”  Some people, on the other hand, think Abraham is testing God to see if God will make him go through with the sacrifice. In this school of thought, Abraham is calling God’s bluff; and, luckily, Abraham is right.

But these approaches focus on Abraham, not Isaac. Whatever else we say about this reading, at its core is a terrified child at the mercy of powers greater than he is, a child who has been tied down while someone who is supposed to take care of him stands over him with a knife.

Who’s being tested here? I think we are: the bystanders, the listeners. And I think that the minute we forget about Isaac, we flunk. The minute we say that his helplessness and fear are less important than the contest between God and Abraham, we flunk. The minute we say that his trauma is only a metaphor for the crucifixion, we flunk. The minute we say that his terror doesn’t matter, because the story supposedly has a happy ending, we flunk. We flunk when we try to turn this story into a parable about trust. We flunk when we try to intellectualize it into a historical commentary on ancient practices of child sacrifice. We flunk when we respond with anything but appalled, enraged empathy for the child at its center.

Ultimately, God does spare Isaac. The angel shows up in the nick of time to stay Abraham’s knife. If we, here and now, are God’s hands in the world, what are we doing to prevent the sacrifice of helpless children? Angels are God’s messengers. As God’s human messengers, what are we doing to keep those knives from coming down?

In today’s Gospel, which is not about swords but about divine hospitality, Jesus praises “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.” As usual, he commands us to care for the least of these: the ones who are so often dismissed, unnoticed, overlooked. Among other things, this means saving the Isaacs among us.

Isaacs are sacrificed every day. We’ve all heard about the human trafficking of children. People here in Nevada, and especially in its faith communities, have been a powerful force in passing legislation that will help those kids. We’ve all heard about the huge number of children entering the United States, alone, from Central America. Our justice system is doing its best to find safe shelter for those children, and to work with their home countries to address the conditions that made them flee in the first place. We’ve all heard about the terrible effects of hunger on children, who cannot grow or learn properly without adequate nutrition. That’s one reason our food pantry here at St. Paul’s is so important.

Nonetheless, the situation remains grim. The Children's Defense Fund, in its report The State of America's Children, 2014, writes that even here, in this wealthy nation, “Every fifth child (16.1 million) is poor, and every tenth child (7.1 million) is extremely poor. Children are the poorest age group, and the younger they are the poorer they are. Every fourth infant, toddler and preschool child (5 million) is poor; 1 in 8 is extremely poor.” According to this report, “The greatest threat to America’s economic, military and national security comes from no enemy without but from our failure, unique among high-income nations, to invest adequately and fairly in the health, education and sound development of all of our young.”

If the angel hadn’t stayed his hand, would Abraham have killed Isaac? Before Isaac’s birth, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Would Abraham really have endangered that promise by sacrificing his firstborn?

If Isaac had died, Jacob and Esau would never have been born. If Jacob had never been born, his twelve sons would never have been born. There would never have been twelve tribes of Israel. The history of the world would be unimaginably different from what it is now.

According to Jewish tradition, the death of any one person is the death of a world. Whenever we don’t save Isaac, whenever we allow even one child to be sacrificed, we endanger everyone’s future in ways we cannot guess. As God’s messengers, let us never overlook any frightened or threatened child. Let us do whatever we can to invest in the health, education and sound development of all our young: to ensure that everyone who is born can grow and learn in peace and safety, enjoying the welcome and abundance that Jesus commands us to provide.

Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

God's Refrigerator


Here's tomorrow's homily.  The readings are Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21.

It turns out that there's a country song called God's Refrigerator; I only discovered that, and the magnet, after I wrote the first draft of this.  Hey, GMTA.

Given the horrific Isla Vista shooting, maybe I should have talked about that.  But I feel like I keep having to preach about shootings. I wanted to talk about something else. And I suspect that the kind of creativity I'm talking about here may be one small part of the answer to our violence epidemic, anyway.

Create, don't destroy.

*

Many of you know that I write fantasy and science fiction. Most of you know, because I’ve talked about it before, that I’m a child of non-believers. You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that many years ago, when I told my father that I’d started taking preaching classes, he threw his hands in the air and said, “Well, of course! You already write science fiction!”

