Edited to add: This homily, guest-preached at an Episcopal church some years ago, received an overwhelmingly positive and deeply grateful response on Sunday, and led to some significant conversations after the service. I believe this is because it validates people's "older brother" feelings of pain and anger rather than shaming them, as so many sermons on this parable do--as well as educating people about the loving Mother images of God in Scripture. It is an unbelievable privilege to preach really Good, really healing, News to Christ's people....I have been profoundly energized since Sunday for research and teaching with this powerful affirmation of my oft-denied call to this joyous ministry.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the required inclusion of Jesus's mother (Anglo-Catholic rector + Mothering Sunday + Holy Week on the way) actually helped pull the whole thing together and strengthen the thesis. How wonderfully the Holy Spirit works, in us and through us, together.
Happy Laetare Sunday!
Liturgical trivia for the day: the fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday. The name comes from the old Gregorian chant which opened this mass. It begins "Laetare, Jerusalem," which means "Rejoice, Jerusalem!" Like Gaudete Sunday, when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, this is a day when rose vestments sometimes replace penitential purple one--a sign of rejoicing at the nearness of our celebration of Christ's resurrection at Easter.
For Anglicans in the United Kingdom, this day also marks a special celebration known as Mothering Sunday. The tradition was for people to worship at their home, or mother church, and also to visit and celebrate their mothers. For Victorian maids and grooms working far from home, this might be one of the only times in the year the whole family was able to reunite.
Our Gospel today, the famous story of the Prodigal Son, is a perfect Scripture passage for both Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday. It is the third in a series of parables in which Jesus emphasizes the rejoicing in heaven when sinners repent and reconcile with God and others. The shepherd who finds the lost sheep, the woman who finds her lost coin, and the father who finds his lost son all throw a party to celebrate. And the Prodigal Son story emphasizes that God is a tremendously loving parent who forgives the sinful younger son and comforts the hurt and angry older son. No matter what our actions, words, and feelings may be, our tender God shows us unconditional love and calls us to share the same compassion with ourselves and with one another.
This community is fortunate to have a marvelous artistic representation of this parable: Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son." You can find it just across from the entrance to the parish hall, and I invite you to stop and look at it on your way to coffee hour and see how it speaks to your heart. Rembrandt shows the son kneeling, his shoes tattered from the long journey, and trustfully nestling his head against his father. The father gently embraces his son, looking, to me, both relieved and a bit sad. He has, perhaps, been deeply marked by the long months of emotional pain at the son's absence and financial hardship from the liquidation of one-third of the estate, the inheritance the prodigal demanded to fund his adventure.
The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen points out a subtle, often overlooked, detail in the painting. If you look carefully at the father's hands you can see that they are quite different. The left hand resembles my own father's, being large and muscular; when I remarked on this difference to S.D. last week she pointed out that the left forearm is also a bit larger than the right. The right hand, in contrast, resembles my own--still strong, but much more graceful and slender. As Nouwen explains:
As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. That gentle and caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."
Jesus knew his Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, so he probably knew the Isaiah passage Nouwen mentions, and others which depict God as a woman in labor, a midwife catching a baby, a mother bear defending her cubs from danger, and a mother eagle bearing her chicks on her wings and teaching them to fly. But I believe there is another reason that Jesus knew God as a nurturing mother and father, and in our Gospel a few weeks ago compared himself to a mother hen sheltering her chicks from danger. Our first experience of God and the world comes from the people who care for us in infancy and childhood; if we are safe and loved by them, we learn that the world is a safe and loving place and that God cares for us. If we are abused or abandoned by them, we learn that the world is a dangerous place and God may be an abuser or abandoner too.
Jesus grew up in a completely loving family, traditionally called the Holy Family, with a mother and a foster father who showed him the love of God every day. Mary gave birth to Jesus with blood, sweat and tears; nourished him at her breasts and at her table; and told him wonderful bedtime stories which inspired his own gift of storytelling. Joseph protected Jesus from harm when Herod sought to kill him as a toddler, taught him to skilfully craft wood in his workshop, and showed him how to pray with tallis and tefillin, the prayer shawl and phylacteries still worn by faithful Jewish men. With such parenting, he had a deep experiential knowledge of the love of God his mother and father, which gave him the strength to faithfully follow his unconventional and dangerous path to its end.
