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.