Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survival Stories



Here's tomorrow's homily; the Gospel is Matthew 3:1-12.  Advent's my least favorite liturgical season, and I've never found John the Baptist very appealing, so finding my way into the readings is always a challenge. Gary thinks this works.  I hope other people will, too.

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Happy New Year! This is the second week of Advent, the beginning of the church year, and you know what that means. John the Baptist is back, chomping on locusts, howling about the end of the world as he exhorts people to save themselves through baptism and repentance. The Kingdom of God has come near, and the approaching messiah is one scary dude.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

In his day, John was hugely popular. On the face of it, this seems odd. John preaches a gospel of fear lightened with just a little good news: the world’s ending, but you may be okay if you repent and get baptized. I wonder, though, if John was so appealing because he got people’s adrenaline going while also giving them a simple way to save themselves.

Remember the Y2K crisis? Fourteen years ago, we were warned that on January 1, 2000, computers everywhere would crash, hopelessly confused by the logical problem of moving from the double-nine of 1999 backwards to double-zero. Planes would fall from the sky, banks would fail, personal electronics would become useless hunks of metal and plastic, and civilization as we knew it would grind to a halt. People who knew a lot about computers – like my husband, who’d spent years working as a programmer -- believed this was a real danger. We, along with many other people, laid in extra food and water and a Coleman stove, just in case the power grid failed and we couldn’t use our mostly electrical kitchen.

Nothing happened. Either the threat was overstated, or programmers around the world spotted it early enough to have time to fix it. Computers kept working. Banks stayed open. Stoves and coffeemakers remained operational.

In the weeks before Y2K, a few lonely voices had suggested that the new year would not usher in doomsday. My husband dismissed these people as ignorant optimists. “It’s a really complicated problem,” he said, and of course I believed him.  Mixed with my alarm, though, was a kind of thrill. This was an adventure. I was preparing for life after the apocalypse. Everything was heightened by the adrenaline rush. Planning for the end of the world was exhilarating.

I don’t know if that’s how the crowds following John the Baptist felt, but there’s no denying that we humans love scary stories, especially about apocalypses. Look at the current obsession with zombies. We love to imagine ourselves in danger, especially if someone gives us some simple, decisive way to survive. Lay in emergency supplies for the year 2000! Flee zombies so they won’t eat your brain! Repent of your sins and be baptized in the River Jordan!

The people warning us about the year 2000 were wrong. So far, there’s been no sign of zombies, either. But back in A.D. 29 or so, very shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist was right. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Someone greater than John was about to appear. Repentence was -- and is – essential.

What John got wrong were the special effects. The messiah had already arrived, three decades earlier:  not as a gigantic striding figure with a winnowing fork, tossing unbaptized and unrepentent sinners left and right, but as a human infant, vulnerable and needy. This was not a towering, threatening figure. This was a God of love, not one of fear: not a God who condemned us, but one who became us, putting on our fragile flesh, opening himself to weapons and wounds.

The end-of-the-world stories we enjoy tend to start with the world wiped clean by plague or war or winnowing fork. These stories radically simplify the landscape of survival. When you’re juggling a job, bills, growing children, aging parents, health problems, car problems, and Christmas shopping, zombies can seem almost restful. When zombies show up, all that other stuff no longer matters. All you have to do is outrun the zombies. Stories like this paint the world in stark either/or terms: right versus wrong, us versus them.

The Christian story is a lot more complicated. Christ requires us to welcome strangers, rather than locking them out because they might want to eat our brains or steal our bottled water.  Christ requires us to recognize our own role in harming the neighbors we are called to love, our own complicity in other people’s apocalypses. Each of us participates in systems that oppress God’s children, harm God’s creation, and threaten our own wholeness. We can’t turn on an electric light, fill up our car’s gas tank, or shop in any kind of store without raising a swarm of ethical questions. Am I being as energy-efficient as possible? How can I reduce my dependence on dwindling resources? Was my Thanksgiving turkey humanely housed and slaughtered? How can I be sure the coat I’m buying wasn’t made by children in a Third-World sweatshop?
 
There are no clear, easy lines here: not between us and them, rarely even between right and wrong. We live and work in a complicated society that always pulls us into murky territory. Nothing we do is pure. Everything is interconnected. No one is completely innocent.

This entanglement in messy human systems and institutions is my current definition of original sin. We are all born into it. We cannot move outside it. All we can do is repent, pay attention, and do the best we can, knowing that we can’t walk without taking at least a few wrong steps. We cannot save ourselves. Only God’s grace, mercy and love can save us.

