How The Light Gets In

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In 1977, my friend Caroline and I made a pact. We were coming home from Pittsfield after having seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Driving down Route 183 by Gould Meadows overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, a full moon shone on the white and frigid earth. Everything was crystal clear. A perfect place to see a UFO!

We agreed then and there that if either of us ever told the other we had seen a UFO or met an alien, we would believe each other.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene, who seems to have understood Jesus’s message better than the male disciples, should have made a similar pact with them.

There are so many concepts to ponder in today’s Gospel, and for me, the least of them is Thomas.

Poor Thomas, whose name has come down through the centuries to be synonymous with “doubt.” Derivation of doubt? In fact, most of the disciples were doubters at that point.

A week before, with Thomas absent, they were living behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them, they rejoiced, then said good-bye and re-locked the doors. Hmmmm.

There is also the question of why, when Mary saw him, Jesus told her not to touch him because he was in an in-between state of life and death. Yet when he appeared to those in the locked room, he invited them all to touch him.

Each of the Gospels has different versions of Jesus’s post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension appearances to the disciples, and you can find quite a lot written on whether these were dreams, or visions, or hallucinations.

Regardless, John’s is the Gospel in which everything is a metaphor for something else. So for me, the locked doors and the image of seeing Jesus’s wounds are what John wants us to focus on here, and they are closely related.

They are also crucial to our own responses both to Jesus and to the world we live in.

Have you ever seen a horror movie where the heroine couldn’t get out of the house because, in her panic, she couldn’t unlock the door. When you lock your door at night, it’s so that no one can enter. But what if the thing you fear is already in the house?

When we lock a door, we also lock ourselves in.

When we lock our minds, we lock out knowledge that might be helpful. When we close our consciousness to realities we don’t want to deal with, when we are fearful and won’t let ourselves admit to that which scares us, we keep that fear locked inside. The realities are there no matter what.

The Good News is that Jesus can break through the locks and bolts and closed minds and let in the light of understanding, of comfort, of guidance, of reassurance. If we let Him.

The Rev. Michael March, an Episcopal priest from Texas, points out on his blog the irony that while Jesus’s tomb was empty, the disciples had created their own tomb in which they had interred themselves. But Jesus found a way in anyway; Mr. March called it “eastering in us” and every year we have this most wonderful reminder that Jesus can break through any barrier.

For the disciples, this took place just one week after the Resurrection. We are now just one week after Easter. Are we different from the disciples? Are our lives perceptibly changed? Or have our minds and hearts gone back on lockdown?

Here’s where Jesus’s wounds come in.

During Lent, those who participated in the gatherings at Crissy Farm watched a short video of a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she suggested that faith depends upon vulnerability.

She didn’t say it, but the word “vulnerable” comes from Latin roots meaning the capacity to be wounded. In no other instance do we make ourselves more vulnerable than when we dare to show our wounds.

Jesus the Christ is the ultimate archetype of vulnerability. First, he became human. Second, he came as a homeless baby. Third, he spoke truth to power in a dangerous age. Fourth, he willingly accepted a painful, horrifying death. Fifth, He loved us all the while and loves us still.

Inviting someone to touch a wound is an extremely intimate and vulnerable act. Do we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable? Do we allow ourselves to be fully human? Do we allow our spiritual or emotional wounds to show, or do we put on a stoic face and act as if we have everything together?

If we saw someone walking around with a physical wound, wouldn’t we take that person to the ER or get gauze and bandages? What about all the people, including ourselves, walking around with psychic wounds; how do we help them?

Why should we show our wounds? What’s the point in that?

Well, John’s Gospel today answers that. Jesus showing His wounds is how the light got in to the disciples’ minds. Jesus is also showing us that showing our wounds is how we let Him in so that we can advance to full Easter life and bring His message out into a broken Good Friday world.

