Consider the Sparrow: A sermon on fear & pain

Sunday June 22, 2013 Trinity Episcopal Church, Milford MA

 

sparrow tattoo by Darlene DiBona at Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoos in Jamaica Plain: http://www.pumpkintattoo.com/darlene/

Matthew 10: 24-39

Even before his team had played a game, the head coach of the US Men’s Soccer team had gotten himself into trouble. Jurgen Klinsmann , a native of Germany, but the US Men’s coach was remarkably candid last week: “You have to be realistic. Every year we are getting stronger,” Klinsmann said. ” For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me.” And correct him they did. The media jumped all over Klinsmann for his lack of hope, his lack of optimism, his failure to embrace an American ethos of grit and determination. Perhaps the strongest rebuke came from Landon Donovan, a major US player Klinsmann left off the World Cup team. Donovan said, “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen. As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.” Klinsmann’s words were no accident, no slip up during the interview. Last December, he told the NY Times magazine, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”

Jesus would have made a horrible soccer coach (or maybe he’d just be a bad American soccer coach). This passage today from the Gospel according to Matthew is essentially a pep talk to the disciples, a pre-game speech to his team. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus summoning the twelve disciples and giving them authority to cast out and heal. He directs them to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Jesus gets them ready for the game, but tells them there are no extras, no safety nets, no bag for your journey, no extra pair of sandals. And then it turns a bit darker. Klinsmann said to the press, “you have to be realistic.” And Jesus is realistic. He looks ahead, knowing the kinds of subversive, counter-cultural mission of the Gospel, and tells the disciples what to expect.

Jesus begins by telling the disciples that they will be maligned, as he has been maligned. Jesus tells them that there will be those who try to kill the body. Jesus says this mission will not bring peace but conflict. World’s. Worst. Pep-talk. You have to be realistic.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we said all the things that we fear are true that we don’t say? That maybe you’ll graduate, but you’ll be in debt and can’t find a job. That maybe you’ll find a job but you won’t be doing what you love, or you won’t be making enough money. Maybe you’ll fall in love, but one of you will die first or your marriage will end with infidelity. Maybe you’ll get married, but you’ll struggle to conceive, or you’ll get pregnant when you didn’t mean to. That children and family and friends will break your heart and disappoint you. That a son will be set against his father, “daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:34). That people you love will make hurtful decisions and you’ll make hurtful decisions too. That people you love will get sick and die before you can get there to visit them and say all the things you meant to say a year ago. That one day, you’ll be the last one alive and all the names of your friends will be crossed out of your address book.

We don’t say these sorts of fearful things when we look ahead. But Jesus does, he points out the conflict and the grief that is to come. And he’s as direct and unflinching as a German soccer coach, saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Jesus warns of conflict ahead, conflict between fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, friends and foes. In my experience, when I get fearful, I get combative. When I’m worried that there isn’t enough, I get snippy with those around me. My colleague Courtney withdraws like a turtle into her shell when she gets afraid to avoid the coming conflict. Another colleague told me she gets “controlling and distracted and self blaming” when she’s afraid. We aren’t our best selves when we are afraid. We turn in. We seize up. We arm up. We run away. You know these responses, freeze or fight or flight, when we are afraid. When we are afraid, we do not live as the beloved children of God we are called to be.

These are hard words from Jesus to the disciples. And they are understandably afraid of what awaits them. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and saying all sorts of cranky things after he woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping mat and there was no honey left for his tea that morning. But I’m more inclined to think that Jesus is being realistic- unflinchingly, painfully realistic.

He is preparing the disciples for his capture, humiliation, torture and death. He is preparing them for the possibility of a similar fate. Jesus tells the disciples of his own defamation, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” And maybe, just maybe by naming their fears outloud, they can be released from their fears.

Three times in this short passage Jesus addresses their fear. In verse 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered; and nothing secret that will not become known.” In Verse 28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” In Verse 31 “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Jesus’ hard words about the future are not a slip up, or a mistake. And his warnings are not without hope. The strange and glorious part, is that this hope, even in the face of real, hard, fearful words, comes in the form of a bird.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” proclaim verse 32.

Why a sparrow? What’s so special about a sparrow that God would be so attentive? Well, it turns out, there’s nothing special about a sparrow. They are utterly common. Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue just wrote a book called “Consider the Birds: A Provocative guide to Birds of the Bible.” Sparrows were the chicken McNuggets of 1st century Palestine. As Blue describes, “sparrows were stripped of their feathers, threaded onto long strings, or jammed onto wooden skewers and laid out on trays a gray and lifeless to be sold in the ancient Middle Eastern marketplace as cheap food- two for a penny according to Matthew…They are ubiquitous… Field guides describe them as bland, dingy and dull, with songs that are monotonous and grating. The Egyptian hieroglyph based on the sparrow had no phonetic value. It was used in words to indicate small, narrow, or bad. In ancient Sumerian cuneiform writing, the sparrow was the symbol for ‘enemy.” (129).

A bird worth less than a penny, this is the symbol for all that God sees and knows. Blue sees God’s attentiveness to this disposable bird as a sign of “God’s profuse care.” Debbie Blue writes “God cares for what the world considers insignificant. This is all over the text: the weak and the poor, the widows, the broken. Jesus eats with the common people. Our eyes are so often on something with a little more prestige… We desperately don’t want to be common… We are hardly able to convince ourselves that God is unlike us in this. But the Scripture keeps pressing us to hear this: God loves what is ubiquitous. ” Even the sparrow. Even you. Even me. And all of the common, unremarkable, fearful and ordinary things in our lives. The profligate grace of God is so thorough-going, so complete, so all-encompassing that even a fallen sparrow is noticed, so that we don’t have to be afraid of going at it alone.

