We Dress Like Students, We Dress Like Housewives

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Sermon for the Feast of All Faithful Departed

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 130
John 5:24-27

Death is tricky for us, and it wasn’t much clearer to the early Christians. Confusion about death hit the Church early. In the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul does his best to comfort an audience that seems to be quite anxious over the status of dead loved ones. He assures them that the dead will be raised first upon Christ’s return, followed by the living faithful. I don’t know if this successfully placated the worried Thessalonians, it seems to me that Paul is confident that most of most of his contemporaries will see Christ’s return in glory with their own living eyes, before their natural, earthly deaths. This confidence becomes a stumbling block for us, two thousand years later. If we’re to take Paul literally, here and now, (not that we should always do that!) after centuries of Armageddon-free human life, we have to conclude that he was either stretching the truth to calm his frightened friends or that he was simply wrong about the immanent return of Christ. This is just to say that the puzzle that the dead pose for us and our faith isn’t some new dilemma brought on by the modern world. The dead have had a mysterious hold on our attention since the beginning of Christianity, and, no doubt, since before even that. The eternal life proclaimed by Jesus and our witness to him has always been a difficult truth to grasp. I don’t pretend to have figured out this puzzle, but I do have a few thoughts on the matter.

G.K. Chesterton, in one of the cleverest arguments for Christian Orthodoxy the English-speaking world has ever produced, calls tradition “nothing more than democracy extended through time.” “Tradition,” he writes, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” This idea resounds with the path I took back to the Church after six or seven years of not giving organized religion a second thought during and immediately after college. I felt sort of stuck, like I was spinning my wheels, and I felt like I needed to grow up. (My growing up, it shouldn’t surprise you, continues to be an ongoing process.) In order to discern where I was to go, I felt it important to reflect on from where I came. It’s hokey, I know, but I find the “Good enough for Grandad” line from “That Old-Time Religion” a pretty convincing argument. Just, please, don’t tell my theology professors I said that.

The generations of Christians that precede us provide a powerful testimony to the faith that we proclaim here. I really believe that, but I don’t think that this is the only story the dead have to tell us. Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish scholar who died tragically while trying to escape the Nazis during World War II saw history not a chain of events but as “a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of [our] feet.” The progress of human society, Benjamin thought, is built up on the crushed bodies of the poor and oppressed. The author of today’s lesson from the Book of Wisdom wrote, “No torment will ever touch [the souls of the righteous.]” Benjamin disagrees. The threat of a blind faith in modern progress is a threat to the dead as well as to the living: “Even the dead,” he writes, “will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

Too often when Christians think or talk about the continuing presence of the dead in our lives we think or talk only of their giving us something we want. Their spiritual presence is felt and it gives us comfort as we mourn their physical absence. Their love for us gives us strength to walk our own paths. If we leave it at this, though, the dead are no longer people, but tools for us to improve our own lives. It’s helpful to remember that the dead, like the living, don’t always do the things we want them to. If there is eternal life, and if they are with us when we need them, they’re with us other times, too – times when we don’t necessarily want them around. We’re all kinda used to doing bad things before God, but that’s not quite so scary; we know we’re forgiven and anyway, our God is a busy God, She has to watch over every single person and just might have missed that crazy night at the frat house. Things are a little different with Grandma, who doesn’t have nearly as much to do now that she’s departed for the spiritual realm. What does she think about that outfit my sister’s wearing to tomorrow’s party? It’s not just God and the guy sitting behind us who know we’re checking our email instead of paying attention in class, but our Mothers, who worked so hard to get us into the lucky positions we enjoy.

Today we’re observing the feast of All Faithful Departed, and we are reminded that those who have gone before us are still with us, whether we want them here or not. The traditions in which we participate in this service are one acknowledgement and manifestation of this continuing presence – the rites we celebrate are structured according to forms developed over centuries by Christians long since gone to their Maker. We must be careful with this tradition, however. Benjamin reminds us that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Two thousand years of Christianity haven’t changed the fact that we’re still presented with the real existence of the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the meek and the voiceless. These are the folks Jesus tells us to take care of, and we haven’t done a real good job of it. Perfect church attendance and unquestioning doctrinal fidelity aren’t the final demands placed on the Christian.

I do believe that, in some sense, the souls of the righteous are, as the Book of Wisdom teaches, free from earthly torment, but how could the powerless ones of the past look down on us now without a twinge of sadness that the vicious cycles continue and without the hope that a real change will come? I believe that the peace of heaven and a hope for the future of creation are complimentary aspects of the eternal life Jesus proclaims to us in today’s Gospel lesson. We owe it to the past, to All the Faithful Departed, to redouble our efforts on their behalf.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Sermon for Passion Sunday

I have a confession to make. I still haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. It’s a hotly contested film, of course, and in a lot of ways it portrays a specific, strict Catholic understanding of the events of Good Friday that I think is rather misguided. One thing that the movie gets right, though, I hear, is the horribleness of Christ’s suffering that day in Jerusalem. It shouldn’t surprise us that the film version of the Passion is as disturbing as it is. These days, our imagination is so captivated by movies that an ultra-violent film is perhaps the most effective way for us to experience the suffering of Jesus. It is not new, though, to revel in the Passion. Scattered around this church are fourteen woodcuts, representing the Stations of the Cross. Christians haven’t always needed expert cinematography, theatrical violence and special effects to viscerally feel Jesus’ pain. Symbolic representations of the Stations have provided a detailed, blow by blow account of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for centuries.

