What’s happening this week, and a couple possible sermon topics.
What’s happening this week, and a couple possible sermon topics.
A parishioner once took me aside and asked, “I just don’t believe in all of this stuff. I look around at all the people here and wonder, ‘does everyone else believe this?’ and I’m amazed. Am I the only person who thinks like this?”
Of course, he isn’t. Plenty of people in the pews have their own doubts and questions. They cross their fingers at the appropriate time of the Nicene creed; some sing because they can’t bear to say it. We compartmentalize, dividing our heads from our hearts. An Episcopalian who hasn’t questioned the church, God and organized religion wasn’t raised in the tradition very well.
The parishioner had good reasons to be skeptical. He’d had a hard life and, like lots of faithful people, struggled with the basic question of suffering and God’s goodness.
The apostle Thomas had doubts. He hadn’t been there the day before when he’d seen what the others had seen. He may have thought most of his friends were a bit dim and too credulous. Why should he take them at their word? They’ve said they’ve seen a body! That’s ridiculous.
I imagine that Thomas as a due diligence officer, a regulator, or an auditor. He knew that there are people who take short cuts, eager to make a quick buck, the swindlers who take advantage of our gullibility and propensity to see what we want. He’s the guy who wants to know how a magician did the trick, and demands that it be done twice so he can figure it out.
So then Jesus reappears to the disciples. He breaks bread and offers peace. He shows the wounds. But Thomas still isn’t operating on faith at this time: no – the body was right there. Asking for faith is easy when you’ve got evidence.
But perhaps, seeing the body was the secondary part of the faith. The real leap of faith was to accept the offer of forgiveness. Forgiveness for betraying Christ; forgiveness to the persecutors for their persecution; the forgiveness that breaks a cycle of violence. The momentary reconciliation that offers the possibility of more life.
This forgiveness means we assume the best in others; we offer them breathings space, charity and discretion; breathing space offers freedom; and freedom unlocks our own potential. It may be a mistaken, foolish, and risky act, to have faith in another person.
Of course, we need not ask this of our political leaders, of our inspectors, of those who have to make snap judgments in a broken world. They need to be right more than wrong. They can’t afford these moments of grace. They have to calculate the costs.
But perhaps faith is another way of saying, we’re allowed to be wrong in who and what we trust. Though we may be battered, bruised and hurt by the vicissitudes of chance, the power says that with this faith we still stand up again, although that same love may put our familiar lives at risk.
Blessed is sometimes translated into “happiness.” And when Jesus talks about being blessed, he announces that it will be the meek, the poor, and the persecuted. Could he be ironic or sarcastic? An announcement that God’s work was different, not the property of the lucky and privileged?
The writer Matthew understood that “blessing” or happiness was meant to be a regular, and rigorous, orientation toward life. It was not a cheap optimism, but a steely view towards one’s personal power.
To say that our meekness, lack and want is blessed, is to alter our perspective toward desire. What was hidden is now seen. We had been unaware that we were so attached; we denied were were captivated by our desires. We are creatures that want; we want because we lack.
Blessing our desires also announces that we lack, yet without shame. Our desires not be condemned, but honored. And so, may our compulsions not destroy us, our limits understood as giving us the frame for appreciating the goodness and life in us.
May our attachments not terrify or diminish us. May our imperfections themselves not hinder us, but be celebrated. Blessed are those who make mistakes, for they will have done the work.
I once took a class on stand up comedy. Comedy isn’t simply about the content of a joke. It’s also about presence.
I found several of the rules useful for preaching – and even everyday pastoral care. Not that life is always funny – but comedy is not merely about the amusing. It may also be about seeing the absurd in the everyday, or pricking the consciences of the powerful. I have often seen the mourning tell wicked jokes at a wake. And laughter may be one way we heal.
Here are some basic rules I learned from class:
1) Be emotionally full.
No monotones. Be present! It’s hard to listen to someone who has no investment in what they’re saying. It means speaking from your diaphragm, expanding your body, and standing straight. It can be learned.
2) No place you would rather be.
Preaching is an honor. People are giving you their time and attention. It’s exciting to be before people, and they respond to your love and enjoyment of them.
3) Don’t get mad at the congregation.
