Saturday, February 11, 2017

Promised Lands

Here's tomorrow's homily. I can't believe that I haven't preached since last May, and I'm very happy to be doing so again, but Matthew 5:21-37 is a bear. The other reading I talk about here is Deuteronomy 30:15-20, a much smaller bear.


A few weeks ago, my friend Shira asked her friends on Facebook if they’d help her teenaged daughter Valerie by buying containers of chili. Valerie is raising money to visit detainee camps on the Texas-Mexican border with a Methodist youth group. The group will meet with agencies to discuss how to help families released from the detention center. They’ll be bringing things like craft supplies and soccer balls to help them make friends with the children of these families.

This is a wonderful project, but I was a little confused. Shira and her family are Jewish. How had they gotten involved with the Methodist church? “Valerie's part of the group even though we're not members,” Shira told me. “She went with them to build in Appalachia. She went on a civil rights trip last spring break. She went to Washington to advocate for the SNAP program.” After noting that she doesn’t see any other faith organizations, Jewish or Christian, doing similar work in her area, Shira added, “It's maybe the only church I've been to where I actually feel welcome. Plus they say you can replace Jesus with love in prayers.”

This conversation reminded me of Kirk, last week, wondering what might happen if we replaced our crosses -- symbols of execution -- with glow sticks, symbols of God’s light. Would wearing glow sticks make people outside the church feel  more welcome?  

Welcome, something our own parish has been emphasizing for several years now, makes all the difference for people searching for a faith community. All of us want to find the place that welcomes us and feels like home. It’s worth noting, though, that welcome isn’t the same thing as comfort. Shira and Valerie feel welcome at the Methodist Church not because they’re being coddled or sheltered, but because they’re being challenged: to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned. Confronting and relieving suffering, our own or others’, is rarely comfortable. It involves sacrifices of time, money, and privilege. It involves looking at things we’d rather not see. In the short term, it may make us more unhappy, rather than less. That was certainly the experience of the Isrealites, whose flight from oppression involved forty years of hardship. No one reaches the promised land overnight.  

Promised lands take many forms: geographical, cultural, personal, political, vocational. Setting out for any promised land requires courage, planning, and the ability to persist without guarantees. Not all of the Isrealites crossed the Jordan. Moses himself didn’t, although his work made the journey possible for others. His exhortation in Deuteronomy -- “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live” -- reminds us that our actions affect future generations. Even when we won’t see the results ourselves, we work for a better world for those who will come after us.  

Choosing life is also, less obviously, at the heart of this morning’s Gospel, another in our continuing series from the Sermon on the Mount.  Among the “hard sayings” of Jesus, today’s are among the most difficult. I don’t know anyone who’s never been angry, but Jesus equates anger with murder.  I don’t know anyone who’s never been attracted, however briefly, to someone outside a primary relationship, but Jesus equates fantasy with literal cheating. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t sinned, but Jesus commands us to perform self-mutilation rather than continue to do wrong.  

Jesus is telling us to take God’s law to heart, to police ourselves rather than relying on other people to do it for us. He is telling us to address problems at their source. Everyone knows we aren’t supposed to murder, but Jesus’ followers also need to root out hatred and anger. Everyone knows that cheating is a terrible betrayal, but Jesus’ followers need to be as faithful in thoughts as in actions, because unchecked thoughts ultimately express themselves in action. We have to be willing to confront our darkest selves, the impulses that polite, respectable society would prefer to ignore.  

Fair enough. The problem, though, is that the lord of love and forgiveness seems neither loving nor forgiving here. I can’t imagine my friend Shira being comfortable hearing this passage in church. I’m not comfortable hearing this passage in church. There are no glow-sitcks anywhere in the vicinity. This is desert territory, hard and stony and parched. Jesus may be drawing us a map about how to reach the promised land, but getting there involves a lot of forced marching under a merciless sun.  

Next week, in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will command us to love our enemies. That’s hard, uncomfortable work too, but at least we’ll be back to talking about love.  Next week, Jesus will once again say things that sound at least somewhat comforting. But that’s not much help to us today.  This Sunday is a kind of mini-Lent, practice for the real thing coming up in three weeks. This Sunday, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to confront our sins -- our disconnections from God, from other people, and from ourselves -- and to do whatever we need to do, no matter how difficult, to make those relationships healthy again.  

Sometimes becoming healthy involves the agonizing process of cutting away diseased tissue. Sometimes it involves sacrificing things that mean a great deal to us, things that polite, respectable society tells us should make us happy. I suspect that everyone in this room has a story about doing that. Here’s mine. Please be assured that this story has a happy ending.

Almost exactly six years ago -- just before Valentine’s Day in 2011 -- I went through a very dark time. For fourteen years, I’d been an English professor at UNR.  I’d worked very hard to get the job, which paid nicely and gave me good benefits. I had tenure, which meant that at least in theory I had lifetime job security. I worked with lovely colleagues and taught excellent students, people I really cared about. By the standards of polite society, I should have been happy, and for ten years or so after starting the job, I had been.

But by 2011, I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy teaching anymore. I wasn’t doing the kind of service work my department wanted me to, which made me feel incredibly guilty, but thinking about doing that work made me feel like I was being crushed by boulders. My husband had given up his own lucrative job in New York to follow me to Reno, where he couldn’t do what he’d been doing before. I was supporting both of us. If I stopped doing that, we’d both be miserable, and I’d have broken my word. I felt trapped. I couldn’t see a way out.

