Monday, July 30, 2007

I am a book.

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire
faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest
this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking
moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.


I have to tell you: I loved this book. It is one of my all-time favorites.

And I have a confession to make. First time through the quiz, I was Watership Down, a book I could never get through (not even a chapter). I backed up and chose "Armadillo." And here you are.

Dangerous Women

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, "‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." 23And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

~ Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard about "it." In this passage from Mark, "it" is Jesus' fame: it is growing. He has sent his disciples on healing and exorcism tours. He has preached in his hometown synagogue. He is making a name for himself. Herod heard about it.In Luke, when this passage begins, "Herod heard about it," it's quite a different reference, the feeding of the multitudes. But here... it's teaching, preaching, healing, and authority to cast out demons that has Herod's attention, that causes him to revisit a demon of his own.The story that follows, the infamous birthday celebration with the murderous sister-in-law/ wife Herodias holding a grudge and the seductive daughter-- also Herodias?-- dancing for a prize, is all told as a flashback. It's as if Jesus looms in Herod's conscience, prompting him to relive a shattering experience, his murder of a prophet he actually kind of liked and found interesting... out of regard for his oaths and his guests. Interesting way to show honor to one's guests.

I always enjoy the motif of dangerous women when it shows up in scripture... Jael, Jezebel, Judith, Herodias, the daughter often called Salome... women who are assumed to possess, along with the estrogen that flows through their bodies, the power to cause men to do anything.... absolutely anything! Thing is, Herod was a murderous thug. He would have been happy to kill anybody who interfered with his getting his morning nectar on time. The story that has grown up around this... that it was all the wiles of a wiggling woman... is infuriating, in a way. As if the only power women have is the power of sexual allure (I almost said something much, much more vulgar. But this is a vulgar story.)

But then, this is Herod's nightmare, that he killed John, whom the people regarded as a prophet, who poured water on them and cleansed them of their sins and sent them on their way in pursuit of righteousness. Who knows what stories he had to tell himself so that he could sleep at night.

Some call this image by Klimt Judith, some call it Salome. She does have a head, in any case.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Gospel According to Harry Potter: A Sermon on Colossians 2:6-15

“The Gospel According to Harry Potter”
Colossians 2:6-15
July 29, 2007

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most famous sites of Christian history in the British Isles. More than 1500 years old, it can claim as its first archbishop none other than Saint Augustine, and is known as the site where another archbishop, Thomas Becket, was assassinated by knights loyal to the king. It provided the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a collection of stories shared by people traveling to the cathedral on pilgrimage, thus providing a bane in the life of many a high school freshman, required to memorize the prologue in Middle English. In 2000 representatives of Time Warner motion pictures approached the Dean of the cathedral with a request: might some part of the first Harry Potter film be shot there?

The dean said, “No,” explaining that it was unfitting for a Christian church to be used to promote pagan imagery. Fortunately for fans of the movie, representatives of Gloucester Cathedral had no such anxieties, and so certain shots of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry have been filmed at Gloucester ever since. In fact, the Dean of Gloucester loves Harry Potter. He says, "I think [it’s] a marvelous traditional children's story and excellently written. It is also amusing, exciting and wholesome, and is just the sort of story families should be encouraged to read." (1)

And there you have it, from both sides of the cathedral aisle: the Harry Potter books, promoters of paganism versus the Harry Potter books, wholesome family entertainment. And I would like to say at the outset that I think it is good for people to be concerned about the content of what their families read or view online or play on their Xbox 360’s. There are messages out there that are harmful to our children and to ourselves, and we have to do a lot of homework to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. We have to know what is good, wholesome and life-building and what is dark, dangerous and death-dealing.

This is precisely the issue that concerns Paul in today’s letter to the Colossians. This particular letter has been the source of much intrigue over the years—over the centuries—because it is clear Paul is battling something that scholars call the “Colossian heresy.” Something is out there, causing people to fall away from faith in Jesus Christ and to place their confidence instead, in something Paul calls “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” [Col. 2:8]. Paul is urgently warning the people of this community against something that is already snatching their hearts and their souls away from the body of Christ. The question is, what is it, exactly? What was the Colossian heresy?

Here’s what one of the most trusted books in my library, the New Interpreter’s Bible, has to say about the possibilities: “In the past, scholars looked to a Jewish form of Gnosticism or to Jewish mysticism or to Hellenistic mystery cults or to neo-Pythagoreanism or to a syncretistic mix of some of these…” (Try saying that three times, real fast.) Some have mentioned “middle-Platonism.” Some have even mentioned a “general framework of magic and folk-religion.” (2) You probably are getting the idea that we just don’t know. That’s exactly right. The options are many, and the truth, most likely, is lost to us modern readers. But Paul gives us the heart of his concern in that phrase I’ve already quoted to you: it’s a philosophy, packed with empty deceit, according to human tradition, and not, in his view, according to our calling in Jesus Christ.

As with so much in scripture, our understanding is limited if we don’t look around, and take into consideration the context of what we’re reading. And just prior to our selection from Colossians is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the New Testament. It’s a passage whose lyricism, even in translation, grabs our attention and tells us a story: first, it was a hymn, used by the early church in its worship. It is a hymn to Christ, praising his role in creation and his role in redemption:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” Paul says. This is the foundation of the witness of the early church: in Jesus of Nazareth they encountered the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the fullness of God’s presence on earth. This was a presence that rejected divine power to stand in solidarity with frail humanity, that stood for radical inclusion, and that stood up to the earthly powers and principalities. Christ was a presence that confronted evil, in fact, did battle with evil for our very souls. And that leads us back to the beginnings of our passage. Paul says, “therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him…” [Col. 2:6-7a]. Paul is asking the people in Colossae to do something vitally important to the strength of their faith: he is asking them to root themselves, to let themselves be built up, in the faith they have already been given. Paul is asking them to remember that their true foundation is in Christ.

And here, in 2007, our task is exactly the same: to remember that our foundation is in Christ, that we are rooted in him, that he is the source of our life. And if that is true, then what do we make of these books, whose subject is, frankly, a world if witches and wizards? Is the world of Harry Potter comprised of those misleading philosophies Paul is warning us about? Do these books or films pose a threat to us?

The Harry Potter books depict a classic confrontation between good and evil, with a young boy at the epicenter. On one side of the battle, we have the evil Lord Voldemort, a brilliant but dark wizard who comes into conflict with young Harry. And we have his followers, known as Death Eaters… people who are willing to do literally anything to advance the cause of their dark Lord.

One thing I love and admire in the Harry Potter books is their willingness to name evil, to see it for what it is. And there are essentially three hallmarks of evil in the books: 1. The desire to amass unlimited or virtually unlimited power to one person; 2. The desire to enforce a kind of racial purity (the dark wizards seek to destroy non-magical people and even wizards who have non-magical relatives); and 3. The willingness to kill and torture in the name of accomplishing these objectives. Outside the realm of fantasy novels, to name evil can, of course, be complex and treacherous. But I believe these characteristics of evil hold up to real world scrutiny.

They were certainly present in Jesus’ day. Jesus was unfailingly critical of the Roman Empire, that great entity that saw its mission as becoming ever larger and more powerful. Remember that Jesus was considered such a threat to the empire that he was executed for sedition. Jesus broke boundaries of racial exclusivity again and again; remember the Good Samaritan. Remember Jesus healing the child of the Canaanite woman and the servant of the Roman soldier. And Jesus stated in no uncertain terms that the response to evil is not, cannot be further evil and violence. This is hard for us, in an age of terrorist threats. This is hard in the Harry Potter world—no one is a pacifist when face to face with a Death Eater. In telling us to respond to attacks by turning the other check, Jesus articulated as close to a pacifist stance as exists in the ancient Near Eastern world.