Like Jesus, we all have families: the families of origin in which we grew up, and the chosen families we build as adults--whether these consist of friends, spouses or partners, birthed or adopted children, or beloved animal companions. Sometimes we experience our families as a safe and loving refuge, and sometimes as the site of terrible suffering and conflict--like the pain and anger expressed by the older son in today's parable. When we face such suffering we may feel deep shame and frustration, and we may judge ourselves or our family members as prodigal sons and daughters, far away from the ideal of Jesus' family, the Holy Family.
At such times, it brings me strength and comfort to remember that the Holy Family was not a Hallmark Family. Mary and Joseph were great saints, but they were still imperfect human beings; Jesus was fully divine, but also fully human, and the letter to the Hebrews tells us that he experienced every part of human life that we do, except for sin. This means that Jesus had the whole range of human feelings: anger as well as compassion, grief as well as joy; envy as well as gratitude. The feelings we sometimes judge as "negative" are not sinful; they are a natural and healthy part of human life, which need to be honestly faced and appropriately expressed.
Jesus experienced deep conflict within his own family during his ministry. Gospel of Mark tells us that when he began his career as a preacher and exorcist Mary and his brothers thought he was crazy, and tried to restrain him. Matthew and Luke leave out this rather shocking story when they adapt Mark's Gospel, but they do include its punchline. Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside waiting to see him, and he gives the stinging response: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then he indicates that, like many young adults--at least at that moment of rejection and misunderstanding by his family of origin--he feels that the men and women who follow him as disciples are his true chosen family.
Mary is undoubtedly hurt and angry in return when she hears these words, and it probably takes some time for her to work through those feelings, but she loves her son nonetheless. She respects his choice and returns home, and I'm guessing she has some pretty strong feelings to share with God in prayer about the unexpected way her son is living his messianic call. And on Good Friday we will see her as she stands at his cross with Mary Magdalene, and hear his last heartbreaking words telling Mary and John to love each other as mother and son once he is gone. His family of origin and his family of choice, through honesty, patience, and the grace of God, have become one.
Like Jesus, the older son in today's parable is rightfully hurt and angry at his parent when he is not even invited to the party for the returnee--and deprived of the apology he and everyone else in the community deserves by the father's well-meant but unwise cutting off of the Prodigal's courageous amends. (The allegorical equation of the father with God probably drives the poor exegesis that so often demands the father be seen as totally perfect--and the older brother as evil for criticizing him). The older brother is brave too, and he's not about to hide his feelings with a fake smile and a party hat. He erupts in a furious accusation--clearly valid, since the father does not deny any part of it. "I have worked so hard for so long, and you never gave me the smallest party--but you give an expensive one for that jerk, who abandoned us all!" Many preachers harshly condemn the older son for these words. But the father, like Mary, is an unconditionally loving parent who is able to accept all his son's feelings, including anger. He does not follow the three rules of dysfunctional families--don't talk, don't trust, and don't feel--and he does not demand that his son follow them either. He hears and responds to the son's underlying pain and question: "Do you love me too? Are you proud of me? Are you grateful for my hard work and sacrifice keeping the farm going--especially since we lost one-third of the money and property from his early inheritance? Heck, will you gut our resources again if he demands it next year?" Yes, the father assures his son, he dearly loves him, and he values his fidelity in helping care for the land, the workers, and the family. And, in a healing detail almost always missed, the fidelity will be rewarded with justice and the people of the household entrusted to safe hands as the older son retains stewardship of all the remaining property when the father passes on. "You are with me always, and all I have is yours."
As a spiritual director, and a praying Christian, I find this parable deeply reassuring. It is easy to pray when I am full of gratitude, or aware of urgent needs for myself or others, or even seeking conversion of heart. But when I am facing painful memories or present struggles, when I have been hurt or unjustly treated and am furious at the person who did it--or God who let it happen--or myself for not seeing it coming--it is much harder to bring my full self to God in honest prayer. This story, like the lament psalms where the psalmist blasts God for letting bad things happen to good people, reminds us that God is a truly loving parent who can handle all our feelings, including those we judge as negative. As my own spiritual director, a wise nun, asked me after my toddler daughter was killed in an auto accident: did I think God didn't know I was furious, even full of curses? She suggested that God would prefer I release the feelings by expressing them honestly in prayer, rather than rip myself apart, or take it out on someone else. I found the honest prayer and journaling inspired by her invitation a scary, yet tremendously freeing and healing practice.
