Sunday, July 7, 2019

Going Up

The Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore sits on its own small island in Venice. You have to take a boat to get there. 

The exterior - designed by the architect Andrea Palladio and built in the 16th century - is Greek/Roman classical and the interior is European High Renaissance. 

Most people go out to San Giorgio to climb the bell tower (now serviced by a modern elevator) to see the spectacular views of Venice - the lagoon, the Grand Canal, the islands and city full of church domes, bell towers and terra cotta roofs. From the tower one can look down on a beautiful evergreen maze in the monastery gardens next door that is hidden from view from the ground and look out past the Lido - the iconic beach - into the Adriatic Sea. Boats of every type cruise up and down the canals - the ambulance boat, the garbage boat, water busses, the brown UPS boat. 

But church nerd that I am, I had a particular interest in the interior of San Giorgio. Compared to many a European church, the interior is very understated. It is the home of several major works of art - Tintoretto’s The Last Supper most prominent among them. And of course there are columns and statuary throughout the church: the life of St. Benedict, St. George slaying the dragon, the Trinity, the four evangelists. San Giorgio is said to be the masterpiece of Palladian design, the pinnacle of a classical church in an era of thousands of classical churches.

When we went inside, though, we were surprised - maybe shocked - to see a 33-foot tower composed of brightly colored stacked frames standing right in the middle of the church, under the central dome. Yellow, blue, black, white, red, orange, green felt cover the frames. We approached it in wonder. There was a doorway into it, and we went inside the structure/sculpture and looked up to see the glass window at the center of the dome overhead. “What is this?” we wondered. “And what is it doing here?”

What it was was part of an art exhibition by the Irish artist Sean Scully called “Human,” and this particular piece was called “Opulent ascension” - his take on Jacob’s Ladder. You remember the story of Jacob’s ladder - Jacob lies down to sleep one night and dreams of a ladder that goes into heaven on which he sees angels climbing up and down, ascending and descending. It is the gate of heaven, you see.

And so here was this almost fluorescent piece standing boldly in this white stone Classical Renaissance atmosphere, halfway between the door and the altar with its bronze figure of God crowned by a triangular halo, this stairway to heaven through the dome of San Giorgio, a “conduit between the physical world we can see and a transcendent one to which the soul aspires,” as one art critic described it.

And I loved it. This church, despite being filled with centuries-old art, was no dry museum, like so many churches, preserved and visited but no longer parishes, just final resting places for beautiful statues and religious themed paintings but with no water in their baptismal fonts and no food pantries on Mondays. 

The domes and spires of these very old churches were meant to point to heaven and inspire faith in our connection to the Divine. And here Sean Scully was doing the same thing in a new way, daring us to see that the gate of heaven is still available to us even in the 21st Century, even in a 16th Century edifice. It’s not just an old story. Scully said he wanted to make available through his art the journey from the physical to the spiritual and the spiritual to the physical.

And physically standing inside the brightly colored tower in that old, old nave, my spirit did soar up and out, and I gave thanks that people are still trying to show us the way to God. Even in church.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Wild Man

When I was a little girl, we used to take a drive every now and then to visit relatives who lived about an hour away. The route was entirely through the country, passing some barns and grain silos and a number of corn and tobacco fields, and crossing one set of railroad tracks, and there was pretty much nothing else to see. But one time, we passed a man walking along the road, and this wasn’t a man who had run out of gas and was headed to the filling station or anything like that. There had not been, nor would there be, any car sitting on the side of the road. Nor was he walking home. I don’t think there was a home.

This man was very unkempt, his hair was long and out of control, his clothes were tattered, his skin leathery and burned, and as we passed him, my parents in the front seat sat very still and quiet and looked straight ahead, until the silence was broken by the bigmouth in the backseat (that would be me) asking my mother, “Who was that?”

After a pause, my mother answered. “That was the Wild Man,” she said.

In my mind, I seem to recall that several times after that, we passed by the Wild Man on that particular stretch of road, but I might be wrong. Maybe we never saw him again, maybe we saw him one more time or a few more times. I do know that every time I went that way, though, even the last time just a couple of years ago, I looked for him, as if he were one of the landmarks along the way. I remembered “after you cross Highway 264, here is where we saw the Wild Man.”

