Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Yes, I know, my blog needs a real update. I'll try to get to that in the next day or so. For now, here is the homily I preached in class this morning. It's my first, before my peers. We picked passages from Mark on strips of paper our instructor held out to us; I seem to choose or be chosen for the ones I need most.

We are "pretending" to preach in a Eucharistic context, which explains a bit toward the end.

Mark 14:1-9

What is going on in this house? Who is this woman? How has she managed to scandalize everyone? And what can we make of Jesus’ answer?

What are we supposed to do with this story?

We come upon this dinner party in what we know will be the last week of Jesus’ life. Mark has set the scene just previously, with apocalyptic prophecies, warnings to be watchful, and a note that the Passover is two days away. Jesus is wanted by the Temple authorities. There is not even a pause between this story and the next, when Judas betrays Jesus. In our minds, we fast-forward to Friday. Jesus is doing the same.

Whom do we meet here? We are in Bethany, which strikes me as iconic because one of its Hebrew meanings is “house of the poor.” We see Jesus, at a dinner party at the home of an outcast, a man with a disease that marked him with a giant Quarantine sign. He is not alone; there are friends and family there with him. And here is a woman, appearing silently out of nowhere to pour oil over Jesus’ head. To the shock of everyone around him, Jesus doesn’t seem fazed by this. Instead, he castigates the others for mixing up their priorities.

We aren’t told her name. The writer of John identifies her as Martha’s sister Mary. The author of Luke considers her a prostitute, who not only anoints Jesus but weeps over him, and dries his feet with her hair. Mark, the first written gospel account, gives us the bare bones that others built from. She is simply a woman, who somehow came by a jar of ointment worth nearly a year’s wages. She breaks it open, and anoints Jesus’ head, as if he were truly a king.

She doesn’t just dribble a little. She pours it all out over him.

Picture this: A houseful of men are gathered, in occupied Jewish Palestine, two days before the festival celebrating their people’s deliverance from Egypt. They’re just sitting down to dinner. We don’t know who all is there. We don’t know how many. One commentator assumes an all-male gathering. We don’t know if Jesus brought the usual crew or if he showed up alone. We can guess that no one there came from any particular means; they would have risked too much by hanging out with a leper. We don’t know what they’re eating or drinking, or how much. We don’t know if they’re quietly or urgently making plans for liberation, or if they just want to have some fun before the craziness happens. There’s the potential for anything, here.

Suddenly, silently, she slips in, carrying a jar that cost a year’s daily wages. She carries it in front of her, with both hands, careful not to drop it. She knew what she was doing. She knew what she was risking. She locks her eyes on Jesus, breathes deeply, and slowly and with purpose, walks toward him.

There’s a rustling of elbows, a collective cough. She sets her jaw, and tunes them out. She grips the jar tighter, to keep her hands from shaking. She walks on, focused on what she came here to do.

Someone shouts, “Hey! Simon! Where did she get THAT?”

Simon shrugs back. They stop what they’re doing and watch. All eyes are on her now.

She reaches Jesus. He bows his head, so she can reach. She breaks the jar, pours it over him, and… instant apoplexy. Eyes popping out all over the place. There is oil everywhere, all over Jesus and running on the floor. Everyone in Judea can smell what it is.

There is one long indignant silence.

Then people start shouting. Where did you get that money? Why did you buy that jar? Don’t you care that people are starving? Why on earth did you pour that all over his head?

Maybe, who on earth are you? Who let you in here?

Definitely, what on earth just happened?

Jesus, somewhat used to calming storms, quiets this one. Sharply. “Leave her alone!”


“Yes, you. You were talking about the coming of the Kingdom. She just did something that mattered. You will have poor people, always, around you. You can care for them whenever you want. This woman—yes, this one right here—has anointed my head for burial. She has done a holy thing.”

I can hear them all just muttering, “oh.”

These are not shady characters. They’re thinking outside of themselves, already—they want to share what they have. They’re a bunch of people gathered in a house with Jesus, whom the Markan community knows as a tireless healer, teacher, and prophet with a pressing sense of urgency. Wherever Jesus is, things happen, and the kingdom of heaven is always breaking through. There is an energy always crackling around him. They are preparing for the great festival of liberation. They’ve got their minds on change.

