Over the past couple of years, one of my guilty pleasures has been the TV sitcom called “The Good Place.” In the pilot episode we meet Eleanor Shellstrop, a young woman from Arizona who wakes up on a comfortable couch in a quiet office lobby. Looming before her is a huge sign that says, “Welcome! Everything is fine.” A friendly, well-dressed, white-haired man named Michael (played by Ted Danson) calls her into his inner office and tells her that she has died, “her life on earth has ended, and she has entered the next phase of her existence in the universe.” Michael reassures her that upon her death, she went to the “Good Place.” Eleanor discovers that her whole life on earth had been recorded and judged: every moral choice she made had been evaluated on an elaborate point system, and she had earned enough points to go to the Good Place.
In 1996, moviegoers like me excitedly watched the first installment of Mission: Impossible, the franchise of films that follow our superspy heroes as they attempt to defeat the bad guys against terrible―well, impossible―odds. In this first film, we find Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt on a high-speed train with a couple of disavowed spies, including Luther, played by the charming, mellow Ving Rhames. Luther, despite his usual calm affect, is growing visibly anxious as Ethan tells the team that they are going to break into CIA Headquarters, in Langley. Luther finally is speechless, his eyes filled with worry.
I wonder if you have come into this room today with feelings of guilt or remorse. If not today, maybe another day: maybe you came to church at some point in your life with a heavy burden on your shoulders. Maybe you carried regret, or the kind of inconsolable sadness people sometimes feel when they made a big mistake, or fell short of expectations, or just got way off track.
Church people argue about lots of things. They debate the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, what miracles are, whether there’s an actual hell, and on and on. One of the smaller arguments church people have (when they should probably be doing something more productive) is the question whether Jesus had siblings. Some say no: his mother was always a virgin, they say. Others say yes: the Gospels mention brothers of Jesus, and in his teachings Jesus uses childbirth as a metaphor, suggesting that he probably helped his parents with home births, which gave him sermon material to work with.
I wonder if you have ever walked into a situation and discovered that it is far more serious than you had assumed. You underestimated your friend’s hard day, maybe, and what you thought was just a cloudy or stressful day for them turned out to be something much worse, and you didn’t pick up on that fast enough. You meant well, you love your friend very much! But you were just a little slow on the uptake.
If so, maybe you can empathize with those poor disciples, the first close friends of Jesus. So often they seem to just not get it. They are excited when it sounds like Jesus will be the answer to all their political hopes, so they ignore his repeated warnings that he is headed in an entirely different direction. They are indignant and want to take vengeance on those who reject the movement, but Jesus rebukes them and says that’s not what he’s about. These stories, one after another, give the impression that maybe the disciples aren’t too bright. But in their defense, he chose them, and presumably he saw something in them worth choosing. And--Jesus is a pretty hard person to be friends with. He’s intense. He’s unpredictable. He’s sometimes just touchy.
In today’s Good News, we catch up with Jesus and his followers just after he “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” This is the moment in the Gospel according to Luke when everything seems to turn in a foreboding, even frightening direction. When he turns toward Jerusalem, Jesus has to steel himself. Some interpreters say he sets his face like stone toward Jerusalem. From now on, as he and his followers make their way from Galilee through Samaria toward Judea, his Passion and death are looming on the horizon, the darkest of dark clouds. This friend of ours just got a lot more intense.
Naturally, the disciples are slow to cotton on to all this. Jesus sends a group ahead of him--a kind of advance team--to make preparations for his arrival in Samaria, and they are rejected by the Samaritans, who discover that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, which for them is the wrong city, the wrong mountain, the wrong place to worship God. The Samaritans! They’re famous in our Gospels because Jesus befriended them, lifted them up, included them among those whom God favors. In our own place and time, Jesus is standing along our southern border and saying that God warmly welcomes our Mexican neighbors, and he’s standing outside a mosque and saying that God has a special love for all people of faith. Well, that’s great of Jesus, but sometimes cultural and political divisions reassert themselves, and now that he is heading to Jerusalem, this is just not a time when very many people come to his defense, or even understand what he’s up to.
But Jesus stays true to who he is. He rebukes his disciples when they want to channel the prophet Elijah and bring fire down from heaven upon those ungrateful Samaritans. But Jesus wants nothing to do with “shock and awe” firestorms, not because they are hard or impressive, but because they’re too easy. His path is much harder than that. In a quick string of three mini-conversations, Jesus teaches his friends that his path--his Way--is more important than everything else. To follow him in that place and time meant leaving the security of home, and the safety of family and friends. It meant taking everything seriously, staying focused, setting your face like stone.
