Friday, November 26, 2010

Year C, Proper 28

"Make known his deeds among the nations

sing praises to his name, for he has done great things."

-From the song of the prophet Isaiah, and in the name of God, who is

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last month, at the annual readers forum of the Academy of American Poets, I stumbled upon a recent work by our former Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan. In it, we find her wondering if,

the world

might become the

Kingdom of Peace not

through the tumult

and destruction nescessary

for a New Start but

by adjusting little parts

a little bit- turning

a cup a quarter inch

or scooting up a bench.

I like this because it reminds me that sometimes, God is the one scooting up a bench. Sometimes, God turns a cup a quarter inch. Because sometimes, God does a very small thing. It could be that God stops you in the middle of your day to notice something important. It could be a smile or kind word from a friend that you absolutely needed to hear. Maybe its the spare change in your pocket that invites you into a brief, humanizing moment of eye contact with the woman asking for it on the street. In the poem, Ryan wonders if the small things all together might be enough for what she calls an,

incremental resurrection,

a radiant body

puzzled out through

tinkering with the fit

of what's available.

And sometimes, it certianly seems like it might be the case. Sometimes, God does a very small thing. And sometimes, the small thing is enough to place us one step closer to the new kingdom of God's peace.

Small things, of course, don't make for very good Bible stories. A small thing is fine for a poem, or maybe even a parable; but when it comes time for God to break in the new world of his reign among us, it always seems to happen in a big, showy, way. Luke, after all, doesn't show Mary deciding to have a baby with God after a time of careful discernment in which she saw small signs of assurance here and there that gradually built up her affirmation of his plan over time. Genesis doesn't show a God creating the Earth one pebble at a time. And Isaiah this morning, doesn't have God promising Jerusalem that things will gradually get better in small increments.

"I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth!" God says. "I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." And Jerusalem, at this point, really needs to hear it. Jerusalem needs to hear that the whole creation will change; because the world, as Jerusalem finds it, simply doesn't make sense anymore. The world Jerusalem knows seems like a punishment. It is a world where babies are born only to die very soon thereafter. It is a world where the old are forsaken in their age.

It is a world where the people labor to build houses only to be exiled from them, where people labor to plant crops only to watch others steal their fruit. The world Jerusalem knows falls to sleep at night with the sound of wailing in its streets: moans that lift to the silent starry heavens with no answer given to them in return.

The world Jerusalem knows seems like a punishment: so backwards, so upside down, so hard to keep track of whose blame is on the table that the only thing that promises hope is a completely clean slate. This is why this passage borrows language the creation. This is why the promise is that people will live into their hundreds- because it restores them to being just like the first members of the human family in Genesis. This is why the wolf and the lamb must feed together- an otherwise unnatural act! Because the violence to be undone must be undone from the very beginning of our whole history of sin. God must create the world anew to right this wrong-seeming world. "I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth!" God says. "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." And good riddance to them, says Jerusalem. We don't want to remember any of this. It has turned out terribly. The very idea that we would be a delight, that we would be a joy, would require a new world order; because the one we are living in right now makes us feel abhorrent of God.

Jesus, in the Gospel, promises nothing less than the same radical, terrible change. "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down; Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes, famines, plagues; dreadful portents, great signs." A new heaven, a new earth, and good riddance to the old one, we say! This one is clearly corrupt! We could use a little apocolypse to shake things up, to break us from the daze of our complicity with this unjust world. We are tired, Lord, of small victories. Send us into battle, bring us before governors, where are they? We know that somewhere this world is falling apart, and it is very likely the place where it is becoming something new in God. Send us there! If we are to gain our souls by our endurance in this ordeal, then let the great ordeal begin.

When we sense, in our restlessness, that we are ready for God to do a very big thing, it is because we know that it will take a very big thing to save us from ourselves. This is why we tell stories of the big things that God has done. This is why we shut our eyes tightly against the horrors all around us, and hold forth behind the closed door of our interior room, the one where we find Jesus praying again and again inside of us, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom come, your kingdom come... your kingdom come." This is why we fling the door open, eyes wide, hoping to see the world on fire. We are waiting for the day when we can see the systems of injustice crumbling down around us like old buildings ready to fall, where we can see the very real evil of this world bound, writhing, in chains. We open our eyes ready to see a new heaven and a new earth, decending from on high, ready for us all to inhabit as a joy, and a delight. We are desperate, at times, for God's great thing to be done. But most of the time, we open our eyes, and everything around us only looks the same. We ask for a new creation, and when we are finished asking,

the neighbor is still walking his dog calmly down the street. The woman is still asking passers-by for change.

Ryan's poem comes from this same, ordinary-seeming world, where we are waiting to see the effects of God's kingdom among us. Listen to it again. It is called, Least Action:

Is it vision

or the lack

that brings me

back to the principle

of least action,

by which in one

branch of rabbinical

thought the world

might become the

Kingdom of Peace not

through the tumult

and destruction nescessary

for a New Start but

by adjusting little parts

a little bit- turning

a cup a quarter inch

or scooting up a bench.

It imagines an

incremental resurrection,

a radiant body

puzzled out through

tinkering with the fit

of what's available.

As though what is is

right already but

askew. It is tempting

for any person who would

like to love what she

can do.

The world that Kay Ryan imagines here is one where the stage is set. It is a world pregnant with the Kingdom of Peace, ready to happen right now, with just a few adjustments that need to be made, a few pieces that need to be tinkered with to fit, right already but a little askew. It is a world made, in its very substance, to be God's great thing but for a few minor details. There is a part of this way of seeing the world that is very dangerous- that could easily allow one to tip the ballance of God's kingdom come "already but not yet" too far into the "already" camp. But there is a truth here as well.

The truth of it that I can witness to, is that God has been doing some very small things in my life lately to show me just how pregnant the world around me is with the Kingdom of Peace. Lately, these little things of God serve to uncover something that looked perfectly normal at first, but upon closer examination reveals a life rich with grace. Last week I was having dinner with a new friend and classmates of mine, whom I have been very glad to get to know since she has come here this year. The topic of General Convention came up and we discovered that we had each been at the last convention. I wondered out loud if our paths had crossed then and asked her if she had had any interactions with Integrity, where I was serving as the legislative observer for resolutions concerning same-sex blessings. She perked up and said that of course she had, as the mother of a gay son in a state that allowed gay marriage, and that she had even testifed at one of the hearings. At the moment she said this, it was as if a viel had been lifted from my eyes, because I recognized her and remembered her immediately. Of course I had seen her at Convention!

Her testimony there was among the most memorable, moving accounts that any of us had heard during the whole process- it had the whole row of the Integrity legislative team in tears by the end of it. And here she was sitting in front of me- here she was, someone who was now my friend. How did I not recognize in my new friend at first that deep current of God's kingdom and grace running through her, how did she ever seem like a normal person to me?

In another instance I was reading a book by a trustee of the seminary, Countney Cowart, who writes about her experiences at Ground Zero and St. Paul's chapel during and after 9-11. There is much in Coutney's book to commend, but the image that sticks with me the most comes from the day of the attacks itself. She was a student at General at the time, and she was downtown at Trinity Wall Street with a few members of our seminary community, about to film a documentary that morning. She and the others were trapped inside a filming studio at Trinity when the planes hit, and she describes how the whole crew huddled in an inner room of the building as the power went out, unsure of what might come next. The image that will not leave me is one where Courtney describes turning a corner to see Elizabeth Koenig, our professor of Ascetical Theology, sitting on the floor beside the door, praying. Here is a woman that I see every day, walking across the Close to Chapel or class, seeming perfectly normal; but this image of her from Coutney's book lifts the viel from aorund her to reveal a saint of deep prayer in God, a saint who in the face of the greatest evil was grounded in deep prayer with Christ for the world. How could I have ever missed seeing this in her?

