A sermon reflection for Proper 14, Year B, given at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

When I was in college, I spent much of my time with art students. We would rent the strangest films. For someone who grew up in a Scandinavian American family, the most foreign of all foreign films were Italian. How was it possible to contain that much emotion, and all those hand gesticulations within a 70mm strip of film?? Was it even possible for the camera to capture every turn of the head, flick of the finger, and eyebrow arc, given how rapidly they would move across the screen? These films must have made an impression upon me, because I found myself recalling the distinctive stylistic markers while reading through the book of second Samuel and the stories of king David’s family. It’s all there—irrational passion, repudiation, betrayal, murderous revenge, conspiracy, family members storming off. To say that David’s children were ill behaved would simply not do justice to the terrible texts found between last week’s reading and today’s.

What might it look like, I started to muse, for an Italian director to film David’s family reunion? (Absurd? Perhaps, yes.) Just for a moment, picture it: Sicily. The late summer heat coats the leaves of a nearby orchard and makes the winding paths shimmer at a distance. A slight breeze tousles the olive branches, lazily picking up the corners of table cloths anchored by plates upon plates of cheeses, charcuterie and garden vegetables. Cisterns of water and wine punctuate the scene with glasses spotlighting where to find refreshment. Some of the children have detached themselves from the adults to avoid getting fussed over by this or that relative, who remembers them from when they were yea high. Women have begun to gather together, circling in conversational flocks; while the men greet one another heartily, sizing one another up through story and sheer volume. The din of voices and clatter of dishes rapidly reverberates off the stone buildings, covering the sound of a large party of men coming in the distance. As the laughter crescendos another loud cry is suddenly heard: he is here; he dared to come. The one who, ever so briefly, had stolen the hearts of the Israelites from their true King, to the point of taking Jerusalem and putting his own father to flight across the Jordan. Absalom approaches. As he nears there are some who recall how beautiful he is, and how wise he had seemed. Why shouldn’t he have been king after David? Arguments break out in sporadic clumps. Others debase him in favor of his older brother, David’s firstborn, Amnon; the one who—they are quick to remind everyone within hearing—Absalom himself had killed. Who would support a murderer, they demand. As the commotion sweeps across the gathering, gesticulations intensify, and cracks emerge between parties: those who begin to move toward Absalom separate themselves from Amnon’s defenders.

Meanwhile, an old man sits under the shade of a thick cedar, shoulders sloping downward. Longing, regret, and love stain his cheeks as he observes the gathering. A servant holding a plate of food and cup of water implore him to eat and drink, even just a morsel. He shakes his head. He can see the factions forming, and is afraid of what might happen when his eldest sons meet again. The scene ends with the face of the patriarch filling the frame.

~~~

In today’s old testament reading we hear a small but significant excerpt of a much larger story. Absalom has indeed driven his father and his father’s company out of Jerusalem after winning over allies in Israel. Prior to that he had lived for a time in exile after killing David’s eldest son, (and) his brother, Amnon. It was an act of revenge for Amnon having forced himself on Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Throughout all of these events, the text renders David as virtually helpless, in part because he simply cannot refrain from loving his children and extending forgiveness. The consequences for his newly united kingdom include schisms and faltering loyalty among the people of Israel and Judah. Such a weakened image of King David is a far cry from the triumphant warrior conquering the Philistines, or strong ruler uniting disparate tribes.

Reading through second Samuel I found myself infuriated by David, annoyed by his inaction at crucial times, (even) irritated at how often he followed the counsel of others whether or not they had his best interests in mind (spoiler: they usually had their own). But I also found an unglossed portrait of a man whose character is too often lionized beyond recognition. I’ve been in church communities before that look to David as a model worshiper—and, there are moments when he truly is. They see his passion and exuberance dancing before the ark as another kingly attribute, fully inline with his image as a valiant warrior. David and God, side by side, marching to victory. However, in the passages that focus on David’s children, the text illustrates a very different side to him. After learning what his eldest son Amnon had done to his daughter Tamar, he still couldn’t bring himself to punish the young man. When Absalom was living in exile, David was preoccupied with worry about him. Today we read that, even after Absalom rebels against him, he implores the military commanders, “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Deal gently, with the enemy.

Absalom_getty

Unknown
Scenes from the Life of Absalom, about 1250, Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 32.5 × 29 cm (12 13/16 × 11 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

How confusing it must have been for the military leaders to hear their king dictate mercy to the one chasing after them. When it comes to love and war, a black and white, right and wrong duality is much easier to navigate—but if our anger is always justified, where, then, lies the need for forgiveness? And, are we called only to forgive those with whom we share relationship of some sort? What about people we don’t even know?