Jesus doesn’t condemn them for that. He doesn’t tell them not to serve the poor. He takes for granted that they will do that anyway. He tells them that they have to do both. Sharing with people who have less than you is one way of loving God.

Seeing the need in one person, and filling that, is another.

Jesus often stands up for women. Why this one? It wasn’t she who gave her last penny to voracious Temple authorities. She did nothing like lose a quarter and search her whole house for it. She neither asks for healing, nor argues with him on behalf of someone she loves. She walks into this house without speaking a word, and she pours an entire jar of oil over Jesus’ head.

Nard is a member of the valerian family; it’s similar to what gives us Valium. It was imported from India, and was used both for healing and for anointing the dead. What she did, in her way, was to give healing to the healer.

She is told she’ll be remembered—but we don’t even know her name. Perhaps she is a member of Simon’s household. Perhaps she’s a perfect stranger here. We aren’t told how she got the money to pay for the ointment. The point isn’t how she paid for this. The point is that she held something precious, and she gave it away. She looked into Jesus, and she saw a king. She saw what he needed, and she did it for him.

She walked past all of these men, and she gave herself away.

If you look around, you can see people giving their whole selves for the healing of the world. Ten years ago, I met a man in downtown Olympia. He was sitting at a table in front of a magazine store I used to hang out in. He said hi. I said hi back. And I’m not sure why, but I sat at the table with him.

We got talking. He told me that he’d just gotten out of jail. He did time for something drug-related; I don’t remember what it was. He had just landed in Olympia, and was trying to figure out how to make a life there.

In the years since, he finished college and got involved in the local activist community. I know his last name, but I’ve never heard him use it. Everyone in town calls him “Long-Hair David.” He got involved with a program called “Books to Prisoners,” and brought it to town. There’s a regular thing now, where people bring books that they’re done with to a drop-off location, and volunteers package and mail them to inmates all over the US. He helped start a local harm-reduction program, and got the county health department to back him. He started a program offering donations of blankets and other essential items to local homeless youth. Many fall and winter evenings, you can see him on his bicycle, trailer packed with things to give away.

A year ago, I came to Berkeley with a question. When I trained to volunteer at a domestic violence/rape relief agency, we played a game on the last day of training. The instructors got us all together in a circle, and asked us this:

“How do you want to love the world?”

We were quiet for a minute, and then we played the game. One would ask the question, and throw a ball of yarn to another. That one would speak her answer, hold the string, and toss the ball to someone else. We repeated this until we had a spider’s web of connections, speaking who we were and what was in us to give.

I don’t remember what I said then. But I ask it again, now. Probably we all do. God has called us into a time of study and questioning, a time of learning and preparation for lives of intentional service. Sometimes we are absolutely clear about our passions and our callings. We’re off organizing for immigrants’ rights, or creating liturgies for peace. Sometimes we’re drowning in paper and deadlines, and can’t think past the next cup of coffee.

As we come to this Eucharistic table, let us remember who we are. Jesus saw the woman’s worth. Like her, we all are worth the love we have inside us. Our world is worth the love we have to give it.

Let us eat this bread, drink this cup, and with all the love we are given, give ourselves away.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

"Stretch out your hand."

The following is a sermon preached at CDSP on September 11 by Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, professor of early and medieval church history. I felt strongly that it be heard beyond our chapel, and asked permission to post it here.

Let us use our power to heal.

Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski
Monday of Proper 18, Year Two
Church Divinity School of the Pacific

I Cor. 5.1-8
Ps. 5
Luke 6.6-11

Jesus said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” (Luke 6.10)

Hands are powerful things in the Bible.

They are signs of action and strength.

The scriptures say when God’s hand is stretched out it destroys enemies and shelters the faithful.

Throughout the Bible, with outstretched right hands, people swear oaths, take up swords and act.

The outstretched right hand is a sign of vitality and power.

So when Jesus comes upon this man with a withered right hand, he sees someone who in very real terms in that time and place lacks strength and power.

And Jesus says to this man, “Stretch out your hand.”

Stretch out that hand that has left you diminished, that hand which has left you less than your complete self.

But what does this command by Jesus have to do with the 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th?

