Little Opportunities

Homily for Sunday, September 16, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 3:1–12

No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison… The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”—James 3:8 & 6

Now that I have everybody’s attention, you may be seated…

dancing-flamesI bet, hearing today’s passage from James, that I am not the only one feeling somewhat discomfited.  For me, not a week goes by—often not even a day— in which I haven’t said something that I wish I could take back, to either say differently or to not even say at all; and I bet I’m not alone.  But I don’t want to begin there; rather, I want to begin with two stories and then a quote.  The two stories are both set in the American South, both are about young men, and both involve a death.

The first is of a young man, aged 18 at the time, who, early one morning on the way to his summer job at the country club in small-town Georgia, crested a hill on the highway and drove straight into a motorcyclist who was turning left into his lane just the other side of the hill.  The driver of the motorcycle, a man in his 50’s, was killed instantly.  The accident was a tragedy all the way around.  Imagine how the young man felt; imagine how the family of the motorcyclist felt.  Several months later, after going to court and being found “not guilty”—a stoplight has since been placed at that intersection—the young man received a phone call from the father of the man who was killed. “Meet me in the parking lot behind the Baptist church this Sunday at 3:00pm.”  The young man went(!).  Probably looking over his shoulder and ready to run, just in case.  There in the parking lot in a pickup was the father of the man.  The older man got out, walked over and said to the younger, “Son, I want you to know that I forgive you.  You are a young man, and I don’t want you to let this eat you alive for the rest of your life.  Please know that you are forgiven.”

The second is of Lloyd LeBlanc, whose name you may recognize as the father of the man who was murdered in Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking.  When Lloyd LeBlanc, a devoted Catholic, arrived with the sheriff’s deputies at the deserted field to identify his son’s body, the first thing he did was to kneel down beside his son’s body and pray the “Our Father.”  When he came to the part, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he spontaneously added, “Whoever did this, I forgive them.”  In the months that followed, Prejean would often bump into Lloyd LeBlanc at a local chapel where he would come to pray. LeBlanc confided to Prejean that, though he had forgiven his son’s killer that night in the deserted field, yet he struggled with feelings of bitterness and resentment.  He said that the struggle was near constant, and that the forgiveness he gave out there in the field he had to give over and over again.  We know that the bitterness did not prevail, for LeBlanc was able to visit the mother of his son’s killer as she lay dying, but forgiving his son’s killer was something that LeBlanc had to do again and again.

And here is the quote.  It comes from William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury back in the ‘40’s:

It is not easy to find outstanding opportunities for practicing this great virtue of forgiveness. But there are plenty of little ones, and the little ones test us more searchingly because there is nothing heroic about them. It is always easier to do one big heroic thing than a thousand little, obscure things; and that is what it has to be with most of us. (Christian Faith and Life, 1931)

William_Temple_Philip_De_Laszlo (1942)What these two stories tell us is that forgiveness is beautiful, and also risky, and that forgiveness takes practice.  Beautiful, because what a beautiful thing it was for those fathers to forgive the men who had killed their sons.  In our world, marked by so much coarseness, it is beautiful to see souls of such depth.  Risky, because forgiveness means showing up, probably not in a parking lot, but at some point to face the one whom we have offended and setting aside our right to be right.  And “takes practice” because acknowledging that we have made a mistake and forfeiting our right to be right is not something most of us come by naturally.  We tend to be adept at making “nests” of our resentment and lining them with hurt, and it takes practice to open ourselves to the vulnerability and new life that forgiveness can bring.

What Archbishop Temple’s quote tells us is that it is unlikely that we will have heroic opportunities for forgiveness, as those two fathers did.  Rather, it is likely that we have “plenty of little ones,” “a thousand little, obscure” opportunities for forgiveness.  But they “test us more searchingly because there is nothing heroic about them.”

