Sunday, September 23, 2018

Letters from Pemberley #3

Dear Kitty,

I cannot abide the truth that it has been over two months since I have written to you.  There is no worthy cause for my delay, and so I offer you my sincere apology.  I did receive your correspondence and share with you the occasional sadness at being so far from so many beloved friends.  Perhaps it is those blossoms of feeling so distant that have delayed my response.  All my love to you and our friends, I share in the deep affection and the moments of sadness are to be expected of a relationship such as ours. 

It may be that others have relayed to you the struggles of my dear feline companions over these months.  My darling old girl Glory was experiencing significant pain and symptoms of trouble around the 'box'.  Following multiple visits involving a variety of apparatus and withdrawal of fluid, it was revealed that she had a kidney infection.  Might you be familiar with the concoction known as a 'pill pocket'?  It is the most amazing product for dispensing medical remedies for this old feline.  She is much much better, although she is of course still quite mature having lived long enough to have completed secondary school.  Her dear sister Liberty has considerable concerns.  The discovery was frightening and the long-term hope is not strong, as she seems to have some sort of growth on her brain.  She has a remedy that is improving her function in the short term (however she shall not abide the 'pill pocket'), however, we know not how long this will keep her in some comfort, which she has found for now.

This new home in southern Jersey is set in fine proximity to several important towns: Bath-adelphia of course, the capital, and most impressively 'TOWN' is only 70 miles away.  So it was a tremendous joy to make my way one morning by stage coach and train into Town, where I spent the day with some of the best Walla Wallans (and HT and PT).  While the train made its way into the city we passed through a storm of the type you might expect on the isle of Azkaban, and exiting Penn Station the same storm opened wide upon us!  Yet it would not dampen our spirits.  We visited a museum and art galleries and feasted on Dan Dan noodles, walking over 8 miles in one day!  I do hope that more of our companions will connect with me when they are also in 'Town'. 

You may recall that while I have not lived in this part of our nation before, we do have old companions who have also moved not so far away.  There has been tea, and Indian lunches, and even a birthday party with unicorns (oh my) and a cake of 'pink storm'.  It was a good evening the night that I enjoyed a veggie cheese 'steak' at the local ball team park.  My distance from so many is alleviated by my proximity to others.

 It was also a true hope of mine to find myself much closer to 'the Gober's'.  Before you reply of the significant distance they are at, I will remind you that we are now much closer together.  This was shown in the easy traveling visit of my dear Mother to Pemberton a few weeks ago.  We visited the beach (I am assured that this is not its title it being 'down the shore' even when the destination is to the oceanside village to the north) and the aquarium as well. 

The duties of holy service here in Pemberley are as to be expected, and of a hearty and enjoyable nature.  There are the letters of business to attend to, gatherings that require a brief ride to the capital, preaching and teaching.  As the months continue I find myself settling into the duties of a solo parson, and becoming more acquainted with the diocese of this region. 

Lastly, I share with you my dismay and joy at how my beloved sports ball team is playing astonishingly well, however, due to the global distance from their home field, I find that I usually only am able to stay alert through an inning or two of play.  It is a grief that I cannot delight more fully in this long overdue success.  May the Athletics continue to finish with victory and safety. 

May we see each other again soon.
Jane of Pemberton

More than a Hearth: Who do You Say that He Is?

Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks. The Christian tradition has a multitude of illustrations Prince of Peace, Messiah,  the Lamb of God, Redeemer, Friend. Sometimes I extrapolate some of Jesus’ parable images into him. The hen with her tremendous wing gathering in her frightened chicks. The good shepherd, the playful baker. 

In our interim time prayer (to the right) I capitalized Great Delight and I thought about capitalizing hearth, because it felt to me like something divine. A life giving gathering place of warmth and joy and light. I don’t know If the sacred storyteller of Mark is having Jesus ask us that kind of a question. A feeling kind of a question. 

