Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In our end is our beginning

Luke 24: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 27, 2016 – Easter Sunday

Leningrad, 1942.

            Back in September of last year I heard a story so compelling, so full of Good Friday and Easter, that I wrote it down and saved it for today; a story which takes place over 70 years ago. Which is really what the writers of the gospels did. They saved a story from 40, 50, 60, 70 years before it could be written down, the story of the first Good Friday, the first Easter; a story so compelling that it was saved to share later.

            The Good Friday/Easter story I want to share with you today is the story of the Leningrad Symphony, the 7th symphony written by Dmitri Shostakovich.  He began writing it in Leningrad and continued there even after the city had been besieged by Hitler’s forces. The symphony was completed in Kuibyshev where he and his family had been evacuated and where it had its premiere performance.  The musical score was then smuggled out of Russia and performed in London and the U.S. to bring attention to the plight of Russians not only in Leningrad but throughout their homeland.


         Leningrad had not only been seized by the German army but cut off:  no food, no water for about 900 days.  After some months, the 7th symphony was smuggled back into Leningrad so that in a desperate act of defiance it could be performed where it had been born.  The symphony called for an orchestra of more than 100 players but only 15 members of the city’s orchestra survived.  And so they went door to door, promising extra rations if musicians would perform this symphony.

Two women collect the remains of a dead horse for food, during the siege of Leningrad, 1941.

It takes a lot of breath to play a wind or brass instrument, a lot of energy to play a stringed instrument with passion.  The conductor could barely lift his arms, let alone a thin baton.  The citizens of Leningrad were literally starving to death.  They were so wretched they were reduced to cannibalism and eating wallpaper paste.  During rehearsals musicians would collapse and three of them died, with this music being the last thing they heard.  Even so, they were able to bring this orchestra back from the dead so that this music that was created in the midst of violence, suffering, and death could be broadcast on the streets of this besieged city, on the radio, and even where the German army was encamped.

The people of Leningrad died by the thousands from cold and starvation.
            People who were little more than walking skeletons came to listen to this music because even though they were living almost like animals, this music reminded them of the best of what it means to be human.  Even though the news reports across Russia would not say that they were starving to death by the thousands, this music proclaimed another truth:  that even though they may die, yet shall they live.  Because of this symphony the people of Leningrad realized that they were the heroes of their own story.

The Leningrad Symphony played by a starving orchestra.

            Some years later some German tourists approached the conductor of this orchestra.  They said to him, “We were in the German trenches that August night in 1942, and we heard that symphony, and when we heard it we knew we would never take Leningrad.”

            And yet there are no symphonies for Nigeria or the Ivory Coast, for Syria, Palestine, or Israel, for Pakistan or Iraq or Turkey, for Brussels or Paris.  It is our hearts that are besieged, often cut off from one another, because the pain can be too much to bear.  The goodness of human beings seems overshadowed by our animalism, our barbarism.  In the last year we have witnessed the social progress of the last hundred years or so slipping backwards.  We’re wondering if indeed Leningrad will be taken, for who is playing the music of hope in a desperate act of defiance?

Icon of the Resurrection.  Jesus raises Adam and Eve.
            This past Holy Week, colleagues of mine were discussing their beliefs about the resurrection in a Facebook group.  Was Jesus raised from the dead, body, soul, spirit, and all?  Those who believe in a physical resurrection—the risen Christ eating breakfast, inviting Thomas to place his hand on the wounds of crucifixion, two disciples walking with him on the road to Emmaus—felt themselves to be ridiculed, as though these intelligent, educated people had checked their brains at the door.  And yet was there not resurrection in Leningrad, bodily, spiritual, soulful resurrection as much as there was violence, suffering, and death?  Where else would we experience resurrection if not in our fragile, human bodies?

            We cannot see, hear, experience, or proclaim the Easter good news of resurrection if we do not make our way through the pain and abject suffering of Good Friday.  A friend once quoted these words: “I’m not able to talk to you of resurrection, if you have yet to realize that you have died.”  And there’s plenty that’s dying that needs resurrection.  The world does not need our cynicism but our gritty faith.  The world does not need our fear of death but our daring to live justly and peacefully and compassionately despite it.  The world did not need Jesus’ disciples to run and hide and fade into obscurity but to emerge from those Good Friday shadows, to proclaim a news so good they would not give it up, not even over their dead bodies.

