Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2014

What would you do if you knew your life was coming to an end? Would you try to check off everything on your bucket list? Would you want to reconnect with old friends, settle old disputes, say you’re sorry for some offense against another some time in the past?

Or would you simply want to be with those whom you love, telling stories, laughing, shedding a few tears, hugging, enjoying the company?

A friend told me of the final weeks of her husband’s life. How it was, in a way, a long and beautiful party. He wasn’t able to get up and about, but folks who loved him came to him, shared stories, shared food, spent time holding hands, hugging, confessing and rejoicing. A celebration of life while anticipating the end that would come to him, as it comes to us all. There were moments of darkness and moments of life, but his family wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

It seems that Jesus’ choice at the end of his life was a simple one. A meal like any one of a thousand meals he had shared with his friends, and yet not like any other. Jesus had told them many times that his time with him would be short, and that it would not end well. They didn’t want to face that, of course. None of us want to face the loss of one whom we cherish. But he had warned them.

And then there was the surprising entry into Jerusalem, with crowds singing the praises of Jesus. One or two of the disciples may have thought “so much for all that talk of dying young.” The dinner – anticipating  the passover meal – that they would share seemed celebratory after all the accolades as they entered the city. And yet the host, their beloved rabbi, seemed subdued.

Still, they feasted, remembering the old story of how the Israelite children were passed over by the angel of death while the children of their Egyptian overlords died, because of the mark of the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. A passing over, a saving of God’s people, with the enemy vanquished, and lots of food and lots of wine.

But Jesus seemed not to be focused on the Passover story. Instead, he began with a simple gesture, a washing of his disciples’ feet. A normal sign of hospitality in that dusty corner of the world, but it was usually done by servants, not the host, because it was a humbling thing, kneeling before someone and addressing their dirty feet. And it made the disciples uncomfortable, but he insisted that this was necessary. He must serve them. He must.
And as the meal progressed, as he told them to remember this meal, these words, remember and repeat them so that they would never forget him, there was a momentary ache, a twinge in their hearts. What was he talking about? Was he back into that business about dying soon, about going away? Didn’t he remember the joyous cries of the crowd?

But he insisted. “I am going away soon. I will always love you. Love one another.” A dark, plaintive note in his voice as he said it, and they looked down, not wanted the others to see the tears now welling up in their eyes.

Because this was a Passover like no other, because there would be no passing over this son of Israel. This son would die. The Angel of Death would not pass over him and leave him untouched. No, it was his turn, Israel’s turn, to lose its first son, the son of God.

The last meal together was full of laughter and stories and good food and wine, but the darkness was gathering. The one who served them by washing their feet would serve them, and us, by offering himself as the sacrificial lamb. A dozen hours later, the lamb would be slaughtered, dead, broken. The jokes and the wine forgotten. The jostling over who sat where around the table no longer important.

But the words and the sacrifice are remembered. We remember them each time we share the sacrament of Holy Eucharist together.

Our service of Holy Eucharist is formal. Sanitized, in a way. Lots of formal language, none of the casual and lively conversation that marks most family-and-friends dinners. None of the spilled lamb juice, the olive pits, the crumbs of flatbread on the cloth. And I fear that we forget the joy and love and worry and emotion of that meal, the humanity of that meal,  in our Sunday services.

It was a meal, friends. A meal like any other, and yet like no other. A meal with human beings sitting around the table with the one who taught them and loved them to the end. Messy. Imperfect, emotional. And yet the one we need to remember, in all its beautiful imperfection. Because it was a gift from the one who chose to be the sacrifice, the one who volunteered to not be passed over, to give himself to us and for us.

So as we gather around the table tonight for this meal, this remembrance of that last meal, I pray that we can feel in ourselves all the emotions that dwelled in the hearts of Jesus and his disciples that last night. As we clear the dining table after having been fed, I pray that we can feel the sense of something lost, something remembered, the sacrifice, the darkness ahead, so that we can feel what will follow that darkness.

Eat. Drink. Laugh. Cry. Tell stories. And never, never forget.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sermon for Palm Sunday April 13, 2014 Matthew 21:1-11 “Reading Signs”

Doug and I went to the movies on Friday night and saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s a great movie, although it’s not for kids by any stretch of the imagination.

