Sunday, December 3, 2017
Today the season of Advent begins, and the first candle on our Advent wreath is now lit. Advent is a special season of watching and waiting; of looking for the subtle and surprising signs of God’s presence in the world. I love Advent because it has a spiritual subtlety that is very necessary in the commercialized excess of the holiday season. It reminds me that I could miss the presence of God if I’m not looking carefully for it. Advent is about cleaning your lens and looking at the world and yourself in a new way.
So look around this morning. Take a good look. If you hadn’t noticed, this is the best time of year at Kent. The best. We should have signs put up, so you remember. Instead, our Advent wreath hangs in the chancel, as a gentle reminder to savor the moment as we prepare for Christmas. You may remember keeping an Advent calendar as a child. Those were good times--a time of wonder at new things, but the anticipation and beauty of the season are still here, reaching you in new ways if you stop to look around. A strange thing happened to me earlier this week—something just felt wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was out of sorts. And then I realized what I was missing. I was here at Kent, but I wasn’t stressed out. These two weeks and change are quite a few notches less stressful than any other time of the year. It is a time to just be, or as close as we come to mindful relaxation as a community. And this time together doesn’t end with final exams, or the goodbyes of spring, but rather a chapel service, one that is different from the others. People really sing the Christmas carols. Vacation will hang in the air with the Lessons and Carols service, before we go our separate ways and rejoin our families for the holidays.
So today, on this first Sunday of Advent, I will tell you a story from my past, from long ago; a story that is both funny and sad, tragic and comic. And I survived, just barely, to tell you the tale this morning. To make a long story just a little shorter, I once stole a Christmas tree. This event is part of my permanent files. I will have to take you back to my first year of divinity school at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, to a time before you were born. At General Seminary, there is always a reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with all of the children from the seminary and the neighborhood gathered around the massive fireplace in the common area. A favorite reader of the story was the then Governor of New York Mario Cuomo. His son Andrew is the current governor. However, my own controversial ministry to General Seminary was more along the lines of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” And I was the Grinch.
It all began so simply on a December day of cold and wintry Advent gloom. Like today. It was then that I first noticed the early appearance, the premature arrival that is, of a Christmas tree on the afternoon of December 6th, 1989. Ah, the Christmas tree; this is a yearly tradition which has no scriptural support, or theological justification, or religious meaning whatsoever. The Christmas tree is actually Pagan in its origins. The tree in question was set up in the exact middle of the Oxford style Close of General Seminary. The children of the neighborhood had decorated the tree to celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. I hadn’t known that last fact when I first began plotting the Pagan tree’s downfall, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. I was young and impetuous back then, madly egotistical, and full of brio. Among other things.
But here’s the problem; technically, religiously speaking, the tree, which has—let me repeat—no religious meaning, should not make an appearance until December 24th, the beginning of the Christmas season, after Advent is over. That’s the proper order of things. The tree should then stand for the twelve days of Christmas (like the song), and then go down at Epiphany on January 6th when the wise men arrive. This is how things should be if you’re going to be technical, which I certainly was for the sake of comedy.
I wasn’t planning to steal the tree, not exactly, just to move it, under the veneer of satire and the cover of darkness. Due to the great size of the tree, I needed some help; a few disciples if you will. So I shared my Advent plan for a commando strike with two of my classmates, who are now both priests, here in the Northeast. We went into holy Advent motion in the first hour of 7 December, a day that still lives in infamy at General Seminary. We Advent guardians were clad in black cassock; our visages were darkened with face paint—just three ghosts of the seminary tidying things up to insure a pure Advent. As I said, the season of Christmas begins on December 24th, and not a minute before.
The tree was coming down. Strange church mischief was in the midnight air.
We three, we merry Advent Police, left a lovely sign in purple calligraphy (the color of Advent) in the very spot where the tree had been raised the day before. Our calling card sign boldly read: “Beware you secular n’er do wells! The Advent Police.” Naturally, I chose the Dean of General Seminary as the honorary commander of the Advent Police. So we moved the tree into his office. The Dean’s office was far too small for the enormous Christmas tree. Even placed at an angle, it was still bent at the top by the ceiling, forming an upside down L shape. The angel on top was set sideways by our mad midnight work; but the tree still looked very pretty, quite special, when we turned on the Christmas lights in the dark office. Surely we had laid the groundwork for a lovely day at the helm for the veteran Dean. It is more blessed to give than to receive. A letter of introduction from the mysterious and apocalyptic Advent Police was waiting for the good priest on his desk. What a glorious night it was. We even rang the bell in the seminary tower to celebrate the holy Advent and our heroic actions.
But my Advent adventure, or misadventure, became my very own painful Christmas lesson by the next morning.
I learned, so much, by the very next day.
