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O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.

 

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Do  you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -Luke 12: 51

This is one of those tough texts… all the more because this is actually Jesus speaking. This talk of fire and division doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and love, however, does it? Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace to the earth – isn’t that what the angels in Bethlehem promised?

It’s hard to hear this angry-sounding Jesus who is talking about something that sounds more like a scorched-earth policy than like grace. Division that doesn’t sound like the call to relationship that we are accustomed to hearing in the Gospels; it doesn’t sound like the mutuality and trust that marks so much of discipleship.

Granted, scriptures like this make a lot of Christian history make sense. Read something like this, and suddenly it’s much easier to understand the bloodshed that has marked the institutional church nearly since its very early years. Crusades, colonialism, dominant culture… we can see where acts like these are rooted, when texts like this come along. Still: it feels pretty horrible, hearing all of this from Jesus himself, as though he would have approved of all the violence of Christian history. It’s disconcerting. Disorienting.

Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of  City of Refuge UCC  in San Francisco, gave a talk once in which she reminded us that texts like this can not only be used to justify past violence, but can also be actively used to excuse the violence and oppression of the present time; to suggest to those who know oppression that life is just hard, and violence is simply a  normal part of human existence. This world is full of trials, says the theology of oppressed communities (in Flunder’s example, the American Black churches). Hardship and oppression is the status quo, the human condition; therefore faithfulness means enduring the terrible things that life gives you, in order to achieve God’s Kingdom in the life to come. Moreover, faithfulness means not fighting back against that which signals the coming realm, for to do so is to work against God, and God’s plan for us; possibly even to forfeit your place in that realm.

Neither interpretation probably feels right, to many of us today. Yet I would argue that it is a failure on the part of progressive Christianity that we cannot easily articulate a more loving and grace-filled vision, even in a text like this one. It says a lot about the progressive church that we are left to our feelings of discomfort and disorientation, when Jesus speaks words like this. It says something about our continued reliance on uncomfortable theology. Yet it says, I think, even more about our failure of imagination when it comes to God’s realm – when it comes to peace or love – than anything else.

For peace is not the absence of conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, whose writing Jesus knew and quoted often, warned against those who preached peace in this way, saying, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly”. For to understand peace simply as the absence of conflict is to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. It is the patch that smooths over but does not mend.

Nor is love complete agreement, as most families would, I think, understand. How many of us are in complete agreement even with those we love most? Rather, we love one another “even though”.  Just a couple chapters ago in this same gospel, we read the story of the Good Samaritan – perhaps the prime example of loving-even-though.

That parable, so familiar yet so hard, placed just two chapters back from these disconcerting, disorienting words, serves as a reminder that context matters.

Because we can make the scriptures say a lot of the things we want to hear. We can make the Bible justify our thirst for violence and our acceptance of oppression, even from within… but only if we ignore the larger context. Only if we remove these passages from their place within the larger story, and allow them to speak for themselves, in a way that they were never intended to do.

Here, of course, the immediate context is Luke’s Gospel, which  tells story of God’s love; love which gives voice to the voiceless, including women & foreigners. Love which crosses human boundaries, even unto our enemies, even unto Samaritans. Love which provides for all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For just a few verses before this morning’s passage, we hear Jesus remind us that even the sparrows – sold 5 for 2 pennies – are not so insignificant that they are  forgotten by God (12:6).  We hear how even the ravens, those scavenging omens of evil (12:24); even the flowers and the grass, who have no consciousness, no will of their own (12:27, 28) are fed and clothed and nurtured and known by the God who created all things. Then the Gospel asks, if God so loves these, whom we would consider insignificant, how much more does God love us?

Luke’s Gospel tells story of God’s love: a boundless, uncontainable love, a love that doesn’t make sense in human terms. God’s love is a love that pushes back against empire, against our culture, against our comfort with oppression, and with inequality, and with injustice.

Luke’s Gospel and the portrait of God’s love that it paints, is actually a pretty scary thing,    if we take it seriously. And it’s going to cause divisions – it already did, even in Jesus’ time! For giving voice to voiceless means hearing new things, things we have probably not wanted to hear before. Crossing human boundaries means seeing beyond ourselves, thinking as much of others as we think of ourselves. Loving-even-though means reflecting on our prejudices, biases; doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and change.

To live into God’s love is not a choice to be undertaken casually. Christianity is not a half-hearted, feel-good movement, as much as we might wish it to be. Because the world we live in is not entirely the world that God created; it is of our making, and we did not build it on God’s love, but on human brokenness, on our willingness to live in fragments and to love within limits such as shared appearance or experience.  To live into God’s love is to push back, hard, against the world. It is to put needs of many ahead of needs of few,     even when we’re part of few. It is to listen without defensiveness to those who say         they’ve never felt that their lives mattered. It is to grieve those whose despair drives them  to senseless acts of violence; it is recognizing our own participation in a violent culture.

To live into God’s love is a counter-cultural act, and, as Jesus knew, a divisive one. For it calls us to reject what those around us – those we love – accept as the status quo, the human condition. It is to reject the systems in which we are told that it is God’s will (!) that some succeed, while some simply endure, and that questioning those systems remove us from God’s favor.