I had a pretty hard week- A week ago Sunday, one of my mentors died after a very short and aggressive cancer. At 53 and just coming into the prime of her academic career, it seemed especially cruel to have her dead so young. It was a haul to drive to Montreal for the funeral in the middle of the week and disrupted my full work schedule. People were cranky with me for not doing the things I said I would do, but couldn’t get done. But the promise is this: It’s not that we avoid the hard times or the pain of living in line with the Gospel, it’s that we do not go through this apart from God. Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God. Maybe you had a hard week too. Maybe you’ve had a hard month, or a hard year. But not one single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice, and you, beloved are of more value than many sparrows.

It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. My friend has this beautiful tattoo of a sparrow on her arm. It’s her reminder of this promise from Matthew and of the promise of the gospel hymn “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” I can “sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” It’s her reminder of Hamlet’s words to Horatio in Act 5, Scene 2:

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Are we there yet? A sermon for the Ascension

Are we there yet? A sermon for the Ascension

Sunday June 1, 2014- Lutheran Church of Framingham

 

Acts 1: 6-14 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

Lutheran Framingham sign

Are we there yet? Soon.

Are we there now? It’s going to take longer than that.

Is that now? No, later.

When is later? We’ll be there in two hours.

How long is 2 hours? 120 minutes.

Did we wait long enough? No, in two hours.

How long is two hours? 4 Dora the Explorers, or 1 showing of Frozen plus a little bit, or two services at a Lutheran church or one at a Baptist.

So now? How about now? Are we there yet? How about now? You told me we’d be there soon!

This is how the Book of Acts begins, with the disciples gathered around the resurrected Christ asking “Now?” Actually, it’s less of a new beginning and more of a continuation, a second volume following the end of the Gospel of Luke. Luke ends with the Easter resurrection, and the resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples. Acts is a new chapter that carries all the promise and hope of the end of Luke. Expectations are high. The disciples, the hearers of these stories, we readers, expect God to do something. Acts is the sequel to the epic story in Luke. And the sequel begins with the disciples asking “So now what?”

Verse 6 begins, “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now? Is it now? Is this the time that you promised? Like small children whose little mush brains can’t yet understand the difference between now and two weeks from now, the disciples ask now? How about now? Is it now? We’ve heard the disciples ask this before- is now the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?

Not now, Jesus says. Later or Soon. Doesn’t really matter. In verse 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. The disciples ask Jesus a question about when, but he answers a question about how. In verse 8, Jesus says “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Not yet, but soon. Jesus promises them that they will be witnesses to the whole world, but starting first right where they are in Jerusalem.

Today is a change of seasons. We’ve basked in the glow of the resurrected Christ in Eastertide. We’ve just celebrated the 40 days of Easter. Next Sunday, we’ll join with Christians around the world to celebrate Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit. This past Thursday was the Ascension- when we read this text about Jesus rising up, leaving the disciples in body but promising the Holy Spirit. We tend to talk about Pentecost as the birthing of the Church. But maybe we’re a bit pre-mature. Maybe Jesus’ departure is what prods us to begin as Church.

Ascension holds a funny place in our spiritual lives. Our creeds make sure to mention it and early Christians seemed to think it important: On the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In some churches, if you lit the Pascal Candle on Easter, you extinguish it on the Ascension. But we don’t have a ton of traditions built up around it. There’s not Ascension Day release of balloons, or flying of kites. There’s no Ascension Day pageant where we dress up in white robes. No Ascension Day gifts or traditional meringue cookies and angel food cake. Not much of communal practice of hiking up a mountain. It’s a weird holiday, a time to celebrate when Jesus leaves us and before the Holy Spirit shows up? A time left where we may feel, well bereft. No wonder the disciples are left staring up at the sky, asking what the?

But now, right now, on Ascension, we are in between. The problem with being in between is that it’s an uncomfortable place, an unstable place. It could be good, it could be tense, because we just don’t know what comes next. We are in the waiting.

You know this waiting. You live in this in-between too. Waiting for the grade, the acceptance letter, the rejection letter, the biopsy results. Waiting to be fired when you know it’s coming. Waiting for a baby to be born. Waiting to be old enough to do that next big thing, waiting to die. Waiting in to see if the money comes in. Waiting to find out what will happen to us.

After Jesus gave them the promise of the Holy Spirit, Verse 9 says “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” We can understand why their eyes are fixed on the sky where Jesus just ascended; it’s kind of a ridiculous scene. But the disciples get caught in a sort of spiritual rubbernecking, keeping their eyes on what just happened and not where they’re supposed to be going back to Jerusalem. You who travel on the Mass Pike, or Route 9 know this temptation- something going on in the other lane that catches your eye. Ruber-necking is what happens when you are going one way and your eyes are looking back. The disciples get caught looking up when they’re supposed to be heading out.

Jesus could have gone up, and the Holy Sprit could have come down, a sort of Trinitiarian cosmic elevator swap or tag-team handoff. But that’s not what happens. “To use the language of the theologian Lieven Boeve, the ascension “interrupts” the story, and prevents closure.” There’s an interruption. There’s a pause. A break. A lacuna. A breath in-between the words. We are in the space between.

