Sunday, June 10, 2018

"People will be forgiven for their sins."

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, preached an extremely memorable sermon on today’s Gospel at General Convention in 2012. I didn’t hear it firsthand, but you can watch it on YouTube or read it in his book, and the title of the book comes from that sermon: Crazy Christians.

In the translation we heard today, we hear: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain [Jesus], for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”” Bishop Curry played with some alternate translations of that verse, including the 1995 Contemporary English Version: “When Jesus’ family heard what he was doing, they thought he was crazy and went to get him under control.”

Sometimes a translation doesn’t need to be pious or beautiful to get something across. His family thought he was crazy. And with good reason, because the things Jesus is doing and preaching and teaching are crazy. And Jesus’ family did what most of us tend to do when we experience crazy: they tried to get rid of the crazy and get Jesus back under control. Back to sanity.

So Bishop Curry preached—and I agree with him—that we need some crazy Christians. Crazy like Jesus. We need Christians who are crazy enough to believe that the poor are blessed… or that the dead can be raised… or that love is the most powerful force in the world. Crazy enough, as he says, to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God has for it.

But the Gospel continues with an example of the “craziness” of Jesus—it’s not just his family, it’s others who think he’s possessed by a demon, and he tells a little parable about demons and Satan and then says some weird things about forgiveness and sin: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

People will be forgiven for anything except… the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is saying there is some sort of limit to forgiveness.

But what is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

What is unforgivable?

And maybe even more scarily, who is unforgivable?

In our cultural Christianity, there is an action that is sometimes pointed to as an unforgivable sin—the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Suicide.

And that has come up this week in our cultural consciousness; but it really comes up all the time, because suicide is growing more and more common and because depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses are so common and yet so stigmatized that we don’t treat them. And occasionally, depression is so overwhelming, so beyond our capacity and knowledge to treat it, that it is a fatal illness. Dying from your disease is not a sin.

The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not suicide.

I’m not sure exactly what the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Jesus doesn’t tell us. I don’t recommend doing what I did this week, which was to google “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” There are a lot of people out there who believe they know EXACTLY what is unforgivable to God.

I sought answers in history. Thomas Aquinas suggests a lot of sins that might be sins against the Holy Spirit, all of which are simultaneously too broad and too specific and include probably every one of us at some point. They did include despair, as Aquinas defined it: believing that your evil is greater than God’s mercy and goodness. That’s definitely a sin—but it points to the absurdity of the exercise. No sin that we can do, no evil we can commit, is more powerful than the love of God and the mercy of God.

Many of you know I’ve been coaching little league this spring, and one child on the team has some disproportionate negative responses to the trials and travails of playing a game. And during one inning, after an outburst, I said casually to the child’s dad: “You know, I have the name of a really good child therapist if you want it.” And the dad’s response was so telling. He said, “Oh God, no. That would be giving up and admitting that I’d failed.”

Oh, my heart wanted to weep.

Getting help for your child is failing? Or giving up?

Talk therapy doesn’t work for everyone—but it does work for some people. Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work for some people. Depression is an illness that deserves to be treated, just like any other illness. And it doesn’t deserve to be stigmatized—so many saints and holy people in our history, when you read their stories, are so clearly suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness—and yet the church was able—in some cases—to celebrate them as people who had an important experience of God that differed from many people and that was consequently valuable. I’m not sure if Bishop Curry’s talk of needing “Crazy Christians” fits within that totally—I don’t want to glorify mental illness, or make it sound as it if isn’t as difficult and challenging as it is for those who live with or near it. But I do think it serves to say that what the world things of as “normal” is not necessarily desirable for faith. It is the people who are different—and often the people who are suffering—who are so much more in touch with the divine.

Jesus loves people who suffer from depression and all other forms of mental illness. Jesus loves you if you get treatment and if you don’t get treatment. Jesus loves you if you respond to treatment and if you don’t respond to treatment. And Jesus loves the people who love those who struggle with depression, who are sometimes put in such challenging positions. I don’t suffer from clinical depression. But many people I love do.