This was a movie made by the wonderfully strange Wes Anderson. From the very first moment of the movie, it was clearly Wes Anderson, he who made “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Fantastic Mr Fox,” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” The signs were all there: quirky music, odd visual images, famous actors playing very unconventional characters. 

We love these signs – they’re sort of a short-hand way of telling us what to expect. And movies are notorious for these. Oftentimes, the signs for movies are musical. The thump-thump thump-thump that lets us know that the great white shark is coming in “Jaws.” The pentatonic sequence from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The theme from the Godfather…

Other signs might be visual. Wes Anderson movies usually end with a slo-motion sequence, taking us to a place of calm and meditation. Rain, shadows, darkness? Film noir. A field of flowers? A romance. A jumble of tumbleweed? A cowboy movie of some sort.

Costumes, setting, all contribute to our expectations of what the movie will be about. And motifs like this date all the way back to ancient stories that were transmitted orally, not written down.

We like to have clues of what will happen next…

…and in today’s reading of the passion of Jesus Christ, signs abound. Ironic signs, to be sure, but signs.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem. He’s just performed a miracle – the raising of Lazarus from the dead. He’s on a roll – everyone is talking about how amazing he is. He heals! He preaches! He teaches! All the people are amazed by him, and now he is coming to Jerusalem, to the great Temple. And he must make a grand entrance, so he sends the disciples ahead to fetch him an animal to ride in on, actually two – a donkey and a colt. I sometimes wonder whether he sort of stood up with the two animals, with one foot on each, like a trick rider in the circus, or whether he rode for a while on the donkey, then switched over to the colt. But notice how this is the first time he ever seems to travel anyplace other than by foot…and there’s the sign that something different is happening, something that doesn’t really fit into who Jesus is. And anytime that happens, something that doesn’t fit, it makes us uncomfortable. We know something bad may be happening here.

Then he rides into Jerusalem, and everybody’s yelling and screaming with joy, waving branches of trees around, and putting them on the ground so jesus doesn’t even have to put a foot on the dusty ground. But didn’t Jesus spend the past three years walking from place to place, nobody laying out a carpet of branches to protect his delicate feet? And sometimes people were mean to him, and sometimes those pesky Pharisees were there trying to trick him with weird legalistic questions. But now Jesus is riding into town and everyone is saying he is the prophet, the anointed one, the one coming in the name of the Lord. Despite the fact that Jesus has sidestepped that kind of naming throughout his ministry. Despite the fact that he often said, “Don’t tell anyone about what we are doing.” But now he seems to accept the acclamations of the crowd.

Another sign, the shouts and the branches, just like the riding into town. So unlike the itinerant rabbi going from town to town by foot, with a few disciples. It’s a sign, a signal that something bad is happening.

Because in every dramatic movie we see, when the protagonist does something out of character, when he is most applauded, we know that something bad is going to happen. He will be destroyed after he has been uplifted. Like every political candidate we admire, until we learn of their flaws. Like every teen musical star who is viewed as pure and unspoiled, until their circumstances change as they age, and they become the troubled adults. Those are motifs we see over and over again.

And then there’s Jesus. Not a political star, not a rock star. Something very different, the very son of God, the one with the power to change the world…and he knows the signs as well as anyone. He knows this change – the crowd’s applause, the branches, the ride – is a sign that the end is near, because he knows they will turn on him, just as we turn on our political heroes and our favorite performers. He sees what awaits him, because he can read the signs, the motifs, as well as a famous movie critic or political pundit.

It will end. It will end badly. We have heard the horror of it in the passion story.

But there is another sign, not as obvious as the palms and shouts. It is not a part of the first reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that one we read outside, the story of the palms.

No, it is near the end of the story of the Passion, which we just read, the darkest and most frightening story in the Bible, at the point when we are most exhausted by the listing of horror after horror that we are no lonegr really paying attention.

Jesus has died, at last. And at the moment of his death, the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and an earthquake shakes the ground so violently that even the dead are shaken out of their tombs.

A sign that something irreparable has been broken. Frightening to those who were a part of it, certainly. But also a mark of reordering, of violent change.

As if we didn’t already know it, those of us who have heard Jesus’ story. That which was solid has been broken, so that something new can be constructed of the remnants. That which seemed permanent has been shown to be vulnerable.

And yet, in that vulnerability is the possibility of something new and better. Jesus’ body is broken, like the trampled palm branches underneath the feet of the crowds. But out of that body, there is something reborn, not made the same way as the old way, but something stronger, more resilient, purer through the suffering.