For me, I think, seeing a movie depicting these events that surround us might make them real in a new way for me. Sarah, Kristen and I, whose task it is to teach the church’s Rite 13 program, took the sixth through eighth graders in the congregation out onto the streets of Hyde Park last week to look for images of the signs of the cross in our everyday life. From one perspective, this isn’t too hard. At one station, Jesus falls while carrying the cross. A few stations later, Jesus falls for a second time. The way it’s phrased – a second time – suggests that he’ll do it again. We’re counting the falls now. Jesus falls for a third time. If you’re looking for parallels to the Stations of the Cross in Hyde Park, I bet you can find at least three fallen women and men on the benches and under the bushes of Nichols Park, if you’re actually looking for them.

On the other hand, I felt that looking for echoes of the Stations in the neighborhood, didn’t tell the whole story. Surely there is suffering, great suffering, just down the street. However, the Stations and Mel Gibson remind us that on that day in Jerusalem, Jesus suffered more pain than any of us could possibly imagine. The portrayal of the suffering and death of Jesus in the Gospels is intended to show the extreme of suffering. its limit. Jesus takes as much pain as any human can. He collapses when he just can’t take any more, as much as we could. The soldiers and crowds force him up, and he starts again. This happens two more times. The Passion puts you in your place. It looks at you and says, “You think you’ve suffered? I’ll show you suffering.”

The fifth Sunday of Lent, that’s today, used to be known as Passion Sunday. For two weeks, starting now, Christians were supposed to focus their prayer on the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. Today’s Gospel begins with the arrival of two Greeks – Gentiles, non-Jews – to hear the teachings of Jesus. When he hears this, Jesus knows the time as come for him to go. When the two gentiles show up, the universal significance of Christ seeps into the narrative. This story speaks not just of isolated events among the Jews at a moment of long-past history. These two Greeks are only the first of many outside of the cultural situation of ancient Judaism to seek and find Jesus. This is a story that has some resonance for all people everywhere.

What is the universal significance of this story? God’s saving action is clear and obvious with respect to Jesus’ dying on the cross. He is miraculously raised from the dead. God’s power isn’t always so readily apparent in our lives. There are few stunning miracles to be found these days. However, seeing as how our own moments of suffering are, for the most part, radically less dramatic than Jesus’, we shouldn’t expect God’s action in our lives to approach the scale of these miraculous events.

Maybe you heard this week about the study that tested the measurable effects of prayer. Led, over many years, by researchers from Harvard Medical School researchers monitored 2,000 heart-bypass patients. Groups of Christians were told the name of some of the patients and prayed for them by name every day for two weeks. The results indicated there was no medical benefit to "distant" or "intercessory" prayer. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to answer our prayers of health. It may be that God’s power is withdrawn when we ignore scripture’s warning and put the lord our God to the test. Who can know these things? Still, though, why do we pray for the sick? Most of us here take scientific research pretty seriously, I think. It seems to me that objective knowledge of God’s divine power of complete healing and resurrection, obvious as literal fact is something that the people who witnessed the events in the Gospel alone can claim. We don’t have that kind of certainty on these matters. Unlike Jesus, the lot of us, 2000 years later, don’t seem to have the same power to call upon God to intervene in the sickness and health of each other.

Still, we pray for our sick and suffering loved ones. We do this alone, in quiet moments of reflection and solace-seeking, and we do this together, every week with the Prayers of the People. Maybe this is as much for our benefit as it is for the explicit subjects of our prayers. When we are healthy and we pray for the sick, we are reminded that we will be sick one day. When we pray for those who suffer and mourn, we know we will one day be the ones who suffer and mourn. When we the living pray for the dying, we are confronted by the fact that we will die one day. Our self-importance dissolves as we contemplate the fact that one day we will be those names read during the prayers of the people once a year, on the anniversary of our deaths.

It is exactly here, in the humility of prayer, that we draw near to Christ and Christ draws near to us. To borrow the image from today’s lesson, in order to bear fruit the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die, just as we all will some day.

Jesus tells the crowd that he will share in our suffering to an unimaginable degree, but he also says,

“When I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

How does this divine drawing, “providence,” we might say, work? The theologian Paul Tillich suggests that we understand providence as the possibility of a meaningful life in spite of death and the threat of a meaningless fate. Our faith teaches us not that all our difficulties and sufferings can be prevented or healed through prayer, but that no matter how dark our night, there is a glimmer of hope. No matter how awful the world seems, there will be an opportunity to do something to further God’s plan for the Good.

In this understanding, God doesn’t determine every moment in the course of our lives. The Divine enters our lives when we are presented with an opportunity to transcend our suffering and live our lives for the benefit of our community and of creation. This happens all the time. Parents who lose a child to a dangerous drug or an unfamiliar disease are given the strength to stand up and fight for the health and safety of children everywhere. People who have suffered the effects of racism in their own lives make a pact to fight racism everywhere in the world. The suffering that we face can help us seek and find solidarity with others in their suffering.

One of the strangest moments in today’s Gospel is when Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus is talking here about our natural instinct to tend to our own wants and desires over the demands of God and the needs of others. Martin Luther made this point famously and unambiguously when, using the unfortunately gendered language common for his time, he said, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.”

When our sinful self-interest is put aside and we work for hospitality and justice, out of love for God and our neighbor over ourselves, this is where we find God and are found by God. This is a better place to look for the divine than in the results of scientific research, and there, in service and mercy, we find God’s true nature. We meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus and the suffering and death in our own world this Lent so that in Eastertide we may be welcomed and transformed by God and so that we may be allowed to serve as divine vessels of love in and for the world. The power of God is testified to every time someone shakes off his or her own fear, laziness and self-importance and witnesses (and witnesses to) Christ in the suffering of the God's Children.


