Monday, December 17, 2012

The Silence Changed Everything: Zechariah's Story

A sermon on Luke 1:5-25, 57-64

Today’s sermon takes the form of a story. This is not my story, although I will tell it in the first person. It is the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the man whose story opens the Gospel according to Luke. We have heard the gospel narrative, and now I invite you to imagine with me what Zechariah might say if he could tell us his own story of how God changed his life. 

The silence changed everything. Everything. At first I tried to talk, I tried to hum, I tried to rasp, scream, whisper, grunt, whistle, anything I could think of. I lay in bed at night trying everything, my tongue working against my speechless lips, worrying at my teeth, begging in vain for my disobedient vocal chords to comply. Nothing worked – I was completely mute, every attempt to vocalize utterly noiseless. I might as well have been trying to fly. 

It was so frustrating to be silent. I’d always been a big talker anyway. I loved to shoot the breeze on a quiet afternoon, to tell stories around the table, to debate about scripture in the synagogue. To be mute now, after this, was unbearable. I had so much to say! 

It had been a lifetime of waiting for my wife Elizabeth and me. We’d waited for a child, waiting and waiting and waiting until slowly we accepted that it was too late. We’d waited faithfully for the Messiah, suffering year after year under the Roman imperial occupation, enduring the taxation, the centurions and governors and their tyrannical puppet kings, praying for the day when God would save us and free us. And we’d waited for years for my turn to offer incense in the sanctuary. Each group of priests served for a week twice a year, and each day of that week, one of us would be chosen by lots for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to approach the Holy of Holies. I had waited, time after time, for my lot to be drawn. The priests God chose for the task seemed to get younger and younger. Sometimes I wondered if God had forgotten us. But not anymore. The silence changed everything. 

It had seemed like a normal morning as I set off to the Jerusalem temple, joining along the way with the other priests from the order of Abijah. I had pretty much resigned myself by that time, but that day my name was chosen to enter the inner sanctuary and offer the incense. I had entered the chamber prepared to experience the silent, perfect peace of the presence of the Lord. As I lit the incense, there was a rush of wind and a breath-taking, awe-inducing something stood before me, all wings and eyes and sound. I was terrified; my memory is fuzzy, all flashes and snippets. Elizabeth. A son. Name him John. Something about Elijah. Prepare the way of the Lord. 

I knew the story of Sarah and Abraham, but still, like a fool, I objected. We were far too old for a child. “I am Gabriel,” came the reply, “an angel sent by God to tell you good news. But since you didn’t believe these words, you will be silent until these things occur.” And it was gone. The inner sanctuary was silent – and so was I. 

I can only imagine the look on my face as I stumbled out to the puzzled crowd of priests and found my tongue stopped. I stayed in Jerusalem in a silent daze, until the finally the week ended and I made my way home to Elizabeth in the maddening silence. 

So much happened in the silence! Everything with Elizabeth – Liz – changed completely. We’d always gotten along, but it had been different. Liz would laugh at my jokes, listen attentively to my stories, ask insightful questions. I loved that she was a good listener. I was a good talker. But now, I was infuriatingly mute, with the biggest story of my life. I would have written the story down, but Liz couldn’t read it. She’d never learned how; most girls didn’t. I tried to gesture it to her, but what hand signs could possibly communicate this unimaginable being with all the wings and eyes and glory? How can you pantomime “prepare the way of the Lord”? And so we sat in silence, and although the details remained fuzzy, I knew exactly what was happening before Liz realized it, as she started to get queasy, and tired, and more sensitive to smells.

I couldn’t quite remember what the angel had said, but when I would get up at night with a restless Liz, I’d rub her back and remember the stories I’d known all my life. Stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah. A barren woman pregnant, I knew, meant God had special plans for my son. Perhaps, I thought, he was the one we had been waiting for. The one who would break the grip of the Roman empire, who would restore Israel to glory, who would be our savior. Where else but the temple could God possibly foretell the birth of the anointed one? To whom but an elderly barren couple, descendants of great houses, could the Messiah be born? Could anyone imagine a more fitting way for God’s salvation to come to the world? My heart blossomed with pride and vindication, after years of the frustration and embarrassment. 

As Liz’s body began to change and she started to realize what was happening, I held her as she wept tears of joy, and laughed in joyful disbelief like Sarah had, so many generations before. I held her as her stories began to bubble forth. I had been embarrassed at her barrenness, pitied by my friends, graciously tolerant of her shortcoming – we had no notion then of the causes, we just all thought that barrenness was God’s curse on certain women, a sign of divine disfavor. I had had no idea what Liz had endured. The years of waiting, the covert glances at her belly, the hushed conversations that stopped when she grew near. The constant references to Sarah and Hannah and their miraculous children. The endless advice, the herbal remedies, the sense of resignation as the weeks and months and years slipped away. The shame she had felt, and the guilt, and the longing. I had never known. Not really. The silence changed everything. 

As Elizabeth’s belly grew, so did my certainty that the child to be born was the One we had been waiting for. I know it sounds foolish now, but put yourself in my position. How many of us have thought we knew when and where and how God’s will would be done? How many of us have imagined that the ways of the Lord were predictable and comprehensible? How many of us have looked for God to appear in the time and place we have designated: here, when we are ready, when we are paying attention, where we have prepared space and time for God. In the church, in the Bible study, in the quiet of our hearts in prayer. I am surely not the first, nor the last, who has looked for God where I expected to find God, in places of honor and glory, but has forgotten to look for God among the lowest and the least. I had forgotten, for a while, but the silence changed everything. 

Six months after that strange day in the temple, Elizabeth waddled home, ushering along her tiny cousin Mary with a small round belly of her own. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She wasn’t married yet, and if Joseph had any sense he wouldn’t marry her now that she was disgraced. I worried that she’d come here to hide from her shame, that she’d want to stay with us permanently. I didn’t want our child, destined for greatness, mixed up with her child by God only knows who. Although I couldn’t give voice to my dismay, I’m sure my face told the whole story. 

In a moment alone, Elizabeth told me, her hushed voice thrumming with joy, how as Mary came up the road, Elizabeth and the child in her womb had recognized the Lord together. Our son had kicked and kicked as if dancing for joy, as both women, normally so reserved, had burst into song. Joseph, through divine intervention or foolish compassion, had not called off the wedding, so Mary would stay until our baby was born, and then make her way home. 

And so for three months I sat with the silence, as we all marveled at the things that were taking place among us. For three months I listened to the two of them talk, sharing stories and hopes and fears, trading notes on kicks and aches and pains. I listened to them talk, and I pondered it all in my heart. I pondered how God was working, silent and unseen, in the darkness of these two wombs, in the lives of these two women, in the heart of one silent man learning to really listen. I pondered the breath-taking divide between the God I had been looking for and the Living God who had showed up in my life, moving in such unexpected ways. I wondered to myself, sometimes, what I had missed by thinking I knew what God would not do, where God would not be. I wondered what I might have seen in my life if I had really taken to heart that nothing is impossible with God. I wondered what I might have heard if I had ever stopped talking and really listened as if God might still be speaking, anywhere and everywhere, in the words of my wife, the silence of the early morning, the still small voice which whispers in our hearts. 

Elizabeth’s time came, and she gave birth to a son, a beautiful son, a son who would prepare the way of the Lord. Eight days after the child was born, Elizabeth chose a name, the right name, the name told to me: John. I knew that there was no way she could have known the name I had heard that day in the temple, and I knew that Elizabeth had heard God in the silence as surely as I had heard God in the rushing wind and strange voice. I heard the joy in Elizabeth’s voice as she spoke our son’s name, and I heard the scorn of our relatives as they dismissed the name and turned to me. They thought I would contradict Elizabeth. But the silence had changed everything. “His name is John,” I wrote. The sensation of warm, pure light radiated from my fallow larynx, tingled up and down my spine, raised goosebumps on my flesh and poured out my eyes as tears. The silence broke into a thousand glittering pieces as a song of praise poured forth from my lips. 

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel 
For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Flesh-Eating Gospel

Sermon on John 6:51-58

When I read this lesson, I groaned a little bit. And when I went online, I saw that I wasn’t alone. The facebook statuses and blog posts of my clergy friends reflected a shared sentiment: “The bread of life AGAIN?”

The readings we hear each week in church are generally not selected week-by-week by the pastors, but are based on a three-year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Each week has an assigned Gospel reading, an assigned epistle reading, and a couple of different options for Hebrew Scripture readings and Psalms. This year we are in the middle year of the cycle, Year B, and the summer of Year B has a certain reputation among preachers; week after week after week, we hear about bread: the Living Bread, the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, the loaves and fishes.

