Saturday, May 16, 2015

Replacing Judas

Here's tomorrow's homily.  The lesson is Acts 1:15-17, 21-26.  I usually preach on the Gospel, but this week it's Jesus-as-talking-head pontificating in John, and I'd always rather preach on a passage where people are doing things.  Narrative junkie, c'est moi.


Most of you know that I came to St. Paul’s after the closure of St. Stephen’s. St. Stephen’s might have gone under anyway; it was tiny, and like so many mainstream churches these days, it was struggling financially. But its demise was hastened by not one, but two clergy misconduct situations. In the first of those, I wound up -- through a complicated set of circumstances I won’t rehash here -- being one of the people who reported to the bishop. Although the situation was ultimately resolved correctly, the process took far too long. Procedural promises from the bishop and the diocese weren’t kept. I, and a number of other people, wound up feeling betrayed not only by the priest in our parish who was busy breaking every vow within reach, but by the larger church hierarchy.

Even now, twelve years after that first misconduct scandal and five years after the closure of St. Stephen’s, it’s difficult for me to talk about what happened without pain and anger. This history has made it harder for me to trust people at St. Paul’s, partly because I’m not sure I can trust my own instincts about whom to trust.  I was so wrong before. Although I’ve been at St. Paul’s for five years now, I’m still wary. Except when I preach, I keep to myself. I stick to the small 5:00 service. I know that this isn’t St. Stephen’s. I know that the players are different, and I really do trust this set of players more than the first one. But part of me is still convinced that staying safe means keeping to myself and keeping quiet.

How do we move forward after betrayal? That’s the question posed by today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, one of the beloved Twelve, sold Jesus to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver and then hanged himself. The twelve are now eleven. Jesus named twelve; he meant for there to be twelve. The empty seat must be filled.

The lesson makes this sound like a simple matter of reasoned discussion, prayer, and casting lots. Two men are chosen for an election. One wins; the other doesn’t. The empty seat is now filled, and the Twelve are twelve again. Mission accomplished. Meeting adjourned.

But anyone who’s ever suffered betrayal knows that it can’t have been that easy. And although very few of us have been sold for thirty pieces of silver, all of us have been betrayed. A spouse is unfaithful. An employee embezzles. A friend gossips about something said in confidence. Clergy misconduct, political corruption, student plagiarism: all of them damage our faith in other people. All of us have felt the pain of shattered trust, and all of us know how easy it is to shut down and withdraw so we won’t risk being hurt again.

“I’ll never remarry. All men are cheating so-and-so’s, just like my ex-husband.”

“Why even bother to vote? All politicians are crooks.”

“You won’t catch me in a church again, not after what that priest did.”

We’ve all heard people say things like this. And while we often think about betrayal in terms of big-picture issues -- family, country, religion
 -- trust is essential to almost everything we do.  An article in Psychology Today describes how thoroughly it permeates our lives:
Trust is the foundation of all human connections, from chance encounters to friendships and intimate relationships. . . . No one would drive a car or walk down a sidewalk, or board a train or an airplane, if we didn’t ‘trust’ that other people took their responsibilities seriously. . . . We trust that other drivers will stay in their lanes, that conductors and pilots will be sober and alert, and that people will generally do their best to discharge their obligations toward us. Culture, civilization, and community all depend on such trust.
That dependence begins the moment we’re born. Psychologists believe that forming a trusting relationship with the world -- being able to count on love and security, food and shelter and nurture -- is one of the most crucial tasks of infancy. Babies who can’t trust their caregivers face significant challenges navigating the world as they grow older. And our ability to trust ourselves is every bit as important as our ability to trust other people. Do we believe that we can stay in our lanes, remain sober and alert, discharge our social obligations? Are we secure in our ability to care for others, to maintain intimate relationships, to be good neighbors?

This morning’s story about replacing Judas speaks to both sides of the issue. The believers choosing a new apostle must have worried about whether the person they chose would be trustworthy. After all, Jesus’ followers still faced persecution. The danger of being betrayed to the authorities remained very real.

Barsabbas, who wasn’t chosen as the new apostle, must have wondered why. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” That was the beginning of the election prayer. Had God looked into Barsabbas’ heart, seen future betrayal or wrongdoing there, and guided the lots accordingly?

Matthias, who was chosen, must have wondered if he could be trusted with the great responsibility he’d been given. Yes, he loved Christ; but so had Judas, once. What had happened? How could Matthias be sure it wouldn’t happen to him, too?

And then there’s Peter, who called for the election. Peter also betrayed Jesus, although not as catastrophically as Judas did. Peter is the man who, in terror for his own life after Jesus’ arrest, denied his Lord three times after swearing to remain faithful. The most brash and self-confident of the apostles fell, and fell hard. Peter knows all about self-doubt.