Leonard Cohen knew it. He said it in the refrain to his song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

We have many examples of people who were given what I believe was divine strength to use the cracks in their own worlds to bring light to the world. From Mamie Till-Mobley insisting that her son Emmett’s casket be opened so that people could see what Jim Crow really meant to Twelve-Step groups where people share their “experience, strength and hope” right up to Margery Stoneman Douglas students using their grief to spark a worldwide movement  to call a halt to the proliferation of military-style weapons that can murder 17 people in a few minutes.

From #BlackLives Matter to #MeToo to #NeverAgain, young people are making themselves vulnerable in the public square, risking insults, slurs and even death threats to shine a spotlight on the injustices of our society.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” said the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. She knew a lot about pain.

We’ll turn, though, to James’s letter for the last word. He says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”

In that fellowship with God is the sanctification of our own wounds that gives us the strength to bring Jesus’s light to others. So “forget your perfect offering”  and “ring the bells that still can ring.” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Amen.

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The 21st Century Pieta

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On Good Friday, Christians around the world assume an attitude of mourning as they commemorate the steps to the cross that Jesus took.

When I say “assume,” I don’t mean they’re pretending. For millions of people, this day reminds them of the suffering of an innocent man who took on the world’s darkness and allowed himself to be sacrificed. The Roman-ruled world could not understand his message of a new compact between God and human beings.

As I follow the cross through my own little village in the rain later today, I shall be mourning other sacrifices as well: the sacrifices of the souls of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, of Stephon Clark, of Danny Ray Thomas, of Anthony Stephan House, of Draylen Mason.

Sacrificial lambs of a country that refuses to deal with racism, the NRA, white supremacy, police who refuse to consider less than lethal force when dealing with black men.

Sacrificial lambs of a society that espouses “right to life” but doesn’t blink when children’s lives and black lives are taken.

stephon clarkStephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cell phone when he was shot 20 times. At a Sacramento Council meeting, a protestor said that a grandmother’s backyard was “a sacred space.”

 

Danny Ray Thomas was for unknown reasons walking with his pants down and his hands in view when he was murdered by police. Two years ago, while he was in jail on a drug charge, his girlfriend drowned their two young children. His was already a life of unendurable pain.

anthony houseAnthony Stephan House was getting ready to go to work when he picked up a package on his porch that exploded and killed him. His young daughter was in the house.

 

draylen masonDraylen Mason was a high school senior and classical musician who had not yet heard that he was to receive a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to continue his studies when he too picked up a package on his porch.

The 17 children and staff of MSD were just going about their daily routine at school.

I was only 8 years old when I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Pieta” at the World’s Fair. It made me cry.

From now on when I think “Pieta,” I will see the mothers of all the children killed in massacres and the black men, women, and children killed by police who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

How long will we let our society continue to condemn them to death?

Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.

 

Pentecost in the Age of Trump

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A sermon preached on 6/4/17 at Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield, MA

O Holy Spirit of God, abide with us.
Inspire all our thoughts.
Pervade our imaginations.
Suggest all our decisions.
Order all our doings.
Be with us in our silence and in our speech,
In our haste and in our leisure,
In company and in solitude,
In the freshness of the morning and in the weariness of the evening,
And give us grace at all times
Humbly to receive thy mysterious companionships.

If the apostles thought they were in danger before Jesus came and breathed on them, thus imparting to them His Holy Spirit, they were in even more danger afterward.

To let God use your mind, your heart, and your hands is indeed a perilous venture, my friends. For when you do, you open yourselves to ridicule, to mocking, to having to place yourself at both physical and spiritual risk.

I have always thought of the mysterious companionships mentioned in the prayer as creatures of the natural world. Indeed, I believe that God used such creatures to draw me closer and closer to Her. I can’t tell you the number of times that, in moments of deep discouragement, a swallowtail butterfly has swirled around me, or a wolf, though attached to a chain, has come up to me and licked my hand, or a dragonfly has landed on my arm, and immediately all bad thoughts have evaporated and I have felt comforted and loved.