Here are the lessons I learned:
1) I discovered, very quickly, that one person’s satire is, sometimes, another person’s disciplinary investigation. And it’s not very fun to be the subject of a disciplinary investigation when you’re supposed to be in divinity school to be a priest. It is also better to confess when everything points to you. The Assistant Dean came to my dorm room before breakfast to ask me a few questions about my whereabouts on the previous night.
How did they know it was me? How? I ask you.
2) A Dean, however stern and foreboding, can be a very kind and compassionate figure of authority at the same time, especially when you’re in trouble. It often doesn’t feel like it at the time—only when you look back years later. The Dean put me on probation, even though some members of the faculty wanted the perpetrators expelled. Yes, I was now a perp.
3) Almost the most important lesson. I’m not as funny as I think I am. I learned that a good idea in the middle of the night can be a very bad idea by 9 AM the next morning. Let me say this again: a good idea in the middle of the night can be a very bad one by morning.
4) The very most important. One person’s familiar holiday can be a small child’s very first Christmas, or the first time decorating a tree. Think of the magic of your first real snowfall, or the first time hearing the story of the birth of Jesus, or hearing the rich beauty of the Lessons and Carols service. It’s always somebody’s first time. Everywhere, all the time. Or this year could be the first time a person you know really feels the true spirit of this season, a time of giving not just receiving. And it can also be a loved one’s last Christmas. Near the end of your life, I have no doubt that sharing a Christmas with your family is a foretaste of heaven itself.
It was through my failure as a Christmas Grinch that I learned the important lesson of this season. Ours is not a God of doom, but rather a God of grace, love, forgiveness, and unspeakable beauty. A God who makes each of us a beginner when it comes to experiencing, and sharing, the mystery of Love. Advent is a time to make a home for God. Inside of you. This is a time to reconnect with God’s love, or to experience it for the very first time.
God gave, and still gives, everything to win our hearts, and to save our souls, that we too may give freely to each other and to our world as we have received God’s love and mercy. Love is not simply what we expected, or what we needed; it is more than we can possibly imagine. The only gift we can give back to God is the very best of who we are: to live again the good life of compassion, forgiveness, and charity to one another, in word and deed. That God may no longer be a stranger in the world, and in our hearts. May God bless all of you, and your families, in the days and weeks to come.
Monday, November 6, 2017
All Saints’ Day is a time when the Christian tradition comes to life; as we remember the famous saints of the Church, and also those individuals we have forgotten, all those who came before us. The celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1 dates back as early as the 9th Century as a special day in the Church, a tradition of spiritual remembrance that was begun in Ireland. But it goes back even further in terms of Pagan religion. Though it is a celebration that has changed over the years, it is an observance that is infused with the mysticism of Celtic Christianity, Irish spirit and wisdom, coming from the dead to the living. It is a day when the living and the dead lean towards each other in greatest intimacy—when we look for the thin places in our lives, the places where God is near, and the spiritual presence of the dead is palpable.
Today is about celebrating the people, both living and dead, who have shaped you as the person you are, and those who make you imagine the person you can be at your best. There are so many people out there who care for each of you, even if you have never thought of them as saints before. Even beyond your parents, immediate family, and friends, there are many, many people--more than you think--who root for you to succeed. And there will be people present to pick you up when you fall. And falling is a normal part of life. Facing adversity and experiencing failure are often the times when you grow the most.
Every human life has a cloud of witnesses; people who are on your side, both living and dead. This cloud of witnesses can be those who inspire you, and even those who scare you a little bit. Today we remember the cloud of witnesses who watch over each of us, especially the family members who are no longer with us, those who are now with God.
As I tried to make sense of the dead inspiring the lives of the living, I was reminded of the movie Pleasantville. It is an excellent autumn movie, just right for this time of year. The movie is about a perfect television world, a utopia, where there is no pain. But there is no growth either. That’s the flip side of only knowing good times. You don’t grow. Within the movie, “Pleasantville” is a 1950s style television show portrayed in black and white; the show is a static reality where only the good things in life are experienced. The show is centered on a perfect family called the Parkers. They have no problems whatsoever, and everything turns out just right for them, every time. There are no arguments, no pain, no aging, no divorce, and certainly no death. Even the temperature never changes: it’s always 72 degrees. The basketball team never loses.
Into this utopian world of television are transported a regular pair of high school students from our complicated world named David (played by Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon). The twin siblings try not to interfere with the black and white world, but things begin to change, imperceptibly at first. The new reality begins with a red rose in full color, blooming at night. But soon the black and white colors begin to change in wider ripples, following after the solitary rose. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of roses in his essay “Self-Reliance:”
“Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence…Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature in all moments alike…When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of a brook and the rustle of the corn.”
