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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

On Sunday, we played host to the choir from the local Jesuit boys’ high school.  This was fun, because they are a good choir, and it really amuses me to hear people from outside the Anglican tradition sing Anglican choral music.  (It’s  like hearing British actors turn their American accents on and off.  “Ha!  Yes, we do love to pronounce the letter ‘r’!”  “Yes!  We do enjoy 4-part harmonies modelled on the peregrinus tone!  Aren’t you clever for trying!”)

I mention this, because I got the impression, from feedback on my sermon, that the congregation felt the rector and I had concocted some brilliant, crafty plan, to have me preach, and preach specifically on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the better to convince the unsuspecting choir kids that the Episcopal Church was awesome.  Lots of pats on the back, and “I’m so glad they got to hear that from you!”-type responses.

While I find this touching (also hilarious.) , I also think this is  giving us way too much credit.  My aspirations do not extend to converting an entire choir in one fell swoop, and in any case, only about 3 of the kids were willing to receive communion, so clearly, my “secret plan to enlarge the church” needs much work.

But in any case, here’s what I said.

And now, some kids who hadn’t ever heard a woman preach before, have heard one.  So I’ll take that.

 

December 14/15, 2013

Advent 3, Year A

Canticle 15/ Magnificat

 

In the cathedral in Santa Fe, there are two statutes of Mary.  One statue is called La Conquistadora in Spanish,  titled “Our Lady of Peace” in English, which is NOT what that Spanish means.  It’s the statue brought by the Spanish Jesuit monks who came to convert the natives.  Depicted in this statue, Mary is tiny, about 2 feet tall, paler than me, she’s dressed in gorgeous robes, and a real golden crown, ruler of all she surveys.

That statute was brought over by the Jesuits when they came to the New World, and they believed the Blessed Virgin Mary lent her protection to their mission to colonize the natives, and when the local Pueblo Indians rose up in revolt, they believed that it was this version of Mary that allowed them to return, and re-conquer the territory.

The statute is definitely what you might call the traditional school of Mary-stuff.  She’s really calm.  She stands there
 and looks slightly downward, eyes downcast meekly.  She’s wearing white. And she looks childlike, other-worldly, removed from time and space and context.

 

But then, there’s the other statue, on the other side of the cathedral–Our Lady of Guadalupe stands over the other altar.  She looks nothing like the first statue, the earlier one. This Mary looks like an Aztec teenage girl.  She looks fiesty–she’s staring you in the face, making direct eye contact, she’s painted in bright colors, and she’s got her foot defiantly on a snake.  Sun and moon beams coming out from behind her head,  No gold jewelry anywhere near this lady.  She’s wearing the clothing of a peasant, of a native woman, from the time the Spanish first had contact in what is no Mexico.  Very different depictions, both of–apparently! the same person.

 

And granted, I’m reading some things into these statues, but I’d argue that they play into some definite traditions around the Virgin Mary.   Because think of how Mary is usually described, how Mary is usually depicted in our Western world– think of Christmas cards, Christmas carols, for starters. Mary, as we usually see her depicted, is all white and blue and meek and mild.  As she generally is, in our Western Christian American world.  That seems to be the prevailing pop-culture take on the Virgin Mary. She was meek!  She was quiet!  She did not make a fuss!  She’s all white and blue and more than likely blonde!! (Which was definitely it’s own little miracle for a Palestinian Jewish girl, but hey.)

 

And on its own, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  I’m an introvert myself, and on one notable occasion, the Commission on Ministry described me as ‘meek’.  (It was a mistake, and they took it back.)

 

So there is nothing wrong with any of that!  Those things are good, they are fine attributes–if you actually have them, if you come by them naturally.

 

But we get into trouble when that’s all that Mary is–when we restrict her to that one, white and gold La Conquistadora statue.  Because Mary is so important, because she gets an important role in the gospel narrative, she’s practically the first person we meet, because she gets touted as the ideal faithful person, when all Mary is is that quiet, meek, pale-ish girl in the corner who doesn’t say much, then that can become a problem. Because that does some weird things to faith.