Kissed on Both Eyelids

I have felt as the actor Walter Slezak felt when he wrote in his autobiography that upon meeting his future wife, he felt as if God had kissed him on both eyelids. Isn’t that warm and cozy and comforting?

As I get older, however, and look at the patterns of my life, and if we look at the patterns of the apostles’ lives after Pentecost, we can see that there is much more to the working of the Holy Spirit in ourselves, in the church, and in the world.

There comes saying the unpopular thing that needs to be heard. There comes daring to love the unlovable. There comes befriending one’s enemies. There comes, at all times and in all places, an involuntary urge to do the right thing, no matter the cost.

 There comes action, according to the gifts the Spirit gives each one of us.

The original Pentecost was a Jewish holiday called Shavuot. Fifty days after Passover, Jews still celebrate the day on which God gave the Israelites the Torah and they became His people. This year it was celebrated on June 1.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for spirit is “ruah,” meaning wind, power, strength. In the New Testament, the Greek word “pneuma” is used for the Holy Spirit, meaning breath. We see them both used in the readings from Acts and in John’s Gospel. Notice the differences in them, though. In Acts, Jerusalem is filled with people who have come to celebrate Shavuot, which has now morphed into a harvest festival. Suddenly a violent wind comes into the house where the apostles are staying and tongues of fire rest on them. Suddenly they are able to speak in other languages, and every person in the city hears them speak in their own language.

John’s Pentecost is taking place on the same day as the Resurrection. The frightened Apostles are barricaded behind locked doors. Jesus comes to them and breathes on them, recalling Genesis and God’s breath into the first human being. Jesus said to the apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Real Kiss of Life

What ties the two Scriptures together is not obvious. One depicts the Apostles in the middle of a micro-storm and includes hundreds of other people. The second shows a very quiet moment in which Jesus is not only breathing on them, but into them. This is no artificial respiration, but it is the real kiss of life, the sealing of them as His own and marking them forever as people who are commissioned to go out into the world and be Jesus in the world. And as he did it to the apostles, he did it to us.

When the Spirit comes, Jesus tells the Apostles in Chapter 16 of John, “. . .he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Matt Skinner of the Lutheran Theological Seminary puts it this way: “That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.”

The world that the Spirit comes to prove wrong, through the Apostles and through us, “usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies,” Mr. Skinner says. And by the most intimate divine act possible, that of breathing into us, Jesus assures us that His peace is not that of the world, not just the cozy and comforting view I’ve had, but peace that gives confidence that no matter how bad it gets, Jesus is with us through it all.

But what do we make of the final verse of today’s gospel reading? Quoting Mr. Skinner again, “The Johannine Pentecost” goes like this:

Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!

Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!

Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?”

We have to look back at the verse from Chapter 16 and throughout the rest of John to understand that, no, we are not given the responsibility of coming up with a balance sheet of other people’s rights and wrongs.

Sin As Estrangement

Over and over again in John, Jesus talks about Himself and his relationship to the Father, and that if one can’t believe what he says, one remains separated from God, and so the word “sin” here in today’s reading refers to that estrangement, that separation. To forgive people’s sins here doesn’t mean that we are to give absolution for others’ moral failings, but that we, as commissioned by Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can help set people free from their unbelief by bearing witness to Jesus in our lives. If we don’t, the estrangement from God is “retained” in the world.

In a way, Jesus is really pointing out cause and effect: If you, my apostles, my followers, my church, bear witness to me, you will help to free people from their unbelief. If you don’t, that unbelief will continue.

To relate this back to Acts, I have to address the elephant in the room. Yesterday, seven people were killed by terrorists in London. At least 28 others were wounded, some life-threateningly so. This is the second terrorist attack in England in two weeks.

At least 90 people, mostly women and children, died in Kabul, Afghanistan this week in a terrorist attack, and several killed at a funeral Friday for a young man who was protesting the lack of security in Kabul and was shot by police.

