Sunday, February 23, 2014
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
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
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
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.
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Here's tomorrow's homily, on the famous story of the Gerasene demoniac. This is denser and more academic than most of my homilies, and I'm worried about whether it will be intelligible to a listening audience. But Gary's approved it, and that's usually a good sign.
Back when I volunteered as an ER chaplain, I met a young man I’ll call Joe. He was lying on a gurney in the hall. He’d pulled the blanket over his head. When I told him who I was and asked if he wanted to talk, he said, “No one understands.”
“What don’t they understand?” I asked him.
“They don’t understand what it’s like to hear the voices.”
“I don’t understand that either,” I said, “but I want to. Will you tell me about it?”
The voices in Joe’s head started when he was a teenager. There were three of them. Nothing made them go away. He heard them when he slept. He heard them when he was on medication. He’d seen psychiatrists and been in mental hospitals, but nothing helped.
The voices said only one thing, ever and always. They told Joe to die.
Joe had managed to get through school and to hold down a job he liked and was good at. His parents and siblings no longer spoke to him, but he’d found a woman he loved and married her. They had a child. A week or so before I met him, though, his wife had left, taking the baby with her, and the voices got louder. Joe called the only friend he had left in the world, a woman in the Midwest, who told him to come to the hospital.
I told Joe that I thought he was very brave. I couldn’t imagine the strength it took to stay alive in the face of such constant, merciless commands to die. He barely heard me; I could tell from the distracted look on his face that the voices were drowning out everything else. In any case, he didn’t want compliments. He wanted a cure. He wanted those voices out of his head.
I met other people in the ER who heard voices. Joe was one of the lucky ones. He was well groomed, polite, articulate. He had a place to live. He had health insurance. Most of the other patients in this category were homeless, often filthy and raving, desperate and terrified. Some of them wept when I offered to pray with them; some of them simply screamed at me. Staff avoided them the same way people on the street avoided them. Such patients could be as frightening as they were frightened. They cycled back and forth between hospitals or jails and the streets. Schizophrenia is a poorly understood illness, often difficult to treat, and although most patients aren’t actually dangerous, they scare us. We leave them alone. We steer clear.
I imagine the Gerasene demoniac was a lot like those schizophrenic ER patients. Many Biblical scholars believe that the “demons” in Scripture are various forms of mental illness. Like the patients I met, this Biblical figure bounced between painful confinement and vulnerable isolation. He lived in terror and despair, always in the shadow of death. I wonder if his demons, like Joe’s voices, told him to die, to throw himself off the cliff into the lake.
He was luckier than Joe. He found the ultimate doctor. Even the demons recognized Jesus’ power. Knowing they would be cast out, they begged Jesus to spare them the abyss, to let them go into the herd of swine instead. Jesus agreed. Was this his way of loving his enemies, even demons? Did he hope that if the demons entered the pigs, they’d leave people alone? Did he believe that this sacrifice of livestock was the only way to purge the infection, a price that had to be paid? We can’t know. All we know is that the demons destroyed their hosts. The swine, who couldn’t resist them as the man had, rushed over the cliff into the lake and drowned.
Good riddance, we might say. Surely the demoniac himself did. But the demoniac’s neighbors didn’t. They didn’t welcome the healing. They didn’t welcome Jesus. They were probably upset that a herd of valuable animals had been killed to heal a man none of them wanted around anyway. Jesus’ healthcare was expensive. They didn’t want to pay for it, certainly not with their own assets. They valued the swine more than the man.
That’s one level of resistance, but there’s another, deeper than economics. The Gospel tells us they were afraid, and while watching miracles can indeed be frightening, I think there’s more to it. Three years ago I took a summer class on “Dissident Discipleship” at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. The course gave us ways to think critically about American culture while remaining compassionate to ourselves and others. We learned that wounds and behaviors we see as strictly personal have almost always been shaped and triggered by larger social forces and historical events: military combat, economic hardship, bigotry and discrimination. Private, individual suffering is a symptom of public trauma or dysfunction. A mother’s neglect of her daughters, for instance, might very well mirror how she herself was hurt growing up in a culture that considered women inferior to men.
The teacher asked us a very important question. “How does your suffering connect you to other people? If you were abused by someone in your family who fought in a war, for example, you’re now connected to the children of veterans returning from Iraq, to children of military men and women around the world, and to the children of guerrilla warriors and freedom fighters, too.”
Much of the commentary on the Gerasene demoniac observes that the name “Legion” undoubtedly refers to the Roman Legion. The demoniac’s possession by unclean spirits mirrors the occupation of the countryside by a despised military force. Those drowned swine also remind me of Pharoah’s troops drowning in the Red Sea. This isn’t just a story about a sick man who finds healing: it’s a story about liberation, both personal and social, and about what that liberation might cost. You lose a herd of pigs, but you get a person back. Is the price worth it?
The healed man wants to leave this country. He wants to join Jesus. But Jesus tells him to stay where he is “and declare how much God has done for you.” His job, now that he has been cured, is to tell other people that health and wholeness are possible, that freedom is within reach. His job is to connect with the people who’ve previously shunned him, pushed him aside, locked him up or forced him to live in the wilds, in the tombs. His job is to show them that his story is also their story, that they too can find liberation from bondage.
No wonder they’re scared. They may hate the Romans, but they’ve got their livestock, their fields, their city. They’re getting by. Resenting their oppression is a lot easier, and a lot less expensive, than resisting it. They don’t want to connect with the cured man. They want his illness to be personal, private, his own problem, a sickness in his brain that has nothing to do with them or their society.
