Sunday, April 28, 2013
Here's today's homily. The readings are Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.
I’ve always loved the story of Peter’s vision. There’s something about that image of the sheet being lowered, full of all kinds of animals, that immediately captures the imagination. All those creatures, all that potential food, and obedient Peter determined not to eat anything he shouldn’t, until the voice in his dream tells him it’s okay. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And soon enough, he learns that all people are clean, too. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
This is only one of my favorite Bible stories. I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, of Nathan challenging David to recognize his wrongdoing, of Jesus blessing the Canaanite woman, the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with him. I could offer a much longer list, and I’m sure all of you have lists of your own. I’ve noticed that many of my friends who aren’t religious seem to think of the Bible as a tedious collection of rules, of shalts and shalt-nots. To me, it’s a collection of stories. I come to church every Sunday to share a meal with friends and to hear old tales, stories I know rendered new by occasion and circumstance, made fresh whenever I hear them.
That’s what Jesus did with, and for, his friends. They traveled together and ate together, and he told them stories: about the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, about bridesmaids and laborers, about lost sheep and pearls of great price. And his friends, in turn, told stories about Jesus’ amazing deeds. Hey, remember that time when Jesus walked on water? Remember when Jesus called us away from our fishing boats to follow him? Remember all those people he fed, and healed, and loved?
This is what made the disciples a family; it’s what makes the church a family. A family is a group of people who love each other, and take care of each other, and stick together. Families share meals, and over their food they often share stories, not just about what happened that day, but about who they are and where they’ve come from.
Sometimes those stories seem boring, especially to the children at the table. In my own family, my sister and I must have heard fifty thousand times how our father left home when he was sixteen to hitchhike across the country and join the Navy. As the son of a truck driver, someone who never expected to get past high school, he loved to tell us how the GI Bill allowed him to go to college, and then to law school. He routinely bragged about some of his legal victories.
My mother had her own set of stories: about growing up during the Depression and watching her mother put plates of sandwiches on the back porch for hobos, about meeting my father in college and sneaking out of her dorm to see him after hours, about her nearly miraculous recovery from alcoholism after Dad divorced her because of her drinking.
Not all of their stories were happy, of course. They both told sad tales about the deaths of their own parents. But now that both of them are dead, my sister and I treasure all of our family tales, even the ones that made us roll our eyes when we were children. These are the tales that tell us who we are and what our parents considered important: compassion, education, perseverence. Both of my parents, in different ways, overcame long odds to lead happy lives.
So I was very intrigued by a recent New York Times article about research into childhood resilience. It turns out that the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family story. Children who know a lot about their families, about where they came from, do better when they face challenges. Psychologists gave children a twenty-question quiz with questions like, “Do you know where your parents met? Do you know a story of something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?” The results of that quiz turned out to be the single biggest predictor of children’s health and happiness. The kids who knew the most about where they came from had the most sense of control over their lives, the highest self-esteem, and the strongest trust in their families’ success.
The researchers also studied the kinds of stories families tell. They identified three types.
The first is the ascending narrative, the rags to riches story where things start out bad but get better. “We came here with nothing, but we worked hard and made our fortune.”
The second is the descending narrative, the riches to rags story where things start out great but go downhill. “We were wealthy and powerful once, but then we lost all our money in the stock market crash, and now we have nothing.”
The third is the oscillating narrative. This kind of story goes up and down and up and down. It shows families dealing with both success and failure, weathering both losses and triumphs, bouncing back from hard times. This third type, the oscillating narrative, was the healthiest one, the one that best prepared children to deal with hard times of their own.
Here are three oscillating narratives.
One. “Susan, I was so happy with your father, but then I lost almost everything from drinking, and I was in the hospital and everyone thought I was going to die, but then I went to an AA meeting, and I got better.”
Two. “I used to persecute Christians, but then God literally knocked me to the ground on the road to Damascus, and I discovered the love of Christ. I helped plant a lot of churches, and God and my new friends are keeping me going even though I’m in prison now.”
Three. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another.” These words challenge us to think about how Jesus has loved us. He has fed us and healed us. He has comforted us, included us, and taught us to include others, even those we consider unclean. But he has also told us stories, and he has left us with the greatest oscillating narrative of all. A child born in poverty is revealed as the Son of God, gains a following, is betrayed and crucified, but rises from the tomb. Darkness gives way to light. Despair becomes hope. Life conquers death.