None of us know what the people around us are struggling with. Look around you today. Look at the faces of these members of our community. Some of the people in this room are struggling with demons. And it might not be the people we think—some of the people who are dressed the best, look the most put together, and laugh the loudest are the people who are struggling with the demon of depression or other mental illness.

A clergy friend of mine posted about this on Facebook this week. She said that when she was a candidate for bishop, she was asked very publicly about her relationship with alcohol—and she was able to state with confidence that she had been sober for decades. But she included in her answer that she battled depression, and at times had been medicated to treat her depression. She wrote that after she said this, when there was time to mingle, many people came up to her and openly shared their own stories of becoming sober. And some people came up to her and shared their struggle with depression and mental illness. But the people who came up to her and talked about their sobriety did so in their normal voices. The people who talked about their mental illness did so in a whisper.

We can publicize helplines, and encourage people who are struggling with depression to get help. That’s good to do. But one of the symptoms of depression is the inability to reach out. Our response to mental illness cannot be just to live and let live; we have to be the ones reaching out.

With that in mind: Is there anyone you need to check in on? Anyone you should call this afternoon and say, “Hi. How are you doing, really? Can we get together for coffee? What can I do to be helpful?”

I find some Good News in the Gospel today in the presence of Jesus’ family. The point of this Gospel passage is obviously not to hold up his family as a positive example, but you know what? They do not give up on him—even if they’re a little misguided in how they want to control their child. They stay outside… they get insulted by their crazy son. But they show up and they are there, even as Jesus is pushing them away. And Jesus’ mom is there at the end. His mom is there as she receives the body of her son, taken down from a cross—a cross he need not have died on if he had listened to the “sane” voices around him, and shut up and stopped preaching what he was preaching. And Jesus recognizes the importance of loving family—whether family of birth or family of choice when he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Here we are—a family in Christ—a family of choice. Here are your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. People to love. People to care for. People to be accountable to. And people to encourage one another, perhaps with the words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning:

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure… For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”


Sunday, April 1, 2018

"...for these people."

I had the incredible privilege of being in Jerusalem last summer, and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains both the historically acknowledged site of the crucifixion and the site of the resurrection.

I lined up to get my few seconds in the Edicule, the place of resurrection, where I would be able to see and touch the tomb of Jesus. I was ready to commit as much time as necessary to do this. It may not be the actual tomb of Jesus—but it is certainly near it, as there are more recently discovered other 1st Century tombs just behind and below it, and it has been hallowed by so many centuries of adoration. I wanted to be there like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses and Salome… I would come to see the miracle—not as surprising or frightening to me as it was to them that first Easter morning—of the empty tomb. What would God reveal to me in such a holy place?

But a weird thing happened in line. There I was, with Christians speaking all sorts of different languages, all focused on the holiest place in our tradition. And people were pushing. I was getting elbowed. And some people were cutting in line. I was filled with righteous anger, feeling like there should be a special place in hell for all those people who would cut in line to see the tomb of Jesus. In my mind, I called them some not nice names. And I angrily thought, “Jesus died for these people?!?”

And that’s what caught me. The voice, as if from God, said, “Yes, Jennifer, Jesus died for these people.”

As obnoxious as they were—and some of them were pretty obnoxious, I got elbowed a bunch of times—Jesus died and rose for them. And as arrogant and obnoxious as I was and am—standing in line to see the empty tomb and mentally raining down nasty names on my neighbors?--Jesus died and rose for me, too. Jesus rose and died for all of us, no matter our sins and imperfections and frailty.

And so all of us get to go today with Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, and come to that empty tomb and discover something unexpected. That was my divine revelation at Christ’s tomb. And when I was a few spaces from the front, and two women desperately asked me if they could go ahead of me because they had a flight to catch and they didn’t know it would take so long and didn’t want to leave Jerusalem without seeing Jesus’ tomb…. I let them. The divine revelation of compassion for my neighbors landed and stuck and bore a little bit of fruit before I ever even got to the tomb.