On the other side of this epic battle we have Harry. Orphaned at age one and left on the doorstep of his non-magical relatives, Harry grows up with no awareness of his wizard’s abilities or pedigree. When he finally learns the truth about himself, he is told a chilling tale: that his parents died trying to protect him from Voldemort, who wanted him dead. But for some reason, Harry survived the attack, with only a lightning shaped scar on his forehead as a reminder.

Harry is told, when he is still fairly young, that his parents were murdered, and so it might seem natural that he spends the remainder of the books fighting against the murderer. But Harry’s choosing sides is not so easily explainable as all that. Harry learns early on that each of us is capable of both good and evil… he learns that he, himself, with his great talent, his great ambition, and his great anger, is vulnerable to a certain kind of invitation to evil. But he resists, he persists, even when tempted to do otherwise, in saying no to evil and fighting on the side of good.

At the end of book 1, a nearly twelve-year-old Harry asks his wise, powerful and good headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, to explain what has been protecting him from the evil one. Why couldn’t the powerful Voldemort or his followers kill him? Dumbledore replies,

“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” (3)

Love: a force so powerful, that it marks us forever. The kind of love that gives itself fully… even to the point of death… marks us forever. With that as its fundamental message, Christians have nothing to fear from the Harry Potter books. We recognize that kind of love. We have been loved with a love that is stronger than death, a love that gave everything for us, and that kind of love marks us forever.

Harry’s task is, in many ways, the same as the task Paul gives to the Colossians, and it’s our task too: to be rooted and built up in the love that gave itself for us. To remember that love, and carry on in the light of it. To resist philosophies (whether human-manufactured or wizard- manufactured) which allow anything else to take that love’s place in our hearts. Love: a force so powerful it marks us forever. Not every book gives us this message. Thank God for the ones that do. Happy reading. Amen.


(1) Wikipedia articles on “Religious Opposition to the Harry Potter Series” and “Canterbury Cathedral” contributed to these opening paragraphs.
(2) Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 561.
(3) J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997), 299.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quote of the Day: Surrender

Surrender is not my strong suit. Yet I long for this next stage of life to be God-driven, God-shaped, God-fragranced.

Read it all here. Thanks, lj.

Photo thanks to flickr and Nature Grrl.

Preaching to Myself

Preachers out there, have you ever had the experience of putting the finishing touches on a sermon and realizing... hey! That's just what I need to hear!

Of course you have.

I have been feeling disconnected from the blogosphere for a number of reasons, and it parallels another kind of disconnection I've been feeling with my real world work. I am getting progressively more excited about my new call (I preach for the congregation and they vote on August 26). But I am still strangely absent from my own life, hiding out in some bad, bad habits from of old.

Then, in preparing my sermon from tomorrow ("The Gospel According to Harry Potter"), I wrote these words:

Harry’s task is, in many ways, the same as the task Paul gives to the Colossians, and it’s our task too: to be rooted and built up in the love that gave itself for us. To remember that love, and carry on in the light of it. To resist human-manufactured (or in Harry’s case, wizard- manufactured) philosophies which allow anything else to take that love’s place in our hearts. Love: a force so powerful it marks us forever.

And, as so often happens at these moments, I stand convicted by my own admonitions. Remember: remember the love that gave itself for me.

I looked back on the early months of this blog, and you know what? I was reading scripture every day, and talking about it here. Hmmm. Maybe a source of my disconnection? That I am no longer doing that?

I'm hoping and praying this day that this preacher can take her own sermon to heart. I am deciding, even as I type this, to reconnect myself with scripture... not only the passages I need to study when writing a sermon. But a daily diet, if you will, of the lectionary. I will try to blog it, but it is the diet that is more imporant.

My task: to remember love, a force so powerful it has marked me forever.

Image borrowed from

Friday, July 27, 2007

And my Harry Potter alter ego is...

You scored as Remus Lupin,You are a wise and caring wizard and a good, loyal friend to boot. However sometimes in an effort to be liked by others you can let things slide by, which ordinarily you would protest about.

Hmmmm..... I think this is ok with me! (But notice... Snape, Dumbly-dorr, and Harry himself.... I guess I'm ok with those, too! Though I haven't yet read book 7, so DON'T ENLIGHTEN ME if I should be alarmed!).

Severus Snape


Remus Lupin


Harry Potter


Albus Dumbledore


Ron Weasley


Ginny Weasley


Sirius Black


Hermione Granger


Draco Malfoy


Lord Voldemort


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Living Together

I read this post this morning, on one of many blogs I read so quickly that I for a while, I lost track of exactly where I read it. The gist of what grabbed me was this: the blogger once belonged to a church in which a group of anonymous folks sent a letter around criticizing the pastor.

This combined with a post by another blogger settled on my heart and prompts me to write this:

I would like to publicly apologize to the RevGalBlogPals board and community for any hurtful behavior I have engaged in throughout the past week.

It is easy to lob cherry bombs at people you don't really know, who are doing a job you probably don't fully understand. It is particularly easy when shielded by this cloak of invisibility we call the internet. I believe there are people suffering this week because of actions they took which they firmly and thoroughly believe are for the good of the RevGals community. While I don't agree with the final outcome of the decision, I believe that one of the things we are called to in this life is learning to live together when we have differences-- sometimes painful ones-- that threated to divide us.

So, if I have caused anyone pain this week with my fervent emails or comments, I apologize. We are all doing what we believe is right. It would be good if we could realize that we can love each other even while disagreeing. That would be a terrific thing.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Apostle to the Apostles: A Sermon for the Feast of Mary Magdalene

“Apostle to the Apostles”
Mark 16:1-8 (9-11)
July 22, 2007

Someone I’m close to is completely un-churched. She was not raised in the church, she has no interest in the church (except insofar as it has an impact on my life), and she’ll probably never darken the door of a church. So, naturally, I like trying sermon ideas out on her.

As we were walking along the newly completed river trail this week, I said, “So, I’m going to preach on Mary Magdalene this Sunday.”

She gave it a stab: “The prostitute?”

Me (getting excited): “No! And that’s part of the point. She’s not a prostitute! The way I see it, it was a smear job.”

She tried again: “So, immaculate or whatever, that one?”

Me (even more excited): “No! There are lots of Mary’s in the New Testament! That one’s the Roman Catholic idea of the Mother of Jesus.”

She gave it one last attempt: “So is this the one who was married to Jesus?”

Every time July 22 falls on a Sunday, the folks who organize the lectionary give us the option of celebrating Mary Magdalene. There’s something about Mary that has caused her to be the subject of much talk… not just for the last four years, since the publication of The DaVinci Code, but for far, far longer than that. Of all the subjects in scripture that artists might paint, Mary is among the most commonly depicted. There are literally thousands of books on the market that have her as their subject. She even has her very own “Idiot’s Guide” book! Despite all this, Mary remains shrouded in mystery… a shadowy figure on whom the church and the faithful have cast their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and even their contempt for nearly two millennia. So why don’t we take this time to try to part the mists, to learn what we can about the woman who has been called “Apostle to the Apostles.” And then, why not ask, once we’ve rid ourselves of all the myths and misunderstandings, what can Mary teach us about what it means to be a follower of Jesus?

The primary thing we know about Mary Magdalene is this: in all four gospels, she answers the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” with a resounding “Yes!” Mary is a witness to the horrible, painful, humiliating death of Jesus, one of a handful of disciples who stand nearby while Jesus is being crucified, when most of his followers have fled. And Mary is a witness to the resurrection. She is the only person to be named in all four gospels, as being present at the tomb on Easter morning.

