Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Living without Fear in the Midst of Uncertainty

Olivia Hamilton
Easter 6, 2016

I was very captivated by a news story I once read about a Baptist pastor from Virginia named William Lee, who during the height of the AIDS epidemic, made headlines because he refused to wear protective gloves when he visited his congregants who were dying of the disease, even though hospital protocol insisted that he do so. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when little was known about the disease, and when the fear of transmission was paralyzing for many people, Lee recalled thinking that people who were dying of AIDS needed to know that they were human, and touching them, holding their hands as they died, was one way he could do that. In an interview, Lee spoke about his motivation to forgo the gloves, saying, “I’m not reading the Harvard Medical Review or some theological magazine. These are people I know.” He went on to say, "I'm just not in the condemning business. My Jesus Christ was too merciful for that. He was touching lepers, so I can hug people."

I am always fascinated by the movement within the human spirit that allows us to overcome fear, despite the overwhelming cultural messaging that might convince us to cling to it. I see this same movement of the human spirit at play in my hometown of Cincinnati, lodged right in the epicenter of the heroin epidemic. A doctor named Judith Feinberg who specializes in infectious disease was horrified at how the rates of HIV and Hepatitis C were rising in correspondence with the increasing rates of I.V. drug use. Feinberg set out on a mission to bring a needle-exchange program to the city, where drug users could get clean needles and non-judgmental healthcare and referrals to treatment centers. Even though research shows that such programs not only curb the spread of infectious diseases, but also help people struggling with addiction to access the resources they need to get clean, Feinberg’s program was met with endless pushback from community members. Many people feared that these programs would enable drug users, and others took a “not in my backyard” position, not wanting to undertake the risk associated with having those people gather in their neighborhoods. Finally, after months of being rejected by neighborhood counsels and potential host sites, Reverend Paula Jackson, the Rector at an Episcopal Church in downtown Cincinnati, emailed Feinberg and offered the church’s parking lot as a site for the needle-exchange RV to do its work. A few months earlier, a parishioner at Jackson’s church had died of a heroin overdose, and she felt compelled to act. “We’re talking about our people. Anybody can be an addict,” said Rev. Jackson in an interview in the Wall Street Journal. Similarly to William Lee’s beloved congregants who were dying of AIDS, those people who others feared were people that Rev. Jackson knew and cared about.

Again, I am fascinated by tracing the movement of the spirit that allows William Lee to take off the glove and touch the person dying of AIDS, and that allows Paula Jackson to open her church’s space to the needle-exchange program despite the risks it might entail. Obviously personal relationships were at the heart of these two encounters, but I have to imagine that to some extent, faith played an important role in each of these stories, as well. Maybe William Lee didn’t have faith that he wouldn’t contract HIV by touching patients, and maybe Paula Jackson didn’t have faith that there would be no problems or pitfalls with the needle exchange. But it seems both were rooted in a sense of stability, and a security, that surpasses the changes and chances of this life, resting in God’s eternal changelessness, as the prayer goes. I think that in their actions, these folks echo Luther’s eloquent message from last week – that eternal life in Christ is not so much about security or certainty in the future, but instead it is about living without fear, in the face of uncertainty, in the here and now.

This pattern of overcoming fear in the face of uncertainty plays out many times in the gospels. When the birth of Jesus was first foretold to Mary by an angel, the words the angel spoke to her were these: “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” So even before his birth, the narrative of Christ’s life is one of assurance and promise to those who are willing to believe what they cannot see, and further, to take risks based on that belief.

In the reading from John today, we hear part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his friends, the disciples, on the night before his death. It seems to me that this scene could almost be read as a bookend to the Annunciation. Although we are now at the end of Jesus’ life rather than the beginning, like Mary, the disciples are uncertain of what’s to come. They are riddled with anxiety about the future and their place in it. Earlier in John’s gospel, Simon Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus replies, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” And after that, Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” and Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The questions that the disciples raise not only point to the vulnerability of what might happen to Jesus’ body, but also the vulnerability of the body made up of Christ’s followers. What will happen to them when he is gone? They are grasping at concrete indications of what the world will be like when Jesus is gone, and they want Jesus to give them straightforward answers and timelines and turn-by-turn navigation, but he doesn’t. He simply assures them that if they love him, they should live without fear in the midst of uncertainty. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, “and do not let them be afraid.”

In previous passages, Jesus’s words of assurance to the disciples are somewhat vague. They want to know what to expect, but can’t quite imagine it. But in tonight’s reading he offers them something a bit more precise; he tells them that when he leaves, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be there to guide them on their way.

I admit that I don’t often think about the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life. I tend to experience the presence of Christ, and to wonder and pray about God’s will, more so than I contemplate or marvel at what the Holy Spirit is up to. However, in thinking back to William Lee or Paula Jackson I wonder if that moment of taking off the glove, or pressing “send” on the email to offer up the church parking lot, are moments when the Holy Spirit is at work. In a world riddled by fear – fear of physical danger, fear of rejection, fear of the consequences of speaking up or not speaking up – and in an ethically complex world where there rarely seems to be a clear “right answer,” it is helpful for me to think about the Holy Spirit as one of the ways that God’s love is revealed to us in the midst of uncertainty. The Spirit also, I think, serves to remind us that what God is doing in our lives, transforming fear into love all around us all the time, is far more beautiful than we can ever anticipate or even comprehend.