Because of the arrival of David and Jennifer, the perfect world of Pleasantville is eventually blown apart. It begins with the rose, but moves onto people. Black and white characters burst as if into flame, into full color like in The Wizard of Oz. They become “colored” in the language of the film. A strong surge of emotion seems to trigger the transformation to full color, and the new identities are not timid, or apologetic anymore. They are standing upright, as Emerson hoped for in “Self-Reliance.” They are now human beings—they have discovered their full humanity. They may even be saints. Some of the transformations are inspired by romance, but this is not true in every case. Jennifer—the Reese Witherspoon character—finds her deeper humanity by reading a book, and David discovers his true identity by defending himself in a fist fight. The town fathers—still in black and white—fear the spiritual independence of the colored people, and they eventually put David on trial for the chain of events he has set in motion. The judge gets so angry during the trial that he bursts into full color himself. The trial becomes a beautiful chaos, with even the town fathers growing into full bloom like everyone else.
The movie Pleasantville urges compassion, in every direction. The events that give others their full humanity may be different from how you discover your true self. We all feel differently, especially when in pain. And yet the good things in life are still good. Creation, in all of its majesty and awe, is still here, but it is no black and white utopia. We live in a reality aflame with color where there is danger, peril, illness, death, and yet also great beauty all around us. Our full humanity can be recognized, one person at a time, and we look at each other in full color this morning as a community.
There is no common or conventional definition of sainthood, the blossoming into color before God. It is open to all of us. Sainthood is fundamentally unconventional and personal. In fact, the real saints, in each of our cloud of witnesses, are often the most unconventional people we have ever met. The religious writer Frederick Buechner, the former chaplain of Exeter, describes All Saints’ Day wonderfully in these words:
“On All Saints’ Day it is not just the saints of the Church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots…and the crackpots of our lives who, in one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”
Saints are the places of unusual sanctity in our world, the thin places where the love of God shines through our hearts. Sainthood cannot be studied on the outside—or celebrated yearly at a distance. You have to come at it from the inside, from your spiritual center. Attune your life, personally and unconventionally, to what is truly holy in our world. Make spiritual music with the choices in your life. Make peace with adversity. Be still in the moment. Say the prayers that only you can say. Be famous before God, unconventionally, and the world will, someday, follow your example.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
I started writing this talk in the last few weeks of summer. This was a big mistake. Because my summer identity and school identity are very different, and they don’t really get along. I love Summertime Me. He is so relaxed and carefree--full of whimsy and dreams and spontaneity. Work Me is saddled with responsibility; he is sleep deprived most of the time, full of stress, and driven by the school schedule. The difficulty of transitions is the hardest part of teaching for me, and the hardest part of life. All beginnings are hard. And, for me, Early Week doesn’t help the cause. Everyone is so friendly, so positive, and optimistic—frankly, I find it hard to take.
So, on this past Labor Day, Summertime Me was so decimated, so forlorn, I had to find solace somewhere. I looked for a great movie to pass the last day of summer vacation, but not on Netflix. For me, it’s Turner Classic Movies. I love old movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and later too. I live in the past, just like Gatsby, always reaching for the green light. Always looking for Daisy. My last act of summer was watching my all-time favorite movie: North by Northwest. But it was a ritual of mourning, not celebration. Summertime Me was dying. The movie was directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock who directed so many powerful films. The cast from 1959 included Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive in New York; Eve Kendall, an American spy, played by Eva Marie Saint; and Philip Van Dam, a foreign agent selling government secrets, played by James Mason.
The movie is about a case of mistaken identity. The spy ring led by Philip Van Dam misidentifies Roger Thornhill as an American agent. They believe he is George Kaplan, an American spy who does not exist. He was a decoy created by the CIA. Thornhill is kidnapped by Van Dam, and they eventually decide to kill Thornhill whom they wrongly believe is Kaplan. Thornhill is in a state of shock as he struggles to escape and survive. His old way of life as an advertising executive is over, and he has great difficulty accepting this. The transition between his old identity and his new one generates the suspense in the movie. The difficulty of the transition creates the element of fear, something that Hitchcock was always keen to explore and uncover in human nature.
As Hitchcock once said, “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.”
Thornhill attempts to plead his case with the CIA: “I’m an advertising man not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders dependent on me. And I don’t intend to disappoint them by getting slightly killed.” Your life can change in a heartbeat. Just think of the victims of the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. Lives are marked forever as pre-hurricane and post-hurricane. The transition can be terrifying for the survivors.
Confusion, fear, and comedy are all mixed together in North by Northwest, just like in life. Roger Thornhill even takes the time to fall in love with Eve Kendall during the great chase. I would elaborate more on their highly flirtatious relationship, but this is a chapel talk. Sparks are flying. What are some of the lessons of North by Northwest? Though his life is in danger, Cary Grant as Thornhill always looks fantastic. He even takes the time to get a suit dry-cleaned while the manhunt is closing in on him. If you’re confused and harassed, you can still look good. I learned that from Mr. DesMarais. You can make the dress code snap for you. Not to suggest that Mr. DesMarais is confused, but I often am. It’s ok to be confused, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent state. New ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world are always possible. You just have to adjust to your new identity, and let the old pass away. The turning point for Thornhill is when he finally gives up his old identity. If everyone thinks he’s a spy, he might as well join the fray. As a force for good. He becomes a temporary American agent, and he behaves with cunning and creativity. Thornhill isn’t exactly fearless, but his anxiety is now under his own control. And he gets the girl, after saving her from falling off Mount Rushmore in the movie’s iconic closing scene.