We don’t see the resurrected Jesus today. The Gospel of Mark, in its original form, has no resurrection; it ends with the passage we just heard today, where the women come upon an empty tomb, and discover a young man in white—we’re probably supposed to understand him as an angel—who tells them three things:

1) Don’t be afraid

2) Jesus has been raised

3) The women have a job to do: tell Peter and the others that Jesus will meet them in Galilee

And then the women are terrified—immediately disobeying point one; and they tell no one, disobeying point three. No word on whether they understood or believed point two.

The last words of Mark’s gospel are “ephobounto gar”—they were afraid. Fear literally has the last word in Mark’s Gospel, with no satisfying glimpse of the resurrected Jesus. We just have to take the young man’s word for it.

The stories of the resurrected Jesus in Matthew and Luke and John are so lovely and speak to what must have been a transformative experience for all Jesus’ followers who saw him. But I think Mark may speak best to our own time. The tomb is empty; we are left in fear; we experience it as a community; and if we want to meet Jesus, we are going to have to take a journey on faith.

Where do you feel fear? What are the things in life that make you want to run away and flee in terror?

Where can you find the faith to make your way to Galilee anyway? Because while fear has the last word in Mark’s gospel, it doesn’t have the last action. The women didn’t stay silent. They did tell what they had seen, and they did go to Galilee and see Jesus. Or we wouldn’t be here.

How did they do that? How were they so afraid, and yet able to not be paralyzed by their fear, but still speak and move?

Mark says today that the women at the tomb were seized with “terror and amazement” at the message of that man in white. A better translation than “terror and amazement” might be “trembling and ecstasy”. The Greek is tromos kai ekstasis. Maybe it was the trembling and ecstasy that pushed the women beyond their fear and their first flight into heeding the angel’s good news.

You know that feeling when you start to see seeds of hope after a long period of despair?or start a new job you’re excited about? Or take on a project that you know will challenge every fiber of your being? That merging of excitement and fear might be “trembling and ecstasy” and that’s the place we are called to be today. God is starting a new thing for every one of us—not just those who are holy, but all of us, no matter how much we push or how much we may find our neighbors irritating. God is starting this new ecstatic community of resurrection, and turning our fear into action.

And it begins here, at Epiphany.

A community that trembles with ecstasy. A community that knows deeply what it is to be afraid—that doesn’t wear rose colored glasses, and sees the daunting reality ahead of us. But also a community that embodies joy from head to toe. A courageous, ecstatic community, continuing the tradition of the Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, by living the gospel, practicing compassion, and loving one another as he loved us. And when we encourage one another like that, it is then that we can proclaim with confidence that Christ is risen… not absent. Because he is here, in our midst, in every one of you, in me, and in all the space in between. So Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Friday, March 30, 2018

I believe you, John

“What is truth?”

That might be one of the most haunting questions in the entire Bible. And oddly, it’s not God or Jesus who says it. The Gospel of John puts it in the mouth of Pilate, the Roman governor, as he debates with Jesus and tries to figure out who this unsettling rabble rouser is. Jesus tells Pilate “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To which Pilate responds “What is truth?”

John’s gospel has a lot to say about in answer to that question. The truth as lived, witnessed, and experienced dominates the entire Gospel, both the words Jesus says and the words said about him. The words “true” and “truth” are used in the gospel of Matthew 1 time; in the Gospel of Mark 2 times; in the Gospel of Luke 4 times. In the Gospel of John? 45 times.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the true light and the true vine. The truth shall set you free.

And John is the true disciple.

If the author of the Gospel of John is the character known in the text as the beloved disciple, and we think he may be, he is the only male disciple in any of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion to be present at the foot of the cross. He's the only male disciple not to run away. (Obviously there were some female disciples who everyone agrees were at the cross). John's affirmation that his testimony is true at the end of today’s passage always has the sound of substance to me. “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.”