In music composition, a lacuna is the negative space in between the music, an intentional pause that creates both peace and tension at the same time. We don’t know how long that lacuna will last, but we know something more will come.

Look at the disciples as they return home to Jerusalem in verse 12. The lacuna isn’t devoid of action, but preparatory. They devote themselves to prayer. They are getting nimble, getting ready for the unknown next.

The Ascension is where God’s people wait and learn to be responsive. If we let it, the Ascension teaches us to be expectant, not anxious. To be agile, nimble- not exactly words I often think of when I think of church. Ascension invites us to be ready to go where the Spirit sends us next, to stop staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet ascending into heaven and be Christ’s hands and feet ourselves. The promise is big- you will be my witness to the ends of the earth! But let’s start first back at home in Jerusalem. First go home and prepare. Go home and wait. Go home and pray.

Church, I think you feel this lacuna. We are inbetween. You are inbetween. We are somewhere between the time when Church was a given in people’s lives and whatever will come next. We are between what is, and what will come. And our God has not abandoned the Church universal, or abandoned the Lutheran Church of Framingham.

This waiting can be uneasy. We want the silence to stop, the music to resolve, the lacuna to finish, the Holy Spirit to come. But we are in the waiting, the preparation, exactly where God needs us to be, as strong as our urge is to flee the waiting. The Quakers have the term that helps them resist the urge while acknowledging it: “outrunning one’s guide.*”

Now, I’m not a runner and in no danger of outrunning anyone. And as much as I love the Church, the Church is rarely an early adapter. We’re not often in danger of moving too quickly. If anything, the Church is often in danger of moving too slowly! But we can be impatient. We can confuse action for wisdom. We can confuse frenetic, anxious movement for faithfulness. We can get our eyes fixed on what’s above us, or behind us, and forget that God goes before us. The Ascension teaches us expectant waiting, holy preparation.

The British Quaker John Woolman, who preached across the colonies in the mid 1700’s, tells his story of “Outrunning one’s guide” like this:

One day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up and said some words in a meeting; but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me. Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress He had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence; my mind became calm and quiet, and I was truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for His mercies. About six weeks after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting, in which I found peace. Being thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and which taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to His flock.

May it be so for us, Amen.

* massive hat tip to my Quaker friends on Facebook and Twitter who helped me with the idea of “outrunning one’s guide.” Thanks!

 

 

Ye Olde Annual Easter Grass Rant, now with Artisanal Grass

Ye Olde Annual Easter Grass Rant

I try to stay fairly positive in my social media posture, but there’s something about Easter Grass that drives me absolutely mad. Forgive the rant or revel in it, your choice. 

I HATE Easter grass. It is the work of the Devil, if there is such a thing. If there is such a thing, the Devil created Easter Grass. Easter grass represents the worst of who we are:

  • Easter grass is a simulacrum of actual grass. It pretends to be grass, with its neon green color and stringy shape. But it is not grass. Psalm 37 speaks of  the wicked who “fade like the grass” yet Easter Grass will not fade. 
  • Easter grass is a petro-chemical version of actual grass. What is local and indigenous, we make with foreign oil and the obligation to spend more limited resources to ship it across the country.
  • Easter grass takes what is natural and makes it toxic. Instead of the good grass that springs from the earth, we use foreign oil to make it, fill it with endocrin disruptors and give it to our children while their young bodies are still forming.
  • Easter grass makes uniform what the good Creation make variable. Easter grass reduces all the variety of grass (Rye, Kentucky Blue, Bahia, Fescue & St. Augustine) into the same bloody piece of plastic.
  • Easter grass manages crass commercialization of something that grows wild.
  • Easter grass kills the very nature it pretends to symbolize Birds are attracted to the shimmery plastic, they line their nests with it, eat it and die.
  • Easter grass claims to represent Easter, the holiday otherwise  known as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet nowhere in Scripture does Easter grass exist.
  • Easter grass gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And when you find it under your couch cushion on the 4th of July or mid-December, you will not think fondly of this as a sign of death and resurrection. No, you will shake your first and vow, “Never again with the flipping Easter grass!” Forget tulips, Easter grass represents total depravity.

And new to the list this year,  an entry from Whole Foods:IMG_8313

  • This year in an attempt to smother us with preciousness, Whole Foods has rolled out its own Easter Grass “alternative.” As far as I can tell, this is not ironic. For $6.99 ( spotted a pre-Easter sale of $5.99), Whole Foods will sell you FOUR ounces of  “Tim’s Real Easter Basket Grass”  an organic, Vermont grown hay to line your Easter basket. In either an act of beguiling genius or total ridiculousness, Whole Foods will now sell you the very thing that you can get for free, but in a retro-cardbord box. Now we can feel virtuous by buying our way towards Easter.

 

#WeRunTogether: A sermon for Easter

#WeRunTogether: a Sermon for Easter

Christ Church, United Methodist: Wellesley, MA

Gospel Reading from John 20: 1-18

If this is your first Sunday in this church, you are welcome here. If this is your first Sunday in any church, you are welcome here. If you got dragged here by your mom, or aunt, or grandfather or a friend, and are still a little green from last night, you are welcome here. If you have been a faithful member here for the last decade, you are welcome here. If you have sat in the 3rd pew on the left since before Jesus was born, you are welcome here. If duty or joy or grief or fear prodded you to church today, you are welcome here. If you’re running from something, running to something, you are welcome here. If you are here unsure if you should be here, you are welcome here. I’ve never been to this church either- we are strangers here together. Before the tomb, we are all strangers. But at least part of the story of Easter is a story of recognition, a story of hearing someone call out our name, a story of being known. And whether you believe a little or believe a lot, you are here. You are welcome here. It is good that you are here. We’ve got work to do together.

