Monday, August 29, 2011

Not one, but three summer films worth debating

Summer films are known for their blockbuster ambitions: usually sticking to the formula of big action, epic story, or romantic fun.

The only movie that I've seen this summer combines all of these (The final Harry Potter movie).

Rarer for summer movies are films that provoke controversy because of their subject matter.

Today, Episcopal Cafe highlighted one such movie: The Help. An article by Elizabeth Geitz looks at the movie that is swirling with controversy and asks, "Does The Help, help or hurt?"

It was a terrific book, I thought, for it revealed the South as I knew it and lived it.

And therein lies the controversy surrounding the work.

There is only one perspective portrayed in both the book and the movie, the perspective of white people. Black women are portrayed as one-dimensional, stereotypical ‘characters’ – not as real flesh and blood people with families, feelings, hopes, and dreams of their own.

Geitz continues:

The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement about The Help: “Despite efforts to market the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experience of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” I commend to you the rest of the statement made by Black women scholars who speak the truth of another perspective. It can be viewed at the website named below.

In an interview with NPR Stockett responded to the controversy surrounding her book: “I’m a Southerner — I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve,” she says. “I guess if I’m forced to find a good side, I’m glad that people are talking about an issue that hasn’t really been discussed all that much. I’m glad that people are talking about it from the black perspective and the white perspective.”

Turns out, it's not the only controversial summer movie. New York Times columnist A.O. Scott highlights three movies that have sparked debate. In addition to The Help, Scott cites The Tree of Life and The Future.

You'll have to read Scott's article (be careful for spoilers) to get the full story. Having not seen any of these movies yet, it is this observation that I pull from his story:

So it is cause for rejoicing when something comes along that raises hackles and polarizes opinions, stirring up passionate quarrels, both private and public, in which more seems to be at stake than who liked what. The ardent embrace or skeptical dismissal of certain films can feel less like a matter of opinion than of principle, and to talk about them is not so much to compare contrasting impressions as to engage opposing positions. Love it or hate it. You might be ambivalent or confused, but you can’t be neutral. Mixed feelings are strong feelings.

Oh yeah, I learned one other thing: I need to get to the movies!!!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tell the Story

(For my friend, Bryan)

Last week we heard the story of Joseph: from being sold into slavery by his brothers, to his rising in Egypt to considerable power. Ultimately, Joseph chooses to be reconciled to his brothers: realizing that even though they did evil to him, God sent him forward with great purpose.

The high note that last story ended on is quickly dashed by this morning’s opening line :

