Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practicing Resurrection ~ Easter Sermon (Isaiah and Luke)

What does it mean, to practice Resurrection?

The gospel of Luke doesn’t offer us many clues.

Did any of you read it this morning, or perhaps yesterday, in preparation for today?  If you did, perhaps you were left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with a sense that much of the story is missing, with an empty feeling of having been left hanging.

Luke, nearly 2000 years ago, wrote what seems on the first reading, or perhaps on the hundredth reading as well, a simple story.

There are some women, three of them named –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna – and at least two of them not.  They have prepared spices with which to tend to the body of their beloved friend Jesus, the one who was killed by crucifixion two days earlier.  If you were there, or if you had been following the story with Luke as your guide, you would know that Jesus had been crucified on a Friday and that by the time his body was removed from the cross, the Sabbath would have been about to begin and it would have been too late for anyone to do much of anything beyond placing it in a tomb.  The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday, so the women would not have been able to travel safely to an isolated cemetery until Sunday morning.

They arrive at the cemetery, they find the cave-like tomb open, and inside, instead of the broken body for which they hope to care, they are confronted by two men who appear, dressed in dazzling clothing,who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he is risen.”  Then the men remind them of what Jesus had told them in the past about this event – that he would be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again.

The women do remember, and so they leave to find the other disciples, and to tell them what has happened.  The other disciples don’t believe them; they call the women’s story “an idle tale,” or “nonsense.”  But Peter, apparently wanting to see for himself, dashes to the graveyard to look inside the tomb and then, finding nothing but the grave clothes lying limply where a body should be, goes home.

And that’s it. That’s the story as we have it from Luke.

The women do not flee from the tomb in terror as they do in Mark.  There is no earthquake and no sudden appearance of Jesus to the women as there is in Matthew.  There is no dramatic encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as there is in John.  There is simply this story of an empty tomb, of a group of women who are described as “perplexed” or “wondering,” a group of disciples who don’t believe them, and one disciple who comes to see for himself and, seeing nothing, is as baffled as were the women. And the words of two dazzling figures who remind the women that Jesus had told them to expect this.

It’s not much to go on.  If this were all that we had, if we were a group of first century folks reading or listening to the  Gospel of Luke, hearing this story for the first time, and if we stopped at this point for the day, what would we have?  If we wanted to practice resurrection, how would we know what to do?

We would have this simple story of a few characters, several of them not even named, in a desolate setting, having some sort of supernatural encounter. 

And we would have the verbs that the gospel writer used to describe these few people, these few followers of a man who has been killed and whose body has now mysteriously disappeared.  Depending upon your translation, the women and the other disciples are variously described as:

Perplexed. Terrified.  Frightened.  Amazed. Wondering.

Maybe those are our clues.  Maybe, more than in the events themselves, we find in the words describing these immediate reactions and responses our instructions about how to begin to practice resurrection.

Be perplexed.  Be frightened; terrified, even.  Be amazed.  Wonder.

Not because a terrible or menacing event has occurred.  Not because your grief threatens to undo you.  Not because there is no hope, or because evil has gained the upper hand, stealing body as well as soul and spirit. 

But because God is doing a completely new thing.  A completely different thing. Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend.

Something for which we use words like:

Salvation. Reconciliation.  Healing.  Restoration. 

Something so vast, so powerful, so all-encompassing, that we can only begin to grasp it by allowing ourselves to be perplexed and terrified and frightened and amazed and wondering. 

Can we put this something into a box and say, “Now we have been saved from hell, from the possibility of a forever separation from the love of God” – well, that’s part of it.  Can we contain this something by saying. “The kingdom of God has come among us and we need to share that news” –that’s part of it, too.  Can we define this something by saying that “Love and justice and mercy now live among us in Jesus Christ and we are called to live those gifts to the fullest” – that, too, is part of it. 

As disciples of Jesus practicing resurrection, we are invited to do all of those things and more.  We are invited to proclaim that salvation is at hand.  We are invited to the deep and sure knowledge that, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, God’s kingdom of love reigns over all other kingdoms of self-centeredness and acquisitiveness and materialism and manipulation and politics and violence.  We are invited to get out there and live into God’s gifts of love and justice and mercy by assisting homeless people and feeding hungry people and repairing the homes of our neighbors and supporting the education of children in Liberia and in Rwanda.

We are invited to practice resurrection in all of those ways. But most of all, we are invited, this day, to join the women and men who followed Jesus in their excitement, in their bewilderment, in their fears, and in their astonishment, because what that empty tomb represents, what those limp and useless grave clothes tell us, is that: Things are not as they were.  History has been challenged.  The course of events for all of creation has been altered by a God who will. not. be. satisfied. to let sin and destruction and hopelessness and death have the last word.