Friday, March 31, 2006

The Shocking Mysticism of Angela of Foligno

Prayer, for Patricia Hampl, is the “human response to the fact of this endless mystery of bliss and brutality, impersonal might and lyric intimacy that composes our experience of life.” Angela of Foligno, the 13th century Umbrian mystic and nun, would agree to a certain extent, but only after admonishing Hampl for neglecting to mention “the knowledge of sin, which makes the soul very much afraid of being damned to hell.” (23) Although, as we shall see, there are similarities between Hampl’s understanding of a life of prayer, it is important that we focus first on what is specific to Angela’s historical situation.

The fear of damnation that I mentioned was just the first step out of thirty or so in the series of mystical revelations that Angela, although she was born rich and may well have been literate, dictated to a scribe in the late 1200s. It’s hard to say exactly how many steps there are, or how they’re divided. Even the scribe was a little confused and shapes the structure a bit. He writes:
[S]tarting from the nineteenth step, I did not know for sure how to number and distinguish one step from the other. So I organized the remaining material under seven steps or revelations which coincide with the gifts of divine grace that I perceived that she had received, as well as her growth in those gifts and in the charisms of grace, which I had observed and learned about, and also as I thought more fitting and appropriate. (34).
It is important for us to think for a moment about the relationship between Angela and her scribe. He was related to her and from the same town and had already heard her confessions and become her “primary spiritual advisor.” (37) Here is the scribe’s account of the origin of the text we have to this day:
The following account explains why I began to write: One time, while I was in residence at the friary in Assisi, Christ’s faithful one [that’s Angela!] came to the Church of Saint Francis; she was sitting at the entrance of the church and was screeching very loudly. Since I was her confessor, her relative, and her primary spiritual advisor, I was very ashamed especially because of the many other brothers who had come to see her there screeching and crying out; these brothers knew both me and her … But I was too embarrassed to approach her; my pride and embarrassment were so great that I waited indignantly at a distance for her to finish making those noises. And when she finished screeching, she got up from the entrance and approached me. I could hardly speak to her calmly. I told her she could never again dare come to Assisi, where such evil was possessing her; I also told her companions never to bring her there again (37).
Our scribe approaches Angela a few days later back in their hometown to ask what was going on that day at Assisi. He is amazed when she begins telling him of her mystical encounters with God in Christ. He urges her to recount them in detail to him so he can record them for the edification of the Church. As we learn from the scribe’s words as he speaks of the difficulties keeping track of Angela’s progressive journey of revelation, his stamp is all over the text we are left with. We do, though, have a relatively clear recording of her first-hand account. Consider St. Joan of Arc, who never read or wrote a word. The only words of hers that have withstood history are those reported by others, usually with an ax to grind. The primary text of Joan’s that we are left with is the transcript of her heresy trial. There, as scholar Francoise Meltzer tells us, “she is both explicit and secretive[, and t]he trial itself [was] inscribed and produced by the forces bent on [her] destruction.” If we are to understand the world of St. Joan, who was executed almost a hundred fifty years after Angela died, we must read between the lines of a text recorded by men out to destroy her. Angela of Foligno, however, benefited from a confessor and scribe with a heart, an ear, and a pen sympathetic to her cause. Although we must bear in mind that even the unusual depth of access to her experiences as a medieval female is filtered through the pen of her male scribe, his devotion to an accurate representation of her life and words is clear in his epilogue to her book:
I also tried to use her own words – the ones I could grasp – since I did not want to write – nor did I know what to write – when she was not present, out of fear and zeal, so that I would not use even one word which she had not really spoken. That is why I always reread to her what I had written, repeating it many times, so that I would use only her very own words… Furthermore, the Lord saw to it that two other truly faithful friars, who were familiar with Christ’s faithful one, [Angela] and heard her speak; they also examined and discussed these things with her many times. And what is more, these friars were made certain of this work’s validity by the Lord’s divine grace, and they bear faithful witness to it both in word and in deed. (78).
Aside, perhaps, from a few political figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, the female mystics from the medieval period are among the few whose stories are accessible to historians. The life of a mystic, inspiring a combination of awe, reverence, fear and revulsion, which we see in the complex reaction of Angela’s scribe, was also in many cases the best possible life for medieval women. The husbands dominated the family. Marriage outside of social class was verboten; young women’s families, under the dowry system, bought the best husbands and family connections they could afford. For many, the religious life was the only chance for even the smallest degree of personal autonomy.

We can imagine Angela’s yearning for this autonomy. She had been married off at 20, and, as we learn early on in her book, didn’t have the happiest relationship with her family. It paled in comparison with her budding relationship with her Lord and Savior. She tells the story this way:
And then I began to reject fine foods, fancy clothing and headdresses. But there was still shame and sorrow, because I did not yet feel any love. And I was still with my husband – and so there was bitterness when I was spoken to or treated unjustly; nevertheless, I endured as patiently as I could. And then in accordance with God’s will, my mother died; she had been a great hindrance to me. Later, my husband and all my children died within a short time. And because I had already begun the way of the cross and had asked God that they should die, I felt a deep consolation following their deaths. I knew that God had accomplished these things for me, and that my heart would always be in God’s heart and God’s heart would always be in mine. (26-7).
The religious path was often an escape from a stifling family life. Although the ill treatment of women was not absent from the Church itself during the medieval period, the way of Christ and the religious life, in many ways, was the best option out there for the women who chose it. We might pause to consider, for a moment, that women all over this country and the world might be praying, like our Angela did, for God to relieve them of the burden of an abusive family or of the pressures of womanhood in a harsh and unfair world. Angela’s prayer might not truly be as shocking to us as it first appears.

