Sunday, April 05, 2015

Good Friday meditation on Psalm 31 and bodies


Let’s talk about sex offenders for a moment.
If we can’t talk about them on Good Friday
when Jesus gave up his body for the sins of the world
—including not just we God’s faithful people
but also all the people we look down on or are disgusted by
—when can we?
I’ve been in a pastoral relationship
with someone on the Sex Offender Registry for several years now.
And I’ve been pondering for most of that time
why there are such extreme reactions to this person’s offense.
Over and above other kinds of offenses, that is
—it’s a different reaction than if you disclosed to me
that you’d stolen a watch
or even that you’d murdered someone.
It’s a powerful, visceral, angry reaction
which leads not only to creating the Registry in the first place
but also to everyday folks regularly checking out that Registry
for people in their neighborhood.
Because…why?
Registered sex offenders are the second least likely to reoffend…just behind murderers.
Why do we do this to ourselves? And to them?
It’s something to do with our essence, our being, our bodies.
A sex offense is…intimate and personal,
and an offense against our bodies
is somehow an offense against more than our bodies.
It’s like when you’re badly hurt with a broken leg, say,
or when you’re throwing up everything you ever ate,
the world condenses to this one primal, vulnerable space
where your body is.
All your being is concentrated on the misery of your body.
But somehow a sex offense magnifies that feeling.
Regardless of what the offense was
—and believe me, there is a wide spectrum
represented on the Registry—
knowing that a hurt was sexual in nature
brings up bone-deep revulsion
which seems to be the only truth.
To be clear, yes to all those feelings.
Violation of the body is deeply painful and emotional
and no one who perpetrates such violation should be given a pass.
If you’ve experienced such hurt, please tell someone
—don’t suffer alone.
It turns out, the violence of those encounters
leaves its scars on the perpetrators as well.
This person whom I know has struggled and been to jail
and to all the therapy and has transformed themself
in ways I frankly envy.
Even after all that, they fear reoffending
and even more the emptiness that comes
when a new friend finds them on the Registry.
Which happens all the time.
This person is outcast from social media, from employment,
and from more than one or two long-term friendships.
Perhaps you might justifiably say, “good.”
And perhaps you might also notice
the similarity between this person
and the people Jesus spent much of his time with.
Not because they were paragons of virtue
but because they were imprisoned by something
and wanted to be set free.
*       *       *
Let’s talk about close male friendships for a moment.
There was a time, as recently as the first World War,
when men who were friends
might be seen holding hands or hugging in public,
slinging their arms around each others waists, cuddling of a sort.
If you don’t believe me, just Google “male affection photo”
for an article called “Bosom Buddies.”
Human beings need touch—you know the studies
about babies who die because they’re not touched.
But more than that, we all need loving, gentle, consistent touch
for brain development and for spiritual development.
Our children are built for it,
demanding cuddling at wonderful and inopportune times.
But in the last 50 years, such touch between adult males has become rare.
Some folks wonder if societal homophobia
has robbed us of close male friendships.
My husband tells me his high school students
can’t even express the bare minimum of verbal friendship
without someone suggesting they might be gay.
Could we as a people be so concerned over the possibility of a come-on
that we’ve lost something precious?
“Boys imitate what they see.
If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness
between men they will grow up to imitate that behavior…
What do boys learn when they do not see men
with close friendships, where there are no visible models
of intimacy in a man’s life beyond his spouse?”[1]
Women may be more able to show affection,
yet we participate in a culture of homophobia and touch-me-not.
We are made in the image of God and we are built for physical intimacy.
Perhaps you might justifiably say,
“But it can go so wrong so easily, even without assault.”
And perhaps you might also note that Jesus spent the Last Supper
reclining beside the beloved disciple John
whom our Celtic brothers and sisters say was so close
he heard the heartbeat of God.
No matter how enlightened we are,
we are imprisoned by our fear of closeness and we need to be set free.
*       *       *
Let’s talk about being unworthy for a moment.
I know students at UC who can’t fathom
that anyone would respect or love them.
They may seem happy or calm on the surface,
but it’s a cardboard cutout of themselves.
I know folks at UC who fill their days and nights with work
because they can’t trust themselves or others
to have their back and they fear failure.
I know friends who know deep in their hearts
that they’d never really be welcome in church
because they haven’t attended in years
or because they think God hates what they do with their bodies
or because they’re not good enough.
I know people who, because of their gender identity or homelessness
feel invisible.
And when they hear that God loves them,
they scoff or cry or get angry because how could God possibly love them. It’s patently ridiculous.
Peter at the Last Supper shows us a silly version
of this deeply-held self-revulsion.
When Jesus arrives at Peter’s feet, Peter says,
“wait, what? You can’t wash my feet! They’re gross.
And you’re…you know…God or something.”
And Jesus patiently explains it again and Peter says,
“Oh, right, I’m so filthy, I need you to wash my whole self!”
We don’t wash the feet of our dinner guests anymore.
But my friends Chris and Kevin once did something similar for me.
After my entire family had been sick simultaneously
with a stomach bug for several days,
my friends came to our house and cleaned up.
While we were still weak,
they swept and mopped and did dishes
and sanitized counters and doorknobs.
They didn’t hesitate to touch
where our disease had made things unclean.
How could I have been worthy of such a gift?
Perhaps you might justifiably say, “oh man, that’s me. I’m just the worst.”
And perhaps you might also recall
just how many times our scriptures record
the consistent and overwhelming love of God
for some really filthy people.
All of us are imprisoned by sin and we need to be set free.
*       *       *
Now, let’s talk about Jesus’ body.
We say that he was God made human
and centuries of theologians have written
about how he was REALLY HUMAN.
It’s not that he just looked like us but was actually smoke and mirrors.
He didn’t have a glowing God center with a crunchy human shell.
He was really, really, physically, emotionally a person.
Jesus is God becoming a vulnerable, squalling, pooing baby
and a vulnerable, squalling, pooing adult
—that’s his whole deal.
That’s the whole point.
Our God who created the universe,
who made this world in all its amazing variety,
who made us—
these complex, thinking bodies charging through space—
our God didn’t just watch from afar,
munching popcorn like we’re some kind of soap opera.
God got themselves a body and ate hummus
and snuggled with Mary and Joseph
and in the teen years refused to be touched
and walked the dirty roads of Jerusalem
and touched disgusting sick people
and touched unworthy prostitutes and office workers
and touched cruel sinners
and then died in extreme pain in front of his earthly parents,
watching them sob.
And then—spoiler warning—came back to life for real.
It’s all about God’s body.
Jesus body standing in for all the bodies in the world.
All of them.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection
is about our bodies being strong and resilient
and vulnerable and imprisoned and…worthy of being set free. And it’s about God loving us more than enough to do it.
That freedom is scary.
It’s a painful and fascinating transition.
But as the Psalmist says in the 31st Psalm,
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”



