"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Celebrity Meets a Priest on Derby Day

Easter 5, Year B

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 On Derby day in Louisville, private jets roar overhead as movie stars, sports stars, and TV personalities flock to our city for the renowned horse race. Limousines of the rich and famous crowd the streets.
Out on foot to pick up some Saturday morning groceries at Paul’s, I noticed a traffic jam at the railroad tracks on Breckinridge Lane. There, in the passenger seat of a bright yellow Lamborghini convertible, I saw Bruce Jenner stopped at the train crossing. Hair in a pony tail, head bowed over his Kindle, Jenner was engrossed in reading something. He didn’t even notice the other drivers who were starting to pull out their phones to take pictures of the controversial star. He didn’t hear their sniggers or react to a couple of rude shouts, either, although I saw his driver roll his eyes and glare.
          All of a sudden, I found myself crossing the street to stand alongside his car. Yes, shy little me: the one who would never approach a stranger unbidden. Yes, judgmental me: the one who scorns all fame-seekers and low-life reality TV stars, the one who remains unimpressed with famous athletes, the one who struggles to understand transgender issues. Somehow, though, as if propelled by the Spirit, here I was, walking up to Bruce Jenner in his Lamborghini.
          My lips moved on their own. “What are you reading?” I blurted out.
          Jenner looked up without surprise, smiled, and responded, “Oh, I’m reading some beautiful poetry from the prophet Isaiah. I downloaded this Bible last night in my hotel room for kicks and just can’t put it down. This is fascinating stuff, but it doesn’t always make a lot of sense.” He frowned and slowly shook his head back and forth.
          Now the train had passed, and the crossing gate was lifting. Soon I had to jog along to keep up with the car, which was starting to roll forward in traffic. People started honking at us.
          “I know what you mean,” I panted. “I’m a priest who has to preach every week, and I struggle to make sense of scripture, too.”
“Wow, a priest!” gasped Jenner. "Hey, traffic is moving here. Why don’t you jump in and teach me something?” He patted the small seat next to him and scooted over to make room.
I stared. I didn’t want to get in a car with a strange stranger. Who knows where I would end up? Besides, people were taking pictures. How embarrassing. I wouldn’t want to end up in the tabloids. My colleagues would think that I was showing off.  Who knows what the Bishop would say? Or the Vestry? I don’t have the answer on transgender issues. I don’t have the answer on lots of things. How could I guide Jenner?
But I found myself squished into the little front seat, anyway. Much too close for comfort.
“Listen,” said Jenner, poking me. “Here’s what it says: ‘As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared, he was silent, saying nothing.  He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial. But who now can count his kin
since he’s been taken from the earth?’[1] What does it mean? Is Isaiah talking about himself? Hmmm. ‘Led to the slaughter. Mocked, no fair trial’ …Is he talking about the mess in Baltimore? It sounds like God should intervene.”
Before I could say anything, Jenner kept going: “Man, I sure have felt like a lamb being sheared, silent, afraid to speak. I know about being mocked and put down. I sure would like for my suffering to mean something. Could the scriptures be talking about me ….” Jenner grew silent and pensive.
I wanted to start telling Jenner about first, second, and third Isaiah, that the book wasn't really written by one person. I wanted to explain that these "Suffering Servant" passages are very complex, and that we don't really know who the prophet was referring to. I wanted to teach him how Christians can't just appropriate the Hebrew Scriptures for our own purposes. But instead, I heard not my words but the words of the Johannine School coming from my mouth:  “'God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him … There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… We love because he first loved us.' Jesus said, 'Remain in this love. Remain in me as I remain in you.’”
          We were winding through Louisville during this time, taking a short-cut through Cherokee Park. As we passed by Hogan’s Fountain, Jenner told the chauffeur to stop the car. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Jenner cried with enthusiasm.
“Lots of things,” I thought glumly. “First, like the fact that I don’t know if you have already been baptized. You can’t just go baptizing people over and over in the Episcopal Church. We have strict rules about this kind of thing.  Second, like the idea that I don’t have my Prayer Book on me, and I might screw something up. Third, like the issue that you haven’t been properly prepared with classes. I can’t just jump into Hogan’s Fountain and start baptizing people like some wacky evangelist.”
Yet, amazingly, as I was still listing stumbling blocks, there I was with Bruce Jenner in Hogan’s Fountain, up to the knees in murky water, naming the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, while babies in strollers gaped, and melting ice cream ran over the hands of astounded children, and incredulous parents rolled their eyes.
Until, of course, I woke up. Goodness, I must have fallen asleep on my patio while I was taking a rest from trimming vines in the sun. “What a crazy dream,” I mused, rubbing my eyes with profound relief. Whew, I would never get myself in a situation like that one in real life. To lose control over a situation like that? No way! To be able to preach love to a stranger, to lay all of my judgments totally aside? No, that wouldn’t happen. To evangelize like some TV preacher instead of following the proper Episcopal way of doing things? No way, I thought with a shudder.
I wonder, though. Does loving my neighbor in the way that God loves us involve acts of will on my part--deliberate, thoughtful plans … Or does it involve living my life connected to the source of the love, in Jesus? And giving that love the freedom to bless those whom I encounter on the road?
My eyes drifted over to the pile of branches that I had just cut from my blackberry vines before I fell asleep. They had already wilted in the hot sun. The thirsty, dying leaves had collapsed onto the pavement. No longer attached to the vine, the life in them was fading fast.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus said in the passage that I had quoted to Jenner in my dream. “And my father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit … Apart from me you [all] can do nothing.”
I stopped pruning, and began to pray, instead.