Aside from that, there are only two things we know about Mary Magdalene from scripture. In the middle of Luke’s gospel, he tells us the following:

Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward…, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. [Luke 8:1-3]

These are the only two biographical fragments we have about Mary: that she was healed of possession by seven demons, and that she, along with other women, provided for Jesus and his disciples. Now, it seems that this possession by demons is, believe it or not, the kernel of the fiction that Mary was a prostitute. Here is how that came about. I have mentioned the fact that there are many Mary’s in the New Testament. This occurred for the same reason that there were many Diana’s in Great Britain in the 1980’s: a member of the royal family was named Mary; so, many girls were given that name at birth. As the New Testament was read and preached in the first centuries after Jesus, Mary Magdalene was mistakenly identified with another New Testament Mary, Mary of Bethany. That Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet in gratitude after Jesus raised her brother from the dead.

But there are multiple stories of women anointing Jesus, and one of those women is referred to as a sinner. So, someone put the sinner together with Mary of Bethany, and then put them together with Mary Magdalene, and came up with Mary Magdalene, sinner. Pope Gregory the Great tied it all together nicely with a bow in the 6th century when he delivered a sermon claiming that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and that the seven demons that had gone out from her were the seven deadly sins. But if we look closely at scripture, if we read the words that are actually there, and if we are careful to separate Mary from Mary, there is simply no evidence of this. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.

How could this happen? It helps if we understand the position of women in the early church. This was still an era in which women were considered to be property, either of their fathers or their brothers or their husbands. Women very seldom had professions or held public positions of any kind. A woman who was well known had better be well known for something to do with the man in her life… otherwise her notoriety had something sinister about it, something suspect. Some think this is one reason that so many of the women in scripture are unnamed… it was actually a way of protecting their reputations.

But there was something about Mary that prevented her name from being kept secret. That she was there, at the tomb, before sunrise on that day of resurrection… and that she was the one whom Jesus sent to tell the others… these facts gave her a fame that, perhaps, made some uncomfortable. Perhaps, some whose stories are not so flattering… those who denied Jesus, or ran away. Perhaps those who were concerned about leadership roles in the early church. Perhaps it served them to see that Mary’s reputation was damaged. Perhaps it served them to see that the apostle to the apostles was effectively put in her place.

The other notion that has gained much currency in popular culture is the belief that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or lover. This thought seems to be rooted in a single line in the gospel of John. Remember that in this version of the resurrection story, Mary is weeping in the garden, and is talking with a man whom she supposes to be the gardener, but whom we know to be Jesus. Finally, Jesus calls her name, “Mary!” She replies, “Rabbouni,” or “My Teacher.” Then we have the line that has led to all the speculation: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me…’” [John 20:17]

Those little words, “Do not hold on to me,” have led people to wonder whether Mary attempted to embrace Jesus. That may well be true. But that’s a pretty slender thread on which to presume marriage. John’s intention in this scene is clear: Jesus has a purpose for Mary, and understandable as it is that she might want to embrace him, his purpose for her is that she go, and leave him to fulfill what must be fulfilled. Mary is being commissioned. She is being sent.

Let me be clear: the thought of a married Jesus does not alarm me. I just don’t find any basis for that notion in scripture. And the need to make Mary Jesus’ wife… well that’s just the other side of the coin of the need to make her a prostitute. For both Mary’s fans and her rivals, this woman is more manageable if they can put her in a category they recognize. But she defies categories. She is more complex than the categories of first century Palestine will allow.

And so we come at last to our passage today. Now that we know who Mary is not… not a prostitute, not Jesus’ wife… perhaps we can see her for who she is.

And, Mark tells us, she is a woman terrified and amazed. Most scholars believe the original ending of Mark’s gospel is right where I left off reading… “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]. That’s it. The first gospel to circulate through the early church, and the news of the resurrection is left unspoken, untold. The woman disciples, including Mary, are entrusted with news that they simply don’t convey. Not yet.

So our first glimpse of Mary is that she’s terrified. Sometimes being a follower of Jesus is terrifying. It has been a long time since Christians were thrown to the lions, but there are at this moment about 20 South Korean Christians being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there are other kinds of fear that can overwhelm us, even here in this sanctuary. For many of us who love the Lord, who love the gospel and who love our church, the real fear these days is that our churches will not survive. We fear that they won’t survive the transformations of culture that swirl all around us. We fear that they won’t survive the death of the greatest generation, the builders who engineered and energized a great and thriving era. We fear they won’t survive the iPod and computer generations, our children and grandchildren whose tastes seem so foreign and who are so conspicuously absent from so many of our churches. Like Mary, we see something that frightens and confuses us—and we are given a commission to go and tell good news even in the face of all our fear. And we aren’t ready. Not yet.

But Mary does go. A later scribe decided the rest of the story needed to be told, and that’s where the second ending of Mark comes in. And clearly, Mary does fulfill her commission. She meets Jesus. She goes, she tells. And the people she tells are still mourning and weeping and want none of what she has to offer. So our second glimpse of Mary is, though she is terrified, she carries the message of Jesus. She carries it to those who don’t appear to be ready to hear it.

And that is a position many of us find ourselves in. You’ve heard the phrase, “Preaching to the choir.” Well, every Sunday we ministers have the easiest job of all Christian disciples. We preach to those who are already interested in hearing what we have to say… you’re here! You’ve shown up! Much, much more difficult is bearing the message of Jesus to those who don’t show up here. My conversation with my friend on the river walk is a lot harder than preaching a sermon. We don’t want to be considered fanatics. We don’t want people to think we’re unbalanced, unreasonable, unscientific, intolerant… whatever the current clich├ęs about Christians are. On top of that, we’re not convinced we are the best messengers. Who will listen to me? What do I have to offer?

In the middle of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Harry’s friends ask him for help. They are aware that a terrible conflict between the forces of good and evil is inevitable, and they want to be able to fight on the side of good. They want to be able to defend themselves. So they ask Harry to teach them. Harry says, no, you can’t mean me. He says, I’m not that good. He says, it was all luck. He says, there must be someone who’s a better teacher than I am. He says, we’ll get in trouble. Then, he says yes. He doesn’t feel equipped. He feels like a fraud. But he recognizes the imperative of his life or death situation, and he does it.

We followers of Jesus may be given what feels like an impossible job—sharing our faith when we don’t feel up to the task, when we are full of fear. We might be tempted to say, no, I’m not that good. I’m not the one. We might be tempted to feel, my friends don’t want to hear this, they’re not ready. But the truth is, we in the church are in our own life or death situation. And the good news is that God takes the work of disciples just like us and blesses it, every single day. God takes the casual conversation entered into hesitantly and provides a blessing. God takes the bold overture made in the face of fear and breaks down a barrier. God takes the person who is sure he can’t find the right words, and uses the expression in his eyes to open a door in someone’s heart. God takes women and men and children just like us, and through our hesitant and humble efforts, builds up the body of Christ, one reckless act of witness at a time. God takes a Mary Magdalene—a gossiped about, flawed, wounded but healed woman—and puts the good news of salvation in her mouth. And God can take us—fearful, hopeful, trying our best—and do the same. Amen.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Come One, Call All Magdalene Preachers...

In the spirit of the 11th hour preachers party... and meaning neither disrespect nor usurping... how are those sermons on Mary Magdalene coming?

Someone deleted her comment, and I'm sorry for that... in fact, her comment sent me off on an entirely new direction, using the Mark 16 version of the resurrection story instead of the John. I believe she said it was the scripture for evensong... What excites me about this passage is the fear and amazement with which it ends... I know, there's more to it, but most scholars believe that was the real, original ending... which leaves the hearer/ reader to write her or his own. Anyway, I wrote nearly a whole sermon on it yesterday, and now find I am sorely tempted to re-write it in first person. Sorely tempted.

So, any of you who are so share your thoughts!

