‘‘Mommy I love you.”

The first text came in at 2:06 a.m.

‘‘In club they shooting.’’

‘‘U ok’’

‘‘Trapp in bathroom.’’

‘Pulse. Downtown. Call police.’’

‘‘I’m gonna die.’’

‘‘I’m calling them now.

U still in there

Answer our damn phone

Call them

Call me.’’

Mina Justice looks out into the pitch black of a muggy Florida night. She’s waiting, staring at her phone. She’s waiting for her screen to light up with words from her son Eddie, reassurance that he is still alive. Arms extended, a mother waiting for her child, a mother whose child is in danger.
Look. (Gesture towards the Jesus window)

Jesus looks out over Jerusalem, his arms extended to a child, a mother whose child is in danger.

“They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you.”

Look. (Gesture towards the Mary window)

Mary grasps the child in her arms, the fierce protection of a mother burning across her face. Her eyes burn. She can’t keep him there. She already knows that this body, so recently a part of her body, within her body, will be broken apart. Still she holds him as long as she can, before the city kills him.

Simeon’s hand outstretched over the squirming baby. His hand, shaking with the tremors of age lightly touches the laughing face.

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he says, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Simeon lifts his hand, the same touch on Mary’s forehead. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

As I look around in the aftermath of the massacre at Pulse in Orlando last Sunday, I see lives in the ruins. These are lives that bear witness to the devastation of grief. Some of the stories that have risen to the surface are the stories of mothers. A mother killed while dancing with one of her eleven children. A mother waiting at home for her child to text her, letting her know that he’s safe. A mother, in the aftermath, trying to claim the body of her undocumented son.

What these mothers have learned over time is that their children are not safe. In the United State they are not safe as Latinas and Latinos, and they are not safe as gay men. Mothers reach out their arms and they weep for the children who they know are in danger. Jesus. Mina. Mary. All lives bearing witness to a grief that refuses to be resolved.

It took reading Eddie text to his mother, Mina, for me to become fully present to this grief. When I hear about gay boys gunned down in a nightclub, I find I am standing in the skin of their mothers. When I look at Jesus weeping to Mary holding fast, I see the same picture, the same mother. I can see myself in their grief; I can find Mina and all the mothers of those killed at Pulse; I can find them all bearing that grief in their bodies, the grief of a mother.

This is the third time I’ve been called upon to preach after a mass shooting. I preached to children the Sunday after Sandy Hook. One year ago today I was with you, with you after the devastating church shooting in Charleston. Here we are again. God’s beloved are in peril again. God’s beloved are being killed.

I struggle through the weariness of this grief. Friends, I’m tired. I’m tired of standing up here, behind this pulpit marking up the tally. The most children killed in a modern mass shooting. A mass shooting disrupting the safety of the black church. Mass shootings perpetrated again and again and again and again with the same military-grade weapon. A mass shooting motivated by hatred for queer people.

Then I see the texts sent by Mina Justice, the texts sent to an infant she once held in her arms, Eddie, her beloved. Jesus above the hillside, crying Mina’s tears, crying the tears of all mother’s whose children are lost to violence, children who go into a world that hates them, that wants to destroy their bodies. Jesus reminds us that to follow after the Savior is to continue on to the heart of this grief, to put ourselves into a place to be fully present to this trauma, to give witness to tears.

What we’ll find, as we follow after this Jesus, is that weeping for these beloved reorients our political life. Rather than a politics tethered to individual rights, nationalism, patriotism, or economic prosperity, we are asked to form a political life rooted in grief. This is what Jesus did. Jesus looked at the city and wept.

Today we find our faces, like Jesus’, weeping towards the city. Stay here for a while, we hear him say. Stay here until you only see the city, our nation, this country, Orlando, Charleston, your enemy, your sister, your queer neighbor or son, stay here until you see them all through a veil of tears. Let tears blur your vision, until you can no longer tell where your life ends and where their life begins, until you can no longer see the difference between your tears and those of Mina Justice. Get so close that your tears are mingled with hers. Allow that grief to sustain you; let that sense of human vulnerability sustain your politics.

There were a few of us who didn’t go to a church to pray about Orlando. While Christians have been trying to decide if gays and lesbians are welcome here in the church, welcome to be blessed and serve and worship, LGBTQI people have sought sanctuary elsewhere. While we as Christians couldn’t make up our minds, queer folk began to form communities in clubs like Pulse, where the massacre occurred on Sunday. When we, the church, would not be a place of unqualified acceptance, of belonging and nurture, queer folk made their own sanctuary, a tight-knit community where you can be who you are, be accepted without condition.

So this week we some of us from Duke Memorial went to grieve beside LGBTQ people in their place of refuge here in Durham, at The Bar. We were there, some as queer, some as allies, all to stand and grieve together. I heard voices, one by one, as candles were slowly lit, as light began to filter through the gathered body. “Another world is possible,” I heard them say. “You are beautiful.” “Our grief is not a weapon.” “I see you.”

One voice stood out, that of Qasima Wideman, a queer Muslim from Raleigh. She told us the story of how Islam’s compassion had shaped her way of being in the world – how she’d only seen her father, a Palestinian Muslim, cry once – after 9/11. She told us how, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center, her mother began to wear hijab so everyone in their neighborhood–everyone they met–could see that Muslims are kind and generous, that they are not all terrorists. These devout Muslim parents raised Qasima; they taught her about life.

And then she told us how she wished she could have known Omar Mateen “before steel walls were built around his heart.” Qasima wished that she could share tea with him, tell him about other gay Muslims. She told us how she wished she could have wept with Omar Mateen. Turning to us, in the crowd, she said, “I hope we can begin to know each other now.” These were words inviting us into another world, words from a traumatized community stretching out arms to Omar Mateen, reaching out with arms of compassion.

We wanted to draw near because we knew that Jesus does not stand far from the city for long. Jesus draws near. He allows his body to be drawn into the a city that did not, could not “recognize the time of visitation from God.” He lets his body be taken into the city. When the time comes, the child crushed within the walls of Jerusalem will be him – Mary’s baby, God’s son. And still, and still Jesus draws near, a mother’s love burning within his heart.

 

As I’ve thought of Mary this week–as I’ve thought of Jesus, his arms outstretched–I thought about a project called Your Holiday Mom. Recognizing the high number of LGBTQ children estranged from their parents, a group of moms got together to offer support, a sort of holiday surrogacy conveyed through letters. These letters contain the words children wish they could hear from their parents, their longing to be embraced by a family. These pictures in the windows, they’ve helped me imagine the words a mothering God would extend to those 49 men, boys, women, and girls who died at Pulse last week.

These beloved, crushed within the walls of the city – we remember them today as God’s beloved, in the hands of the God who drew near, who took this suffering, this unbearable suffering into own body. This letter I will now read addresses each victim, each child by name.

I invite you, if you’d like, to come forward and light one of the 49 candles on the rail. Come now. Come as you are led.

Dear Stanley, Amanda and Oscar.
My beloved Rodolfo, Antonio, Darryl, and Angel.
Dearest Juan, Luis, Cory, Tevin.
To Deonka, Simon, Leroy, my heart.
Beloved Mercedez, Peter, Juan, Paul, and Frank
Dearest Miguel, most beloved Javier.
To my children, Javier, Jason, Eddie, and Anthony.
My joy, Christopher and Alejandro.
My delight, Brenda and Gilberto
Dear Kimberly and Akyra, Luis and Geraldo, Eric and Joel
Beloved Jean and Enrique, beloved Xavier and Christopher.
Dearest to my heart, Jean and Yilmary, Edward, Shane and Martin.
My joy, Jonathan and Juan.
My heart, Luis.
Beloved Franky and Luis.
Dearest, Jerald.

My beloved children,
I want you to know I could not love you more. You, with your fierceness and fear, the way you have shown up for this difficult life and have danced and made community in spite of everything. I am so proud of you. I have wanted nothing more than for you to know how deeply I love you, how the world is brighter for your presence, how I would give anything to make a better life for you.

I want to keep you safe in this world, and it has been the greatest sadness of my life, my daily trauma, to know this world does not see you as I do. I have wept for you and I have rejoiced in the sweetness and beauty of your life. But I am for you. I have always been for you, my love for you pouring out before there was time. My body is your body. Your grief is my grief.

Take all of my love. It is yours, yours without reservation or qualification or condition. Yours completely. My dearest, my beloved. I give it all to you.

 

Love forever,
Mami

 

 

 

How many tears does it take?

How many tears must you shed in order to clean someone’s feet? How many cups of tears does it take to wash the mud and feces of Nain’s streets from the soles of Jesus’ feet? How many gallons of tears must fall to make Jesus clean?

Today we hear the story of a woman who draws us into her life with tears, tears of a woman who recognizes that her body is out of sorts with the law, a body seeking a place to become fully herself.

“If this man were a prophet,” Simon the Pharisee chastises Jesus, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

She is a sinner.

