Doom, Gloom, and Glory

This post is a little different. I was invited to preach a sermon at my incredible church. What follows is the full text I spoke this morning. 

When Father Joe first asked me if I would ever like to preach a sermon, I thought we were speaking hypothetically. Then I got an email that said, “How about November 19th?”

I was thrilled. You see, when I was a good, young Catholic girl studying theology at Notre Dame in the 80s, my classmates were mostly men who were preparing for seminary. That wasn’t a path that was open to me. Even as a kid in Catholic grade school, I knew that. Every year some visiting priest would come and hand out pink and blue plastic rosaries and tell us to pray for vocations (pink nun vocations for the girls, blue priestly vocations for the boys.)  Even then I thought that being a priest and having one of those blue vocations might be pretty cool, but I had no interest in spending my life living in a convent with a bunch of women wearing the same boring clothes and sensible shoes every day. (I like shoes.) I had nothing against the nuns who were my teachers, but I prayed every single year not to have a vocation.

God heard my prayer, so I’ve spent my church life sitting in a pew or singing in a choir. Which is all to say I am grateful for and humbled by this opportunity.

Then I read the scriptures for today. I wondered if the 26th Sunday after Pentecost is one of those Sundays that seasoned priests know to give away.

Think about it. The first words we heard today were “Be silent before the Lord God.”  You can see my dilemma. I decided to ignore the warning of the prophet and speak anyway, and we all know how that usually turns out. You can decide in a few moments if I should have just taken Zephaniah’s advice.

From that point, things only got worse. Zephaniah warns us that the day of the Lord is coming, and it’s not going to be pretty. It will be a time of “ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past year, over the past few months, that began with one person saying something like, “It’s all too much,” or “I just can’t take any more.”

Of course, I don’t have to tell you how many of those conversations I’ve had. We have all been having them. The daily litany of suffering and sadness has been overwhelming. White supremacists are marching in the streets and getting jobs in the White House. Hurricanes are drowning cities. Earthquakes are toppling buildings and burying people alive. Madmen are murdering men and women and children while they pray or make music or ride their bicycles. Surely we are right now living in Zephaniah’s time of “ruin and devastation.” Surely these are “day[s] of darkness and gloom.”

Who wants to preach about that?

I turned my attention to the gospel, to the good old parable of the talents. I was thinking, “Ok, I’ve got this. Don’t hide your light under a bushel”, “be a good steward,“ and all that, but then I read the story. Then I read it a few more times. Then I read the chapters before and after it.

I can’t stand this story.

We all just heard it. The master goes away, having entrusted three slaves with some “talents” [read money]. The “good” slaves go off and, being fine, upstanding capitalists double their master’s money. On his return, the master is delighted with their work. Let’s look at what he says. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.”

This might be a good time to pause for a moment and figure out whose side we’re on.

I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think the master is the good guy. The problem is, I don’t.

Let’s imagine the scene from the perspective of the slaves who please him. In the “long time” the master has been away, you’ve doubled his money. You are feeling pretty pleased with yourself. You’ve had a chance to imagine what he’ll do with all that money when he returns. Think about it for a second.

I bet at least some of us were thinking that the master would give us some of that money. Maybe toss us a shekel or two for our efforts. But that’s not what happens. The master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” In other words, you’ve done good work, so I’m going to give you—wait for it–more work. Most of us have probably experienced this same phenomenon at some point in our own careers. As a teacher, it happens to me all the time. I think waiters refer to it as the “verbal tip.”

But, let’s get back to the story. Perhaps the master sees the fallen faces of the slaves when they realize he isn’t planning to share, so he magnanimously invites them to “enter into his joy.” They don’t even get to have their own joy.

To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have had that reaction to the master if it weren’t for the way he treats the final “wicked and lazy slave.” This character comes on the scene and speaks truth to power. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

And that moment is when I really started regretting saying that I’d like to preach a sermon. Why should I take the master’s word that this slave is “lazy and wicked”?

Let’s start with the fact that he’s a slave. By definition, the evidence that the master “reaps where he did not sow” is pretty compelling. Isn’t that slavery’s whole gig? Add in the fact that the master condemns this honest, frightened man to “the outer darkness” and a lifetime of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” not for losing his money, not for squandering it on wild living and sports car camels, but for keeping the money safe and returning it in full– the prosecution rests.

I can’t help but admire the third slave. Knowing he works for a “harsh man,” he refuses to benefit from that man’s ill-gotten gains. Granted, he was a lousy capitalist, but in my book, he’s the hero of the story.