Patricia Hampl, writing at the beginning of our century, tells of the prayerful existence of a group of contemporary Franciscan nuns and priests on a pilgrimage to Assisi, the site of our Angela’s screeching.
Existence was prayer. The day was prayer, and [Felix] was in the day, therefore in prayer. That was the feeling he and Donnie and Bridget – and even Thaddeus – all gave off. Prayer was not effort, not just something they did. It was something they were in, as obviously as they were in the world. (Hampl, 147).
This prayerful life is what Angela has attained when God speaks to her on the same road, we might imagine, as Hampl’s pilgrims. “On the way to Assisi,” she tells us, “[God] also told me, ‘Your entire life: your eating, drinking, sleeping – every aspect of your life – is pleasing to me.’” (44) In honor of one Angela of Folingo’s titles, “Mistress of theologians,” I hope you’ll permit me a little foray into the world of theology. Paul Tillich, one of the giants of 20th century theology, calls this state of being ‘absolute faith’:
Absolute faith … is not a state which appears beside other states of mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which can be isolated and described. It is always a movement in, with, and under other states of mind. (Courage to Be, 188).
In this sense, the essence of Christianity lies a this “divine act of self-affirmation.” The Christian life is a mindset where God is always present to you, shining through each moment of your experience. Hampl illustrates this by means of a dream, in which she meets Donnie, her mentor, riding a donkey through a dreamscape in which Hampl had been frolicking: “I suddenly understand: she has gone on the real part of the trip. I’ve been hanging around the theme park.” (Hampl, 236) Hampl, in the dream, wishes to go where Donnie has gone, but, “No, she says. You’re too late – or maybe she says, You don’t have a donkey.” (ibid.) Later, Hampl remembers where the donkey comes from. It’s the donkey from a painting of the Nativity of Christ. “It’s an icon of the Word made flesh, which is the opposite trick literature keeps trying do do: making flesh into word.” (238) Instead of controlling one’s seeking – Hampl had been trying to find meaning and the divine in her life – the contemplative, prayerful life consists of allowing the Word of God to find you and carry you into and through the world. At this point, it is not you, who are doing things in the world, your will is surrendered to the word of God. This is what Paul speaks about when he says in Galatians:
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)
Angela, we might be able to say, though, goes farther along the path toward God than either Tillich or Hampl do. Both Tillich and Hampl are talking about how God is with us as we live our lives in the world. The perspective of a 13th-century mystic, though, is a little different. At the peak of her mystical encounters with God, in one of the most obscure, yet powerful passages I’ve ever come across, Angela finds herself suspended in darkness, in a sort of divine emptiness. At first glance, this is reminiscent of Tillich’s idea of a God beyond the God of theism, where contemporary analysis and the anxiety that our contemporary culture reinforces call into question every dogmatic assertion we make about God. When Angela experiences this radical emptiness, which draws her “incomparably more” than the “God-Man,” or Christ, she seems to be enveloped by a totally transcendent, formless God. Here is the peak of Angela’s mystical experience:
And when I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about humanity or the God-Man, or anything that has form. Yet when I am in that darkness I see everything and I see nothing. And as I depart from what I have been talking about (or as I remain behind), I see the God-Man. He draws my soul with such gentleness, and sometimes he says ‘You are I and I am you.’ And I see those eyes and that face so pleasing and attractive as He embraces me. And that which comes out of those eyes and that face is the very thing I said that I see in the darkness, and which comes from within it; it is what delights me so much that it cannot be described. And while I am in this God-Man, my soul is alive; and I am in this God-Man much more than I am in God with that darkness. My soul is alive in the God-Man, but God in that darkness draws my soul incomparably more than the God-Man. Still, I am in this God-Man almost continually (70).
There is another way of looking at this strange, but captivating passage, though. Some contemporary intellectuals, particularly a few somewhat notorious French thinkers and the people influenced by them, have paid a lot of attention to medieval mystics precisely because their experiences seem so foreign to us today. Tillich, on the one hand might look at Angela’s witness and see his philosophically-derived understanding of the God beyond God, who gives us courage in spite of the threat of the non-existence of ultimate meaning in the world. On the other hand, for the radical French feminist Luce Irigaray, Angela’s experience can be seen as an overflow or outburst of this frightening non-being into the male-dominated, falsely ordered world of “being.” Irigaray would suggest, I think, and not without warrant, that Tillich’s tendency to say “man” or “mankind” rather than “humans” or “humankind” calls into question his understanding of a universal notion of “being” as the sum-total of the existence of the universe. I think I’m right about that; these French thinkers can be awfully difficult to understand.

‘Woman’, for Irigaray, is a concept different from but similar to women as we know them. Woman is always outside the male structure of society, and, since this male-dominated society dictates or attempts to dictate people’s understanding of the universe and their place in it, a woman’s voice, truly expressed, is necessarily foreign and shocking. Irigaray quotes Angela of Foligno at the beginning of a chapter on female mystics. There is something true about ultimate reality Irigaray feels women like Angela (and a few men, like John of the Cross) can reveal to us. In that chapter, Irigaray writes about the Real, the essence of our existence as divided against ourself. For each of us, she says, there exists “a gulf that opens up ahead, moves away, strains, never knowing or imagining (itself) in its unfathomable nakedness.” (Irigaray, 194) Mystics like Angela, Irigaray seems to say, were proclaiming the terror that lies at the heart of an unjust society. Most people continue to fail to understand this message. From the perspective of society as a whole, the tendency is to look at people who, for instance, pray for God to kill their children or who sit at the door of a church during a service, screeching uncontrollably, and call them insane.

