Telling

We are not Survivor.
They took our bodies down,
stripped and swaddled, spiced
and laid, restless.

We are not Victim,
though they nail us
to whatever piece of wood
they find to hand.

We are Resurrection.
Bury us deep as you dare,
our tendril roots beneath
bare earth will tangle, break
the surface tension, green
the guards will faint away
for fear of our awakening.

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Revolution

How many years is it since the Declaration of Independence?

How many since slavery was ended as a legal practice in these United States?

And how is it that after all this time, we read a parable that includes a king, or a slave-master, and our first thought is, “Well, that must be God”?

Two centuries since we claim to have outgrown these modes of authority and outright oppression, we still make God in their image. Two thousand years since the birth of the Christ, we still struggle to see God as God is most clearly and intimately revealed to us: which is in the person of Jesus; a nobody from Nazareth,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)

Taking the form of a slave. So, who represents God in this parable again?

You know how in folk tales and fairy tales, it is always the third son or daughter, the most humble and least likely to succeed who is the only one to get it right?

What if the kingdom of heaven will be like this:

There once was a rich man. Never mind that he had built his fortune on dubious business practices and upon the backs of slaves – families and generations of people unfree. He was rich, and successful, and self-satisfied. So he decided he deserved to go on a nice, long vacation.

While he was gone, he chose three of his slaves to make some more money for him in his absence.

The first slave was, let’s say, connected. He did some wheeling and dealing, a few unsavoury favours, and he was richly rewarded. Never mind that some of his business was not strictly legal, let alone ethical; he made his master money, even after the percentage we can assume he kept for himself.

The second slave knew that the easiest people to make money off of are those who don’t have any; desperate people. He used his stake to open a payday loans and cash-checking business, unrestricted by government regulations, and it turned out to be a nice little earner, too.

The third slave looked at the money his master had given him.

Do you remember in the temple when Jesus had the Pharisees hand him an unclean coin, and he saw the face of Caesar in it?

The third slave looked at the money in his hands and he saw the labour of the slaves who had built his master’s fortune, and the lives of the unprotected, unrewarded masses over whose graves this money had been minted, and he felt a little bit sick.

So he went to the slave cemetery, and he dug a hole in the ground, and he buried the silver, and whispered into the earth, “This belongs to you.”

When the master came back, he and his first two slaves were well pleased with what they had done. Then came the third slave.

“I know,” said the slave, “that you are a harsh man, and a thief, reaping what you didn’t sow and harvesting where you never planted. I will not participate in such an economy of corruption and greed, which buries the poor in debt and undermines the grace of God proclaimed through the dignity of every person.”

The master was furious, not because of the money, of which he had enough, but because the slave had dared to tell him the truth about himself, and to demand his repentance.

“Oh no,” said the master, “let the rich get richer and the poor go hang. And you can get out of my sight.”

And he threw the slave out of the privilege of his presence.

And that is where Jesus met him, and called out to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you good and faithful servant. Enter now into my joy, and enjoy my inheritance.”

Now, I don’t want to push the parable too far. In particular, I am concerned that I might be unfair to the first two slaves, who never asked for their position. Perhaps they were not, after all, seduced by the corruption and greed of their master. Perhaps, knowing that he was a harsh man, they were simply afraid to disobey, or perhaps, never having known freedom, it never occurred to them that they could choose a different way.

But if they knew the God of the gospel; if they knew the gentle authority of Jesus and the loving commandments of God; then it would have been a whole other story.

And if the slave owner had known and obeyed God – well then there would have been a revolution, in which

the hungry are filled with good things,
and the rich sent empty away.
the powerful are brought down from their thrones,
and lowly lifted up;
and the proud are scattered in the imaginations of their hearts. (Luke 1:51-53, para)

A far cry from a system in which those who have plenty get more, and those who have none have what little is left taken from them.

You can apply this parable to any number of things that are going on in our world right now: from tax reform to Puerto Rico, racial inequality to healthcare, or the status of women and others who tell their stories of men who try to take what does not belong to them. We live in a broken system.

Two centuries after the Declaration of Independence, a century and a half since the Thirteenth Amendment, and after two millennia of preaching the birth, death, and resurrection of the Christ, we are still prone to fall back on familiar figures of authority, and to forget the revolutionary promises of the gospel.

Whether out of fear or seduction, we still get sucked into the ways of the world, instead of standing up for God’s economy of grace.

The third slave knew a better way. He was a leader in Christian ethics and proclamation. He was not satisfied with the corruption of the flesh, but he held out for justice.