This Sunday, we once again hear Jesus describing himself as bread. But today’s reading is a little different. Jesus starts out again talking about himself as living bread, but quickly transitions to inviting his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood, causing some of my less reverent clergy friends to refer to this week in the summer of bread of life readings as “Zombie-vampire-Jesus week.”

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world… IS MY FLESH.” Zombie vampire Jesus indeed.

Our culture is rather obsessed with zombies and vampires. From Buffy to True Blood to Twilight, George Romero movies to the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” we can’t seem to get enough of these creatures that are human-but-not-quite, feasting on the flesh and blood of the living. So when Jesus seems to invite us to go vampiric on the Son of Man, it feels a little uncomfortable. Our worlds are colliding, as the blessed savior’s words evoke entertainment we think of as scintillating, self-indulgent, and perhaps even irreligious. As I first read this passage, my first instinct was to dismiss the similarities, to try to banish those zombie-vampire overtones from my mind and read it from a purer, more spiritual place.

I’m not alone in that: the great reformer Martin Luther stated emphatically that it surely could not be meant in a literal sense. He goes on to say that the sort of flesh that Jesus invites us to eat is not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made,” “not flesh such as purchased in a butcher shop or is devoured by wolves and dogs.” Martin Luther rejects the “fleshiness” of the text, and of course he is right that the text is not a literal invitation to cannibalism.

Another option, which Martin Luther also rejects, is that this passage refers to the sacrament of communion. Many commentators turn toward this option: the bread which we bless and break and declare to one another, “this is the Body of Christ.” The wine which we sip or dip bread into, saying sometimes “the cup of blessing,” but sometimes “the blood of Christ, poured out for you.” Communion is mysterious, and it is sometimes puzzling, and there are different ways of thinking theologically about it, but for those of us who are accustomed to it as an old and familiar ritual, it is not creepy. When we hear this lesson as a foreshadowing of the last supper and the crucifixion, a teaching about communion, it isn’t creepy either.

But what if those creepy resonances between this passage and stories of zombies and vampires are more than coincidence? What if Jesus is intentionally tapping into some of the same deep fascinations and fears, the same taboos and terrors, that horror stories play upon?

After all, it is pretty clear that Jesus’ teaching is disconcerting and upsetting to the listening crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. Even the disciples, a couple of verses after the end of the reading we heard today, tell Jesus he’s on thin ice: “This teaching is difficult,” they say, “Who can accept it?” If we try to reinterpret this teaching so it is not difficult, if we try to find an easy way to hear it so we can accept it without struggle, perhaps we’ve missed the point.

Commentator William Willimon in the Feasting on the Word commentary notes that throughout the passage, Jesus moves from polite words about eating and drinking to ruder words that are more explicitly anatomical, words more aptly translated as “gulp down my flesh,” or “slurp my blood.” Jesus calls attention to the messy reality of eating, the fact that, when we eat, we mash up formerly living things between our teeth, moisten them with our saliva, swallow them into our guts. We can try to dress it up with white tablecloths and pretty plates and proper etiquette; we can chew with our mouths closed and keep our elbows off the table, but eating, at its heart, involves a lot of bodily processes that make many of us a little squeamish when we give them our full attention. When we pay attention to eating, we remember that we are living things, with bodies: muscle and fat, bones and connective tissue, nervous system, skin, nails. Bodies that are different, but not so very different, from the bodies that once made up our hamburgers or pork chops (for those of us who are not vegetarian). Giving our full attention to the processes of eating and drinking calls attention to our own mortality, our own fragility. In this passage, Jesus calls us to give them our full attention nonetheless. Because, as the grand statement at the beginning of John reminds us, in Jesus, the Word was made flesh.

The Word made flesh means that all of the nitty-gritty embarrassing details of having a body have been in-dwelt by divinity. The Word made flesh means that God created every intricate and repulsive detail, from an infant’s tiny curling toes and almost translucent toenails, to dandruff and acne, to aching joints and sore muscles, to the electrical impulses of nervous systems, to liver spots and graying hair. The Word made flesh means that through Jesus Christ, God has dwelt among us in a particular body, experiencing the mundane joys and irritations of physicality. The Word made flesh and dwelt among us, shattering every barrier between that which is physical and that which is spiritual.

In his book Accompany them with Singing, Thomas Long writes about the history and traditions of Christian funerals. Long notes that to the Greco-Roman worldview saw the spiritual and material worlds as completely separate; the prevailing culture surrounding the early church celebrated things related to spirit and intellect and condemned things related to physicality and fleshiness. Early Christians, however, saw an intricate and holy connection between spirit and flesh. Long writes about the ways early Christians puzzled Romans with ideas like the doctrine of the incarnation, and practices like communion, reflecting Christian theology that the spiritual and the physical were not separate spheres, but a unified creation. “The most bizarre of these activities, as far as the Romans were concerned,” Long continues, “was the Christian practice of burying the dead – not just their own dead, but the poor as well.” The early Christians, Long says, gave their time to help bury the poor, a practice their Roman peers found repugnant. They gathered up the bones of martyrs and made relics out of them. They treated dead bodies not as empty shells to be abandoned, but as created things to be disposed of with care. There were other practices, too, stemming from this theology: Diana Butler Bass writes that early Christians were also known for caring for the sick. When an epidemic took hold, she writes, most people who could would flee the city; but Christians stayed and cared for the ailing. They believed that the Word was made flesh; they believed that the resurrection means we need not fear death; they believed that caring for the ignored and despised is a high and holy calling. And they believed that they were nourished and sustained in these acts of service by Christ – whose flesh is true food.

Those beliefs are as counter-cultural today as they were two thousand years ago, although we live in a very different culture than that of the early church. And the call to take seriously the incarnation is as pressing and as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago. Taking seriously the incarnation means working and hoping for justice and peace in the flesh, in the world. Not only spiritual peace in the hearts of the faithful while wars rage and gun violence escalates, but peace in the world. Not only justice by-and-by in the realm of God, but justice now, in this world, for living people: fair pay for a day’s work, access to resources and opportunities, and a government that serves the common good. If Jesus is the Word made flesh, living bread for the life of the world, then God’s call to us, this Body of Christ which we call the church, is to incarnate God’s will. To work and hope and pray for justice and kindness and peace and grace that is tangible; visible; incarnate.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. In the creation of human bodies, in the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God enters into all of embodiment. Not just the parts of the human experience that are polite and pretty, not just the parts that are joyful and romantic. The messy parts and the icky parts and the parts that we don’t talk about in polite company.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. He invites us to a faith that happens not just in our internal reflections, but with our hands and feet and voices. It is not always sunshine and roses when we visit a friend in the hospital. There are bed pans and hospital johnnys. It is not always easy to sit down and eat with someone we don’t know well. There are awkward silences and moments of conflict. When you embrace someone while they cry, you sometimes end up with snot on your shirt. That is what it means when God invites us to the messy and ugly business, the high and holy calling, of really caring for our neighbors, being part of the Body of Christ, the church, incarnating God’s love for the world.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. It sounds creepy, and maybe it is. But it is necessary. Because we who are fed by this living bread have a high and holy calling: to love God and our neighbor; to do justice and love kindness. And in that hard work, we are truly nourished and sustained by Jesus Christ – not always tangibly, but truly. We could not do it if we were merely metaphorically sustained by God. We could not do it if Christ loved us abstractly. We can do it only because we are fed by the Body of Christ – the Body of Christ which we know truly, though not always tangibly, through scripture and prayer and community – nourishing and sustaining each of us. And for that real sustenance, thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Give a Benediction

A Guide for the Perplexed 

I wrote and posted this because I once needed an article like this and couldn’t find one. 

Perhaps you’re in your first call, or doing an internship in a congregation. The hymns are chosen, the liturgy is written, your sermon is ready to go. Just smooth sailing and pastoral presence in front of you, right? Nope. 

The benediction used to take me by surprise every single time I led worship. Unlike most of the liturgy, it can’t be typed in advance, printed out, and read out loud (I do this with many things including my pastoral prayers – it makes worship less spontaneous for me, but a better experience for the congregation.) Unlike the unscripted parts of worship (e.g. announcements), it calls for a certain gravitas, which can be hard to summon up when you’re standing there trying to think of what you were going to say. Frankly, it can be daunting. But fear not! If I can get this figured out, you will be fine. 

First of all: take a deep breath and remember what an incredible gift it is to bless these people and send them out into the world. Wow, right? Let that show on your face. 

Walk out until you are as close as possible while still being visible to everyone. Stand up straight. Stretch your arms out around shoulder level with your palms facing the congregation. Stretch them out farther. Try to accept that this does not make you look silly. Imagine that the power of God is flowing through you – it is. 