If we can imagine the female mystics of the medieval period as seeking to reveal the truth about God and the world by stripping away the oppressive elements of a male-dominated culture, another seemingly strange event in Angela’s story starts to make more sense. She is, throughout the early steps on her way of the cross, consumed with guilt at her sin. As I have suggested, one way to understand her guilty feelings is by looking at the family life of women in her time and place. They are almost literally shipped off, with payment, in order to improve the social standing of their families. Their bodies are used, not to glorify God, but to, in a sense, increase the material worth of their male relatives. For medieval women like Angela, there was an important disconnect between the religious demand for repentance and the selfless following of God in Christ on one hand and the very material existence of the difficult day-to-day family life of a thirteenth-century woman on the other. It is helpful to keep this in mind when we read this passage of Angela’s:

At the eighth step, while looking at the cross, I was given a deeper understanding of how the Son of God had died for our sins. And with extreme pain, I again became aware of all my sins – I felt that I myself had crucified Him. But I still did not know which was the greater good: that He had rescued me from my sins and from hell and converted me to penance, or that He had been crucified for me. But together with this understanding of the cross I was given such a fire that, as I was standing near the cross, I stripped myself of all my clothes, and offered myself completely to Him. And although I was afraid, I promised to observe perpetual chastity and not to offend Him with every part of my body. I also accused every part of my body, one at a time, before Him. (26)

The message revealed to us in Angela’s dramatic revelations, as Irigaray put it, and as Angela is here living out quite literally, was a “union [with God] in its most outrageous nakedness.” (Irigaray, 194) Some of the things that Angela of Foligno did seem remarkably odd to us now. Even then, it must have been shocking to have been in chuch when she showed up shrieking at the door, or when she ripped of all her clothes at the foot of the cross. It might’ve been a little less odd then; St. Francis had famously stripped naked and run off into the woods quite close to the setting of Angela’s story. Because of the rigid and limited options allowed to women in her position, one of the few possibilities for an independent, self-determined existence was that of the religious life.

It is a testament to how far we’ve come that for the majority of contemporary women, at least in our culture, there are many more ways open for the discovery of meaning. This might be why we don’t see much behavior like hers. She might also inspire us to look again at the lives and stories of those who, at first, seem downright crazy. Maybe they impact us as little as they do because we try to hide them away in institutions. Is it possible that we can learn something from those who seem to be unable to function normally? The more we avoid contact with these people and the less we think about them, the harder it is to ask this question. I do believe, though, that there are mental disorders that demand treatment. If you have a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia or a similar disease, or if you have spoken or worked with mental patients of this type, you may well have realized that manic behaviors shouldn’t be encouraged or explained away as religious fanaticism, insightful or not. Sometimes people really need treatment. We would do well, though, to take a lesson to heart from Angela and her visions, and it is one that we might learn from those people who might remind us of the more puzzling and attention-grabbing events in her life. We must ask if there isn’t some aspect of our society that produces this kind of outrageous behavior. Is it possible that the demand for success, especially financial success, and the constant stream of pleasures and entertainments offered to us by the marketplace are the equivalent to the oppressive lots afforded to women and peasants in the medieval times? Maybe we need more Angelas to shock ourselves into a better understanding of our world and the victims all around us.

I want to end with a bit of a footnote. Angela of Foligno has left us with more than just a record of mystical revelations of a transcendent God and the bleak despair of life without this God. Her story also testifies to the power of God to help victims transcend their situation and receive new life. This is a message no less true today. As Angela approached the highest level of mystical understanding of she was told by God, “My daughter, no creature is able to come to this point of seeing – where you have come – except by divine grace.” It is God’s power alone, not hers, Angela tells us, which delivered her from her sinful and hopeless life.

Finally, Angela of Foligno also leaves us with a demand for social action. God’s transforming action in our lives is not simply for our own comfort and benefit. After her dramatic conversion, Angela founded a community of Franciscan nuns. They took the three religious vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, but did not lead a cloistered life. Unlike most other women active in the church at the time, Angela, along with her fellow sisters, spent the rest of her life out in the community to help the poor and sick. This, perhaps, is the most important message we can take from this one remarkable woman who lived about seven hundred years ago, and it’s one, it seems, we must hear again and again. God is always already giving us the power to withstand our trials. In return we are commanded to go out and give our help to those who need it most.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A homily for the wedding of David Furnish and Elton John

So here's the rough draft of my sermon for class on Friday. I'd appreciate any comments or suggestions. Also, if anyone has a copy of the latest Harry Potter, could you transcribe the passage I'm refering to from the last chapter? I know it happens, but I can't find the book to get it exactly right. Well, without further ado,

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised through the same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no mean! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:27-31)

Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together, today. In spite of our gathered-togetherness, however, outside this building, and outside our circles of support, marriages exactly like this one are the subject of deep division. Elton, David, you have blessed us with a model of a loving, holy union between two men to hold up to the world as an example. There are those who believe that we, here today, are challenging the foundations that support the institution of marriage. No, I say to this, we are here to strengthen those foundations. I don’t think I need to remind you two that there is a great amount of responsibility placed on the married. I also don’t think I need to remind you that there is an upside, a resource that empowers us as we shoulder this responsibility. Forget not that you two have been blessed with a gift that allows the light of the greatest gift of all to shine down on you.

I’m not standing here to tell you that your marriage will be easy. It’s probably for the better to banish this thought from your minds right now. “Marriage is punishment for shoplifting in some countries,” Wayne Campbell tells us in the film “Wayne’s World.” That’s probably not factually true, but Wayne does hint at the difficulties that any married couple faces. There is a vulnerability that comes with love that leaves us open to the most painful wounds. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury points out that in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio, the cold and rigid steward to the countess, is opened up and warmed by the idea that he is loved. When he is then ridiculed and humiliated, the joy that is inherent in love is, perversely, testified to by the pain felt when it is misused.