~~~

I have a confession to make; I can no longer look at neighborhood blogs because, at the very sight of one particular commentator’s name, I become irate. My pulse quickens, my temper ignites, hair stands on end, and I think some very bad thoughts about this person I do not know (and wouldn’t be able to recognize if we brushed past each other at the market). The nature of her online comments makes me feel very justified in thinking she is a horrible person who deserves…well, fill in the blank with any manner of nasty things. This person articulates views and attitudes toward our unsheltered neighbors that are similarly shared—though to a lesser extent—among some of my Ballard acquaintances. At dinners with neighbors, the topic of homelessness seems to ebb and flow with news coverage. (And) As many of you [in the congregation] know far better than I do, defending an unsheltered neighbor’s right to simply exist (let alone be fed and cared for) can be utterly exhausting. When sheltered neighbors—either in person or online—willfully remain dismissive and outright antagonistic towards local services, St. Luke’s Edible Hope, and guests, surely we are justified in feeling anger on behalf of others? …And then I turn to the week’s scripture lessons.

In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul makes this curious statement, “Be angry, but do not sin;” here Paul is writing as a pastor. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted…” (v. 31,32) This is not a legal statement, not an order to ‘do this, or be cast out’. Frankly, it has taken me years to hear those words, “be angry, but do not sin.” The culture I was raised in negated any expressions of anger, and for years when I read Paul, all I saw was, do not be angry, at all, under any circumstance. That isn’t what he says, first of all; and it isn’t healthy. Sometimes, we need anger. Anger is a defensive emotion when someone or something we care about is threatened. But we don’t stop there, because anger in and of itself requires separation. It is very difficult to be in relationship with others when anger is present. And so, for Paul, we must move beyond anger in order to grow into the life of Christ as a community.

