Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sermon: "Mordors in Zion, or, 'A Man after God's Own Heart'"

"Mordors in Zion, or, 'A Man After God's Own Heart'"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
29 July 2012

Day Texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-15 (Semi-continuous)
Psalm 145.10-18
Ephesians 3.14-21
John 6.1-21

(Audio available at end of sermon text)

"But do we want to know ourselves when once we have glimpses of the demonic in the sudden flashes of hatred and rage that also on occasion have swept over us, when we have seen the blind hatred and rage of others which we would not see so clearly if it were not a reflection of something in ourselves."
-Diary of Dorothy Day, April 28, 1968

-Hallelujah, there is a God!  My daughter Abigail has finally moved on from Disney Princesses…to Disney Fairies.  Now, granted, Tinker Bell is not exactly Tolstoy.  But if it’s a choice between idolizing vapid commercialized objectified versions of feminity, or delighting in magical beings who operate their own household industries and dress up in leaves and flower petals, I’ll take the fairies any day.

-In light of recent developments in my daughter’s literary tastes, I was surprised this week when she refused to read her new fairy story.  Wherefore? I inquired.  “Because,” I was informed, “there’s those pages with the shadows, and they are scary, and so I just don’t want to read that scary story anymore.  Maybe we should just not read those scary parts.” 

-I wanted to be the good Lutheran pastor-father and tell her, “look honey, you can’t really have a realistic plot or a good story unless there’s a conflict.  You can’t know the light unless you’ve confessed the shadow.”  And so forth.  Except I realized two things. First: she’d have absolutely no clue what I was talking about.  And second: my daughter was giving voice to what I suspect is a preference of the vast majority of humanity.

-Now, I know ambiguous anti-heroes and relatable villains are all the rage in much of modern story-telling.  But in general, like Abby, I wonder if we also dislike stories with too many shadows haunting their pages.  Or, if we do allow the darkness to enter in, it’s generally something we either get to defeat, or that dwells some place far off, like the Soviet Union or Mordor or the political party that we don’t belong to.  And of course, we are always hobbits and wizards, good folks with just enough foibles to make us relatable.  We are never the villains, never orcs or storm trooper #1156. Certainly never a Sauron or a Voldemort. 

-No, we prefer the feel-good story of loaves and fishes to the darkness and deceit of King David.  Which is why, to me, the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament are so bad-ass.  And so disturbing.  Because over and over again, the people of Israel refuse to pull any punches in telling their story.  They are not afraid to confess that, yes, God has chosen them from among the nations to be a holy people, a royal priesthood, yada yada.  And they’re not shy about confessing how regularly and how absolutely they manage to screw it up.

-Take today’s Old Testament lesson about King David.  When I was growing up, David was always presented as a role model.  He could kill Goliath, write the psalms, and was not above shamelessly dancing naked in public.  Kind of like John Lennon, Jack Black, and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter all rolled into one.  He was the complete package, or, as the Bible puts it, “a man after God’s own heart.” 

-And yet, in today’s lesson, we witness Mr. Man-After-God’s-Own-Heart breaking the heart of His God.  Despite what you may have heard in Sunday School about David being a great guy who, like all of us, is human and made a mistake, here’s what actually goes down. 

-In “the season when Kings go out to battle,” here’s the king, lazily shirking his responsibilities, sunbathing on his roof.  He notices a naked woman bathing on another roof.  And while this scene has been romanticized as a scene of love at first sight, the truth is, she’s just had her period and is ritually cleaning herself.  So this David, who already has a handful of wives, is lusting after a menstruating, unclean woman – someone else’s wife - fulfilling her religious duties.  Creepy.    

-Then we’re told he gets her pregnant.  We may want the story of the handsome king who falls tragically in love with the beautiful woman who is torn between him and her commoner husband.  We want Twilight, Team Uriah vs Team David.  David was king, and when the king comes knocking, a common soldier’s wife is in no position to refuse.  Back then, it was just what kings did.  Today, we’d call that sexual harassment. Or statutory rape.

-When David finds out she’s pregnant, he freaks out.  And invites Bethsheba’s husband to the palace for some wining-and-dining.  “Uriah,” he says, slapping the man he’s cuckolded on the back, “you’re a good guy, I like you, so here’s some cash, some wine, and a free night of paid leave to go, you know, spend some time with that looker of a woman of yours.”  Translated: if you sleep with her, then it will look like you got her pregnant.  He tries it twice.  But of course, Uriah, being a good man and loyal soldier, refuses to take an unfair advantage over his comrades in arms.  Much to David’s consternation, who promptly orders Uriah’s commanding officer to place him at the front lines, where he is sure to be subsequently slaughtered. 

