Archives for posts with tag: Pentecost

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.

 

A theological reflection on saving a Christian college campus.

I am home now. As in, abandoned prairie dreams to come back to the Pacific Northwest with its layers of mountains and hills, moody shifts in grey hues, waterlogged air, and the smell of low tide. It is fortunate that I can complete my research away from school at this point, and even tailor it to this region. The thought of learning Chicago watersheds for my studies in baptism felt daunting.

Coming home has its share of mixed feelings, particularly when my memory is taxed with recalling what ‘used to be’ on that corner instead of the shiny tall thing that looms overhead. So, when I saw the article in the local news about an old Bible school coming due for demolition, I started reading closely. Sure enough, I remembered the place–vaguely, but well enough.

I can’t remember if it was a vacation Bible school, or simply a weekend retreat that took me to the Lutheran Bible Institute in Issaquah, but I remember her. Her name was similar to mine, Kirstin, she had straight, blonde hair, and she sang in the a cappella music group at the Bible school. I remember feeling so enamored with her, like she could be my big sister. We may have even exchanged a few letters as pen pals. I remember, too, the buildings that felt a little old, but in that vertical NW, mod quirky kind of way. At that time, about the only difference I knew existed between the Lutherans and Presbyterians (such as I was), had to do with the color robes their clergy wore on Sundays. Yet I would have signed up to go to LBI in a heartbeat; especially if it meant singing alongside my new friend such lyric hits as, “It’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. / Faith without works…”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the local megachurches owns the property now, and that they have an interest in selling it. But in a region with few religious landmarks, the thought of losing a 1960s chapel and school with a unique history (the Lutherans bought it from the Catholics) is dispiriting. Surely another religious organization would think so, too? Or is a generic evangelical church focused on being young and relevant simply deaf to any cries of history or tradition? I wonder, then, if this isn’t a case of good old North American pragmatism. The church is not a building, it is wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ–so goes the logic.

Shouldn’t a place where the broken, risen body of Christ has been shared, given and communed across time and denominations mean something?

For nearly ten years I worshiped in a space that was built by the Methodists, then occupied by a brewery, a disco, the Baptists, and some other commercial interests during its 100+ year history (not to mention squirrels and other critters in the attic). Houses of worship that have been around for a while feel different. There is a kind of spatial patina that can rub off on unsuspecting visitors, enriching the music, the prayers, the communion of saints. At times in church, I could sense the hopes and desires of past parishioners. My great-grandparents never worshiped there, but someone’s did.

The Providence Heights space is unique as a theological school, first for nuns, then for Lutheran women and men. Let me repeat that: the school was built to educate women first. It may be tempting to be dismissive of a training school for Catholic nuns, but considering how difficult it still is–globally speaking–for women to receive any kind of dedicated theological education, let’s just say this is significant. While the chapel was not a community church per se, it served as a basin for the missio Dei, and a nest from which hopeful young Christians followed the call of the Spirit to the world.

Surely, a fellow religious organization such as City Church, with its focus on developing relevant leaders for the world, would understand such a history?

At a time when property values are soaring out of reach, churches are shrinking, and decisions for survival must be made on a purely economic basis, does City Church (or any church) have a responsibility to history or tradition? What does it look like to honor the people who have gone before in particular places; who have celebrated the Lord’s supper, and proclaimed his death and resurrection in these walls? This week of Pentecost, I pray for a creative solution for the people of Issaquah, for City Church, and the Providence Heights campus. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe new life.