Saturday, June 24, 2017
Today is the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, we see John as a something of a wild man, but in this painting by Leonardo da Vinci from 1513-1516 and believed to be da Vinci's last painting, John is showing what I like to think of as his inner Fabio.
Needless to say, not everyone likes this version of John. He's too pretty, they say. He smiles like the Mona Lisa. This guy doesn't seem likely to call people a brood of vipers! We already have a vision of what John the Baptist is supposed to look like and here goes Leonardo messing with our preconceived notions.
We saw this at the Louvre a couple of weeks ago. It was restored in 2016, allowing some of the details (like John's fur pelt, which is mostly obscured in this photo through glass) to "pop out" as the art critics like to say. I like it. And I like how it made me question my biases and expectations.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Tom and I just got back from two weeks in France. On day one, I encountered the common wood pigeon. At first I thought it must be some kind of exotic - the largest dove I'd ever seen and with a large white collar. The pair that were hanging out in our courtyard in Paris were large and loud and almost sounded like owls.
But then I began to see and hear them everywhere and realized that in fact they are "just" your run of the mill wood pigeons. Not at all unusual. As our time in France went on, we saw more and more of them. Still, their size, their songs, and their grace in flying reminded me that none of God's creatures are common, even if there are lots of them.
This is the first "common wood pigeon" I saw in France. It was bathing in the fountain behind Notre Dame cathedral. Fitting, I think: saying this bird is common is like saying that Notre Dame is just a church.
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Today is one of the great feast days of the church, Pentecost. A word which all you Latin scholars know means 50. As in the 50th day after Easter.
That has to be the worst name ever for what we are about today. As if we all come together to say, “Yay! It’s the 50th day after Easter! We changed the color from white to red!”
There is tradition behind the name. In Judaism, the religion of Jesus, the 50th day after Passover commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, a vitally important aspect of the continuing life of the Jewish people. This festival was called different things in different languages - Shavuot in Hebrew, the Festival of Weeks in English, and Pentecost in Greek. It was on that day of Pentecost that today’s reading from Acts took place, and ever after, for Christians, the day has been known as the day the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the followers of Jesus.
Honestly, though, that exposition is way too flat and dry for what we are about today, which is both mysterious and astonishing, described not so much by words as by fire and wind. The Holy Spirit is the “giver of life” as we say in the Creed and it is, in essence, Holy Power. It is the infinite, creative, power of self-giving love.
This is the same power that in the beginning moved over the chaos and the deep and created and formed the Earth, that breathed life into the nostrils of mortals formed of clay, that held back the waters of the Red Sea to set the subjugated free, and bulldozed a highway through the wilderness to lead the captives home from exile. The power that caused a baby to be born in Bethlehem who grew into a man who healed the sick and fed the hungry and found the lost and broke the social tabus of the day. This is the power that on the third day raised that man from the dead.
This holy power dynamically breaks through all barriers - physical and social - for the singular purpose of giving life. And now it is given to us.
This giving of life is not only vital but absolutely urgent. The signs of it can be bewildering and unsettling, found bringing healing and goodness wherever there is suffering and brokenness, from war zones to our own homes. The power and love from the Spirit is not just given but it is poured out abundantly, overflowing like wine at the wedding at Cana, multiplying like loaves and fishes on the mountain.
So this is irrepressible power we’re talking about here, not tame stuff. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” cries writer Annie Dillard. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For… God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
When Jesus breathes on people, it’s not just to comfort them, but to give them power to come out from behind locked doors and lives of fear and despair, blowing them out into the world to insist on giving food to the hungry and health to the sick and rest to the weary and companionship to the prisoner and sanctuary to the stranger. In my mind’s eye I see them staggering out of a house slightly skewed off its foundation with the door off the hinge, adjusting their blasted clothing and smoothing stumps of singed hair, hearts aflame, thrilled with the scary, eager to tell everyone how absolutely wonderful this new life is and determined to give it to others.
Folks like us Episcopalians are a little wary this kind of talk. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “We don’t keep the Spirit of life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous.” So let’s just call it the Day of Pentecost, not “the astonishing day we caught fire.”
Nobody knows more about what it is like for life to be utterly upended and transformed and thrilled with the scary than the folks sitting in these front rows here. The coming of a child into your life rocks your world. These little people who are still fresh from heaven, trailing clouds of glory, have the power to unleash the fire of fierce, primal love like nothing else. They will change your life and your world in ways you cannot even imagine now.