This is our family story. Christians have been telling it for two thousand years now over their bread and wine, even if some of the kids at the table roll their eyes and say,”That old story again? I’ve heard that one a million times!” It’s the best kind of story, the one that will leave us healthiest and happiest and most prepared to face the challenges of life. We love God, and ourselves and one another, by remembering this story when we need strength, by retelling it at church every Sunday, and by sharing it with the strangers and outcasts we welcome to the feast.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Here's tomorrow's homily, for the first Sunday in Lent. I've linked to the Gospel passage below.
My husband and I have just started watching the British science-fiction series Doctor Who. In the episode we watched a few nights ago, a high school is taken over by a race of aliens, disguised as humans, who are actually ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings and ferocious teeth. At a crucial point in the episode, Doctor Who and his companions are cornered by a group of these creatures, who have been using the students to try to unlock a source of cosmic power. The head alien, waving his bat wings, booms at Doctor Who, “Become a God at my side! Imagine what you could do! Think of the civilizations you could save!”
I poked my husband. “Hey! It’s the Temptation of Christ! I’m preaching on that this weekend!”
Doctor Who, of course, says no, just as Jesus does in this morning's Gospel. That’s the thing: they know this story as well as we do. When a ten-foot-tall lizard with bat wings offers you ultimate power, you say no, especially when said lizard has been snacking on children. When anyone invites you to perform magic, offers you rulership of the entire world, or suggests that you jump from a tall building, you say no.
These are no-brainers. I’ve never gotten the sense that Jesus is seriously tempted by these offers; I always picture him rolling his eyes. These three challenges strike me as a pro-forma final exam. I suspect the real test came earlier, when Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil and had nothing to eat.”
Whenever I think about what those temptations might have looked like, I remember the moments in the Gospels when Jesus tries to go off by himself. He repeatedly tries to get alone time, and it never works. He’s constantly surrounded by crowds of people who need healing, by curious strangers hungry for good news, and by hapless disciples who can’t tie their own sandal laces without his help.
This pattern makes me wonder if the real temptation of the wilderness was the promise of sweet solitude, of all the time Jesus needed to pray and reflect and commune with his Father. True, he was fasting and hungry, but at least he wasn’t also worrying about feeding 5,000 other hungry people, or about helping the disciples catch fish, or about turning water into wine. If life in the wilderness was hard, it must also, in some ways, have been simple.
If I’m right about this -- if at least one of the temptations of the wilderness is the comfort of distance and disengagement -- the devil’s final three tests appear in a slightly different light. These three offers are, after all, things Jesus is going to get anyway. He will turn the stone of his death into bread for the world; he will be recognized as the ultimate ruler of creation; he will be thrown down from a great height and saved by the power of God. The devil’s greatest temptation isn’t power, glory or safety: it’s instant gratification. He’s offering these things right now, in a false form that’s removed from -- disconnected from -- the needs of the hurting world.
In time, Jesus will provide bread to all the hungry around him; but now the devil is tempting him to feed only himself. In time, Jesus will be adored and followed for his deeds of power and compassion; but now the devil is offering unearned glory divorced from love and service. In time, after a long painful journey, Jesus will plummet through the gloom of Good Friday and rise into the brilliance of Easter; but now the devil is tempting Jesus to test his safety net early, to prove that God will protect him before he has done the work for which he was sent.
The final three temptations, then, are of a piece with the previous forty days. Hey, Jesus, you don’t need to worry about messy human life; you don’t need to deal with crowds, or get your hands dirty, or be betrayed and crucified. You can stay alone, aloof, uninvolved: watching from a distance, an observer rather than a participant. You can stay safe.
Jesus says no. He knows this is a no-brainer. He knows his job is to love people in all their messy, inconvenient complexity, even when they hurt him, and he knows that there are no short-cuts to resurrection. The journey is the destination.
Jesus knows this. Do we? It’s no accident that we hear this reading on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty days, rather than the end.