But Peter has also seen the resurrected Christ. He has eaten fish his risen Lord cooked for him on the beach. He has heard the command “Feed my sheep.” He knows that he is forgiven, and he knows that he -- and the church -- have a job to do.

There’s a reason we’re hearing this reading during Easter. There’s a reason we’re hearing it on the last Sunday of Easter, the week before Pentecost, the birthday of the church. What initially sounds like a dull bit of bureaucracy, a first-century vestry business meeting, is really a resurrection story. The pain and mistrust created by Judas’ betrayal could easily have killed the church before it was even born. Instead, Jesus’ followers recommit to their mission, and to each other. Their resurrection is made possible by his.

“One of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” The resurrection is the ultimate proof that death cannot overcome God’s love, that our betrayals are forgiven, that we can trust God to care for us. The resurrection means that God gives all of us -- the betraying and the betrayed -- second chances. The resurrection means that our scars and wounds, like Christ’s, are no longer marks of shame, but proof that we have risen from our graves of failure and betrayal to new life. The resurrection means that God trusts us to be the church, to feed his sheep, even when we don’t trust each other or ourselves.

Getting from the betrayal of Good Friday to the renewed trust of Easter, though, can take longer than forty days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. I have a hunch that there are other believers in the crowd who are still cautious: wondering whom they can trust, keeping to themselves and keeping quiet. They love God and Christ. They want to participate as fully as they did in those early days, before their trust was shattered. God, always patient and always loving, has never left them. The church’s job is to be as steadfast and trustworthy as the God it serves, to become a place that heals betrayal, a place God’s servants feel no need to leave.


Saturday, April 04, 2015

Leaving the Tomb

Here's my homily for the Great Vigil of Easter. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.
The three women going to the tomb know what has happened. They know what they will find, and they know what they will do. Jesus has died. At his tomb, a large stone will block the entrance, and they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to move it. But once it’s out of the way, they’ll finish anointing Jesus’ body -- a task already begun by Nicodemus, but delayed by the Sabbath -- with the spices they’ve brought with them.

All of this is horrible. The death of Jesus is the worst thing they can imagine. They’re grieving, heartsick, probably angrier than they’ve ever been at the Romans occupying their country. They’re just as angry at their own people, their kin and tribe, who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday only to cry “Crucify him!” mere days later. They’re probably angry at their friends, the twelve disciples, for abandoning Jesus in his greatest need, for falling asleep in the garden and then running away after the arrest. They may be angry at themselves, wondering if there’s something, anything, any of them could have done to change what happened.

Everyone has failed Jesus. The three women failed him, too. They failed him when he was still alive; they won’t fail him now. They’ll follow the funerary customs, as they do when anyone they love dies. They’ll give Jesus’ body every bit of respect they can, because the Romans didn’t.

All of this is horrible, but at least the three women going to the tomb know what has happened.

The three women leaving the tomb have no idea what has happened. They can’t understand what they just saw, and they have no idea what to do. The stone wasn’t there. Jesus wasn’t there. A young man was there instead, wearing a robe so white it hurt their eyes, a robe so bright they knew the creature wearing it couldn’t be human. An angel, saying impossible things, was sitting in that tomb as casually as if it was somebody’s kitchen. “Jesus?  Oh, he’s not here.  He left; you just missed him. You’ll catch up with him in Galilee. Hurry along, now. You need to let his other friends know where to meet him.”

The three women flee. What would you have done? Angels are terrifying all by themselves, which is why the first thing they always say is, “Don’t be scared.” Disappearing corpses are terrifying, and so is impossible news. Tell the disciples? Who’s going to believe any of this? Jesus died. They all know he died. They watched him die.

We often think of Easter as a purely happy story,  filled with candy and brightly colored eggs and fluffy animals. Eggs and rabbits are symbols of fertility, of renewed life. The annual resurrection of spring is certainly part of Easter, but the other part of Easter is scarier, less domesticated: the full power of God revealed in an empty tomb inhabited not by a corpse, but by an angel. That part of Easter, unlike the yearly return of flowers and baby animals, doesn’t support the ordinary cycles. It turns them upside down. It breaks the mold. It changes the rules, and it leaves everyone who witnesses it reeling, trying to figure out what to do next.

