Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome, Child

Here's today's homily. The readings are Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37.


Dear child:

There you are in Jesus’ arms. We don’t know how old you are; we don’t even know your gender.  We don’t know if you were a cherished heir, a beloved child of the family who owned that house in Capernaum, or a slave. Whatever your status, you would have been considered the legal property of your parents, not yet a person in your own right.
That’s also true of your mother, whether she was a servant or the “capable wife” celebrated in today’s reading from Proverbs, who acts almost entirely for the good of her husband and family.  It sounds like this wife loves her husband, and we have to hope he loves her back, because she’s his legal property too. That’s going to last a long time. Where I live, in the United States -- a country that doesn’t exist yet, in your time -- the law saying that a wife is her husband’s property won’t be declared fully unconstitutional until 1981. Where I live, so far in your future you couldn’t even imagine it, women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. My country has never had a female President. In some quarters, the view that women are people too is still controversial.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? You don’t know about any of that, don’t care about it. You’re in Jesus’ arms, enjoying the attention from his friends. They’ve just been arguing about who’s the greatest -- the most famous, the most influential -- and Jesus is using you to make a point. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to take care of you. They have to welcome you. They have to treat you like a person. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to treat you as if you’re him:  the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace.

Jesus knows about being a child. Jesus came to Earth as a child, a baby, and even though he was a cherished heir, he was also poor. His mother wasn’t like that ideal wife in Proverbs, with her servants and vineyards. He was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a room. Some poor shepherds knew who he was, and so did some rich kings, but a lot of other people didn’t, and still don’t. The Messiah is supposed to be great and powerful. Children aren’t. A lot of what Jesus does looks upside-down to everyone else, even his closest friends. He wants them to use their power to give, not to take, but he has to keep reminding them how it works.  That’s why he’s holding you, now, and telling them to welcome you.

What do they do, I wonder? The story doesn’t tell us. Do they ask your name? Do they play with you? When Jesus puts you down again, what happens? Will you ever see these men again? What does your future look like?

Child -- boy or girl, slave or free, EveryChild -- I wish I didn’t know as much about your future as I do. Where I live, here in the United States in 2015, we still haven’t fully learned what Jesus was trying to teach his friends. We welcome some children, our cherished heirs. As I write this, my niece is about to deliver her first child, a little boy named Charlie, and our family and friends can’t wait to welcome him. But yesterday in the news I read about a five year old refugee who drowned trying to reach safety in Europe. In my own country, more than 21% of children live in poverty. That’s the highest poverty rate of any age group. In my country, the average age of a homeless person is 11, and one in thirty children is homeless. Poor children are often hungry, and hungry children can’t learn, and that puts them at risk for other problems, terrible problems happening right here within our own borders, like the sex trafficking we hear about on the news that makes us shudder and hug our own kids more tightly and thank God they’re safe.
Remember when I talked about women, about equal pay for equal work?  These things are connected. Women and their children bear the brunt of poverty, and income inequality is part of the reason why.  

I’m talking about politics now, and there are people who say it’s impolite to talk about politics to anyone, let alone children. In my country, we believe in the separation of church and state. But Jesus was a political figure. He’s just told his followers that he’ll die a political death, although they don’t want to believe it. He’s trying to teach them about the proper uses of power, and you can’t get much more political than that. If we’re going to welcome you, child, it can’t just be in our own families. It has to be in the rest of the world, too:  in stables and homeless shelters and hospitals, in refugee camps and war zones, and in poor and struggling neighborhoods here at home. We say we care about children in my country, but we don’t fund education the way we should.  We don’t respect teachers or pay them as if they’re important. We don’t have universal daycare to make it easier for parents to work and feed their kids, or universal healthcare to keep children and their parents healthy. Two years ago, the United States ranked 34th out of 35 countries in child welfare; only Romania ranked lower.
Please don’t get me wrong. A lot of us do try to welcome you. We donate money and volunteer and support programs and agencies that help kids. When we see a child right in front of us -- a child who’s hurt or hungry or frightened or poor -- we offer every comfort we can.
I remember a child I met in the ER where I volunteer. The little boy was a year old, maybe. A foster-care caseworker had brought him in for an evaluation. X-rays showed signs of earlier abuse:  multiple healed fractures of the long bones of his arms. A tech who had to start an IV on him asked for my help, because the baby liked women. He lay quietly on his gurney, but when he saw me, he smiled and reached out his arms to be picked up.  He played with my hair, my glasses, my ID badge. He never cried, not even when the tech started the IV.  Most children scream during that procedure. They buck and bite and kick. They have to be held down by five adults. Somewhere, this baby had learned to stay completely still and quiet.  His silence haunts me. How much pain do we never hear, because the children and adults suffering it have learned that if they cry, no one will come? How many have learned that if they cry, anyone who answers will only hurt them more?

Child, we help you when we can see you, but so often you’re invisible to us. A lot of that is political, too. Some of our leaders want us to care more about some children than about others. We need to learn to look out for all, and to act for all. We need to vote for school bonds even if we have no children in those schools. We need to support political initiatives that will help parents and children. We need to resist the lie that children from other families or neighborhoods, countries or religions, matter less than our children.  