I don’t know what Jesus’ followers talked about among themselves that morning after they went home.  I don’t know what they did.  I imagine that much of the conversation was like that which follows any death.  “What now?”  And that it was heightened by the missing body.  And by the words of those dazzling men, whom we presume to have been angels: “Remember what he told you.”

How would they have put that morning together?  What do you do when, as the poet William Butler Yeats described it in another devastating, heart-wrenching, and bewildering context, “things fall apart [and] the center does not hold.”  Where do you find a new center?  How do you practice resurrection?

Perhaps as they sat together, made breakfast, drank their coffee, expressed their fears to one another, perhaps those early followers of Jesus recalled not only his words, but other words they had learned.  Who knows?  Perhaps they even recalled those other words given to us this morning, from the prophet Isaiah:

"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  . . .  I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  . . . They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  . . . Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   . . .   They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord."

New heavens and a new earth.  Joy.  Delight.  The building of houses and the planting of vineyards and the lusciousness of fruit.  The peaceful cooperation of those who were once predator and prey.  The absence of hurt and destruction.  A God who answers before we call.  A God who hears before we speak.

What happens when things fall apart and the center no longer holds?

God creates anew.  God revises.  God heals. 

God creates not just a new heaven, or new heavens, someplace far from here to which we will be transported when we die, someplace far, far away where we will no longer suffer as we do here.  God creates a new earth!  New lives for all of creation!  New lives in which all will care for one another, all the way down to the wolf and the lamb.  New lives in which cities and gardens alike will be teeming with joy and with nourishment.

No wonder Luke leaves us hanging on Easter morning, pauses us in a moment of stunned silence.  No wonder the women and men who followed Jesus are a bit bewildered and lost, wandering back to their homes in a state of confused apprehension.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The wonder is not that they respond as they do.  The wonder is reserved for what has happened.  Death has been conquered.  Love has triumphed.

Jesus, who accompanied us through the delights and rigors of human life, who continues to walk with us through our own triumphs and failures, our own joys and sorrows, who can be present to us because he has lived as we do – Jesus who did not turn back but followed us even into the end which we must all endure – Jesus has completely, powerfully, overwhelmingly, defeated death by transforming it into life.

Jesus has taken the horror of death -- the torment, the bodily disintegration, the despair, the grief – and demolished them all.  He has begun the work of the new creation; in his rising he has flung open the door that leads to the light and life of new heavens and a new earth, to the full presence of God in which we, too, will be transformed by love.

Go ahead:  Be stunned.  Be amazed.  But let the fear go.  Practice resurrection.  Because love wins.

Happy Easter.

Holy Saturday Reading ~ Letters from Prison

I don't usually publish material from elsewhere in its entirety.  And I wasn't going to write anything at all today.  But in the event that you might not click on a link, and believing that this is the most powerful piece I will come across today,


(Vatican Radio) Los Angeles County has one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the country. Up to 90% of the county’s juvenile justice youth are Latino or African American, and up to 70% of incarcerated youth nationally are said to have some kind of disability.

After witnessing the tragic lives of so many young people facing life without parole in a juvenile justice system where little rehabilitation takes place and with frighteningly high recidivism rates that continue into adulthood, Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy decided to set up the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI) to provide support and hope to juveniles with life sentences.

Through the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a series of meditative prayers helping people find God in their everyday experiences, the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative provides tools that allow prisoners to find healing and forgiveness and to recognize their lives have meaning and purpose.

When the young boys at the juvenile detention facility in LA heard of Pope Francis’ wish to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s Casal del Marmo prison with the young inmates there, many of them expressed their desire to participate from afar and in close solidarity to what the Pope was going to do in another juvenile hall.

To do this they have written letters to Pope Francis, thanking him for his gesture of love and service, praying for him – as he has asked all of us to do, describing the sadness of their lives in detention, and asking for prayers to help them endure the darkness and hopelessness of their situations… As father Kennedy points out, some of these youngsters will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

We welcome their voices and publish the letters that will be read at a service Thursday evening with the Director of Novices and 11 Jesuit novices, each one washing the feet of an inmate at the juvenile hall where kids are sentenced as adults.

Dear Pope Francis,
Thank you for washing the feet of youth like us in Italy.
We also are young and made mistakes.
Society has given up on us, thank you
that you have not given up on us.

Dear Pope Francis,
I think you are a humble man.
When you read this letter you will have washed the feet of other kids like.
I am writing this letter because you give me hope.
I know one day with people like you us kids
won't be given sentences that will keep us in prison
for the rest of our lives.
I pray for you. Dont forget us.

Dear Pope Francis,
I don't know if you have ever been to where I live.
I have grown up in a jungle of gangs and drugs and violence.
I have seen people killed. I have been hurt.
We have been victims of violence.
It is hard to be young and surrounded by darkness.
Pray for me that one day I will be free
and be able to help other youth like you do.