He believed the stories of the women who poured out the pain and humiliation they had been hiding inside. He opened the coffers of the rich and wasted their money on the disinherited, on the poor, on the unprofitable dead. He sowed love in the ground, and watched it grow in the people who had nothing better to hope for. He was a one-man Magnificat. And he had the courage to call for repentance from the rich and powerful, from the man, who was not impressed.

But that is where Jesus met him, and called out to him, “Enter the joy of my inheritance.”

Enter the joy of an inheritance where all are loved and find their place; where all are fed and found worthy of mercy and of grace. Where there is no more male or female, slave or free, founding father or foreigner, but only the family of God come together around one table to give thanks, to find grace, to enter into the joy of our Master.

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Spoken and unspoken

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog lately. Like many of you, I have been sitting under the pile of stories avalanching over my newsfeed, uncertain whether to say, “me too,” or simply to bear witness to the pain that too many people share.

Some of the stories we could tell are too trivial for notice. Others stay buried because their bones come with too many pounds of flesh, which refuses to decompose even over the decades. I am not surprised that a 14-year-old would turn around forty years later to discover that her story of abuse is still hanging around her neck, its hand dangling over her breast, and that she is as unprepared as she ever was to swat it away.

I’ll tell you a funny one, because it’s painless, and has an ending, with a side order of satisfaction.

Like the punchline to a tasteless joke, we don’t remember the endings to them all.

Anyway, the funny one: I had just finished working in the pub kitchen by day, and I was a waitress at the nice hotel by night. There was melon on the appetizer menu. Cue much hilarity and many boob jokes among the large party table of men whom I was serving, and whose tip was definitely penance for the sins they knew they committed against me over the course of the evening to come.

The next morning, the pub job over, I started a fresh gig at the delicatessen across the street. The manager introduced me to my new co-workers, including a nice young man who had been out celebrating his birthday the night before with a dinner party at the nearby hotel. He had the decency to turn as red as a radish.

I tell you this one, so that we can laugh, and turn our backs for another century or so on the graveyards full of other, rotten bodies.

But late one night, by the full light of the moon, we will command them to rise and account for their stench.

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This world

What can we do when the Communion of Saints itself comes under fire?

This morning’s reflection for the Episcopal Cafe.

Sunday morning, and the church was dressed in white, an island hour between the green of Ordinary Time. We celebrated that extraordinary time, eternity, which spans here, now, and then, world without end. We remembered those who had opened our hearts to the eternity of love, grief, and gratitude that marks human existence. At one point in my sermon, I said, “We are the Communion of Saints” to those who pass by, waiting to be surprised by a glimpse of that which lies beyond the next breath.

Then, the news. Our candles were barely cold before the heat of grief, outrageous death, rekindled our cries, our prayer.

Quickly, the conversation in some church circles turned to our security, and whether it was time to join the American arms race, to defend ourselves, our prayers, our neighbours whom we love against acts of violence that, with their increasing toll, seem less and less random.

A word of scripture whispered in my ear, and would not let me go.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

It is not naiveté that invites me to open our doors, to welcome the stranger, to continue resolutely vulnerable to danger, as well as to epiphany. It is the way of the cross. It is the hospitality of the Communion of Saints. It is, if Christ is to be believed, the way of Life.

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Blessed saints

The readings for All Saints, Year A

I had a dream a few months after my mother died. It was the beginning of winter, as it is now. The holiday shopping season was getting underway. I haven’t started on that yet; but in my dream, I was loaded up with parcels and bags, waiting at a stop light for the pedestrian walk sign. My father was at my side. As we waited, I began to feel more and more burdened by all of the things I was carrying. My back ached; my bones hurt. As we waited, and a cosmopolitan crowd of people gathered around the light pole – “from every tribe, people, and language,” as one might say – I discovered that my aunt and my late uncle had made their way next to us. As the walk sign lit up, they began to lift the parcels and bags out of my arms as we crossed the road, until there was nothing left for me to carry, and I was able to walk easily and upright, to meet my mother, standing on the other side. The living and the dead were all jumbled together in that busy crosswalk, sharing the burdens of grief and love, lightening the load for one another.

There were no white-robed martyrs in my vision; my dreams have always tended to be a little more down-to-earth, and not entirely subtle. But the message was lighter than air.

If the vision of white-robed martyrs continually worshipping God before the throne of heaven is a bit of a disconnect from your daily life, then I would invite us to remember that our worship of God is rooted in love: in the love of God, which necessitates the love of one another.

Those who have gone before us have not turned their backs on us in order to turn towards God; rather, they now see us through the lens of God, seeing us as though through the eyes of God, with all of the compassion, forgiveness, grace that the gaze of God entails. One day, that vision will be ours, too.