Just like William Lee said “those are my people. I will not leave them alone to die without knowing they are loved,” and just like Paula Jackson said “those are my people and I will not stand by as they are lost to addiction,” Jesus knows us, and loves us, and will never leave us alone. We are his people.

So whatever anxiety might be crowding your mind at this moment, however small or large or passing or permanent that anxiety might be, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Be at peace, if even for this moment, knowing that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide and our companion, and will lead us to places of wholeness and peace beyond what we can imagine. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Casseroles, Cakes and Grace Abundant

Olivia Hamilton
Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C
April 10, 2016

It has been my experience that in times of great shock, or sorrow, or in times of transition more broadly, food plays an essential role. I remember last January when my niece was born, and my partner and I traveled to Tennessee to meet the baby and to help out around the house as my sister and her husband settled into the shock of this new life as parents. It was oddly quiet those first few days, and there wasn’t much for us to do, all we could think of to make ourselves useful was to cook. We probably made a dozen trips to the grocery store while we were there that week, and far more soups and casseroles and cakes than anyone in the house could possibly eat.

This is a seemingly universal tenant of human life: when a friend is in a state of shock or sorrow or newness, we get out the pots and pans. We reach for the time-tested carrot cake recipe. We order the pizza, extra cheese, or invite them over for ice cream and bad reality TV.

As many of you know, Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite novelists, was here giving a lecture on Monday. I found the lecture dense and perplexing, and hearing it solidified that Robinson’s fiction does more for me, spiritually and intellectually, than her essays. Either way, in preparation for her visit, I recently re-read Housekeeping, my favorite novel of hers, and perhaps my favorite novel ever, and I have been thinking about why this book occupies such a profound position in my imagination as a Christian.

Housekeeping is a somewhat somber story about the repeated abandonment of two young sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised first by their mother, and then when she dies by their grandmother, and then when she dies by their two ill-equipped great aunts, and then by their peculiar aunt Sylvie who drifts into town after years riding the rails. The narrative is one of loss and transience and “other-ness.” The chaos of the girls’ lives sets them apart from their peers, and Sylvie’s poor housekeeping, among other odd habits, make them the talk of their small, flat, prairie town. Towards the end of the novel, this tension between them and the rest of the town comes to a head when a group of church ladies arrives at the house in order to check-in on the girls, and to attempt to keep them from running away -- becoming drifters, like their aunt Sylvie. The women come bearing armfuls of cakes and casseroles, and also with motives “complex and unsearchable but all of one general kind,” Robinson writes through the narrator, Ruth. “They were obliged to come by their notions of piety and good breeding, and by a desire, a determination, to keep me safely indoors.” Needless to say, the casseroles and cakes are never eaten by the girls. Ruth says, “the food they brought couldn’t fill the hunger I had.”

If Housekeeping is a story of transience and abandonment and insufficiency, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, another one of my favorites, is one that elicits rootedness and belonging and abundance. The novel is a long love letter written by an aging minister, John Ames, to his young son. He reflects on the joys and challenges of ministry, ancestral folklore, and even the way light looks coming through the trees. Where Ruth and Lucille are perennially abandoned by those that should love them, John Ames’ letter to his son – which he knows he won’t read or be able to comprehend until after he is dead – is a soliloquy of gratitude for a life well lived, an acceptance of a fate that is in God’s hands, and perhaps most of all, a way of expressing a deep sense of the abundance of home amid the transience of the changes and chances of this life.

In John Ames’s letter, he recalls countless casseroles that were brought to him over the years by church ladies, but this time they seem, in a way, to be redeemed. It is in these well-intentioned meals that he has found comfort over the years. They are emblematic, I think, of the goodness of people, and of the Church at its best – a network of people nourishing one another in thought, word, and deed, even in the face of instability and uncertainty. There is a scene that I remember well where the minister John Ames feeds his son bites of all of those lovingly-delivered casseroles, a bean salad made by Mrs. Brown, a fruitcake made by Ms. McNeill, and he writes “I thought of the day I gave you communion. I wonder if you thought of that also.”

Robinson uses these characters and storylines, their casseroles and cakes, to explore deeper questions about the human experience: how are we able to cope with loss and abandonment? How do we come to terms with the abundance we’ve been dished? How is our daily experience, our eating and drinking and sleeping and moving, shaped by the knowledge that death will not have the final word? How are we as individuals, and as a Church, called to live into our ministries?

