Monthly Archives: July 2016

Sermon for July 24, 2016: Why are you weeping? (Preached on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco)

Listen to the sermon here: 

Wednesday was “intake day” at the Federal Correctional Institute.  That was the day that the seven of us – three full-time psychologists and four part-time Psychology interns – would each take an office and interview a steady stream of women to determine whether they needed mental health treatment.  These women usually came to us directly from being “processed in” to the prison –  after being searched, issued uniforms, introduced to the cells that would be their homes for the next “X” number of years, and apprised of the rules.  The questions we asked were pretty rudimentary – “Do you have any history of mental health treatment”?  “Have you ever tried to hurt yourself,”? and, “Can I do anything for you”?  The majority of women turned down the offer of psychiatric help.  Whether they were really okay or simply couldn’t stand the idea of participating in any more official “treatment,” I still don’t know.  Sometimes I think they simply wanted to make it back to their respective cell blocks before t.v. time was over.

Maria was different.  An attractive woman of around 40 with long ebony-colored hair liberally sprinkled with grey wearing a standard-issue  khaki-colored prison uniform, Maria sat quietly, nodding when I asked if she spoke English and shaking her head resolutely “no” when I questioned as to whether or not she needed mental health treatment.  But when I asked the most standard of my questions – if I could do anything for her – Maria began to cry.  And she didn’t stop.   She didn’t stop when I offered her a tissue.  Or when I asked if she wanted water.  She didn’t stop when I tried to comfort her with my best gentle reassurance and professional smile.  Maria kept right on crying even as I began to panic and look around for my supervisor while leafing through my diagnostic manual.  “Why are you crying,” I asked her over and over.  “What is wrong? How can I help”? And all the time I was fighting the urge to start crying myself, thinking “What did I do to bring this on”?

Because that’s the way my mind worked.  She was crying her heart out and I was trying to figure out what it had to do with me.  Not because I was a horrible narcissistic person, but because mine was the only lens I had through which to view her pain – a lens which was, in this case, hopelessly inadequate.

Just as Mary Magdalene’s viewpoint was limited by her simple, human understanding[1] when she saw the empty tomb.  Making the decision to take on the task of anointing the body of her beloved mentor was hard enough, but to get there and find him gone – and two strangers sitting in his place – must have been unbearable.  She could not stop weeping.  She had lost not only the most important person in her life but her own sense of identity as well – because without Jesus she didn’t know who she was and what she was supposed to do without him.

It turned out that Maria had lost her identity too – her identity as “mother” – because she had lost her children- and she didn’t know what to do either.  She had married quite young to an older and powerful man in her home country.  Her marriage brought fortune and prestige to her family and she was expected to be grateful – even when he yelled at her; even when he hit her; even when he cheated on her.  No one took care of her – not her parents, her sisters or friends.  No one loved her.  No one even really knew her– except her children.  They were her only joy- her salvation- and the only thing that truly belonged to her.  She would have done anything to keep them safe.

So when her husband told her that they were going on a trip and that she was to carry a certain suitcase, she did not question him.  And when, after they arrived in the United States, that bag was found to contain drugs and money, she did as she was told and said it was hers.  And when she was arrested and her husband told her to do as his lawyer said, she did so without question.  And so it was that she found herself alone in a prison in a strange country, sitting in a tiny, windowless room with a strange woman – unable to answer a seemingly simple question: why are you crying.  Because she didn’t know where to find the ones she loved.  She didn’t know why they were gone or who had taken them.  She didn’t even know who she was – or what she had to live for.

Judith, the heroine of today’s Hebrew scripture, had no such problem.  She knew who she was – because her very name told her.  She was “a Jewish woman,” a pious widow who was appalled by the oppression of her people at the hands of heretical and unfeeling outsiders.  And she felt the need to do something about it.  So she prayed.  She prayed for the ability to take vengeance.  She prayed for the power to deceive.  She prayed for the capacity to hurt others as much as she believed her people had been hurt.  And – spoiler alert – she got them.  Because her vision of God was limited to a deity who felt and acted like a human being – a god whose actions were driven by human desires like revenge, hatred, and fear – a god whose full scope could not be comprehended except through the gift of the compassionate and forgiving Christ that God had not yet shared with humanity.

It was that gift – the gift of the redeeming and sanctifying Christ – that made all the difference to Mary Magdalene.  It allowed her to see beyond her heartbreak and to understand that her beloved had been taken by no one but God – and no further than her own heart.  As Paul told the Corinthians, Jesus’s death created a new way for God’s people are to see one another.  By cleansing humanity from the sinful – meaning separating – ways of human beliefs with his own blood, Jesus taught us “we [no longer have to] regard [one another] from a human point of view.”  We are, instead, a new creation with a new understanding of the world.

