Friday, July 4, 2014

"Everywhere the Queen Goes, it Smells Like Fresh Paint”
Mark 1:1-13

Recently, I was flying home from Heathrow Airport in England.  I was flying out of the new international terminal, “the Queen’s Terminal.”  You cannot believe what it was like.  There were no lines. Not some lines, not short lines. There were NO lines.  I walked right up to a ticket kiosk, I walked right up to a baggage inspector, I walked right through the x-ray machine, I chatted with the officer who swiped my hands and bag for explosives.  It was incredible, I was dumbstruck.

The English equivalent of the TSA man,  said that their goal was to get us from the ticket kiosk to through to the terminal gates area in four minutes.  FOUR MINUTES. I explained that at O’Hare, their goal was to get you boarded for your departure before your return flight landed.

As you exited the area, by the way, they had several little stations along the wall with three large buttons on them: a red a yellow and a green, so that in one second you could review your experience of the airport so far.  I laughed as I smacked the green one.  Nope, you’d never see that at O’Hare.

Then, as I proceeded to the gate, things got even more bizarre.  Everything was clean and new and sparkling, every escalator worked, every screen had something recent and relevant on it, and at intervals all along the way, were live musicians. Around this corner there were three musicians in formalwear before noon playing a Schubert concerto for violin, cello and piano.  Around the next bend was a mariachi band in bolero jackets.  Curioser and curioser, right?  But then, as I neared my own departure gate, there stood a row of half a dozen young men in tux pants and white pressed shirts, holding trays of champagne flutes. 


At that point, I stopped one of a pair of dishy Bobbies in their spanking uniforms and asked. Yes, he told me, that was a reception for the queen. She would be passing through shortly. “Didn’t you wonder why there were so many policemen in the terminal and with guns?”

Well, no, I thought, that was the only part of the experience that felt familiar.

There is an expression among the English that everywhere the queen goes, it smells like fresh paint.  She doesn’t have the same experience as the rest of us. For the Queen of England, there is always the possibility of a Mariachi band around the corner.

Mark 1 is, let’s remember, the opening salvo of what we think is the earliest Gospel.  These are the opening words he offers from Isaiah:  “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his pathways straight.” 

In other words, line up that Schubert Trio and try to find six guys to hold the champagne trays. Because, when the savior comes, we want to be ready, ducks in a row, souls in order, pathways straight. We want toe Savior to smell fresh paint.

Or do we?

Because the point of that truism about the Queen is that she doesn't have a very real experience of the world.  Her idea of what an airplane terminal is like bears almost no resemblance at all to our experience, does it?

But when the Savior comes, he isn't looking for us to be buttoned down and cleaned up.  He isn't going to walk through our lives as we line up before him like troops on inspection. And that’s a really good thing, because if salvation hung on whether our bathrooms were clean, no teenagers could ever go to heaven.

No, Scripture doesn't tell us that the Savior is coming to tour the terminal.  It says he is coming to travel with us. It says he is coming to walk the walk of faith right beside us, to sit on the aisle so we can have the window and to experience the journey with all its trials and joys just as we experience it ourselves.

In the first chapter of Mark we see Jesus baptized, affirmed by the voice of God, and then immediately thrown out into the wilderness and tribulation.  In two paragraphs!

“AT ONCE the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness.”  He didn’t want to go any more than we do. But that is how the journey of life proceeds.

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  THAT certainly sounds familiar.  Over the course of the journey of our lives we are forced into the wilderness by life and we are tempted by Satan. Sometimes for way more than forty days.

Then it says, “He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.”

Have you ever heard it observed that the experience of Jesus is a parallel to the experience of the People of Israel in Exodus?  Through the waters – The Red Sea in Exodus, and Baptismal water in the case of Jesus – and then through the wilderness – to wander for generations in the case of the Israelites and to be tested in the case of Jesus.

Jesus walks the walk of the people of God. He is our only advocate and intercessor.  He stands for us, he stands with us.  Even in the wilderness – surrounded by wild animals – the angels take care of him as they do us.  Everything we do in the life, every experience, blessing or trial, Jesus is with us along the way.  And the angels protect us.

In these first introductory verses, Mark wants to be sure we understand that Jesus is not a monarch like Caesar or Elizabeth the Second.  He is not distant from our experience of the world, he is not here to be preceded by Schubert and fresh paint.  He is not a leader marching before his troops, he is a Savior, marching beside them. His experience is not remote, it is identical.

Like you and I, he was baptized, like you and I, he is the beloved of God, like you and I he was thrown into the wilderness, like you and I he was tempted, like you and I he was watched over by angels.