How does this gospel story speak to the horror and fear and anger and confusion and grief felt that day?

There are no set readings for such a commemoration in our prayer book, no liturgical calendar has yet established this as a day to observe.

But as an American, speaking here mostly to other Americans, I think this text is appropriate for today.

I ask you this question, five years after 9/11, “How have we stretched out our hands and how are they shriveled?”

In the aftermath of 9/11, many cried, “Stretch out your hand.”

And stretch out our hand we did.

As a nation we stretched out our hand and attacked Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And we stretched out our hand again, rounding up suspected terrorists at home and abroad.

And we stretched out our hand again, limiting civil liberties in favor of security.

And we stretched out our hand again, secretly rendering without trial suspected terrorists to countries where they would be tortured.

And we stretched out our hand again, invading Iraq under the fevered specter of mushroom clouds, and mobile weapons labs, and nerve gas, and never-ending waves of terror.

Look where stretching out our hand has gotten us – Guantanomo Bay, shock and awe, Abu Ghraib, a fruitless war begun for reasons that we know now were wisps of fog, with the death of over 2660 American soldiers, the wounding of over 19,000 more, and at least 42,000 Iraqi civilians killed.

This nation asked for a righteous hand to be stretched out in order to feel safe, but do we?

Did we fight to take our shoes off in airports and to fearfully glance a second time on airplanes at any who looks brown and suspicious?

Did we cry for revenge so as many Americans could die in wars after 9/11 as on that terrible day?

Five years later, we have to admit that when America stretched forth its hand, we lost so much and gained so little.

In stretching forth our hand in righteous anger, we have drawn it back to find it withered and strangely powerless.

As a nation we have been reduced and our moral authority rooted in human rights and democracy shriveled.

And what about those of us gathered here?

What has become of us as Christians?

How do we speak the gospel in times like this?

The events of 9/11 spurred many of us to work even more for justice and reconciliation.

For some of us, those events opened our hearts to God’s call.

And yet, we find ourselves struggling to speak.

We find the words of our faith used for purposes of violence and division, not healing and salvation.

And so some of us have found it better not to speak at all.

Not only our hand but our tongue is withered.

But Jesus says to us as a nation and as Christians, “Stretch out your hand.”

Stretch out your hand, not to destroy but to heal.

Remember the gospel lesson you heard today.

Prior to the healing of the hand there is an argument between Jesus and other religious leaders over whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

Jesus gives an answer that is consistent with the Jewish tradition.

Like many other rabbis before and after him, Jesus declared that the word of God is something to live by, not to die by.

God’s law gives life, it does not diminish it.

God desires the healing of our hands, not that they stay withered.

So if you are like me, and find yourself burdened with sorrow as you reflect on where we have gone as a country in the five years since 9/11, remember that we have been given words to live by, not to die by.

As we search for words to live by in the face of the death we find around us, listen to Paul:

“Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 5.8)

How do we respond to the evil of terrorism and to the malice infesting our national and global life?

Paul says with a new bread.

For us this new bread is Christ who brings in the reign of God, which is irrepressible in how it works towards a world where love and justice are the bywords of all people and systems.

Let’s feast on this bread of truth, this true bread, our Jesus.

And after eating, by the power of the Spirit do the reconciling work given us by Christ.

Go and say to others, “Stretch out your hands.”

Say it to those near and far, to those in power and those without power.

Say it to those working for peace and justice, and to those who make war and are unjust.

Say it to those who will listen and those who will not.

Say it so they will also stretch out their hands and receive the healing bread of Jesus.

But first, come and eat our true bread.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sharing Our Stories: St. Aidan Member in the 21st Century

A different relatively new person is speaking at my church each week, from the Feast of St. Aidan in late August until Epiphany. The topic is how St. Aidan's intersects with our spiritual lives. I was asked to participate last Wednesday, and here is what I said this morning.

My mother was not Cesar Chavez’ lawyer, but my mentor was an Aidanite.

