Sunday, June 11, 2017

Dear Ann Landers

Here's today's homily. The readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20.

* * *

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the lectionary devoted to a doctrine, rather than a story in Scripture.  As a rule, preachers dislike Trinity Sunday. The Trinity isn’t an exciting narrative about loaves and fishes, or miraculous healings, or a tragic trial. The Trinity is a Being:  the three-in-one combination of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. When we talk about Scripture, we’re interpreting the Word of God, recorded by humans. When we talk about the Trinity, we’re interpreting God Himself, Herself, and/or Itself, a much more difficult proposition.  

Over the centuries, a lot of ink -- and blood -- has been spilled on the subject. Most of these commentaries agree,  appropriately enough,  on three points.  First, the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery. Second, it’s best approached through metaphor, which explains things we don’t understand by comparing them to things we do. And third, it’s fundamentally about relationship.

The mystery part is reassuring, because it means that our limited human minds can’t expect to understand the infinite nature of God. The Athanasian Creed famously describes the Trinity as “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.”  Well, all right, then!  We might as well just cheerfully admit that we’re unequal to the task.

But that’s not how people work:  at least, not people who bother to go to church in the first place. We hunger for God. We yearn to draw closer to God. We want to understand God. And so we resort to metaphor, trying to understand the infinite and incomprehensible by comparing it to finite, familiar things we can touch and see. How can God the Father, who created the universe, also be God the Son, the carpenter who lived in first-century Judea, and also be God the Spirit, who descended on the disciples at Pentecost?  How does this three-in-one thing work? Well, think about ice, water, and steam:  the same chemical substance in three different states. Or consider your own, human nature,  a three-fold combination of body, mind, and spirit. Or ponder the example of the little girl who likened God to her grandmother. The old woman was “Grandma” to the child,  but she was also “Mom” to her children and “Margaret” to her husband. She was one person with three different aspects.

That brings us to the third point, that the Trinity is fundamentally about relationship. God the Creator is our Father, who made the galaxies, who shapes us out of star-stuff. That’s the aspect of God we heard about it today’s majestic reading from Genesis. God the Redeemer is our Friend and Teacher, who wears a human body and walks beside us; this is the God who went with the disciples to Galilee and commanded them to baptize and teach. God the Sustainer is our Muse, as close as the wind on our cheeks, the spirit who enables us to do things we never believed possible.  This is the aspect of God who descended at Pentecost, and is with us always, “to the end of the age.” God takes different forms to find different ways to reach us.

That very fact may incline us to dismiss the Trinity. After all, to the extent that we understand this bewildering three-in-one business at all, it means that God’s a package deal. If I pray to Jesus, I’m praying to the Father and the Spirit at the same time, right? So why bother with the Trinity at all? Why does it have to be so mysterious and complicated?

When you think about it, relationships are always a mystery, and they’re usually complicated. We never fully understand other people, even the ones we love the most. We watch them in their different aspects – at home, at work, with friends -- and wonder what they’re thinking that we’ll never know. We marvel at the fact that those we know the best can still surprise us, and that strangers sometimes offer perfect words of comfort. But when we love people, we try to learn as much about them as we can. If we ignore some important part of who they are, they notice.

When I was in college, majoring in creative writing and yearning to be a published author, I dated a guy who claimed to love me but was very dismissive of my writing. It’s true that I wasn’t very good back then, but the fact that he pooh-poohed something I considered the core of my identity hurt, a lot. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last.

People who have been hurt this way sometimes ask experts for advice. They bring their relationship problems to their therapists, their clergy, and even to newspaper columnists. We’re used to hearing humans do this. But if God baffles us, we must baffle God sometimes, too. At the risk of diminishing God, of recasting God into our own image, what might it sound like if God asked for relationship advice?

“Dear Ann Landers: I have a very big family. I love all of my children, but I can’t seem to make some of them believe it. They think I only want to punish them. They never write or call unless they’re desperate for money, or a meal, or medicine. Once they have what they need,  they shut me out again. They say I live too far away, even though my sunsets and butterflies and other beloved children are right under their noses. They claim I have nothing to do with their everyday lives: but Ann, how can I, when they won’t let me in?”

If that’s a letter that God the Father might write, here’s another, from God the Son.

“Dear Ann Landers:  I have a friend who loves me like a brother. He tells me everything, and every day he thanks me for helping him. But Ann, he acts like I’m his private property; he even calls me his ‘Personal Savior.’ Everything’s about him! He doesn’t want to hear about world politics, or art or music, or the galaxy I made last week. He talks so much about my flesh and blood that sometimes I think he only loves me for my body. Ann, how can I get him to see how much more I am than that?”