Which brings us back to the epistle of James and “the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  Like I said, hardly a week goes by—often not even a day—in which I haven’t said something that I wish I could take back, to either say differently or to not even say at all.

And I’d give you a story, an example, but the things that I’ve said that I wish I could take back were so petty, so from a small place within, that I’m too ashamed to tell you about them.  And the vast majority of those things I’ve said that I wish I could take back, I’ve said to my wife.  (Maybe she’ll tell you…)

Since “All of us make many mistakes,” says James, and since “no one can tame the tongue,”  the things we say will likely continue to offer us plenty of opportunity to practice forgiveness.  Not the heroic kind of forgiveness, like the fathers of those two men, but the “obscure,” non-heroic kind.  And the place where we are most often called to practice forgiveness is likely to be in our intimate relationships.  Our close relationships are “schools of forgiveness,” as it were, where we are called to practice forgiving and being forgiven, again and again and again, probably most often for things that were said.

I am going to leave us with words from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 2000’s.  At a Lutheran church gathering in Stuttgart, Germany, in July of 2010, Williams speaks of the beauty and the risk of forgiveness, as well as the practice that it takes.

When offence is given and hurt is done, the customary human response is withdrawal, the reinforcing of the walls of the private self…

Rowan_Williams_2007[But] the person who asks forgiveness is a person who has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; he has acknowledged that he is hungry for healing… [and acknowledged] that [he] cannot grow or flourish without restored relationship, even when this means admitting the ways [he has] tried to avoid it.  [And] equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim; he has decided to take the risk of creating afresh a relationship known to be dangerous, known to be capable of causing hurt…

To forgive and to be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanized by those whom you may least want to receive… [and] is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humanity…

I invite us to pray this week for a spirit of reconciliation, especially in our close relationships, and for the grace of forgiveness.

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Meeting the human Jesus

Homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 7:24–37

Jesus_wanted_poster

Cartoon by Art Young (1917)

Occasionally in The New Yorker—very occasionally—there is a piece about Jesus.  For example, I remember several years ago a cartoon in which Jesus is standing on top of a mountain preaching to a crowd.  A man in the back of the crowd says to his friend on the right: “’Love your neighbor as yourself?’  So, Jesus is a socialist.”  And there was the very irreverent—and very hilarious— piece by Paul Rudnick in which he imagines what it would have been like if Jesus had a wife (and from her point of view).  In “My Man,” “Melissa” describes how the two met:

Across the room, I saw this beautiful guy with gorgeous flowing hair, wearing a simple white linen tunic and swaying gently to the music with his eyes shut… I couldn’t help staring, even after Amy told me, “I’ve heard about him. His name is Jesus and he doesn’t have a job.” But then Jesus opened his stunning blue eyes and gazed upon me, and I said to Amy, “I think I’ve just discovered one of the lost tribes of Israel.” “Which one?” she asked, and I said, “The blonds.”

Such tends to be the tenor of depictions of Jesus in The New Yorker, so imagine my surprise when, back in May of 2010, The New Yorker published “What Did Jesus Do?” by Adam Gopnik, a long form piece about the historical Jesus.  Gopnik had clearly familiarized himself with the scholarly repertoire about the historical Jesus, had clearly given the matter some thought, and had clearly read the Gospel of Mark—from which we heard this morning and are hearing this fall—with a keen writer’s eye.  Of Jesus as he appears in Marks’ Gospel, Gopnik writes:

[In Mark] the human traits of Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, dueling wit.  What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience.  He’s no Buddha.  He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers.  He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty.  He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close…  [He] has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness….  His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic…  [And] there is something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ teachings… a wild gaiety… that still leaps off the page… [and] makes [his teaching] fresh and strange even now.