Jesus refuses follow Simon’s logic. Jesus refuses to let the law determine what this woman can and cannot do. Instead, Jesus lets himself be drawn into her world, to be invited into her life, as she takes his feet in her hands, his body into her life.

Here, in Simon’s house, we see a conflict between purity and impurity, violation and reception—two worlds collide. On the one side, a moral code determines Simon’s table fellowship; on the other, a woman invites Jesus into the transgressive love of God.

The conflict occurs around the Pharisee’s table, where this woman decides to be who she is, because all she knows is that she wants to be near to Jesus. A Pharisee’s home, a shared meal, a site of ritual purity, of expectation, of law-keeping. She bursts in, weeping, grasping, touching him. She bathes Jesus’ battered feet in her tears.

Jesus receives her. He receives all of this – an act of lawlessness. It goes this way for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus does not often instigate transgression. Instead, he receives the lawlessness of others – their bread, their dead, their tears. Jesus becomes the judge over the law, a judge that calls into question the law itself, a judge that makes room for the law’s transgression.

The whole law against this woman, this sinner, and her footwashing. Luke’s version is the only of the four Gospels without the command to wash each other’s feet. Instead we have this story. It’s as if this absence, the absence of Jesus bending down before Peter, basin and towel in hand—it’s as if this story, this woman, as she anoints Jesus, she gives us the origin of the command “wash each other’s feet.” In our own footwashing, in our loving, in our chasing after one another’s tears we become re-enactors of the anointing, re-enactors of this woman’s transgression. We follow after her. We let her body shape our bodies. We take part in her reshaping of law’s possibility.

Jesus learns from the woman. Jesus re-enacts the anointing and teaches his disciples to do the same. “When you follow after God, when you live your life,” we can imagine him saying, “look for tears, look for the moment that overwhelms you with love, a love that looks like lawlessness—because that’s where God happens, that’s what God does to us and to our world. Learn it from one another.”

So we wash each other’s feet. We wash feet because we are always negotiating what love looks like, always testing among ourselves love’s lawlessness. This is what the Pharisees, the law-keepers, find most perplexing, most frightening about the woman anointing Jesus. She challenges the stability of the law. She challenges not just boundaries but the law’s purpose. I remember the words of Yehudah Amichai, “We begged you, Lord, to divide right from wrong, and instead you divided the waters above the firmament from those beneath it.”

We begged you, Lord, make it clear, give us stasis, give us history without disruption, a world without change, bodies that conform to our predispositions. We begged you, Lord, don’t let us lose our grasp. Give us control, a perennial word, passed down in the hands of men, the guardians of society. We begged you, Lord, divide right from wrong.

In Jesus we are not given the comfort of regulation. Those who approach Jesus take that from us. The ones who pluck grain on the Sabbath, the one who brings Jesus to the open mouth of the beloved’s tomb, the one who lays before him a dead child – all these lives are occasions for violation of the law. Instead of assurance we are given tears. Wash each other’s feet. Follow the path of tears, the flood of tears.

The woman draws near, the trembling hand carrying her precious oil, the hours of weeping, kissing his feet, the intrusion of her body, and in doing so she reconfigures the law. We’re often caught in a web of the law. We prefer to reinvigorate rules. Jesus and the new law, we often say, a new law to replace an old law, a new code to follow the Savior.

The woman takes this from us, too. She takes from us even this stability. Instead she shows us how the law is unraveled in a gradual rediscovery of its porous boundaries. Through this woman’s body, her life drawn near to Jesus, the law now placed in a new relationship, turned in on itself. The law now makes space for lawlessness; the law now as an arena for transgression, forgiveness as the undoing of the law. Jesus repurposes law, law that highlights how powerful love can be, the way an act of love washes away the power we thought the law had over our lives, washing away the law with a stream of tears.

At the heart of this lawlessness is the unnamed woman. So often we think of someone’s namelessness– the failure to give name–as an abuse of patriarchy, typical of first century Palestine. But, here in Luke, the absence of a name frees from the past, liberates this woman from a law that she has renegotiated, a legal framework that no longer defines her.

Today I need Jesus to be for people like this woman. I need for Jesus to be receiving into God’s eternal love 50 people who felt that their bodies and their lives and their sexualities collided with the world around them. I need a Jesus who follows after these beloved and tells us to do what he did, to follow after these beloved who witness to us the lawless love of the anointing woman.

I’ve been thinking more about transgender persons, queer people, those whose bodies are being loosed from what was predetermined, from stable categories, bodies more immediately making and remaking, The anointing woman, too, is a body in process. She is freed from our grasp, freed from the grasp of her community, from our moral categories, from our laws. Like bodies out of sorts with assigned biology, she is untethered, set outside the name given to her, the identity imposed upon her.

Simon the Pharisee, confined by his name is cemented into the text. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus says his name, roots him to the law he does not yet realize also holds him fast. “Do you see this woman?” But the woman – the woman remains nameless, outside of Simon’s grasp. He cannot see her; she is too far away. She is freed into the lawlessness of love she invites.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells Simon that this nameless woman has freed herself through violation of the law through love. She is becoming outside of her past, opened up to a lawless world. She is still here each time we wash each other’s feet, each time our tears flood one another’s lives, when we follow the tears that flow out of Florida, a river of tears. Footwashing invites us into the memory of this lawlessness, invites us to follow after the memory of this woman, freed into the law and freed from the law and for the law’s remaking, in our tears, with our hands, filled with love, with grace, with grief, filled with God’s life.

 

Trinity Sunday – 5/22/16
Melissa Florer-Bixler

O God, you withdraw from our sight
that you may be known by our love.
Help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden
and surrender all certainty
to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ.
Amen (676)

In many churches today people are thinking about the Trinity – God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that means that today people are going to say many weird things. It’s hard to talk about God. It’s hard to get our minds around this thing about God being three and one at the same time. But we keep trying.

I’m sure many of us here have stumbled upon an image or two, helpfully offered up to try and get this Trinity concept into our heads. The Trinity is like an apple: seeds, fruit, and skin. The Trinity is a like a candy corn: you know, with the three different colors. Or like an egg: a shell, a yolk, and whites. Three in one shampoo; a mother, daughter, and grandmother; water, ice, and steam; a three leafed clover.

There are so many examples and so many ways to get the Trinity wrong. Because every time we start talking about it, every time we try to consolidate the mystery down to a metaphor we end of falling into one heresy or another.

Modalism. Adoptionism. Arianism. Sabbelianism. The heresies of the church fall onto one side or another. They either emphasize the oneness of God at the expense of three separate persons, or they create a hierarchy out of God, elevating one person over the others. There are a lot of ways that trying to talk about God can get us into trouble.

I have to admit, I always feel cautious when talking about heresy. After all, Anabaptists have been called heretics since our inception. It’s a word that’s often used to scare people, to designate who is in and who is out. The British theologian Rowan Williams has helped me appreciate what the church intended to say when it talked about heretics. Heresy wasn’t just about keeping out opinions the church didn’t like. It was also the way the church denounced doctrines that cleared up mystery too quickly.

That’s the problem with saying the Trinity is like candy corn or a clover. It’s too easy. It’s too neat. Heresy gets out all the kinks, gives your mind something to hold on to. Heresies turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus or a genie whom we can manipulate with our good deeds. God is stranger and wilder than that. If you understand it, it is not God.[1]

What I think is behind all this piling up of heresies around the Trinity is that we’re a people who easily fall into idolatry. We like to have a God we can wrap our minds around. We like a God we can control, a God we can move from place to place, to pick up from over here to be placed on our side. Since the beginning of time that’s what human have wanted. We’ve wanted a God that will do what we want, when we want, no questions asked. Heresies remind us not to get too comfortable with the gods of our own making.

The Russian Orthodox church avoids idolatry by prohibiting icons of God the Father. The exception is the icon of the visitation of the three angels to Sarah and Abraham at Mamre, in Genesis 18. Here the Orthodox church sees in this story an image of the Trinity. God appears quickly, without fanfare, in a flash, three who are one, and then the strangers who are the godhead disappear again. They’re off silently, into the night, the sound of laughter still in the air.

There’s something strange and wonderful about this. Here in the Old Testament, in the middle of a story, the Trinity shows up. God makes a way into the story. God get into the narrative of the life of Sarah and Abraham. God story can’t be told without their story. God’s identity woven into their identity.

I have a copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon depicting this scene. I keep it around to remind me that God shows up in human lives, that God finds and surprises us, like a guest, like a friend, when we least except it. In Genesis 18 we find Abraham, resigned to his infertility by Sarah, intent to find another way around the problem of inheritance, greeted unexpectedly. There’s no lead up, no foreshadowing. The Lord appeared, we read. While the narrator informs us, the reader, that this is God, Abraham instead sees three men. People enter Abraham’s life, eat at his table. Abraham winds his life into their life. He greets them, runs to bring these strangers what he has, to bring them a little bread.