For I will push back, as Bishop Flunder pushed back, against the idea that the oppression of some and power of others might simply be the  human condition; that the brokenness of this world is something simply to be endured for the sake of the hereafter. That remains view of those who would simplify love to agreement; that remains the view of the modern-day prophets who cry peace for the sake of making discomfort end, rather than for the sake of bringing justice; for the sake of the quasi-peace that silences dissent and lets wounds fester.

And I think Jesus would push back, too.

Jesus, who here speaks of love beyond divisions.  Jesus, who reminds us not to fear. Jesus, who tells us time and again that God’s love is deeper than our divisions, that God’s love sinks all the way in, to root of  our cracks, to our deepest fears and our deepest needs, to the stories and experiences that formed us… and there works healing, and peace, in our deepest selves.

That is, itself, a divisive notion indeed, as Jesus knew. It is divisive to commit ourselves to a discipleship that calls us away from this culture’s values and its judgments. It is divisive to live vulnerably, in a world that prizes security. It is divisive to live generously, in a world that prefers to see scarcity. It is divisive to live in the discomfort of self-examination in a world that tells us we’ve earned our comfort. It is divisive, because when we do our own work of self-examination, of justice-seeking, we call into question the choices of those around us – even those in our own families – and we can easily feel burned.

Division doesn’t feel like Good News. It doesn’t feel like grace. But the Good News has never been that discipleship is easy. It is never been that God’s grace enables us to allow harmful systems to persist because hey, we’ll be forgiven, so it’s all cool. The Good News has never been that there is a better life awaiting, once we’ve endured the horrors of this one.

The Good News is that even in the midst of division, even in the scary place of pushing back against the world for the sake of God’s realm, we are not alone; we are seen, and known, and loved. The Good News is that those who cry for justice are beloved, and we who hear those cries, and respond in love – even if it seems to cause division – are bringing God’s realm. The Good News is that, as scary as this work can seem, as much as it might seem like walking through fire, the true  work of discipleship is not a patch job on the divisions the world imposes, but rather the deep, systemic work of love that builds enduring bridges and fills in the broken places. And we come through the fires tempered, stronger, made new in God’s love.

The Good News is that the God who knows each sparrow, who feeds the raven, who clothes the grasses of the field in splendor, created each of us, and blessed us so that we, fearful and broken as we might be, are still enough: to change the world, to walk through the fires, to bring God’s realm with life-giving love and enduring peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:29

“But wanting to justify himself…”

Did you hear that?

The lawyer, so well-versed in scripture, so sure of himself, is testing Jesus. Putting himself in the position of power. Jesus does not let him remain there, but turns the question around… and, put on the defensive, the lawyer seeks to justify himself and how he was living; he who knew the correct answer.

And Jesus told a parable, of a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Of two leaders of the injured man’s own people, who saw him there and distanced themselves. After all, someone in a ditch must have done something to deserve being there. Not to mention that the suffering of others tends to make us… uncomfortable.

And then along came a Samaritan, who not only stopped, but climbed down into the ditch with the injured man. The Samaritan got blood on his hands and dirt on his clothes, gave of himself in time, and heart, and money, for the sake of a total stranger.

Here’s the thing Samaritans and Jews were both Israelites, both descendents of Abraham, both people of the covenant. Samaritans were those who were not deported to Babylon, during the occupation and exile. But essentially, they were the same people, on the same land, with different experiences historically. They had been treated differently by those in power regionally, and had different responses to the powers around them in the region in Jesus’ time. Now, generations after the exile, the differences between the two groups were not simply respected as such – as elements of diversity between members of one family; rather, they were seen as the basis of moral judgment, as the divisive basis between right and wrong. And so these differences between those who should have been kin, one to another, led not to understanding but to distrust, judgment, and fear.

Sound familiar?

It’s probably a good thing they didn’t have guns.

Despite generations of Christianity, we are no different from those ancient people. We, too, seek to justify the ways we use difference to excuse violence. We pass judgment. We blame the victims, with phrases like “he should have just done what he was told…” and “she should have worn something more modest…” We scour the victim’s past… to find many of the same mistakes we ourselves made, but which in these cases become excuses. We find or create reasons that the traveler lies bleeding in a ditch: reasons that they deserved it; reasons to pass by, eyes averted.

And I am tired of it.

I am tired of hearing us prop up a violent system, in which minor infractions get the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a culture in which existence in wrong place at wrong time gets the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a world in which tell ourselves only way to be safe from violence is to carry instruments of death –death on a large scale – and to kill before we can be killed.

I am tired of hearing the justifications for violence that have sprung up just in the three years since the last time this text came up: days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in death of Trayvon Martin.

I am tired of the many people who have been reduced to hashtags. I am tired of having their names etched in my soul. I am tired of the justifications that dismiss the lived experiences of our kindred, that insists that equality necessarily means uniformity.

I am tired of the “thoughts and prayers” that don’t change a broken system, that don’t come close to healing this broken body of which we are a part.

I am tired, to my very bones, of the grief to which we have become accustomed; the violence that has become a daily occurrence; the culture and society that we justify, even though we know the answer.

I am tired of preaching a variant of this very same sermon, every single week.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself, we are told, and we, who do not want to do the self-examination, ask who our neighbor is. We look for loopholes, seeking to justify ourselves.