Good news can be as disorienting, as challenging, as tragedy. A few weeks ago, I read an article by a young cancer patient named Suleika Jouade who described her confusion after her treatment ended. Everyone expected her to rejoice at the news that she was in remission, but the reality for Suleika – as for many patients like her -- was more complicated:
I’ve spent the last year of my life searching for Suleika B.C. (before cancer). I’ve looked for her all over New York City — the old bars she used to frequent, the coffee shop where she had her first date with the ex-boyfriend, the apartment above the Pearl Paint sign on Canal Street that she shared with 10 roommates her first summer out of college — but the more I look, the more I’m beginning to realize she no longer exists. There is no going back to my old life. The problem is I don’t know how to move forward either.
I’ve heard recovering addicts and newly released prison inmates say similar things. As welcome as new life may be, it’s also terrifying. It’s too big. The old rules and habits, all the familiar things that kept us safe even as they kept us in pain, won’t work anymore.  Like any newborns, resurrected people don’t know who they are yet.  

How do we move forward into new life?  That’s the question for the three women leaving Jesus’ tomb. It’s the question for Suleika Jouade, leaving the tomb of her cancer diagnosis. And it’s the question for all of us here tonight -- especially those about to be baptized and confirmed -- as we leave behind the tombs of old lives, old expectations, old behaviors.  However God has resurrected us, is resurrecting us, we need to learn who we are becoming, and we need to find ways to help others leave their own tombs. Resurrection isn’t just a gift. It’s a responsibility.
In a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows, which offer a kind of road map for this journey. We will promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being. The forms those actions take will be different for each of us. But all of us are called to the service of new and more abundant life, wherever and however we find it.

The three women going to the tomb carried burial spices, probably myrrh and aloes. The aloes, by the way, would have been agarwood, not aloe vera. But myrrh and agarwood aren’t just funeral spices; they’ve also both been used for centuries as medicine.  Myrrh is an anti-inflammatory and kills bacteria. Agarwood relieves pain and acts as a tranquilizer.

Imagine the three women, fleeing in terror from that empty tomb. They’re clutching their unused spices and trying to catch their breath, wondering what just happened, wondering what they’ll do now. Eventually, after running for a while, they have to slow to a walk.

One of them is Mary Magdalene. She met Jesus when he cast seven demons out of her. She wasn’t a prostitute; that was a rumor started by Pope Gregory. She was probably mentally ill. Jesus restored her to health, and she’s followed him ever since. Of the three women leaving the tomb, I suspect Mary Magdalene was the first to accept the idea that Jesus was alive again, even before she became the first to see the risen Christ. She already knew something about resurrection, and a lot about healing.

Imagine her, on the road from the tomb, slowing to a walk, looking down at the spices she’s carrying. Agarwood was, and is, very expensive. Both that and myrrh are precious stuff.  Holding them, maybe Mary Magdelene remembers all the suffering people she has seen on her journeys with Jesus: the lepers, the lame and the blind, that old woman with a twisted back, the little boy with an infected toe. Maybe she realizes that these precious spices, no longer needed to anoint a dead body, can instead be used to heal the living. And maybe, even before she has seen the risen Christ for herself -- even before joy and wonder have replaced terror and amazement -- she thinks, Yes. Of course that’s what Jesus would want us to do.

The Lord is risen! This Easter season, may all of us rejoice in the sheer, impossible glory of new life, and may we do all we can to share it. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Unseemly Angels

Here's today's Blue Christmas homily.  The readings are
2 Samuel 7:1-11 and Luke 1:26-38.


Tonight, the Winter Solstice, is the longest night of the year. Tomorrow, the days will start getting longer again. But many of us have come to church this evening because we’re struggling with our own darkness, with sorrow and loss.
If we’re sad, Christmas can feel like nothing but duty. Store displays, advertising and inescapable holiday music insist that we must be happy, surrounded by festive family and friends.  If we’re grieving broken relationships or departed loved ones, the holidays can be a constant reminder of what, and who, we miss. All too often, the people around us don’t want to hear any of this, even if we feel like sharing it. Weeping into the eggnog is unseemly.

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. It was a magical season, one my parents worked very hard to make both fun and beautiful. But my parents are dead now, and our family Christmas traditions died with them. The season became even darker when my husband’s father died right before Christmas six years ago. These days, I dread the weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Whenever I hear the song, “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” I feel homesick. I can’t go home for the holidays. The home I long for no longer exists.

And so today’s lectionary readings comfort me.  They remind me that God meets us where we are, not where we -- or others – think we should be.  In the passage from 2 Samuel, David frets over the fact that he lives in a nice house while “the ark of God stays in a tent.”  He feels a duty to build a nice house for God, too, until the prophet Nathan passes along God’s message.  “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? . . . the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.”  God says, in effect,  “It’s not your job to provide for me, David.  I provide for you, as I always have and always will; what’s more, I will provide for your descendants for generations to come.”