My father’s reaction, while very funny, isn’t uncommon. The people I know who don’t go to church often maintain that those of us who do are engaged in a fantastical, time-consuming game of make-believe. We’ve invented God. Our faith is just a story, a fairy tale. We worship, not the being who created us, but a being we have created.

Based on Paul’s message to the Athenians in today’s lesson from Acts, this idea was current in his day, too. “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals,” Paul says. No, we do not worship a being we have created. We worship the being who created us.

I suspect that this confusion between who is the creator and who is the created accounts for some of the suspicion of imagination in certain Christian circles -- more conservative than ours -- whose members are, for instance, forbidden to watch movies, or encouraged to burn Harry Potter books. Islam, properly wary of creating idols that reduce God to human size, forbids realism in sacred art; Judaism has a long history of uneasiness with artistic depictions of God. After all, the Second Commandment forbids “graven images.” If you interpret that commandment strictly, the sculpture of Jesus above our altar here at St. Paul’s puts us in very dangerous territory, as do the Stations of the Cross around our sanctuary.

And yet there’s another school of Christian thought that not only allows human art and imagination, but celebrates them. We are God’s offspring, created in God’s image. If we are created in the image of a creator, then art and imagination are our birthright, our family inheritance. Creativity is our legacy.

This idea was championed by J.R.R. Tolkien, the devoutly Catholic creator of Middle Earth, who described human artistry -- music, literature, the visual arts -- as “sub-creation.” He meant not that what people make is sub-par or sub-standard, but that human creations are a sub-set of God’s created world. We are co-creators with God, dreaming new things into existence. According to Tolkien, representational art -- “realistic” art -- is, if anything, inferior to fantasy.  Realism merely copies what already exists, rather than using imagination to create what has never been seen before. God imagined the world into existence. Made in God’s image, we are called to imagine, too.

This is harder than it sounds. For one thing, children with artistic relatives are often so intimidated by the family legacy that they deliberately take another path. My grandfather and his twin brother were famous commercial artists who painted covers for The Shadow magazine and Boys’ Life. As a child, I took painting lessons and was pronounced talented.  In high school, an art teacher urged me to apply to art school.  But I knew I’d never be as good as my grandfather and his brother, so I focused on my writing instead.  In college, I took a fiction workshop with Matt Salinger, son of the famous writer J.D. Salinger.  Matt was a good writer, but he was so intimidated by his father’s literary legacy that he went into acting.

Obviously, when the artistic person in the family is God, the intimidation factor gets ramped up several-million-fold. As poet Joyce Kilmer laments in his poem "Trees", “Poems are made by fools like me,/But only God can make a tree.” The fact that English teachers everywhere use “Trees” as an example of really bad poetry hardly helps. Nor does the fact that our society values only the skilled and professional. If your painting or poetry or pottery isn’t good enough to sell, well, you’d better just stop trying and buy the work of “real” artists, the ones who get paid for it. Children absorb this attitude very early. In the words of a friend of mine, “All six year olds know they’re artists. All sixteen year olds know they aren’t.”

Trying to become an artist is hard enough when you feel like you have to live up to J.D. Salinger, or even Joyce Kilmer -- but God?  In the face of these famous forbears, it’s a wonder that any of us overcome our artistic shyness to create anything at all. And yet we do, and when we do, we discover the joys and the rewards of creativity.

When we create, we participate in incarnation. I’m not the world’s best knitter, but look! I can use sticks and string to create a pair of socks, to make solid objects that not only didn’t exist before but keep my feet warm. How cool is that? I feel so good after making a pair of socks that I can only imagine how good God feels after making a tree.

When we create, we also resist the consumer messages that saturate our culture. These messages tell us that we aren’t enough without those Levi’s, that we’re inferior without that fancy car, that our yearnings for meaning can only be met by owning an iPad. Any creative project, whether it’s knitting socks or playing the drums, reveals these statements as lies.  The surest joy comes from making stuff, not from buying it, even if the stuff we make is imperfect.

And that’s because when we create pottery or pot-holders or music, we also create community. Our artworks are saturated with meaning. They’re expressions of love. My first knitting project, eight years ago, was a prayer shawl for a friend whose husband was dying of cancer. The shawl was a lumpy mess. Half the stitches were backwards, and there were holes where none belonged. But my friend cherishes the shawl and still uses it, even though it’s unraveled so much that now it looks more like a giant knot than a garment.

