Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination"

Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
quien a dios tiene nada le falta
Nada te turbe, nada te espante
solo Dios basta

Those are the words of Theresa of Avila, the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun who suffered many illnesses and visions and recorded them for our spiritual edification. In English:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us.

When Jesus tells the disciples today, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” It is the chant of Teresa’s words that come to me. Peaceful, soothing, almost like a mother’s lullaby. Words that when you are afraid—and you have good reason to be afraid, because you are on a stormy sea and you don’t know how you will make it to shore—you can sing to sooth your nerves, calm your soul, and give you strength and courage for whatever comes next. I read the following from a guide for the counter-protestors in Charlottesville yesterday: “If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.”

Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid.

Earlier this week, I commented that I suspected that whatever sermon I started writing was likely going to change based upon the events of the week; how right I was—but I thought I was going to be preaching to a congregation that was mostly concerned about the nuclear sabre rattling with North Korea; I hadn’t anticipated that we would be reeling from images of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. But the Good News speaks to both: Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid. If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.

What is it like to step out of the boat and onto the water—with the wind still blowing? It sounds like something a hero would do.

A week from now, Epiphany will begin our Vacation Bible School. This year’s theme is Hero Central: discover your strength in God. We picked it because it had some good bible stories and because we haven’t done a superhero-themed VBS before—and maybe in at least my case, because this was the summer of Wonder Woman and I figured that for once the concept of “heroes” would be just as potent and popular with girls as it is with boys.

But the curriculum asks, “Who are God’s heroes?” and “What makes someone a hero?” Each day, we learn a Bible story and one piece of what makes a hero: God’s heroes have heart, God’s heroes have courage, God’s heroes have wisdom, God’s heroes have hope, and God’s heroes have power. And it's very clear that we are all called to be God's heroes.

I am finding our VBS theme far more relevant to our world, the news, and our lives than perhaps I had expected this week. Sabre rattling and war posturing; the torchbearing white nationalists that surrounded a prayer service at an Episcopal Church with torches chanting hateful slogans on Friday night (a church whose rector, Will Peyton, is known to many of us from his years on the staff of St. James, Madison Avenue). There are a lot of examples of what I consider anti-heroes surrounding us. People who do not seem to exhibit heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and power.

There are anti-heroes in scripture, too. Look at our readings today: In Genesis we begin with a story about a father preferring one son above the others; out of jealousy the other brothers conspire to kill their brother. “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Who are the heroes of the Joseph story? It’s not Jacob, who sets all this in motion with his disaffected parenting. The point of the Joseph story is not that 9 of the brothers are heroes because they take bold action. Nor is it that Reuben is a hero because he saves Joseph’s life by sending him into the pit, and nor is it Judah who decides he'd rather sell his brother into slavery than kill him.  And that’s the hard one because I bet there are a lot of us who identify as Reuben and Judah—not quite as bad as the other brothers. But Reuben and Judah are not heroes of the story.  They are is not the ones who gets out of the boat and walk on the water.  Being "less bad" is not heroic. 

Joseph is the hero of the Joseph story—the one who is beaten and oppressed and imprisoned is the hero. The dreamer is the hero. He is the one who shows heart and courage and wisdom and rises into a place where those who were oppressors are forced to come begging to him for help.

And let’s admit it: Joseph, the hero, isn’t all that fun to be around. His dreams that show his brothers bowing down to him aren’t easy to hear. His dreams later, warning Pharaoh of the years of plenty and the years of famine are not easy to hear. That’s true of real heroes today, too: they may not be pleasant to be around, because they speak hard truths.

And Joseph ultimately helps the people who had oppressed him. That’s hard—and another qualification of a hero in my book. Joseph has heart. And I bet he sang while he was in the pit. Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

It strikes me that the Charlottesville white supremacist rally was called there because of the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now, I’m from California, so I didn’t grow up in the south, and only knew General Lee as the car from the Dukes of Hazzard, but it seems that the issue of who is a hero is central here: some people, mostly in the South still believe that it was and is heroic to fight to defend slavery and oppression. However, in a little research yesterday, I did find a redeeming quote from General Lee about monuments for the Confederacy: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Amen. Now take it down, like General Lee would have wanted.

