Sunday, November 10, 2019

Our Common Life Depends Upon Each Other's Toil

Looking down the River Arno from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence
One of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this one, which is listed among those one might say at the end of the day, at Compline (BCP page 134):

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live
in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, 
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I thought about this prayer while I was watching a video from the New York Times online called the “Midnight Gardeners of Mumbai.” The video focused mostly on two men who water the plants in municipal gardens and highway dividers in Mumbai - the New York of India, as the writeup describes it. Pravin drives the water truck and Rajesh sits on top of it and aims the hose to drench the plants; they work after midnight when there’s less traffic. Pravin used to have a job in a company that suddenly went bankrupt and he lost everything; Rajesh was an orphan whose parents had been in a mixed religion marriage - Hindu mother, Muslim father. When they were killed, his Hindu grandmother took him in, but she changed his name, which had been a Muslim name. He doesn’t remember his parents. We watch the two of them drive through the dark city: we see them watering the gardens; taking a coffee break; caring for the truck; petting a street dog.

There are still pictures, too, of other night workers. Men and women, old and young. Pravin says, “Most people don’t know how much work happens in the night. Like watering these gardens or supplying milk, newspapers, vegetables, fruits. These are all daily essentials. The work is done by people at night. These people are invisible to Mumbaikars. They don’t know who does these jobs.”

I like that we have such a prayer in the Prayer Book that asks God to watch over those who work while others sleep and that asks us to never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil. But watching the film I also thought, there is so much that I don’t know about in the world. There are so many people who are invisible to me and I know nothing about them and yet they are much like me - they have had success, they have regrets, they love and get their hearts broken, they want to have a home, they do their work with care, they show kindness and also feel frustration. And their work contributes to my well-being every day. But I do not see them.

The Bible tells us that the work of God is invisible, too, comparing it to what happens when a seed is planted in the ground. Something happens to the seed and it begins to grow, and that thing that happens is certainly happening but we don’t see it. It’s underground. It happens while the sower sleeps. What we see is the fruit - but not what has made it become fruit.

Rajesh says that he has always worked very hard and that sometimes he wishes he could just sleep in. And I wondered what might happen to him while he sleeps? What seed might grow, what essential thing might be done, so that when he wakes he can simply enjoy the thing that happened that he did not have to do or make himself?

I am grateful for God’s unfailing providence, but I have been slow to apprehend the unseen people who work so I might have my daily essentials. There is so much I do not see, much that is invisible to me. There is so much I do not know and probably will never know. 

And yet, and so, therefore, may I never forget that my life depends on others’ toil.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Repairers of the Breach

This afternoon at 3:00, in concert with the National Parks Service, churches all over the country - here in Virginia, up in Connecticut, in Minnesota, in Georgia, even out in Napa Valley, California - Baptist churches, Episcopal churches, AME churches, all kinds of churches - are going to ring their bells to commemorate this day in 1619, 400 years ago, when some twenty-odd black men and women - people who had been taken from their homes in West Africa and forced onto a Portuguese ship named the St. John the Baptist (doesn’t that seem wrong?) only to be stolen by pirates, yes pirates - were led or maybe pushed down the gangplank of the ship The White Lion and sold to settlers at Point Comfort, the place now known as Fort Monroe, just down the peninsula from us, at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the James River. John Rolfe, the Englishman from the settlement at Jamestown, the one we remember because he married Pocahontas, made a note of it, and that’s how we know the story. The men and women were sold in exchange for food because the pirates had run out of supplies. Those twenty-some were people, but they were sold like cattle for corn.

This bell ringing is not a celebration. It is a commemoration. That August day marks the beginning of the slave trade in what would become the United States of America, a practice that went on for another 250 years. The bell ringing is a symbolic action saying, we know, we acknowledge, we will say it out loud, God help us, but white people used to buy and sell black people in this land as if they were no more than the oxen that were yoked and lashed to pull plows across hot fields.

Because until we say it, we can’t heal it. Bryan Stevenson, the author of the book Just Mercy, which many of us read two summers ago, put it this way: you can’t skip the truth to get to the reconciliation.

And so the bells will be rung for four minutes, one minute for every hundred years that has passed since the day those twenty-some people were sold into slavery here in Virginia, to acknowledge that truth, to put it out there in the open, in the hope that we can get to reconciliation.