-This is Israel’s legendary king, their example of “a man after God’s own heart.”  He is a poet and a warrior.  And he is also a coward, a liar, a manipulator, an adulterer, a rapist, a murderer, and an abuser of his office and his subjects.  No wonder my Sunday School teachers opted for a much sunnier story of a good man who made mistakes. 

-But the writers of the Old Testament want the whole story told.  Because they know, as well as we do, that if King David can fall his far, than none of us is safe.  They are not willing for us to somehow believe that we are “good people with a few flaws.”  They want us to realize that we are people God loves very deeply.  We are people with whom God has chosen to dwell.  We are people to whom God shows grace and mercy and favor and forgiveness, time and again.  And in spite of all of that, whether as bit players or mighty warlords, we are people who build a Mordor in Zion. 

-David’s story is all of our stories.  I get the feeling it disturbs us so deeply because, if we’re honest, the shadow in us recognizes the shadow in him.  We are a people who, even at our best, are no better than the murderers, liars, manipulators, and various other villains who dominate the headlines and facebook feeds, and who also dwell in our midst.  We’re all part of the damage.  Whether its all over the news, or tucked secretly between the unread pages of our hearts.  As my brother-in-law quipped recently, the church, like Israel, is disappointing, since it doesn’t really present a significant mark-up over the rest of general humanity. 

-But here’s the thing.  Yes, God wants us to be people who can honestly look our own evil in the face.  But even more so, God wants us to be people who are able to look God in the face.  And in this sense, I wonder if perhaps Abby was on to something in wanting to get to the good parts of the story, and not linger in the shadows.

-See, in today’s Gospel, Jesus does not tell the approaching hordes of miracle-hungry people to sit and stew in their own darkness.  He tells them, first and foremost, to sit down on the fresh green grass, on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful lake.  And he takes a few loaves and fishes, and blesses and breaks them, and then gives them for all to eat.  There’s no sermon.  No call to confession.  Just the invitation.  There’s that lovely little miracle - almost a fairy story - of a child’s simple gift multiplied into abundance for all.  And there’s plenty left over.  And all are satisfied. 

-And if any of that sounds familiar to you, it should.  Because today, at the table, Pr. Justin is going to take bread, and bless it, and break it, and give it to us to eat.  Us murderers.  Us liars.  Us manipulators.  Us cowards.  We who have caused damage, and we who have been damaged.  There is grace enough for all gathered here, for all the world, for all the villains and sinners as well as the heroes and saints.  There is grace, not just for “good people with little flaws,” but for the most terrible among us, the most shadowy within us.  Because grace is either for everyone – or it is no longer grace.  First comes the feast – first we are given to look God in the face.  It’s the only way we can truly face the darkness afterwards. 

-Now look, looking God in the face, receiving God’s food, living in God’s story, it doesn’t take away the shadows.  It doesn’t in any way excuse, condone, or ignore the damage.  The miracle of the loaves is followed by a storm at sea.  King David had to face the fall-out of his actions.  We do too.  

-But did you catch that bit at the end of the story? Where Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the fragments of food, so that “nothing may be lost?” That’s the radical depths of this dark story of God and humanity.  It is the beginning of knowing the full story, in all its depths of tragedy, breadth of damage, lengths of mercy, and soaring heights of love.  Nothing will be left behind.  Nothing out of which God cannot make something new.  No one will be left unclaimed by grace.  In Christ, everyone will get to look God in the face.  Everyone will be guilty.  And everyone will be set free.  That’s the fairy tale ending of the story.  But it’s also the beginning. 



Monday, July 9, 2012

Sermon: Home is Where the Heart(break) Is

"Home is Where the Heart(break) Is"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
8 July 2012

Day Texts: Ezekiel 2.1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12.2-10
Mark 6.1-13

(Audio available at conclusion of text)

-As many of you know by now, my time as Vicar of House for All Sinners and Saints is coming to a close.  (“Vicar” being just a fancy churchy word for “pastoral intern.”)  In just a few weeks, my Vicar clock will strike midnight, I’ll evaporate into thin air, and the Seminary Stork will deliver a brand new baby Vicar for you all to shape, form, teach and love, as you have done for me throughout this past year.