And Jesus tells us a parable.

A child of God lies bleeding by the side of the road, and a religious person comes by, engrossed in a facebook argument. They see the person in ditch, and mumble something about sin and what-can-you-expect, before they go back to posting “all lives matter” on social media.  Moments later, a politician comes by, notices and shows their child the person in the ditch, as though the person were not human, but simply an object lesson: don’t let that be you. The politician offers their “thoughts and prayers for the victim and their family,” and goes on their way.

But there is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, battered and bruised and certain that no one cares.

There is still a child of God: wearing a hoodie. Listening to music in his car. Seeking help after a car accident. Selling loose cigarettes or CDs to survive. Playing shoot-’em-up on the playground. Pulled over for a taillight, or a failure to signal. Attending Bible Study. Holding his wallet or cell phone. Doing exactly what he was told.

There is still a child of God: drunk at a party. Walking home alone at night. Minding their own business on the subway. Being female. Being trans. Simply existing.

There is still a child of God: trying to maintain a good relationship with a distrustful community. Trying to protect innocent lives and the right to free speech and peaceful demostration.

There is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, waiting for someone who will call them neighbor.

There is still a child of God.

There is still a member of the body of Christ. 

In justifying the violence done them, we do violence to Christ.

In dismissing their experiences of suffering, we dismiss the suffering of Christ.

We follow a brown-skinned low-income, unarmed homeless man who was executed by state for insisting that marginalized lives mattered; that we needed to pay particular attention to those who had suffered most and repent clearly and specifically for the love we had failed to extend, for the neighbors we had refused to recognize. We follow a man who believed deeply in the radical notion that love means we climb down into the ditch; that we get bloody and dirty for the sake of the stranger; that we take the time to learn their names:

Alton Sterling
Philando Castile
Brent Thompson
Patrick Zamarripa
Michael Krol
Lorne Ahrens
Michael Smith

We follow a man who insisted that we see victims of violence as humans; as kindred to us; as being of one body with us; as those whose lives, whose experiences, whose stories matter. Even if these experiences convict us, even if these stories change us. 

We follow a man who believed so deeply in love that he refused violence, even when he knew that he himself would die, a victim of the very violence he refused.

Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? And Jesus, who believed more deeply than any of us that all lives matter, replied: “Samaritan lives matter.”

Gentile lives matter.

Women’s lives matter.

Marginalized lives matter.

The lives that you do not acknowledge, the lives that push you to justify your own judgment, matter. To say otherwise, to dismiss these lives, is to do violence.

But I tell you: love your neighbor as yourself. For a man of Samaria stopped, to tend to the wounds of the bleeding man, not caring for the dust, the blood he got on his clothes; finding that giving two days’ wages for the life of a stranger was worth it.  For a black man stopped, to feed the hungry children before him, and he learned all their names, all their allergies, all their needs; their grief at the death of Philando Castile suggests his love was worth it. For a police officer stopped a black teen in a drug store, the day after Dallas, simply to ask how he was, for both were grieving; and the willingness to engage in mutuality is always worth it.

Who is my neighbor?

Who is our neighbor?

The one who has been hurt. The one who has reason to fear. The one against whom we try to justify violence. The one against whom we try to justify complacency. The one whose difference you see as inherently wrong or threatening. The one you’d rather pass by.

Who is my neighbor? 

The one I should love as myself. The one whose life matters, no matter what society says.

Jesus said, to the one who sought to justify himself: who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

He said, “the one who didn’t judge, but got down to the messy, sacred business of caring for the wounded.”

Go and do likewise.

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37

The stories abounded this week.

I was 8 years old, in church, when I was first told we could love the sinner and hate the sin.

I was 22 when a pastor told me I couldn’t join the church until I’d been cured, because even Mary Magdalene couldn’t follow Jesus until he’d cast out her demons.

I was in college when my roommate’s response to my coming out was to ask if she could pray over me, to be healed of my sin.

I was 48 when a church leader interrupted a free community meal to try to perform an exorcism on me.

I was 32 when the church refused to baptize my child because my husband and I “hadn’t renounced Satan.”

I was 27 when I stopped allowing my church to abuse me with the notion that I could “pray away the gay”

I was the age I am now when I last heard I was an abomination.

The stories broke my heart this week.  It was hard not to hear them, as I read through Luke text, in preparation to preach. It was hard not to identify, on some level, with the man possessed, locked away, excluded; the man seen as dangerous, unclean, dwelling in death. But it was even harder to know that that identification would be more clearly made, between sexuality and sin, in pulpits around the nation. The very identification that has, indeed, been made,this week and in the years leading up to this week: made in a way that directly blamed the possessed man, that blamed the victim, that made the demons the sin, rather than the exclusion, shaming and rejection that he experienced.

Because this story isn’t really about one man and his demons. It’s not about one person being healed. It’s about the community that chose fear; it’s about the community that chose complacency. 

It’s about us.

In each generation, we see certain things as inherently evil; as “incompatible with Christian teaching” to borrow a phrase. We see certain behaviors as the workings of the devil – evil incarnate – in this world. In each generation, we identify this particular man of the Gerasenes, or anyone else in scripture noted for having demons, as representative of our modern views. Yet in so doing, we reinforce the boundaries that we have, ourselves, created between us and the “other”. We reinforce our human boundaries between those whom God loves, and those whom we do not want God to love; those who follow Jesus and those whom we do not want to follow Jesus. We reinforce the boundaries that enable us to talk about them without having to include ourselves, without having to examine ourselves.

