Nose to the ground,
The light is new
on each circuit of this
foreign and familiar path.
We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors…a statement so true it is attributed to multiple people and whole cultures. When you are the one standing on those shoulders, it can feel wobbly and perilous, as if at any moment you might come crashing down. You might be alone.
The shoulders that hold you up are autobiographical stones that make a wall of shared stories. They hold you by the feet whether you reach for the sky or hover close to the foundation.
Your fear is our fear, your triumph is our triumph, your story is our story.
And even as you grow into your story, another is standing on your shoulders, which are stronger than you will ever know.
One day a tree falls and becomes soil for new life
A witness to renewal and hope
Proof of connection between the old and the new
I live in a forest of felled trees
Generations of lost loves and found loves
The lost is the foundation for the found
Making it possible for love to grow again
One Mary talked quietly to herself, shuffled back and forth with coffee. She had a small backpack and two large garbage bags full of clothing and blankets.
Another Mary has diabetes and made her way around in a wheelchair. She has open sores on her hands and she wants to die. But she came in from the cold to sleep here, so there is still some survival left in her.
There were two quiet trans-Marys eating breakfast and and complaining bitterly about having to go back outside. It could have been because of the cold weather or the cold treatment out there. Three layers of sweaters can only protect you from so much.
A fifth Mary thanked everyone for her bed and her food. She was helpful and cheerful…until she was not. Something set off a memory and she traveled down an angry tangent while packing her belongings. I’ve heard her mention her children before, she’s lost custody and is trying, trying, trying to see them again.
The last Mary was quiet. Hardly a peep. Silently slept, silently ate, silently packed. Silent night. Was it a holy night?
This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children. But all of them are somebody’s child.
The burning bush. Was it supernatural vandalism? Or holy art?
The bush was green again in the end.
But once you’ve seen those flames,
Your attention cannot be un-grabbed.
It makes you wonder about the way things ought to be and look and feel.
You will keep looking for beauty in unexpected places.
And the unexpected in beautiful places.
Some of the stones in this old cemetery have names and dates,
others are rendered anonymous by time.
Anonymous to me, but not to those who placed them
or to the oaks and vines that grow from the soil enriched by the stories buried there.
Walking along the weedy paths
we cast shadows on the stones and earth,
on the wood and grass.
Those buried here can tell just as much about us from our shadows
as we can tell about them from the life that springs from their graves.
Together, we make a full story of beginnings and endings, life and death
and all that connects us to each other.
This morning, my daughter and I went on a morning hike. It was glorious. Several women, a couple of girls, and the best dog in the world (sorry Max) walked on a portion of the greenbelt that snakes its way through the western side of our city. Water was coursing through what had been a dry creek bed last summer.
Those of us over…well, let’s say over 5 feet tall…reminded ourselves to breath deeply and be mindful. Halfway down the trail, we stopped for some meditation that helped us feel connected to the earth beneath our feet, to feel supported and grounded in nature, to let the air cleanse us. The lush green trees and flowing water called our attention away from cell phones and the sounds of traffic just a few feet away.
During the hike itself, my daughter was mostly engaged and excited, but she rolled her eyes each time one of us reminded the others to breathe. Our mid-hike, mountain-pose breathing meditations were too still for her. I started to get frustrated…
But you know what, my daughter didn’t need these reminders to connect with nature. She is literally closer to the earth than I – by about 12 inches. At the start of our adventure, she made friends with a millipede, put it on a stick and brought it along on the hike. She is the one who encouraged us to wade in the creek, to feel the cool water and the stones under our feet, to let the minnows tickle our toes.
We are made from earth, every cell and the space between them. At every age we have ways of remembering that connection. For those of us with busy, indoor lives and lots of lists, it takes a hike and a reminder to breathe. Some see nature as a place filled with friends like millipedes, others see it as a wonder of mathematical beauty or principles. Farmers and gardeners have a different relationship to the earth than pilots and sailors. We each help the others see a different facet of our earthiness. One day, my daughter will need a reminder to breathe, and a child will remind her to make friends with a millipede.
