Monday, July 16, 2018

To Thine Own Self Be True, Said Jesus Never

This sermon was part of the "Said Jesus Never" sermon series at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. It was preached in The Way on July 15, 2018.

Genesis 1:27 Common English Bible (CEB)
God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Romans 12:1-2 Common English Bible (CEB)
Living sacrifice and transformed lives
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.




            To thine own self be true. Sounds pretty biblical, right? That use of thine and the inverted sentence structure is pretty King James-y. It’s probably somewhere in all that small-print, red-letter text. Yeah, well, it’s not actually in the Bible, like at all. 
            It sounds King James-y because it’s Shakespeare. (You think the pastoral team assigned this sermon topic to the literature professor on purpose? Yeah, me, too.) Anyway, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, says this to his son Laertes as he sends him off to France (Hamlet I.iii.55-81). Bummer that it was Polonius and not Jesus. It’s still good advice, though, right? Yeah, wrong. 
            Jesus never said this because it’s terrible advice, and if we consider the context, if we look at the rest of Polonius speech, the reason becomes clear. Among the other pieces of sage wisdom this father has to offer are: neither a borrower nor a lender be; give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. There are further warnings against seeking out new friends and against making one’s thoughts known too soon.  If Laertes follows this advice, he’s going to come back from his study-abroad year in Paris without having expereinced much of anything.
            The person who follows this advice, be they Laertes or one of us, will find themselves disconnected from the community. This advice creates people who exist in isolation from one another. Neither a borrower nor a lender be—do not admit when your resources fall short and you need help, do not offer your bounty to neighbors who are in need. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice—listen even when you disagree, don’t let anyone know what you think. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable to the potential of new relationships. To thine own self be true—put yourself first, look out for number one, take what you can get. 
            Let’s also remember that Polonius’s story does not end well. ***spoiler alert*** He fails to follow his own advice, involves himself in the queen’s business, and is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a tapestry in the royal bedchamber. And then Hamlet is like “sorry not sorry.”
            To thine own self be true, said Jesus never. 
            What does our scripture say then? Like so many of the rebuttals to ‘said Jesus never’ phrases in this sermon series—it’s complicated. 
            On the one hand, we have the passage you heard from Romans this morning. “Do not conform to the ways of the world.” On its surface, this advice from Paul to the church at Rome might seem to suggest the sort of independent individuality that Polonius is talking about when he—not  Jesus—says, “to thine own self be true.” But Paul also says that we are to be transformed as living sacrifices to God. 
            As Christians, we are not called to reject the values of the world in order to be true to something that is interal to each of us as individuals. That way lies hedonism and egoism and narcissism, self-righteousness and neo-liberal exploitation of the other. Rather, we are called to reject the individualistic values of a broken world in order to turn our faces to the image of God. Which leads us to the other scripture you heard this morning—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” God created all of us, collectively, in God’s own image. No single one of us alone can be the image of God. Our ability to embody the image of God is predicated on our connection to the community. 
            As Christians, we are not called to the sort of rugged individualism that Polonius’s ‘to thine own self be true’ speech recommends for Laertes. We arehowever, called to be in community with one another, to allow our minds to be transformed in the pursuit of God’s vision for the kingdom here on earth, to be God’s partners in the continuing project of the creation. 
            What does that even look like, though? Well, it looks an awful lot like Jesus. When he was ready to begin his ministry, Jesus did not strike out like a rugged individualist to go it alone—he found the twelve disciples plus a lot of friends to do the work with him. Notably, the people with whom he chose to assiciate were not the most powerful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He healed outcasts—lepers, women, Samaritans. Jesus dedicated himself to that vision from the Genesis creation story that all of humanity is created in God’s image. 
            Our call, like Jesus’s call, places us in tension between the recognition that each of us individually have been created by God as unique persons. We have a variety of life experiences. We have a variety of gifts and talents. We do not all contribute to the ongoing work of creation in the same way, and we do need to recognize the value of our variety. However, we also need to recognize that these individual gifts, talents, and experiences do their best work in concert with one another. It takes all of our talents, all of our skils, all of our life experiences to embody the image of God. 
            The thing of it is, though, it’s really really hard to work together with all sorts of different people and respect all their different sorts of talents. Our very human egos get in the way, our very American values of independence and self-sufficiency get in the way. I’m going to tell you a hard truth about myself. I don’t always like all of the people I interact with. I don’t like some of the people I interact with here at Mount Olivet. That’s a hard thing to say out loud looking at all of your faces. I’m sure there are some of you in this room who don’t particularly like me. Or maybe you’re thinking of someone else in the congregation whom you don’t particularly like. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way. The dislike we feel for our fellow congregants might be specific—related to some past harm—or it might be a general pet peeve. The challenge we face, our call as followers of Christ, is to love each other anyway. To look at that person whom we don’t enjoy and recognize that, like us, they are a piece of the image of God. They are our partner in God’s ongoing project of creation. We have little control over our feelings, but love is an action. The kind of love that God calls us to is a choice to act for the benefit of those around us. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says. And also, love your enemy, do good to those who hate. And, I would add, also to those whom you don’t particularly like, regardless of how they may feel about you. Love them, too. 
            In here we have rituals that help us to love each other no matter how else we might feel. In a few moments, we’re going to celebrate one of them. Jeff is going to lead us in the communion liturgy and then we are going to break bread together. This ritual of eating from the same loaf and dipping in the same cups, and, I would add, partaking from our hospitality ministry, means that for this one day each week our many individual bodies share the same fuel. The very stuff that keeps us going we hold in common. 
            Outside of these walls, it gets even harder. Most of us don’t share communion with our coworkers or with our classmates or with the people who live in our neighborhoods. When we have to interact with people who are not like us, who don’t pray like us, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look like use, who don’t vote like us, our insticnt is to be true to our own selves, to look our for number one. Our call as Christians is to love them anyway. Our challenge is to discern what love looks like. That process of discernment is a topic for another whole sermon, but for today I’ll just say that it starts with listening humbly and without judgement or rebuttal as people who are not like us tell us the stories of their lived experience. 
            To thine own self be true, said...Jesus...never. 
            What Jesus did say was to be love, to be true to our individual contributions to our collective embodiment of the image of God.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