-Actually, I’ll be headed home.  The ELCA (the church body to which HFASS belongs) gets to assign candidates approved for ordination to any region in the country.  And wouldn’t you know, they assigned us to Upstate New York.  Our home state.  Which means there’s a good chance we could also get assigned to serve a church in our hometown.  Which, if today’s Gospel lesson is any indication, is a good reason to evaporate into thin air. 

-Because, as you may have noticed, Jesus is not exactly welcomed back to his hometown of Nazareth with embraces and toasts and a hearty home-cooked meal.  OK, so things DO start off well.  He’s asked to preach at his home church, and people seem impressed with his wit, his wisdom, and rumors of his supernatural powers.  And you’d think the ability to turn a congregation’s water into wine would win you some friends.   

-But almost immediately, the situation turns ugly.  People start muttering: “Isn’t this guy the carpenter? You know, the guy who worked on my deck during summer vacation? Who’s he to tell us what to do?” “Yeah, and he’s Mary’s son.  You know, that crazy unwed pregnant woman who still insists that, ‘an angel visited me?’” St. Mark tells us that they were not merely offended, but scandalized by this bastard local boy tradesman trying to play prophet.  

-Like nice Southern ladies who say “bless your heart” to your face, then gossip just loud enough for you to get the point, Jesus’ hometown homies make their disapproval felt.  The Romans knew how to break Jesus’ body with a cross, but only a hometown crowd could know Jesus intimately enough to pierce his heart with words of rejection.  

-Welcome home Jesus.     

-Now look, I know it’s extremely problematic to compare ourselves to Jesus.  But I suspect that, perhaps, some of you can relate to Jesus experience of homecoming.  Because while some of us treasure fond memories of our families and friends and faith-communities of yore, many of us, whether we are old or young, have spent years and decades of our life, from adolescence onward, trying to escape our homes.  Because for many of us, home’s not where the heart is.  It’s where the heart’s been broken. 

-See, home is where we first discover who we are – or, at the very least, where people first try to tell us who we are.  It’s not always that perfect vision of harmony and laughter that fits on a hallmark Christmas card.  More often, it can feel like the place where we’ve been shoe-horned into the boxes of our community’s hopes, dreams and expectations for us. 

-Home. Where bastard carpenters from Nazareth aren’t supposed to be able to perform miracles and preach prophetically.  

-Home. Where good boys who always sat in the front pew now training to be pastors are not supposed to have beards and tattoos, or swear or talk about things like race and sexuality.  Where, in some places, if you’re a good girl, you can forget about being a pastor at all.  

-Home. Where good kids are supposed to wait until marriage to have sex, and then marry the perfect spouse, and have lots of grandchildren.  So they’re not supposed to show up at Thanksgiving with a partner of the same gender.  

-Home. Where you have to at least pretend to uphold the status quo – even if it means keeping your disruptions and deviations a "family secret."  Because in so doing, you’ll somehow magically make life make sense, and create that perfect heaven everyone’s always wanted – though never been able to create for themselves.   

-And if we’re honest, we know it’s not just our home that’s done this to us.  We've done it back too.  We retaliate.  We fight boxes with boxes.  We pit dreams against dreams.  I swore I’d never try to limit my daughter’s freedom - until she started freely choosing Disney Princesses, instead of a non-commercialized, non-pink wearing alternative.  In my efforts to escape the influence of home and "be my own person," I too often unjustly overlook the many ways that my own home community has blessed, loved and supported me, often, unconditionally.  In our efforts to create churches and communities that are decidedly “not that place I grew up in,” we discover just how difficult it can be not to end up creating walls and exclusionary standards of our own.

-And that’s why I don't think we can fully identify with Jesus’ heart-break here.  Because not only have we been hurt by our homes.  If we’re honest with ourselves, there's been times we’ve also been the home that’s hurt others.  Often, just when we think we’ve finally created the home we’ve always wanted, we find ourselves still controlled by the need to escape the home we thought we’d left behind. We can pass on the brokeness that's broken us, and so become a part of the home wrecking.  

-But see, that’s what’s powerful about Jesus’ coming home, about Jesus allowing himself to be so deeply wounded by his home.  Because God does not wait for a perfect home, free of pain and full of perfection, to dwell among us.  Again and again, from the beginning of creation, God has this knack for making God’s home in the midst of fallen humanity.  God desires a home with us, even though God knows that, again and again, we will fail to live out God’s dreams, that we will always succeed in breaking God’s heart.