How appropriate it is, then, to baptize them on this feast day celebrating the dangerous and irrepressible and holy power of love that binds us all together as the people of God. Let us all together with them breathe in the breath of Jesus (that is, Latin again, to be inspired) to galvanize as a people to live out our call to love our neighbors and cherish creation, the work of God’s own hands.
So come Holy Spirit, to seal us as a people. Fire us with longing for justice and mercy, for building community, establishing harmony, and restoring trust. Move us to stand up bravely for those who are abused and broken. And charge us to break through whatever barriers we need to break through with our own holy fire and astonish the world with your love.
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Today is the anniversary of the Kent State massacre. Many of us remember those days - for me, it was the spring of my freshman year in high school. The war in Vietnam was the backdrop, and protests sprung up on many college campuses.
People are still protesting and are still met with violence.
The song Ohio by Neil Young and sung by Crosby, Stills & Nash always keeps the question before us ... how many more?
Friday, April 28, 2017
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Years ago, when my children were small, a friend sent me a card. On the front was a picture of a little boy wearing a 1950‘s era cowboy outfit riding a cow through the living room of a house, firing his toy pistol left and right. And behind him are the signs of all kinds of havoc - the front door knocked off its hinges, pictures dangling crookedly on the walls, the lamp lying on its side. His apron-clad mother stands on the stairs, looking on with widened eyes and an O-shaped mouth expressing startled surprise. Inside the card, the caption read: “You can childproof your house, but they still get in.”
And so, here are the disciples, locked away in their room because they are afraid. Were they afraid of being put on trial themselves? Maybe so. Are they trying to “get back to normal” after the horrifying events of Friday? Perhaps. Are they locked in? Or are they locking something out? My guess is a little of both. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Try to create a safe zone. Try to put a barrier between ourselves and things that challenge us, things we are afraid of.
And then Jesus gets in anyway and reminds them of the terrible Friday that has somehow been redeemed - the wounds are still there, and yet Jesus is among them, alive, full of the breath of the Spirit. All has been redeemed. And all receive new life.
All except Thomas. Who only wanted what everyone else had gotten, an experience of Jesus in the flesh, wounds and all. He absolutely needs this, he says, and so Jesus comes again and offers himself to Thomas. Touch me, he says, and believe.
After hearing Bryan Stevenson speak at VCU during Holy Week, I see this experience of Thomas and Jesus as an example of what Stevenson calls “getting proximate.” We have to get proximate, to have real human contact in order to be transformed.
Transformation doesn’t happen from a distance. Thomas needs to stand next to Jesus and see his wounds to understand something he couldn't be convinced of through the stories of his friends.
Resurrection is something that happens in the body, not in the mind, and it is made real to Thomas by a physical experience. But resurrection also is of the Spirit, a power working on a different plane.
We see the Spirit’s work in its wake - and it might look like the living room of the card my friend sent me. The Spirit does not come to soothe or straighten, but to move us to break out of the places into which we have locked ourselves, separated from the world and its disasters.
More and more, I have come to believe that the way we experience resurrection in our lives is to touch the suffering of others and let that experience transform us. If my goal in life is to stay comfortable (and I admit that on some days that is my goal) nothing is going to change in me or in the world around me except that my locked room is going to get smaller and smaller and beauty and goodness are going to shrivel along with my soul. I’m going to experience emptiness, not the fullness of life.
This transformation may well come unbidden. Despite my best efforts at keeping chaos at bay, Jesus might get in anyway. I can usually tell that I’m in for it if I am feeling adamant about something.
That’s like sending up a flare to the Holy Spirit come make me do the thing I claim I have no interest in/am afraid of/am convinced I already know all about. Then I get a phone call. A visit. Or an invitation. Or a series of invitations, in case I ignore the first three.
If we are going to be transformed, and if we are going to participate in the transformation of the world (which is our work as Easter people), we are going to have to get proximate to suffering. To touch people’s wounds. Heck, to touch our own wounds, if we’ve been hiding from them.
To allow ourselves to get out of our self-styled safe space and into the lives of those who are lost or hungry or different. (And honestly, I think “different” can be the most challenging.) To move toward, instead of moving away from, the things and people that make us uncomfortable and afraid.
And thus we might lose our fear and find our strength and power to follow Jesus and bind up the wounded and befriend the friendless and stand up for those getting kicked around in life.
There is a prayer in the New Zealand Prayerbook I am especially fond of. It’s the prayer for this day, and it goes like this:
“Living God, for whom no door is closed, no heart is locked, draw us beyond our doubts, till we see your Christ and touch his wounds where they bleed in others.”
This is how we too can make resurrection real in this world. By touching Christ’s wounds where they bleed in others.