Now, say something. I give my benedictions in three sections: 

  1. A brief charge. Send them out to do something. It can be as simple as “Go forth to love and serve.” Or it can be a reiteration of the message of the sermon. Or it can connect to the final hymn. Extra style points if you use a little rhetorical flourish. 
  2. A blessing. This isn’t something for them to do, it is a prayer for God’s blessing on them. Memorize this one, or say something as brief as “May the love of Christ surround you, today and every day.” 
  3. Invoke the trinity (if this is appropriate to your setting) or another way of naming God. I say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God, Mother of us all. Amen.” Wait to hear “Amen!” 

Lower your arms; don’t look sheepish; don’t think about logistics – you can find your papers later; exit gracefully.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Safety Second

A Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Safety second!”

That’s what my friends and I would say to each other in seminary. “Hey, I just got this bike… do you think I’m fine to bicycle through Times Square at rush hour?” “Safety second!” “Wait, how does this grill work again? Am I supposed to use lighter fluid?” “Be careful! Safety second!”

It wasn’t a great joke – we were seminary students, not comedians – but the joke was based on the unstated but implied priority, “God first.” Whenever we heard someone who wasn’t in on the joke say “safety first,” we got a kick out of correcting them. “Safety first!” “No, safety second.” Unveiling the “God first” punch line was especially fun if we were talking to a seminary professor or a field education supervisor.

So imagine my joy when my eight-year-old stepson, staying with his dad and me for the month of July, put on his helmet before a scooter ride and remarked, “Safety first.” I taught him the “safety second” joke, and he had a great time sharing it with everyone from my colleague the senior pastor to his vacation bible camp leaders to strangers on the subway. He had some questions about whether God and safety ever actually conflict with each other – whether it is ever actually necessary to choose between “God first” and “safety second.” My stepson enjoys stories of heroes and martyrs who do actually choose God over safety, but we noticed that in our everyday lives, “God first” and “safety second” usually coexist with little tension.

Our Gospel text for today raises questions of what it means to put God first, even as Jesus, in his encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, puts safety second. Our cycle of readings is taking us, step by step, through the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel according to Mark; the last few weeks included a brief detour into the Gospel of John to hear several lessons about Jesus as Living Bread. This week, we return from the Living Bread to the more mundane type of bread, as we find ourselves with Jesus and the disciples eating a meal in the land of Gennesaret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And around them are Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem.

Until I traveled in Israel, I didn’t completely understand the significance of the place names in the Gospels. In particular, traveling in Israel gave me the opportunity to grasp the contrast between the Galilee, where Jesus grew up and began his ministry, and Jerusalem, where he spent his last days and was crucified. The Galilee is a region in the northern part of contemporary Israel, named for its body of water, the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a large-ish lake. To give you a bit of a sense, bicycling around the Sea of Galilee is a popular tourist activity, which takes about a day. To this day, the Galilee is a rural area, with rolling hills and lots of agricultural fields and pastures. Nazareth, the town in the Galilee region where Jesus grew up, is definitely a town, but not a big one, with a couple of bustling streets and a small market.

Jerusalem, by way of contrast, is definitively urban, and was in Jesus’ time as well. The city’s boundaries have expanded since New Testament days, but the center remains similar, a labyrinth of stone streets in a covered market where you could -- and I did -- get lost for hours. As it was in Jesus’ time, it remains a center both of religious observance and of religious and political tension. It is that religious and political tension that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion, and so when these Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem appear in the bucolic hills of the Galilee, the fact that they have come from Jerusalem is much more than a little geographical tidbit. It is a warning sign that Jesus is starting to get the attention of the religious authorities, and not in a good way.

As soon as these scribes and Pharisees appear on the scene, they have a pointed question, a veiled accusation, for Jesus regarding the disciples, who are eating the meal with unwashed hands. To twenty-first century listeners, people in an age where the existence of germs is widely known, and the sources of germs are widely understood, eating with dirty hands sounds mostly like a safety and hygiene issue. It is a bad idea, but not for the same reasons that the scribes and Pharisees would have considered it unacceptable.

 The Pharisees were members of a religious movement within Judaism, a movement which we honestly don’t know much about. There was a lot of tension between the early Christian tradition and the Pharisees, because both were newish religious movements within Judaism that were open to everyday people, not just the religious elite. The tension between the two movements means that early Christian documents are not considered to be particularly objective, and few other documents mention the Pharisees, so it’s hard to know much about them for sure. The scribes, however, we do know about – they would have been scholarly members of the religious elite. When Jesus attacks them with an accusation of “honoring God with their lips” but not their hearts, he is attacking people who have a lot of power and influence – pretty clearly putting safety second.

For the Pharisees and scribes, failing to wash one’s hands before eating would have been a religious violation: much of Jewish religious practice at the time focused on ritual purity and impurity, and early Christian sources seem to suggest this was a particularly true for the Pharisees. Ritual purity is not about germs and hygiene; it is a different kind of thing entirely – a fact which is illuminated by the verb Mark uses to describe the ritual washing of cups, pots, and kettles: baptizo, to baptize. It is not so much about making things clean of dirt and debris as it is about making things clean in the eyes of God. Observing ritual purity regulations, for the scribes and Pharisees, was a matter of putting God first in one’s daily life and actions; they are scandalized by the disciples’ failure to observe ritual hand-washing practices.

If we don’t pay careful attention, stories like this one can sound like indictments of Judaism and the Jewish tradition, at least as it was practiced at the time. It is easy to hear that tired old theme of Jesus freeing us from the onerous and arbitrary restrictions of the law. But that’s not what this text is saying, or what Jesus is doing. The Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus knows the law; he quotes the Old Testament with ease, and interprets it with authority. And he knows that there is no religious law or that mandates the washing of hands before meals. That tradition is an old custom by this time, but not part of the Mosaic law. Jesus quotes Isaiah to the scribes and Pharisees, saying that they are, in the words of Isaiah, “teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

The hand-washing tradition is a fine religious observance, I would say also a fine hygienic practice (although ritual washing, like baptism, generally involved a sprinkling of water rather than a good scrub with soap). However, this religious custom that had originated as a way of practicing faith had come to be used as a way of judging, criticizing, and categorizing other people. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus names and rejects many, many religious and social systems that were used to label, demean, and exclude, from ritual washing to temple donations to leprosy. And in many cases, these systems were deeply tied to socioeconomic status: the wealthy and well-born are in, the poor are out.

Our society, too, has a fair number of practices and customs that separate people from one another. We know a few things about labeling and judging. Probably most of us have been on both sides of that coin. From teenage obsession over having the “right” brand of jeans or shoes to the subtle nuances of business attire, our clothing often serves to communicate identity and social status; whether we or not we judge the apparel of others, we are often sized up based on our clothing. The ways we use language, too, whether it’s oral or written, can mark us as younger or older, more or less educated, “from here” or “not from here” in ways that can be used to reinforce racism and xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and class discrimination.

These norms, practices, and customs, from how we speak to what we eat to how we spend our time, sometimes serve to separate “us” from “them,” and to reinforce notions of hierarchy and superiority. This week, more people watched the television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than the Republican National Convention. “Honey Boo Boo,” for those not in the know, is a seven-year-old pageant princess from a family that proudly identifies as “red necks.” Their outrageous antics have earned them their own spin-off from the show where they first appeared, Toddlers and Tiaras. The television show has been criticized for the way it portrays this low-income, rural, mostly overweight family; one reviewer notes that the show attempts to make the Thompson family an object of scorn, “something to point and snicker at.” While the audience watches in horror and judgment at the family’s rural Southern culture, others judge the audience for tuning in to such garbage, while some turn up their noses at anyone who even has a television. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scorn, judgment, and superiority both directed toward and coming from the Republican National Convention.

In the face of all of this, Jesus calls us to a different way, calls us away from judging and labeling, away from hierarchy and arrogance, away from “us” and “them.” Jesus declares that no outward customs – nothing we can see – can “defile,” or make a person less acceptable to God. Instead, he says, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Friends, the only human heart we can really know is our own.  Since the only heart we can truly know is our own, we have no choice but to turn from judging the behavior of others to focusing on our own habits of mind or heart. We have no choice but to turn from the superficial differences which separate us to the love of God which unites us and calls us away from scorn and arrogance, and toward repentance and renewal.

