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.  

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.”

Amen.

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.”

Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Daily Bread




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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saving Isaac


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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

God's Refrigerator


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

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

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

Create, don't destroy.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.