Monthly Archives: December 2012

Two Marys

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

From time to time when I get dressed in the locker room at my gym, someone will watch me putting on my clergy collar and take an interest. “Are you a nun?” or “Are you a minister?” they’ll ask. Or: “I didn’t know you could be a lady priest! What church do you work at?” My favorite question, which I don’t get very often but I have gotten it more than once or twice is: “Do you guys have Mary?”

Yes, we have Mary.

I didn’t always have Mary. Or rather, I didn’t always get Mary. Almost thirty years ago, when I became a churchgoer, the only time I heard about Mary was when the priest would read the Advent bidding prayers every Sunday in Advent. In my mind I hear his voice, reading these words:

Finally, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother…

For a long time, I was Mary-curious. I didn’t really “get” Mary until the summer of my middler year, which I spent in the East End of London. It was in that internship that I learned about a certain flavor of Anglo-Catholicism, about ministry with women in prostitution, and about Mary. For me, the three were all rolled into one.

marysThe Blessed Mother was much more evident in the East End churches I visited than in churches where I’d worshipped in Boston, New York, and Portland. She stood larger than life alongside Jesus behind high altars, or reigned on her own in “Lady Chapels” all over town. Plastic flowers and rosary beads lay at her feet wherever she stood and held out her arms in welcome. Arms of plastic, arms of stone, arms of porcelain. Several churches had more than one Mary. The ubiquity of Mary mitigated the kitsch factor that I had saw all around me. I began to suspect she was important even if she was not always beautiful.

I came to know Mary through another Mary I met in the East End. This Mary had been sleeping under some bushes in a churchyard a few blocks from where we were living. She was about sixteen, but her eyes made her look sixty. She carried her belongings in a dirty pillowcase, and she wasn’t allowed in any of the local housing options because she had lice. She was probably hiding from her pimp, her dealer, and the police. The priest I was shadowing over the summer as part of my internship, Father Brian, took her out for curry one afternoon and asked her what she needed. “Just a few bob” was the answer he expected and the answer he got. Five dollars. Maybe ten. Enough for the day’s heroin.  He wanted to find her a bed, a family, a job, and a lifetime’s worth of square meals and solid friendship.

He gave her money and asked her to call him the next day so he could get together some resources for her. I listened from the next room as he made a dozen phone calls, eventually finding some leads for housing and even a little job for her. Then he waited all that day and the next day for her call. She never called. A few days later, I was out in the evening with volunteers from a street outreach to sex workers. We saw Mary, stoned and waiting for a john. She wobbled on legs as thin as two-by-fours.

The next day, I told Brian about seeing Mary. “Honestly,” I said, “I wonder whether she really wants help.”

“Some people are like that,” he said. It didn’t seem to faze him. I was busy thinking about how nice it would be to help someone who really wanted help and was able to benefit from it. How great it would be to feel as though I had been the one to make a difference in someone’s life. Lots of us have had that experience, right? We help and we help, we give and we give, but sometimes we pick our recipients carefully because we want to successfully save someone. Brian seemed not to care whether all of his efforts were actually ever going to get her off the street.

“She’s like the Blessed Mother,” he said. “The first Mary was a teenager with no education, nothing special about her, and yet God adores her, picks her out of a crowd. Out of nowhere. And she is Our Lady. Who’s to say this Mary isn’t beloved in exactly the same way? Or any of these girls? When I look at them, I see Our Lady.”

“She’s these girls,” Brian went on. “She’s the Queen of Heaven but she could be any one of them. Young. Poor. Living in a rough time. Mother of God.”

That night, back in our little room in Brian’s house, I opened my bible, and reread the verses that we heard this morning, both in the canticle and in the gospel.

elizabeth-greeting-maryLuke the Evangelist tells the story of the first Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth who is, just as miraculously, also pregnant, carrying the boy who grows up to be John the Baptist. The two women are as happy to see each other as any two women sharing bonds of kinship and first-time expectant motherhood. Elizabeth feels her baby kick. Mary responds, as many a devout Jewish girl before her, by giving God the credit for the miracle of conception and motherhood.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

I thought about the lice-ridden, pole-skinny Mary I’d seen under the streetlight the night before, hollowed-out eyes trying to focus on one spot so she wouldn’t fall over. It was hard to imagine her expressing joyful expectancy about anything.

Luke’s Mary goes on to say

God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

At least according to Luke, the great champion of the poor, Mary’s pregnancy meant more than just the miracle of conception, immaculate or otherwise. It meant that God had intervened in the course of history and the baby she carried might turn everything upside down, confounding the world’s expectations of who was up and who was down.

Then I understood that for Brian, it was this Mary’s voice that he heard when he saw the other Mary. He heard Our Lady saying: “God has filled the hungry with good things.” His care for her was not so that he could have some personal satisfaction of being the one to turn her life around, but because what it meant to him to be a follower of Jesus was to do his best to see that the hungry were filled with good things. Never mind if the hungry kept turning tricks or shooting up or stealing silver from his church.