The Easter story in John’s gospel is a big of a theatrical mess. People are moving back and forth in ways that aren’t totally clear. The big dramatic scene has happened off stage, beyond our sight- the stone has been rolled back, the burial shroud comes off, the broken body laid to rest arises. All that happens off stage in John’s Gospel. What we do see is the running.

Unlike the other three Gospel stories of the Resurrection, John’s Gospel starts out in the dark. Not the Easter dawn with the bright morning star arising, but in that inky blue before the sun beings to rise. The moon still hovers in the sky. We are in-between. John’s Easter is for those of us who didn’t get up this morning with the hope of new life. John’s Easter is for those who fumble in the darkness. In that early morning before dawn, Mary walks to the tomb after the violent, humiliating events of Friday’s crucifixion. She walks after the worst days of her life. The very fact she gets up out of bed and steps one foot in front of the other seems to me like a miracle in and of itself. Mary Magdalene walks to the graveyard to pray at the tomb, to grieve all the hope that is lost, but the stone has been rolled away. Heart pounding, she runs from the scene of a crime, unsure of what has happened and what will happen next. She turns around and she runs.

First Mary runs from the tomb, then the Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter run there and back, and Mary runs to the tomb again. It’s a relay race of disciples. And relay races are glorious, high stakes but they are messy. But the life of faith is this, We run together.

Now almost 20 years after they ran high school track relays, a few old friends of mine can still remember the stomach-churning clang of the metal baton slipping out of their hands and dropping to the track. They still remember the horror of the entire stadium turning to the sound, every heart dropping with the brassy crash. Passing the baton is the most thrilling and horrifying part of the race.

There is some evidence that relay races began in ancient Greece, possibly as a way to pass information from one person to another, over a distance further than any one person could go on their own. That baton was either a scroll or a torch, a word or a light passed along.

One of my old high school friends now teaches youth track. When she teaches baton passes, they “talk about not running too far out away from your teammate.” You can lead them “out a tiny little bit without straining them past their ability.” But you have to remember that the incoming runner is exhausted, while the outgoing runner is just starting out with fresh legs. In a blind exchange, the outgoing runner never sees the baton. The incoming runner calls for the outgoing runners hand, and yells “Stick!” You practice that handoff a thousand times so that when the time comes, you can handoff under pressure. Relay teams grow close because they have to rely on one another. Your victory depends not just on your own skill, but on the others who run with you.

Even if you’ve never run a relay race, you know this. You know how hard it is to pass along that baton- to prepare your child to go to school on their own, to pass the car keys to your teenager, to give over your writing to an editor who will cut it apart, to hand over an organization you’ve given years of service to, to give over our medical and legal power of attorney as our health fails. Maybe you know how hard it is to pass the baton in church. Maybe you know the dread of straining at the end of your race unsure if you’ve got anyone to had off to. Maybe you know the anxiety of reaching back your hand to find nothing in it. However we pass the baton, whatever baton we pass, the reality is this: to successfully pass the baton, we have to run together. We have to match speeds, just for a moment so that each of us is going at the same pace. We are on each other’s teams. You cannot run to the tomb alone.

The Easter story in John offers a point of entry for all of us, however we come to the story today, those of us who run ahead and us who lag behind. “The Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Mary sees yet needs help believing. Peter sees, but he does not yet believe. Peter will come to faith in time.” Gospel writer doesn’t judge any one of these as superior. It’s not a contest between them. We’re on each other’s teams. This is a part of the race we run together. Twice, three times they run to the tomb to try to get their arms around what on earth is going on, because Easter isn’t always a story you hear once and believe. Sometimes you’ve got to keep going back to the tomb to make sure it’s still empty.

St Basil the Great, a 4th C Church Father said, “When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.” If you come back next week, you’ll hear the story of Doubting Thomas, because believing that death is truly, truly conquered is hard to believe. We need to hear it again and again. We work it out together.

We tend to treat Easter as the culmination, as the big Lenten finale, the time to bring out your good hat, and your big choir piece, and your best sermon. But this is not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the start gun. It’s 50 days of Eastertide, not a sprint race but a marathon, a marathon that will run right outside your door. We run this race together.

In the Orthodox Christian traditions, Easter or Pascha starts the night before, while it’s still dark- more like a Christmas Eve service. You go to church on Saturday night, before there’s any sign of the dawn. The first time I attended an Orthodox Christian Easter service I was totally lost. Completely and utterly lost. It was a sign of honor, but inconveniently, they sat me in the front row. Now the problem with the front row is you can’t sneak a peak at the others around you to see what to do. We each had a candle to wave and a song to sing, but the hymn was in Greek and I had no idea what movements I was supposed to make. We must have sung the Easter hymn 50 times during the liturgy. By the 20th time, I started to get it. “Christos Anesti…” Christ has risen, Christ has risen indeed. Christos Anesti, Allithos Anesti. Χριστός ἀνέστη!” “Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Christ has risen, we kept singing. Christ has risen. Say it again, Christ has risen, Christ has risen. Like the beat of your heart heavy in your chest, moving to the sound of your feet. Christ has risen. I have risen. You have risen. We have risen. Keep saying it, keep running, keep believing it. Christ has risen. I have risen, you have risen, we have risen. We sing together. We run together. We die together, we rise together. Say it again until it becomes true, until you are raised with Christ too, until we run together without fear. Christ has risen, Christ has risen, Christ has risen. On your mark, get set…

 

 

Which Boston is #BostonStrong?