Anger serves another function, though; it can also be a necessary point of entry to grief and lament. Anger wants to remain as a shield set against the adversary, but we cannot live together with our shields up all the time. Encouraging one another to live into the hope of the risen Christ means crossing the protective threshold of anger and moving into a place of mourning together. David’s grieving for Absalom demonstrates not only the intense experience of loss for a child but also a giving up of anger. After all David had been through, after all he had put others through, any determination to remain angry at his beloved son crumbled. Perhaps he was even preparing to fully forgive Absalom in that moment when he ordered, “deal gently for my sake with the young man.”

~~~

Each week we practice together elements of forgiveness when we prepare ourselves to come to the communion table. In the confession of sin is an opportunity to acknowledge those times when we have allowed anger to remain too long, or to shield our hearts against a neighbor, friend or family member. The absolution is a reminder that we are invited, every time we come to the table, to pass over the threshold of anger into renewed relationship with others; to draw near to the person of Jesus Christ and receive nourishment and healing in community. And, by greeting one another with words of peace, we practice in word and gesture the motion of putting away anger, Sunday to Sunday, weeks to months, months to years, until it becomes muscle memory. With the help of the Holy Spirit, as we put away anger, we are freed to empathize with others (maybe not right away, and maybe not the people we’re angry with, but eventually). It is easy to be forgiving toward people we like, it is a work of God to pass through anger and move toward forgiveness of those who really offend us.

Here lies the way of salvation, the way of healing: to draw near to Jesus Christ in the bread and the cup; and to draw close to one another, participating in the life of the Holy Spirit through praying together, through fellowship around coffee, and in the garden. Amen.

 

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I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.

a Watershed Approach

Sermon given the fourth Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2018 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (and) Happy Earth Day. It is an honor to share with you a reflection on today’s scriptures in this season of the resurrection, as all creation waits for the coming reign of God the Creator, Source of abundant and everlasting Life.

My husband, Christopher and I come to you from lower Queen Anne, via Chicago. We tried to live away from mountains while I started a doctoral program in theology and ethics, but Lake Michigan is a bit unsettling for some of us—it’s on the wrong side, for one, and then it just drops off at the horizon. So, we’re back; and it is good to be back. Before going further, I want to acknowledge that we are worshiping in the Duwamish watershed, so named for the river and the people who have shared their identity, united by water and salmon for a great long time.

Take a moment and imagine waking up one morning, looking out the window, and there stands a flock of sheep milling about. You think, perhaps the neighbors decided they needed some mowing done—but, no. When you walk out the door, their big brown eyes focus on you, expectantly. One particularly fluffy, and disheveled, ewe ambles in your direction. They are hungry, thirsty, and a little unnerved. These are not urban creatures, and unlike goats, they won’t tackle the blackberry hedge down by the tracks at Golden Gardens. So, where might you take them for food? Aside from the garden hose tap, where is the nearest source of freshwater? How do you even begin to care for these creatures?

sheep on the hillsidePsalm 23 paints a bucolic scene of an attentive shepherd leading his animals to dewy green pastures and calm streams. The poem is a song of trust, attributed to David, sung to Yahweh. The biblical imagery is familiar both from other places in scripture, and (for ancient listeners) from the hillsides and wadis surrounding towns in the ancient world. For the psalm to speak of lush pastures and clear water, followed by a table set and a cup that overflows—these are signs of abundant life. Such life is contrasted with the threat of death: a deep dark shadow, the presence of enemies.

In their collective contexts, the motif of God our good shepherd is familiar to the ‘Jews’ (using John’s language) of Jesus’ time, particularly the religious elite. The word most often translated as ‘good’ (for good shepherd) can also mean ‘noble’; it’s antonym is not “bad” but, rather, shameful. Thus the shepherd willing to lay down his or her life for the sheep lives according to a different code. They choose the good of the other whom they are called to care for. The noble shepherd is held up in stark contrast to the hired hand who abandons the sheep. Danger is above his pay grade. Jesus was not subtle in his insinuation that the religious leaders were the hired hands who have not cared for their flock as they should.

Echoing themes of life and death, Jesus inhabits the person of the good and honorable shepherd who willingly places his life in danger to keep the sheep alive. In John’s text he enrages the religious leaders with the statement “I AM”—the very words that constitute the name of the Holy One of Israel. Remember Moses and his little chat with a burning bush? There he was, with his father-in-law’s sheep, on Horeb, the mountain of God, when a voice emerges from the flames and tells him to go speak to the Israelite leaders suffering under Pharaoh. In Moses’ trepidation at being chosen to liberate the very people he had abandoned some years past, he insists on a name to give the Israelite leaders. [God/YHWH] said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [Exodus 3.14b] Moses was not entirely convinced, but from that point on, according to tradition, Yahweh / I AM / Adonai is the divine name, the name of the One who delivers the people. Yahweh is my shepherd, who gives food to those who lack, and water to those who thirst. For Jesus of Nazareth to claim this name was blasphemy.

