Brainstorming a Sermon

I’m working on a sermon for Holy Monday, my first sermon (as opposed to a few short meditations given during Evensong or Evening Prayer) at All Saints’ Episcopal. I’ve been re-reading all of the Gospel of John; I finished reading Christopher Moore’s excellent novel, Lamb, a story of Jesus’ life prior to, yet including, the Gospels; and I’ve listened to BBC 4 Radio’s show In Our Time, the recent episode on Mary Magdalene–I highly recommend it. All this time, I’m trying to intuit where the Spirit is talking to me, to where the energy is, as I wonder about the scripture readings for the day–the Gospel reading is John 12: 1-11. Many springs bubble up in my heart and my mind, feelings try to creep in, too.

Feelings–I pick apart all the little nuggets of information I’ve gleaned (yes, I’m mixing images–one gleans ears of wheat rather than stones) and that helps keep the feelings tamped down. Excited and nervous, of course, only natural. But last year’s Holy Monday sermon given at All Saints’ is still in my heart; it’s one of my favorites and I can still feel the Spirit in it, trying to call me out of myself. And I confess, I have to remind myself about non-competitive transcendence. I don’t want a better sermon, I just want to write my sermon. A thoughtful, feeling sermon. A sermon that calls  to others.

And what I’m feeling is a memory of a night when I was on duty as a volunteer night chaplain at a hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, that surfaced today while I was picturing Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her long hair and the nard. Latent anger still lingers whenever I recall that night and I know it colors how I feel about my gay friends and it colors how I feel about violence. That particular night I’d done my rounds and returned to the chaplains’ room. At some point, my pager went off—a call to the ED for a trauma patient. Arriving in the suite reserved for trauma victims (this was my second time there, but my baptism by fire is a story for another time), I discovered that the victim was a young black man, nineteen years old, comatose, his fucking head bloody because he’d been beaten with a fucking baseball bat. This young man was beaten by members of his own community because he was gay.

His brain was swollen and pressure had built up (I forget the exact medical terminology, but that’s the gist of it); his mother and siblings were in the suite, awaiting the medical transport helicopter that would take him to Iowa City. The university hospital was much better suited to perform the pressure-relieving surgery; the doctors told us that they were confident the surgery would be successful. The helicopter arrived, and as we stood around the young man on the gurney before the medics came in to get him, his mother asked me to pray. She was trying to be strong and looked for hope, for assurance. What could I pray when I felt a very strong sense that the young man would not survive the violence done to him? How to pray out of an angry place—because besides the reality of this young man and his family, what-ifs of my son, just a few years older, came into being; what-ifs of my gay friends came into being; the realities of those who suffered violence because of who they were angered and frightened me.

Was Mary at all angry as Jesus spoke to his disciples of what must befall him? John doesn’t say that she was weeping (though I tend to cry when mad) while she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. I know my experience in the ED is being brought forward by the questions I’m asking of the text; surely, if I’m angry about the beating of this young man, who until that moment was unknown to me, how can Mary not be at least a little so on behalf of her beloved “Rabbouni?” Or perhaps this is the way she prayed for a man she knew was going to suffer violence at the hands of others, even though it was 0f his own volition. Maybe Jesus needed hope; hope given in abundance in Mary’s actions as she was present in those moments of care.

In the everlasting seconds that quickly passed as I stood there, those questions I asked of God were answered by the Holy Spirit’s presence, which transformed my abundance of anger into an abundance of love, enabling me to be a safe presence for the young man’s family as we prayed for his safe arrival to the hospital, for the doctors and nurses who would care for him, and for God to give strength and solace to his family at that time.

At his funeral, his mother and I embraced and a sense of understanding and love passed between us, as we both shed tears, an anointment of sorts.

The Goodness of Chocolate Shakes and Fries

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The goodness of fries and chocolate shakes. The phrase just resonates, try as I might to get it out of my head. Except that I prefer a strawberry shake with my fries.

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. I can’t escape the rhythm, but can’t quite shape a poem in my strawberry mind.