ImageSilence and stillness are my reminders of the Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath. From the first train in the early morning to the last train at 12:30am, I can both hear and feel the rumble of the subway line from my apartment. The slight rattle of the dishes, the hum under my feet are the regular rhythms of life in my Boston. But during the manhunt for the suspected bombers, the city was placed on “lock-down” and the trains ceased to run. The buzz of the train stopped, and the silence was punctuated by the hovering of helicopters overhead. We we told to “shelter in place,” but nothing about our sheltering felt safe. It took months for me to stop twitching at the sound of helicopters above. The rhythm of the trains has returned. But every now and then, I become aware of the trains and pause to remember when they stopped.

Boston is a divided city, like most cities. We each experienced and re-experience the Boston Marathon bombing in a different way depending on where we live and move. I was in Gloucester on vacation for the week and immediately returned to my city to start working on the interfaith response. I didn’t experience the chaos at the bombing site. My experience of the Marathon bombing was mostly in the aftermath, the lockdown, the manhunt. Something entirely different happened for those present along the route and at the finish line. But because of the scale, many people sense that we experienced something together. Yet, at some point, the cheers shifted from away from the unified claim to “One Boston” to “Boston Strong.”

This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing.  We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”

I was convicted. I was embarrassed by my own blindness. I was heartbroken. I didn’t hear jealously, but genuine wonder and grief of a mother who lost her son. For those of us who strive to follow Jesus who says that none are forgotten in God’s sight, how do we reconcile the invisibility of some lives with Jesus’s promise that God knows even the “number of hairs on your head” (Luke 12:7)?

The sinful truth is that in my beloved Boston, some lives are invisible. Jamarhl Crawford, creator of Blackstonian, said recently “when things that happen to white people, or things that happen to ‘white places‘ where violence is not supposed to occur is seen as this affront to everything that is sacred and holy.” Crawford speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave. Since the Boston Marathon, 235 people have been shot in Boston, 35 people senselessly killed in “those places, to those people.” How is that “Boston Strong?” I grieve the collective trauma, suffering and senseless deaths of the Boston Marathon. Yet how is 35 dead any less senseless? When we chant or buy “Boston Strong,” which Boston are we talking about? Boston is a divided city. Which Boston is strong?

Decades of Boston racial and economic history play into these divisions. As a nation, we have grown to tolerate violence to some people in some neighborhoods. We bring no healing, we do one another no good if we turn this into “oppression Olympics” or contests of who suffers more. I believe there is no cap on the amount of empathy we can expend. Many people suffered enormously during and following the Boston Marathon bombing. Some people suffered unseen, with far less sympathy and resources. And if we dig underneath, maybe we find a embarrassing presumption that we actually expect some people to suffer more because of where they live and the color of their skin. With a regularity that rumbles along like the subway lines, we take for granted that violence will always be a fact of life in some communities. We perpetuate the insidious logic of violence in our own hearts if we divide further as our fellow Bostonians suffer.

ImageThe Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: pro-participation in many forms. The Boston Marathon invites global participation on American soil. During the Boston Marathon, people run into the city, not away from it. The Boston Marathon is a world class event that’s free to view. As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss. They are asking for their dead to be seen as fully human.

On the anniversary of Tuesday April 15, and the Marathon on Monday April 22, there will be many tributes. When you pause for a moment of silence, remember all who grieve the dead in Boston. Maybe learn the names of the dead (including the 19 people killed in Boston since January) and pray for their families too. Pray that the blindness might be removed from our eyes. Commit to walking in the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace on Sunday May 11.  Our divisions are deep, and the violence systemic and the work to overcome such division will probably take decades, but there is no possibility of healing if we cannot see one another.