Creativity also has proven health benefits, which is why hospitals and nursing homes almost always have art therapists on staff. Making stuff makes us feel better, both mentally and physically. It reduces anxiety and boosts our immune systems. It heals us.

“But I’m not creative!” many people say. “Where do artists get their ideas?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that although he will no longer be with them in the flesh, God will send “another Advocate, to be with you forever.” He’s talking about Pentecost. The Advocate is the Holy Spirit, who created the church and also bestows artistic inspiration, those ecstatic rushing winds. If Pentecost is coming, so is creativity. Our ideas, like everything else, come from God.

Even with all its benefits, creation is hard. It takes practice. No one’s good at it right away. But just as human parents delight in the pasta collages and lumpy clay dinosaurs of their children, so God, surely, delights in our efforts. You may have seen the magnet that says, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.” Imagine that very large fridge, with its infinite supply of magnets. Look, there’s rock art from the Great Basin! Look, there’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets! Look, there’s the score of Beethoven’s Ninth! But my childhood paintings are there, too, and the story of Matt Salinger’s he thought wasn’t as good as his father’s work, and your co-worker’s doodle from that boring meeting last week, and your own first-grade stick-figure drawing, the one that was on your parents’ fridge for years and got lost when they moved. Somewhere up there, there’s probably even a copy of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”

Amen.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Doors



Here's my homily for tomorrow. The Gospel is the story of Doubting Thomas, John 20:19-31. I used the driving story in another homily, quite a few years ago.  It remains one of the strangest things that's ever happened to me, and no one has ever been able to come up with a strictly rational, Euclidean explanation for it. "Oh, honey, you just didn't know where you were going," my mother said, but I've hardly ever been more acutely aware of where I was going. Gary chalks it up to ESP, but that's not especially rational or Euclidean either.  Of course the story raises more questions than it answers -- if God can reach down to redirect a Honda, why can't God keep a forty-three-year old mother from dying? -- but in my experience, anything resembling a miracle always does.  There's a reason why the definition of theology is "asking questions about God."

*

As I’m sure most of you know, the Episcopal Church uses the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of readings designed, in a three-year cycle, to lead us through the high points of Scripture. On most Sundays, the lessons vary depending on whether we’re in Year A, Year B, or Year C. But some readings remain constant, as unchanging as the sequence of the seasons.  Most of these readings coincide with major events. On Maundy Thursday, we always hear about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. On Pentecost, we always hear about the rushing winds and tongues of flame. And on the Sunday after Easter, we always hear about Doubting Thomas.

But wait. The Sunday after Easter isn’t a major event. It’s low Sunday. The drama of Holy Week is over; the Lord is risen.  A lot of people, exhausted from the marathon leading up to Easter, don’t even come to church on low Sunday. Why does the Sunday after the resurrection merit its own, unchanging reading? Why do we hear about Doubting Thomas every single year?

I suspect there’s a message here. As surely as Christmas follows Advent, as surely as Easter follows Good Friday, doubt follows resurrection. Even two thousand years ago, no one could quite believe what had happened. At a distance of several millenia, this miracle can all too easily seem like a tall tale. Like Thomas himself, none of us were there the first time the Lord reappeared. Like Thomas, we’re already followers of Jesus, but we still yearn for proof.

Two thousand years after the first Easter, we live in a society obsessed with proof: with scientific evidence, with facts and statistics. A lot of the non-believers I know -- people I love, my friends and family -- approach faith as if it’s a geometry problem. They demand logical proof of God’s existence. They insist that the Christian story is impossible in a  world so full of fear, so wracked with war and wounds. Surely, they say, no loving God would permit such things.

Today’s Gospel story is about fear. Jesus’ followers are so afraid of persecution that they’ve locked themselves indoors. The risen Lord strolls through that locked door, but not as a triumphal figure. He proves himself to Thomas not with a glowing halo, but with his wounds.

People who don’t believe in God often use fear and wounds to prove that God cannot exist. People who do believe in God often find themselves, when they or those they love are wounded and afraid, seeking proof that God really does exist. In this story, God uses fear and wounds as proof that God exists. “Here I am,” Christ says. “I will find you when you are most afraid, in the person of someone who has been deeply hurt.”