And of course there’s a third letter, from God the Spirit.

“Dear Ann Landers: I’m in this really passionate relationship with somebody I love a lot. We talk for hours, in all kinds of different languages, and we sing and dance and heal people and cast out demons. There’s just one problem. Things are wonderful as long as it’s all about rushing winds and tongues of flame, but the minute normal life sets in, she’s out the door. She says our love is on a higher plane, but Ann, I could use a hug sometimes, and I can’t do all the housework by myself.  How can I get her to stick around to do the dishes?”

If Ann Landers is paying attention, she’ll probably notice that these three letters are in the same handwriting. She’ll probably say something like, “You must be a remarkable person, to mean so many things to so many different people. I can tell how much you love all of them. Of course you want all of them to love you fully in return.” And she’ll probably say what therapists and advice columnists always say:  that relationships take work, and that both sides have to be willing to communicate. That means talking honestly, but it also means listening.

Most of us talk to God a lot, and we try to trust that God – in any of God’s guises – will always listen to us.  The doctrine of the Trinity is so important because it teaches us to listen to God, and to do so everywhere. God isn’t just in the awesome immensity of the heavens. God isn’t just in the hungry neighbor whose face shows us Christ, and God isn’t just in the breeze which stirs our hope and imagination. God is in all of these things, waiting and wanting to be found and known. Loving  us fully, even at our most baffling, God seeks to be fully loved. God offers us everything: the vast expanses of interstellar space, the comfort and kinship of a human body, and the mystery and excitement of rushing winds and tongues of flame. But we have to stay open to all of those aspects. We have to be willing to let God in; we have to be willing to let God be God -- even when we can’t comprehend the mystery -- and we have to be willing to do some dishes.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Separation Anxiety

My mother cuddling me and kittens when I was six or seven.

The gospel for this homily is John 14:1-14. I chickened out and ignored the other readings; I'm sure someone's pulled off the task of squaring Mother's Day with the stoning of St. Stephen, but I wasn't up to it. *

Good morning, and happy Mother’s Day. If you’re someone who likes Mother’s Day, I wish you every joy of the occasion. But I want to begin by acknowledging that for many people, today is difficult. If you miss your mother, miss your kids, are estranged from your mother or your kids, never had the mother or kids you wanted, or are under pressure to be somebody else’s idea of a perfect mother or kid, the holiday can feel more like torture than celebration. Today’s Gospel offers good news to anyone in that position -- and to anyone else feeling alienated or grief-stricken -- but before we get there, I need to talk a little bit about my own mother.

I was one of the lucky kids; my mother and I were very close. But as many of you know, because I’ve told the story here before, she was alcoholic, and her illness shaped my early life. When I was a baby, she spent a lot of time in hospitals. By the time she got sober in AA, when I was three and a half, my father had decided to divorce her. Dad, in consultation with Mom’s doctors, very wisely decided that in order to be awarded custody of me and my older sister, she had to meet three conditions. She had to stay sober for eighteen months; she had to have her own place to live, and she had to have a job. She had to prepare a place for us. In the meantime, we would live with him.

It was a kind and responsible decision, the best thing for all of us. Dad loved us and took good care of us, but I was too young to understand why the separation was necessary. The only thing I wanted in the world was my mother. We visited her on weekends in her new apartment, and I always demanded, “Can I stay with you now?” Every Sunday evening when she drove us back to Dad’s house, I cried the whole way there. Many years later she told me that she cried the whole way back. When the eighteen months were up and my sister and I finally went to live with her again, I wouldn’t let her out of my sight. If I couldn’t see her, I panicked. I was terrified that she’d die, or go away, and leave me.

In this morning’s Gospel, the disciples remind me a little of myself back then. Jesus, whom the disciples love, has to leave them. The Ascension is coming.  He tells them that he is preparing a place for them, but they panic. They don’t want to let him out of their sight. “What do you mean we know the way?” they demand. “How can we, when we’ve never been there? How can we follow you if we don’t know where we’re going?”

Jesus responds with some of the most famous words in Scripture. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  

The disciples don’t understand this, either.  “What?  What are you talking about, Jesus?  When have we seen the Father?  Show us!”