As we seek to deepen our prayer this Lent, let's remember this parable, and the psalms of lament, and the example of the real Jesus and Mary--Holy, not Hallmarky. Let's bring everything we feel to the loving embrace and patient listening of our amazing God--and find it transformed into joy, freedom, and courage to share the Good News of that unconditional love with the whole world.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Monday, May 16, 2016
Many modern retreatants are profoundly uncomfortable with Ignatius' key Second Week meditation inviting them to reflect on the call of a temporal king in order to answer the call of Christ the King to help bring about God's reign. This makes total sense given the tragic history of Christian and American imperialism, colonialism, and abuse of the just war theory to sacrilegiously bless wars of capitalist aggression rather than last resort defense.
As a queer female abuse survivor I--and many of the marginalized directees I serve--prefer to reclaim the image of Jesus as a just and loving king serving God, our just and loving queen, by fighting oppression and sharing with us their royal priesthood and loving power to do the same. This goes along with the most exciting development in modern women's spirituality: adding the Queen archetype, for women in midlife, to the traditional Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
Another resource I find tremendously helpful in reclaiming this meditation is Kenneth Branagh's brilliant Ignatian reworking of a key scene (IV:8) in Shakespeare's Henry V. It made me weep the first half-dozen times I viewed it and I highly recommend it to Second Week directors and exercitants as well homilists on the related liturgical feast of Christ the King.
The original setting of this vignette is in the royal pavilion after the battle of Agincourt, followed by a ceremonial liturgical procession chanting the Te Deum and Non Nobis ordered by the triumphant king to celebrate the masses of French dead slaughtered by God for the benefit of the English. Branagh subverts this blasphemous theology by moving the scene to the battlefield with the procession consisting of the traumatized and grateful surviving soldiers beginning to grieve their dead, tend their wounded, and reunite with their desperately searching, ecstatically finding women.
A single voice begins the haunting Taize-like refrain of Psalm 115: "Not to us, O God, not to us, but to your name give the glory." The camera moves back and forth from the common soldiers to Henry--muddy, bloody, and tenderly carrying the body of a slain boy before laying it to rest with a solemn kiss and a humble prayer. Now that's a Christ the king I can totally embrace.
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Image: Kathe Kollowitz
Simcha Fisher recently wrote a powerful appeal to priests to remember and thoughtfully address the many different ways that Mother's Day can be painful for women in liturgy and preaching. The lines I find most striking--and heartbreaking:
This Sunday is, as you no doubt know, Mother’s Day, and a lot of your parishioners are going to expect you to acknowledge it. Also, a lot of your parishioners are going to be mad if you acknowledge it.
A good portion of your congregation feels that the world despises motherhood, and they look to the Church to be the one place where they are appreciated for their sacrifices and their hard work.
Another good portion of your congregation feels that the world only cares about women if they are mothers, and they look to the Church to be the one place where no one despises them for not being mothers.
So which group of women is right? They both are, in the blasphemous, heteropatriarchal system fueled by the evil spirit who is so appropriately titled the Father of Lies.
The cis-male-dominated world--and church--give sentimental, hypocritical lip service to motherhood, which traumatizes women who aren't mothers or who had painful relationships with their mothers and/or children. This fuels the righteous despair and anger of the second group.
But the cis-male-dominated world--and church--also allow men to pretend that their bodies don't make babies and unjustly magnify, instead of alleviating, the huge burdens and sacrifices associated with women's amazing power to bear and sustain life with our sacred Christlike bodies. This fuels the righteous despair and anger of the first group.
Then comes the ultimate triumph of Screwtape and his minions: the cis-male-dominated world and church divide and continue to conquer women by convincing us that our real enemies are not the men who hold supremacy over us--consciously or unconsciously--in every aspect of life. Instead, they so often convince us to turn our heartbreak against our own oppressed sisters who have faced different facets of misogynistic abuse and chosen different survival strategies to cope with them. This is the heart of the mommy wars in all aspects of life, above all in the iconic and agony-ridden and viscerally physical Sophie's Choices about infant feeding and pregnancy termination.
You want to breastfeed? Good luck! Sacrifice the dignity and empowerment of paid work in your profession for dishonored and uncompensated work in your home, or go back to outside work when your body is barely recovered from childbirth, with no childcare near enough to nurse during the day, and inadequate facilities for pumping. The breasts that are gleefully exploited for male pleasure and corporate profit will be shamed as disgusting and pornographic if used in public, into toddlerhood, or in any way that empowers the sacred Eucharistic bond of mother and child. But if you can't or won't nurse in this miserable, unjust situation you are a selfish, lazy slut.
