Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Midweek Poem 6: Pieta


I hunted heaven
for him.

No dice.

Too uppity,
it was. Not enough

music, or dark dirt.

I begged the earth empty
of him. Death

believes in us whether
we believe

or not. For a long while
I watch the sound

of a boy bouncing a ball
down the block

take its time
to reach me. Father,

find me when
you want. I’ll wait.
--Kevin Young, 2011

Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Trayvon Martin and Standing Your Ground

The incredibly sad and outrageous story about the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to reverberate throughout the country-- as well it should.  There is so much about this event and the laws surrounding it that are deeply disturbing.

At a societal level, there is the law that is being used to justify George Zimmermann's actions. In 2005, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, Florida was the first state in the nation to pass this so-called "Stand Your Ground" law, which removes the obligation for someone to retreat from a perceived threat and supposedly authorizes force to be met with force, legally. This same kind of law has been cited as justifying the actions of a young Oklahoma mother who shot a knife-wielding attacker who burst into her home. I think actually these two cases are very different. First of all, in the Oklahoma case, the attacker had possibly attempted to break into her house before, looking for painkillers left over from her late husband's battle against cancer, and he burst into her home where she was alone with her three-month-old baby. The ability to retreat here was obviously not possible. It was her home. She had barricaded the door and called the police as the intruder spent several minutes trying to break in with his accomplice. She was told the police would probably not arrive in time. She could not leave her home with her baby without exposing herself to her attacker and his accomplice outside her home. Second of all, the so-called "castle doctrine" would have applied to this situation, making the need for further legislation unnecessary. It was a completely different situation.

But George Zimmermann was supposedly driving down the street of his gated community when he saw Trayvon Martin walking along, and got out of his car and began to follow the teen, while armed. Both  Martin and Zimmermann have a right to be where they were, and Zimmermann had no overriding protective interest to initiating the confrontation with Martin. Yes, I said, "initiate." Zimmermann called police, and the dispatcher told him that it was unnecessary to continue to follow Martin, and yet Zimmermann, let me repeat, an ARMED Zimmermann, continued to follow Martin. At some point, some sort of confrontation occurred, and Zimmermann shot Martin in the chest and killed him. Today, the news comes out that Zimmermann now claims at this late date that Martin attacked him first and broke his nose.

Now let's turn this around. Trayvon Martin is walking along the street, and a stranger gets out of his car and begins to follow him. The man continues to follow him even when Martin asks his follower what he is doing. Why doesn't anyone consider that Martin had a real right to be afraid of the stranger who was acting belligerently toward him? If Zimmermann has the right to meet force with force, why doesn't Trayvon Martin have that same right? In fact, since Martin was unarmed, he is at a decided disadvantage against an armed man-- although he probably did not know that originally. Let's also remember that the only person who can give an account of this incident is the person who pulled the trigger, who thus has had a month's lag time as well as an absolute incentive to spin this story in a way that exonerates himself. And I really wish the authorities in that Florida town would realize that a law like this cuts both ways in a case such as this one. EVEN IF Martin pushed or punched Zimmermann first, one could definitely argue that Martin had a right to do that under the same law that Zimmermann is now citing as justifying his actions. Where will this end? With the absolute further unraveling of what little civility is left in our culture at this sad moment in American history.

And that very fact leads to my overriding concern with this legislation. There is an ethical, and indeed, a religious aspect that has also been overlooked. This type of law is predicated on the assumption that anyone you meet has hostile intent toward you. It is yet another example of the decay of the fabric of community and the erosion of the principle that individual rights are limited once they begin to interfere with someone else's rights. There's a word for the condition in which someone suspects all of those around him of bad intent. It's called paranoia, and the last time I checked, it was considered a psychological disorder. The way this law is written, anyone could make the claim that they have the right to be judge and executioner if they PERCEIVE that they are being threatened, and the term "perception" is incredibly broad. The problem is, the person on the other end of that gun is obviously also being threatened.

George Zimmerman is a civilian. He is not a peace officer. Therefore, Zimmermann had no right to stop another citizen on the street. This entire altercation begins with Zimmermann feeling the right to make an assumption about another citizen and decide that he has the right to initiate a confrontation-- emboldened by his knowledge that he is armed. Zimmermann and Martin had an equal right to use of a public space. Zimmermann may claim that he lived in the neighborhood and that Martin was just visiting-- but how did he know that Martin did not live there at the time he began this confrontation? He didn't. He made an assumption about Trayvon Martin being out of place based upon his age, his race, his attire, whatever. Furthermore, by refusing the dispatcher's instruction to break off the engagement with Martin, hasn't George Zimmermann undermined any attempt by his defenders (or himself) to describe him as "law-abiding?"

