Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Fire at a Royal Wedding

It's been a whole week since the royal wedding, and interest in the event still seems to be fairly high. All the secrets are now revealed: the bride's dress was exquisite; her veil was perfect with the dress and a nod to her new role as part of the royal family and the British Empire; the children were adorable. The groom was nervous, but the love he had for her glowed in his face and especially his eyes. She, of course, had eyes for almost only him. The rest of the Royals were like regular Royals. They sat, and they watched. Until the moment.

Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, stood up to give a sermon at the royal wedding. It was a nod to the bride’s American heritage, and the Presiding Bishop  Curry as the closest American equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bride and groom picked the reading from the Song of Solomon. It’s not something heard  very often, but it was a beautiful and thoughtful passage, and Curry took full advantage.

As he put his iPad on the lectern, you could see eyes begin shifting around. An electronic device? In St. George's Chapel? What kind of heresy is this? Well, this sermon was on it, and what a sermon it was. After all, this was a 21st century wedding, with nods to simplicity and a few modern touches without losing the royal flavor.

The sermon was all about love, but also about diversity, politics, human rights, the power of change, the power of devotion, and the power of love. Love encompassed everything, including the bride and groom but also a world celebrating their love by watching and listening and joining in, whether inside the chapel or thousands of miles away by video.

Most American Episcopalians have heard the Bishop speak in a variety of venues. His book, Crazy Christians, is a bestseller. He has been videotaped numerous times, his sermons have been broadcast, and he has been featured in numerous events. We Americans have heard him preach and we know how powerful those sermons can be. So, we settled back and got ready to be blown away.

Curry hit some rather sore points, things like civil rights, slavery, and oppression that are seldom featured in wedding sermons. In fact, they are seldom mentioned even in Sunday sermons. But Curry found that the song of Solomon gave him the freedom to speak of these things that are part of our common and separate histories. A lot of people were uncomfortable, many very much so. The cameras were moving around the congregation, catching the faces of the people listening. Some were horrified. This was not the kind of sermon they were expecting. Usually it was a nice brief, traditional sermon, with all the focus being on the love between the bride and groom. What they got was like an electric shock going through the congregation, or maybe it was a jolt from the Holy Spirit, showing up early for Pentecost and deciding to make this wedding day something completely different and unforgettable.

The Bishop wasn't talking just about the love between two humans. He wasn't talking strictly about monogamy, faithfulness, and constancy within a single-family unit. He was talking about universal love, love that encompassed all people no matter what. Curry said "Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive." * It's a broad statement but right in line with the commandment of Jesus to love one another as he has loved us, and to love one another as we love ourselves. Maybe that's part of the problem; we don't know ourselves well enough to love ourselves. But Jesus does, and Curry made that abundantly clear again. To quote Bishop Curry, "When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family." Can't get much clearer than that. I hope a lot of people were really listening.

The thing about Curry’s sermon was that he put in it a passion that goes beyond human love. Curry is a Jesus lover, and he takes that love seriously, seriously enough to be so passionate about it he can't contain all the passion that he has for this love of Jesus. Regardless of where you are from or what kind of worship you were used to, that had to be abundantly clear. Curry is madly, passionately in love with Jesus, and he wants the world to feel that and to experience it for themselves. It is a bond with the Savior that is his strong as love and stronger than death. That mission is what I think a lot of people caught unexpectedly caught and didn't know how to respond but they knew something had changed something new had happened and something had come through like a rushing wind and lit the fires that hopefully will never be extinguished.

People go to church on Sundays, listen to the sermon, and probably have forgotten it by the time they walk out the front door. I don't think a lot of people walked out that way last Saturday in Windsor. I watched an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop after the wedding, and I was totally astounded and delighted to see the passion that seems to have affected the Archbishop. He seemed more alive and more engaged than I think I've ever seen him before. He had caught fire and showed it. I'm not saying he's going to go preach in Curry's style the next time he stands in the pulpit, but for that moment in time, he understood the passion and understood the way of expressing that passion so that others could catch on. It is not often that people remember the Sunday sermon or the Saturday sermon, but this is a sermon that people are still talking about a week later, and not just among themselves but on major television talk shows.