That is precisely what we try to do, what we are invited to do, when we come to the communion table. We experience, for a moment, a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, a table where there is no “us” and no “them.” We experience, for a moment, a meal where rich folks and poor folks and somewhere-in-the-middle folks receive the same bread and the same cup, gifts of love from the same God. We practice a ritual that has been practiced all over the world for centuries, with many kinds of bread and many different words and many different practices, all of which are good and acceptable to God, because all of them come from good intention, all come from the intention to put God first. And we experience the grace of God, who knows the intentions of our hearts, who invites us to cultivate the good and let go of the bad, and who welcomes us back to the table every time.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A King of Questionable Virtue

A sermon on 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Before we get started, I’d like to be clear that today's text from the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on themes of sexuality and violence. Addressing these issues as a faith community is important and worthwhile, but it may not be appropriate for every listener. So this is a trigger warning for those who are sensitive to discussions of sexual violence, and a parental guidance warning. I will be preaching on the story of David and Bathsheba, and this sermon is rated PG-13.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Holy One, our rock and redeemer.  Amen.

I was in the fourth grade or so, and it was a Sunday morning at United Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. There had been a call to worship, a hymn, and a children’s sermon. We had been dismissed for Sunday school, gone to our classes, said our opening prayer, taken attendance, collected an offering for the Heifer Project. Now it was time to read the scripture and do the activity. “Who wants to read the scripture?” the teacher asked. My hand shot into the air. I was terrible at crafts, but I was a good reader. “Okay, Emily,” the teacher said, “Open your Bible and read to us starting at Exodus 19:15.” I opened my Bible and found the page. “Are you sure?” I said. “Yes,” the teacher replied. “Are you sure you’re sure?” I said, “Chapter 19 verse 15?” “Yes, I’m sure,” the teacher replied impatiently, “please read the lesson.” I could feel my face blushing and my ears burning as I stammered out the words: “and Moses told them, ‘Be ready by the day after tomorrow and don't have sexual intercourse in the meantime.’” The class erupted into laughter. That’s when my teacher interrupted. “What are you DOING?” she shrieked. We got it sorted out eventually – she had meant chapter 15, verse 19, not the other way around. That was the day I learned that the Bible sometimes talks about sex. 

And boy, does it ever. There are protocols and prohibitions; there is luscious love poetry and erotic imagery; there are stories of aging couples longing for children and young lovers on their wedding nights. And there are stories of sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct ranging from stories that are puzzlingly archaic – like Ham, whose misdeed is lost to the fog of ancient euphemisms – to stories that are horrifically relevant – like the woman of Judges 19, who is sexually assaulted and dismembered, as too many women are around the world to this day. 

Our story today of David and Bathsheba is not the most graphic or the most horrifying story of sexual misconduct in the Bible, but it speaks to our contemporary context nonetheless, especially in the ways that power, sexuality, and violence interweave and overlap in this text, as they often do in our contemporary world. 

Our text finds David in the middle of his reign, no longer the promising and idealistic youth who slew the Philistine giant Goliath, but now a wheeling-and-dealing power player who, through some combination of political savvy and divine favor has managed to ascend the throne, attain the upper hand in wars with the surrounding nations, bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and win the people’s hearts. David has been able to acquire everything he has set his eyes on; in today’s reading, he sets his eyes on Bathsheba. He sees her bathing from his rooftop, he wants her, and he sends a messenger to find out who she is. 

David’s is married, but his polygamist society will not look askance at him for seeking variety. By the end of his life, he will have several wives and concubines. He is free to marry another wife, take another concubine, seek out a lover, have an affair. These things are considered neither criminal nor sinful (which are, in David’s society, essentially the same thing). Pursuing Bathsheba, however, is considered criminal and sinful for both of them. Because, in their society, men are permitted to be polygamous, but women are required to be monogamous. Adultery, in their time, is not so much about covenant, as it is about women as property; it is defined as a married woman having sexual contact outsider her marriage, or a man having sexual contact with another man’s wife. And Bathsheba is another man’s wife. Specifically, Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in King David’s army, a member of the Thirty, an elite corps of soldiers who are listed by name at the end of 2 Samuel. She is Uriah’s wife, and Uriah is away fighting on King David’s behalf, while David is at home, napping and pursuing Bathsheba. 

Let us imagine, for a moment, what Bathsheba may have experienced when messengers from King David began to knock on her door. Some commentators suggest that she may have been delighted. By bathing within view of the royal roof, they suggest, she was intentionally inviting King David’s attention. Perhaps she was; such things have certainly been known to happen. But I am wary of too easily assuming that Bathsheba was trying to seduce David while she bathed in her own home. Because in our society, when a woman is harassed or assaulted, it is not uncommon to hear the assumption that she was seeking out sexual attention. “She was asking for it.” “Why was she wearing that?” “What was she doing there?” Where there is misconduct, our society too often picks apart every aspect of the victim’s behavior, reputation, and appearance rather than putting the blame on the perpetrator. It is possible Bathsheba was seeking King David’s attention; it is just as possible that she didn’t realize she was being spied on. 

But let’s imagine another possibility. Let us imagine that when a messenger arrives from the King, she finds herself afraid, and weighing her options. There are, of course, repercussions for accepting King David’s invitation. It would be a sin and a crime. She would be an adulteress. She might be found out. She might be stoned to death. But there may also be repercussions for refusing, because this is not a relationship of equals. As the King, David holds power over Bathsheba; as the commander of the army, David holds power over Bathsheba’s husband and also her father. What will happen to them if she refuses, provoking his anger? What will happen to her? Is this an invitation, or is it a royal summons? If she refuses, will her refusal be honored, or will the messengers return with armed guards? Even if Bathsheba goes to David’s bed willingly -- and some commentators believe that she does not, that this is clearly rape -- it is possible that she goes there reluctantly, or under duress. We do not know. The narrator does not tell us. 

Bathsheba never speaks; we never hear a word about her intentions, her emotions, her aspirations. All we ever hear from her are the three words that she sends to David by messenger: “I am pregnant.” With her husband away at battle and a baby on the way that is clearly not his, she is in a precarious situation. Whatever her feelings were about David before, she has few options now, and she chooses to appeal to him for help and protection. She calls upon David, who used his royal authority to summon her to his bed, to use that same authority to resolve her dilemma. 

For what it’s worth, David does try at first to resolve the crisis through deceit rather than violence. He calls Uriah home on furlough, and attempts to send him home to his wife, hoping that when her pregnancy becomes apparent, Uriah will assume the child is his. But Uriah’s sense of honor prevents him from indulging in the pleasures of home while his fellow soldiers are still on the field of battle. He refuses to go to his wife, and David’s plan is foiled. 

That is when David turns to violence, handing Uriah a sealed message to his commander, Joab. The message instructs Joab to put Uriah in the front of a dangerous battle, and then to have the rest of the troops draw back so that Uriah will be killed by the enemy, leaving Bathsheba widowed and protected from discovery, and David free to honorably marry her and raise “Uriah’s” child as his own. David covers up one misdeed with another, covers one abuse of power with another, perhaps greater, abuse of power. 

In our world, too, power, sexuality, and violence often overlap and interweave in ways that are confusing and toxic. How many Bathshebas are there in our contemporary world, women and men who weigh their options and reluctantly tolerate unwanted sexual attention because they are afraid to say no? How many people who make their choices out of the fear of losing a job, failing a class, being rejected by family or doubted by friends or mocked by peers? How many Davids are there in our world, men and women who coerce, manipulate, and threaten, using positions of authority, financial dependence, or threats of violence? It happens every day, in big ways and small; big ways like the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Big ways like the prevalence of child sexual abuse: one CDC study indicated that up to a quarter of adult women and a sixth of adult men experienced sexual abuse in their childhood at the hands of an adult, although data seems to suggest that that rate will be much lower for children of this era. And there are the seemingly small things that add up: the catcalls, objectifying remarks, and unwanted touches that many women experience on the sidewalks and in the subways of this city, for instance; the sexual harassment that women and men experience all too often in the workplace; the gender- and sexuality-based bullying that children experience all too often at school – seemingly small indignities that we silently accept rather than making a fuss or a scene, passively tolerate rather than risking escalation or retaliation. 

In the face of all of this, the Christian tradition’s response has been woefully inadequate. Sometimes we get it right, sure. But more often, historically, we have gotten it wrong. Sometimes the church has been complicit; churches too often try to cover up wrongdoing, concerned with public relations and liability, rather than healing for victims and accountability for perpetrators. 

Even when Christianity is not directly complicit in such abuses of power, it has too often failed to adequately address the issues. We sometimes cast sexuality in terms of black and white: do this, don’t do that, failing to address the ambiguities and complexities of real life, failing to offer an ethical framework that is adequate to the challenges that people face. If Bathsheba were sitting in the pews of our churches, would she receive a word of life, or a tirade of shame and blame? Other times the church has preached cheap grace and instantaneous forgiveness, rather than calling for accountability, repentance, and transformation. Uncomfortable and embarrassed, many churches avoid the issue altogether, retreating into silence. 