For about five days that February, I seriously considered suicide. I had a plan, one that could have worked. That very week, the same plan did work for someone else. I saw the story in the newspaper and was instantly shaken, completely horrified. I felt sick for the person who’d died, sick for that person’s family and friends, sick that I’d been contemplating the same departure. My thoughts had almost led to a catastrophic action.

The good news is that they didn’t. Remembering that week, I’m still horrified at how close I came. But as scary as the episode was, it was also a major wake-up call: a summons not to death, but to new life. I obviously had to find another career, however difficult that seemed. After considering several other options, I hit on the idea of medical social work. For financial reasons, it’s taken me a while to translate that thought into action, but I’m now on my way. With my husband’s blessing, I’m in my last semester of teaching at UNR. I’m already taking classes in UNR’s Masters of Social Work program; this fall, I’ll enroll full time. I’m glad that getting here took only six years, not forty. And I’m grateful that my dark thoughts six years ago will help me understand clients who are struggling with their own. That terrifying time of darkness and disconnection will connect me to people who are suffering.

But while this absolutely feels like the right move, it also involves a lot of scary sacrifices. For at least the next two years, I’ll be cutting our family income by at least two-thirds. I’m trading job security and seniority to go back to square one in a poorly paid profession, in an era when healthcare and social services are on newly precarious ground. I’ll be giving up tenure, summer vacations, and quite a bit of social prestige. To a lot of people in polite, respectable society, this would look crazy.

I don’t think it’s crazy. I think I’ve chosen life. I can breathe again. So far, I feel very welcome in my new profession. I hope I reach my promised land, and I hope my journey allows me to help other people. But the process isn’t comfortable.

I’m being called to something new, and I’m on a long, uncertain road to get there. Maybe some of you are, too. In one way or another, all of us are. We can’t take comfort in any guarantee of earthly safety on these journeys, for there is none. Our comfort is in the one who walks beside us and ahead of us, showing the way:  the one who endured his own trials in the desert, and who reminds us that our true job is to find our own path to loving God, and others, and ourselves. Our comfort lies in knowing that even when our road takes us to the foot of the cross, there will still be life beyond it.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beloved Communities

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is Luke 7:1-10. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Memorial Day.


Years ago, my husband and I had a friend recently retired from an Army career. I remember him telling us about the psychological effects of military hierarchy. "You're obeying orders from your own commanding officers and giving orders to the people under you. Ideally, that chain of command keeps you humble and flexible. You're responsible to your superiors and responsible for your subordinates. The fact that there are people over you means you can't exaggerate your own importance, but the fact that there are people under you means that you can't minimize it, either."

I think of our friend every time I read about the Roman centurion in this morning's Gospel. "For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me." We've all heard far too many stories about people who use their authority -- privilege or power or money -- to exploit anyone lower on the ladder. But the Roman centurion cares for the people under him. I suspect that his own position as a subordinate plays into his compassion. If he were ill, he would want his commanding officers to seek healing for him; therefore, he will do the same for his slave. Without even meeting Jesus in person, he is already loving his neighbor as he loves himself.  

It's worth remembering that Roman centurions would not have been considered friends by many people in first-century Palestine. Yes, Jews were allowed to maintain their religion, but Romans were still the agents of oppression, occupation, and taxation, a situation that ultimately led to three major Jewish rebellions beginning in the year 66. And yet this centurion not only cares lovingly for his household slave, but has forged remarkable alliances with the Jewish community.  "He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us," they tell Jesus.

In a setting deeply divided by military, political and religious conflict, the Roman centurion has created a taste of what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many years later, would call "the Beloved Community," where discrimination is “replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” In the Beloved Community, Dr. King said, disputes will be resolved peacefully, by conflict resolution and reconciliation rather than military power, and “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred."

This Utopian vision arose from Dr. King's principles of nonviolence. We aren't there yet, and the rare glimpses we get of this ideal world generally don't last. The Roman centurion's model of love and social harmony didn't sweep first-century Palestine; if it had, the rebellions wouldn't have happened. But the centurion proves that someone entrusted with military power and posted to occupied territory can still act in the service of love and reconciliation.  

On Memorial Day, we remember those who have served, and especially those who have been lost in military conflicts, including occupations. Our country has occupied many countries over the years. All of those occupations have produced stories both of compassionate soldiers -- who loved and served the people among whom they lived -- and others who ruled, and were ruled, by fear and force. Even at its worst, though, occupation offers a chance for people from very different backgrounds to form relationships. If that Roman centurion had been a drone operator, he never would have learned to love the Jewish community.

My nephew is in the Navy, serving on an aircraft carrier. The Navy has announced that his ship will soon be deployed to the Persian Gulf. Before he enlisted, he researched military jobs and decided that being on a carrier is one of the safest, because carriers are protected by cruisers and destroyers far from combat fronts. I'm very relieved that he'll be in a relatively secure position, but I'm also troubled that he'll be surrounded by what he already knows, living in a bubble of other American military personnel. He is far less likely to die than he would be in the Marines or the Army, but he's also less likely to change his mind about other people, or have the chance to change their minds about him. All of us seek safety and familiarity, but they can become barriers to relationship, preventing the Beloved Community Dr. King described.

In fact, I learned about the Beloved Community from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, about the unexpected moments of social utopia that often arise after disasters like 9/11 or Katrina. Our media and entertainment teach us to view such events as unleashing the worst in human nature, rampaging mobs that loot and pillage, but that's rarely what actually happens. Instead, people extend helping hands and work together, often overcoming preconceptions about one another in the process.

