Saturday, July 31, 2010
I’m going to be honest with you all, I don’t know what to do about B. B’s a homeless guy who hangs out on the porch at the Edge campus ministry house where I work. He sits on a chair, watches folks pass by, tells us the same story ten times in as many minutes, eats a sandwich when we offer it—he’s clearly unbalanced, but he always seemed harmless. But he’s been sleeping on the porch, too, sleeping off a drunk. And he’s been leaving garbage. And peeing on the porch. And just two days ago, he kicked one of my ministry partners when she told him he needed to leave. According to the public defender’s office, he’s the current record-holder for arrests in Hamilton County with more than 470 and has more than three warrants out right now. And he’s a violent, mean drunk who has walked away from or been kicked out of every social service agency in town.
So, what to do, eh? As a person of faith, what do I do? He can’t sleep and pee on the porch, that much is clear. And I can’t have someone who could turn violent in a moment around my students—that’s not fair to anyone. So, we have set up a no trespassing order and, after the kicking incident, have filled out an arrest warrant—so we’re one of the three. The behavior cannot go on—and I think Jesus would be with us on that, at least. Jesus was no doormat and offered challenges to those he met both in word and action. But what’s the hospitality side of this? How can we actually help B in any meaningful way? Can we, even? I don’t know. I don’t know.
And this might lead some folk to despair. Some of ya’ll might be thinking “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”. Maybe. “There is nothing new under the sun” you might be thinking, and you’d be right. We’re not the only ones to deal with friends or relatives who have mental illness or alcoholism or even poor table manners. We’re not the first people to feel overwhelmed by poverty or to struggle with evangelism. On the deeply spiritual TV show Battlestar Galactica, a line which gets repeated often is “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” No seriously, it’s a great show.
Y’all might know Ecclesiastes better by another passage: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” That’s chapter three, almost directly after this reading we heard from ______________.
Ecclesiastes might have been a crotchety old man or maybe he was just a realist. Either way, his book is filled with a kind of heaviness. He seeks after and finds wisdom, yet it does not last and only shows him the futility of human endeavors. He seeks after pleasure, yet it does not last and dies with the person. He builds and plants and creates and, though he enjoys the building and planting and creating themselves, the results do not last but crumble and cannot be taken past the grave. “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” And who among us has not had a similar experience? At the very least, many of us have watched toddlers play. Or, rather, destroy. Typical of preachers, I’m talking about my own family—my daughter Abby is a year and a half and she loves building towers. Or my building towers for her. She loves admiring them for a moment, then destroying them like Godzilla. And I could take the depressing route and say, “Why should I toil in vain and build towers that my daughter knocks down? It is vanity and a chasing after wind” No, I build it again, because I see her delight. Maybe you know more viscerally that experience of “chasing after wind”—maybe you have built a business only to see it fail or to succeed better for another owner, maybe you poured your heart and soul into someone beloved who was suffering only to see her die.
Many folks think Ecclesiastes is depressing, but some of us find it comforting. Perhaps it’s the Lutherans I work with rubbing off on me, but it suggests to me that it’s not our works—good or evil—that save us. God does that. What we do or create is important, but that ultimately, it’s all in God’s hands. That I don’t have responsibility for making everything turn out okay. Phew.
I wonder if we have a hard time with evangelism because maybe we think the story ends with “this is vanity” rather than how it actually ends. The assigned lesson for today ends with “all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” Did you find yourself wondering what you’re supposed to do with that? A bit like my quandary about B, you had something complicated and heavy dropped on you and now what? I’m not sure why this is, but the compilers of the lectionary often cut off the reading before it is ripe. Remember that more famous bit of Ecclesiastes that I mentioned comes almost directly after our reading? Yeah, Here’s part of what we missed:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” This changes everything.
I think we sometimes dislike Ecclesiastes because he is us. He writes what we all think—that we have a hope, but it’s pretty tissue thin and what does what we do amount to anyway? Particularly when it comes to spirituality? We think, if we shared our stories with friends, neighbors, strangers, no one would listen to us, and even if they did, what would we say in the first place? It’s pointless and a chasing after wind. We think we have to have all the answers—about how salvation works, about who’s in and who’s out, about the church’s problematic history, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or whatever—but we don’t. That’s not the story! That’s not the good news that God offered in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We only need to be honest with one another about our lives and our experiences of God. This, brothers and sisters, is evangelism. It’s sharing part of your story with someone else, it’s building relationships with folks you meet, from friends to aggressive homeless guys who pee on your porch. It’s certainly not easy, and I don’t yet know how to build relationship with B. It’s not easy, but it is freeing.