Dear Pope Francis,
Tonight we pray for all victims of violence.
The families of people we have hurt need healing.
Our families need healing.
We are all in pain.
Let us feel Jesus' healing tonight.

Dear Pope Francis,
I know the same youth feet that you wash
are like me.
Drugs have been part of me life for so long.
We all struggle to be sober.
But you inspire me and I promise to be sober
and help others with the cruel addiction of crystal meth.

Dear Pope Francis,
My many friends are in two different maximum security
prisons in one of our states 33 state prisons.Calif. I am writing to tell you that I feel bad
that more youth of color are in prison in our state
than any other place in the world. I am inviting you to come
here next year to wash our feet, many of who have been sentences to die in prison.
God bless you.

Dear Pope Francis,

I read that the harshest sentence that a youth
can receive in Italy is 20 years. I wish this was true here.
I hope I hear back from you. I have been catholic and glad I am catholic
because I have a pope like you.
I will pray for you every day because we need examples of God like you are
in this violent world.

Dear Pope Francis,
I am glad you picked the name Francis. When I was little I read about St.Francis. He is a cool saint. He was a man of peace and simplicity. I am praying to you that you pray that we have peace in our gang filled neighborhoods.

Dear Pope Francis,
When Jesus washed the feet of his friends he gave an example of humility. I have been raised to believe that it is only with respect in hurting your enemy that you are a man. Tonight you and Jesus show me something in this washing of the feet something very different. I hope we kids learn from this.

Dear Pope Francis,
I have never been to Rome. I do not know if it is near Los Angeles
because all my youth I have only known my neighborhood. I hope one
day I will be given a second chance and receive a blessing from you
and maybe even have my feet washed on Holy Thursday.

Dear Pope Francis,
I know you have a good family. I am writing this letter to you because I know
that my family is suffering because of me. I know have done some bad things but I am not a bad kid and when last year in our big state we not a new law called SB9 this made me family happy because this is a beautiful message that we kids deserve a second chance.

Dear Pope Francis,
From reading I know that us kids are capable of making decisions like older people do. I have seen pictures of brains of kids and adults. I am asking you as Pope to help us and
help other people understand we can change and want to change.

Friday, March 29, 2013


This is what I've been imagining these last few days.  It's not real, exactly.  It's not Mary's literal story and it's not mine, either, although perhaps its source lies in a blend of the truth in the two stories.  As I have gone about my days, taking communion to home-bound congregants and listening to their stories and sharing prayers with them, and leading a Maundy Thursday service, and enduring the singing of "Oh, Sacred Head Now Wounded" which cuts me to the bone, and discussing the new deck with my husband and the dearth of employment opportunities with my son and her belligerent neighbor with my daughter, and waiting for some sort of focus to emerge for my Easter sermon, this is what I've been imagining, about Mary. 
My life is of the ordinary pastoral sort, of no particular significance. Hers has become an iconic one of grace and strength which has persisted in the human imagination for two millennia.  But, still.  There is this first night.
It's Friday night, very late.  Everyone has gone home.  She pulls on a pair of jeans and decides that  the cold air requires socks and hugs her sweater close to her belly as she steps out the door and starts down the street.  She needs to walk to clear her head, although she guesses that there will never be enough walking for that.
Fragmented scenes from the day flash across the screen of her mind.  They slice through her body all the way down to her feet, so that she feels as if she is walking across a glass-strewn sidewalk.  She would not be surprised to discover that she is leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints.  But why look?  What difference would it make?  What difference does anything make?
For most of the past two days, she has been hoping that what was happening was not.  There was a moment, late this morning, when she knew that the momentum toward death had become irrevocable, but the reality is beyond her capacity to absorb.  And so she walks. 
Dogs bark in the distance.  A neighbor's goats bleat softly as she passes their house.  This neighborhood, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, is quiet so late at night, with only the occasional conversation wafting from a window.  She marvels at the ordinariness of it all.
God.  She wonders.  Her son.  She wonders. 
Will she ever love again?  Trust again?  Hope again?
Pray again?
A song comes to mind.  Crosby, Stills & Nash:
It's been a long time comin'
It's goin' to be a long time gone.
Appears to be a long time,
Yes, a long, long, log time
Before the dawn . . .
She pads up the steps to her front porch and sinks into one of the Adirondack chairs.  The sky is crisply dark and stars above her head look vaguely familiar.  She wishes she had not quit smoking all those years ago. 
She will sit there in that chair all night. 
No one will ever write an icon of this night.  No one, except perhaps some other mothers, will ever know anything real about this night. 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