Signs are all around us, giving us clues and cues of what is happening. Palms, songs of praise, wails of death and destruction. But after the signs, another set of signs: children, new flowers, sprouting fruit trees. A new beginning will be coming soon. Wait and watch for the signs. There are there, if you only choose to see them.


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 (Lent 5) Ezekiel 37:1-14 “The Walking Dead”

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a group of scientists are attempting to clone extinct creatures by using the DNA stored in their fossilized bones. Some attempts have been made in the past to do this with wooly mammoths, to little avail, but this particular group is looking to return the passenger pigeon, which became extinct in 1914, to the earth. They are taking samples from stuffed birds, from bones of birds, from feathers, in hopes that they can find enough genetic material to actually restore this once-plentiful breed to life.
Stewart Brand, an environmentalist and futurist whom some of you may remember from his 70’s era “Whole Earth Catalog,” is the prime mover behind the effort to restore the bird. The passenger pigeon once was so plentiful it flew in great darkening swarms in our skies, but it was hunted into extinction. The scientific hope is that scientists who are sequencing the genome of the passenger pigeon can introduce its unique genetic material into the “genetic scaffolding” of a closely related species, the band-tailed pigeon. That’s the simple version of what they will attempt to do. In reality, it’s a lot more complicated and way beyond my ability to explain it.

But beyond the “cool” factor of a project like this, why would you do it? Why bring back a species that has gone down to the dust?

Is it an attempt to restore things to the way they were before we humans killed off the species, to restore the balance of nature? Is it something we do just to say we can do it Is it an attempt to model what we wish for, that we can bring back our beloved pets who have died, or even – echoes of zombie movies – those members of our human family whom we have lost?

Echoes of the tv show “The Walking Dead” ring in our ears. Talk – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – of “the zombie apocalypse” come to the fore. Images of the Game of Thrones’ White Walkers cause us to shudder.

Because, on some level, the thought of reviving that which is dead is more than a little creepy.

And science backs this up. Genetic experiments to create hybrids or to restore extinct species by injecting genetic material of a long-gone creature into a living ovum have led to some horrible results – chimeras, they’re called, where you don’t know quite what you’ve ended up with, but you know it isn’t good.

Even seemingly successful cloning efforts such as Dolly the sheep have shown problems. Dolly died very prematurely. It all feels just a little bit creepy and not right, doesn’t it?

So when the prophet Ezekiel speaks of breathing new life into dry bones, it evokes images that disturb us on a visceral level. A step beyond Halloween, a step beyond the Grateful Dead’s dancing skeletons, into something darker.

And a single question from God, posed to the prophet, puts the finest point on it: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel punts. “O Lord God, you know.” In other words, “don’t ask me, you’re scaring me here.”
It’s a good question. Can these bones live? These bones of our dry, unloving hearts. Our zombie faith, unclothed in the flesh that means energy and life and action. Our walking as if dead, because we have disconnected from the source of divine energy in whom we live and breathe and have our being?

Can these bones live?

To get at what Ezekiel was wrestling with, you have to know a little of what Ezekiel lived through. As OT scholar Margaret Odell says, “From the time Ezekiel first began to speak in 592 BCE, the people’s long history of rebellion against God and now also against Nebuchadnezar has sealed their fate. Destruction was inevitable, and by 586 BCE Jerusalem lay in ruins. Whether we are to think of this battlefield as Nebuchadnezzar’s doing or God’s, we are to remember a broken covenant and unspeakable loss.”

A pretty dark picture, right? Everything in ruins, because the people forgot their God and fought against a superior earthly foe, Nebuchadnezzar. The bones of their nation, the bones of their temple, the bones of their souls were as dry and scattered as the bones of their dead. And it was as inconceivable that the nation of Israel could be brought back to life as it was that Ezekiel could command those bones back into an enfleshed breathing state.
Ezekiel’s dream vision, those bones, sound like something from beyond the farthest side of beyond. Gray, sere, dead, broken, lifeless. But here is the thing: it is not merely a collection of bones of a single body, a single person, it is a collection of collections of bones. It is the bones of the entire community. Because it is not one dead person. It is a dead community, a dead nation. How can a community be brought back from the dead, like Lazarus from the tomb? How can these bones live?