During Katrina, my father lived four blocks from the water in Ocean Springs, a hard-hit section of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When I visited him that Christmas, three months after the storm, everyone had a story. One of my favorites is from our friend Darlene, an art teacher in an at-risk school.  The Friday before the storm, she'd gone to school to get her classroom ready for the start of school the following week. She decorated the room with old students' artwork, to inspire her new students, and left a to-do list on one corner of her desk.

That weekend, the storm hit, and Darlene’s school became a National Guard barracks. A few weeks later, Darlene went to look at her classroom. "I thought it would be a mess," she told me.  "After all those young military guys had been staying there, I was sure the place would be trashed." Instead, everything was immaculate. The floor was swept. Darlene’s to-do list was in the same spot she had put it before the storm. And the National Guardsmen had covered the blackboard with notes telling the students how beautiful their artwork was. That occupying force, feared even though it wasn’t foreign,  truly had come to love and serve.

What does any of this have to do with us, here, today?  And what does it have to do with God?  As Christians, all of us are -- as the old Hebrew National commercial put it -- subject to a higher authority. Our service to that higher authority takes the form of loving and serving our neighbors, including anyone over whom we have real or perceived power:  our employees, our children, anyone who performs work for us in any capacity.  

Because we have not yet achieved Dr. King's Beloved Community, we also live and work in places divided by highly contested differences:  between religions, ethnicities, political beliefs, levels of income and education.  All of us are parts of chains, if not of command, then of privilege and prestige. It can be tempting to retreat into bubbles, spots of safety where everyone's like us, to try to protect ourselves from conflict. But when we do that, we shortcut the possibility of achieving, even for a fleeting moment, the Beloved Community.

Here's one last example for you, more explicitly about God. Eric Heidecker, whom many of you know, told me this story. Most of us remember the controversy surrounding the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2003, the gathering where that election was ratified, Gene Robinson needed bodyguards, because he'd received death threats.

One day during the convention, Eric arrived at the convention center in Minneapolis and saw an ambulance parked outside. He immediately feared that someone had acted on the threats to hurt Gene Robinson. But Robinson was fine. The patient was one of his bodyguards, who was having heart-attack symptoms triggered by the stress of his job. Bishop Robinson sat with the bodyguard during the ambulance ride, and stayed with him at the hospital, and held his hand, and prayed with him.  The threat to Robinson’s safety became a chance for him to embody the love of God by serving the man who was being paid to serve him.  

I wonder if Robinson thought of the Roman centurion during that ambulance journey. May all of us think of him the next time we feel a conflict between being responsible to the authorities we serve, and being responsible for the fellow humans who serve us.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

God's Reentry Program

Here's today's homily. The readings are Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19.


I’ve never seen a completely convincing explanation for why we humans love the number three so much. Everyone acknowledges that we do, though. Three winds its way through history and across cultures; we find it in our legends, our riddles, and our theology. It shows up in the three Fates, the three little pigs, and the Christian trinity. Fairy-tale swineherds can’t win the hand of the princess without completing three tasks. No joke is complete unless three people, rather than only two, walk into a bar. Three strikes in baseball and you’re out. We can’t have blood and sweat without tears, and we can’t have friends and Romans without countrymen.  

And, according to today’s readings, we can’t have Peter and Paul, two of our most important church ancestors, without lots of threes. Saul, who will take his new name of Paul any minute now, is blind for three days after his conversion on the road to Damascus, a calamity echoing the three days Jesus spent in the tomb. The resurrection story in the Gospel is the third time the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, and his conversation with Peter is a set of three questions. Jesus’ thrice-repeated “Do you love me?” is an explicit undoing of the three times Peter denied Jesus after his arrest by the Romans. Even the 153 fish are divisible by three, and then by three again, seventeen groups of nine. We’re drowning in trinities here.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor has suggested that the number three has been lodged in our imaginations ever since the earliest humans studied the sky and realized that the dark of the moon lasts three nights. People who study writing note, more simply, that lists of three make points both more forceful and easier to remember. Whatever the explanation, it’s undeniable that three means business. If something comes in threes, we sit up and pay attention. Whatever this three-part sequence is, it’s important.

Today’s Scripture stories would probably get our attention even without all these threes. They’re about two of the most important leaders of the early church, and they’re both about crucial turning points, moments of repentance and conversion. Saul has been actively persecuting Christians. Peter, the most zealous of the disciples before the events of Holy Week, betrayed Jesus and his own sense of himself by running away, by denying Jesus rather than remaining loyal to his Lord. Both men must feel acute shame. Indeed, Peter is so deeply ashamed that when he realizes who’s on the beach, he covers himself -- as Adam and Eve did in the Garden after their own transgression -- and jumps into the water to get away from Jesus. At least, that’s how I read this passage. Maybe he’s rebaptizing himself. Maybe he’s just really clumsy. But if I were Peter, confronted with the person I’d denied three times, I’d run away.

We all know that there’s no running away from God, though:  not from God’s wrath, and not from the love, healing and mercy we see in today’s lessons. God sends Ananias to heal Saul, who regains his sight and feels much better after a meal. Jesus fries up some fish for his friends, including the sopping, bedraggled Peter. God gives both men food for the journey. I wonder if Peter, chewing his fried fish as he dripped dry on the beach, remembered that Jesus also fed Judas -- the ultimate betrayer -- at the last supper. If Peter did remember that, I wonder if he felt more hopeful, or only more ashamed.  

And I wonder what he felt during that chat with Jesus. “Do you love me? Do you love me? No, really, Peter, do you love me?” Maybe at first Peter was happy to assure Jesus of his love after his previous shameful behavior. But by the third time we know, because the text tells us, that he’s hurt at having to answer the question again. He just wants to be forgiven. He just wants to put that whole horrible episode in the past. Why does Jesus keep harping on it?