Bruce Springsteen as storyteller #TheologyOfBruce

photo asbury park     These are my notes from a March 8, 2014 workshop at the “UnQuiet Day” on “Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope” with Bishop Douglas Fisher, Episcopal Diocese of Western MA, and Canon Rich Simpson. More information about the UnQuiet Day is here: http://www.diocesewma.org/unquietday/ Rich’s excellent sermon is here:  http://rmsimpson.blogspot.com/2014/03/meet-me-out-in-street-bruce-springsteen.html You can see some of the tweets from the day by looking at #TheologyofBruce
     I’m going to invite us to dance, because you’re killing me to play Bruce loud and not dance. Now, the invitation is to try to be embodied. If this terrifies you beyond death, go pretend to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom. But I want to offer you this, Episcopalians you are the ones who taught me to use my body in worship, to cross myself, to bow, to kneel. You are the ones who help me bring my whole body to worship. I think you can do this. You’re not Baptists. Dancing won’t lead to something else, I promise.
      Remember as Bruce says ‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”
Kill the lights, cue “Dancing in the Dark.”
     Remember the trick to dancing is to move as if you are not anxious about how you look. You look better dancing if you’re not paying attention to how you’re dancing. and if you Close your eyes and no one can see you. Thank you. you are very brave.
     I come to you about Bruce, authentic Jersey Girl.  I can beat any of you at Skeeball if you want to play for money.
     After my senior prom, I borrowed my Mom’s burgundy Chevy minivan and headed down the Jersey Shore. I wore a brown dress to prom because I was deep and brooding. And it was the mid-1990s. If I could have found a plaid flannel dress I would have. We stayed up all night, had breakfast at 2am at a 24 hour diner, either the Rockaway Diner or Paul’s Diner, all gleaming silver. A place where you could get a plate full of disco fries, french fries covered in cheese and gravy for 3 dollars- it could fuel hours of conversation.
     After the prom,  we drove from The Skylands to Seaside Heights. You may know Seaside Heights from the MTV show Jersey Shore. It’s just as trashy now as it was then. We called it  Sleezside. It was an entire town, a stocked pond of teenagers full of hormones and Yuengling beer.
     I pulled my mother’s minivan up to the motel, The Flamingo. The “O” had fallen off the sign, so it just read “The Flaming.”  Two stories of doors open into a courtyard, with kids hanging off the railing, peering over a slightly green swimming pool. We had each paid something like $50 dollars each for a share of a bedroom.
     You know, a couple of marriages came from that senior prom. Tim is a cop, Maria is a teacher. They’ve got a kid and a dog and a condo in Red Bank that they can’t quite afford. A couple of those guys died young, drug overdoses. A few made it back from Afghanistan, but walk around dead. Many stayed in the NJ that formed us. And some of us left.
photo laura     I learned to love Bruce in part because I know his New Jersey, because he tells a story I can relate to, even if I didn’t live it.
      “Hey little boy is your Momma home, did she go and leave you all alone, oh no. I’ve got a bad desire. Oh Oh Oh I’m on fire.”  My hope in flipping the gendered pronouns is to hear how creepy this song is more clearly. If we were doing a boundary awareness class today or Safe Church training, some of Bruce’s songs would be our example of what not to do. I want us to take his music for what it is, and let it be what it’s not. I remember in seminary watching a professor try to make the case for Clement of Alexandria as a proto-feminist. Twisting and contorting, it didn’t quite work. At the outset, I want to give this disclaimer- I don’t think Bruce is great on women. The women in his songs have underdeveloped interior lives. Full grown women are reduced to “girls in their summer clothes.” They serve as the arm-candy for the men around them, “put your make up, on do your hair up pretty” or   There’s a little bit of the Virgin Mary/ Mary Magdalene dynamic where the women are either saints in Mary’s kitchen, or Roselita or Wendy being lured outside for the night or ending up in Maria’s bed. There’s not a ton of in-between. Frankly, it’s a little like Scripture- the women are there, but just barely and not very well developed when they make it into the story. Bruce is a Dude! I don’t think we can press him to be more than he is. But there’s a larger story, a story of devils and dust, of death and resurrection, of the promised land that I still believe is worth telling.
     Bruce may not be able to help us to think clearly into the full humanity of women, but I do think he gets us a lot. Bruce is really, really good on the interior emotional life of men, especially men who are being pushed aside as the world around them changes. He’s explored racial violence, police brutality and racial profiling in 41 Shots. He’s pressed us to think about returning veterans in “We take care of our own.” He pointed an anxious america to the humanity of gay male AIDS patients in “The Streets of Philadelphia.” He helps us process our grief following 9/11 and then Hurricane Sandy in “My City of Ruin.” And so much of Bruce’s songwriting invites us to think about class differences and economic injustice in America.
     I believe Bruce has cross generational possibility- My hometown, “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.” When I was preparing for this event, the Massachusetts Council of Churches 25 years old intern said “Why do a day on the theology of Bruce? Why not someone more contemporary, like Mumford and Sons?” But we don’t get the alt-rock, troubadour revival of Mumford and Sons without Bruce. Show me a hipster band or singer songwriter that doesn’t cite Bruce’s “Nebraska” album as a major influence. We don’t get the Decemberists, or Bon Iver, or St. Vincent, or Beck, or the Avett Brothers, or Ockerville River, or Neko Case without Bruce. And we don’t get Bruce without Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. We even see passing on of tradition within the E street band, as Clarence Clemmons’ solo were played on the last tour by his nephew. We are in the company of saints, an apostolic succession of rock history and Bruce is very clear of his place in the stream.
     I think Bruce has enormous cross generational possibility that could teach the Church something about collaboration across the generations. He both reaches back and looks forward in ways that ought to feel familiar to the Church. This is the same guy who records the Seeger Sessions as collaborates with the guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Morello is 49- Bruce is 64. Morello first subbed for Steve Van Zant in 2008. If you’ve not heard Morello and Springsteen play “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please do so immediately. Bruce is omnivorous in his music consumption too. At a concert last week in New Zealand, Bruce covered the New Zealand singer Lorde’s song “Royals” which just won song of the year at the Grammys. Lorde is 17.
     I learned of Bruce from my parents. I’m a second generation Bruce fan. My vinyl record of “Greetings from Asbury Park” first belonged to my Dad, who was raised in NJ. Bruce is just a year older than my Dad. Rick and Mary Everett are like something out of a Springteen song. (Tell the story of their meeting)
     Bruce is a cross-over figure: as someone who works on issues of Christian unity, between divided parts of the church, I have special admiration for those who stand in-between worlds. Bruce is an affluent straight white male who can still reach a working class demographic with his music. There’s sometimes a tension between the more liberal politics of Springteen that reach out ahead of where his middle-american fan base is.
      Bruce is story teller, a patron saint for preachers and evangelist. I think he can teach us lots about what makes for a good public narrative.  Hear Bruce’s own words about storytelling “…First of all, everybody has a memory when you were eleven years old and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, and the trees—there was a certain wind blowing through the trees and the way that the sound of your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit a particular house. Everyone has memories they carry with them for no particular reason and these things live within you—you had some moment of pure experience that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what it means to be alive, what the stakes are, the wind on a given day, how important it is, or what you can do with your life. That’s the writer’s job…to  present that experience to an audience who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life  and their moral life…and there’s a connection made. That’s what keeps you writing, that’s what keeps you wanting to write that next song, because you can do that, and because if I do it for you, I do it for me.” Can you hear the Gospel truth?
     For me, and maybe for others, Bruce teaches us a certain way to be adults. Messy, messed up, hopeful, human adults: In his words “Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything, I don’t advocate anything, I just live with it.”
     For Bruce, storytelling is a discipline: 2005 VHI Episode of Storytellers Bruce said “”Over 30 years, you internalize your craft, and the mechanics of storytelling becomes like a second language,” Springsteen says after singing The Rising. “You speak without thinking, like a second skin you feel with. So you pray to the gods of creativity and aliveness that you remain awake, and alert, and in command of your senses, so that when the moments arrive, you are ready.”
     There’s intention and craft to his performance: From a 2005 interview with British Novelist Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity, About a Boy): “There is a presentation and I think being aware of the fact that there’s a show going on is a good idea (laughs) (2). I think it fell into some disrepute when the idea of the show became linked to falseness in some fashion, which is a superficial way to look at it. It’s actually a bridge when used appropriately. It’s simply a bridge for your ideas to reach the audience. It assists the music in connecting and that’s what you’re out there for. I think if you do it wrong, you can diminish your work, but if you do it right you can lightly assist what you’re doing. It can be an enormous asset in reaching people with what might be otherwise difficult material.”
     What makes his story telling work? Let’s build a list:
 (the group gave ideas about what makes Bruce a good storyteller, things like authenticity, the particulars of his stories but the universality of his themes, honesty about how hard life is…)
      Let’s examine why Bruce’s storytelling works:
(at this point, we break into groups of 4-5 to closely examine Bruce’s lyrics. We had worked with the text of about 15 songs) Here’s an example:
——————–