These "Stand Your Ground" laws are horrible laws that ultimately could end in shoot-outs in the streets, particularly in states where concealed carry is common. Meant as a deterrent to crime, they here have promoted the most heinous level of disregard of human life, based on the biased assumptions of a man who was allowed a permit to carry a concealed gun even after being convicted of assault on a police officer and having been under a restraining order by a former girlfriend. And yet at least some authorities in the state of Florida are arguing that this person's judgment is to be trusted-- even over that of a police officer, if you think about it. When a police officer shoots someone with his or her weapon, he or she is placed on leave while the incident is investigated-- and these are people who are trained in the restrained use of force. You have a situation where a police officer is held to a different standard than a citizen who lacks the police officer's training and judgment. And this is absolutely an idea that subverts the very principle of justice, as well as law and order.

I find it interesting that many of the same people who supported this unjust expansion of personal liberty at the expense of the interests of peace, order, and community, also profess to be Christian. And where in scripture does it say "Shoot first, and ask questions later," or, indeed, as laws like this are sometimes alternatively labelled "Make My Day" laws-- as in the famous movie quote, "Go ahead, make my day?" The last time I checked, the fictional movie character who originally mouthed those words, Dirty Harry, was not held up as a paragon of ethical or spiritual virtue. And there's another aspect that no one seems to be contemplating in all the aggressive posturing about one's right to be armed in public.

A final point-- what is the logical conclusion to this case, but the decision by more people to walk about armed and paranoid to protect themselves from the George Zimmermanns of this world? That should be a sobering thought, indeed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Love and Glory

Sermon on John 12: 20-33
5 Lent, Year B
March 25, 2012

(Click here for an audio recording of the sermon)

