Mean People Are Hurting

Preaching, Theology, Uncategorized

“Mean people are hurting.” My very favorite Marriage and Family Therapist has a bumper sticker hanging in his office with this quote on it. It must be a Zen bumper sticker because it has that little Zen ink brush circle on it, and that makes sense because it’s a pretty zen quote. As far as I can tell Gautama Buddha never said anything exactly like “Mean people are hurting”, though it’s nice to imagine him stooping down to some impoverished beggar monk who’s bowl had just been passed over by some scowling face for the twentieth time and whispering something as serenely helpful as, “mean people are hurting,” but it probably didn’t happen probably just because Gautama Buddha wasn’t in the business of making bumper stickers. My friend, however, is in the business of helping to heal hurting people, and in his context this quote makes sense because sometimes hurting people turn mean. It’s easier that way, actually. It’s harder to say, “I’m really hurting right now,” or “I am deeply sad today,” or “I’m worried that no one really cares about me,” and easier to make a snide comment or a passive aggressive push for attention or a personal attack. It’s easier to be mean. And when we are faced with the meanness of this world, it is easier to get defensive than to try to help. It is easier to push back, fight, defend and belittle. And so to have a little reminder hanging around, “Mean people are hurting,” is to have a reminder about the choice we have to make when confronted with meanness. Shall I offer this person my own well-refined supply of defenses? Or shall I offer this person my compassionate care? Perhaps you could try keeping this handy phrase with you for the next time someone cuts you off on the Banfield Expressway, or the next time someone gives you judgemental side eye at the dog park. “Mean people are hurting,” you’ll say, and watch as the compassion just wells up inside of you.

zen circle

Jesus is continually faced with the meanness of this world. Jesus has enemies who like to make his theological points personal. “You have a demon!” they say when they disagree. Or, “your father was a carpenter -and I’ve heard he wasn’t even your real father!” Ok, I made that last one up. Jesus gives out truth and healing and people often respond with meanness. More than just meanness, evil. Evil is what you get when we refuse to take ownership of our meanness as a flaw, when we try to justify it and give it it’s own special priority. For Jesus today that comes as a death threat from King Herod. Death threats are a last resort of meanness. Meanness par excellence. To make a death threat is to say, “My woundedness is so threatened by your presence that I wish to annihilate you completely so that I will not suffer further risk of being unmasked for the broken human being I actually am.” Death threats were par for the course for Martin Luther King and other principals of the Civil Rights Movement and continue to be for leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. People were and are so afraid of their message that they call their houses at night to tell them that they will not only kill them but their families as well. And of course they would hardly be threatening at all if they weren’t followed through with actual death. This is happening to mayors in Mexico right now who try to do anything proactive about drug cartel violence. It happened to Gisela Mota, who at 33 had been elected as the first female mayor of Temixo. She had been vocal about her plans for ending cartel related government corruption. Two hours after she had been sworn in as mayor armed men came to her house where her whole family had gathered in celebration, especially over a newborn baby of the family. When the men ambushed the house, she rushed forward to say, “I am Gisela,” which is to say, “I am the one you’re looking for.” They beat her and shot her in front of her family, dead.

Jesus is continually faced with the meanness of this world. Jesus is continually faced with the threat of death, with death itself. What does Jesus do in the face of such meanness and death? Today he sends a message to Herod, “that fox”, saying yes, I am healing and yes I am forgiving and yes I’ve come to bring freedom to the poor so what are you going to do? Jesus faces towards the direction of his death. Like Gisela Mota coming out from behind her family to meet the men who’d come to kill her, Jesus turns towards the place which will ultimately bring his end: Jerusalem. He does not defend himself against it’s enmity, instead he calls to it with one of the most maternal images in all of scripture: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is one of the key verses we turn to when we’re looking for Christian feminine  or maternal images of divinity, because in it Jesus speaks of taking the inhabitants of the very city which will kill him and culling them to his breast as a mother hen would cull her brood. Medieval poets had a field day with this image of Jesus as a cosmic mother, from whose wounds the new world was born. But it is most important to remember that Jesus is not making this maternal gesture to his beloved children or even to his friends, but to his most vocal enemies.

Mean people are hurting, and we have a choice to make when confronted with the meanness of the world. Does this person need my defenses? Or does this person need my care? And when does care, especially the care of a mother, not only protect and nurture but challenge and inspire? In Jesus we see that our God is mothering even the very worst of us. To follow Jesus is to face the meanness of this world and know that we have the freedom to choose how we will respond. We have the freedom to follow a God who turns towards a hurting, defensive world, and becomes for them a mother brave enough to stand for truth and justice. Amen.

