Lament at Camden Yards

I am a baseball fan. I love almost everything about the game: the way that it puts me in touch with my childhood, the way that it juxtaposes the urban and the pastoral, the way that it creates its own sense of time in an overly-scheduled world. I find, however that the most compelling thing about baseball is the way that it lends itself to story and narrative. The great Bart Giamatti, baseball’s resident philosopher during his brief tenure as its commissioner, noted that the game can be divided into three acts (3 x 3 innings) that enact a fundamental human drama: the journey of life that takes us through perils and challenges as we strive to make our way home.

Unlike the dramas of stage and screen, baseball encourages and requires the participation of the audience. Those assembled in the stands of the ballpark function much like a Greek chorus, punctuating and narrating the events unfolding before them with cheers, jeers, groans, and applause. The practiced ear can tell what is happening on the diamond just by listening to the sounds of the crowd: from the steady escalation of enthusiasm as a double play is turned to the collective sigh of disappointment as a 3-2 count results in a walk to the unbridled ecstasy of a well-hit home run ball. The sounds of baseball are crucial because they remind us that the game is not played in a vacuum, that it is meant to be a shared experience. The sounds of baseball testify to the fact that the story baseball enacts is our story, the story of a people trying to find their way home.

Everth CabreraYesterday, baseball was robbed of its power to tell this story. As a result of the recent unrest in Baltimore, the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. This game marked the first game that two teams have played without an audience of any kind. Naturally, it was a strange experience. Though the players pitched, fielded, and hit as usual, they gave the appearance that they had lost their reason for playing.

At first, I thought that closing Camden Yards to the public yesterday was a mistake, a missed opportunity. After all, sports have the almost unique ability to bring people together after terrible tragedies. The first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, was a cathartic and unifying experience for the people of that beleaguered city. Surely, an Orioles win at Camden Yards would have galvanized the people of Baltimore and helped them to move beyond the events of the past several days.

As I thought about it more, however, I realized that it is not time for the people of Baltimore or any of us to move beyond the events of the last week. In our culture, our first instinct is to paper over our grief and pretend that our pain has gone away. When we do this, however, we fail to allow our grief to be transformed and to transform us. The crowdless game at Camden Yards may have been painfully necessary because it exposed the depth of Baltimore’s grief. As I watched yesterday’s game, I had an unavoidable and overwhelming sense of emptiness. I think that it is important for us to feel that emptiness. It is important for us to recognize that there are people in this country who have felt that emptiness for too long. The empty silence at Camden Yards was important to experience because it gave an opportunity for lament: lament for Freddie Gray, lament for injustice, lament for victims of violence everywhere.

Lament is an important and misunderstood part of the Christian experience. Perhaps the most well-known lament from Scripture is Psalm 22, which begins with the plaintive question: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the psalm that Jesus quotes from the cross in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark. It is a psalm that explores feelings of abandonment, loss, and emptiness. At the same time, it is about far more than the psalmist’s pain; it is a psalm that affirms the faithfulness of God. After the psalmist has recited all of the ways that he has felt abandoned, he writes, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” In Scripture, lament is not about despair, it is about acknowledging our grief before the One whose faithfulness is beyond our capacity to imagine. As we lament for Baltimore and for all victims of injustice, we are called to trust that God will transform our grief into hope. Moreover, we are called to use that hope to empower the leaders of our communities recognize that we are all part of the same story.

There was one sound at yesterday’s game that was new to even the most experienced baseball fan. Though the stadium was closed to the public, a small group of Orioles faithful gathered outside of the stadium to cheer on their team from afar. Towards the end of the game, the faint chant of “Let’s Go Os” grew more and more distinct. In the silence of grief and lament, this chant was a still, small voice of hope, a small token of our shared story, a reminder that we are called to find our way home together.