Lastly, as our seminary chaplain, Stuart, prepaes to take his leave of the school this week, a few of us have had the privilege of drawing close to him to drink deeply from the well of stories that is his full life in the priesthood of our church. We have heard harrowing stories from murders in a Texas parish to serving as a ground-zero chaplain, to having his effigy consumed by an angry school board. It has been eye opening for me to learn so much of the trials, of the occasions for testimony, of the endurance of this man who on the surface appears to be so ordinary, so much like any one else I know in my community. It has all had me very suspicious as of late, about what else I may be missing of the grace of God's activities in those I share the routines of my day with.

I tell these stories, because they are all very big things that God brought into the life of my seminary communty, and because at the same time, it was such a very small thing for God to show them to me. I imagine that many of you could say the same about the community here at St. Paul's. I imagine you could tell me stories of incredible grace that runs as a hidden current beneath this place. God is made large, God is magnified in the passion of a mother for justice, in the prayer of a theologian at the time of greatest trial, in the lifetime of a chaplain given time and time again to the work of God's grace. But these saints of God are made of the normal stuff all around us. Sometimes the tinkering that God requires is in our own eyes to behold the greatness of the work at hand. Sometimes God scoots up a bench. And sometimes that bench is a front-row seat for the truly miraculous among us.

Sometimes, we are eager for God to do a very big thing, and most of the time, God is already in the midst of doing something great beyond our wildest imagining, right here among us. And it can be the smallest thing in the world for us to turn our eye towards it, to lend our hands to its assistance, and our voices to its telling. It is little more than a slight of God's hand at times, to lift the viel from our eyes and reveal that the world we think we know so well is on fire with his grace. And, in the face of such radiant joy, of such delight: giving our very small life to the current of God's great action is the very least that we can do.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eve of Holy Name

Eve of Holy Name

Isaiah 65:15b-25

Psalm 90

Revelation 21:1-6

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her,

and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a woman,

so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride;

so shall your God rejoice over you.

-Isaiah 62:4-5

What shall we call this? What name shall we give it? A woman browses magazines, another pulls her screaming toddler down the sidewalk just outside, a stock man returns to his cart with handfuls of books again and again- the thud of spines each time he puts them down. A gray mist covers everything outside. SUVs wander the parking lot like sleepwalkers, beyond the service road are the as-yet-untouched forests of northern Raleigh, the ones that always lie just beyond the strip malls- there are always more to plow here. And in me- in me there is a tug. Something would pull at my guts and touch the length of each one. Something would splay me, lay me out to be examined, and delight in each exposure, even as the dry air robbed them of their moisture. Something would love me and love to put me back again. It is a restless feeling. The feeling of being desired; but not touched. What shall we call it? What name shall we give to it?

There was a very troubled young man in the Barnes & Noble last night. I have been going there to be around people I do not know in this week away from school. I go to read and write and have my coffee around people who are reading or writing or speaking to one another. We keep to ourselves. Last night, as we were doing this, there was a whining, grunting sound. I looked up and saw a young man- maybe 13, dressed all in black with long, loose dark hair- turn the corner with his fists clenched. First he slapped one of those computers down from the help desks at the end of an aisle, then he pulled down all the books from a shelf. He took a stand of merchandise and pushed it out into the center aisle, then swiped all the books down from one of the center tables. Beyond that I couldn’t see anymore as he headed towards the front door, I only heard him squealing. He had the attention of the whole store, and then he left. We, who had been keeping to ourselves, sat or stood dazed for a minute, and made a few comments, and the clerks came and put the books back, set the computers upright.

What do we call this? We called it “troubled” in the commentary that followed in the cafe. We wondered at where his parents might be- if one of them was here in the store with him, if it had been something they had said or required that sent him off. We named the medications he might be on or might need to be. We named the event, “attention-seeking”, and “acting out”. It was easy enough to do. As much as it disturbed us, it seemed perfectly in place. A little eruption from beneath the surface of so much placid routine, an undercurrent of soft suburban rage come too close to the surface to break. It is from the same family of rage that takes boys out for armored rampages in their schools. And we, patrons of a moment momentarily unsettled by it, could name it what it was, and give thanks that it was no more.

This place, the place that I come from, is very easy to feel exiled from. It is much like many other places I have seen, and that is because it prides itself on normalcy. It is easy to know what normal is, there are examples of it everywhere, and when you are not normal you are informed of it. In schools, packs pick off the ones who don’t belong, and in stores the service simply isn’t as good. Many of us know this to be true, because the truth is that normal is not the majority, and most of us look in on what we’ve come to call normal from the outside, exiles in our own cities, homes, and places of worship. The moment we find a kind of belonging to lift us up out of it, we snatch it up. The moment we are given a chance to end our exile, we take it, and move in to a crowded, comfortable place, where we feel we can fit in.

There are moments of course, when the effort of normalcy is far from successful. Days come when everything we do is a mess. A zit, a bounced check, a forgotten obligation, and then suddenly a loved one reminding us of some thing that makes us feel so small, so hurt. There are days when we simply cannot take it. And there, on every side of us, rows and rows of books, just waiting to be thrown down to the ground in a rage. What is stopping us? The mother with her latte and toddler in the stroller at the end of the aisle? The old man reaching for a biography at the top shelf? What is stopping us from turning the whole thing upside down in a petty little tirade? What have we learned to swallow that the 13-year old simply couldn’t bear?

This place is easy enough to name. This place that sends us out from ourselves lest we disturb the peace that seems apparent. We call it Desolation. We call ourselves Forsaken. The desolation named by Isaiah seems very different from this. That desolation was a product of military exile, a people displaced by the alleged fault of their own community and rulers, suffering in a foreign land for what they had not done, vows they had not kept. Our desolation is a byproduct of idealized normalcy, building up like a land fill, packed full like the garbage bin behind the restaurant we love the most. Our desolation speaks a foreign language and takes our plates away when we are done. Our desolation looks in the mirror after coming home from days of this, and hates the sight of what looks back. Do not be fooled. It is a familiar enough ghost that rattles behind the eyes of so many here. It was behind the register just now, it has paused after parking the car to stare down the dirty windshield.

This is what God comes to take for himself as bride. What we have named Forsaken, what we have named Desolate, God names his Delight, God calls Married. What we have been too afraid to break the surface with, what we have kept muffled in the basements of our daily interactions, God will name, Beloved. All the terrible, ugly, shit. All the stuff we swallow lest we look like some petty 13-year-old suburban goth kid who is so obviously desperate for attention. That’s what God wants. God has named it Married. God is opening the door, like the bridegroom to the bedroom of his honeymoon, to see us: a people good at hiding ourselves standing naked, pale, pimpled, mid-tantrum: the perfect bride. That is what is loving us. That is what may be so hard for us to name.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Holy Innocents

Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm 124

Revelation 21:1-7

Matthew 2:13-18

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”

-Elie Wiesel, Night

We have met survivors. We have heard stories that claim the grace of God as a miraculous agent for one life spared when many were not. It is the drunk driver she swerved to miss when so many others have met their end there. The plane he did not board which crashed. The children left orphaned by plague who are taken in, nourished and sent to school while most of their brothers and sisters still starve. For Joseph, an angel came. “Get up, take the child and his mother, go to Egypt- Herod is going to kill children looking for the Messiah.” We might desire something more heroic. Something even as simple as an angel who says, “Get up, tell the other families to flee, Herod is going to kill children.” But we don’t get it. Neither do we get to know why, though we may keep asking.

