Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Crossroad: Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Malachi 3-4 (Narrative Lectionary)
           This time of year I think a lot about the fact that I had two Jewish grandparents whom I knew and loved. I had four Jewish great-grandparents who died before I was born, whose parents came from Eastern Europe to escape the horrific persecution of Jews. From my Jewish grandparents came my mother who came to know and believe in Christ in her mid-twenties, but still shared with her children some of the celebrations of her youth- Chanukah, Passover, Sabbath.

            This time of year, when we all reflect on families, I think of the Chanukahs of my youth and I think about the people who came before my great-grandparents. My family tree with many branches cut short on one side because of the violence against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. When I read stories of pogroms in ghettos and shtetls, I wonder if those were my distant cousins whose descendants the world will not meet, whom I will not meet.

            When I think of these people, my ancestors, who died because of their religious and cultural identity, I have wondered if I am betraying them. If I am not practicing Judaism (I am technically a religious Jew, just not of the Jewish faith.), am I undermining their sacrifice?

            It’s not just this time of year that has me asking these questions, but our reading from Malachi. Malachi isn’t really a name, but a title meaning “Messenger of YHWH”. This emissary is bringing another message from God: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight -- indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

            As I read Malachi, I think of all the stories we’ve heard from the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of Abraham and Sarah, of Joseph and his brothers, enslavement in Egypt and freedom with Moses, the giving of the law, the leadership of David and Solomon, the struggle to keep the faith in the midst of tribal warfare, and when kidnapped and taken to a strange land. Through these stories, the Bible points to God’s ultimate faithfulness despite human unfaithfulness.

            And now we come to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are other stories that didn’t make it into the regular canon, the agreed upon list of Bible books. There are events that happen after Malachi’s prophecies- the Chanukah story with the lamp oil that lasts for eight days is one such story. But here is a place of turning, a fork in the road, a split in the tree. At this place, we either continue to remain in Advent or we move on to Christmas. Malachi says, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

            For me, as much as I might wrestle with what it means to be Jewish in ancestry, I cannot remain in Advent. This is not the end of the written word of God for me. Somehow, through the Spirit, I have been brought to believe that the sun of righteousness has risen and that Son’s name is Jesus. I may have moments of doubt and of darkness, but I cannot dis-believe the experiences I have had in Christ. The encounters that I have had with Jesus in other people.  My understanding of the powerful reality that God was born onto the earth and knows fully what it means to human.

            Here at the end of Malachi, the branch of Christianity grows out the roots of the tree of Jesse, the Jewish roots of our faith. From this tree we receive our Savior. From this tree we receive the roots of baptism and of blessing bread and wine. From this tree, we receive the understanding of the cloud of witnesses of faithful people who encourage us onward on our journey. Until we are gathered around that manger in Bethlehem and share in Mary’s pondering and the shepherds’ rejoicing, we who believe in God are all Jews.

            But here we are as Christians, believers in Christ, standing at the Advent crossroad and there are two questions for us. The first is will Christ return today? There is still time. And if not, there is still tomorrow.

            The second question that we must ask at this intersection is, “What about God’s promises to Jews?” If we have been brought into faith through Jesus, but there remain some who received God’s promises- what happens to them? What happens to them?

            God happens to them. The oracle of Malachi begins, “’I have loved you’, says the Lord.” The book speaks of God’s election and how God will prepare God’s people to endure judgment and being made holy. Again and again, throughout Hebrew Scriptures, God goes the distance to uphold the promises that have been made between God and God’s people. God does not fail.

"I have loved you" is the banner of a God-created and God-given relationship.  God re-creates and sustains that relationship in the face of human struggle and failure. If no one can endure or stand in the day of the Lord's appearance, then God will have to create and sustain that which can endure and stand. God will not fail.

            We are poised in a thin space between Advent and Christmas, a place where God meets creation, a place where God became creation. In this space we see backwards and forwards- history and future. It is only in this space that, just between waiting and birthing, we sit with the possibility and the mystery of what has been and what will be.