Sermon preached at Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest
February 3, 2016
Open our ears, O Lord,
to hear your word and know your voice.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,
that we may serve you today and always. Amen
I have a love/hate relationship with today’s Gospel reading.
On the one hand, it is a great “epiphany” story that shows us one way Jesus revealed himself and his mission. It shows him returning home in a position of authority and facing a tough audience. And then when Plan A doesn’t go well, he gets entrepreneurial with his ministry and implements Plan B. “Then he went about among the villages teaching.” He took his disciples and his good news out to the rest of the world…
On the other hand, this story is also revealing about the people who “know Jesus best,” the people who saw him grow from a boy to a man, who know his family and the kind of work he does. Sometimes, this story is called “The Rejection of Jesus in Nazareth.” To me it feels a little different from rejection.
Jesus’ hometown friends and relations are not rejecting his ideas, the content of his preaching. They don’t even outright send him packing. What they do instead is dismiss him, cut him down to size, put him in his place. They are condescending to him.
Now, there is a lot that might make a seminarian like me feel right at home with Jesus in this story. After all, I will be an inheritor of the itinerant ministry he started after this hometown debacle. Like the original disciples, we modern day disciples follow Jesus into places where his message might get a hostile – or at least dubious – reception. We are armed with authority to preach. And like them, we will very likely have to be ready with a Plan B and a Plan C, because in the church today, Plan A is already not working as well as it should.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we are sent from here and from our home parishes to take the Good News to communities of strangers, new parishes, new towns, perhaps even new states. We won’t be going back to the places that know us best.
So, there is a lot here to identify with. A lot that might validate us as followers of Jesus who are active in the church and know a lot more about him than your average person on the street.
I really love the story for all of that. It makes me feel inspired and relieved to know that Jesus and his disciples took this message out into the big scary world, to new people, to strangers.
But I said I have a love/hate relationship with this story and here is the part that challenges me. That’s a nice way to put it. Here’s the part that rubs me the wrong way and makes me feel really uncomfortable:
If Jesus has a hometown in the 21st Century, with friends and relations who “know him better than your average person on the street” – it is the church. And maybe even worse, it might be a seminary like this one. Who thinks they know Jesus better than we do? Who knows more about authority in the church, knows who can and should teach?
How often do we, and the church as a whole, say things like…
- You don’t have the authority to say that.
- We don’t do it that way here.
- In Nazareth they said: “Where did this man get all this?”
- “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
- In the South, we might simply say, “Bless her heart.”
If this story makes me want to identify with the disciples who followed Jesus home and were willing to follow him out to the villages. It also makes me admit that I am like some of those hometown folks, at least sometimes.
One of the humbling things about the Incarnation is that in Jesus, God assumes all of human experience, even the most painful, humiliating parts of it. And with the reaction he gets in Nazareth, the painful human experience I see Jesus enduring is that he is being mansplained.
I am betting that many of you know what mansplaining is – and have even experienced it yourself. But if you are lucky enough not to know, here is a definition:
Mansplaining is explaining something to someone – usually a man explaining to a woman – in a condescending and patronizing way. And it is explaining something without regard for the fact that the one being explained to knows more about the subject that the explainer.
(If you have never been mansplained, I bet you might have been teensplained. Or toddler-splained. For many of us, it is part of the human condition.)
Writer Rebecca Solnit – who is one of the people credited with first articulating this phenomenon – says that mansplaining comes from a sense of both overconfidence and cluelessness. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me, documents a fabulous case in which, after introducing herself as the author of a book about high-speed motion photography and technology in late 19th C. America (which is a pretty niche subject) her new acquaintance interrupted her and began holding forth on the topic himself, telling her she really should read a definitive new book on the subject. The book she herself had written. And told him about.