But most of religion – any religion – has less to do with what happens to us when we die than what we do while we are alive. I read once, for my sins, the book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Towards the end of the book, when he is sufficiently recovered to get out and about, the author describes sitting in a restaurant with another man, a Baptist minister, who had the audacity to presume that most of the other people in it were on their way to hell.

Piper wrote:[1]

 … he paused to look around.
“Yet here we are sitting in this place, surrounded by people, many of whom are probably lost and going to hell, and we won’t say a word about how they can have eternal life. Something is wrong with us.”

I almost threw the book across the room. How the hell would this man presume to know, looking at a mess of strangers, what God intends for them? He knew nothing about them, except that each of them was an image of God, created by God for this life, on this earth, for the purpose first and foremost of God’s love.

But once I had swallowed my anger and my judgement of his judginess, here’s where I think Piper and his friend might be veering in a right direction. We live in this world as Christians, in the full and at least occasionally certain knowledge of the love of God, which is a help in our heavy times, and a joy in times of delight. We are surrounded by people, many of whom feel lost and heavy, and we often fail to share their burdens, and to offer the relief that we have found in the company of the living God, to share what we have heard and known; what might be called eternal life in the here and now.

This is the life which God has created especially for us, so that we might become fully human, creatures made in the image of our Creator, learning to reflect and resemble the divine. It is in this life that we are commanded to see one another through the lens of God’s compassion, justice, and love, to the very best of our ability.

In this life, we are the Communion of Saints to those around us, and it is our duty and our blessing to help to carry their burdens.

In this life, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who know that their riches come not from the world and its baubles, but from the righteousness and love of God. Blessed are those who know how to live already as though “thy kingdom” has come, doing God’s will on earth as they do in heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for even though the pain of grief and separation, the sting of loss is sharp and deep, there is comfort in finding a way through to a life that can still encompass love. There is a sad sweetness in memory, and hope in each new day.
Blessed are the meek, for in their patience, while others fight over scraps, they will inherit the goodness of creation, as those who appreciate its gifts.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will find it and be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for by their own example they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for with the eyes of their hearts enlightened, through the lens of love, compassion, and grace, they can see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who do not seek war for the sake of dominance, nor who preach peace where there is no peace. Blessed are those who do not paper over violent cracks but who open a way of safety for the oppressed, who support the cause of justice for the downtrodden, who show mercy to the penitent, and promote a lasting peace; for they will be called children of God.
When all else fails; when all the goodness of this life is exhausted, then blessed are you even when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of your lived-out faith in Jesus. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

For those of us who are not persecuted nor reviled, then the blessings of this life are sufficient to know that God is good, that God created this life especially for us to live in love for our Creator and for one another, carrying one another’s burdens so that our days may be light, and easy to walk over, and without fear.

The promise of heaven is a reminder that we are not the first to have walked this way, nor do we journey alone, but with the help and comfort of the great Communion of Saints who regard us now through the eyes of God, and whom we shall one day see face to face, joined in wonder, love, and praise around the throne of heaven.

Amen.

[1] Don Piper and Cecil Murphey, 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life (Revell: Grand Rapids, 2007)

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Reading the road signs

Emerging from the mist of the mountain road, a yellow caution sign:

Warning: tree on the way

One would think that the first clue to this well-rooted obstacle would be the presence and stature of the tree itself, growing out of a grassy, shrubby island, large, looming, and presumably predating the road.

If it were dark, or the monsoon rains were overwhelming one’s windscreen wipers, perhaps the addition of a couple of reflectors to pick up approaching headlights might be helpful. If the tree were not otherwise able to attract the attention of the headlong driver, though, would the appeal of language really help? Was it necessary to spell it out: “There is a tree in the way”?

Of course, there will always be those who drive anyway as though the signs do not apply to them, as though they own the road, as though the trees should shuffle off to one side to let them through. As a cishet affluently educated white woman, I’ll admit to failing to check a few blind spots. Sometimes, I need to be told.

But whether or not I read the sign; even whether or not I have begun to understand the languages in which it is written, the tree is still there, in the way, and unmoved.

 

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Timely: a psalm

Save me, O God,
for I am a woman out of time.

I step out in the sun,
and end up running in the rain.

There is no one to dry my eye;
my calls go all to voicemail;
there is no train that I can catch
to take me home.

But You, O God, created time;
You only are the author of my days.

As a chiropractor adjusts the spine
of one bent out of joint,

bend my time back to the moment
when You are ever present,
and let it be now.

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