Archive for February, 1999

Sunday Week 1 of Lent Year A

It might not be completely true, that you are what you wear, but you sure can tell a lot about someone from how they dress. For example, wearing purple is a sure sign that you are gay—especially if you are a British import and wear a triangle on your head like Tinky Winky the Teletubby. And he carries a large purse too … nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more! Even in that infant Eden you have to watch what you wear!
In their innocence, the earth creatures first fashioned by God are thoroughly happy romping around the garden naked. The have no need of clothes, for nature nurtures them gently, and, with nothing to hide, their nakedness goes unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, until the serpent drives them into the closet and their earthen bodies become a sign of shame that drives them into the garment trade.
The urge to cover up goes back further than Clinton, further even than Nixon, it goes back to the beginning. Well not quite the beginning because the seamless garment of civilisation is not an original. In our story, it’s a knock-off, a poor copy, and that designer logo, so proudly displayed, is a serpent.
Once upon a time we were not ashamed to be made from earth because earth was our friend and we could walk with God in the cool of the afternoon. Our humble origins never entered into our heads. Common as muck. Simple as dirt. Down to earth. That’s us. At least it was.
What happened? Something simple. The earth creatures trusted the judgement of a fellow creature, that clever snake, and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And that ruined everything. Not because God was in bad mood that day and not because God had sprung a trap he’d laid for them. The story is told without frills. The woman simply eats because she sees the tree is good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. She has no dramatic and evil intentions. No awful pride or scheming subterfuge. It just seems like a good thing to do. An ordinary, domestic, day-to-day choice. Yet it brings shame, alienation from the earth, from the creatures of the earth, from each other and from God. And it brings death.
A little harsh don’t you think? I mean they didn’t intend to put paid to paradise and begin a new world. They just overlooked the way things are made. It’s in the nature of the world, even then, that some things are good for you and some things not. The first fall was a forgetting. More an awful mistake than an indictable offence. But the root of all sin is there. Our earth creatures had everything they needed, absolute bliss given them each day from the very hand of God—just like in TellyTubby Land—and yet they want to find for themselves a little more.
The aftermath changes their minds completely so that their previous abundance now looks like utter emptiness. Suddenly they are naked. And so begins the long history of sin—the long history of dressing up what is beautiful with what is tawdry. We are no longer good enough for ourselves. We learn to hide from God because we would hide from ourselves if we could. We are ashamed of being ourselves. That’s the original sin: shame, not pride.
We have the same problem today. We face it especially in Lent when we are challenged to repentance for our foolish choices. The temptation has always been to make ourselves look better than we are. We try ever more elaborate garments to dress up the reality. Robes of fasting and good works. Coats of charity. Elaborate headgear of piety. Umbrellas of guilt. All trying to make ourselves look better. All trying to beguile God with our glamour. And all precisely the wrong thing to do. Since the garden, we have been hiding from God in case God see our nakedness and be revolted. But the truth is God hates the clothing and loves the creature underneath, made of dust and dirt … and God’s own breath.
Lent is our time to be made naked once again, stripped down to bare essentials. Notice it is “to be made” not to make. The struggle to make ourselves naked would turn out to be just one more outfit, however subtle the haute couture. All we have to do is not do. Not flinch when God takes a good look at us. Or maybe flinch but not hide, not cover up, not run for the closet.
Try it! Let God look at you now. Forget the self-consciousness. How does God look at you right now? Look into those eyes. What do you see there, as those eyes see you? …
The gaze of God upon our naked selves is the only thing that can take away our shame and undo the damage of millenia. The good news for this Lent is that all the work is God’s. God once fashioned us earthlings out of dust and only God can refashion our innocence once again and give us peace with each other and friendship with the earth from which we came. So let’s give up, this Lent, and let God get on with it.

February 23rd, 1999

Ash Wednesday Year A

Lent is a journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, the city of his longing, the city of his dying, the city of his new birth. Lent looks to Easter. Whatever we do in Lent we do to get to that place of rebirth. We are heading for Easter and new life, and hope fulfilled, and dreams no more denied.
But Easter was a surprise to Jesus and we must let it be a surprise to us. From here to Holy Week it’s downhill all the way. This is the season of God’s failure. For forty days we walk with God in the shadow of the valley of death. Jesus comes with a word of life and comfort for the people but it is a word hard to hear and it echoes around but doesn’t find a home. It is such an unpopular message that it gets him killed in the worst way—humiliated, betrayed, alone, and abandoned. Jesus failed.
Why was his word of peace and life and comfort so hard to hear? Why was John the Baptist so much more popular with his words of doom and death? Why?
I think because we like to hang on to whatever little control we have. Half the people heard John preach and thought him a fool and went away untouched in their foolish self-confidence. The other half felt his words convict them of their faults, the failings, and gave them a way to take control of their own salvation.
But Jesus came without condemnation. He didn’t point the finger at sinners: he sat down to dinner with them. He didn’t wait for the traitor to change: he made him a friend. He didn’t stare down the terrorist: he walked along the road with her.
The price for his friendship wasn’t change or conversion or getting it right. There was no price. Friendship with Jesus came free … and still does. And that scared the living daylights out of so many people who’s own importance was built on what they had achieved, or where they’d been born, or who they had bought, or what they’d done to ensure their own salvation. And eventually they killed him.
Today we mark ourselves with ash. And not out of penance. It is a badge of friendship. Friendship with Jesus. And we wear it with a crazy sort of pride because we know we haven’t earned it. We are sinners, traitors, terrorists, and worse … but Jesus hasn’t asked us to change. He has only asked that we be his friends and walk his way with him.
And this Lent, let us do that; let’s walk with him so that when his word falls on deaf ears he might not go uncomforted; let’s stay with him so that at the end he will not be alone.