The most famous of David’s descendants is Jesus, whose birth we hear announced in today’s Gospel. The angel comes to Mary where she is -- comes to an unmarried young woman in an obscure town in an occupied territory -- and delivers decidedly unseemly news. Although the Christian tradition has always made much of Mary’s obedience, I wonder how much of her meekness is really shock. Her life has been turned upside down. She has just learned that the darkness of her womb houses a completely unexpected, and socially scandalous, miracle.

This story reminds us of the value of darkness. Children grow first in darkness; so do seeds. Life begins in places we cannot see, and bursts into the light only when it is ready. Darkness offers rest and healing and growth, if only we can allow ourselves the time we need for rebirth, and if only we can recognize and welcome the angels who bring us good news.

The angels on greeting cards have never done much for me. The same culture that demands joy during the holidays has turned angels into lovely, fluffy beings, all sequins and glitter.  Even before Christmas became so hard for me, I couldn’t imagine such a creature holding me while I cried.  I’d dribble tears on its pretty white robes.  I couldn’t imagine it visiting my house; its wings would become befouled by dust bunnies and cat hair.

And then ten years ago, visiting my father for Thanksgiving, I found this statue in the gift shop of the George Ohr Museum, a pottery museum in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This angel, wearing a quizzical expression and covered with wounds and bruises, fascinated me. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  He made me think immediately of the angel who wrestled with Jacob in Genesis, and who must have sustained his own scars in the process. I carried him around the store with me for at least half an hour, while a woman who was buying everything else in the shop told me that if I didn’t buy him, she would. I finally handed over my credit card, fretting about how I’d get the angel -- with his fragile, brittle wings -- home safely on the plane.

The shopkeeper had told me that the artist, a woman named Dina O’Sullivan, was Director of Education at the museum.  Back in Dad’s apartment, I found her e-mail address on the museum’s webpage and sent a note asking if there was a story behind the angel’s creation. She wrote back very quickly. She’s Jewish, and to her, this angel symbolizes all the stories of struggle in the Hebrew Bible. My instinct about the Jacob story had been right.

I swaddled the angel in bubble-wrap and cradled it on my lap during the long, bumpy plane ride back to Reno. Then I started doing research. According to one tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Gabriel, the same angel who appears to Mary in today’s Gospel.  And Gabriel, in many of the sources I read, is called “the angel of incarnation and consolation.”

Incarnation and consolation, mortality and comfort: they’re two sides of the same coin. Incarnation is the miracle of God become naked, vulnerable human flesh, of God growing a body. But bodies are fragile, and need to be healed and comforted. Two thousand years after the first Christmas, we know how the story ends. We know that the God who was born a mortal baby to an outcast mother, the God who heals and comforts us, will be executed as a criminal.  We know that he will be bruised and wounded. We know that this is a story in which God’s love cannot be separated from hard work and pain. The ultimate comfort, Christ’s resurrection, comes only after the embodied agony of Good Friday.  

As I grow older, there are days when I think that resurrection is the only thing that makes incarnation bearable. Our embodiment inevitably subjects us to loss. As Christians, we trust in resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve and need comfort.  We rejoice whenever a baby is born, but we also know that all babies, as they grow, will meet trouble, will be bruised and wounded. We long to spare those we love from suffering: we try to swaddle them in bubble-wrap and hold them in our laps to protect them from turbulence, and sometimes it works, for a little while. We do everything we can to keep what we love from breaking. But Lent and Good Friday await all of us, as surely as Easter does. Ultimately, we cannot assure safety for those we love. Our only sure promise lies in God, for whom nothing is impossible.

And so we need Gabriel, the angel of incarnation and consolation. He meets us where we are:  he appears in the darkness of our most difficult labors, as we bring forth new life and as we face death.   He’s not afraid to get dirty. He tells us, “Look, I’m scarred too; I’m wounded, too. I’ve struggled all night with fierce adversaries who refused to release me. I’ve sat with women as they labored in childbirth. I am the angel of everything that is bruised and broken but stubbornly survives, and I am here to tell you that for every pain there is also joy, joy at the end of everything, joy and the peace that passes all understanding.  From now on, you will not suffer anything that your Lord has not also suffered.  You are no longer alone, no longer poor and outcast: you are the Lord’s beloved, cherished and whole.”

On this day of darkness, let us trust in the return of light. Let us have faith in the new life that is even now growing where we cannot see it. But even as we trust the future, let us take comfort in the present. Emmanuel has come. God is with us, now and always, meeting us where we are:  in the humble dirt and straw, the dust and tears, of our unseemly lives.  


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Keeping Awake

Here's tomorrow's homily.  The readings are Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Matthew 25:1-13.  My thanks to the Rev. Chip Arnold for a rousing model of how to turn this parable on its head.


