Saturday, March 31, 2007

The army just called for my 13 year-old daughter

Today at 11:oo I received a call from young woman who, without identifying herself asked to speak to my 13 year old daughter, who is out of town in Las Vegas at a family Bar Mitzvah (that's another story).

"No she's not here- can I take a message?" I said.
"Yes, tell her Tabatha is calling about opportunities in the army."
"The ARMY!!!???" I screamed, "Are you out of your mind- SHE IS THIRTEEN YEARS OLD! It's bad enough that you call ANYONE to try to get them killed but a thirteen year old girl? Don't you dare call this number again! You should be ashamed of yourself! What is your na-"

She hung up on me, but luckily I have her number and am pondering what to do with it. Legal action seems as appropriate against her as for a drug dealer or kidnapper who tried to reach my child. How did she get her number?

Almost immediately after the call, my 15 year old daughter, who is visiting relatives in New York called to say she had received an identical call minutes after the call I received. That meant that after screaming in her ear for five minutes the lady immediately called my OTHER daughter. As I have heard, they have no shame, are utterly desperate and lie easily to try to ensnare the kids they are trying to enlist. In the case of my 13 year old they are calling her five years before she can be enlisted so as to be able to work on her for that long. They had my other daughter's CELL PHONE, and did manage to talk to her without my knowledge or consent. "Are you interested in job opportunities with the army?" the woman brghtly asked my 15 year old.
"No I'm not!" She said. "Well, do you think any of your friends might be interested?"
"No!" she said and hung up.

I have just read that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (I've just re-named it the No Child Left Alive Act) high school are required to provide military recruiters with their student's names and contact information unlss students sighn an "opt out" form. We, of course, never saw this form. I doubt if they realize that getting a call from the army for your 13 year old child is proably the most radicalizing event short of the death of that child.

The army is so desperate now that enlistment bonuses have doubled and now are up to $40,000.00. How many impoverised kids could resist that? The recruiters go to shopping malls and any place kids hang out and offer them t-shirts, frisbees, video games. They tell them that in the army they get free meals and gym membership. And the dangers of the war are drastically played down. In one tape recorded recruiting call the recruiter told the teenager "We are not really at war."

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Outrageous Anointing: John 12:1-8

Sermon for Sunday morning March 25, 2007.

The story of the anointing woman is a well-known and well-cherished one and probably was at the time that the Gospel of John was written as well. It is dear to my heart because it illuminates two of the biblical elements that fascinate me most: Jesus’ relationship with the women of the New Testament, and the teaching that Jesus tried so hard to convey to his uncomprehending disciples - the teaching of unconditional, extravagant love.

The story of the anointing woman occurs, in differing versions, in all four gospels, which is very unusual for any of the New Testament stories. In every version it is an outrageous act, for differing reasons. In only one of the four stories, in the Gospel of Luke, the anointing woman is a sinner. And so in that version it is the fact of Jesus receiving and touching a “woman of the city- a sinner,” that shocks the on-lookers. As his host testily says, “If this man were a prophet he would know who and what this woman is.” And no first century woman could let down her hair in front of anyone besides her husband, without breaking a serious taboo.

But in the story in John that we read today and in Matthew and Mark, it is the extravagant waste of the very precious oil that shocks the bystanders. It was then and is now an utterly counter-cultural act. Love without counting the cost.

It is Mary of Bethany who perpetrates this scandal in our story of today, and this is the only anointing story in the four gospels where the woman is named. This is the second scandalous act that Mary of Bethany has committed with Jesus of Nazareth. Earlier, as Jesus sat and taught his male disciples, Mary chose to sit at his feet as well, breaking the taboo of women studying with a rabbi. Even her sister is scandalized and admonishes Jesus to remind Mary of her place. But as in the anointing story, Jesus defends Mary and asserts that she has taken the “better part.”

To pour such extravagant value at the feet of anyone who is not yourself or in your immediate family is presently as foreign to us now as it was then. However, the value that the nard was reported to have in our Gospel story may have been in line with so many symbolically inflated figures in the bible- Noah was over 800 years old, and by today’s standards, the story of today describes Mary of Bethany pouring $40,000 worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If this really happened before your eyes, you might say exactly what Judas did- why waste this great value on a mere gesture? Why not use the money for the poor? Our passage of today hastens to explain that, although Judas reaction would have mirrored our own, it was not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief.