Oh, also, a word about the He-Qi image: I have resisted using this image because I felt it played into the whole "Mary Magdalene was one of those who anointed Jesus/ was a sinner/ was a prostitute" misunderstanding. But I have read this week about Mary being called "Myrrh-bearer"... was that in the deleted comment as well? This excites me no end. Also, I think in our efforts to dissociate her from the "sinner/ prostitute" angle, we risk going too far and saying "she was NOT a sinner," which, of course, is entirely un-scriptural (you know, because we all are). And it has been pointed out to me that a lot of organizations for which that was a part of their understanding cling to it because it is such a very great comfort to see such faithfulness born of a less than perfect disciple. So... theological and scriptural and pastoral reasons for me to use this gorgeous image at last.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Five: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Posted by Sally at RevGalBlogPals:

When I began work here at Downham Market a wise friend told me that after one year I would see a few changes and sense God at work- years two and three would cause me to question and to wonder why I had chosen to accept the post here and in year four I might see the beginnings of something new.

And so with that in mind alongside yesterdays celebrations I bring you Friday 5 Looking back, looking forward..

1. Share a moment/ time of real encouragement in your journey of faith

I had been looking for a call to ministry that fell within certain geographic parameters for about a year and a half. During part of that time I was finishing up my last position, in which I was an interim head of staff for about 20 months. For another part of that time I was the interim chaplain at a campus about an hour from home. But for a significant portion of those 18 months, I was without a sense of where God was calling me. I had limited my search geographically because of my children: their father and I had agreed that neither of us would move until Petra (who is entering 9th grade this fall) was off for College, so that the kids wouldn't lose a parent by relocation. So I was convinced that my prior covenant-- to be the best possible parent to my children-- took precedence over my call to ministry in that regard.

During this time I preached for a number of churches of other denominations. I seriously considered switching denominations, as well. At times I considered doing other work entirely. At one point I had an interview lined up for a public radio job, but I pulled out when I realized I would have to work weekend mornings. I considered investing my savings in a wine shop. (Really!!!).

About a month ago a sudden sense of calm came over me. I decided that I would probably end up where God wanted me to end up. I decided that , actually, I believe firmly that I will end up where God wants me to be. Once I surrendered to that somewhat irrational confidence, I felt my preaching was freer, my life was more joyful, the future rosier than I had felt in a long time. This was a moment of great peace and joy and encouragement in my ministry.

A week later I was offered the call I've been waiting for.

2. Do you have a current vision / dream for your work/ family/ministry?

If I have a vision or dream for my work, it involves what I like to think of as "falling in love and getting married." I really feel that I am called to journey with a particular congregation for the long term. I want to be with them through lots of life transitions. I want to baptize a child and then confirm that same child and see him or her go off to college and find the love of her or his life, and then be there to witness that too. I want to be with people when they are well and strong and when they are nearing the end of their lives. I want to be there for the whole of it.

This is my vision for my life with those I love as well. Presence. Joy in that presence. Celebration of all the transitions.

3.Money is no object and so you will.....

Fix everything that's wrong with my house, and then remodel the enormous attic to be my bedroom, with skylights.

Take my loved ones to Italy and England and India and Thailand and Australia (a bit at a time).

Buy an alb from WomenSpirit.

Or... was I supposed to save the world? Sheesh.

OK, institute universal health care in the US-- ok, everywhere in the world!

Require stringent emissions standards on all our cars, trucks, you name it.

Institute mentoring programs for all our struggling youth, in cities, in rural areas.

Reignite the sense that our prison system might strive for reform and not simply punishment; strive to have every convicted felon leave prison with their GED and Associate's degree, as time permits.

Change universal notions of beauty so that our young women don't think they have to be anorexic to be lovely.

Make sweating de rigeur, so that people don't feel the need to air condition so much of their lives.

Outlaw handguns. Period.

Spark initiatives to encourage everyone to eat at least one entirely local meal each day. (Will save 1,000,000 barrels of oil per day, supposedly).

(You will notice that a sense of omnipotence has accompanied the money... is that how it happens?)

4. How do you see your way through the disappointments? What keeps you going?

Um, I combat life-sucking power with chocolate.

Hugs. Sorry, so pedestrian, but so, so vital. Human contact with the people I love and who love me. Then sitting in front of something truly delightful, like House, with my kids, and laughing and eating popcorn.

Seriously... I have often thought that God get's my attention with the 2' X 4' of devastating trauma so that I will pray better and harder. And I do, for a while. Until I get comfortable. Then I need something scary like a huge job or new call to get me on my knees again.

Communion... sitting in the church, sharing the bread and the fruit of the vine with people whose inner lives, whose true stories, I can only guess at. But there we are all, God's wounded family, and we bind ourselves to one another and to God in that simple and profound act.

Walking along the river, watching the mist rise, and the little fingernail moon.

5. How important are your roots?

Well, I have an appointment with my hairdresser in just a couple of weeks....

My parents made me the person I am today, all four of them... the love and nurture of the people I have always called Mom and Dad, as well as the biological material and loving beginning given by my birth mom... My love of the ocean from my beachside upbringing, my sense of the eternal from cavorting in the waves of the endless sea. My love for the holy from my Roman Catholic girlhood... reading the lives of saints, praying the rosary, learning something important about God from this woman who was God's mother.

Huge, the power of roots for this Roman Catholic girl turned Presbyterian minister.

Photo courtesy of flickr and Erik K.Veland.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The following is found on the RevGals homepage:

Ring Membership Guidelines

Membership in the RGBP webring is open to bloggers who are:

1. Women clergy, women church professionals, and women religious, or those discerning a call to Christian ministry.
2. Women or men blogging pals of (1).

3. All committed to building a supportive online community for women clergy, women church professionals, and women in religious life.
4. You must be an active blogger for the previous three months in order to join.

The RGBP webring reserves the right to refuse membership to anyone whose blog would be disruptive to the community or does not fit within the categories described above.

RevGalBlogPals webring and RevGalBlogPals, Inc. are not responsible for the content of member's blogs.

Now, this is Mags: I have a question: what does it mean to be "disruptive"? Does it mean to express views that are contrary to those of other webring members? If so, isn't every single one of us "disruptive" at times?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Of Course I'm Going with Mary Magdalene

Since this Sunday has an optional feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, of COURSE I'm going with it. What did you think?

So, in service of RevGals... if anyone's interested.... I will be happy to host a Tuesday lectionary leanings here, for the Mary Mag texts. They are:

Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 73

Acts:13: 14-52

John 20:1-18

Sometimes I wonder about those lectionary people. For example, Ruth 1. OK. A story about women finding solidarity together. Maybe I could make something relating to Mary Magdalene from that.... but Acts 13? Anyone who can find the connection there, I'll send you a batch of homemade cookies. Psalm 73.... there is a passage about the evil done by others. Perhaps that could be invoked to talk of how the bonny pope maligned our Mary by saying she had the seven deadly sins cast out of her.

John 20 feels like the only way to go. Anyone?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Well, Thank Heaven for That

You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

And.... it's over

We had our closing performance of The Mikado yesterday at 3 PM. It was universally acknowledged by the cast to be our best show of the run (which I think is a result simply of the show tightening up and coming together the more time we had with the orchestra). For my part, I felt it was my best performance.

Here is what my ex-husband's significant other wrote to me after seeing the show:

I just wanted to congratulate you on a wonderful show. ... it was your performance I found both hilarious and affecting - after all, Katisha is the only authentic character in the story. She's the only one who isn't pretending to be somebody else. You did a terrific job of making her a more complex and real person - and funny too, of course.

And at last, no more Oedipus jokes! (though you two did work awfully well together.)

My favorite line of Katisha's: "Who knows so well as I that no one ever yet died of a broken heart?"