I sympathize with them. The Gospel of John is my least favorite of the four, because it so often features Jesus making cryptic, long-winded pronouncements instead of telling stories or healing people. If I’d been with the disciples, I probably wouldn’t have known what Jesus was talking about, either.

With the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight, more repetitions of the baptismal covenant than I can count, and a number of church classes, I think maybe I do. I think Jesus is telling us that when we’re in his presence, we are in the presence of God the father. Meanwhile, our baptismal covenant charges us to “seek and serve Christ in all people,” which means that when we’re with anyone else, we’re also with Jesus, which means -- according to Jesus -- that we’re also with God. QED. If we’re with Jesus, we’re on the right path. The philosopher Jean-Paul Satre famously said that hell is other people, but the Gospels remind us that heaven is other people, too. The Kingdom of God is other people. Whether we’re in the here-and-now or the hereafter, we find the divine in our neighbors’ eyes.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” Jesus says. Most of us are more familiar with the older translation, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I think each of us is a mansion for God, just as our mothers -- good or bad, loving or neglectful, near or distant -- were mansions for us during the nine months before we were born. Each of us has a place in God’s kingdom, both here and in the hereafter, because each of our hearts is one of the dwelling places of God.  

The problem is that while this makes logical sense, it’s too much like a geometry proof, and the beauty of the math sometimes breaks down in practice. The people around us can be irritating, difficult, smelly, needy, and sometimes even dangerous. So can each of us, for that matter. Searching for Christ in our neighbors, or in our own hearts, can feel like looking for a mustard seed in a wheatfield. And the task is often most daunting when we’re gripped by separation anxeity, terrified of abandonment. As a five year old tenaciously glued to my mother’s side, it wasn’t enough for me to hear her patiently telling me, again and again, that she wasn’t going anywhere, that I really did live with her now. Words weren’t enough. I needed to feel her physical presence.  

Gradually, though, I relaxed. I learned to trust the signs that she was with me even when I couldn’t see her: the clothes she laid out every day for me to wear to school; the lunches she packed, often with homebaked cookies; the letters and care packages she sent me when I was in college, and in graduate school, and when I moved across the country to Reno to take a job at UNR.  

I always believed that I would be devastated by her death, and when she died in 2010, I was indeed terribly, deeply sad. That pain, though, was gradually replaced by the recognition that she’s always with me:  in the tangible gifts she gave me, jewelry and furniture and dishes; in my memories of her; in the things I see every day -- cats, birds, cloud formations -- that she would have loved. I can still hear her voice in my head. When I have a problem, I can usually imagine how she’d respond. And as I get older, I have growing faith that I’ll see her again.

This process isn’t that different from what the disciples experienced. Jesus indeed ascended, and they must have grieved, but at Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit. God was still with them. They learned to trust in the signs that announced God’s presence even when they couldn’t see him. Bread. Wine.  Rushing wind. Each other. We still have those signs now. We celebrate them every Sunday at church, in the sacraments, and less formally every other day of the week. God dwells in all of creation, loving and cherishing each of us.

And so, I think, does motherhood, which is one of the faces of God. I was one of the lucky kids. I had my mother for a long time, and I knew she loved me. While I never had children myself, I also never wanted them; I have been content to let others do the difficult work of parenting. I’ve met countless people, though, who are deeply wounded by the death or desertion or cruelty of their mothers or their children, or by inability to conceive children they desperately wanted. None of these issues is simple.  Those pains run deep. But many of my friends who carry such scars have found alternative forms of mothering. They have been nurtured by loving friends, teachers, and chosen family. They have nurtured children they did not bear. They have discovered their own, deeply satisfying ways to embody, and to receive, the love of God, to whom each of us is a cherished child.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus promises us many mansions, if only we can recognize them. I think all of us, if we look, can also find many mothers, both those we’ve had and those we’ve been. On Mother’s Day, I wish all of you the joy of loving and being loved; of cherishing, and being cherished.


Sunday, April 02, 2017

Journeys to Resurrection

I've preached this homily twice before, years apart, with different examples. I reread it this year wondering if the beginning would seem stale, if I'd need to rewrite it, but I still like it. I hope other people will, too. The readings are Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45. *

“How could God let this happen?”

We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. In my volunteer work in the ER, I’ve heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.

The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week. Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God. After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.

As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.

Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?

Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.

It’s believers who rail at God. “We know you can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. Where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”

Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says.   I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”

Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right.  He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.

Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here.  This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.

The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will show us how to unbind what has been resurrected.

The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe.  Look at today’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. That’s a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages.  First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.