How can something even more dramatic, more intense, than healing occur?

Consider this: maybe healing a nation is the first thing that happens, before bringing a single person back to life? Might it be that structuring the bringing back of a whole species must precede the cloning of a single bird? Because, after all, the strength of a whole community supports the health and regeneration of each individual within it.

Here’s what the wonderful poet and essayist Wendell Berry says about that:

 “I believe that the community - in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures - is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. [1]

We can’t revive a single passenger pigeon…it would fade and die alone. We have to bring back the whole species for it to thrive. There is no health for the individual without the health of the whole community. For Israel, that means that the nation has to change if it is to come to life again. The breath of God, the wind of the Spirit that will animate those dry bones and put flesh on them and bring them back to life and health, whooshes over the whole of that bone field, not just one or two or a select dozen. It is the whole community that must come back to life. This makes Ezekiel’s work larger in scale. He has to prophesy to the bones, all the bones. He has to announce that God will lay sinew and flesh on the bones, draw them together. And then God’s breath, the wind from the four corners of the earth, will enter into the community of gathered bones…and they shall be restored.

If Ezekiel is bringing this strange fever dream message to the shattered nation of Israel, he is also bringing the same message to our broken world today. And the thing we cannot forget is that God’s healing is not simply an action applied to an individual , it is wholeness brought to the whole of the world. Because simply fixing one of us isn’t enough. All must find healing and restoration to life. God’s breath is too big for just one person, but it is big enough to heal an entire nation, an entire world.

This isn’t The Walking Dead, with creepy half-alive zombies meandering around the post-apocalyptic landscape. It is The Rising Living, a restored and shalom-filled world where the health of each is understood to be a part of the health of the whole community.

That is the promise of Easter to come: not only Lazarus raised from the tomb, not only Jesus risen from the dead, not one by one…no, because God’s love and desire for us to be fully whole and well means that God’s love can and must be for the whole of Creation to be whole and well. And that means that when we seek God’s forgiveness for our own failings, when we crave God’s grace to fix us, we have a responsibility to see God’s healing for all. So we pray today for a restored world, where we are all one with the One who made us, where we are indelibly marked by the scars of our journey but equally visibly well. Let God’s breath fill each of us because God’s breath fills all of us. Let these bones live.


[1]  Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (pg. 146, Health is Membership)


Friday, April 04, 2014

Who Gets to Pick?

Bear with me. This one will be a little long, but it needs to be.

Those who serve in ordained ministry as I do (and many who are not ordained) learn how to serve others in their most difficult times during a stint of training called CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education. One spends a summer in full-time work, or a season in part-time work, in a hospital or a hospice center or another venue where one walks with those who are struggling, dying, supporting a loved one, and those who work in the business of healing.

This training has some obvious benefits, and some not-so-obvious ones. When I did CPE at Children’s Hospital in Washington DC, I learned how to manage my own emotions so I could be present for patients and parents. I learned how to hold a baby with a hundred lines and tubes running into a miniscule body. I learned how to talk to nurses who were emotionally exhausted after a string of deaths in a unit. I learned how to listen rather than preach, to hold a hand, to sing to a dying child. 

And I also learned, sometimes the hard way, that not everyone held the same religious beliefs that I did, and it was not my job to convert them in the midst of a medical crisis, or to convert them to do what I thought was right. I had to trust them, their own faith background, their decisions in congruence with that faith background, and on occasion I needed to let go of my judgment as to those decisions. It was not my job to reshape them when they were vulnerable, it was to pray and to hold and to listen and to wonder with them how and why and when and if. Even if their understanding of the hows and whys and whens and ifs were very, very different than mine.

I bumped up against all sorts of those differences. Children’s is one of those places where parents bring their children from Kuwait and Kazakhstan – halfway across the world - as well as Columbia Heights and Kalorama – the other side of town. Families are atheists or Buddhists, Muslim or Roman Catholic, AME Zion or Episcopalian, Orthodox Jewish or Bahai. Part of my training was in respecting the beliefs and decisions of others, even when those beliefs were very different than mine…perhaps especially when those beliefs were very different than mine. Decisions about continuing or discontinuing care, about what treatments were and were not permissible, about what might properly prepare a child for death if it was imminent. I had to learn that it wasn’t about me when a family insisted on a Roman catholic priest baptize their dying baby, even if the priest couldn’t get there for twenty minutes and it might not be soon enough. I had to learn that some parents believed that their sins might have caused their child’s genetic malformation, and although I might gently suggest that others had different beliefs, it was also important that I not say things that would call into question the foundations of their faith when they most needed it.

