Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Warp to the Weft

So, here we are.  A week after a day that was filled to the brim with emotion--with grief and loss, love and joy, fellowship and shared laughter, rituals and tears, music and food and flowers.  This is a community that knows the importance of saying “goodbye”, of closing the circle as it were.  And, I felt so deeply privileged to witness so concretely the support this community gave to each other and all those who grieved.  You are the church, you are Christ’s body in the world, you, each and every one of you.  

Sometimes it can be hard to remember why we do this, crazy thing we call “going to church” but, last week, I remembered.  Last Sunday served as a testimony to why community grounded in faith matters.  It matters, you matter, we matter.  Even when it is hard to see, even when the muckiness of life (of budgets and worries and fears and transitions) gets in the way--it is still there, this body of Christ, drawing us together and surprising us again and again.   

I look forward to learning more about how this community has been drawn together, to hearing the stories and seeing the connections.  God has brought you here and I wonder why?  What role will you play in this body we call the church, in this body we call Christ?  
This brings me to today's sermon, as I read the readings appointed for today I reflected on the idea of seeing--the notion that God sees us for who we truly are in the depth of “I am”.  And then, I thought about our context here at St. Clement's and the deep love and commitment to community I was privileged to witness last week.  I thought of the ministry that lies ahead for all of us as this community discerns and continues to attempt the work of God in the world. 

And, as the readings and the context intermingled, the image that I have not been able to move beyond, the image I want to literally weave throughout this sermon is that of the art of tapestry making.

I am not a fabric artist, I once knit a scarf under duress, but I have been fascinated by the unicorn tapestries that hang in the Cloisters in New York for years.  I have often mused that when we look about us we see the messy threads--yet from God’s perspective the messiness becomes an image of great beauty.  So, I did a little research on how tapestries are made.  

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art website 

“A tapestry is made by repeatedly weaving the horizontal (weft) threads over and under the vertical (warp) threads, then squishing (or tamping) those horizontal threads down so they are very close together, thus completely hiding the vertical threads from view.

Although you cannot see them in a finished tapestry, the vertical warp threads are vital components of each piece—they are the backbone of every tapestry, and provide the support for the weft threads.”

It is what is unseen, the warp, that holds everything together.  Without that foundation there is no image, no picture, no beauty.  

What are the things that hold us together, that supports the threads of our lives and the lives of those around us?   Yes, the finished tapestry is beautiful--but only because of that which is unseen behind the threads.  

And, with that thought I wonder, where will we look for the gifts that will bring us closer to the kingdom of God?  Who are those people who hold our tapestry together?  Can this community, living in witness to the Gospel, be the warp to the weft?  

This community that, at its best, draws people together and truly sees them and loves them for who they are, exactly as God has made them--can we hold the circle, can we pull together the threads in a framework of love?  Can we see beyond ourselves and see more truly and hear more deeply the presence of God in this place?

The presence of God which is the warp to the weft.  

It can be so hard to do this, so hard to see beyond ourselves.  Recently, a video excerpt of the Italian version of The Voice was making the rounds.  In the video, a 25 year old nun in full habit appears on stage where she performs an inspired R&B rendition of an Alicia Keys song.  One by one, the judges turn their chairs.  One by one you see awe and delighted surprise on their faces when they realize that the voice that has just won their approval belongs to a nun.  

Wonderment.  I can only imagine that when Samuel found himself anointing Jesse’s youngest (and therefore lowest in social status) son, David, that he wondered at God’s choice.  What did God see in David that others had missed?  In early Israelite culture, the oldest son held the highest status amongst the children with each subsequent child holding less status.  Thus, David as the 7th or 8th son of Jesse (he’s 7th in Chronicles and 8th in Samuel) was almost extraneous.  No wonder Samuel mistakenly think that David’s oldest brother Eliab was the one to whom he’d been sent.

Yet, here he stood anointing young David.  

If this were a reality show we could watch Samuel’s face fill with awe as he realizes that the least of these was being called as God’s anointed one.  

The warp to the weft.  

All too often we are hampered by prejudices, assumptions and hierarchies--unable to see the potential, the gifts being offered, because so often these gifts emerge out of places and people we may find unlikely.  When we are able to look beyond the most obvious places of power and authority, what anointed voices will we hear?  

The warp to the weft.

This brings me to the Gospel appointed for today which partners with the text from Samuel--John’s version of the story of the man born blind who receives sight.  

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Prior to the genome, prior to germ theory, prior to talk of miasma and contagion in the middle ages was the prevalent belief in Western thought that physical malady reflected wrongdoing on the part of the afflicted.  So, in discussing the “man born blind” the conversation’s first turn was to the cause--and in the disciples’ understanding the cause was sin.  