[1] Kindlon and Thompson, Raising Cain

Saturday, December 20, 2014

sermon on Luke 1, Mary the mother of Jesus, prophecy, and bad good news


A       Mary the mother of Jesus was a prophet.
Like Isaiah and Micah and Amos and Habakkuk.
Let’s dig into that for just a moment.
There in Luke is a great example of what we call an annunciation form—
basically, there are bits of scripture
that are very similar to each other,
things like the traditional form of a pastoral letter,
or love poems, or proverbs,
or the form of announcing a miraculous birth.
You remember Abraham and Sarah
and their miraculous, late-in-life birth, right?
Or Hannah mother of the prophet Samuel?
Their stories, when the angels or God visit
and tell them of their impending pregnancy,
generally follow a particular form.
Interestingly, while Mary’s story is indeed
a birth announcement and fits that form,
it actually fits a different form much more closely
—the prophetic call.
Like Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel before her,
Mary encounters an angel
who calls her to some sort of difficult action,
Mary objects to the call,
she is reassured and given a sign.

B       It turns out lots of early church writers saw this well before I did,
but it’s an image of Mary that we’ve lost over the years
—somehow we are left with a quiet, obedient Mother
 without the firebrand language of the Magnificat
she sings immediately afterwards.
She sings about God’s greatness and mercy
but she also sings this,
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
It’s reminiscent of the song of Moses
and of basically all of the Hebrew prophets.
God is indeed great and merciful
AND ALSO is about justice and significant change to the status quo.
If you’re poor or afflicted, you’re gonna get fed.
Also, if you’re comfortable or in power,
you’re gonna get taken down a peg or two.
Prophets, you see, are a bit difficult.
They’re not domesticated.
They speak from their own oppressed group.
They speak the languages of challenge and hope.
Prophets, Mary included, see clearly what is,
the patterns of human behavior
and how we consistently screw things up.
And prophets, Mary included, see what can be,
the potential for beauty and compassion and grace.
Prophets, Mary included, speak to their own oppressed people
and say, “This is terrible but it won’t last.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
It’s good news, but it might not seem like it.
C       Pastor Larry and I used to argue this point.
He’d say, “Good news is always good news.”
Being contrary, I’d say, “No it’s not.”
The word “Gospel” literally means “good news”
and I agree that it is in fact always good.
BUT it doesn’t always feel like it.
That the rich—spoiler warning, that’s us
—that the rich will be sent away empty sounds like a threat.
That the proud—spoiler warning, that’s also us
—will be scattered sounds like bad news.
This is the Gospel which says you lose your life to find it
and that’s damned hard. That’s miserable. I don’t want that.
The leveling of the playing field that Mary sings about
and that Isaiah writes about and that all the prophets
and law-givers and poets of our scriptures talk about
—that leveling means we might all lose something
and we will all gain something even better.
Past that loss of wealth or status or security,
         past Good Friday, past the pain of pregnancy and childbirth
is the New Thing that God is making.
Mary says to us,
“This is terrible but it won’t last. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
“When a person in a marginalized group is voicing their concern over something you’ve done, it’s a natural reaction to jump and try to defend yourself. Taking the time to listen and truly understand goes an incredibly long way to promoting the understanding that is so desperately needed...”[1]