John was right that we need to repent, because we never know when our personal worlds will end. John himself would only be alive for another few years. But this is still a story of hope. God loves us and yearns to save us. God’s love shines through the darkness of John’s tragic death, through the darkness of our tangled relationships with ourselves and other people, through the darkness of mortality. God’s light leads us to the ultimate happy ending:  Easter, the impossibly empty tomb, the final triumph of love and life over fear and death.

In the fiction workshops I teach at UNR, my students often write very dark stories. They love tragic endings, especially ones where everybody dies. A few years ago, in a class where the stories were even more depressing than usual, I asked about this. Why were happy endings so unpopular? Why not write stories where everyone survived, where things got better?

My students thought about this for a while. Then one of them said, “Well, you know, that kind of happy ending is what you find in kids’ books. Those are the kinds of stories you hear when you’re a child, so telling them feels childish.” These students, eager to be sophisticated adults, were as disappointed by happy endings as I had been secretly disappointed when nothing happened on January 1, 2000.  Happy endings can seem like a letdown.

Jesus says that unless we become as little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe part of what he means is that we need to reclaim our joy in happy endings. After John the Baptist -- the wild man gobbling locusts and thundering about the end of the world -- a baby sleeping in a manger can indeed seem like a letdown. It’s our job to remember what John himself knew and proclaimed, even if he got some of the details wrong: that the approaching messiah offers us the best kind of survival story, although it is neither the easiest nor the simplest.  This is the story where, even though we die, yet we shall live.

Amen.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Making it Stop



Here's tomorrow's homily.  Longtime friends and blog readers have already heard the personal story I tell here, but it's worth repeating anyway.  My church is in Sparks, not far from the school where the shooting took place -- although no kids from the parish are currently students there -- so this was an especially tough pastoral challenge. As a licensed lay preacher, I'm no longer required to run my homilies past ordained folks for approval, but I showed this to our rector ahead of time anyway.  I'm grateful that he gave me the go-ahead.

The picture above is an AP photo taken at a candlelight vigil for the victims this past Wednesday.

The Gospel is Luke 18:9-14.

Note:  I've had to disable blog comments because I was getting too much spam, but you can reach me on Facebook or via e-mail if you feel the need.

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We are all too familiar with horror in the news.  Last week, it came home.  A twelve-year-old shooter at Sparks Middle School killed a beloved teacher, wounded two classmates, and killed himself.  In the next few days, another beloved teacher was murdered by a fourteen-year-old student in Massachusetts, and a thirteen-year-old boy carrying a toy gun was shot dead by police in California.  As numb as we’ve grown to horror, stories like this would break our hearts even on a week when our own community wasn’t traumatized and grieving.

Make it stop, we plead.  This is all too much.  How can we make the horror stop?

When horror happens, there’s a natural tendency to seek causes, to lay blame. According to some accounts, the Sparks shooter was bullied, so we blame the bullies for driving the youngster to violence. We blame his parents for leaving the gun where he could get it.  We blame him for pulling the trigger.  Or, wary of blaming individuals for something we rightly recognize as a social epidemic, we blame large groups of faceless people.  It’s the fault of the liberals, the conservatives, the NRA, oppressive gun laws, lenient gun laws, careless  parents, kids these days, declining morals, junk food manufacturers, designers of violent video games.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”  Our natural tendency is to try to distance ourselves from whomever we blame. We would never bully a child; we would never leave a gun where a child could find it; we would never express our rage and despair in violence.   As natural as this response may be, today’s Gospel tells us that it’s wrong.  The Pharisee listing his virtues is not the good guy in this story.  Our model is the despised tax collector who acknowledges his wrongdoings and prays for mercy.

Many years ago, I took a course on the Gospels at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  Talking about how one Gospel story can produce many different interpretations, our teacher said, “Which character are you in this story?  In whom do you see yourself?”

I want to see myself in the tax collector, who’s clearly on Jesus’ good side.  If I’m honest, I have to admit that I often act more like the Pharisee instead.  But let’s look at another story, the one that’s been haunting us all week.  Some children bully another child, whose parents have left a gun where he can get it.  He takes the gun to school.  He uses it.  People die.

Can you see yourself in the parents who take imperfect safety precautions?   Can you see yourself in the bullies who use cruelty as power?  We all want to identify with Michael Landsberry, the heroic teacher who sacrificed himself to protect students. We want to believe that we’d be as brave as he was, and maybe we would. But by the time he showed up, the gun was already in the child’s hand. How do we keep the gun out of the child’s hand?