I, personally, would find the devil’s offer, the easy way out, really tempting. I do find it tempting. February and March are the hardest months of the year for me. I’m always beset by work deadlines. I’m always disheartened by weather that refuses to get warm enough fast enough. I’m always cold, hungry, and tired. The idea of Lenten disciplines makes me roll my eyes. This isn’t a time of year when I want to add another set of tasks to an already overburdened schedule. It’s certainly not a time of year when I want to give up any kind of physical or emotional comfort. Unless I can turn hibernation into a Lenten discipline, I want no part of it.
Every year, I joke about giving up Lent for Lent. This year, I almost did. My Wednesday teaching schedule this semester kept me from attending Ash Wednesday services. Lenten soup suppers are equally impossible, and any kind of community service is a joke. I’m just too busy. Why not skip Lent, focus simply on caring for myself -- which feels like enough of a challenge, thank you -- and take the short-cut to resurrection, going into hibernation on Ash Wednesday and emerging on Easter? Why not simply observe, rather than participating? Why not stay safe?
It seemed like a splendid plan. But then I got hooked despite myself: I saw an ad for a United Methodist project, a photo-a-day challenge. On each of the forty days of Lent, participants take a photograph in response to a one-word topic, prompts like “return,” “injustice,” “wonder.” I like taking pictures. This seemed like a safe, easy no-brainer. I could do this.
I’ve done it for all of five days now, and I’ve discovered that it’s a lot less easy -– and safe -- than it looks. How do you take a photograph of a verb like “settle”? How do you take a photograph of an abstract noun like “evil” or “injustice”? What do evil and injustice look like, and where do they live in my neighborhood, close enough for me to take a snapshot of them? Once I’ve recognized them, how can I help change them? While my position behind the camera certainly makes me more observer than participant, the project has forced me to think about the world and its suffering. It’s forced me to connect, however tenuously, with the messy, complicated lives around me.
Our task during Lent is to engage with the suffering of the world, rather than retreating into comfort and complacency. Our task is to live into the day-to-day work of feeding the hungry and healing the sick, rather than taking a short-cut to Easter. Our task is to be fully human while we acknowledge Jesus as fully divine. And if taking pictures still seems like something of a safe way out, well, at least it’s made me think – and feel. The photo project has woken me up from hibernation.
Some temptations really are no-brainers. Most of us, I suspect, would know what to say to ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings making enticing offers. But the devil takes many other forms, often more difficult to recognize. In the words of writer Kathleen Norris, “We act as the anti-Christ whenever we hear the Gospel and don’t do it.”
Thursday, December 20, 2012
This last earned me special torment from other kids. Some just asked questions, probably genuinely curious, like "Why do you have a mustache? Is it because you have more boy juices than girl juices?" Some yelled "Mustachio!" after me down the hallway. This was in addition to garden-variety stealing of my books, my lunch, my purse.
The adults who witnessed all this did nothing. I don't recall my tormenters ever being punished, although I was trapped in such a solipsistic hell that if they had been, I might not have noticed. In any case, no one in any kind of authority ever asked me my side of any story, and when I complained to my parents about what was happening -- which I didn't do very often, because for complicated dysfunctional-family reasons I needed to protect them from worrying about me -- they told me that I just had to learn to defend myself.
Eventually, the bullying got so bad that other kids stuck up for me, which means you know it was bad. But it took a few years for that to happen. In the meantime, school was the terrifying misery I descended into every day to mine the good grades everyone expected of me, and that I expected of myself.
The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha. We had French class together. She was as skinny as I was and as bold as I was awkward. She was sly, fast, scornful. Every day she came up to me, pulled on my upper lip, and launched into a jeering commentary on my mustache. The French teacher, to her credit, yelled at Tasha to stop it. It never worked.
I hated Tasha more than I've ever hated anyone. I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if . . . if what? I didn't have the physical skills or coordination to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me. My powerlessness filled me with rage.
Later on, after the other kids had stuck up for me, I gained compassion for a lot of the other bullies, and they for me; while I was never friends with any of them, exactly, we established tentative mutual respect. And now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean. But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as another child, as another little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.
Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?
When I was nineteen, my father's second wife physically assaulted me. She and my father were both alcoholic. They were both smart, kind, funny people when they weren't drunk, but drinking brought out their dark sides, as it so often does, and even when they were sober, they brought out the worst in each other.