All children are our children. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us. All children are his children. All children are him.

Child, we don’t know your name, your gender, your parentage.  We don’t know what your life was like before Jesus picked you up, or what it will be like after he puts you down.  We don’t know if you’ll remember him when you grow up. But we know that right now, you are safe and loved, cherished and nurtured, held in the warmth of Jesus’ arms while his friends smile at you.  And for his sake, we promise to do our very best to offer that same love and welcome to every child we meet.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten Years After

The Biloxi Bridge after Katrina

In 2005, my father (83 at the time) was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the Villa Maria Retirement Apartments:  a low-income senior building, a concrete high rise, that was four blocks from the water and one of the tallest things in town. He lived on the top floor, with a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast and its casinos, which often shot off fireworks on Friday nights. Villa Maria was a mile, maybe less, from the U.S. 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. He adored living there. He’d been even happier living on his sailboat in Biloxi, but health concerns had forced him off the boat and into an apartment. He’d had quadruple bypass in 2001, and in 2005 he often used a wheelchair and was also on a feeding tube -- which he hated; the man loved his food and especially his drink -- because of swallowing problems after a stroke.

I don’t clearly remember the sequence of events leading up to Katrina. We were all concerned about the storm, but Dad’s building wasn’t under mandatory evacuation orders, and he had no plans to leave. I remember at some point hearing that storm damage hadn’t been that bad and being relieved. We weren’t yet worried about not being able to reach Dad; we weren’t surprised phones were down. Then, on Monday morning, my sister called me and said, “Susan, New Orleans is flooding. The levees broke.”

My father was ninety miles from New Orleans, but reports from the Mississippi Gulf Coast were grim, too. That bridge I mentioned?  It’s the one everyone saw on the news, the one reduced to rubble by the storm. What were the odds that Villa Maria, so nearby and with such a high profile, hadn’t also been demolished?  “He has to be dead,” my sister said. “I just hope it was quick.”

We started a frenzied search for information. There was no getting through to anyone in Ocean Springs, but I found an online bulletin board where relatives and friends of people who lived in the Villa Maria were posting queries and sharing whatever they’d heard. No one had heard much.

Then, on Wednesday, a friend of Dad’s drove by the Villa Maria, saw people there, and realized that the building hadn’t been evacuated, as he’d assumed. He raced up to my father’s apartment, handed Dad his cellphone, and said, “Call your daughters. They’re going to be frantic.”

Dad called my sister. She heard his voice and started crying.

To hear him tell it, the storm had been a jolly romp. “They told us to go down to the lobby, so I went down there in my wheelchair with my mattress and my pillow and my Ensure and a bottle of vodka, and I poured Ensure and vodka through my feeding tube, and I was fine!” Whatever gets you through the night, Dad. Remarkably, the Villa Maria had suffered only minor roof damage, perhaps because the strongest winds had flowed around it rather than hitting it head-on. Dad was back in his apartment within a day.

We were very lucky. Millions of other people weren’t.

I flew down to Ocean Springs for Thanksgiving that year. Ocean Springs itself had been largely spared, although all of the beautiful old trees had trash in their topmost branches: clothing, children’s toys, kitchen utensils. Dad and I went for a drive along U.S. 90, the road to New Orleans, taking a long detour around the ruined bridge. Before the storm, the road had been lined with floating casinos on one side and antebellum mansions, surrounded by venerable trees, on the others. All gone. We drove through a moonscape littered with unidentifiable sticks and scraps.  A few staircases rose alone into the air for a few feet. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to tell that the area had ever been populated.

Our drive back to the Villa Maria was very quiet.

Everyone I talked to in Ocean Springs had a Katrina story. Almost everyone knew somebody who had died; many people had harrowing evacuation stories. No one had anything good to say about FEMA. No one had anything bad to say about the National Guard, hailed as heroes and saviors. One woman told me she’d complained to a Guardsman about the Meals Ready to Eat that everyone had been given. “It’s too much food! I can’t eat all that!”

“Ma’am,” the Guardsman said, “MREs are designed for the nutritional needs of soldiers in combat. You’re sitting in your living room reading a book.”

My favorite National Guard story came from Dad’s friend Darlene, who taught art at a local at-risk school where most of the students were black and very poor. The Friday before the storm hit, she’d gotten her classroom ready for the beginning of school the following week. She’d cleaned, put up student artwork from the previous year to inspire her new pupils, and left a to-do list on the corner of her desk. 

School didn’t start the following week. Darlene learned that her school was being used to billet National Guard troops, and assumed that the place would be a shambles. As soon as she could drive safely again, she went to the school and asked if she could visit her classroom. Yes, of course she could.

The room was pristine. The to-do list was still where it had been on her desk, and the Guardsmen had used the blackboard to leave notes for the children, telling them how beautiful their artwork was. I’m not sure if Darlene cried when she told me this story, but I cried when I heard it, and I’m crying now, typing it.  