[1] Acts 8:32-33, from The Message, by Eugene Peterson.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Big Hands of My Master

 The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B 

Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A few years ago in seminary, my cozy idea of the whole sheep/ shepherd metaphor was broken wide open. I was reading a book on mission work in the South Pacific for an assignment, and the author casually mentioned that, in these islands, there are no sheep. Indeed, none of the peoples being evangelized had any idea of what a sheep or a shepherd looks like. Instead, pigs are the mainstay of the island economy. Everyone in that culture raises and eats pork. So when the missionaries translated the scriptures and the liturgy into the native language, they changed “sheep” to “pigs,” and “shepherd” to “pig farmer.”  Jesus became the “Pig of God, who takes away the sins of the world” and the 23rd Psalm became, “The Lord is my pig farmer, I shall not want.” Can you imagine a round-bellied pig up in our stained-glass window, instead of the regal-looking Lamb? What about Jesus holding a squirming, squealing pig in his arms, his flowing robes caked in the dirt of the pig-pen?
          Now, we could talk about the whole issue of the translation of metaphor, and we could probably rightly complain that it is just plain wrong to translate the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that focuses on pigs, who are considered unclean for Jews. But what interests me today is simply how this jarring translation can shake us out of our traditional sheep/ shepherd rut. We have heard the 23rd Psalm so many times, and we have seen so many paintings and stained-glass windows depicting today’s Gospel, that it is easy to nod complacently when we read about sheep once again today. But what does it mean, deep down, to say that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? What is it about the imagery in Psalm 23 that is so comforting?
          When I was a little girl, my parents bought me a gerbil—a boy gerbil, supposedly, whom I named Barnabas, from my favorite Dark Shadows TV show. Imagine my 7-year-old shock when I woke up one morning and peered into the cage, only to find my dear Barnabas as cold and stiff as a board, and a litter of worm-like pink baby gerbils huddled in a corner under the shavings. With their closed eyes and their wrinkly, hairless bodies, I didn’t even know what they were! I cried and poked Barnabas’ lifeless form. My mother ranted about the pet store’s gender deception. But my father—he took it upon himself to save the orphaned babies. Leaping into action, he brought an eye-dropper back from the NASA chemistry lab, and he set his alarm clock to go off every two hours, even at night, in order to carefully squeeze drops of milk into the tiny round mouths. And you know what? These gerbils survived! They grew up rather misshapen, suffering malformed bones from the cow’s milk, but they pretty much lived happy little gerbil lives ever after.
          So: what if we rethought Psalm 23 in terms not of pigs, but of baby gerbils? It might go something like this:
          “The big hands belong to my master. They take care of my every need. When I’m hungry, they bring a tunnel of warm, sweet milk to my lips, milk that dribbles down over my chin, more milk than my throat can hold. When I’m cold and shivering in a corner of my glass cage, the hands caress my back, urging and guiding me back to the huddle of my brothers and sisters. The hands bring back my life to me. I know that they will be there when I’m hungry. I know that they will warm me when I’m cold. Even in the dark of night, the hands are there. O hands of my master, you rub soothing salve onto the itchy wounds that my nipping brothers inflict on my back. When my stronger sisters push me away from the water bottle, you scatter them with a flick of your fingers until I’ve had my turn. When it’s time to eat, you pursue me around and around in the cage, never giving up until you cradle me in your warm palms. May you always pursue me like this, all the days of my life. May I always dwell within reach of the hands of my master.”