One Saturday evening my first semester of college, my roommate asked me to stay out of our tiny dorm room until midnight, because her boyfriend was coming over. I didn’t have many friends at school yet, so I studied in the library until it closed at 9. Then I studied in the student cafĂ© until it closed at 10. That left me two hours to kill before I could get back into our room.

It was winter. It was snowing. Everything was closed except restaurants in town I couldn’t afford. I couldn’t think of anywhere to go, so for two hours I wandered around campus. Getting progressively colder, I gazed wistfully into other people’s glowing dorm windows, those shining tableaux of warmth and safety. This was 1978, and campus crime wasn’t something we thought about much, so I wasn’t conscious of danger, although I was a woman by myself in the dark. I just felt cold, lonely, and unwanted.

At midnight I went back to my room and warmed up. I was fine. But whenever I see a homeless person now, I remember those two hours, what it felt like to be locked out in the snow because I didn’t have the resources or the social capital to claim shelter.

This may be part of why I’m on the side of the foolish bridemaids in today’s Gospel parable. The conventional reading of this lesson is that the bridegroom is Christ, that we’re being warmed up for Advent by being warned to watch and wait. But I’m not the only person who finds the behavior of both the wise bridesmaids and the bridegroom in this story more than a little un-Christ-like. The wise bridesmaids have oil but refuse to share it; instead, they send the other five women out into the streets at midnight to find an oil merchant willing to do business at that hour. When the foolish five return from their improbably successful shopping expedition, they find the door shut in their faces, and the bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Many critics agree that this is a story about a failure of hospitality.

Furthermore, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus himself wouldn’t have sided with the foolish bridesmaids. This is the guy who told his followers to feed 5,000 hungry people with a few crumbs of bread and a few little fishes, a task that may very well have been accomplished by the crowd sharing what it had. Would he really approve of the ungenerous, uncharitable women who hoard their oil?

This is the guy who told that other parable, the one about the laborers who show up late to work in the vineyard but receive the same pay as everyone else. Would he really lock out five women who’ve arrived after the other guests, especially when they’re late because the supposedly wise bridesmaids were unkind to them?

And, finally, this is the guy who said, during his famous Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult  a brother or sister,  you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell  of fire.” And yet this parable pins the label “foolish” on the five women without oil? What’s going on here?

I think what’s going on is that we’re being tested. Do we remember those earlier lessons? Which side of the door do we see ourselves on? Would we share our oil? Maybe Jesus tells this story to challenge us, to make us examine where our loyalties lie. That would fit today’s lesson from Joshua. Joshua demands that the tribes of Israel choose their God, but warns them that remaining loyal to the God who brought them out of Egypt is a demanding discipline.
During my years offering spiritual care as an ER volunteer, I’ve seen a lot of homeless patients. When I look at them, I always think of my own measly two hours locked out in the snow. But I’ve heard quite a few nurses and doctors say things like, “Well, this is their own fault. They made bad choices.”  I can imagine the wise bridesmaids saying similar things to the foolish ones. “This is your fault. You made bad choices. You didn’t buy oil ahead of time, and then you fell asleep. Well,  all right, we fell asleep too, but that doesn’t matter, because we were ready. We already had our oil. We’d earned a nap.”

Jesus says that all of us should stay awake. What might have happened if the ten women hadn’t slept? Maybe the foolish bridesmaids would have had time to shop and still get back before the deadline. Maybe someone would have had time to figure out an oil-sharing scheme. And maybe the ten women would have spent that time talking, getting to know each other.

“You know, the reason I don’t have oil is that I have to save my money to buy food for my sick mother. She wasn’t invited to this banquet, and I’m the only person taking care of her.”

“The reason I don’t have oil is that we needed all the oil at home to cook for my little brothers and sisters. My father can’t find work, and I’ve been taking in washing to help pay the rent. I guess now I’ll have to spend some of that money on oil.”

“I don’t have oil because I brought it to my brother in jail. He got arrested for making the Romans angry, and he needed light in his dark cell to write a letter pleading for mercy.”

How would the wise bridesmaids have responded to these stories? Might at least some of them have said, “Here, let me give you some oil”?

I’ve never spoken to a homeless ER patient who said, “When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to sleep on the streets, and search dumpsters for food, and lose my feet to frostbite and gangrene.” Poor people, like all of us, make bad decisions sometimes. They pay a lot more for their mistakes than wealthier people do, and they have fewer safety nets when bad things happen that aren’t their fault. Trying to catch up, they often wind up being locked out. They haven’t chosen their stigma and exclusion.  It’s been thrust on them.