The Villa Maria instituted a new policy that in the event of a hurricane, all residents would have to evacuate and wouldn’t be able to return to the building until any repairs were completed. Because evacuation wouldn’t have been feasible for him, Dad decided to leave his beloved Gulf Coast. In 2006, he moved to live near my sister in Philadelphia. On his birthday that year, he sent me $300 and asked me to research Katrina charities and send the money to the ones I considered worthiest. In 2008, he moved to Reno to be near me and Gary. He died in 2009. He wasn’t technically one of the displaced because he left shelter that was still habitable, and he didn’t apply for or receive FEMA money, but there’s no doubt that he was part of the larger Katrina diaspora. He was never as happy as he’d been on the Gulf Coast. (After he died, our plans to scatter his ashes in the Gulf were defeated by another disaster, the BP oil spill. I was glad he wasn’t alive to see that; it would have left him sickened and despairing.)

Meanwhile, in 2006, my novel The Necessary Beggar won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and I flew down to New Orleans to accept the award -- one of ten given to adult books with YA crossover appeal -- at the ALA convention. We were the first convention to meet there after Katrina, in the infamous convention center which had gotten so much press, and which was now as bland and antiseptic as most facilities of that sort. On the shuttle ride from the airport, my driver pointed out storm damage, implored us to spend as much money as we could in the city, and thanked us fervently for coming.

Everyone thanked us for coming. Shop windows displayed signs: “We love you ALA.” The city was desperate for business. Many people at the convention took storm tours of the hardest hit parts of the city; I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could bear it, but I wandered through shops, searching for anything I wanted to buy, fighting my guilt when I found only a bracelet, a Katrina memorial t-shirt, and a souvenir voodoo doll for Gary.  

For several years after the storm, I occasionally met Katrina survivors in the ER. One patient told me he was from Biloxi, and we had a long, lively conversation. “Sure I know the Villa Maria! You can see that building for miles. I’m so glad your dad was okay.” Although we’d never met before, and although I’d never actually lived in those communities, it felt like a family reunion. The patient had gone through, was going through, agonies I'd been spared; even so, both of us understood things that other people around us didn't.  

My family was very lucky. My father was in the right place in the right circumstances; even with limited income and mobility, he was less poor and had more options than many of the people (black and terrifyingly poor, left without any money because the storm hit at the end of the month) who died when the New Orleans levees broke. We were grateful for our privileges and enraged on behalf of those who didn’t share them. We mourned those who had died and gave thanks for those who hadn’t.  

I live in the desert, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast. I know some people might challenge my belief that Katrina is part of my history, too. I’m white and affluent; I wasn’t there; the person I loved who was there made it through largely unscathed. Other people lost and suffered so much more. But I’ll always feel a connection to that terrible time, and I’ll never hear a hurricane forecast without thinking about Katrina.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Contaminated by Christ

Here's tomorrow's homily.  The Gospel is John 6:51-58.


Here we are, almost at the end of what I like to call the bread line: the five-Sunday series of Jesus’ proclamations about being the Bread of Life. Last week, Kirk told us that Jesus is the opposite of boring, nutrition-free white bread. Jesus is yummy. Jesus is chewy. Next week, we’ll hear how deeply offensive many of Jesus’ listeners found this part of his teaching, so much so that many of them, unable to accept it, walked away. This week, we’re in the middle, somewhere between fighting off boredom and being scandalized.

Many of you may indeed be bored with bread by now, and we’re beginning to see the beginnings of distaste in the surrounding crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Cannibalism was no more acceptable in the first century than it is now; Jewish dietary mores forbade it as firmly as everyday ethics do today. Jesus, as usual, was violating all the purity codes that allowed the religious elite of his day to feel safe, secure, and smug in their own good behavior. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Even if you interpret this symbolically instead of literally -- and Christians are all over the map on where they draw that line -- this is, well, startling. Even if it’s not disgusting, it’s weird.  

Jesus’ first-century followers weren’t the only ones to recoil. I know people who’ve left the church because thinking too hard about what communion was really supposed to be made them sick to their stomachs. Those of us who stay may still be cautious about how we take the Eucharist. Many of us, me included, intinct rather than sipping from the common cup, even though chalice bearers are trained to wipe the rim of the chalice and rotate the cup so that the next person in line won’t come into contact with the previous person’s germs.

The question is where we draw the line between communion -- where two different entities merge lovingly into one -- and contamination, where one entity infects and pollutes the other. Many in that first-century crowd were worried about contamination, about both spiritual and physical illness. Ever since then, contamination has been communion’s shadow.

In the earliest days of the church, when Christians were still actively persecuted, clergy took communion before everyone else, so that they would be the ones arrested if any spies were watching the service. That changed during the AIDS era, when many clergy began taking communion after everyone else had partaken, as a way of showing that they were not afraid of catching anything from the common meal.

Years ago, I read a book called Whitebread Protestants, a social history of food in American mainline churches, and learned how deeply the fear of all kinds of contamination has shaped Eucharistic practice. Welch’s grape juice was invented as an alternative to communion wine because temperance crusaders feared the physical and moral dangers of alcohol. The practice of intinction – dipping rather than sipping -- as well as the tiny, individual plastic cups used in some Christian services, all sprang up as a response to fear of germs.

