Saturday, June 27, 2015

Home Once Again

Insiders, Outsiders and Life’s Interruptions
Psalm 139/Mark 5:21-43

A few remarks, a poem and a song.
This episode in Mark chapter 5 is about life changes in more ways than one. Two people are healed, a woman and a young girl. Social protocol is changed: one would expect Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a quintessential insider, to get special attention, but one is surprised that the woman who has bled month after month for 12 years also gets Jesus’ power and attention and blessing AHEAD of the very important man he was going to help. Personal change: the woman (who has no name) and the daughter (who also has no name) are both restored to normative life in the community – the community that laughed at Jesus for even trying to help them. The church changed:  it should not go without mention that the lectionary selection itself has changed. In our 1979 Book of Common Prayer lectionary the story of the woman was cut out so that our Proper 8 Gospel was JUST the story of Jairus’ daughter. Once we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (2006) her story was restored. That says as much about us as a church as it does about the Gospel of Mark. For so many years her story was not heard in our churches. And yet, I would argue, her story is the central to the whole story. That is, there is just one story of which she is a central and most important part. It is a credit to our church that we restored this story to its wholeness, for the woman’s story is one we all share and one we all need to hear. We are left to imagine why her story was not included in our Sunday lectionary until 2006.

It is no accident as Mark tells her story. The woman has been bleeding as long as the little girl has been alive: twelve years. They share a sort of kinship, even though the woman, because of her condition, would have been ostracized from society and from town as being “unclean.” That is, she in all likelihood could not live at home. She was homeless and alone.

Being unclean and homeless are things few of us understand, yet there are times when we don’t feel at home in this world any more, and we may even feel yucky and unclean about ourselves. And when we are seriously ill we are usually separated out from society – often times even in isolation. Were we to be aware of life in the world of Jesus we would be utterly astonished that this unclean and homeless woman gets Jesus’ power, attention and blessing BEFORE the daughter of the very important official, Jairus.

We may as well face it, outsiders have been commanding our attention recently: Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof, Caitlyn Jenner, Freddie Gray, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev , James Holmes to name just a few. It ought to break our hearts to think of how life for each of them, and all of us, may have been different if someone like Jesus had allowed them to interrupt their lives. What if someone had given them attention and blessing and healing of some sort? If only they had had a stronger sense of belonging, a stronger sense of being accepted and at home in this world. What if?

We are meant to place ourselves in these stories. What is it like to be the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is "at the point of death?" What is it like to be in the "great crowd" following Jesus? Are we among those who truly follow him? Are we among those who laugh at him for trying against all odds to help these two women? What is it like to be the little girl, home, waiting, fearful of what comes next? What is it like to be the disciples, trying to protect Jesus from the crowd? What must it have been like to be the woman, cut-off from society for 12 years? What is it like to have her kind of hope and faith? What is it like to touch the hem of Jesus' garment? Can we grasp that the important things in this life are those things that interrupt whatever it is we think we are doing or think is important?

Now the poem, then a song to help us imagine what life could be like.

The Lightening   by Madeleine L'Engle
When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man who worked miracles,
cured diseases,
even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief.
I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why
I thought he could help me
when all the doctors
with all their knowledge
had left me still drained
and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living.
Well: I’d seen him with some children
and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
Then there was that leper,
but lepers have been cured before –
No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand,
not to interrupt, or to ask him for anything,
not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him…
I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.
I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed that they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close I could reach out
and touch with my fingers
the hem of his garment.
Have you ever been near
when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree
under which I had been playing
and I was flung right across the courtyard.
That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.
“Who touched me?” he asked.
I said, “I did, Lord.”
So that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched
his garment’s hem.
He looked at me and I knew then
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
He was tired and emptied
but he was not angry.
He looked at me
and the lightning returned to him again,
though not from me, and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.
Then the crowd came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.
-           Madeliene L’Engle

The Blessed Augustine, the African Bishop of Hippo wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.” We are all looking to be healed of something. God in Jesus allows us to interrupt whatever is happening and accept our belovedness in God’s eyes. We all have a home in the heart of God’s love. If you don’t believe in miracles consider this: even the Supreme Court of the United States of America is coming around to affirm that all people have a home in the heart of God’s love and deserve the opportunity for the kind of healing witnessed in the story of two women, one young, one more mature, representing the extremes of the social spectrum.  We all want to be made clean and whole. We all want to come home – home with others, at home with God, and at home with ourselves.