I know how I sound when I really, really, really want someone to believe what I’m saying, and it’s kind of like this. John is putting one hand on the Bible and raising one hand in the air and promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Other people are obviously saying that he’s not telling the truth—that Jesus didn’t die, or at least not like this. John is reaching out through 2000 years of doubt and contradiction to say, I saw it. I was there. And it was awful. My best friend died in a horrible way, and his mother is in my arms sobbing, and I want you to know what it was like because it will change your world as much as it has changed mine. This is my truth.

What is your truth? How does the truth of Jesus intersect with your life? Do you testify, with John, to what you have witnessed? Do you have the courage to be present at the cross so that you have something to witness—other than Peter’s story of denying Jesus, the rest of the male disciples are able to dwell in anonymity today. I wonder what their stories were—their truth of the day of crucifixion. “On the day Jesus was crucified I was hiding. My friends who were hiding with me talked about where we could run away to and not be noticed.” Nobody wanted to write those conversations down, even though they were true.

Truth can be affirming to us—the truth can confirm our instincts and impressions. Truth can also challenge our preconceptions; paradoxically truth can feel false—we can disagree with the premise of an experience and yet be confronted over and over with its reality.

I wonder if that is behind John’s experience of the cross.

The cross feels false to those who witness it firsthand, and to those who hear about at the time. The cross looks like failure; the cross looks like the end; the cross makes it looks like the powers and principalities of the world are victorious over love. The cross confronts us with that “This cannot possibly be true” feeling as we look at it with our own eyes.

The cross is true—but it is true in a different way than the people who witnessed it realized. The cross is not failure, it is victory; it is not the end, it is the beginning of the victory over death; the cross is the ultimate offering of love and sacrifice that nullifies forever the presumption that might is right and that power has the last word. The truth is radically different than what people think they are seeing.

And so John has a story to tell. A story that is hard to believe, but that is true. John’s word is doubted, but he doesn’t stop telling the truth. It is a gift to his Lord and God that he will tell his story, again and again, until people believe it. It doesn’t matter how many people tell him he’s crazy, or shun him. He will keep faith with Jesus by offering his testimony. He’ll do it in person, telling whoever will listen. And eventually he, or the people who have heard him, will write it down so it can come to us, so that we may know and believe.

So as we come here today, to the foot of the cross. Standing with the beloved disciple; and Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene, and the crowd of witnesses, both those who loved Jesus and those who were happy to see him die, and John is asking us, “Do you believe me?”

There is an incredible power that comes from hearing the words, “I believe you.” Think of times in your life when your truth has not been believed; when your story has been denied; when you’ve been called a liar or worse. Think, too, of times when you’ve been believed, when that relief washes over you when honesty is rewarded rather than punished; when the truth truly does set you free.

Having heard John’s story today, what would you say to him?

John, today, I see you at the foot of that cross. I see you suffering as you watch Jesus, your friend and Messiah die. I see your compassion for his mother. And I believe you.


Monday, March 19, 2018

The courage to plant the seed

Last week’s Gospel passage—the one about lifting Jesus up, and containing the famous verse John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” was part of a teaching Jesus gave to the Pharisee Nicodemus, who has come to visit him secretly at night, one of those people of almost-faith who are obviously attracted to the Gospel that Jesus is preaching, but who have lots of good, pragmatic reasons for keeping the status quo of their public faith. Nicodemus departs baffled from that encounter, still in the dark, but returns at the end of John’s gospel to help bury Jesus in the bright light of day. Conversion to faith happens over time--sometimes over years.

This week’s passage, which has many of the same themes, comes at a very different time in Jesus’ life, but has a lot of the same issues. Today’s passage happens just after Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem; and the crowds have gathered partly to see Jesus, but just as much to see Lazarus, the man Jesus has raised from the dead. Jerusalem is full because it is the Passover so Jews from all over the world have returned to celebrate the Passover, including these Greek Jews who approach Phillip. So this crowd—and it must have been huge—is full of disciples who are true public believers; and people who are curious seekers; people who are just looking for something to do--we're New Yorkers, we know what we do when we see a crowd--we go investigate and see what's up!; and some people who are actively hostile to Jesus.