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The grace of God. A surety, a strength, a logos. Reasoning and pleasing; everyone’s first choice. Yet what of cigarettes and choc-o-late milk?

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. Tradition, simple. Warm and crispy. Coolness, brain freeze, sweet. Wrap the chocolate around the savory salted sticks—sharp cold melts into vague warmth.

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The goodness of chocolate and fries. Classic, clean lines, never out of style. Smiles and brown eyes. JT croons winter, spring, summer, and fall; but you know I know when strawberries dream.

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. The fries and goodness of chocolate shakes. The chocolate and fries of goodness shakes. Dark chocolate shakes, do they count as double good? What about strawberry chocolate shakes or chocolate strawberry shakes and fries? The goodness of fools.

The goodness of chocolate shakes and fries. Sophisticated orthodoxy. Diving deep into strawberry apostasy for the sake of unique. The goodness of grace, the goodness of love, the goodness of shakes and strawberries and chocolate and fries.

Evensong Homily, January 31,2016

During my first year or so of seminary, a good friend and I had a running “argument,” which simply went like this: he would say, out of the blue, “scripture,” and I always would respond with “theology.” A gentle ribbing argument grounded in my affection for the seminary’s theology professor and because I lived and breathed theology—“faith seeking understanding”—St. Anselm’s definition that summed up my life; grounded in my friend’s love and knowledge of scripture . . . and grounded in the both of us being smartasses.

As a Master of Arts in Religion student, I had the option to take a theology class before the MDivs did; I started backwards, by taking Theology II first, with permission. I also took the scripture class with the MDivs. And theology is grounded in scripture, as my friend took loving pains to remind me. But theology was always first for me.

This past Thursday was the feast day of another of my theology heroes, Thomas Aquinas, who came to mind as I was thinking about the word “caritas,” which is the theme of the lovely anthem our choir sang this evening, Ubi caritas. Often, caritas is translated as “charity,” which then gets construed as “benevolent giving.” But I love Thomas’ definition—“friendship of man for God.” I’m going to leave aside a deep discussion of the rest of Thomas’ argument for this evening—his Summa is one heck of a rabbit hole.

Instead, I’d like to reflect briefly on this evening’s readings, in which we have examples of faith seeking understanding—Paul, who is trying to help those in Galatia understand this new faith, this new way of life and relationship with God; and Mark’s parable of the blind man combined with the question that Jesus asks of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” That question still resonates with us as we seek, with faith, and sometimes without, what our relationship is with God. I think of St. Jack’s—better known as C. S. Lewis (feast day is November 22)—lament that friendship is a lost art.

Mark, Paul, Thomas, and other theologians through the millennia have written volumes on scripture, trying to understand. But as one who loves words and wondering and considers herself a theologian, I just want to say that in this moment as we gather in friendship with God and with each other, I don’t wonder, I know, here God is.

FYI, near the mid-point of his first semester of theology, my friend confessed that maybe I was right, that theology almost trumped scripture, almost. Friendship, what  a gift. Just read scripture–David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. . .

Theo-proprioception

“Why did you prostrate yourself during the prayers?” I ask my friend after his ordination into the priesthood a couple of Saturdays ago, as we’re walking to a pub for a celebratory beer (we are Episcopalians, after all). My voice is level (I think) as I ask.

“It’s an ancient practice,” he responds, “and besides, I could just lie there and listen to the prayers.”

“Oh. I know of prostration at other times, but haven’t seen anyone do it at an ordination before.” I can’t remember if I told him that it was my favorite part of the service and said that it had made me a bit teary-eyed, trying to be nonchalant, unwilling to show him exactly how much that moment meant, or if I did in fact tell him it was the most profound and intense moment of the service for me.

I’ve seen a number of friends ordained into the transitional and vocational diaconate, and prior to July 11, one ordination into the priesthood. At that particular ordination, I saw a visible transformation as the bishop laid hands on that other friend as he was clothed in priestly garb. An outward sign of inward grace, perhaps the Holy Spirit descending, the ontological change joked about at seminary—I don’t know, except that the sensation was wholly unexpected. That transition was transcendent in a sparkly, numinous way. And having experienced it once, I earnestly (and naively) awaited witnessing the same for this friend at that point during his ordination.