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
It may seem on the surface to only represent the passage of time, but it is so much more. Joseph and the former Pharaoh had became close. Joseph was a trusted and powerful person for Pharaoh, and the king respected him. There was unity between the Israelites and Egyptians, even in the midst of their differences. They lived for many years together in peaceful harmony: united for each others benefit.
But for some reason, the closeness ended. We don’t know why. Perhaps the peoples stopped working with one another, and stopped seeing benefits in each others differences. Ultimately, the stories of valuing each other were lost.
And so, a new Pharaoh looked upon the Israelites as a numerous and powerful people, and started to fear them. “...they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
The new Pharaoh in this story is responsible for the change to hardship afflicted on the ancient Israelites. It is an all to familiar story of those with power getting fearful about losing it, and to preserve power they turn people against one another, creating discord where there is none. But it is worth remembering that peace and unity must be constantly worked at by everyone. The generations had the responsibility to not forget the relationship formed between Joseph and Pharaoh, Israelite and Egyptian.
There are two other moments in this story that contain both a bit of humor and an important message. The Egyptian midwives to the Hebrew women, despite not having much power in their society, are held up as heroes. They defy Pharaoh himself to keep from killing the Israelite boys. (The funny part: only a man who has everything done for him would believe their story that Hebrew women give birth before the midwives can reach them...) And then there is the very daughter of Pharaoh who takes Moses as her own child. The humor in the story is that Moses’ mother is ultimately paid to nurse her own child. Of more importance to the reader is that, for some reason, Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe, instead of her wealthy palace where she could of easily had her bath drawn. Is she coming specifically to look to save a Hebrew child? Or perhaps she felt dirty from the policies of the palace, and wished to bathe outside it to be mentally as well as physically clean. Clearly she uses her power to defy Pharaoh in her own way. The story establishes from the start that, among the Egyptians, at least the women worked against Pharaoh and his ruthlessness.
I now want to remind you of my point in last week’s sermon.
I suggested the Joseph story counters the popular saying “when God closes a door, God opens a window.” Joseph recognized that it was his brothers that had done evil: God did not cause the evil act...closing the door on his former life. God does not cause bad things to happen.
God, however, may be the one who opens windows, by which I mean that is is often God who shows and sends us on a way forward. God sent Joseph forth into slavery, where he found both a new life and connection to the old. The promise of God is not that bad things won’t happen: what God promises is to be with us, even within the bad, and that it is never the end. Even in the midst of death and destruction, there is always new life.
One can see how our lesson from last week informs these stories: despite the dark times within Pharaoh’s command to kill, both the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter find their own way to serve God.
But as it turns out, I personally needed a reminder of this...
In the summer of 2002, I came to Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. They wanted me to be their Curate, but it was still (God willing) six months until my ordination, so I couldn’t be a Curate yet. They gave me the title of “Pastoral Associate”: my areas were to be youth and young adult ministries, coordinating pastoral care, and newcomers. One of my very first meetings with a newcomer was with a guy named Bryan Schwegler. He was younger than my 30 years (a bit rare for a church newcomer, for the most part), but I was amazed by the extent of his church experience and the depth in his search for a new church community. We sat and talked, and talked, and talked for a few hours in a coffee shop. Led by his enthusiasm (and perhaps my inexperience), I did two things you’re not supposed to do. First, it’s a bad idea to immediately put a newcomer into a position of responsibility. Second, you a newcomer in a position of working with youth. I did both: and it was one of the greatest calls I ever made. Bryan was a spectacular youth leader: greatly appreciated for his questioning and fun loving nature, and a wonderful mentor for the youth. He, along with his co-mentor Kim, journeyed with a group of Jr. High students as their mentor all the way to their High School graduations
I was blessed with a friendship that spanned my entire ministry at Trinity. He went to my ordinations, my installation as a Canon of the Cathedral, and was part of the farewell celebration to send Darlene and I off to New Hampshire. I in turn spent countless hours with him and Kim, led his confirmation class and was there at the celebration, and I also saw him become a member of Cathedral Council and worked with him there. Bryan was the first of what would become a core of young adult friends at Trinity that shared significant parts of our lives together.
Bryan died Thursday night after a sudden, unexpected brain aneurism. I am stunned from the loss of my friend. I am sick with sadness for Adam, his beloved, for Barb, his mother, and for the many family and friends who are heartbroken.
It is shocking when someone young dies suddenly. We are often compelled to as the unanswerable question: why. Was there some purpose in what has happened?
It’s a complicated subject.
I believe that there is no "purpose" in Bryan's death: in other words, God didn't do this for a reason...God didn't do this at all. I believe God’s actions in the aftermath of this difficult time are comfort and care of those who are hurting.
But there’s more to the question of purpose. You see, Bryan lived with his life with great purpose. He was engaging, generous, and kind. He loved and was loved by family and friends. We who know him might think his life was too short, but we can also honestly say that he fully lived the life he had.
And that leads us to this: as we are reminded that life is precious and fragile, we are called to live our lives with purpose.
The unexpected death of someone we care about is a reminder to live our lives with a real sense of urgency. It is a reminder that real purpose in life comes in the sacred moments we share with others. Perhaps a moment like this might call you into action on behalf of others, as the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughters were...but at the very least, it is a reminder to not wait to tell others what they mean to you.
“...a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
(Because no one continued to tell the stories.)
Don’t let this happen...
Tell and listen to your stories of one another.
In doing so, you honor their memory: and with God, you find a way forward.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