Peter had much the same reaction as Judas did when Jesus told him that he wanted to wash Peter’s feet. “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” Peter sputtered. He was appalled at the seemingly meaningless wasteful extravagance in the gesture of a master washing the feet of his student. Washing the feet of a guest was considered a chore of such low status that only a slave, and a non-Jewish slave at that, would be expected to serve in this way. But Peter missed the point, just as Judas missed the point, just as we all so often miss the point. The point was unconditional, abundant, redeeming, limitless, utterly unselfish love.

The Gospel of John is made up of two halves- the Book of Signs, and the Book of Glory. The very first sign was presided over by another Mary- Mary of Nazareth- at the Wedding of Cana. And the very last sign is performed by Mary of Bethany. At the wedding of Cana there is another expression of almost unimaginable extravagance; the astonishing quantity of very fine wine provided by Jesus. His ministry is sandwiched in between two acts of great, extravagant generosity, both initiated by women. And the anointing story falls just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and his special instructions to his disciples at the last supper to “love one another” (John 13:34). It seems clear that Mary of Bethany’s act anticipates his commandment.

There are many examples of Jesus performing miracles of unimaginable abundance: The feeding of the multitudes (also one of the rare stories that occur in all four gospels) the massive catch of fish that Simon and his fellow fishermen harvest, and his instruction to forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven times ”. And there are also many stories of Jesus breaking taboos in the interest of compassion: healing on the Sabbath, allowing the touch of a bleeding woman, speaking with, healing and raising up women of the despised races of the Canaanites and the Samaritan, and, of course dining with tax collectors and sinners.

But in the story of Mary of Bethany, we have someone other than Jesus actually performing a courageous, taboo-breaking act of tremendous generosity. We are shown that one doesn’t have to be Jesus of Nazareth, one doesn’t have to have miraculous powers to emulate the kind of unconditional and almost limitless love that Jesus models. We can all find comfort in the fact that it was humble, human Mary of Bethany who anointed the Anointed One. Anyone can identify with her. She ducked out of doing the dishes so she could do something more fun- study at the feet of Jesus. She yelled at Jesus for being late immediately prior to his miracle of raising her brother from the dead.

In Matthew and Mark, Jesus defends the anointing woman from the scolding disciples saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Ironically, in these two Gospels, she is never named. And sadly, for the most part, it is Luke’s sinful woman of the city that has traditionally remained as a composite portrait of her. She has often been inaccurately identified as Mary Magdalene, although nowhere in the Gospels is it written that Mary of Magdalene was any kind of sinner. But this sermon today and so many throughout the centuries have fulfilled the prophecy that she will be remembered. And Jesus’ words hold more importance than can be ascribed to a simple act of extravagance. It is the anointing of the Anointed One. It is the good news- the news that we can allow the Grace to rain from us for a change; we can give something without calculating the cost.

In our Old Testament reading, God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah. God says,

Do not remember the former things,
Or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing
Now it springs forth do you not perceive it?

Like the Old Testament God of Isaiah, Mary of Bethany, and Jesus of Nazareth, were trying a new thing. As it sprang forth, like that flood of fragrant oil, like that extravagant gesture of love that Jesus presented to the uncomprehending disciples, a new idea came into being, a new life and a new hope, not based on market forces, not based on self-preservation, but based on unlimited love.

There was an anointing woman in one story of the Buddhist tradition as well. After his wanderings, as the Buddha had tried everything to reach enlightenment, he was at the end of a long fast, and he decided it was better to live than to die. A young and beautiful woman knelt at his feet and offered him a bowl of rice milk. Its sweetness and abundance was a sharp contrast to his previous regiment of 7 grains of rice per day. The rice milk was not only deliciously sweet, but also served in a solid golden bowl, a bowl that the Buddha tossed into the river afterwards. The extravagant gift gave the Buddha enough strength to go on with his journey, to his Jerusalem and his glorification. He had the strength to start his famous vigil beneath the Bodhi tree, his journey to enlightenment. Perhaps Jesus experienced something of that feeling of sweetness, of great generosity after the leanness and danger of his ministry before this abundant anointing, the anointing that would signal the end of his ministry. Perhaps it was a reminder of the abundance of God, that he tried so hard to model all his life. And it is the Christian Buddhist, Thick Nhat Hahn who best describes for me this abundance that we are all gifted with: He reminds us that:

The winds of grace are always blowing- we have only to put up our sails.

Jesus calls us to mirror the anointing woman and give back in some small measure, the love that has been so extravagantly poured out for us.
The never-ending raining down of Grace in our lives- Grace we did not earn, Grace we can’t even conceive of, and grace that does not ever exist in terms of lack or cost, but only in glorious abundance.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Kids Say the Darndest Things...