Who do you say that I am? The answer that Peter gives - You are the Messiah, which in Greek is the Christ, which means the anointed leader, is not denied, but you may have noticed, it is hushed. The expectations for a stunning come from behind victory against the oppression of Empire were dense and dangerous in Jesus’ era. Messiah is in some ways a call to arms. Mark’s core interest is named in the first line of the gospel. The beginning of the good news About Jesus Christ, God’s son. Son of God is Mark’s emphasis, and it is an expression that means the epitome of, the very image of God’s self. Peter’s answer of messiah Is not wrong, but isn’t completely right. 

This is still something we wrestle with. That may be why we need so many titles and names and metaphors. Who do you say that I am is a question about this quandary. But also an invitation to consider: how does Jesus change everything, how does he save? It is ultimately a question about why Jesus matters. Because thousands of people died on crosses at the hands of Empire. Plenty of people aave been radical revolutionaries and sacred healers and even astounding rabbi’s. But I don’t know any of them by name. 

It is the self-sacrificial servanthood of Jesus that turns everything upside down. It is the love that holds fast even as it is crushed by the weight of the beams and shamed by the terror of the cross. Mark isn’t a story you hear once and then you are done with it. Mark seems to intend that you hear it again and again, and find new revelations and clues each time. So the question 'Who do you say that I am?' Isn’t about memorized answers ao much as - do you get that this is not about a superhero swooping in and making everything easy? Jesus is many many things but it is his divine self-offering that changes everything. If you claim him as the Lord of your heart he will change the ears with which we hear the cries of every neighbor. 

It sort of drives me crazy when people talk about having a cross to bear for things that are trivial. 'I have to take the trash out' - is not a cross to bear. The cross to bear is the Gut twisting love of Jesus It is the courage of martyrs, it is the conviction of artists and authors and everyday Christians across time. My lovely images of a hen’s wing or a hearth are only part of the story. Most of the story of the Gospels is about this cross bearing. About this love that stumbled in shame under heavy beams through crowded streets. 

Taking up your cross should never be about accepting abuse nor being a dormat. Taking up your cross is following Jesus into the hardest places, Where he already is. It is daring to stand up to injustice even if it leads to the loss of everything. Who does Jesus say that he is: he says that he is the one for us. To hold to Jesus as the messiah - the Christ - means to let ourselves be found in the company he would keep. He is your savior not because he is yours but because you are his. Jesus is the one who is for us. He gives us not magic tricks or exchange rates but himself. 

Who is Jesus to you is the kind of question that comes up often in ministerial job interviews. I am not sure it is something that most of you have been asked. So I wonder - who do you say that Jesus is? If you haven’t ever been asked that before - give it some time but spend some time with the question. Journal or craft or research your response. 

Another way to consider the question is this If the only way that someone knew Jesus was through the words and actions of Grace Church - what would they know? Furthermore, what does it mean that the name of this place and congregation is grace? Grace is both profound and subtle. It is many things but all of them are impactful, felt, known. What does the name of Grace say about who Grace is called to be? Called to be in Jesus name? I trust that to hold to jesus as Messiah - the Christ means to let ourselves be found in the company he would keep. 

He is our savior not because he is ours. But because we are his. Hear him ask you The question once more: Who do you say that I am?

September 16, 2018

Grace Episcopal Church

Pemberton, New Jersey

Proper 19 RCLB Track 1

Selfless or Selfish - Disciples, Childhood, and being Spirited Away

Her family is moving. The only child pouts in the back seat. Clean and well cared for and not caring about anything but herself. Chihiro is 10 years old, and no reaction at all would be more troubling. Her parents get lost while driving to their new home and find themselves wandering into what they suspect to be an abandoned amusement park. As night falls the shopfronts fill with enough food to feed an army and her parents they don’t question the situation they just eat and eat and eat until they become pigs. 

Chihiro finds herself stuck in a place she doesn’t understand. The only way to save herself and her family is to completely let go of the selfishness of being 10. She has to become a servant, to put herself last, and rely on the kindness of strangers. Some of you may know the legendary animated film Spirited Away. However, I also suspect that many of you have never seen the Oscar-winning highest grossing Japanese film ever. The quick version is that it is somewhat of a Wizard of Oz type of film. A young woman finds herself in another world of strange happenings and must make it through a hero’s journey to return to her world. 