Mark begins the first chapter of our journey with Christ with Isaiah’s urgent wake up call. (Here imagine your mother’s voice through the door of your room in the morning before school):  “Wake up, get ready, prepare ye the way of the Lord.” 

Look for him, because he is here, with you, now. Be prepared to find evidence of him every step of the way. And how awesome is that really?  To have Jesus Christ along as your traveling companion?  To ask when you come to a fork in the road? To consult when you find your progress slowing? To console you when you’re baggage becomes too big to fit in the overhead bin? So, prepare yourself to find him traveling with you. He has walked this path before, he knows the way.  He will help you make your pathway straight, he is with you on this journey and will see you safely home.

So, it seems fair here to ask, if everywhere the Queen goes smells like fresh paint … then what does it smell like everywhere that Christ goes?  Well, let’s hope it smells like candles lit for worship, bread to feed to the hungry and, well, you really can’t go wrong with champagne.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Bent Woman and the Daughter of Abraham

I have a friend who, when asked why he is in the Episcopal Church, says, "I'm a cradle Episcopalian, it is my home, I am comfortable here."   There is a certain truth to that.  The dance of the liturgy, the call and response, the pew calisthenics are all familiar and comforting to us.  They occupy our bodies and our minds and position our hearts to be receptive to God.  I love that about our liturgy. 

But is that why one is Episcopalian, or part of any religious community?  I hope not. 
I hope it is because once our bodies and minds are in their routines, our hearts open to God and God reaches in and rattles our cages.  God isn't comfortable, God is brazen, God is challenging.  Church is not a couch, its a challenge.

This week's lectionary is from Luke, the story of the woman who is bent double and Jesus heals her on the Sabbath.  (I have a little soap box I keep with me for use once every three years:  healing on the Sabbath is not a violation of Sabbath.  First Century Judaism permitted acts of mercy on the Sabbath.  OY, how many pulpit bloopers have I heard on that topic!!).  The woman is known, in some circles, as "The Bent Woman."  This is because the construction of "she went bent over and could not stand upright" is such a messy construction in the Greek.  She has been crippled, for whatever reason, for 18 years.  Jesus comes and frees her from that bondage.  Jesus liberates her from the burden she has carried her whole life.

Think about what that means for the woman. Lean over and look down at the ground.  How much can you see?  A circle with about an 18 inch circumference, right? And not much in the periphery, let alone above or ahead of you.  This woman's entire world view for eighteen years has been an 18 inch circle of dirt.  No future, no past, no one else's face unless they got down there for her.  No sky, no hope.  And dirt and dust kicked up into her mouth over the years, this is 1st Century Israel after all, right? That is her world view, that is her life.  Figuring her first century life expectancy at forty years, it is roughly half her life. That is all she sees for roughly half her life.

And what do other people see?  They see a woman who is diminished.  She is beaten down, she is undignified, she is unable to do what others can do. She is submissive and dependent and strange.  Her posture is her public identity.  Sit with that one for a while.

And then, with a word or a gesture, Christ sets her free. 

How has her world view changed?  She can look up and around and backward.  You can imagine in those first few days, that was all she did: she looked all around, she stared at the sky.  I am a huge clouds fan, myself.  I can sit and look at clouds all day.  I don't know how many times I have been honked at at a stop light because the view out my sunroof distracted me.  If she was able, I bet this woman looked at nothing but clouds for the first week. 

But now she is upright, she has a lot of work to do.  She has a whole new existence to create, a second half of her life to live into in redemption of the first half.  But also informed by the first half.  She appreciates, now, that she can look around her.  She appreciates, now, face to face conversation.  She understands,now the essential nature of hope, of lifting her eyes to the hills from whence cometh her help. She values, as she especially can, the gifts we take for granted. And with appreciation, comes gratitude, and with gratitude, responsibility.  She knows she is blessed and she is honor bound to make good use of those blessings.

In my imagination, she uses her new found strength to stand up to forces that bend us over, that foster submission or victimization or force on us an identity that is not a fulfillment of our potential.  These forces are myriad in our world, then as now: domestic violence, sexism, child abuse, elder abuse, etc. Women or the homeless, people of color, disabled people, mentally ill people, uneducated people, these people are bent double under the weight of our fallen world.  And we see them and think of them as crippled.  The Bent Woman reminds us that if that is what we let ourselves believe,  it is we who are crippled.