One of Jesus’ missions on Earth was to dismantle purity laws. We’ve been busy rebuilding them ever since.

I don’t mean to minimize health concerns. Alcoholism is a real and terrible condition, and it’s why many Episcopal churches offer a non-alcoholic chalice, or emphasize that the bread alone is sufficient to make us part of the Body of Christ. Wheat disagrees with many of us, which is why St. Paul’s offers a non-gluten option. Germs are real. No one wants to give a neighbor -- or get from a neighbor -- a cold or the flu, let alone anything even more serious.

But even as we maintain our emphasis on health, I think we need to remember that hygiene often masks a fear of difference. Contamination is the card many of us play when we’re scared of communion, afraid that merging lovingly with other people will force us into contact with what we’d rather not face.

Back in 2000 or 2001, St. Stephen’s, the church I was attending then, became a host congregation for Family Promise. I believe St. Paul’s participated, too. For those of you who weren’t here then, Family Promise was an outreach ministry to homeless families, parents and children. Up to four families at a time, fourteen people, were housed for a week at a time in church or temple buildings. Sunday School classrooms were converted into bedrooms; volunteers supplied meals and donated bedding. Because many faith communities took part, each congregation only had to host every three or four months. During the day, children went to school and parents went to work or to a Day Center, where a social worker helped them locate jobs and apply for low-income housing. The goal was to get these families off the streets, and it worked. The program has, sadly, since closed in this area, but it’s still active nationally.

Some people at St. Stephen’s thought Family Promise sounded like a wonderful ministry. But when we had a parish meeting to discuss the issue, the room filled with fear. Let those people stay in our classrooms, where our children spent time every Sunday? The social worker explained that the families were thoroughly screened for medical problems -- no germs; for addiction -- no drugs; and for legal issues -- no crime.

Lice. What about lice? Were the families checked for lice? Our children would surely get lice from those children. Well, no, said the social worker, there was no specific screening for lice, but if lice did appear -- which was most likely to happen at the schools the parish’s children were already attending -- they’d be dealt with.

Lice! The homeless families instantly transformed into a parade of giant, two-legged lice traipsing into our parish hall and Sunday School rooms, infecting everything in sight.

Somehow, we voted to become a host congregation anyway. The families came. We never saw a single louse. We saw a single father supporting four children, including a newborn, while his wife was hospitalized. We saw a single mother with a broken arm who’d been living in a van with her month-old baby before finding the program. We saw two-parent families, each parent working two or three jobs, struggling to get back on their feet after medical and financial disaster.  We saw kids of all ages: kids doing homework and watching movies and having fun in our playground and looking forward to dinner. We ate with the families, asked how their days had gone, rejoiced when they shared good news. They’d found an apartment. Someone was starting a new job. A child had gotten an A on a spelling test.

The program was as life-changing for volunteers as for the families themselves. Many of the people who’d been terrified of lice at the beginning grew to cherish their time with these parents and children. “They’re just like us.” The fear of contamination had given way to communion.  Fear itself had been the most dangerous infection we faced, and by the will of God -- and the faces of new neighbors breaking bread together -- it had been overcome.

I came to believe that the initial fear was, in fact, the fear of similarity.  The homeless weren’t that different from the housed. Anyone’s family, after a layoff or medical emergency, might become homeless too. Facing that reality is terrifying. But volunteering with the program also showed us that if that happened, loving neighbors would be on hand to help.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus says. Wherever we draw the line between the symbolic and the literal in this statement, let us remember that we are called to be one body: infected with the love of God and each other, contaminated by Christ, spreading the dangerous desire to heal the world.

Take. Eat. Begin.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

God's Triage

Here's today's Gospel lesson, one of my favorites. It's from the fifth chapter of Mark:

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat* to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing* what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Below is my homily, which I delivered as a guest preacher in a Lutheran church this morning.


For many years now, I’ve volunteered in a local emergency room, offering spiritual care to patients and families. Most of you probably know that emergency rooms use a triage system. The most critical patients are seen first.  This means that someone with a painful but non-life-threatening fracture may wait hours for treatment, while an unconscious patient, or someone with severe chest pain, is seen immediately. I spend a lot of time explaining this system to irate patients who are tired of waiting, and who don’t understand why somebody who just showed up five minutes ago is being seen first. “That means that the person who just got here is sicker than you are,” I tell them. “Believe me, you never want to be sent to the front of the line in an emergency room.”

Much less often, I spend time with the relatives and friends of patients who have been sent to the front of the line. Being first in line in an ER means that you’re probably in immediate danger of dying. It means that you’re the center of a buzzing hive of doctors and nurses doing invasive, painful things to you that you probably can’t feel, because you’re probably unconscious. If you make it out of the ER alive, you’ll almost certainly go directly to the Intensive Care Unit.