Jesus keeps harping on it because he has a job for Peter: “Feed my sheep.” That gets repeated three times, too. “Hey, Peter, are you enjoying that fish I cooked up for you? Feed others as I have fed you.” Paul will receive a similar commission.
All of us have done wrong. All of us, at some point, have betrayed ourselves and those we love. All of us long for forgiveness. But in these two stories, Jesus does more than say, “You’re forgiven.” He says to both men, “I have work for you.  I’m giving you a job.” And he tells Peter, in effect, “I’m saying it three times so you’ll get it.  This is important.  Pay attention.”

Being forgiven means that we’re accepted: that we’re loved again, or still. But being given work means that we’re trusted, even when we don’t quite trust ourselves yet. “I have a really important job for you. I know you can do this. I know you won’t let me down.”
There’s another layer here, beyond the personal healing of Saul and Peter. People who’ve done terrible things themselves will be that much more likely to forgive others with shady pasts. Saul and Peter can be counted on to be compassionate to wrongdoers. They’ve done wrong, too. They know what guilt feels like, and they know that loving their neighbors -- loving others as God has loved them -- means offering second chances, including meaningful work. Having lain in their own tombs of shame and darkness, having been restored to love and light, they are the best possible choices to spread the Good News of resurrection.

That’s as true now as it was two thousand years ago. Let me introduce you to a woman named Rhonda Bear. Rhonda lives in Oklahoma. In 2000, in her mid-twenties, she was a single mother of three children. She didn’t have a job or an education. She did have a meth habit. She couldn’t even see her children because she was wanted on multiple drug charges, and she knew the police would catch her if she visited her kids. Desperate to be a mother again, she turned herself in, promising her children that she was going to change.

In prison, Rhonda attended a Kairos weekend, the prison ministry you’ve heard Mike talk about. She was amazed by the unconditional love of the Kairos volunteers. They didn’t say ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Shame on you.’ They said, ‘Come on in. Let’s love you with the love of God and let the love of God impact your life.’”

Rhonda was released nineteen months into her ten-year sentence. Three years later, she too became a Kairos volunteer. She also ran halfway houses for former inmates, but she wanted to help with employment opportunities. "In order to stay out of prison," she says, "you have to have safe housing. You have to have a job. You have go have community support." So, starting with $300 and a flea-market booth, she opened a coffeeshop called She Brews. She has employed twenty-four women, all former offenders, all of whom are currently working, although most have moved on from the coffeeshop. Three of them are now in college. “We help them with employment,” Bear says. “We help them with education. We help them set goals so that their lives and their children’s lives can be different.” Bear mentors these women because it was transformative for her to have someone believe in her.  Being trusted changed her life. Today, reunited with her children and grandchildren, she helps others reach that same state of grace.

The number three runs through Rhonda Bear’s story, too. Sit up. Pay attention. This is important. When we accept not just God’s love and forgiveness but the work God gives us, we find new life both for ourselves and others. Feeding others as we have been fed, transforming our shame into compassion, and offering the healing balm of trust, we embody resurrection.

Let us behold Christ in his redeeming work, and let us do likewise. Amen.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Sundays

Here's today's homily. The gospel is Luke 19:28-40.


I have always been acutely attuned to bad news, keenly aware of the abyss into which any of us can plunge at any moment. Some of this is a function of family history: from a very young age, I knew the story of how my mother’s mother died suddenly in a car accident when my mom was twelve, how my father’s mother died suddenly in his arms of a massive stroke. Some of it’s a function of neurochemistry: along with grim family stories, I inherited depression and anxiety. All of this meant that as a kid, I moved through the world like some combination of Eeyore and Wednesday Addams. I’ve often heard people say that children never think they’re going to die. I always knew I was going to die. I knew that everyone around me was going to die, quite possibly within the next hour, especially if they did anything foolish like getting on an airplane or crossing a street.

As you can imagine, this made me really popular at parties. My father was an attorney, so I got dragged to quite a few tony Manhattan cocktail parties. The other children at the parties did frivolous things like play games. I’d find a family pet to cuddle, or a bookshelf to browse, or just stand in a corner feeling lonely and doomed.  How could these people be so happy? Didn’t they know they were going to die?  

I’ve gotten a little better at navigating parties as an adult, but they still make me uncomfortable. I’m much happier in places other people would consider stressful or depressing, like volunteering in the emergency room, where I never have to make small talk about sports or the weather and where no one ignores mortality.

I’m saying all of this to explain why I’ve never liked Palm Sunday, which is nothing if not a party. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, riding the Donkey of Prophecy, as people cheer and sing and throw down their cloaks, the equivalent of a red carpet. Picture me standing at the back of the crowd, feeling lonely and doomed. How can these people be so happy? Don’t they know Jesus is going to die?  

And there you have it, the paradox of Palm Sunday. Just as Jesus has entered the gates of Jerusalem, we have now crossed the threshold into the heart of the liturgical year, the series of services -- Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday Easter Vigil -- that will culminate in Easter Sunday. Today is a happy day:  a parade day when we sing and wave palms. Next Sunday will also be a happy day, the happiest in our calendar. In between, things get dark.

Palm Sunday poses a worship quandary. People who only come to church on Sundays -- who go from Jesus' triumphant procession into Jerusalem straight to his triumphant departure from the tomb -- miss a lot of the story. Such people might be inclined to think that Christianity's just one triumph after another, all joy and light. Many churches, to prevent this misconception, perform the Passion on Palm Sunday, so that people in the pews will have some idea what happens between the two Sundays. But that creates liturgical whiplash, leading worshippers in the space of an hour from the joy of Palm Sunday to the despair of the crucifixion. 