If we want to make the horror stop, we have to begin where it begins.  We have to seek ourselves, not in the innocent, but in the guilty.

The cruel bullies.  The careless parents. The violent victim.  Who am I in this story?

When I was twelve years old, I got beaten up or teased or mocked almost every day. I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily, and very visible facial hair.  This last earned me special torment, both verbal and physical, from other kids. Most of the adults who witnessed the abuse did nothing, except sometimes to tell me that I just had to learn to defend myself.

The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha.  We had French class together.  She was as skinny as I was, but as bold as I was awkward.  She was sly, fast, scornful.  Every day she came up to me, grabbed my upper lip, pulled it – hard – and delivered a jeering commentary on my mustache.  The French teacher comforted me and tried to make Tasha stop.  It never worked.

I hated Tasha more than I have ever hated anyone.  I prayed for her to die, terribly and in pain.  I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if ... if what? I didn't have the physical skills or strength to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me.  My powerlessness filled me with rage and self-loathing.

Now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean.  But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as a child, as a little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.

Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to a gun, someone might be dead now?

I didn’t have access to a gun.  I still had violent thoughts.  What kept me from acting on them?  A few adults, notably my French teacher, showed me that they saw what was going on and knew it wasn’t right.  A few kids stuck up for me against bullies other than Tasha. These bystanders gave me hope that if I could just survive middle school, I might find a kinder world.  They told me I had allies. They walked in compassion and acted in love.

And so, on a handful of occasions when I’ve seen a child being bullied in public, I’ve said something.  Once, on a bus in New York City, I witnessed a tall, quiet young woman being harangued by her parents, who told her loudly – who told everyone on that bus – how stupid and ugly and boring she was, how being accepted to the American Ballet Theater at the age of sixteen was no big deal and she needed to get over herself.  I sat down next to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re a ballet dancer, and no one has the right to talk to you that way.”  She and her parents both looked embarrassed, but the adults stopped insulting her, at least on that bus ride.

I now know that this is called bystander intervention, an approach based on the fact that people make decisions, and continue behaviors, based on the reactions they get from others.  Ignoring bullying won’t make it go away. Confronting it may not, either, but at least that young woman knew that someone else saw what was happening to her and thought it was wrong.  She wasn’t invisible. Other kinds of behavior were possible.  The world contained allies.

I have performed several of these small, simple bystander interventions over the years:  not because I’m good, but because I too have felt ashamed and powerless and full of violent rage.  I do what I wish more people had done for me.  I do this not because I believe bullied children are innocent, but because I know they aren’t. I know their hunger to hurt others as they have been hurt.  I know how easily they can lash out at their tormenters, or at themselves.

I have never systematically bullied anyone, but I’ve certainly committed my share of unkindnesses.  I don’t own a gun, but I’ve certainly had my share of thoughtless or careless moments, including some that could have resulted in real harm.  God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  Or, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Identify, don’t compare.”

How do we make the horror stop?  I don’t have any easy answers. Any approaches I’ve suggested here are tentative and partial; all approaches rely on God’s mercy and grace.  But I do have Jesus’ assurance that the way out of sin and pain isn’t to assign blame while holding ourselves blameless.   It’s to take responsibility.  It’s to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s to love our enemies, that seemingly impossible task, by recognizing ourselves in them.

The bullies.  The parents.  The shooter.   In whom do you see yourself, and what can you do to love that person?

Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Distractions




Here's today's homily.  The readings are here; I'm using Track A.

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Many years ago, when I took my Preachers in Training class, I was given the story of Martha and Mary as a homework assignment.  I was supposed to think about how I’d write a homily about it.  As someone who’s often been criticized for being a dreamer – my mother once commented to my sister, “Susan has many skills, but none of them are practical” – Mary had my full sympathy, and I had to struggle to see the other side of the story.

And then, in one of those coincidences that may not be coincidence at all, my husband and I had a dinner guest.  The nephew of a friend, he had just gotten back from ten months working for an oil company in Algeria. As the three of us sat drinking iced tea in the living room, I asked him what it had been like living in a foreign country.  “What taught me the most,” he said quietly, putting down his glass, “was seeing the effects of a totalitarian government first-hand.”