It must have been overwhelming, because just a few moments after this passage, Jesus hides from the crowd because he’s afraid of them, and then it gets again to the predicament of Nicodemus: V 42-43: “Nevertheless, many, even of the authorities, believed in him." People are believing in Jesus, even if they were just voyeurs... and then it continues: "But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

They loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.

The year 30 becomes the year 2018. Or any year in between because that’s our world. People who believe in Jesus at some level. But are afraid of what will happen to them if they are public about it, if they let their faith saturate their lives. And that is a typical challenge for Episcopalians, who stereotypically don't like to talk about our faith with others. We are afraid to be evangelists for the Gospel. There was a conference this week called "Evangelism Matters" that a lot of my friends attended, and I witnessed it on Facebook through their eyes. (i kind of wondered why I wasn't there--evangelism matters to me!) A huge group of Episcopalians excited about the gospel and sharing their stories of faith. How remarkable.

The people in today's gospel are afraid of what being public about their faith will do to their lives. We’re going to hear some more about fear on Easter Sunday--we hear the Gospel of Mark this year which ends with the word, "they were afraid"; but for today, I want to explore that theme of the impediment to evangelism of loving human glory more than the glory of God by focusing on one verse, which I believe holds both the challenge and the remedy.

"Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Pain and suffering and risk and vulnerability are a crucial part of the life of faith. And our struggles with them are the seed of the good news that bears much fruit. At the very end of the second century, during a persecution of Christians by. Rome, the Carthagenian Christian Tertullian wrote to the governors: “The blood of the Christians is seed.” Every time one was killed… it would inspire ten more.

But letting something die is terrifying, right? Putting that seed into the ground, and covering it up means that it isn’t going to be a seed anymore. Planting seeds—even if we believe they will bear fruit—hold the possibility of change. Change in ourselves—what if we are that seed? What if we like being a seed, and cannot imagine what it would be to become a tree?

I attended a conference a few years ago where the opening talk was on "integrity," and at one point the presenter put up a slide showing a bunch of popcorn and talked about how at the bottom of the bag whenever you pop popcorn there are always a few kernels that have not popped. And he stated firmly: "The unpopped popcorn kernel is the one that has integrity." I wanted to just scream, "NO! The unpopped popcorn kernel is the one that has not lived out its vocation to be popcorn!" The purpose of being popcorn is to explode and burst forth--and if we saw ourselves as unpopped popcorn kernels, how terrifying would it be to be heated up and burst forth. But that is the meaning of being popcorn.

There is a cost to following Jesus honestly, to risking our explosion, to putting those seeds in the ground. I bet Nicodemus, after he helps bury Jesus, does not go back to the life and status he had led before.

In thinking about my own experience of the cost and the risk of planting seeds, the memories of my divorce kept coming to me. I was clinging so tightly to the life and status I had as a married person. And so afraid of what I would lose if I rocked the boat, spoke up, was honest and open. But then my seed fell into the ground and I finally got to grow in ways I could not have imagined.

But my soul was troubled for a long time before, during, and after that process. Which is a word I love in today's Gospel. Jesus says his soul is troubled. The word for troubled is like what happens to a body of water when there’s a wind—it means, like, “churned up.” Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, it is the Spirit that “troubles” the pool where the paralytic wants to be healed. It’s when the water is troubled that the Spirit is present. Elsewhere Jesus comforts people by saying “do not let your hearts be troubled,” but there is something to it is when we are troubled that we are most away that God is working in us.

So what inhibits our evangelism? I wonder if we aren’t troubled enough to get over our fear of putting our seeds in the ground.