The good news is that we don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of fixing everything. The good news is that eating, drinking, and enjoying our toil—whether it’s our paying job, whether it’s putting storm windows on someone’s house, whether it’s writing a song or running a marathon, or being rejected in our attempts to connect—the good news is there is nothing better for us than to try and all of it comes from God.
The good news is “there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil” because as brother Paul of Tarsus wrote, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Hallelujah.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Once upon a time a young man went on a retreat. As a kid he’d been a bully, but he gave that up quickly because his priest had told him it was wrong. On the retreat however he remembered that he had teased a skinny little girl about her buck teeth and her glasses. She cried every time he teased her and then whenever she saw him. He really liked to see her cry. Then she and her family moved away and he grew out of his teasing phase, and quickly forgot it altogether. But at this retreat, a nun gave a talk about bullies. That conveniently repressed phase of his life came back and horrified him. He felt terrible. How could he have been such a jerk. The poor little kid. He might have ruined her life. He talked to the nun about it. “Typical boy behavior,” she observed. “But I stopped doing it. I grew up. I haven’t been a bully for a long time. Will God forgive me?” “Yeah, probably,” said the nun, “but I’m not sure about the little girl.” He went home from the retreat really upset. He had done a terrible thing. He had to find the little girl and apologize.
For a couple of weeks he couldn’t sleep he felt so guilty. So he began to search for the girl. He discovered where she had moved to and then that she was a lawyer and worked for a firm near him. It took him another two weeks to work up the nerve to seek her out. Then by accident he encountered her in the grocery store. She had grown up to be gorgeous. He stumbled and bumbled and muttered and apologized. “You were a bully all right,” she said. “But you were kind of cute too. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”—That’s the way God is.
Another once upon a time, in cold November, my husband and I were leaving Christ Hospital in Clifton…with our brand-new, delightful, much-beloved baby. We’d been there three days and, though we were terrified by our new responsibility, we were excited to get home, eat some dinner with my folks, and introduce little Abby to her new home. We packed up, checked out, took off. I was more waddling in pain, but whatever. Leighton started driving out of the carpark, but we heard a kind of lub-lub noise. I suddenly remembered that one of my tires had had a slow leak. And it’d had three days to slowly leak and was now flat. Ok, we pulled over and Loving Husband Leighton got out to change the tire. Only he couldn’t. Not that he didn’t know how but that he actually couldn’t. One of the lug-nuts was stripped. Ok, so we call AAA. Meanwhile, little Abby has woken up hungry and with a dirty diaper. Of course. So, while Leighton’s waiting for the guy from AAA, I painfully waddle myself and my new baby through the biting cold into the hospital in search of a bathroom in which to change my first diaper ever. When I returned, I found that the AAA guy had arrived and he, too, couldn’t budge the lug-nut. So another guy had been called to tow the car. By now it was 9pm. We were tired and hungry and just wanted to get home. But how? We racked our brains for people who (a) we had phone numbers for, (b) who had a car seat, and (c) would be willing to come get us. We called friend Mark who dropped everything to help us. He showed up with an almost empty gas tank, but that’s another story. With just a phone call, Mark came and helped us out—That’s the way God is.
Another once upon a time, one of my students at the University of Cincinnati—Edward his name is—was hanging out at our campus ministry house. He was there alone, holding the fort as it were so other students could stop by if they liked. And, while he was in the kitchen fixing a cup of tea, someone came in. But not one of our students. When Edward came back into the living room, Elijah was sitting on the couch, his cell phone plugged in and charging. Edward was a little astonished but took it in stride. They talked about this and that and it became obvious to Edward that Elijah was not on the up-and-up. He said that his brother had forgotten to pick him up from campus, that his car had broken down, that his girlfriend was waiting for him to come home with diapers, and other things. They shared some tea and a soda and when Elijah asked for money, Edward wisely said, “no.” And, while Edward didn’t have the wherewithal to call Elijah on his dishonesty, he offered what hospitality he could, even knowing he was being lied to—That’s the way God is.
What is God like in these stories? In bringing together the people God does, what is God saying? How is God acting in them?
“Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, ‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”—That’s the way God is.
What is God like here?
Some folk would say that, at the beginning of this passage, when the disciples saw Jesus praying and finally work up the courage to ask him to teach them to pray, Jesus looked at them, and loved them. And didn’t answer their question. They said, “teach us to pray” and Jesus said, “this is what God who you’re praying to is like.”