First Supper

Over at People for Others this morning, Paul Brian Campbell, S.J. writes about the challenges inherent in imagining the Last Supper:
"The slightest wrinkle in my life causes me so much agita that I can’t sit to eat anything. How Jesus was able to join his disciples for a meal and be focused enough to teach them about humility (with the washing of the feet) and about the Eucharist simply beggars my imagination.
Trying to figure out how the Apostles reacted to the unusual preparations for the feast and then to the whole drama with Judas defeats me completely."
It occurs to me that seldom do we know when the last supper is taking place. Even when, as I have witnessed several times, families order pizza or bring cafeteria food up to the room of a dying loved one in the hospital, they don't know whether that particular meal is the last one. 
The disciples?  I suppose they guessed.  All indications from Jesus' actions and words were that he was moving into the final hours of his life as they knew it.
But Paul Campbell's words about the agitation interwoven through significant events caused me to think of one such supper, although it was a first supper ~ the ones we are more likely to remember, since we know what they are.
The one that came to mind was, of course, the lunch after my son's funeral service.  I could not have toasted a slice of bread that day, but our house had begun to fill much earlier that morning with food and with people who took on all tasks of organization and preparation.
As I recall wandering through the house during the afternoon hours, small groupings of people come to mind, interspersed with my closest friends who were carrying trays, opening and closing oven and microwave, offering drinks, rinsing and washing dishes, and making pot after pot of coffee. 
The lifelong friends of my in-laws talking quietly among themselves in the living room. 
My own indescribable extended family of steps and a half and an ex out in the backyard, where my Jesuit spiritual director sat for the longest time listening to my agnostic father's extended soliloquies.
The Montessori kids who had known one another since earliest childhood, now college graduates, sprawled across the front stairs, where, so I am told, one of the Catholic girls offered the blessing of Jesus Christ and the sign of the cross to one of the Jewish boys.
The seminary friends on the front porch, where I sat down in relief for a few moments after changing out of my dress clothes into khakis and a sweater ~ oddly, I remember which sweater ~ against the unexpected early chill.
And the group which reminds me most of the last supper gathering, the University of Chicago group of friends, now minus one, seated on the benches at the long table in our small sunroom, laughing and finding life together under the yet-to-be repaired ceiling from which a giant piece of plaster had crumbled years before.
None of us had known when the last supper was.  But we had gathered for the first, the one that would propel us into the life we had not sought and did not want.
And so I ponder, today, not so much the Last Supper of history, but the first one.  Who brought the food?  Was it all cold, since it was Shabbos?  Who cleaned up?  Did Mary wander from group to group, playing hostess and hoping simultaneously that they would all stay and that they would all leave?  Was she surrounded by people from all the strains of her life and her son's, mingling together in shock and awe at the one event that connected them?
We are a day away from that one, from the first supper.  But I am wondering about it.
Did she, Mary, did she ponder it, later?  Did she remember which sweater she put on?
Or did the Light of the Resurrection blot it all from memory?
"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holy Week Wondering

In the fourth station of the cross, Jesus and his mother encounter one another. 
It's difficult to find an image of this moment ~ difficult for me, anyway ~ which depicts it as I imagine it.  The expressions, the postures, the greeting, the embrace.
I do imagine it, often.  In the lives of Jesus and his mother.  In the lives of my son and me.
Very few of my friends whose children have died have been gifted with the opportunity to share that time with them.  (And, as they remind me, being present to a child's final moments of suffering is the sort of gift that strains the definition of the word.)  For most of our children, death came suddenly, and far from loved ones. 
I've been wondering, a lot, this week, about some of the what-ifs.  Mostly about what life would be like if Josh were alive.  If the past five years had happened differently.
I don't harbor any illusions about having become a kinder, gentler, more empathetic person.  I am mostly a person more easily tired, more impatient, more short-tempered, and probably less kind.  
I suppose that I do wonder, though, more than I might have, about being part of the story.  Yesterday afternoon, I visited with three women, each dealing with life in the tenth decade, each at her own juncture on this journey toward the cross and beyond.  By the time I reached the third, who is in hospice, I was very, very tired, and departed perhaps too quickly ~ although as she is very tired as well, it was hard to tell.
One of the women told me a few days ago about a former pastor (from another church) who always seemed intimidated by her circumstances and ~ she snorted in disgust ~ eager to escape.  I have that in common with Mary ~ no fear about being present, no tendency to shrink from aging or injury or death.
But it is a wearying journey.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Both And Holy Week

"Whan that aprill with his shoures soote . . . ".*
"April is the cruellest month . . .".**
Which is it?