Keep awake, Jesus tells us. Keep awake to the stories of your neighbors. Keep awake to social injustice. Keep awake to whom, and to what, you are following. We all want to be invited to the wedding. We all want to included in the feast. But is a bridegroom who’d lock other people out really someone whose wedding party we want to join? Jesus says, “if you say ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the fire of hell.”  That statement makes the cheer of the banquet hall seem a little less inviting, doesn’t it? Maybe the five women standing with their noses pressed against the glass aren’t looking in at glowing tableaux of warmth and safety. Maybe they’re looking into an inferno instead. Maybe, in some situations, darkness is safer.

A few weeks ago, preaching on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Chip suggested that the host of the party is the oppressor: the Romans, the bureaucrats, the greedy capitalists. The lord in that story, and the bridegroom in this, represent business as usual. They keep us hungry for inclusion at other people’s expense, for banquets that take food from other people’s mouths.  Chip invited us to see the badly dressed wedding guest as Jesus: the outcast bounced from the party and thrown into darkness because he challenges oppression instead of conforming to it.

Let us follow the five foolish bridesmaids into that darkness now, as they turn away from the windows. The darkness is a little scary, but they’re together, and their lanterns burn brightly.  They have new resources. They know that there are merchants who’ll do business after hours for desperate people, even if they charge more.  Or maybe there were never any merchants open so late.  Maybe the five women went from door to door, finding kind people who gave them oil.

As they make their way through this darkness, they meet new friends. There’s a strange scruffy guy who isn’t dressed very well, but who heals the sick and shares his food with everyone.  At another wedding where supplies ran low, he even changed water into wine.  His friends, like the five women, have walked away from everything they knew, from their jobs and families, to follow him.

And they tell the women stories of other things that have happened in the dark, of other people who have stayed awake. They talk about shepherds, keeping watch by night, who needed no lanterns, because a star lit their way to the birthplace of a poor baby: to a lowly manger holding the promise of loving warmth, and lasting safety, and a feast where all of us are welcome, no matter what we’re wearing or how late we arrive.


Sunday, October 05, 2014

Good Stewards

Here is today's homily.  The readings are Psalm 19 and  Matthew 21:33-46


Today we talk about stewardship.

This subject takes a number of forms. You’ve all received new pledge cards in the mail, because today is the beginning of our annual parish pledge drive. Making a financial commitment to St. Paul’s allows the vestry to draw up a budget for the coming year. Having a workable budget allows us to keep the lights on, pay salaries, and continue our outreach ministries, our small but crucial efforts to contribute to the care and healing of our community.

Today is also the day when we observe the Feast of St. Francis, the beloved thirteenth-century saint who embraced poverty and loved nature. Echoing the psalm we heard today, which affirms that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” Francis’ ecstatic Canticle of the Sun celebrates all of the ways God’s creation sustains us:

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Because Francis especially loved animals, our 5:00 service today will feature our yearly Blessing of the Animals, although most of the people who bring their dogs and cats and ferrets and turtles and guinea pigs and lizards to be blessed would probably agree that the pets we love bless us more than we could ever bless them. Honoring St. Francis, we remind ourselves to be caring, responsible stewards of our beloved planet and of everything that lives on it.

And, finally, our Gospel lesson today is also about stewardship, although these are bad stewards rather than good ones. The tenants in this story refuse to acknowledge their landlord or pay what they owe him. They’ve made the crucial mistake of forgetting the difference between stewards and rulers.

A steward is someone who looks after and manages someone else’s property. Stewards do not rule or own that property; it is not theirs to use as they wish, and certainly not theirs to waste or ruin. They are subject to the rules imposed by the owner of the property, not the other way around.

The tenants in today’s parable aren’t the only people who’ve gotten confused about this distinction. Faith communities, and Western civilization in general, have only recently started to grasp the difference. In our own Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C -- the most environmentally conscious of the Eucharistic prayers, with its beautiful description of “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” -- still contains the line, “You made us rulers of creation.” I wince whenever I hear this; I cheer whenever the priest says, instead, “You made us stewards of creation.”   Even St. Francis, writing in 1224, recognized that our “sister Mother Earth . . . feeds us and rules us,” not the other way around. Maybe the next edition of the Prayer Book will do better.

We do not rule nature. We don’t understand half of what happens even in our own bodies, those astonishingly complex organisms. Physician Lewis Thomas once wrote, “If you were put in charge of your liver, you’d be dead in a day.”

And there’s a real question now about how many days remain to human civilization, how many more editions of the Prayer Book we’ll survive to see. By all accounts, we’re in the middle of an ecological cataclysm, fueled largely by human intervention, that could lead to widespread social collapse within the lifetimes of people in this room. Pollution and habitat destruction change weather patterns, which create drought and famine, which fuel social instability – economic crises, wars, migrations -- which lead to more destruction of the natural world. Species are dying off; the last four years alone have seen the extinction of the Eastern cougar, the Western black rhinoceros, the Formosan clouded leopard, and the Japanese River Otter. Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island Tortoise, died in 2012.