            The resurrection is our symphony of hope and courage.  It is the defiant, rebellious music of the Church, in which we are called to be, in the words of Oscar Romero, prophets of a future not our own.  We plant seeds and they die, but it is the earth, the rain, and the sun that brings the harvest.  We seek relief from the anxious present in the comfort of the past, but it is in the unknown time to come where our dreams live.  We see an end, but in it, God sees a beginning.

            So let’s make some resurrection music with our bodies here in this Body of Christ.  Let’s sing “In the Bulb There is a Flower”, #433.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Getting under the skin

Luke 19: 28-40
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday

Atticus (Stephen Pelinski) and Scout (Evangeline Heflin)

            A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to see To Kill a Mockingbird at the REP Theatre with Olivia’s AP Lang class. The performance was one of several morning matinees that the cast performed solely for high school students. (Which incidentally I think merits a letter of commendation from the mayor of Newark.) It was the perfect play for a high school audience: there was righteous indignation for one wrongly accused; rumor and curiosity about a hidden neighbor’s history; pervasive racism that is just as relevant today; the mystery of our parents as human beings; the brother/sister relationship; and most important, the deep and abiding gift of friendship and connection.

            The play was wonderfully staged, with Jem and Scout’s neighborhood as the center of life where everything took place.  When it was time to go to church with Calpurnia, church pews, congregation, and the pastor and pulpit were placed in the middle of the neighborhood.  The courtroom scene, which takes up most of the second half of the play, also took center stage with the Finch, Dubose, and Radley homes as well as the patched-up oak tree looking on.

Atticus (Stephen Pelinski) and Tom (Damir Creecy

            As I watched Atticus walk about the courtroom, interviewing Mayella Ewell, gesturing toward the accused Tom Robinson, I realized that the most brilliant part of the staging was that the audience was the jury.  When everyone returned to the courtroom for the verdict, Judge Taylor looked toward the audience and from speakers placed around the theater, each juror pronounced the verdict “guilty”.  I could see heads turning to see from where this guilty verdict came, for surely none of us would falsely convict Tom Robinson.  It was as if someone had put this word in our silent mouths.  I half-expected a student or two cry out, “No way!  He’s not guilty!” but we all remained quiet and respectful of the drama being played out before us.

            You see, Atticus, or really Harper Lee, had succeeded in getting us to understand each character from their point of view.  By casting us, the audience, as the jury, we had been invited to climb inside everyone’s skin for a while, as if we had walked around in it.[i] 

            Oftentimes we can go through our day as a jury of one or more, interacting with and observing others, outside of their skin and they out of ours, and we pronounce our own verdicts, judging them and ourselves through our own sense of justice.  Harper Lee wrote, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”[ii]  But she also wrote, “Before [we] can live with other folks, [we’ve] got to live with [ourselves]. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” [iii] Harper Lee was not only a keen observer of human beings and her own inward self, but I’d like to think she also knew the gospels.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a Holy Week story if ever there was one.

            The whole of Jesus’ ministry was about climbing inside everyone’s skin for a while and walking around in it.  This is the magnificent gift of the incarnation.  Even if we don’t believe literally in the incarnation, we can believe it literarily, as an idea vital to the story.  God climbed inside our skin in the person of Jesus.  Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, invites us to climb inside the skin of one another and walk around in it, not so the other person would change but so that we would understand and be transformed.


          The crowd in the gospel of Luke that was welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem for the last time was a multitude of disciples singing and praising Jesus as king.  These were not just the twelve but all those who had heard Jesus and his parables of wasteful extravagance, seeking out and loving the lost, who had witnessed his mighty works, and they were transformed.  They were filled with joy.  Jesus had gotten under their skin to the point that they overflowed with exuberant praise.  There was no holding them back.

            But some Pharisees in the crowd—they just didn’t get it.  More to the point, Jesus and his followers had gotten under their skin but only as a source of irritation, annoyance, and disruption of the status quo.  Imagine the scene.  Let it get under, inside your skin.  It would be like seeing the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in person, hearing them sing, “I’m Not Afraid”.

I’m not afraid

Of the darkness

Whom shall I fear

If God be for me?

What shall we say to these things?

What shall we say to these things?