I was still reeling from my discovery that I wasn’t routing for the “master” in the Kingdom of God when Matthew drops the moral of the story on us. In the kingdom of God, he says, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

So let me get this straight. In the kingdom of God, the rich get more and the poor get, well, “thrown into the outer darkness”? That sounds a lot like a world I know. It sounds like a world in which the purchasing power of the Federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 and has been losing ground ever since. It sounds like a world in which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, many CEOs make more than 250 times what a typical worker earns. It sounds like a world where the richest country on the planet builds walls around its treasure shouting, “Me first! Me first!” It sounds like tax reform.

Did I mention that I don’t like this story?

At this point, I told my husband I wasn’t going to be able to preach a sermon. What can it mean if the kingdom of god is just like the messed up world we live in?  What happened to the harps and angels and halos? You can’t preach a sermon that says things are bad and they aren’t going to get any better.

But that is exactly how it feels lately, isn’t it? We can’t catch our breath from one atrocity before the next one hits. I was reminded of a time when I was in my late twenties; my sister died unexpectedly, a phone call in the middle of the night. At her funeral, while I was praying for perpetual light to shine upon her, I realized that in my gut, I didn’t believe any of it. There was absolutely no comfort for me in imagining my sister floating around in some ethereal heaven while her son, just four years old, lay curled up on less than one sofa cushion in my mother’s living room. My faith had always been important to me, so I was surprised to realize I hadn’t actually meant it.

Of course, I didn’t stay there. The day after I went to bed muttering that “the Kingdom of God is just like this world,” the cranes came. I could hear them gathering overhead as I drove across the Montano Bridge, through a corridor of cottonwoods so golden that they were shouting “glory!” That same day, a teenager at my school stood up in our morning meeting to ask if we could all pause for a moment and remember all the people who are suffering. Two hundred some teenagers bowed their heads and went silent.

What comfort I found after my sister’s death didn’t come from imagining her in some other, better world. How could there be a better world for a mother than the one in which she can hold and touch her son, who is alive and playing? What comfort I found came from my cousin, who put her hand on my shoulder and kept it there. It came from the old friends who showed up at the funeral home. It came from being a part of a community who made a decision to stand together to stare down sadness.

That’s how I learned to believe again in the resurrection. That’s how I learned to believe again that love, that life endures beyond dying.

And that’s exactly what we do here every single time we come together. I don’t know how people who don’t have a St. Michael’s keep going. What I do know is that it’s no coincidence that the kingdom of God Matthew and Zephaniah describe is just like the world we live in. This is, indeed, the kingdom of God.  We are the kingdom of God. We are the hands, the feet, the breath, even the laughter of the resurrected Christ in the world.

At the risk of talking back to a prophet, these are not times to be silent before the Lord God. In the day of the Lord, Matthew assures us, even the most lowly will be emboldened to speak truth to power.

I am so grateful to be a part of this community that stands together to create the kingdom, to stare down sadness. Thank you for letting me speak in this beautiful and holy place this morning. As Paul advises the Thessalonians, let’s keep building each other up, as indeed we are doing.

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Beating the Thanksgiving Rush

The cool thing about having a chronic illness, I’m learning, is that when you feel good, you feel really, really good. When rheumatoid arthritis snuck up on me a few years ago, I had some pretty bad months. Pre-RA, my joints and muscles have carried me through a couple of (very slow) marathons and even a few triathlons (ditto the very slow), but when inflammatory arthritis first struck, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling like I needed to rest. My hands were used to doing things like playing  the piano and knitting crooked scarves, and for a while, I couldn’t reliably tie a shoe or open a drawer. I remember one morning when my school was about to have a lock-down drill and I had to ask our head of school, who was the only person nearby, to help me close the blinds in my classroom.

I was lucky, though. These sorts of diseases run rampant in my family, and when my nephew was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a toddler some thirty-odd years ago, my sister Judy decided to become a rheumatologist. (Note to any teenagers reading: you don’t have to figure it all out in high school. The path appears. Life emerges as you say yes and no.)  Long before I ever made it to a doctor, Judy had diagnosed my stiff, swollen hands over the phone. I didn’t have to go through years of wondering what was wrong as so many people do before getting started on a treatment plan that works.