At the end of the text, the woman is referred to as "a daughter of Abraham."  It is the only time this expression is used in the gospels.  As a daughter of Abraham she has inherited a mighty fortune in favor, and a double portion of obligation.  As a daughter of Abraham she is bound by covenant to serving God. She has an obligation, a unique "perspective" and a generations deep well of grace from which to draw.  It is a big task, living into the potential that God has released in us. But when Jesus Christ sets us free - from whatever is crippling us, debt, addiction, pain, anger, - when he takes us from the Bent Woman to a Daughter of Abraham, you better believe that being an Episcopalian is not a couch, its a challenge.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ruth, Jonah, Paul and an Unfortunate Maritime/Marital Analogy

Something like 13 years ago, I realized that the ship of my marriage was in serious trouble.  We were taking on water - baggage with one another that we never bothered to bail out.  Over time the water made its way out, but never entirely.  And so we started to list off course.  We leaned away from each other.  The course corrections we made in previous years stopped taking us in the direction we wanted to go.  And, possibly the worst part of all, things were getting water logged. That's the permanent damage.

I did what I thought of- I tried to correct the course with the water in the hold, I tried to eject the ballast. And I bailed.  I bailed like hell.  

But ten years later it was clear that we were going to have to abandon ship. The captain of that ship was just going to let us go on forever, listing, sweeping, gradually sinking until we were all up to our necks in water. I as the navigator had completely failed to keep us on course. So, I took it upon myself to declare mutiny.  

Mutiny is a terrible thing, let me tell you. There is no going back.  In the 17th Century, when Britannia ruled the waves, mutiny was a hanging offence for all involved.  It makes sense really, you cant have that kind of insurgency in the ranks, then everyone would rebel when their food was weevily or their captain was leading them into danger.  

But in the eyes of the victims of ineptitude or cruelty, the mutineer was a hero.  And to the mutineer, the question seemed to come down to "die of inaction, at the hands of a mad man, or die as the result of your own action and risk the rope."  I took the risk.

As a result of the mutiny, all hands abandoned ship. This is the point in the story where the maritime analogy begins to be labored.  I apologize.  Because, in my mind, what I did when I determined to end my marriage was akin to I knowing I had to leave the sinking ship. Not jumping entirely into the water, though, but going calmly, quickly, into a lifeboat. We keep lifeboats as part of the compliment of a larger ship.  The larger ship could learn a lot from the lowly lifeboat. 

A lifeboat, as you may know, is designed to keep you afloat when other forces would pull you under.  A lifeboat, as you may know, is sturdy enough to keep the water out and stable enough to get you to safe harbor.  A lifeboat will carry more than one person, plus provisions. This was essential because, as part of the mutiny, the passengers were coming with me.

In the case of the end of my marriage, adrift on the sea of emotion, the lifeboat was the ethics I and my family had built up and preserved over the course of our lives together.  The lifeboat was the infrastructure of our lives, the "why" we do things, that kept us together and safe as we navigated the "what" we had to do. Why we were not in the ship any more, why we needed to be on the sea, why we were paddling in the direction we had chosen, why we set down the paddles some times and let the wind take us.  All of these decisions were made because of the nature of our lifeboat, a lifeboat we had constructed over decades, never thinking it would become essential.  All of the choices we made as we proceeded through the months of separation toward divorce, were guided by what we knew to be right, what we knew to be "our way."  Our ethics were our lifeboat.

This is not to say that our lifeboat didn't leak.  There were certainly times when the sea of emotion slipped in through cracks between the boards of our lifeboat.  Nothing tests your ethics like conflict.  And we learned where our weaknesses were and how serious and how to repair or mitigate them.  And the sea of emotion sometimes swept over the side in great tidal waves of anger and resentment and hurt.  In the darkest part of the night there were great swells that topped our gunwales and threatened to overturn us or sink us on one fell motion.  

In these times, emotion was so overwhelming that our judgement was almost completely lost to us.  We could not remember who we were or why we had made any decision.  In the darkness you cannot see where you are going or where you have been, and in a storm of emotion, there is no guiding starlight toward which to steer. 

And what we did in those moments was to turn our attention within.  We kept our minds on what was happening inside the boat, because that was all we could control.  We couldn't still the waves or make the boat big enough to overcome them.  But we could do our best to keep our boat, such as it was, afloat.  We picked up our buckets and bailed. We took gallons of destructive emotion and threw them over the side.  Anger, disappointment, recriminations and cruelty, greed and envy, all went over the side by the bucketful. In our lifeboat of ethics,  dark emotion is valid, it has a place. Its just outside the boat. (I should mention that one of the provisions in any good lifeboat, is a store of fresh drinking water - of love and support, of kindness and empathy and trust.  We had that aboard our boat from the beginning or we never would have survived.)

Now, I don't want to give the impression that we were entirely alone on these stormy seas.  There were plenty of folks out there. Folks called to us to help guide us toward safety. Friends and family who have weathered divorce and loss like this offered us kind words and encouraging prayer. Folks further away shined a light to keep us from harm. A very good friend of mine, an attorney, warned me about the twists and turns of the "jilted male psyche" and kept me from reefing more than once. And there were, and continue to be, naysayers who figured we were in this trouble because we chose to be. There were even those who, somewhat astonishingly, thought it would be wise to go back to the ship. But these were the voices of folks who live in the sea, it is their world view. We, in the boat, see things from another perspective.