And God welcomes this. God welcomes the hospitality of the little bread. God, the three in one, whole and without need – this God receives. God takes the gifts of meat and milk.

But there is more surprise here, more richness. They say that Sarah will have a baby. Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son. Abundance is met with abundance. God, present in bodies, in stomachs that eat, mouths that laugh, wombs that gestate, hands that touch. Is anything too wonderful for God?

In Rublev’s icon the three persons of the godhead sit round Sarah and Abraham’s table. If you look closely you’ll see that they have identical faces, but two turn towards the third. They turn our attention towards the Father. A tree behind the middle person reveals that this is Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse. The third, it seems, is making a gesture of blessing, inviting us to the table, inviting us to sit and eat beside God, to take of the abundant surprise, the laughter-inducing surprise of God’s love.

I love Rublev’s icon for this depiction of the Holy Spirit, inviting us into God’s life, inviting us to weave ourselves into God’s life. We are invited to eat at that table, to know God by sharing God’s life.

I’ve let my imagination for the Trinity be shaped by stories, stories where we are invited into the gift of God’s life. One of those stories is about three of my friends.

Two months ago my friend Ann started to feel pain in her foot. It wasn’t uncommon. A car had hit her several years ago. The resulting injuries had left her open to a variety of debilitating infections. But when the pain continued, climbing up her leg she knew it was time to go to the emergency room. It was there she got the news. This kind of infection couldn’t be cured. The surgeon would need to amputate her leg, just below the knee.

Ann was frightened. We were all frightened. There was barely time to grieve before the surgery.

Ann is a woman of great faith. And one way she deepens that faith is by coming to church each morning for prayer. Cullen, my friend and colleague, started this practice last year. Each day at 7:30 in the morning a little band gathers in the sanctuary to pray. Sometimes the woman who works at the bank across the street stops in, and a few times a month we are joined by the guys who call our church property their home.

But Alberto comes almost every morning. We met him last year when he came to the church looking to see if we had any work for him to do. Alberto’s only language is Spanish, so most of us get by with our pathetic high school language skills. Alberto is patient with us.

Sometimes morning prayer is small, just Alberto, Ann, and Cullen, a little trinity in themselves, hands held together as they close in the Lord’s Prayer, Alberto in Spanish and Ann and Cullen reciting the words in English.

When Alberto heard from Cullen what had happened to Ann, why she wasn’t at morning prayer, he was frantic. “Hospital.” He told Cullen. “Hoy.” Today we’re going to the hospital. We have to see her. Cullen did his best to communicate bus routes and room numbers, not quite sure the information he was giving was accurate or communicated correctly.

Cullen showed up on time, hurrying from one meeting towards the hospital elevator, not fully expecting that Alberto would have the time or energy to navigate an hour of buses or the vast Duke Hospital system. Cullen pushed the button for the sixth floor and as the door were about to close a hand stopped them. As the doors widened again there stood Alberto. “Muy rapido,” he scolded Cullen as they rode the elevator to Ann’s room.

The three of them sat together. As Ann shared her insights into what God was teaching her about pain and disability, Alberto nodded gently, affirming the sound of Ann’s voice. They stayed for an hour. Alberto brought Ann a Spanish version of the Bible. Towards the end they took hands, as they had so many mornings, and prayed the prayer Jesus taught us, in Spanish and in English.

And God is like this, too. One body but different, speaking a common language of prayer but in different tongues. God is like this, bearing gifts in God’s self, gifts of presence and prayer. God is a body that is broken but also whole, a body made of strong parts and weak parts, bearing scars, all bearing together. God is like this, always returning to one, always returning us to oneness. God is like this, a relation of love, a being that cannot be without all it’s parts, a shared life bound up in love.

We don’t get this from metaphor, or from charts or graphs. We know God in our lives, in the times where we are drawn into the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We encounter the Trinity when we are drawn into the lives of others, when we are surprised by the life of another, surprised by God’s abundance, surprised to see our lives reflected back in a community like this one, a community bound to God’s life, woven in to one another.

This is why heresy is so destructive, and has been so devastating to the church in the course of our history. God is mysterious, ever opening us to new possibilities, new surprises, new laughter. And people are like that, too. God is a relationship of constant unveiling, just as we are constantly opening ourselves up to friendship, to being surprised by the stranger who finds her way to our door. We can’t clear up the mystery of one another. When we do, we’re committing the heresy of certainty, certain that this person is too different, too strange, too dissimilar to be mine. The Trinity welcomes us into the strangeness of one another, letting the other be strange and still be ours.

What a mystery. What a mysterious, wonderful gift.

 

[1] Isaiah 55:8-9

We’re continuing to work our way through our “Shhh… Things we don’t talk about in church” series. I preached on death.

May 1, 2016
Duke Memorial UMC
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
1 Cor 15:51-58

A couple months ago I was talking excitedly to a clergy friend about green cemeteries, a new kind of eco-friendly form of burial. (I have no idea if this is normal discussion for clergy women in their thirties, but there it is.) I told my friend that I had actually researched green burial and have written it into my funeral plan.

As soon as I said it I realized that I might have sparked some worry in my friend, who could be thinking my demise was imminent.

I almost said it. I almost said, “Don’t worry. I’m just planning ahead, I’m not dying.”

But I caught myself, because the reality is more complicated. In that moment I remembered the words of Richard Lischer: “we are all creatures of the gap, living out our days between the giddy promises of youth and the inevitability of death.”

So I rearranged the words in my head, and told my friend, somewhat awkwardly: “Don’t worry. As far as I know I’m dying at an average rate.”

We are in a culture that hopes to avoid death, a culture that refuses to engage in the difficult work of grieving, of saying the difficult truth —that, one day, we will all die. We’ve constructed a world that makes it very easy to get around the subject.

It wasn’t always this way. We used to be surrounded by aging relatives who were cared for at home until the end. It used to be that people died at home. Bodies were prepared at home, graves dug by hand.

This is where we get the language of a “wake.” Today a wake is an informal time separate from the funeral where family and friends gather to tell stories and be together. A generation ago the wake was the time when the body of the dead was at home for a final night before the funeral. Family and friends stayed awake throughout the night beside their beloved, in prayer and remembrance.

In a previous generation we saw death, we participated in the passages of time, we experienced it in our daily lives. Our world has changed. Now we live in an age of incredible opportunities for health care that prolong and enrich our lives. That’s also made it possible to keep death far from us. Our elderly almost always spend their final months or years in hospitals or nursing homes. Family care has been replaced by professionals.

I am incredibly grateful for the ways modern medicine has enabled people to live and die in more peaceful ways, how professional caregivers have come to the aid of loved ones who struggle to provide round the clock care. I am also aware that a consequence of these changes is that the end of life has become lonelier and more isolated. Because we interact with death less it’s easy to say, as I almost did, I’m not dying.

Removing ourselves from death so thoroughly has made it harder to talk about it with loved ones. This is often a scary conversation we put off longer and longer, sometimes until it is too late.

We are often so paralyzed by these conversations that new tools have been invented to help us start talking. One of my favorites is a website that will help you plan and host a Death Dinner. A Death Dinner is a time set aside to discuss end of life issues, in particular your wishes. Or it could be you feel the need to broach the subject with a loved one who is aging. The website includes dinner prompts, icebreakers to get the conversation going, a form email to send out to guests. You can attach film clips and articles to get everyone on the same footing. There is even a suggested menu for those so overcome by anxiety that they cannot decide what to prepare for the table.

The Death Dinner people are on to something. While 90% of Americans believe that it is vital to discuss end of life care with loved ones, only 30% have actually done so. While 82% say that it’s important to write down their final wishes, only 32% have put pen to paper with this important information.[1]

Today’s Scripture talks about that sting, about the way we feel when we encounter death, those feelings and fears that make us put off these conversations. Here the Scriptures offer us a word of hope:

O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?

The theologian Jurgen Moltman explains that these are lines from an Easter hymn, one that should be accompanied with sarcastic laughter.

A couple weeks ago I told the Wednesday morning women’s group about Holy Humor Sunday. Each year, at the end of Lent, my clergy friends ask for my best knock-knock jokes. On the first Sunday in the season of Easter these friends follow the ancient tradition of the Greek Orthodox church. These days following Easter were times for laughter, of telling jokes, of being silly together – because Easter is a joke on Satan. Jesus’ resurrection is a practical joke played on death.

In Jesus the Devil got tricked. Death has no more power, no more power to rule us. O death, where is thy victory, we laugh. Sin, the brokenness of creation, the death-things at work all around us, the death that worked its way into the soil of our world has been uprooted and burned away. There’s nothing left to be afraid of, nothing left to hold us captive. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news.

That doesn’t change the fact that death is still painful and sad. After all, death isn’t natural. We are not built for death. We are not built for our bodies and spirits to be ripped from one another. We were made for God’s eternal love. With the resurrection, God has prepared another way for us, clothing us with the immortal bodies we heard Sarah read about in today’s Scripture. At the same time I can’t get over the fact that we know that something is not right. Death is not the way it was supposed to be.