But the good news of our story today is that God is not silent. Our faith tradition holds stories like the story of David and Bathsheba in sacred trust, calling us to remember and recognize the brokenness of this world, naming and condemning the abuses of power that dehumanize, harm, and destroy, so that we may turn away from the powers and principalities of this world and toward the realm of God. We are called into communities like the church – the Body of Christ – to bear witness to a better way, where all voices are heard and power is used for the good of the whole. We are called into community to pray and hope and work for a world where God’s will of justice and righteousness is done. As we hear this story of a king of questionable virtue, we are invited to remember the fallibility of human kingdoms – even the kingdom of David! – and to seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God. 

Peace, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, is not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of justice. So it is with the kingdom of God, and so may it be in the communities we are called to build as children of God and disciples of Christ. We are called not just to the absence of abusive power, but the presence of mutual empowerment. Not just to the absence of objectification, but to the presence of compassion. Not just to the absence of shame and blame, but to the presence of grace and respect. Not the absence of manipulation, but the presence of love; not the absence of coercion, but the presence of mutuality; not the absence of harm, but the presence of healing. These are the marks of the kingdom of God and the Body of Christ; this is the call God places on our lives and our community; this is the path on which we are invited to follow Jesus. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Phalacrophobia: the irrational fear of becoming bald.
Gelotophobia: the irrational fear of being laughed at.
Ablutophobia: the irrational fear of bathing.

Perhaps you’ve seen lists of strange phobias like those. You might also be familiar with the more common phobias: arachnophobia (spiders), acrophobia (heights), claustrophobia (enclosed spaces). Fear – both rational and irrational – is a huge part of the human experience. We struggle with it, come up with silly names for it, even make film after film after film about it.
Fear is an overpowering emotion, an emotion that takes hold of us and makes it hard for us to think clearly, breathe deeply, and act rationally. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that in our scripture, angels so often greet humans with the words “Fear not!”

Fear plays a big role in our Gospel text for today. Although our story today is not a parable – it is a story about Jesus, not a story that Jesus told – it reminds me of my colleague’s words from last week about parables: they are multi-layered, multi-dimensional stories, with many possible meanings and layers of interpretation that can all be true at the same time. As I studied today’s text, I started to see several layers to this story of the storm at sea, layers focused around the fear of the disciples: what are they afraid of? I’d like to suggest to you three phobias, and with them three interpretations, all of which might be true, although the last is my favorite.

The first phobia I would like to suggest to you is thalassophobia: the fear of the sea. The beginning of our story finds Jesus and the disciples at the end of a long day of preaching and teaching. The crowd is so eager to be near Jesus that he has gotten into a boat, sitting there and teaching the crowd on land to prevent them from crushing him. The day is over, and Jesus calls on the disciples to go with him across the sea of Galilee (which is actually a large-ish lake in the northern part of Israel).

They set out in the boat, but a great windstorm arises – the words there actually mean “a great whirlwind of wind.” The waves batter the boat so that the boat “is already being filled up,” the Greek says. The story is mostly in the present tense, which isn’t unusual for Mark, but the narrator adds immediacy with the word “already.” And through all of this, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, with his head on a pillow, until the disciples wake him up in a total panic, with these words: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

The direct cause of their fear is the storm, but that fear is heightened by the way the sea was perceived in their culture. For ancient Israelites, water was a place of swirling primordial chaos. Think of the image of the Leviathan, the mysterious beast lurking in the depths of the sea, that we hear of in the Psalms. Think of the formless void of waters that exists before God institutes order, creating light and darkness, sea and dry land, in the Genesis account of creation. Think of the parting of the Red Sea, and the parting of the Jordan River, God’s miraculous acts of pushing water back to make a path of safe dry land so the Israelites can cross over. A storm is bad; a storm at sea is terrifying.

The most straight-forward interpretation of the disciples’ fear, then, is that they fear the storm at sea, as we all fear storms in our lives, whether they are literal storms like the one that came raging through the city on Friday, or metaphorical storms of financial trouble, or family crises, or health issues. When we fear storms, perhaps this story can remind us that Christ has the power to still storms, commanding “Peace! Be still!” to the storms of anxiety and hopelessness and fear that rage in our hearts in times of trouble.

So that is one phobia, and one layer, but maybe you’ve noticed something: after the storm stops, the disciples remain afraid; so I’d like to suggest a second possible layer of interpretation.

Perhaps the disciples are suffering from exousiphobia: the fear of power or authority, specifically the authority that they come to realize Jesus has over the elements. Having been woken up in the midst of the storm, Jesus rebukes the wind and says two words to the sea – words that are translated in our Bible as “Peace! Be still!” but might be more aptly rendered as “Shut up! Shut up!” The storm stops.

I very much doubt that that is what the disciples were expecting; perhaps they wanted him to grab a bucket and start bailing, or to help with the oars. Maybe they were turning to him because it was his stupid idea to get in this boat in the first place. I doubt that they realized that they were in a boat with one who had the authority to control the weather. The Greek word used for storm in this passage is “lailaps,” which can mean whirlwind; the Greek translation of Job uses that same word when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the passage we heard just a little while ago. It is a passage that evokes the overwhelming power of God, reminding us that the all of the vastness and mystery of the universe comes directly from God’s hand. It is one thing to be in a boat in a storm at sea; it is another thing to be in a boat with one who has power to control the storm. They think they’re in a boat with mild-mannered Bruce Banner, only to find themselves with the Hulk. They start to realize the scope of Christ’s power, and they are frightened by what they see.

Perhaps sometimes we, too, underestimate Christ’s power to redeem, transform, and save. Commentator Mike Baughman invites us to consider whether, like the disciples, we sometimes ask God only for things that seem realistic. Do we shy away from praying and hoping for real peace and justice for this world? Do we sometimes ask for just a little bit of healing, just a modicum of reconciliation? Do we hand Jesus a bucket instead of asking him to still the storm?

Perhaps we do, sometimes. But I think there is more going on here, and so I would like to suggest a third phobia, a third interpretation. Perhaps the disciples are suffering from epitychiphobia: the fear of success. You see, Jesus has actually proposed a pretty outrageous plan; they have gotten into a boat in the Galilee, and Jesus has declared that the boat is heading for the other side: the land of the Gerasenes. These are not particularly hated people, like the Samaritans; they are not people who are really on the radar. They are Gentiles, and they are Gentiles from way over there. Perhaps when the disciples see Jesus still the storm, they suddenly realize the scope of what God was about to do; this is not some oddball itinerant preacher heading off on a crazy quest. This is the Messiah, heading out to minister to Gentiles, and they are going with him. It is a fundamental change in everything they thought they knew about God and how God works in the world, and maybe that scares them.

They would not be the first; the text hints at another story of God reaching out to Gentiles, another story of a storm at sea: the book of Jonah. Like Jonah, this story involves a word from God, brought to non-Israelites by Israelites. Like Jonah, this story involves a man asleep in a boat. Like Jonah, this story involves a storm at sea.

There is a more subtle connection, as well: when our translation says that the disciples were “filled with great awe,” what the Greek actually says is that they “feared a great fear,” using both the verb and noun forms of “phobia.” First of all, “filled with great awe” is not a very good translation of that phrase. But second and more important, “fearing a fear” or “rejoicing a joy” or “lamenting a lament” is weird syntax in Greek; it’s not how people talked. But it’s not uncommon in Hebrew, and it is downright characteristic of the book of Jonah. If we know how to listen for it, the narrator is evoking a story of a man reluctant to participate in the vastness of God’s love. He references that story as he tells us this story of the boat bound for the land of the Gerasenes, carrying the love of God incarnate and a dozen men who are just starting to realize what they’ve signed up for.

So perhaps, when the disciples “fear a great fear,” their fear is the fear of success: they fear that they are really, actually, going to go and bring the Good News to the Gerasenes. They fear that the man they are following is truly the Christ, and the radical plan he has proposed is actually going to happen, and they don’t know what that means for them. They don’t know what it means for their lives or their families, they just know it will turn their worlds upside down -- and it will. They fear the unknown that lies on the other side of transformation. The text tells us they are frightened not when the storm comes, but when they find themselves in a boat riding over calmed waters toward a foreign land with Jesus Christ.

