narratives and self

What are the narratives we choose to tell about ourselves? To whom do we tell them? I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I ran into a professor in the mail room on campus, who asked how I was. I’d just come from Eucharist, where I told my friends I was “good”. To this professor, my intonation of “good” was not particularly compelling (“that was a very American answer”), and I admitted for the first time that morning that I was fighting the beginnings of a cold and wasn’t feeling my absolute best.

This is a trivial, somewhat inconsequential moment, but it’s made me wonder about how we talk about ourselves. There is the level of self-revealing that occurs when people ask how we are–do we answer with a socially acceptable response? Or do we probe a bit deeper into how we are, and perhaps why we are that way in that particular moment?

My example is very much focused on the politics of greetings and the cultural intention of asking “how are you”, which could get into a discussion of cultural norms and politeness vs. oversharing. But I’m more interested at the moment in the ways that we represent ourselves to others more broadly. What is the story we tell others when meeting someone for the first time? What are the things that we want others to walk away from our meeting(s) knowing? Is this desire intentional or unintentional?

I find for myself that this year’s conversations are very different from last year’s. Last year, I spent a lot of time at seminary talking about age in an attempt to convince myself (unconsciously) and others (consciously) that I was supposed to be here. This year, my conversations have shifted to discussing vocation and call. The narrative I wanted last year was that I was young but I still had valuable things to contribute. The narrative I find myself talking about this year is that I’m in discernment, I’m not sure about whether I’m called to parish priesthood, and I’m really okay with that.

I suppose, in many ways, thinking of self-narratives makes me wonder to what extent we allow those narratives to change when they need to. If speaking something to another person has the power to cement something inside of ourselves (which I believe is true), then how can we shift these stories? How do we live into an evolving self-narrative (discernment) in a world that demands static narratives and fixed, certain identities?

And with that–happy Wednesday!

a season for everything

Happy Friday, friends. It is a beautiful fall morning, and I’m sitting in the basement of the library watching a breeze rustle the not-yet-changed leaves outside.

I’m also thinking (shocking!) about the ways that we talk about time. I recognize in myself a deep desire to be able to say that yes, in this time, I want this particular, specific thing. For instance, I want to be able to say what my vocation may call me to in the future, I want to identify this in order to take steps to make that thing happen.

This is the pressure, I think, that our culture puts on us, and for many of us, we respond by internalizing that pressure and placing it on ourselves. If you can identify with this, then you know that it is exhausting to have both inside and outside forces demanding specificity, productivity, and any other number of -ivities that we could name.

This morning’s lectionary reading is from Ecclesiastes 3–that famous proverb that reminds us that

There’s a season for everything
    and a time for every matter under the heavens” (v. 1)

And I wonder what it might mean to acknowledge that while there are specific times for things, for events, for relationships, for futures… there is also time for the process of becoming. What we miss when we talk about time in concrete ways, when I demand change and clarity of myself within a certain timeframe, is that “there’s a season for everything”, and this everything must include a time for becoming–unscheduled and finicky as becoming may be.

To live with this is to live with ambiguity and no small measure of patience, but I wonder if this fluid understanding of time is simply what it means to be at peace.

 

Even When (Sermon)

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Track 2.

Today’s gospel lesson is all over the place. It begins with the confession of Peter. It’s one of the first moments in the gospel when we’re all able to say that yes, the disciples are getting it! Someone understands who Jesus is! “You are the Christ… the Messiah… the Holy One”

A plus, Peter. You passed that exam with flying colors.

But, what happens next is where things get tricky. Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, and Peter says wait. I think I studied for the wrong test. that’s definitely not how this works.

Imagine. Standing with Jesus and saying that yes, this is the Messiah. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. We got that answer right, we’re dusting off our Christian VIP pass. Then everything is wrong. Wait. Suffering? Death? That’s not how this is supposed to work! The Messiah is supposed to save us from the horrors of Rome, from the bondage of slavery. The Messiah is supposed to be King David incarnate, bringing Israel and God’s chosen people back to life. He’s not supposed… to die?

And here we are, hearing the story of Peter’s best moment, and his worst moment. You are the Christ. Yes! Get behind me Satan. No!

But isn’t it true that sometimes, these moments happen simultaneously? Isn’t it true that we can say the best thing, the most thoughtful idea we’ve ever had to precisely the wrong person? The person who doesn’t want to hear it, the person in our lives who won’t acknowledge the epiphany we just had. Or maybe we think it’s the best idea, and someone shoots it down, and you realize that hey, maybe they’re right.

Or maybe the day has been perfect. The meeting that you were nervous about? Well, that went so much better than you could have hoped. The sun is out. You just got a promotion you’d been hoping for. You had your favorite food for lunch. And then the phone call comes. A dear friend has died, and suddenly the day feels almost worthless. The wave of grief washes over you—it’s harder to notice the sun outside. It’s hard to breathe.

One of the questions that always comes up for me with this text is a question of why the heck did the church choose to honor Peter? From a story perspective, he’s the most flawed character in the gospels. Frankly, we hear more about Peter’s misdeeds and misunderstandings than we do about Judas’ betrayal of the Christ. Why did Christ choose to say that “on this rock I will build my church”. Peter? Really?

I’ve heard plenty of answers to this question, and I’m sure you have too. Well, Jesus calls us, regardless of who we are. Or, Peter redeems himself, that morning on the beach after the Resurrection. Or, Peter’s supposed to be like all of us flawed human beings. And while I think those answers are true, I’m not sure they really get at the heart of the question.