Several of us here at Holy Communion are taking part in the Bible 365 program. There’s a special Bible used in this program in which each day’s readings are organized into supposedly chronological order. Now, anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows how hard it is to keep up with something every single day for an entire year. And I will be the first to admit that there have been days I have gotten behind, but mostly, I was doing pretty well -- until we got to the late February and early March.
Those readings were centered predominantly upon the thousands of rules and regulations in the book of Leviticus. I mean to tell you, that was a SLOG, even though I knew it was coming. All the orders to use this specific color of thread and this specific kind of wood and avoid eating any sort of creeping animals. All this discussion regarding the burning of entrails! All these different animals getting sacrificed, and their blood being sprinkled all over the altar, and then at the same time all the specific rules about cleanliness, which if you think about it is somewhat contradictory. It was just so mind- numbingly detailed. The endless lists! It was the part of the Bible that could have been written by an… engineer. An engineer who likes to play Modern Warfare 3, the gory Playstation game. But I’m being redundant.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons why we need to be familiar with these readings in the Old Testament. The early Jewish Christians understood Jesus as the one who had been foretold in the Law and the Prophets, and through them we have that understanding as well. Those readings in the Old Testament that we endured in February explain that the people need a lot of guidance to live in community with each other and in community with God. Our readings today build upon both that tradition and upon a presumption of our familiarity with that background. Without that frame of reference, Jesus could have been just another failed rebel against a corrupt regime who was born, lived and died without much outside notice.
As Brooke discussed last week, the important thing for understanding any story is context. Of the four gospels in the Christian Bible, John’s is the most different, and many biblical scholars say it is the most theological, which is why the author of the gospel of John-- whoever he was-- is often referred to as “the theologian.” In each Lenten lectionary cycle, there is at least one reading from John. In year B, the year we are currently in, four of the Lenten readings are from Mark, and three are from John. This is interesting because these two gospels are very different. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and it presents one of the bleakest pictures of Jesus’ passion story. It probably originally ended on a note of despair: “They were afraid.” And who could blame those beholding the empty tomb and the missing body of Jesus for being afraid?
But John’s gospel is different. Jesus’ suffering on the cross is downplayed, in favor of the concept of the cross being a means of glorifying God. All through this gospel, Jesus is a heavenly figure who comes to us to reveal to humanity the true way of faith, and hope, and love, and then will ascend -- be lifted up-- bringing glory to God. In this gospel, Jesus is very clear about his divine origins, so he doesn’t engage in a lot of tap-dancing around his status as the Messiah. This view of Jesus is of one who is in charge.
In our reading today, even when Jesus admits that his soul is troubled, yet in the same breath he presses on in order to fulfill his purpose and bring glory to God. Now, if that was the only part of the story we had, we might walk away missing the fact that Jesus was also fully human. We have had five weeks of Lent in particular to contemplate how God is with us in trials and in suffering because Jesus is walking the way of suffering and death on the cross. We will return to that contemplation through Holy Week. But today we are called to remember that Jesus is a figure of amazing power, God incarnate sharing our joys and suffering but also drawing all people to the love of God. Death will be unable to keep down hope, and faith, and love, even death on a cross.
            How do we (and John) understand the paradox that the cross is a symbol of victory and power rather than dishonor and disgrace? A death which is a sign of torture is instead a triumph. This was a scandalous idea at the time it was formulated, as it also is for us. Crucifixion was the means of execution for rebels and for murderers, and it was a terrible, lingering way to die.
But by casting back to the events of the history of Israel, John sees that the saving power of the cross has already been hinted at. Last week we heard the story of the people of Israel being saved by looking upon a symbol raised up on a pole, and looking upon that sign saved them from death. The reading from John’s gospel last week started off making explicit the connection between this sign and the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. For John, it is through the exaltation of the Son of Man on the cross that God, through Jesus, is glorified.
            The gospel reading for today is the hinge upon which the good news of the gospel of John is proclaimed. This is the point at which, as Jesus says, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What caused this hour to finally come at this particular point? The world—in the form of some “Greeks,” which means us—has come to Jesus. And now—NOW--Jesus is going to be exalted—lifted up—on the cross and beyond the cross, held up to bring all of the world to Go. Jesus makes this clear when he says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” In the gospel of John, this is the point where Jesus moves from his ministry toward his exaltation-- when we come to Jesus. Victory can push through to us at the darkest of times. For John, the crucifixion brings victory, because the cross brings the world to God. We don’t usually think of it this way, but the metaphor of the grain of wheat helps us remember this too. Jesus speaks again in paradox. In order to live we must die. Those who die to themselves will finally have a full life.
Today’s readings are a breath of hope in the season of Lent. Our Old Testament reading comes from a section of Jeremiah known as the “Little Book of Comfort,” and it was written at a time when many in Israel felt that Israel was being punished yet again for its lack of faith. Jeremiah promises that God will make a new covenant and wipe away the old system of atonement for sin. God will write the Law upon our hearts by planting the knowledge of God in our hearts. No longer will God’s people have to rely upon a complex set of rules and sacrifices to maintain a correct relationship with each other and with God. Our epistle makes it clear that Jesus is the means for that old system of sacrifice and atonement to pass away. God has given us an everlasting gift that can finally overcome our doubts and pettiness that seem to always be getting us into trouble.