Sometimes perhaps we feel that way as well. I think there are times when we are afraid of the storms of life, but more afraid of the strange and uncomfortable places God might be asking us to go when the storms subside. Change, after all, can be disorienting and terrifying. It can be more frightening than the storms of rush and hurry, busy-ness and workaholism. More frightening than the storms of our familiar anxieties and habitual neuroses. More frightening than the dysfunctional way we’ve always done things, more frightening than the job that makes us exhausted and bored, more frightening than the relationship that brings out the worst in us. Change is certainly more frightening than the swirling storms of things that are urgent, but not important.

So let me suggest a question for us as individuals, and for us as a community: what would we be afraid of if the waves settled and the wind calmed? What land, what work, what mission is there on the other side of the sea, far away from the familiar, that would cause us to fear a great fear, a fear of transformation, a fear of God doing a new thing, a fear of success? Because perhaps, friends, that is where God is leading us.  

May we have the courage to follow. Amen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Passing the Peace & Christ's Ministry of Physical Touch

Have you ever thought about the word “incarnation”? Our Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, God coming to us in this world, in a body. The roots of the word “incarnation” highlight the sheer physicality of this miracle: the word “incarnation” comes from the Latin word caro, which means flesh. The word “incarnation” is related to the words “carnage” and “carne” (as in chili con carne – “with meat”!)

The word “incarnation” asserts that Jesus really, truly had a body, experiencing all of the joys and nitty-gritty realities that we know come with being embodied people. A workshop I attended recently at a conference for UCC clergy in their 20s and 30s highlighted one aspect of Jesus’ incarnation: his ministry of physical touch. We focused on the many stories of physical touch in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life. Sometimes he touches people for healing: in one story he heals the eyes of a blind man by making mud out of dirt and saliva, and applying it to the man’s eyes! Other stories show Jesus communicating love through touch: stories of washing the disciples’ feet, or placing a child on his knee. A third kind of story shows Jesus being touched by others, such as the woman who anoints him in Bethany. 

Many Christian worship services contain a moment where we celebrate the ministry of physical touch: we call it the Passing of the Peace. In my congregation, the passing of the peace is an extended affair; we make time for one another, smiling and greeting and rejoicing as we make our way up and down the aisles. It is a moment of joy in community, and it is our own way of celebrating the ministry of physical touch as we embrace, shake hands, pat shoulders, and sometimes even kiss cheeks. 

Of course, harmful physical touch is widespread in our contemporary world, and the Gospels also tell negative stories of physical touch: Judas’ kiss is a gesture that communicates not love, but betrayal. As we pass the peace, it is important to remember that some people may not wish to be touched because of past experiences of harm. There is another story of a woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment for healing, and the scripture says he “feels the power go out of him.” For those who are shy or introverted, sometimes physical touch can be exhausting rather than invigorating. As we pass the peace, we can respect each other’s differences by paying attention to see who wishes to embrace, and who would prefer to shake hands. 

One of Paul’s letters instructs the early Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16). When we pass the peace with one another, we participate in this tradition of Christian love and community expressed incarnationally -- in the flesh. Furthermore, we celebrate that we are empowered to extend love and peace on Christ’s behalf, remembering that we are members of the Body of Christ!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Confessions of a Biblically Illiterate Seminarian

This may sound strange coming from a minister, but I really never knew much about the Bible growing up. Sure, I went to Sunday school every week, but we spent a lot more time gluing sequins to cardboard crosses than we did delving into scripture. I had a Bible story book that told some of the more child-friendly biblical tales. (And also some less child-friendly ones: I was fascinated by the story of Samson, whose eyes were gouged out.) I memorized the twenty-third psalm and learned to sing the books of the bible in order (I can still do it), and in Sunday school we would usually read a verse or two. But I never really got a handle on what the different books of the Bible were, or where to find the familiar parts, or what to make of the rest. Wisdom books, epistles, apocalypses… it was all Greek to me!

In my youth group experience, a talented lay leader helped us learn how to wrestle with biblical texts.  Rather than having someone tell us what it said, we were encouraged to study and think and question and pray and explore, and scripture began to take on new meaning as I was given the opportunity to interpret it for myself.

In college, I learned a little more about the Bible in some of my religion courses; I started to learn about the historical context: the monarchy, the Babylonian exile, the Roman Empire. I learned how to find the Jordan River on a map, and I figured out that there’s not much snow in Bethlehem. In seminary, I finally (!) undertook the task of reading the whole thing, and I learned biblical Hebrew and Greek, as well as different interpretive methods.  But none of that means much if it's just an irrelevant old book... I came, eventually, to see scripture as an ancient witness to the Living God.  Interpreting together with congregants and seminarians, asking the question, "what does this mean for this community, right now?" was the key that finally unlocked the doors of scripture for me. I began to find joy in being part of a People of the Book.

I still don’t know everything about the Bible, but I love being part of a tradition that is gathered around the life of Jesus and the witness of scripture. I love turning the stories and poems and letters over and over, seeing them take on new meaning as I approach the texts from different standpoints in my life, using different methods, with different communities, reflecting on different events and issues in our contemporary world. One of the founders of congregationalism, John Robinson, told the passengers of the Mayflower that there is always “yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word."  I guess a more contemporary take on that is the UCC slogan: "God is Still Speaking!"

God of Word and Wisdom, help us to hear your message for us today in the ancient words of scripture.  Bless us with words of challenge, comfort, and promise.  We ask this in the name of Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Running the Race Set Before Her: Funeral Sermon for my Grandmother

My grandmother died last week, and the pastor of her church graciously invited me to preach at her funeral. This sermon may not be of interest to my regular blog readers, but I'm posting it here mostly because it's an easy way for my family and my grandmother's friends to access it.

On Wednesday, I joined some family members in Simsbury to be with my grandfather and start making arrangements for my grandmother’s funeral. In the midst of the shock and grief, we found ourselves recounting stories about my grandmother. My mom and my aunt both remembered something that my grandmother had said: that when she died, she wanted the “Theme from Rocky” playing – that instrumental piece that opens with victorious fanfares, and evokes the story of Sylvester Stallone becoming an unlikely boxing champion. They both remembered it, and I think they even mentioned it to Pastor Chung, which was probably a new one for him. With apologies to my grandmother, we’re not going to play the Theme from Rocky today. But I loved hearing this story because it told me that my grandmother thought of death as a victorious event, the culmination of a great feat of strength and skill.

The book of Hebrews speaks of some of the great heroes and everyday people of the Old Testament, men and women of faith who have died: Abel and Moses and Rahab and on and on. The author names all of these people, and then says this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This scripture imagines life as a race, a great athletic feat in which we are cheered on by those who have gone before us. Life as a race, which is sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. Life as a race, a race which ends in triumph and glory.

My grandmother ran quite a race. Married fifty-five years, mother to five children and grandmother to thirteen grandchildren, she loved her family fiercely and with great affection. She thought of us as her team, and it was us against the world. When one of us was struggling, she was totally on our side, rooting for us, and booing the other team, whether it was an employer or an ex-boyfriend, diabetes or the Red Sox. When one of us was winning, she was proud, but not surprised. We were her team, after all… and she was sure we were the best team.

She valued learning, and she worked to keep expanding her mind throughout her whole life. She read avidly; she once shared with me a list of the hundred greatest books of the century, with little check marks beside each one she had read, and she planned to read them all. When she became a senior citizen, she qualified to take courses at the University of Hartford; she took a series of courses in classical music and aced every test. Some people take up bridge in their retirement; my grandmother not only took up bridge, but took bridge lessons. She loved learning about her faith: she came to visit me at seminary in 2008; we talked about the year-long Bible study course she was taking at this very church, and when she visited my New Testament class, I was struck by her detailed note-taking and thoughtful questions.

She had a generous heart, and she loved to give people things she had made. ¬Once, it was braided rugs which she made with my grandfather. More recently, she would knit prayer shawls for this church’s prayer shawl ministry. Our homes are full of things she made for us, from the prayer shawl she knit me when I was in seminary to the Christmas stocking she made my cousin when he was a baby. And then there was her baking: pecan pies and Russian tea cakes, homemade cookies and English muffin bread. She knew that gathering at the dinner table nourished not only healthy bodies, but healthy souls and healthy families, and many of the fond memories that we’ve shared in the last few days have been memories of things that happened at the dinner table.

The dinner table, appropriately enough, is one of the images that scripture and tradition offer to us to help us envision what God has waiting for us on the other side of death. But it is not the only image. Scripture offers us images of a place where there is singing and rejoicing, a place where there is healing and wholeness and the end of pain, a place where God’s will is done. Jesus speaks of his Father’s house, where he has gone to prepare a place for us. We speak of death as crossing a river, entering the holy city, going home. In Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, we hear a resounding promise that death does not have the final word: as Saint Paul writes, death has been swallowed up in victory.