We have seen the tyrants. Worldly power distilled and made paranoid for its own security. Broad, terrible actions, innocents killed. Tyranny begets innocence, strips power away so cleanly that the victims never had a chance, were born into an innocence, void of worldly power. We have seen our own complicity in the tyranny, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done to stop it. We have subscribed to economies of power and wealth and health that have necessitated poverty to level our extravagant claims. Children in Haiti eat cakes of mud to stave off feeling hungry. Children in Nigeria are born with AIDS. Children in American ghettos take their rage to school and are given no place to check it while their privileged counterparts sit in tidy rows and sing songs. The line between complicity and innocence blurs as the tyranny masks itself in the status quo. The Spirit of God hovers over the face of the deep dark mess, a discerning hand holding its jaw, a furrowed brow, and then: grace. But we are not privileged to see what that grace might be, unless we happen to be ministering among it, unless we have left our chair that day where we so often sit, instead, and wonder.

We have heard her crying. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” She is the hardest one to deal with. We can send money to the rest, (boxed rations, C-grade medicines, a convincing new government program) and go to sleep- but a silence from the wailing cannot be purchased. God tries anyway: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,” says the Lord, “they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future,” says the Lord, “your children shall come back to their own country.” And if we, ministers, prophets, anyone who might dare to give human voice to such a message of outrageous, blind hope in the face of Rachel’s weeping, if we are to serve any function in that exchange, how can it be anything other than the face that she will slap when she hears it?

So the priest sets the altar, holds a feast. The frontal and the chasuble which she wears from it are violet- the first martyrs of God’s anointed are too young to give the full, robust, red color of their rendered blood to the vestments of the Church. And as we stand to sing and take our fill we pray, “by your great might, O God, frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace,” risking the chance that God might frustrate us along the way. We pray, “Receive, O God, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims,” risking the chance that God’s arms may try to receive them with the mercy of our own instead.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Year B, Proper 15: Ask What I Should Give You

I feel like I shouldn’t share this sermon out of its congregational context without prefacing it with a few caveats. This was a difficult sermon for me, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it was one that I felt safe enough to preach with St. Mary’s House. There is always a lot beneath the surface of any piece of writing, but this time I don’t think everything made it to the top that needed to.

One thing that I don’t think came across as clearly as I meant it was my critique of the antisemetic influences of the Gospel reading. In my mind, the dramatic thrust of the argument was to take its cues from the five-part bread-of-life/diminishing crowd discourse/motif we’ve been following in the RCL. I tried to communicate this in a plain way, but I think my effort towards simple language here allowed for too much ambiguity in my perspective. This Gospel movement here was supposed to be the second of four cautionary sketches of evangelism gone awry.

I am also reflecting on the ambiguity of my use of the verb “imagine” on the part of the corporate beliver in the final movement. I wanted to tie the end of the sermon in with language that linked to the story about imaginary things in the beginning. Perhaps what is not clear in my effort is my argument that our imaginations are one of the gifts with which we approach the God whom we can never fully understand. By saying that we “imagine our world fully inhabited by Christ” I do not mean to diminish what we imagine as being somehow less real because it comes from our imagination- I mean that we use our imaginations to perceive and discuss that which is essentially beyond many other facilities of understanding. This, in itself, could use some development on my part.

My hope was to preach a sermon that touched on the very real dangers present in Christian evangelism by exposing a particular image of our Eucharist for its potential for harm- and then at the last moment showing that the Church is utterly dependent on this very real, essential image to be healed of all the sin we are responsible for and ultimately grow into the body we are meant to be. Whether I accomplished this is still up for debate.

Preaching with St. Mary's House
Year B, Proper 15
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

"The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, 'Ask what I should give you.' "

In the name of God, who made us, saves us, and will not leave us alone. AMEN..

Here the bulls, here the rams,
Here the calves, here the sheep
Each halved and set next to a thousand variations of itself
A love gift of carnage made in columns and rows
And then suddenly, the voice of devotion’s aim itself:
“This is all fine and well, my new love,
But ask me what I should give you.”
Solomon sits upright, eyes wide,
Waking in the cold sweat of a dream.

“This girl is telling me that there’s a man
Bigger than the whole world
And more powerful than the whole world
And its just not true
And she won’t leave me alone.”
I look up from the pair of cardstock fairy wings I’m cutting out
To see Hannah, one of my seven-year-old art camp students
Visibly flustered.
“Of course its not true,”
I tell her automatically
“It sounds imaginary to me.”
We have this week, been talking about imaginary things
As seven year olds are wont to do.
Fairies, such as the kind I am making wings for, are imaginary.
Elves are imaginary.
Giants are imaginary past a certain height
But there are also very tall people.
Dinosaurs, while they do not exist any longer
Were in fact at one point real.
Monsters, while not real
Are often imaginary expressions of very real fears and dangers.
My student is still upset
Obviously beyond the tipping point of having her world-view
Screwed with by one of her peers.
“She said that he has hands bigger than the whole world
And that he made us with them.
And its just not true,
Its made up!”
It is then that I look up to see the girl in question, Josie,
Waiting, smiling, hands folded in the wings.
Taking my moment of clarity as an invitation to join
The conversation
Josie swoops in.
“Its just that if you don’t believe in God”
And -at this- she furrows her brow
“You won’t get into Heaven.”
The dissenting seven year old confronts her aggressor:
“Heaven isn’t real.”
And here finally,
Josie looks at her friend as if she’s just realized
That there’s a giant hole in her head
With all the pieces spilling out
And- more alarmingly- that no one else seems to see it
That its up to her to frantically gather them all up
And shove them back inside
Before the very life itself drains from the girl.
“Josie,” I intervene, “Hannah does not like the way you’re
Talking to her, and she’s asked you to stop.
This is something we need to talk about at home.”
And I send them back to their tables.
It is not enough, however, to deter the Evangelist from
Rallying forces.
“Maryanne,” she whispers to another friend,
“Hannah doesn’t believe in God
And I’m worried she’s not getting into Heaven.”
Understanding the cause for alarm
Maryanne quietly sets her work aside
And in a minute I see the two of them
Staring into Hannah’s face-
A second doctor for a second opinion:
She can see the hole too.
“Its just that if you don’t believe in God,
You’re going down there,”
And she points at the tiled floor of the classroom
Which is unobjectingly gathering more paint and chewing gum.
“Josie!” I bark from across the room.
“I asked you to stop!”
For a moment they scatter again
But only a moment and then they start creeping back
Covert- facing away from me.
Hannah’s head is on the table at this point
Arms crossed, ears blocked
So I move in to separate them personally.
As I approach I see that Josie has a small
Rainbow colored triket in her hand,
“Hannah,” she’s saying
Just as I am about to move her away
“If you’ll just say that you believe in God
I’ll give you this eraser.”

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
You have no life in you.