Gopnik’s piece probably made the editorial cut because his depiction of Jesus is not inconsistent with The New Yorker’s decidedly secular slant that seems at best amused by Jesus and the Church.  But even a cursory read through the Gospel of Mark suggests that Gopnik is on to something.  Jesus is verbally shifty; sometimes he is short-tempered; he does have an “ironic, dueling wit.”  Indeed, we need look no further than today’s gospel lesson to see that Gopnik has a point.  Listen again to the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoencian woman:

A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit… heard about [Jesus], and… came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

[BTW, a “Syrophoenician” was one of the native peoples of Judea, whose ancestors the Hebrews displaced when they came into the Holy Land.  There are racial tensions at play here.]

So far, so good; this story could be one of any number of other healing stories in the gospels. But then…

[Jesus] said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus called her a dog!  The gospel tells us that Jesus had gone into a house and that he wanted to “escape notice,” so he was probably tired and wanted time to himself and didn’t want to be interrupted.  But to call the woman a dog?!  As Gopnik writes: “Short-tempered,” “irritable,” and “impatient.”

V0034860 The Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cureWhile we might be offended, it appears that the woman was not.  She did not get up and leave in a huff; nor did she get defensive and say something nasty back at Jesus.  I wonder if, given her response, the woman saw in Jesus something similar to what Gopnik sees: that this very human Jesus liked a “dueling wit,” that he appreciated verbal spryness and shiftiness, that he was a bit brash and not contained by conventional ideas of goodness.  Perhaps she saw— like Gopnik sees with his keen writer’s eye—[perhaps she saw] these very human traits in Jesus, and—not to be deterred— played it right back at him:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I have a hunch that Jesus, when she said that, is suddenly liking this woman.  Saying that, I bet that this “intelligent,” “irritable” and “impatient” Jesus recognized something, a kindred spirit perhaps, who could play to these very human traits.  For what Jesus says next is different from what he says in Matthew’s account of the same story.  In Matthew, Jesus’s response is theological and feels, at least in contrast to Mark, somewhat patronizing: “Woman.  Great is your faith,” Jesus says in Matthew.  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  But in Mark, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go.”  “For saying that…”  I think Jesus loved that she said what she did.  He loved that she, too, has “an ironic, dueling wit.”  He loved that she is “verbally spry and even a little shifty.”  He loved that she has a “pet style” that includes the epigrammatic.

Jesus in Mark is different than the Jesus in Matthew, where Jesus is more pastoral: “Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus in Mark is different than Jesus in Luke, where he stands in the tradition of the prophets: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… and… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And Mark’s Jesus is different than Jesus in John, where he is clearly divine and well aware of it: “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

The Gospels are all about Jesus, to be sure, and they each tell his story from a different point of view.  But the Gospels are also about us, telling us who we are, how much God loves us, and of the relationship that is possible between us and God.  And the Gospels each tell our story from a different point of view.

Mark_the_Evangelist_-_Google_Art_Project

Mark the Evangelist

This Jesus who knocks on our hearts’ door in Mark is not convenient, he is sometimes a pain in the backside, he comes to us with all the challenges and realities of adult relationship, AND…  He accepts us—as he did the Syrophoencian woman—when we are not “convenient,” when we might be a pain in the backside, and as we come with all the challenges and realities of adult relationship.  And—as he seemed to do with the Syrophoenciain woman—Jesus enjoys relationship with us.  A relationship in which we can feel free to play it right back to him.  A relationship in which he can be himself and we can be ourselves, and in which it’s OK to be irritable and impatient, or short-tempered, or brash, or defiant.  Jesus likes to be “real” with us and for us to be “real” back at him.  Mark’s gift to us is that Mark reminds that it’s OK to be completely ourselves with Jesus, warts and all.  Jesus can not only take it; Jesus relishes it.

I invite us, as we continue to hear from Mark this fall, to be open to meeting this very human Jesus.  Why not sometime soon—perhaps even this week—go and ask him for that healing that you may be looking for?  He is there in the “house.”  Sure, he may be trying to “escape notice;” sure, it may look as though he is wanting some time to himself.  But, go, take all of who you are and go to meet him—all parts of you, even the unseemly or unconventional.  Because this very human Jesus in Mark brings all parts of him to meet us.  And the relationship that we can have with this Jesus from Mark, in which our full humanity engages his full humanity, has the power to cast out “demons” and is profoundly healing.