I won't bore you with the endless layers of craziness that led up to this particular evening. The short version is that some months before, my father had confessed to having affairs, although he and my stepmother were trying to work things out. This particular evening, he was sleeping off too much liquor in bed. She had stayed up to drink some more and to ramble endlessly to me about her marital problems, none of which was unusual; at some point, she slid into blackout territory and no longer knew who I was.
That had happened before too, but I'd always been able to remind her: "I'm Susan. It's okay; I'm Susan." On this particular evening, it didn't work. She became convinced that I was one of my father's mistresses, and started throwing stuff: a brass lamp (I can still see its square base floating through the air towards my head, until time sped up again and I told myself to move and managed to get out of the way), a chair she knocked over. She was very drunk and very clumsy. I was very awake and much more coordinated than she was; I danced out of the way of her sallies and screamed for help.
Why didn't I just leave? She was between me and the door. Also between us and the door was the tiny kitchen. We'd had porkchops for dinner that night. We'd used steak knives. I couldn't remember if all of them had been put away. I was pretty sure that she wasn't rational enough to open a drawer to grab a knife, but I didn't know what she might do if she saw one sitting on the counter. Also, the door had the requisite three locks -- this was New York City -- and I was shaking really hard, and I knew that if we were together in a small space and I was fumbling with locks while she came at me with a knife, I'd lose the advantage I had in the open.
So I screamed. The neighbors did nothing. My father slept on. Finally she went into the bedroom and woke him up ("Get this woman out of our house!"), and he, disbelieving and bewildered ("That's Susan. What are you doing?"), restrained her long enough for me to get safely out of the apartment.
Do I need to tell you that if she'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?
As stories of violence go, these are chump change. Millions of people endure worse every day. I'm not telling these stories to make anyone feel sorry for me; on some very real level, these stories aren't about me at all. They're about unpleasant situations that would have been incalculably worse if firearms had been involved.
I'm endlessly grateful that I didn't have a gun in seventh grade. If I had, I hope I'd have had the sense just to try to scare Tasha, rather than to hurt her, but I don't know. In any case, any such incident would have radically altered the course of my life -- and hers -- and I doubt that saying, "But the grown-ups told me I had to defend myself!" would have done either of us any good.
I'm endlessly grateful that my stepmother didn't have a gun when I was nineteen. When she came out of her blackout the next morning -- by which time I was safe in my mother's house in New Jersey -- she was horrified at what she'd done. How much more horrified would she have been if she'd shot me? How much worse would everything have been for everyone in my family?
The lack of guns in these scenarios didn't prevent bad things from happening. The violence -- and the violence was real in both cases, even without bullets -- still happened. But guns would have made that violence, and its aftermath, infinitely worse.
Guns will not solve the problem of violence. We need fewer guns, not more.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Here's my homily for 3 Advent. For obvious reasons, this is a challenging preaching occasion: one on which I find myself, as I've so often been before, infinitely grateful for poetry.
The readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. This is the day when we’re called to put aside the somber, penitential business of Advent to revel in the Lord’s impending arrival. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”
I don’t know about you, but after the terrible news from Connecticut on Friday -- right after that other terrible news from Portland only a few days earlier -- I don’t feel like rejoicing and exulting. I don’t feel like the Lord has turned away my enemies, and I doubt that any of the survivors of those mass shootings, or their families, feel that way either. I fear disaster as much as I ever did, if not more.
Usually I don’t like John the Baptist, this grumpy prophet with his locusts and wild honey, howling at the assembled crowd to repent, telling them they’re a brood of vipers. He’s such a downer, right before Christmas. Where’s the good news here, exactly?
But in the middle of so much bad news, I need this morning’s Gospel. John doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he still offers hope. The good news he brings is that we are capable of kindness, of good deeds, of the love of neighbor that is Jesus’ greatest commandment. When the crowd asks John, “What should we do?” he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” In this wide, wild world where there is so much we cannot control, we still have free will. We can choose love.
In the past few days, many people have been sharing something Mister Rogers once said. I’ve talked about Fred Rogers from this pulpit before, and I ask your indulgence as I do so again. This quotation has gone viral because it so perfectly fits the situation.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Fred Rogers’ tone is very different from John the Baptist’s, but they’re saying the same thing. Choose love over despair. Choose love over violence. Choose love over vengeance. Even in the darkness, choose love.