Holy Week precedes April this year (as Michelle also points out in referencing Chaucer as well), but the chronological calendar is not as important as the sacred one.
This is the fifth one without Josh.  It's a hard week. 
I spent a week on retreat a few autumns back, an entire week, contemplating the Stations of the Cross in the Wernersville Chapel.  Day after day I stood before those carvings, contemplating the depth of suffering of mother and son, friend and friend, disciple and Lord.  Sometimes the intricacies of the dark woodwork reflected Jerusalem in about the year 30.  Sometimes, Chicago 2008. 
On Sunday I will proclaim the hope of resurrection.  I have no idea what I am going to say.  Something from the Isaiah passage about new heavens and a new earth.  Something about how the resurrection narrative in Luke leaves us hanging ~ people who have run to tell others about an empty tomb but don't yet know what that means.  Something. 
We started, all those weeks ago, with ashes.  I still have an urn about half-filled with ashes, and I have those ashes I've stored in waters and mountains from west coast to east.  The tombs in the cemetery down the block are still slammed shut.  My friend likes to visit her husband's, but I don't know how she finds comfort in that concrete mausoleum door, sealed tight until her own demise. 
Which is it?  Shoures soote or cruelest month?  Both-And.  We don't know. 
Maybe it does look like this:

Week Four (Resurrection) of the Spiritual Exercises Windows, Seattle University Chapel

*The first line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (14th century): "When April with its sweet showers . . .".

**The first line of T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Boarding School Years - Protestant (Part I)

This journey back in time might take a couple of days . . .     .
My father's plan for all of us kids was that we would attend boarding school, as he and his brothers had done.  I ended up at what was then the Northfield School for Girls, founded by evangelist D.L. Moody in the 1870s.  The Mount Hermon School for Boys has been opened a couple of years later across the Connecticut River.  D.L. or Dr. Moody -- we tended to refer to him one way or the other -- envisioned schools that would provide outstanding educations for young people unable to afford the traditional New England prep school fees.  In fact, he saw Northfield as a base for preparing young women to become missionaries, whom he thought should go into the field only with the best of academics in their pockets.  He was born here, at the foot of what is still the Northfield Campus:

When people hear that I went to one of the schools founded by Dr. Moody, they immediately think "evangelist" and "Moody Bible Institute."  In fact, Northfield is an extremely progressive school. 

We were indeed required to attend chapel daily. (Okay, yes: I could tell you all the ways to exempt yourself without drawing the attention of the attendance takers, but in fact I loved chapel.  I would have described myself as an atheist in those days, but I reveled in the mid-morning respite, and I loved the music and preaching which came our way via some of New England's finest.) 

We were also required to take a religion course each year, which for my three years there meant the required classes in OT and NT and then an elective. Those first two classes meant that much of my first year of seminary decades later was a repeat ~ a good thing, due to the 35-40 hours a week I had to invest in keeping afloat in Greek.    And as one of my friends has since said, "Isn't it amazing that they took us so seriously?  That our first discussion in religion at the age of 15 was on the documentary hypothesis?"

My senior year elective provided me with an introduction to Freud, Bonhoeffer, Tillich ~ and, as usual, the more important learning that takes place outside the classroom.  It was the teacher for that course who asked me, as we walked to class through the snow one morning, where I was applying to college, and then castigated us all as "so parochial" in our reluctance to leave New England.  ( I later discovered that his degrees were from Chapel Hill, Duke, and Vanderbilt, which would explain why he recommended those schools to me that morning!)  At any rate, I did go to college in New England, but I have never forgotten that conversation. and have tried hard to be less parochial in my adult life.  I can't say that I've succeed, but I have tried.)
When I realized during my 9th grade year that a move from the comfort of the Catholic boarding school in which I had been ensconced since 7th grade was inevitable, I started looking closely at the catalogs that came via mail.  My father, I suppose, liked Northfield because the small classes were all run seminar-style around big tables, and because of its stratospheric academic reputation.  I was too angry to pay attention to those things.
I liked Northfield for one reason, and one reason only.  Most of the schools seemed to have been created entirely for wealthy New England families; even the dress code requirements reeked of elitism.  But Northfield girls, I discovered, had to work ~ preparing and cleaning up from all meals, cleaning the halls and classrooms ~ an hour each day. It was called "domestic work" ~ "dummy" was our name for it ~ and it governed our lives.  The biggest barrier to a week-end away from campus was finding someone to take over your dummy job -- either as an exchange or for pay.  I recall how flabbergasted we all were when one of our friends didn't show up for dummy -- she simply forgot.  You might forget your algebra assignment, but how could you possibly forget dummy?
This photo is from slightly before my era -- we did wear those smocks, but our caps were not so hideous.  The image is one of my very favorite dummy assignment ~ after-dinner tins.  Many girls hated tins ~ it was hard work to scrub those pots and pans clean!  But . . .  tins took so long for our dorm of 60 girls that it inevitably cut into our evening 7:00-9:30 study hall, during which we were supposed to be in our rooms or in the library.  Senior year we could go and do whatever we wanted, but after-dinner tins was how I took care of the problem junior year.   On warm spring evenings, we turned up the radio and danced around the  kitchen for a long as we could, until Mrs. Powell materialized to say, "Girls!  The tins!"
I was not a good student in high school (actually, except for English and French and 12th grade religion, I was a TERRIBLE student in high school), and I was a fairly miserable person in general.  But in retrospect, those days ~ from algebra (a disaster on a par with Greek) to preachers from Harvard and Yale and musicians from Julliard, from Tillich to T.S. Elliot to tins ~ they did have the predicted influence on my life.  They made me not a little weird and ambitious and brave and resilient and curious and extremely impatient with impositions and with limitations ~ most especially my own.  These things create problems for me, but they are not bad problems to have.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Practice of Donkey Riding - Sermon for Palm Sunday

The practice of donkey-riding ~ what kind of a practice is that?  As I’ve been pondering this story, the story of Palm Sunday, for the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that donkey-riding has a lot to tell us about our faith.