Joy in Repetition

Homily for Sunday, August 19, 2018
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
John 6:51–58

hummingbird-feedingPrince Rogers Nelson, the late singer-songwriter better known as “Prince,” once said, “There is joy in repetition.”  I was brought to mind of Prince’s words in July when, while visiting my dad in New York state, I watched a hummingbird out his window.  The tiny bird returned again and again to my dad’s feeder, wings abuzz, feathers glinting in the sun, its long beak taking quick sips as it bobbed and weaved around those plastic flowers at the base of the feeder.  Mostly quick sips—playful and teasing, as though flirting.  But then, every so often, it hovered for what seemed like a hummingbird eternity and thrust its beak in deep, taking a long quaff, before flitting off to a nearby branch.  Where it recovered for a few panting seconds… and then returned to the feeder to do it all again!  And then again!  I may be imagining it, but I dare say there was an exuberance—a joy—as the hummingbird perched there on the branch, chest thrust out, proud in his plumage, darting to the feeder again and again.  “There is joy in repetition.”

Our lectionary this summer is kind of like that hummingbird, returning again and again to John 6. We’ve heard from John 6 for the last four weeks; and we will hear from John 6 yet again next week.  This summer, we will have heard from John chapter 6 five weeks in a row!  (The lectionary returns to no other text so frequently.)  In returning again and again to John 6, the Spirit must be trying to show us something.  And I can’t help but wonder if, given this repetition and the imagery Jesus uses in John 6—“I am the living bread that came down from heaven”—[I can’t help but wonder if] the Spirit is trying to show us not merely where we can find the sustenance our souls need, but also the joy.

Ross Gay (poet)

Ross Gay reads at the 2015 National Book Awards (Katexic)

To give some flesh to this sustenance and joy, I will share with you one of my favorite poems.  It is a poem that speaks of a bird, though not a hummingbird but a goldfinch.  It is by contemporary American poet Ross Gay, and while the poem is called “Wedding Poem” and is ostensibly about the bride and groom, the poem just might be about John 6.  Here it is:

“To Keith and Jen”

Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claws
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
its wings
again and again,
until, swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch,
where the sunflower curled its giant swirling of seeds
around the bird and leaned back
to admire the soft wind
nudging the bird’s plumage,
and friends I could see
the points on the flower’s stately crown
soften and curl inward
as it almost indiscernibly lifted
the food of its body
to the bird’s nuzzling mouth
whose fervor
I could hear from
oh 20 or 30 feet away
and see the tiny hulls
that sailed from their
good racket,
which good racket, I have to say
was making me blush,
and rock up on my tippy-toes,
and just barely purse my lips
with what I realize now
was being, simply, glad,
which such love,
if we let it,
makes us feel.

Hummingbird-sunflower-Archilochus_colubris_-_by_jeffreyw_-_002

Photo credit: jeffreyw

“Keith and Jen,” the finch and the flower.  Gay describes not only the finch’s “feeding” in sensuous terms—the goldfinch “kissed” the sunflower, ate with its “nuzzling mouth,” ate with such “fervor” that its “good racket” could be heard “oh 20 or 30 feet away”—[Gay describes not only the finch’s feeding in sensuous terms] but also the sunflower’s participation in sensuous terms: the sunflower leaned back, the points on its stately crown softened and curled inward; it admired “the soft wind nudging the bird’s plumage” as “it almost indiscernibly lifted the food of its body” to the finch.  (Gay’s imagery makes me blush!)

In John 6—to which we are returning again an again—Jesus similarly invites us to feed, using intimate, even sensuous, terms:

  • “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my
  • “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you.”
  • “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Keith and Jen.  The finch and the sunflower.  Jesus and us.  Each “feeds” on the other, in the flesh.