In the scene from John’s Gospel, the disciples encounter Jesus for a third time after he had been raised from the dead. You’ll remember the moment I told you about when I went to visit my niece for the first time, and all I could think to do to stay busy as my world was being radically altered by this new life was to go to the grocery store? I think this moment is an iteration of that same story line. We know that the disciples know that Jesus is alive. We also know that all they can think to do, when faced with the shock of the new, is to mill around the beach until finally Peter suggests…I guess we should go and try to catch some fish? In the unfamiliar territory of life after death, the disciples seem to cling to the mundane rhythms of their old lives, unsure of what to do with their time, without a clear sense of purpose. So, naturally, they focus on food. They lower their net into the water, just as they have done a thousand times before, hoping to catch a handful of fish. Yet when they do, they find that the water is barren. I love the humanity of this moment: the disciples know on some level that their world has been radically altered, yet they still can’t imagine the goodness and grace and abundance, in short the new way of being and living, that Christ’s Resurrection makes available to them. They still cling to old ways of thinking and living.

I also love that Jesus, having just been raised from the dead, chooses to then do this profoundly simple and tactile thing; to eat fish and bread on the beach with his friends. Like the casserole that John Ames feeds his son, the breakfast on the beach is not necessarily a Eucharistic meal, but in a way, it too embodies precisely what this sacrament is about for us – gathering together, disciples ourselves, being nourished and sustained by one who loves us and gives us life. UCC minister and writer Nancy Rockwell writes about this scene, saying “[The season of] Easter is [like] a day at home. And days like that are about nearness. Nearness isn’t about acquaintances, or social friends, or party lists. It’s about the people who stop in and sit at the kitchen table with you when you have your bathrobe and slippers on.” Here is Jesus at home.

She goes on to say, “Easter is about being together, the joy of nearness that lives beyond all other things.” For me, that joy of nearness is so profoundly expressed when Peter - who we remember had denied Jesus three times - saw him on the shore. Rather than hiding in shame, he jumped off the ship and into the water, arms paddling gleefully and urgently toward Jesus. We don’t see Jesus here as some faint or phantom-like figure, we know him instead in this scene as the incarnate friend the disciples tenderly loved, and whose own love for the disciples was enough to dissolve even the deepest shame.

Perhaps this is the moment, for Peter at least, when the newness of Resurrection suddenly becomes real to him, and instead of idly passing the time, he understands that his life is full of purpose, and full of grace. The abundance of fish are a miracle, to be sure, but it’s the abundance of grace, I think, that we are really invited to pay attention to here.

In some ways, I think, the grace of Resurrection is too daunting for us to accept all at once. And perhaps this story highlights the ways that grace is known to us in small moments; a meal with friends that brings you back to the present moment and back to your body when you’ve been adrift in barren waters. Or, like with Peter, forgiveness from someone you’ve betrayed and an unexpected opportunity to express love where before there was harm. These are the moments that allow us to come to terms with the joyful shock of Resurrection, the reality of life after death.

Both the gospel text and Marilynne Robinson’s novel wrestles with similar questions about the human experience: questions of loss and abundance, transience and home, grace and purpose. It seems to me that something about being human means that even though we see indications of Resurrection all around us all the time, we keep living as if this isn’t the case. We keep dropping our nets into water where nothing lives or moves or has its being, and coming up empty, refusing to see that there is another way, needing to be reminded over and over again that God’s plan for us is yet unfinished, or that life after death is a possibility. 

But then when it seems like all hope is lost, something about our encounter with the risen Christ tells us to put the net in again, and next to come and eat. And then to go out into the world with our casseroles and our cakes, or with whatever we have to offer that might bespeak of Christ’s nourishing love, and to feed.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Out From Behind Closed Doors