When Jesus sailed across the lake to the land of the Geresenes, when he left his home turf of Jewish country to enter a place where Gentiles lived, he, too, saw a Wild Man. But the way Jesus sees is maybe different from the way we see. His reaction was not to pass by with eyes straight ahead but to stop and ask the man his name - but the man couldn’t even say what his name is.

I mean, he says he is Legion, but that’s not a name, that’s a number. A huge number, the number of a whole division of the army of the Roman Empire, a number like the whole 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army. A number that seems to represent the things that have uncontrollable power over him. The things that, as Luke says, had tormented and driven the man into the wilds, so that he had to be put in chains and kept under guard, away from the town, safely kept away from the living, to pace and sleep, if he ever really slept, among the dead.

The Geresenes see the Wild Man as a threat, as one that needed to be kept away from them, chained and guarded, but Jesus sees him as a child of God, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither Other nor Danger, but a beloved child of God who has been imprisoned by things he can’t control, and Jesus does what Jesus always does. He sets him free. He restores him to wholeness, taking away the false identity that has been forced upon him so that he can rejoin his community and live among the living.

One would think that this would be a cause for rejoicing, that the people in the community would be happy that this man was no longer out of his mind, no longer in chains, no longer an outcast, no longer wild, no longer scary. One would think that the people would be happy to see their neighbor freed from all his troubles and able to come back into society from his place on the margins.

But the people are not happy. They are scared. To them, this is like giving King Kong an apartment on Fifth Avenue instead of shooting him down. They are so scared that they ask Jesus to leave on account of what he has done, bringing this man back to life. Whatever it is that Jesus brought with him to this side of the lake, whatever it is that caused this man to be transformed from tormented to normal, they don’t want any of it. They want Jesus to get back into his boat and go back to where he came from and leave them alone. 

But it’s already too late. They can send Jesus away, but the work of God will go on in their community. Luke tells us that the man formerly known as Legion lived into his new vocation of being the living example of the healing, transformative power of God. He became a missionary of the Good News, both in the country and in the city. So who knows what actually happened to the Geresenes after Jesus left, as the man bore witness to the Goodness of God? I wish Luke had told us that part too, shown us how it was that the Geresenes became a thriving, loving and beloved community of neighbors who were no longer afraid of one another.

Every community has its tormented people in chains.  People who because of mental illness or addictions or poverty are unable to live what society deems a “normal” life - with a job, a home, a family, and baths and haircuts. People who do not speak our language or know our customs, who are the wrong color or nationality or religion, who are just “not like us.”  So long as they “stay in their places,” we are reasonably comfortable.  When they actually become part of our community, we are uncomfortable.

Because we are all transformed by being in community with people who are not like us. Despite the fantasy many of us entertain, other people don’t simply join us and become just like us. We all change when and because we are in relationship together. We have an effect on each other. And this is what’s scary.

When we learn about one another, we find out that we have things in common, we find out that our ideas about others might be wrong. We find out that we don’t have all the answers or the only perspective. We find out that there are other ways of seeing things. We find out that what we think of as “normal” is only a part of what is normal in God’s world. There are other ways of being besides the way we are. We might find out that we have been in chains ourselves, captive to our fear of the other, to the fear of the scary freedom Jesus offers us when we really love our neighbors, even the ones who look like Wild Men.

We can choose to accept and even embrace that and grow into the fullness of humanity that Jesus came among us to embody. Jesus was a guy who had no home and was pretty scary himself because of who he ate with and who he touched and who he loved and cared for. Some people wanted to keep Jesus on the margins too. He upset them. He wouldn’t leave the divisions in place. He wouldn’t leave the outcasts outside but brought them right in and showed both the outcasts and the in crowd that they were all first of all children of God. And then Jesus challenged everyone to deal with that. And in fact he left them to deal with it themselves. He left us to deal with it ourselves.

God’s people exhibit breathtaking diversity. We have much to learn from one another. Jesus came to free all of us - those of us who are obviously in chains and those of us who may look like we are free but are actually in bondage. Some of us are in chains because of our own fears, and so we are not able to be who God created us to be. Some of us will set up barriers and hide behind them if we can’t get others to stay on the outside themselves. Because we are scared.

