"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, 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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Empty Tomb: the Next Episode

Easter Day, Year B
           Isaiah 25:6-9
           Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
           Acts 10:34-43
           Mark 16:1-8 
 Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord's resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Do we have any House of Cards fans here today? How about The Walking Dead? Or Bloodline? Our “binge watching” of these shows has become a national epidemic. Who can resist? The action ends on a suspenseful note that pushes us to download “just one more episode.” CBS even ran a fake “Public Service Announcement” on April Fools’ Day this year. The story said that TV stars would appear in ads to warn us about the need to take walks and showers and get some sleep, instead of watching one of these shows for days at a time.[1] While I’m not that far gone, I did recently sit in front of the TV in shock and disbelief, clicking the Netflix button backwards and forwards several times, when the Season 3 finale of House of Cards was over. “No, it can’t be!” I shouted desperately to my TV set. “I can’t wait a whole year to find out what Claire Underwood is going to do!”
Two thousand years ago, the author of Mark’s Gospel understood something about cliff-hanger conclusions, as well. Matthew, Luke, and John give us smooth and happy endings to the tragic crucifixion story: Jesus himself appears to the women in the garden. He commissions the disciples. He serves them breakfast on the beach. He ascends in glory into heaven. But in the original ending to Mark’s Gospel (the ending that we hear today) we get an empty tomb and women who flee in “terror and amazement,” too afraid even to speak of what they have seen and heard. In Mark, the horror of Jesus’ death so completely fills the hearts and minds of the women that they cannot fathom resurrection. They don’t remember that Jesus told them that he would rise again. They don’t remember his teaching or his power. They remain hopeless and afraid, deaf and blind to what God has just done. This jagged, open ending makes me want to holler at the Bible just like I did at my TV set. “Noooo ….The story can’t stop here! Easter can’t end with fear and disbelief! I want the happy Easter ending! I don’t want to be stuck with fear and human failure all the way until next Easter! Somebody fix this, please! Tie up these loose ends!”
And throughout Christian history, that’s exactly what scholars and scribes have tried to do. In our Bible, we have not just one, but two, extra conclusions that ancient scholars tacked on in order to fill out Mark’s original cliff-hanger ending. Even trying to get the church computer software to print out today’s bulletin without these extra verses thrown in was quite a challenge. More recent scholars, too, offer all kinds of speculation as to why Mark would leave us with fear and silence: maybe he fell over dead or was arrested as he was writing the final lines? Maybe the surviving manuscripts were torn? Maybe the real ending got lost? But all of us binge-watching Netflix users know the real reason why Mark ends with the women fleeing in fear: It’s because the author wants us to rush back into the story, thirsty for more, searching for what’s going to happen next.
Without a Netflix button to push or another episode to watch, we are forced by Mark’s unfinished ending to return to the story the only way we know how: by turning back to the beginning and reading it again … and again … and again. Mark wants us to read it until the story becomes our story, until we begin to see our lives through its lens. When I’m “into” the House of Cards show, consumed by episode after episode, I start to dream about the characters. I listen to NPR at breakfast and get confused between the political intrigue of the show, and the real political intrigue in Washington. “Now, did that really happen, or was that in the TV show?” I wonder, munching on my toast.
Mark wants for the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God, to become the Good News for us, as well as for the original disciples. He wants me to see myself in Galilee, back at home with the risen Jesus. He wants me to join the frightened women and the clueless disciples there. He wants me to hear the morning news about fires and floods and tragic shootings in Kenya all mixed up with the stories of Jesus’ miracles and compassionate healings, his death on a cross, and his empty tomb that resounds with the mysterious words, “He has been raised.”  Mark wants me to stop and ponder my world, unable fully to separate my story from God’s victory. Home in Galilee with the Risen Christ, I have to wonder: “Wait, is this ugliness that I’m seeing the real picture, or is God creating beauty underneath it somewhere?” “Wait, do I have to solve this problem by myself, or is this situation in God’s loving hands?” “Wait, am I really alone here in my suffering, or is Jesus with me?” That moment of hesitation, of questioning, is all that it takes to open me to God's waiting, transforming Spirit.
The resurrection is not some theological doctrine that we can chart out on a piece of paper. It’s not something that happened in order to teach us some lesson about God, or even about humankind. It is an ongoing reality that, as Rowan Williams says, “is the recreating of a relationship of trust and love on the far side” of death and suffering. “We learn and assimilate [the truth of Easter] by the risk of living it; to those on the edge of it, looking respectfully and wistfully at what it might offer, we can only say, ‘You’ll learn nothing more by looking; at some point you have to decide whether you want to try to live with it and in it.’”[2] Today’s Gospel invites us to do more than “celebrate Easter.” It invites us to live Easter, with Jesus at our side.
Like the scribes of the early church, I have trouble leaving us on this most joyous day in the silence of the women at the tomb. For those of us who won’t feel that it is Easter today without a resurrection appearance, I will share one that I found years ago in the book of Revelation. One day, while reading on my bed, I randomly came across the first chapter of Revelation cited in a theology book. As soon as I read the words, I found myself kneeling on the floor, sobbing. What I read was as follows: “When I saw [the Crucified One on the Throne] I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this …’” Those of you who have read my blog, “Writing What I See,” might recognize these words. Somehow, the Risen Christ spoke to me in this passage, in all of his majesty, powerfully enough to lift me out of my fearful silence, to open my lips like he must have eventually opened the trembling lips of Mary, and Mary, and Salome. “There is more to the world than what you can see with your eyes of fear,” he said. “You need to proclaim the ‘more.’ You need to live it. You need to make it your world.”
Today, Jesus is alive, surrounding us with his presence here in Galilee, waiting for us to decide whether we are going to proclaim him, not just with our words, but in our lives. The Story that we are invited to enter is more scandalous than anything that Hollywood screenwriters can dig up. It is more alluring than any mere human drama. It is full of the darkness that we know so well and the strange light that warms and intrigues us. The Easter Story dangles before us the biggest cliff-hanger ever: What is the role that we will be called to play? And the best yet: there's no need to fight the urge to hear it just one more time.

                [1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/netflix-psas-warn-against-binge-watching-in-april-fools-prank/
[2] Rowan Williams, Choose Life (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 205.