Our Dean of Students chooses current students to mentor each member of the entering class, to show them the ropes their first year. She knows the mentors she chooses; she has met each newcomer who has visited, and read their applications. By a stroke of grace or genius, I got Molly. We met by e-mail over the summer. She took me out for a much-appreciated beer, the first night of orientation. As she tells it, she “got me drunk and made me take Greek.” We talked about how each of us had landed at CDSP. She knew I was from Olympia, had come from a bit of an upside-down situation, and was going to be looking for a new home here. My path wasn’t entirely unlike her own. She told me about St. Aidan’s, and about Aidan’s Way and Dymphna. I knew who Dymphna was, because I’d gone looking for a patron saint the week before. This sounded like a good community, and an incredible amount of fun. Molly was doing Field Ed at Holy Innocents and couldn’t bring me here, but she urged me to come. I remember my exact answer: “I’d love to. I can’t. We stole your rector.” She said, “No, don’t worry about that. You’d love them, and they’d love you.” Prophetic words.

I went out of town for my class retreat and then my birthday, and visited Grace Cathedral and somewhere else. I made it over here for the first time on St. Francis Day. I got off of BART and waited what seemed like forever at the bus stop. I overheard people talking about the #52. I went over and asked them about it. That was Kate and Angela. They showed me around that first day, and introduced me. Everybody was so incredibly open and welcoming. They took me out to lunch afterward, and we talked for a really long time. They weren’t just being nice to the newcomer; they were genuinely interested. I came back the next week, and it was clear that my having a connection to Nedi had mattered for about ten minutes. People who hadn’t heard that piece were just as friendly, just as welcoming, just as enthusiastic and encouraging.

I visited a couple other places, but when I wasn’t here, I missed it. I connected with the worship; I loved the community. I connected right away with the sense of compassion and utter chaotic, creative joy. I volunteered at Dymphna so I could meet people. That resulted in the following often-repeated exchange:

“Hi, how was your weekend?”
“Great! I waitressed at a drag show for church.”

I’m bringing a friend from San Joaquin to that, next month. She was here last week, with me.

I explored a few more congregations, but I kept a foot here. The community was wonderful, friendly and supportive. I had a lot of sorting and healing to do, and that seemed to be possible here. But the future rector was an unknown quantity. Because of an experience in the parish I had come from, I needed to be able to trust the priest. I was hesitant to completely fall in love before I knew who that would be. I came back from break at Epiphany, and you announced that you’d called Tommy. He is a friend of a seminary friend, since graduated; she’d found him in the Baton Rouge phone book when she was looking for a church for her parents. They love him. I met him, got to know him, and there was no longer a reason for resistance.

I got on the rota, and started really feeling like a part of this place. I started coming to the women’s group. I did what felt to me like little random things, like putting together a sheet about the labyrinth last Holy Week, and being there for an afternoon. People have commented to me that they appreciated me jumping in. I’m here; how could I possibly not? I’ve been asked to participate in some ways, and been happily included in anything I’ve expressed an interest in. People here have helped and supported me, sometimes on purpose, often more than they know. One major question I came down here with is, “What do I have to give to the world, and the church?” You’ve been more than willing to let me explore. I’ve been really embraced here, encouraged to give whatever I want to, and loved for who I am.

I went to Seattle for the summer, and had a fantastic time up there. Puget Sound holds my roots, and I love it. The parish I was in was very active and inclusive. In the middle of all of that, I wrote to Sally and asked her to transfer my membership here. I visited because my mentor told me to. I stayed because I caught the spirit of this community. I came from Olympia last fall, needing to do a lot of sorting and healing, and listening to what the call to uproot my whole life is all about. I struggled a lot with the whole idea of home, being from one place and needing to be in another. I came back here last week, twitching all the way up the hill on the bus, because I would not rather be anywhere else.

Thank you.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Gold in California

(With apologies/homage to Kate Wolf; the title fits.)

The subject of an e-mail I haven’t answered yet reads, “Are you home?” (Hi Mimi, yes I am.) I’ve been back in CA for a little over a week, and back in school since Tuesday. It’s good to be back here.