I’m going to be honest here, folks—I don’t know what to do about Elijah. Or about Bennie, another homeless guy I know. Or any other of the down-and-out folks I run into on campus. Or folks who’ve been abused or are abusers. Or about folks who have it comparatively easy and don’t know what to do about it themselves. And I don’t know how to pray. I mean, of course, I know how to pray, right? The Lord’s Prayer, at least, is an easy one. But you know what I mean—what to say? What words to use to get my point across clearly and convincingly and, of course, beautifully? How do we convince God to do what we think needs doing? What do I do with my hands? We want to do this RIGHT, right? The disciples didn’t know how to do this either and they asked—“teach us to pray.” And we ask that same thing—“Lord God of our fathers and mothers, we hallow and bless your name and we want to talk to you. Teach us how. Teach us to pray.” And then Jesus looks at us and loves us and says, “this is what God is like.”
On my way back, from the Edge House yesterday, I had a little set-to with God. In my car. Out loud. I told God everything I knew about Bennie, this homeless guy who sleeps on the porch of the Edge House, though he’s not supposed to. I told God about how Bennie’s life was surely complicated and about how he drives me crazy. I raised my voice in anger that despite my conversations with him and even regular police sweeps, he stays on the porch, leaving his trash and sometimes peeing in the corner. I cried in frustration that I had to clean up his trash. And then I cried in repentance, knowing that cleaning up other people’s messes, serving our brothers and sisters, is exactly what we’re called to as Christians. What am I supposed to do for Bennie, when he’s been kicked out of every helping agency in Cincinnati, when Jesus tells me to serve him, when I don’t know how? And I asked in desperation, what do you want me to do?—And this was prayer. It wasn’t beautiful and it wasn’t the “right” words, but it was prayer.
All this because the God I know is one who listens. Who perhaps metaphorically rubs my back and murmurs understanding sounds. Who sometimes offers advice and sometimes keeps silent.
God is like many things: like the surprise visitor who may or may not be wanted, like the host falling over himself to offer food and drink no matter the hour, like the sleeping neighbor who first questions the request but ultimately responds. God is like a parent—loving and tearful or even angry but not abusive. God is like a homeless guy sleeping on your porch or asking for change on the corner. God is like a king or queen ruling the realm for the common wealth. God is like a farmer sowing the seed—sending us out to grow in Claremont County or Cincinnati or the Dominican Republic, sending us out as guests in others lives at school, at work, in our neighborhood organizations or sports leagues. And at the heart of this being sent out, God is our creator, is our Father and Mother, is the abba we cling to in the infancy of our faith.
That night Leighton and I struggled to get home from the hospital, that was three days after little Abby had come into our lives. Three days after the night we met her, when, in a delirium of medication and exhaustion, I saw Leighton hold our daughter for the first time, watched him fall in love with her, watched him tell her he’d always protect her and never leave her. I saw him pledge with his eyes and his arms that he would watch and care and challenge and listen no matter what. That’s the way God is. Amen.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
This Certain Man was walking down the road from Clifton to Avondale—maybe he came from church, maybe he was going to a party, maybe he was going to make mischief—and he was set upon by robbers—by people who couldn’t see farther than their own greed or by people who couldn’t see farther than their own destitution. They beat him with a tire iron, they kicked him and took his clothes, they took his wallet and his dignity, leaving him naked and dying in a deep ditch on the side of the asphalt in a stagnant puddle.
This Certain Man opened his eyes, focused them on a Starbucks coffee cup sitting in a moldy mess near his nose, groaned mightily with the little breath he had left, and began to cry. He cried with the pain we’ve all felt—when it hurts to cry but it’s all you’ve got left, when the injustice and randomness of the pain overwhelms and the tears are mingled with rage and helplessness.
And, lo and behold, someone heard his cry. Would you believe it? A priest was walking by! Episcopal, Catholic, Jewish, or Buddhist—who knows—but a priest! And this Certain Man cried out, “Brother can you help me? They beat me and took from me and I’ve fallen into a hole. Will you help me get out?” And the priest, he looked in the ditch, he looked at the man, and he looked right through him. He couldn’t see past his own sense of urgency, past assuming this Certain Man was drunk or a serial fall-in-a-ditch kind of person. So he wrote down a prayer on a slip of paper and tossed it into the ditch with the man.