And, on Gaudete Sunday, we are also called to choose joy. That may seem impossible right now. It may even seem disrespectful, a sign that we don’t care about all those dead children and their families. How can we find joy in the middle of so much sadness?
Here is a poem about that process. It is by Jack Gilbert, and it is called,“A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Choose love. Choose joy. And listen. There will be music despite everything, even in the midst of tears. And in a few weeks, if we listen very carefully, we will hear another kind of crying: the thin wailing of a hungry, newborn child lying in a manger, bringing light and love and peace even in the darkness.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
On Thursday, November 15 at 6:30, I'll be reading from Brief Visits, my new book of sonnets about my ER volunteer work. Here's the official flyer for the event.
If you're in Reno, please stop by, and even if you can't make it, please spread the word!
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Here's this morning's homily, which includes a video clip. I've never shown one before, so I hope it works!
The readings are Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Mark 10:17-31.
I didn’t start going to church until I was an adult. I went for many reasons, but among them was the fact that my husband and I had just bought our first house. By Reno standards, our house is small, but I was very conscious of living with one other adult and three cats in a structure, and on a piece of land, that could contain an entire third-world village. I didn’t want to become complacent about that. I thought church would help stave off complacency.
It worked, especially when I heard this morning’s Gospel for the first time. Over dinner that night, I fretted to my husband. “Jesus says we have to sell all we own and give it to the poor,” I told him. “I mean, I don’t know anybody who’s done that, but that is what he says.”
Gary, who doesn’t go to church, looked alarmed. He put down his fork. “Susan,” he said, “we’re not selling the house.”
We didn’t sell our house, and we don’t plan to, but this Gospel passage continues to nag at me. I suspect many of us struggle with it. Are we doing what God wants us to do? Do we give enough to others? Do we really have to sell everything we own, leave everyone we love, to strap on sandals and a robe and follow Jesus?
The discomfort of this morning’s Gospel is only heightened by the lesson from Job. You remember Job: that pious, blameless guy who became the object of a bet between God and Satan.
“Job loves me,” says God.
“Betcha he’ll curse you if he loses all his stuff,” says Satan.
“Betcha he won’t,” says God, and the game is on. In short order, Job loses his house, his land, his flocks, his family, and his health. He winds up on a dungheap, howling in misery, demanding to know why this has happened to him.
I’ve never been satisfied with God’s answer to Job, which is more or less, “I invented whales, and you didn’t. I’m God, and you’re not.” I’m not even satisfied with the fact that after all those torments, God restores Job’s fortunes twice over. I know too many people who’ve suffered tragic losses and have never gotten a winning lottery ticket to make up for it.
What I do take from Job’s story – which I believe we’re meant to read more as parable than as history – is the importance, not of blind faith, but of stubborn faithfulness. Job isn’t blind. He knows his suffering isn’t fair, but he doesn’t stop talking to God, and he doesn’t stop listening to God. He doesn’t abandon God even when he feels God has abandoned him. He stays in relationship even when that relationship is maddeningly difficult.
This is useful. It means that it’s okay for me to get mad at God, which I do regularly. It doesn’t, though, help me figure out what to do about my house. So I head back to the Gospel, where Jesus is telling his disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who’s rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples remind Jesus that, unlike Job, they’ve freely chosen to leave everything they have and everyone they love. They’ve strapped on robes and sandals to follow him. “Jesus,” I can hear them saying, “we’re not rich. Come on: do we look rich to you? These robes are ragged. These sandals have holes in them.”
And Jesus says something that I, at least, usually forget when I’m trying to imagine camels fitting through needles. He tells his disciples that anyone who leaves an old life to follow him holds a winning lottery ticket. His followers will receive a hundredfold “now in this age,” as well as eternal life. If you’ve walked away from one house to follow Jesus, you’ll get a hundred houses. Like Job, you’ll be rewarded for your deprivation in spades.
Jesus exaggerated sometimes – it was how people in his culture pressed home a point – so I don’t think we need to take that “hundredfold” literally. But he’s certainly saying that if his disciples leave stuff behind to follow him, they’ll get a lot more down the road.
