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.” 12/15/14 6:30pm

Friday, December 12, 2014

sermon on Ezekiel 33:1-7

Friends, the internet is a jerk.
I mean, maybe it’s the people, but online is such an easy place to be rude—I’ve done it myself! It’s an easy place not to do research, to demand people take you seriously regardless of what you’re saying. It can be a deeply connecting place as well, a place to be educated, to be inspired, but for God’s sake, don’t read the comments. Like, ever. I made the mistake this past week of reading a few comments on news stories about Ferguson, Missouri. They were…disgusting.

And I don’t know of you’re aware of the stolen, nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence? Basically, Jennifer Lawrence had some nude photos of herself for her own purposes. Someone hacked into her accounts and stole them. Some guys on the website 4chan shared them but then a group of folks on another website Reddit spread the photos around far and wide. Jennifer Lawrence was embarrassed, people who saw it were embarrassed, and eventually the folks on Reddit were embarrassed. They had a change of heart—they took the photos down and then did a fundraiser for a cancer charity that Jennifer Lawerence had been associated with. When they sent the thousands of dollars they’d raised to the charity, their note said they were trying to make up for their lapses in judgment and included jokes about what had happened. The charity…said, “no.” Basically, “no, we’re not taking your money, you can’t pay for forgiveness.” Not to be deterred, the Reddit guys sent the money to a water charity with a similar note and with an addendum about how surely this charity would take the donation, they’d be fools not to. And the water charity…said, “no.” No, you don’t get to do something jerk-y and then do one nice thing and expect the scales to be balanced.

It’s not just the internet, though. The Bible is a jerk. Did you notice in that Ezekiel reading, “But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” Basically, tell people how they’re sinning because otherwise you’ll burn with them. Somehow, we are saved because we have pointed out others’ sins. I’ve met well-meaning Christians who take this as license to insist on their understanding of good and evil and to try to convert me to that. Our scriptures have can be a deeply connecting place as well, a place to be educated, to be inspired, but for God’s sake, don’t read the comments. Or, well, take the centuries of commentary and contemporary, me-first theology together and with a healthy grain of salt.

The thing is, we are about law AND gospel. Yes, the Law says to be righteous and righteously judge your neighbor for their misdeeds. It also says NOT to judge your neighbor—that’s not just Jesus’ line.
No, the Law can be good because I certainly drive better when there’s a cop nearby, don’t you? It’s so easy to justify my own selfishness if I just let a law slide here and there. But the gospel is about something else. Gospel is literally “good news”—it’s a challenge or a comfort that enters into your place of bad news, of really shitty news and transforms it into something beautiful. This is not to say that believing in Jesus makes everything go right for us from finding a parking place to cancer remission. Good news is about hope.
And Ezekiel’s version of good news involves repentance. For him, repentance is about hope. Because we recognize the terrible things we do and say, because we commit to not doing them—even though we’ll fail many times—we have hope that things can be different, will be different. Instead of a cycle of violence that we see enacted in the world all the time, when we admit our failings, we participate in a cycle of forgiveness.
It’s true that the internet is a jerk—it’s a true fact, look it up. But it’s also true that the internet is a beacon of hope. I just recently discovered the vlogbrothers—I’m late to the party, I know—and their videos are the most perfect example of hope I can think of right now. In case you’re also running late for the party, here’s the executive summary: they’re brothers, one a novelist, one a scientist, who do short weekly videos to each other about all kinds of things and have developed a huge following and collaborative community around them. I don’t think they mention it much these days, but back in the day, John mentioned offhandedly that he’s a religious man and at several points Hank has mentioned that he is not. But the words of wonder at the universe and love of collaboration and delight in decreasing world suck—these all speak to me in my language of the creative presence of God constantly grinning like an idiot and saying, “Yes! And…?” Their videos suggest to me the theology of God the primal mover: God acts first, then we respond. John and Hank made videos and then tons of people responded, like a huge sigh of relief—we can make a difference! And for Christians, God loves us first, and when we see that, when we feel it beyond words on a page, suddenly the air is cleaner in our lungs and our eyesight clearer—we can make a difference.

So here are two undying truths from across generations of Christians and, indeed, across generations and faiths of human beings:
Don’t be a jerk.
God loves you even though you are a jerk.