            There is a possibility that my ancestors might not have been killed and that I might still have become Christian. Who can say? But they were killed. Killed because of who they were and it is a great loss, but one that I cannot change. I do not forget them. I honor them by being honest in who I am and by holding fast to what I believe.
            And I believe in God’s work for the world in Jesus. I believe with Mary and Joseph, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Daniel in God’s promises from the beginning of creation. In God’s plans for hope and a future. In how God loves God’s people like a parent who lifts an infant to the cheek.

            God has not forgotten the promises made to my ancestors and yours. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. That love burns through all distinctions, all sins and all lies and leaves only what endures. God’s promises are all that can endure and, because of that covenant, God upholds those to whom life has been promised. Then. Now. Forever. God does not fail. 


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unexpected, Mysterious and Fun

I've been trying to think of what to say about this article from the New York Times, in which the author calls himself a "None"- meaning no religious affiliation. It's not this designation that bothers me. I'm also not too upset when he goes on to comment on how many such Nones get turned off religion by religious people. Been there, seen that, had it happen to me.

Here's the thing that gets me:

We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)By that measure, there is very little “good religion” out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

This gets my dander up in a variety of ways. First, and you may read however much defensiveness you wish into this because I can't stop you, I appreciate reason and science and I don't check my understanding of either at the church door. I don't expect anyone else too.

But I take my reason and science right in there with me and somehow, someway, somewhere... they encounter mystery. It's not hocus-pocus or woo-woo, it's something intangible, indescribable and desirable.  Mystery is not automatically irrational, it's just inexplicable.

Truth isn't what works. What's true is true, regardless of our ability to believe it. All of which means that I could be wrong in what I believe. I could be a little wrong (this life could be all there is). I could be a lot wrong (see: Reformation, the). I could be going to hell (does that really need parenthetical explanation?).

When Eric Weiner says that God is not a lot of fun these days, I think he might be talking to the wrong people or listening to them. The loudest voices don't speak for God. They speak for themselves or whoever is paying them. They don't speak for me. Speaking for myself, I have a darn good time.

Being religious, for me, is full of surprises, moving moments, laughter, questions and
discussion. And I see lots of people around me having a good time as well. I saw people laughing together tonight as they distributed food. I heard clergy laughing today as they pieced together sermon ideas for this week. I heard children giggling through the Christmas story and I heard adults chuckling about how to tackle serious issues related to healthcare.

I've said the wrong words during church, choked on what I was singing when a spider jumped on music, forgotten major points of what I was going to say and even skipped elements of the service. Nothing happened. To me that's not because there is no God, but because God isn't worried about that.

I don't think God's worked up about perfect worship. Solemn faces. Pristine on-key singing. Regimented liturgical actions.

For me, my life of faith is on the edge, pushing the envelope, and skidding right up to the altar rail and thinking, "The Spirit led me back again! All right! We must be okay! Grace wins again!" Because I believe in a God of fullness, a fleshed out God who lives and breathes in all creation. The God who made me laughs, because I laugh and I am made in God's image.

I believe this. I believe it is true, but my faith doesn't make it true. It either is true or it isn't. And I am living, whole-heartedly, like it is.

Which brings me back to mystery. Just because you can't pick apart and explain every detail doesn't make something unreal, dishonest or untrue. In age of science and reason, I think it's good for all of us to know that there are things we cannot explain, we cannot fully grasp, we cannot totally control. That's right. We're not totally in control and it SUCKS to admit it.

Some things are mysterious. The pull and push of certain sounds, sights and smells can be unraveled and unraveled, yet still remain, in part, unexplained. And here's where I think some Nones (not necessarily the author) and certain religious fundamentalists are singing from the same page. Everything has to have an explanation. Either it's God or science. Having an explanation is about control.