“Its like you have a kind of cancer,”
the conservative Anglican blogger
Is telling my friend Pamela,
“And we have the cure for it.
Wouldn’t you want us to share the cure with you
If we knew that you were ill?”
The two are having a conversation
In the press box at General Convention
Finally, after the Anglican has spent the better part of the week
Avoiding Pamela
With her Integrity, rainbow-colored press credentials.
Pamela, determined to be friendly,
Determined to enter into dialogue
Had made the first moves,
Only to find her counterpart deeply emotional and afraid.
It was kind of sweet, she would later tell me, over drinks
She really seemed to be concerned for me.

And perhaps she was concerned.
Perhaps she was concerned the way
The first Christians were concerned that some Jews got it
And some Jews didn’t.
Concerned about the way some Jews called them out
Of their private practices for exactly what they looked like:
A cannibal harvest of their own history of leadership
Flesh and blood intermingled and unclean
Talking to a dead man buried in the past
While the present was dangerously neglected.
Concerned that some Jews were walking around
Business as usual
When the world had so clearly changed.
Walking around with holes in their heads.
Perhaps, in some communities
That were a little more removed from the origins of this drama
Communities like the one that first read this Gospel,
There was even a bit of disgust at the thought of sharing
Some common heritage with these people.
A fermented kind of insecurity at not being chosen
And not having the chosen choose to worship
The same vestiges of their own profound
Newly discovered understandings.
Just like in the story:
A miracle happens
Or a little piece of insight makes sense
And here come the Jews again
Crowding in, wanting to be fed.
Always putting up a fight about their own past
And then dropping out one by one
Shouting insults on the way,
“God gave our ancestors bread from heaven already”
“Your messiah had a mother and a father just like the rest of us”
And there the true disciples were again
The few, the chosen, the ones who understood,
Just like in the story.
The crowds: dispersed,
Disgusted at a Jesus who would give his own skin and fluids
To the tongues and teeth of his most Beloved
And the Beloved themselves:
not knowing any other way to be fed, remaining.
What better words to hear then
Than ones reminding them that they were on the inside
Of the right circle.
They were the ones who belonged.
What better words to hear a Savior say:
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood
You have no life in you.

I could not look away this week
As the cable news networks
Honed in on footage from town halls across the country.
I watched as the same clips replayed over and over again
Untill the most radical, outspoken, and strangely informed
Citizens imprinted themselves on the back of my sight
Out-of-chair lunges repeating and multiplying themselves:
Phantom media images
Frozen in moments of extreme emotion.
They looked like zombies there,
Each with their own one line of dissent
Repeating like a mantra
They looked, in the television, possessed.
They can not have life in them, I thought.
And my words as I spoke them in my stupor
Were like a calming kind of poetry
Such a clean and simple way to instantly dehumanize someone.
Because if they did not have life in them
If the unfettered passion on display
Was somehow less than human
Somehow different from the passion in me
That makes coffee in the morning
and faces inquiring seven year olds with fairy wings
If the life I know to be life is not in them
Then I do not have to contend with them.
Then I do not have to contend with the fact that my neighbors
Are being strung up like puppets by the television I watch
And the monied interests I invest in for my own health
As I am strung up there beside them-
Then I do not have to contend with how ridiculous I must look
Holding up a Prop 8 sign
Speaking out of a megaphone
On a street corner downtown.
Do not have to contend with the fact that
My neighbors are afraid of things which I think best for them
Would likely slap my hand away the instant I tried to lift up
Some of the life spilling down from the holes
Which I so clearly believe to be in their heads.

And from here
From such clean, efficient dehumanization
As I am more than willing to participate in
As such perversions of public discourse so readily lend themselves to
From such inclinations of evangelism
That necessarily presume an antidote
To the misfits who so clearly need the life that we have found
From the heart of what most our church takes to be
Our principle, most impassioned Eucharistic image
Countless ways to die are born.
More and more details emerge this week
Of the murderous rampage we unleashed in Iraq
By contracting the Blackwater corporation for private defense.
A corporation which the public learns more and more
To be run by religious zealots
With the clear motive in mind of
Seeking out Iraqi Muslims and killing them.
With the clear motive in mind
Of establishing a Christian world
Made finally alive
By the eradication of all who had no life to begin with.

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood
You have no life in you.
These are the words we choose again and again
To imagine our world
Fully inhabited by Christ,
God’s Body fully accessible in the very materials
Of our skin, bones and fluids made food
For a world in desperate need of saving touch and sustenance.
We know what it is to have no life
To be struck off balance by the uneasy transactions
of our daily give and take
To need, urgently, food that transcends
Our normal economy of equal exchange
For unimaginable abundance and gift.
And we can recognize that hunger in our neighbor.
And in words that place us in such a radical offering
In words that imagine such a critical traffic of need
In the urgency, in the severity
Of one of our most impassioned Eucharistic images
We are also yoked to consistently realized
Potential for death:
Strangers dying to one another’s humanity
The walls built up between them
By lines of scripture just like these.
Iraqi Muslims
Sought out and gunned down
By the religious zealots imagining a Christian world
without them.
Jews questioning
The Messianic implications
Of a startling new sect in their midst
Villified by the lack of life
We seek to give
No life in you-
No life in you-
No life in you.
In the urgency, in the severity
Of one of our most impassioned Eucharist images
We give ourselves easily
To the tribalism of the world
To another reason to peer up suspiciously
From the bloody feast of our belonging
At what might lie beyond our circle
In the darkness:

A billion separate sects and tribes
A billion reasons not to see our neighbors
Dying in this world,
And then, finally, beyond that:
Staring in alarm at the hole in our head
As all our life falls from us to the floor.
“Ask me what I should give you”
God cries in a thousand tongues
To the church that lies dying in its own murderous rage
Against itself and against a world
That it could never separate from.
“Ask me what I should give you”
God whispers in the ear of Solomon
Behind eyes that have seen enough carnage
On the altars of the Lord.
“Ask me
And I will fill you
With my very life
I will become the very flesh and food and drink you need
To comfort feed and heal you from this poison you have made-
Ask me what I should give you.”
And even as the invitation in our hearing fades
And the life of the church and world go limp for wont of feeding
One another
God holds us anyway:
A fevered body in the night
To be kept awake with stories
Of the time we were as young as Solomon
Eyes widening to imagine
All the asking we are called to do.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Year B, Proper 14: Caught Between Heaven and Earth

Guest Preaching with St. Mark's Raleigh

Year B, Proper 14
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

The wine tool made it in.
As did the cheese grater,
the citrus juicer,
the pastry knife-
Each without a second thought.
But then I came to the spring-form cake pan, and paused.
Will I really need a spring-form cake pan
in seminary?
Will there be time for baking apricot-ricotta coffee cakes
In between Elementary Greek and CPE?
Such are the questions that have plagued me
Over the past several weeks
As I have systematically reduced
The contents of my already small studio apartment
In preparation for a 184 square foot dorm room
At the top of four flights of stairs
In a hopefully renovated 19th Century building
That may or may not have access
To a community kitchen.
Upon further deliberation
I removed the wine tool from the box after all-
But only so I could keep it somewhere
Much more easily accessible.