He began talking about the sufferings of his Algerian friends, but suddenly I couldn’t concentrate.  He’d put his glass, dripping with condensation, directly on the oak coffee table, and all I could think about was water stains on my furniture.  I sat paralyzed, wondering what to do.  Should I say something?  Should I snatch up his glass and slide a coaster under it?  Surely those actions would be rude: I felt honored that he was sharing his experiences with us, and I didn’t want to interrupt his story.  But because I was distracted by, and worried about, water stains, I wasn’t listening to his story as closely as I would have liked to, either.  I was more worried about my house than about my guest.  In Gospel terms, the Martha in me had won out over the Mary.

Today’s readings are about generosity and hospitality.  In Amos, God thunders at people who care more about making money than about helping the poor.  In Genesis, Abraham famously offers hospitality to three strangers and receives a great blessing in return.  And in Luke, Martha and Mary demonstrate two different kinds of hospitality.

This story speaks directly to our baptismal covenant, which charges us “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.”  It’s no accident that there are two verbs in that sentence.  “Seek” is Mary’s verb: go find the guest; sit down next to him; listen to what he has to say.  “Serve” is Martha’s verb: make sure that the house is clean, that there’s food on the table, that the guest doesn’t need another glass of wine or cup of coffee. The two verbs are joined by an and, not by an or: “seek and serve.”  Both forms of hospitality are essential components of Christian discipleship, but they function properly only in balance.

Listening to this story, it’s easy to think that Jesus is valuing Mary’s hospitality over Martha’s.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  But Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to sit down and stop working entirely: rather, he tells her that “there is need of only one thing.”  One dish would be enough, but Martha’s preparing a seven-course gourmet meal.  She’s so busy serving that she’s forgotten to seek.  She’s replaced that and with an or.   It’s only fair to point out that Mary seems to have done the same thing; my mother, at least, would certainly understand Martha’s exasperation with the dreamy relative who’s too enthralled by a guest’s stories to help clear the table.   But today I want to talk about Martha, whose anxious efforts to welcome God, to be good enough for God, actually take her away from the God who’s sitting in her living room, right under her nose.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  The ultimate Martha of our culture -- the uber-Martha, if you will -- is, of course, Martha Stewart, who has spawned an entire industry devoted to preoccupation with miniscule details.  Toronto columnist Donna Lypchuk has listed the symptoms of Martha Stewart disease.  “You polish every lettuce leaf with a clean white cloth before you put it in the bowl.”  “You save snowballs from last winter in your fridge, in case you need them to create an ice-sculpture centerpiece.” “All of the grass in your front yard is braided.”  This kind of hospitality quickly becomes aggression, competitive performance:  it’s a perfectionism designed to make the guest feel inferior to the host.  While Lypchuk’s list of symptoms is funny, her suggested cure offers a withering commentary on how Martha Stewart disease blinds its victims to more pressing concerns.  Says Lypchuk, “Buy the afflicted woman a one-way ticket to Bosnia, Bangladesh, or any other Third World country, so she can appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’” Lypchuk and Amos are on the same page.

Most of us, I think, do appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’  We recognize the gifts we’ve been given, offer thanks, and try to share what we have.  These are, after all, among the most basic tasks of the church. But today’s Gospel story challenges us to ask ourselves how our personal definitions of being good enough for God interfere with our ability to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  If your idea of being good enough for God is having spotless white carpets, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone with muddy feet.  If your idea of being good enough for God is being well dressed, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone wearing rags.  If your idea of being good enough for God is having furniture unmarred by water stains, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone who has just put a dripping iced-tea glass down on your coffee table.  Our definition of “good enough” needs to be as various as the Christs who come to us, and always it needs to include the willingness to listen, both to strangers and to friends.

Mary, after all, already knew Jesus.  She wasn’t gazing starstruck at him because she’d never seen him before.  She listened so raptly because he brought news, the news he spent his life proclaiming: the Good News, the Gospel.  She refused to take for granted the astonishing fact that God was sitting in front of her, telling her a story.  She refused to consider her house more important than her guest.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, observes that “preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same.” Listening the way Mary did takes courage, because the news we hear often requires us to act, to change – even if only to change our minds about what we thought we knew.  Seeking God, we often discover that God asks us to serve in ways we may not have originally planned.  It can be easier, safer, to remain preoccupied with the finish on the furniture or the polish on the lettuce leaves.   It can be safer to hide from the astonishing fact that whenever anyone speaks to us, stranger or friend, Christ is there in front of us, telling us a story.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  I’m not sure we worry less when we learn to listen to God.   There are a lot of worrisome things in the world, after all.  I do think we worry about different things: less about lawns, and more about love; less about canapes, and more about compassion; less about furniture, and more about freedom.  As worrisome as Christ can seem in his more unlikely disguises, Christ himself has promised us that those who seek shall also find.  Seeking Christ in all persons, we will surely find our own ways to best serve all of Christ’s creatures, to help transform the world into the welcoming, hospitable Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Over the Cliff



Here's tomorrow's homily, on the famous story of the Gerasene demoniac.  This is denser and more academic than most of my homilies, and I'm worried about whether it will be intelligible to a listening audience.  But Gary's approved it, and that's usually a good sign.