We are people of resurrection, and we have faith. But while some forms of life will surely survive all this, there’s a real question as to how many humans will be among them.

Many people are trying to be better stewards now. A friend of mine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City tells me that museum biologists, acutely aware of the rate of species extinction, are creating tissue banks of as many species as possible to try to preserve their DNA. On September 22, more than 300,000 people marched through the streets of New York City, demanding swifter government responses to climate issues. “Reduce, reuse and recycle” has become a familiar catchphrase.

The problem is so huge, though, that it’s easy to swing back and forth between despair and denial. Despair tells us that there’s nothing to be done; denial says that nothing needs to be done. Either stance allows us to continue with business as usual – but that’s what landed us in this mess. I think the important thing is to remember that any action, however small, can help.  Perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to change our perspective, to stop seeing ourselves as rulers and start seeing ourselves as stewards.

Author and activist Joanna Macy tells the story of visiting a friend, a young Buddhist monk, in India. They were drinking tea when she realized that a fly had fallen into her cup. Her friend saw the change in her expression and asked what was wrong. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Just a fly in my tea.” Embarrassed, she didn’t want the young man to think that she, an experienced traveler, was squeamish about insects.

Crooning softly in concern, Macy’s friend rose from his chair, inserted a finger into Macy’s tea, lifted out the fly, and left the room. When the monk came back, Macy reports, “he was beaming.  ‘He is going to be all right,’ he told me quietly. He explained how he had placed the fly on the leaf of a branch by the door, where his wings could dry. And the fly was still alive, because he began fanning his wings, and we could confidently expect him to take flight soon.”

Macy had told the monk that the fly was “nothing.” Her friend knew otherwise, knew that the fly, however small and humble – or even despised – was a beloved and cherished part of creation, with its own role to play. He acted as a good steward.

What will become of our vineyard, “this fragile earth, our island home”? Installed as tenants, we have grievously mismanaged the property. We killed the landlord’s son the first time he showed up. The question now is whether we can mend our ways quickly enough to regain the trust of the landlord, or whether our irresponsibility will cause us to be replaced by other, more respectful tenants. As much as God loves us, God also loves the rest of the creation, the oceans and forests and jungles and everything that lives in them. Let us love them too, saying with St. Francis, “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures.”


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Promises, Promises

Here's today's homily.  The readings are
Exodus 17:1-7  and Matthew 21:23-32.


Many of you know that my husband and I have three cats. Every morning when I wake up, they’re waiting outside our bedroom door, and when I come out, they begin wailing piteously. I can just imagine what they’re saying. “Where were you all night? Why did you go away? We’re starving! You’ve never fed us!  No one has ever fed us!”

I go downstairs, cats underfoot, and give them a can of wet catfood. They’ve had dry food to eat all night. I give them fresh water. When my husband wakes up, he attends to their litter boxes, one of which is in the giant enclosed catio he’s built for them on our deck, so they can safely go outside.   Over the course of the day, we feed them again, let them lick our own plates, give them various treats, play with them -- they have an entire drawer of balls and catnip mice, and that’s not even counting the laser pointer -- and lavish them with affection.

Then we go to bed. We don’t let them sleep with us, because it wouldn’t be very restful. The next morning, there they are again, outside the bedroom door. “Where were you?  You never feed us!  No one has ever fed us, or played with us, or given us treats!”

Do my cats remind you of anyone?

Just last week, we heard the Israelites lamenting that they’re starving, that no one feeds them, that they’re going to die in the wilderness of hunger. We watched God, in response, shower them with quail and manna, a feast in the desert. And now here we are, a week later, and they’re complaining again. “There’s no water. We’re thirsty. We’re going to die out here, Moses! Why did you bring us here to die?” We hear them complaining, and we watch God give them water. How long do you think it will take for them to start complaining again?

Granted, the Isrealites have it much worse than my cats do. But I still find it helpful to compare the two situations. I wonder if the Israelites believe that they have to complain to get what they need, that if they don’t, God won’t pay any attention to them at all. I wonder if Moses, who’s clearly fed up with them, is worried about whether God will get fed up with them too. I wonder if anyone in the crowd is thinking, “If we want to keep getting food and water, we’d better stop complaining and say thank you really nicely.  We’d better watch our manners.”

I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is no.

My husband and I take care of our cats not because they have good manners -- they don’t -- and not because they routinely complain about our terrible treatment of them, but because we love them. We chose them. When we adopted them from the Humane Society, we promised them that they would be our cats, and that we would be their people. And that’s a promise we intend to keep, no matter how they behave.