The funny thing is that every time we draw a boundary, Jesus ends up on the other side.

It’s easy to suggest that the demon-possessed man totally unlike his neighbors; that they – that we – are not held captive by external forces, the things over which it feels like we have no control. It’s easy to draw the boundary between us and him, to judge him as “other”, because it precludes our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It allows us to say that he needs healing, that he needs Jesus… all while ignoring our own needs for – and fears of – both of these. 

It strikes me that it is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; it is whether or not we are comfortable with the demons that inhabit our lives.

It is when our demons begin to sit uncomfortably within us, when we acknowledge that we want no part of them, that we become dangerous. It is then that we are cast aside, shunned by those who are comfortable. It is then that we are demonized, shackled and constrained by the words used to make us “other”, by the confines of “polite society”, by the fearmongering and vitriol that have become all too prevalent around us. It is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; rather, it is when we choose self-examination and self-awareness. It is when we name the demons that live within us, when we reject the demons that fill the world around us. It is when our choice to reject our demons calls those around us to the frightening experience of doing the same uncomfortable work: of naming that which possesses us, the ways we’ve become so comfortable in possession that we internalize it, justify it, participate in it.

It cannot be overlooked that the one we demonize in this text is the one who is the one aware of, and at war with, his demons. The one we demonize in this text is the one who has done the painful work of grappling with the forces that held him, the one who has dwelt among the dead: looked death in the face, and acknowledged his own participation in its culture. The one we demonize in this text is the one who recognizes Jesus, when even the disciples do not; the one who calls him “Son of the Most High God.”  The one we demonize in this text is the one who has  the wherewithal to approach Jesus, just as he is, unapologetically; his vulnerability made clear in nakedness.

The one we demonize in this text is the one who is able to name his demons, and have them banished.

While the townsfolk, prey to those same external forces, see in Jesus someone more fearful than their demons: someone who could remove from them the demons with whom they’d become comfortable; rip them open to the unimagined possibility that they began to see in the healed man –  the possibility of who they might become, in vulnerable relationship with Jesus. Of who they might become in the presence of the love so powerful it can drive out all else. Of who they might become when faced with a God whose only two options are unconditional love and extravagant welcome.

In this moment of healing, of the rejection of demons, the townsfolk see before themselves another way, but one which requires vulnerability and self-examination; the refusal to remain comfortable, complacent, complicit with the demons of this world.

This is really their story, our story, the church’s story. That much becomes more clear, in weeks like this one, when violence collides with stories of demons, and we begin to truly see where we locate ourselves within the story: as those who shun and oppress, shackle and demonize; as those who do the ongoing, often painful work of self-reflection, of choosing to reject the justifications for, and the comfort with, the demons of this world – even as we ourselves are called possessed. 

This is our story: the story of being willing to acknowledge our participation in the culture of death, and to spend our time in prayerful repentence among its victims.

For the demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, but the beliefs and fears that do violence on those bases; the ones that fuel the stories that started this sermon, the ones that lead to the violence we have seen this week, the ones that lead to the erasure of the voices and the identities of those who were most directly impacted by violence.

The demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, for those do not keep us separate from the love that Jesus embodies, but recognize the power of standing, in love, on the side the oppressed.

The demons of this world are racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which our culture justifies in the fear-mongering and the hate which have become so pervasive, so subtle that we no longer see them, but accept and even justify them as comfortable. These are demons we are afraid to acknowledge, because grappling with them, recognizing our role in maintaining them, is painful to us, and threatening to those who remain comfortable. And we are afraid of being shackled or ostracized. We are afraid of dwelling among the tombs, among the victims of our hateful demons and our inability to let them go.

And so I hope we will all come to identify with this demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, who grappled with the demons, despite the pain. I hope that we will all identify with this man who recognized Jesus and called out to him, despite the fear; who named his demons, the sins that kept him separate from God’s love: the love that does not call anyone “other.” I hope we will have the courage to see the demons with whom we have become comfortable. I hope that we will find the strength to call them out, no matter who tries to shackle us, to demonize us. I hope we will have courage to tear down the barriersour demons have prodded us to create, so that we might find Jesus standing, as always, on the other side with the queers and the Latinx and the undocumented, beloved and grieving. 

I hope we will have the courage to come before Jesus, just as we are, but prepared for the grace that can  change us; the grace that can transform us; the grace that can encourage us; the grace that can clothe us in God’s abiding, unconditional love.