Just a week ago, the trees were bare, and the ground was hard. I was sitting in my backyard working on what I would say today, in the dead remains of a garden I planted last spring. It looked pretty brown back there. The soil is very poor, and the summer had been very hot. I thought I had probably wasted all of that effort, and that none of the plants I had planted would return.
But as I spent hours there each day, and really stilled myself to see, I looked around and things had changed right before my eyes! I noticed the fiddleheads of ferns poking through the dead blanket of needles from the pines. I saw a crocus I had planted years ago and completely forgotten about push through the new sod. That delicate Japanese hosta unfurled its first tentative leaves in the place along our back fence where I was sure the daily deluge of urine from my neighbor’s moronic dog had killed it!
And two days later—boom!! The redbuds waved their millions of tiny blossoms from bare branches, and they were beautiful. They are beautiful, but they are transitory. Those same blossoms must themselves fall to the ground to make way for the heart-shaped leaves that will soon provide a canopy of cool shade. Then, in November those leaves too will subside and drift to the ground themselves.
So, also, the solitary grain of wheat must fall to the ground and be buried before it can bring forth much fruit.  Otherwise, it remains a single grain—the original Greek here actually says, “Remains alone.” Jesus, through his upcoming passion, will also be nailed on a cross, facing death and feeling abandoned and alone. We know this will happen. But we also know that that cross will then awaken the world to the greatest power on earth—the power of love that does not hold our frailties and sins against us, but calls us to a new life in love.  We know that the cross is not the end for Jesus, but just the beginning of victory.
So the image of the grain of wheat says something first of all about Jesus as the Christ, but second of all it says something about us. Christ transforms death through his own death on the cross, and then rises again to bring light and hope into this divided world. We become faithful by dying to our own divisions and fears and embracing love as Jesus spread his arms of love on the cross.
This is what all of the Bible has been trying to get through our thick skulls all along. Our faith doesn’t tell us how to die. It tells us how to live. It doesn’t tell us what to give up. It tells us what we will gain. It doesn’t tell us that the world is broken. It tells us how to make the world better.
            How should we respond to this? It is made clear to us in the gospel, that we who claim to serve Jesus have to be willing to allow our old lives spent living for ourselves, spent surrounded by our individual concerns and cares, to pass away. We are asked to allow the bitter, jealous parts of ourselves to die, and empty our grasping hands and our fearful hearts so that there will be room for something better to be planted and burst into bloom. When our hearts are full of fear, there is no room for love to take root. There is no room to truly love God and glory in the ability of God to love us. We have to be willing to let go of the junk the world tells us to value in order to be able to grasp the gift of God’s incredible love and mercy that never fades and never dies.
We ourselves have to let go of fear, and place our faith in the power of love just as Jesus did as he prepared for his glorification. When we allow ourselves to be reborn to love, as we are called to be as servants of Christ, we will receive back not a life filled with poverty of spirit. We will be given a life of abundance instead.
And yet, our old life dies hard. Our suspicion that we will somehow lose out by realigning our lives with love has to be overcome. How do we do this? We have to prepare the fields of our hearts for the seed to be able to take root and grow.
            Lent is a season of preparation. But for what are we to be preparing? We began Lent being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Some despair when contemplating this very true statement. Some find this statement to be a frightening reminder of how short our lives are, in the general scheme of things. But we will not have much of a life if we spend it distracted by fear from the things that really matter. We are called to live lives that have meaning, and today’s gospel reminds us that that meaning is found in serving God, which is another way of saying that we must serve the cause of each other as God’s people.
Our lives began in love, and our lives are exalted by love, and must be spent serving the cause of love-- the love that gives itself up for friends, the love that is willing to see beyond the tomb, just as Jesus did, to being fully within the glory of God.
In her book of Lenten spirituality entitled A Practical Christianity, the Very Rev. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes: “Faith in the God of love draws us back to a path of preparation: it calls us to the expression of love in all that we do, by which we might reflect the love of God and become most fully who we are called to be. This forces us to look outward, to love neighbor and love God. And it prepares us to look inward with confidence, to see ourselves as received and loved—wholly and completely—by the God who created us….”
We are given that love through the love of Christ that manifested itself through his laying down his life for us. We are approaching Jerusalem this week, turning our faces toward home, toward the raising up of the cross-shaped banner of Love. We are approaching the hour when God’s love will be made manifest to us, when, in a few short days, we will pass through the darkness of the passion. It is for this moment that Jesus lived—it is for this moment that we are called to allow the love we receive to transform us into the people of God here on earth.
The signs of God’s love are all around us everywhere, and today we are reminded that Jesus is the beacon that calls us to open our eyes and our hearts. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks asked Philip and Andrew. But as anyone who has read scripture knows, even physical sight of Jesus was not enough for most people. The kind of sight we need is the recognition that we ourselves are nothing without love, and we see that when we behold just what Jesus is willing to do out of love for us. Last week we were reminded that God so loved the world that God’s only Son was given so that all would have true life. All of us. No exceptions. No dividing lines. No “us” versus “them.”
Jesus is right before us, always. We already have the love of God written in our hearts. In a few short weeks we will be able to proclaim this beautiful hymn, written by e. e. cummings in 1950:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