I wonder if part of the reason we don’t like to talk about death is that most of us are aware that we start to feel the sting of death long before we’re facing our final hours. Those conversations conjure up all sorts of emotions, things we don’t like to think about. Death is a series of losses, an accumulation of little deaths over time.
It happens the first time you realize you’re scared walking through a parking lot alone at night.
It’s the time when your grandparents die, and you realize that you are only one generation removed from your own death.
It’s the slow amassing of doctor’s appointments for your parents.
It’s moving a loved one into nursing care, cleaning out a childhood home.
It’s forgetting more often.
It’s not understanding the technology, feeling left behind.
It’s not being as influential on that committee or in that job.
It’s going to funeral after funeral after funeral after funeral.

When I hear in 1 Corinthians that death has lost its victory I go back to these losses, the little deaths that come into our mortal bodies, into our lives. I want to believe that Jesus’ victory over death isn’t just at the end, but is present as we experience these other losses.

In Jesus’ resurrection we have been given the power to remove the sting of those little deaths along the way. We remove the sting of death when we invite others into our grief. We remove the sting of death when we trust others, when we see people beside us, listening to our story, caring for us, caring about the things we love. We remove death’s sting when we trust each other with new possibilities, when we make space for the dreams and hopes and plans of others, when we let ourselves hear in a new way. We remove death’s sting when we can name that death is the enemy.

 

One of the greatest privileges of my calling, what makes it a calling, is that I am able to be with beloved members of our church during those times when death has found them. But I have a confession. I never know exactly what to say. When you get the worst news, when your son has died, when we realize that you aren’t going to recover from this illness. All my words seem trite and silly. There’s nothing to be said, but something still needs to be said.

So I open my mouth and I pray for you. And I’ve realized that I always pray the same thing. I say that there is no place you can go from God’s love. I ask that God would make this real in your life, that God would help you to know that you’re never alone.

And then I ask you to believe that we are with you. I tell you that you don’t have to have it together when I come to see you, or when someone from church comes to visit. You can cry or laugh, or we can sit and watch TV. You can be angry or sad or resigned. I can take it. We can take it. We’re ready for whatever you have, ready for whatever you’ve got. And God is like that, too. God will love you no matter what. God will always love you.

It’s the thing I know that is most true. You are not alone, even at the end, past the end as we know it, past our knowing.

A friend of mine was telling me about the way he explained baptism to his Sunday school class. The children in his class did trust falls. Do you remember those? The kind where you cross your arms over your chest and close your eyes. You stand stiff like a board. And your heart beats fast as you say “falling,” but you can’t see who is behind you.

And then you hear voices. There are people there, waiting for you. You aren’t alone. There are people standing behind you with their arms open arms, waiting to catch you. “Fall” they respond. Go ahead and fall.

Go ahead and fall, baptism tells us. Fall into this life. Fall back into God’s love, into the church, into these people. One day you’ll fall into death and I will catch you, Jesus says. You died in the waters of baptism and rose into new life, into eternal life.

And we say that, too. Go ahead and fall. We’re here. You don’t have to uncomplicate the past or secure the future. Go ahead and fall. We’re all waiting here. We’ll catch you. Go ahead and fall.

[1] Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012)

My church, Duke Memorial UMC is preaching a series on “things we don’t talk about in church.” We started off with the topic of mental illness. We had a resource guide printed in the bulletin, and at the end of the service we offered space for our congregation to process and pray with our Stephen Ministers and retired clergy.

Most of you are sitting next to two people today, one on your right and one on your left. Here is a statistic about mental illness. If you or someone in your family does not struggle with their mental health then it is likely the person sitting to your right does.

Because 50% of North Americans will have a mental illness over the course of their lifetime, or will have a family member who does. That means that mental illness will touch, in one way or another, half of this congregation. It’s every other person who passes you walking on the street. It’s a part of the lives of every other co-worker, every other friend at school, every other parent on your kid’s soccer team.

Today’s reading is a story about a man who self-harms, a characteristic of some severe forms of mental illness. In the Bible we don’t have a clear picture of these diseases. There wasn’t a category for mental illness in the time of Jesus. But many of the symptoms associated with mental illness come out in stories about demon possession. These ancient writers, prior to modern psychology, believed external spiritual forces were at work in people. Now we may give different names or diagnoses for what we see in these stories.

The man gives us a window into the experiences and stigmas surrounding mental illness. He experiences the vulnerability of his body and mind, and of his social world. Like many people who struggle with mental illness he finds himself cut off from community, isolated and sent away. In Jesus’ day that was the way that the community dealt with mental illness – by pushing it the outskirts, as far as they could put it out of their minds and communities and their lives.

This story also gives us insight into the stigmas around mental illness in our culture. The man is portrayed as more animal than human, possessed by a demon, violent and unable to be restrained. So many of these images still attach to mental illness. These stigmas around mental illness are rampant, and many of them are portrayed in this story. Some of us may have been taught that mental illness is chronic, impacting a person’s whole life. Yet 90% of mental health issues are treatable and manageable, especially with early intervention and support.

Like the man in today’s Gospel reading, we also have a tendency to associate mental illness with violence. Most people who struggle with mental illness do not exhibit severe signs like the ones we heard about in today’s reading. But that’s not what we often hear on the radio or sees on the news. It seems like every time there’s unexplained and horrific violence in our community the very next news commentary is on the mental illness of the perpetrator. In reality less than 1% of persons with psychosis ever become violent – less than 1%.

Men in our culture face their own stigmas around mental illness. On average men suffer more incidents of mental illness than women. Yet young men and boys are often taught to put on a brave face, to suck it up, to keep their feelings to themselves. We persist in a culture of masculinity that glorifies individualism, lack of emotion, and independence. Asking for help becomes a sign of being inept or weak.

In our contemporary world we want to pretend mental illness isn’t happening, or at least not here. We’re supposed to have it all together, to be able to manage our lives. And when you can’t it feels like you’re the only one. Why can’t I hold it together? Why is it that everyone else can keep doing life and I can’t?

We don’t send people out to the tombs any more. We get rid of mental illness in a different way. We try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can do better for one another, for our church, for those who come here looking for a community to receive their whole selves, to be a church that welcomes whole selves. We can be a people who see the seamlessness between our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Together we as the church can challenge and change the stigma’s attached to mental illness.

I used to work at a church in northeast Philly. On the first Sunday of each month, right in the middle of our worship service we’d have celebrations, times when we’d invite people to come up to the front and share what was happening in their lives – a birthday, an anniversary, or a graduation.

Every month Paul brought someone to church who was celebrating his sobriety. Paul was the church advocate for Alcoholics Anonymous. AA was his other church, and he brought me to a few open meetings to meet his friends who were in recovery. Paul was amazing at bringing people to church, people who were newly sober, some relapsing, others grinding through their second month off the bottle.

Each month Paul would cheer someone on to the celebration. A couple guys would stand there with their chips in their hands – these round markers that celebrated how long they had been sober. 1 week. 30 days. 10 years. They would hold up these chips like they were Olympic medals, earned with blood, sweat, and a lot of meetings.

One day a couple came up for celebration. They were a lovely family in our church, with these two sweet little kids. They are professionals in our community. They taught Sunday school and helped with the canned food drive.

On that Sunday they shared the anniversary of their sobriety. They shared about how their lives had been changed, how God had met them, how they wanted to share the good news, but how they always knew not drinking would always be a struggle.

I was amazed. They could have fooled me. I could have spent the rest of my time in that church without ever knowing that this family struggled with addiction. Drug abuse and drug dependence are types of mental illness. Addiction changes the brain, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchies. They could have kept their struggles with mental health hidden, but they didn’t. They let us celebrate them. They trusted us, trusted that we wouldn’t see their addiction as weakness or ineptitude, but as an illness, an illness that required patience, care, and understanding.

The culture of celebrating sobrieties in church changed the way I thought about mental illness. As I came to see how common addiction was in our community it started to normalize as another illness, another space where we could share life. That opened doors for us to notice others with mental illness. We organized meals and childcare for a woman in our church struggling through a debilitating depression. People would give thanks for new meds for bipolar in the same way they share thanksgiving for the birth of a niece or nephew.

I came to realize something. It isn’t mental illness that we don’t like to talk about in church. What we really don’t want to talk about is how hard it is to be broken, to have a brokenness that no one can see, an illness that’s on the inside, one that doesn’t show up like a cough or a cold. We don’t like to expose the illness of our brain because we’re afraid of the isolation, afraid of being sent away from friendship, from trust, from love.

We want to be trusted instead of being shut out. We want to be fragile without reactions of discomfort and fear. We want to be received the way Jesus received the man in today’s story, as someone’s beloved, someone’s child, someone who has a future and a hope.