Slept till nearly 10 this morning. Feel great.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Go and Do Likewise: A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

“Go and Do Likewise”
Luke 10:25-37
July 15, 2007

And now, at the risk of sounding like I’m putting in a shameless plug… many of you are aware that my children and I are participating in this year’s summer production of The Mikado. I’ve participated with the Savoyards for three of the last four years, and I will admit something no self-respecting Savoyard should admit: I have always found these plays to be, well, just a little silly. Beautiful music, sometimes hilarious gags. But, let’s face it: as our local arts and entertainment reporter has pointed out, they all have pretty much the same plot. In her preview article this week, the reporter wrote,

…somebody, disguised as someone else, shows up only to find that a person who is condemned to death is being forced to marry; that is, until someone's "long lost" somebody, which is a closely guarded secret by someone else, turns up. Then the villains are reformed and everybody, including the pack of lovesick maidens and the old battle-axe, gets married.

Yes, that is, essentially, the plot of The Mikado. However, if you hang around with Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts long enough, you learn a few things about their plays. Case in point: last week I said to one such aficionado, “This show is just so silly.” He promptly challenged me to defend that remark. Over the course of the next ten minutes, he proceeded to explain that, in fact, the scripts of W. S. Gilbert were beloved in their day because they were filled with social commentary that was both pointed and hilarious. The Mikado, he explained, is essentially a send-up of the Victorian era British legal system, dressed up in a kimono.

Once he pointed all this out to me, I began to hear the words of the script and songs in a completely different light. Take this scene, in which the Mikado, the emperor of Japan, is telling three people who are being condemned to death why the law that condemns them is flawed. First, the three defend themselves.

KoKo: If your Majesty will accept our assurance, we had no idea—

Mikado: Of course—

Pitti-Sing: I knew nothing about it—

Pooh-Bah: I wasn’t there.

Mikado: That’s the pathetic part of it. Unfortunately the fool of an Act says “compassing the death of the Heir Apparent”. There’s not a word about a mistake— Or not knowing—Or having no notion—Or not being there—There should be, of course—But there isn’t. That’s the slovenly way in which these acts are always drawn. However, cheer up, it’ll be alright. I’ll have it altered next session. Now, let’s see about your execution—will after luncheon suit you? Can you wait till then?

The Japanese legal system, at least in this fantasy Gilbert and Sullivan world, is seriously in need of reform and reinterpretation. So it is with the legal system in which Jesus finds himself. Our gospel lesson this morning shows us Jesus in a conversation with a lawyer—a scholar of Jewish law and religion. But, really, it’s not so much a conversation as it is an attack. Jesus is being challenged. His orthodoxy is being tested. And, in the lawyer’s defense, this is somewhat understandable… Jesus has just, in the verses before ours begins, made a fairly provocative statement. He has prayed, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10:21). The lawyer correctly assumes he is among the wise and intelligent from whom God is hiding the truth, according to that prayer. The lawyer then, quite understandably, wants to know, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responds as he often does to such challenges: he answers a question with a question. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (Luke 10:26). Surely a lawyer will know what the law commands him to do in order to inherit eternal life. The lawyer is forced to answer his own question, and he does so flawlessly, as far as it goes. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The lawyer is quoting scripture, passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Jesus commends the lawyer, much as one would congratulate a child who has performed well on a pop quiz, but with this breathtaking post script, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Note: Jesus does not say, “Know this, and you will live.” He says, “Do this, and you will live.” One commentator I read this week puts it this way. “Those who live rightly ordered lives now—living out of their love for God, others and self—show that they have been touched by the kingdom of God.”

The lawyer is now annoyed. He had hoped to trap Jesus into making further lofty claims about himself, and instead has been made to answer his own question. On top of that, he has been challenged to put his book learning into action, to show by his life what he knows with his intellect. In response he lays another trap for Jesus, and Luke tells us his motive clearly: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” This is even more lethal a trap than the first question. The question of “Who is my neighbor” was a source of controversy throughout the history of the people of Israel. At times they had lived and intermarried with those across geographic boundaries and practicing other religions—see the book of Ruth, for example. And at other times they had drawn sharp boundaries and distinctions, even going so far as to forcibly break up families in so-called mixed marriages—see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” here is a way of asking, “Who must I love?”

Jesus then responds, again, in a characteristic way. He tells a story, the story we know so very, very well as “the Good Samaritan.” You know the story so well I won’t retell it here. I will simply point a few things. Jesus, rather than falling into the trap that is being laid for him, turns it once again back on his questioner. A man is beaten, stripped, robbed and left for dead. He is nameless, faceless, identity-less. He could be any one of Jesus’ listeners. He could be any one of us. Those who pass by are living, breathing examples of the highest levels of orthodoxy, a priest who serves in the temple and a Levite, a slightly less lofty member of the upper echelons of religious society. The priest can’t or won’t risk becoming ritually unclean by exposing himself to blood. The Levite similarly decides against becoming involved. Then, against all expectations, a Samaritan comes by.

It’s not hard to explain the hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews. A Samaritan is a deeply despised enemy of the children of Israel. This is probably because they are closely related ethnically, Samaritans being a result of intermarriage between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. Family fights are always the most bitter, the most vicious. A Samaritan comes along—you might as well say, “A Democrat comes along,” at a meeting of the National Rifle Association. You might as well say, “A Republican comes along,” at a meeting of the National Organization of Women. Someone despised, someone not trusted comes along. And that someone does the right thing. He takes care of the wounded traveler. He provides for his care over the next few days. Then he goes on his way.

The lawyer in this passage is trying to trip Jesus up; this is because he firmly believes that Jesus isn’t entirely orthodox, that he’s a little outside the traditional faith. And this is an argument that is very current. If you open our local newspaper on almost any day of the week you will see that these kinds of arguments are making headlines here in the southern tier. Two local congregations are withdrawing from their denomination over arguments about how to read scripture, how to interpret God’s law. They complain that the national church has departed from the traditional faith, that the denomination isn’t really Christian any longer. Family fights are always the most bitter. The parable of the Samaritan would suggest a challenge to this kind of thinking, a challenge straight from the words and the heart of Jesus. The Samaritan is an outsider, religiously and ethnically. He is the last person Jesus’ audience (especially the lawyer) would expect to be shown as a role model. He is just a person, outside the bounds of either Jewish or Christian orthodoxy, who is nevertheless living a life that has clearly been touched by the kingdom of God… love of God, love of neighbor, put into action. This outsider is the person about whom Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Sometimes it feels to me that I don’t recognize the idea of Jesus that seems to dominate the popular understanding of “Christianity.” There seems to be an idea abroad that Jesus is more concerned about what his followers think about him than anything else. This to me is an entirely unscriptural notion. Again and again Jesus points away from himself when people ask questions about salvation. Again and again, Jesus points us to love of God and love of neighbors. Again and again, Jesus urges us not to let the exercise of our faith interfere with acts of love. Again and again, Jesus tells us to take real, tangible action, not merely to engage in intellectual exercises.

When someone is laying a trap in complexities and legalities, Jesus tells a story that makes following him both incredibly simple and incredibly challenging. Love God and neighbor, Jesus tells us. It sounds so simple. But what it means is the challenge of a lifetime. It means that we cross over to the other side where the bleeding and helpless lie. It means that we pick them up and care for them. It means that we make their pain our business. It means that we get involved. It means that we don’t let our religion get in the way of our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells us, live in such a way that no one can doubt, in heaven or on earth, that we have been touched by the kingdom of God. Amen.

Just a little teeny, weeny, wee bit bloodthirsty: Closing Night! (er, afternoon)

Well, thus is the nature of being double-cast for a role: no sooner do you have to open than... you have to close! I had my first performance on Friday night (Friday the 13th, not that it matters). All in all.... it went well. There have been some issues with the orchestra and music director.... I frankly think he's nervous, and it makes him jump cues. It's happened to every lead in the show. My turn was Friday night during my big number in the finale of Act I. However, I recovered, I covered, and all in all, I have to say, it felt pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good.