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Good is not the same as Gentle

Sermon on John 10:11-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Last week I had the enviable opportunity to spend time with our fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. As is often the case whenever I talk to the youth of this parish, I was struck by their intelligence, sensitivity, and passion for the faith. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the constructive criticism the students offered, including some carefully considered suggestions about how to improve the sermons here at The Redeemer. In fact, they had a three point plan that they suggested I bring to the next clergy meeting: 1) make sermons shorter, 2) add more humor to the presentation, and 3) be more emotional. On one level, these are the same shopworn suggestions that kids have been making to preachers since time immemorial. Conversations like these are an important part of what it means to be pastor. On a deeper level, however, these suggestions belie one of the fundamental assumptions about our culture: that everything ought to be catered to our individual desires and expectations. This consumerist assumption tends to inform everything that we do: our buying habits, our political participation, even our experience of the divine.

imagesThis morning, we are presented with one of the most well-worn symbols of our faith: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A favorite of stained glass artists and children’s book illustrators, this image from John’s gospel is ubiquitous in our culture. As a matter of fact, when it is conflated with Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, as it often is, the tenth chapter of John gives us one of the most recognizable pictures of Jesus there is: a meek and mild savior carrying a lamb across his shoulders. For many of us, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is a way of making him the calming presence in our lives. Even when we feel overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of the world, we can return to the Good Shepherd, who will lovingly embrace us in his strong and gentle arms. The problem with this popular picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that it does not accurately depict the passage we read this morning or the vocation of a shepherd. Indeed, very little about the role of shepherds, good or otherwise, can be considered gentle at all.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we mishear the shepherd imagery in Scripture. After all, the twenty-third psalm, the ultimate biblical job description for a shepherd, has been a source of great comfort to people of faith for thousands of years. But I think it is helpful to examine the nature of that comfort. The psalmist acknowledges that there will be times when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, when he will suffer all that flesh is heir too. Yet even in the midst of that, he trusts in the abiding presence of his shepherding Lord. Moreover, the psalmist affirms that he is comforted by God’s rod and staff. In the ancient world, a shepherd carried both small, clublike stick (a rod) for warding off predators and a long, slender staff for directing the sheep away from danger. Occasionally, the staff would be used to yank a sheep from the edge of a cliff or shove her out of the way of an oncoming gullywasher. In other words, the shepherd’s rod and staff were not the gentlest of tools. Nevertheless, they were both designed to protect the sheep, to give them what they needed even when the animals weren’t sure what that was. I suspect that this is the source of the psalmist’s comfort: the recognition that God knows what we need even when we aren’t sure what that might be.

Francisco de Zurbarán_Agnello di Dio_c_ 1635-40_Olio su tela_cm 35,6 x 52,1_The San Diego Museum of Art
Agnus Dei (1640) by Francisco de Zubaran

This is why Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd is not an articulation of his gentleness; it is an affirmation that his mission is to give the world something that can only be given by God, something that defies the world’s expectations. Immediately after Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells us that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement is anything but gentle, but it is consistent with our understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the one who lays down his life in order to pick it up again, the one who gives himself to those who would betray and abandon him. The infidelity of the disciples partially stems from the fact that Jesus frustrated their expectations. The disciples and those who opposed Jesus expected him to overthrow the Roman occupiers, reestablish Israel’s glory days, and put himself at the head of a religious kingdom. As the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus eschews worldly power and becomes instead the Passover lamb, the one who is sacrificed on behalf of his people. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives the world not what it expects or desires, but rather what it needs.

Over the past several decades, the Church has found herself in a challenging position. The cultural primacy of the church has eroded as fewer and fewer people feel obligated to attend with any regularity. Some have suggested that reason for this decline that the Church has become irrelevant, that we are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist. Those who have made this diagnosis have a very simple prescription: we should make church participation and the Christian life as easily digestible as possible. We should cater to the tastes and interests of prospective members and “give the people what they want.” Invariably, people will frame this as the “pastoral” approach, with the understanding that “pastoral” means fading as much into the background as possible. But our text this morning reveals that the pastoral vocation, the vocation of a shepherd, is about something very different. If the gospel teaches us anything it is that God our shepherd does not necessarily give us what we want; God gives us what we need. What would it look like if the Church once again recognized that it had something the world needed, even if it didn’t know it yet? What would happen if we recognized that the true pastoral responsibility of every Christian is to recognize and proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives? The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to embrace these possibilities as it calls us to follow the one who defies our expectations in order to give us what we need.

Imagining the Future

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

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To listen to an interview with Fr. Greg, click here.