Curry is a very hot commodity right now. They all want to know what it felt like to preach in front of royalty. And I think the presiding Bishop, modestly, commented that he was preaching for the royal couple including everybody else in the sermon but that the sermon in a way road itself because of the song of Solomon, the text that he was given to work with.

It's time we look a little deeper into the wisdom literature of the Bible, parts of it that we almost never hear, and don't really understand. We look at it in a contemporary way, but we don't always acknowledge the parts that seem a little too intimate, a little too passionate, a little too lacking in mention of God and salvation and what have you. it refers it is love poetry between the lover and the beloved. Harry and Megan were the lover and the beloved, just as God, through and with Jesus, is the lover and all of us are the beloved.

There are so many words I could say about Bishop Curry's sermon. I watched the whole thing and I was totally amazed. I felt myself catching fire. Now that's something. It reminded me of a lot of Baptist sermons that I've heard, but blessed be, I heard not a single word about sin, repentance, and judgment. I heard a lot about love, and it touched me to the depths.

I think I'm going to remember the sermon for quite a while. I've printed out so that I can reread it and really meditate on it. If you haven't had a chance to read it, please do. If you haven't had a chance to see and hear it on video, oh, sisters and brothers, you are missing a treat. Prepare for your heart to be set afire.

God bless.

*Quotes from the sermon of the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Henry of Wales and Ms. Megan Markle, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, on Saturday, May 19, 2018.

Corrected copy of the reflection originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 25, 2018. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Girl, the Woman and the Sandwich

Everybody seems to have one Bible story that they remember more easily than others or like better for some reason. The gospel for the Daily Office today is one of my particular favorites. There is so much going on, and there are so many aspects to be taken apart and examined as if they were under a microscope. To me it is fascinating as well as touching, because a lot of it seems to be incredible and heart-wrenching 

The story is about a synagogue leader whose young daughter, aged probably around 13, had died and the thing he thought of to do, instead of standing by her bed and mourning, was to run to Jesus and ask for help. He expressed a great faith that Jesus could do what would seem to be almost impossible: raising the dead. The first important thing about this lesson is that it shows the power of faith, and the depth of one petitioner’s trust in Jesus.

Suddenly, however, a second story appears, kind of like the middle of a sandwich. We've gotten the bottom crust and now we get to a different story which is about a woman who had a severe hemorrhage for about 13 years, and who had faith but also a great deal of fear. All she wanted was to touch the hem of his garment and she knew she would be healed. She had tried everything else, but nothing had worked, and so for the last almost 13 years she had remained unclean, undefended, isolated, and probably severely depressed. This was her one chance, and so she took it. Jesus felt the power go out of him when she only had touched a single fringe on his cloak. She didn't touch his hand or his feet, or any clothes that were closely attached to him. It was just a fringe that floated in the breeze. But Jesus knew what she had done because he turned around and told her to take heart. She was made well, partly due to her great faith.

Then we get to the top layer of the sandwich, where Jesus goes to the leader's house which was his original destination. He first had to empty the house of all the mourners and musicians who were making a loud noise and creating a lot of confusion. He told them to go away, and that the girl was not dead but asleep. The mourners found that very amusing; this synagogue leader had brought a comedian to a deathbed. After they were all herded out, Jesus went into the little girl's room, picked up her hand and the girl rose up. The sandwich is nearly complete.

This kind of story within a story is familiarly called the sandwich technique of writing. It can be called a framing narrative.  There are other names for the technique, but sandwich seems to be such a good metaphor for how the stories are put together.

Reading it this time made something light up in my head. I think it shows Jesus multitasking. Undoubtedly, he did it all the time.  He would be walking and teaching at the same time or cooking and conversing with the disciples as they mended nets.  Multitasking wasn’t a word then, but today it is a very common word and action. It is something that everyone experiences now and again, even if not with such great consequences. This is like a slice of our lives today. I had never really considered it as Jesus doing something that we think of as relatively new, or perhaps we just noticed we needed a name for it. I guess it really does help me to understand that Jesus was human and capable of doing a lot of things that we think of as modern.