It’s easy to look at the congregation and see sinners: those who don’t fulfill their obligations, refuse to tithe, misunderstand the church, and don’t provide any help. Yet, they are there to hear you; they are motivated by some love of the Lord or they wouldn’t be there.
4) Don’t get mad at yourself.
It’s not always going to be perfect. Not every sentence you say will be coherent; you may go off track. If they don’t respond, it might not be you. If an idea doesn’t work, there will be another time.
5) Keep control of yourself.
Control means good timing; patience; and not crying when you get to a sad story. Don’t let your frustrations or resentment overwhelm the Good Word you are offering your people.
One need not be funny in a sermon. Not all priests have that gift. But presence is a skill that all priests can learn, and can do so to their benefit.
Isaiah 65:17-25 “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” and offers a vivid description of what was normal: precarity; death; calamity. God will create “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
It’s an opportunity to discuss memory – how it prefigures and affects how we live into the future, our hopes and desires. Can we ever see things anew? I may spend time reflecting on precarity itself. God looks forward to a time without sorrow; and this means a mitigation of the everyday calamities in biblical culture. One paradox is when we are so distant from precarity, we forget God.
Thessalonians is an exhortation within Christian community. How might Christians work with one another? Some Christians are lazy. The exemplars live by example, seeing to do well through encouraging imitation – rather than, perhaps, by diktat. I’m instinctively wary of the rigor of the command, but perhaps Paul reminds us of our obligation to each other. They seek avoid idleness but to work so that they might not be a burden. That said, what of people who are truly burdens? Within a community we share the work; but we still serve others who are destitute. We are still called to serve the poor; but we have high expectations of ourselves
“All will be thrown down.” Jesus gets apocalyptic here. He denies those who claim the world will end, and yet also giving instructions about what to do. Luke clearly thought Jesus understood that the end of the world was impending. This may be an opportunity to talk about transformation, and that we have nothing to fear.
Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide. The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.
To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out. It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy. Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.
Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and the disinvitation to a party. It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy. Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.
But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons. A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”
The teased are offered advice: walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes. But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.” The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has. One person bullies and the others follow.
And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky. It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless. That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.
Christians have themselves been bullies. Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty. And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross. The cross signifies this: we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way. Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.
There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross. To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless. This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion. Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human. What kind of God is this? A bullied one. And nobody wants to be on that side.
His response, of course, was remarkable. It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.” The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him. We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them. Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.
Preached on 9/8/2002
Twenty years from now you may still be asked “where were you on September 11th?” Like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger Explosion, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall, moments of surprise, shock and terror that sear our collective experiences in our minds forever.
Consider where you were the day before? The weekend before? I was here, having driven back the long six hours from Rocester. My father was dying. The day before he had told me, for the last time, “Good-bye.” An atheist, he nonetheless said to me, “and perhaps I’ll see you afterwards,” and with his typical, mischievous, broad smile. He was offering me something, anything, a memory of him to hold while he was still lucid.
The next day I got the apartment ready for visitors.
I remember preparing for mass and trying to write my sermon, halfheartedly.
And it was a beautiful week-end.
What happened the day before? Someone died after a long fight with cancer; Wasn’t there an earthquake that killed thousands? Wasn’t someone’s son murdered that day? Or you, maybe you found out you needed chemotherapy, or you knew someone who died in a car crash; or did you yourself drive drunk the night before, daring God to keep you alive? Where were you the day before? The week before? What terrible things did we do?
How may women were raped in the Congo that week? How many children got sick from unsanitary water supplies? Who fled slavery?
Where were you the day before?
I can tell you I thought not of Chechnya being bombed by Russians; or Chinese Christians being killed by Muslim Indonesians; the starvation of thousands in the Sudan, or the sickness of children in Iraq. I thought not of you, or my ill congregants at White Plains Hospital. I was thinking of one thing. I was thinking of my father.
I was thinking of my father and living life without him, what it would be like to live alone, an orphan, without him meeting a future wife or holding his grandchildren, to only hold him as a fading memory.