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’”
 John 20:26

The Rev. Luther Zeigler
The Second Sunday in Easter
April 3, 2016

            Today’s gospel text is commonly called ‘the story of Doubting Thomas,’ and it would be reasonable to suppose that a sermon on this Second Sunday of Easter should focus on Thomas and his well-known problem with doubt.  And goodness knows, there is much to be learned from Thomas’ story about the relationship between faith and doubt, believing and seeing, and about Christ’s willingness to meet Thomas where he is. But, I submit to you, that as rich as that aspect of the story may be, there is just as much to be learned in today’s text by closely watching the interaction between the risen Christ and the other disciples. Let me try to convince you.
            In John’s gospel, you may remember, the risen Christ first appears to Mary Magdalene.   After discovering the empty tomb on Easter morning, and telling Peter and John what she has discovered, Mary then has her extraordinary encounter with her Lord.  Initially, you’ll recall, she doesn’t recognize that the strange man lingering near the tomb is the risen Christ – that is, until he calls out her name.  “Mary!,” he says.  And it is then that she realizes that it is Jesus who stands before her.  “Go to my brothers and tell them that I am alive,” Jesus says.  And so she does.  Mary, the first apostle, immediately runs to the other disciples to tell them the good news that Christ is risen. The first Easter proclamation. And that brings us to today’s text.
            Now, one might think that in the wake of such unexpectedly wonderful news, the disciples would be dancing with joy in the streets or that they would quickly return to the tomb in the hope that they too could greet the risen Christ.  But, no, that is not what the disciples do.  Seemingly afraid of even their own shadow, they instead retreat into someone’s house, we’re not told whose, behind locked doors, cowering in fear, apparently unsure of what to do next.
            Perhaps they are afraid that they too may be arrested and crucified if identified as one of Jesus’ followers?  Perhaps they are afraid that they might be accused of stealing Jesus’ body to fabricate a resurrection, as the chief priests had openly predicted?  Or, perhaps, they are even a little afraid of meeting the risen Christ?  After all, unlike the women and the beloved disciple, most of them had fled the scene of the crucifixion.  If I had abandoned my dearest friend in his greatest hour of need, I am not so sure I would be eager to see him quite so soon, if ever.  All of these are possibilities.  The only thing we know for sure is that the disciples are, once again, afraid.
             And so, they hide.  They lock themselves behind closed doors.  There is irony here, of course:  Just as the chief priests after Jesus’ death ordered that his body be secured in the tomb behind a big boulder with guards standing at the entrance, because they were afraid of what might happen next, so now the disciples, after hearing that Jesus is alive from one of their own, seek to lock themselves behind the security of a heavy door, also out of fear of what might happen next.
            The risen Christ, however, will not let our fears stand between us and Him.  Instead, He walks right through the locked doors of our fears, stands in our midst, and greets us with the unforgettable words:  “Peace be with you.”  Christ brings us “peace.”
            If we have learned anything in the gospels by this point, however, it is that Christ rarely brings us exactly what we expect or want; rather, he brings us what we need.  And that is equally true of the “peace” he brings to his followers.
            Undoubtedly the “peace” the disciples crave in that moment with their risen Lord is the “peace” of security, of being protected from their fears, shielded from their persecutors and the angry crowds.  The “peace” the disciples yearn for, the “peace” that most of us yearn for, is, I suspect, something akin to a warm and lasting embrace, an enduring respite from the storm of life, a return to the safety of a mother’s arms.
            But what we learn today is that the “peace” Christ gives is not nearly so simple:  “Peace be with you,” he says.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  This verse is a critical pivot in John’s text.  The “peace” that Jesus has in mind, it turns out, is the “peace” of being sent back into the world.  This is the crucial moment when Jesus turns his disciples into apostles; when followers of Jesus are transformed by the gift of the Spirit into messengers of Jesus.  The strange “peace” that Jesus has in mind is the “peace” of being sent:  of being sent into a sometimes hostile world, of bearing his message to those who have never heard it, of helping to bring about His Kingdom. 
            So, how do the disciples take this news?  Now, that they have seen the risen Christ, and received the Holy Spirit, and have been given the “peace” of this apostolic commissioning, and have been told to embark upon a ministry of forgiving sins, what do our wayward friends of Jesus do?  They go back into their house and close the doors.   There is no indication in John’s narrative that any of them take Jesus’ words to heart.  Instead, in the very next scene, we find the disciples, a week later, once again back in their house, once again with the doors shuttered.  Fear runs deep in the human heart.
            And yet, Jesus returns, and once more breaking through the doors of their fears, he stands among them, and says:  “Peace be with you.”
            It is at this point in the text, of course, that Jesus turns to Thomas, the one who had not been there the first time round, and shows Thomas the wounds from his crucifixion.  And, were we focusing on Thomas today, we might dwell in these verses:  appreciating how Christ’s willingness to show Thomas his wounds reveals our Lord’s deep desire to meet Thomas in his unbelief, so that he might dispel Thomas’ fear – a fear of believing without seeing. 
            But because our focus is on the other disciples, let us notice the fact that Christ reveals his woundedness not only to Thomas but to these other disciples as well.  And in so doing, he is, I am convinced, meeting their unbelief as well.  Their unbelief stems not from a fear of believing without seeing, as with Thomas – for they have seen the risen Christ once before – but, rather, their fear is in acting on their belief.  They are reluctant apostles.  Their Lord had a week earlier breathed the Spirit of new life into them, and invited them to go out into the world as his apostles, and yet here they remain, behind closed doors, seemingly paralyzed by fear.  By returning to them and showing his wounds, it is as if Christ is saying:  “See, I too was sent by our Father into the world, I have endured all of its cruelty and hostility, and I have the scars to show for it; and yet, here I still am, given new and everlasting life by the Father, so that I might now send you out into the world after me to continue the work of building God’s Kingdom without fear.”
            In this sense, the Easter miracle of today’s text is almost as stunning as last Sunday’s message:  not only do we learn that Jesus is risen, but we are reassured that he will come again and again and again to us, determined to break through our fears, willing to appear when we are least expecting him, resolved to dispel our confusion, and to make apostles of us.  There is a wonderful relentlessness to the love of the risen Christ, one that is not deterred by our feeble attempts to keep him at bay.  He keeps bursting forth into our lives. 
            Of course, throughout it history, right down to the present moment, the Church has often fallen back into the same fearfulness that plagued these initial disciples.  Too often we close ourselves off behind the doors of our churches, where we are comfortable, and feel safe.  And yet the “peace” Christ offer us here today in the word and sacrament we share is the same “peace” he offered to Thomas and his friends – a “peace” that, by its nature, sends us out into the world. 
            There is a reason why, at the end of our service every Sunday, we are dismissed with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  We need to hear these words afresh, and take them to heart.  Like Christ’s first disciples we too need to claim and live into our Christian identity, not just within the fours walls of our Church, but out there, in the world.  We need to re-learn how to be apostles.                         
            So as you leave this place today, I invite you to consider these simple questions:  where is Christ sending you?  To whom can you bring the peace that passeth all understanding?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dispatches from the Desert: Field Notes on Race and Resurrection