The reaction of the disciples today is not very unusual if also regrettable. When we are fearful we retreat or rally, sometimes both at the same time. The reaction to hearing Jesus saying again that he will die cruelly at the hands of the powers that be, well, the disciples reaction is to have a bit of a to do about who gets to be in charge. It is a backseat argument if ever there was one. Jesus’ response is in some ways saying that their reaction is childish, but they are only human. What is even more interesting and easy to miss is what Jesus is saying about himself when he says whoever receives a child receives me. 

We live in on this side of the Victorian era where childhood became idealized. We live in an era of scientific advancement and at least a theoretical community commitment to those who are ill. In the Hellenistic world that Jesus lived in children were regarded as we would well - a squirrel. Not really dangerous but known to carry disease and the kind of thing that you wouldn’t invite into your home unless you had to. If you have spent any time around children you know that the assessment of germiness wasn’t wrong. 

Now there absolutely were people who deeply loved their children - we are made to let the darling override the ick.  And as ever there were folks who considered them a means to secure a legacy, and let us not sugar coat - there was much worse. One of the things that caused Judea to stand out among the regions of the Roman Empire was that it had a more celebratory attitude toward child bearing. God said to be fruitful and multiplying - and they did. But children in the immediate culture Jesus was living in,  children were still not regarded as angelic sugar cute darlings - at all. If this was set today, when Jesus puts the child in the middle of the room, if this was today everyone would have been reaching for the hand sanitizer!

So when Jesus says to welcome the little children and welcome him as a child,  sweep all the Victorian images off of your screen. See him say welcome the stray cats and stink spirits in my name. Jesus says welcome me as you would the lowest germiest messiest most vulnerable category of everyday human life. He puts himself in the place of the last the least and the lost. 

Spirited Away is easily one of my five favorite films. I have shown it in ministry something like once a year since about 2003. Yet - I've been trying for years to figure out why exactly the film resonates so deeply with my Christian faith. The connections are not as a matter of obviousness as they are in Narnia, or Middle Earth, or even Hogwarts. Given that it happens in a bathhouse, there's plenty of accidental baptismal imagery. Yet I have had an itch in the back of my heart for a while that it wasn't just that.  However, this week, it was thinking about the movie in a relationship with this Gospel lesson that helped me sort out some of the parallels a bit more. 

The whole film could be seen as a parable about our lesson today. About the dangers of selfishness and the redemption made possible through selflessness. The main character Chihiro is stuck in a bathhouse for spirits that have become contaminated by human sin. But it is in this bathhouse where she - the human child is considered to be a contaminant. And in our little segment of Mark today it is the human fear and the greediness that gets in the way of the most devoted followers of fully following Jesus. Anxiety and selfishness is the muck from which many of the characters of Spirited Away and the disciples need cleansing from. 

And it is a child - a contaminant - in this movie and in Jesus’ words - that is the way of salvation. It is their resolve and it is their innocence that squashes evil and rescues even those who dismiss them. Chihiro’s success had nothing to do with 1st or best or cute. It has nothing to do with what she knows or understands. The thing about childhood and 10 year olds is yes: there can be plenty of selfish behavior - it may be developmentally necessary. But I have also known children to be deep with bravery and unquestioning commitment to others. 

We seem to have begun to learn one part of Jesus’ lesson - the part where children are not considered a bothersome contaminant. But we still have a long way to go to welcome and believe the words of every child. The other two lessons Jesus offers today we still run away from. I feel right at home in the disciples selfish fussing about who gets to be in charge, trying to fix the unfixable because we are scared. And the part where losing everything is winning - it pushes all the materialistic anxiety buttons we have. 

So I wonder if Jesus’ question for us is which kind of childish are you going to be? Selfish or selfless.

September 23, 2018