*

Back when I volunteered as an ER chaplain, I met a young man I’ll call Joe.  He was lying on a gurney in the hall.  He’d pulled the blanket over his head.  When I told him who I was and asked if he wanted to talk, he said, “No one understands.”

“What don’t they understand?” I asked him.

“They don’t understand what it’s like to hear the voices.”

“I don’t understand that either,” I said, “but I want to.  Will you tell me about it?”

The voices in Joe’s head started when he was a teenager.  There were three of them.  Nothing made them go away.  He heard them when he slept.  He heard them when he was on medication.  He’d seen psychiatrists and been in mental hospitals, but nothing helped.

The voices said only one thing, ever and always.  They told Joe to die.

Joe had managed to get through school and to hold down a job he liked and was good at.  His parents and siblings no longer spoke to him, but he’d found a woman he loved and married her.  They had a child.   A week or so before I met him, though, his wife had left, taking the baby with her, and the voices got louder.  Joe called the only friend he had left in the world, a woman in the Midwest, who told him to come to the hospital.

I told Joe that I thought he was very brave.  I couldn’t imagine the strength it took to stay alive in the face of such constant, merciless commands to die.  He barely heard me; I could tell from the distracted look on his face that the voices were drowning out everything else.  In any case, he didn’t want compliments.  He wanted a cure.  He wanted those voices out of his head.

I met other people in the ER who heard voices.  Joe was one of the lucky ones.  He was well groomed, polite, articulate.  He had a place to live.  He had health insurance.  Most of the other patients in this category were homeless, often filthy and raving, desperate and terrified.  Some of them wept when I offered to pray with them; some of them simply screamed at me. Staff avoided them the same way people on the street avoided them.  Such patients could be as frightening as they were frightened.   They cycled back and forth between hospitals or jails and the streets.  Schizophrenia is a poorly understood illness, often difficult to treat, and although most patients aren’t actually dangerous, they scare us.  We leave them alone.  We steer clear.

I imagine the Gerasene demoniac was a lot like those schizophrenic ER patients.  Many Biblical scholars believe that the “demons” in Scripture are various forms of mental illness.  Like the patients I met, this Biblical figure bounced between painful confinement and vulnerable isolation.  He lived in terror and despair, always in the shadow of death.  I wonder if his demons, like Joe’s voices, told him to die, to throw himself off the cliff into the lake.

He was luckier than Joe.  He found the ultimate doctor.  Even the demons recognized Jesus’ power.  Knowing they would be cast out, they begged Jesus to spare them the abyss, to let them go into the herd of swine instead.  Jesus agreed.  Was this his way of loving his enemies, even demons?  Did he hope that if the demons entered the pigs, they’d leave people alone?  Did he believe that this sacrifice of livestock was the only way to purge the infection, a price that had to be paid?  We can’t know.  All we know is that the demons destroyed their hosts.  The swine, who couldn’t resist them as the man had, rushed over the cliff into the lake and drowned.

Good riddance, we might say.  Surely the demoniac himself did.  But the demoniac’s neighbors didn’t.  They didn’t welcome the healing.  They didn’t welcome Jesus.  They were probably upset that a herd of valuable animals had been killed to heal a man none of them wanted around anyway.  Jesus’ healthcare was expensive.  They didn’t want to pay for it, certainly not with their own assets.  They valued the swine more than the man.

That’s one level of resistance, but there’s another, deeper than economics.  The Gospel tells us they were afraid, and while watching miracles can indeed be frightening, I think there’s more to it.   Three years ago I took a summer class on “Dissident Discipleship” at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  The course gave us ways to think critically about American culture while remaining compassionate to ourselves and others.  We learned that wounds and behaviors we see as strictly personal have almost always been shaped and triggered by larger social forces and historical events:  military combat, economic hardship, bigotry and discrimination.  Private, individual suffering is a symptom of public trauma or dysfunction.  A mother’s neglect of her daughters, for instance, might very well mirror how she herself was hurt growing up in a culture that considered women inferior to men.