Act II is when the fun starts. I love all my scenes in Act II, which is when I get to do the hilarious scene with Larry-O as KoKo. My favorite exhange: After I have decided I will marry him (he tricks me into it!)...

Katisha: Oh, I am a silly little goose.

KoKo: You are.

Katisha: And you won't hate me because I just a little teeny, weeny, wee bit bloodthirsty, will you?

KoKo: Oh Katisha.... is there not beauty even in bloodthirstiness?

Katisha: My idea exactly.

Then we sing a song about the beauties of bloodthirstiness, in which we are blocked like characters out of a Betty Boop cartoon. It is hilarious.

And today, at 3 PM, we do it for the last time.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Wotcher Harry! or, Accio Friday Five!

Yes indeedy, aside from the Mikado, it's pretty much all Harry, all the time right now chez Magdalene. Larry-O and I have resolved to re-read all six books prior to reading Deathly Hallows, and Petra decided to re-read books five and six. So, at present, I am in the middle of Chamber of Secrets (book 2), Larry-O is into Goblet of Fire (book 4), and Petra is finishing up Order of the Phoenix (book 5). In addition, last week we had a late night, after rehearsals film festival, in which we watched movies one through four in preparation for the release of Order of the Phoenix (we won't see it until after the play is over).

So, natch, I opted for the magical Friday Five (even though I should be writing my sermon!!!!).

1. Which Harry Potter book is your favorite and why?

Ah... I am re-reading them, as I said, and I am loving each as I encounter it. But I believe my favorite is book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Maybe it's the whole adoptee gestalt, but I loved that Harry found, at the end of that book, someone who truly loved him and was ready to care for him. His joy at hoping that Sirius Black would be able to take him away from the dreadful Dursleys was so exquisite, and the disappointment of Sirius still needing to be on the run so acute. But after all those years of a non-family, it was great for Harry to truly find family (reminded me of Miss Honey and Matilda).

2. Which character do you most resemble? Which character would you most like to get to know?

Umm, this is a terrible admission for me to have to make, but a dear seminary friend called me Hermione. Had to do with a kind of annoying needing-to-know-and-understand-it-all streak that would come out every so often. (Or all the time.) I would like to get to know Snape... I hold out hope that this damaged, angry man might still be seeking to be good at heart in ways we can't understand (and there you have some vital information about my sense of pastoral call...).

3. How careful are you about spoilers?
a) bring 'em on--even if I know the destination, the journey's still good
b) eh, I'd rather not know what happens, but I'm not going to commit Avada Kedavra if someone makes a slip
c) I will sequester myself in a geodesic dome to avoid finding anything out

I have really been stressing, as my kids would say, about the fact that I know it will be all over the news in short order as to who died. (All the reportage says that there will be two deaths). Short of c), I will be working pretty hard to insulate myself from spoilers. This will be tough: as I've mentioned above, I'm trying to re-read all the books, and it could take me several weeks to get to book 7 after it's been released (and after I have to wrestle it away from my offspring).

4. Make one prediction/share one hope about book 7.

I fervently hope that Harry won't die. But one thing Rowling has said in an interview leads me to believe he will. She said that she's suprised that more people/ interviewers haven't asked her about her faith. She said that if they had, what she shared might have made the ending of book 7 predictable. That to me sounds like a major hint in the direction of a sacrificial death, and I can only imagine two people for whom that will carry the most weight: Snape and Harry. I believe one of them, plus Voldemort will die. I hope I'm wrong about it being Harry.

5. Rowling has said she's not planning any prequels or sequels, but are there characters or storylines (past or future) that you would like to see pursued?

I'd love to see the future of Harry, Ron and Hermione: I see Harry as an auror, Ron as head mufti of the Ministry of Magic, and Hermione as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who finally sticks (if I were a consultant to Hogwarts, I might suggest they eliminate that position and teach it across the curriculum!).

Thanks reverendmother! That rocked. Now.... accio sermon.....!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another Opening, Another Show

Why did I decide I just had to preach on the parable of the Samaritan this week.... when it's the opening of the show???? I don't think I have the brain space available to write a sermon...

Yes, tonight Petra and Larry-O grace the stage in The Mikado (I am in the closing night cast, so I don't open until tomorrow).

Remind me to post something on sharing a part. Have I mentioned that I am more of a diva than I thought? Alas.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

In and Out: A Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-17

“In and Out”
2 Kings 5:1-17
July 8, 2007

This week in which we remembered the founding of our nation would seem to be a good time to think about our history. Much of our history seems to have revolved around the question of who’s “in” and who’s “out:” which groups of people have power, and which groups of people are powerless. Though our nation was founded in response to religious and political intolerance, many groups have taken their turn being “out” as if by national consensus. Certain groups were suspect, not considered to be on quite the same level as everyone else, in some instances, not even considered to be fully human. Native Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans… these groups and others all have felt, at one time or another, what it is to be considered the “outsider,” the “other.” Sometimes that changes. But sometimes, people remain in the no man’s land of “outsider” for a very, very long time… generations, centuries. Change comes hard.

Much of the history of religion has to do with questions of who’s in and who’s out, as well. In this morning’s reading from 2 Kings, we see a story of the prophet Elisha. In one sense, this story tells us what stories about Elisha always tell us—that the power of God is supreme and that history unfolds according to God’s plan. But this story tells us some other things, too: about how God responds to outsiders, and even about God’s idea of who’s in and who’s out to begin with.

Our story begins with a description of someone who would seem to embody several ways both of being in and being out at the same time. Naaman is described as a great man, a commander of a great army, one who had been at the helm at a time of great victory. In other words, he is powerful and famous, or, in, in, in. At the same time, we are reading 2 Kings, a work whose focus is the people of Israel, their political leaders and prophets. And since Naaman is an Aramean, he is most decidedly not “in.” He is not one of the chosen people of God, but an outsider, a believer in other gods. Add to this the horrible condition that afflicts him, and we have a pretty complicated scenario. It’s hard to imagine anything that would make one an outsider more completely than suffering from one of the skin conditions which scripture lumps into the category “leprosy.”

The book of Leviticus devotes two entire chapters to the diagnosis of skin conditions and the community’s response to it. Essentially, there was no treatment aside from quarantine and the following instructions. According to Leviticus, if a person is diagnosed with a leprous condition,

he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. Lev. 13:44-46

It’s hard for those of us who have lived largely on the “inside” track to understand this kind of utter rejection. The individual is turned into a sign of his or her own outcast state, announcing with their frightening appearance and even their own cries that they are unclean, untouchable. Like other biblical characters we have known, they live alone, outside the camp, so that no one might be made unclean by association.

Enter the Hebrew slave girl. Once again, we have a character who is, strangely, both an insider and an outsider. She is a slave—the most powerless person in society, a true outsider. But she is also one of God’s chosen—safely within the sanctuary of God’s covenant with the children of Israel. And this young girl looks upon the suffering of her mistress’s husband, and points knowingly in the direction of “the prophet who is in Samaria”: Elisha. And the stories told in 2 Kings thus far certainly point in the direction she recommends: Elisha, the man of God, is also a man of godly power.

Naaman is a man of earthly power, of course, and all the forces of earthly power conspire to help him. True to his insider status, Naaman has access: the king of Aram writes a letter, and a fortune in lavish gifts, including about 150 lbs. of gold coins (I did the math: that’s a little over a million and a half dollars in today’s gold market)… all this is amassed on Naaman’s behalf. All this because, for a man accustomed to being powerful, to being an insider, persuasion in the form of royal requests and costly offerings is par for the course.