But the good news is that Jesus breaks down barriers, Jesus will come and find us all and restore our identities to us. Jesus will take away our chains and remind us who we are - children of God - in our breathtaking diversity and yet all one in Christ Jesus, together.  

Yesterday I tried Googling “the Wild Man on Highway 39” to find out what became of that person I saw so long ago on the side of the road. Perhaps you will not be surprised that I came up with nothing. Probably his name was not even The Wild Man; probably that was just a false identity. 


Friday, April 19, 2019

Ecce homo: behold the man

I have such a hard time with this. 

For much of my life, I kind of glossed over the events of Good Friday. Crucified, died and buried, that all goes together quickly as a memorized and oft-repeated phrase, and then we get to the real good part: the Resurrection, God’s action in history to raise Jesus from the dead, to overcome death and the grave, to open the way for us to eternal life, to show that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Yes, yes, all of that yes. Resurrection will come.

But today, I cannot gloss over the crucified and died part. Jesus’s death was not poetic or lovely, it was not like Beth in Little Women, who just faded away gently and sweetly. It was not like Sampson, who brought down the Philistines and himself as a last act of power and vengeance, an angry self-immolation. It was not beautiful and it was not about brute strength. 

It was the result of blindness, fear, scorn, and hate, a willingness - maybe even an eagerness - to draw a line and challenge anyone who crosses it, to say both to certain individuals and to whole groups, You don’t belong on my side of this line. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were thousands of deaths of this sort. Mobs clamored for the death of men (and a few women) who dared to ignore the color line, mobs capturing these men and advertising the upcoming public hanging (and accompanying degradations) so that people could come and watch other people being lynched. People, black people, hung on trees, maybe after being tortured, while other people, white people, stood around, watching as if this is just what happens some days. Sometimes folks posed for pictures at these spectacles, and photographers made and sold postcards of men and women and even children standing, smiling, next to the black dangling feet or maybe the mostly or partly whole but dead bodies of people killed in a show of power and control and its attendant sentiments: fear and hatred. This is what we can do, the powerful said, and we’re not at all unwilling to do it if you get out of line, if you cross our boundaries. You will pay. Look. See?

Crown of thorns. Purple robe. Bruised and bloody face. Ecce homo: behold the man.

What is power, what is life, what is death? How is it that this unspeakably cruel scene is supposed to draw us all together? How are these arms stretched out upon the cross able to gather us into a saving embrace when there are nails and blood and jeers and spitting and mocking in the way?

As far as I can tell, when the Scriptures say that Jesus through the cross would draw us all unto himself, it is in the same manner as a train wreck. We gather in fear, dread, and bewilderment. We look and cannot look away. We watch, mesmerized and yet repelled, with focused attention, the smashup. 

And still clearly Good Friday was not the end of the wrongful conviction of innocents, the end of mocking, the end of spitting, the end of hateful violence, the end of deadly power plays, violent seizures, the end of the powerful saying to the powerless, we can kill you if we want to.

So what is truth? as Pilate asked Jesus. What is the truth of this day, of this life? I am the Way, Jesus said, and the truth and the life. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. 

Jesus is God made flesh. And Jesus, God made flesh, would not come out to battle evil with swords and clubs, would not use humiliation and violence as means to an end. That is the truth that stood in front of Pilate. Jesus showed us another way of being, of living, that is about divine, abundant life for everyone in the midst of a world that is more at home with stories about scarcity and the fight for power and control by a few. 

Jesus came to show us God, and the world did not like the way he broke down the walls that the world puts up, the way he crossed the lines and not only crossed them but erased them. And there are consequences for this kind of life, of crossing and erasing boundaries. 

Ecce homo, behold the man.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The heart of the matter

Detail from a painting by Marc Chagall

Palm Sunday is unique in all the church year. We begin the day by singing joyfully and blessing palms - but they are the same palms that will be burned next winter to make the ashes we will smudge on our foreheads, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We continue by observing as Jesus is betrayed in the garden by his friend and taken away to be tried. Finally we watch from a distance as Jesus is beaten, mocked, and crucified, put to death for the crime of sedition - speech or conduct to incite rebellion against the government - the songs and palms long since cast aside and forgotten. The joy of the morning is cast aside and forgotten, too. 