St. Paul's is one of the churches that has decided to keep Palm Sunday for songs and hosannas, trusting its congregation to actually come to Holy Week services. If you've never attended them, they're beautiful and ancient, deeply moving. If you miss them, you're really missing out. Please do make every effort to join us for those other services this week.

In the meantime, here we are, on Palm Sunday, cheering with the crowd as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on that donkey. But we also, like Jesus himself, know what comes next. We know that the crowds that love him today are going to turn on him, because he isn't the militant Messiah they want, the one who'll violently overthrow Roman rule. We know the religious establishment will turn on him because he threatens their fragile peace with Roman rule, and we know the Romans will turn on him for being a dangerous criminal element, a revolutionary.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing that he would die there. He'd tried to tell his closest friends, but they didn't believe him. For him, Palm Sunday must have been a very strange celebration, a tug of war between joy and grief.  

Here's a story about another celebration like that. On Christmas Eve, 1934, a priest named Frederick Graves celebrated mass at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Reno. We can imagine the candlelit sanctuary, the joyous carols, happy families wishing Father Graves a Merry Christmas as they filed out of church to go home. What none of them knew, because he hadn't told them, was that a few hours earlier, he'd gotten a phone call. His daughter Mary, a young mother who lived in Berkeley, had been killed when her bicycle brakes failed on a steep hill.

Frederick Graves left that Christmas Eve service to drive straight to California. He was a woodworker, and when he came home from his daughter’s funeral he began carving an altar as a memorial to her. It featured scenes from the life of Jesus, and in one corner he inscribed the words, "Erected to the glory of God in gratitude for the joyous life of Mary Graves Dunn."  St. Stephen's still used that altar when I began attending in 1999, and continued doing so until the parish closed in 2010. I believe the altar has now been donated to a church in another state.

Frederick Graves must have been heartbroken that Christmas Eve. He knew something his joyous congregation didn't: he would be leaving them that evening to mourn the death of his child, the most painful thing any parent can experience. But he also knew something else. He knew the good news I hadn’t yet learned as a child in a secular household. He knew about resurrection. Despite his anguish, I'm sure he celebrated that Christmas mass with whatever joy he could muster, the same joy he celebrated in his inscription to Mary.

Resurrection took several forms, in this case. It took the form of the altar itself, which helped feed and succor so many people for so many years. And it took another form. Peter Dunn, the little boy whose mother was killed on Christmas Eve in 1934, grew up to marry a woman named Sharon. At first, neither Peter nor Sharon were churchgoers, but in due course, she became an Episcopalian. They moved to Reno, and she started attending the church where Peter's grandfather had been a vicar. When I met Sherry Dunn, she was a priest at St. Stephen's, celebrating the Eucharist at the altar dedicated to the memory of her husband's mother.

Palm Sunday is a joyous party, and we should indeed enjoy ourselves today. But we also need to resist the temptation of believing that Christianity is nothing but joy and light, one triumph after another. Our faith doesn’t promise us fame, fortune, success, or even happiness. It promises us resurrection, and resurrection doesn’t happen at triumphant processions. It happens at tombs. If you want to see God bringing things back to life, you have to go to the places where it looks like everything’s dead. You have to go to all those scary, inconvenient places, the ones that fall between Sundays:  the Garden of Gethsemane, the foot of the cross, the tomb.

These places don’t feel like parties.  There are no cheering crowds or red carpets.  But if you walk to what looks like the end of the story and wait there, you’ll see something that will change your life: the reason for all our hosannas, the reason we are still waving palms two thousand years after that first Palm Sunday.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Desert Places

Here’s today’s homily.  The Gospel is Luke 4:1-13.


Today, the first Sunday in Lent, is also Valentine’s Day. It’s actually quite fitting that we’re hearing about Jesus’ trials in the wilderness today. The devil’s temptations boil down to one basic promise -- “I can solve all your problems and fill all your needs” -- and popular culture encourages us to believe exactly the same things about romantic love. The right partner will solve all our problems, fill all our needs, and give us everything we’ve ever wanted, along with roses, chocolate, and Hallmark cards.  

These promises aren’t limited to Valentine’s Day. I recently read that forty to fifty percent of popular songs address romantic love, and if you’ve ever listened to the radio, you know that they do so in some pretty scary ways. Too many of those song lyrics translate into, “I can’t live wthout you. You make me complete. I’m only happy when I’m with you. I’ll do anything for you. I’ll never leave you. Get away from that schmuck you’re with right now and accept me as your destiny.” If a live person showed up on our doorstep and said anything like this, we’d call the police and get a restraining order.  

Most of us also know, if only from hard experience, that no human relationship is perfect or all-fulfilling. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that marriage, instead of easing every burden, “halves our rights and doubles our duties.” But if intimate partnerships are hard work, they can also be sources of great joy and comfort. We’re social animals. Connection to other people is a deep human need. That’s why Valentine’s Day can be so difficult for people who are alone and who have been told, or who believe, that they can only be complete with a partner.  Under those conditions, it’s a lot more difficult to recognize, and dismiss, the inflated promises of Top Forty love songs.

Jesus, who is fully human, has spent a long time alone in the wilderness, and the devil is appealing to deep human needs:  physical hunger, the desire for power and authority, and the urge to test limits. All of us need to eat. All of us need to feel as if our influence matters. All of us need to take risks sometimes, because that’s how we grow. But Jesus recognizes the traps here, swatting away these false promises as easily as he’d brush away a fly. He knows who, and Whose, he is. He knows he is loved. He doesn’t need to prove himself. He will indeed feed the hungry, but not on the devil’s dare. He is already the ruler of creation without having to worship false idols, and God has already kept him safe through dangerous trials.