How could we doubt unimaginable God and the love that lifts us up? We have the sign of that love right in front of us and indeed all around us. In the gospel today Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The way we have twisted our own lives in this world is the way of struggle, the way of strife, the way of tearing apart the fabric of the community in the name of self-glorification. Why fear letting that way of life die and be blown away like so many dead leaves?
Without the love of God transforming our lives, we are the walking dead. We are dead to beauty. We are dead to truth. But by giving up this self-centered life, we do not lose but gain. We become aware of the transcendent power of God to heal our wounded souls, to illumine our lives even at their darkest moments, to make clear the millions of ways every day that God sustains us and loves us.
We begin and we end with Jesus calling all people to himself. This is the sign of the exalted one. This is the sign of perfect love, love that knows no boundaries or admits any defeat, even at the foot of the cross. This is the hour that Jesus is glorified, the hour when we can finally let go and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. The Son of Man lifted up on the cross publishes and proclaims the love of God in the world, a love that is present for us at all times in all places. Let us allow ourselves to let that Love take root within us, now and forever. Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Music for Lenten Meditation

I just discovered, through the magic of iTunes, some beautiful music to meditate by during these last days of Lent. It is called The Prayer Cycle, and it a symphonic and choral piece written in nine movements by composer Jonathan Elias. It includes vocals by Linda Ronstadt, James, Taylor, and Alanis Morrissette, as well as singers from Tibet, England, Israel, and Pakistan, to name just a few. At least in the case of Taylor and Morissette, this is the first time I have heard them sing something of this type. Twelve different languages are employed, and each movement highlights a different spiritual gift such as grace, mercy, innocence, and piety.

It is ethereal, haunting, and challenging. I highly recommend it as we perform our Lenten devotions. It was originally issued in 1999. i don't know how I missed it, but it has become the soundtrack of my prayers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beyond tolerance to love

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."- John 3:17

What if we concentrated on trying to save others as much as we try to save ourselves? What if we and our leaders would try to look at situations from the point of view of the other rather than from our own narrow interests and need for immediate gratification? What if we all tried to reflect back the saving love of God instead of trying to arrogate it to ourselves?

I think too often we are willing to follow Jesus if that still means that we can do whatever we want and justify any behavior, because there is a trend in American Christianity that relies upon God's grace and the saving power of a personal relationship with Jesus to take away any sense of being CHANGED by our relationship with God. As long as God stays within a three hour wide box on Sunday morning, we can claim membership in the cozy yet exclusive Christian club without too much disruption to our normal policy of enslaving ourselves to our own foolish desires while being able to condemn others for the speck in their eyes while we not just ignore but justify the plank in our own.

If Jesus did not come to condemn us, but to love us, then we should try mightily to do the same for our brothers and sisters. Dear Lord, help me with this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Midweek Poem 5: Evangelical vibrato

Shepherd Road

Eventually, I grab the back-door key
from the cup-holder, slip a folded list
into my pocket. Inside, I dig through closets

to find the lincoln logs, the cardinal statue,
the clock shaped like an elephant, a kettle—

but the whole time I half expect to hear her:
the careful shuffle of her slow, flat feet;
her walker's unpredictable clap; her voice

trembling with evangelical vibrato.
Beside the bed, I find a King James Bible,

her careful marginalia penciled in:
Glory! Glory! Amen! I set it down.
I shouldn't want it just because it's hers.
----------Ashley Anna McHugh, 2010

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Midweek Poem 4: the sparrow knoweth

Psalm 84

How lovely is thy dwelling,
Great god, to whom all greatness is belonging!
       To view thy courts far, far from any telling
My soul doth long and pine with longing
                 Unto the God that liveth,
                 The God that all life giveth,
       My heart and body both aspire,
       Above delight, beyond desire.
       Alas, the sparrow knoweth
The house where free and fearless she resideth;
       Directly to the nest the swallow goeth,
Where with her sons she safe abideth.
                Oh, altars thine, most mighty
                 In war, yea, most almighty:
       Thy altars, Lord, ah, why should I
       From altars thine excluded lie?
       Oh, happy who remaineth
Thy household-man and still thy praise unfoldeth!
       Oh, happy who himself on thee sustaineth,
Who to thy house his journey holdeth!
                 Me seems I see them going
                 Where mulberries are growing:
       How wells they dig in thirsty plain,
       And cisterns make for falling rain.
       Me seems I see augmented
Still troop with troop, till all at length discover
       Zion, where to their sight is represented
The Lord of hosts, the Zion lover.
                 O Lord, O God, most mighty
                 In war, yea, most almighty:
       Hear what I beg; hearken, I say,
       O Jacob’s God, to what I pray.
       Thou art the shield us shieldeth:
Then, Lord, behold the face of thine anointed
       One day spent in thy courts more comfort yieldeth
Than thousands otherwise appointed.
                 I count it clearer pleasure
                 To spend my age’s treasure
       Waiting a porter at thy gates
       Than dwell a lord with wicked mates.
       Thou art the sun that shineth;
Thou art the buckler, Lord that us defendeth:
       Glory and grace Jehovah’s hand assigneth
And good without refusal sendeth
                 To him who truly treadeth
                 The path to pureness leadeth.
       O Lord of might, thrice blessed he
       Whose confidence is built on thee.
--------------Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, 1561-1621