That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray, God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.

But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.  

This makes resurrection inescapably political. People desperate for new life can’t achieve it if they’re deported back to their tombs. They can’t achieve it if the communities to which they have journeyed put them in handcuffs instead of unbinding them. They can’t achieve it if other people’s fear of who they are, or where they came from, overcomes willingness to love.   

Here, courtesy of CNN, is a story about what that kind of love looks like. In January, an Illinois woman named Nancy Swabb learned about a baby girl in Cote D’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in Africa, who needed emergency life-saving surgery in the United States. Baby Dominique also needed foster care during her treatment. Swabb and her family, who live near the hospital that donated the surgery, opened their home to Dominique and asked their neighbors to help out with supplies. Within two days, a pile taller than Swabb herself filled the house. Neighbors donated diapers, formula, wipes, clothes, a stroller, a car seat and a playpen. Swabb's daily walks with Dominique in the stroller stretched to an hour as neighbors stopped to greet the baby they had helped welcome. "She has become the community baby, and everyone has been really interested in her story," Swabb said.

Dominque’s story ends as happily as Lazarus’ did. Her long, complicated, risky surgery was more successful than the doctors had dared hope. She is recovering well and will return to her African birth family in April. "I can't wait for her parents to see her," says Swabb, who hopes that the two families can meet someday.

Here in Reno, St. Paul’s -- along with other churches -- has welcomed our local family of Syrian refugees just this warmly. But having kids in the picture makes that easier. Dominique is ten months old and adorable. The Syrian family has small children, too. Kids remind us of innocence, of birth, of Christmas. Lazarus, four days dead and reeking, probably wasn’t adorable, but he was welcomed back into the world by people who’d known him his entire life, who already loved him.

Our challenge as a country right now is to remember that everyone alive is someone’s child: both God’s child and the child of human parents. Everyone alive was a baby once, as lovely as Dominique, as the Syrian children, as the infant Jesus on Christmas morning. Our challenge is to help yesterday’s Christmases become tomorrow’s Easters. We are called to unbind, not just the innocent and adorable, but the adults such children become, people whose unlovely tombs and journeys have left them shattered and smelly and scarred. We may well demand to know how God, or other people, could let this happen to them. But even if we never learn the answers, we can still welcome them into new and abundant life.  


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Promised Lands

Here's tomorrow's homily. I can't believe that I haven't preached since last May, and I'm very happy to be doing so again, but Matthew 5:21-37 is a bear. The other reading I talk about here is Deuteronomy 30:15-20, a much smaller bear.


A few weeks ago, my friend Shira asked her friends on Facebook if they’d help her teenaged daughter Valerie by buying containers of chili. Valerie is raising money to visit detainee camps on the Texas-Mexican border with a Methodist youth group. The group will meet with agencies to discuss how to help families released from the detention center. They’ll be bringing things like craft supplies and soccer balls to help them make friends with the children of these families.

This is a wonderful project, but I was a little confused. Shira and her family are Jewish. How had they gotten involved with the Methodist church? “Valerie's part of the group even though we're not members,” Shira told me. “She went with them to build in Appalachia. She went on a civil rights trip last spring break. She went to Washington to advocate for the SNAP program.” After noting that she doesn’t see any other faith organizations, Jewish or Christian, doing similar work in her area, Shira added, “It's maybe the only church I've been to where I actually feel welcome. Plus they say you can replace Jesus with love in prayers.”

This conversation reminded me of Kirk, last week, wondering what might happen if we replaced our crosses -- symbols of execution -- with glow sticks, symbols of God’s light. Would wearing glow sticks make people outside the church feel  more welcome?  

Welcome, something our own parish has been emphasizing for several years now, makes all the difference for people searching for a faith community. All of us want to find the place that welcomes us and feels like home. It’s worth noting, though, that welcome isn’t the same thing as comfort. Shira and Valerie feel welcome at the Methodist Church not because they’re being coddled or sheltered, but because they’re being challenged: to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned. Confronting and relieving suffering, our own or others’, is rarely comfortable. It involves sacrifices of time, money, and privilege. It involves looking at things we’d rather not see. In the short term, it may make us more unhappy, rather than less. That was certainly the experience of the Isrealites, whose flight from oppression involved forty years of hardship. No one reaches the promised land overnight.  