-And God makes a home, not only where God can assert God’s power in miracles and wondrous deeds, but in Nazareth, where neighbors are cruel, families are broken, and, we are told, Jesus can do no deed of power.  God makes a home where God’s grief at the brokenness of this home renders God weakest.  God makes a home exactly at the place where the wind gets knocked out of him. Where God’s heart can first be heard to actually break.  Among us home wreckers.  With you. And with me.

-It is here, in the home, amidst faltering family and friends, that Jesus first begins to carry his cross.  See, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ hometown grief is the first time his weakness is revealed.  And we witness God in Christ, not perpetuating heart-break, but rather, taking it up.  And suffering it, in Jesus’ flesh and in Jesus’ pain, and carrying it to Calvary to be crucified.  It is where we witness the true identity of Jesus – not as bastard son or carpenter, but as the God that is strong in weakness.  As the God that enters into the midst of our own rejections and our rejections of others, and says, “enough.”  

-In Christ, God declares: No more passing along identities defined by the expectations, hopes, dreams and failures of your hopelessly fallen homes.  Behold instead, your identity, first and foremost, as the family that I have chosen, often against your will, again and again.  Who I have chosen, in love, once and for all, to be my home, no matter how much heart-break it costs me.    

-So welcome home.  To a home, not free from boxes, but where the boxes have no true power to define who you are, or what you do.  Welcome home.  To a home, not free of hurtful people, but where hurtful people are free to be hurting people, no longer bound to pass on pain, but liberated to listen, to forgive, or even, for a time, to walk away.  Welcome home.  To a home, not free from heart-break, but where, in the cracks of our broken hearts, God in Christ is pleased to dwell and make a home with us.  

-Welcome home. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Sermon: Midrash: The (Com)Passion of the Daughter of God

"Midrash: The (Com)Passion of the Daughter of God"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 July 2012

Day Texts: Lamentations 3.22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8.7-15
Mark 5.21-43

(Audio available at end of post)

-She has sat outside the synagogue alone for at least a decade, begging.  The doctors had long ago ceased making empty promises about cures once they knew she could no longer afford care.  She’d been on the streets of Bethsaida so long, her friends forgot about her or thought she was dead.  And it was just as well.  If people remembered that she was the one with the unstoppable flow of blood, they’d have driven her away long ago.  Today, like every day, she sits alone and ignored as people pass.  People who will never know that, just by stepping near the ground on which she sits, they too have become ritually unclean.    

-But today is different.  Because today, Jesus of Nazareth has come to town.  She’s heard stories.  He casts out demons.  He stops hurricanes.  He is the Son of God.  She hears excited rumors that he is going to the synagogue leader Jairus’ house to heal his sick daughter.  The crowds are swelling at the promise of a spectacle.  And something in her whispers to her.  He can make you well, too.  It’s not just for the rich man’s daughter.  It’s for you.  Go now.  Touch him. 

-She surveys the chaos of the crowd.  This is no Red Sea to easily part like Moses; this is a flood of humanity, crushing one another in their curiosity and desperation.  This will be a challenge.  But twelve years of hemorrhaging blood is no cakewalk, and at this point, she has nothing to lose.  And so, with little more than a psychotic faith that is only a hair’s breadth from despair, she takes a deep breath, and plunges in.  

-At first she makes headway.  But the surge is too great.  The waves of bodies pressing together, reeking of sweat and selfishness choke her senses.  Arms push, and elbows strike, and she quickly realizes there is no way forward.  “Forget getting his attention,” the voice inside her whispers.  “if you only touch his robe, you’ll be healed.” 

-And then she is thrown to the ground.  Sandled feet step on her fingers.  She is kicked again and again.  Between flashes of pain, she recognizes feet.  She has seen them as she sits outside the synagogue, head bowed, begging for alms and assistance.  Dust fills and burns her eyes.  But Jesus is ahead, whispers the voice.  And Jesus is getting away.

-She cannot see Jesus.  But on the ground, she sees the direction feet are pointing in, and so she chooses the only option left to her.  She crawls.  And crawls.  And crawls, clutching ankle after ankle, pulling herself inch by hellish inch.  And yet, from down here, on the ground, forgotten and unknown, she moves faster than those unwilling to stoop in the dust and dirt.    

-Feet.  More feet.  She sees them covered in dust, their warts, their deformities, their scars.  She knows their secrets and their impurities.  And then, the fringe of Jairus’s fancy cloak.  And then, a simple robe, dirty and weathered by the road.  These are not feet she has seen before in town - and she has seen them all.  These are the feet of the one who can make you well, whispers the voice.  These are the feet of Jesus.   