They will? The disciples get new, improved houses? Where does that happen, exactly?
And then I remember. It happens after Pentecost, in the idyllic first days of the early church, described in the Book of Acts. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” In this model, selling your stuff doesn’t mean that you have nothing. It means that everyone has enough. It’s like the feeding of the five thousand, where a few fish and some bits of bread turned into enough food to fill all those stomachs. Many scholars think there was nothing supernatural happening there: it was a simple matter of the people in the crowd, including mothers who’d brought snacks for their children, pooling their resources so everyone would have enough to eat.
Jesus is telling us that to enter the kingdom of God, we have to share. We have to believe that if we give what we have to the poor, even if we become poor as a result, someone will give us what we need in return.
Sharing this way requires radical trust, both in God’s generosity and in the generosity of other people. “It doesn’t work that way,” we think. “I’ll sell all my stuff and I’ll be poor and no one will give me anything. And anyway, I don’t want to sell my stuff. It’s mine. I’ve spent a long time collecting it, and it’s valuable to me.” The young man who questions Jesus at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel has exactly this reaction: “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
As Gary will tell you, I too have many possessions -- too many possessions. I’m not good at giving them away. I can’t even bring myself to have a garage sale. I believe I’m still merely at packrat level, but all of us have heard stories about people who are possessed by their possessions. All of us have heard of hoarders.
Hoarding – the compulsion to keep acquiring things you don’t need and have no room for – is a recognized mental illness. It’s not about greed: it’s about fear. Fear of scarcity, fear that there won’t be enough, fear that you aren’t enough. Hoarders can’t get out from under their stuff. Often they can’t care for themselves. Sometimes they literally can’t get out of their houses. This means that all their gifts remain hidden. They are hoarding, not just magazines or radios or pets, but themselves. They are both the hoarders and the hoarded, imprisoned by what they own, locked away from light and love and joy, from caring neighbors and from God’s good creation.
What might it feel like, to get out of a prison like that? What might it look like? Well, it might look something like this.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The ducks in this clip, released from prison, have overcome their fear of the new and their distrust of the unknown. They’ve discovered abundant life “now in this age,” and so can we. The first step, Jesus tells us, is to walk away from our stuff, even if we have to take baby steps. The first step is to get out of the house.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Here's today's homily. I went with the alternate reading of 1 Kings 19:4-8 because I didn't have the courage to tackle "Absalom, Absalom!" The Gospel is John 6:35, 41-51.
Most of you know that I’m an English professor. At least once a semester, usually around midterms or finals, a student comes to my office in panic and pours out a tale of woe. Everything is due right now in every class, and the student also has a job and family crises and had the flu last week and just can’t keep juggling everything and doesn’t know what to do –
By now, the student’s usually sobbing on my tiny couch. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” he or she will say, sniffling, as I hand over a box of tissues. “I’m not usually such a mess.”
I give these students academic guidance, and I’ve been known to walk them over to UNR’s free Counseling Center. But that’s not the first thing I do. The first thing I do – something I’ve learned over many years of dealing with these situations – is to ask the student, “When’s the last time you ate something?”
And the student, who’s usually sitting on my tiny couch at about three or four in the afternoon, inevitably sniffles and says, “Yesterday, I think. Why?”
At that point, I reach into my desk and hand the student a power bar, a box of which I keep handy for just such occasions. “You need to eat,” I say. “You can’t think straight on an empty stomach. This will all seem much more manageable when you have fuel in your system.”
As far as I know, none of my students have been prophets, and I’m certainly no angel. Nonetheless, Elijah would recognize this scenario. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Elijah, fleeing Ahab and Jezebel’s death threats, was having an even worse day than my students usually are. After hours of wandering in the wilderness, he was so exhausted and discouraged that he asked God to let him die. Bone-tired, frightened and depleted, he couldn’t imagine how to continue.
Elijah’s despair certainly wasn’t caused by a lack of faith. Two chapters before this reading, he called on God to restore a widow’s dead son, and lo, the child lived. Note that in our lesson this morning, he again calls on God, shaping his desire to die as a prayer. “O Lord, take away my life.” The Lord doesn’t do that. The Lord gives him bread and water instead. This famous prophet has already seen and performed miracles, and will go on to see and perform many more. He’s going to hear the still small voice of God a mere six verses from now, and he’ll conclude his career by ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. Right now, though, he has a serious case of low blood sugar. He can’t think straight on an empty stomach.