The friends and family of these patients wait in a small, private room called the Family Consult Room. The Consult Room has subdued lighting, soft couches, a phone, and several boxes of tissues. Waiting here is agonizing. A doctor will race in, ask urgent questions about the patient’s medical history, deliver a five-second update on the patient’s condition, and race back out again. If the doctor approaches the room slowly, the news usually isn’t good. There are no words to describe the tension and terror in this place. Hell is a Consult Room.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel, which – if you’re Jairus, anyway – makes Jesus look like the world’s worst ER doctor. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, which makes him a VIP in the Jewish religious establishment. The fact that he’s willing to beg a street preacher for help shows how desperate he is. He’s already tried everything else he can think of, and it hasn’t worked. He’s prayed, made sacrifices in the Temple, and called in all the best specialists, to no avail. His beloved daughter still lies dying.

So Jairus humbles himself. He leaves behind his safe, respectable piety to seek out the renegade healer from Galilee. People do crazy things to get close to this guy, to get through the crowds surrounding him. Just last week, some people cut a hole in someone’s roof to lower their paralyzed friend into the room where Jesus was. It worked. The paralyzed man can walk now.

Right now, Jairus would give anything to see his daughter walking again, instead of lying in bed, thrashing and moaning with fever, too weak even to sip water. So he ventures into the streets to find the healer, and he grits his teeth and forces his way through the crowd surrounding Jesus. Jairus has to use his knees and elbows, and he probably wouldn’t be able to get through at all, if his social status didn’t make him an object of respect and a little bit of fear. Finally Jairus reaches Jesus, and asks him for help, and Jesus says, “Yes, of course I’ll come to your house.”

Jairus has made very clear to this slightly disreputable street preacher that his daughter is dying. If Jesus were a good ER doctor, Jairus’ daughter would immediately go to the front of the line. Everyone else can wait. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. It’s incredibly hot, and the crowd stinks of sweat and bodies. Jairus feels like he’s going to be sick, and his daughter has no time to spare. Can’t Jesus walk any faster? But he doesn’t walk faster: he stops. And then he turns around to ask, “Who touched me?”  

“Are you kidding?” his disciples ask. “In this crowd? It could have been anybody. Jesus, what are you doing? Come on. We have to go to Jairus’ house.”

But Jesus is still standing there. He’s talking to somebody, a gaunt, filthy woman who’s kneeling in the street, weeping and babbling. She tells Jesus that she’s been bleeding for twelve years – that’s as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive -- and Jairus can’t help but wrinkle his nose and take a step back, because according to Temple law, bleeding women are unclean.

Jesus keeps talking to her. She was the one who touched him, and the minute her fingers brushed the fabric of his robe she felt the bleeding stop, felt herself healed, and Jesus felt something happen too, which is why he turned around. And now she’s kneeling there, telling Jesus the entire twelve-year saga of her symptoms and sufferings, while Jairus’ child lies at home, dying. This no-account woman has already stopped bleeding. She’s not dying. She can wait. But Jesus just stands there, and listens to her.  

Take a moment now to imagine what Jairus must have felt as Jesus stood there listening to the bleeding woman. Imagine what Jairus must have wanted to say.

Well, probably Jairus did say all that. He probably yelled a number of things we don’t feel comfortable even whispering in church.  It’s entirely likely that he started tugging on Jesus’ sleeve, at the very least.  But Jesus didn’t budge; he stayed there, listening to this woman with no money and no social status, who until a little while ago also had no hope. Yes, she was already physically cured. Her bleeding stopped the moment she touched Jesus’ robe. But healing and cure are two different things. Healing takes longer, and goes deeper. Jesus listened to her until she’d told “the whole truth,” Mark tells us, and then he pronounced her well, and Jairus must have let out a huge sigh of relief and thought, “Finally!  Now we can get moving!”

But that’s the moment when the messengers come to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead.

I’m not going to ask you to imagine what Jairus must have felt then. I don’t think we can begin to imagine it unless we’ve been there.  Jairus didn’t have the privacy of a Consult Room: he had to go through hell in public.  He must have thought, “If only Jesus hadn’t stopped to listen to that unclean woman who’d already stopped bleeding, my daughter would still be alive.” When Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe,” Jairus must have wanted to punch him. How could he believe? What was left to believe?

We know how the story ends. It’s the happiest ending, the child raised from the dead. But I wonder if Jairus ever really recovered. How do you ever get over hearing that your child is dead, even if she’s then given back to you? How do you ever get over seeing her dead, even if a few minutes later, she’s skipping around the room and munching on a piece of bread? What lessons about God do you take away from this heart-breaking, terrifying episode?

Some of the lessons are obvious. The first and most important, I think, is that God wants all of us to be whole and healed. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Like a good ER doctor, God treats everyone, both nameless outcasts and the children of the rich and famous. The lesson also reminds us that healing takes different forms for different people, and – just in case we’ve forgotten – that God’s time and priorities aren’t ours. How often, in extremity, do we abandon our illusions of power and control and beg God to help us, please help us, but God, you have to do it now, because there’s no time left! And how often, when God doesn’t answer on our timetable, do we rage and curse and despair?  