Naaman goes to Elisha’s house, where a messenger greets him with instructions that he is to wash in the Jordan River seven times. That’s it. Naaman is… relieved? Overjoyed? Not exactly. He is miffed. He is outraged! Evidently, the prophet’s response—and a response mediated through a middleman—is not quite what he expected. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” [2 Kings 5:11]. Naaman seems bitterly disappointed at Elisha’s lack of showmanship. He never dreamed a simple dipping, a baptism of sorts, would take the problem away. He also never dreamed that his millions of dollars in gifts would not buy him even one minute in the company of the prophet. Naaman turns on his heel and leaves.

Once again, it is outsiders—those with less power, servants—who step in to steer the powerful man back on the right course. It’s so simple, they say. Why not just give it a try? Naaman, thankfully, listens to the words of the powerless, and, the text tells us, “according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

What does this story tell us about how God brings “outsiders” into the fold? And what does this story tell us about how God’s views on “insiders” and “outsiders” in the first place?

It is well worth our while to take note of exactly how God brings those on the outside into the fold. You know, there is a lot of talk in churches about evangelism, which is pretty much the same question—how do we share the good news of what we have found here, how do we bring outsiders into the Christian faith—or to look at it another way, how do we increase our church membership. And it is a hard truth that, much of the time we act as if the only folks we will welcome are the ones who are already just like us—the ones who believe as we do, and the ones who live as we do. These folks, we’ll let in. Someone has called this, “Believe, Behave, Belong.” Believe a certain set of tenets, behave in a certain way, and we’ll let you belong to our church. But again and again throughout scripture, God reverses this order. God does not ask for a certain standard of behavior or even a certain set of beliefs before extending welcome, mercy, and redemption. God shows mercy first, and asks questions later, if at all. God shows us, again and again, belonging comes first. First, we embrace the strangers in our midst. We welcome them, as they are. We make them part of the family. We extend them our hospitality and nurture and even, sometimes, our healing. And then, if the gospel looks good on us, it begins to attract the notice of our visitors. That’s the point at which they find themselves asking the question: who is this welcoming, merciful, loving God, the One I see mirrored in these followers? Instead of Believe, Behave, Belong, it’s Belong, then Behave, then Believe.

Notice, too, how God uses unexpected people to point us towards salvation. In the story of Naaman and Elisha, God uses slaves and servants, the least valued people in society, to point Naaman towards that which is of the greatest value: healing and wholeness and welcome into God’s embrace. God uses “the least of these”—the ultimate outsiders—to show us the way in.

Perhaps we have to acknowledge that the categories of “insider” and “outsider” are more complicated than we think. Nearly every single character in this story is both insider and outsider in some way or another. The ultimate outsider—Naaman, a non-Israelite, a man afflicted with leprosy—is made the ultimate insider—he is cleansed, and even brought to faith in the one true God of Israel. We are accustomed to thinking of God’s special relationship with the chosen people, the children of Israel. But the story of Naaman shows us another view of God.

In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he spoke of the curious contradiction we experience when it dawns on us that we might not be the only ones who think we’re God’s chosen people. Speaking at a time when the nation was torn in two in a conflict that was very much about who was in and who was out, Lincoln spoke these words. "Both sides read the same Bible, pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other…" When we think we are the insiders, we can be absolutely sure that there are others who are just as fully convinced that they are the insiders. And when we think we are the outsiders, we can, likewise, rest assured that there are others who are similarly convinced about their status. And when God reveals by the unfolding of history exactly who is embraced in God’s all merciful love, we are almost always surprised. You see, God does have a chosen people… and God goes on choosing. God chooses and chooses, until God chooses us all.

Maybe, in the final analysis, this is a story that urges us to drop for good the distinctions of who’s in and who’s out. Maybe those distinctions are no longer helpful. Maybe God has been trying to reveal this to us for a long, long time… at least since Naaman took his seven dips in the Jordan. Maybe, despite God’s embrace of the tribe of the Hebrews, ours is a completely untribal God… open, ready to embrace each and every one of us with baptisms of love and healing and mercy. Amen.

Addendum, September 20, 2007: I have added a hot link to a Christian Century article about Jacob's Well, and its pastor Tim Keel. It is Tim who articulated the phrase "belong-behave-believe." My apologies for not doing so when the sermon was first posted.

The Tech Rehearsal

I am sitting in the house of Lovely Chamber Hall at the Local University, observing our technical rehearsal with the opening night cast (I am in the closing night cast). Yum Yum has just come onstage, and her long, flowing, golden wedding robe has gotten caught on a corner of the Mikado's throne that was, evidently, not sanded down.

That's sort of how it's going. That's sort of how the tech rehearsal always goes.

Larry-O sought my help last night (as I was trying to finish my sermon, after watching The Prisoner of Azkaban with Petra and Larry-O) to give himself a buzz cut in preparation for his debut as Ko Ko (he plans to finish shaving it later tonight). This means that he looks the part, at the moment, of a prisoner of war. This is disconcerting. It was especially disconcerting to be the one cutting his hair off, to be giving him that look. Though it also gave me sweet recollections of him at age 7 or so, getting his summer hair cut. (He told me today he hated those summer haircuts. I never knew!)

I get my first try onstage tomorrow night. The set is gorgeous, if unsanded. It has lovely faux bamboo screens, and deep red lanterns, and simply but beautifully painted banners. The makeup is modified Kabuki, with the men made up as Samurai warriors. Katisha's (my) headpiece is... a phenomenon nearly beyond human powers to describe. It is a multi-layered, asymmetrical, mutli-colored affair, dripping with about two dozen chandelier crystals. The other Katisha and I have agreed: we are going to let the headpiece do the acting.

At Friday night's run through I sang the part the best I have done so far. Let's hope I haven't peaked.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


The quotation marks above are meant as a warning: what follows has nothing to do with US politics or any deep thoughts about our form of government, its successes and failures, or even (*heavy sigh*) the current administration. It is a little about "Independence Day" and a little more about what it is, for me, to experience independence.

I was married at age 21 to my college sweetheart, and the first third of our marriage (about 8 years) was spent in and around Boston. For many of those years, our July 4th revolved around Boston's extraordinary celebration that takes place at the Esplanade on the Charles River. The first year we were married we lived a stone's throw away from all the celebrations, and so we walked there and met our college gang for about 16 hours of picnicking (in a crowd of one million people at its peak. we were later to learn!), sunstroke, sublime music by the Boston Pops, and fireworks the likes of which we had never seen before.

It is a happy memory, though one that is tinged with a wistful sense of regret. After the fireworks we newlyweds returned to our postage stamp sized apartment. The night that followed was dreadful, because of the beastly heat and humidity but also because the good citizens of Boston continued to set off fireworks right under our window, it felt. When I play it over in my head, I wonder why it didn't make us laugh. We were 22 and 23; we had all the energy in the world. Why didn't we whisper together, break out some more wine, lean out the window and watch it all, even go out for a midnight walk?

At about 1 AM we called friends in Quincy and asked whether they would put us up for the rest of the night. I remember feeling angry and, for some reason, blaming my husband for my unhappiness. It was not an auspicious beginning, though the marriage lasted, apparently happily, for another 20 years. I honestly think that single issue... thinking another human being was responsible for my happiness... was the tiny nail through the skin that eventually let to fatal hemmorhaging of goodwill from the marriage. It's not that we were actively miserable... far from it. There were many years of spirited breakfast table conversation about the morning's New York Times and the arts and the great and lasting loves of our lives, our children. But I think that one flaw was fatal.

For the last four years it has occurred to me that I alone bear the responsibility for my joy. In my work, in relationships, as a mother, all this has led to what I believe is a powerful and positive change in my life. I can honestly say that, just as my marriage was one of the most important factors in my life for good and for joy, its ending was at least as powerful; perhaps it was a greater motivator for change than I yet comprehend.