 

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37

This Sunday’s RCL passage about the Gerasene demoniac is a very touchy text to be preaching, especially given the shooting in Orlando this past Sunday. Demon possession is an accusation still leveled at the LGBT community on a regular basis. It underlies the whole idea that you can “pray away the gay”; that you can “love the sinner and hate the sin” – as though sexuality and gender identity were things that possess us, rather than integral parts of who we are.
Knowing that this is the text that will be preached in pulpits across the nation this Sunday scares me to death. Knowing that some preachers will call the LGBT community demon possessed, that my identity will be conflated with mental illness and the possibility of healing. Knowing that this text will be used to point to the “demons” of others, creating an atmosphere of judgment and incitement.
But you know what scares me worst? The preachers who will read this text and who will not say one single word about the way that this text has been used. The preachers who will not add to the violence that this text has done, but who will not speak against it either. Silence is complicity.
Silence kills.
The way that this text has been used to do violence to the LGBT community needs to be named. The way that we use this text to justify ourselves and pass judgment on others – to rip people apart, to dismiss parts of people’s identities, to appear to get Jesus on board with our hate – needs to be called out and stopped. We are not Jesus, speaking to the demons. We are the townspeople, too afraid to invite Jesus to stay with us and work healing among us; to afraid to admit we, too, might be possessed.
Pastors: don’t tell me about my demons if you’re too scared to stand naked in front of Jesus and talk about your own. Don’t tell me I’m possessed if you’re not willing to confront the demons of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia that possess us as a society and push us to read this text with such judgment and willingness to do violence. Don’t shame me if you’re not willing to confront your own feelings of shame. Don’t try to heal me from your place of fear. Don’t continue the violence against my already-traumatized community, by your words or by your silence.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John 12:4-6

If your brother were just raised from dead, wouldn’t you throw a party? Mary and Martha sure are, and I’m guessing it was probably pretty crowded. Lazarus himself was there, of course, the man of the hour. Both sisters, of course, as well as Jesus – guest of honor! – and his disciples. This we know from the text.  I suspect that many of those who had been present at the tomb were also in attendance: friends, family, the townsfolk of Bethany. The party may well have filled the house, and spilled out into the area around it – an abundance of guests, feasting and rejoicing.

And we know what happens next.

Mary for web use

Mary pours an entire flask of perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet, and Judas berates her for the waste of resources.  It could have fed so many!

Honestly, I think most of us sort of empathize with Judas in this moment, thief though the story says he is. Should all of our resources go to the poor? Shouldn’t feeding people be our top priority always?

In many ways, Jesus’ response doesn’t help. Not because of what he says, but because of how we hear it. Even those with the text in front of them tend to read the line as “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That first phrase has become part of our collective consciousness, an explanation – even an excuse – for continuing systemic inequalities.

If only that were what Jesus actually said.

In many instances in this Gospel, we find side by side narratives; functioning as illustrations of what it means to be a disciple. In parallel courses, we’ll see stories of those who understand and those who don’t; those who are in relationship with Jesus and those who are not. For in this Gospel, relationship is the marker of true discipleship, true belief, while a lack of relationship becomes the definition of sin. So early on in the text, we have Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee who kept trying to make all of Jesus’ answers fit into his own particular paradigm… followed by the Samaritan woman, who heard Jesus and immediately him to stay in her home: she entered into relationship, expanding her own paradigm in the process.

We see a similar phenomenon here. On the one hand, we have : Judas, who should understand what’s going on – he’s been a disciple for a long time, after all! – who keeps trying to fit Jesus into a nice, neat box, comprehensible and safe. On the other hand, we have Mary of Bethany (n.b.: not Mary of Magdala) who has just really begun to understand, with the resurrection of her brother, what it is that Jesus is really all about.

And we see her understanding in her actions: that it is Lazarus’ resurrection that will mark Jesus for death; that the time of preparation for burial is at hand; that it is still not a time for grief, but for love, and love poured out abundantly.

Judas, who has heard Jesus’ predictions of death several times over; Judas, who should have known what was coming, cannot break out of his own mindset, his own preoccupations. Judas cannot get out of his own way to see what is right before him.  Judas needs reminding of his role as a disciple, as one who is in relationship with Jesus.

Judas needs Jesus to speak truth; the same truth, perhaps, that we need to hear: “the poor you have with you always”.  Which is, despite how we hear it, not a statement of future certainty, but a terrible condemnation of the present time, in which the poor are present. For this is not Jesus pulling off a mic-drop soundbyte, but reminding us of a truth spoken generations earlier, in the Torah:

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. -Deuteronomy 15: 4-5

“There will be no one in need, if only you will obey…” Ouch.  How’s that going, Judas?

That the poor are always with us is not an acknowledgement of the way of the world, but evidence that we have fallen away from God, and remained out of relationship with Jesus. For there are poor – and hungry, and homeless – in a land that produces abundantly; a land in which we have been blessed… a land in which we have continually kept that blessing for ourselves.

Seems this is another thing that Mary understands better.

Seems that her anointing, her preparation for his burial, is preparation for herself, as well. For Mary is giving of all she has of value – this perfume which cost a year’s wages, made of a rare flower from India – and giving fully, pouring out the entire contents in this one moment. She is participating in an act of relationship, in act of intimacy that echoes the one expressed earlier in this same Gospel, where Jesus dwells at the bosom of God: an image of trusting intimacy, of sustenance, of nurture, of nourishment. Mary makes clear her choice to trust fully in the nurture of God-made-flesh, even as he goes to his death.

While Judas, on the other hand… needs to keep a little back for himself, in case. In case this Jesus moment is just a flash-in-the-pan. In case this God thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It strikes me, from this portrait, that it is Mary – wasteful, prodigal, extravagant Mary – who will obey God in the commandments given. It is Mary who will live into a world in which the poor are not always present; it is Mary who will ensure that no one around her is in need, who will continue to give generously of her abundance.