My friend Laurie who is chairing a subcommittee on “truth and reconciliation” around issues of sexual harassment was talking recently with a professor at a college near her who had been a participant in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission to learn from his experience. What words of wisdom did he have for us? One thing he said that stuck with her and she shared with us: he believed that white South Africans would never have agreed to the Truth and Reconciliation process if they had not believed that they were going to be murdered in their beds if they didn’t do it. Fear motivated them into the process. Only because their spirits were troubled were they willing to even begin the hard work of reconciliation. So maybe fear can be helpful. Maybe fear can help make us evangelists.

And to give you a tool to do this--and an assignment for your week--I want you to take a moment to come up with a six word story of your faith. This is an exercise that can be challenging, but you can say quite a bit in six words. My friend Sarah Condon tells her six word story in her new book Churchy: "Was saved by Jesus and therapy." Michele Norris, of NPR, invited people to send her their six word stories of racism, and one of them that she shared at a lecture I heard has stuck with me for years: "Lady, I don't want your purse." At our 8:30 service today, someone came up with this for his message to his friends for evangelism for Epiphany: "You don't know what you're missing." For myself, maybe I could put it this way: "Seeds fell. But now fruit grows."

So take a moment and compose your six word story. It's OK to count on your fingers.

Now look around you and share that story with someone nearby. And listen to theirs.

Your assignment this week is to share those six words with someone who is not in this room right now. A friend, family member, neighbor, acquaintance. Plant that seed. We believe in the Jesus that is so compelling that he will draw all people to himself! The cruciform Jesus is in position to embrace the people of God—reaching out his hands in blessing from the cross. Your story is part of that embrace. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snake on a stick

In the immortal words of the prophet Indiana Jones: “Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?”

Reading the story from Numbers today it occurs to me that one lesson is that it can always be worse. The people of Israel are wandering lost in the wilderness at something around year 30, they are hungry, they are thirsty, and they are angry at their God and their leader…

And then God sends the snakes.

So when you feel like life is getting you down… remember that at least you (probably) aren’t likely to be bitten by a poisonous serpent. And count your blessings.

Unlike my very first day at the first parish I worked at after seminary in Agoura Hills, California. Agoura Hills is an extremely upscale new development of gated communities and million dollar homes in what used to be rural hillsides, and when the rector toured me around the church property, “here’s your office, here’s the sacristy, here’s the maintenance closet, here are the tools for catching and killing rattlesnakes…” I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t.

Never say that the priesthood is boring. Or safe.

But back to Numbers…the story gets really interesting when the snakes show up: the people repent, they go to Moses, and ask God to take away the snakes—which is the obvious solution, right? If you have a snake problem, get rid of the snakes!—but instead, what the Lord commands Moses to do is to make a bronze serpent (an odd choice for a people who have recently been commanded not to make any graven images) and put it up on a pole so that after they are bitten, the people may look at it and live.

They still have to live with snakes. And they still get bitten. But God will heal them and give them life.

We are right in the middle of Lent—a period when I hope most of us are doing some sort of self-examination and contemplation of our lives and God’s presence in it, and I feel like the people of Israel in this story from Numbers articulate a prayer we often make in self-examination:

“God, I see where I have done wrong and sinned, and I am sorry. Now, please make all the bad things go away.”

God puts away our sin. God can forgive us. But God does not take away all temptation; all evil; all illness; all causes of injury. We are called to follow God not just when it is easy—but especially when it is hard. Especially when we are tempted. Especially when we recognize our sins.

And looking at that which has hurt you can heal you.

Not in all cases… but in many cases it might be that it was in taking a deep look at the causes of our wounds; in taking a deep look at our sins that we can be made whole again. You can see that beyond the Christian context—it’s the premise of most psychotherapy, and of 12 step programs—but it may particularly be true for us as Christians, who understand as part of our tradition that we are called to confess our sins out loud to another human being so that they are out in the daylight before we can receive God’s mercy. .

What would we put on that pole? If we were to look, unflinchingly, at the causes of our suffering, so we could see it in the daylight and from every angle, what would it be?  What is your snake?