So what does it mean to follow him now? Unlike his first friends, we might not always find ourselves on a perilous journey with Jesus, leaving family and a steady paycheck to brave dangerous roads on the way to the gruesome death of our leader. What does it mean to follow him now?
Yesterday on campus, we held a liturgy of “lament and hope,” a service that, like today, proclaimed hard readings from Job and Psalm 88. We invited people to write down and share their laments, their grief, their sadness, their anger, their fears. I was on the planning team and almost casually agreed to stand up front and read aloud some of these laments, written on index cards. When we all got up there and I glanced at my very first lament, I discovered (like those slow-witted disciples) that I had underestimated the intensity of the grief of my friends, and reading their words out loud was not going to be easy. As we all read aloud their laments, it started to dawn on me that we could do this service once a week from now until May and probably not exhaust the deep anguish welling up inside people. And the thing is, seminarians and families and faculty and staff at VTS--this is not a collection of humans too far out of the common way. If we held a liturgy of lament and hope on every street corner in the land, every passerby would be able to knock us to the ground with her sorrow. People feel joy and happiness too, of course. But it’s harder to honestly look someone in the eye and meet them where they hurt.
My voice shook a couple of times when I read those laments, and before I allowed myself to feel embarrassed about that, I decided that that’s the very least I can do for my neighbor: I can allow their story to shake me, and not try to hide that. And... like many of us, my own lament remained very important to me, and when someone else read it aloud, it seemed like the most important thing that had been said so far. I can admit that self-centeredness.
As baptized Christians, we are challenged by our severe friend Jesus to take the hard path. Simply sitting still in the presence of your neighbor’s pain can be pretty hard. And that’s just one of our many options to do the work of ministry in the here and now.
Jesus is always heading to Jerusalem. He’s up to something more important than all of our possessions, and even our families and careers. His path takes us into dangerous places, calls us to hard tasks, challenges us to upend our whole lives. His path also leads to the empty tomb, with astonishing good news of triumph over sin and death. Through all of this, Jesus is uncompromising. He is intense.
What hard thing might he be asking you to do?
Proper 21, Wednesday, Year Two
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA, October 3, 2018.
One persistent fear that I carry into midlife is that I will always be a kid brother. I would like to not be a kid brother anymore. I don’t mean this literally: I have four older siblings, I mean them no harm, and even beyond all of our lifetimes, we forever will be siblings, at the very least on a dusty and yellowed copy of our family tree stored away in someone’s attic. In that sense I am and will always be a kid brother (and a big brother too: I have two younger sisters). But I often bring before God in prayer a desire—and I hope also an openness or willingness—to be, or to become, someone more than that identity, the identity of kid brother, an identity with which I have identified since the dawning of my self-awareness. I want to be someone more.
The New Yorker magazine is famous for its cartoons, and as you may know, they tend to run in themes—dog and cat cartoons, lawyer cartoons, and my favorite: psychoanalyst and therapist cartoons. (My profession is very easy to make fun of.) One of my favorite therapist cartoons has no caption. It is just a simple image. A married couple is walking through a door, and their cheering wedding guests are still throwing confetti over them. The couple is exultant, thrilled, overjoyed. Today is their wedding day! But the door they walk through is the door of a stuffy therapist’s office, with the bald and bearded therapist waiting in a chair by an empty couch, pen poised at his lips, notepad resting on his crossed legs.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Often enough, in conversational English, you’ll hear someone talking as if they have multiple personalities. “Part of me wants to get the day started and clean the house,” your friend will say, “but part of me wants to relax and sleep in.” When people feel conflicted about an important decision, the little “people” inside them seem to be arguing about it. “Part of me really wants to tell her off, but the sensible dad inside me would never allow me to do that.”
A friend of mine who was raised by a highly responsible parent has even named a part of herself by her mother’s name, and we talk about that dimension of her personality as if it were a distinct person inside her. And now that I’ve returned to seminary and been stimulated and challenged by immense life changes, changes that have prompted a lot of self-reflection, I’ve gone so far as to assign names to a couple of my own inner “people.” Simply naming them has shed some light on my own character and identity.
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” --Ezekiel 34:16a
Lindy West is a fat woman.
She would want me to say it that way. She’s not “large,” or “heavy,” or “a woman of size.” She says we should use the word ‘fat,’ because that is how she is seen in our weight-conscious culture; that is how she is judged; that is the reason why she is both visible in a way that upsets people, and invisible because fat people are erased from view, overlooked, disregarded.