So, while we were never alone, still it was our lifeboat and it is our job to get ourselves to safe harbor. Our journey of surviving divorce, in our little boat of ethics, is ours alone to experience. That is as it should be because of the retelling.  We are a people of stories and so when we tell the fish-tale that will be the anecdote of our experience, we may exaggerate parts, we may minimize others, we may all have a different impression of "the one that got away."  But our truth is the truth as we experience it.  Too many witnesses may bring veracity, but they diminish truth.

And let me say that there was another choice we could have made as the ship began to sink.  We could all have chosen to put on life vests and throw ourselves into the water as individuals.  That was what the captain chose to do. I cannot imagine what it was like to be alone in the sea of emotion, to be soaked to the skin with it and tossed about without moorings and without anyone to cling to.  I think it must have been very cold.  I think it must have been terrifying.  I think there were times when his head dropped under the water line and he swallowed the sea water into his belly.  It tested him and I know it showed his true colors.  Ultimately, he found other people who had chosen the life-preserver route.  He clung to them as long as he was able, one after another until he found one he could keep afloat with.  In the end, just as we will find safe harbor, he will emerge from the sea as well.  Who is to say what is right for any of us?  I am only glad I chose to stick to what I knew was right for me and for my children. 

Because, now that the shore is in sight, I can honestly say that I am proud of what we have done.  I am proud that we chose to leave in the boat and not to let ourselves be drowned.  I am proud of how we stayed in the boat when we wanted to jump out and end it, and when it seemed we would be spilled out or sunk.  I am proud of how well constructed our ethics were so that when really and genuinely challenged, we knew what to do because we knew why. We were tested, but we were never pulled under. 

It is a long and labored metaphor, I know.  I am as weary of it as you are, I promise.  But it has worked for me for 14 months and will always be the image I carry in my mind for my divorce. My ethics, my knowledge of what is right and my willingness to place the hopes of myself and my children inside that knowledge, that is the lesson of the divorce for me. 

Faithful readers of this column will wonder where God comes into all this?  You may be looking for a belly of the whale analogy or something about Paul and shipwreck.  And you're right to think I looked to scripture as a guide for my life.  It is, after all, a tale of ethics and my ethics stem from my faith.  But the book is not Jonah or Job or Acts or even Revelation, though there may at times have seemed to be a many-headed beast involved.  The book is Ruth. Ruth, a woman who chooses her path, not through convention, but because of what she feels to be right. A woman who does the hard work to keep her family together.  A woman whose choices have been the subject of speculation and criticism for millennia, but who never herself questioned their validity.   A woman whose story we all know and which appears in our lectionary every year.  This is the book that guides me here, this is the theology of my divorce. And yet in the story of Ruth, God is never mentioned and God never appears. I think that might be because God's work is evident in Ruth's work

So if you are looking for God in my weary maritime tale, God is in the fact that there was a lifeboat at all. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Without a Net: Gliding Through the Garden of Gethsemane

Luke 22:39-46
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

When I was fourteen, after weeks of training on the ground and in the air, I took my first solo flight in a sailplane. I was so scared, my heart was beating in my ears and my throat was closing.  I could barely squeak out to my instructor as he walked away and left me with the plane.  “Wait!” I said. “WAIT!”

He turned and looked at me and said, “I’m getting it.”

When he came back he had with him these two big metal pins that weighted the front of the aircraft so that a slight 14 year old girl wouldn’t be flying with her nose tipping up the whole time.

The tow-plane hooked on, I was swept up into the air and I watched in terror, my hands shaking violently, for the indication to release and to glide, free of any propulsion, by myself, alone in the cockpit.  And then I pulled the release. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. I was alone, in charge of my fate for the first time in my life. 

As a child with undiagnosed ADD, I had struggled in school profoundly and even more so in life.  I never knew where I was supposed to be or got there with everything I needed. I understood every word that was spoken to me, but I never ever knew what people meant.  And my poor impulse control imperiled more than my own life on more than one occasion.  I was the bane of my hard-working mother’s existence and a complete contradiction to my brilliant father’s theory of genetics.  I was a danger to myself and others and the family whispered the words “group-home” on more than one occasion. I was – and am – a person whose brain, un-medicated and unmitigated – is not her friend.

But here I was, after weeks of confusion and fear, intimidated by my instructors and sure of their derision, never the less, alone in the cockpit of an aircraft, entrusted with my own life, this valuable plane and the safety of people on the ground. And I thought, “What the hell are my parents thinking letting me do this?”