My husband and I, heaven knows, are not God. But I suspect that the divine covenant with humanity is a little like this too. God has told us that he will be our God and we will be his people.  No matter how badly we behave, he’ll still love us. Didn’t he send Jesus to feed us, to heal us, and to clean up our messes? God is faithful even when we aren’t. That’s a promise we can count on, even when it seems like God’s shut the bedroom door and will never come out, even when we’re hungry and thirsty and feel like no one has ever loved us.

Of course, we trust this promise because we have been fed and loved. We’ve seen the promise made good.  We can’t blame people desperate for sustenance, for meaning and belonging, not to believe it, not unless we -- as God’s hands and heart in the world -- help show them that it’s true.  It's our job to offer food, and water, and love.  To too many people, the promises of the Gospel seem as empty as the glib assurances of the landowner’s second son, who says, “I go, sir,” but then doesn’t. Who among us hasn’t felt the sting of a broken promise, the betrayal of people who’ve made glib assurances of help or friendship, only to fail us when we needed them?

It’s easy to list those examples. It’s a little more difficult to think of people who say, “No, I won’t help you,” but then do. It took me hours to come up with an example, but before I tell you that story, I want to talk about Jesus in the temple.

The priests and elders are trying to trick him, and he knows it. If he says that the baptism of John came from heaven, he’ll be defying their authority. If he says it was of human origin, they’ll claim that their own religious authority bears more weight. So Jesus neatly turns the tables, throwing their own question back at them, catching them in the same net. If they admit that John came from heaven, they’re granting Jesus the authority they want to deny; if they say that it’s merely human, they fear the reaction of the crowd.  So they refuse to answer one way or the other, and Jesus does the same. Checkmate.

This legal maneuvering reveals the nature of Jesus’ dilemma, the bind that ultimately leads to the cross. He is subject to two authorities: to God, and to the human leaders of his place and time. Both are valid. To keep serving the first authority, Jesus needs to avoid overtly defying the second. It was Jesus, after all, who said “Render under Ceasar what is Ceasar’s.” He can’t pull rank – at least, not until he’s trapped the priests and elders again, until they’ve offered the correct answer to his question about the landowner’s two sons.

And that brings me to my story. When I was in high school, I had a math teacher named Mr. McCarthy. I was scared of math and I was scared of him, although probably no one else could have dragged me kicking and screaming to a passing grade in calculus. Mr. McCarthy smelled like coffee and cigarettes.  He wore tweed jackets stiffened with chalk dust, and passed back exams and homework from the highest grade to the lowest, which made waiting to get your paper back an exercise in sheer agony. You’d watch him return work to other students, and when someone let out a moan you’d know that was it:  the first failing grade. If you hadn’t yet gotten your own paper back, you were doomed.

Mr. McCarthy yelled at students, and he wasn’t above throwing erasers at people. Every day when I got to school, I saw him standing in the hallway. Every day, I said, “Good morning, Mr. McCarthy.” Every day, scowling at me with nicotine-and-caffeine yellowed teeth, glowering through his thick glasses, he snarled, “What’s good about it?”

Mr. McCarthy was a staunch member of the teacher’s union. My junior year, right before most of my class was scheduled to take the SATs, the union announced a job action. Teachers would hold their regular classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. , but they refused to help students after school, meet with clubs, or help with extracurricular activities.

I no longer remember the specific contract problems that led to this impasse, but I remember that those of us prepping for the SAT were terrified. For all his surliness, Mr. McCarthy was a good teacher. We’d asked him to give us extra SAT prep after school. He’d said he would. We knew that now he wouldn’t. Someone made the mistake of asking him during class. He curled his lip. “No. Don’t you know what’s going on?”

But then he passed back a set of papers, and those of us taking the SAT found that he’d written on the last page:  “Be here at 7 a.m. tomorrow.”

We dutifully showed up. Mr. McCarthy glared at us and growled, “Don’t you dare tell anyone about this.” And then he gave us an SAT prep class. He’d found a a way to follow two sets of rules:  those of the union to which he was devoted, and those of his calling, his passion to see us do well in math, even if he’d never dream of wishing us good morning.

Mr. McCarthy kept his promise, even though we were afraid of him and even though we frequently grumbled against him. I suspect he’d planned his subterfuge all along, but if he’d changed his mind, like the first son in the parable, his actions would have been no less honorable. I don’t think he liked most of us, but we were his, just as my cats are mine and my husband’s, just as all of us are God’s. I wasn’t yet a churchgoer in high school, but if I had been, I would have said after that SAT prep class, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”


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.