Truth and reconciliation are words we use a lot in the church. They come from the BIble. Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And Jesus also said that when he went away, the Spirit would come to guide us into all truth, even to those truths we cannot bear to hear now. And when you know the truth, he said, the truth will set you free.

And reconciliation - reconciliation is at the heart of our life of faith. Jesus came to reconcile us to God. We say this every week in our Eucharistic prayer. This is our salvation, being reconciled to God. And this is our work, too. Just as we have received, so we are to give. The church is to be a force for reconciliation in a world which is estranged from God and in which we are estranged from one another. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: we have been given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus himself. We have been given the ministry of healing.

So, who better to hear on the subject of healing and reconciliation than the prophet Isaiah, thank you Holy Spirit for putting this in the lectionary today - Isaiah my favorite prophet and I think Jesus’s favorite, too, because he quoted him often. In our reading, Isaiah was speaking to the former Exiles who had come home from captivity in Babylon. But what had once been their beautiful and beloved home, Jerusalem with its holy Temple, a city on a hill, was now just a pile of rubble. The city had been destroyed by overwhelming imperial forces - the walls breached, the city overrun, the temple smashed and burned to the ground - and the people had been taken away in chains. After 70 years, they were allowed to return, no longer in chains, but they were in chaos, fighting with one another over who were the real Jews and who were foreigners, who they could marry and who they couldn’t, who belonged and who didn’t. They were practicing oppression and slavery, and even trying to kick each other out of the land. 

So there was not only that physical breach in the walls of Jerusalem, but even more importantly, a psychic breach among the people, a great tearing apart of the fabric of their society.

And in the midst of all that fighting and tearing apart, Isaiah spoke God’s words to the people. He gave them a new name: the repairers of the breach. He called them to stop the oppression, stop the finger pointing, stop the ugly talk - stop the things that create these wounds among us - these things that tear apart and ruin (and I use the present tense here deliberately) - and instead to be repairers of the breach. Yes, there is a breach, it’s there for everyone to see. So be repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets to live in, he said. Rebuild the society in accordance with God’s repeated calls for justice and mercy. I think it is no accident that a number of religious and charitable organizations - even church project teams - have taken this beautiful and poignant phrase, repairers of the breach, as a name for their ministries aimed at rebuilding a just and merciful society even now in our time when everything seems to be torn apart.

And who better to see practicing repair and restoration and healing than Jesus, who observed a woman bent over from whatever it was that was burdening her and called her over, right into the middle of the synagogue where everybody could see, and touched her to make her whole. The religious leaders found fault with him for “working” on the Sabbath, bless their hearts, but Jesus was making an essential point: what better time than the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, to bring health and wholeness to those who are bent over with pain, bent over with grief, with despair, those who are hungry or homeless or not in their right minds, who are in thrall to something that simply has overpowered them? What better day than the Sabbath to do what is needed to help someone who has been brought down low to stand up straight again? What better day than today?

And so yes, today, this Sabbath day, which has been designated as a day of healing by the folks who are putting together the commemoration of the arrival of enslaved Africans to our shores, offers us a sacred opportunity to heed the prophet and to be like Jesus. As you know, we do not have an official bell at St. Stephen’s. But nonetheless, some of us, clergy and wardens and others, are going to gather outside on our front steps and ring our own bells at 3:00 for four minutes to participate in the commemoration. For me this is to say, I know, I acknowledge the sin of slavery, which my own ancestors practiced and which gave rise to the scourge of American racism that continues to rend our society today. I know how that has torn us asunder, and although this is all way bigger than I am, I want to answer God’s call to be a repairer of the breach. 

And if you can, come and join us. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The time is now

Sometimes I entertain myself by Googling commentary on Bible passages. People say some funny stuff out there on the internet. Like this: “The story of Mary and Martha is one of the most treasured in the Bible.” Hah. Nope.

Or: “Take this quiz - Are you a Martha or a Mary?” Um, nope again.

And then there’s this one, in a famous and reputable Christian magazine no less: “Martha, You Don’t have to be Mary.” That article required a subscription to read, so I don’t know if it was a take on “You be You” or something else, but anyway, Capital N Nope.