David and Elton, I’m pretty sure that neither of you will ever knowingly use the love of the other as a weapon to hurt him, but there is something I want to say about love and how not to use it. Like the rest of us, you two aren’t perfect. I don’t know you well enough to be able to identifying the annoying little traits that you without doubt each have. Trust me, if you don’t already, you will come to know each other’s quite well. Archbishop Williams says that love in spite of these foibles, and the promise of forgiveness for each other’s errors is gift that you are giving to each other today. When this is forgotten, the pain we can cause is great.

However, when this gift is remembered, when this gift is lived, the power and beauty brought into the world is great. It is greatest weapon we have against darkness. In the Christian tradition, marriage is seen as a holy sacrament. This gift, which you give to each other, mirrors the ultimate gift, the ultimate power, given to us by God. In the latest Harry Potter book, On the darkest day that Harry has ever faced, when the powers of evil seem as strong as they ever have and victory appears impossible, he makes plans to attend the wedding of Ron’s older brother, Bill and Fleur Delacour. The power of hope, the ability to imagine a future different than the one we’re afraid is going to happen, is given to Harry by a public act of love.

Some of you may wonder why we read such an odd passage from St. Paul today. What’s all this talk about circumcision and the lack thereof and a tension between faith and the law? Isn’t this the same book that says that the type of love we are celebrating is a perversion, a punishment for our inherent Godlessness? There are people who take Paul’s other words and claim them as God’s law. They use them as weapons to defeat people like us. In the passage we read, though, as Archbishop Williams, again, points out, Paul argues that the words of even the holiest of men are a weak law in comparison to the law that we receive through faith in a loving God. “Do we overthrow the law by this faith?” Paul asks? “No. We uphold the law.” We strengthen its foundations.

Our presence today at this wedding is our way of bearing witness to this great law, that we love unconditionally and the assurance that each one of us is blessed with the ability to do so and the gift of love from God, despite the demeaning definitions that others may try to force on us. We proclaim that God shows his love for the world through each one of us. The fact that Elton and David have chosen to share their love with us today shows that marriage is, in some form, a public statement. Mark Jordan imagines a day when the Pope and a number of important Vatican officials wake up and are inspired by God to believe that the church’s stand on homosexuality is wrong. They can do little to correct the problem with a mere rewriting of the law, Jordan tells us. In order to think about moral truths, we must abandon legalistic arguments over abstract laws. We must instead focus on actual examples of grace in the actual lives of people. The only way that the Church, and society as a whole can welcome the vast diversity of ways God’s love can be felt, as they are ordained to do, is by publicly celebrating the instances of this love as they are brought into this world. Elton, David, the vows you make today are promises to bear the responsibility of carrying this love into the world, in spite of the difficulties that you will surely face. You have also each received and been given the greatest gift possible, the gift of love. May your days together be blessed as long as you both shall live.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Sermon, Year A Proper 28 (BCP)*

Given 11/13/05 at St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago, IL.

Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29

When my girlfriend Laura heard today’s gospel story a few weeks ago from my friend and classmate Aaltje, who is preaching on this text this very morning over at Augustana Lutheran on 55th street, she said, a little sarcastically, but quite understandably, “Oh, the master is punishing the bad capitalist here.” I guess one could make the case that the slave is overwhelmed with his gift and paralyzed from putting it to good use. One talent, in ancient financial markets, was about 16 years of day wages for your average laborer. This poor slave knows nothing about commodities trading and might not trust the local bankers. So, fearful of bandits and scoundrels, he squirrels the money away in the ground. The master, angry at a lost opportunity for personal gain, and wanting to maximize the flow of capital in the marketplace, casts his slave into the outer darkness.

I don’t think, however, that Jesus was thinking about an introductory lesson in neoliberal economics that day outside the temple at Jerusalem. He is offering an analogy that goes beyond money management advice. We English speakers are blessed with an additional, unintended aid to help us see this. “Talents,” for us, aren’t ancient units of currency, but our God-given abilities. These are not to be squandered. The master isn’t just angry about the money. It is the complacency, the laziness of the slave that warrants his wrath. This complacency can stem from fear, spitefulness, or any of a wide range of possible causes – there are, I think, millions of ways not to get something done. Believe me, I’ve tried a number of them. They all do a pretty good job of failing to take care of business.

The bad slave, we read, knew that the master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not grow seed. The slave was afraid. If we are to understand Jesus as meaning for the master to stand in for God in this story, we can all understand what the slave was afraid of. What is now the Old Testament for us was, in Jesus’ day, far less remote from the everyday consciousness of his hearers, and, we might assume, from the characters of his parables. The image of God portrayed in today’s reading from the Prophet Zephaniah, is one that, quite frankly, should scare the hell out of us:

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm… I will bring such distress upon people that they will walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. (Zeph. 1:12, 17)

Neither the God of Zephaniah, nor the master of Jesus’ parable, look kindly on complacency. In other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, there isn’t always such reason beneath the wrath of God. Look at Job. Scripture tells us “He was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil… He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.” (Job 1:1-4) Job, clearly, was a man who didn’t bury his talents in the ground. Still, God tests him, sending bandits to destroy his livestock and a terrible windstorm to kill his beloved children. God infects him with “loathsome sores… from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” (Job 2:7) Job did not rest on his dregs like the complacent Judeans exhorted by Zephaniah. Still, dark days fall on Job.

Paul speaks to dark days like these in today’s reading from his letter to the Thessalonians. The day of the LORD, Paul tells us, “will come like a thief in the night.” Paul is speaking, of course, about the day of the LORD, about which no one knows, but his words also have something to say about days like the ones Job faced, like the ones that we ourselves face. Ask someone who’s lost a loved one suddenly. Ask someone with a family member suffering from depression, or someone suffering from depression themselves. Ask someone who was watching CNN the day Hurricane Katrina hit.