*   *   *
Here's a link to a great vlogbrothers video:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

sermon on justice, water, Edward Snowden, and Amos 5

Since my sermon from this week is a single page of messy notes, enjoy a change of pace and LISTEN to it instead:

Saturday, October 04, 2014

retreat address on the Song of Songs

Readings from the Song:
Woman: 1:5-6 (don’t despise me because I am black)
Man: 4:9-16 (you are beautiful and you smell sexy)
Woman: 5:2-8 (ready for “bed” and can’t find lover)
Man: 7:1-9 (you’re beautiful, this time with food)

I joked with my students in describing this retreat
that it was going to be about the sexy, sexy Bible. Was I kidding?
For centuries, we’ve tried to figure out this poem.
Some see it as a kind of performance art,
reenacting a fertility rite to bring good fortune to crops.
Others as an allegory
—a one-to-one metaphor for God’s love for recalcitrant Israel.
It’s read on Passover in many Jewish households because,
in the words of my friend Rabbi Yitz,
“Passover is the dating process
of the just-born Jewish nation with G-d,
culminating in the Marriage Ceremony
under the canopy of Clouds at Mount Sinai.”
For many Christians, it’s been God dating the Church instead.
Others see it as a celebration of physical and romantic love, God-given.
Still others wonder why it’s in our Scriptures at all
—God’s not mentioned once.
Do we ever read it in church? Not much.
And then only the least racy parts.
Like, not the bits with dripping nard or channels or bellies
and breasts and lips.
That stuff is best kept far away from Sunday morning.
Only, why? Are we embarrassed?
We are certainly embarrassing as a Christian people
to non-Christians who don’t understand why
we’re so embarrassed about our bodies and what they do.
The Song of Songs is, at least a little bit, all these things.
The woman who wrote the Song
and the men who included it in the canon of scripture
and the millions of Jews and Christians who have read it
across the centuries have already voted.
This Song is scandalously specific and ambiguous.
It is almost pornographic and deeply spiritual.
The Song of Songs is about sustaining relationships
and about constantly striving
and it is about the love which is the ground of all our being
in one way or another.
First, it’s poetry. Some of your eyes are lighting up at the thought,
others are bracing yourselves for a long, boring lecture
and ultimately not understanding any more than when you began.
Don’t worry, I only mean that it means more than it seems to mean.
Like the TV show Lost. Or whatever your favorite pop song is. Only better.
So, The Song of Songs is about a woman
who is deeply in love and lust with her beloved
who may or may not be King Solomon. Probably not.  
And they have frequent trysts but apparently don’t live together.
Or maybe they’re married,
though the text doesn’t offer much support for that.
Or maybe their relationship is scandalous somehow
since she gets beaten at one point for trying to find him.
It’s not a straightforward story-poem
with a beginning, middle, and end,
nor is it entirely clear who the characters are.
It reads a bit like a series of monologues
between the man and the woman
but they don’t always flow from one to another.
The language, as you might expect, is heightened, is metaphorical;
“your teeth are like a flock of goats,”
“your neck is like a tower, all it’s stones in courses.”
It’s like saying, “your skin is as soft as a kitten’s fur”
or “your hips are as curvaceous as the Guggenheim Museum
and truly, they don’t lie.”
Her neck is not a tower, not really,
and her teeth aren’t hairy like a flock of goats.
It’s about taking inspiration
from the natural and human-made world
—what’s beautiful to you?
That’s what you compare your love to.
“Your body,” she says in one place, “is like ivory.”
Which, it turns out, is a lot like other places in scripture
when someone sees someone else’s “feet,” meaning genitals.
The Hebrew word translated “body”
means a man’s midsection,
so the woman is speaking of the man’s penis as like ivory,
like an elephant’s tusk.
Yes, in a lovely, poetic way, she’s saying,
“my beloved is well-hung.”[1]
Second, the Song of Songs is part of a theology called “Bridal mysticism,”
the theology derived poetically
that Jesus is our collective and individual boyfriend.  
If you think of it literally, it’s a bit creepy.
But also beautiful and has a long history in the church.
We see married people all the time
—certainly we see broken marriages,
but also connectedness and reliance and mutual giving.
Of course we’d use it as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
Bridal mysticism takes Jesus as the boyfriend to its logical extreme
and puts the mystic or the reader in the place of the bride
—when we read these passages, when we pray,
we can experience the great hope a bride feels,
the anticipation of new life,
the excitement of being with the one our heart most desires
—you know this feeling.
Not just the heart palpitations of a crush,
but the deep connectedness to someone we truly love
and who loves us back.
For some of you, that might be a romantic or married partner,
for others it might be a deep soulfriend,
for others it could be the relationship you have
with a parent or sibling.
These are beautiful experiences and we ought to want them—
but they require a certain vulnerability on our end.
We have to be able to be vulnerable to God.
Bridal mysticism requires us to present ourselves
exactly as we are to our bridegroom Jesus.
Third, and maybe most important,
“the protagonist in the Song is the only unmediated female voice in scripture.”[2]
Meaning, every other woman’s story is told by someone else,
either by another character in a story or by the writer of the book.
Here, the woman speaks in the first person,
she is a woman in touch with her own heart and mind,
a woman in touch with her sensuality,
a woman empowered.
And so, because her story needs to be heard, I’ll tell it to you,
at least, an imagined story of how she came to write this poem.