Working with children for the past ten years I have heard wonderful and strange things. One three-year-old handed me an illegible piece of paper and said, "Give this to God for me." One child said, "I believe two things. That Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that God is a man." The three year old naturally assumed I could deliver a note to God for her because I was always spouting off about God as if I knew God personally, and the child who knew that God was a man had only heard of God referred to as "He." What else was she supposed to think?

Children, like many adults, don't understand symbolism or generalizations or words that are supposed to represent something other than what they imply. If you heard the following liturgy:

"The White Male God be with you
And also with you
Lift up your hearts
We lift them up unto the White Male God..."

You might be disturbed. You might say,

"Well, that seems like a God that does not represent a huge percentage of humanity, and we are after all supposed to be formed in God's image."
And you might get the following reply:

"Well, of course we are only SAYING 'While Male' really we mean anyone- man, woman, any race, we only say 'White Male' to represent everyone."

This is what we are told when we object to calling God "He" or referring to God as "Lord." To many ears, and not just female ones, the words "Lord" and "he" seem to mean what they seem to mean. And most of all to childish ears, that have not been sufficiently taught to be oblivious to their own perceptions.

Particularly because our faith is a faith whose designated savior was the most revolutionary feminist that first century Judaism have ever seen, we should think on these things. In his outrageous flaunting of the laws of his day, he taught women, he spoke to women on the street, he touched women who were ritually unclean, he healed women, he lived from the means of the women who supported him, and he raised up women who were rejected as the lowest of the low. And he called God not "Father" but "Papa, or Daddy," (the more accurate translation of "Abba") terms not meant to connote masculinity, but the incredibly complete and intimate and utterly loving relationship he felt with God.

Surely Jesus was a brilliant student of the scriptures and surely he knew of "Chochma", the Wisdom Sophia, the compassionate, wise, peaceful and feminine aspect of God in the Old Testament.

"She is the way to everlasting true wealth and honor. Her way is pleasant, and all her paths are peace. She is a Tree of Life to those who embrace Her, and those who unite in her find happiness." - Proverbs 3:14-18

In many ways the Wisdom Sophia sounds like the God of Jesus' describing. It is hard to imagine Jesus denying anyone the ability to identify with and feel utterly close to God, his Dad.

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, travelling through...

I was born in a doctor's office upstairs from a hardware store in Sandusky Michigan and I've had a fondness for building
materials ever since. Soon thereafter we moved and I grew up in and
near the Appalachians, in Virginia and Maryland, gifting me with a love
of wooded mountains and mountain music. My Cherokee blood comes from a
great-great grandmother who escaped the Trail of Tears and fled to the
Appalachian woods and hid, later marrying my Irish Immigrant
great-great grandfather.

My father was an atheist and a geologist. He accidentally
grounded me in a deep spirituality based on his enormous love of
creation. I never darkened the door of a church until my mother brought
me at 8 years old to a wonderful, daring, spirit-filled little
Episcopal Church inAdelphi Maryland called St. Michael and All Angels.
She had still been rebelling against her father, a Presbyterian
preacher, so she only went back to church when she had to, just like
me. I fell in love with the Episcopal Church at that time, although
most of my friends were Jewish, and my first boy friend was Jewish as

Still having that hardware store thing, I put myself
through art school doing construction and then married a Jewish
carpenter. We now have two lovely daughters not yet enlisted in the
army, (see my post "The Army called for my 13 year old daughter") and
we live with three cats in Berkeley.

I attended the Corcoran
School of Art in Washington DC, around the corner from the White house.
Our convenient location made it easy to attend the demonstrations
against the Vietnam War, (like the Levitation of the Pentagon and the candle-lit Moratorium March) and to have interesting guest teachers like Allen Ginsburg. I
was in a great art school band (Ronnie and the Doves- I sang and played fiddle) and made a lot of small, strange films and videotapes. After graduation I went to Antioch
College where I majored infilm making. I worked as a documentary filmmaker for many years also serving as president of my union, NABET Local 532, in San Francisco, producing some award winning films and a sore back. Tiring of equipment and fund-raising, I started a theater Company, San Francisco Actors Theatre, and we had a terrific run of five glorious years of theatrical art.

After I got religion in a big way, I enrolled in the Church Divinity School of the Pacific where I got my Masters of Divinity and the ability to juggle my job as Director of Religious Education, my marriage and my kids needs that would make
any Cirquedu Soleil acrobat jealous.

I now very happily work as Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Mill Valley
and more, I am sure, will be revealed...