And now we have come to the deepest, darkest night in the heart of Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is where we go to uncover and confront the arrangement we’ve made with life,” said The Reverend Tom Smith one time from this pulpit. “It’s where we go to get to the heart of the matter but also where we don’t want to go because we fear both the intimacy and the enlightenment it can bring. Jerusalem is the last place in the world I want to go. But life, until I go there, is forever an evasion, a dodge, an avoidance, a denial.”

Jesus knew what would happen to him in Jerusalem. But he went there anyway. He went there because he believed that God would bring something beautiful out of the death-dealing ugliness he was going to experience. He believed that he would be the vessel through which that beauty would shine. He believed true life and freedom would show through because he was willing to be obedient to God, the God of love, the God of abundance, the God of peace and eternal life. He would not dodge the consequences of a life lived among sinners and outcasts, the poor and needy, the ones who were sick and the ones who were out of their minds, and even the ones who were dead, to heal them, to restore their inherent dignity, to bring them back into life. He would not avoid the consequences of being willing to leave the ninety-nine together in the wilderness in order to rescue the one that was unlucky or stupid enough to have gotten itself lost. He was not really surprised when the ninety-nine ended up turning against him.

Since this is the heart of the matter, I invite you not to simply jump ahead to next Sunday, to Easter, but to spend awhile with this holy and intimate time, to come closer during this Holy Week as we revisit the last days of Jesus’ life on earth: to hear his commandment to love on Maundy Thursday; to keep vigil with him that night; to witness on Friday his vulnerability before the dark side, his willingness to die rather than to resort to violence and revenge. 

During Holy Week we will see the best and the worst of life. We will see overflowing love and we will see disfiguring hate. We will see faithfulness and we will see abandonment. We will see displays of power and we will see utter degradation. But most of all, at the heart of the matter, we will see truth. 

So we are standing at the gate of Jerusalem. But do not be afraid, we will go in together.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Glory of God

Nearly fifteen years ago now, I spent a few months serving at the Church of the Holy Comforter, a neighborhood parish in southeast Atlanta. Sixty to seventy percent of the folks in that congregation suffer from mental or physical disabilities. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, people who live in personal care homes around the city are brought by bus to Holy Comforter’s Friendship Center to spend several daytime hours participating in arts and crafts, gardening, singing, maybe getting a haircut or a wellness check. And on Wednesday nights they gather for worship followed by a community supper.

A retired priest I knew, Tom Stubbs, was a regular volunteer, serving folks marginalized by poverty and mental illness who came to the Friendship Center. Tom was very hard of hearing and his memory was not so great. So he came up with an idea: why not make permanent name badges for everyone? That would help him call them by their names. 

So, by the time I came along, everyone at the Friendship Center was sporting a gold-colored plastic badge on their shirts, with the wearer’s name engraved in large block letters in the middle and “Friend” engraved in fancier letters across the top. 

These little "friend badges” turned out to be agents of transformation. A simple plastic pin transforms the schizophrenic man into a friend named Reggie. A simple plastic pin transforms the mentally disabled woman into a friend named Yvette. The regular crucifer and bell-ringer was Friend Barry; Friend John gave little talks about world history whenever the opportunity arose. Friend Anita was an expert weaver. Simple plastic pins transformed the community from an assortment of unusual folks who are labeled in so many (and often negative) ways to a community of people who literally define themselves and each other as friends. 

And when I arrived, they called me friend, too.

It was there at Holy Comforter I once witnessed the transfiguration, and I use that word advisedly, of James, a difficult and often hostile man with severe mental illness. The first time I met James, he was climbing the steps to the church and he stumbled. One of my colleagues (we were a group of lay folks exploring a call to the priesthood) reached out to steady him, but James grabbed the railing, pulled himself back up, looked him in the eye and growled, “If you touch me, I will kill you.” We drew back, a little nervous and a little afraid suddenly and acutely aware that we were not, as the saying goes, in Kansas any more. That was our first day at Holy Comforter where there is, as is mentioned on their website, never a dull moment.