When Greg Boyle was appointed as the pastor of the Dolores Mission in the late 1980s, he recognized that it would be a challenging call. The Mission is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at the time was the epicenter of more gang activity than anywhere else in the world. Fr. Boyle understood that much of his ministry would be devoted to addressing the proliferation of gang violence in his community.  At the beginning of his time at the Mission, Boyle attempted to make peace through diplomacy. He was Henry Kissinger on a ten speed bicycle, shuttling between the various gangs and negotiating terms. Boyle would draw up treaties that stipulated rules about things like shooting into each other’s houses. The various parties would sign, and hostilities would cease for a time. Though these truces initially felt like victories, Fr. Greg gradually realized that they were ultimately hollow. Negotiation and diplomacy assume that there is conflict: that the parties involved have opposing goals and that there is the potential for a mutually agreeable solution. But Fr. Greg soon recognized that while there is lots of violence among gangs, there is no conflict. Boyle realized that gang violence stems, not from conflict, but from “a lethal absence of hope,” from the reality that the kids in his community “can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

We see a similar absence of hope among the disciples in today’s reading from John’s gospel. John tells us that it is evening, that the darkness is approaching. The bright sunlight of Easter morning has dissipated, the triumph and joy have faded into memory, and the disciples are now waiting with apprehension in the gathering darkness. Indeed, John explicitly tells us that the former companions of Jesus have gathered in the uncertain twilight of that locked room because they are afraid: afraid of those who executed Jesus, yes, but also afraid of confronting the harsh reality of their own faithlessness. The disciples abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour and are now paralyzed by guilt. Having lost their Lord and Teacher, they are uncertain about what they are to do next; indeed, they are uncertain about who they are now or what they will become. The disciples are stuck in that room because they are unable to imagine a future for themselves.

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the disciples in that locked room. Perhaps he is scrounging for food, perhaps he is plotting the disciples’ escape from Jerusalem, or perhaps he just can’t bear to be in the same room with those who remind him so viscerally of the one he abandoned. Apart from Peter, Thomas was the disciple whose renunciation of Jesus was the most thorough. Remember that when Jesus announced he was going to visit the tomb of Lazarus in spite of the potential danger, Thomas alone courageously affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha, and he claimed that he would remain with Jesus until the very end. And yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas fled from the authorities, stayed away from the one he claimed he would die for, and left Jesus to walk the way of the cross alone. Perhaps Thomas stayed away from the disciples because because he couldn’t stand the sight of those who reminded him so poignantly of his infidelity. Perhaps Thomas left that locked room because he simply could not imagine a future for himself when he had failed so completely.

This perspective would have given powerful and predictable shape to Thomas’ reaction when he returned to that locked room. Thomas would have been wallowing in the pain of his guilt when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Hope? Hope is for people who can imagine a future. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.

Immediately after Thomas demands to see the wounds of the crucified Lord, John sets a nearly identical scene. I say “nearly identical” because John tells us that this gathering takes place eight days later. Eight is the number of new creation: the signal that we are transcending the normal rhythm of the calendar, the promise that a new day is dawning, the implicit proclamation that the world has been given a new future. By setting this scene on the eighth day John indicates that the disciples are about to experience God in an entirely new way. thomassunday1ebayIndeed, when Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples breathing words of peace and renewal, Thomas recognizes the reality of the new creation when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas understood a fundamental truth: that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s very being. It is an affirmation of God’s deathless love, a pledge that all our past unfaithfulness has been forgiven, that our lives have been and will be renewed, and that our future has been redeemed. Notice that our participation in the renewal of creation is not about accomplishing particular tasks; it is about abiding in peace. When Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he does not commission the disciples to do anything. Rather, he invites the disciples into a place of love, a place where they can hope for a future that they could not previously imagine.

Jose is a young man from Fr. Greg’s parish who has been a gang member, a drug addict, and a prison inmate. When Jose was six, his mother said to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself. You’re such a burden to me.” Jose’s mother beat him, to the point that he wore three T-shirts at a time in order to protect himself and hide the wounds his mother inflicted. Jose was ashamed of his wounds well into adulthood and he resisted every attempt well-meaning people made to help him. But when he met Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who was not ashamed of him and who didn’t prescribe a program to get him off the streets. In Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who loved him regardless of where he had been or what his mother had done to him. He began to turn his life around. Gradually, Jose realized that by recognizing his own wounds, he could help the wounded. For Jose, love made his wounds a source of redemption. For Jose, love allowed him to hope for the first time. For Jose, love empowered him to imagine the future.

 

Simplicity

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer on Maundy Thursday, 2015.