The dreaded phone call comes out of nowhere, when you least expect it. For someone suffering from depression, the little things that nag us tolerably most of the time can swell up into a crushing force that makes it nearly impossible to act. On the afternoon following the storm, the press was reporting a glancing blow, the hurricane had hammered the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but New Orleans had been spared from devastation. Then the levees broke.

My grandfather died when I was just a kid. I remember telling my dad, as he was flying to visit him in the hospital, to tell Grandpa that I was reading Tom Sawyer. I thought that the good news that his oldest grandson was actually reading a book by an author that grown-ups seemed to have heard of and care about would help him beat the cancer. I was wrong. One of a very few things I remember about my trip to see my grandparents in Louisville, the last time, I think, I saw grandpa before he got sick, was a little card he had framed on his desk. You might’ve seen it before, there’s a picture of footprints in the sand on a beach, and the text says something like,

In a dream, a man saw two sets footprints stretching off into the horizon and knew that they represented his life. One set was his, and one, he knew, was God’s. During the difficult times of his life, the man was dismayed to see only one set. “Why,” he asked God, “did you leave me when I needed you most?” “My child, I never left you,” said God. “Those footprints are mine. I was carrying you.”

This is rather similar to the kind of fortune cookie spirituality that usually, quite honestly, gets my goat. This card, though, perhaps because of my memories around it, seems different. It’s also, I want to say, really good theology. In today’s reading, Paul tells us that, on the day of the LORD, our defenses are “the breastplate of faith and love,” and when the battle seems all but lost, we have “for a helmet the hope of salvation.” In other words, when we endure the loss of loved ones, when we avoid the rising waters and rescue our neighbors as they are trapped, when we learn to survive and thrive in the face of depression, we do so with strength given to us by the grace of God.

This church exists to proclaim the message of this grace, and one of the most important ways we do that is by welcoming all who come in. Often, they are looking for a bit of relief from the darkness and uncertainty of their lives. Anyone who’s heard more than a couple sermons from Jim, our rector, can tell you a thing or two about the radical hospitality of Jesus. “We welcome all seekers,” it’s the first line of our mission statement and printed on just about everything we hand out here. Saint Paul and the Redeemer is a community where we share in, and hopefully, lessen each other’s burden. This is a critical role in our society and an important mission commanded to us by God and by scripture. In this light, the difficult verse in today’s reading that says, “For to all those who have, more will be given… from those who have nothing, even what they have will be given away,” can be taken to mean that without a community of loved ones, which this church seeks to provide to anyone looking for one, we are vulnerable to the isolating and devastating effects of poverty, grief, anxiety, addiction and oppression. The church can’t eliminate these thing – today’s readings actually suggest that things can, and quite possibly will get even worse -- but we have been blessed with weapons to fight.

There is another side to radical hospitality, though. In addition to that which God commands the church to offer, something is demanded of each one of us. The good servants, Jesus is telling us are the ones who invest their talents. We are called to invest ours. We must seek in ourselves a nature of radical hospitality that mirrors that of this church and that of our LORD. The strength to carry on in spite of the forces that hinder us is the gift we have been given by God, but we are to return the favor to our neighbor. Today’s reading from Matthew is a little vague. Besides instructing us to invest our talents, Jesus seems to be short on specifics. The Gospel of Matthew, though, doesn’t end where our reading today did. Chapter 25, in fact, has one more lesson Jesus gave that day outside the temple. In it, he sums up the previous few. He tells us that on the Day of Judgment, the Son of Man will separate the sheep, which will go to heaven, from the goats. You know where the goats go. He will say to the sheep,

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

When the goats ask, “When did we fail you in this way?” Jesus says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In Christian scripture, there are other, different demands placed on believers. Matthew’s emphasis on social justice isn’t quite so clear and direct in other parts of his Gospel. But, following today’s lesson, we learn that God demands from us the investment of ourselves in the struggle to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe and care for the sick and naked, and be a comfort to the imprisoned. Our task, as a parish, then, is to find creative and effective ways to do these things, and, as we will learn today during discussions of our stewardship campaign, to develop the resources necessary so to do. This need, I might not have to remind you, is stated clearly in the third line of our mission statement: Go forth serving God’s word.


The Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Check it out.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unleash your inner muppet!

This is my inner muppet.

statler jpeg
You are Statler or Waldorf. You have a high opinion of yourself, as do others. But only because you are in the balcony seats.

Frankly, I was stunned. No, really.

You do it! Thanks to Nunzilla.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My First Sermon

Rather long for a blog post, I guess, but hey, my first post was a six page paper, so there's a precedent. Look for the sequel, My Frst Sermon Before a Congregation, sometime between now and Monday.

The Lord said to [Moses], “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying ‘I will give it to your descendants.’, I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. (Deuteronomy 34:4-5)

Can you imagine? Moses is a hundred twenty years old. He’s been walking around, leading a group of about six hundred thousand men, women and children, old and young, strong and weak, courageous and cowardly, at times, straight-up idolatrous, through the desert for forty years. That’s damn near twice as long as most of the people in this room have been alive. His congregation is bigger than any of us could possibly imagine serving. Ours won’t be so badly behaved, either – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a congregation that up and starts worshipping the great cow spirit the minute we go off to talk to God is not the type of problem any of us are likely to face in our vocations, whatever they may be. To put it simply, Moses puts up with more hardship for a longer period and under worse conditions than any of us can possibly imagine. In the bit of today’s Psalm that the lectionary instructs us to omit, scripture laments “The days of our life are seventy years or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble.” (Psalm 90:10) “Eighty years,” I can almost hear Moses saying, “Ha! I didn’t even start on the flight into the wilderness until my eightieth year. You sure got that part about toil and trouble right, though.”