This is a pretty much how the synagogue in Nazareth treated Jesus when he taught them. The hometown folks in Nazareth are both overconfident and clueless, they think they know who he is and what he is capable of, and so they have limited what they are willing to hear from him.
When we identify with the disciples and Jesus in this story, it is because we’ve been dismissed and put down, too. People who know what to expect of us don’t want to hear or see anything else.
But we also do it to others. Individually and collectively as the church, we dismiss people – not because of what they say, but because of who we think they are. We do it to individuals and to whole communities. Dismiss them. Reject their preaching. Condescend to their witness. Refuse to see Christ in them.
We do a lot of ‘splaining in the church. We ‘splain to women. And to various ethnic groups. We ‘splain to people whose “way of being” in the world doesn’t give them authority to teach us because they are poor or gay or deaf or carpenters. We ‘splain to youth a lot.
There is a lot of fret in the church about America becoming a nation of unbelievers, that in the realm of religious belief, the “nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) are the fastest growing segment of the population. But one lesson in today’s story is that it might not be “nones” who are the most resistant and unwelcoming to Jesus’ and his disciples– it might be the people who claim to be the closest, it might be hometown folks. Like us.
The Gospel says Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” That is, he was amazed at the unbelief of a congregation of believers. Their unbelief was not a matter of rejecting the content of Jesus’ message. Their unbelief was their inability to see or hear the message from a well-known but unexpected source.
- “Where did this man get all this?”
- “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
There is a lot about Jesus and his ministry that is outside of what was expected. Familiar, but surprising. But the people in Nazareth could only see what they expected to see. Do we have the same problem? Do we “already know” what Jesus has to say about the problems we face every day? Do we really already know everything the teachings of our tradition?
For those of us inside the church, the disciples and the hometown folks (most of us are both) the challenge is to share the Good News in the villages outside our comfort zone. For those of us inside the church, the challenge is also to learn the Good News from people we think we know well – people who might surprise us if we’d let them.
And sometimes, the one who might surprise us the most is Jesus himself.
Brigid – known also as Brigit, Bridget, Brid, Bride – is a patroness of Ireland, along with Patrick and Columba. Her life mirrors a huge cultural shift during the 5th and 6th Centuries, when Christianity was introduced to the pagan clans of Medieval Ireland.
There is a tale in which Brigid is asked by friends to visit a dying pagan chieftain. He was delirious in his illness and they hoped she could calm him. As she sat by his bedside, she picked up some rushes from the floor (common in those days to keep the room warm and clean) and started weaving them together into the shape of a cross. As she wove, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick man, who grew quiet and listened. Soon his fever broke. The story of love she told him, the Christian story, so captivated the chieftain, that he was baptized just before his death.
Brigid’s cross of rushes gently bent her natural surroundings into the shape of her faith – just as Brigid wove the people and culture of Ireland into a Christian people. Born to a pagan chieftain father and a Christian slave mother, Brigid’s family included the two communities that she bridged through her life and work, teaching pagan Ireland how to embrace a new faith, while keeping it’s unique cultural character.
Christianity came to Ireland, not through political power, but through individual acts of faith and storytelling by people on the underside of history. Born a slave, Brigid spent her life helping the poor. Many of the miracles attributed to her are tales of feeding the hungry, giving away worldly goods, and being mysteriously rewarded for her generosity. When, as a child, she gave away all her mother’s butter, it was replenished three-fold. She kept a secret store of clothes and food for the poor and in one story even gave her father’s treasured sword to a leper.
Brigid showed how her Christian faith incorporated elements that were valued among her pagan neighbors – respect for the natural world and strong bonds of kinship. She is most notable for forming religious communities that became centers of prayer, charity and learning for both women and men. It was from these tightknit communities that early Irish Christians reached out to the rest of Ireland.
This prayer is attributed to St. Brigid – and sums up the earthy, joyful, communal faith she shared:
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
(From Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent through Epiphany)