The teacher asked us a very important question.  “How does your suffering connect you to other people?  If you were abused by someone in your family who fought in a war, for example, you’re now connected to the children of veterans returning from Iraq, to children of military men and women around the world, and to the children of guerrilla warriors and freedom fighters, too.”

Much of the commentary on the Gerasene demoniac observes that the name “Legion” undoubtedly refers to the Roman Legion.  The demoniac’s possession by unclean spirits mirrors the occupation of the countryside by a despised military force.  Those drowned swine also remind me of Pharoah’s troops drowning in the Red Sea.   This isn’t just a story about a sick man who finds healing:  it’s a story about liberation, both personal and social, and about what that liberation might cost.  You lose a herd of pigs, but you get a person back.  Is the price worth it?

The healed man wants to leave this country.  He wants to join Jesus.  But Jesus tells him to stay where he is “and declare how much God has done for you.”  His job, now that he has been cured, is to tell other people that health and wholeness are possible, that freedom is within reach.   His job is to connect with the people who’ve previously shunned him, pushed him aside, locked him up or forced him to live in the wilds, in the tombs.  His job is to show them that his story is also their story, that they too can find liberation from bondage.

No wonder they’re scared.  They may hate the Romans, but they’ve got their livestock, their fields, their city.  They’re getting by.  Resenting their oppression is a lot easier, and a lot less expensive, than resisting it.   They don’t want to connect with the cured man.  They want his illness to be personal, private, his own problem, a sickness in his brain that has nothing to do with them or their society.

And what does Joe’s story tell us about our own society?  If nothing else, it tells us that we still isolate people with mental illness, that we don’t try hard enough to understand them, that we don’t use enough of our resources to find ways to help them.  Maybe we’re afraid of them not because they’re dangerous, but because the voices they hear are a bit too much like the ones  yammering in our ears, too:  telling us we have to be richer, thinner, more famous; that we should kill our enemies instead of loving them; that our houses and cars and iPads are more important than God’s suffering children; that curing our neighbors is just too expensive.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is our story.  God calls us to connect with a hurting world, to seek healing for ourselves and others even when that healing costs us.  How much are we willing to give up to get rid of our demons?  What habits are we willing to break to be whole and healthy?  How much are we willing to pay to be free?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Family Stories



Here's today's homily.  The readings are Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.

*

I’ve always loved the story of Peter’s vision.  There’s something about that image of the sheet being lowered, full of all kinds of animals, that immediately captures the imagination.  All those creatures, all that potential food, and obedient Peter determined not to eat anything he shouldn’t, until the voice in his dream tells him it’s okay.  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  And soon enough, he learns that all people are clean, too.  “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

This is only one of my favorite Bible stories.  I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, of Nathan challenging David to recognize his wrongdoing, of Jesus blessing the Canaanite woman, the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with him.  I could offer a much longer list, and I’m sure all of you have lists of your own.  I’ve noticed that many of my friends who aren’t religious seem to think of the Bible as a tedious collection of rules, of shalts and shalt-nots.  To me, it’s a collection of stories.  I come to church every Sunday to share a meal with friends and to hear old tales, stories I know rendered new by occasion and circumstance, made fresh whenever I hear them.

That’s what Jesus did with, and for, his friends.  They traveled together and ate together, and he told them stories:  about the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, about bridesmaids and laborers, about lost sheep and pearls of great price.  And his friends, in turn, told stories about Jesus’ amazing deeds.  Hey, remember that time when Jesus walked on water?  Remember when Jesus called us away from our fishing boats to follow him?  Remember all those people he fed, and healed, and loved?

This is what made the disciples a family; it’s what makes the church a family.  A family is a group of people who love each other, and take care of each other, and stick together.  Families share meals, and over their food they often share stories, not just about what happened that day, but about who they are and where they’ve come from.

Sometimes those stories seem boring, especially to the children at the table.  In my own family, my sister and I must have heard fifty thousand times how our father left home when he was sixteen to hitchhike across the country and join the Navy.  As the son of a truck driver, someone who never expected to get past high school, he loved to tell us how the GI Bill allowed him to go to college, and then to law school.   He routinely bragged about some of his legal victories.

My mother had her own set of stories:  about growing up during the Depression and watching her mother put plates of sandwiches on the back porch for hobos, about meeting my father in college and sneaking out of her dorm to see him after hours, about her nearly miraculous recovery from alcoholism after Dad divorced her because of her drinking.