 

Because that is a pretty narrow category to fit into.  Those are some pretty rigid expectations.  And while we need people like that around, holding all people of faith up to that single way of being,  especially up to that single way of being faithful, ends up excluding a lot of people.  Because it turns out, not all people are good at sitting still and benig quiet.  And what, pray tell, are they all supposed to do?  All those of us who have never been quite so good at sitting still, or quietly assenting to things.

 

It matters how we depict things.  It matters how we depict people we hold important in our faith, especially very important figures like Mary and Jesus, because in depicting them, we’re implicitly saying what we think our faith ought to look like.  We look up to Mary because Mary had faith, Mary had faith that she demonstrated when she agreed with this outlandish story Gabriel was telling her.  So it matters how we depict that faith.  It matters how we depict people–and it matters if badly informed news anchors decide that Jesus is white, JUST WHITE, all of a sudden.  That matters, and that is a problem, because it affects what faith looks like.

 

It matters, and IT IS A PROBLEM, if the only depictions out there, or if the dominant depictions out there are of Mary all meek and mild and passive.

So hooray, then, the Song of Mary, which we read today, comes as a great relief.  Because here is Mary saying quite a lot of things actually, all at once, and not sounding the least bit meek or mild.

In fact, most of the Magnificat comes out like fighting words.  He has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, the rich he has sent empty, away.

That’s pretty brave talk.  And that’s AFTER this unwed pregnant teenage girl declares herself to be the most blessed among all generations.  (This is some Beyoncé level swagger, y’all.)

 

This isn’t meek or mild talk, this isn’t the talk of someone who’s primary role in life is to be passive and to obey when told.  This song of Mary is the talk of a prophet.  And in fact, when Mary has her conversation with Gabriel, she doesn’t just say Yes, whatever you say.  What she says is Here I am–the same thing that every prophet in the Jewish tradition says when God calls them. That’s a very specific word in Hebrew, and it’s what Isaiah and Amos and every other prophet says when God calls them to prophesy, and it’s what Mary says to Gabriel:  Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.  Mary’s accepting her call.

 

Mary’s got backbone.  This Mary, the one we meet in the Magnificat, and the one we meet arguing with her Son to conjure up some more wine at a wedding, and the one who knows what’s going on when no one else does–this Mary is her own person, she has strength, and she has courage.

She doesn’t just get moved around on the chessboard of God’s larger plan.

 

And that’s important.  Because for an icon of faith, to have real faith that makes a difference, you have to have strength.  Faith takes courage.  Faith doesn’t go anywhere, faith doesn’t get off the ground without courage.

 

Think of those proclamations in the song of Mary–the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up.  To believe in a world like that, to believe a world like that is possible, while standing in the middle of this world, takes courage.  It takes courage to believe that the world could be different.  It takes real strength to see how the world is unjust and to believe that God is working out a better way.

Otherwise, you’d just give up, throw in the towel, and move to a beach somewhere.

 

But Mary’s kind of faith, this brave kind of in-your-face-faith, proclaims that even though the world is broken, and unjust now, God is working out a better way, even as we speak.  And God is calling the most unexpected people to work with him, God is lining up volunteers right now.

 

And so, to take on that call, to join in the work of God, to join in the remaking of the world into that just, good place that God wants it to be, requires bravery.  Requires a brave faith, because faith asks us to step out into the world as it is, and do something to make the world into what it should be. Faith requires us to be like Mary and do our part to help incarnate Christ in the world.

 

And so that’s what we’re called to do.  To be brave.  To be fearless.  To proclaim boldly that God has blessed us mightily and has lifted up the lowly and cast down the haughty and has fed the hungry and sent away the rich.  To be brave enough to go out into the world and give God our hands and our feet, our bodies and our flesh for his use.

 

That’s the faith we need.  And thankfully, that’s the example we have.

 

Amen.

 

 

Lepers, then and now

Two thoughts.
1. Pope Francis is around, being awesome again this week, ministering to a man afflicted with a skin ailment.  So while leprosy, and the knee-jerk reaction it once elicted, might seem like a historical memory, while it might seem like we’ve all moved past that–there’s ample evidence to the contrary, as we all are amazed again by the pope actually doing what we’re all called to do.

2. I don’t tell this story in the sermon much, because of Rule #3.  Also, it feels odd to condense the whole life and witness of a person to a few lines in one of my sermons.  So here’s hoping I did them justice, at least a little bit.