The sandwich isn't just bread and meat and/or cheese; it is a collection of things like mayonnaise, pickles, Dijon mustard, onions, horseradish, or lettuce and tomato. Without the assorted flavors of the additions, the sandwich seems kind of dull. It is the same thing with the stories in this particular sandwich narrative. The details come with the accent on Jesus's robe with fringe, the woman's length of illness compared to the child's age at the time of her death, the fact that both were female. Also there is the fact that both were the recipients of gifts from God through Jesus even though they were two separate individuals who probably never met, and the only thing they had in common was that they both were in dire straits. We know the child was, because the synagogue leader had said that his daughter had died. That’s drastic.

If you look at the woman with the hemorrhage, she was in dire straits too because of all the years of having wasted her money on doctors trying to cure her of her malady, as well as her lack of male accompaniment as she went out on the street. She was considered every bit as unclean as a leper, if anyone happened to know of her situation. It is probably pretty sure that they did, since gossip seems to float around regardless of the size of the area. If I go to bed at night, draw the curtains, pull down the shades, close the window, get under the covers and sneeze, the first thing tomorrow morning someone will ask me how my cold is. Same with the woman with the hemorrhage, they might not say anything, but their eyes would be staring, and speculation would be running rampant. It would be tremendously uncomfortable for the poor woman. There are so many bits of spice and color, spoken or unspoken, that give texture and flavor to her story.

I like the story because of all the details that are put in that make it seem real. Not exactly like a TV thriller or even a lot of the biblical movies that have come out, but rather as a slice of life, one that we can look at and put into perspective in our own lives. We to have interruptions in our lives, or something must be dealt with immediately just as these two incidents were.

One thing I learned from this is that if someone of Jesus's stature could interrupt one urgent mission to take care of another before going back to the first, then I should be able to handle getting a new piece of paper that needs immediate attention when I'm already working on another that demands equal attention. It is choosing, prioritizing, and multitasking. It is putting things into perspective and giving where gifts are sorely needed. I love this in these two stories.

I guess this next week I am going to have to think about where my priorities are and what I am doing at the cost of putting something else aside either for a few minutes for a few hours. Which is more important? How do I decide? Jesus responded to both requests even though one was unspoken while the other was a direct request. Sometimes it only takes a touch on the fringe to draw attention to the fact that someone needs help. Am I going to be sensitive enough to God's will to feel that and work with it?

God bless.

Image: Club Sandwich from Wikimedia Commons, credited to Matt@PEK, Taipei, Taiwan

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Leper's Tale

The sun is very bright today. The glare off the hard-packed road makes my eyes burn.  It’s hot in the sun, but others have taken up all the spaces under the few trees that grow here.  I learned early that a single person sitting alone has a better chance of getting something in the begging bowl than those in a group. It’s as if one person is safer than several together, even though we are all in rags and must repeat the same phrase whenever someone comes close to us.

It’s not easy being a leper, being considered unclean by one and all, and forced to live in very small tents away from the town, and to be dependent on the generosity of others who toss bits of bread and sometimes leftovers from their own tables to us, just as if we were dogs. That’s much like what they consider us, except that even the dogs get a friendly pat or encouraging word now and again.

One advantage to being alone rather than in a group:  I get to hear things others don’t. It’s as if by being nearly invisible, passersby don’t think we can overhear what they are talking about, whether it’s daily household talk, things going on in the town, or even news of the outside world that is important to them. Most of the time I hear their voices but don’t register their words unless it is something I haven’t heard before. Having learned to filter what I hear has been one of the very few good things about my condition.

I am considered a leper. My skin has not thickened, and I haven’t lost my facial features or my fingers and toes.  My disfigurement is that my skin has bleached white areas while the rest of me is the normal color. Still, those white spots have cost me nearly everything. I have lost my home, my family, my clan, my way of making my livelihood, my ability to worship in synagogue, everything.  Someone saw one of my patches and informed the priest who examined me and declared me a leper. In that one second, my world changed. Yes, I’d known about the whitish spots, but I hoped to avoid detection since I didn’t have any other signs, like sores and flesh that seemed to rot and thickening skin.