Promised lands take many forms: geographical, cultural, personal, political, vocational. Setting out for any promised land requires courage, planning, and the ability to persist without guarantees. Not all of the Isrealites crossed the Jordan. Moses himself didn’t, although his work made the journey possible for others. His exhortation in Deuteronomy -- “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live” -- reminds us that our actions affect future generations. Even when we won’t see the results ourselves, we work for a better world for those who will come after us.  

Choosing life is also, less obviously, at the heart of this morning’s Gospel, another in our continuing series from the Sermon on the Mount.  Among the “hard sayings” of Jesus, today’s are among the most difficult. I don’t know anyone who’s never been angry, but Jesus equates anger with murder.  I don’t know anyone who’s never been attracted, however briefly, to someone outside a primary relationship, but Jesus equates fantasy with literal cheating. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t sinned, but Jesus commands us to perform self-mutilation rather than continue to do wrong.  

Jesus is telling us to take God’s law to heart, to police ourselves rather than relying on other people to do it for us. He is telling us to address problems at their source. Everyone knows we aren’t supposed to murder, but Jesus’ followers also need to root out hatred and anger. Everyone knows that cheating is a terrible betrayal, but Jesus’ followers need to be as faithful in thoughts as in actions, because unchecked thoughts ultimately express themselves in action. We have to be willing to confront our darkest selves, the impulses that polite, respectable society would prefer to ignore.  

Fair enough. The problem, though, is that the lord of love and forgiveness seems neither loving nor forgiving here. I can’t imagine my friend Shira being comfortable hearing this passage in church. I’m not comfortable hearing this passage in church. There are no glow-sitcks anywhere in the vicinity. This is desert territory, hard and stony and parched. Jesus may be drawing us a map about how to reach the promised land, but getting there involves a lot of forced marching under a merciless sun.  

Next week, in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will command us to love our enemies. That’s hard, uncomfortable work too, but at least we’ll be back to talking about love.  Next week, Jesus will once again say things that sound at least somewhat comforting. But that’s not much help to us today.  This Sunday is a kind of mini-Lent, practice for the real thing coming up in three weeks. This Sunday, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to confront our sins -- our disconnections from God, from other people, and from ourselves -- and to do whatever we need to do, no matter how difficult, to make those relationships healthy again.  

Sometimes becoming healthy involves the agonizing process of cutting away diseased tissue. Sometimes it involves sacrificing things that mean a great deal to us, things that polite, respectable society tells us should make us happy. I suspect that everyone in this room has a story about doing that. Here’s mine. Please be assured that this story has a happy ending.

Almost exactly six years ago -- just before Valentine’s Day in 2011 -- I went through a very dark time. For fourteen years, I’d been an English professor at UNR.  I’d worked very hard to get the job, which paid nicely and gave me good benefits. I had tenure, which meant that at least in theory I had lifetime job security. I worked with lovely colleagues and taught excellent students, people I really cared about. By the standards of polite society, I should have been happy, and for ten years or so after starting the job, I had been.

But by 2011, I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy teaching anymore. I wasn’t doing the kind of service work my department wanted me to, which made me feel incredibly guilty, but thinking about doing that work made me feel like I was being crushed by boulders. My husband had given up his own lucrative job in New York to follow me to Reno, where he couldn’t do what he’d been doing before. I was supporting both of us. If I stopped doing that, we’d both be miserable, and I’d have broken my word. I felt trapped. I couldn’t see a way out.

For about five days that February, I seriously considered suicide. I had a plan, one that could have worked. That very week, the same plan did work for someone else. I saw the story in the newspaper and was instantly shaken, completely horrified. I felt sick for the person who’d died, sick for that person’s family and friends, sick that I’d been contemplating the same departure. My thoughts had almost led to a catastrophic action.

The good news is that they didn’t. Remembering that week, I’m still horrified at how close I came. But as scary as the episode was, it was also a major wake-up call: a summons not to death, but to new life. I obviously had to find another career, however difficult that seemed. After considering several other options, I hit on the idea of medical social work. For financial reasons, it’s taken me a while to translate that thought into action, but I’m now on my way. With my husband’s blessing, I’m in my last semester of teaching at UNR. I’m already taking classes in UNR’s Masters of Social Work program; this fall, I’ll enroll full time. I’m glad that getting here took only six years, not forty. And I’m grateful that my dark thoughts six years ago will help me understand clients who are struggling with their own. That terrifying time of darkness and disconnection will connect me to people who are suffering.