To the Dogs: Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman

I preached on Joseph this morning, but when Jesus calls someone a dog, you have to, at the very least, provide a link. This was originally posted September 6th, 2009

A Slap in the Face: Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

(A sermon on Mark 7:24-30, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton, NH)

This morning’s gospel begins with Jesus going out to the region of Tyre. We are told that he enters a house and wants no one to know that he’s there. Apparently, Jesus is tired, and trying to get some rest. Of course, it’s hard to keep the news that he’s in town quiet, and it’s not long before a woman comes to Jesus, begging for help for her sick little daughter. She’s a Gentile: a Syrophoenician woman. Now comes the time of the passage where Jesus is to surprise everyone with his generosity of time and spirit.

Instead he says this: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

That’s not the way I expected Jesus to respond to the woman in need. In fact, I don’t know how this sounds to you...but I think Jesus just called this woman a dog.

For the last 2000 years, many people have attempted to explain this passage’s presence and meaning in the Gospel of Mark.

Many have suggested that Jesus was testing the woman with his words. While I was growing up, this was the most prevalent understanding. I have seen some versions of the Bible include the words “in order to test her.” Well, I for one can’t imagine that this is true: and if it is, I personally think that’s even crueler than the words at face value.This woman’s child was in torment! Is this a time to test her, to see if she can give the right answer? Of course not.

Some have claimed that Jesus words are meant as a compliment: that in comparison to the children of Israel, Jesus was going beyond the accepted norm by saying that Gentiles were not really enemies, but sort of like the faithful family dog. I wouldn’t even know where to begin in listing all the problematic things with this interpretation, but I will clearly say that it’s an understanding I don’t personally accept.

Others have concluded that Jesus never really said these words. These others include the majority of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, whose work I greatly respect and often use. The Jesus Seminar concluded that the dialogue of this story was the storyteller’s: not Jesus’ actual words. They soundly point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ teachings suggest openness to pagans and gentiles:think about Jesus’ travels outside of Galilee, the story of the Good Samaritan, the encounter with the woman at the well, and so on. (The Five Gospels, Funk, Hoover & The Jesus Seminar p. 70 & p. 204)

There’s sound reasoning here, but what bothers me is this: why include the dogs comment, found in the Gospel of Matthew as well? Assume for a moment that this passage is a creation of the writer of the Gospel of Mark: putting words into Jesus’ mouth for a reason. What reason might that be? How does this account help make a persuasive argument that Jesus is Lord? The only apparent reason to have Jesus use these words is to suggest that Jesus understood his ministry to be within Judaism. Fine. Why then, include the woman’s retort and Jesus acceptance of it, granting her request? Any potential benefit to the story is now lost, and the results it that Jesus does not come off well in anyone’s eyes: the Gentile would be offended by his initial evasion, the Judean offended by his acquiescence to the woman. This story simply does not make Jesus look good to anyone, and seems unlikely to be made up for sake of furthering the new Christian community.

To me, there is a much more obvious explanation of this text, even if it’s a conclusion I don’t like. Jesus, my Lord, the one through whom I know the love of God...either due to his understanding of his ministry, or perhaps just because he was tired...attempts to evade this woman seeking his help, and for all intensive purposes calls her a dog.

My gut reaction is that I’d like to simply get rid of this passage, for it makes me uncomfortable. But upon reflection, I’m hesitant to dismiss it. This is one of the only times in our scriptures where we have a Jesus moment that does not speak well of him. Perhaps it is here because it was a story that refused to go away. Perhaps there were those who, in the midst of sharing the stories of Jesus said “But what about that encounter with the Syrophoenician woman?”

I once encountered a unique illustration of this story. Richard Swanson is a Biblical Storyteller and a professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He created a project called “Provoking the Gospel.” The students in his troupe are committed to the notion that biblical stories are dramatic, engaging, and provoking texts. They have been developing what they call “performative midrash,” which is a way of exploring texts through their embodiment, finding the tensions within the text. Their website says, “We do our work by poking the text and provoking it. We expect the text to poke us back, and to provoke us.”