So, it’s goodbye to Summertime Me and hello to Work Me. I’ll manage the transition and so will you. Human identity is not static, and it’s not solely individual. It’s always changing and growing, in relationship to others and to God. The key thing is to have faith during the difficult transitions, and to not live by fear.
For Jesus doubt was not the opposite of faith. For him it was fear. We can live our lives in fear, or we can pursue the life of faith. It’s our decision, after all. Fear can take over our lives if we let it.
So what scares me? Beyond Early Week and the beginning of school and hurricanes? Here’s a story of human fear for you.
It happened over the summer: when we found a black bear in our garage. What a way to start the morning. I didn’t see this coming. The bear was on his way to the garbage bags, but he was having trouble getting around my motorcycle. Thank God for a cluttered garage; you neat people may be in the danger zone and not even know it. After being discovered, the bear left by the garage window. He had pushed in the screen to get inside. Then he circled around the garage and came up to the house windows where my two daughters and I stood watching him from inside. The bear then stood upright, reaching his full height, and he began to press the screens on the widows with his paws. He was three feet from me and the girls, who were fascinated not alarmed. I, on the other hand, felt the creeping presence of real fear. I hadn’t experienced this level of fear in years. The bear was trying to push in the screens, just like he did in the garage. He was trying to get into the house. What was most disconcerting about this particular bear: he didn’t have a care in the world. He was like Summertime Me. He was just looking for some tasty garbage. The bear was stress free, on a headmaster’s holiday, looking for treats. After giving up on the house, the bear approached the garage door, and thoughtfully licked it. Then he sauntered off into the woods, as the king of the food chain.
Human fear can be both large and small. But you can fight your fears and worries by slowing down in the moment, and paying attention to what is happening all around you. The spiritual writer and thinker Eckhart Tolle had this to say about being in the moment.
“Being is the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death. However, Being is not only beyond but also deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. This means that it is accessible to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature. But don’t seek to grasp it with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. You can only know it when your mind is still. When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to abide in the state of ‘feeling-realization’ is enlightenment.”
That’s deep. So take a look around you; look at all the beautiful human faces. Take a deep breath. And let it out. Look at this beautiful place where we now live together, sharing it with the bears, bald eagles, red tailed hawks, foxes, and tiny, racing chipmunks. With all of God’s beautiful creatures we share this land. Don’t ever let the remarkable become commonplace in your life. When you slow down in the moment, you remember how great it is to be alive, the miracle of our being, and our hope for the future; as you travel north by northwest, or whichever direction you choose. Have a great year.
Monday, June 12, 2017
It’s ok to admit it this morning: Reunion Weekend is overwhelming. It is dizzying and confusing, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying. Some people are so confused they didn’t even make it to chapel. You would not believe the signs of disorder and chaos that I have seen on this campus on Sunday morning at the end of Reunion Weekend, as I make the slow walk up to St. Joseph’s Chapel. For those of you who did make it to the Memorial Eucharist, congratulations (you get extra credit): and I hope to speak to the confusion this morning. My own vantage point is mostly stationary. I work here, I live here; this is my home. I don’t have a plane to catch, a suitcase to pack, or a dormitory room to vacate. But the emotions that are stirred up by this weekend for me are always significant, and deserve theological consideration. Where is God in all of this? Right in the middle of it--ok, but where is the middle? What does the sacred center look like?
It doesn’t matter what year you graduated, there is a feeling of many times in your life coming together right now. Many people and storylines are regathering, and reconnecting. Different times in your life are coming up to greet you. Do you remember who you used to be? Things that had grown old are being made new. How will Kent shape you again? From a theological perspective, it were as if our arms were so full of memories, that something must give way. What should we hold onto? What is it now ok to let go of?