But another obvious lesson here is the value of perseverance. Both the bleeding woman and Jairus are stubborn and fiercely determined, pushing through huge crowds towards the One they know can help them.  Both of them have to wait: the bleeding woman for twelve years,Jairus for probably less than an hour. Neither of them likes waiting, but neither of them gives up and goes home before being treated, as I’ve sometimes seen angry ER patients do.

All of us can probably see ourselves in one of these characters, either the bleeding woman or Jairus. All of us need healing from something. And important as physical healing is, our afflictions and suffering take many, many other forms. The bleeding woman’s joy when she is healed is the joy, this week, of every gay couple in this country who has waited so long for marriage equality. It’s the joy that people of color – still facing violence, discrimination and institutionalized racism – can still only hope to feel, someday, when we finally manage to overcome our racial schisms.  Activists of all stripes need tremendous faith to believe that such joy is possible. That kind of perseverance takes more energy than many of us can imagine; anger, exhaustion and despair are ever-present temptations. Many of my friends, both gay and straight, never thought they’d see marriage equality in their lifetimes.  

But today’s Gospel offers another, subtler lesson. Because it’s so easy for us to hear this as a story about competition for apparently limited resources, we may overlook the fact that it’s also a story about people being pulled out of their usual social circles, out of their comfort zones, and into a space of common humanity. The bleeding woman, stigmatized and untouchable, normally wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a leader of the synagogue. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, normally wouldn’t have anything to do with such a woman. Their pain and desperation lead them to the same place. For a few moments, they are visible to each other.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us if they acknowledged or spoke to each other. The Scripture story is about Jesus’ relationship with each of them, not about their relationship with each other. But that story happened centuries ago.  Here and now, our faith calls us to be Christ to, and to see Christ in, everyone. We are Jesus in the crowd. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hearts but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and ours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

Our world, like that of the Gospels, is filled with all kinds of pain and tragedy: with people who need life-saving care in the next ten minutes and with people trying to overcome decades, if not centuries, of oppression. Seeking healing, we often wind up side by side with people whose own pain has made them desperate. How do we respond? Do we shut them out, or do we listen to them? Do we seek healing only for our own pain, or for everyone’s? Do we view our unexpected glimpse into other people’s lives as a startling gift, or as an unwanted curse?  Do we ignore those other stories, or learn from them?

ER waiting rooms are some of the most diverse and democratic places in the United States. On any given day, at any given hour, they are filled with people waiting in agony and in hope, the rich side by side with the poor, everyone desperate to be next in line. In the waiting room, and in the ER itself, I’ve seen predictable and saddening acts of selfishness: people cursing those who are seen before they are, threatening the staff, accusing doctors and nurses of every kind of favoritism.  But I’ve also seen acts of compassion and humanity: strangers from different walks of life giving each other cabfare, watching each other’s children when someone has to go to X-Ray, and – maybe most importantly -- listening to each other’s stories. I can’t tell you how often an ER patient, when I offer prayer, has said, “I want to pray for the person next door, who’s dealing with so much more than I am.” In the name of the One who wants all of us to be whole and healed, let us go and do likewise.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Replacing Judas

Here's tomorrow's homily.  The lesson is Acts 1:15-17, 21-26.  I usually preach on the Gospel, but this week it's Jesus-as-talking-head pontificating in John, and I'd always rather preach on a passage where people are doing things.  Narrative junkie, c'est moi.


Most of you know that I came to St. Paul’s after the closure of St. Stephen’s. St. Stephen’s might have gone under anyway; it was tiny, and like so many mainstream churches these days, it was struggling financially. But its demise was hastened by not one, but two clergy misconduct situations. In the first of those, I wound up -- through a complicated set of circumstances I won’t rehash here -- being one of the people who reported to the bishop. Although the situation was ultimately resolved correctly, the process took far too long. Procedural promises from the bishop and the diocese weren’t kept. I, and a number of other people, wound up feeling betrayed not only by the priest in our parish who was busy breaking every vow within reach, but by the larger church hierarchy.

Even now, twelve years after that first misconduct scandal and five years after the closure of St. Stephen’s, it’s difficult for me to talk about what happened without pain and anger. This history has made it harder for me to trust people at St. Paul’s, partly because I’m not sure I can trust my own instincts about whom to trust.  I was so wrong before. Although I’ve been at St. Paul’s for five years now, I’m still wary. Except when I preach, I keep to myself. I stick to the small 5:00 service. I know that this isn’t St. Stephen’s. I know that the players are different, and I really do trust this set of players more than the first one. But part of me is still convinced that staying safe means keeping to myself and keeping quiet.

How do we move forward after betrayal? That’s the question posed by today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, one of the beloved Twelve, sold Jesus to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver and then hanged himself. The twelve are now eleven. Jesus named twelve; he meant for there to be twelve. The empty seat must be filled.

The lesson makes this sound like a simple matter of reasoned discussion, prayer, and casting lots. Two men are chosen for an election. One wins; the other doesn’t. The empty seat is now filled, and the Twelve are twelve again. Mission accomplished. Meeting adjourned.