In the US, there have been two fatal incidents of domestic terrorism in the past two weeks. A white supremacist fatally stabbed Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche were fatally stabbed and Micah Fletcher wounded in Portland when they intervened with a white supremacist who was harassing two young women whom he believed were Muslim.

African-American college student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed by a white supremacist student on his college campus two weeks ago.

Our President condemns attacks on white Westerners and uses them to push his travel ban. We hear very little from him about the domestic terroristic attacks, which I believe were empowered by this government, or when Muslims are killed by others who call themselves Muslims but pervert the faith of Islam.

Luke writes at least twice about God’s unifying vision of all people, about anti-discrimination if you will. Today’s scripture, which is always read on Pentecost, shows people from dozens of nations able to understand each other, able to hear each other, after the Holy Spirit comes in wind and fire.

Is this then the true work of the Holy Spirit? To empower us to set others’ free from the deadly sins of extremism and racism? To radically learn to UNDERSTAND each other and HEAR each other, no matter who we are and where we’re from. To radically DEFEND those who are attacked and to intervene when we witness the discrimination, the hate of those who have rejected the Kingdom of God?

I would have preferred to dwell on the cozy and comforting aspects of the mysterious companionships today, my friends. I would rather not have to ask you, or myself, if you had been on that train in Portland, would you have intervened? I would rather have played Pollyanna’s “glad game” and left you with rosy and optimistic thoughts.

But our world, and our country, becomes more dangerous every day as the sins of racism on all sides do their evil work, inside our country and out of it. So today, I say, the mysterious companionships are courage, strength, and fortitude to resist the evil work at every pass. This is what Jesus is breathing into us today. Will we accept the grace to do that?

What’s Lent Got To Do With It?

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Presumably everyone who calls themselves a Christian is now observing Lent, the 40-day journey through repentance leading up to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I don’t know whether all denominations put on the sackcloth and ashes that I was taught to don as a child. Despite going to Confession weekly, I rarely felt forgiven because the very next time I went to Christian education I was told about some new way in which I was a sinner and that my sins made up the nails that crucified Jesus.

I went to all the movies that came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s about Jesus: “King of Kings,” “Barabbas,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Ben Hur,” etc. And I left each movie haunted about whether I would have been one of the people yelling for Jesus’s blood or one of the women who followed Him.

To add to my neuroses, I used to spend hours as a child poring over three editions of Funk & Wagnall’s yearbooks that were in our house. They must have been for the years 1952, 1953, and 1954. They contained many pictures of dead people: Eva Peron in her casket, Emilie Dionne, victims of gangland shootings, Mau Mau casualties. The yearbooks introduced me to a world of horrors, and they got mixed up with the guilt I already carried so that I began to feel responsible for everything bad that happened in the world.

Through the years, that sense of guilt has never really left me; even now, in liturgical church traditions, I’m told at one and the same time that I am a sinner and also told that I’m forgiven once and for all for those sins of which I’m truly repentant.

Yet in all of my young education, learning about slavery, watching civil rights protesters on television, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, was it ever suggested in church that the original sin I was supposedly born with had anything to do with the sin of racism. Moreover, the Christian church in the United States has not, as one body, repented of the sin of aiding and abetting racism.

I have been asking myself the last few years, what would Jesus want the form of our repentance to take? Giving up chocolate or meat or TV for 40 days, or setting about righting the wrongs of our national history by admitting to the sin of enslaving, raping, murdering, excluding, and treating with contempt a sizeable proportion of God’s children? If there is such a thing as original sin, then what white people, with the complicity of the white Christian church, have done to Africans and Native Americans is our original sin.

Now is the time to repent.

An organization called Ignatian Spirituality Network is e-mailing daily Lenten reflections to those who sign up. Written by a diverse group of people, the reflections are called “Lift Every Voice.” The website is www.ignatianspirituality.net.