Several years ago, as I was preparing for this very service, I received some visitors. Three monks from the Order of the Holy Cross came to pay me a visit. Brother Robert, Brother Julian, and Brother Daniel came to visit the school founded by Father Frederick Sill, a monk from the same order, one hundred and eleven years ago. Walt Disney, who is one of my personal heroes, was fond of summing up all of his movies and theme parks and lives touched with the simple statement: It all started with a mouse. Somehow this simple phrase centered him, and humbled him as his work went in surprising directions. It gave him the right perspective to take it all in. Well, at Kent School, it all started with a monk. I thought of our history as the three monks and I said a prayer at the grave of Father Sill, just outside this chapel in the garden. The three monks and I toured the campus on a rainy day with something like this simple phrase in mind. It all started with a monk. A monk who certainly had no vision of his school eventually having a campus for girls, or a consolidated campus with boys and girls together. God help us. Yet it has all come to pass. The entire history of Kent is an exercise in faith, and we’re all part of it. The occasion of the monks’ visit was the founding of another school by the monks of Holy Cross: this time in Grahamstown, South Africa: Holy Cross School. As Kent was once founded for young men of modest or slender means, Holy Cross is attended by some of the poorest children on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in a region ravaged by AIDS, and poverty. The most pressing needs for these children are medical care and education, and the school is adding a new grade each year. As we walked the campus of Kent School under school umbrellas, Brother Robert Sevensky, the Superior of Holy Cross, remarked: “Just look at this place. Imagine what Holy Cross School will be like in a hundred years.” With Grahamstown and its little school in mind, the complicated feelings and experience of this weekend became incredibly simple: education is the best way to change the world, one person at a time. And the quickest way to change the world is to change your own heart. It all started with a monk. And it is happening again.
Sometimes the lessons on Sunday can also help to simplify things on Reunion Weekend. Like the weekend itself, the story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus can be incredibly complex and overwhelming. So how should we approach this story from Luke? In our shared history of Kent, it all started with a monk. In the lesson from Luke, it all started with a woman. It is a story that combines overwhelming gratitude, forgiveness, and healing, with a scandalous intimacy at a dinner party. Jesus is anointed with holy oil, but, more importantly, with the tears and hair of the woman. Jewish men and women who did not know each other generally didn’t speak in public at this time; they certainly didn’t touch each other. In the anointing, the oil and tears mingle on the feet of Jesus, and she wipes his feet tenderly with her hair. Everyone is scandalized by this woman. Everyone except Jesus. He is touched, literally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is easily the most loving thing that is done to Jesus in his recorded ministry. Jesus is usually the one giving love, even unto the cross. Here he receives love, without shame. It all started with a woman. The woman is unnamed by Luke; or is she? Many scholars, including me, believe that Luke is presenting the anointing tradition of Mary Magdalene, who is introduced immediately following the scandalous dinner party. Who was this remarkable woman?
Getting to know Mary Magdalene is like jumping into one of the most mysterious rivers of our tradition. And the church has been little help in finding, let alone navigating, this river--because the current is so strong. Let’s begin with background on the Marys we think we know, but haven’t ever really met. As Mary his mother gave birth to Jesus’s life, Mary Magdalene was the mid-wife of his death: the one who anointed Jesus before his crucifixion. However, this would be following solely Luke’s gospel, and only by a logical leap: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” The woman is unnamed in Luke, but, as mentioned, Mary Magdalene is introduced at the beginning of the next chapter (which the church specifically includes in today’s gospel text). Mary is described as a woman of means, a wealthy woman and patron, not as a prostitute, or even as a sinner. In no biblical tradition is she described as a prostitute.
The proximity of the woman who is a sinner (still not necessarily a prostitute) to Mary Magdalene in the text of Luke provides the connection; they must be the same woman. Mary Magdalene, the woman who is a sinner, is then the one anointing Jesus so intimately. This connection was first made official by Pope Gregory in the sixth century; there is no proof for it. But, lost in the sound and fury of Mary Magdalene’s alleged status as the woman who is a sinner, is the fact that Matthew, Mark, and John all agree that Jesus was anointed by Mary before his death. But she was not Mary Magdalene. It was more likely Mary of Bethany because the anointings all take place at Bethany. This is the sister of Martha and Lazarus; she has a few stories. Only John’s woman is explicitly Mary of Bethany in his anointing at Bethany. A logical assumption would then be that Luke’s unnamed woman is also Mary of Bethany because it follows the same structure of the anointing scenes of the other three gospels; it just doesn’t locate it specifically at Bethany. Despite the overwhelming agreement of three gospels, and the anonymity of Luke’s woman, the anointing tradition is most often associated with Mary Magdalene. What is happening here?
The tradition of anointing the human body was not embraced by the early church, and there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene as a result. Bruce Chilton, a Religion professor at Bard College, and also an Episcopal priest, attempts to rectify the repression of this remarkable woman in his biography of Mary Magdalene.
“Mary and her nameless colleague in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel both show what other ancient documents demonstrate: Women in Jewish antiquity, particularly within the folk wisdom practiced in Galilee, exercised a prominent role as anointers. Their domain extended far beyond the conventional household, and there is evidence that significant groups of practitioners looked to these women to guide them in their quest to leave this world behind them and experience the divine world.”