 

 

 

October 12-13, 2013

 

Proper 23, Ordinary Time, Year C

 

Luke 17:11-19

 

 

 

When I was a small child, my family had two friends: Mark and Arliss.  To my child-centered mind, I thought Mark and Arliss were terrific, mainly because they played Barbies with me when I asked nicely, and listened to interesting music, and visited our local pool on occasion to go swimming. They were great.

 

They were so great, that I found everyone else’s behavior very strange, bordering on inexplicable. I didn’t understand when my mother had to remind me to lie and, if I was asked, tell the neighbors that Mark and Arliss were relatives–or the neighbors wouldn’t let them come back to the local pool.  And when Arliss was in the hospital, nurses refused to treat him, and everyone else on staff wore multiple layers of gloves, layer on layer on layer, and got out of his room as fast as they could. Because Mark and Arliss had AIDS, and this was the late 1980s, and this was Southern Virginia.

 

Except for a handful of people, they were isolated, totally isolated.  Society viewed them with suspicion at best–and that is an awful way to live a life.

 

 

 

It’s draining, it’s dehumanizing, when every interaction with the world is shaded with the world’s distrust and fear.  And I watched the toll it took on my friends.  The modern day leprosy, the news pundits called it, at the time.

 

 

 

Leprosy! Practically the standard by which all shunned people are measured!  And here in the gospel today, we have ten lepers. Because Jesus is travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and passing through the wilderness, he runs into what amounts to a leper camp.

 

And now, two things become important here:

 

one: anyone diagnosed with leprosy would have been shunned:  kicked out and shunned immediately by everyone, either until they died, or until they were cured.  No one would have come near them, or touched them, or given them food or work.

 

 

 

And two: a cure wasn’t a crazy thought, because what we translate in the Bible as leprosy was any spot or rash appearing where it ought not to appear..  So this included anything from an allergic reaction to bed bugs, to the thing everyone was terrified of: actual leprosy–that would kill you and spread rapidly from person to person.

 

But it also included things like mold, or mildew.  There’s a really entertaining section of Leviticus that details how to cure your house and books of leprosy.

 

 

 

Anyway, Jesus encounters ten people with skin problems living cast out of society because of their affliction and he’s travelling, and they cry out for help.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

 

Even as they ask him for help, they don’t approach.  There were strict rules about how people classified as lepers were to behave, because there was so much fear of the disease and its spread.  You had to stay so far away from the uninfected.  You had to warn people who were approaching, in case they didn’t notice you, and they bumped into you accidentally.

 

All in all, it was an incredibly dehumanizing and lonely experience to be treated as a leper, because the society was so terrified of even the possibility of this disease.

 

 

 

And so it’s not hard to imagine that the lepers, or those so diagnosed by society, were used to that, to some extent. After months, years of being avoided by everyone they knew, they might have grown used to it, or thought that since that was the way society operated, that was the way it always was, and always would be.

 

 

 

Being oppressed, being cast out like that, does something to a person.  It wears on your spirit–when the voice of society questions your worth, your value at every turn.

 

 

 

All of which is to say–when the one ex-leper returns and approaches Jesus–that’s a surprising moment.  Not only is he a Samaritan, so he’s crossing some religious lines here, but he’s going against everything society had been telling him he was meant to do.  Don’t talk to people, don’t go near them, certainly don’t touch them.  He does that in one moment of gratitude.

 

And Jesus marvels.  And notice that in Jesus’ comment about gratitude, and where the other healed lepers are, he doesn’t take back the miracle.  God’s healing grace, it turns out, doesn’t depend on our being grateful enough for it, or praying hard enough, or some imaginary yardstick. God is gracious because God is gracious.

 

Jesus marvels, and Jesus comments on the man’s faith.  Your faith has made you well.

 

 

 

Because, Somehow, through the grace and power of God, this man has held on to his belief in his essential humanity.  He held on to a faith in the idea that no matter what the voices around him said, God loved him, and God created him in God’s image and nothing could destroy that– no isolation or fear or disease.  So when Jesus restored him to health and to community, he didn’t run away.  In faith, in a way, he had been there all along.