Lack of family planning and/or the ability to refuse sex with one or more cis males has led to a pregnancy which threatens you, and often your born children, with a lifetime of poverty, Christian slutshaming, and/or strengthened shackles to a dangerous male partner? You'll lose, and be blamed for it, either way.
Go through with the pregnancy? You'll heroically bear all the unjust consequences alone, unless the father deigns to contribute at his revocable-at-any-time whim. You'll get no meaningful support from church or society for parenting and scant justice if you place for adoption--plus extra vilification if you are young, poor, and especially of color; unmarried or queer-married; or you, the baby, or both are disabled.
Desperately "choose" an undesired abortion that rips your heart out along with your child--or peacefully discern a termination trusting God's maternal love to welcome and care for the little one you can't on earth? Either way, you need an early, smoothly accessed procedure to maximize your physical and emotional safety and minimize possible pain for the developing fetus. Instead, you'll face huge expense and stress-maximizing travel that will delay or prevent the treatment.
Many conservative men--and the women they control and brainwash--will call you a baby-murdering slut even if you were raped by one of them. Many progressive men--and the women they control and brainwash--will demand that you celebrate the experience as a liberating choice and brand any grief as idiotic worship of worthless medical waste.
Above all, you must suppress the ordeal, and all the conflicted feelings it carries, in a cruelly isolating silence preventing you from healing conversations with the other 30 to 40 percent of women whom our misogynistic church and society drives to at least one abortion.
Meanwhile, powerful cis men will continue their rapacious violence against you, your children, and vulnerable men via assault, rape, murder and war. The first three will be rarely and inconsistently punished, especially if they are your intimate partners and above all if they hold additional white, class, able-bodied, and/or neurotypical supremacy.
The fourth, no matter how unjust and imperialistic, will be not just permitted, but celebrated as positively heroic by church and society alike. This cruel double standard will also betray the oppressed men and women who enact the genocidal wishes of their kyriarchal masters by exposing those who physically survive the experience to the life-long, life-shortening trauma of physical, emotional, and moral injury.
Mother's Day was initially and brilliantly conceived by abolitionist and feminist Julia Ward Howe. Her proclamation below makes the simple, brilliant, thus far ignored proposal: that we use our strong, loving, and wise maternal power in Her image to arise, unite, and lovingly stop cis men, our beloved children, from their deadly and self deceived cycle of violence against us, humanity, and Mother Earth herself. It should be read in every church, and followed up effective action, as the perfect nonviolent battle plan to heal our, and their, trauma on Mother's Day and every day.
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Seven years ago I had the great privilege of leading liturgical music and composing a Wisdom-themed Eucharistic prayer for the major yearly retreat/conference for members of a women's ministry blogging community. The hymns I chose for our closing Eucharist--Debbie Friedman's Miriam's Song, which should be sung at every Easter Vigil, and my own trinitarian Wisdom's Praises--reflected the great joy of connecting in person with sisters I had bonded with online. The "Big Event" also featured the life-changing opportunity to meet Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, a gifted womanist biblical scholar and Episcopal priest who served as our main speaker and liturgical celebrant.
Fr. Wil, who claims the title subversively "as long as that's what you're calling God and the male priest!" shares my passion for the related missions of rediscovering the great women of Scripture and church history, fighting ecclesial rape culture and reclaiming the crucial but forgotten divine feminine tradition in Judaism and Christianity. So she did me the great honor of including my expansive language Psalter in a seminary Psalms class and asking my permission to use the hymn in a chapel liturgy there. Reading her powerful blogposts, which I constantly recommend to white clergy, and our ongoing contact through social media has been a profound part of my own glacial, Screwtape-twisted path toward acknowledging and seeking conversion from my personal mortal sin--deeply entwined with that of church and culture alike--of white supremacy.
Yes, I said white supremacy, and no, I am not a member of the KKK or the Aryan Nation--who at least have the honesty to admit their allegiance to that literally demonic ideology. White supremacy does not consist only in overt prejudice and is in fact more deadly in the repressed, self-deceived form that seduces many of us who identify with progressive politics and religion. I grieve to reflect on how often I fall into denying my racism, distracting myself from it with white knight call-outs of others' imperfections, and congratulating myself on the tiniest steps away from sin and toward simple justice. Worst of all, for those of us hogging all forms of wealth for ourselves and our children, is how we heap shame and scorn on the poor whites driven to despair--and to Trump--by our theft of these common blessings at their expense and their children's.
