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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.

Ferguson was supposed to be a turning point. It was the unflinching reveal of systemic violence that routinely plays out on black and brown bodies. It was supposed to be a metanoia moment for the rest of society. Instead, it became a line in the sand between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter; between those who must navigate the realities of daily dehumanization, along with some white allies, and those who wish to maintain a corrupted facade of ‘universality’ that is the mechanism of dehumanization. Ferguson revealed how little ground has been ceded by the powers that be, and how bloodied.

And now, Charlottesville.

A white life has been killed while standing in defiance of a colorless vision of the US–a vision that is wholly without merit, though not without precedent. This colorless vision is easy to refute when presented as a high contrast image, like the events in Charlottesville, but not as obvious in its grainier daily forms. Since last weekend I have seen many posts on social media decrying the hatred and provenance of the ideologies behind ‘unite the right’, and admonitions among the white community to stop racism at first sight in any form. I have also seen pushback from people of color who are sick of hearing the defensive response, ‘but I’m not like those people’. Both responses point to a critical piece that we, my fellow white folk, must contemplate. We have so swallowed and ingested the doctrine of individuality that it seems inconceivable we might be confused for one who looks like me but is not-me. We don’t like to be labeled (because no one likes to be labeled), and refuse to consider the subtleties of racism–because I am not ‘racist’. Not like them.

But here is one label that I am willing to guarantee: all humans are assholes.

This is also known as the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology, to get fancy. And right now we are having a serious Come to Jesus moment with communities of color.

Perhaps you’re right to say that you are not like those tiki torch carrying white men. Congratulations. So now, let’s take a look at that knapsack of privilege. When I open mine I see an above average K-12 education, childhood in an affluent and unpolluted community, which meant that I grew up with a sense of security outside the home. My parents divorced when I was young, so other people’s homes became my safe havens, as did school. College was expected, not an option. I’m blonde and blue-eyed, so no issues with fitting into the larger society. Somewhere along the way I learned to listen to the stories of others, and to take them seriously. James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, and Japanese American internment survivors have all been my teachers. You could say my knapsack is adorned with the classic white, liberal badge of honor (or a Canadian flag). But all that is the easy part to identify.

Privilege likes to hide out in tide pools and shadow. It emerges in our gut reactions to something that impacts our daily routine, or sense of fairness. It feeds off particularities of perspective, the way ‘common sense’ is shaped. We see this when a white college student sues a university for not admitting her, blaming Affirmative Action for ruining her future. What seems straightforward–admitting the best and the brightest–takes a detour. The algorithms of society are usually in our favor. When something gets coded differently, suddenly it appears as unfair. There are moments when I see my Latinx and Black colleagues involved in grant-funded initiatives and think, wait, where is my opportunity? The job market is doubly bleak for us theologians. So, with churches dying and schools not hiring, why must my spouse and I bear more of a financial burden for graduate school? It isn’t fair. But when I take a step back, reframe the picture, some other factors emerge. What are the chances I will be able to work past age 60, or perhaps even 70? Good? Better than average? What about my colleagues who may or may not receive the same level of health care? Whose voices are more urgent for the church today? Mine, or the prophetic witness of my colleagues, many of whose lives bear the undue burdens of our society?

Privilege’s partner is exceptionality, also known as not-me. This is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the doctrine of individuality. We are seldom aware of how we categorize, prejudge, and stereotype others, but we bristle when others do that to us. How dare he assume that I’m like that… Who does she think she is… Together, privilege and exceptionalism provide a filter for walking through the world. We fail to recognize all the visual cues, social patterns, and unspoken expectations that perpetuate white power.

Schoolgirls, Fort Spokane Indian School, n.d. Photo from the UW library archives.

As one of my conversation partners often likes to remind me, white people are not the only assholes on this planet–just look at history. The Huns, Aztecs, Pharoahs, and Hutus have all done their fair share of conquering, killing, and destruction. ‘They’re no different from us.’ True though that may appear, those are not the societies in which we currently live. And we do have a responsibility to be aware of how we, in this time and in this place, are being assholes to others.