 

Pop Theology: On Moses and Being a Bad Gay Friend

Uncategorized

Earlier today I posted my Moses sermon from yesterday on Facebook with a line from my favorite Patty Griffin song, “Moses”, saying that if I had half an hour to preach I would have begun by belting out that line from the pulpit. Since I had some time on my hands today and have been recently inspired to write more about my theological love of pop music, I figured why not preach that extra 22 minutes here on the internet.

patty

It won’t take that long, actually. Thing is, the beloved be-horned figure from the Torah is really only a peripheral figure in Patty’s song. The main figure is a woman who cries out from the corner of a bar that seems to be filled with nothing but happily coupled prospects, “Diamonds! Roses! I need Moses to cross this sea of loneliness, part this red river of pain!” In other words, it would take a miracle from God for another human being to reach me in the mire of isolation in which I find myself. This line, its melody, and the way Patty wails it out are enough to make the song a peculiar blend of power ballad and lamentation. Here is a place for God: unable to imagine anything but the unimaginable to broach the very natural if sometimes excruciating condition of human loneliness.

But it’s one of the other peripheral figures in the song that always gets me. The speaker only ever goes home to “an empty apartment and a best friend who is a queer.” Every time the speaker sees her queer friend, “he smiles and tells me how well he’s walking these miles but he never ever asks a single thing about me if I die he’ll hear about it eventually.” Ouch. Maybe I feel convicted by this verse because I’m pretty sure I’ve been that gay best friend. At the very least I know him: that guy who is probably so deeply crushed by personal failure himself that he can’t help but try and pump himself up in every significant interaction he has with others. Here’s the speaker lonely with one good friend who can only talk about himself.

AS A TOTAL SIDEBAR: I love the fact that Patty is willing to challenge and talk about the cold hard truth of the whole “gay best friend” archetype, we’re not all we’re cracked up to be sometimes, people.

And so here’s the tragedy of the song: it wouldn’t take Moses. It wouldn’t take a miracle. Or at least, the miracle wouldn’t be that hard for a human soul to perform. All it would take for the friend to reach the speaker of the song, to cross the sea of loneliness and part the red river of pain, would be to pay attention to her. Stop talking about yourself for one second and ask this woman how her day was! You don’t even have to believe in God to be Moses in this song, you just have to be available for a little compassionate tenderness. And when we loose sight of THAT, we get the kind of wailing complaint that makes this song so very good to sing at the top of your lungs on road-trips.

Do that. And remember to be kind. That’s it.

Michaelmas

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lomuscio's st. michaelToday’s the feast of St. Michael & All Angels. Can I claim that as a name day? I never know which biblical James to claim as my name sake so I may as well celebrate on Michaelmas, too. Doug Blanchard posted a picture today of the new sculpture of St. Michael at the Vatican, which was blessed this past Summer. It is a provocative and beautiful angel.

I am meditating on victory as I look at the pictures. I am also reminded of all the little Roman Catholic prayer cards I collected as a child. In the sculpture, Michael is in classic form, he holds the lance that will enter Satan’s throat as delicately as he might an oyster fork. His poise and balance evoke all the weightlessness one expects a winged being to possess. St. Michael’s chest is apparently essential to the more contemporary depictions of him, the chintziest of which show him with a sea-through gauze-like breast plate, so you can still glimpse all the details of his chiseled perfection. He’s not built, just toned. He is graceful, he is fair, his hair is soft and blowing in the wind, like the blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus if he had spent time at the gym. He’s a fem-boy, which I want to celebrate even though I know that here its a held-over archetype of fair-skinned purity from the golden days of colonialism. Satan is shown with more grotesque, beastly strength, his monstrous size and ugliness are emphasized. He is also almost inevitably a person of color. In the end, these racially charged archetypal Anglo images of Michael’s victory are meant to depict a weightless, perfect grace which has come to dominate deformed and brutish strength.

fey st. michaelIn addition to being triggers/remnants from colonial puritanism, I feel like these contemporary artistic renderings of Michael’s victory could also be icons for all fey and fem boys of the playground: the ones who could only dream of finally defeating their private bullies underfoot, the ones who grow up to be flawlessly dressed purveyors of high culture while their childhood tormentors languish with beer bellies and dead-end jobs. This ideal of fem-boy victory is, of course, as rosy and removed from the truth as a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus, but it still conveys something true worth hoping in: that real power is not in what looks powerful upon the earth. Not in intimidation, not in size, not in violence, not in force, but in kindness, gentleness, humility, service, generosity, and reconciliation among other things.

Not like Michael is about to reconcile anything other than a final death-punch to his enemy. Perhaps, though, that blow is artistically undecided. Perhaps he will spare the strong man beneath him. It’s also not like our own victories are ever as clear as what these images suggest is about to happen. It’s not like the deformed insecurities within us ever fully cease to wield their brutish aggression in our lives. If anything, the mastery we seek merely domesticates the impulses we deem to be evil. In our human life we live suspended in the tension of what we learn is good and the primal obstacles we face in giving that goodness a principal role in our thoughts, choices, and actions. In ivory, bronze, and oil paint, St. Michael remains suspended in the seconds before the final blow when what is evil is eliminated. Ultimate victory remains to be seen, felt, and tasted, in his campaign and ours.

God, you are the source of our strength, you lengthen our stride beneath us and you incline our hearts to seek your way of loving-kindness among the cruelties of this world; awaken your strength within us now, grant us victory over fear, and lighten our hearts with the serenity of knowing that your way conquers all evil in the end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.