And what does Joe’s story tell us about our own society? If nothing else, it tells us that we still isolate people with mental illness, that we don’t try hard enough to understand them, that we don’t use enough of our resources to find ways to help them. Maybe we’re afraid of them not because they’re dangerous, but because the voices they hear are a bit too much like the ones yammering in our ears, too: telling us we have to be richer, thinner, more famous; that we should kill our enemies instead of loving them; that our houses and cars and iPads are more important than God’s suffering children; that curing our neighbors is just too expensive.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac is our story. God calls us to connect with a hurting world, to seek healing for ourselves and others even when that healing costs us. How much are we willing to give up to get rid of our demons? What habits are we willing to break to be whole and healthy? How much are we willing to pay to be free?
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Here's today's homily. The readings are Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.
I’ve always loved the story of Peter’s vision. There’s something about that image of the sheet being lowered, full of all kinds of animals, that immediately captures the imagination. All those creatures, all that potential food, and obedient Peter determined not to eat anything he shouldn’t, until the voice in his dream tells him it’s okay. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And soon enough, he learns that all people are clean, too. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
This is only one of my favorite Bible stories. I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, of Nathan challenging David to recognize his wrongdoing, of Jesus blessing the Canaanite woman, the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with him. I could offer a much longer list, and I’m sure all of you have lists of your own. I’ve noticed that many of my friends who aren’t religious seem to think of the Bible as a tedious collection of rules, of shalts and shalt-nots. To me, it’s a collection of stories. I come to church every Sunday to share a meal with friends and to hear old tales, stories I know rendered new by occasion and circumstance, made fresh whenever I hear them.
That’s what Jesus did with, and for, his friends. They traveled together and ate together, and he told them stories: about the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, about bridesmaids and laborers, about lost sheep and pearls of great price. And his friends, in turn, told stories about Jesus’ amazing deeds. Hey, remember that time when Jesus walked on water? Remember when Jesus called us away from our fishing boats to follow him? Remember all those people he fed, and healed, and loved?
This is what made the disciples a family; it’s what makes the church a family. A family is a group of people who love each other, and take care of each other, and stick together. Families share meals, and over their food they often share stories, not just about what happened that day, but about who they are and where they’ve come from.
Sometimes those stories seem boring, especially to the children at the table. In my own family, my sister and I must have heard fifty thousand times how our father left home when he was sixteen to hitchhike across the country and join the Navy. As the son of a truck driver, someone who never expected to get past high school, he loved to tell us how the GI Bill allowed him to go to college, and then to law school. He routinely bragged about some of his legal victories.
My mother had her own set of stories: about growing up during the Depression and watching her mother put plates of sandwiches on the back porch for hobos, about meeting my father in college and sneaking out of her dorm to see him after hours, about her nearly miraculous recovery from alcoholism after Dad divorced her because of her drinking.
Not all of their stories were happy, of course. They both told sad tales about the deaths of their own parents. But now that both of them are dead, my sister and I treasure all of our family tales, even the ones that made us roll our eyes when we were children. These are the tales that tell us who we are and what our parents considered important: compassion, education, perseverence. Both of my parents, in different ways, overcame long odds to lead happy lives.
So I was very intrigued by a recent New York Times article about research into childhood resilience. It turns out that the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family story. Children who know a lot about their families, about where they came from, do better when they face challenges. Psychologists gave children a twenty-question quiz with questions like, “Do you know where your parents met? Do you know a story of something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?” The results of that quiz turned out to be the single biggest predictor of children’s health and happiness. The kids who knew the most about where they came from had the most sense of control over their lives, the highest self-esteem, and the strongest trust in their families’ success.
The researchers also studied the kinds of stories families tell. They identified three types.
The first is the ascending narrative, the rags to riches story where things start out bad but get better. “We came here with nothing, but we worked hard and made our fortune.”
The second is the descending narrative, the riches to rags story where things start out great but go downhill. “We were wealthy and powerful once, but then we lost all our money in the stock market crash, and now we have nothing.”
The third is the oscillating narrative. This kind of story goes up and down and up and down. It shows families dealing with both success and failure, weathering both losses and triumphs, bouncing back from hard times. This third type, the oscillating narrative, was the healthiest one, the one that best prepared children to deal with hard times of their own.
Here are three oscillating narratives.
One. “Susan, I was so happy with your father, but then I lost almost everything from drinking, and I was in the hospital and everyone thought I was going to die, but then I went to an AA meeting, and I got better.”
Two. “I used to persecute Christians, but then God literally knocked me to the ground on the road to Damascus, and I discovered the love of Christ. I helped plant a lot of churches, and God and my new friends are keeping me going even though I’m in prison now.”
Three. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another.” These words challenge us to think about how Jesus has loved us. He has fed us and healed us. He has comforted us, included us, and taught us to include others, even those we consider unclean. But he has also told us stories, and he has left us with the greatest oscillating narrative of all. A child born in poverty is revealed as the Son of God, gains a following, is betrayed and crucified, but rises from the tomb. Darkness gives way to light. Despair becomes hope. Life conquers death.
This is our family story. Christians have been telling it for two thousand years now over their bread and wine, even if some of the kids at the table roll their eyes and say,”That old story again? I’ve heard that one a million times!” It’s the best kind of story, the one that will leave us healthiest and happiest and most prepared to face the challenges of life. We love God, and ourselves and one another, by remembering this story when we need strength, by retelling it at church every Sunday, and by sharing it with the strangers and outcasts we welcome to the feast.