It is a joke around here that, Uh oh, mom is about to flex her muscles again. This is in reference to something that happened about six months after my spouse moved out. The toilet seat broke and needed to be replaced. Actually, the truth is: the toilet seat was broken before the ex left; as in all those kinds of things, I assumed he was responsible. I passively waited for something to be done. Six months after he left, it occurred to me that, if this thing was going to be fixed, it was going to be either a handyman/ woman or me that did it. I was responsible. I went to Lowe's. I looked at toilet seats, and realized that they come in different shapes. I went home and looked again at my toilet seat. Ah. I went back to Lowe's, bought the right one, and came home. Armed with a wrench and a rag and some Lysol bathroom cleaner, I went to work. About 20 minutes later, the new seat was installed. Jubilant, I turned to face the mirror, and flexed my muscles at my grinning reflection.

Independence. I am responsible. As it should be.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Harry Will Die...

... at least, that is, according to Jeff Diamant of the Religious News Service. He writes,

His death will be a noble one, it is prophesied in the blogs, a death both sacrificial and necessary to save the world from the satanic Lord Voldemort. I agree with this line. I also expect Harry’s death to show that his character’s path is modeled on the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and, more significantly, that the link between him and wizardry-school headmaster Albus Dumbledore is patterned on the most essential relationship in the Christian Bible — that between Jesus the Son and God the Father.

Read all of his compelling article here.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Labors of Love: a Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:6-18

“Labors of Love”
2 Timothy 4:6-18
July 1, 2007
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

We Protestants are not too keen on “saints,” as in, “individuals whose lives are so exemplary that they are placed in a special category of holiness.” We believe that all of us are saints as members of the body of Christ, the church. But we mostly reject the idea that some should singled out as being special. We have a number of reasons for this. For one thing, we recognize that, historically, an awful lot of those who made it into the church’s official calendar of saints were actually local gods and goddesses whose cults were so ingrained, it was easier for the church to simply “canonize” them, bring them into the fold, rather than to endure the inevitable conflict that would go along with trying to eradicate their being worshipped by the locals. Brigid of Ireland is a good example of this. Though there appears to have been a Christian slave named Brigid (whose father was a Druid priest), the lines between her and the Celtic goddess are so blurry it is almost impossible to tell the one from the other with any historical accuracy. Reformation era Protestants, very reasonably, were of the mind that, we ought to be getting back to basics… the teachings of Jesus, the Word of God in scripture, that sort of thing.

So, we Protestants are not too keen on saints. Still, the three-year cycle of lectionary readings does offer us opportunities to take note of particular individuals, and this week we have an optional feast of Peter and Paul, two of the towering figures of the New Testament. Thinking about either of these men, and their response to the call of Jesus in their lives, gives us an opportunity to think about the call of Jesus in our lives. What is the nature of a disciple? What special characteristics and qualities do we need? I’m going to focus on Paul.

We have a poignant passage in our selection from 2 Timothy. Timothy, the addressee, is Paul’s most trusted traveling companion on his many missionary journeys. The entire letter—which appears to have been written from jail, very near the end of Paul’s life—has the feeling of a last will and testament about it. The way our passage opens is lovely and wrenching, the words of a man facing death with great wisdom and equanimity: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-7).

I wonder if you’ve ever had that sense of having given it all, that exhaustion of being entirely emptied… I can remember a 20-mile walk for charity I took in my younger days, at the end of which I knew that I had spent absolutely everything that was in me for the purpose of getting my feet over that finish line. I think this sense must be especially acute when the pouring out is at the end of life, when you know that, not only is there nothing left, there is also not going to be time to regenerate or renew. We are poured out until we are, truly, spent. And knowing what we do about Paul… his walking and sailing tours around the ancient middle and near east and Europe, in which he carried the gospel literally to the end sof the known world… How he took the message of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and brought it to those outside Judaism. How he convinced the rest of the Jewish followers of Jesus that this would be ok… How he planted and nourished churches and made disciples… How he pastured those churches, even from afar, even from prison…He is a towering figure, someone who gave it all away, poured himself out like the ancient drink-offerings in the Temple, and whose efforts bore almost unimaginable fruits.

Then, crash, we are down to earth. Instead of the towering saint, we have someone who appears to be dictating something like a grocery list—bring me this, bring me that, send so-and-so. And woven throughout these demands are little poisonous barbs… Demas is so in love with the world; he has deserted me. Crescens has left me for Galatia. Alexander that good-for-nothing coppersmith really did a number on me! Bring me my parchments! Bring me my cloak! There is bitterness in here… Paul is in prison, facing death, and the church has crumbled and fled around him. And he’s not reacting like some unreal ancient god, some otherworldly, untouchable figure. He is reacting to it… well, pretty much the way any of us would react.

That’s what I love about this passage. We have Paul, to whom we owe our thanks as the architect of the Christian faith that was handed on to us, our first great theologian, the author of between 10 and 13 letters that have become for us God’s holy word, a saint of the church! And we have this beautiful little gem of a letter, in which we have ample evidence that the saint is just like us. Angry. Let down. Demanding. Perhaps even petty! I love this part of the letter. I find this to be so reassuring.

I remember a time in the first church I served when I was surrounded—literally—at a coffee hour by about a dozen parents who were very upset with certain plans involving the Christmas pageant. It is hard for me to convey how very upset they were. Voices were raised. I believe fingers were actually pointed. And as they closed in on me, everything I ever learned about being pastoral, and being an active listener, and being a non-anxious presence in the face of terrible anxiety…well, it all pretty much went right out the window. I sputtered. I’m sure my face got red. I got angry. I got defensive! Thank goodness, the coffee hour was almost over, and I had the escape route of needing to prepare for the second service before I actually did any harm with my sputtering, red-faced, angry defensiveness.

And this is the kind of moment when we say to one another, “Welcome to this ministry!” And that is exactly right. If the life of Paul teaches us anything about being a follower of Jesus, it is that it is going to be tough going, much of the way. We sure don’t like to hear that. I know I don’t. But “a religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” I wish I could claim authorship of those words, but they were said by another towering figure of Christianity, Martin Luther. Following Jesus is hard, and sometimes thankless, work. There is a flip side to that, though. Following Jesus is the ultimate “come-as-you-are” party. Paul is not robbed of his cranky, irascible personality—it shines pretty vividly throughout all his letters, not just this one. And we are similarly encouraged—we are welcome!—to bring ourselves—our loving, defensive, generous, cranky, complex, completely human selves as we seek to follow Jesus. No one is expected to be perfect; that’s what we have God and a savior for. We are simply expected to try with all our hearts to pour out our lives in a loving return to the God who has so graciously loved us first.

And that is what Luther means. Our religion asks us to give much, it is costly, it does invite us to suffer—ever hear the phrase, “Pick up your cross and follow me”? And its worth is beyond precious. We began our morning together by celebrating Holy Communion. I was so struck by one part of your Communion liturgy.

We have been betrayed by people we love, and so has Christ. But we are called with Christ to use our brokenness to feed the church and the world… We are tired of being broken, tired of dealing with broken promises, smiles and kind words that are a lie. We want real love.

Real love. That is what following Jesus is about. Real love is costly. Real love gives much. Real love can lead to suffering… and our broken hearts are what enable us to reach out with genuine compassion to a hurting world. Real love pours itself out, because that is the nature of love, to want to give. And real love accepts us, foibles and all, real human characteristics notwithstanding. Real love takes a genuine human being like Paul and gives us his words as shimmering invitations to follow Jesus. Real love takes us, in all our human loveliness and brokenness, and says, yes, you too. You there, who think you aren’t up to it. You are invited. Come and join in this labor of love. Amen.

Image: "Apostle Paul" by Andrei Rublev