Today began much as usual, me taking my place by the side of the road, bent over as if to emphasize my “uncleanness.”  People came and went, chattering as they passed by. But this morning I heard something different.  There was a crowd of people coming by the town, which was something to be marked as unusual, important, and possibly threatening. Crowds sometimes taunt us and throw stones, so the sound made me instantly alert to any threat.

I kept hearing this name. I had heard it before, but then, it wasn’t exactly an uncommon name. The chatter I had heard before, though, was about someone who was a great teacher and a miraculous healer.  I knew, or used to know, several men named “Jesus” in our village, but these people surely couldn’t mean any of them, could they?  Still, I kept my ears open for more information about this “Jesus” who was coming down the road toward us.

The closer they came, I could feel the excitement building and the noise as well. It was hard to pick up individual conversations, but I did hear things like “He healed that blind man,” or “He taught with such authority like we’ve never heard from the priests we’ve had before.”  This intrigued me, and yet it isolated me even more. I could pray for healing, but out here, alone and friendless, would God really pay attention?  Would this Jesus even notice me? 

Finally, the procession came past where I had been squatting.  I had to try something, anything, that had even the most remote chance of healing me.  I stood up and approached the man who was undoubtedly the Jesus that the crowd had been speaking of.  Being unclean, and remembering the rules that governed lepers, I stayed a short distance away, but I looked him in the eyes and spoke to him. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”  God only knows where I got the courage to make such a statement, but it felt like it was wrenched out of me, my last hope of healing and curing, my one chance at life. Jesus’ eyes were full of compassion, something I wasn’t used to. Even when I had dared to look people in the eyes in my early days of this existence with my disfigurement, all I saw was fear, disgust, scorn, and dismissal.  These eyes of Jesus were so very different.

When I heard him say, “I do choose. Be made clean!” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. If he had not stretched out a hand and touched me, I would have doubted that I really heard what I thought I had.  I felt a power surge through me, and a tingling in the places where the white skin was.  I looked at one of the discolored spots and saw that it was gone! My skin was all a same color! I could barely wait to go and bathe in the river, to make sure what I felt was real. But this Jesus had an order for me. “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  The bath could wait. I ran as fast as I could. 

The result was that after I was examined thoroughly by the priest, I followed the prescribed rites and ritual sacrifices [i] and then finally got to bathe, wash my clothes, and shave all my hair. I stayed outside my tent, and seven days later, went again to the priest to complete the sacrifices and cleansing rituals. Then I could take my place back in the town, and begin again to build my life, this time full of gratitude to God for the man Jesus and the miraculous healing. I kept my silence about Jesus, just as he asked. I wanted people to know what had happened, but I thought that there would come a time when I could speak.

What change did this all make in my life?  I felt greater pity for the lepers who were not healed, and I made sure I had good hunks of bread and fresh fruit to give them instead of leftovers. They mistrusted me at first, but then began to see me as a friend rather than someone trying to impress others with their generosity while giving away castoffs. I continue this service this to this very day, in honor of Jesus’s kindness to me.

It was almost harder to see the life of the leper from outside the group than when I was part of it.  So many just ignored them or crossed the road to be as far away from them as possible. Yet Jesus had actually touched me in my leprous state.  If Jesus could risk becoming unclean as he ministered to me, then how could I not reciprocate?  I gathered food for the lepers from the houses in the town and shared it among the poor souls who had not received the blessing I had. It became my passion and my calling.

I say unto you, if you see someone less fortunate than yourself, do not be afraid to do what you can to help them. It is the work of God that you will be doing, and God will bless you as God has blessed me. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018


Tom Clancy, the great novelist, once said, “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.”  Our early lives focus around family, church, friends, and school. School equals a child's work hours; they're working to learn, and that learning will build, year by year, making successful adults who can function well in the world today.