Fast forward thirty four years. I’m now a single mother, working full time for the first time in seventeen years. I have a house to maintain and utilities to pay.  I have two dogs who need almost constant supervision to keep from peeing on or chewing everything in said house.  And three children – all of whom were more poised and mature in the cradle than I was at 14- whose psyches are impacted (according to the teenager) by every single microscopic action I take (hence the scrutiny).  I have to get people to things, and I have to coach, train, discipline, encourage, console and, with frightening frequency, cuss out, people whom I love. I have to remember, I have to complete, I have to get up off my ass and weed when I want to read, and I have to sit down all alone on the couch in the evening and sort it all out by myself.  I am, once again, alone in the cockpit, entrusted with the stewardship and safety of more than I could have imagined possible. 

In a sailplane you have a limited number of stimuli to process.  You have an airspeed indicator and an altimeter and a false horizon and a lift/drag ratio meter. There is also something called a “yaw string.” This was my best friend when I was flying.  It was a tiny little piece of yellow yarn stuck to the outside of the cockpit right in front of you that was buffeted and tossed against the windscreen as you flew.  It told you whether you were flying efficiently: if the wind was passing over your wings in the most efficient way, whether your attitude to the ground and the wind around you (your pitch and your yaw) was correct for the kind of flying you were doing.  Whether you were in a turn or pulling up into a deliberate stall, whether you were thermal-ling, diving, towing or landing, that yaw string told you that you were in balance as you did it. A yaw string is also not an instrument in the formal sense, it’s not a gauge drawing on information it is picking up from a meter on your rudder or your wing.  It’s a little piece of fiber pushed by the wind. That’s all.
I have a yaw string on my minivan.

There is no sound when you are flying (without a radio, I used to fly without a radio whenever possible) but the wind over your cockpit, though that can be quite loud.  Your hands and feet are in place, you are strapped in somewhat ruthlessly and there is no looking around more than 180 degrees – plus not down, unless you’re turning, you can’t look down very well.  So there is only up.  There are clouds, which are my favorite things in the entire universe because they tell you everything you need to know.  They tell you where the wind is coming from.  They tell you where there will be an updraft, a “thermal” which you can use to keep yourself in the air without power. They tell you if it is going to rain or that there will be a change in the weather.  They tell you where something starts and something else end. Clouds tell you everything you need to know and they are almost always gorgeous.

So you stay in the sky in a sailplane by finding places, invisible columns of air, that rise up from the ground, usually because of heat on the ground.  These are called “thermals” and the process of sweeping around in a turn within these columns of air – as you have seen condors and birds of prey sometimes do – is called “thermalling.” When you wish to rise, you locate a thermal and you sweep around in a large, graceful turn inside of it. Your long, wide wings are caught by the air and you are swept up. You can’t see a thermal, they are entirely invisible.  You can guess where one is: if you see a bird thermalling, if the ground is dark on a sunny day (soybean field often make thermals), and under a cumulo stratus cloud. These clouds with tall white puffy tops and flat bottoms indicate the presence of a thermal.  When they line up along a weather front you can glide for hundreds of miles without losing altitude.  This is called, a “cloud street.” Great, right?

What the heck does this have to do with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?

I think that being alone, or feeling alone, in this mortal life, is a visit to the garden of Gethsemane. Even if you have companions along the way, close, bosom friends, they will sometimes sleep. They are mortal, they must sometimes sleep.  And, we all now it’s true, sometimes when we need them the most they are afraid of what will be asked of them and they are asleep when we need them to be wakeful. And in those moments, we are profoundly, cosmically, and terrifyingly alone. You are strapped in place by the forces of your life and livelihood.  Your hands and feet must be where they are to keep things going. You have limited visibility. And you can’t see what the hell is keeping you afloat. You’re doing it all by the seat of your pants.

When I was 14 and flying for the first time, I released the tow-plane, I heard the thump of the hook and saw the rope fall away and for a few seconds - seconds I sometimes relive in my dreams, I sat in that cockpit and screamed like a babysitter in a horror movie.  I took at least two full breaths and kept screaming. 

And then my brain clicked off. And my gut clicked on.

That’s how we get through the garden of Gethsemane.  When we can’t see what is holding us up, we look for signs of it, for thermalling birds, friendly smiles and “pokes” on Facebook.  When we can’t see anywhere but up, we can learn to read the sky, we can see places where we will be held up or lifted up.  When the lift/drag meter is pulling way south, we can see our way clear to a cloud street and that is all we need.  Dawn comes, it always comes. There is always the moment when you land safely.  But getting through the night in Gethsemane is about going from one thermal to the next.