It was not lost to me that the roots of the need for the Raising my Voice-Kin graduation that we celebrated yesterday at Epiphany begin right there in the time of slavery, and the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration is one of the most vicious forms of institutional racism today. And I am a white priest and I must name that racism from this pulpit because it cannot be only our sisters and brothers of color who are responsible to end racism. It is white people who need to stand up and decry white supremacy in all its forms—the institutional and the public. Let me be absolutely clear: it is impossible to be a white supremacist and a Christian.

Have courage. I am here. Do not be afraid.

What about the Gospel? I will give Peter credit as a hero, but is it because he has the courage to walk on the water? Or is he a hero because he cries out “Lord, save me!” Maybe both.

It is lonely climbing out of the boat and walking on faith. The other 11 disciples don’t manage it. They are supportive, but they’re scared. It is dangerous. But when Jesus says, “come,” we need to go. Once you get out of the boat, walking on faith, you may sink from time to time. Ask for Jesus. Jesus will save you. It’s ok to sink some—you’re not Jesus. But to follow Jesus we need to get out of the boat—which is heroic. And that is out of every one of our comfort zones. Heroes don’t get to be comfortable.

I had decided a few weeks ago to sing a Hildegard of Bingen chant today as my offertory anthem. She’s a hero of mine---she was an 11th Century German scientist, nun, preacher, composer, and justice leader. The chant I chose is a celebration of Wisdom. God’s heroes have wisdom! Hildegard began having visions in her mid-40s, and was an amazing woman-licensed to preach by the Roman Church, a healer, founder of convents and an incredibly creative person. But also so full of courage. “God’s heroes have courage!”

One example of this is that at age 80, Hildegard allowed the burial of a man who had once been excommunicated in the churchyard of her convent in Rupertsberg; when commanded to disinter his body because authorities said he was still excommunicated when he died, she refused to exhume the body, and instead removed all traces of its burial so it couldn’t be disturbed by others. Hildegard engaged in creative civil disobedience and she accepted the consequences: in response, Catholic officials denied Hildegard’s convent the right to hear mass and to sing the offices; the nuns were forced to speak their prayers in a low voice. The interdict was only lifted six months before Hildegard died. (read pg. 123-125, silence and “womanish time” She wrote one heck of a letter to the authorities to protest this silencing:

Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of His honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution. Moreover, let those who hold the keys of heaven beware not to open those things which are meant to be kept closed nor to close those things which are to be kept open, for harsh judgment will fall upon those who rule, unless, as the apostle says (cf. Rom 12.8), they rule with good judgment. (Letter to the Prelates of Mainz)

She closed that letter with an image that is challenging to us today, but I think is worth hearing and contemplating in our own time:

This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. But the strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice so that it might fall defeated.

A “womanish” time. To Hildegard, who evidently used that phrase often in her works, it was a time when the male leaders of church and state were incapable of virile leadership. And yet, she balances out that negative image of womanhood with one where Hildegard sees herself as a woman warrior, bringing spiritual discipline and growth to a church in the absence of their official leaders.

We may live in a womanish time, by Hildegard’s definition. And we may live in a time when both male and female spiritual warriors are called to battle injustice so that it may fall defeated.

Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us. 

Go to the following link to hear the chant of Nada te Turbe

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Jesus and Dumbledore with us in the Wilderness

Last week I preached about an important location in scripture: the mountaintop. Today we get two more important locations: the wilderness, and the Garden of Eden. I seem to be focused on locations… must be time for me to travel.

I spoke about the mountaintop and nature in idealized terms, but the wilderness in scripture is not the John Muir, idealized wilderness where we get away from it all. The wilderness in today’s gospel is not where you go to get away from it all; it’s where it all comes to get you--beasts, starvation, heat, lack of water, etc.

But the wilderness also has a purpose. It is where Moses leads the people of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. It is where the prophets go to prepare to preach the Word of the Lord. The wilderness is the place of testing and temptation, but also the place of self-reflection, and the discovery of strength. The wilderness is the place where we confirm God’s call to us; where we confirm that we are indeed the People of God, the Prophet of the Lord, the beloved Son of God.

The Garden of Eden is in some ways the opposite of the wilderness. Eden is paradise—it is a garden, enclosed by a wall, with Adam installed as its gardener. The punishment for eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is expulsion from the garden—is being sent into the wilderness.

But they are not entirely different; there are still angels in the wilderness. And there is still sin and temptation in paradise. Real life means coming in contact with serpents and Satan, as well as angels and divine voices.