As we continue in this Advent season,
as we wait for something new with increasing agitation,
when every one of us is pregnant with possibility,
I invite you to listen to Mary’s story retold.

D      Mary stands in her home, kneading bread for dinner
and looking absently out the window.
She sees her little son Jesus running around with the neighbor kids
playing chase and she corrects herself
—not little son, not any more, was he ever little,
seemed pretty big when he came out,
where has the time gone.
Mary watches as her son stops to help up one of the smaller children
who’s fallen in the dust,
then takes off like a shot around the corner of another house
and the Roman soldier keeping an eye on their neighborhood.
Mary presses down hard with the heel of her hand into the dough,
flips it over, presses again,
the repetitive motion part frustration and part meditation.
Her thoughts drift gently from her son’s momentary kindness
to his tantrum this morning about breakfast
to his sleeping face last night
to that same face, softer, rounder, more covered with snot,
lo, these many years ago.
Mary remembers swaddling her baby boy in that warm, dirty stable
and weeping with joy and terror at this new thing
—why didn’t anyone say, I can’t believe how amazing he is,
Joseph can you even…, how could I love someone this much.
And she remembers the day of the angel with the same joy and terror
—how can you be so beautiful and so frightening,
of course I’m afraid, you want me to do what,
from…Hashem, but…a baby?
Mary’s hands press down hard into the dough,
flipping it over, pressing it again.
Her hands covered in flour and callouses ache
as she remembers the early days of pregnancy
—the painful joints, the exhaustion,
the fluttering in her belly which she kept thinking was the baby
but which was only gas.
And later when the fluttering took her breath away
and she grabbed for Joseph’s hand to feel the tiny elbow pressing up
against her belly.
Once she remembers that elbow coming up and her pushing it back,
tapping it like a message. And the elbow tapping back.
She smiles as she flips the dough over to let it rest
and wipes her hands on the towel at her waist.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jesus and his friends
run helter-skelter back into sight.
She begins to hum as she takes out a knife to cut up garlic.
It’s a song she’d all but forgotten, but in the quiet of a rare moment alone,
she remembers.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Ah, yes, she thinks, and sighs aloud.
How that song had welled up in her that day in cousin Elizabeth’s house.
They were both pregnant,
commiserating about aches and pains
and husbands who were attentive but in the wrong ways.
They talked of swaddling and breastfeeding
and the births they’d been present for.
They talked about how the world wasn’t good enough for their sons,
hands resting protectively on round bellies.
They talked about their awe
that they could be making people within themselves.
They talked about their awe that Hashem had given them this chance,
that maybe their boys would be the ones to change things.
And Mary began to sing her gratitude.
It was an old tune but the words came from deep within her,
from the knot of baby growing in her belly and in her heart.
She sang about her own unworthiness to be a mother
and how overwhelmingly giddy it made her.
She sang about Hashem’s attentiveness to the people with no power
and about Hashem’s power to remake the world.
She sang about justice and regime change and transformation.
She sang about her sadness
and she sang about her hope that all would see the face of Hashem
and know the truth of their sin and blessedness.
In the end, a breathless silence
and then cousin Elizabeth applauded
and called her Prophetess
and they laughed.
Mary begins chopping the cloves of peeled garlic
piled up like coins in front of her and hums.
This child will change everything, she sings.
This child has already changed everything.





[1] Jessica Lachenal, “Why the Batgirl #37 controversy is the conversation we need right now.” www.themarysue.com 12/15/14 6:30pm