Why Peter—wrong one minute, right the next? Why us—wrong one minute, right the next?

I think the psalmist of 116 brings us closer to an answer. Today’s psalm is only half of Psalm 116, and the verses right after the lectionary ends say that

I have remained faithful, even when I said,

“I am suffering so badly!”

even when I said, out of fear,

“Everyone is a liar!”

The psalmist says that even when it hurts, even when the pain is so bad that you say the wrong thing, have faith. Even when you are depressed by the state of the world, even when it’s all lies and fake news and suffering, the Lord still hears my requests for mercy. The Lord is still compassionate. I can be at peace again, because the Lord has been good to me, to us.

What if the hope of the gospel is that Jesus is still Messiah, even if he’s not the Messiah we envision? Everyone is a liar. Humanity feels hopeless. My friends… family are homeless because of Hurricane Florence. My friend, my brother, my sister is dead.

We want Jesus to be the Messiah we envision. Jesus who raises our dead, diverts our storms, gives our world peace. But as Peter found out, salvation is a messy thing that doesn’t arrive exactly how we want it to. Sometimes Resurrection is taking up our cross, remaining faithful even when we’re suffering so badly that all we want to do is give up.

That’s the tension of the gospel, that the cross is the way to life, that suffering can lead to faith. May we all be wise enough to stand in that tension, saying like Peter that you are the Christ, even in the midst of suffering.

 

(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018)

You’re hungrier than you think you are (Sermon)

Two years ago, I folded my belongings into a couple of suitcases and flew to Boston. As part of a gap year between undergrad and seminary, I had signed up to work at a monastery. This monastery’s mission to provide a place of retreat for anyone who wants to come for a few days of reflection and quiet.

Within a few days of my being there,  I realized that most of the work I’d be doing had to do with chopping vegetables and making beds rather than praying at all hours of the day and night. (We prayed a lot too. But there were a lot of vegetables and beds in the mix.)

Another intern asked about this, and one of the monks said this, that “when someone comes on retreat, we find that often what they need most immediately is a good meal and good night’s sleep. You see what, we don’t realize is that we’re often more tired than we think we are. We’re often hungrier than we think we are.”

We’re hungrier than we think we are.

Food. Rest. Shelter. These are the most basic needs we have as human beings. If we don’t have food, or adequate sleep, then we can’t function. If you haven’t eaten in the past 24 hours, you’d probably find it hard to listen to this sermon, or recall what the readings were about.

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Jesus knows this too. In the Gospel reading today, the crowd following Jesus has had quite a journey. They’ve crossed the Sea of Galilee, and followed Jesus up a mountain. Imagine hiking a mountain just to hear a sermon? These people are so fascinated by Jesus that they’ve been traveling for hours just to hear what he says.

Perhaps they’re so excited about finally catching up to him that they are able to ignore the emptiness of their stomachs. The kids who cry are told to hush—“shhh, that’s Jesus. We need to listen to him”.

You see, I think that’s the pedestal we sometimes put Jesus, and even the whole Bible on. Jesus, the teacher of morals, who speaks the beatitudes on repeat at tells us to love our neighbor. The Bible, Holy Scripture, full of rules for how we need to live our lives as Christians. “Shhh, it’s time for Jesus”.

Jesus isn’t really on board with that though. He doesn’t want to be on a pedestal. He doesn’t want to be on an earthly throne—the writer of John’s gospel tells us that later, Jesus leaves because he “realized they were about to come and take him by force to make him king”. Jesus doesn’t want to be king, but what he does want is the child who is crying in hunger.

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When the crowds draw near him, everyone saying to one another—“shhh, look, it’s Jesus!” Jesus says to Philip “hey, we got any bread? Know of any stores nearby?”. Imagine standing there in the front of the crowd, listening to Jesus ask where to buy bread for you. Suddenly, you feel all the adrenaline drain away, and you feel a dull ache in your belly. “Oh. I’m starving. I didn’t realize I was that hungry.”

We’re often hungrier than we think we are. Maybe we think we need wisdom or good advice, when we actually need food. Perhaps we think we need to study harder, or do better work, when actually, we need sleep. Maybe we think that our colleague needs motivation when she’s actually been sleeping in her car for two weeks. Perhaps we wonder why our friend is so different now when he’s actually been rationing what’s left of his pantry until the next paycheck comes.

As people who live in a first-world country, most of us don’t think about these basic needs very often. But I think in the process of focusing on other things, like work, school, relationships, and the digital world, we have a tendency to forget that our bodies need care and attention too. We’re not brains living outside of a body. As Jesus knew well, sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that we’re never going to be able to listen to his teachings, much less put them into practice, if we’re hungry.

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We’re hungrier than we think we are.

I read an article this week that was arguing that the Episcopal Church had become too obsessed with what it called “social justice”, and had forgotten that the true message of the Gospel is the salvation of souls. And while I believe that Jesus Christ came into this world to save us from our sins, our gospel lesson todays shows us that it’s hard to tell the good news to people who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from.

Jesus fed and healed people as he preached the kingdom of heaven, and our call is to do the same. We can share that Christ has come only when we’ve also shown the love of Christ by feeding, clothing, and giving shelter to those who need it.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

Take care of yourself. Take care of other people.

We’re all hungrier than we think we are.

 

Preached on 7/29/18 at Ware Episcopal Church