Mary Magdalene’s suppression as an early leader in the church, which she was, as well as the first apostle—the first witness to Easter resurrection in the gospels, which she was, is likely the result of the early church’s discomfort with physical anointing. There is an unhidden element of eros in all four gospel traditions with the woman anointing Jesus with oil from the alabaster jar, not to mention the unseemly tears. And the hair. For his part, Jesus is not embarrassed by it; he is instead deeply moved by the woman’s love and tender devotion. But the male witnesses are quite alarmed. In all but one case, they are too disturbed to even name the woman directly. They knew exactly who she was. The four evangelists share the taboo panic with the witnesses; or rather they project it on to them.
The scenes with the anointing woman show that the evangelists and the early church were uncomfortable with powerful women anointing others as a spiritual practice of the church, yet it was too important for them to fully cover it up. So it’s there, but very confusing. Jesus also approved of it; all the gospels agree on that point, however reluctantly. Despite this institutional discomfort, the church has retained the remnant of the anointing tradition in four of its seven sacraments: Baptism (with the chrism, the oil anointing the forehead), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Last Rites, with the laying on of hands. The hidden history is actually in front of our eyes, hiding in plain sight, in the sacraments of the church. What a strange way for an institution to continue its past while repressing the mystical female tradition of Judaism and the early church, and completely forgetting its first priestly practitioners. This is a mighty river with no name. It deserves one.
We often think of the love of God, the wisdom of the divine, coming directly from Jesus into the world. In this moment of time, Jesus stops in his ordinary rounds to receive God’s love from someone else. There is no moment quite like it anywhere in the gospels. Jesus received the anointing tradition, a priestly ritual, from a woman, but it was no dry formula. It is a personal religion, overflowing with love, with appreciation, with gratitude. With tears. The God in Mary Magdalene meets the God in Jesus Christ. When we live in gratitude, to our school or to our families, we are capable of giving God’s love to each other--even giving it back to Jesus, with our names, our lives, our tears. We are not passively receiving God’s love, we can also give it back. We were all given the gift of life. How we live it is the gift we give back to God. Your life is a sacred story.
May God bless you, your families, and all the lives you touch with your own.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
The beauty of Kent in spring is now on full display, especially on Friday. How does this happen every year? Spring seems like miracle. Should we be burning incense to Persephone? Should there be a sacrifice to perform to receive the grace and beauty of spring? I remember winter. Nature all around us is both obvious and mysterious, as we ponder the source of life in the midst of blessing.
The obvious and the mysterious are also here in Henry’s baptism. Henry Copland Sullivan. The love of the parents for the child is obvious; it is overflowing; it moves powerfully like the tide. Parental love is one of the most powerful forces of love we ever encounter. When my children were born, I felt enormous love being pulled out of me, naturally, spiritually, emotionally, and it hasn’t stopped. Not ever. But in the life of Henry…there is mystery, in the twists and turns to come, in the decisions and choices of his life, in the ups and downs. His life will include religious faith by the events we perform together on this day.
The gospel this morning from Luke is the road to Emmaus. The road to Emmaus is a beloved story among the resurrection appearances, and it too is both obvious and mysterious. These are not the main disciples of Jesus in the story, and only one of them is even named as Cleopas. But the story strikes an important chord in the Easter imagination. The stranger who joins them is the risen Jesus, but they fail to recognize him in their grief. Jesus walks with them; he teaches them about the Scriptures. They talk to him about the crucifixion and about the wild news of the empty tomb. Jesus opens their eyes to the resurrection of their leader, but they still fail to see that is Jesus himself walking with them on the road to Emmaus.
The search for new life is not an easy one, as seen in this gospel story of non-recognition. It can be hard it is to see what’s right in front of you. The theme of non-recognition is the major one for Luke on the road to Emmaus. What does it mean to be with Jesus and not recognize him? Does this still happen with religious experiences of God and Jesus? I think it happens all the time. Non-recognition is the story of my life, maybe yours too. I often don’t recognize people. Sure, I may know their names, but that doesn’t mean I really see them. And that doesn’t mean they really see me. Sometimes weeks can go by without feeling really seen for who you are. We walk around each other, we talk to each other, but that doesn’t mean we know each other. This should be true in September, but not in May with five weeks left of school. You could be Jesus—I could be Jesus, but something holds us back from really seeing each other. The quick labels that we have don’t actually help us in the area of recognition; we put people into our categories and imprison them there.
The mysteriously hidden Jesus teaches about the Bible and makes the purpose of his life and death obvious to his listeners. I can read pages of a text without actually understanding or remembering a thing. I’m sure this has happened to you. Maybe it happens to you every night when you study. We don’t read the world very well, and this keeps us in the dark when it comes to Jesus and the love of God. Resurrection is about waking up, seeing the big picture, but something is always holding us back. Something is causing the non-recognition. Cleopas and the unnamed disciple have absorbed the events that led to the crucifixion of Jesus, but they are unready for the good news of his resurrection. They cannot recognize Easter joy. They don’t even see Jesus with them until they break bread at the end of the day. Then their eyes are opened. Then the risen Jesus is known. The broken has become whole, the grief has become ecstatic.