Many Americans who can afford it
And not infrequently, most who can't
Have a lot of stuff.
In an effort to make a home for ourselves
In this fleeting, frightening world
Most of us have gone about
Staving off our inevitable mortality
By acquiring things.
Stocking up sure and solid possessions meant to serve as
Proof against our much less permanent memories
That we were here.
That photograph of us against a painfully blue sky
Sitting on the mantle
Is proof that there was a time before "stay-cations"
When we actually let ourselves relax
On some stretch of shore
A hundred miles away.
Our grandmothers china
Silently acquiring its cubic foot of dust from the attic
Is proof that there was a time
When this august matriarch of our families heritage
Was as real as two hands setting a table for supper.
Receipts and tax documents shoved into a shoebox
Like some kind of bizarre financial wailing wall
In the nether most regions of our closets
Give us a tangible trail of evidence
Proof that we are who we say we are
And we have purchased what we've said we have.
We acquire a thousand little things such as these
And then set them down about us
In neat piles
as if they
In and of themselves were enough to keep us grounded here.
A thousand small extensions of ourselves
A thousand anchors cast
To keep us tied to this thing we call home
And, history.
And, security,
We build these homes for ourselves out of all we have acquired
We spend our days toiling to build up on this Earth
A little piece of the Heaven we've imagined for ourselves
And then, for the most part, we stay stuck there.
Stuck between these ideas of who we are
Who, I dare say, God wants us to be
And what those ideas look like
working on the ground.

I like to think of myself
As something of a chef
Baking and preparing a good meal
Are how I imagine myself extending hospitality
To those I love.
And to that end I have acquired a lot of things
To help me live that out.
And to that end I packed my kitchen box
Full of every variety of cooking accoutrement that would fit
In preparation for my big move.
But as I lugged this large, awkwardly weighted box
Down the fire escape in the back of my old apartment building
It wedged itself somehow in one of the weird angles
Of the metal stair frame
And I was stuck
Trying to balance the weight of this box
And dislodge it at the same time, mid-air
And before I knew it the cardboard snagged on the metal
And all the contents of my preciously packaged cooking life
Emptied themselves down several flights of the metal stairs
Into the street.

Would have fared well
To only be so hung up
On cooking utensils.
But as we find him this morning
Absalom is stuck instead
At the mortal end of an epic struggle
For nothing less
Than possession of his father=s house.
Absalom, by this passage
Has sought to acquire
Nothing less
Than the kingship of Israel.
Absalom is portrayed in the Book of Samuel
As being something of a bit player
In a family cycle of divine retribution
Whose initial cause is utterly beyond him.
It began when King David
Raped Bathsheba and then murdered her husband Uriah
When he could not account for her resulting pregnancy.
This offense was so great against God
That David's prophet Nathan told him it would continue to
Come back to haunt his household.
When Absalom's sister, Tamar, is raped
By their half-brother
It is written as a consequence of
Their father, King David's own shameful behavior
And when Absalom avenges his sister's rape
By killing their half-brother
his resulting exile from Jerusalem
Is the price he pays
For involving himself in an ever widening circle
Of family violence and shame.
Eventually, Absalom and his family are allowed back in the city
But only if they keep their distance from the King-
Absalom is portrayed by scripture, at this point
As a beautiful, vain, narcissistic man,
And the reader cannot be surprised
As vanity is often a symptom of such deep, familial insecurity.
Absalom grows his hair out very long
So long that he cuts it and weighs it each year
His beauty, his hair, kept as a possession
Sure proof against his value in an otherwise
Devalued position in the family's shame.
And the reader cannot be surprised then
When Absalom takes this matter of his
Devalued family position
Into his own hands
When he tries to save himself
By acquiring the very household that holds its power over him.
Absalom waits on the side of the road to Jerusalem each day
He talks to Israelites who are taking their affairs to the King
for judgment
And one by one Absalom wins them over
By speaking in grand terms of the favor he would show them.
Years of this pass by,
and eventually Absalom acquires a massive army
in his favor against his father, the King.
The King learns of his sons new power
And has no choice but to abandon the royal house
With all his family in tow
And Absalom with his army enters it
And marks it finally
As his own.
This battle
We read of today
Is nothing less
Than an epic struggle
Between father and son
For possession of the household
That holds the fate of each
Inexorably tied to their mutual history.
But the battle, we read, doesn't take nearly as much life
As the land does that day.
As Absalom is riding through the forest on the way to battle
He gets caught in the tangled branches of a terebinth tree
And his mule rides on without him.
The Hebrew here literally says that he gets caught by his head
But many translations
Such as the one commissioned by the Jewish Publication Society
Write this to say that Absalom gets caught up by his hair
In the branches of the great tree,
Caught up, that is, by the very extensions of his own vanity
In the world.
And that is where Absalom dies.
Caught between Heaven and Earth.
Feet dangling, ungrounded
Unable to escape his enemies as they circle around him.

Can you see yourself in the picture our lesson paints for us?
Our lives may be fortunately removed from so much violence
Our family disputes may not involve any claims to kingship
Of a great nation
But can you see yourself there anyway
Caught by your big head in the branches of the terebinth tree
Fully responsible for the fight that has led you here
A fight for some claim
on the power that dictates your own life
Fighting the power that has made you, that is beyond you
And caught up in the details that would leave you hanging
Feet dangling, ungrounded
Caught between Heaven and Earth.
Have you been that hungry for the power to save yourself?

knows something of our hunger for security
knows something of what we will do to acquire power
for ourselves.
You can see it in the way he always hides his own power.
He brings people back from the dead
Back from the brink of debilitating, isolating illness
And then tells them not to say a word of it
To anyone.
One minute he is dazzling in divine glory
Flanked by Moses and Elijah on a mountain top
And the next he is insisting that his disciples keep what is seen
To themselves
So they can get on with business as usual.
And what happens when the secret is out?
Jesus feeds five thousand on a hillside
Little more than a working lunch, really
To keep the conversation going
But the next thing you know the throngs are pressing in.
They can sense his power
And they want to acquire a piece of it for themselves.
Jesus calls them on it.
You're here because you've had your fill of bread, he tells them
But bread will only make you hungry again
And I am about more than that
I am about bread that will leave you satisfied forever
Bread of God.
They stare at him
There are tears, even, in a few
At the thought of finally finding the one thing
That might keep them full
After too many years spent at empty tables-
But then in the same breath he confounds the whole thing:
I am that bread from Heaven, he says.
It is my own flesh you are hungry for
Take me for your food.
Faces in the crowd that were, for a moment at least, hopeful
Turn sour at this
As the prospects of acquiring, and
Possessing for themselves
Some new secret to life
To security
To the power of abundance
Are suddenly made to sound like a cruel joke.
Some Heaven you come from, they say
Your mother and father live right down the street.
Some stay to argue
But most have lost the will
And simply turn away.