“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,” we learn in today’s reading. Moses did more for the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, than any figure in scripture, but still, God prevents him from setting foot in the promised land with his people. Why didn’t God let his most faithful servant into the land sworn to the people of Israel? Why didn’t Moses get to finally, after 40 years of sand-filled sandals and a constantly sun-burned scalp, sit down and enjoy the destination toward which he struggled long past the point to which we can reasonably hope to struggle? I bet he would have loved to relax a little bit in “Jericho, the city of Palm Trees.” Sounds almost like Sarasota without the hurricane warnings. One can imagine a nice riverside condo with a view of the sea off in the distance. However, this final satisfaction, God says, is not Moses’ destiny. Are you and I really supposed to imagine ourselves in Moses’ sandals? That doesn’t sound immediately appealing, now, does it? Not to mention the fact that imagining God’s promised land as consisting, for us, of the specific geographical region extending from the southernmost shore of the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee, from the East bank of the Jordan to the Mediterranean has proven to be a rather problematic theological position to assume in light of contemporary international relations. How are we, here, now, to understand this promised land? What might Jesus have to say about all of this?

Well, to begin, this text from Deuteronomy is, as some no doubt recognize immediately, the key reference in Martin Luther King Jr.’s final, and second most famous sermon. In 1968, Dr. King accepted the call to support the striking, largely African-American sanitation workers of Memphis Tennessee in their struggle against unfair labor practices. At this point in Dr. King’s life, resentment over the social and political gains achieved by and for Black Americans, coupled with furor over Dr. Kings increasing calls for radical social and economic change in America and an end to the war in Vietnam, had led to intense hatred toward the preacher in some American circles. Serious threats on Dr. King’s life had been weighing on the movement. Dr. King addresses this at the end of his speech, with the words immediately familiar to many, many Americans:

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult times ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

There are, at the very least, two ways of looking at death and struggle. Our life, today’s psalm cries, is constant struggle until death. Paul Tillich, as many of you, with fading clarity and varying levels of intellectual assent, no doubt remember, calls this perspective “the anxiety of fate and death.” Rather than give in completely to the despair that leads from this anxiety, Dr. King bears witness to a promised land. As he puts it,

I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – “We want to be free.”

Rather than give in to the seemingly unmovable forces against him, Martin Luther King sees a Promised Land in the distance, a world where the chains of racism, poverty, and oppression have been cast off. “The last shall be first. Blessed are the meek,” Jesus calls to us from further along in the story. “But when,” we might ask. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King was fond of reminding us. Well, it doesn’t seem like it’s any more bent toward justice than it was in 1968, does it? One would be hard pressed to argue that social and economic freedoms are that much more available for the world’s poor than they were in King’s day. The US did eventually pull out of Vietnam, but, well, look at American foreign policy right now. Almost forty years after his final speech, Dr. King’s Promised Land, sadly, doesn’t seem any closer. It remains incomprehensibly further from us than Sarasota, than Jericho, the cities of palms.

But at the same time, it’s right next to us, maybe even on the last page of the printout of the lectionary readings for today. In today’s reading from Matthew, the Pharisees see that Jesus had stumped the Sadducees and try to trick Jesus, as they are wont to do. “Tell us,” they say, “Of all the commandments of God, handed down by Moses, which is the greatest?” Jesus replies:

You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

How might we do this loving of God, commanded to us by Jesus? Well, take the Lord’s Prayer – it is, after all, what Jesus says we are to say to God when we initiate the conversation: “Our Father…” we begin. In some sense, we are told that God, like a parent, is partly responsible for our very existence. One of the ways we are to love God is to be grateful for this fact. When Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, in spite of the threats against his life, he refused to submit totally to the anxiety of mortality and fate, even though he seemed to know that he wouldn’t live to see fair treatment for the Black Memphis sanitation workers, let alone the casting off of the chains of the world’s downtrodden. He relates the story of his near death in New York City in 1958 when a disturbed woman stabbed him in the chest. The knife came to rest against Dr. King’s aorta, and, as he tells the audience, “If I’d sneezed, I would have died.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started siting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream… If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

King is, in effect, thanking God for the opportunities to stand up along side those who were in the process of casting off their chains, standing up straight, overcoming the anxiety of their fate. These opportunities, these moments, built up Dr. King and his audiences in equal measure. This, then, is loving our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus told us to do. How are we to do this today, forty years after Dr. King and thousands more since the time of Moses? Preach the Gospel of Love, especially to those who seem to lack love, for, as someone on the vestry at my teaching parish said the other day, “The stingy shall always be among us.” We must preach the Gospel of forgiveness to those for whom forgiveness seems impossible. Remember, Moses, our greatest prophet was forbidden from entering the kingdom of heaven, nominally due to his own lack of faith, (Numbers 20:9-12) the lack of faith of his flock, (Deuteronomy 4:21) or else because he grew so violently angry at his Egyptian oppressors that he savagely beat one to death. (Exodus 2:11-12) Finally we, as did Dr. King, must preach the Gospel of hope where there seems to be no hope. Jesus has given us a momentary glimpse of the Promised Land. All who are there are filled with the love of God and are one with Christ in this love. We will not see this in our lifetimes. However, today, we have assurance from a few sources that humankind will someday see it. Our job is to take our flocks as far through the wilderness. We probably won’t be able to do that for 120 years, but we probably won’t be assassinated either. While we are blessed with the chance, we must continue to preach the Gospel of the forgiveness of the unforgiveable. The Gospel of Love where there appears to be none. The Gospel of hope when all hope appears to be lost.