Elijah reminds us that the physical and the spiritual can’t be separated. Ours is an incarnational and sacramental faith: God has given us marvelous, intricate bodies, and has placed us in a marvelous, intricate creation that nurtures and sustains us. If having a body is hard – we suffer from hunger and thirst, illness and injury – it is also a source of wonder. Miracles needn’t take the form of angels or chariots of fire. Miracles are within us and all around us: stars and stones, trees and grass, birds and beasts. The seemingly ordinary is also always divine. This is why Jesus came to us in a human body, and why the eucharistic feast is simple bread and wine.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ neighbors haven’t figured this out yet. They don’t understand how this kid they watched grow up – the boy whose parents they know, whose games and pranks and skinned knees they witnessed throughout his childhood – can also be the bread of life that came down from heaven. They labor under the misconception, still common in our own day, that holy things have to be rarified, otherworldly, set apart: that miracles have to take the form of angels and chariots of fire, 3D special effects straight out of some CGI blockbuster.
And, in truth, Jesus does sound a little otherworldly in this passage from John. “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” That all sounds more than a bit mystical and off-putting, and I think the neighbors can be forgiven for being confused.
Jesus’ life on earth, though, very much depends on ordinary, prosaic bread. Throughout the Gospels, he’s obsessed with food. After he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he commands her parents to give her something to eat. He scandalizes the Pharisees by sharing meals with people who haven’t washed their hands. One of his last acts on earth is to feed his disciples: even Judas, the one he knows is about to betray him. In one post-resurrection story, he asks what’s for breakfast; in another, he fries up some fish for the disciples on the beach. He feeds us, now, whenever we take communion. Jesus wants us to work to heal the world, but first, he wants us to have food for the journey. He knows we can’t think straight on empty stomachs.
But he never force feeds us. The feast depends on our consent and participation. Elijah has to reach out to take the food the angel brings him, just as my weeping students need to agree to eat their power bars (and not all of them do). The elements of the Eucharist represent not only God’s good creation, the grain and grapes that nourish us, but human stewardship in tending them and human skill in turning them into bread and wine. God gives us what we need to live, but like any good parent, he knows that we must ultimately learn to feed both ourselves and others. We have to learn to cook our own food, to share it, and to clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Even when we have done this, most of us will hit low points, moments when we feel too discouraged to continue. Sometimes our despair literally takes the form of praying to die. At such times, it’s crucial to remember that bread and water almost always help; low blood sugar and dehydration only make things worse. But it’s also important to look elsewhere in the creation for sustenance, to remember that simple physical things can offer spiritual nourishment.
Years ago, during one of my volunteer-chaplain shifts in the ER, an ambulance brought in a suicidal patient. He lay in a fetal position, unmoving and unspeaking, as the paramedics rolled him into a room. Later I learned that he’d had no food or water for three days before, finally, summoning the strength and courage to call 911, to ask for help.
The ER staff started a saline drip to rehydrate him, and gave him a meal. When I went in to talk to him, he was slowly munching a sandwich which, blessedly, had simply appeared without his having to prepare it. In severe depression, even making a sandwich can seem overwhelmingly difficult, and a hospital food tray can be a miracle.
He poured out a long tale of woe: mental illness, job difficulties, abandonment by family and friends. This had all been going on for many years. “So what’s kept you going through all that?” I asked him. “What makes you happy?”
“Nature,” he said. He told me about camping at a lake in the mountains. He told me about a waterbird he liked to watch there, about its antics and feeding patterns. His descriptions were very precise, and as he told me about the bird, his face brightened. He sat up on the edge of his bed, put down his sandwich, and whistled the bird’s courting call while he used his hands to imitate its mating dance. And then the man who had wanted to die laughed for pure joy.
I know the saline drip and sandwich were food for his journey, but I believe his memory of the birds was, too. I pray that after he left the hospital, he went back to the lake to see those birds again, and I pray that as he listened to their calls, he also heard the still small voice of God.