So the service begins after the procession, and my friend is in his alb, looking pretty much as he did when last I saw him at graduation in May. The Presentation goes quickly, and next is the Litany of Ordination–the prayers on behalf of the candidate. I fiddle with the Order of Service, crumpling the sheets slightly while looking for the right page, intending to follow along, all the while anticipating the big moment coming up later in the service. I could go on liturgical autopilot for a few minutes.

And then . . . as we stand and as the bishop begins, my friend is not standing, is not on his knees, but prostrate, his head resting on his crossed arms, and suddenly now is the transcendent moment, for me anyway, sans sparkles. I have no voice to join in with the rest of the body as they respond to the bishop’s petitions with “Lord, hear our prayer” or maybe it was “Lord, have mercy,” because tears have started down my cheeks. My heart was on its knees. . .

Frankly, for the longest time, I could not see how the posture of my body could affect my ability to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit or to discern God’s will for me. I knew my heart was pretty open as it was. On Maundy Thursday, after having been “banished” from my home parish during Lent (so that I could experience the wider Church as part of my discernment), and after having visited the Seminary of the Southwest’s campus, I stretched myself out before the cross, after the agape meal (a story in itself) at St. Luke’s in Cedar Falls. I tried to lay open my heart.

Those who know me know my weakness for the Fool, especially Nick Bottom, the ass-headed (figuratively and literally) rude mechanical of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the literary character whom I most love and with whom I most identify. (My love of Puck, the Trickster, is another story). In Act 4, Scene 1, Bottom’s otherwordly, I mean otherworldly, vulnerability brings tears every time to my eyes. His fumbling, earnest, unashamed attempt to articulate his participation within the body of fairies as he seeks to describe his experience with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has wound itself around my heart: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”

In seminary, I could often be found stretched out in the breezeway, on the ledge of a brick wall, on the library floor, or even on the floor during class (I was roasted for my “planking” habit at Last Gathering the year I graduated). Reading assignments or research for my thesis, a notepad, pens, pencils, spread out around me when on the breezeway or in the library (scaled back slightly if in class). An arm served as a prop for my head, hand tucked under my chin—my favored learning posture. I eagerly read biblical scholarship, scripture, or best of all, theology.

Bottom mangles a quote from older scripture that Paul, that fool of fools, uses in his letter to the Corinthian house churches (1 Cor 2:9). Paul, who opened his heart again and again, to Christ and for Christ, writing of the body of Christ for the body of Christ. Did a part of him always remain prostrate on the road to Damascus?

. . . and so, there is my friend, lying prone, heart open, as he is prayed for by the rest of the body of Christ present that day in that place, in a human gesture of surrender and obedience as he becomes a priest. My own body stands, but my heart is aware of God’s presence, grateful for fools who are translated by, and who translate God’s love.

Why Do You Deny That You’re Passionate?

Right now, I feel like a ball. God has gotten me out of one of those machines you find near grocery store entrances–one of those little super bouncy balls, brightly colored, lots of fun, and hard to resist. I’ve been thrown and am now, well. . .bouncing. . .all around the room, striking first one wall, then the floor, then the ceiling, back to the floor, then the opposite wall. Words ricochet with me–ballein (Gk., to throw), parable, story, energy, restlessness, passion, naming, words, voice, peace. Question marks and exclamation points zip along, too. Maybe an Oxford comma.

How do you feel these words: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, NRSV)?  I always feel such hope when a priest blesses me, blesses the people, with them at the end of the Episcopal liturgy. And I wait to be calm and still.

And then I despair (too strong a word, perhaps), at times because I go to a place like Parable, and I hear a voice suggesting that the people take a moment or two of silence and deep breaths in order to bring themselves to a place of calm and stillness, and I hear a man talk about calm and stillness and that, with practice, that place can be found, that pool of still water, deep and cool, with maybe a hint of movement–pavonine like sunset or sunrise–and I know that will not be me. . .I’ve taken the lessons of James T. Kirk too much to heart, even though I much hoped to be Spock.