It is, in fact, all about the yaw string. If you are flying efficiently, you’ll get the most distance on your lift, you won’t slip or slide out of latitude, you won’t accidently roll or pull up too tight and stall.  You know what to do. You’ve got the Scripture to guide you, Scripture, which is a little piece of the world moved by the breath of the Creator: Scripture is a yaw string. Scripture which will guide you to maneuver through the garden efficiently, effectively, smooth in flight. It is about flying by the seat of your pants and not thinking.  Thinking leads to screaming.

But what of the Angel?  When Jesus was in the garden an angel was sent to him and the angel gave him strength. Frequently these days, I pray for an angel who will come and give me strength.  (And frequently, in the midst of a record breaking heat wave, I sweat until I think I must be sweating blood and I think, “I was supposed to have the angel by now. The angel is late.”) Remember, I said at the beginning that my instructor put two heavy weights in the nose of the sailplane so that I would be able to fly in the first place? That is because I, by myself, couldn’t do it. I by myself, can never do it. But I was never alone in the cockpit, and I am never alone in the garden.  There is a weight that is with me, before I ever begin the journey, keeping my nose from popping up, keeping me from stalling out and plummeting to the ground. Easy to forget. Required to fly. God is the Angel in the garden, locking me to the safe, firm ground, and enabling me to soar over the Garden with strength and courage.

“Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullest of redemption.”
 (BCP 288)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cornelius Hill and Chilly Willy

May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us, that in this and in all things, we may do God’s will in the service of the Kingdom of his Christ. Amen.

Today we remember and acknowledge Cornelius Hill. He was ordained a deacon in 1895 and priest in 1903.  Our lectionary guides tell us that he was:

An interpreter for Episcopal Services to the Oneida

Successfully resisted government attempts to move the nation further west
In case you don’t know or remember, while we think of the Oneida as a Wisconsin nation with a thriving gambling business, the Oneida are native to New York and were forcefully removed to Wisconsin in 1821.

It says “His wisdom and sanctity are still revered by the Oneida.”

Now, I read as much as I could find about Cornelius Hill.  I read up on my Oneida history.  I read biographical material and excerpts from newspaper accounts and church documents. He was a truly faithful man, a strong man, a courageous one and very intelligent one. 

But, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the larger church: he was not an exceptional one.  So I have to wonder how he made it into the canon of the church. How he got a Feast day and a number of “shrines” built in his honor.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking six middle schools from St. James Jackson, Mississippi on an urban mission trip. We took food and supplies to a location where the Night Ministry was working. The night ministry offers solace, support, food, medical supplies and as much help as they can, to people living in abject poverty, in crime ridden neighborhoods, with addiction, abuse and in the shadows of our society.  I drove these children from a relatively elite section of Jackson Mississippi to 111th and State, to one of the most threatened areas of our City. At 10PM. In the summer.  Over the course of the night we had several conversations that started with, “Why do y’all have fireworks in the middle of June, Miss Shay?” and ended with “What do you mean, gunfire?”

Now, we have in our culture this sort of new word, it’s not one I particularly like. The word is “Othering.”  Othering. You already don’t like it, right? It is defined as “the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group.” When we declare a person or group to be “other” we stress what it is about them that is different from us. We create a binary: the pernicious but ever present binary: “us” and “them.” And is so doing we imply that one is superior and the other inferior, one is normal and one is exotic.  One is right and one is wrong. We do this with stereotypes in our culture and media, we do it by ghettoizing our cities, and we do it and have done it in the church for millennia when we dismiss indigenous religious practice and force our language of faith, our means of worship, our language of praise, on any culture already in touch with the Holy One, the God of Creation. We in the church are so good at it that we have wiped out dozens of indigenous religions like extinct animals. And, because we are still, always and ever at work making excuses, as soon as we identified it, we white washed it with a nice emotionally neutral term: coercive evangelism. We were killing people to bring them to the right faith of God – first peoples, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Moari, Koreans – we punished them until they did it our way, frequently at the cost of their cultures, of their livelihoods, sometimes at the cost of their lives. For Centuries. And still today. And what do we call this institutional, historical and pervasive tragedy? “Othering.”

On the way down to 111th and State, the kids in the car talked about two things: the glamor and wealth of their Winnetka hosts.  They used words like “rich” and “white” and “safe” and “beautiful.” They all want to live here when they grow up.  Then, other the other hand, they talked about who the people were who they were going to see at the Night Ministry site.  Here they used words like “poor person” and “prostitute” and “addict” and “homeless” and “ex-con.”  There was implicit in their speech a kind of cultural Calvinism that is imbedded in our society.