It can be very hard to see things through the eyes of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, “spiritually blinded by grief,” “overcome with hopeless sorrow,” and “fixated on the loss of the body of Jesus,”[2] had to be called by name before she was able to turn and see what was right in front of her – to turn and see that Jesus was there – to turn and see that from that point forward, Jesus would always be there – because he would be in her.

He is also in us – in the community of Christ.  So, why are we weeping?  I believe it is because we sometimes forget that the real reason we regularly gather as a community is to renew our commitment to Christ and to one another –because we revert to praying like Judith – against others instead of for them.  It is because we believe that the ministry of love and reconciliation that has been given to us is too hard.  That is why we weep.  We forget that we, like Mary Magdalene, are apostles of the God of Jesus Christ – a merciful god of a compassionate way.  A god that does not require us to thirst for him.  A god that does not ask us to eat tears for food.  A god that calls each of us by name.

But if we must weep, let us weep together – and together we will dry our tears.  Together let us eat the body and blood of Christ- and together we will be refreshed and reconciled.  Together let us move through through our individual and collective darkness so that together we can walk toward the light of forgiveness into the hope of the future that is the light of Christ.  AMEN.

[1]Sandra M. Schneiders (2003). “Written that you may believe: encountering Jesus in the fourth gospel,” [New York: Herder and Herder], 213.

[2]Sandra M. Schneiders (2003). Written that you may believe: encountering Jesus in the fourth gospel,” [New York: Herder and Herder], 217.

 

Sermon for July 3, 2016: The Way of Rocky Horror (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

I recently read an article entitled, “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion.”[1]  For those of y““ou who don’t know, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a very strange 40 year-old film about a young couple who stumble upon a spooky castle filled with odd residents after their car breaks down on a rainy night.  The plot involves their gradual integration into the household of Frank N. Furter, an alien transvestite from the transsexual planet of Transylvania.  The film flopped when it came out in the 1970s, but subsequently developed a rabid fan base who began hosting midnight shows where audience members dressed up as the movie’s characters and acted out the film in front of the screen as it played.  Generations of college students have been introduced to the fun of bringing props, singing along with the actors, and shouting out now-traditional responses to film dialogue.  “[The audience participates] in the story.  They become part of the experience itself”[2] – and they are emotionally transported.

In order for this to happen though “you have to be introduced to the [ritual] of the film… [just] like neophytes who must learn a religion’s sacred lore… [Rocky Horror]…tells a story…That story has a body of commentary that has grown over the years…There is no ‘pure’ viewing of [Rocky Horror]; it now only exists with…commentary…People act the story out… [and] the film creates community.”[3]  If you think about it, that sounds an awful lot like church.  We tell familiar stories and try to comment on them in a unique way.  We enact traditions around the stories we tell.  And we do all of this in community.

Unfortunately, in many places church is not as popular as Rocky Horror – a fact which illustrates the continuing decrease in mainline church attendance that started at about the same time Rocky Horror did.  Sure, Rocky Horror is fun – so are sports, Sunday brunches and sleeping in – but what do those things have that church doesn’t?   It’s not a lack of good writing – our holy scriptures contain some of the best stories ever written.  It’s not the characters – Christian history is filled with people far more interesting than Brad and Janet Weiss.  And it’s not the production values – after all, it’s hard to beat the “sets” and “costumes” we have here.  So maybe it’s not that Rocky Horror has something church doesn’t; maybe it’s just that church doesn’t have anything Rocky Horror doesn’t.

Data from the 2014 Survey of Episcopal Churches suggests that many people may think that’s true – that the widely reported decline in church attendance in the Episcopal Church is less about entertainment than it is about meaning – and mission.[4]  According to that report, many 21st century Episcopal churches lack a clear sense of purpose, becoming “inward-looking clubs or clans where fellowship among friends is the primary reason for being.”  Many churches have “lost [a] common vision of mission, and evangelism has been ignored.  Our rapid decline has…shown us that if we do not share the saving news of Jesus Christ…our churches become anemic at best and often dead.”[5]