Jesus knows that he is not alone. He knows that God is with him even in this loneliest and driest of landscapes. Dates with the devil pose no temptation.

This morning’s Gospel is from the fourth chapter of Luke. In the tenth chapter, we will be reminded that the first commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and that the second, which is like it, is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love of God, neighbor and self are the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Lent is an invitation for us to recognize, and dismiss, anything that distorts or distracts us from this trinity. And sometimes Lent comes to us in different forms and at different times of the year.

Last fall, I took a class about addiction to help me in my volunteer work in the ER.  One of the course requirements was an “Abstinence Experience.” The professor asked us to choose something important to us and give it up for ten weeks, as a way of increasing our empathy for addicts trying to give up alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. What most of us learned -- and I suspect this was the real point of the assignment -- is that nearly everyone is addicted to something.

I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t eat dairy or gluten. A few months before the class started, I’d been diagnosed as prediabetic, so I’d already cut way down on my beloved chocolate. My options for the Abstinence Experience were to give up coffee or Facebook. If I gave up coffee, I’d live in a permanent state of migraine and my brain would stop working. This seemed like a bad choice in the middle of a challenging semester. If I  gave up Facebook, I’d theoretically free up an embarrassing number of hours every day. This seemed like a good choice in the middle of a challenging semester. Facebook it was. No problem. I’d give up Facebook for ten weeks! I’d get so much more done!

I gave up Facebook for ten weeks. I didn’t get much more done. What did I do with the free time? I daydreamed. I stared into space. I discovered that I felt unaccountably anxious and lonely. Eventually, I realized that my online activity had been one way of filling what 12-Step recovery programs call “the hole in the soul,” a sense of deep inadequacy, the bone-deep belief that I am not and have never been enough: not smart enough, not kind enough, not good enough. I remembered favorite lines from a Robert Frost poem I read in college:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

I realized that Facebook was only the latest in a series of efforts to fill or flee my inner wilderness. Since childhood, my escape vehicles of choice have included books, writing, academic overachievement, shopping, exercise, and, yes, romantic relationships, not to mention chocolate. If I immersed myself in imaginary adventures, if I got perfect grades, if I found the perfect shoes or the perfect workout or the perfect lover or the perfect Godiva truffle, then I too would at last be perfect, or at least good enough. But none of those things ever fully filled that internal void, which some psychologists believe is the root of all addiction. Trekking through my desert places for ten weeks last fall, I finally realized that the only thing big enough to fill that emptiness -- to make me feel complete and heal me of my self-hatred -- was God.  

By myself, I am indeed not enough, because no one is. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. It’s how we’re made. We’re designed to need God as much as we need our neighbors. Our seeming inadequacies are cause not for mourning, but for celebration. When I finally understood this, I invited God into my wilderness and prayed for transformation. I found myself filled with peace, with the certainty that God loved me and had been waiting a very long time to be welcomed in, to make my desert places bloom into what looked suspiciously like Valentine’s Day bouquets.

Lent isn’t a one-time journey. I’m back on Facebook now, for an embarrassing number of hours a day, and I still find myself tempted by shoe sales and Godiva truffles. But now I’m better able to enjoy those things for what they are, instead of feeling that I’m nothing without them. I have a better sense of who, and Whose, I am. I feel less need to prove myself. I know that I am not alone. I know that God is with me even in the loneliest and driest of landscapes, and I know that if you pay attention to the desert instead of desperately running away from it, you learn how much can grow there.

This Valentine’s Day, I wish all of you a Holy Lent. May everyone here know the embrace of the one, true source of Love:  the One who solves all our problems, meets all our needs, and fills all our desert places with flowers.   


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome, Child

Here's today's homily. The readings are Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37.


Dear child:

There you are in Jesus’ arms. We don’t know how old you are; we don’t even know your gender.  We don’t know if you were a cherished heir, a beloved child of the family who owned that house in Capernaum, or a slave. Whatever your status, you would have been considered the legal property of your parents, not yet a person in your own right.
That’s also true of your mother, whether she was a servant or the “capable wife” celebrated in today’s reading from Proverbs, who acts almost entirely for the good of her husband and family.  It sounds like this wife loves her husband, and we have to hope he loves her back, because she’s his legal property too. That’s going to last a long time. Where I live, in the United States -- a country that doesn’t exist yet, in your time -- the law saying that a wife is her husband’s property won’t be declared fully unconstitutional until 1981. Where I live, so far in your future you couldn’t even imagine it, women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. My country has never had a female President. In some quarters, the view that women are people too is still controversial.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? You don’t know about any of that, don’t care about it. You’re in Jesus’ arms, enjoying the attention from his friends. They’ve just been arguing about who’s the greatest -- the most famous, the most influential -- and Jesus is using you to make a point. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to take care of you. They have to welcome you. They have to treat you like a person. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to treat you as if you’re him:  the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace.

Jesus knows about being a child. Jesus came to Earth as a child, a baby, and even though he was a cherished heir, he was also poor. His mother wasn’t like that ideal wife in Proverbs, with her servants and vineyards. He was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a room. Some poor shepherds knew who he was, and so did some rich kings, but a lot of other people didn’t, and still don’t. The Messiah is supposed to be great and powerful. Children aren’t. A lot of what Jesus does looks upside-down to everyone else, even his closest friends. He wants them to use their power to give, not to take, but he has to keep reminding them how it works.  That’s why he’s holding you, now, and telling them to welcome you.