-And she lunges.  And she grasps the hem of Jesus’ garment.  And she feels world explode in a rush of lightning coursing through her loins.  And then, like the most refreshing of rains, washing the fire from her, she feels it.  Something she has not felt for twelve years.  The bleeding has stopped.  And she is full of Power.  And this power is terrifying. 

-Terrifying, not merely because she has touched the one called the Son of God.  She is afraid, because the flow of blood has been replaced by the sensation of electricity still coursing through her body.  Today we might say she was like a child who stuck her finger in a socket.  She is unable to tear herself away.  And, charged with the very power and grandeur of God, her mind is flooded with visions.

-She sees countless people from countless ages, past, present, yet to come.  People like her.  Desperate people, beaten down into the dust.  People used to being ignored.  Helpless people whose issue is not an uncontrollable fluke of biology and blood, but who feel themselves broken down by unstoppable flows of appetite, desire, anger, addiction.  People who cannot stop spending money.  People who cannot stop drinking.  People who cannot stop looking at strange, moving images of naked folks on glowing squares on their tables.

-She sees desperate people.  People crying out to God from the flames of hells of their own choosing, and hells that have been chosen for them.  She sees women who are denied the right to speak, and she sees sick folk who, like her, have found no doctors to heal them.  She sees mothers grieving for children stolen from them by violence in the streets of strange cities.  She sees men, sitting on couches in dark basements, paralyzed by fear and self-loathing.  She sees families fleeing their burning houses as fire reigns down from the mountains.  She sees Jairus, weeping because, for all his power and privilege, the doctors can do no more for his daughter than they could do to help her flow of blood.  

-And then she sees Jesus.  Crawling.  Feet around him are kicking him as voices rain down insults.  She sees him, like her, bleeding uncontrollably in the dust as a whip strikes his back.  On his shoulders she sees a cross.  And then, she sees Jesus on this cross, screaming out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  For just that moment, fingers charged with the searing force of God’s power, she sees what Jesus sees, what he carries with him, where he is headed, who he really is.  And she is afraid. 

-And then, suddenly, a memory. She remembers once, as a girl, when she was taken to Jerusalem and witnessed the anointing of the high priest.  Ointment was poured high over his head, and the precious stuff settled down his robes and collected around his feet.  Her father told her that it is the feet where the sweetness of the incense is strongest. 

-And she wonders: what does it mean that the sweetness of Jesus' robes is her hand, unable to release its grip?  That the incense that ordains him is not fine myrrh, but the infirmities, the brokenness, the damage of the entire world?  That his power is not found in fine robes, but down here, in the dust, where clean and unclean collide?

-And just as suddenly it began, the vision ceases.  And she realizes that the crowd has fallen silent.  Because Jesus has spoken.  He is wondering who has touched him.  How did he know?  But she knows he knows.  He knows the little touch of intimacy she has stolen, there, in the dirt and dust amidst the feet of the city.  He knows, and at his piercing, searching glance, the storm of the pressing crowd is stilled. 

-Full of fear and trembling at what she has seen, she knows she cannot hide from this man.  And while she is terrified, she knows there is nothing else she can do.  And so she stands, and she tells him. The whole truth.

-He does not look at her with contempt or anger or even embarrassment.  He gazes deep into her eyes.  She sees there a faint smile, as if to say, “now you know  Now you’re in on it too.”  And then, he speaks aloud words she never imagined hearing “Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be healed.”

-Made me well? She thinks.  The bleeding already stopped.  What does he mean, be healed?  She turns to ask those knowing eyes, but someone is telling him that Jairus’ daughter is dead, and he’s already gone.  She stands, stunned, until the crowd has moved on, and once more, she is alone.

-And suddenly, she realizes she’s almost forgotten the fact that she’s no longer bleeding.  Because a deeper miracle consumes her imagination.  Jesus called her Daughter.  The Son of God called her Daughter.    

-That is her identity now. Not bleeding woman.  Not unknown beggar.  Daughter.  Of God.  Done.  End of old story.  Beginning of new one.   

-Because God has come near to her.  God has come close enough to touch in the dust of the street.  God has come near, and God has called her Daughter.  It will not remove her suffering.  If anything, she knows it will plunge her into the sufferings of others.  Yet, somehow, being God’s daughter, it’s going to change everything.  And she knows that being Daughter is the beginning, and not the end, of her healing.  And of the healing of everything else too.  

-And she looks down at her own, weary feet.  And they begin to dance.