And hopefully… with joy.

This feeding is something we do every Sunday, again and again, in the Eucharist, and I can’t help but wonder if, as Prince suggests, “There is joy in [this] repetition.”  For Jesus, surely, there is joy.  Like the sunflower, he “almost indiscernibly lifts the food of his body” toward us.  Perhaps as we stretch out our hands to receive him, he admires the wind nudging our “plumage.”  He is delighted we are here.

Trinity-Church-1743

Photo credit: Craig Orsini

But do we find joy in this repetition?  As for me, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; sometimes the Eucharist is quite rote for me, and at other times I find it profoundly moving.  I pray that we may find joy in what we do here “again and again.”  I pray that we may find joy and that on account of what we do here our lives might be lived with a “fervor” that might be heard from “oh 20 or 30 feet away.”  I pray that others out there might see crumbs sailing from our “good racket” in here.  I pray that this good racket might make us blush, as it were, and rock up on our tippy-toes and maybe even purse our lips with what I hope we may come to realize is being, simply, glad, which Jesus’ love, shown us in this sacrament, if we let it, makes make us feel.

Gay’s poem may well be about John 6 and the Eucharist:

Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town / a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower / again and again…

A Course on Love

Homily for Sunday, August 12, 2018
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Right here, right now, I am coming out… as a fan of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column.  The weekly column is, in the editors’ words, “about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood… any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading ‘Modern Love.’” “Modern Love” has no single columnist, nor even a group of columnists; rather, essays are submitted by the public and winners chosen by the editors.  Highlights from past years include essays such as: Continue reading

What are we looking for?

Homily for Sunday, August 5, 2018
Pentecost 11
John 6:24–35

key-2312481_960_720Writing in the third century, Origen of Alexandria compared the Scriptures to a mansion filled with rooms, but with a twist: the key to unlock to the door to one room was often kept in another.  So, for example, the key to unlock the room that is I Corinthians might be in the room that is Hosea.  Or the key to unlock Matthew might be in Deuteronomy, and so forth.  I think the key to unlock John chapter 6—from which we’ve just heard—is found in not one, but two, other places.  The first is the book of the prophet Amos, in which Amos writes:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord…
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord. Continue reading

Letting Go

Homily for Sunday, June 24, 2018
Pentecost 5B
Mark 4:35–41

FullSizeRender (7)Last year at this time I was on sabbatical, riding my bicycle around the Great Lakes.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been revisiting my journals and remembering the trip.  Four weeks ago (last year), on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, after a few weeks of being in the woods on the north sides of Lakes Huron and Superior, I finally pulled into Duluth, Minnesota.  (Given where I’d been, arriving in Duluth felt like arriving in Paris!)  On June 11 Shaw flew into Duluth with his bicycle, and the two of us started the ride back east.  Last week, on June 16, we kayaked at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And a year ago today—exactly one year ago—Shaw and I were in the middle of Lake Michigan, crossing over from Milwaukee to Muskegon, in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Continue reading

Able to Hear It

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 17, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6B

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Psalm 92:1–4, 11–14
2 Corinthians 5:6 –17
Mark 4:26–34

mustard seedsMy Friends: A story is told about a young man who reported to his Freudian psychoanalyst that he had a recurring dream in which he always smoked a cigar.  Because he was not a smoker of any sort, the man was convinced that the cigar must have some hidden meaning for his neurosis.  Freudian psychology, after all, held that every object in a dream—especially in a recurring dream—has a symbolic meaning very often linked to some childhood trauma or inhibition.  So, the patient and his analyst spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possible significance of that “dream-cigar” with no success at all.  Finally, after several fruitless—and expensive—sessions, the exasperated psychoanalyst threw up his hands and exclaimed, “You know, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!” Continue reading