I was told I had to work in my brothers’ vineyards.
I was told I had dark, ugly, black skin.
I was told I’d never amount to anything, that I was unloveable.
I was told I would have babies and that would make me valuable.
I was told to be quiet in church, to submit to my husband, to lie back and think of England.
I was told it was all in my head, that it was my fault.
I was told.
And now I will tell.

When I saw him the first time, I came over all giddy.
I was talking to my friend and suddenly I was stammering
and my hands were shaking and my nipples were hard
and I couldn’t stop staring.
When he talked to me the first time,
I looked down at my shaking knees,
knowing he couldn’t possibly find me pleasant to look at,
but he lifted my chin with a finger and looked at me
like no one else ever had.
He really saw me—what did he see?
He said that I was more beautiful than a flock of goats on the hillside,
more sweet than persimmons dipped in honey,
more elegant the Temple Mount itself.
He said, “she’s a brick house!”
He compared my breasts to round baby sheep
nursing at their mother’s side.
He said my heart was bigger than the Jerusalem marketplace,
that my mind was sharper than the rocks at the shore
which tear up the hulls of boats,
that my ass was as round as melons
and how he wanted to take a bite.
How could he see this when I am, at best, average?
He saw me and he loved me.
And I saw him and I loved him.
We devour each other with our eyes.
When we see each other around town, from yards and yards away,
we cannot resist seeing, we cannot resist knowing.
I know that last night we spoke of philosophy and the nature of God,
we spoke of politics and farming and birds and bees,
we spoke of our fears and of our darkest fantasies.
And we touched each other
—we removed each other’s clothes slowly, achingly slowly,
fingers tracing the hollow of the throat,
like the curve of a spoon dipped in custard,
fingers circling wrists vulnerable as newborn puppies,
fingers caressing inner thighs,
open like a book revealing its secrets.
And today, when we see each other,
we know, deeply, what the other looks like under their clothes,
how they respond to kisses and challenges.
We devour each other with more than our eyes.
Yet I cannot see him now.
And so often, I cannot find him.
He doesn’t respond when I text and our friends have not seen him.
I run across sidewalks and fields,
through the autumn trees smelling of wet leaves and death
and I weep.
I meet people as I wander and they look at me in disgust.
They speak harshly, telling me no one could love me as he does,
telling me I’m making a fool of myself,
telling me to not to speak up for myself,
telling me to go home.
And so I return to my bed, to my empty apartment
which still smells of his soap and his skin and sex.
I return to my shower and wash away my tears in hot water.
I rub lotion into my skin and put on my pajamas,
giving in to exhaustion.
I tell myself it will be better tomorrow.
I tell myself he will return.
I tell myself to fall asleep.
I give in memories and touch myself.
And just on the edge of sleep, I think I hear him next to me,
his hand on my belly, his lips at my ear.
I wake with a jolt but he is not here.
I run to the door,
my hands still slick with lotion and my own moisture,
my feet bare,
but he is not there.
And later we have carved out time to lie on the grass,
feeling the warm sun on our skin,
seeing the red glow of it through our eyelids,
smelling burning leaves and each other’s familiar scent.
Cloves and eucalypus and nard filling my nose and my heart.
His hand in mine, our only touchpoint, yet containing multitudes.
I bask in my beloved’s presence and he in mine.
And tell him,
Many haters cannot quench your love for me.
Many insults will not quench my joy in my own body
nor the want I feel for you, my beloved.
Many sorrows and arguments will not quench our commitment.
Many wars cannot quench the spark of the divine and the hope of peace.
Many waters cannot quench the fire of my love,
neither can floods drown it.

For the holiness of all that is love, hear me tell you my story and know this same love.

[2] Women’s Bible Commentary, “Song of Songs” by Renita J Weems, 164