I watched a video example of this technique. Two college students...a man and a woman...reading this passage in its entirety out loud, straight from the text, with the man speaking Jesus’ lines, and the woman taking on the unnamed Gentile. They read the text numerous times, and as they started to commit the passage to memory, they started to really interact with one another. Over and over the woman heard the man...Jesus...imply that he would not heal her suffering daughter...say that he would not throw the children’s food to the dogs. Finally, it sunk in: for one reason or another, she was not worthy of Jesus’ time.

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”


She slapped him across the face...and she exclaimed bitterly: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Somehow, the young man stayed in character. With his palm cooling his stinging cheek, he said to her, in a stunned voice: “For saying that, you may go---the demon has left your daughter.” And...still in shock and perhaps only now glimpsing how he had wounded her...he turned away and left the scene.

Provoking the Gospel, indeed....

Think about this. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus, a faithful Jew, would have originally thought that his ministry was supposed to be with his own people? His people were under Rome’s thumb, and were being taken advantage of by their own religious leaders. So he focused on them, but they struggled to understand. Even his handpicked disciples seemed clueless to the simplest of his messages. Jesus desperately needs some rest, and he finally gets away to a place where he thinks his time will be his, but instead finds yet another person in need: a gentile woman. His patience at an end, he attempts to push her away with what is either an unfortunate choice of words, or a not so cryptic dismissal that she is not “one of his people.”

But he underestimated her...she pushes back.

Perhaps at that moment, Jesus remembered his own bold and prophetic words that we heard last week: “It is not what goes in, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Mark 7:14-23)

What I think this means is that our capacity to do wrong is part of our human nature:we do not become infected with sin by breaking customs, like the Pharisees were trying to suggest. The capacity for sin...thoughts, words and actions that isolate us from God and each other’s love...comes from within ourselves, and is part of being fully human.

We teach in the church that Jesus, while divine, is also fully human. Do we really believe that? Will we allow Jesus himself to be fully human? Will we allow Jesus a mistake along his path of faithfulness to God’s call?

If we are able to, I think we begin to see the power in having Jesus learn something new... something so powerful that it changed the scope of his ministry...a ministry that would from this moment on especially focus on the outsider and the person marginalized by the community.

I am grateful for a portrait of Jesus that shows growth in his character from his experience with others. It proves to me that his encounters with people were real.There was the opportunity for all, including Jesus, to be transformed by each other. It shows that Jesus’ ministry changed over time... that it grew and blossomed in part by the people he met along the way. It suggests that even Jesus had to discern his ministry, just as we are all called to do.

Perhaps it might feel strange or uncomfortable to suggest that Jesus wasn’t perfect, but it might be just what we need: for such an understanding of Jesus might lead to a gentler and more patient way of our interacting with one other. After all, none of us are perfect...we all make mistakes...and the question often becomes how will we interact with people who have fallen short of our expectations. In proclaiming a fully human Jesus as Lord, we are called to follow in his footsteps and be a people vulnerable to a change of heart: open to new ways and understandings beyond our preconceived notions, and generous in our forgiving one another. In this way, the world might be transformed, and move towards God’s vision of heaven on earth. That's really good news from an uncomfortable text.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Clergy Evaluation: "Brilliant orator, but he gets on our nerves..."

James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote quite an article on Clergy Evaluation on Duke Divinity's Call & Response blog.

He brings up some great points that are worth exploring. He also shows a great deal of humor that I wanted to share:

Historical musings pop into my head. How would the Constantinople folk have ranked John Chrysostom on preaching? "Brilliant orator, but he gets on our nerves, and so we vote for exile!" Martin Luther on his relationship with his denomination (which my form now asks about)? "F-!" Julian of Norwich on caring for the poor? "She's in a room and hasn't come out for a decade." Jesus' annual assessment of Peter would have been dismal, although Jesus himself didn't rank well with messianic expectations.