Not all of their stories were happy, of course.  They both told sad tales about the deaths of their own parents.  But now that both of them are dead, my sister and I treasure all of our family tales, even the ones that made us roll our eyes when we were children.  These are the tales that tell us who we are and what our parents considered important:  compassion, education, perseverence.  Both of my parents, in different ways, overcame long odds to lead happy lives.

So I was very intrigued by a recent New York Times article about research into childhood resilience.  It turns out that the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family story.  Children who know a lot about their families, about where they came from, do better when they face challenges.   Psychologists gave children a twenty-question quiz with questions like, “Do you know where your parents met?  Do you know a story of something really terrible that happened in your family?  Do you know the story of your birth?”  The results of that quiz turned out to be the single biggest predictor of children’s health and happiness.  The kids who knew the most about where they came from had the most sense of control over their lives, the highest self-esteem, and the strongest trust in their families’ success.

The researchers also studied the kinds of stories families tell.  They identified three types.

The first is the  ascending narrative, the rags to riches story where things start out bad but get better.  “We came here with nothing, but we worked hard and made our fortune.”

The second is the descending narrative, the riches to rags story where things start out great but go downhill.   “We were wealthy and powerful once, but then we lost all our money in the stock market crash, and now we have nothing.”

The third is the oscillating narrative.  This kind of story goes up and down and up and down. It shows families dealing with both success and failure, weathering both losses and triumphs, bouncing back from hard times.  This third type, the oscillating narrative, was the healthiest one, the one that best prepared children to deal with hard times of their own.

Here are three oscillating narratives.

One.  “Susan, I was so happy with your father, but then I lost almost everything from drinking, and I was in the hospital and everyone thought I was going to die, but then I went to an AA meeting, and I got better.”

Two.  “I used to persecute Christians, but then God literally knocked me to the ground on the road to Damascus, and I discovered the love of Christ.  I helped plant a lot of churches, and God and my new friends are keeping me going even though I’m in prison now.”

Three.  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another.”   These words challenge us to think about how Jesus has loved us.  He has fed us and healed us.  He has comforted us, included us, and taught us to include others, even those we consider unclean.  But he has also told us stories, and he has left us with the greatest oscillating narrative of all.  A child born in poverty is revealed as the Son of God, gains a following, is betrayed and crucified, but rises from the tomb.  Darkness gives way to light.  Despair becomes hope.  Life conquers death.

This is our family story.  Christians have been telling it for two thousand years now over their bread and wine, even if some of the kids at the table roll their eyes and say,”That old story again?  I’ve heard that one a million times!”  It’s the best kind of story, the one that will leave us healthiest and happiest and most prepared to face the challenges of life.  We love God, and ourselves and one another, by remembering this story when we need strength, by retelling it at church every Sunday, and by sharing it with the strangers and outcasts we welcome to the feast.

Amen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

No-Brainers




Here's tomorrow's homily, for the first Sunday in Lent. I've linked to the Gospel passage below.

*

My husband and I have just started watching the British science-fiction series Doctor Who. In the episode we watched a few nights ago, a high school is taken over by a race of aliens, disguised as humans, who are actually ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings and ferocious teeth. At a crucial point in the episode, Doctor Who and his companions are cornered by a group of these creatures, who have been using the students to try to unlock a source of cosmic power. The head alien, waving his bat wings, booms at Doctor Who, “Become a God at my side! Imagine what you could do! Think of the civilizations you could save!”

I poked my husband. “Hey! It’s the Temptation of Christ! I’m preaching on that this weekend!”

Doctor Who, of course, says no, just as Jesus does in this morning's Gospel. That’s the thing: they know this story as well as we do. When a ten-foot-tall lizard with bat wings offers you ultimate power, you say no, especially when said lizard has been snacking on children. When anyone invites you to perform magic, offers you rulership of the entire world, or suggests that you jump from a tall building, you say no.

These are no-brainers. I’ve never gotten the sense that Jesus is seriously tempted by these offers; I always picture him rolling his eyes. These three challenges strike me as a pro-forma final exam. I suspect the real test came earlier, when Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil and had nothing to eat.”

Whenever I think about what those temptations might have looked like, I remember the moments in the Gospels when Jesus tries to go off by himself. He repeatedly tries to get alone time, and it never works. He’s constantly surrounded by crowds of people who need healing, by curious strangers hungry for good news, and by hapless disciples who can’t tie their own sandal laces without his help.