But anyone who’s ever suffered betrayal knows that it can’t have been that easy. And although very few of us have been sold for thirty pieces of silver, all of us have been betrayed. A spouse is unfaithful. An employee embezzles. A friend gossips about something said in confidence. Clergy misconduct, political corruption, student plagiarism: all of them damage our faith in other people. All of us have felt the pain of shattered trust, and all of us know how easy it is to shut down and withdraw so we won’t risk being hurt again.

“I’ll never remarry. All men are cheating so-and-so’s, just like my ex-husband.”

“Why even bother to vote? All politicians are crooks.”

“You won’t catch me in a church again, not after what that priest did.”

We’ve all heard people say things like this. And while we often think about betrayal in terms of big-picture issues -- family, country, religion
 -- trust is essential to almost everything we do.  An article in Psychology Today describes how thoroughly it permeates our lives:
Trust is the foundation of all human connections, from chance encounters to friendships and intimate relationships. . . . No one would drive a car or walk down a sidewalk, or board a train or an airplane, if we didn’t ‘trust’ that other people took their responsibilities seriously. . . . We trust that other drivers will stay in their lanes, that conductors and pilots will be sober and alert, and that people will generally do their best to discharge their obligations toward us. Culture, civilization, and community all depend on such trust.
That dependence begins the moment we’re born. Psychologists believe that forming a trusting relationship with the world -- being able to count on love and security, food and shelter and nurture -- is one of the most crucial tasks of infancy. Babies who can’t trust their caregivers face significant challenges navigating the world as they grow older. And our ability to trust ourselves is every bit as important as our ability to trust other people. Do we believe that we can stay in our lanes, remain sober and alert, discharge our social obligations? Are we secure in our ability to care for others, to maintain intimate relationships, to be good neighbors?

This morning’s story about replacing Judas speaks to both sides of the issue. The believers choosing a new apostle must have worried about whether the person they chose would be trustworthy. After all, Jesus’ followers still faced persecution. The danger of being betrayed to the authorities remained very real.

Barsabbas, who wasn’t chosen as the new apostle, must have wondered why. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” That was the beginning of the election prayer. Had God looked into Barsabbas’ heart, seen future betrayal or wrongdoing there, and guided the lots accordingly?

Matthias, who was chosen, must have wondered if he could be trusted with the great responsibility he’d been given. Yes, he loved Christ; but so had Judas, once. What had happened? How could Matthias be sure it wouldn’t happen to him, too?

And then there’s Peter, who called for the election. Peter also betrayed Jesus, although not as catastrophically as Judas did. Peter is the man who, in terror for his own life after Jesus’ arrest, denied his Lord three times after swearing to remain faithful. The most brash and self-confident of the apostles fell, and fell hard. Peter knows all about self-doubt.

But Peter has also seen the resurrected Christ. He has eaten fish his risen Lord cooked for him on the beach. He has heard the command “Feed my sheep.” He knows that he is forgiven, and he knows that he -- and the church -- have a job to do.

There’s a reason we’re hearing this reading during Easter. There’s a reason we’re hearing it on the last Sunday of Easter, the week before Pentecost, the birthday of the church. What initially sounds like a dull bit of bureaucracy, a first-century vestry business meeting, is really a resurrection story. The pain and mistrust created by Judas’ betrayal could easily have killed the church before it was even born. Instead, Jesus’ followers recommit to their mission, and to each other. Their resurrection is made possible by his.

“One of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” The resurrection is the ultimate proof that death cannot overcome God’s love, that our betrayals are forgiven, that we can trust God to care for us. The resurrection means that God gives all of us -- the betraying and the betrayed -- second chances. The resurrection means that our scars and wounds, like Christ’s, are no longer marks of shame, but proof that we have risen from our graves of failure and betrayal to new life. The resurrection means that God trusts us to be the church, to feed his sheep, even when we don’t trust each other or ourselves.

Getting from the betrayal of Good Friday to the renewed trust of Easter, though, can take longer than forty days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. I have a hunch that there are other believers in the crowd who are still cautious: wondering whom they can trust, keeping to themselves and keeping quiet. They love God and Christ. They want to participate as fully as they did in those early days, before their trust was shattered. God, always patient and always loving, has never left them. The church’s job is to be as steadfast and trustworthy as the God it serves, to become a place that heals betrayal, a place God’s servants feel no need to leave.


Saturday, April 04, 2015

Leaving the Tomb

Here's my homily for the Great Vigil of Easter. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.
The three women going to the tomb know what has happened. They know what they will find, and they know what they will do. Jesus has died. At his tomb, a large stone will block the entrance, and they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to move it. But once it’s out of the way, they’ll finish anointing Jesus’ body -- a task already begun by Nicodemus, but delayed by the Sabbath -- with the spices they’ve brought with them.

All of this is horrible. The death of Jesus is the worst thing they can imagine. They’re grieving, heartsick, probably angrier than they’ve ever been at the Romans occupying their country. They’re just as angry at their own people, their kin and tribe, who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday only to cry “Crucify him!” mere days later. They’re probably angry at their friends, the twelve disciples, for abandoning Jesus in his greatest need, for falling asleep in the garden and then running away after the arrest. They may be angry at themselves, wondering if there’s something, anything, any of them could have done to change what happened.