Calvinism is a system of belief developed at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and articulated most popularly by John Calvin. We in the Episcopal Church don’t buy it much, but it is pervasive in our culture.  In our culture, Calvinism looks like this: if you follow the rules of our culture, you will be successful and you will be rewarded. But if you are poor and suffering, in our culture, then it must mean you are doing something wrong. If you are thin and pretty, you must be eating and exercising, if you are fat or sick, you must be lazy and a Big Mac fan. If you are wealthy and living in Winnetka, it’s because you earned it with hard work and good genes.  If you are poor and living on the street you must be one of those things I listed above: an ex-con, a drunk, a sinner of some kind.

But we don’t believe that about our God, do we?  We don’t believe that God only saves those who worship the right way, who keep the Ten Commandments exactly, who never sin or never stumble or have no faults. No, our God is a God of mercy.  Our God is a God of unconditional love.  We can -and do- get up every morning and sin like heck all the way through the day and at the end of it God forgives us.  God hopes we’ll try. God is waiting for us to aspire to a better life. God is thrilled when we do.  But never, ever does God use God’s grace as a reward. 

About the same time as John Calvin came up with his commerce of Salvation, a good Episcopalian named John Wesley articulated the idea of “prevenient grace.”  We all have in us a little box of potential.  It resides in our bodies at the cellular level and inside that box is the grace of God.  It is the potential to be in community with God, it is the potential to accept God as the guiding light of our lives.  We all have it in us. Every one of us.  We have to use our free will to let it out.  We don’t earn it, God gives it. Freely. From the moment of our creation. Forever.

That’s the kind of God we believe in, one who loves us completely, already and forever, not the kind who gives grace as a gold star for good behavior.

So if we don’t accept that God works that way, why do we accept that society does?
Why is it okay to believe that we are we and they are them and that is that?

Because we are afraid of the reality that there is nothing between us and them. We work hard. They work hard. We strive and sin and strive. They strive and sin and strive. We believe and they believe.

What sets up apart is the luck of birth. The privilege of healthcare and nutrition. The advantages of education, shelter and a nation at peace.

These factors that set us apart … they are man made.  God has nothing to do with abject poverty. What separates “us” from “them” … is us.

You see, what I learned from those kids in their experience with the Night Ministry, what I learned, what I remember and what I hope none of us EVER forget, is that those words they were using, “convict,” “addict,” “prostitute,” “wealthy,” “educated” or “black” or “brown.” Those are earthly labels.  God doesn’t see those folks as convicts and homeless people.  God sees them as children.  We are all God’s children.  We are all made in God’s image.  And we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We put up those walls between “us” and “them.” We created that binary.  Because here’s a tip about our Trinitarian God – there are no binaries in Kingdom. There is no “us” and “them.”  The Kingdom is a spectrum. The Kingdom is a rainbow. The Kingdom is a bridge between Tower Road and Sheridan and 111th and State.

So, here we are, honoring Cornelius Hill, a great leader among Oneida, a great man among all men.  And we should honor him because a life lead in Christ, any life lead in and serving Christ, is worth a feast day, for sure.

But as we celebrate him today, let us take a moment to be grateful for whatever lessons we have learned about ourselves and our Creator that led us to lift up Cornelius Hill. And let us pray for more courage, more faith and more wisdom so that the day will come in our lifetimes, when earthly labels fall away and we are all free to realize our own prevenient grace.

Before I close, I would like to tell you this one thing. This sermon is, like all sermons, a composite of things I read, talked about with friends and prayed about … but this sermon in particular owes its essence to a man called “Chilly Willy” who gave it in his own terms to the children I took to his neighborhood one night a few weeks ago. He said, “We all get up every day and try and fail and God forgives us. All we have to do is ask.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

 The Truth Will Make You Friends
A Sermon on John 8:31.

Here’s a test:  finish this sentence:
The Truth will….
Set you free, right?
See, that’s a sign that you’re good Christians and you know your Scripture and just maybe that you were paying attention just now.
But is that really how you would finish the sentence… if you were being truthful?

Here’s how I would finish it:
The Truth will…probably get me in trouble.
The Truth will…usually hurt someone’s feelings.
The Truth will… definitely complicate things.
The truth will…likely cost me money or time or inconvenience.
The truth will…hurt me.

You see, we don’t really like the truth in our culture.  We prefer the brief, innocuous, harmless white-lie.  You can tell because there are four billion words in the English language for lie and we always have more words for something we value than something we do not. Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow.  We have dozens of words for “lie.”

But there is only one word for truth. Truth.

We tell so many of these little fibs every day.
“Did you like the play?...I loved it, you’re a great playwrite.”
“Do you want to see this movie?... Sorry, I have plans.”
“Do the kids like their Christmas fruit cake?... You betcha.”
“Whadda ya think of  the new Rector?...” Well, we’ll take that one on faith.
How about this one, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

You know, I have a friend who is an incredibly brave man and I did not know that about him until a couple of weeks ago. 