Olivia Hamilton
The Third Thursday in Lent, year C
March 3, 2016

Lesson: Luke 11:14–23

What I want to present today is not a thesis about the causes and effects of racism, or a step-by-step guide for making our churches more welcoming to people of color, or even a call to action. Instead, what I have to offer are simple field notes, so to speak, of my own experience as a White Christian encountering the pain of exile, but also the power of the Resurrected Christ, in the work of dismantling racism. I will call these field notes “dispatches from the desert.”

Dispatch 1: The Moment I Realized I was in the Desert

Before we can begin to heal, we must admit that we are wounded. Before we can find our way home, we must realize that we are in exile. As a white person, it took me a long time to realize, and I am still coming to see, all of the ways that racism has harmed me. Of course, the overwhelming pain and burden of racism falls on people of color, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But what I have come to understand is that the illusion of superiority that racism endows on those of us who are white is not only toxic, but hurls us into a state of exile that separates us from others, and from God.

Someone whose life and work and faith has been essential to me as I’ve grappled with racism is a woman named Anne Braden. Maybe some of you are familiar with her story. Anne was born in 1924 to an elite white Southern family, and grew up in the rigidly segregated town of Anniston, Alabama. A longtime member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky, Anne devoted her life to ending racism, and she did so by taking risks. She is best known for a single act: in 1954 Anne and her husband Carl helped a Black family, the Wades, buy a small house in an all-white neighborhood of Louisville. Within days, wooden crosses were burned in the house’s front yard, bricks were catapulted through the windows, and eventually the house was altogether blown up by dynamite. The Wades were not home when the explosion occurred, but a later investigation showed that the dynamite had gone off in the bedroom of their three-year-old daughter.

Following these events, the Bradens were threatened by their white neighbors, put on trial by the State of Kentucky for sedition, accused of being race traitors and Communists, blacklisted for jobs and betrayed by many of their white friends and family members.

But long before Anne took this risk, something fundamental had to shift in her perspective. She describes a moment in her childhood – what I will call the moment she realized she was in the desert, and it’s a moment that I think set the tone for the rest of her life. Anne’s family had a Black housekeeper who would often bring her daughter with her when she came to clean the house. This girl got all of Anne’s hand-me-down clothes, but as Anne recalls in an interview, the girl was bigger and taller than she was, and the clothes never quite fit. What she later said was that something would happen to her when she looked at this little girl. “I knew something was wrong,” she said, “and I [became] convinced that what was wrong was the [entire] reality of our lives.”

I want to pay attention to that moment in Anne’s experience when she said that something would happen to her when she looked at this little girl, wearing her ill-fitting and worn out hand-me-downs, and in part because this has been my experience, too. That unease, that feeling of being completely dislocated in your own home, that sense that reality as you know it has been built on a distortion…that, I think, is exile.

The distortion of reality that allows us white people to believe (even subconsciously) that we are inherently superior to people of color is damaging to us in that it cuts us off from relationships, prevents us from being vulnerable with ourselves and others, and damages our ability to think boldly and imaginatively about what our society might look like if we were not given priority over others. Braden likens this process to developing a photograph in a darkroom; over time, the image becomes more clear, but in truth, just like the image in a photograph these injustices, these distortions, have been there all along. For me, the more I learn and listen to the voices and histories of people of color, the more my world is turned inside out as I see with greater clarity how my own view of myself and the world has been shaped by racist ideologies, and how those ideologies have left me parched and isolated.

As Anne Braden wrote, “I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in.”

Before we can come home, we must realize that we are in exile. Before we can address the racism that we all agree exists, we have to believe that there’s something at stake for white people; that when people of color get free, a part of me, a part of you, gets free, too.

Dispatch 2: Casting out Demons and Cooperating with the Devil

As we follow Jesus toward the Cross in Lent, we find ourselves in dry deserts and other landscapes of isolation. We come face to face with the devil, we encounter doubt and temptation and divisiveness. Today I chose to preach on the text assigned by the lectionary for today, the third Thursday in Lent; perhaps lesser known, but Lenten, indeed.

The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus is casting out demons, making a person who was mute speak. People in the crowd accuse him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, but Jesus reiterates that it is God’s work he has been sent to do. “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house.” Jesus says.  He goes on: “if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”

A simple interpretation would be to say that racism is a demon that must be cast out of our hearts and of our world. And to the extent that we understand sin as our propensity as humans to deny the humanity of others, and to deny our own humanity in turn, I think this interpretation holds up. When our lives are at odds with God’s desire for us to be reconciled to one another, they become deserts. The passage also invites us to think about how we cooperate with evil; by what we have done, or by what we have left undone; by complicity, complacency or collusion. Without our consent, how could the evil of racism thrive, we might ask? Are we here to scatter, or are we here to gather?