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Spending time in the wilderness is part of the spiritual life. Lent is 40 days in a wilderness of sorts—40 days of reflection, self-examination, and contemplating what temptations come before us. 40 days to help us confirm and determine our calling as followers of Jesus.

And as we embark upon this wilderness journey of Lent, I ask us to reflect on what our temptations are today. What tempts us to move away from God, instead of coming closer to God? I want us to think about the temptations that Jesus faces today, but in the opposite order that Jesus faces them today:

Satan tells Jesus to kneel before him, and then Satan will give Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world. Well, that sounds familiar. It is a real temptation to believe that if we just kneel down briefly to evil, we will be able to take up power and use it wisely; to believe that when Satan offers us the power to do spectacular actions, we should do it; to believe that power derived from evil can be used in service of the good. . Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful book about the temptation and identified this one as the temptation “to lead rather than to be led”. I’m a leader in the church, but I am a leader precisely because I remember that I am a follower of Jesus. God is the real leader, not me, and not Satan.

The second temptation, to jump off the pinnacle of the temple as a way of testing God’s ability to cushion our fall strikes me in a new way this year. I feel like this is the temptation to nihilism for me—the temptation to just check out, give up, and step off the temple tower because I no longer care. It’s the temptation to apathy; the temptation to put our heads down and say if some injustice doesn’t affect me then I can ignore it.

The first temptation, to change stones into bread, is the one that is always most challenging to me… I mean, if I could turn stones into bread and feed every hungry person wouldn’t that be good news? Here in our own context, if I could magically find all the money to solve Epiphany’s budget issues and improve our ministry, and fix our building… wouldn’t that be good? But I think what Jesus is resisting here are easy solutions to hard problems. God doesn’t solve the problem of sin with an easy solution. God allows his only Son to be executed to redeem us from our sins. We can’t solve our problems without self-sacrifice and effort. Jesus shows us to how to resist.

A few months ago I went back and reread all the Harry Potter books; I originally started reading them about the time that the third one came out… but once I got into it, I became one of those people who bought each new hardback book on the day it came out, capped by buying the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the airport in Dar es Salaam on my way home from visiting our Carpenter’s Kids partners in Tanzania and reading it immediately, completing it somewhere between Dubai and NYC.

I loved them before. But reading them this year was even more poignant because of how JK Rowling deals with the challenge of evil in the world. They are, like Narnia, the great Christian books about the power of love over evil—I know there are many Evangelicals who believe the books are evil because they feature magic, but to me they are profoundly linked to the Christian story. Last night Nathan and I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (because he’d just finished reading it), and Dumbledore’s words at the end of the movie, when Lord Voldemort has returned, sent me scrambling to find a pen and post-it note: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we will all be faced with the choice between what is right, and what is easy."

Because that is that temptation, isn’t it? In the Harry Potter universe, but in our own lives as well. In Harry Potter, that challenge of the choice between what is right and what is easy is explored in the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, which I really encourage you to go back and read. Harry and a small group of friends choose what is right—at great cost to themselves. The followers of Voldemort, the death eaters, gain strength, by doing what is easy. The really interesting part upon rereading it, for me, was how the great institutions of the day—the Ministry of Magic, the press, even Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry—are torn between following their instinct for self-preservation, and doing what is right. All too often, they choose what is easy, even though they know it is not right, because they believe it is in their ultimate interests. It is people who are outside the institutions, and who resist being coopted by the institutions, who are able, eventually, to conquer evil through the power of love and self-sacrifice. People who over and over again, make the choices on the side of love.

Last week when our group was discussing Hillbilly Elegy, we spent some time on one of JD Vance’s key themes: that his friends growing up, and many people in Appalachia and beyond did not believe their choices mattered; they didn’t believe that if they worked hard, they would get ahead; or that if they quit jobs, showed up late, etc. they would suffer.

Jesus is telling us today—along with Dumbledore—that our choices matter. We are faced with temptations that we can choose to resist, or that we can choose to give in to. There is a theological paradox in this: our choices matter, but even when we choose evil, Jesus is still there to redeem us. As Paul writes in the passage from Romans today: “one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” God’s choices, and God’s actions are the most central and profound act of love; but in the meantime, the choices we make either move us closer towards the kingdom of God, or further away.

During this Lenten series in the wilderness, may we strive to choose what is right over what is easy.