And the Certain Man opened his eyes, focused them on the slip of paper now absorbing the scum on the surface of the water, saw the words dissolving in front of him, and began to cry. He cried for every prisoner of war or conscience and every wallflower at the junior high dance, he cried for every collapsed building in Haiti and every small, struggling church, he cried for every addict and every sinner.
And, lo and behold, someone heard his cry. Would you believe it? A business woman was walking by! Procter & Gamble, Kroger, small-business owner, government employee—who knows—but an upright citizen! And this Certain Man cried out, “Sister, can you help me? They beat me and took from me and I’ve fallen into a hole. Will you help me get out?” And the business woman, she looked in the ditch, she looked at the man, and she looked right through him. She couldn’t see past getting her suit dirty before a meeting, past getting more involved in a stranger’s life than she was comfortable with, past what else he might ask of her. So she wrote down a couple self-help book titles on a slip of paper and tossed it into the ditch with the man.
And the Certain Man opened his eyes, focused them on the second slip of paper lodged against his bruised and bleeding arm, and began to cry. He cried for his pain, for his loneliness, for the world’s cruelty and and the world’s vulnerability.
And, lo and behold, someone heard his cry. You won’t believe it. ‘Cause this woman was walking by. And not just any woman, but a woman like the American West’s Calamity Jane. Calamity Jane in her rough men’s clothing, with her bull-whip, with her abrasive, foul-mouth and non-existent manners. They say that when she walked into a bar in Deadwood, South Dakota, the long-time, inveterate drunks, the men who virtually lived in the bar—would leave, disgusted by her obscene language and attitude. She drank and fought and swore with the best of them. This is the woman who passed by and heard a Certain Man crying out.
And she stopped.
She looked in the ditch, she looked at the man, and she saw him. And seeing him, not just looking at him but truly seeing him, meant that she was responsible. The others tried not to see, we try not to see this Certain Man’s pain. We know that if we really look at him, if we see him, then we see him with God’s eyes. Abraham’s concubine Hagar—another person we might have crossed the street to avoid—named God “el-roi”—“the God who sees” because God heard her cries of misery and saw her as she was and had mercy.
Problems should be solved by those who see them, someone once said. So we try not to see—because it hurts too much to really see the problems. Because there’s not much we can do to solve the problem anyway. It’s too expensive or too time-consuming or too complicated or requires too many people to work together. Or because we don’t know what to do.
The historical Calamity Jane didn’t think so. When smallpox came to Deadwood, Calamity Jane stayed and nursed people back to health. Or held their hands as they died. This rough, unexpected woman laid cool cloths on their heads and gave them comfort. Our Calamity Jane, or whoever she is, jumps down into the ditch with this Certain Man, getting mud and muck all over her clothes, bruising her leg as she does so. And the man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” And Calamity Jane says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
And she gently lifts the man out of the ditch, cleans his wounds with alcohol and binds them with strips from her clothing. This foul-mouthed woman who no one would have anything to do with, who no one would even look at twice, cradles the man in her strong arms and carries him to the Days Inn on the corner. She pays the desk clerk two-days’ wages and says, “You treat him right, ya BLEEEEEP, and if you need more BLEEPIN money, I’ll be back and pay you whatever the BLEEP you need.” She wipes this Certain Man’s forehead one last time, and leaves, not asking for repayment, not leaving a forwarding address.
Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, Jesus said to his disciples, just moments before he told them this story. Who was the Certain Man’s neighbor? The one who had mercy on him—the one who saw him.
The one who had been there before—whether or not she’d been robbed and beaten and left for dead, our Calamity Jane had been rejected, had been despised, had been hopeless. She saw herself in the man and felt his pain. His cry had been her cry at some point. And she saw in the man the face of God.
Blessed are the eyes that see what you see—we are all recovering from something, whether it’s substance abuse or sin—and we have all been there before. Blessed are we when we don’t ignore another’s pain or joy but see it, recognize it, name it. Even when we don’t know what to do, even when we don’t know the way out of the ditch, blessed are the eyes that see what you see—because what we see is God. And the God who sees, see us.
We don’t have to be beaten on the side of the road to cry out and we don’t have to feel the extreme misery of that Certain Man for someone to see us. You know it as well as I do—sometimes we’re the man in the ditch, sometimes we’re the priest or the business women (maybe more often than we’d like), sometimes we’re the Days Inn desk clerk—the next person to see the problem and respond, and sometimes we’re the Good Samaritan, the Calamity Jane, seeing in the other person a need we can fill, seeing in the other person a big or small part of our own lives. And seeing means responding. “Eternal life is found not just in knowing the commandments but in doing them.” And in that response, we all live happily ever after.