If Jesus has struck a cord here,
it is because he has called out our habits
For storing up a life of safety for ourselves
By linking it to one of our most visceral needs:
The need to be fed.
How else do we better acquire something
How else do we possess it
Than by raw, visceral consumption?
And what else is all that power and security good for
If not for first meeting our basic physical needs.
Jesus knows something
About how much we want to take charge for ourselves
Of the divine power that seems to hold us in its sway
How much we want to acquire for ourselves
that claim Jesus seems to have
On abundance.
"Give us this bread always" the people cry
Give us this power to feed ourselves
To take the matter into our own hands.
The connection of this desire for unending bread
To the manna their ancestors received in the wilderness
Runs deep.
For it was the same impulse in the wilderness
That led some in the camp of Israel
To take the manna that God provided each morning
And store it away.
To gather it up
And set it down about themselves
In neat piles
As if it
In and of itself were enough to keep them grounded and safe.
And those who tried to save that manna
Who just couldn't bare to rely on God to provide
Their daily ration each morning
Woke to find every bit of it they had squirreled away
Infested by worms.
The bread of Heaven will not be possessed.
You have to treat this differently, Jesus says
Because God will confound any effort to be acquired.
The God that can be possessed
The God that can be set up like a trophy on the shelf
Or stored away like a trail of proof
Against our own hard-earned salvation
The God who can be trotted out of our closets
Every time we want to lord our own rightness
Over someone else
Is not God.
And the bread that can be acquired of our own labors
Will only leave us hungry again.
It is the life we are given, rather
That sustains us.We do not approach God
Rather it is God who draws us in, Jesus says.
We in learning to live with God
Learn to take the bread of life as God would give it to us
To open our hands and receive
What is shockingly available in the very flesh before us
As we release any hope we might have had
That we can build up for ourselves
Some fortress of possessions
To keep us safe.

So lets come down
From whatever trees our big heads have been stuck in these days
God is calling us out of whatever towers of treasures we=ve stored up
To taste the living bread that is right before our very eyes
In the very flesh itself.
It is here, present in this room, in the body that we share
And it didn't even take a spring-form cake pan
To make.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Year B, Proper 8: More Than Watchmen for the Morning

Year B, Proper 8
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Preaching with St. Mary's House
Greensboro, NC

Note: This is, to date, from the height of my love affair with the extended sentence. My paper manuscript, prepared as it is for oration, is marked with breathing notations rather than attention to appropriate punctuation. I don't know if I could preach with this language in many parishes, (your thoughts on this are welcome). But that is why it is specifically written for the people at St. Mary's House, as savy with their use of language as they are with their theology. It will be bittersweet to leave St. Mary's for seminary. Where else do I get to preach for my favorite contemporary theologian and my favorite contemporary poet in the same place?

Also note: The quotations from 1 Samuel are not taken from the linked NRSV version above, but from the JPS Tanakh translation, especially the block quote used- which is from Ch. 20.

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

-From the writings of St. Paul to the Corinthians

In the name of God who made us, saves us, and will not leave us alone, AMEN.

Scripture describes for us the precise moment
When Saul first fully realized
That the heart of his son Jonathan
Was given entirely
To the rival
Of their family’s claim
To the kingship of Israel.
It happened over supper.

Saul and his court were preparing for a festival of the new moon,
And David’s presence would be expected at the King’s table.
David had served in the King’s company
Ever since the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul
To crumble in fits of anxiety and madness
And his courtiers to suggest that the young David
Be called in to soothe the King with his music.
And ever since David’s victory over the great Philistine,
He had soldiered out for the King too
At the head of Israel’s armies.
But his victories there were too great,
The love of the people for David too strong,
And Saul was threatened by him.
And so Saul was determined to kill him.
So David had no intention to be present at the King’s table
For the festival of the new moon.

He had already narrowly escaped one attempt on his life
In his own home:
Aided out his bedroom window by his wife;
Saul’s own daughter, Michal,
Herself given by Saul to David in marriage
That she too might be the end of him.
By her great love for David she was not,
And by her great love David was left free
To wonder whether and how he should defend himself
Against a second attempt on his life
From the King he had pledged his loyalty to
As a servant of God’s anointed, chosen leader
And father in law.
Whether and how he should come to the King’s table
For the festival of the new moon
Where his life was surely in danger.

David, fled to the North from these threats,
Is painted in this part of the narrative as puzzled.
In the midst of this great epic of political posturing,
Self-serving religion and the tribal warfare of land and gods
David is, for a time at least, something of an innocent.
His piety is still wholly undisturbed at this point.
As far as he is concerned, Saul has been anointed by God
To be King of Israel,
he does not question the King’s ordained authority
Even in his madness.
David does not perceive his threat to Saul.
He is troubled and confused by Saul's actions against him.

And in this confusion and flight, he comes to Jonathan.
He is, perhaps, still wearing Jonathan’s clothes when they meet:
The cloak and tunic Jonathan dressed him with
From his own back
On the day he saw David speaking to his father,
The severed head of the Philistine giant
Still gripped clumsily at its mane by David’s hand
Still dripping on the sand:
At the sight of which, scripture tells us,
The soul of Jonathan became bound up with
The soul of David, when he loved him as his own self.
David is, perhaps, still clutching the sword and bow and belt
That Jonathan gave him then
The very outfit of his authority before the armies of Israel
The very dressings of the victories
Which have made Saul insecure.
And dressed thus,
Dressed up like the Prince of Israel should be
A kind of living mirror to Jonathan
Who sees in him beyond the gift of armor
The love of his own soul,
David weeps, bewildered, distressed:

“What is my crime and my guilt against your father,
That he seeks my life?” David asks his princely counterpart.
Jonathan, who had once already defended his beloved’s life
Against the outrage of his father is as confused.
“Heaven forbid! You shall not die.
My father does not do anything, great or small,
Without disclosing it to me;
It cannot be!”
But it is clear that Saul,
Suspecting Jonathan’s love for David,
Has hidden his intent
From his son.
And so to bring Saul’s intentions to the light,
The two devise a plan whereby David will leave his seat vacant
At the King’s table for the festival of the new moon
And Jonathan will gauge the King’s reaction.
On the first evening of the festival
King Saul did notice David’s absence, but thought little of it.
However, when the second evening came
And David was still missing from the King’s table
Saul inquired of his absence,
And when he did, Jonathan lied for him
And said he had been called away to his home.

At this, [Scripture tells us]
“Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan.
‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!’ he shouted.
‘I know that you side with the son of Jesse-
To your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness!
For as long as the son of Jesse lives on earth,
Neither you nor your kingship will be secure.
Now then, have him brought to me,
For he is marked for death.’
But Jonathan spoke up and said to his father,
‘Why should he be put to death?
What has he done?’
At that, Saul threw his spear at him to strike him down;
And Jonathan realized that his father
Was determined to do away with David.
Jonathan rose from the table in a rage.”
Scripture tells us that,
“He ate no food on the second day of the new moon,
Because he was grieved about David,
And because his father had humiliated him.”
While experience tells us that
These familial motions wore so well into our common life
That somewhere
Some two thousand nine hundred ninety five years later
Some young boy likely slammed his bedroom door shut
Against a replica of their rage:
Not dispatched by spears, perhaps,
But every bit as crippling as if it
Had been.

This, then,
is the love that David sings of
As he laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathan
In the lection from this morning.
It is strange that we read this part of the story in Church.
Among all the stories from First and Second Samuel
That relate David’s ascent to the throne of Israel
And subsequent rule
This particular episode reveals little of the narrative complexity
That precedes or follows it.
In the fragmented reduction that the Lectionary offers us,
One week David is slaying a giant
And the next he is mourning two characters we have heard
Very little of.
There isn’t even a recognizable theology to this passage:
God is not mentioned in David’s lament,
Death in David’s time,
Meant a complete separation from the world of the living
And thus a complete separation from the living God.
What David does in this dirge
Is honor the love that gave him life.
Jonathan’s love for David saved him in the most literal way
At a cost to Jonathan that was ultimately complete.
Saul was not out of bounds when he warned his son
That his love for David
Would put his own claim to kingship and power in jeopardy.
Jonathan acknowledged this too
When he came to David later at Horesh
And encouraged him in God:
“Do not be afraid:
The hand of my father Saul will never touch you.
You are going to be king over Israel
And I shall be second to you;
And even my father Saul knows this is so.”