If we look at the story through this lens then we can hear Mark telling us about two conflicting communities. The demon that enters the man says his name is Legion – because he is many, a community in himself – this one sustained by isolation and terror. But there is another community in this story – a village of family and friends, a place that offers respite and relief.

The brother of a man named Robert, who struggles with severe mental illness, described an ideal imaginary community that would compete with that of Legion. In it people call Robert by name. They talk to him about ordinary things, and don’t give undue attention to his agitation. They gently guide him through difficult days.[1]

Donald Capps writes that these persons have their own vocation. These who seems strange to us help us to see the stranger inside each of us, often unacknowledged and unrecognized. This recognition of our own self-alienation is “the first step on the difficult journey to making peace with ourselves.”[2] These persons may help us to see our own longing for community, of our own need for healing.

If you do struggle with a mental illness, if you love someone who suffers from an eating disorder, or anxiety, or schizophrenia, then the ending to today’s Gospel lesson may be hard to hear. Jesus heals the man, instantly. He says the word and this illness is gone, off into a bunch of pigs. The man is restored to his former self and then he returns to his community. In this story everything changes in a flash.

That’s not how most people are healed of mental illness. For most of us returning to wholeness is a long road. On that road is prayer and trust, but along the way we meet other healers – psychologists and counselors, sometimes medication or hospitalization. For a few of us mental illness will be chronic, it will require love and commitment without the expectation of ever getting back to where you used to be. For all of us healing involves a whole world of healers, a lot of people who are willing to say, “I am with you, now until this is over, and I will never leave you.”

When I hear these stories of healing in the Bible I’m reminded that Jesus tells us they are signs. They are sign of the kingdom of heaven breaking in, signs of God coming into our world. You are those signs, too. Doctors and licensed clinical social workers are those signs. The neighbor who babysits for free so you can go to therapy, the small group that brings you dinner when you just can’t get out of bed – those are all signs of God’s in-breaking kingdom. We also know that this too is healing because through these signs Jesus’ does for us what he does in Scripture. Jesus is in the work of reuniting, of restoring community. Jesus is here to return us to one another.

[1]Holly Toensing, “Living among the Tombs” in This Abled Bodied (eds: Hector Avalos, Sarah J Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper. Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), 143.

[2] Donald Capps quoted in “Living among the Tombs,” 143.

Melissa Florer-Bixler
Palm Sunday 2016
Luke 19:28-40
Duke Memorial UMC

It’s a tense time. There’s mistrust between the government and the people. The political system that always seems on the tip of disaster is fraying at the edges. It’s the time of year when these things happen. But something feels different this time around. People are angrier. The country seems to be erupting in violence and rage.

It’s that time of year. I’m not talking about election season in the United States of America, but Passover in Jerusalem.

Passover was always a tense time in Israel. It reminded the people of revolution, of the time when God saved Israel, brought them out of the land of their oppressors in Egypt. Could God do it again? Could this be the year? Could everything change, the people taking back the city from Rome? The people rising up? Could this be the year, the year of God’s favor?

And on this particular year, during this tense season, this season of watching and waiting, two parades take place.

If you’d been there you would have seen him, riding in from the West. Herod on his warhorse leads a charge of imperial guards into the occupied city. The people make the way wide. There are soldiers and a cavalry. Purple robes and a crown. Herod the Great, the Kind of Judea. His bodyguard numbers 2000. He is a tyrant known for his ability to sniff out and crush the rebellions of the people.

If you’d been there you would have seen him, riding in from the East. On a colt borrowed for this little parade. This little horse totters down the steep grade of the Mount of Olives, a ragged band of unemployed fishermen turned beggars beside him. As he reaches the city a band of the poor greet him, spread out there dirty laundry and shout “Hosanna to the King!”

If you’d been there you would have seen them. And you might have laughed. Because there’s something absurd about what is taking place here on Palm Sunday, a kind of street theater carefully placed during the Passover, here after the procession of Caesar, here before the looming Cross, here in politically contested Jerusalem. It’s all here – the costumes and the props, the stage and the script.

What kind of king is this? This doesn’t look like the hundreds of rebellions that sprang up and died out just as quickly, quashed by the power of Rome. Jesus’ ragged procession mocks the costly gold and silk of the Empire with narrow streets lined with the tattered coats of peasants. Jesus doesn’t offer an alternative to Caesar, king for king, lord for lord, another hand off of Roman power in a long succession of brutality.

In this political satire Jesus reveals the uncertainty of Rome’s power. Jesus demonstrates that coercive power, the power that maintains order and control, the power of domination, the power of rich over poor, of the occupier over the occupied – Jesus reveals their fragility.

The Wednesday women’s group is reading a book by Lauren Winner called Wearing God, and in it she tells this story about a Ku Klux Klan rally. When it was announced that the rally would take place in their hometown, the citizens of Charlotte, North Carolina were rightly horrified. They had two options. One was to take on the KKK with all seriousness, to launch a counter protest, to mirror back the weightiness of the Klan. Instead they chose a different direction.

As the Klan took to the streets, forming lines of white hooded men, people began to emerge from their homes. Every one of them was dressed like a clown. The laughed and juggled, blew horns, and danced. The absurdity of racism and hate met with the absurdity of clowns. When the Klan chanted “white power” the clowns responded with cheers of “white flour” or “wife power.” The clowns joined the parade. By the middle of the march there were five clowns for every member of the Klan. The rally dispersed.

The group that organized this counter protest wrote something called the Clown Manifesto that perfectly sums up the possibilities of satire: “Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.”

In the Palm Sunday procession, in the Clown Manifesto we begin to see that the way coercive power fortifies and exerts itself is by making us believe it is inevitable. Palm Sunday reminds us not to take tyrannical power seriously.

A few weeks ago I saw some pictures that were taken at an action planned by a group of young people in our community. This was a group that is working with Durham CAN, the community organizing group to which our church belongs. These young people wanted to organize around the deficit of counselors in their high schools. They staged a public action to show the city and the school board that the numbers of counselors currently employed is below the recommended average, that young people are slipping through the cracks in college admissions, ACT prep, and career guidance.

I suppose these young people could have made signs that said something like “we demand more counselors.” Instead they didn’t something amazing. They gave out report cards. Standing outside, these students held up large cardboard reports. They listed the recommended teacher to counselor ratio and then gave a grade. Durham School of the Arts received a B. Southern High School earned a letter grade of D, while Northern and Jordan received a C.

As we know, this isn’t the way things usually go. Students don’t give grades. They receive them. They don’t make demands. They are told what to do. When I saw these pictures something about the way I think about power shifted.

A month later two of these same students climbed up a set of stairs and stood at the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church. These incredible young women talked about what their schools needed, their experiences with school counselors, how students continue to struggle without guidance. Then they called forward the candidates running for the five open seats for county commissioner. These ten or so candidates stood on the floor, the two teenage women towering above them. The young women looked down, as the candidates craned their necks to see them, and asked each a set of questions. Would they redirect under utilized funding towards the goal of getting more counselors into school? Please answer with a simple yes or no.

As we know, this isn’t the way things usually go. Students sit in assemblies and classrooms while adults tell them what to do. They don’t put questions to their elected officials. They don’t hold them accountable. They don’t set agendas for city money. At the Durham CAN assembly last Sunday the room was electric. My eyes were filled with tears. Something about the way we thought about power shifted.

When I think about Easter I usually think about upending power, of turning power on its head. Palm Sunday Jesus, riding a colt, giving no power to the procession of Caesar offers us another way to understand the journey to the cross and into resurrection. Jesus helps us see that power is negotiable, fragile, transferable, and available. We see how we continue to be distracted by those who want to rule through violence, through the rhetoric of force. We learn that the power of Rome is a construct, and that it isn’t the way things will always be. On Palm Sunday we don’t have to buy what Rome is selling anymore.

And on Palm Sunday we learn that Jesus doesn’t give us a grand theory of power. Jesus doesn’t tell us what political party to align ourselves with. Jesus doesn’t run for President. Instead, the God of creation, the one who knit together the earth at its founding, reveals to us what has always been – that there is no power outside of God’s love and God’s justice.

This power is always changing, always taking new forms, always surprising us, always showing up in people and events and places that we least expect. In Palm Sunday we discover that the power of God isn’t a toppling or an overturning – it’s a revelation, God revealing to us that God’s power has always been disruptive and elusive, is always slipping out of the grasp of tyrants and kings.

That moment at the CAN Assembly last Sunday, it’s the same kind of thing happening in Palm Sunday, the same kind of reorienting of power to the places we do not expect. Today, I find myself in the midst of those crowds in Jerusalem, looking at Herod passing by. I can feel the rage in some, the revolution in their silence. In others I can hear their longing and their hunger, the ways they have been broken time and again.

I hear it today. I heard it here on our front lawn this past week as young people from Black Lives Matter brought their demands for lives free from fear and violence. I heard it again a few days ago when children and adults from around Durham gathered in the same place, right here in front of our church, to protest the impending deportation of Riverside high school senior, Wildin Acosta. Could this be the year? The year of God’s favor.