          You see, it’s not all about sheep. It’s not the animal that matters. It’s all about the mysterious, loving hands. Psalm 23 is all about the connection, the intimacy, of loving care. It’s about a caregiver who is in control, yet utterly merciful. We read it at sick beds and at funerals because the psalm’s descriptions of rest and nourishment, its reassurance of protection in moments of hardship and despair, are a universal balm to all creatures who must find their way up and down the hills and vales of life in this world.
          When Jesus refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd,” he is purposefully calling on the imagery of Psalm 23, imagery that he knows from singing this psalm himself. A better translation of the Greek, however, is, “I am the Model Shepherd.” Yes, Jesus describes himself as the sound and right model of shepherding care: one that he intends for us to imitate. We are not just dumb and hapless sheep milling around in our sheepfold. If Jesus is the “model shepherd” then we are to do as he does. We must be willing to give selflessly to those entrusted to our care, even at the risk of our own lives. We are to connect with them intimately, knowing them by name, caring for them individually.
          When Jesus calls himself the “Model Shepherd,” the language of individual comfort found in Psalm 23, expands. Not only am I the precious, comforted creature, alone in the merciful hands of God. I am also a creature in community, a community of beloved creatures, a community larger than I can imagine. Besides Psalm 23, Jesus also knows the shepherd imagery in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel praises God’s shepherd-like care of God’s people, care that resembles my father with those gerbils: God, like a good shepherd, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds up the injured, brings back the strayed, seeks the lost. At the same time, Ezekiel condemns the shepherds who keep all the food for themselves, letting the sheep starve. He condemns the harsh shepherds, the ones who let the sheep scatter into dangerous places. Jesus, our model, agrees. Hear the admonition in today's second reading:  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
          As I worked on this sermon, my mind kept being drawn back to the ship of African refugees that wrecked this week in Italian waters, killing some 700 people. My mind kept leaping from sheep, pigs, and gerbils, to the people on these boats. I couldn't think of one without the other. I thought of this boat, and of all the boats that keep coming and coming, despite the danger. I thought of the refugees, relentlessly pursued by war, pursued by hunger, pursued by poverty, and chased by oppression, flowing shoulder to shoulder like a huge flock of sheep across a continent, corralled into rickety fishing boats and led like sheep to the slaughter. I thought of the unscrupulous wolves in shepherds’ clothing who profit from their distress. I thought of the “valley of the shadow of death,” in which the hundreds of women and children found themselves, locked in the hold of a sinking ship. I prayed that they felt the hands of their God cupping them in that darkness.
On the one hand, I find comfort in Psalm 23, for myself, for those who perished on that ship, and for all who suffer. I also find comfort in knowing that Jesus is my shepherd, that he knows each of us by name and that we can recognize his loving voice, even in the dark. On the other hand, I clearly hear the challenge of our “model shepherd,” to love the stranger, to care for the refugee. “I have sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus remind us. “I must bring them also …. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
If my father can get up every two hours to nourish, drop by drop, a passel of orphaned rodents, trusting that they have lives worth saving, shouldn’t I have the same determination for the orphans and refugees of the world?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I'm Hungry!


Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

           My teens used to burst through the back door after school, shed their heavy backpacks with a loud thud, fling their jackets on the nearest chair, and make a beeline for the refrigerator. They would open it with eager faces and scan the shelves with hungry eyes. Their stomachs growled as if they hadn’t eaten for days, despite the nice, healthy lunches that I had packed for them that morning. “Mom, I’m starving,” they would bellow as they leaned heavily on the open refrigerator door. “Don’t we have something in here to eat?!”
          That’s the image that comes to my mind as I listen to the newly resurrected Jesus in Luke’s gospel. He bursts into a closed room that is buzzing with the news of his multiple appearances. He throws his cloak on the nearest chair, calls out to everyone in greeting. And as his friends stand simultaneously gaping and trembling and crying and smiling and even clapping their hands with joy, he pushes right past them into the kitchen. He opens the first-century equivalent of a pantry door and bellows, “Hey, I’m starving! Got anything in here to eat?!”
          Now, I know that scholars tell us that Jesus eats that piece of fish to prove to the disciples, and to us, that he is not some kind of disembodied ghost. On the one hand, we know that a friend, once dead, who pops up in multiple places at once, breaking bread here and walking through walls there, must surely be a spirit worthy of the spookiest of ghost stories. On the other hand, we all know that ghosts don’t eat or drink, and we can’t really touch and feel their muscle and bone. So, if the disciples can touch Jesus with their fingers, and if they see Jesus swallowing a piece of fish, then surely this strange visitor is more than your run-of-the-mill ghost. Resurrection must have brought him back with his followers in body, as well as in spirit. Sure, I can see why Luke insists on the fish story.
          And yet, Jesus’ urgent cry of hunger still resonates with me. It has got to be more than just proof of a digestive system. The resurrected Christ is always hungry, always eating. He breaks bread with the two disciples on the Emmaus road. In John, he cooks up a fish breakfast to share with the disciples on the beach. Bread and fish, broken bread and baskets of fish … Remember the miraculous feeding of thousands with bread and fish on the hillside in Galilee? Remember the Last Supper? “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” “Take and eat in remembrance of me.” Jesus hungers, but Jesus also feeds. Jesus’ hunger reflects our hunger—the hunger that he alone can satisfy. It is our hunger for God, for meaning, for relationship, for community. We are like a hungry teenager desperately scanning the refrigerator shelves and saying to ourselves: “My soul is aching and empty. There’s got to be something in here that will fill me. It’s not this, and it’s not that. I don’t know exactly what I want, but it’s gotta be in here somewhere. Somewhere ….?”
          We might not always know where to find the food that we need, but Jesus does.
There has been a flurry in the news this week over a new book by young author Rachel Held Evans. Evans, who is now in her early thirties, grew up in an evangelical church. After blogging for awhile as a “moderate evangelical,” she has now found her way into the Episcopal Church. She has just published a book about her journey, called Searching for Sunday. Needless to say, Episcopalians are ecstatic to have an articulate young adult writing positively about our tradition! Evangelicals are less thrilled. There have been blogs back and forth, arguments offered both for and against Evans’ claims about why the more liturgical churches are especially attractive to the coveted “millennial generation,” adults in their 20’s and 30’s. One of the big advantages that Evans gives, of course, for our tradition, is the prominent place of the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday. Another Episcopal priest, agreeing with Evans, explains: “The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind. Recovering a high view of the Eucharist—and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship—is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.”[1] Young adults, just like each one of us older folks, are starving for a food that the world cannot give. They are hungry for a meal shared in close community, for a meal shared with Jesus himself. When he comes to them in Jerusalem, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples: a gift for the mind, in the opening and sharing of the good news in scripture, and a gift for the heart, in giving himself as our spiritual food and drink of new life in him.  Each time we gather as a Christian community, he comes to feed us both in scripture and in the breaking of the bread.
          Many years ago, I too was one of those coveted “20-somethings,” a mom with 3 children. I was too busy to go to church. I was also too mad at God over the abrupt end of my marriage even to do much praying, beyond an occasional angry fist-shaking in God’s direction. During that time, I had a recurring dream. I was in a dark, empty room filled only with a mini-fridge—the kind you put in a college dorm room. I was hungry, and there was no food in the house at all. I bent down and opened up the little fridge, full of hope. As I opened the door, bright light from the fridge poured out into the darkness of the room. And yet, inside, the fridge was empty, except for a couple of unappetizing containers of moldy leftovers. It’s at that point—hungry and dejected, but unwilling to close the refrigerator door—that I would wake up.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to explain that dream: In the busy distress of my daily life, I was spiritually starving. Whatever stores of joy and meaning and love that I had previously packed into Tupperware containers and saved in my spiritual refrigerator, they had sat for too long uneaten and untended. I needed the food that Jesus offers us: the food of love, forgiveness, and new life. I needed Jesus to re-stock my fridge. As you might expect, the dream went away when I went back to church to eat with Jesus every week, and when I began to pray again.
There is a touching Pandora jewelry ad in which young children are blindfolded and led, one at a time, over to a line of mothers. Each child feels the hands and face of each woman, softly fingering her cheeks and smelling beneath her chin. And every time without fail, the child stops at his or her own mom. He smiles in relief and recognition, rips off the blindfold, and beams, while the mother swoops the child up in her arms.[2] This is the way in which the disciples must have reached out for their risen Lord: tenderly, tentatively, carefully fingering his hands and face as if they were blindfolded. This is also the way we in which we reach out for our risen Lord in the Eucharistic meal. Blindfolded and hungry, we feel our way forward in the dark. We hold out our hands to receive his body. We feel its rough edges and the familiar way it melts against the roof of our mouths. We open our lips to receive his blood. We smell the wine-smell, we feel it burn our throats and fill our mouths with sweetness all at the same time. Somehow, he is suddenly there with us, but not as a menacing ghostly presence. He is there with us, loving us like a mother. Opening his arms to us, rejoicing, laughing, and embracing. And we are hungry no more.

[1] Ben Irwin, “Rearranging the Chairs,” found at http://benirwin.me/2013/07/30/re-rearranging-the-chairs-a-response-to-richard-dahlstrom-responding-to-rachel-held-evans/?utm_content=buffer34594&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
[2] https://www.facebook.com/pandorajewelry/videos/10153758110079867/?pnref=story