In January of 1929, Rube Goldberg, an artist and former engineering student, began contributing satirical cartoons to Collier’s magazine. These cartoons depicted everyday tasks being accomplished through the most complicated means imaginable. You’ve probably seen these drawings: they are commentaries on America’s seemingly boundless faith in technology. Since its first publication, Goldberg’s work has become a cultural touchstone. As early as the 1930s, Merriam-Webster added “Rube Goldberg” to the dictionary, defining it as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Since 1989, engineers have competed in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, in which contestants must build a machine that accomplishes a simple task in at least 20 steps. I wonder, however, how Rube Goldberg would feel about his cultural ubiquity. His cartoons were shaped by an implicit sense that life had become too complicated, that the labor saving devices on which we were becoming increasingly dependent actually prevented us from experiencing the fullness that life has to offer. Goldberg’s drawings exposed the artifice of modern life: the false assumption that our life has meaning because of what we possess.

This evening, we commemorate two acts of Jesus that, unlike the designs of Rube Goldberg, are striking for their simplicity. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the careful Passover instructions articulated in the book of Exodus, the footwashing and the institution of the imagesLord’s Supper are almost laughably straightforward. In both acts, Jesus uses the most basic element imaginable: a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Paul and the other witnesses don’t tell us that there was anything special about these; in fact, the evangelists imply that Jesus used the bread and wine that happened to be left over at the end of dinner. And as Jesus shares the simple elements of bread and wine and water with those gathered around the table, his instructions are equally uncomplicated: “do as I have done for you”; “do this in remembrance of me.” The simplicity is almost comic, and might lead us to wonder why these simple gestures have any power at all.

The narrative context for these two rituals reveals that their simplicity is deceptive. John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples knowing “that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Paul reminds the Corinthians, as we are reminded every Sunday, that Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples “on the night when he was betrayed.” Both the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist, in other words, are colored by the fact that Jesus is about to be handed over to suffering and death. More significantly, Jesus shares this simple meal with and washes the feet of the very people who betray, deny, and abandon him. The simplicity of the acts performed by Jesus exposes the artifice of those gathered around the table: the shrewd patience that keeps Judas at the table until the appointed time, the disquiet that leads the disciples to say, “Surely not I, Lord?” when Jesus predicts his betrayal, and perhaps most damning of all, the false confidence that leads Peter to protest, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus spends his last night on earth with a group of people who will fail him at every turn.

It is this context of betrayal and infidelity that gives Jesus’ acts on that last night their true power. Even though Jesus knew that those gathered around the table would soon behave as enemies, Jesus calls them “friends.” When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus adopts the role of a servant to those who are not worthy of being served. When he says, “this is my Body,” Jesus gives himself to those who would soon betray, deny, and abandon him. Before his disciples can hand him over to the evil powers of this world, Jesus hands himself over in the forms of bread and wine, and nullifies their betrayal. “By his surrender into the passive forms of food and drink,” writes Rowan Williams, “[Jesus] makes void and powerless the impending betrayal, and, more, makes the betrayers his guests and debtors, making with them the promise of divine fidelity…that cannot be negated by their unfaithfulness.” Jesus affirms that in spite of what they are about to do, the disciples are still part of his family. Even as everything falls apart around him, Jesus reaffirms the enduring faithfulness of God. In the Eucharist, the simple act of sharing a meal becomes an eloquent articulation of God’s love, a love that cannot be overcome by the darkness of human infidelity and violence.

From our historical vantage, it is easy to hear these stories assuming that we would never abandon Jesus during his final hours. We assume that we would stand at the foot of the cross, weeping with his mother and the beloved disciple. Or we would stand with the women of Jerusalem at a respectful distance. We certainly would not betray Jesus into the hands of sinners or deny that we ever knew him. But I wonder: when things start to fall apart in our own lives, when we are faced the loss of everything we possess and hold dear, when we lose our sense that we are in control our lives, are we really able to trust that God’s faithfulness will endure?imgres I’d be willing to wager that there are moments in each of our lives that we have turned away from God: perhaps for convenience, or apathy, or fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps for a thousand other reasons. And yet, we put our trust in a God who gives himself to us in spite of our infidelity. We put our trust in a God whose love cannot be negated by our failure. We put our trust in a God who affirms that our life has meaning even when everything we hold dear has been stripped away. Tonight, we affirm a fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that even when things fall apart, the God made known to us in the bread and wine continues to call us family.