Everyone has failed Jesus. The three women failed him, too. They failed him when he was still alive; they won’t fail him now. They’ll follow the funerary customs, as they do when anyone they love dies. They’ll give Jesus’ body every bit of respect they can, because the Romans didn’t.

All of this is horrible, but at least the three women going to the tomb know what has happened.

The three women leaving the tomb have no idea what has happened. They can’t understand what they just saw, and they have no idea what to do. The stone wasn’t there. Jesus wasn’t there. A young man was there instead, wearing a robe so white it hurt their eyes, a robe so bright they knew the creature wearing it couldn’t be human. An angel, saying impossible things, was sitting in that tomb as casually as if it was somebody’s kitchen. “Jesus?  Oh, he’s not here.  He left; you just missed him. You’ll catch up with him in Galilee. Hurry along, now. You need to let his other friends know where to meet him.”

The three women flee. What would you have done? Angels are terrifying all by themselves, which is why the first thing they always say is, “Don’t be scared.” Disappearing corpses are terrifying, and so is impossible news. Tell the disciples? Who’s going to believe any of this? Jesus died. They all know he died. They watched him die.

We often think of Easter as a purely happy story,  filled with candy and brightly colored eggs and fluffy animals. Eggs and rabbits are symbols of fertility, of renewed life. The annual resurrection of spring is certainly part of Easter, but the other part of Easter is scarier, less domesticated: the full power of God revealed in an empty tomb inhabited not by a corpse, but by an angel. That part of Easter, unlike the yearly return of flowers and baby animals, doesn’t support the ordinary cycles. It turns them upside down. It breaks the mold. It changes the rules, and it leaves everyone who witnesses it reeling, trying to figure out what to do next.

Good news can be as disorienting, as challenging, as tragedy. A few weeks ago, I read an article by a young cancer patient named Suleika Jouade who described her confusion after her treatment ended. Everyone expected her to rejoice at the news that she was in remission, but the reality for Suleika – as for many patients like her -- was more complicated:
I’ve spent the last year of my life searching for Suleika B.C. (before cancer). I’ve looked for her all over New York City — the old bars she used to frequent, the coffee shop where she had her first date with the ex-boyfriend, the apartment above the Pearl Paint sign on Canal Street that she shared with 10 roommates her first summer out of college — but the more I look, the more I’m beginning to realize she no longer exists. There is no going back to my old life. The problem is I don’t know how to move forward either.
I’ve heard recovering addicts and newly released prison inmates say similar things. As welcome as new life may be, it’s also terrifying. It’s too big. The old rules and habits, all the familiar things that kept us safe even as they kept us in pain, won’t work anymore.  Like any newborns, resurrected people don’t know who they are yet.  

How do we move forward into new life?  That’s the question for the three women leaving Jesus’ tomb. It’s the question for Suleika Jouade, leaving the tomb of her cancer diagnosis. And it’s the question for all of us here tonight -- especially those about to be baptized and confirmed -- as we leave behind the tombs of old lives, old expectations, old behaviors.  However God has resurrected us, is resurrecting us, we need to learn who we are becoming, and we need to find ways to help others leave their own tombs. Resurrection isn’t just a gift. It’s a responsibility.
In a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows, which offer a kind of road map for this journey. We will promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being. The forms those actions take will be different for each of us. But all of us are called to the service of new and more abundant life, wherever and however we find it.

The three women going to the tomb carried burial spices, probably myrrh and aloes. The aloes, by the way, would have been agarwood, not aloe vera. But myrrh and agarwood aren’t just funeral spices; they’ve also both been used for centuries as medicine.  Myrrh is an anti-inflammatory and kills bacteria. Agarwood relieves pain and acts as a tranquilizer.

Imagine the three women, fleeing in terror from that empty tomb. They’re clutching their unused spices and trying to catch their breath, wondering what just happened, wondering what they’ll do now. Eventually, after running for a while, they have to slow to a walk.

One of them is Mary Magdalene. She met Jesus when he cast seven demons out of her. She wasn’t a prostitute; that was a rumor started by Pope Gregory. She was probably mentally ill. Jesus restored her to health, and she’s followed him ever since. Of the three women leaving the tomb, I suspect Mary Magdalene was the first to accept the idea that Jesus was alive again, even before she became the first to see the risen Christ. She already knew something about resurrection, and a lot about healing.

Imagine her, on the road from the tomb, slowing to a walk, looking down at the spices she’s carrying. Agarwood was, and is, very expensive. Both that and myrrh are precious stuff.  Holding them, maybe Mary Magdelene remembers all the suffering people she has seen on her journeys with Jesus: the lepers, the lame and the blind, that old woman with a twisted back, the little boy with an infected toe. Maybe she realizes that these precious spices, no longer needed to anoint a dead body, can instead be used to heal the living. And maybe, even before she has seen the risen Christ for herself -- even before joy and wonder have replaced terror and amazement -- she thinks, Yes. Of course that’s what Jesus would want us to do.

The Lord is risen! This Easter season, may all of us rejoice in the sheer, impossible glory of new life, and may we do all we can to share it. Amen.