February 17th, 1999

Friday Week 5 Year I

What was God thinking about to leave such a deadly tree lying around in Eden? Just standing there, dangerous, desirable.
Do you ever wonder if God doesn’t have second thoughts about the whole Adam and Eve affair: “if only I’d made that snake a little bit dumber, or the earth creatures a bit smarter, or that tree just a bit taller…” God must really kick herself sometimes.
Don’t you reckon you could have done a better job of it yourself? Eden, I mean. If it were me, there’d have been no snakes and no funny fruit trees … and while we’re at it let’s get rid of the mosquito, the poison oak, the common cold. Personally, I could do without Melrose Place too. And I hate cats—allergies, you know—and this is Eden we’re talking about—paradise, heaven on earth—so why not go for the gold? Why can’t we have California … without the earthquakes, without the fires, the floods, oh, and the pollen, the people, the car exhaust, the VISA bills.
Come to think of it, God, you did a damned, lousy job. You should be having second thoughts. Couldn’t you foresee all the generations of grief in that one bitten apple? The heartache, the pain, the violence. War, abuse, sickness. Death, God, death! Wasted lives, broken hearts, empty dreams.
We are in pain, damn it! We are naked and stupid and alone and afraid. We can’t see our way forward. We fail to hear you in the evening breeze. We have no words to soothe our fears.
So what are you going to do about it? What?
Jesus took him aside in private and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then Jesus looked up to heaven, groaning. “Be opened!” he said, “Be opened!”

February 12th, 1999

Sunday Week 5 Year A

1942: A poem from the doomed uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Starving Jews fighting back against their Christian oppressors. The refrain: “the meat defiant, the meat insurgent, the meat fighting! The meat in full cry…” The meat defiant and unwilling to be consumed.
1999: An essay at the back of this morning’s New York Times magazine. Suzanne Winckler writes about killing chickens. Every few years she joins a friend of hers and helps him slaughter the chickens he has raised. She says it’s the price she pays for being an omnivore. The price: there’s the shock she felt when she cradled her first chicken in her arms and felt something with the heft and pliability of a newborn baby; there’s the surprise at the wild struggle the bird makes to live even after its head is off and blood is misting everywhere; there’s the repetitive, messy exhaustion of a day’s hard work and the meal that follows—vegetables only.
What it does for her, she meditates, is remove the anonymity. Between the meat and her mouth is an immediacy that the rest of the time is masked by Styrofoam and plastic wrap and legions of nameless meat-processors.
But more than that it has taught her the ancient need to ritualise the grisly experience of killing, to regularise it with routine. The savage life may have its thrill but on the appointed mornings the butchers are slow to get going: there are knives and cleavers to sharpen, water to boil, tables and chairs and buckets and aprons to gather, an order of assembly to establish. These are her words:

It’s like putting on an invisible veil of resolve to do penance for a misdeed. I am too far gone to in my rational Western head to appropriate the ritual of cultures for whom the bloody business of hunting was a matter of survival. But butchering chickens has permitted me to stand in the black night just outside the edge of their campfire, and from that prospect I have inherited the most important lesson of all in the task of killing meat: I have learned to say thank you and I’m sorry.

“I have learned to say thank you and I’m sorry.”
500 BCE: A prophetic demand: “Share your bread with the hungry and shelter the oppressed and the homeless,” The words of Isaiah are stark as it is but they too come sitting on Styrofoam and pacified by nameless translators. The Hebrew is bolder by far. Not “share your bread” but “break your bread.” Not give food to the hungry but eat with the hungry. And instead of “shelter the oppressed and the homeless” the command is “welcome the homeless poor into your own home.”
Isaiah is demanding a radical vulnerability. Adonai is insisting we do away with those layers of plastic wrap between us and the ones we live off. For, now as then, we do live off the poor, the homeless, and the hungry. It is the way a Western society works; inequality is the fuel of industry and poverty the price of wealth. At the very least, we have repeatedly turned down every opportunity to narrow the gap between them and us. We have spoken with our votes and with our credit cards that the cost of justice is too high for us to bear.
Instead, we live off the poor. We thrive at their expense. They are our meat. I know that’s an offensive metaphor— a tasteless comparison—but doesn’t it fit? It’s not as though we knowingly slaughter them—they come shrink-wrapped on Styrofoam, the blood already drained. All we do is eat. And we don’t know how to do otherwise. I don’t. I don’t even know how to say thank you and I’m sorry. Let alone bring an end to butchery.
But I’m here. And you are here. And we are trying to be faithful to the breaking of the bread. We are gathered to break the bread and consume the body of one who was weaker than ourselves. He shared his bread with the hungry, gave his broken body for them. He walked with the homeless and poured his blood for them to drink. The rich … well the rich he sent empty away.
The word of God this morning is an awful one. It calls us to be hungry, calls us to be homeless, calls us to be like Jesus, the meat and not the butcher.

February 7th, 1999


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