#secondcivilwarletters

Dearest Friends,

I have read your missives on the interwebs concerning your lack of holiday spirit this Fourth of July, your disinterest in parades and fireworks, your lack of appetite for barbecuing with family. Though I can understand why you feel this way, I do not share your ennui.

From our balcony we can see the national capital fireworks, which never disappoint, but are quite brief. For fifteen minutes before and nearly an hour after, however, we can see all of the municipal fireworks displays in the small towns and cities around the District of Columbia. As I watch today, I am struck by these bursts of color on the horizon as expressions of joy.

Although America is not what many of us want her to be right now, and although we fear ever greater deterioration in our civitas and our polis, we still have much to be joyful for. We are still here. The republic has not fallen. We have the means and the will to resist the rise of fascism.

We are still here. We still have each other. We can yet wrest the reins of government from the hands of the red hats.

I'm sure our opponents see quite a different symbolism in these patriotic displays of fireworks tonight, but do not let their appreciation sour yours.

We are still here, and our dissent is patriotic.

With joy,

Kate

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

justice and mercy

When I picked up Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy last week, it was because my friend Kate's congregation had chosen it as the first book for their summer book club. I was quickly caught up in the fluidity of Stevenson's voice on the page. He offers just the right details in just the right order to maintain my curiosity.

Stevenson's focus is on the US criminal justice system, particularly our practice of capital punishment, at times including the execution of people with mental illness or disability and of minors, and our practice of treating children--sometimes as young as 13--as adults in charging, adjudication, and sentencing. He illustrates these unjust places in the criminal justice system with individual, personal stories of the clients his non-profit practice has served, many of whom they are unable to save.

Alongside the overt message that we should abolish the death penalty and treat accused minors and those with mental illness or disability differently than we have for too long is a more subtle message--that the sort of retributive justice our system is built on just doesn't work. In the introduction, Stevenson writes:
[This book] is about how easily we condemn and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
Fear, anger, and distance. Most crime can be traced back to a breakdown in community, a moment or a part of systemic conditions that fails to uphold the promises made to every member of the community. (Don't argue that people just do things because they're cruel or evil or bad. If that's what you think, read this book and others like it.) When other members of the community respond with fear or anger (or both), the bonds of the community are further broken.

Our current system is not the only possibility. We could have a different system. We can look to other parts of the world, or we can look to our own juvenile justice system, which, in many parts of the country, puts much greater emphasis on restorative justice. We can do something different.

Just Mercy is heavy reading, but worthwhile. It was particularly heavy for me least week with today looming ahead of me on the calendar, today marking five years since my husband's death at the hands of an unlicensed teenage driver. Heavy reading, but definitely worthwhile. As I read, I remembered those early days of shock and numbness and confusion, and I looked again at the decisions I made in my role as victim--my choice not to insist the teenager be tried as an adult, my choice not to sue the family in civil court, my choice not to continue attending the regular probation hearings after the disposition hearing--and I don't regret any of those choices.  I also recognize the privilege of working with a prosecutor listened to me and supported my decisions. As Stevenson's stories attest, such is not the case everywhere.

The lifetimes of work by Stevenson and others has been effective. Executions by the state are rare in the US these days, and we've changed our position on executing or sentencing to life without parole for minors and those with mental illness and disabilities.