Friday, July 02, 2010
Well, maybe not, but today’s lesson leaves me with some confusion: “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” he writes, but then he turns right around and says “all must carry their own loads.” What to make of that? Everyone should help everyone else with their troubles and each person should carry his or her own burdens. Within a sentence-distance of one another. It’s not entirely obvious what he’s meaning here, except maybe for the sentence before, “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one”—restore—it’s about restoration. It’s about putting one another back together, for we are all broken in one way or another. And because so much of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are about group salvation rather than individual, it’s about returning as a community to our original state of one-ness with God. It’s about radical forgiveness and hospitality. And about a peculiar kind of freedom. We are not so much called into an individual freedom wherein we are not taxed for tea without representation but one in which we have obligations. Peculiar, indeed. We are supposed to help carry one another’s burdens in addition to our own and in turn, let others bear ours. It’s a kind of a dance, or a musical round with the weight and the parts shifting from one person to another, never being dropped.
In fact, let me teach you a round and you’ll see what I mean.
Teach: Peace, perfect peace, perfect peace. [key: G]
Canted part:Peace, perfect peace—with Jesus by our side—
That wasn’t so bad was it? You relied on your friends
Peace, perfect peace—with Spirit hovering over—
You hold your own part, then pass it off to your neighbor…
Peace perfect peace—I cue you in to sing—
And you bear one another’s burdens…musically.
Could you feel that give and take? Where one group begins, the others wait, listening, feeling out where the group is. Then a second group responds, taking up their own part, which is also part of another group’s burden, following, making harmony, holding responsibility for the music. The musical line is handed back and forth among us and no single person has to control it—if you forgot the notes or when to come in, someone else had it and you could follow her. Perhaps this is what it is to bear one another’s burdens and our own at the same time.
For many of you, music is a powerful reminder of joy, that there is order in the chaos of our lives, that in a moment of misery or frustration or triumph, there is beauty and therefore truth and hope.
For some of you, this experience of singing is not a helpful image. For folks like my loving husband, an occasion of public song is an occasion of discomfort and exclusion. He doesn’t sing. Doesn’t like singing. Maybe there are more of you out there—and you know as well as I do that there are other things you do that show you that mutual reliance—playing on a soccer team or a baseball team, working on a construction project with a group, or for that matter, raising children—if that’s not a communal dance, I don’t know what is.
And this is freedom in Christ—not as the world sees it, but as we Christians see it.
Freedom that we celebrate today as a country is wonderful—I love that I can vote and assemble with people of like minds and that we all have the right of due process under the law—great stuff. But remember what Pastor Jess spoke about last week, about not making our families into idols. That idols are anything that stands between us and God. Perhaps our nation can become an idol at times. When we equate good citizenship with Christianity or assume Jesus would vote the same way we do, we all commit the sin of idolatry. Perhaps we all need the restoration Paul talks about in Galatians—that freedom looks different when we become Christians.
Freedom in Christ involves obligations—and do not be deceived, brothers and sisters, sometimes we dislike what we’re asked to do. Sometimes we have to choose what is right over what is easy, but we can grow to love them in the practicing of them. And we certainly grow from the practicing. We take care of our ailing parents or spouses because we have to, of course, and because our love and our God tell us this is what we do. We come to worship each week because we are set free, given a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th chance to try again. We call up a friend or relative and listen or forgive or invite them to church—whatever it is we’ve been avoiding—because we are a sacrificial people. We give away our time and money because God tells us to, and because in giving away, we become whole. We are restored. Our Jewish brothers and sisters, at least theologically, delight in these obligations, these good works. Like the music we sang earlier, there’s an obligation there to sing a harmonious note but also a freedom. Listening to and participating in congregational singing is freeing—we can lose ourselves in the melody, we can make up new parts, we can let go of the idols we hold in our regular lives. And all because we are tied to the music—we bear one another’s burdens and others bear ours.
This song is what we’re called to this Independence Day. We are witnesses that there is a better way, that we don’t have to buy into political spin or the God of Consumerism or the sacredness of national security. And we don’t have to buy into the Lutheran Way or the Non-Denominational Way either. We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the way we celebrate freedom is in helping others carry their burdens. Friends, enemies, the person sitting next to you in the pew who you don’t really know what to think about, complete strangers—all are one body, one Spirit in Christ and we have one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
So, sing with me again, a different tune now:
Teach: Open my heart... [key: F]