White supremacy is the profoundly evil and unjust system which has reigned in our country since its genocidal foundation. It is especially dangerous today because of the widespread delusion that racism has been conquered--except, perhaps, in its mythical "reverse" form. White supremacy is a deadly sin because it viciously slaughters the bodies and souls of Blacks and other people of color, and corrupts and endangers our eternal souls as white people who profit from it at a terrible cost to them. This is true even for those of us facing terrible oppression from male, cis, straight, class, able-bodied and/or neurotypical supremacy, and exponentially true for the lords of kyriarchy who enjoy the poisonous fruits of all these evils that break the heart of our loving Creator.
Why don't I say white, male, cis, etc. "privilege"? This is the usual term among white progressives, and I used it till very recently, when I noticed that the Rev. Dr. Gafney's incisive tweets and blogposts were using the stronger, clearer, and truer term. It took some reflection to realize why: because privilege is a good thing, not a bad one, so attempting humility and openness to conversion by "humble owning" of a privilege largely fails in execution. Acknowledging supremacy, a clear evil, is a whole different ball game.
As I have frequently reminded my sometimes wimpy co-parent, privileges are not rights, needs, or entitlements. They are bonus features which are earned by good behavior and lost by bad, and there is usually no injustice or cruelty if children in other families have access to more or different ones. My excellence in creating and leading worship music helped earn me the delight, correctly named as a privilege in my first paragraph, of sharing those gifts with the women at the conference. But had another minister of music been chosen I would not have been harmed, and though I might have been reasonably wistful at the lost opportunity I would certainly have had no right to complain of unfair treatment.
Supremacy, in contrast, consists precisely of injustice, abuse, and oppression. It happens when one person or group enjoys basic human rights--life, liberty, dignity, safety, healthy food, clean water, decent shelter, lifesaving medical care--and uses their stolen power and false authority to deny it to others. No wonder white (and male!) progressives, when finally awakened by grace to the reality of societal and ecclesial racism and sexism as well as personal participation in them, prefer the comfortable, anesthetizing acknowledgment of "privilege" versus the harsh truth of supremacy. If my knapsack is enjoyably full of privileges and yours isn't sharing them with you is a gift I freely offer and you gratefully receive, rather than a duty I owe you and a sin of omission if neglected. If mine is overflowing with rights absent from your near-empty one, though, it is morally imperative for me to take prompt action toward righting the injustice--and woe betide me in the righteous judgment of God and posterity if I don't.
"Supremacy" is a strong and prophetic call to action--an uncomfortable and important call to conversion every time I read, write, or say it. Yet its objectivity and systemic focus may also gently break denial and help avoid some roadblocks in our present understanding of racism as active prejudice and dislike toward people of color. This misunderstanding leads many of us to spend a lifetime, or far too much of it, falsely believing that we are not only non-racist but actively anti-racist just for avoiding these obvious temptations. "Supremacy" acknowledges that these evils are created by the "principalities and powers," in New Testament language, not the personal ill intentions of those of us who benefit from them. Yet it also makes clear that since we do enjoy benefits unjustly denied to others it is imperative for us to first admit this and then work against it as possible in our own vocations and situations.
Besides challenging progressives to better walk/roll our talk, more frequent use of "supremacy" may help create fruitful paths to dialogue and common ground work by avoiding--except when clearly warranted, and even then more appropriately used by victims than by aspiring allies--more subjective and emotionally loaded terms like "hate" and "xzy-phobia." These terms are used freely by progressives and tremendously resented by conservatives, especially those whose present faith does not allow them to assent to all of our policy proposals, and who often legitimately claim that they do not actually hate and fear LGBTQ+ or other oppressed folks.
As Fr. Wil preaches, embodying the work of the women prophets that is one of her central areas of scholarly expertise:
God has entered into our world, into our very flesh, despite our history, theology and rhetoric. The Church has failed in the past to stand up to white supremacist and fascist rhetoric. Lamentably we have another opportunity to confront this evil that is entrenched in the church as well as in the wider world.
In the gospel God sent wave after wave of messengers and servants to do the work that must be done to reform and transform the world. In one reading we are those servants. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The world would rather kill us than hear our Gospel. In a world in which we have to insist that #BlackLivesMatter this is not an exaggeration.
If we do not purify the Church of its white supremacy, anti-Judaism, hetero-patriarchy and transphobia we may find that we are stone that the builder rejects and God will do her work in the world without us.
May Her grace bring strength and consolation to her beloved Black and Brown children suffering and dying under white supremacy, and to us, her white supremacist children, the purifying fire of transformation freeing us from this sin and granting the grace and privilege of joining Her sacred work, and theirs.