This pattern makes me wonder if the real temptation of the wilderness was the promise of sweet solitude, of all the time Jesus needed to pray and reflect and commune with his Father. True, he was fasting and hungry, but at least he wasn’t also worrying about feeding 5,000 other hungry people, or about helping the disciples catch fish, or about turning water into wine. If life in the wilderness was hard, it must also, in some ways, have been simple.

If I’m right about this -- if at least one of the temptations of the wilderness is the comfort of distance and disengagement -- the devil’s final three tests appear in a slightly different light. These three offers are, after all, things Jesus is going to get anyway. He will turn the stone of his death into bread for the world; he will be recognized as the ultimate ruler of creation; he will be thrown down from a great height and saved by the power of God. The devil’s greatest temptation isn’t power, glory or safety: it’s instant gratification. He’s offering these things right now, in a false form that’s removed from -- disconnected from -- the needs of the hurting world.

In time, Jesus will provide bread to all the hungry around him; but now the devil is tempting him to feed only himself. In time, Jesus will be adored and followed for his deeds of power and compassion; but now the devil is offering unearned glory divorced from love and service. In time, after a long painful journey, Jesus will plummet through the gloom of Good Friday and rise into the brilliance of Easter; but now the devil is tempting Jesus to test his safety net early, to prove that God will protect him before he has done the work for which he was sent.

The final three temptations, then, are of a piece with the previous forty days. Hey, Jesus, you don’t need to worry about messy human life; you don’t need to deal with crowds, or get your hands dirty, or be betrayed and crucified. You can stay alone, aloof, uninvolved: watching from a distance, an observer rather than a participant. You can stay safe.

Jesus says no. He knows this is a no-brainer. He knows his job is to love people in all their messy, inconvenient complexity, even when they hurt him, and he knows that there are no short-cuts to resurrection. The journey is the destination. 

Jesus knows this. Do we? It’s no accident that we hear this reading on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty days, rather than the end.

I, personally, would find the devil’s offer, the easy way out, really tempting. I do find it tempting. February and March are the hardest months of the year for me. I’m always beset by work deadlines. I’m always disheartened by weather that refuses to get warm enough fast enough. I’m always cold, hungry, and tired. The idea of Lenten disciplines makes me roll my eyes. This isn’t a time of year when I want to add another set of tasks to an already overburdened schedule. It’s certainly not a time of year when I want to give up any kind of physical or emotional comfort. Unless I can turn hibernation into a Lenten discipline, I want no part of it.

Every year, I joke about giving up Lent for Lent. This year, I almost did. My Wednesday teaching schedule this semester kept me from attending Ash Wednesday services. Lenten soup suppers are equally impossible, and any kind of community service is a joke. I’m just too busy. Why not skip Lent, focus simply on caring for myself -- which feels like enough of a challenge, thank you -- and take the short-cut to resurrection, going into hibernation on Ash Wednesday and emerging on Easter? Why not simply observe, rather than participating? Why not stay safe?

It seemed like a splendid plan. But then I got hooked despite myself: I saw an ad for a United Methodist project, a photo-a-day challenge. On each of the forty days of Lent, participants take a photograph in response to a one-word topic, prompts like “return,” “injustice,” “wonder.” I like taking pictures. This seemed like a safe, easy no-brainer. I could do this.

I’ve done it for all of five days now, and I’ve discovered that it’s a lot less easy -– and safe -- than it looks. How do you take a photograph of a verb like “settle”? How do you take a photograph of an abstract noun like “evil” or “injustice”? What do evil and injustice look like, and where do they live in my neighborhood, close enough for me to take a snapshot of them? Once I’ve recognized them, how can I help change them? While my position behind the camera certainly makes me more observer than participant, the project has forced me to think about the world and its suffering. It’s forced me to connect, however tenuously, with the messy, complicated lives around me.

Our task during Lent is to engage with the suffering of the world, rather than retreating into comfort and complacency. Our task is to live into the day-to-day work of feeding the hungry and healing the sick, rather than taking a short-cut to Easter. Our task is to be fully human while we acknowledge Jesus as fully divine. And if taking pictures still seems like something of a safe way out, well, at least it’s made me think – and feel. The photo project has woken me up from hibernation.

Some temptations really are no-brainers. Most of us, I suspect, would know what to say to ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings making enticing offers. But the devil takes many other forms, often more difficult to recognize. In the words of writer Kathleen Norris, “We act as the anti-Christ whenever we hear the Gospel and don’t do it.”

Amen.