This might well mean that chaos will ensue. Life may get rearranged. Because, after all, despite our best efforts, the Spirit gets in anyway.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
When you are replacing broken buttons on your jacket, the first thing to do is slide all the buttons under the jacket so you can't find them.
Then you bat the spool of thread around and let it unwind.
Last, you bite the pins.
All the while, make sure you shed some hair on all the black clothes.
Saturday, April 15, 2017
One of Fra Angelico's depictions of The Harrowing of Hell painted on one of the monks' cells at San Marco in Florence. Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus the Christ visited Hell (notice the door he broke down which crushed a demon and the other demons hiding in fear) to bring out all those righteous folks from the beginning of time - those who had died before Jesus came into the world. You can see that they are righteous because they are wearing haloes.
A blessed Holy Saturday to you.
Friday, April 14, 2017
And so we look on the one whom they have pierced. We look on his bleeding side, his bruised face, the welts on his back. We see him crushed by a lethal combination of official state power fearing for its own survival and the power of the mob who have turned their backs on love and compassion. (“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor,” the people hiss. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate sneers.)
We hear them accuse, we hear them demand punishment, and if there is a voice somewhere crying out “Stop! Why are you doing this?” that voice has been drowned out. Together Pilate, the police, the chief priests and the crowd come together as judge and jury who condemn what they do not understand and brutally bring about the end of a human life.
What is it about overt displays of power that attracts us? Or at least persuades us to tolerate them? What makes us shrug at injustice or look down at our shoes in the face of mockery and posturing and hateful condemnation? A question I heard public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson ask a large crowd at VCU on Wednesday night haunts me: Why do we want to get rid of broken people?
I believe we despise weakness and look down on vulnerability and cheer on the powerful who spew vitriol and disdain and revel in (and indeed seem proud of) humiliating others, because deep down inside we are afraid.
We are afraid of being abandoned, of being mocked, of being hurt, of losing our status, our way of life, our very lives. We are afraid of being overwhelmed by forces over which we have no control.
We are all caught up in this in one way or another, this narrative that says we need to be afraid. Some of us are implicated as power players, concerned with our own interests. Some of us have been victims, and we may hear this story and feel our own humiliation and pain. Some of us are just standing by in our own bewildered grief trying to hold onto some kind of hope.
It seems to me, as we look on this heartbreaking convergence of hate and fear, violence and brokenness, that this is the way Jesus draws us all to himself: gathering us all together the way a crash, a spectacular smash up, so powerfully draws the gaze and attention of us all - perpetrator, victim, and by-stander alike - to say “Look. This is what the world does. But this is not what I intend for you.” This is not what God wants for us, to live in fear, to be so afraid that we turn away from love and compassion and instead put our faith in some strong, but ultimately straw, thing that does not care for us.
Power itself is on trial today. Neither Pilate nor the people understand that power over Jesus’s life and death rests with Jesus and no one else. The judgment is not on Jesus but on the world that does not recognize the revelation of God in him, a man who gave water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and love to sinners and life to the dead. While standing before Pilate at his trial, Jesus says that he came to testify to the truth and Pilate’s answer is “What is truth?” He wouldn’t recognize the truth that was standing right in front of him. Because his concern was keeping his power and asserting his authority, he was not open to transformation in the presence of truth and love.
And the people do not understand that ultimately neither Pilate nor the Roman soldiers nor any of their institutions can be the protector they long for. The powerful will sacrifice life for political expediency. The Empire will fall and so will the Temple.
The truth is, there is no stronger power than love. It is only love and mercy and hope that can protect us from the degradation we are seeing today. We are all degraded by hatred and violence. Hatred and fear warps everyone. Of course we long for a protector.
And today we have seen him. Our protector is the Good Shepherd, who knows us all by name, who is willing to sacrifice his life for us out of love for us because we belong to him and he has come to give us life. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, not like the hired hand who runs away when the wolf approaches. The Good Shepherd will sacrifice himself to keep the wolf from snatching us.
Now Jesus has bowed his head and given up his spirit, and we offer up our lament. The fact that we know how it will turn out does not lessen the need for grief. Grief for what we do to each other, grief for the soul crushing that hatred and killing does to both victim and perpetrator, that kills some and hardens others and frightens us from naming injustice and violence for what it is. Grief for all who suffer in this life, and for those who cause the suffering, and for those who cannot bear to look, and for those who cannot face their own complicity.
Let us grieve and lament, and be gathered together into the tomb, perpetrator, victim, and bystander together, and together let us there summon hope, for the truth is that out of this utter darkness salvation will rise.