I’m not afraid anymore

I’m not afraid anymore

            The choir is two hundred strong.  People are standing on their feet, their hands defying any sense of gravity or propriety, moving to the music.  They’re taking off their outer layer of clothing, laying it on the ground for Jesus riding on a colt to walk over in humble majesty.  Caesar is not king.  Fear and the threats of empire no longer rule their lives.  By declaring Jesus king, these disciples are protesting the Roman occupation of their homeland in no uncertain terms.  And they’re not about to be quiet about it.

            Then some of the religious leaders come along and say, “Can you keep it down?  Turn down the volume.  Just stop them, will you?”  What they’re really saying is, don’t give them hope.  Don’t remind them that they live in a prison.  Don’t get them all riled up.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t get us in trouble.  Don’t get us killed.  We don’t want to climb inside your skin because we’re trying to save our own skins.

            Jesus tells them it’s too late for all that.  Even if this crowd of disciples were silent, these hard stones would be saturated with praise.  These hard stones would have more give than your hearts.  These hard stones used to mark roadways and the graves of the dead—even these would understand and cry out.

            Later this week the Temple authorities will stand as judge and jury over Jesus and declare him guilty, with us as the audience looking on.  God climbs inside human skin and walks around in it, even through the worst day a human being can live through and then dies to it.  

            Sisters and brothers, this is not a staged drama, no passion play we’re living through right now.  We’re living in a Palm/Passion Sunday heading toward Good Friday world. The threat of empire’s violence and wealth and the heightened fears of many are very real.  There are those, in their sincere and impassioned hearts, who are crying out for the bandit Barabbas than to save a poor homeless peasant from crucifixion.  We’re all getting under each other’s skin in a not-so-good way.  And we all stand as judge and jury of each other, ready to pronounce the other guilty.

            Jesus invites us to climb inside each other’s skin, skin different from our own, Tom Robinson's skin, perception different from our own, even the Bob Ewells and Walter Cunninghams of this world, and walk around in them for a while.  Not so that they would change but that we would understand and be transformed.  And not only transformed but so that we would not be silent but cry out.  Cry out that there is another reality to be considered: that hope is alive; that it is love that has the last word; that freedom, peace, and justice are more than just words and that they mean what they say only when they are for everyone; that underneath our skin we aren't that very different.

            If no other time, this is the week we climb inside Jesus’ skin, walk with him, sit with him and his disciples at the table, pray through the night, witness every friend desert him, and with his last breath forgive those who kill him.  In truth, this is the spiritual space we are called to live in each day.  When was the last time Jesus got under your skin?   Amen.

[i] “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3.
[ii] Ibid, Chapter 17.
[iii] Ibid, Chapter 11.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The fragrance of love

John 12: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

March 13, 2016

            “If God was a smell, what would God smell like?” 

            Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.
            Easter lilies.
            White lilacs.
            Fragrant oil.
            Fresh baked bread.
            The ocean.
            Ripe melons.
            Spring rain.

            Our sense of smell is one of the most potent of the five senses, because it has the power to bring us back in time to a place, a person, an experience and make it real for us.  For instance, I love the smell of celery and onions sautéing in butter because it reminds me of my mother making her Southern cornbread dressing and of her cooking in general.  The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying takes me back to my grandparents’ house in Mississippi when I was a little girl.  Whenever I am in an office supply store, the smell of Scotch tape and ink and paper remind me of my childhood church and the office that contained a mimeograph machine on which the Sunday bulletins were printed. 

            Human beings can recognize more than 10,000 different scents or odorants.  We have hundreds of olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal passages, each receptor encoded by a specific gene.  If we do not possess a certain gene, then we have difficulty picking up particular scents.

            The sense of smell is an important character in this passage and in the one leading up to it.  In chapter 11 in John’s gospel, Jesus arrives four days too late to save his friend Lazarus from death.  When he asks to have the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha, the sister of the dead man, says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  The body has already begun to decompose; according to belief, this was a sign that the spirit or soul had left the body and resuscitation therefore impossible.  But for Jesus, with whom nothing is impossible, this permeating odor of death is but a mere whiff of the perfume of resurrection to come.  He then prays to God and calls forth Lazarus, who emerges from the tomb, the smelly graveclothes still clinging to his face and body.

            Now, in this morning’s passage, the scene has changed completely.  Lazarus now washed and clean, is host to Jesus and his disciples for dinner.  His sister Martha serves the dinner but not with complaint as she did in the Luke story between her and her sister Mary.  There is no resentment about serving this time; the Greek word for ‘serve’ is used in the tradition of a deacon.  There are the pleasant aromas of roasted meat and bread and wine and the air dense with the emotions of contentment, joy, and the intense feeling that very soon it is all about to end, for in raising Lazarus, Jesus has signed his own death warrant.