What does it mean to celebrate new life—to even talk about resurrection—when so many people in our world are suffering? Suffering and pain can cause the non-recognition of God. We prefer to stay in our pain or fondle our grievances then to wander into the new. But Easter hope brings suffering and joy into a new mixture—a Loving God holds it all together for us, the tradition says. Even when the disciples experience the Risen Jesus, it is clear that that the wounds of Jesus are real. He really did suffer; it was no illusion, which was a source of debate in the early church. So today, we celebrate new life on this third Sunday of Easter, not by isolating ourselves in joy from a suffering world, but by opening our hearts wider than they have ever been opened before.
As I reflected on the paradox of new life and resurrection combined with the broken images of the world, I thought of the mystical poet Rumi, who is beloved by those of different faiths. Rumi was a Muslim who lived in the thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. His poetry deeply investigates the paradox and mystery of God, especially the love of God that is found, surprisingly, in human suffering.
Here are some samples of the spiritual wisdom of Rumi.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
“Chase a deer and end up everywhere!”
That sounds like my Native American Literature class.
“Mystics are experts in laziness.”
“What have I ever lost by dying?”
“Because I love this, I am never bored.
Beauty constantly wells up, a noise of spring water
In my ear an inner being.”
“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”
Even in the midst of suffering, there is treasure to be found. As a Christian reading the mystical poet from Afghanistan, I can’t but help but be moved by his poetry about, and for, Jesus Christ; the way he comes to Jesus so personally, with fresh expression, and even with love. Rumi was fascinated by Jesus, as many mystics from other religious traditions have been. I have a brother who is a scientist, but he is keenly interested in theology and likes to ask me questions. The hardest question that he once asked me: how come non-Christians often see Jesus more clearly than the Christians do? I still don’t have an answer, but there is enormous reverence for Jesus in Islam. The mystical experiences of God often obliterate, wonderfully, the boundaries that human beings hold most sacred, the ones that divide us; strangers and even former enemies can become friends and brothers. When the Kingdom of God comes near, a full recognition can occur, a wonderful chaos can break out in human society. The last become first, the first last, the poor hold spiritual riches, and the rich walk away empty-handed. Rumi sensed the transformation and full recognition at the heart of Jesus’ life before God.
This Jesus poem by Rumi is called “There’s Nothing Ahead.”
“Lovers think they’re looking for each other,
but there’s only one search: wandering
this world is wandering that, both inside one
transparent sky. In here
there is no dogma and no heresy.
The miracle of Jesus is himself, not what he said or did
About the future. Forget the future.
I’d worship someone who could do that.
On the way you may want to look back, or not,
but if you can say There’s nothing ahead
there will be nothing there.
Stretch your arms and take hold of the cloth of your clothes
with both hands. The cure for the pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
you don’t belong with us.
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
There’s no place like that anywhere in the world.”
Jesus lived fully, completely, into both the beauty and the peril of creation, seeking out his neighbor in the least among us. In him was the delighted mystic who lived each moment in the divine dance of creation. God was so near to him that he called the ultimate reality Father or even Papa—his Beloved. The Kingdom of God could be seen by Jesus in every human face. That’s what it means to really see. There is you full recognition. Jesus chose as his discipline the Way of Transformation, the way of the heart in deep thanksgiving for every breath we take. Sometimes a broken heart is the strongest thing there is. What is the new life, the great beauty, in front of you right now? Go out and find it today; claim it for yourself. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
The entry into Jerusalem by Jesus on Palm Sunday was a peak religious experience. In the reading from Matthew, there is the sense of living religion, of faith coming to life in a radical new scene, one of power and majesty on this day. Jesus literally comes down from a mountain—the Mount of Olives—to enter the great city of Jerusalem. He is hailed as a king, and Matthew takes pains to present Jesus as a messianic king of old, entering the city with a donkey and a colt, as prophesied in Zechariah. The gathered crowds also speak the language of royal power and divine blessing from the psalms as they hail Jesus, waving palm branches to the chosen one.
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The city of Jerusalem is alive with Passover preparation, the holiday of liberation for the Jewish people, and Jesus’s arrival adds to the drama and excitement, a city in turmoil. But let’s go back to Jesus just before the powerful palm procession; as Jesus stood with his followers on the Mount of Olives. He has a view of the entire city from an elevation of 3600 feet. What a view. What a moment to stand with him, with Jewish pilgrims gathering for the Passover celebration. What must have been going through his mind as he saw the great city of his people? In all of the gospels, Jesus predicted his death as part of God’s plan of salvation. Yet he must have been torn, there on the Mount of Olives, before going down into the teeming city for the great holiday of the Jewish people. There is a great tension here. There is the holiness of the mountain peak experience, but what’s coming is the descent into humanity, and human problems and suffering. There is hope in the panoramic vision—seeing the world as God might for a moment, but there is the darkness of human nature ahead in the events to come. We have all felt holiness in the beauty of creation, but it’s always much harder when you go down from the mountain into human community.