Moses and David were the archetypal shepherds of Yahweh. Shepherds gather their flocks close for safety. They look for any sheep who wandered too far afield. They know each animal by face and temperament. They make sure the less assertive sheep get enough to eat and drink. Jesus also reminds us that the sheep know their shepherd; they respond to their own shepherd’s call. (Familiarity goes both ways.) And there is more—a shepherd must be intricately familiar with the landscape. Where is the good pasture? Where is there clean, gentle water the sheep can drink from? Are the paths of last month or last year still traversable? Are the paddocks secure? In other words, shepherding—like farming, fishing, and forestry—is intricately linked to place. Tending creation and our fellow creatures happens somewhere.

~ ~ ~

Do you remember a moment when Psalm 23 came to mind as a source of comfort, your own song of trust? Where were you—inside, or outside? In a church, or perhaps a garden? I remember once in college—it was a bad day—I was in a foul mood, so I went hiking along a trail off Chuckanut drive. I had been there a couple-few times before, and was fairly confident in my sense of direction. That became the day I learned never to go off-trail in our densely carpeted forests. The squirrel scolding me for a good twenty minutes didn’t help much in reorienting me to the path, either. There, on the east side of a ridge, with the evening shadows growing ever longer, I prayed, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He leads me to the right path, where my truck is parked. (I felt a little sheepish that day.)

Getting lost in the woods was part of my childhood, but so was exploring with an experienced guide. During weekends and school breaks, I would often travel with my dad out to local streams and rivers to investigate salmon habitat, or check out hatcheries up and down the Puget Sound region. I learned to read water at a young age; the swirls of fast currents roiling over submerged debris, the quiet eddies circling below wide cedar root systems. It’s good to know where the shallows end when your boots only go so high. I would watch my father work, taking water samples, checking for impassable culverts, analyzing riverbeds for imbalances in sediment washed down every spring and fall by flood waters. Here in the northwest we have a different kind of shepherd—those who seek to guide salmon back to their spawning grounds, and help native fish species thrive. We could also call their work stewardship, yet there’s a distinction between the resource management of stewardship, and the embodied nature of the relationship scripture describes between a shepherd and his/her sheep. Shepherding is a way of abiding, dwelling with creation that attunes us to matters of life and death for our fellow creatures. To shepherd is to actively seek/pursue life, to facilitate flourishing, for one and other—even to the point where we are willing to face death (literal or otherwise).

There are differences between stewarding and shepherding. Stewarding entails managing resources wisely. God certainly calls on individuals and communities to be stewards. (and) Earth Day is a good time to take stock of where and how our natural resources are currently allocated, and to look for ways they could be better managed/conserved. Stewarding done well allows for increased access to goods and the means to live. Yet, if we only go by the logic of stewarding, when it gets disconnected from the gift economy of God’s reign, stewarding becomes a zero sum game. Smaller pastures means fewer sheep, and larger pastures means more sheep (and more is always better). Shepherding, on the other hand, places gathering and flourishing at the center. Our attention shifts to the larger context of interconnecting factors that engender life within a particular location. Such intimacy also, of necessity, draws us into a familiarity with those things that diminish life, that—like the thief—come to steal, kill and destroy.

On Palm Sunday this year, young people of St. Luke’s led a group of us around the immediate neighborhood on an ‘urban stations of the cross’. I hope they guide us through again next year, and every year. To hear the stories of some of our most vulnerable neighbors told in the shadow of Jesus’ broken body is a profound act of lament. In fact, I invite anyone and everyone throughout the year to visit the bronze leaves laid in the concrete there across the street (the final station of the cross). Those leaves carry the names of neighbors who have died on the streets. And they continue to fall and collect on the sidewalk. When we listen to the stories of guests and neighbors, we hear about their specific challenges and choices–or lack of choices–that are diminishing their lives. Some narratives are familiar, others less so; a confluence of missteps, or simply the wrong place at the wrong time with no one to guide them out. As the Good Shepherd knows, death, too, is linked to place. So the figure of the leaf is an appropriate link to creation, a sign that reminds us of the kind of death experienced by creation each year. Those particular leaves outside provide an apposite image—like a black and white negative—juxtaposed to the symbols in which we partake each week when we celebrate the Eucharist. We may not have actual sheep outside our door, but there are many who are hungry, and thirsty, and harried.

God in Christ, our Shepherd, invites us to celebrate grain and grape gathered to give sustenance to the weary, hope to the hungry. We know the voice of the shepherd because each week God in Christ gathers us together to celebrate nothing less than the life of the risen Christ, the one who traversed death. This is our head shepherd who leads us through valleys, who restores our souls, and brings us to the table—so that we may become attentive to creation and to our fellow creatures, here in this place. Amen.