It’s hard for me to imagine thousands of people dying. Three thousand? It’s so many. Do you know three thousand people? One thousand? The numbers magnify. What of those killed by institutional negligence; or even deliberately. The ones murdered by Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin. Ten thousand? Five million? Twenty Million? As the typhoons swept Bangladesh one year killing hundreds of thousands, the writer Annie Dillard wrote how she can’t conceive of it. Her young daughter says, “it’s easy. Just think of dots. Lots and lots of dots.”
Dots, swept into the Bay of Bengal, swept away into the deep.
It’s easier to think of dots than human beings. And when conducting a war, it becomes crucial to reduce human beings to dots. Can you imagine 100,000 Iraquis killed? Or a few thousand Americans? Each American hurts more. For each American has a body, war breathing body with the potential for love, a family that cares for them, joys and failures, plans and frustrations. The Iraquis, the enemy, any enemy, remain dots.
Numbers cannot convey all that pain and sorrow, of 100,000 families. Imagine losing one son, twenty years old, his life before him; an entire extended family. Imagine it’s your son. Your daughter. Your father, your mother. Now magnify it by 100,000 times. Can you? Can you imagine it?
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, God is there.” Why? Why does he say this? “Breathing Space,” the Archbishop of Wales (now Archbishop of Canterbury) writes. For when we affirm and love someone we allow for breathing space, a place to exhale, to fill our bodies with oxygen, to fill our bodies with a love that stands up in spite of our overwhelming sorrow. When we encounter someone there is the opportunity to be liberated from fear strangling us, for face to face we do not have just the enemy and outsider, another atomized and irrelevant dot, but a living person, a breathing person.
A retired solder once told me about urban combat he’d conducted when we invaded Grenada. He was a Ranger, and now battling street by street, house by house, with Cubans. “I had only three weeks before I’d be discharged. Then this.” He turns a corner and meets a man. Their eyes lock. He sees a soldier, an opponent, an enemy, a living body; they are both filled with fear, their faces fixed in terror, and they both know the next step. The American is faster. “He was a man,” the solider says, “and I’m going to live with this for the rest of my life.” It’s easy to send a dot into oblivion, but much harder to send a man to hell.
It’s asked a million times, every day, “why this tragedy,” or “that tragedy.” Where was God? Perhaps the question got more intense on September 11th. For normally we are shielded by a provincial media and fortunate to have avoided war on our continent for nearly 140 years. But it’s the same questions when terror strikes: “where was God?” or “What could we have done?” or “Who’s in charge, anyway?”
The archbishop responds, “all I have is words.”
Jesus affirms this: when we face each other, see each other as bodies, as made in God’s image, as concrete and living beings, as individuals with particular habits, sorrows and joys, He enters our consciousness. Not through statistics, the numbers that make us like grains of sand, bubbles upon the foamy sea, as collateral damage, but as one person to one person, through the steady of love of those we call by name. For as the twin towers were about to fall, the dying would call to tell their love in those futile moments, expressing a pointless love in the face of a senseless crime. They created “breathing space.”
Jesus makes sense only by this: pulling people together, taking one image of love and placing it before the dying, affirming faithfulness through a gratuitous, powerless pointless love, triumphantly making room for someone else, even though the walls are falling all around and nothing will be salvaged.
And so we, also, are left here to create breathing space, to affirm love, pointless and faithful in the midst of tragedy, where nothing can be salvaged, the towers of our satisfactions and hope falling around us. Here is where God enters. It’s enough. It’s not enough. It’s what we have.
Sent via my enewsletter the week of the anniversary of 9/11/01.
It’s the eighth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers. That morning, I called people who I knew worked in the area, and after doing what I could, began to drive up to Rochester to be with my father, who died the next day.
Several new people came to church that Sunday. One family is now an active member of the the church. I wasn’t there, but in my absence, the Rev. Allen Shin preached that Sunday. As the spirit would have it, he had been downtown at Trinity Church, shepherding young children with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was there to give a talk.
It was a rough time. Some were heartbroken, angry, defensive, righteous, eager for a fight, determined to administer justice. All these sensibilities are real and appropriate. One parishioner said, “we should bomb them,” although she was unclear about who “they” were. Others simply wrestled with trying to figure out, why would this happen to us?