Our palm branches, like the ones waved to honor Jesus, signify a joyful fulfillment, yet they are also a transitory moment of glory where we rest in the eye of the hurricane. Surely the greatest chapter of this teaching and healing messiah will unfold in the events in Jerusalem. How we long to stay in the moments of triumph. If you’ve ever had a great moment of success, the human desire is to stay there, not to move on.
So, when Jesus goes down the mountain, he decides to enter into human suffering; he makes a decision to be a suffering messiah. Or rather, he has made it all along. On Palm Sunday, we want to linger in triumph, but how can we stay on the mountain when the panorama of this world is so filled with suffering? Perhaps the great human success, the moment when we are at our best, is when we don’t celebrate, but rather embrace our neighbors in need.
For some of you, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are new experiences. You’ve never been here before. Never have you sat in church with a palm branch in your hand, as you wondered what was happening all around you. Chapel is different today. For me the liturgy of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week go far back in my life, to my earliest memories as a child. I have been around this block a few times. Yet there is something about the last week of Jesus’s life that is always daunting, and I want to linger with my palm branch and the triumphant journey of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Despite all of the problems of the Church, there is something that I deeply appreciate about the millions of Christians who are doing exactly the same thing as we are on this Palm Sunday. The Church for me has always been a place where death and suffering could be talked about. And if you can talk about something painful, God can redeem it. Extraordinary words have been said in chapel this year, and I don’t think they could have been said anywhere else. We have needed chapel; we have made meaning, even when our hearts were broken. And we gather together for Holy Week, seeking meaning, and experiencing forms of healing.
I mentioned that there is tension in the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Where does it come from? The tension comes from the messianic expectation. This was the common belief that a messiah would liberate the Jewish people from the occupation of the Roman Empire. What kind of person could do this? A political revolutionary, a warrior messiah. The messianic expectation could not be clearer with the joyous greeting on the lips of the people.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
And yet Jesus rejected this messianic expectation for his entire ministry. He is no warrior king who will overthrow the Roman occupation. He’s not even close. The values of humanity and the vision of God are in conflict, as they will be for most of this week. We are called to go deeper into the mystery of suffering and how it gives birth to the Kingdom of God. Holy Week is not about believing a series of creedal statements that leads one to the reality of God. It is rather about the transformation of the heart, and an understanding of how to live in the moment with our humanity intact.
I have recently been reading the work of Karen Armstrong, a religious thinker and former nun. Armstrong made the decision to become a nun when she about your age. She lived in a convent for seven years, and she was subjected to an extraordinary discipline designed to bring her closer to the Christian God. She tried to believe all the doctrines of the Church; if she could do that, surely God would touch her life with his presence. It didn’t work out that way. She ended up leaving her religious order to study English Literature at Oxford. She drifted away from God after the desert of her religious experience in the convent. It wasn’t until she started to write about Islam and Judaism that she found herself drawn back to the life of faith. Judaism and Islam are not creedal religions, and there is an openness about what one is to believe. In Islam, there is only the Shahada which states: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his mouthpiece.” That’s it. And Judaism has no central creed. These religions liberated Armstrong, and they showed her how to live faithfully, not by creeds, but by life practices and transformation.
In her words in her book titled The Spiral Staircase, subtitled My Climb Out of Darkness:
“In the course of my studies, I have discovered the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human—hence the images of the perfect or enlightened man, or the deified human being. Archetypal figures such as Muhammad, the Buddha, and Jesus become icons of fulfilled humanity. God or Nirvana is not an optional extra, tacked on to our human nature. Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves. A passing Brahmin priest once asked the Buddha whether he was god, a spirit, or an angel. None of these, the Buddha replied; ’I am awake!’ By activating a capacity that lay dormant in undeveloped men and women, he seemed to belong to a new species. In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before.”
Holy Week is about escaping your mental prisons, not building them taller and wider. As Bob Marley used to sing, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” Most tangibly for me I remember experiences of success and failure and how to look at them from the eyes of God. My life has not been one success after another. My life has always included grief and failure, and I had to learn how to find the best of myself in adversity and sorrow. I have made mistakes. It is human nature to want to stay in the moments of triumph, like Jesus’s epic arrival in Jerusalem. But life doesn’t work that way, and neither does God. Rudyard Kipling put it this way in his poem called “If.”
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”
William Blake echoed this sentiment in his poem “Joy and woe are woven fine.”
“Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.”
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.”
Jesus didn’t fulfill the messianic expectation. Jesus did something much more significant in his actions this week. He went deeper, into the mystery of suffering; and into the mystery of God. So, we follow in his footsteps, knowing that triumph and defeat are both imposters. Palm Sunday is a moment of awakening, weaving our lives, our joy and our woe, with the love that God offers us now; that through the world we may safely go.