And then I see Jesus pass by. He doesn’t seem that interested in the Empire. He doesn’t want to be king.

Then I see Jesus, not looking to replace one tyrant, one king with another.

Then I see Jesus. I see power slipping, making a new way, interrupting, asking new questions, seeing with new eyes.

If we want to see it we have to look in unexpected place for these moments happening around us. We have to look at children and beggars, at high schoolers giving out report cards, at protests on the church lawn, at clowns in the street. If we want to be a part of it we have to pay attention.

The answer is always yes. Yes, this is the year of God’s favor, God among us. Hosanna in the highest.

Melissa Florer-Bixler
Lent I/Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Tennyson and I just finished a book about a superhero squirrel who writes poetry. The first poem that the squirrel, Ulysses, types out at the computer, to the utter amazement of his onlookers, goes like this:

I love your round head,
the brilliant green,
the watching blue,
these letters,
this world, you.
I am very, very hungry.

Each time I read one of the chapters about Ulysses I was reminded to notice things. Ulysses notices. He’s confronted by the beauty of the world, sometimes the overwhelming fragility and feeling and beauty of the world. “What is the word for that?” he asks. Is there a word for the lighted windows of other houses, how his human friend, Flora, looks when she sleeps, the wind blowing through the trees, a donut with sprinkles on top and cream on the inside. Or jelly, maybe.

Is there a word for all that? For all those thoughts and feelings, for all that love bound up together? Is there a word for that?

It’s the question I can imagine God asking in today’s Old Testament reading. A people in a desert, lost in a desert, find a way into this green place, a place with all these beautiful things. Everywhere they look they come up against it, find it there, notice it. And in Deuteronomy we learn that God notices, it too. God wants to hold it up, to turn it over and taste this land, to take in all these beautiful things.

The rabbis say that the offering of first fruits in Deuteronomy 26 included sweet things, things like milk and dates, honey and pomegranates. It’s not just staples that are put into the basket, left before the altar for the priests, consumed by those who serve as the bridge connecting God to God’s people. Not just the flour for bread, not the basic nutritional staples. But also jelly donuts. The lighted window. The slow rise and fall of breath in sleep.

These things don’t have to mean anything. They are complete in themselves. They don’t have to point to anything except their own goodness, to fall into the hands of God and God’s people, for them to turn them around, look them over in wonder. And in Deuteronomy God notices. God sees it all, the texture and smell and feel of this world. God asks the people to go into the land and to bring it near, a little bit of all of it. God doesn’t need sustenance, doesn’t need to eat the things the people bring before the altar to stay alive. God desires as God is confronted by beauty, by all of these promised things bound up in one place. Is there a word for that? What is the word for all of this together?

What does it mean for us to worship a God who wants something like this to happen, this Feasts of Ingathering, a festival meant to be carried out by Israel continuously, every three years, forever? What does it tell us about God, that God wants this, that God is drawn to grapes and honey, the first “a-ha” of new life that spring from trees and out of vines, the strange surprise that every year the harvest will come again.

We worship a God who sees the world and turns it over, tastes it, and loves it. Perhaps you have loved things in the world this way. Perhaps along the way you have loved the world for itself, have found yourself confronted by wonder.
The sound of gravel kicked across concrete.
The stutter of light through the guardrail as cars pass on the other side of highway.
The sound of Leon Bridge’s voice.
Anything from Janna’s kitchen.
The warmth of a piece of bread pressed into your palm.

God notices, God loves it for itself, puts it here with no other purpose than to be lovely, to be noticed by you. And in Deuteronomy God points God’s people to all these lovely things. See, God says, look and see! Taste, touch, and see.

Of course the thing that God most desires, the most beloved is you. The most beloved are the people in this story, and you, your life, grafted into theirs. Bringing their basket before the altar the Israelites will recite their history, speak it back to God. A wandering people, who became great in Egypt, afflicted and abused, and then God rescued them. God brought them up, brought them to safety and to abundance, to the land of these dates, right here before me, brought us to these trees, to this hill, to this grass, to the fruit in my hand. “Look,” a closer translation of vs 10 might say, “Look at it right here.”

As we hear the story that God wants the people to retell there are significant pieces left out. Important historical details are omitted. In the recitation of Israel’s history there is no disobedience. No complaining in the wilderness. Not a word about wandering for forty years, Moses hitting a rock for water, of distrust and disloyalty, failure and death. There’s no word of the ten commandments. No mention of golden calves and broken tablets. Not a breath spent on promises made and kept and broken. No responsibility. No getting better, being more faithful, following the rules. Not a word.

A friend reminded me of how this sounds a lot like how Dorothy Day begins her autobiography, A Long Loneliness. “When one writes the story of his life and the work he has been engaged in, it is a confession in a way,” writes Day. “When I wrote the story of my conversion ten years ago I left out all of my sins but told of all the things that had brought me to God, all the beautiful things, all the remembrances of God that had haunted me, pursued me over the years…” She continues writing that it is difficult to do that “without a ritual, without a body with which to love and move, love and praise.”

In the Feast of Ingathering God gives the people a ritual, a ritual of noticing and awe. God gives them words to say, words about wonder and grace. And God has left out the parts about sin. It isn’t mentioned, it’s all left behind. All that remains when everything else is pushed aside is this beloved stuff, these wonders. God inscribed this ritual into the life of a people, inscribed this ritual into their bodies, this act where the useless wonder of these good gifts returns back to the bodies of the people.

Communion is like this, too, a sort of Ingathering of our gifts and our bodies, these good things returning back to us. I have often marveled at how God chose to pass on Jesus’ body to us through food. I suppose God could have called our attention to the horror of crucifixion by having us pass around bitter herbs. Jesus could have told us to remember him among us by saying some words, or holding silent meditation. Instead we are given something to eat. Good bread, a good cup. Sweetness and warmth. “This is my body, for you.”

Of course, as it was for Israel so it will be for us. There will be failure. There will be death and covenants, promises broken and promises kept, but mostly promises broken. There will be exile and war, sins that follow kings and priests and children for generations. But here, in Israel’s body, in the ritual of Ingathering they hear the good news of a God who remembers only that they are beautiful. “Look, here it is” they are to say. See what I have here in my hand, to God, from God, through me, through God.

Wick and I always put our faces down in the garden beds each spring, waiting and watching. Each sunny day we come out to stare and see if the first wisp of sweet pea shoot has emerged over night. “Anything yet?” we’ll say, searching the dirt. And when we see it, when it finally appears it feels like a miracle. Every time, every year. We dance around and whoop and holler. We take pictures of these little tendrils, so small they look silly on my iphone screen. We want you to see these pictures. We want to share them with you. We want you to love them, too. First fruits. We notice it all, and it is all beloved.

And of course this is how God feels about you.

You who must do nothing else for God to notice, for God to notice the soft roundness of your head, the way your laugh starts with a burst.

There is nothing you can add to you, nothing you can do to better yourself, make yourself more useful to God or the world,
nothing that could make you more beloved than you are right now.

There is nothing you have to do,
nothing you have to be for God to wonder at the beauty of your right foot that turns out just slightly when you walk.

You do not have to be braver or smarter or kinder or more faithful.

You don’t have to get over your fear or your sadness or your grief.

You are enough, just as you are, enough for God to delight at the way you lick your finger to turn a page,
and how your eyes close when you taste the tomato sauce off the spoon.

You are God’s first fruit. What is put before the altar is you, your life, your beautiful body, one beloved of God.


Flora and Ulysses (
by Kate DiCamillo) ends with a final poem. It is God’s word to you written through the vehicle, as it were, of a superhero poet squirrel:

Nothing
would be
easier without
you,
because you
are
everything,
all of it —
sprinkles, quarks, giant
donuts, eggs sunny-side up —
you
are the ever-expanding universe
to me.

Duke Memorial UMC
11 pm Service

A few days ago, this past Sunday, we had an Advent play here at the church. It was the fourth Sunday of Advent, a season in the church when we prepare and we long for the coming of a Savior, the coming of Jesus. And in that worship service our littlest children acted out the song “The Friendly Beasts.” It’s a song about the animals in the stable where Jesus was born. They prepare the stable. They prepare it when no one else was there to do so. They offer Jesus the gifts of their lives, of their bodies – the donkey gives hay for Jesus’ bed, the sheep gives wool for a blanket, the doves coo a lullaby from the rafters.

The children dressed as the animals from the song. They also brought their own gifts to prepare our little manger scene. I asked them, what would they bring to get a room ready for Jesus? What comforts you? What makes you feel safe? What do you need?

By the end of the song our manger was brimming with baseball trophies, bells on string, dreamcatchers, a football helmet, stuffed animals, a plastic worm, and many security blankets.

Jesus, the one who receives our gifts. It isn’t the image that I often ascribe to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Because for Jesus to receive our gifts, to truly receive them as a gift, Jesus must want. God must need.