A few weeks later, near the end of the closing hymn at Wednesday night Eucharist, James abruptly left his place in the pew and purposefully strode forward to stand in front of the altar. He began rocking back and forth as he does, and I watched with some trepidation, wondering what he was going to do. Suddenly, James began to smile broadly and then he began to positively glow as he first hugged himself and then conducted the congregation in the singing of another joyful round of Jesus Loves Me. His face was shining with joy. My face became wet with tears. 

If St. Irenaeus was right that the Glory of God is a human being fully alive, then surely it was the Glory of God I saw that day as James was transfigured - just for a few moments - among his loving community of friends who all knew deep in their hearts that whatever else happens to them, Jesus loves them.

I supposed that James had just had an encounter with God, and God’s glory shone through his face, and I beheld it with awe and wonder. And after that, he was not the same to me, even though his usual difficult behavior returned soon enough. It was just a moment, a fleeting glimpse, but it was a holy and unforgettable moment in which James’s true nature was revealed, and maybe it wasn’t even James but I who was having an encounter with God.

In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote so beautifully about the time he was out running errands for his monastery in Louisville, Kentucky, and suddenly he realized that he loved all the people passing by on the busy street, right there at the corner of Walnut and Fourth, that they all belonged to each other and thus could not be alien to one another. He said, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts … where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…”

“But” he went on, “it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I waffle about that last part—why can’t we tell people that they are all  walking around shining like the sun? I imagine I would like it myself to be told such a thing. But I think I understand his point.

Perhaps the emphasis is properly focused on experience - of our seeing that glory among our fellow humans. Perhaps it is not the fact of their shining but our experience of beholding it that transforms us, that liberates us from the bondage of tribalism and prejudice, frees us from our tendency to categorize and hold ourselves out as different (in a good way) from others who we perceive to be different (in a bad way). We are such a fractured people, polarized, splitting into factions within factions (even the church does this); and we abuse each other in thought, word, and deed, in person, on social media, on television, in print and online. We are alienated from each other because of our habit of drawing lines between ourselves and those of other skin color, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, political party, mental or physical health differences, religion, geographical region, educational status, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes I am amazed at how finely we can make distinctions between ourselves and others and dismayed at how easily we slip into seeing others as Other with a capital O - not us, not like us, maybe not even fully human and so not deserving of regard or success or happiness or even rights.

Perhaps it is only on those occasions when the veil is briefly lifted that we can see what has been there all along, the shining secret beauty and holiness of every human heart, which carries within it the imprint and image of God.

Who was it that was changed that Wednesday evening at Holy Comforter? Was it James or was it me? Or was it that he was transfigured and I was transformed upon witnessing it? Such mysterious but essential concepts - transformation, transfiguration, liberation, freedom from illusory difference, joy, relief from alienation, the core of our reality - maybe these cannot be told or explained, but only experienced. And maybe we can only take it in for a moment - a flash - at a time or else we’d just die of constant ecstasy.

And what do we do when we have seen God’s glory? Do we shout, do we cry, do we bow, do we fall to our knees, do we withdraw from the world to think it over, to reflect? Do we babble some nonsense or run away to hide?

What we did do next, both James and I, along with all the other friends wearing their gold-colored plastic friend badges, was to say Amen, and Thanks Be to God, and then we went to the dining hall and ate our supper together.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

1968: Confessions of a Thirteen Year Old

In 1968, I was in the 7th grade, thirteen, no longer a child but sometimes a girl thriving on drama and crazy about boys and sometimes a budding adult becoming cognizant of the bigger picture, a new citizen of the wider world. 

Our family ate supper at 6 o’clock, which was also the time when Channel 5 broadcast the evening news, and my dad started leaving the TV on while we ate. There was a lot of news. The Summer of Love was over. The Tet Offensive raged in Vietnam. The President signed the Fair Housing Act. There was unrest on college campuses and in cities. Sometimes protest was peaceful, and sometimes it was violent. Sometimes it was about war, and sometimes it was about race.