Jesus says that he casts out demons by the finger of God. As I think again about my motivations for getting involved in the movement to end racism, I have come to see that doing so through politics or scholarship or activism alone still leaves my soul parched. If I get involved from a place of guilt or shame, I reinforce my own isolation. If I get involved because I want to be good, or because I think I know the answers, I fail to perceive how the Spirit might be doing surprising or unexpected things around me and within me, and I also fail to bring my whole self, isolated and parched as I am, to the work.  

I want to turn again to Anne Braden. I mentioned earlier that she was a devout Episcopalian, and I did so less because I want to claim her as one of us, although I am glad count her as one of the saints of the church, and instead because I think her life modeled a theology that might give us something to ponder in the desert we find ourselves in.

She writes, “Human beings have always been able to envision something better. I don’t know where they get it but that’s what makes human beings divine I think. All through history there’ve been people who’ve envisioned something better in the most dire situations, and that’s what you want to be a part of. You won’t see the fruits of it but that that’s what you want to be a part of.”

That’s what makes humans divine, she says. The ability to envision something better. You won’t see the fruits of it, but that’s what you want to be a part of. I think that is what it looks like to cast out demons by God’s finger. In a political season when the phrase “make America great again” is appealing to the fears of white Americans who can’t bear to see their superior station in life jeopardized, who wish to uphold the world as it has been and as it is, Anne Braden’s faithful witness to the Gospel, her risk-taking and her refusal to cooperate, remind us of the beauty of the world that could be if we imagine together with God.

Dispatch 3: Finding Our Way Back Home

We like to think of ourselves as Easter people living in a Lenten world. But we also understand that we cannot know Resurrection without traveling through the pain and brokenness and despair of Good Friday. In the same way, as much as we wish we could skip right to a happy and harmonious day when racism no longer brutalizes bodies and disrupts the lives of people of color, white people, myself included, are called to grapple with the brokenness of our history, and the racist ideologies (however subconscious) that force us into exile. And as a Church, if our desire is to embrace diversity, and for our doors to be opened ever wider, but we do nothing to grapple with the ways that racism shapes our history and impacts our communities, we will only wind up replicating harm. Instead, I think, we can anchor ourselves in our faith as we commit to participating in the work of dismantling racism.

Jesus’ journey toward the Cross during these forty days is not a linear path. We don’t follow Christ with the expectation that one day we’ll have this whole Resurrection thing figured out, that we’ll be able to check off a box that says “good Christian” and put our faith up on a shelf to admire from afar for the rest of our days. We follow Christ because Christ represents possibility.

Likewise, our desires to end racism can’t be about learning how to be “good allies” and then feeling as though we’ve arrived and can rest. Anne Braden reminds us, we might not even see the fruits of our labor. But if we root ourselves in the mystery of our faith, and if we acknowledge that part of what makes us divine is our capacity to imagine a world that has never been, and if – with God’s help  we take risks to make that world a reality, I believe we will find our way home.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Grace in Being Tested

“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  1 Cor. 10:13

The Rev. Luther Zeigler
Lent 3C – February 28, 2016

Lent is a season for being tested, as each of our readings today suggest in different ways.  So, let me begin by talking a little bit about tests.  For most of my life, dating back to my college years, I have had a recurring dream – a nightmare, really – that basically goes like this:  I bolt upright out of bed, suddenly realizing that my alarm clock has not gone off as it should have. Disoriented from sleep, I struggle to open my eyes to make out the time on the clock.  I see that I’m hopelessly late for my history final exam.  Panicking, I stagger out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out the door.

I try to run, but my legs feel like I'm wading through sludge.  I can’t seem to get my body to move quickly enough; it’s as if I'm running in slow motion.  I eventually make it across the campus quad to the History building.  Then I realize that I have forgotten in which room the test is being given.  I ask everyone I meet for directions but no one seems to know the answer.

Finally, I find the room.  Everyone else is already hard at work on the exam.  As I look at the first question, I am horrified to see that it is in a language I do not recognize. Even though I have no idea what the question is asking, I decide to just start writing everything I remember about the class, hoping that some of what I say may be in the ballpark and will fall upon merciful ears.  But then, each time I put pencil to paper, the graphite tip keeps breaking off on the page. While everyone else is finishing their test, I can't even get the pencil to write.  The ticking of the clock on the classroom wall grows louder and more insistent.  And then I wake up.

If you've had this dream or one like it, you're not alone.  Psychologists say that this type of dream – a dream of failing a test, or not being prepared for a test, or being late for a test, or some variation on this theme – is one of the most common dreams people experience.  Dreams of this kind are so common because they reflect a basic truth about the human condition.  Human beings fear failure.  We fear being judged unworthy.  To one degree or another, we are all insecure about our abilities, about our relationships, about whether we will be accepted.  We worry that everyone else has what it takes, but that we don't, and that we will be left behind, alone and unloved.