We have put ourselves in danger of forgetting who we are – forgetting that the repetitive and ritualistic parts of our “religion,” do not exist for their own sake but are designed to invite and enhance our spiritual being – to touch our souls.  Perhaps that’s why people outside of the church don’t want to join us.  According to a Lifeway Research survey of 2000 “unchurched” people – 57 percent of whom identified as Christian – two out of three reported that they weren’t interested in worship, and three out of four said they had no desire to seek God.[6]  These people see no connection between “religion” and spirituality.  We know this because they told surveyors that, while they aren’t interested in church, they are interested in is doing things that feel spiritually fulfilling – experiencing in an immediate way the connection between themselves, other people, and that deep and healing presence that we call the Holy Spirit.[7]

That’s what Naaman wanted too.  According to today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, Naaman was a powerful and favored soldier of the king of the Arameans, but his greatness was limited by illness; a “skin disease [stood] between Naaman and full honor.”[8]  All of the money and power of his king could not cure him – but, according to a lowly Israelite serving girl, a prophet of her land could.  So a desperate Naaman went to Israel to find the prophet Elisha, but when he got there, he wasn’t given the special treatment he thought he deserved; there were no musical flourishes, no ritualistic gestures, and no fancy wardrobe changes.  Instead, Elisha sent him a simple direction to bathe in Israel’s insignificant little Jordan River.  For Naaman, there was not enough “religion” in the cure he was offered.  But, fortunately for Naaman, his servants demonstrated both compassion and common sense.  “Try it,” they told him.  “What have you got to lose?  And Naaman was transformed.  His wailing was turned into dancing; he was clothed with joy and his heart sang without ceasing.

That’s the kind of spiritual experience people want to have – but aren’t finding in Christian churches – are not even seeking in Christian churches.  That’s because many people don’t know what it means to have faith.  For these people “belief” is the same as “opinion” – and they don’t like the ideas they think Christians have.[9]    They don’t understand what belief is – that belief is not about what we think – it’s about what we feel, what we trust.

That’s what Paul was trying to tell his group of fledgling Christians in Galatia.  It is what we do – how we embody our Christian identity – that matters.  We will reap, he warns us, what we sow.  If Christians sow anger, hatred, fear and rejection, those are the things that will grow – and those are the things we will have to deal with when they come to fruition – just as we are dealing with them now.  Because the truth is that many Christians have not sown the seeds of love and peace that Jesus intended.  We have instead evangelized on behalf of our non-violent and accepting Saviour by drawing lines of exclusion and encouraging belief at the point of a sword.   And as a result our harvest is one of doubt rather than devotion, fear instead of faith.  We have been asked to reap in a society in which some people have suggested that the world would be a far better place without belief in God.

But this is our mission field.  We are God’s laborers and despite what we might think, the harvest is plentiful.  We live in a divided nation – a frightened nation – a nation that is struggling to find itself.  It is a nation that desperately needs the unifying, fortifying, and reinvigorating power of true Christian love.  It is a society filled with people who, despite their apparent skepticism, continue to want to believe in the holy – who want to believe in each other – who want to believe in God.

These people are the fruits of the spirit that, like the seventy disciples in today’s gospel reading, we are asked to harvest.  Like the disciples we may be lambs in the midst of wolves.  Like them we will not be welcomed in many places.  Like them we must be prepared to sacrifice our own comfort in order to spread the good news of the life-giving gospel to others.  But that’s what evangelism is – and evangelism is the call of all Christians.

Like it or not, we have been called to evangelize – to share our faith.  That doesn’t mean we have “to corner a stranger, thrust a Bible at [them] and ask” if they have been saved.  We don’t have to ask people if they have been born again.  We don’t have to threaten people with hell.  We simply have to do three things: proclaim the gospel; enact our faith, and invite others to join us.  Tell people who you are – introduce them to the church as you experience it.  Just as the Israelite slave girl told Naaman how he might be healed, we must tell others how to find nourishment for their souls.  Show people what you believe.  Don’t just tell them the Christian story; enact it.  Just as Paul told the Galatians, do not tire of doing what is right.  Focus on what is important rather than what is convenient.  Work for the welfare and freedom of all people. And invite other people to join you, to participate in the experience of the spirit, to be part of our community.  And then rejoice -and give thanks –because when we do these things, rest assured – the kingdom of God will come near.  AMEN.

[1]Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.

[2]Ibid.

3 Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.

[4]C. Kirk Hadaway 2015), “New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline,” Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Cathy Lunn Grossman, “God? Meaning of Life?  Many Americans don’t seek them in Church,” Religion News, http://religionnews.com/2016/6/28/god-meaning-of-life-many-americans-dont-seek-them-in-church/.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Stephen Reid, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

[9]Diana Butler Bass, (October 18, 2016), “Oprah’s new ‘Belief’ series shows how dramatically the nature of faith is shifting,” The Washington Post.