Un-Quiet Day: Bruce Springsteen, Prophet of Hope  Saturday March 8, 2014  #TheologyOfBruce

Exegesis of Bruce

Your group’s task is a close read of Bruce Springsteen song lyrics as you might study a section of Scripture.  Imagine you are preaching or teaching with this “text” and answer the following questions:

  1. What is your thesis? What is the main message this “text” is trying to communicate?
  2. Where do you hear the “Good News” in this text?

IF I SHOULD FALL BEHIND (1992) Album’s version

  1. We said we’d walk together baby come what may
  2. That come the twilight should we lose our way
  3. If as we’re walkin a hand should slip free
  4. I’ll wait for you
  5. And should I fall behind
  6. Wait for me
  7. We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
  8. We’d help each other stay in stride
  9. But each lover’s steps fall so differently
  10. But I’ll wait for you
  11. And if I should fall behind
  12. Wait for me
  13. Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
  14. But you and I know what this world can do
  15. So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see
  16. And I’ll wait for you
  17. If I should fall behind
  18. Wait for me
  19. Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead
  20. There ‘neath the oak’s bough soon we will be wed
  21. Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
  22. I’ll wait for you
  23. And should I fall behind
  24. Wait for me
  25. Darlin’ I’ll wait for you
  26. Should I fall behind
  27. Wait for me

Released on Lucky Town in 1992.

The song was played frequently during The Seeger Sessions Tour. Thanks to http://www.springsteenlyrics.com/ for the lyrics. 

“Do you see what I see?” A Sermon on Simeon & Pete Seeger

Boston University Marsh Chapel Wednesday  January 29, 2014

Christ Episcopal Church, Andover MA, Sunday February 2, 2014

 

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple: Luke 2:22-40

He looks out, and sees the world anew, but he does not know whose eyes he sees through. Before, he could cover one eye, that game of “Camera 1” or “Camera 2”and switch back and forth- He could see crisp and clear through “camera 1” but the world was yellowed haze through “camera 2.” He managed, squinted, and sometimes weary for a world that was in focus, he just closed his left eye. But then, after the surgery was over, there was no “Camera 2,” only bright, sharp-edged world through both eyes. After the cornea transplant, my colleague could see blazing white as “the winter sun creeps by the snow hills” and not the jaundiced scene of a faded Polaroid. But he did not, but he does, not know whose eye he sees through. Who donated that cornea? Was it a woman? How did she die? Was she “of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage then as a widow to the age of eighty-four?”  Did those eyes look into the world and see hope breaking forth? Do you see what I see? Let us pray…

Here, in the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we get the stories of Simeon and Anna. In the midst of a story of faithful, observant behavior, we get the unplanned, unexpected breaking in. The Gospel writer Luke is invested in situating Mary and Joseph as ritually observant Jews. Luke is laying a foundation for Jesus’ critique from within the tradition- not as an outsider, but from within. So as faithful Jews, Mary and Joseph had the infant Jesus circumcised on the 8th day; and remembering how God passed over, on the 31st day, they would have brought the baby to the temple to dedicate the first-born male child; on the 40th day, Mary as the mother of a baby boy would return to the temple for their ritual purification. But somewhere amidst dependable ritual and centuries of tradition, Simeon and Anna interrupt.