That is consistent not only with the beliefs of my Episcopal Church, respecting the dignity of every human person, but also with the intent of the framers of the US Constitution, which clearly supports the separation of church and state. Those founding fathers had seen the downside of a state church, where doctrine had been shaped in some ways by politics, so this was important. We continue to cherish religious independence and the right of each of us to worship and believe as we want, and that’s a good thing.

So why did I just run through this personal history of CPE and the Constitution? 

One name. Hobby Lobby.

It’s a great craft store. They’ve got the things we need to do projects at home or at church, at good prices. I have nothing against the company.

I do, however, have an issue with their current battle to avoid paying for insurance coverage for birth control methods they consider abortifacients, and for coverage for abortion itself. The Green family, founders of this publicly-traded company, is battling all the way to the Supreme Court to be excused from this obligation under the Affordable Care Act because of their religious beliefs, which find the termination of life prior to birth to be anathema. The question that has been posed to SCOTUS is “whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”[1]

Let me be clear: I do not like abortion. It grieves my heart that someone would feel the need to terminate a pregnancy. But as a woman in my 60s, over the decades I have known a number of situations where it was the only, albeit awful, choice in the eyes of the person who was pregnant.

Let me be equally clear on this point: I do think birth control is the best way to avoid having to make that awful choice. And scientific opinion about whether a drug or device that prevents pregnancy does so by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg or by preventing fertilization is more unclear that some folks are willing to admit. And the scientific opinion of laypeople (not scientists) such as the Hobby Lobby family doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight in my eyes.

So what are we faced with in this case? A group of non-scientists, the Green family, are attempting to impose their understanding of birth control technology and their religious beliefs (nothing that could lead to termination of a pregnancy regardless of the situation of the pregnancy) on their employees, regardless of the understandings and beliefs of those employees. And in doing so, they impose their religion on their employees. If an employee needs an IUD to prevent pregnancy and the employee in consultation with their pastor or faith leader finds no problem with IUDs, but it is not covered by employee health insurance (thus making it unaffordable), the company is imposing its religious beliefs. The Greens are saying their religious beliefs are more important than the religious beliefs of their employees. Their religious freedom is more important than the religious freedom of their employees.

Isn’t this why the framers put the first amendment to the Constitution in such stark terms – it defines an absolute freedom of belief. No laws can be passed by Congress to hinder anyone’s right to practice their religion. Even if we find some elements of their religion strange or problematic. Even if we disagree with their theology.

Because the framers believed that the state has a compelling interest in protecting this fundamental freedom. And because if this freedom is compromised, others can be compromised as well, and then we are back in a world where the powerful define what we believe and we have no choices.

So what does this look like on the ground? We do not force Jehovah’s Witnesses to have blood transfusions, even though it may not make sense to us, because it is a fundamental religious belief. 
Nor do we force people to “pull the plug” on those in a persistent vegetative state, even though we may believe that this is simply painfully prolonging a life through technology when it is time for that soul to return to its Maker, if the loved ones of that person are in agreement that their faith says this is wrong. Nor do we force people to terminate pregnancies when prenatal testing has revealed grievous medical problems that inevitably will lead to death, because for some people, such termination is a sin against God.

No. We let them make medical choices in partnership with their pastor or spiritual advisor and their medical team. We trust them to make those choices, and we do not force them to make choices that are not congruent with what they believe. But this is what the Greens, the Hobby Lobby folks, have done. Instead of law, they want to use economics, but the net result is the same: we lose the power to use our free will to make choices that align with our beliefs. And that is un-American. It is also un-Christian.

When someone says “these are the parameters I’ve decided are appropriate to limit your free will,” they are putting themselves higher than our Creator. God didn’t limit our free will, even though we gave ample cause for our Maker to do so, over and over again. God gave us commandments, but God also gave us choice.

The women who work for Hobby Lobby don’t need their employers to act as God, defining how they can choose (within the limits of the law).  If we trust that all of us are given free will and the power of reason and God’s grace, we must respect women’s choices. After all, God does.


[This blog post originally appeared on the RevgalsBlogPals "The Pastoral is Political" blog.]