 

 

 

For all of us, there are constant voices telling us that we aren’t what we are supposed to be.  Advertisers who would like to sell us something. Politicians who would like us to vote for something.  In our society, we are constantly being told that we aren’t quite what we should be: we should all be richer, thinner, paler, (or tanner, as the case may be), younger or older, depending, we should be healthier. We should have more stuff. We should care about different things than we do.  And we should all certainly be cooler than we are.  And then, we will be perfect–ever more perfect each year.

 

It’s a constant Greek chorus of doom, that warns that the consequence of not being so perfect means that we will end up alone.

 

 

 

So this preys on what we know, what we were told at our baptism, and what we reiterate  each week here: we are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are loved by God, and nothing changes that.  No sickness, no fear, nothing the world derides as imperfect separates us from the love of God, or his image in us.

 

 

 

It is that faith that carries us through and empowers us to recognize the image of God in other people.  It is a faith that opens us up to see the grace of God bringing healing to our lives and our community.  And it is this faith in the image of a God in us that lets us act as agents of that grace in the world.

 

 

 

Because the world has enough voices counting the ways we aren’t good enough. It really doesn’t need any more.  What the world needs are people who believe in the love of God for each person.  The unshakeable, un breakable love of God imprinted on each human heart that will not quit, no matter what.

 

And when we rely on our faith in that, when we carry our faith in a God of that kind of love, out into the world, that is the sort of faith that brings miracles.

 

 

 

Amen.

 

On preaching, Part 1

A few weeks ago, a friend from Arizona wrote and asked me if I’d come up with some do’s and don’ts of preaching for a seminarian. “Something short, off the top of your head,” he urged.

My friend is a wonderful person, but I have never not had multiple opinions on anything. So coming up with a Buzzfeed-worthy listsicle on preaching wasn’t in the cards.

What I tried to do, instead, was to think about what made sermons compelling to me, and what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been preaching.

Here’s what I came up with.

It is long, so this will be broken up into three posts, over three days.

On Preaching:
I have lots of thoughts about preaching, because I have lots of thoughts about pretty much everything. But I’ll do my hardest to contain myself, and put them into some sort of understandable format.

1. The pulpit is powerful.

This isn’t a do or don’t, so much as a rule that undergirds the rest.
When you step up to preach, you assume a lot of authority—whether ordained or not—by virtue of the fact that you are speaking within the liturgy, and as Episcopalians, it would take no less than the return of Jesus Himself for a congregant to stand up and contradict you openly. (And even then, I’m pretty sure the Altar Guild would consider it very bad form.) You have so many minutes to speak to your people about your common life and what God is up to and those people aren’t going anywhere. It’s the very definition of a captive audience (You are quite literally preaching to the choir) and what’s more, the vast majority of that audience will put, at least, some stock in what you’re saying.
It’s both a golden opportunity to say something important and life-affirming, and a huge risk to say something hurtful and alienating if you aren’t careful. So never underestimate the power of the pulpit, for good or for ill.

That being said…

2. Don’t lie from the pulpit.

Don’t EVER lie from the pulpit.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often I hear people do it, and mostly unintentionally. Things like saying “When Matthew wrote this story…” (anyone who’s taken EFM knows that’s not how it went down), or glossing over textual contradictions. (I about walked out of church once in college when I heard a lay reader declare that this was “a lesson from Deuteronomy, which was written by Moses.” Gah.)
But there’s another layer to this, too—don’t feel the need to ‘prettify’ the Bible. Don’t smooth away the parts of the parables that make no sense, don’t try to pretend that the Johannine Jesus is more comprehensible than he is, don’t ignore the violence and the awful gender politics and the excuses for slavery that runs through the Bible.
Don’t lie by omission.
If you don’t directly address the ugly parts of the Bible, and the parts that don’t make sense, then people are left to either adopt whatever interpretation they hear, or just continue in a vague fog of Biblical misunderstanding left over from the 1930s. Neither one have served us well. You’re the preacher. It’s your job to expound and confront that text. Sometimes your job will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid it. If there are no good answers, say that. If it’s a hard story, say that.
The more you can confront and name the discomfort in the safety of the liturgy, the more your people can confront and name the discomfort in the wider world.