It is Mary who will remain in relationship with Jesus, rather than those who, like Judas, continually wonder if there shall be enough – who will count every coin, who will micro-manage every transaction, who will dwell more readily in the fear of scarcity than in the blessing of abundance.

Both Mary and Judas have smelled the stink of death close at hand. Lazarus is among them, after all; fresh – or not so much! – from the tomb. And Judas, it seems, wants out already – to get away from away from the stench, to find a reason to condemn the hospitality and leave early. Judas wants to escape the spectre of death, currently sharing a table with him, lest, perhaps, it cling to him as well. But Mary… Mary responds, instead,  with a scent that fills the house, that provides an aroma more powerful than death, an odor with which the smell of death cannot compete. Mary’s perfume, poured out as abundantly as the wine at Cana, as the loaves and fishes that fed thousands, as the grace of God upon the world that God loves. It fills every crack, every crevice. It clings to everyone’s hair, everyone’s clothes – even Lazarus’! – and then follows them for hours, if not days. Mary’s perfume becomes the scent, not of death, not even of preparation for death and burial, but of but preparation for the life eternal. It is a preparation for a life in relationship with Jesus, in which there is no one in need, in a land of abundance; in which we can hold God’s feet in our hands; in which we can feel, see, taste God’s grace; in which that grace smells like the costliest perfume, poured out extravagantly.

Judas’ question resonates with us, but this text reminds us that the resonance we hear points us in an unfortunate direction, one that ill-prepares us for the life and discipleship to which we are called. We who prepare ourselves, this Lent, for resurrection would do well to have a good look at how we embody that preparation; to ask ourselves whether we experience the abundance that Mary gives so readily?  Do we participate, here and now, in the extravagance of eternal life? or do we participate in the fear that cannot see beyond death? Do we, like Judas, fear to trust in the sustenance of God; in the providence of God to do the impossible: to bless the land so richly that there need be no poor, no hungry, no homeless?

Where do we abide, the descendants of Mary and of Judas: in the incomprehension of Nicodemus? in the slush fund of Judas? in the anger of the authorities at having their world turned upside down?

I hope not.

I hope that we, too, can smell the overpowering scent of rich perfume, can live in the experience of abundant life, can breathe the fragrance of life eternal clinging to our very skin.

I hope that we, too, can live into a resurrection world, celebrate gift of life here in this world: in which there need be no poverty; in which God’s abundance is poured out around us daily.

I hope that we, too, can give of ourselves fearlessly, without counting cost; that we can pour ourselves out abundantly, extravagantly, intimately; so that all may know the sustenance, the nourishment of God in this world.

For ours is not a faith of fear, or of death, and we do well when we prepare ourselves instead for resurrection. We do well when we act in ways that recall that death will never have the last word.

Ours is not a faith that counts the cost; ours is not a faith that puts restrictions on giving, or that debates who is most worthy of our help.

Ours is a faith of Mary, wasteful and extravagant in her certainty that there is enough – more than enough! – for the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be housed, the grieving and despairing to be known, and seen and loved.

Ours is a faith of the God who became flesh and abides among us.

Ours is a faith of resurrection.

May we prepare ourselves as Mary did: in acts of intimate relationship, in acts of extravagant generosity, in acts of abiding love, which cling to us and give fragrance to our world.

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’     John 2: 3-5

For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of  John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.

But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.

This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s  supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.

Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.

It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves.  Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.

Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.

And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.

This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action.  And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.

Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine.  Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him.  At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing.  At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.

The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.

I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities.  We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us.  We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are,  and who we might become.  For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.

However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out.  Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.

This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.

Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.

Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.

What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.

Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:

My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:

They should have done what they were told.

What can you expect from that generation?

We’ve always done it this way before.

Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.

Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.

But we come after.

The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.

For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.

And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love.  We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.

Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.

It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.

And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.

And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer.  We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Luke 3:16-18

Recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber preached a marvelous sermon on anxiety and hope, in which she told the story of a young woman. This young woman was being bullied in school, as so many young people are, and wanted whatever advice she could get. Nadia’s response was classic, and so much what most kids who are being bullied need to hear:

“I looked directly into her eyes and said: “Look kid. I’m so sorry that’s happening and I totally get it because I’ve been there. But as horrible as it is right now…just do whatever you can to get through it because I promise you one thing: grown ups who were bullied in Middle School and survive it, are like, 10 times cooler and more interesting as adults than the ones who were doing the bullying. You get through this and you’re gonna be amazing. I promise you. Those kids will be nothing but a footnote later on. I mean, come on…who wants to peak in middle school?”

Certainly, the fortitude and courage that it takes to withstand bullying – especially the inescapable torture that comes not only at school, but through the social media we carry in our pockets – may well serve us in later years. It may be, as our parents once told us, “character building”- galling as it may be to acknowledge that our parents were right.

But it isn’t always.

Parents, educators, and concerned adults are often reminded that the children who bully are often the children who have been bullied. Those who have been disempowered find their power by disempowering others. The cycle continues, and spirals, and grows: bullies engender more bullies.