This fear of failure, of inadequacy, can be one of the most debilitating in all of human experience.  The fear has deep roots in the biblical narrative, as we just heard in our first lesson from Exodus.  When Moses, the greatest prophet in all of the Hebrew Scriptures, first encounters the mysterious power of the burning bush, he is overcome by fear.  And not just fear for his safety in the presence of God's overwhelming being; no, what Moses really fears, we discover, is that God is choosing him for leadership and that he, Moses, may not be up to the task.

In his heart, Moses worries that the Hebrew people will not listen to him, a young man who grew up as an adopted child in Pharaoh's court, who has no real standing in the community, and whose one claim to fame is that he is an outlaw for having murdered an Egyptian in a fist fight.  And secretly, as we later learn, Moses is also acutely self-conscious of his own limitations – most noticeably, the speech impediment with which he was born, his stuttering, his inability to speak with precision and clarity.  What kind of prophet is barely able to talk?  Like us, Moses is afraid of his own inadequacies.

But notice what God does in our text.  God does not abandon Moses to his fear.  Instead, God draws near, saying these crucial words:  “I will be with you.”  God reaches out and invites Moses to trust to Him.  And herein lies the key, the key to unlocking fear, the key to seeing through the risk of failure.  In a word, it is trust:  to acknowledge our dependence upon God and to trust that He will carry us through our fears – yes, through, not around, our fears.  The true power of the story lies not so much in the fiery spectacle of the bush as it does in the continuing promise of God's saving mercy, and Moses’ willingness to place his trust in that promise.

In our epistle lesson today, St. Paul points the good people of Corinth back to this Exodus story, and to the various experiences of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, both good and bad, as examples of how we might faithfully endure the tests that life places before us.  St. Paul concludes by saying that “God will not test us beyond our strength, but with the testing he will always provide the way out so that we are able to endure it.”

This emphatically does not mean that the road will be easy or that God always ensures good outcomes along the way.  As Christ’s own journey to Golgotha demonstrates with painful clarity, a faithful life is not one free of suffering and challenge, or even, death.  We will inevitably be tested.  Sometimes we pass life’s tests, sometimes we fail.  Sometimes the doctors find a cure for the disease, sometimes they don’t.

What matters, it turns out, is not whether we succeed or fail, but rather, how faithfully we endure the trial.  God does not expect us to be perfect; he merely expects us to be faithful.  For God works through our failures as much as he works through our successes; indeed, maybe more so.  To trust in God is to know that neither our successes nor our failures define us; what defines us, what gives us our worth and dignity, is the steadfast love God in Christ shows for us in both the triumphs and the disappointments.

One of my favorites lines in all of the Book of Common Prayer is from the General Thanksgiving (BCP 836), written by one of my predecessors at Harvard, Charlie Price.  It goes like this:  “We thank you, God, for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.  And we thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”

The eyes of faith see that the tests of life are less a measure of our worth than they are occasions for grace, opportunities for God to help us grow in maturity and fruitfulness.  This insight, too, is at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the withering fig tree.  Left to its own devices, the fig tree is barren and will remain so. But when it allows the gardener to care for it, to till its soil and fertilize its roots, it suddenly has the potential for fruitfulness.  The fig tree’s only hope is to acknowledge its dependence on the loving care of a gardener with strong and wise hands.

So there you have it:  An orphaned outlaw survives the test of prophetic leadership because he turns to and trusts in a God who promises “I will be with you.”  A confused and lost church in Corinth survives its own wilderness test by turning to and trusting in an apostle who preaches only Christ crucified.  A withering fig tree is tested and given the promise of life by turning to and trusting in a merciful gardener, whose saving presence, incidentally, we will meet again on Easter morning at the empty tomb.

I confess that I still have “the nightmare” from time to time; the nightmare about failing the history test.  But now when I awaken from it, I am able to laugh, knowing that I have nothing to fear so long as I turn to and trust in the One who sent His very own Son to carry me home.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hens and Foxes

"How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. . . ." Luke 13:34

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Lent 2C -- February 20, 2016

A few years ago, my wife and I had the great privilege to travel to the Holy Land for the first time. It was such a memorable trip, not least because the biblical story really came alive for us in unexpected ways by actually experiencing these places.  We visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity; we traveled along the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized.  We walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, visiting Capernaum, where Jesus preached his first sermon, where Simon Peter lived, and where Jesus called his first disciples.  We hiked up the mountain to the chapel that now marks the place where Jesus may well have preached the Sermon on the Mount.  And we spent several days in the Old City of Jerusalem, walking the Via Dolorosa, following Jesus’ last steps toward the Cross.

We also visited a spot just outside of the old city, on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives, where the Franciscans have built a little chapel, named Dominus Flevit, which is where historians believe today’s gospel story may have taken place.  The chapel enjoys a stunning, panoramic view of the Old City.