A few months ago I felt a strong desire to talk to my mother. This is not a problem, really, except that my mother has been dead for twenty years. So I talked to my therapist about it, and he led me through an empty-chair exercise.
This was not a séance, but it had some of the trappings of one. The therapist stood up, opened the office door, and beckoned my mother into the office. Once she was seated in the empty chair and the therapist had welcomed her into the room, he invited me to speak to her.
Andrew and I visited Los Angeles several years ago, in the late winter. One afternoon we found our way to Hollywood Boulevard, and walked past the Kodak Theatre. It was Oscar season, and though we enjoyed no brushes with fame, it was fun to see all the equipment set out for the big night. In my memory there were rolls of red carpet, but I might have embellished them into the scene. I do know there were rows and rows of folded bleachers, and a cluster of chain-link fences, and barricades like the ones they use to close highway exits. I imagined the street filling with people on the bright Sunday afternoon in late February, and the hundreds of workers it would take to corral and control the mobs. By the time the stars stepped out of their limousines, all the fences and barriers would be in place, along with security personnel, and there would be no way that you or I could get close, no way for us to touch the illuminati. They would be safe, enclosed in a pleasant land of exclusive glamour.
Have you ever lost a friend?
I’ve lost a few.
I don’t mean the kind of loss we suffer when someone dies, though I know most of us (myself included) have lost plenty of friends that way. And I don’t mean the kind of loss that happens when people just drift apart, or go their separate ways for all the ordinary reasons. I mean this: the loss of a friendship … for cause. The loss that happens when it becomes clear to one of you that the friendship simply needs to end.
A few days ago a friend asked me to imagine what God is like, and he encouraged me to set aside my usual ideas. Don’t think about God as Father, Son, Spirit. Stay out of the Sistine Chapel. If I alone could describe God, what would God be like?
The other day I was asked two big questions, questions that might defy easy answers, and I found to my surprise that I had my answers at the ready. The first question was, “What is your greatest fear?” And the second question was, “What is your greatest joy?”
She has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy.
Twenty years ago this summer, when my mother was dying, my father started organizing all the papers she kept in remembrance of her children, cards and notes and certificates and report cards, letters and school pictures, a vast collection of memorabilia. In the box labeled “Stephen,” I found a card that her mother, my grandmother, had sent her a few days after my birth.
“My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power.” —Psalm 77:10
Human beings are so beautiful.
The gentle slope and sudden, jutting angle of a shoulder. The gleam of a smiling brown eye. The sound of laughter and the sound of song, the might of muscle and the warmth of a parent’s lap. The power and the glory and the majesty of a reconciling hug, a hug that says “It’s going to be okay, we are friends again, I am sorry and I love you.” Her thick braid of silver hair, and the delicate stamp of crow’s feet around his eyes. The elusive art of dancing: whenever dance is captured and released inside the body of a human being, the whole earth grows young again.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I took a train from the village of Hogsmeade to King’s Cross station in London, disembarking close to the entrance to Diagon Alley, which is a little shopping area that’s not so easy for most people to find. The train is called the Hogwarts Express, named for a boarding school it serves twice a year.
I find it hard to like homeless people.
I find them disturbing, scary. I am put off by them. Sometimes I even resent them: I like to shop at the grocery store across the street from here, a store filled with warmth and light and food I can afford; but practically every time I go, I have to walk past a homeless person asking for a handout.
I find this frustrating. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the store had the ability to shoo the panhandlers away. But it’s a city sidewalk; they can’t do that. I want to believe that I don’t want them to do that, because, I reason, kind and ethical people don’t want them to do that. Kind and ethical people want to help the panhandlers, somehow. But I know my feelings in that situation aren’t kind and ethical.
I know this about myself.
Some time ago I was visiting a close relative and his family in Minnesota, and I witnessed a little conversation that intrigued me. His daughter, about six years old I believe, turned to him and said this:
“Daddy, I hate you. You’re the parent I hate.”
Naturally, I was riveted. I couldn’t wait to find out what he would say in response to this. And here is what he said:
“I know, honey. I know. And bedtime is still 7:30.”
A little while ago I enjoyed a rare encounter with an elusive creature. Sometimes I wake up around 4:00 a.m., and I can tell I won’t be able to get back to sleep, so I just get up and go for a long, dark, quiet walk around the crown of Queen Anne. This was one of those nights. I had just crossed the large ravine on the northeast side of the hill, and I heard a rustling directly behind me. Then I saw—and in my memory I felt it, too—a large presence soaring around my right side, turning in front of me, and flying over my left shoulder.