Mystery. Learn to live with it. Learn to embrace it. Roll in it and let it wash over you. Babies in hay, stirring songs, sunrise, sunset, quiet nights, bustling cities, bread and wine and thou, fire, flower buds, blue skies, water, first words, last words, kisses, and amazing coincidences.

There will be some things you will never explain. This is most certainly true.

And you just have to laugh about that.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Father Knows Breast

Today I was at a sushi bar and a Dominican priest was seated one chair away from me. I knew he was Dominican because he had a white robe and a large wooden rosary- like other Dominicans I have known.

I wonder if I should greet him. Why? I'm not Catholic. He doesn't know I'm clergy (no collar on today). He probably wants a peaceful lunch. I want a peaceful lunch.

I do not leave well enough alone. I ask if he is, in fact, Dominican. Yes, new in town (of several months). We know someone in common. We talk briefly about where we're from. All good. No problems.

I'm reading from a Nook and he has a paperback by Wallace Stegner.

Him: We're thinking about starting a Theology and Literature group. I'm checking out Stegner.
Me: (Trying to make a joke) So, not Father Greeley. (A Roman Catholic priest who is a prolific writer and some of whose novels are famously or infamously sexy.)
Him: No, not Father Greeley. Too many breasts.
Me: (Raising my eyebrows) Well, breasts don't usually hurt people.
Him: No, but the breasts are all anyone can think about.
Me: Well, there are vows about that.
Him: Well, what are you reading there?
Me: (looking at my screen, open to a historical romance/novel): It's full of breasts.

... and it kind of trailed off from there and we ate in silence.

I was fine with our conversation until he said, "There are too many breasts." If he had said, "There's too much sex." That's a different thing and, for me, it would have been putting men and women on an equal sexual plane. To say that there are too many breasts, though, and that the breasts are distracting was very irritating to me. Perhaps there is a preponderance of breasts in Greeley novels, but it never seemed that way to me. Yes, I'm reading into an encounter with a man I don't know, but his response to me (focused on women's bodies as distractors) seemed rooted in distaste. So was it women in general or just me?

I finished lunch first and so I attempt to offer an olive branch by saying, "It was nice to meet you. I hope you enjoy your time here. Happy Advent." He murmured the pleasant responses and then I said, "Dominus vobiscum." (Latin for "The Lord be with you") I had hoped that he would respond, "Et con spirito tuo," (and with thy spirit), to show a sense of shared history (in Christ) and collegiality in ministry. The thing is that in Catholic tradition, only the priest would normally say the phrase I spoke. And I did know that.

He looked at me and said, "Nice translation."


Was I as nice as I could have been? No, I was not. I had hoped for a shared conversation with someone close to my age about what it means to live as a religious leader. I have not yet come to accept that this will never happen with someone who believes that my ministry is not valid (good, but not valid) and that, in any count, it exists outside the One True Church.

And there is something sad about a young man who has taken a vow of chastity, uttering the phrase, "But the breasts are all anyone can think about." Does this come from sacrificing his own sexual desires for the sake of his vocational call? (Possibly) Does it stem from teachings that may still exist in some Catholic churches or seminaries about women, women's bodies and female sexuality? (Possibly) Am I way off the mark? (Possibly)

The story that made me a little giggly at first now makes me sad because I feel the great divide between myself and a peer who will never see me as an equal. And it's a loss to both of us to learn from one another and to the catholic Church as a whole that we are so divided.

The other thing that occurs to me, though, is that I need to wear my collar more often. I was just reading on the Miss Representation website about the absence of women in certain roles and jobs in society. For the most part, if you can't see it, you can't be it. Meaning young women often don't consider careers in which women are less visible or non-existent.

My visibility as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ matters because people need to see women in this role. Girls and boys need to see women clergy- in the pulpit and on the street.

And if you see my collar or stole and all you can think about is the breasts, that's your problem.

Mary didn't feed Jesus Similac.

Dominus vobiscum.