            Into all this enters Mary with a jar of perfume made from pure nard.  The word ‘nard’ comes from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas of China, India, and Nepal, which explains why it is so costly.  Its underground stems can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil, very thick in consistency.  It was a luxury item in the ancient world, something that would be used to anoint the head of a king, not the feet of a poor wandering rabbi.  To anoint the feet would be part of preparing a body for burial.  And to wipe Jesus’ feet Mary lets down her hair, something a woman would do only for her husband or in grief.

            In this story Mary, sister of Lazarus, is the prodigal, which again means ‘wasteful extravagance’.  In her whole manner we see wasteful extravagance.  She unleashes the potent fragrance of love into the dinner banquet, disrupting the heady scent of the meal and the mood of Judas, who reeks of stinginess and the betrayal to come.  She does not use ordinary oil but one that is costly and pungent: the whole house is filled with its perfume.  She lets loose her hair as a spontaneous gesture of her gratitude for her brother and a sign of her exuberant affection for Jesus.  She does not wait for his burial but anoints him now, alive in her home, where she can enjoy his company and presence.

            This lavish act of extravagant love is Mary’s prophecy of Jesus’ death:  God’s lavish act of extravagant love in human flesh.  Jesus’ death is indeed wasteful extravagance; there is nothing prudent or economical about God’s love on the cross.  And there is nothing prudent or economical in Mary’s discipleship.  In her unrestrained display of devotion we see the portrayal of supreme faithfulness.  While Judas plays the role of bean counter (and not a very honest one at that), Mary, in her filling the whole house with the fragrance of her love for Jesus, fulfills the role of one passionate in love and service.  The smell of death may be on the heels of Jesus, but Mary witnesses to the overwhelming persistence of God’s love; that God’s love smells sweeter and stronger than death itself.

            But I wonder:  does God’s love always smell pleasant and sweet?  Can God’s love also smell like the sweat of migrant workers picking coffee, oranges, and grapes; the sweat of day laborers mowing grass, laying brick, tarring roofs?  Can God’s love reek of a person who hasn’t bathed in days or months?  Can God’s love stink of prison cells and tenement hallways and dingy nursing homes, battlefields and refugee camps?  Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us but not always him.  What did he mean by that?  Do not all of us deserve a roof over our heads, health care, nutrition, clean water, clean clothes, clean hair, teeth and bodies, to know that we will never have to question these things?

            Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 11:  "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’"  The stench of poverty cannot be covered up with sweet-smelling platitudes, like Judas.  If God’s love stinks, it stinks of the need for restorative justice, for peace, and for resurrection.  The sweet smell of God’s love reminds us of the extravagant gift we have been given, that continues to be lavished on us daily.  The rank odor of God’s love is a pungent call to give extravagantly, wastefully to those who are always with us but to give as though there may not be a tomorrow.

            If God’s love stank, what would it smell like?

            Fresh cow manure.
            A locker room.
            Blistered feet.
            Burned dinner.
            Burned hair.
            A forest fire.
            Sulfurous brimstone.
            Sulfur hexachloride.
            Decaying matter.
            Rotten eggs. 

            One day our opportunity to serve will come to an end; the fragrance of our love will diminish and fade.  At some point it will be too late.  How is God calling us, New Ark United Church of Christ, to give today and to give lavishly, wastefully?  How do we as a congregation define waste, extravagance?  What limits have we placed on what we spend or give away or use, that define what is "reasonable," and what is "excessive"?  How do we think about our giving and our gestures of love and generosity, the things that come from deepest within our hearts?  God is not yet finished with us; how is the day and the moment before us in such a way that our acts of extravagant generosity can wait no longer?  What does God’s love smell like in this church, in this time and place?

            Go Bags.
            Bread pudding.
            Fresh paint.
            Potluck dinners.
            Coffee and snacks.
            Hope Dining Room.
            Garden soil.
            Burning prayers.
            Candle smoke.

            The fragrance of love is sweet and smelly, heady and rank, perfume and stench.  It is seizing the moment to give what we have, not counting the cost.  It is uninhibited, exuberant, exultant love celebrated and cherished in the here and now.  It is a sacrificial, humble, extravagant gift of God that has the power to permeate our lives, resurrect us, and transform us into new beings.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.