But while this absolutely feels like the right move, it also involves a lot of scary sacrifices. For at least the next two years, I’ll be cutting our family income by at least two-thirds. I’m trading job security and seniority to go back to square one in a poorly paid profession, in an era when healthcare and social services are on newly precarious ground. I’ll be giving up tenure, summer vacations, and quite a bit of social prestige. To a lot of people in polite, respectable society, this would look crazy.

I don’t think it’s crazy. I think I’ve chosen life. I can breathe again. So far, I feel very welcome in my new profession. I hope I reach my promised land, and I hope my journey allows me to help other people. But the process isn’t comfortable.

I’m being called to something new, and I’m on a long, uncertain road to get there. Maybe some of you are, too. In one way or another, all of us are. We can’t take comfort in any guarantee of earthly safety on these journeys, for there is none. Our comfort is in the one who walks beside us and ahead of us, showing the way:  the one who endured his own trials in the desert, and who reminds us that our true job is to find our own path to loving God, and others, and ourselves. Our comfort lies in knowing that even when our road takes us to the foot of the cross, there will still be life beyond it.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beloved Communities

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is Luke 7:1-10. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Memorial Day.


Years ago, my husband and I had a friend recently retired from an Army career. I remember him telling us about the psychological effects of military hierarchy. "You're obeying orders from your own commanding officers and giving orders to the people under you. Ideally, that chain of command keeps you humble and flexible. You're responsible to your superiors and responsible for your subordinates. The fact that there are people over you means you can't exaggerate your own importance, but the fact that there are people under you means that you can't minimize it, either."

I think of our friend every time I read about the Roman centurion in this morning's Gospel. "For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me." We've all heard far too many stories about people who use their authority -- privilege or power or money -- to exploit anyone lower on the ladder. But the Roman centurion cares for the people under him. I suspect that his own position as a subordinate plays into his compassion. If he were ill, he would want his commanding officers to seek healing for him; therefore, he will do the same for his slave. Without even meeting Jesus in person, he is already loving his neighbor as he loves himself.  

It's worth remembering that Roman centurions would not have been considered friends by many people in first-century Palestine. Yes, Jews were allowed to maintain their religion, but Romans were still the agents of oppression, occupation, and taxation, a situation that ultimately led to three major Jewish rebellions beginning in the year 66. And yet this centurion not only cares lovingly for his household slave, but has forged remarkable alliances with the Jewish community.  "He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us," they tell Jesus.

In a setting deeply divided by military, political and religious conflict, the Roman centurion has created a taste of what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many years later, would call "the Beloved Community," where discrimination is “replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” In the Beloved Community, Dr. King said, disputes will be resolved peacefully, by conflict resolution and reconciliation rather than military power, and “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred."

This Utopian vision arose from Dr. King's principles of nonviolence. We aren't there yet, and the rare glimpses we get of this ideal world generally don't last. The Roman centurion's model of love and social harmony didn't sweep first-century Palestine; if it had, the rebellions wouldn't have happened. But the centurion proves that someone entrusted with military power and posted to occupied territory can still act in the service of love and reconciliation.  

On Memorial Day, we remember those who have served, and especially those who have been lost in military conflicts, including occupations. Our country has occupied many countries over the years. All of those occupations have produced stories both of compassionate soldiers -- who loved and served the people among whom they lived -- and others who ruled, and were ruled, by fear and force. Even at its worst, though, occupation offers a chance for people from very different backgrounds to form relationships. If that Roman centurion had been a drone operator, he never would have learned to love the Jewish community.

My nephew is in the Navy, serving on an aircraft carrier. The Navy has announced that his ship will soon be deployed to the Persian Gulf. Before he enlisted, he researched military jobs and decided that being on a carrier is one of the safest, because carriers are protected by cruisers and destroyers far from combat fronts. I'm very relieved that he'll be in a relatively secure position, but I'm also troubled that he'll be surrounded by what he already knows, living in a bubble of other American military personnel. He is far less likely to die than he would be in the Marines or the Army, but he's also less likely to change his mind about other people, or have the chance to change their minds about him. All of us seek safety and familiarity, but they can become barriers to relationship, preventing the Beloved Community Dr. King described.

In fact, I learned about the Beloved Community from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, about the unexpected moments of social utopia that often arise after disasters like 9/11 or Katrina. Our media and entertainment teach us to view such events as unleashing the worst in human nature, rampaging mobs that loot and pillage, but that's rarely what actually happens. Instead, people extend helping hands and work together, often overcoming preconceptions about one another in the process.