I shall be second to you.

Jonathan, because his soul is bound up
In the soul of David,
Because he loves David as his own life
Divests himself easily of the power of his birthright.
In the cloak and tunic from his own back
In the weapons of power from his side,
In his vulnerable defense of David before his raving father
In his willingness to bear shame from their association
At the family table;
As his death in a battle
That David deliberately avoided
Makes the only way forward for David’s monarchy
That this story will allow.
Because he loved David as his own self
Naturally found himself behaving selflessly.

And yet, not simply selfless.
There is a unique quality to the love David sings of
And it has something to do with the longing
Expressed in the psalm which this reading is paired with.
The psalmist, in his longing for God, sings:
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
More than watchmen for the morning
more than the watchmen for the morning.
The longing of the psalmist finds character
With a watchman, weary for the end of his shift
Keeping vigil against the night with dry eyes
That see shapes in the darkness:
Pricking up at its dry rustles
And each snapping twig.
The image of a watchman is employed
Because the psalmist waits expectantly
For God’s deliverance
Which elsewhere comes in the morning.
But more than this,
The morning renders the watchman’s work obsolete.
There is no longer any need for the watchman’s labor
When the town he holds vigil for
Is filled with the light of morning,
All its dark corners illuminated
All its haunting sounds covered by the bustle
Of its awakened people.
The morning fulfills the watchman’s labor
With a largesse that is preternatural to his human limits
And perfectly sensible to expect from the sun itself.
At morning, the lonely watchman changes guard
With the very light of day
And rests soundly for a time because of it.
The love and longing of the watchman for the morning
Is not selfless, it is a self fulfilled
More thoroughly
That he ever could have managed on his own.
And this is the kind of longing which the psalmist has for God
And this is the kind of love which Jonathan showed for David.

A love that envisioned its self, its power, and its future
Fulfilled in the object of its devotion.
Confessed in the midst of therapy
It would be enough to make any psychoanalyst wince,
But in his Biblical context
Jonathan is manifesting with his life
The will of God for a new ruler
An other “him”

(i) And because of this
Jonathan’s character stands in remarkable contrast
Against the rest of the epic work that contains him,
Otherwise populated wholly
By power-hungry egomaniacs:
Priests who irreverently cheat the laity of their earnest sacrifices
Kings who dispense with divine mandate lightly
When it conflicts with their own ease,
Prophets who foam at the mouth when their leaders
And people contradict the callings they profess.

(ii) And because of this
Jonathan’s character
Is placed directly
In that transfer of power
That Hebrew mothers in the Bible like Hannah and Mary
Always seem to be singing of:
The one where the haughty
Are brought down from their high places
And the lowly lifted up.
Not, in this case, through battles or through flight
Not by occupation or miraculous birth
But in relationship that gives wholly of its only resource.

(iii) And because of this
Paul, as he adjures the Corinthians to implicate themselves
In their own effort of selfless giving to their fellows
in Jerusalem,
Can invoke the same quality of love
In the Christ whom he seeks to reveal among them:
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
That though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

And the Corinthians when they read this
Knowing characters like Jonathan
From scripture
Or from their own lives
Of whom this same self-giving was also apparent
Might have understood for a moment
What Paul meant
About a God who would strip himself of power
For no reason other than the fact
That he was in love:
Bound up in the world
As if in God’s own self.

If there is something sacramental to be witnessed
In our relationships,
Something between these men,
In the covenant that joined them,
Which speaks beyond itself of the covenant
That God would forge with us as well
It is here:
It is David singing for the love of Jonathan
Who gave himself for him.
It is us,
Dressed up in the cloak and tunic
Of our God who came among us
Before emptying himself completely,
Leaving us to be a kind of mirror
Of the Prince we thought he should have been,
And will still someday be.

Your glory, O Israel,
Lies slain on your heights;
Your glory, O World
Is poured out.
Let us come then to the King’s table without fear
And feast on the gifts which we are given there
By those who love us as their selves.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Triad Pride Prayer Service, Non-Lectionary

A non-lectionary sermon (!)
(Yes that means I chose these readings myself!
And Yes that means I chose a psalm that is not otherwise in the Lectionary
Because it is "difficult" to preach on!)

Isaiah 49:14-21
Psalm 55

Preaching with Triad Pride, 2009
Greensboro, NC

"Lift up your eyes all around and see;
They all gather,
They come to you."

-From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah

In the name of God, who made us, and saves us, and will not leave us alone, AMEN.

In the Summer of 1982 we were terrified.
Many of our friends and lovers were deathly ill
And news reports telling of a new gay cancer
Were confusing and contradictory.
Some in the media talked of GRID
Which stood for Gay related immune deficiency
And the CDC even referred initially to 4-H disease
So named because it seemed to affect
Hemophiliacs, Haitians, Heroin-addicts, and Homosexuals.
In the hospitals, we were confronted with equal amounts
Of fear and confusion, but there
it was also paired with stigma and bigotry.
Our resources were not apparent to us.
But there was a number you could call for support
And this number linked directly
to the home phone of Rodger McFarlane.
That Summer, Rodgers tiny New York apartment became
The hub for a deluge of desperate phone calls
That were then directed to the medical, legal, and counseling
Resources that were so desperately needed.
McFarlane had placed himself in the critical center
Of a gathering, ominous storm.
Earlier that year, he had walked into the headquarters
Of the newly formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Which then consisted of a handful of men
One of whom, Larry Kramer, seeing that government and medical
Response to the growing crisis was stalled at best
had issued a rallying cry
For gays to come together to provide a quick retaliation
To the new disease.
McFarlane, who worked as a rehabilitation therapist in the local hospitals
Found himself in a position to lend his expertise of the system
To those whom the system was avoiding.
He also lent his organizational skills-
Finding the appropriate office space for the rag-tag group of young men
And building up the structure of a professional non-profit
And, perhaps most importantly
He lent his home, and phone
To what would ultimately become the Information Hotline of the GMHC
A hotline that to this day
continues to provide counseling and support to persons with HIV/AIDS
McFarlane was later appointed the first paid executive director of the GMHC
As with most gay organizations since the dawn of time,
There were some disagreements about how to run things.

Ultimately, Larry Kramer was too extreem for the group.
His political agenda involved going after the mayor of NYC
And other public and health officials for not responding to AIDS
As the epidemic that it was.
A favorite practice of his became outing public figures who he felt
Avoided assisting the AIDS crisis because they were closeted.
He left the GMHC, calling it politically impotent.
In 1987 he founded ACT-UP, a radical gay activist group
Which promoted grass-roots efforts to raise awareness about
And demand immediate and proper treatment of HIV/AIDS.
In the early history of HIV/AIDS
Rodger McFarlane was the pragmatic counterpoint to Kramer’s rage.
Through steady funding efforts and organized programs
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis became the working model
For community based health-care support for every city in the nation.
Essential resources like the Hotline were joined by the Buddy system
In which people of all genders, gay, lesbian and straight
Volunteered to To give their support and bedside care
To AIDS patients in hospitals and at home
Who had otherwise been entirely abandoned by friends, family members, and lovers.
City after city adopted these necessary and intimate practices of care
To make up for the care which many medical communities were reluctant to provide
To gay people.
As McFarlane himself cared for 100s and 100s of friends dying of AIDS
These practices would become his lasting legacy
Particularly, McFarlanes legacy is documented
in a book called The Complete Bedside Companion
In Which he guides family members and caregivers
Through all the necessary medical, legal, and emotional points
Of a loved one’s approach toward death.
Earlier this month, Roger McFarlane took his own life.
A statement released by his family and friends said that McFarlane
Could no longer continue dealing with heart and back problems
Which followed a broken back in 2002.
He was 54.
In him we have seen one of our greatest heroes, one of our most giving Advocates,
a true cause of the Pride our community gathers to celebrate at events like these.