One can well imagine Jesus standing there, looking down upon this city fraught with so much history, so much promise, so much tragedy, even then. I envision Jesus gazing down upon the houses and the streets of the city, where the men, women and children of Jerusalem, went about their lives, unaware of the world-changing events that were about to happen.

As today’s gospel lesson opens, the Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that Herod is out for blood.  There is reason to believe the Pharisees, of course, because Herod has already imprisoned and murdered Jesus’ friend, John the Baptist.  But Jesus will have none of it.  In an unusually snarky retort, Jesus responds:  Go and tell that fox Herod that I will not be so easily distracted from the ministry of healing that is my call.  And then, turning toward the city, Jesus cries out:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The first thing to notice about this text is that it is a classic cry of lament.  Jesus is grieving. He is grieving over the reality that God’s chosen people, symbolized by the holy city of Jerusalem, continue to ignore God’s words to them. They capitulate to the powers that be, they stand idly by in the face of injustice, they chase idols, they pursue destructive paths of living.  In short, they do all the things that people do, that we do. And this grieves Jesus because he loves God’s people, and just like when a parent watches a child hurt himself or herself by wandering down some dark alley, it breaks Jesus’ heart to see God’s people so lost.

There is a deep sense of foreboding in this lament too.  Beyond reflecting upon Jerusalem’s past and present, Jesus no doubt also knows what lies ahead: that his own fate is inextricably bound up with this city that kills its prophets.  He knows that the Cross awaits him. And Jesus senses that the same hardheartedness that historically led God’s people to turn a deaf ear to the prophetic warnings of the past will inevitably lead them to reject God’s own Son.

Just as lament is an element of Jesus’ consciousness as he contemplates his journey to the Cross, so too must lament be an important dimension of the season of Lent for us.  During this season we lament all the ways in which our lives are not quite what God intends.  And such lament has both a personal and a social dimension.  On the one hand, we lament our individual shortcomings.

But, just as importantly, we lament all the social sins that keep us as God’s people from living in community as we should: we lament a seemingly intractable gap between rich and poor; we lament an educational system that fails to reach many of our most vulnerable children; we lament a market-obsessed culture prone to commodify every aspect of human experience; we lament institutionalized forms of racism and sexism and other structural biases in social arrangements that are designed to preserve power in the hands of some and take it away from others; and we lament an environmental policy built around values of dominion and exploitation rather than careful stewardship of the natural order.

We lament, with Jesus, all of these social dysfunctions precisely because they push us apart as human beings, alienating us from ourselves, from our natural world, and from God.

To lament in these ways, I hasten to add, is not the same thing as beating ourselves up with guilt.  Guilt tends to be its own sin; a helpless form of self-pity that is not constructive.  To lament, on the other hand, is to feel the grief and the sorrow of our shortcomings, but then to allow these feelings to propel us forward in a spirit of change and transformation.  True lament invites God into its sorrow in the hope that a new creation will arise from the brokenness.

The second thing to notice about today’s gospel passage is, of course, the beautifully arresting image of Jesus as a mother hen, longing to gather her brood under the protective embrace of her loving wings.  Jesus claims this image of a mother hen for himself and squarely pits it against the competing image of Herod the fox.  Hens and foxes.

With these two striking metaphors, Jesus invites us to consider two very different ways of being human in the world.  The fox is cunning, deceptive, a predator, a creature who lives by violence, lying in wait, ready to pounce on the vulnerable at the first sign of weakness.  The fox is out for himself.

The mother hen, on the other hand, is compassionate, caring, a nurturer, always looking out for the other.  Her deepest longing is not for her own welfare but for those she loves.  She longs to protect, to help those in her charge to flourish, to grow, to live into their full promise.  But don’t underestimate the mother hen.  For she is so fiercely loyal to her beloved that she will, if need be, lay down her own life for them.

“There are foxes, and there are hens,” Jesus seems to be saying. “I’ve staked my claim. Where are you?”

So, at the same time that Jesus is inviting us into a posture of lament during this season of Lent, he is also, with this captivating image of a mother hen, holding out hope for its redemption in utterly unexpected ways.  For God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, just as God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. As the Herods of the world will soon enough discover, living the predatory life has its own self-destructive logic; and standing compassionately alongside the vulnerable turns out to have its own remarkably sustaining grace.

One final, obvious, but nevertheless very important point about this text.  Jesus is here claiming a feminine symbol for God.  A mother hen.  So many of our traditional images for God are masculine: Kings, Lords, Shepherds, Princes of Peace, and so on.  Our tradition has overwhelmed us with patriarchal symbols.  How we imagine God matters, and it is refreshing for us to notice that Jesus himself is here identifying with the feminine, with the maternal.

Too often we think of God as some cranky, old man in the heavens, eager to condemn us for what we’ve done wrong.  What if a more accurate image of God is this compassionate mother hen, longing to love us, to protect us, to gather us under her wings?  What if God’s essential nature is not so much to dispassionately judge us, as it is to passionately love us?  That is the glimpse of the divine that Jesus offers us today; an image of God well worth our prayers this Lent; and, one for which we can be deeply grateful.  Amen.