I understood, finally, that Brian wanted his Mary, the one sleeping under the bushes, to experience the same surprise as Luke’s Mary, surprise at being picked as a recipient of God’s extravagance. I understood, finally, that feeding people or giving them handouts was not “enabling,” or “avoiding root causes.” It was to surprise someone with the unlikelihood of attention and generosity.

Yes, we have Mary.

Who will we surprise, this week, with unlikely attention and generosity?

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary’s Sunday, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother, and that whole multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in Jesus, we are one for evermore.

What do you believe in?

This week our Following the Way class engaged that question. The answers, collected here, are our offering to all of you who wonder, this time of year or any time, what you believe.  The task: name three things you believe in. The responses:

I believe in….

community–our journey together, bearing with one another
beauty (art, nature, music) as transcendance

I believe in the power of faith.
I believe in the power of ritual in community with others.
I believe in the human spirit being able to see people through the worst of times.

I believe in…

Doing the next right thing

I believe in…

My friend Alex.
St. Francis
The writer, William Dalrymple
The vision of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I believe in the dignity of every person
I believe in God’s unending love of us all.
I believe God never leaves us.
I believe in compassion.

I believe in….

the power of beauty
the essentiality of goodness
choosing to trust

I believe in….

I believe in the sky.
I believe in concrete things, some of which are invisible and/or nameless
I believe in the thing outside the thing outside
and the thing inside the thing
inside the thing inside
and the possibility that maybe they are the same thing.
Or could be.

I believe in….

respecting differences among people
taking good care of our children
showing humility and admitting when I’m wrong

I believe in: the Future, humanity, being

I believe in love.
I believe in pain.
I believe in the flesh.
I believe in God.
I believe in the soul.
I believe in the good.

I believe in the potential of people to change.
I believe in the incarnation of God in human flesh.
I believe in the power of forgiveness.


Stir up your power, O Lord

Many thanks to James Joiner, our pastoral associate, for this very timely and moving sermon. 

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

This is Advent, a time when we face the darkness of the world and ask for light.

This is wilderness, a place untamed and raw and totally cut off, where we wait, and cry to God for help.

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

Every third Sunday in Advent when I hear, in this prayer, of God stirring up his power/ I think of bare feet walking across a creek bed, the sediment swirling up in murky clouds through clear living water with each step; or, I think of spices at the bottom of a large pot full of broth that must be conjured with a wooden spoon for the flavor to spread.  The biblical language is not so gentle, however.  It comes from Psalm 80 a psalm often read in Advent for its 16th verse, which begs for God’s right hand man to come among us with the power of God’s strength.  The psalm is plea for God to break his silence and make himself known amidst the total decimation of his people.  “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up your strength and come to help us!” the psalmist cries.  It is one of our great, scriptural traditions to demand this kind of attention from God when the whole world seems to have gone wrong.  You have hidden your face for too long, O Lord.  You told us we were a chosen people and here we are, left for dead, trampled on by enemies, scorched by the heat of this world’s glaring cruelty.  Where are you, God?  Why do you not act?  Stir up your power, arouse your wrath and, like a sleeping lion stirred to wake by the clamor of injustice, pounce upon the wicked in our midst.

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here.  The prophet Zephaniah looks at his people, tormented by corruption, lawlessness and murder, and imagines that it would take a warrior to bring triumph and rejoicing back into their midst.  It would take a God who came singing, flinging prisoners upon his shoulder, swooping up the scattered ones to bring them home, trampling down every enemy he meets along the way.

JBLikewise, the Baptist John looks at his people, bewildered in their search for answers, and imagines fire.  “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” he says, and he speaks of One to come who will separate the evil from the good with a winnowing fork, to incinerate the evil once and for all.

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here.  Beneath the din of unceasing news reports, behind dull eyes that have seen so much senseless violence.  It seems that it would take a mighty arm to straighten all the crooked paths that have led us to this hell.  It seems that it would take the power to move mountains just to find us in the place where we are cowering, beneath the stockpiles and the sadness and the speechless gasps.  It would take a mighty god who could reach down through the madness we have made and pluck us up and hold us safe and protect us from any evil that may come.  It seems that it would take a mighty God to save us from ourselves.

And yet the tool of our God’s strength is not the ax that John imagined. Neither is it a winnowing fork, nor is it a fire.  The tool of our God’s strength is in the cross where he suffered in the same way that we suffer still today: senselessly.  The might of our God is born in the feed-trough of a manger, tender and defenseless as an infant child, dependent on a mother’s human hands for care.