The images on TV were supplemented by images in the Raleigh newspaper and in magazines like Life and Time. Men in helmets, squadrons of helicopters, fringe-wearing hippies, dogs and water canons, and people flashing the peace sign, and the first photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface taken from a spacecraft in orbit. Robert Kennedy lying on the floor in a hotel kitchen. Martin Luther King, Jr., lying on a hotel balcony. A line of black men walking down the sidewalk wearing signs that said I Am a Man. On their right stood soldiers toting bayonetted guns and on their left were tanks in the street.

In my small town, the local newspaper didn’t carry these kinds of photos. Instead, there were scenes from the high school football game and headshots of local politicians and beaming garden club award recipients. Once there was a picture of me when I was the diving champion at the pool. There was news, too, without pictures, news about the ongoing litigation over the court-ordered desegregation of our school system. 

The writeups identified by name and address the black families that had applied for their children to attend to the white school. To my school. The school board gave out those names and addresses to be published, that was news, but what was not reported was when white people in my town went to those addresses and poured oil in their wells or fired shots into their windows or when a cross was burned in their yard in the middle of the night.

And certainly it was never published that some white boys in my brother’s class threw the books of their one black classmate - his name was Jerome - into the toilet that they had just used. It was my brother who told me that.

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike in the aftermath of the deaths of two workers taking shelter in a garbage truck during a rainstorm. The sanitation workers were the ones who wore the signs that said, I Am a Man. 

In his speech he called to mind the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a man who had fallen among thieves on the way to Jericho. He was left for dead on the side of the road, and a Levite and a priest passed him by. They didn’t stop to help the fallen man. 

Dr. King imagined that the priest and the Levite were afraid that they might be robbed and beaten too. He imagined that they said to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan, a man of another tribe, a hated tribe, came by, and he reversed the question and said. “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” And so he stopped and bound up the man’s wounds and carried him to safety.

On April 4, 1968 Dr. King’s life was ended at age 39. Our local paper was published only twice a week, so the next edition after his death is dated April 9. The headline read: Quiet returns to our community following weekend of violence, arson, and high tension. The article noted broken windows around town, two fires, and the theft of some whisky. The April 11 edition included a story reporting that despite what the courts said, the school board believed it was not responsible for the violent activities of the Ku Klux Klan against black families who had applied to white schools whose addresses were published in the paper. 

I was just 13 with the world coming into focus. It made an impression on me that there were people who had to wear signs saying they were human.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fabio in the Wilderness

A few years ago, I discovered a painting of John the Baptist that shocked me. If you are at all into Christian art, you know that normally we see John the Baptist depicted as a gaunt and grizzled guy with really bad hair and wearing animal skins, pointing to Jesus who is nearby, usually on a cross. He looks like the kind of guy who calls people a brood of vipers, which, after Repent! is his best known line.

The painting I saw, though, was so very different from that. This John the Baptist is young, with a glorious cascade of curls  —he reminded me of Kenny G —and soft facial features. His head is cocked and he looks right at you in gentle greeting. And he points, not to Jesus who is not even in this picture, but up to heaven. And, get this, he is smiling. Smiling - even more than the Mona Lisa, that enigmatic lady who was created by the same artist, Leonardo da Vinci. This was sort of like John the Baptist as played by Fabio. I was shocked but also entranced. So I did some research. 

It turns out that there’s been some negative commentary on Leonardo’s painting over the centuries. Critics were affronted by this depiction of John. He’s supposed to be a fiery ascetic, challenging you as you take in the scene. He’s not supposed to be smiling as if to beckon you gently.  Some even said that this painting could not really be by the great Leonardo da Vinci because he would have known better than to paint a good-looking, friendly J the B with no Jesus to baptize or point to. It must have been painted by one of his assistants or students, they said. It’s a terrible painting, they said. This is blasphemous, they said.

But bluntly calling people a brood of vipers, a nest of deadly snakes, is not all that John is about. He’s not simply a wild-eyed character standing on the street corner shouting at people like a crazy person and holding up a placard that says you’re all going to hell. 