Rodger McFarlane was and Larry Kramer continues to be
well acquainted with the rage, abandonment, and betrayal
that we read of in Psalm 55.
Though the two men had very different approaches to using that rage
In the world.
"Hear my prayer, O God,
do not hide yourself from my petition.
Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace, because of my cares.
My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me."
Many of the psalms express their fear of the enemy
And plead to God for the safety of escape
or to rain his righteous destruction upon the forces that close in-
But Psalm 55 is heartbreaking in its focus.
"For had it been an adversary who taunted me
then I could have borne it;
or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me,
then I could have hidden from him.
But it was you, a man after my own heart
my companion, my own familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together
and walked with the throng in the house of God."
This kind of betrayal is familiar to us.
It recalls the childhood friend whom we might have confided in
Only to find them spreading rumors about us the next day at school.
This kind of betrayal recalls the Church of our upbringing
Who formed us in a relationship with the abounding love of God
Only to instruct us later in shame, and degraded worth.
We have been betrayed by Presidents and other politicians
By family members and employers
But this litany pales in comparison to the experiences of those
in the first deathbeds of AIDS.
Beds where many were left to die alone
Abandoned by family members, friends and lovers
Who feared the stigma and contraction of the unknown disease
Betrayed even by their own bodies
Which had promised such sweet assurance of being Beloved
In a hateful world
Only to deliver with poison instead.
The psalmist,
confronted with similar terrors, cries to God to hear his prayer:
“Listen to me, and answer me.”
Kramer issued similar petitions,
In every extremist, galvanizing, media hogging way he could
not to God,
But to those about him: to wake up to the realities of their
Second-class citizenship in the American goverment and medical community.
The psalmist,
confronted with similar terrors, cries to God for escape,
“Oh that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would hasten to escape
from the stormy wind and tempest.”
For many,
McFarland and his army of volunteers
Embodied the presence necessary
Not for escape
But for grounding their experience of death
In real company, and real care that would have otherwise been absent.

It is the Summer of 2009, and we are disappointed, angry, grieved
But much of the terror is gone.
We grieve the passing of Roger
While we celebrate his abounding gift of life to us
We grieve yesterday’s court ruling in California
While we celebrate the victories we’ve claimed in Iowa, Connecticut, Maine
40,000 new cases of HIV/AIDS appear in this country each year
Some of us live with HIV
Or are caring for friends and family with it
But the operative word here is "live"
We live with it.
The early days
When everyone we knew was dead or dying are gone for us.
As is the urgency with which we fought the system for our care.
A lifetime has passed, it seems, since then,
And most of us either feel confident that our people
Are getting the services we need.
Or simply do not possess the language to address and question it
Having missed the universal pervasiveness of its inception in the 80s.

In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah
We hear of a new day emerging for Zion-
The Holy city of God.
From the darkness of her abandonment.
Zion cries out, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
And the Lord to show her otherwise
Directs her gaze beyond herself:
“Lift your eyes all around and see;
they all gather, they come to you.”
And there before abandoned Zion
There before Zion of the solitary deathbed
Before Zion who saw no aid in her darkest hour of trial
Is the vision
Of all her multitude of children
Now grown, now thriving, now full of life.
“Who bore me these?” she gasps
“I was bereaved and barren;
I was exiled and rejected.
Who brought these children up?
I was left all alone, where have they come from?
This land we thought was devastated is now bustling with life.

We, in this room tonight
Are the very same blessing of life
given by God to a formerly barren land.
And as you go to events this weekend
I challenge you to look around yourself
And see in the festive faces of your friends and community
the children which the Lord brings home to Zion.
We, no matter what our age, or gender, or orientation
We are the children AIDS has made.
We are survivors who took benefit
From the medical rights fought for by ACT-UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis
We are among those who took the earliest cues of the movement for chastity
We are among that generation born after AIDS
Who were educated by the public initiatives like Triad Health Project
that taught us to value our own safety in relationship
Our very life
Is the gift of God and years of righteous anger and back breaking work
For justice.
We, in this room tonight,
Are the very same gift of life.
Reared up and remaining from this most desolate time in our history.

In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah,
God presents this gift of new life to bereaved, abandoned Zion
As if her own children were exquisite jewelry to put on
As if the gift of generations were a wedding garment
To bind up Zions wounds.

And now God is giving us to be the same.
God is blessing us with more life
That we may honor with that life
The struggles which came before us.
How we will show that honor to our forebears
To activist caregivers like Rodger McFarlane
Cannot be given too high a priority in our current agenda.
The fullest expression of gratitude for all we have been given
Can only come as we acknowledge their outrage at injustice
And their immediate response to a need for basic care.

Our current excitement over equal marriage laws
Is very important
Getting many people involved in the work of justice for the 1st time
But it cannot remain an end unto itself
It must be the gateway for more.
We must not forget the continued injustice and need for care
In those places which are beyond our separate units of companionship.
There is still non-discrimination legislation to pursue
Adequate sexual health curriculums to advocate for
And new populations in our own country
Going through the same motions with AIDS that we did two decades ag
Our forebears waged a war on ignorance and death itself
And we must seek out the dying and unknown
if we are to honor that fight that gave us life.
Even as we expend our vast resources on wrestling our right to marry from conservative America
Our kindred around the globe are still wrestling for their lives.
In Iraq, recent feelings of openness led many gay people to
Congregate in public spaces
Only to be slaughtered one after another,
often with their families consent.
In Iran being gay is a crime
Frequently punished by decapitation.
Where boys are lined up, hooded, and hung.
Libiya, Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana.
What little AIDS leaves alive in our world
Hate and murder are in full force to swallow up.
Our government- or any government- has yet to speak out on
this kind of violence.
Of forebears waged a war on ignorance and death itself
And we must seek the dying and unknown
if we are to honor that fight that gave us life.

In this room,
I am sure there are many veterans of this fight
Even as there are those among us just beginning.
Begin with Psalm 55 if that feels right
Begin with the betrayal and the outrage
Listen closely to it
And see if you can discern where it is coming from.
Begin with this group of people gathered here
With the people you will see tomorrow or the next day
And look at them with the startled eyes
Of a Zion once in ruins,
Who never had expected to see such joy, such life
In such a barren land.
Begin with the booths you are sure to find this weekend
Triad Health Project, Equality NC
Begin with their email listservs and contact your representatives
When they tell you to
Begin with Google,
Look up Southerners On New Ground
Look up Changing Attitudes Nigeria.
Begin wherever you can
And DO whatever you can
To place yourself as the exquisite jewel you are
Upon the body of this people
Who have survived- who have THRIVED.
And May the God of All Justice, Of All Strength, All Comfort, & All Joy
Grant us the power and Spirit that was in Christ
The power that was in Rodger McFarlane
To be present to the unknown and the dying
And to carry them with us to a place of safety and new life.