Yet, the story of Jesus begins in want. It’s a story that begins with neediness. It begins in utero, Jesus infused with Mary’s blood, nourished through her body, connected by a cord of flesh as an utterly dependent fetus.

The story of Jesus begins in want. It begins in the body of Mary, her lungs breathing for him, protecting him with layers of her own flesh—her bones holding his, her skin stretched around his, her life his home.

The story of Jesus begins in want. It begins with an infant fed at Mary’s breast, a baby able to communicate only through cries, subject to the people who surround him, who feed him, who cradle him to sleep, who comfort him in the night.

The story of Jesus begins in want. A makeshift labor and delivery room in a stable, the gift of an innkeeper.

The story of Jesus begins in want. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God among us – with us and for us.

Without the incarnation, God experiences almost everything we can. In the Old Testament God weeps and fears. God loves and relents, cries out and punishes. But, without the incarnation, these stories about God are without want. They are stories of a God without need. It is only in being drawn into human life, dependent now on Mary’s body, that God becomes like us in all things. In Jesus God hungers in the wilderness. In Jesus God is tempted by power. In Jesus God longs for others to stay by his side in his time of need, to stay by his side, to stay awake.

At the first Christmas, what we see in the life of Jesus, here at the very beginning, will continue to reveal to us this God incarnate, made flesh among us. Jesus receives the gift of his disciples’ lives, of fish and loaves, the gifts of prayer and anointing with oil, the gifts of touch and tears, the gift of baptism, the gift of a cross carried by another.

At the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus will continue to be a body that receives. “I thirst,” he says from the tree. “I thirst.”

The God who nursed at Mary’s breast, who drinks in the waters of Mary’s womb, here at the end as in the beginning – here Jesus thirsts. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century theologian, is fascinated by this admission—that Jesus thirsts. This is a revelation for her. Julian envisions these words projecting back into time. Jesus thirsted before there was a beginning because God in Jesus thirsts for us. And until we have all been joined to Christ’s body, Jesus will still long for us. “And so, gathering his living members,” writes Julian, “always he draws and drinks, and still he thirsts and he longs.”

In her mystical visions, when Julian sees Christ’s body, she sees us–the members of this body, bound to one another. The church is a community of gifts, of gifts given and received. Tonight, here, as Christmas is about to dawn, we remember God as a child, someone utterly dependent on the people around him–dependent on their care, on their love. It is no wonder that this story, the story of the birth of Jesus, is paired with the prophecy of Isaiah. There is light. Light is coming. The tools of war, bloodied and broken, boots and bayonets, they are cast into fire. How can it be that a baby could usher in this kind of hope?

Isaiah imagines a new kind of power, an alternative to military might: the power of love. Our ability to receive one another’s gifts, the vulnerability of our lives before one another – this is “the power of grief and repentance, of the overcoming of pain and suffering, of neutralizing violence and death, and of transforming defiance and shame through the embracing of it – the risking of encounter with – that which threatens and frightens us in our very midst.”[1]

We are in anxious times. In the air there is suspicion. Suspicion of hijabs, suspicion of the homeless, suspicion of refugees, suspicion of black men and boys. And into this world, into this suspicion, Jesus is born – wanting and needing.

The power of receiving a gift, the gift of the unexpected other is that it yields compassion. We begin to see that, as Julian of Norwich reminds us—we begin to see that Jesus thirsts for each of us, longing to receive the gift of our lives, to receive you, and for us to receive one another, to receive the gift of my life, to receive the gift of the life of your neighbor, your neighbor across the street and across town, your neighbor sleeping on benches downtown, your neighbor on the Greyhound bus, your neighbor in refugee camps.

On Sunday as I was watching our little ones, dressed as donkeys and doves, make their way to the manger, I remembered that each of the gifts they brought for Jesus was first a gift to them. This precious thing, this beloved plastic worm, this blanket that comforts through the night, this was first a gift bestowed and treasured. Our lives, like Jesus’ life, begin in want. And from the beginning they are bound up in grace, in gift-giving, of giving and receiving what is precious, of sharing it with others, of seeing this transformed again and again into the strength of love, a love that refuses to give up on one another, that refuses to give up on this world that Jesus loved and received as a gift.

This is the hope of this day, the hope of Jesus, not what we have to offer our world but what I have to give to you–our lives, the gifts granted to us. Our lives are gift. Your life is a gift. To follow after this Jesus is to do as he did, to follow after others, to receive the gift we did not expect, the gift we may not yet know how to receive. This body, this church–we are called to thirst for one another. To be like this Jesus is to need and receive, to see that your life is a gift, received by others.

Like Jesus, always we draw and drink, and still we thirst and we long.

 

[1] Rita Nakashima Brock. “A New Thing in the Land: The Female Surrounds the Warrior” in Power, Powerlessness, and the Divine, 158.

Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33/Luke 21
Duke Memorial UMC

On Monday I was reading the oracles of Jeremiah 33, today’s Old Testament reading, when Ann called to tell me the church was on lock down. I wasn’t at the church at the time. I knew there was a threat down the street. Besides that there wasn’t a lot of information. White man. Gray hoodie. No one knew much.

For the next half hour I kept eyeing the door of the coffee shop nervously. I checked possible exits. I wondered if I should say something to the woman sitting across from me as she got up to leave. At the top of the window I could see helicopters circling.

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

Those were the word on the page. Live in safety. They pounded in my ears as I got back into my car after being told it was all right to return to the church.

I turned the keys in the ignition, and that’s when I heard it. “We Need a Little Christmas” pouring out of my speakers, on the 24/7 Christmas music station that as been in playing since Thanksgiving.

Do you know this song?

Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now

I sat in the car and listened for a while before driving off. There was something so jarring about it. The lyrics continue:

For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now

I’d never really listened to the words but here it was so clear. Christmas is the great diversion, the sentimental distraction from the leaner, colder, sadder, older world, the world in which things are falling apart around us. A lot of us are good at pulling it together for the holidays. We put on a good face, we pretend like everything is fine. It’s easy to find distractions to keep us from looking around. When the distraction is gone – that’s when things start to slip. That’s when we realize this just isn’t enough—this life I have, day in day out, the same old thing. This is world is too much.

“Be alert at all times,” Jesus tells us. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.” Jesus says this after describing a chaotic scene. Signs of distress in the sky. Nations perplexed by the roaring of the ocean. The kingdom of God is near. This is our world. This world around us, the world on the nightly news, the news that is recorded from helicopters buzzing above our own heads.

The Gospel lesson is a reminder that this is a season of waiting and expectation, a season when we are anticipating God’s coming among us. If there’s anyone who knows about anticipating God in the midst of destruction it is the prophet Jeremiah. His words echo back the groaning of our world.

Jeremiah writes to us from the heart of a city gripped by fear. Homes will be destroyed by an invading army, families ripped apart. Destruction is at hand, and the future grows more and more dim. There is violence, poverty, and trembling everywhere. This is a city where birds will not land, where even animals flee.

Kathleen Norris wrote a chapter about her experience reading Jeremiah at daily prayer. Each morning Norris gathered with the brothers of the Benedictine monastery where she was writer in residence. I’ve been to this monastery, too. I’ve walked the mile down the street to St John’s Abbey, and I’ve sat in those same raised seats behind the altar. Each day a lesson is read, a full book parceled out a little at a time.

I can imagine Norris waking early, and, still groggy with sleep, sitting in those hard chairs. There she is exposed to the grief of Jeremiah, immersing herself in the terror of a world in shambles. At one point Norris writes how, after some particularly grim passages she felt like shouting, “have a nice day” to the entire assembly. “Easier to mock a prophet than to listen to him,” she tells us.

“Taking Jeremiah to heart, day in day out,” writes Norris, “I got much more than I bargained for. I found it brave of these Benedictines, in late twentieth-century America, in a culture of denial, to try to listen to the prophet at all.”

Today we are stumbling into the latter sections of Jeremiah. From the words we heard Kathy read today it might be hard to imagine that Jeremiah writes these oracles imprisoned in the king’s palace courtyard. Those in power, and those against whom these prophecies of destruction are aimed, they cannot stand his words. They burn, like fire.

But Jeremiah doesn’t shy away from the world as it is. He can’t. He can’t help but name the horror and tragedy around him, the way things are falling apart.

“We have heard a cry of panic, of terror, of no peace.”

“See, disaster spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.”

“All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

Jesus warns us to be mindful of ourselves, that paying attention to this kind of terror can weigh down our hearts, can become its own distraction. Don’t let the day catch you unexpectedly, he tells us. Redemption requires us to have ready hearts, lives ready to receive it in unexpected ways. We have to pay attention.

And it is Jeremiah who reminds us we have to give our attention not only above but also below.

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” writes Jeremiah.

Here, imprisoned for his words, among a people who would rather murder him than hear his prophecies, Jeremiah puts his ear to the ground. And he can hear something stirring, deep in the earth, deep in the dark.