We have a lot of different images for the world to come, and I suspect that there is something true enough about all of them, and that what lies on the other side of death is beyond anything we can quite capture in words or grasp with human minds. Those shimmering, ephemeral images can seem awfully insubstantial as waves of grief wash over us. We want something solid to grasp: we want to know where she is, and exactly what it is like, and whether she can see us. It is desperately hard to say goodbye, and harder still to rest in the assurance of things not seen. But for my grandmother, who has run her race and taken her place in the great cloud of witnesses, those questions have been answered.

Today we’re gathered in grief, to remember the time we had with her and say goodbye; today we hunker down in our own sorrow about having to live without her, looking to God and to each other for comfort and consolation. My family knows that I cry easily and frequently, which always bothered my grandmother… whenever anyone started to tear up, she would say, “Oh, honey, don’t cry. Don't cry, honey.” That never stopped me, and it is not stopping us today. Today we gather with our sorrow and our loneliness, to hear words of comfort like the 23rd Psalm, and songs of consolation like “There is a Balm in Gilead.” But when the waves of grief subside, I hope we’ll remember that, for Grandma, it’s the Theme from Rocky all the way.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good Mrs. Murphy

A Sermon on Psalm 23

Last summer I went to the doctor for a physical, and found out that they needed to draw blood for some routine tests. I hate needles and I hate blood and I hate having blood drawn. In fact, just thinking about the whole thing right now is making me a little queasy. But there was no choice, so I went into the lab, and I did what I always do: I rolled up my sleeve, I looked away, and I began to recite the twenty-third Psalm to myself. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Breathe in. “I shall not want.” Breathe out. It calms me down, and it passes the time. Usually they’re putting on the band-aid before I get to “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” So they filled up their two little tubes of blood, and before I could say “your rod and your staff they comfort me,” they sent me on my way. 

A week or so later, I got a call saying that one of the test results was a little unusual, and I needed to go get a work-up from a hematologist. (Don’t worry, by the way, everything turned out fine.) So off I go to the hematologist, roll up my sleeve, look away, breathe in, breathe out, recite the twenty-third Psalm. On I go through the green pastures and still waters, the rod and the staff, the cup that runneth over. I reach the word “amen,” and… no band-aid! So I take a deep breath and look over at my left arm, and to my great shock and horror, the technician has fourteen little vials to fill, and she has finished half of them. So I started over from the beginning. 

All this is to say that for many of us who grew up in church – and some of us who did not – the 23rd Psalm is written on the tablets of our hearts. Memorized in Sunday school or learned through osmosis, it has become a dear old friend. Perhaps we say it in times of stress and anxiety, or as a prayer of thanksgiving, or when we need a moment of peace and tranquility. We recite it in funerals. We remember it when we sit in hospital waiting rooms. It passes the time while I get blood drawn. And once every three years, our liturgical calendar brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday, when we pair the 23rd Psalm with Jesus’ words from John: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

Our Bible is full of shepherding images, which is not surprising given the culture it comes from – in an agrarian society, there were plenty of shepherds. Texts about shepherds like the twenty-third Psalm, Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, and the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the Gospel of Luke, invoked an image that would have been very familiar to their original listeners, who would likely have seen shepherds on a regular basis. There are plenty of non-metaphorical shepherds in the Bible as well, from King David to the shepherds who visit the Christ-child. But we live in a different sort of world, and shepherds are nowhere near as common now as they were then. Most of us have not seen a shepherd this week, and some of us may not have ever seen a shepherd in our lives, which makes me ask, what is it about this image of God as our Shepherd, or Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which continues to appeal to us? 

There is probably more than one reason. It may have something to do with images of the presence of God in the midst of difficult situations: Just as the shepherd stays with the sheep in the dark hours and the dangerous places, God stays with us in the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps it has to do with the shepherd as an image of power which is loving and tender; in contrast with images of dangerous power, this is a God whose power is used to guide, nurture, and protect. 

But commentator Russell Rathbun raises questions about whether this image might also appeal to a more selfish side of us. He writes, “This psalm is so weirdly narcissistic. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Why not, the Lord is our shepherd?” He continues, “I have this crazy image of a Sunday school filmstrip that plays every time I read this psalm. The Lord is walking beside a little blonde haired kid with short pants and a cap. Then he gestures to the green grass and the kid lays down on it for a nap. The kid gets up and the shepherd takes him down by the still waters, he has his rod and his staff to protect the kid. . . . The image of this personal Lord following an individual around, attending to their needs—a place to sleep, food, water, protection—seems more like a dog than God. More like a servant than a shepherd.” Could it be that perhaps some of the appeal of the shepherd metaphor comes from the image of a God whose primary goal is to fulfill our every wish, to make us as comfortable as possible with green pastures and still waters? 

The Reverend Paul Sundberg, in response to this uncomfortable question, wrote a humorous adaptation of Psalm 23, which begins: 
The Lord is my personal-shopper; I will have many fashionable choices 
He makes me lie down on high thread count Egyptian cotton; he brings me still water not sparkling 
He restores my credit scores. He turns traffic lights green to prove he’s with me. 
Even though my commute is horrible, I don’t fear texting drivers; for you are with me; 
your management of traffic lights and parking spaces – they comfort me. 
Hopefully none of us have quite such a narcissistic theology as the one Reverend Sundberg spoofs here, but I think he does call me out on some of my own selfishness and self-centeredness. God is, of course, present with us and available to us in moments of joy and sorrow, stress and peace, whether those moments are big or small; God is present with me when I get blood drawn. But Reverend Sundberg’s Psalm calls on us to put our own needs in perspective, to know that God is bigger and wider than that. 

A pastor I know told a story from his own childhood, of hearing this Psalm recited in church, and misunderstanding the words. At the end of the Psalm, what he thought he heard was this: “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The words there, of course, are “goodness and mercy,” but he heard “Good Mrs. Murphy.” And although those are not the words in scripture, I think they certainly do suggest a wonderful way of understanding God. What he pictured was a kindly older Irish woman – I envision my own great-great-great-grandmother, whose name was Margaret Murphy. She was a seamstress, and had nine children. In the words “Surely Good Mrs. Murphy,” I see an image of no-nonsense maternal love, of love marked, for a seamstress in the late nineteenth century, by aching hands and tired eyes. I see an image of a love which is constantly present in our times of need, and a love which cares about us too much to let us take our own micro-crises too seriously. When I start wincing about having blood drawn, good Mrs. Murphy rolls her eyes. This is an image of a God who is present with us but does not cater to us, a God who loves us enough to challenge us, and trusts us enough to rely on us. 

What I think we sometimes forget, when we hear this metaphor of God as shepherd, is that a sheep is not a pet. There are similarities between contemporary pet-ownership and ancient shepherding: both relationships are marked by love and care. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “I know my own, and they know me,” alluding to the fact that sheep learn to recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and shepherds learn the different appearances, personalities, and bleats of the members of their own flock. Shepherds did and do put themselves in physical danger to protect their flock. Shepherds did and do go to great lengths to meet the flock’s need for food, water, rest, and safety. The shepherd does provide for the sheep’s needs, the relationship is one of love and care. 

But the sheep are more than pets; they have a role beyond being waited on by the shepherd. Sheep were common in the ancient world, and it’s not because they were fluffy: it’s because they were necessary. The flock would have been a vital source of the shepherd’s livelihood, and they were relied on to meet the basic needs of the people in the region. They produced wool and milk, as well as providing meat. They were, in fact, essential to the well-being of the wider community, which relied on the goods that came from the flocks the shepherds tended. The flock was necessary to feed hungry bellies, to provide clothing to keep people warm. 

And so when we picture God as our shepherd, we need to remember that that image has more than one side. If God is our shepherd, then God does indeed care for us, love us, walk beside us in times of difficulty, meet our needs. But if God is our shepherd, then God also has work for us to do: like the shepherd’s sheep, we are asked to give of ourselves to care for God’s children and God’s world. When we say “The Lord is my shepherd,” we acknowledge our deep reliance on God’s grace to meet our every need. But we also remember that God has entrusted us with the work of caring for our neighbors. We do that in a very different way than sheep do: we do it by giving of time and talent and treasure, rather than of wool or milk or meat. We do it by feeding people who are hungry, sitting with people who are lonely, caring for people who are sick. We do it by working for justice and peace in this world. And in all of this, we are called to remember that God, our shepherd, is at work within and beside and around us. God is at work in this world and in our lives, nurturing us and caring for us, loving us beyond measure. The God who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters, who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, nurtures and strengthens us so that we may do the work that has been entrusted to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The World Is Watching

“The world is watching.” That’s the slogan of the blockbuster movie The Hunger Games. Based on an excellent trilogy of young adult novels, The Hunger Games imagines a post-apocalyptic North America, in which an opulent city called The Capitol controls twelve districts. The districts produce all the goods to supply the Capitol’s needs, from agriculture to technology to energy. The Capitol devours all of those goods in their consumer culture of ever-changing high fashion, posh homes, and lavish parties. The people in the districts are desperately poor, sometimes to the point of starvation; they are kept in line with the constant threat of military force and with the display of power that is the annual Hunger Games. In this event, two children are randomly selected from each district, and the twenty-four children are put into a massive wilderness arena full of hidden cameras to fight the elements and one another in a televised competition, until twenty-three are dead and one is victorious.