What do they do, I wonder? The story doesn’t tell us. Do they ask your name? Do they play with you? When Jesus puts you down again, what happens? Will you ever see these men again? What does your future look like?

Child -- boy or girl, slave or free, EveryChild -- I wish I didn’t know as much about your future as I do. Where I live, here in the United States in 2015, we still haven’t fully learned what Jesus was trying to teach his friends. We welcome some children, our cherished heirs. As I write this, my niece is about to deliver her first child, a little boy named Charlie, and our family and friends can’t wait to welcome him. But yesterday in the news I read about a five year old refugee who drowned trying to reach safety in Europe. In my own country, more than 21% of children live in poverty. That’s the highest poverty rate of any age group. In my country, the average age of a homeless person is 11, and one in thirty children is homeless. Poor children are often hungry, and hungry children can’t learn, and that puts them at risk for other problems, terrible problems happening right here within our own borders, like the sex trafficking we hear about on the news that makes us shudder and hug our own kids more tightly and thank God they’re safe.
Remember when I talked about women, about equal pay for equal work?  These things are connected. Women and their children bear the brunt of poverty, and income inequality is part of the reason why.  

I’m talking about politics now, and there are people who say it’s impolite to talk about politics to anyone, let alone children. In my country, we believe in the separation of church and state. But Jesus was a political figure. He’s just told his followers that he’ll die a political death, although they don’t want to believe it. He’s trying to teach them about the proper uses of power, and you can’t get much more political than that. If we’re going to welcome you, child, it can’t just be in our own families. It has to be in the rest of the world, too:  in stables and homeless shelters and hospitals, in refugee camps and war zones, and in poor and struggling neighborhoods here at home. We say we care about children in my country, but we don’t fund education the way we should.  We don’t respect teachers or pay them as if they’re important. We don’t have universal daycare to make it easier for parents to work and feed their kids, or universal healthcare to keep children and their parents healthy. Two years ago, the United States ranked 34th out of 35 countries in child welfare; only Romania ranked lower.
Please don’t get me wrong. A lot of us do try to welcome you. We donate money and volunteer and support programs and agencies that help kids. When we see a child right in front of us -- a child who’s hurt or hungry or frightened or poor -- we offer every comfort we can.
I remember a child I met in the ER where I volunteer. The little boy was a year old, maybe. A foster-care caseworker had brought him in for an evaluation. X-rays showed signs of earlier abuse:  multiple healed fractures of the long bones of his arms. A tech who had to start an IV on him asked for my help, because the baby liked women. He lay quietly on his gurney, but when he saw me, he smiled and reached out his arms to be picked up.  He played with my hair, my glasses, my ID badge. He never cried, not even when the tech started the IV.  Most children scream during that procedure. They buck and bite and kick. They have to be held down by five adults. Somewhere, this baby had learned to stay completely still and quiet.  His silence haunts me. How much pain do we never hear, because the children and adults suffering it have learned that if they cry, no one will come? How many have learned that if they cry, anyone who answers will only hurt them more?

Child, we help you when we can see you, but so often you’re invisible to us. A lot of that is political, too. Some of our leaders want us to care more about some children than about others. We need to learn to look out for all, and to act for all. We need to vote for school bonds even if we have no children in those schools. We need to support political initiatives that will help parents and children. We need to resist the lie that children from other families or neighborhoods, countries or religions, matter less than our children.  

All children are our children. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us. All children are his children. All children are him.

Child, we don’t know your name, your gender, your parentage.  We don’t know what your life was like before Jesus picked you up, or what it will be like after he puts you down.  We don’t know if you’ll remember him when you grow up. But we know that right now, you are safe and loved, cherished and nurtured, held in the warmth of Jesus’ arms while his friends smile at you.  And for his sake, we promise to do our very best to offer that same love and welcome to every child we meet.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten Years After

The Biloxi Bridge after Katrina

In 2005, my father (83 at the time) was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the Villa Maria Retirement Apartments:  a low-income senior building, a concrete high rise, that was four blocks from the water and one of the tallest things in town. He lived on the top floor, with a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast and its casinos, which often shot off fireworks on Friday nights. Villa Maria was a mile, maybe less, from the U.S. 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. He adored living there. He’d been even happier living on his sailboat in Biloxi, but health concerns had forced him off the boat and into an apartment. He’d had quadruple bypass in 2001, and in 2005 he often used a wheelchair and was also on a feeding tube -- which he hated; the man loved his food and especially his drink -- because of swallowing problems after a stroke.

I don’t clearly remember the sequence of events leading up to Katrina. We were all concerned about the storm, but Dad’s building wasn’t under mandatory evacuation orders, and he had no plans to leave. I remember at some point hearing that storm damage hadn’t been that bad and being relieved. We weren’t yet worried about not being able to reach Dad; we weren’t surprised phones were down. Then, on Monday morning, my sister called me and said, “Susan, New Orleans is flooding. The levees broke.”

My father was ninety miles from New Orleans, but reports from the Mississippi Gulf Coast were grim, too. That bridge I mentioned?  It’s the one everyone saw on the news, the one reduced to rubble by the storm. What were the odds that Villa Maria, so nearby and with such a high profile, hadn’t also been demolished?  “He has to be dead,” my sister said. “I just hope it was quick.”

We started a frenzied search for information. There was no getting through to anyone in Ocean Springs, but I found an online bulletin board where relatives and friends of people who lived in the Villa Maria were posting queries and sharing whatever they’d heard. No one had heard much.