In fact, once you get past the bombastic opening of his exhortation, he practically sounds like Mr. Rogers. When the people, genuinely concerned about his warning, ask him one by one, what shall we do then to bear good fruit? He simply says, share. Share what you have. Be fair. Be fair in your dealings with others. And don’t use your power to bully.

He doesn’t tell the tax collectors they have to quit their jobs. He doesn’t tell the soldiers they have to become conscientious objectors. He doesn’t tell the poor they have to work harder so they can afford a donation to a charity. They can bear fruit just as they are, just where they are, by sharing what they have, by being honest and fair, by showing mercy. That’s it.

This all sounds so good to the people that they start to wonder if this John could be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. Yes, he certainly got their attention with some blunt talk, but in essence his message is about kindness and generosity, about justice and mercy, about paying attention to and nurturing the common good. This is the good news that John preaches to the people.

Perhaps it was this aspect of John’s proclamation that Leonardo was trying to portray in his unorthodox portrait. A man pointing to heaven and issuing a simple and loving invitation to bear fruit, as you are, where you are, in response to God’s mercy and desire for reconciliation, in response to God’s offer of salvation. 

This John is the forerunner of the savior who comes to make the blind see and the lame walk and to set the captives free, a savior who comes to deliver us from bondage to things that diminish us as children of God:  Things like selfishness and greed, bullying and hate, violence and oppression, like victim blaming and get ahead-ism and, perhaps most deadly and at the root of it all, indifference to suffering.

And so we can see why the call to repentance. We are all implicated in systems of inequality and greed and subject to fear of those we don’t know or understand. That’s part of the nature of belonging to human society. John asks, ok John demands, that we notice that. 

He demands that we take notice of the poisonous webs of racism and sexism and classism that we are all caught up in, that we notice the widening gap between rich and poor, that we notice our privilege and notice the ill treatment of strangers and even children of strangers and says, repent. Turn away from those things. Reorient yourself toward God and God’s justice and righteousness.

And maybe some of us need to hear that call to repentance in its raw form to wake up from complacency or to jolt us out of the self-protection mode in which we find ourselves hiding from the busy, noisy, demanding, overwhelming world out there. 

But here is the good news. At its heart, John’s message about bearing good fruit points us to the places where we already are and beckons us to practice honesty, to share, to be satisfied with what we have, to treat others with respect and compassion, to support instead of intimidate. These do not require Herculean efforts, or moving to a third-world country, or special equipment, or advanced degrees, or more money than we already have.

And every day in the place where I am, here in the St. Stephen’s community, I do see and hear about the good fruit you are bearing. 

On Mondays, volunteers assist hungry people shopping in our food pantry while others hand out bags of actual fruit to our neighbors in the East End. On Tuesdays, we offer wellness programs to help strengthen aging bodies. On Wednesdays, we knit prayer shawls for those struggling with frailty and illness. On Thursdays, we host groups that work to support children, or those with mental health issues or addiction, and groups that work against racism while lay ministers visit men and women in the city jail. On Fridays, stitchers create needlepoint memorials for the church and volunteers collate bulletins for Sunday worship while adults walk East end children to school and provide friendship and support. On Saturdays, gleaners collect food from the Farmers’ Market to give away on Mondays, and on Sundays we pray and sing and eat with one another, welcoming new friends into the community, connecting with, upholding and encouraging each other through prayer and worship and listening ears and loving touches. And that’s just a little of what I see here at church.

John says, in his own special way, that we are to be blessed by the coming of a savior who will take away our blemishes and frailties and failings - the chaff of our lives - and refine us into our pure selves, children of God. 

And in response, since we asked, we are to be a blessing in the world around us by sharing what we have, by being honest and fair, and by showing mercy. 

Dear people of God: That’s not a wild eyed bad hair crazy person rant on a street corner. That’s just love.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Giving ourselves away

Over the last few days, I’ve been looking online at pictures of places I used to go — old haunts of mine when I lived in the Florida Panhandle. 

I recognized that scenic stretch of Highway 98 at Carrabelle that runs along the shore of the St. George sound, now all buckled and broken up after Hurricane Michael. I saw that there’s now no road at all on Alligator Point, my go-to Friday afternoon beach in college, where the Tiki Hut bar is also gone. There was a boat tossed up against the post office in East Point, and everybody’s docks were ripped up at Shell Point where I used to go sailing. The funky Driftwood Inn at Mexico Beach is gutted and roofless, and St. Marks seafood market is covered in river sludge. 