I think I got a little glimpse of this on Friday night seeing the new movie A Wrinkle in Time with the youth group. Towards the end, when Meg, the central character, is faced with evil, it shows her a “perfect” version of herself. The real Meg is flawed and awkward—she’s nerdy and has glasses and anger issues and her classmates and teachers don’t get her. The evil shows her a perfect Meg—gone are the glasses and awkward clothing, here is a slim and pretty and likeable Meg. But she doesn’t give in—she holds on to her own self. I bet a lot of us might have an idealized self on that pole—the person we think we are supposed to be, instead of the person that God has actually made us, who is good and beloved.

God doesn’t wave a magic wand and take away our broken relationships; or our unhealthy desires and additions; or our jealousy or rage. But when we hold them up and see them for what they are… when we expose them to the light instead of hiding them in the darkness… they don’t have the same power over us.

Which gets us to the Gospel, and the reason we are hearing this admittedly bizarre story from Numbers today.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is not a snake. But Jesus is the ultimate one by whom, gazing up at him on the cross with love and attention, we are healed.

Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of our dark and sinful deeds being held up to the light. We human beings were given the Son of God… and we crucified him. And not just once; we put Jesus back on the cross every time an innocent person is convicted; every time a human being’s dignity is met with hatred; every time God is claimed to justify violence.

But put that cross in the light…. Kneel before it and meditate…. Adore and worship the One who gave himself for us.. and we will have life, and have it abundantly because we will be people of the light who love the good and not the people of darkness who prefer evil.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Repentance is only the beginning

Two weeks ago I got one of those phone calls that parish priests in New York City relish.

“Hi, I’m Jewish and I’m writing a movie and I need to understand more about the Episcopalian idea of purgatory.”

Oh. Wow. Ok, there’s a lot there. A really fun teaching conversation ensued… starting with, the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in purgatory. Yes, we believe in heaven, yes we believe in eternal life. I answered some of her questions about Roman Catholic theology and pre-reformation concepts of purgatory—admitting that as a non-Catholic, my answers might be biased. And then the caller got to the type of questions that I think all people wrestle with no matter what their religious background, and which was probably at the heart of not just the phone call, but of her film:

“Do you believe that if someone commits some sort of big sin, they really can be forgiven?”

Yeah. I do. There it is. Sins really can be forgiven. But it’s not automatic. Which is why our gospel today, the Gospel of Mark, begins exactly like as it does: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into not the story of Jesus but the story of John the Baptist, the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent.”

The way we prepare for Jesus is through repentance. And that is the beginning of the Good News—repentance is good news, not bad news, and it is the beginning of the Good News, not the end of the Good news.

Repentance isn’t enough—John is telling his crowds that his baptism of repentance is good, a necessary first step, but that what people really need is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that is coming next through Jesus.

Repentance is the first step in the Good News, but it isn’t the last. Repentance is internal. After repentance comes confession—opening yourself up to another human being and God—the external result of repentance. One that maybe we can only do if we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Saying, “I have done something wrong. And I am sorry.” And then that Holy spirit caries us even further forward: Amendment of life. “I will not do that again—and I will do whatever I can to repair the harm my actions and words have done, which may mean suffering some sort of consequences or judgment or punishment for my actions.” And then—and only then—grace, mercy, and ultimately reconciliation. Forgiveness.

Can anyone think of any situations in our world today where these steps of repentance, confession, amendment of life, consequences, and forgiveness and reconciliation might possibly be applicable?

A pastoral note: many of us are reeling as the news of the last few weeks has dredged up so many of our own stories and our own experiences of harassment and assault, and our responses to them. So many voices crying out from the wilderness that are finally being heard—and so many more that are still quiet out of fear. It is good that in some places, some harassers and aggressors and assaulters are finally being held responsible and facing consequences for their actions. And anyone who wants to can come talk to me—I am a safe space for listening to your story, I will believe you, and Jesus loves you and does not desire you to suffer alone.