Especially on this Sunday, and not solely because it’s Palm Sunday.  A number of churches celebrate this day as both Palm and Passion Sunday.  There’s a concern in the wider church that, with so many people skipping the services of Holy Week, many are going straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, without a moment’s pause for the cross.  While we all know that the cross precedes Easter, and that you can’t fully celebrate the joy of resurrection without first entering the depth of crucifixion suffering, we do tend to give lip service to the cross.

We do pay attention to the cross here.  Our Maundy Thursday service will remind us, through communion and drama, of the events of the last night of Jesus’ earthly, human life.  Our Easter Vigil service will take us through the story of salvation, from creation to resurrection, and we will certainly, on that evening, be alert to the suffering Jesus endured for us.  And so, bearing that in mind, and hoping that you all will take advantage of both of those services, today we focus on Palm Sunday.

And on the practice of donkey riding.

It seems to me that there are three things we might learn from donkey-riding.  Three “H” words.  Help. Humility.  Hope.

Let’s start with Help.
Jesus asks for help.  Luke tells us that Jesus, preparing to enter Jerusalem, says to his disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 

He asks for help.

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn’t NEED help.  Jesus can do whatever he wants, as the devil pointed out to him those years ago in the desert, when he told Jesus that he could turn stones into bread.  Jesus can commandeer a Roman chariot for transportation if he wants.  Or he can acquire his own donkey.  But he asks his disciples to do it for him.

This is how God always chooses to work.  God always invites human participation into God’s project.  From the very beginning –

God created men and women and invited them to care for the planet and its creatures –

God wanted to preserve a small band of people after the flood, and asked Noah to build an ark –

God wanted to liberate the Jewish people from slavery and chose Moses as their leader –

God wanted God’s people to recognize their wrongdoing, and then wanted to reassure them that their exile in Babylon would not be a permanent one, and God chose prophets to call them back to faithful lives –

God wanted to join us in our human lives and chose to do so as a helpless infant --

God chose human parents – ordinary human parents to care for Jesus –

Jesus chose disciples to accompany him and learn his work –

Always, God invites us into the great project of salvation, the great project of moving people forward into the love always intended for us, the great project of restoring all creation –

Is it surprising that Jesus would ask his disciples to procure a donkey?  From Jesus’ standpoint, seeking the help of humanity, seeking our participation in his work, is part of the practice of donkey-riding.

But why a donkey at all?  That particular selection leads us to the second H of donkey-riding – humility.

A donkey is not exactly a regal animal.  I don’t have anything against donkeys, but they are not elegant white stallions.  And I gather that appearance is not the only challenge they present.  As I began to consider this topic of donkey riding last week, another pastor* wrote that, “[S]ix weeks ago I was in Haiti, and part of the journey to our sister church/school involved a two- hour hike or donkey ride along a narrow trail on a mountainside and ridge. We hiked part way and then were met along the way with people from the church bringing down donkeys for us to ride; although I was not thrilled with that prospect, I certainly wasn't going to turn down their tremendous hospitality.

What I discovered was that it really required me to let go of being in control; that donkey went up and down along the path it chose, even when I thought other routes looked safer. It sometimes slipped and scrambled a bit, and in the midst of holding my breath I had to remember that I probably would've been falling way down if I were on my own two feet. I wondered what a donkey would do if there was an earthquake while on a trail that basically runs along a huge earthquake fault...and then let go of that worry. And when I could just sit back and trust in the donkey and the moment, I saw the most glorious scenery and the loving, joyous faces of those who had come to get us and I discovered the thrill of something totally new.”

So donkeys – they travel like donkeys.  They choose their own paths.  They do it their own way. And yet – if we can leave it to them, trust them to get us to our destination – there’s something to be said for the view.  The view of loving, joyous faces.  A view that might be ours only from the back of a donkey.

If you’ve watched the news at all over the past couple of weeks, then you know that the new Pope Francis has been teaching us all something about humility.  In the clothing and robes he chooses, in his inclination to make his own phone calls, and in his stops along his routes to get out and talk with people and bless people – and animals!  In his public statements, his speeches and his sermons, in which he emphasizes the need for the church to re-align itself with the poor.