The other thing that was cool about getting inflammatory arthritis when I did is that it’s what my brother Paul had. For about a year before he died, we bonded over my painful joints. He called whenever I had a doctor’s appointment, he told me what to expect, he told me I was normal when I talked about being tired. And I started to understand what he’d experienced, not always having good care, cringing when well-meaning strangers pumped his hand. I think about Paul every time someone gives my hand a particularly aggressive shake.

I wasn’t planning to wander down memory lane thinking about my siblings today. I was just going to talk about gratitude, like everyone does as Thanksgiving approaches. This was going to be a totally cliche post–life is good, give thanks!–which I might just still be able to pull off if I work at it.

Here’s the point. Yesterday I went to a “barre-fit” class at my gym. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I used to do yoga, and I haven’t been able to keep that up. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve been frustrated at my inability to put much weight on my hands and wrists in downward dog, or to transition from a pose on the mat to standing without lumbering up like a stale marshmallow version of my former self.

So I went to “barre-fit” yesterday with some trepidation. (And yes, I know exactly what that word sounds like if you say it quickly! Not for nothing I teach teenagers.) I also went with some hope.

True confession. When I watch Dancing with the Stars (and no, the fact that I watch Dancing with the Stars is not the confession–I think I’ve admitted that here before), I imagine the season when they invite ordinary people to apply for a “normal person” slot.  And yeah, judge me if you want, but I want that slot.

Every year when they announce the stars, Fred jokes that he’s never heard of any of them. He calls them has-beens. I don’t care who they are. They agree to get vulnerable and to learn to feel things with their bodies in public, and I’m hooked.  I’m a “never has been” and I want to have to learn to dance a pasa doble before millions of cheering and jeering fans. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I’m just telling you what’s true.

So, the sister who I admire for going to medical school when she was forty is the same sister who kept me from becoming the dancer I’m sure I was meant to become. “You don’t need to take ballet lessons,” I distinctly remember my mother saying. “You’ll just quit like your sisters did.” Perhaps Meg and Clare are also to blame here, but Judy is the one who ditched her ballet slippers under a tree in Elm Leaf park and pretended she’d lost them. (A pretense she maintained until my father’s liver cancer was well underway. When she finally came clean, it was too late for my career as an untrained ballerina to take off.)

Anyway, I’m just delusional enough to believe that there is still a path. Someday, Dancing with the Stars is going to call me, and God damn, I plan to be ready.

So. Barre-fit, or barf-it, or whatever you want to call it. I plie-d, I dipped, I put my feet in first position and held my arms out to my sides with intention, and holy Batman, what do you know, today I feel good. Sure, tiny muscles buried in the flab in my thighs hurt, but my feet, that have been screaming at me for about two years, feel like living things again, not clunky two by fours with nails in them. I’m hooked. I am getting my body ready for the day when Dancing with the Stars announces their “Every-woman” season. You heard it here first.

Now, back to that gratitude thing. Right now, as we speak, my church is welcoming a family from Angola to live in the rooms at the end of the hall. They are seeking asylum, and I’m a part of a community that believes we should welcome the stranger for real, not just metaphorically.

I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for Judy who hated dancing and still blames her bunions on her toe-shoes, and for Saint Clare, the peacemaker, and for Pat, who kept his compass pointed home. And for Meg and Paul who left too soon. And for a lazy Sunday afternoon when Fred’s in Lubbock, and I’m cooking soup (again) and listening to the folk station on Amazon prime. Oh, and for Aurora and Cali, the granddaughters who just last weekend said, we’re choreographing Cali’s contemporary solo, will you help us? And for Luke, the grandson who in sixth grade can get through a Monday NYT crossword puzzle and likes doing them with me, and for Noah and Marissa who are making music in the youth symphony in Lubbock right now while I’m writing, and for Freddy and Cherisse who created all these grandkids, and for Fred, who opted in and has kept standing here next to me for some twenty-five plus years.

I didn’t even mention the friends, or the extended family, or the fact that my body feels flexible and energetic right now, or that the world’s most ridiculous dog is waking from his deep nap on the couch, shaking his head, nudging my knee with his nose. Let’s go for a walk, he’s saying, let’s prance, let’s throw a ball.

In her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here“, Joy Harjo writes, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Every now and then, I think, it really is that simple.

Rusty doesn’t have time for poetry. He’s tapping my leg with his paw, losing patience. I close my laptop, dance up to meet him. It’s a good day to wag our tails. It’s a good day to go for a walk and kick up golden leaves. It’s a good day to give thanks for breathing in and out, for living in a body that can play.

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