Sometimes, you don’t become ten times cooler. Sometimes, you become a total jerk.

John the Baptist, in the time before Jesus’ ministry began, gathered the people around him on the banks of the Jordan, and preached some pretty hardcore sermons. The Gospel of Luke records one such preaching moment, when John drew upon the prophecies of Isaiah for his scripture: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill laid low, he reminded the people. But what does that mean? It means that those who have wealth, or power, or privilege in this world shouldn’t keep it to themselves, but use it for the sake of others. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have authority, be aware of it and don’t let it consume you. Let it be used to build up the community, not for your own personal gain.

Don’t let any human measure of status convince you that you are more worthy, more beloved in the eyes of God.

Don’t use whatever power you have to disempower others.

Don’t be a bully.

Break the cycle.

With this and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.

The tax collectors, often forced by circumstances of poverty or desperation into positions from which they force their fellow Jews to follow the laws of the occupiers, are therefore shunned; and exact revenge in the form of extra fees levied on top of already harsh tax burdens. Disempowered by circumstance, they gain power at the expense of those who should be neighbors.

The bullied become bullies. But John proclaimed good news.

The desperate-to-feed-their-families become convinced by experience that no one else will help them, and so help themselves. But John proclaimed good news.

Those who receive no compassion give none, but keep their second coat as deserved, or for fear that when the first wears out, that experienced lack of compassion will leave them in the cold. But John proclaimed good news.

The good news that those who have had no coat will be cared for and warmed. The good news that those who have experienced extortion will know justice. The good news that is good to those who have been oppressed, to those who have been disempowered, to those who have been bullied: that much is clear.

But the good news is actually good for those who have done the bullying, as well.

The world is not divided easily – certainly, not as easily as we often try to divide it. The distinction between the one who bullies and the one who doesn’t – between the one who peaks in middle school and the one ten times cooler, between the mountain and the valley – isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be. The bullies have been bullied. The fearful seek to spread fear far and wide. Those who have power in some areas may be entirely out-of-control in others. As Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”* I suspect John would agree.

Where Isaiah’s imagery of mountains and valleys might allow us the ease of believing that the whole situation is out of our hands – we, who cannot easily bring low an entire mountain – John doesn’t let us off the hook. John makes it more personal. Where we might have been tempted to identify wholesale as either mountain or valley, and to see our position as natural, ordained by God, and therefore deserved, John changes the metaphor. John reminds us that we contain within ourselves both mountain and valley, both power and vulnerability. That around each of us – each grain of wheat for the harvest – is the tough outer layer that serves to protect us… and shield us from contact, one with another. The chaff that separates us one from another, as clearly as mountain from valley.

Yet we are both mountain and valley. We are both wheat and chaff. We are both bully and bullied.  Our internal topography is rough, and jagged… and only we can make it smooth. We can repent, literally, we can change our own hearts and minds. We can turn our hearts from the desire for power and status to the desire for compassion and justice. We can leave behind the protectiveness that separates us, we can embrace the vulnerability of community. We can set aside the desire to regain lost power at the expense of another, we can opt out of the cycle of bullying and violence. Our choices matter. Good news, indeed.

It is good news that we need take no more than what we truly need, without worry that there might not be enough. It is good news that we may give away the extra we have set aside for “just in case”, and know that we will be okay. It is good news that we can let go of some of the power and the status to which we so fearfully cling. It is good news that we can let go of the false idols of security and safety that keep us wrapped up in our chaff, clinging to the tops of our mountains. It is good news that when we let go of our fear and our protectiveness, when we leave behind the idea that we can keep ourselves safe, we prepare for God’s presence in our lives.

When we let go of the safety and protection that our skin tone, or our gender, or our economic status affords us, we prepare the way for God, who came into the world as a brown-skinned child of an teenaged, female prophet from a backwater, good-for-nothing town.

When we let go the security that relies upon demonizing an entire nationality, an entire race, an entire religion, we prepare the way for God, who loves all equally, and promised that all people should see God together.

When we let go the fear that tells us that the power of death is the ultimate power – when we let go the idolatry of protection through threats of violence and the dangerous brinksmanship of firepower – we prepare the way for God, victim of violence, who demonstrated that compassion overcomes fear and love overcomes death.

When we let go of the voices that tell us to hate and to fear, to seize power for ourselves before someone else can take it from us, to hoard for ourselves all that is good because we alone are worthy; when we let go of the cycle of bullying that turns us inward, safe within our chaff; when we remember that, in God and the Body of Christ, we have the fortitude and courage to survive even the bullies, then we do, indeed, become ten times cooler.

Because when we let go of everything that stands between us and love, we make room for God. We make space for the coming of the Christ Child. We open our hearts and our doors to the young couple, turned away from the Inn.

And that is the good news: that we can still choose compassion.  We can still choose love. We can still prepare the way for God. We can still make the rough places smooth. We can still give space to the Christ child.

That is the good news: that, for as long as we have chosen scarcity, and separation, and fear, we can still make another choice.

That, as much as we have participated in a culture of violence, it is not too late to go another way.

That is the good news: that God continues to call us – even us! – down from our mountains and up from our valleys.

That God continues to coax us out of the protective shells that we’ve built around ourselves, to shake us loose, as wheat from chaff; to refine us and purify us and open us to love.