What about us?  I know that a lot of us do things that might be described as practicing humility.  We serve one another.  We serve the homeless through ACCESS.  We serve children all over the world through our mission  projects.  We don’t – not many of us, anyway – ride literal donkeys, but we ride donkeys in other ways.  And we follow a king who rides a donkey.  We follow a king who epitomizes humility.

Let’s not take that for granted this week.  It’s so obvious that we tend to forget – but Jesus could have been living in a marble palace and ordering servants to arrange for his transportation.  Instead he lives on the road and asks his disciples to commandeer – a donkey.  When people seek out his teaching, he consistently tells them to focus on one thing: Humility.  A literal poverty of life – in terms of money and food and possessions and home.  And a poverty of spirit –a relinquishment of all grand human ideas and priorities in order to make room for the ideas and priorities of God.  Humility in thought, word, and deed.

There’s a reason the new Pope chose the name Francis – the name of a saint who turned his back on his family’s successful business in silk fabric and turned toward a life with the most humble of the poor and sick.  There’s a reason Jesus chose a donkey – the rough animal utilized to bear the burdens of others rather than a proud and prancing warrior horse.  Humility before God – that’s something we learn from the practice of donkey-riding.

And what does all of this have to do with Hope – the third H word?  Help, Humility, Hope.

We know what hope means to the disciples and the crowds, right?  Jesus is the one, we believe.  Jesus is the one who will lead us to glory – to political and military glory, that is.  Jesus is the one who’s been proclaiming that the kingdom of God is among us, and surely that will lead to an earthly kingdom for the our people, to the end of Roman oppression, to a time of peace, prosperity, and freedom.  Surely he is going to exchange that donkey and those shabby clothes for a more suitable steed and for royal robes – any minute, right?  And for the moment, there is much to hope for even in Jesus as he appears – because he has been healing so many who have sick and broken and hurt by this life, and he has been teaching us that we, the poor and the downtrodden, the ignored, the persecuted, the enslaved – we are the blessed and beloved.  Surely that means, in the end, release from Rome?  Surely that means the end of political subjugation? 

But what does hope mean to Jesus?  Contrary to what we might like to think, Jesus is not much interested in what we Presbyterians call “form of government.”  Jesus is not carrying a weapon or hoisting a flag or beating a drum – Jesus is not carrying anything at all.  Jesus brings only himself, riding on a donkey, headed for a cross.  Jesus knows that, as much fun as the noise and the music and the palm branches are for the crowd, they are not what hope looks and sounds like.  Not the hope he brings.  Not yet. 

The hope he brings looks like nothing the world has ever seen. 

The hope he brings looks like people, all people, being gathered together to participate in the great project of God for healing and restoration.  Not just some people, or some types of people, but all people – all invited to go and find him a donkey.  All invited to participate in the healing he brings to the world.

The hope he brings looks like humility.  Not like pomp and circumstance, not like regal thrones and trumpet music, but like a man traveling on the recalcitrant beast of burden of the poor.

The hope he brings looks very much like not-hope. 

It looks like the brokenness of human endeavor – a temple courtyard filled with money-changers. 

It looks like the loneliness of time and space filled only by the silence of God – a man praying in a garden, late at night. 

It looks like the failure of human government – a mock trial and a mob vote and a governor who washes his hands of the whole thing. 

It looks like utter degradation and humiliation – beatings and lashings and death on a cross.

How can any of those things look like hope?  How can they possibly constitute the steps to new life?  How can they look like anything other than what they appear to be – brokenness, loneliness, failure, humiliation?

They look like hope because at the center of them is the man who embodies hope, who is hope, who brings hope to all.  They look like hope because at the center of all the chaos, of all the wrong-headedness, of all the apparent willingness to settle for something much much less than God’s kingdom, is someone who looks like much much less: a man who has called for a donkey and humbly rides it through a crowd.

I don’t have a handout for you this week, because this week’s spiritual practice is a simple one:  Look for signs of hope.  Look in unexpected places and unexpected events and unexpected people.  If someone asks you to do something you had no plans to do, ask yourself, “Is Jesus inviting me to find him a donkey?”  If you see someone whose appearance and behavior are completely unremarkable, ask yourself, “Is Jesus among us?”  And if life looks as if it is going straight downhill, ask yourself, “Is hope hiding here?”

This is what the practice of donkey-riding is all about: Hope in the unexpected.

Look for hope.  Look for God in all things.  Awake to the real hope -- the genuine hope of new life – to which the waving palm branches direct us.  Amen.

*Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

Friday, March 22, 2013

Boarding School Years ~ Catholic

Readers here know that I spent six years in girls' boarding schools: three Catholic and three Protestant.  A treasure trove of images of each has popped up on Facebook recently, and I thought I'd share.  The following come mostly from Pavey Photography; I don't know whether Ann Pavey attended the School of the Brown County Ursulines (now closed) as a girl or Chatfield College as an adult, but her photos reveal a genuine love of the campus.
My own family history as intertwined with the Ursulines, in a nutshell:
The Ursuline sisters ventured from France to southwestern Ohio in 1845 and opened a school for girls about thirty miles north of Cincinnati.   I'm not sure when this main chapel was built ~ maybe someone will add some information in the comments ~ but it was at one time attached to a massive convent building of red brick. 