We still have questions to ask ourselves, though--about forgiveness, about the possibility of rehabilitation, about the differences between adolescent brains and adult ones, about the nature of mercy and what justice looks like.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

ashes and love

Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.

Dust thou art.

Dust.

Today is the day that many Christians put ashes on our foreheads to remember our mortality. To remind ourselves and each other that we live in a broken world and we, ourselves, are part of that brokenness.

On this day, we wear ashes, and we talk about dust, two things that on all other days we sweep up, wipe off, discard.

Remember that thou art dust.

Dust.

This humble stuff, this grit underfoot.

We are dust, and our world is broken, but we are not alone in the dust and ashes. God remains our partner in the ongoing process of creation.

Today, oddly this year, is also Valentine's Day, when most Americans celebrate love.

Pablo Neruda's "Ode to My Socks" is always and ever my favorite love poem, but it seems a particularly fitting one for today's confluences of love and ashes, of the divine and the quotidian.

The /I/ of this poem recognizes the powerful magic of an everyday, humble object created with love.


I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
two
cases
knitted
with threads of
twilight
and goatskin.

He resists the temptation to preserve the gift, to put it away, to protect the magic from the hardships of everyday use. Instead, 

Like explorers
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
socks
and then my shoes.
Today, remember that thou art dust, but also that thou art love.



Sunday, February 11, 2018

a glimpse of devotion


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They are an odd collection, but fit for the purpose, though not all intended for this use. Insight comes to us in a variety of places.

Friday, January 12, 2018

unseasonable

Facebook reminded me today that three years ago, I was living in a home heated by wood, which meant waking up to add fuel to the fire and hauling wood with a sled after shoveling a path to the pile. 


Today I hauled groceries.


This bike jersey is not normally part of my January wardrobe:


In part, the change is that I've moved three degrees of latitude south and eight degrees of longitude closer to a coast, but that's not the whole story. Although I enjoyed the time on my bicycle today, I was at the same time painfully aware that the recent spate of sharply variable weather,  swinging from unseasonably frigid to unseasonably mild over the course of days, is a symptom of the brokenness of our ecosystem.

It increasingly feels like no amount of personal asceticism with regard to fossil fuel consumption can make a difference. We needed the systemic changes of the Paris Accord, or something like them,  to be operative ten years ago at least.

Yesterday I read this piece by my friend David about his disillusionment with the possibility of human survival on a warming planet, and today it was 67F here in DC, and I, fair-weather cyclist that I am, rode my bike to get groceries. Sunday's high will be 29F, and it will feel more like winter all of next week, but this is not normal.

What have we wrought?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

death has a body

I love Kate Braestrup. She writes brilliantly about life and death and faith. Her memoirs about marriage and grief are the only ones that have not made me want to throw them across the room in frustration. (Sorry, C. S. Lewis and Joan Didion.)

I want to grow up to be more like Braestrup.

Her story "The House of Mourning," told at The Moth, reminded me of the one regret I have about the choices I made after Adam's death--not viewing the body.

Braestrup's overall message is that "you can trust a human being with grief," a message that we all too often doubt. We try to insulate ourselves, and especially our children, from grief when in reality it is an integral part of life.

She supports this message with her own story of insisting on seeing and caring for the body of her late husband, a state trooper who died in a car accident while on duty, and also with the story of a five-year-old girl who insisted on visiting the body of her four-year-old cousin.

Braestrup says that in her experience as a chaplain to the Maine Game Wardens, "People are far, far more likely to regret not having seen the body than they are to wish they hadn't done it" (6:55). And I wish that every funeral director and law enforcement chaplain and county sheriff's deputy would hear this story.

The men in my kitchen that day--the chaplain and the chaplain-in-training and the deputy and the several officers--presented a united front in their "recommendation not to view." The haunted looks on the officers' faces added weight to this recommendation. As did their refusal to take me to retrieve things from the car, offering instead to get whatever I wanted and bring it to me.

Knowing what I do now about the physics of Adam's accident and the coroner's findings of cause of death--cranio-cerebral trauma--I understand the recommendation not to view. But I wish that I had thought to ask for a middle ground between full viewing and none at all. Could the children and I have held the hands of his draped body? Could the mortician have wrapped his head in gauze to cover the worst but allow us to see and touch the rest?

Ultimately, my acquiescence on this score allowed other people--medical examiner, tissue donation organization, crematorium--to do their work more efficiently, and the funeral director was able to have the ashes present at the funeral service a mere four days later, which was very important to me.

Death has a body, and when the decision is happening in your kitchen or your loved one's hospital room or wherever, Kate Braestrup and I recommend that you choose to view.