That the bullies of this world, as numerous as they seem to be, and as much as their power would seem to dominate our lives and our media, will not have the final word. That the cycle of bullying and violence can end, and can end with us.

Prepare the way of our God. Turn your hearts to love, and open yourselves to the coming of the Christ Child.

Fear not, and believe the good news.

*Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956.  New York: HarperCollins. 2002

 

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” Luke 1: 46-48

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Russian Icon of Mary and the Christ Child

This seems rather an odd text for this third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Not because Mary doesn’t seem joyful in her hymn of praise to God, but because there seems no good reason for her to be joyful in the first place.  Certainly, she has found favor with God – Gabriel the Angel told her so, and who wouldn’t believe an angel, right? And certainly, she’s going to have a baby, which certainly can be good news under the right circumstances… but Mary’s don’t really feel right, by that measure, do they?

The reality is that Mary, whatever favor she may have found, is an unwed, teenage mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary, young, unmarried and pregnant, was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one.

Finding favor with God, though it sounds like a real treat, was no guarantee of comfort or security, as the scripture notes on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, God’s favor seems more likely to get one into trouble than just about anything else.

I discovered this week that Islam, in its telling of Jesus’ birth, goes into great detail about Mary’s life. The Qur’an traces Mary’s lineage back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and tells the story of her own parents: how, in order to maintain this lineage of prophets, they prayed for years to have a child – only to end up with a girl! Right from the beginning, it seems, the patriarchy was a part of poor Mary’s life. But so was prophecy, which she embodied beyond her parents’ expectations. But, like most prophets, Mary found that her gift – and the presence of God which it implied – would not make life any simpler for her. For Mary, as for the prophets of generations past, favor with God would be a hard road.  After all, prophecy – especially when it comes to calls to repentance, or to the question of bringing the people back to God, is almost never well-received.

Prophecy may not be the tradition in which we, as Christians, tend to place Mary, but this text certainly bears out that particular reading – as, indeed, does the entire Gospel narrative around the mother of Christ. For Mary puts herself, here especially, squarely into the midst of a reality that does not yet exist, and then calls others – like Elizabeth – into that reality alongside her. Mary chooses to live in a reality in which the humble are blessed and the mighty are brought low; in which the hungry are fed and the marginalized are lifted up.

Mary chooses to live in a reality in which an unwed teenager can give birth to God incarnate – and does so joyfully, even knowing what probably awaits her.

It is not at all absurd to hold Mary as a prophet. It is entirely within the Gospel tradition to hold her as a proto-disciple, embodying the call that her child would eventually put to all humanity. There is a good reason that Mary is held in veneration by so many, and it is not for her living into some unattainable level of feminine perfection and purity. Rather, Mary’s importance stems from an ability to believe fully in the covenant promises, even when they seem tremendously distant; her ability to live joyfully into a reality that isn’t, yet – that will only come into being in the person to whom she will give birth. Mary is able, beyond all reason, to live out the unimaginable reality of love and justice, even when she is faced with incredible hardship and trial, the likes of which most of us would never consciously choose.

But what if we did?

What would it look like for us, to live as Mary did: choosing joy?

Would we, like her cousin Elizabeth, follow her into this new reality of possibility? Elizabeth, after all, had everything – the social status, the location, the ancestry – to believe that she should have been the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Yet she sets all that aside to rejoice entirely at the presence of God in one who is, by all standard measures, a lesser person.

Could we, like Elizabeth, embody the joy that lifts another up? Even another who seems so terribly unworthy, in comparison?

What would it look like for us to imitate Elizabeth: to learn our discipleship at Mary’s feet? What would it look like for us to live into a discipleship that embodies the joy that can surpass even real, rational fear?

What would it look like for us to choose to rejoice at God’s movement and presence in this world, even when it comes at a very real cost to us? What would it look like to embody joy at a God who would appear in the least expected places, in the “least worthy” people, the God whose light shines in those places where we so often hesitate to tread?

What would it look like for us to live as Mary did, singing praises of the God who continually calls for the disruption of our comfortable lives, the God who calls us to prophecy and its consequences? What sort of discipleship would Mary teach us, but the one that she taught her son, to live for the sake of love and justice throughout the entirety of God’s creation?

Mary teaches us, throughout the generations, to believe fully in a God of prophetic discomfort – in the God who will be present with us as we live into the consequences of our prophetic voice.  For Mary knew, more intimately than we ever could, the presence of a God who walks with us through the difficulty and discomfort; the God who took on our weakness and our vulnerability so as to truly be Emmanuel: God with us.

Our call to discipleship may not put poetic hymns on our lips, or angels before us. Our prophecy may not cause unborn children to leap in the womb. But our God is present. God-with-us remains, disrupting, pushing, making life hard and uncofortable. For the same God who found favor with Mary calls us now, to live into the prophetic reality of hope, of peace, of joy and of justice. The same God calls us over and over to the power of weakness and vulnerability; as of a teenaged mother, as of her newborn child.

The same God who found favor with Mary invites us now, in the midst of discomfort, of prophecy, of impossibility, to choose joy over fear; to choose the reality of a God-with-us world; to embody the joy of God’s presence without counting the cost.

 

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.