Adventures in Postmodern Ministry: We are not Family

Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching.  These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc.  (And also see our colleagues.  An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)

Our presenter covered a lot of ground, but one of the points she touched on was that the meaning of language has shifted considerably in the past few decades.  Therefore, in her preaching classes, certain words are off-limits:  sin, grace, faith, hope, etc.  She dubbed these “Teflon words” because their meanings are so loaded and expansive that anything can be thrown at them with no effect, unless the preacher specifically defines them.
I agree with this Teflon concept.  Especially for folks who came of age in a post-Christendom world, there exists no one meaning for any of these theological terms.  Just as the pleasant concept of a unified theory of systematic theology has broken down into a multitude of varied voices singing in (one hopes) harmony, each of our nice theological terms now has a variety of meanings attached to it.  ‘Sin’ can mean what your mom says when you were 5, as well as what the crazy guy on the subway is yelling about as well as what Rick Santorum is currently pontificating about.  Plus, probably whatever the preacher on South Park says it means.
Which means a couple things:  #1, the average person is confused about theology and #2, preachers had better start defining their terms, unless they want their folks to be educated by the loudest voices in the room.  (Who are liable to be Rick Santorum, and South Park.)
And, #3. Due to this varied soup of influences, words have ceased to mean what you think they mean.  And perhaps, some words should only be used in the pulpit with the utmost caution.
To this latter list of Teflon words, might I add the word “family”?
I realize that I invite the shocked gasps of many throughout the church with this suggestion, as well as the writers of almost every parish profile I have ever read, but hear me out.
I understand that we would like the church to be a family.  But I also think that what we mean by this term is: “a group of people who support and love each other unconditionally, through good times and bad, richer or poorer, etc.”  It’s an aspirational goal;  it’s what we strive to be like.
Because many of us (most of us, maybe) do not come from families that operated like this.  Many of us came from families that did not manage to pull off the unconditional love concept, and who weren’t always so supportive of everything, all the time, always.  Families can, and do, split up.  Families can, and do, hurt each other and abuse each other, and store secrets for years and years.  Aspirational goals, and Hallmark cards, aside, the reality of ‘family’ as many of us know it is not really an experience that anyone would want to import into the church.  It’s not a life-giving metaphor; it’s covered with too much baggage.
Instead, why not be explicit with our aspirations?  If we want to be a community of people who support and love each other unconditionally, then why not say that?  Why not explain that this is, in fact, what Christian community is, and lay out exactly what our vision is?   And this has never been more important than now, when there are so many competing voices, clamoring to claim what is Christian and what is not.  What if we were to step forward and say, “Hey!  Shocking as it may sound, a Christian community is determined by its ability to love and accept the newcomer and stranger, not its ability to judge more harshly than anyone else in town.  Christian communities are built on love, not the skulls of the damned.”
Our ability to communicate the Gospel has never been more important, and it helps no one if we restrain ourselves to vague terms that are comforting shibboleths to us, but hopelessly baggage-laden to others.  We need to be clear, crystal-clear, even, and forthright with our vision for a redeemed creation: words and all!

Rent, Transfigured

In seminary preaching class, we had an assignment towards the end of term.  Thirty minutes before class, we were given a sealed envelope with a text in it, and a 3×5 card.

The assignment was to take the thirty minutes and come up with a 3-5 minute sermon based on the text given, and preach it in class.  (I’d like to see you try this, Top Chef people.)  The idea was that at some point in our lives, we would show up at church, all calm and happy, and be called upon to preach a sermon at the last minute.  Best to start practicing now.

My text was from Ezekiel, where the prophet addresses the people of Israel in the voice of God and says “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.  And you shall be my people…” and something else happens in the verse, but all I could think of was Finding Nemo, and Dory speaking to the jellyfish:   “I shall call you Squishy, and you shall be my Squishy!”

Free association in the postmodern age can be tricky. And not without a sense of humor.

But, since the relationship between God and God’s people is, in fact, not unlike that between Dory and the jellyfish, it worked out.

This week, I read the texts (Elijah/Elisha and Transfiguration!) and all I could think of was that scene from Rent with the angry homeless lady yelling at Mark.