At first, the premise sounds like simply a fanciful excuse for gratuitous violence, a fiendishly bizarre fantasy about a perversely violent world. But as I read the books, I realized there was a lot more going on. After all, we live in a world where children die every day. In my congregation, every week, we read the names of the American soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan – many of them not much older than the hunger games competitors – and we remember along with them the Iraqi and Afghan people, whose names we do not know, young and old, military and civilian, who have died because of those wars.

One of the inspirations for The Hunger Games series, according to its author Suzanne Collins, was the juxtaposition of coverage of the Iraq war and reality television. Collins says that as she flipped back and forth from reality T.V. to the actual reality of the news, it registered in a whole new way how popular culture desensitizes us to the real violence and suffering of the world. Reality television shows often appeal to our basest voyeuristic instincts (and I am chief among sinners, on this topic); we watch with judgment or horror or schadenfreude, appalled at Snooki’s latest exploits, or the shameless behavior of the contestants on The Bachelor, or the filth-encrusted, pest-infested homes on Hoarders. The entertainment value of reality television often comes from watching the emotionally painful experiences of others. But when that is what we do to entertain ourselves, our capacity to empathize with suffering halfway around the world is often dulled. Out of that observation came the horrifying premise of the first novel of the series. So certainly, The Hunger Games has some cultural commentary for a world like ours.

But there are also resonances between the world of The Hunger Games and the world of Jesus, resonances that are especially strong today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday and remember the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

In the book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan note that in the days leading up to the Jewish festival of Passover, there would likely have been another procession into Jerusalem: the procession of Roman imperial officials into the city to keep the peace and prevent uprisings. Borg and Crossan write: “[I]t was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.”

“Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city,” Borg and Crossan continue, “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”

This is the context into which Jesus rides in today’s Gospel story. It’s a wonderful coincidence this year that Palm Sunday falls on April Fool’s Day, because there is an element of satire in Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem. Just imagine the contrast between the imperial parade on one hand, with its displays of power and status and veiled threat of violence, and this parade on the other hand.

No weapons, no armor, no displays of wealth. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a young colt – as a victorious king would if he were bringing an offer of peace; as the prophet Zechariah says the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem. Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on a colt is a declaration of his identity; it is also an outrageous claim of victory, a gesture that extends an olive branch as if he were the political equal of Jerusalem’s authorities. But that does not mean, riding on this colt, that he didn't look silly; it doesn't mean that his feet didn’t drag on the ground – they very well may have. And as Jesus rides in, an itinerant preacher from a rural backwater claiming the status of king, he is followed by a ragtag band of mostly poor folks, some of them very disreputable indeed: fishermen and tax collectors, beggars and women. Not much of a victory parade, to the eyes of most people at the time.

Jesus is even lampooning Roman imperial practices in the drawn-out story of sending his disciples to commandeer the colt. Did you hear what they were supposed to say to the colt’s owners? “The Lord has need of it.” In a conquered, colonized land, where it was not uncommon to have a Roman soldier or official demand your cloak, force you to walk a mile, or slap you across the face (as Jesus’ teachings imply, when he teaches the disciples to walk the second mile and turn the other cheek), in a land where every imperial subject was expected to be ready and willing to declare, “Caesar is Lord!”, Jesus sends his disciples to commandeer a colt with the words, “The Lord has need of it.” Any bystander would have assumed that the “lord” in question would have been a Roman official of some sort. The “Lord” needs an unbroken colt? For what?! He’ll send it back tonight? Sure, I bet.

It is an unusual sort of parade, and it declares that the ways of the kingdom of God are fundamentally different from the ways of the kingdoms of this world. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem opposes the force of empire not with more force and violence, but with a cuttingly satirical, boldly subversive, foolishly peaceable vision. A vision of a Way where humility and compassion conquer violence and subjugation. A vision of a Way in which social barriers are broken down, and those people who are scorned, rejected and ignored by polite company are the very heart of the community. A vision of a savior who saves not through violent power and military might, but through compassion, grace, and mercy. This is not your typical parade.

But it does have one thing in common with the Roman imperial processions: it is a spectacle. And the crowd loves it. They gather on the roadsides, throwing down their cloaks, waving their palms, crying out “Hosanna! Hosanna!” – which means, “save us! Save us!” Their cries of praise and acclamation are both an act of participation in the Kingdom of God, and an act of rebellion against the ways of the Roman empire.

If you know to look for it, the power of the Roman empire resonates throughout The Hunger Games. The structure of the society – with desperately poor districts supporting the excesses of the Capitol under the threat of violence – is the same as Roman imperial society in Jesus’ day. Citizens of the Capitol have names like Portia, Octavia, Cato, Seneca, and Caesar. The games themselves are a riff on the Roman Games, where slaves and criminals fought to the death or were torn apart by wild animals for the amusement of the crowd. And most tellingly, the entire country is named “Panem,” a reference to the phrase “panem et circenses,” or “bread and circuses,” the Roman empire’s tools for keeping the populace from rebelling.

Like the world of The Hunger Games, and like the world of Jesus, our world, too, is full of the forces of empire. Forces that ignore, rationalize, and excuse the shooting of an unarmed child wearing a hoodie. Forces that use undocumented immigrants to do our society’s most-despised, lowest-paid work, and then lock these same immigrants up, and then claim that ensuring basic human rights in detention facilities, such as safety from assault and access to health care, would be too expensive. Forces that make a scandal out of Sandra Fluke alluding to having consensual premarital sex, when what we should be scandalized by is the epidemic rate of sexual violence in this nation and around the world. This isn’t The Hunger Games – there is no single villain pulling the strings, no calculated plot, but that does not make the violence of this world any less insidious, or any more acceptable.

And like the world of The Hunger Games, this broken world tries to encourage us to sit back and watch, to be passive spectators of the twenty-four hour news cycle, ignoring or observing the misery of the world, rather than changing it.

But today, on Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, and the cheering spectators who so quickly turn against him, we are confronted with a question: are we going to be spectators, or are we going to be participants?

I won’t give away the end of The Hunger Games, but I will say that throughout the film, we see subversive gestures that challenge the imperial power of the Capitol. To me, one of the most powerful happens in the arena, when a beloved character dies, and the grief-struck protagonist takes the time to adorn the body of her friend with flowers, and say a final goodbye. It is a small gesture, turning aside for a moment from the violence of the arena and the demands of survival to honor the life of this person, to insist on their humanity, and to mourn their death. It is a small gesture, but often, small gestures are the best way we have to stand up to the powers of hate, oppression, and violence. Small gestures like visiting an undocumented person in a detention facility. Small gestures like wearing a hoodie in remembrance of Trayvon Martin. Small gestures like speaking up when we hear a joke based on sexism or racism or homophobia. Small gestures like gathering around a table where all are welcome and all share equally. Small gestures like choosing which parade we will show up for.

As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowd surrounds him crying out “Hosanna! Hosanna!” “Save us! Save us!” They have caught a glimpse of a new way, the way of the kingdom of God. We know this story, friends. The crowd is about to turn; the powers of the empire are too frightening and the risk is too great, and it is too hard to believe that salvation lies in the ways of peace, justice, and compassion taught and lived by this man, riding unarmed on a colt into the trap that awaits. Time and again, throughout history and today, the crowd has turned, and will turn, from the ways of the kingdom of God back to the ways of the kingdoms of this world. But the good news is that those small gestures, those gestures that reject the powers that be and the kingdoms of this world, when we bear witness to the kingdom of God, raising our voices in loud hosannas, those moments matter immensely. In those moments, friends, in those small gestures, the Spirit is at work in the world. In those gestures, for a moment, God’s vision of justice and peace becomes a reality, and we declare which king we will serve, and which parade we will be part of. We know what choice the crowd will make in the days to come. But today we remember the day when, in a seemingly small gesture, a crowd of people in Jerusalem gathered by the road to welcome the prince of peace, and the kingdom of God, and the world was watching. May we have the courage to do the same.