And I hear words and assertions and they collide and ricochet with other words in my head that I’ve just read. And God has just used a stock pot again to get my attention–metaphorically, at least, this time. And I can’t be still; I don’t want to be, not with so much to ask, of God, of myself. Not when there’s so much. . .to see, to do, to know. So many voices to hear and to love. . .

Someone told me tonight (really last night, but, hey, my poetic license hasn’t yet expired) that he loves my passion, my desire to name things, my desire to see into the heart and name things, and that God loves that, too. The power of words. . . my passion–

I’m drawn over and over, desire and need pushing all else to the side, to a rushing, bubbling, clear (not without its flotsam and jetsam of trash and green blush of algae) creek–rushing eagerly, unashamedly to leave my dress shoes at the bank, to marvel as I step into the swift, cold current. Marvel at the glass-green deeps (yes, I know it mostly connotes the ocean depths) and the sand-gold shallows; marvel at the sensation of rapidly flowing water over my toes and swirling around my ankles as I make sure to keep my skirt out of the wet. Why agitation to sweep aside agitation. . .How do I name this desire?

What’s in a name, after all? Peace, by any other name. . .

I think I may have dropped the ball metaphor. . .

Sermon given in Christ Chapel (well, the Weeks Center subbing as Christ Chapel) on the Feast of Mary Magdalene (moved) Friday, May 2, 2014, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX



Drippy. Cornball. Insipid. Schmaltzy. Mawkish. Lachrymose. Foolishly sentimental. I could go on. Don’t these words conjure certain images? Overwrought women, crying at the drop of a hat? Melodramatic love scenes: “oh, John, I love you so.” “oh, Mary, I would die for you.” “Oh, John.” “Oh, Mary.” We all have at least one friend, who, after a few drinks, turns on the waterworks—“oh, man, I love you. You’re my best friend, dude. I’m sorry I made out with your sister.”

Do you feel these are negative images? Do we feel uncomfortable around people like this? Do we mutter the word “pathetic” under our breath? Or perhaps feel ashamed when we behave in this way? Do we laugh and chuckle when watching what we consider a corny love scene and feel superior for not acting in this manner? Why? Too emotional? Too cliché?

And yet, all the words I listed are synonyms for the word “maudlin.” Do I see a look of recognition on your faces? Maudlin, from the Middle English, Maudelen, from Magdalene, the surname of the saint who we are celebrating today. While originally just meaning “tearful”–in medieval art, Mary was often depicted weeping as a right sign of her repentance–the word now carries such negativity—weakly emotional, foolishly sentimental, especially when drunk.

Is it through the lenses of clichés and negativity that we view Mary then? Do we see the repentant prostitute who so loved riches and beauty that she fell into a life of prostitution and then repented when she met Jesus, this image that so much of Christian culture saw over the centuries? Do we see, perhaps feeling enlightened, the Mary who may have been the companion and wife of Christ, if we believe scholars who cite the Nag Hammadi scrolls? Or Dan Brown?

What about the lenses of clichés and negativity through which we view each other—friends, family, strangers? We can put on those lenses very easily, especially when we are already using them as a mirror for ourselves. As what clichés do you see others? As what cliché do you see yourself? Why do we hold on to these images of ourselves at times?

I may be edging into the maudlin here. But we have Paul today, who tells us that “we regard no one from a human point of view. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! In other words, we can, with Christ as our teacher, learn to see ourselves and each other, through the lens of the Trinity, through God’s eyes, as beloved, unique—no longer clichés through a human point of view. 

For Mary, perhaps, this realization about her teacher, as she meets him at the tomb, and when he sent the seven demons from her, perhaps a negative time in her life, brought tears, tears of joy—foolishly sentimental, perhaps, but full of love, nonetheless. 

We’ve begun redeeming Mary Magdalene from the negative clichés which abound throughout our culture. Maybe it’s time we do so for ourselves, too. Amen.