Now, this could have been because some friends of mine had been discussing it on Twitter earlier in the month.  Or it could be because God was messing with me.

Either way, each time I read Peter’s comment, and God’s comeback “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him!” I heard the Angry  Woman singing in my head.

If you know Rent, you understand the tension here.  Almost nothing in her scene is sermon-appropriate language.  But I couldn’t find another illustration.  Despite the fact that I was still really unclear why/how the Angry Homeless Woman was related to the Transfiguration,  I decided to take a stab at it.

Here’s what happened.

 

February 19, 2012

7 Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year B

Mark 9: 2-9

 

In the musical RENT, a sort of modern read on La Boheme set in New York’s East Village, early in the narrative, the main starving-artist characters are hanging around a vacant lot late at night, observing a homeless woman being harassed by some cops.  She hasn’t done anything wrong–they just want her to pull up her tent-city dwelling and head somewhere else for the night, when one of the ‘artists’ comes over with his handy-dandy video camera (This is all set in the late 1990s, so forgive the absence of cellphones).

Realizing he’s being caught on tape, the officer heads off, and Mark, with the camera, turns to the lady he’s just ‘rescued,’ clearly expecting to be gratefully thanked, when she  instead starts cursing at him.

 

What, exactly, she screams at him is not church-appropriate language, so I shall heavily paraphrase.

Basically, she asks him who in the world he thinks he is, she didn’t need to be rescued in the first place, and she doesn’t exist just so he can make a new movie, or feel better about himself.

 

She stomps away.

 

See, this woman, She wanted to be engaged with.

 

She wanted to be listened to, not just seen, not just treated like a problem, or even a heroine.  She wanted to be listened to.

 

Peter’s comment in the gospel today up on the mountain is a very human one.  Very understandable response.  He’s all confused, clearly,  one minute he was out for a nice lesuirely stroll with his friends– the next, there’s a cloud, there’s a light, there’s visions of long dead prophets appearing.  He’s having a bit of a day.

 

So he’s overcome.  He’s blown out of the water by what he’s experiencing.  And he seizes on the first thing that pops into his head which possibly has bypassed the filter between brain and mouth– I know none of you have ever done this.

 

He says– “lord!  It is good we are here!  Let us build three dwellings for you!  One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”

 

He doesn’t want to build mansions here– what he wants to build is more like tiny houses– or tabernacles.  It’s a word in Greek that gets kicked around in the OT anytime the people of Israel are out wandering in the desert, and want to build a resting place for the Presence of God.  It denotes something like a dwelling place , or a tent.

So Peter wants to build homes for Jesus , Moses and Elijah.  He wants to keep them there.  He wants to freeze the moment.  The moment is so overwhelming, so wonderful and inspiring and awe-producing that he wants to freeze it and stay with it forever.

 

Leave Jesus and Moses and Elijah living up there on the mountain top forever like living museum pieces.  Frozen.  Waiting.  Perfect and beautiful and lovely.

 

But Peter doesn’t get to do that because this voice comes from the heavens, and God says, “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  LISTEN TO HIM.”

 

I’d imagine it must be a pretty awesome experience for God to tell you to shut it, essentially, and that’s what happens to Peter.

 

Peter gets told, not to honor the stillness and perfection of what he saw, but to listen.  To engage.  To risk shattering the perfection of the image, and head back down the mountain.

 

Peter, really, I’m guessing, and most of us too, would have loved to stay up on the untainted mountaintop with those booths and Jesus, just hanging out, and staring.  It would have been great.  The Christ, with Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the chief of the prophets, and you, to sit and absorb their wisdom, forever and ever, and just relish their nearness and their transcendence and the bliss of it all.

 

Because there’s not much better than a mountaintop experience.  Those moments when we feel God’s presence so close, and everything sort of sharpens into clear focus, and we get it.  Those are great; those get us out of bed on the bad days, those keep us going, those little glimmers of light in the darkness.

 

But those are also few and far between.  Life is not a mountaintop.  We don’t get to live up there in a booth with Elijah.  We come back down the mountain.  We live in the valley, for the most part, where things are murkier and dimmer.  After this scene on the top, Jesus and the disciples head down the mountain, and they head straight for Jerusalem.