He set for himself a Lenten discipline that is telling the truth.  For the duration of Lent, he is trying not to deceive the people around him.  Like this:
“Good morning, How are you? “
“I’m having a tense week.”
“Hey, how’s the family?”
“Not so hot.”
The truth.  Just like that, not sugar coated with “But I know we’ll be fine” or “I just need some rest” because then its not the truth.  You don’t know it will be fine. You hope it will, you have faith that it will.  But to say it will, that is not the truth.

It’s pretty frightening, right? 
There are two ways for a person to respond to this honesty, too.  One is to back away, palms out mumbling something about “Too Much Information.”  But you know what?  The person who asks “How are you” and cant stand to hear the answer, they are the one that’s lying.
The other response might be to stop, look right into the face of the honest person and say, “I’m sorry.”  Or  “I wish I could help you.” 

Now, I don’t know exactly how this is all playing out for my courageous friend, but I like to think I can imagine it. You come to work one morning determined to be genuine with the people around you.  Committed to being truthful.
“Hi, Boss, how are you?”
“Not so hot.”
“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”
“No, thank you. I’m under a lot of stress and I haven’t slept well.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Then maybe, in my little fantasy workplace, 3PM rolls around, the deadly hour when that Sleepy Scion of Satan sneaks into your office and makes your eyelids heavy and your head nod. But today at three, the colleague brings you a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit.  Or today, the colleague sticks her head in and says, “I’ll close your door and take your calls for half an hour.” 

Then the next day, she comes in and you say, “How are you?” and she says, “I’m worried about my son is Afghanistan.”  Did you know her son was there?  Did you know how preoccupied she is with it?  And later, when she hands you a document with a formatting issue in it, you’ll be a little less critical, a little more graceful when you point it out.  Because why? Because you feel closer to her.
You shared the truth, you responded to one another kindly.
You’re building a relationship.

Now, its not an easy thing to be honest in this way. Remember I said this friend of mine was one of the bravest men I know. You have to make yourself vulnerable. You have to trust your truth in the hands of the people around you and in turn be trustworthy with their truths.

But if you can do it, you can create deeper, more emotionally real, more supportive, healthier and stronger relationships with the people around you.  In every context of your life.  The truth will make you friends.

There is another way to to approach the truth, of course.  A way that does not create relationships but destroys them.  A way that that exploits vulnerability. A way that neither departs from nor arrives at love.

Jesus talks about that here when he talks about enslavement to sin.  He’s not talking about lying.  The truth that sets you free is not the opposite of lying.  The truth that sets you free is the opposite of the truth that enslaves you. It is a truth based not on love but on fear, not on trust but on suspicion. The truth that sets you free creates a safe space for vulnerability, for giving, for forgiveness.  The truth that exploits vulnerability, shouts down empathy and ends in barriers and destruction.

My father was a Counter Intelligence Agent with the Central Intelligence Agency.  He used to say, “The best soldier is the one who is most intimate with his enemy, the best liar is the one who knows the truth.”

Once, I went on a tour of the headquarters in Virginia and you know what I saw? “The Truth Will Set You Free” is engraved in marble over the door of CIA Headquarters. Its ironic, right?  Here is an organization created for the specific purpose of obscuring certain critical truths.  Here is an institution that intentionally, consistently and effectively “spins” facts, manipulates truth. How much mischief has come out of that building with that maxim engraved over the door? And its stated mission is “to protect” our freedom.

But you see, that’s what is different about it.  The CIA is charged with protecting your freedoms, not with granting them.  They don’t guarantee you safety from foreign adversaries, they only police it.  They don’t promise you international security, they only enforce it. This is because they are charged not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it, not with transparency but with secrecy.  That’s not freedom, that’s drawing a line around something, fencing it in.  And what government body more aptly describes the truth that enslaves us than the CIA. A necessary evil.  A white lie to protect.  A policy of privacy that builds walls between people.

Now, I’m not saying the CIA isn’t necessary.  I am grateful for the good work those men and women do every day.  But I don’t think that particular institution embodies the message Christ was trying to get across in this text.

Because here is what Christ says:  The truth that sets you free puts you in community with your fellow man and woman.  The truth that builds a wall between us enslaves us to sin.

So, what about that sentence. The truth will…
The truth will…test our courage,
The truth will… challenge society’s norms
The truth will…. test the mettle of the people in our lives.
The truth will set you free… to love and be loved unburdened by fear and falsehood.
Christ offered us that kind of love, unburdened by fear or falsehood.  And he offered us a roadmap to its source:

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you know the truth and the truth will make you free… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”