During Katrina, my father lived four blocks from the water in Ocean Springs, a hard-hit section of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When I visited him that Christmas, three months after the storm, everyone had a story. One of my favorites is from our friend Darlene, an art teacher in an at-risk school.  The Friday before the storm, she'd gone to school to get her classroom ready for the start of school the following week. She decorated the room with old students' artwork, to inspire her new students, and left a to-do list on one corner of her desk.

That weekend, the storm hit, and Darlene’s school became a National Guard barracks. A few weeks later, Darlene went to look at her classroom. "I thought it would be a mess," she told me.  "After all those young military guys had been staying there, I was sure the place would be trashed." Instead, everything was immaculate. The floor was swept. Darlene’s to-do list was in the same spot she had put it before the storm. And the National Guardsmen had covered the blackboard with notes telling the students how beautiful their artwork was. That occupying force, feared even though it wasn’t foreign,  truly had come to love and serve.

What does any of this have to do with us, here, today?  And what does it have to do with God?  As Christians, all of us are -- as the old Hebrew National commercial put it -- subject to a higher authority. Our service to that higher authority takes the form of loving and serving our neighbors, including anyone over whom we have real or perceived power:  our employees, our children, anyone who performs work for us in any capacity.  

Because we have not yet achieved Dr. King's Beloved Community, we also live and work in places divided by highly contested differences:  between religions, ethnicities, political beliefs, levels of income and education.  All of us are parts of chains, if not of command, then of privilege and prestige. It can be tempting to retreat into bubbles, spots of safety where everyone's like us, to try to protect ourselves from conflict. But when we do that, we shortcut the possibility of achieving, even for a fleeting moment, the Beloved Community.

Here's one last example for you, more explicitly about God. Eric Heidecker, whom many of you know, told me this story. Most of us remember the controversy surrounding the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2003, the gathering where that election was ratified, Gene Robinson needed bodyguards, because he'd received death threats.

One day during the convention, Eric arrived at the convention center in Minneapolis and saw an ambulance parked outside. He immediately feared that someone had acted on the threats to hurt Gene Robinson. But Robinson was fine. The patient was one of his bodyguards, who was having heart-attack symptoms triggered by the stress of his job. Bishop Robinson sat with the bodyguard during the ambulance ride, and stayed with him at the hospital, and held his hand, and prayed with him.  The threat to Robinson’s safety became a chance for him to embody the love of God by serving the man who was being paid to serve him.  

I wonder if Robinson thought of the Roman centurion during that ambulance journey. May all of us think of him the next time we feel a conflict between being responsible to the authorities we serve, and being responsible for the fellow humans who serve us.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

God's Reentry Program

Here's today's homily. The readings are Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19.


I’ve never seen a completely convincing explanation for why we humans love the number three so much. Everyone acknowledges that we do, though. Three winds its way through history and across cultures; we find it in our legends, our riddles, and our theology. It shows up in the three Fates, the three little pigs, and the Christian trinity. Fairy-tale swineherds can’t win the hand of the princess without completing three tasks. No joke is complete unless three people, rather than only two, walk into a bar. Three strikes in baseball and you’re out. We can’t have blood and sweat without tears, and we can’t have friends and Romans without countrymen.  

And, according to today’s readings, we can’t have Peter and Paul, two of our most important church ancestors, without lots of threes. Saul, who will take his new name of Paul any minute now, is blind for three days after his conversion on the road to Damascus, a calamity echoing the three days Jesus spent in the tomb. The resurrection story in the Gospel is the third time the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, and his conversation with Peter is a set of three questions. Jesus’ thrice-repeated “Do you love me?” is an explicit undoing of the three times Peter denied Jesus after his arrest by the Romans. Even the 153 fish are divisible by three, and then by three again, seventeen groups of nine. We’re drowning in trinities here.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor has suggested that the number three has been lodged in our imaginations ever since the earliest humans studied the sky and realized that the dark of the moon lasts three nights. People who study writing note, more simply, that lists of three make points both more forceful and easier to remember. Whatever the explanation, it’s undeniable that three means business. If something comes in threes, we sit up and pay attention. Whatever this three-part sequence is, it’s important.