There’s something there, almost imperceptible. He tells us to listen, to listen for the earth’s slight movements, to listen for what is being made, the possibilities for a new life created beneath the surface. I imagine that root, the one Jeremiah waits to see erupt into a branch, I imagine it working through the soil, working it’s way, unseen, hidden below our feet.

Looking up, looking at our lives and our world, we see that life is for more than this. There has to be more. Below, below the surface, God is stirring. Underground, winding below the surface, whispers of life you can’t yet see. A shoot. A bud. A branch.

I wonder what it has been like for you, what you see when you look around. Maybe this is the first time you are spending Christmas separated from your mother, separated from your child. Maybe you’re grappling with being rejected by your family, or by your church. Maybe you’re realizing that you were numb after the 355th mass shooting this year. Maybe you are confused and frightened that Islamophobia and racism are trending well among American voters. Maybe this year contained the worst day of your life.

I confess that I need the hope of Jeremiah this week, a complicated hope that nestles in between dark days, the kind of hope that is silent and hidden, an expectant hope, a hope waiting in the dark. I need Jeremiah’s hope, something more than a distraction from pain and sorrow. I need something more.

Friends, beneath us something is stirring. God’s life, so near to ours that longing for us drew God into human life, into an infant child, this life is stirring. A child, born for us, born in the cold and the dark. This root, ready to erupt. God’s longing for you, for me, for us.

Raise your heads, look up. See the signs in the sun, and the moon and the stars. See the destruction. And once you look around, once you take it all in, put your head on the ground next to mine. I’ll listen with you. We’ll listen for movement, listening for what is happening deep in the warm earth, where we cannot see, where, in spite of it all God is moving and making, putting out roots. I’ll listen with you. I’ll tell you what I hear if you’ll tell me when you can hear that first sounds of God working and making a way. I’ll stay with you. I’ll stay with you and wait.

James 2:1-17
Melissa Florer-Bixler
Duke Memorial UMC
Sept 6, 2015
Is it good news?

Last year my neighbor came to see me. Her subsidized housing unit, a dilapidated duplex, had been sold to a new rental company. In exchange for a break in the rent she’d agreed to move out early, to move to another part of town. In her seventies, frail and tired, she wondered if we would help her pack up her things.

And I wondered, is it good news?

A few weeks later a renovation team pulled up, turned over the entire property. Central heating, hardwood floors, a new paint job and appliances. A young man, who looked and talked like me, moved in with his dog. More houses of long-term Walltown residents are on the market today. Property values, including that of my house, have gone up.

And I wonder, is it good news?

Is it good news?

For the Christians at whom James directs his pen class and status cloud the answer to this question. The situation before them is where they seat visitors to their worship service. It’s rare that we are given an example from first century Palestine that translates seamlessly to our own context. But today we get just that.

Two people walk into church. One, James describes, as dressed in a well-tailored suit, gold rings flashing as he makes his way down the aisle. At the same time in walks a woman in filthy clothes. Maybe she slept in them. Maybe these are all she owns.

For the congregation in James’ letter it is obvious how the seating arrangements will unfold. The places up front, to be seen and to see others, there we will seat the man in his finest suit. The other woman – her we’ll keep out of sight, maybe in the balcony.

Is it good news?

This question echoes throughout today’s Scripture readings, throughout the course of Jesus’ ministry. This question haunts Christian history. Are we preaching good news, and is that good news being borne in our lives? Who decides? For whom is it good news? And for whom is the life that we live actually bad news – bad news for someone else’s job and children and school and neighborhood?

The community addressed in James’ letter sees good news in a well-dressed man walking into their sanctuary. He will boost their social status, maybe increase the church budget. Middle-income people, ready to be taken seriously by their wider community, the people of this church want to blend into the social world around them. They are drawn to these well-suited visitors. Respectable people. People who have something to offer.

It makes sense. It’s logical. But is it good news? In James the answer is no.

Thomas Long reminds us that the set up of worship in the book of James is a result of this tendency to rely on our natural inclination towards what is good. “James’s point,” write Long, “is not to encourage the ushers to smile with equal warmth toward all who come to worship but instead to remind the church that in the economy of God’s grace, the very ones for whom the world has little regard have become the guests of honor in the household of God.”

We can hear in James how, in this moment of ordinariness, in this moment of simply placing one’s body in the pew, that the good news requires a revelation. We know good news when it is good news for the poor, not when it is fair. And to hear this as good news we need to be changed.

We will not come to this on our own. We are too steeped in an ethic of fairness to imagine that God could possibly be for some and against others, that the good news for the poor may end up being bad news for those who oppress, that “God [has] chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.”

We cannot see the good news before us of our own will or accord. The very fact that we can be “hearers and doers” of the Word of God is an act of divine intervention, a miracle of God’s reaching down into time.

Is it good news? We need a revelation to tell.

Our Gospel lesson is a moment of revelation, one that answers this very question. And this time the one who receives the good news is Jesus. In this story Jesus comes to be surprised by the ways the abundance of the kingdom spills over, erupts, and runs wild.

Jesus is tired. He has set off for Tyre, a gentile part of the country. Avoiding more confrontation, more miracles, more teaching Jesus ducks into a house. But even here, we read, he cannot escape notice. He is seen by a Gentile woman with a sick child, a woman who begs Jesus to cure her little one.

Jesus dismisses the woman. He insults her. “Look,” he tells her, “it’s not fair to give the food of children to dogs.” He calls her a dog. He belittles her. He reinforces ethnic boundaries, saying I’ve come for my people, for Israel. “You,” he says, there’s nothing left for you. There isn’t enough.”

So she asks him a question. She says to him, “even dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She asks him, is this good news? Is it good news? Do you know there is enough? Can you see through your exhaustion to the person sitting here before you, begging for a miracle? Is it good news? Can you see that I am the bearer of good news?

It’s not the first time that Jesus is surprised by the abundance of the kingdom. There are other times in Mark’s gospel when the good news gets away from him, slips beyond his reach, beyond his expectation. Earlier a woman approached Jesus for healing but, being pressed back by the crowd she decides instead to reach out. If I can only touches the edge of his garment I’ll be healed, she reasons. She brushes the cloth with her hand, I imagine just her fingertips as her arm presses through the crowd. Instantly she feels her bleeding stop. She can feel it inside her. Stopped after decades. She is healed.

Jesus power gets away from him. It’s superabundant, profligate, extravagant. And the Syrophonecian woman reminds Jesus of this, that there is enough. She reminds him that she bears this good news in her body because the Gospel, the good news will shatter the boundaries of Israel, going where it will.

Jesus heals this Gentile woman’s daughter. He does it because of this word she has spoken to him. He receives the good news from her.

I imagine that this is why the lectionary points us towards James and the ragged people seated at the back of the sanctuary, those who show up to worship with their despair worn on their very bodies. Consistently, without exception the people who bear the good news in the Gospel are those who suffer oppression. To put ourselves in a position to receive these people impartially is to make ourselves available to the revelation of the partiality of God’s good news, that God is for those on the margins.

Is it good news? It’s the question that finds it’s way to us when we make ourselves vulnerable to those who are the victims of systems by which so many others profit.

It’s the question that confronts us as we see Syrian refugees, camped in the train stations of Hungary.
It’s the question that confronts us in the child whose only meals will be those she receives in her public school cafeteria.
It’s the question that confronts us when a homeless person joins us for lunch on the lawn.
It’s the question that confronts me as my neighbor packs her bags for another move to another part of town.

It should come as no surprise that James reminds us that mercy, not judgment are what will find their way to us when all is said and done. The mercy of good news, of discerning it, is that we cannot control it. We cannot earn our way to it through study or piety or spiritual practice.

The kingdom, the outpouring of this good news, will spring up in unexpected places, like wild seeds that take off, enclosing the ground in thick weedy undergrowth. Like the yeast of our Communion bread that required no kneading, no effort on our part – yeast that worked itself into the bread before you.

Instead the good news will avoid the scholarly and the learned. Instead it will erupt from a little boy’s lunch, from a begging demon, from a windstorm. The good news will find it’s way into our churches. It will keep surprising us, keep upending us, keep us wondering and watching and waiting.

The abundance of God. It sounds like something we might want to be a part of. But James reminds us that our faith requires us becoming ourselves vulnerable to the places where we do not expect God’s kingdom to erupt. We are constantly in negotiation, constantly unsettled, constantly attending to the question before us: Is it good news?

Friends, that’s mercy. You cannot earn your way into understanding the good news, but you can wait, ready to receive whoever walks through these doors. You can ask for eyes to see the messengers of good news in your life, or the ones you try to avoid. You can lean not on your own understanding, in your natural sense of goodness. You can interrogate it. You can welcome the good news you never expected, hands outstretched, ready to receive the one you never knew was waiting for you.

welcome the good news you never expected, hands outstretched, ready to receive the one you never knew was waiting for you.

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