This is the power that we ask for, still.  This is the great might that we pray will come.  To stop pretending that the world as we have made it is OK.  To let down our defenses and acknowledge the real horror in our midst, side by side with a real God who loves us through it.  To love, knowing that our love can bring us pain, can leave us out in the world beyond ourselves and our ability to protect and guard.  To shed tears for those we do not know, to hold the ones we do even tighter still, to lift a voice in outrage, to lay one’s life down for one’s friends.  To dream of a world where disaster is no more, especially when the idea of it seems crazy, and work to give that dream flesh and breath to sing with.  This power belongs to God.  This is the power Christ comes to baptize with: a world shimmering with such exquisite light that our hearts break each time evil threatens it, and weep when death still seems to carry it away.

If you are angry because you are fed up with the thousands of innocent children and adults who are killed and maimed by guns and violence in this and every country, every year, then let your anger burn for justice until God’s just and peaceful world is come.  If you grieve because the loss is more than you can hold alone, then let God’s consolation fill your heart.  And if you rejoice because the goodness of God’s world shines brighter now for all the darkness that surrounds it, then lift your voices high and sing.

Now is the time.  This is the place.  God is with us.

If the Word came to St. David’s

The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

isaiahIn the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Kitzhaber was governor of Oregon and Sam Adams had a few more weeks left to be mayor of Portland, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were senators from Oregon, when Katharine Jefferts-Shori was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Michael Hanley was Bishop of the Church in Western Oregon, the word of God came to St. David’s parish in the wilderness of Southeast Portland.

And so the people of St. David parish went into all the region around Harrison Hill, into all the coffee shops and tattoo parlors and vintage clothing shops and wine bars, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah.

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Prepare the way of the Lord, was the word that came to the people of St. David of Wales on Harrison Hill.

Prepare for the one promised by all the prophets
from Isaiah to John the Baptist,
the one promised to all the patriarchs,
from Abraham to Zechariah.

Prepare the way for the one whose love is like a refiner’s fire, the one whose love melts away our rough patches, whose love makes us shine so brightly that we see ourselves, and each other, as God sees us.

Listen to the voice in the wilderness, in this year of uncertainty, fiscal fear, global unrest, no more or less than all the years before, hear the voice crying out:
it is time to prepare.

Listen to the prophet’s wild voice saying: clear a path.

Clear away fear, clear away our addict’s craving for certainty.

Clear away the clutter of the season,
the clutter of our own self-important busy-ness and complacency.

Make a straight path for the Promised One,
straight into your heart, and yours, and yours.

Make a wide highway, with room for everyone,
everyone to come together and celebrate the good news of God’s word made flesh,
God’s word made forgiveness,
God’s word made love.

See the geography of your own soul.

See the topography of our corporate soul:
where are there barriers to all people coming together?

Where are there steep hills to climb and deep valleys to cross?

Where are the places rough? Make them smooth.

Where are the pathways crooked? Make them straight.

Smooth away the high ridges of your own needs and expectations, fill in the hollow places made by insecurity and doubt.

Fill the empty places with the tender compassion of our God.

Be the tender compassion of God, to your neighbors, to those with whom you struggle, and to your own self.

Clear a pathway for the voiceless ones,
that we might hear their songs and sing with them.

Prepare a pathway for those who suffer,
that we might sit with them, stand by them, and walk with them.

Raise up the valleys of despair and fill them with your own generosity, your own hope, your own sharing of good news with a stranger.

Let your single candle be the glimmer of hope to light the way. Let our candles be the pathway to rejoicing in the new world that is upon us.

The dawn from on high shall break upon us,

is what the people of St. David of Wales said to those in barbershops and brewpubs and grocery stores and preschools.

The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah knew this when he sang his song,
when he gave his word to little baby John the Baptist:

He knew about dwelling in darkness, about the shadow of death.

He knew we needed the way of peace. As we do, always.

Prepare the way, for the One who is not going to be what we expected, who is not going to be our warm fuzzy best-friend-lover or our great triumphant king.

Prepare the way for the one who is willing to be foolish and outcast in order to teach us to forgive one another, to change our minds, to change our hearts, to change our lives in order to welcome the kingdom of God,

the kingdom that is getting nearer by the second,
the kingdom we prepare,
when we prepare the way of the Lord.

Prepare the way of the Lord, cried out the prophetic, loving voices of the people of St. David, as they proclaimed God through music and art and laughter.

Make the rough ways smooth, proclaim followers of Jesus as they visit the sick and the lonely, as they advocate for the poor.

Make God’s paths straight, proclaim the people of St. David as they fight malaria, one mosquito net at a time.

Prepare a wide highway for those who hunger and thirst for God, prepare the way and hold a place for them at this table.

Invite them to our feast, where ordinary bread and wine become as holy as ordinary flesh and blood, as holy as you and me, as holy as all of our rough places and our winter longings.

Prepare. Rejoice.

So was heard the word, in the wilderness.