Now maybe I surprised you with these declarations. But some of the traditional interpretations of this story do not make my heart feel warm and sentimental, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Traditional interpretations have served to pit women who have different vocations or personalities or spiritual gifts against each other; they have fueled resentment and divisiveness in and out of the church. I have it on good authority that some of those without a contemplative nature feel put down by Jesus here. And in an unfortunate effort to rehabilitate the story, we find the “You Be You” take, where Marthas get Marys back by wearing “Proud to be a Martha” buttons and re-writing the story to have Jesus get up and wash the dishes at the end when he realizes that he was wrong and how hungry he would have been if Martha hadn’t fixed a great dinner. So there.

And all of this is understandable when we go along with the interpretation that this is a story about competing women’s roles, or that this is a story about dinner rolls. But, truly, it’s not about women and it’s not about dinner, either. It’s not even about contemplation. It’s about the urgency of God’s mission - a really really big idea - told through a very short story that takes place in a certain home in a certain small village - a specific example of how people might respond when the cosmic Kingdom of God comes near.

We actually heard a snippet of this very same kind of story a few weeks ago when a would-be (male) disciple responded to Jesus’s command to follow him by saying “First let me go and bury my father,” and Jesus shocked him and us by curtly upbraiding him with the reply “Let the dead bury the dead.” Wait, what?

So let’s connect the dots.

It all started when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. This is a pivotal point in Jesus’s life and ministry. He has been spreading the good news throughout the land. He has been healing and teaching and feeding and his fame has spread. People are flocking to him to be touched, to be healed, to be fed. Obviously Jesus could keep doing these things every day for ever and ever, because there seems to be no end to sickness and grief, ignorance and hunger - there wasn’t then and there isn’t now. But after a while there was something even more urgent for Jesus than all these other things, as important as they were. And that urgent something was going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was time, his time, the Kingdom of God was being manifest in Jesus himself, the salvation of the whole world was in view, and everything else had to fall by the wayside. 

And so he went purposely forward along the way and as he met people he said to them, “Follow me.” The time is now, and there is no time to lose. It’s a matter of life and death. There may be a time for those other things - there is a time for those things - but not now. Not when the Kingdom of God appears on your very street, at your very door.  

And so Jesus calls, not softly and tenderly this time, but starkly and matter-of-factly. Let the dead bury the dead, man. Woman, leave off the fluffing the pillows and the garnishing of the deviled eggs. I’m telling you this is urgent, a matter of life and death. 

Again, it isn’t that these things aren’t important - taking care of our parents, raising our children, providing warm hospitality; farming, feeding, cleaning, working. Jesus isn’t saying that we should not care about these things or that we should not do them.

He is saying that if we are too busy and distracted, or too bound to convention, or too caught up in the ordinary stuff of life, we might miss an extraordinary moment of God coming into our midst with an urgent mission at hand. And further, when that moment comes, our response should be to just drop the other stuff. It’s not going anywhere.

So Martha is not inherently wrong to be concerned about providing hospitality. Hospitality is a good thing and Jesus praises it often. It isn’t wrong that the man wanted to bury his father. It’s not an either-or thing, it’s not about one’s essence as a “kind of person.” One is not either a Mary or a Martha, a dutiful son or a callous one. It’s about recognizing the moment. We are all called to be disciples, and sometimes that means dropping everything and going with Jesus on an urgent mission. I feel certain that Mary herself was no stranger to slaving in the kitchen, but she chose to let that go this time because she recognized the moment when the kingdom of God was appearing in her very own living room. 

And God does appear even on our streets and even in our living rooms. You can be sure that God is not afraid or too holy to be on TV or on the internet. And I don’t mean through TV preachers. When we see rank injustice in a news story, God is there. When we see certain stories of poverty, sickness, violence, despair playing out in the news, Jesus is pointing to them and saying emphatically, “Follow me.” He is not restricted to the year 33 A.D. And we even now are all Mary and we are all Martha and we are all that poor guy who is just trying to do the right thing. It’s not about our nature, it’s about our response to God’s call.

And so, for everything there is a season, the Bible says. And a time for every purpose under heaven. Moses stops watching his flock and attends to the burning bush. The Virgin Mary stops her devotional reading and listens to the Angel Gabriel. Peter and Andrew get up and leave their father and their nets in the fishing boat when Jesus calls out to them. For there is a time to herd sheep, and a time to recognize holy ground; a time to read prayers, and a time to hear the rustle of angel wings; a time to fish, and a time to leave fishing behind, because Jesus has come and it’s a matter of life and death. 

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.


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