What the archbishop argued for was “breathing space.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. The archbishop noted that as the mob was about to stone the adulteress, he just sat in the ground, writing. Perhaps all Jesus was doing, was giving the demons time to walk away. Saying “I love you” offers space. Sometimes all we need is some time, spacious time, to gather ourselves, and think clearly.
Peter Stienfels once wrote about the Archbishop’s reflections upon a conversation with a rabbi after the war in Lebanon: “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”
The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”
“Terrorism, is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” What will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”
It is a tough message. In a politically polarized environment, our first task is to recognize in each other the image of God, that admits that we all have fears, frustrations and questions. Perhaps we have to stop participating in the madness that elevates the spectacle and drama of emotional conflict. Instead, we are called to stand on that stony and thorny ground.
We must not rely on the easy platitudes that reveal our defensiveness or demand war. It is to simply recognize the truth that we can each find ourselves pulled in the direction of violence.
Jesus merely says stop. And without looking at us, He waits, and draws in the sand. The demons then depart. And so we hope.
(A general summary of the sermon given August 22nd, 2010, Proper 16)
Sometimes we have really bad days.
Start off with a lack of sleep and nightmares about the apocalypse, being
naked in public, or realizing you never should have graduated high school.
Wake up. There’s no hot water. You cut yourself shaving. Then there’s a
leak from the floor into the ceiling of your living room onto your cherry
There’s no more juice or milk in the refrigerator. Someone in the house
finished the eggs and the cereal. You get dressed, but you’re in a rush so
you rip your pants. You try on another suit, and you notice a little grease
stain. The next suit is too tight. You take everything off and weigh
yourself, and you’ve gained ten pounds.
You can’t find your keys.
After you find them twenty minutes later, you speedily back out of your
driveway, hitting a parked car that isn’t usually there.
You’re late for a meeting with your biggest client.
As you drive, you smell a horrible odor. You wore this shirt dancing a
couple days ago and forgot to place it in the hamper.
When you stop at a red light, a car pulls up next to you and a five year old
gives you the finger.
At work you’re handed divorce papers. After your secretary quits, your
daughter calls and tells you she’s marrying her one true love, a musician
who has a long criminal record, who you caught smoking pot in your back
He hadn’t even offered to share.
When you come home, you discover there isn’t a single glass of booze in the
house. The dog opened the refrigerator door and ate the steak you
were marinating. You smell a strange odor of burning wood coming from
somewhere in your house before the alarm goes off. In the distance you see
a volcano erupt.
That’s a bad day.
Now imagine having a bad day for eighteen years.
Some take the optimistic view. _There’s always someone with a worse day.
_ “I have cancer, but it could be stage four melanoma. That would really
suck.” Or “I have a terminal disease, but I’ve always wanted to die before
my husband and kids.”
Others become like zombies, their sensitivity to pain so reduced they can’t
feel anything. Some of those are so calloused themselves, they can’t feel
the pain of others. Some become bitter, outraged at the injustice around
them, the needless victimization, they shake their fists at the absurdity of
a God or a world that would make suffering so ubiquitous and ordinary.
They become pillars of resentment, with such a chip on their shoulder they
can’t make friends, alienate their family and routinely insult police
officers and babies.
In one parable, a woman who’d been sick for 18 years, bent with a serious
form of arthritis, asks Jesus for healing. The scene has the indignant
priest, upset that Jesus is ignoring the holiest of God’s laws – don’t work
on the Sabbath. He represents the enforcer against Jesus’ libertine
sensibilities. But they are also indignant because they complain because
she’s a woman, an old woman, one who is not seen or allowed much power or
voice in a patriarchal society.
Jesus sees her; she stands. He chastizes the rule-makers. Even they would
free their animals on the Sabbath to get them a drink of water. This
woman, isn’t she also a child of God? Shouldn’t she also be liberated?
After 18 years, she could have been defined by her bad days. This was the
sick woman; who others thought she may have deserved her plight; her identity was confined and bound by the fears around her. Jesus sees her differently, instead as a child of Abraham, a person who could be free.
It wasn’t sympathy he offered; nor did he erase the past. Rather, he saw her as a human being worthy of love, interrupting the cruelty of the habitual pieties that
rendered invisible the ones who always have a bad day.