Be made clean
Go back to your home

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home

Be made whole
You are no longer alone

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home
                        -Kirk Kubicek, Sounds Divine


Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Power of Song

Poetry, Parable and Song……
Ezekiel 17: 22 -24/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34

The power of poetry, parable and song is meant to fire our imagination beyond what is to what is possible. Years ago a colleague and priest, Pierre Wolff, a former French Jesuit, summarized Ignatian Spirituality this way: We come from Love, we return to love, and love is all around. God is love. A few years later Diane Connelly, a teacher and practitioner of acupuncture, wrote a book called, All Sickness Is Homesickness, inspired in part by the Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.”  This suggests  to me that all of life is a homecoming: a coming home to God, who is the heart of universal Love, and that source from whence we come and to which we return. It all came together as a song, a psalm if you will:
We return to Love
And Love is all around, and Love is all around
All of life is a homecoming
Homecoming, homecoming
All of life is a homecoming
A coming home to God

It is often overlooked that much of the Bible consists of poetry, parables and songs. The prophets, like Ezekiel, most often use poetry and psalms to convey God’s truths. And Jesus taught with “many such parables” like the mustard seed parable.

What ought to interest us in all of this is that poetry, parables and songs are open to interpretation.  That is, they do not represent a single meaning or a single truth. In fact, the Bible itself constantly recycles these poems, parables and songs to address specific situations in different Biblical eras.

This is how the Bible chooses to teach us about how it is we might “walk by faith, not by sight,” as St. Paul instructs the community in Corinth. We tend to approach the texts looking for “the answer.” Yet, the same Augustine in his Confessions writes (in book twelve) that any particular verse in the Bible is capable of conveying more than one truth. He goes so far as to say each verse can have two, three, four, five or more truths.

So when we hear Ezekiel writing about God taking a sprig off the top of a high cedar and transplanting it, Ezekiel may be writing about God taking a small remnant of Israel after a long exile in Babylon, bringing them back to fertile territory and replanting, tending, and growing a new Israel that will provide shelter and nurture for all kind of “birds” and “winged creatures” of all kinds. This may be a fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham that God’s people would become a blessing to all the peoples and creatures of the earth.

It is easy to imagine how those Jews, including followers of Christ, might hear in this a word of hopefulness after the Roman Empire destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israel in the year 70. This was to be a watershed moment that led to the creation of early Christian communities and a whole new way of being Jewish as the rabbinic Judaism of today was born out of the ashes of the Temple. This hopefulness was true for both groups of faithful servants of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

Jesus himself recycled the imagery of Ezekiel’s poem to deliver his teaching in the Mustard Seed Parable in which once again we hear that “this smallest of all seeds” grows up to provide shelter for all the birds of the air among its branches.

As Christianity and Judaism branched out into various new forms throughout the centuries, this poem by Ezekiel no doubt gave new strength, vision and hopefulness for diverging beliefs of how it is we are “to walk by faith, not by sight.” Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all have very different views on how we are to do this – all of which are “true” for these very different communities. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews also embody various truths about how to walk in faith. Similar claims can be made about Shia, Sunni and Sufi Muslims; Tibetan, Mahayanist, Theravada, and Zen Buddhists, and so on.

It strikes me as ironic that Augustine was comfortable with there being multiple meanings and multiple truths all the way back in the fourth century church, and yet today we are insistent on their being only one “correct” truth – which of course is almost always “my truth.”

Both Ezekiel and Jesus point us to the hidden nature of Biblical faith – that is, that it is not something we ourselves create or achieve. It grows while we are sleeping. It grows by the hand of God. Faith is an act and gift of grace – amazing grace. John Newton, the one-time slave trader who wrote the now famous hymn Amazing Grace had just a mustard seed’s amount of faith which grew with each Atlantic crossing, until he realized just how sinful the “peculiar institution” of slavery really is. He left the slave trade, became an Anglican priest, served the poor, and became a driving force in the Abolitionist movement in England. No doubt like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, he had no real hand in growing his faith which led to the power of a song that changed the world – it was God at work in him, silently, hidden in the groans and sufferings of the African peoples he was transporting.

The Jesus of the gospels routinely chides his disciples – that would be us – for having so little faith. Yet, when they finally come to him asking for, demanding really, more faith, as if it were some commodity that could be bought or sold or dispensed, he comes back to the Mustard Seed parable and says, “If you only had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this tree be uprooted and planted in the sea!”

Buried beneath the surface of this parable, and in the poetry of the prophet, and the urgings of St. Paul, is the fact that we need to allow ourselves periods of what the Daoists call “doing not-doing,” or, wei wu wei – down time, sabbatical time. God’s creation and gift of the Sabbath day is the one gift of God we routinely do not accept. In a commodity driven society, we just don’t get it – that down time, time to do nothing more than commune with God, family and our neighbors, is what makes it possible for God to grow our faith. We are just too too busy to take a day off every week. Imagine what we could really do if we were to honor the Sabbath day? What if? What if we gave God one day a week to grow our faith from the mustard seed he places within each and every one of us? Think of the poems we might write! The parables we might tell! The songs we might sing! All of which, like simple tunes such as Amazing grace and We Shall Overcome, have the power to change us and change the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we only had faith as small as a mustard seed.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead
If you only have faith as small as a mustard seed.