But the last few weeks have left me with two concerns: one is that we do not seem to be able to distinguish between levels of sins and transgressions. There is a reason that the Roman church distinguished between venial sins—those that would not damn you—and mortal sins—those that were really serious.

And my other concern is that we don’t seem to have any sort of collective understanding of even the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Part of that is because we’ve all had experiences of people manipulating repentance and forgiveness—mimicking it in ways that are twisted and horrible; the non-apology apology, like “I’m sorry you misunderstood my actions,” or saying “I’m sorry, so now we have to move ahead like nothing happened.” Human forgiveness is a gift, not an entitlement. There has to be a different way than what we see—and I dare say, a different way than what many of us live.

For several weeks before Advent began, we heard a series of parables that all had the same ending: one character was “thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It sounds bleak and it sounds permanent. But here's the thing: I'm not sure Jesus in all his preaching sends people permanently to outer darkness.

If the inevitable result of our sin is being permanently cast into outer darkness, then we can never learn to repent, we can never heed John the Baptist’s call. Because that punishes confession, it denies amendment of life, and it leaves no room for reconciliation, grace and forgiveness. And it falsely separates people who are known sinners from those who are not. Every one of us sins—whether the world knows it or not—and every one of us would be in outer darkness. Some of us do not physically, individually commit major mortal sins. But if we think we haven’t committed those sins in our minds, we are fooling ourselves. Repentance, confession, amendment of life, reconciliation and forgiveness is for everyone, because everyone is a sinner.

Back to my filmmaker caller: I don't believe in purgatory. But the idea that accepting appropriate consequences for our actions can help bring us back to a state of grace and the loving arms of God and community is not incongruous with the gospel. In fact it is the gospel. There is a reason that John the Baptist is in the wilderness and calls people through the wilderness to repent and be baptized: it is when we are forced into the wilderness that our sins are most clear. Spending some time in outer darkness as a consequence to our sins, before we can return back to grace and mercy—that’s part of the Good News.

And the first step is repentance. What sins would you bring to John at the Jordan River?

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the general confession is so eloquent at identifying the ways in which we sin. As a spiritual exercise in inspiring our repentance, I going to read it slowly so you can apply each line to your own life, your own sins. There is one line I disagree with theologically… see if you can spot it, but take it as a whole, and listen for the voice of John the Baptist calling from the wilderness of repentance.

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Book of Joy, Part 3

This day (pages 125-188) focuses on topics most of us prefer not to think about: loneliness, envy, suffering, illness, and the fear of death. And yet—there is laughter and joy throughout. We often avoid those topics in conversation because we don’t want to make people uncomfortable.. and yet maybe if we talked about them more, they wouldn’t hold such power over us.

The author describes living in New York City as an experience of being lonely while surrounded by people. (125) That matches my experience of most aspects of city life—I do not know my literal neighbors, even though I am privy to overhearing many aspects of their private life. Where are places and what are the ways we can find true community and friendships in our city? What are the positive times you enjoy being alone?

The challenge of “sympathetic joy” (140) or mudita instead of envy is a good one for us. Where do you take pleasure in the success of other people? What are the things that make you jealous? Are you more envious of temporal success/possessions, or of relationships and personality? What are the things you have no control over—and what can you use to inspire action?

To me, the story of the Tibetan who found the greatest threat during his imprisonment was the potential for the loss of compassion for his Chinese guards (155-156) is one of the most haunting stories. I cannot imagine being so centered that I would not give in to hatred and anger at being imprisoned and tortured. But I also found it inspiring: if I don’t assume the worst, maybe I can be surprised by people’s resilience and compassion. And if I don’t assume the worst of myself, perhaps I can be that person responding with resilience and compassion in the (much lesser) trials I face.

Every religious tradition finds a way to move people from fear of death to comfort with death; yet our fear continues. How comfortable are you with the thought of your own death? Do you have medical directives? Have you told family members what you want for a funeral? Can taking such practical steps make you more comfortable with our mortality?