Then, on Wednesday, a friend of Dad’s drove by the Villa Maria, saw people there, and realized that the building hadn’t been evacuated, as he’d assumed. He raced up to my father’s apartment, handed Dad his cellphone, and said, “Call your daughters. They’re going to be frantic.”

Dad called my sister. She heard his voice and started crying.

To hear him tell it, the storm had been a jolly romp. “They told us to go down to the lobby, so I went down there in my wheelchair with my mattress and my pillow and my Ensure and a bottle of vodka, and I poured Ensure and vodka through my feeding tube, and I was fine!” Whatever gets you through the night, Dad. Remarkably, the Villa Maria had suffered only minor roof damage, perhaps because the strongest winds had flowed around it rather than hitting it head-on. Dad was back in his apartment within a day.

We were very lucky. Millions of other people weren’t.

I flew down to Ocean Springs for Thanksgiving that year. Ocean Springs itself had been largely spared, although all of the beautiful old trees had trash in their topmost branches: clothing, children’s toys, kitchen utensils. Dad and I went for a drive along U.S. 90, the road to New Orleans, taking a long detour around the ruined bridge. Before the storm, the road had been lined with floating casinos on one side and antebellum mansions, surrounded by venerable trees, on the others. All gone. We drove through a moonscape littered with unidentifiable sticks and scraps.  A few staircases rose alone into the air for a few feet. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to tell that the area had ever been populated.

Our drive back to the Villa Maria was very quiet.

Everyone I talked to in Ocean Springs had a Katrina story. Almost everyone knew somebody who had died; many people had harrowing evacuation stories. No one had anything good to say about FEMA. No one had anything bad to say about the National Guard, hailed as heroes and saviors. One woman told me she’d complained to a Guardsman about the Meals Ready to Eat that everyone had been given. “It’s too much food! I can’t eat all that!”

“Ma’am,” the Guardsman said, “MREs are designed for the nutritional needs of soldiers in combat. You’re sitting in your living room reading a book.”

My favorite National Guard story came from Dad’s friend Darlene, who taught art at a local at-risk school where most of the students were black and very poor. The Friday before the storm hit, she’d gotten her classroom ready for the beginning of school the following week. She’d cleaned, put up student artwork from the previous year to inspire her new pupils, and left a to-do list on the corner of her desk. 

School didn’t start the following week. Darlene learned that her school was being used to billet National Guard troops, and assumed that the place would be a shambles. As soon as she could drive safely again, she went to the school and asked if she could visit her classroom. Yes, of course she could.

The room was pristine. The to-do list was still where it had been on her desk, and the Guardsmen had used the blackboard to leave notes for the children, telling them how beautiful their artwork was. I’m not sure if Darlene cried when she told me this story, but I cried when I heard it, and I’m crying now, typing it.  

The Villa Maria instituted a new policy that in the event of a hurricane, all residents would have to evacuate and wouldn’t be able to return to the building until any repairs were completed. Because evacuation wouldn’t have been feasible for him, Dad decided to leave his beloved Gulf Coast. In 2006, he moved to live near my sister in Philadelphia. On his birthday that year, he sent me $300 and asked me to research Katrina charities and send the money to the ones I considered worthiest. In 2008, he moved to Reno to be near me and Gary. He died in 2009. He wasn’t technically one of the displaced because he left shelter that was still habitable, and he didn’t apply for or receive FEMA money, but there’s no doubt that he was part of the larger Katrina diaspora. He was never as happy as he’d been on the Gulf Coast. (After he died, our plans to scatter his ashes in the Gulf were defeated by another disaster, the BP oil spill. I was glad he wasn’t alive to see that; it would have left him sickened and despairing.)

Meanwhile, in 2006, my novel The Necessary Beggar won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and I flew down to New Orleans to accept the award -- one of ten given to adult books with YA crossover appeal -- at the ALA convention. We were the first convention to meet there after Katrina, in the infamous convention center which had gotten so much press, and which was now as bland and antiseptic as most facilities of that sort. On the shuttle ride from the airport, my driver pointed out storm damage, implored us to spend as much money as we could in the city, and thanked us fervently for coming.

Everyone thanked us for coming. Shop windows displayed signs: “We love you ALA.” The city was desperate for business. Many people at the convention took storm tours of the hardest hit parts of the city; I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could bear it, but I wandered through shops, searching for anything I wanted to buy, fighting my guilt when I found only a bracelet, a Katrina memorial t-shirt, and a souvenir voodoo doll for Gary.  

For several years after the storm, I occasionally met Katrina survivors in the ER. One patient told me he was from Biloxi, and we had a long, lively conversation. “Sure I know the Villa Maria! You can see that building for miles. I’m so glad your dad was okay.” Although we’d never met before, and although I’d never actually lived in those communities, it felt like a family reunion. The patient had gone through, was going through, agonies I'd been spared; even so, both of us understood things that other people around us didn't.  

My family was very lucky. My father was in the right place in the right circumstances; even with limited income and mobility, he was less poor and had more options than many of the people (black and terrifyingly poor, left without any money because the storm hit at the end of the month) who died when the New Orleans levees broke. We were grateful for our privileges and enraged on behalf of those who didn’t share them. We mourned those who had died and gave thanks for those who hadn’t.  

I live in the desert, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast. I know some people might challenge my belief that Katrina is part of my history, too. I’m white and affluent; I wasn’t there; the person I loved who was there made it through largely unscathed. Other people lost and suffered so much more. But I’ll always feel a connection to that terrible time, and I’ll never hear a hurricane forecast without thinking about Katrina.