Simeon had been waiting. Waiting and waiting. Waiting with the promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When my uncle was diagnosed with cancer last summer, he asked if he might stay alive until the World Series. The Doctor told him, more like the All-Star break. We all mark time in our own measures of sacredness. Simeon, has been looking, watching and waiting for the consolation of Israel.

T_S_Eliot_1928_A_Song_of_Simeon_No_16_Ariel_Poems_FaberThe Holy Sprit rests upon him, righteous and devout, and guides Simeon into the Temple. In 1928, TS Elliot wrote a 37-line poem entitled “A Song for Simeon.” And said,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings. I can’t help thinking of Mary’s surprise and confusion as a strange old man takes her child out of her arms. But something about Simeon’s posture, his wrinkled hands against smooth infant’s skin, his hooded eyes fixed on the bright face of the child made Mary stop and listen to his song:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Here, before the Infant can even speak, before Jesus of Nazareth can even utter the words,  “Who do you say that I am?” Before Mary’s son would be raised up and hung on a cross drawing all to him? Here before all of that, Simeon declares the revelation of God’s love in the Christ. How did Simeon know this was the Messiah? Surely, there were other baby boys in the temple that day. Were Simeon’s eyes clouded over with cataracts? Did he know his Savior by the touch of soft baby skin or the sweet smell of milk still on the Infant’s lips?  How did Simeon see and proclaim this?

When the Reformer John Calvin comments on this passage in Luke, he writes “From this song it is sufficiently evident, that Simeon looked at the Son of God with different eyes from the eyes of flesh. For the outward beholding of Christ could have produced no feeling but contempt, or, at least, would never have imparted such satisfaction to the mind of the holy man, as to make him joyful and desirous to die, from having reached the summit of his wishes. The Spirit of God enlightened his eyes by faith, to perceive, under a mean and poor dress, the glory of the Son of God.”

In our liturgies, we train these eyes of flesh, again and again, to see with the “eyes of faith.” Simeon’s song, known in the Latin as the Nunc Dimitas is often said or sung in the Compline service just before bed. It is sung sometimes after receiving the Eucharist and sometimes in funeral liturgies. At the end of the day, at the end of the Eucharist, at the end of life, this is what we aspire to: to go in peace, to see salvation for all peoples, to proclaim the glory of God. To see and to proclaim. Those of us who are trying to figured out what our particular Christian witness in social media ought to take these words to heart. What did Simeon have, even at his old age? Eyes to see and voice to proclaim.

But what exactly did Simeon see? Pastor John Stendahl, serving the Lutheran Church of the Newtons just follow Beacon Street all the way to Newton Center, writes “But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child in his arms, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks as it did before.”

And yet, Simeon sings.

Pete-Seeger-and-Bruce-Springsteen-at-Lincoln-Memorial-2009-Justin-Sullivan-Getty-Images-630x420This week, the advocate musician Pete Seeger died. In 2009, there was a giant concert for Pete’s 90th birthday. At the time, Bruce Springsteen said, “Now, despite Pete’s somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, you know, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism.” Do you hear Simeon in that? A stubborn optimism?

Bruce tells the story of performing at President Obama’s with Pete Seeger. They were preparing to sing, “This Land is Your Land.” Bruce asked what they should do. Pete said, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, you know, about private property and the relief office.” Bruce continues, “And I thought, of course, you know, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life: he sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people, you know?… Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures, as well as shining a light towards our better angels in the horizon, where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear, we hope, awaits us.” With Herod still on the throne, with the savior still just an infant, with the world not yet changed, and with that last stanza, about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul too, Simeon sings all the verses.

Sometimes our best theology is buried in those late verses. The Christmas hymn “Do you see what I see” was written relatively recently- 1962. Noel Regney wrote the lyrics for the song, while Gloria Shayne composed the Christmas carol’s music. Usually it was the other way around, with Gloria writing and Noel composing.  It’s a biblical game of telephone with increasingly important characters: Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Do you know what I know? And the last verse departs from the Scriptural versions of the Christmas story:

Said the king to the people everywhere

Listen to what I say

Pray for peace people everywhere

Listen to what I say

The child, the child

Sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light

The hymn writers were trying to see a different way- to see a world where the king doesn’t plot to slaughter the innocents but prays for people everywhere. In later interviews, Gloria would say the Christmas carol was a plea for peace, written in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. A stubborn optimism. A willingness to see a promise and a hope not yet realized.

My colleague with the cornea transplant will put steroid drops into his eye for the rest of his life. There’s always a risk that the transplant will be rejected- that this new eye will no longer work. He must be disciplined, stubborn even, in the daily practice to attend to his eye. Simeon’s vision came after years and years, a righteous and devout man. Sure, God can surprise us all, but this is a cultivated practice of searching, seeing and proclaiming, constantly turning our eyes to the light.

Can we see what Simeon sees? Will we practice that stubborn, defiant optimism? Can we look upon a world, broken and bruised, at war or plotting for war, and see a light to enlighten the nations? Can we look upon an intractable position in the Middle East and see the glory of God’s people? Can we sing all the verses? Even when our eyes are clouded, even when the promises of God are still as unformed as a 40 day old infant, even today with whatever weight you are carrying. Even today. That’s the invitation.