I drove from Olympia down to the Apostle in Exile’s house a week ago last Wednesday, and have absolutely no recollection of when I got there or what we did. (Dinner and talking are safe assumptions.) I did my laundry the next morning, and came over here. Got lunch on campus, as it was the middle of orientation, and caught up with some friends. Picked up my keys, dragged everything from my car up to my room, made my bed and collapsed into it. Got up the next morning and bought my books, drove back to the Apostle’s house, and bounced back and forth between there, school, and San Francisco with her all weekend. We went to an art show in Sausalito on Saturday. (There was some neat stuff, and some very weird.) That night we went on an impromptu walking tour of Berkeley-Oakland. We wanted to go to Kirala for sushi; neither of us had been, and we’d heard it was really good. In daylight, when you know where you are, it’s four blocks from the Ashby BART. We came out oriented the wrong way, and walked about four miles. I have never worked so hard for dinner, or been so happy to get it. We ate about 9:30 that night. Walked back to BART the short way, laughing the whole time, and rode it downtown. We hiked up the hill from the Berkeley BART to school, and ate chocolate cake at midnight.

I brought her to church with me at St. Aidan’s on Sunday. I was so excited to be home that I was twitching all the way up the hill on the bus. (I’ve walked up many times, but she was already maintaining that I was out to kill her, so we didn’t.) I hadn’t seen most of these people since the middle of May, but we’d been in touch. Other than getting lots of welcome-home hugs, and the liturgy having changed for the season, it was like I really hadn’t been gone long. I fit back in without having to think about it. It’s home.

The Apostle and I went to lunch at a really good bistro, and part of a free Shakespeare play (The Tempest) in the Presidio. We got there late, weren’t following it, and got cold, so we left early. We went back to her house, and stayed home all day Monday. I drove back to school Tuesday morning.

We mostly had a really great time. I had done a lot of healing in Seattle. I was glowing, bouncy-happy, excited to be back, and ready for anything. But we talked about one thing that troubled me, which I won’t go into here. The result of it, though, is that I’m looking at God sideways. I pray reluctantly, and only when I’m leading it publicly. I haven’t been to chapel when I haven’t had to be. I’m going to church tomorrow, because I agreed to speak and because I love the community. I only can worship with a small piece of me. I need to talk to God, but I don’t want to. I’m angry, and I have to face that, but I don’t feel ready for the level of anger that I feel. I’m engaged in my classes, but not fully, because they’re all about learning, preaching, or doing theology, and there’s that hesitation again. I’ve gotten huge pieces of my happiness and competence back—but I feel like I need to go someplace and scream and cry for awhile, where no one can hear me but God. I live in a physical fishbowl; you can’t walk outside without being seen by all the resident students and most of the administration. I have a counselor whom I already know—but she’s out of town until October. I have good friends here—but last year held its own trauma, and I don’t want to feel like a poster child again.

I need to work through this now, so it doesn’t keep shadowing me. I need to participate fully in this community. I will; I am so much better than at the beginning of this week, and I am nothing if not motivated. My church, school, and friend communities (including the Apostle herself) support me. If something I trip over breaks me open, I have to let it. I only need to do that in a safe place, to define when and how I will walk there.

My classes themselves are really good; I’m going to enjoy them. I’m not doing Field Ed now, like most of the continuing class, because I want to do a focused internship later. I needed to ground myself more where I am, in my own personal discernment and in the parish I've adopted. So, I’m taking a full academic load instead. I’m taking Hebrew, Modern Church History, Homiletics, and Ethics (which last is why Thursdays particularly rock; the instructor is fabulous as a teacher and as a person, and the whole question of the class is how to live your faith). I don’t know right now how to preach a God I’m completely in favor of, but I do know how to wrestle, and I know how to write and speak honestly. My passion is the inclusion of everyone’s voices; I want to learn to use mine well. My goal for this year’s history/theology sequence is simply to not suck. Hebrew’s easy and mostly mechanical; it’s memorizing vowels and grammar rules, and beginning to translate. I love that and I’m good at it. I’m back in the rhythm of prioritizing academic, personal, and spiritual time. It’s so tempting to do all the fun stuff first—and that does not necessarily include difficult reading. This is life now, though, and I’m here because I want and need to be. I know why I need this education, and I know why I want it. The secret, I think, is not losing touch with joy. I have grown a lot, and even I can see it. All I really have to do—the only non-negotiable in any of this—is stay open. Listen to what the words, nudges, and breezes are saying to me, and don’t worry about much else.

On that note, I have to finish my talk for tomorrow, and keep up with my history reading. Peace to all.