Of course, school can be a bummer; ask just about any child. It would be so much more fun to be out playing with one's friends or curled up in a chair with a favorite book instead of having to fight through spelling and grammar and math. But now and then, there's a child who really gets into this idea of learning. Anyone who's ever been a teacher can remember cases where they have had children like these in their classes, and what a joy they are. The child's eyes glow when something new is presented and they realize it's something of value. They get excited and they want to dig deeper. It doesn't happen all the time, but it’s absolutely beautiful when it does.

Learning is an activity that is not necessarily confined to the walls of an educational institution. I learned things from my parents and my sibling, I learned from my neighbors, most of whom were much older than I, and definitely wiser. I learned from teachers and professors, and I learned from books. Most of all, I learned from just being in the world, watching how things changed, how people work together or have broken ties with each other over differences of opinion. I still learn every day.

There are moments of “AHA!” or new insight, moments when something suddenly becomes clear that perhaps I have never considered or a shift in thinking about a certain topic or a certain characteristic or even a plan of life or vocation. These need to be fostered because it's all about learning, and about what those new thoughts and insights mean to the individual.

An insight that I've gotten just in the last day or so is that all of us need training in various things. Granted, if one gets a new job, there's going to be a training session or class where the person must learn new procedures and new skills. It's a learning curve. For new parents, it's learning by doing, usually with a lot of helpful advice from grandmothers and others, on how to raise this new being who didn't come with an owner's manual or directions on how to grow a perfect, healthy, successful child. It's about experiencing through living, making mistakes, enjoying successes, and most of all knowing what to take from both successes and failures to make us better at what we’re trying to do.

One of the places we definitely need training in is being Christian. It's not enough to be able to quote scripture passages off the top of the head as if one were playing Jeopardy. It's not about just a learning that this means that in the Bible or this verse amplifies that verse in this book over here, it's learning what life was like in the Bible times, and how did the environment in which the early people lived affected what they thought, believed, and did. The church has an enormous history stretching back 2000 years and its roots much earlier. We need to learn about that history so that we understand how we got to be where we are and how are beliefs changed throughout the centuries.

We need to learn to think about where God is in all of creation and where are we? What is God doing or not doing, and what we are doing or not doing? What purpose do we serve in God's kingdom? What is our place in the world as Christians? What was the message God has given us in the Bible, but framed with the culture of the Bible at the time, then applied to the modern day? Many times, we don't learn these things in Sunday school, but rather in living in a world that's multicultural, as well as multi-faith.  We need to know these things and not just accept that Church A has a very welcoming reputation whereas Church B is more closed and exclusive. The answers all come down to training, and training is just another word for learning. It's something I've come to believe is very important for all, whether infants, children, adults or even elders. None of us knows it all, but we can sure learn a lot more than very possibly what we've been taught before.

I applaud churches that don't just have Bible studies but have studies of the Bible and its world, a world very different from ours and one which, once we understand the culture that produced the Bible, we understand better what it means. Does the Shepherd lead the sheep, or does he follow the sheep and whack them with a crook? That's only one question, but it's a place to start thinking.

I hope I keep learning as long as I live, because I am insatiably curious about so many things. I'm curious about my life as a Christian, and how I reflect that Christian belief in my everyday activities and contacts. I know a lot more than I did, and I continue to learn, not just facts and dates and people but about the intangibles, the things that form opinions, or things that make me go "Aha!"

Each of us needs to continue to learn not just so that we can repeat verbatim a passage or verse but that we understand what that first meant to the first people who heard it and to those who came after them. We can't isolate from the origins of that sacred book. We can't isolate from the culture in which Jesus grew and taught and was executed. We can’t understand the miracle of the resurrection unless we understand what went before. It all comes down to training and learning. We need to be trained to see beyond the modern-day interpretations that impose 21st century culture and understandings on first-century or earlier writings and stories. We need to be more educated Christians, as well as more dedicated.

 Never stop learning. It's worth the investment.

 God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 5, 2018.,