And in between the photos of the places I used to go were photos of cars smashed by trees, boats splintered and slammed into each other, living rooms missing their walls, bedrooms missing their ceilings, refrigerators lying on concrete slabs where garages used to be.  

And there were photos of people sifting through the rubble, trying to salvage picture albums or jewelry or furniture, or, in the case of restaurants, beer, and a woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart convenience store, wondering where she should go now because her house was completely washed away by the storm.

And then I read Becky Lehman’s moving meditation in today’s Spirit about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina just a few weeks ago. Her descriptions were so vivid, I didn’t need photos. I could see in my mind’s eye the piles of things in front of all the houses, stuff dragged out to be hauled away, and not just stuff but memories and keepsakes that hold laughter and beauty but now, as she so memorably put it, are “ruined things in public view,” “the visual representation of lives interrupted.”

I don’t know if the woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart, wondering what to do, now that her house has been washed away, would enjoy hearing the story today of Jesus telling the man who knelt before him to get rid of all his possessions so he might inherit eternal life. 

It feels callous to hold up the virtues of voluntary poverty amid the real and understandable grief of those who have just lost everything they owned within the span of a few hours. And although we know deep inside that God always brings new life out of destruction, it feels a little too soon to press her to look at the bright side just yet. 

Sometimes we just have to sit with our grief and mourn our losses. Actually not just sometimes. None of us can really move on without acknowledging and grieving the things we have lost, be they possessions or memories or relationships. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died and Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb and stood there weeping after the disciples had gone home. The Israelites were devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem - the Psalms say that the people loved her very rubble and had pity on her dust.

And so let us acknowledge the pain that destruction brings. Let us grieve not only the loss of life, but the loss of a way of life for some and the loss of the material goods that supported the lives of others - beds to sleep in, refrigerators in which to keep food fresh, cars to take people to their jobs, shoes to protect their feet, roofs to shelter them from heat and cold and wind and rain. 

Let us not condemn but love as Jesus did the man who sadly walked away, grieving at just the thought of giving up everything he had. Surely we can relate. Nobody wants to lay themselves bare before the eyes of those who would judge. Nobody wants to be so vulnerable.

In the end, though, it is vulnerability that Jesus is offering as the way to the kingdom. Elsewhere he has said that we must become like children to enter it. We must be like those who are, and know they are, completely dependent on God. Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, relying on manna from heaven for their daily bread for forty long years, completely dependent on God. 

The hard truth is that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot grant ourselves the fullness of life God intends for us, neither by following the rules, nor by accumulating money and possessions to shield us from all the things we fear. Jesus knows we’d be better off if we could accept this. And yet he looked at the man kneeling before him and he loved him.

True connection comes from self abandonment in the face of love. Giving ourselves away, giving our wealth away, letting go of our shields and props, that’s what frees us from the bondage of stubborn self-reliance so that we might boldly approach the throne of grace. Giving ourselves away opens us up to the beauty of life in God, a life where it’s not scary to be vulnerable because there is always enough and more than enough, and we are cherished and safe and will be cared for even though we can’t quite let ourselves believe it.

According to news reports, back in Mexico Beach, rescue crews are going door to door, or what remains of doors, and combing through debris, to find everyone who needs help. Over in Panama City, people with generators are offering to charge their neighbors’ phones for them. The Sonny’s Barbecue staff started cooking all their pork and chicken and beef in the smokers in their parking lot - the meat would go bad with no refrigeration - and gave it out to all who came. A tapas bar with no electricity in Apalachicola fired up its gas grills to cook not only their own food but anything folks brought over from their own still-without-power homes to serve to first responders and locals alike.

The papers say these communities look like war zones, but to me they sound a bit like the kingdom of God. Amid destruction, people are searching for the lost, caring for each other, giving away what they have to those who have suffered. The vulnerable are being sought out and found and fed. 

The losses are real, and so is the love.


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