Today’s Scripture stories would probably get our attention even without all these threes. They’re about two of the most important leaders of the early church, and they’re both about crucial turning points, moments of repentance and conversion. Saul has been actively persecuting Christians. Peter, the most zealous of the disciples before the events of Holy Week, betrayed Jesus and his own sense of himself by running away, by denying Jesus rather than remaining loyal to his Lord. Both men must feel acute shame. Indeed, Peter is so deeply ashamed that when he realizes who’s on the beach, he covers himself -- as Adam and Eve did in the Garden after their own transgression -- and jumps into the water to get away from Jesus. At least, that’s how I read this passage. Maybe he’s rebaptizing himself. Maybe he’s just really clumsy. But if I were Peter, confronted with the person I’d denied three times, I’d run away.

We all know that there’s no running away from God, though:  not from God’s wrath, and not from the love, healing and mercy we see in today’s lessons. God sends Ananias to heal Saul, who regains his sight and feels much better after a meal. Jesus fries up some fish for his friends, including the sopping, bedraggled Peter. God gives both men food for the journey. I wonder if Peter, chewing his fried fish as he dripped dry on the beach, remembered that Jesus also fed Judas -- the ultimate betrayer -- at the last supper. If Peter did remember that, I wonder if he felt more hopeful, or only more ashamed.  

And I wonder what he felt during that chat with Jesus. “Do you love me? Do you love me? No, really, Peter, do you love me?” Maybe at first Peter was happy to assure Jesus of his love after his previous shameful behavior. But by the third time we know, because the text tells us, that he’s hurt at having to answer the question again. He just wants to be forgiven. He just wants to put that whole horrible episode in the past. Why does Jesus keep harping on it?

Jesus keeps harping on it because he has a job for Peter: “Feed my sheep.” That gets repeated three times, too. “Hey, Peter, are you enjoying that fish I cooked up for you? Feed others as I have fed you.” Paul will receive a similar commission.
All of us have done wrong. All of us, at some point, have betrayed ourselves and those we love. All of us long for forgiveness. But in these two stories, Jesus does more than say, “You’re forgiven.” He says to both men, “I have work for you.  I’m giving you a job.” And he tells Peter, in effect, “I’m saying it three times so you’ll get it.  This is important.  Pay attention.”

Being forgiven means that we’re accepted: that we’re loved again, or still. But being given work means that we’re trusted, even when we don’t quite trust ourselves yet. “I have a really important job for you. I know you can do this. I know you won’t let me down.”
There’s another layer here, beyond the personal healing of Saul and Peter. People who’ve done terrible things themselves will be that much more likely to forgive others with shady pasts. Saul and Peter can be counted on to be compassionate to wrongdoers. They’ve done wrong, too. They know what guilt feels like, and they know that loving their neighbors -- loving others as God has loved them -- means offering second chances, including meaningful work. Having lain in their own tombs of shame and darkness, having been restored to love and light, they are the best possible choices to spread the Good News of resurrection.

That’s as true now as it was two thousand years ago. Let me introduce you to a woman named Rhonda Bear. Rhonda lives in Oklahoma. In 2000, in her mid-twenties, she was a single mother of three children. She didn’t have a job or an education. She did have a meth habit. She couldn’t even see her children because she was wanted on multiple drug charges, and she knew the police would catch her if she visited her kids. Desperate to be a mother again, she turned herself in, promising her children that she was going to change.

In prison, Rhonda attended a Kairos weekend, the prison ministry you’ve heard Mike talk about. She was amazed by the unconditional love of the Kairos volunteers. They didn’t say ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Shame on you.’ They said, ‘Come on in. Let’s love you with the love of God and let the love of God impact your life.’”

Rhonda was released nineteen months into her ten-year sentence. Three years later, she too became a Kairos volunteer. She also ran halfway houses for former inmates, but she wanted to help with employment opportunities. "In order to stay out of prison," she says, "you have to have safe housing. You have to have a job. You have go have community support." So, starting with $300 and a flea-market booth, she opened a coffeeshop called She Brews. She has employed twenty-four women, all former offenders, all of whom are currently working, although most have moved on from the coffeeshop. Three of them are now in college. “We help them with employment,” Bear says. “We help them with education. We help them set goals so that their lives and their children’s lives can be different.” Bear mentors these women because it was transformative for her to have someone believe in her.  Being trusted changed her life. Today, reunited with her children and grandchildren, she helps others reach that same state of grace.

The number three runs through Rhonda Bear’s story, too. Sit up. Pay attention. This is important. When we accept not just God’s love and forgiveness but the work God gives us, we find new life both for ourselves and others. Feeding others as we have been fed, transforming our shame into compassion, and offering the healing balm of trust, we embody resurrection.

Let us behold Christ in his redeeming work, and let us do likewise. Amen.