 

These glimpses of God, this transfiguration wasn’t so much so Peter and the others could feel good about their life choices in following Jesus, really, and it wasn’t to cement their faith for the trials ahead.   They’re still going to wimp out in a few weeks.

 

These flashes of God we experience give further shape to our relationship with God.  They illuminate our wrestling in the dark.  Like flashes of lightening in a dark room, they cast light over what we’re already doing.  Visions alone don’t make a relationship– engagement does.  Listening does.  Visions only help explain what you’re listening to.

 

What keeps you going down in the valleys, between those mountaintop flashes of clarity, is engagement with God.  Listening.  Peter, James, John, they believed in Jesus before they saw him transfigured. They had a relationship with him, following him, listening to him, before Moses and Elijah appeared.  They absorbed his words his wisdom, they watched how he lived in the world, how he treated people.  They will continue to do that in the days to come, as the church forms.

 

What forms the church is not so much the blissful surety of the Transfiguration– it’s the plodding engagement of the valley. It’s the listening.  The listening that is sometimes hard, sometimes easy.  The listening we are called to do every day of our lives as we embody Christ  in the world around us.

 

As we begin to walk the valley toward another Lent, may we hear the words of God speaking to each of us, and calling us onward.

 

Amen.

 

Please please please let me tweet what I want

In my (extremely) occasional series on Preaching With Milliennials, I came across an article on ENS the other day. The writer speaks of going to a conference on the use of new technology to communicate in the business world, in which the conference leader undertook the Herculean task of explaining Twitter.

(I find this impressive. I recall once in seminary, when a colleague at the Church Center sat down at lunch and asked me to explain YouTube, and then, once I explained the concept, what one would do with such a thing. It’s a bit like explaining a screwdriver. It only works if you first have a concept of screws and their infinite uses.)

Anyway, the writer commented that this ‘following’ on Twitter, by which a user clicks a button, and signs up to read all the messages another user sends out, seems extremely shallow to her. By contrast, Jesus demands from us a more dedicated, engaged sense of following. The article is here, for your reading pleasure.

It’s not a bad article. Her point is well taken. Following Jesus should be more than skin deep, requires commitment, etc. Yes, good, fine, okay.

But it hits me sideways that she made that point by the Twitter-is-shallow-and-who-possibly-understands-it? route. The minute I found her on that particular road, I myself signaled for the nearest exit, and departed the caravan, however valid her eventual point.

Please, please, PLEASE do not bad-mouth technology. Just please don’t do it. I understand it can be off-putting, I understand it can be alienating, but you need to understand that for many of us, technology, and its rapid development has been a constant in our lives. Learning to use it is a constant curve.
Further, it makes about as much sense to me and most people I talk to, to disparage the Internet, or Twitter, in their entirety as it does to disparage wheels. Or levers. Or mechanized printing. (“Know what I can’t stand, Phineas? Damned interchangeable parts!” “Won’t someone think of the children!”) These things are tools, to be used in helpful or non-helpful ways. If you want to blame something, blame operator error.

For example: Twitter!
Some facts: Twitter users tend to be younger, less wealthy, and much more ethnically diverse (within the US). For over half of Twitter users surveyed, they access the service via cell phone.  And, globally, only 33% of Twitter account holders live in the US. (Twitter’s short-burst form of communication, since it is harder to pinpoint by government censors, has been credited with facilitating the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc.  During the Iranian Green Uprising in the spring of 2009, the US State Dept asked Twitter to delay server maintenance so that the protestors could continue to communicate.)  Turns out, there is actually a lot going on here that is far from shallow.

For my money, Jesus would be having a blast on Twitter. (Though, to be fair, @JesusOfNaz316 already is.) Jesus didn’t hole up in a cave, waiting for people to come to him. Jesus wandered around, from town to town, preaching, teaching, and healing, as did every other traveling famous rabbi of the day. He did what he had to to get his message out there: commented on current events, used rudimentary amplification, you name it. The method of transmission wasn’t a concern, because if the story you’re telling is that important, then you’ll do whatever you have to so people can listen.

 

Oh.  And I’m on Twitter.  Right here.

“When we arrive, sons and daughters…”

The ordained are no strangers to projection.