The nuns hired a master carver to teach them to make the intricate carvings that adorned their small chapel in the main building ~ although I think this one is from what we knew as the main chapel:

In the late 1800s, my great-grandmother wanted to study piano and, so the story goes, sold her egg money to pay for lessons and drove her buggy the eight miles or so to the convent to study with the nuns.
In the early 1900s, she and my great-grandfather were married and he established what would become the family grain business, which eventually developed a relationship with the nuns, who ran a farm as well as a school.  I am sure that my grandfather and father, as well as my brother and I, would count the Ursuline sisters as among our dearest of friends.  I don't think I have a photo of those who came to my ordination service, but I do have one of Sister Agatha with my daughter, taken a couple of summers ago.

No daughters in the family until I came along, and off I went to the Ursulines' school when I was a seventh grader.  The chapel was a good deal more ornate pre-Vatican II, but it's still there.   My family was Methodist in a not-so-much kind of way, although I am told that that same piano-lesson great-grandmother as a grown woman used to sail down the street to the Methodist parsonage on Monday mornings to offer the pastor her views on the previous day's sermon.  (Is that where the genes come from?  I'm sure he was just delighted to see her making her way down the block . . .     . )  At any rate, I was not anything in particular, religion-wise.  But I did attend Mass and various other services here regularly for three years, which meant that when I bumped into the Jesuits decades later, I was comfortable with Catholicism.
My friends and I spent an awful lot of time climbing around and through various convent locales in which our presence was not exactly sought.  I think that Ann  Pavey has done an incredible job of capturing the sense of beauty and mystery of  the buildings which I'm sure that all the women who lived there as girls still think of as "ours."

The school is long gone now, and so is the building which housed it.  The nuns built themselves a smaller and more user-friendly home, and the small college on the grounds, established to educate young teaching sisters, is now a vital and thriving educational institution, open to all who live near this community on the edge of Appalachia. 
And, while I've posted this one before, I'll close with a photo of the plaque on the wall of one of the college buildings, which reflects a gift made by my father in memory of our Josh and a century-plus of wonderful friendship and love.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Companionship Unto Death

I sat with a dying woman for a little while tonight.

She's ninety and I've visited with her several times since her third and fourth heart attacks in the past year.

Due to a meeting, I arrived very late, shortly after her family had left the hospice ward.  She was surprisingly alert and laughed at a joke.

I prayed with her and asked her if she would like me to stay with her until she fell asleep.  "If you wouldn't mind," she said. 

Just the two of us, quietly alone together in the silence of the night. 

It might be my favorite part of this life.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Solidarity: Women Writing

Sometimes weeks go by with no communication beyond Facebook posts and comments.

And then ~ a flurry of longer messages and emails.  We know, each of us, that there are three other mothers out there who have ears to hear and eyes to read.  We don't have to be in the same mental or emotional or spiritual places any more than we need geographical proximity; there is no judgment, no insistence that anyone "move on," no sense of "there but for the grace of God" because, indeed, here, despite the grace of God, we are.

I'm not sure, anymore, when we met.  One of the women lives fairly close to me, and there was an article in the newspaper at the time of the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death, a few weeks after Josh died.  Thanks to that article, I was able to find her blog and somehow, over the next several months, the four of us discovered one another in writing that spoke across thousands of miles to hearts all broken at about the same time.  Today, as I write: year five for two of us, and about year six for the other two.  We have clutched one another as if we were lashing ourselves to lifeboats tossed about in the churning waters between Scylla and Charybdis.

What do mothers write about, in years five and six?

We write about God, often: wondering and wondering and wondering.  We share our stories of trying ~ and succeeding, I think ~ to live rich and productive lives, to do our work, to care for our homes and families, to love husbands and children and step-children, all against a backdrop of shattered glass and torn fabric.  We ask question about words like joy and happiness and despair and emptiness. 

We are, each of us, making something beautiful and elegant of our lives.  In very different ways.  I think it would be accurate to say that I am awestruck by what these women write and do.  Had you told me five years ago that it would ever be possible to crawl out from under the covers after the loss of a child, I would have cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West, and imagined that the best I might ever do would be to zip around Oz on my broomstick, wreaking enraged havoc wherever I went.

But as it turns out, I am always wishing for Glinda's wand.  Always wanting to restore our lives with a dash of glitter and sparkle.

Having neither broomstick nor wand, I am grateful to have friends.  Friends who write, and not angrily across the sky, but gently, into cyberspace.  What would we do without one another?