Now, this understanding of illness is problematic for a variety of reasons.  But, at the heart of the problem is the notion that someone deserves their affliction.  Because, people feel that the blind man is blind through fault he becomes a pariah.  People are much less likely to assist those in need if it’s “their own fault”.  

So, his identity was severely limited by the perception of blame and it is clear that no one “knows” this man beyond his blindness and his begging.  The only people who recognize him in the story are those who had seen him as a beggar and his parents.  

Yet, he is seen, he is seen by Jesus and in that seeing he finds healing.  I can only imagine the awe and wonderment the blind man experienced as he took in the first sights.  I can only imagine the challenge this newfound ability to see posed to all those who had discounted him--those who still refused to hear him,  “I have told you before, but you would not listen”.  

So today we hear and see two people who the world would overlook--a youngest son and a blind man.  Yet, it is their presence and their voices that further the inbreaking of Christ into the world.  

What we have not seen becomes essential.  

The warp to the weft.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday, St. Clement's Episcopal Church, 2014

When I began my work as a pediatric chaplain I was astonished to learn that there was only one religious service offered each year--Ash Wednesday.  The Roman Catholic priest who served the hospital explained that other services had been attempted but Ash Wednesday was the only service that people actually showed up for.  

I was somewhat incredulous.  No Christmas?  No Easter?  Just Ash Wednesday?  

And, believe it or not, it was quite literally the best attended Ash Wednesday liturgy I have ever experienced.  Hundreds of people came--patients, families, staff.  Those who could not attend the noon day service knew that we would come to each floor of the hospital carrying our ashes and inscribe a dusty cross upon anyone who requested one.     

I was literally stopped in the hallway again and again.  Do you have ashes?  Do you have ashes?  Can we still get ashes?  

Yes.  Yes.  And, yes.  

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as I carefully swept my thumb down and then across the solemnly presented forehead.

That was it.  A liturgy consisting of a mere 11 words and a single liturgical action.  

It could have felt out of context.  It could have felt like a mechanical action devoid of meaning.  But, it didn’t. 

The context  was a place which averaged two deaths a week.  The action was each pulse of an artery, every IV placed, the sweep of mops, and every carefully inscribed note in medical charts heavier than the lives they chronicled.  The liturgy of breath and hope, of death and resurrection.  

Is it any wonder then that nurses would crowd around as I carried my small pouch of ashes?  

Each to each and one by one.  In a hospital containing thousands, the only ministry that day, barring emergencies, was the administration of the ashes.

I have long imagined that part of the inspiration to receive ashes in this setting was the desire to be reminded that death does not win, that there is something more and greater.  That when providers are faced with the reality that not all lives can be saved they might be reminded that we all face the same limits of our mortality.  There are times when breath cannot be breathed back into the body and I imagined that the ashes served as a reminder of God’s care when those we have loved or served move beyond our care.  

From dust to birth, from birth to life, from life to dust.  

We could stop here, we could sit with that truth of dustness of ashness of the reality that  we come of the earth and return to the earth and that those we do not leave will leave us.  

But, that’s not the end of the story.  

Because those ashes trace the same line as the chrism of our baptism.  The oil traced in cruciform and the ashy remnants of our celebration cannot be separated.  Life and death juxtaposed in the creases and wrinkles and pores of our foreheads.

Ashes and oil, oil and ashes.  The themes of baptism and Ash Wednesday intermingle--restoration, reconciliation, community.  We are the household of God, and, in wearing these ashes, we are called to remember the mandate that concludes the baptismal liturgy

“We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith
of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with
us in his eternal priesthood.”

There is work to be done.  

And thus, in this moment, I imagine something new.  Those nurses, those doctors, the staff, the patients and the families.  They carried their ashes amongst the tiny inhabitants of the neonatal intensive care unit, they pulled down surgical caps, adjusted wires and tubing, soothed and comforted, listened and worked.  Those who bore ashes stood watching and waiting and weeping.  The quick anointing with earth in the rush of the hallway became a reminder of their calling.  Those ashes were ashes of new life, ashes of promise and of hope.  

In the hospital, there were hundreds carrying those ashes--and now I see more clearly that in the cross they carried, they shared in the eternal priesthood, shared in joy and sorrow, shared the burden, shared the pain and shared the hope.  In those ashes there was the reminder that we may have nothing but we possess everything.  

We possess everything, we have all that we need, and we do not stand alone.  

Do you believe it?  Do you believe that the ashes can make us whole?  

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.  

There is work to be done and we shall do it together.