Some of you may have seen the recent news story about St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. The church recently installed a public sculpture of a vagrant sleeping on a bench under a blanket. In this affluent neighborhood, the lifelike statue was alarming enough to prompt a woman driving by to call the police. The vagrant’s hands and face are hidden by the blanket. Only the wounds on his uncovered feet reveal his identity.

The woman who called the cops probably went home and locked her doors. And some local residents find the statue, called “Jesus the Homeless,” demeaning to God. But David Buck, the rector of St. Alban’s, calls the sculpture a wake-up call for his wealthy congregation. Jesus was homeless; Christian faith expresses itself as care for the marginalized. The statue, says Buck, is a good lesson for people used to religious art where Jesus is “enthroned in finery.”

The woman driving past might not have recognized this Jesus, but Thomas did. Do we?

Here is my own story about doubt and fear and wounds. Sixteen years ago -- very early in my conversion, when I still doubted the existence of God -- I dropped my husband off at the dentist for a root canal. Ordinarily, I’d have gone to my office at UNR to work until I had to pick him up, but I’d had an awful week and was in an awful mood. Work was the last place I wanted to be. So instead of driving north on McCarran to get to UNR, I drove south, to Barnes & Noble.

At least, I tried. After a mile or so, I hit a detour that led me into a maze of side streets. I followed the detour until I realized that I wasn’t going south anymore. Mount Rose was no longer on my right. It was on my left, and Peavine was ahead of me. I was going north. So I turned, got the car pointed south again – Mount Rose on my right – and kept driving. A few minutes later, I realized that the mountain had moved. It was again to my left. I was going north.

I did a u-turn. A u-turn meant that I was going in the opposite direction: south. But by the time I got to a set of on-ramps for 395, I’d realized that I was, once again, driving north.

Fine. I’d get on the highway. I’d get on 395 South, and I’d go to Barnes & Noble. Except that somehow, I took the wrong ramp.  I was on 395 North.
 
At that point I took a deep breath and said, to the God I wasn’t at all sure I believed in, “All right!  I’ll go to the office, but I’m not talking to anyone, and I’m not doing any work!”  I want to stress that I was not enjoying this process. I was terrified by my inability to steer my own car. I was terrified by my impression that a giant hand was reaching out of the sky and rerouting my Honda Accord like a child’s matchbox toy. What was going on? Was I losing my mind?

I got to UNR. I stalked into my office. I slammed the door, sat down at my computer, and started playing solitaire. No more than two minutes after I’d gotten there, someone knocked on my door. I ripped it open, ready to scream, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

It was one of my students. He was crying.  His forty-three year old mother had died very unexpectedly the night before, and he needed someone to talk to.

My doubt dissolved that day.

When we’re afraid, we lock ourselves in. But Jesus calls us to open our doors to people who are hurting, who are wounded. That’s how we let God in. And if God, being God, gets in anyway, through all our locks and deadbolts, it’s still important for us to open the door freely. That kind of welcome makes us more like the God we follow: the God who welcomes all, who embraces all, who has promised that anyone who knocks will find the door opened.

I’ve mentioned that many of the people I love are non-believers. Two of those people are my parents. My father, deeply wounded by church when he was a child, spent the rest of his life railing furiously against God. My mother simply dismissed faith as irrelevant and ridiculous. Both of them were utterly baffled -- and, I think, embarrassed -- when I started attending church.

Both lived well into their eighties. The day my father died, in March of 2009, he kept raising his hand and twisting a doorknob, trying to open an invisible door. I thought that was interesting, and I told the story to my mother, who had been divorced from him for many years. She died thirteen months after he did, on April 11, 2010. Easter was the last time she came downstairs to eat dinner with the rest of the family. She died the next Sunday: Doubting Thomas Sunday.

The day before my mother died, she slid in and out of consciousness. But at one point, she lifted her head and stared at a spot in the air in front of her. Then she raised her hand and knocked on a door my sister and I couldn’t see.

What was behind the doors my non-believing parents were so eager to open? I don’t know, and I won’t know until I go through my own. But I believe that they found themselves welcomed into the presence of Christ. I believe that they are now healed and whole, dwelling in the mansions of the loving God who embraces all of us: the fearful and the wounded, those who doubt, and those who do not -- cannot -- believe until at last they meet the risen Lord face to face.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

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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.

Amen.

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!”                                        

Amen.