A colleague once commented that the reason Episcopal clergy wear white albs is to provide clearer screens for our projection-happy parishioners.
There are classes and groups in seminary where serious-looking professors and guides talk to you about how projection works, why it happens, and most importantly, how you can avoid buying into it.  “Don’t become everything they see in you,” these well-meaning sages urge. “That way lies madness.”
It is good advice.  If you want a quick trip to an identity crisis, try to buy into every single word someone says about you, after you’ve spoken publicly.  In my experience, roughly 80% of what is said (being conservative here) isn’t about you at all.  It’s whatever they associate with you, or what you said, or the shoes you wore, or a sound they heard, or how they woke up feeling that day.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening with great attention to what has been said about ‘young people these days’ both inside and outside of the church.  Now, as I am a youngish person myself, I have always heard a lot of this sort of talk. (I’m unclear as to why.  Maybe people think we have a club?  That I can carry the good word back and reason with the rest of my people?)
I’ve kept a bit of a list in my head, through the years of the ways we are defined by others–right now, there’s been an uptick in ‘young people’ talk, both inside and outside of the church.  Tons more things have gone on that list.  Church officials have amped up the effort to explain who these young people are, and pretty much everyone in society wants to explain why these young people are currently out in the streets of every major city in the country/world, and seem disinclined to leave.
Don’t be shocked, but that list in my head is overwhelmingly negative.  Young people don’t like religion, and have no faith; we are inept at social relationships–bad at community and responsibility, but addicted to the internet and social media at alarming rates.  We’re uneducated, yet drowning in debt, (because we’re bad with money!)  We’re lazy, selfish, and immature, choosing to stay in a perpetual state of adolescence rather than get careers and move out/leave grad school/Americorps/Teach for America.  We’re perpetually trapped in a web of media, consumption, and shallowness from which we shall never escape, because we are too blissed out on cell phones and privilege to know any better.
See?  Negative list!  (Also, somewhat contradictory.  But no matter.)
I should point out that with the exception of some truly enraging articles in the Washington Post and Slate.com, the people who have made off-handed remarks along these lines to me, know me.  And they like me. (The gentleman who told me that people under 35 only understood retributive justice and physical violence, because our brains hadn’t fully developed, also made a point every week to tell me how inspiring he found my sermons.)  These aren’t thoughtless or mean people by any stretch.
It’s not that they look at me and think, “My God, there stands the most spoiled narcissist ever conceived on this planet, and someone should immediately deprive her of all technology post-haste, lest the problem get worse. WHY IS SHE SPEAKING?!”
(At least, I sincerely hope not.  Otherwise, I’m going to get a serious complex.)  For almost everyone I’ve interacted with, after a few minutes of talking, their images of ‘Young Person’ soon give way to the reality…partially.
Problematically, though, many people also hold onto their image of this mythical ‘Young Person” who dwells out in the ether.  So, despite the fact that they can know, standing in front of them!  many awesome, hard-working, intelligent, (and broke, and jobless, and overeducated-for-today’s-economy) young people, this perception remains.  And it’s not helpful.
Driving back from diocesan convention a few weeks ago, I asked my students to make a list of their own.  I asked the them to make a list of songs that would define their generation for themselves.  To explain to someone else, in your own way, what you care about.  Define yourself.  We’ve been trading songs on Spotify ever since.  The results are fascinating. (If y’all want, I can ask them for permission to post a list.)
The #occupy movement is giving rise to a lot of things: a serious widespread conversation about our economic structure, a reconsideration about the unchecked power of our financial sector, and a lot of people learning how to be megaphones.
But I hope that something else that it’s enabling is a way for our generation to define itself, for us to start that process of putting aside others’ projections of us and voicing our own definitions.
Baby Boomers, ya’ll had Vietnam and Civil Rights for this.  The Greatest Generation (and I remain unconvinced that you didn’t give yourselves that name, btw), had World War II.  In each case, there was a transition between events happening to you, and events you actively caused and defined.  (Full disclosure: I’m not sure where Generation X’s event was.  Want to jump in on this one?  Or did you have your own, and I’m unclear on it?)
While we participated and lived through Columbine, 9/11, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, those were events defined, and triggered by others.
That was someone else’s list we got handed.
Here’s hoping we’re now building our own list.