Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mary, Movies and the Mother's Union

 Everybody has a bad movie that they like, though sometimes we keep quiet about them. If you ask me to list my favorite films, I will come up with some well-known movies that show a wide variety of good taste, perhaps with too much fondness for low comedy and full-color musicals. But if you ask me for a film that I'm I want to see when I'm recovering from the flu or feeling slightly sad then I might come up with a different list. One on the middle of that list is a film called “Foul Play” starring (are you ready?) Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. She plays a serious but slightly wacky librarian who gets involved in an assassination plot. He plays a creatively crazy policeman trying to win the maiden and solve the case. All this in 1970s San Francisco, a city I knew and loved. It has one of the best car chases you'd ever want to see, though it goes on a bit too long, but in the middle there's a bit of a love scene that is just wonderful.
It happens when Goldie, who has just missed being murdered by an albino with a knife, being luckily saved by Chevy, is now, for security reasons, going to spend the night at his Sausalito houseboat. Nothing's really happened romantically yet, but there seems to be an possibility of something else on the horizon, and they begin talking.
He says, "What if you think of me when you first met me?" She says, "I thought you were  a bit of a fool." He says, "But what did you think before that?" She says, "I thought you are arrogant." He says, "And what did you think before that?" She says, "I thought you were cute." and He says, "And what did you think before that?" And all this time they're getting just a little bit closer and they're taking very quick little looks, sort of snapshots, at each other's eyes and each others lips. And he says, "And what did you think before that?" And she says, "I thought you might be nice to kiss." And they do, and the lights fade, and the next thing you know they're having breakfast or something. 
And it seems to me in every one of these interchanges, these playful and erotic and building dialogues, that each one of them is getting younger.  It starts out with a guarded quality, yet with each response more honest innocence shows forth, they look at each other more openly, more keenly, sharing perhaps both their fear and their desire for completion, for wholeness, for the moment that connects, and they look younger every time.
And I think that happens with Mary and the Angel. 
Mary starts out a little guarded, "What can this mean, how can this be, this cannot happen to me" But she keeps coming back to the angel, they keep looking at each other, they keep being surprised by how deep and honest the interchange, the affection, the opportunity for a great joy just might be. What must she have looked like in that final Yes?
It must've been like a little girl, not knowing that anyone was watching, dancing before a lighted Christmas tree. What they call an authentic gesture, not tentative, but opening and articulate, allowing  space and making song and sense of the opportunity that has arisen.
And I want to say that that moment, a moment like that, is at the  ending, middle and beginning of every encounter in the Gospels. The preliminary question, the more direct response, the eyes searching, the faces facing, two people getting closer when desire and want meet opportunity and love, when healing happens and when new creation comes out of nowhere:
 Think of these people in the Scripture who are face-to-face with Jesus: putting their incomplete questions to him in the middle of that unfinished journey; just a bit awkward: because it always happens that way when we risk, when we're unsure, beginning, opening a new, just starting out, but it is still a kind of blessed poverty; think of the Beatitudes in Luke: 
"Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are you more hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who we now, for you will laugh, Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on  account of the Son of Man; rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven."
 So every dialogue, every dance with the Lord, with God, is an opportunity to grow younger, is a chance to wake up to life, life larger, life containing more contradictions, life pulsing with possibilities, life birthing a new way of being beyond any ending we might've seen before. That opportunity is there every time anyone takes the risk to seek Jesus face to face and ask the crucial question that waits to be asked in the middle of their life.  As the philosopher/theologian Suzanne Langer says, "If we would have new knowledge we must get a whole new world of questions." 
Still, some get it wrong, can't take the risk, have no room for questions. Instead, they hear a challenge and tried to choke it off, they hear an opening and try to close it out, they see a door opening to a more loving life and they try to nail it down; and they shut themselves off from so much.
Yet others listen, those who want to live larger, those who want to go beyond limitations, those who have to endure great suffering and deep pain but still hear in their hearts that hymn that keeps hope alive. And when they come to Jesus they get younger.
Look at the disciples in the Scripture, they start out as such staid people, such old fools, asking silly superficial questions. They consistently misunderstand Jesus and, when he gives them parables of opportunity and freedom and grace, they ask for security and positions and powers. It has to make you laugh!
  Thank God we have models of the faith like that, because they give us room to begin, and then they grow in faith and dedication and discipline and heart and hope through from those shaky beginnings to the ends of their lives.
 We talk about people maturing in the faith, getting wise sometimes and in some ways, and maybe we do; but I'll bet we get younger in the bargain.  We might not look younger (though that would be nice too) but we're still more likely to take it on living faith, more likely to let hope fly, maybe even foolishly, more likely to dance in front of the Christmas tree, and every other tree, every chance we get, every day of the year.
 It isn't always easy, and sometimes it will hurt like hell. Even for Mary. Later in Luke you get, “And a sword will pierce your soul,” and still later Mary will see things that no mother should see: witness that love and life to which she said "Yes" meeting a bloody end, a "No" that seems to have no hope for hope. She must have wished that cup could have passed by her child 
But perhaps she realized that she had taught him to walk that way, to dance in that direction. After all, Jesus', "not my will but thine” is not too far from Mary's, “let it be to me according to your word." Her hands lifting in that girl's garden to accept the Angels mission is a kind of overture to this solemn celebration he will enact, arms open wide, on the  Mount of Calvary. Perhaps she had helped to teach him to be the Lord of the dance, even with that damnable tree.
Thomas Merton writes this: 
"It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God...
She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.
She sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for us on the Cross."
By Our Lady's mindful mercy we see the almighty grace of God take baby steps into the middle of our humanity. With her innocent ascent we see caritas and courage meet on a dead tree and make the whole world bloom anew. In her accepting witness and her walk of faith we join with her to meet the angel proclaiming that, "He is risen from the dead" so that the whole creation may rise and dance in love. 
Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you, Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. 
Holy Mary, Mother of God: pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lent 4B, "Snakes, Sunsets and the City" St John's Wodonga

I have to admit that when I first looked at the lessons for today, I was less than thrilled. They're all pretty packed: the Israelites remembering all charms of  Egypt, and complaining loudly at the beginning of their desert pilgrimage to the promised land; the letter to the Ephesians talking about being lost in the desires  of flesh and senses, requiring a rescue of vast proportions; and Jesus continuing his dialogue with Nicodemus on how we might find refuge and hope in holding tight  to the death and resurrection of the Son of Man; all packed together pretty tight.

But Robert Frost, the  20th-century poet, once said something like "you should take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly." So I want to move into these complex readings with a couple of simple images that might help us, make sense of where we are in this journey with Jesus today

First a story about what happened to me and my family when I was in early adolescence and when It seemed like my world was falling apart: the death of a beloved grandfather, an idolized older brother getting married, starting his own household, my parents having trouble with money and their marriage; and in 1960 my mother and I moving to my uncle's sheep ranch in the Sacramento Valley. So visualize this 14-year-old boy, his back against the wall on the front porch of a  1930s California ranch house in territory that looks a bit like the land you see between Benalla and Shepparton with some hills to the west. This kid  in early adolescence sitting there with T-shirt and shorts on a warm summer evening - maybe late August or September -  watching the sunset over the Coast Range.

Now this kid thought he might have been smart, but vigilant would be a better word. He was trying to make sense of the world around him, had abandoned formal education and was educating himself by watching television, reading popular novels and books on psychology and sociology; figuring that if he looks for all the clues, eventually the puzzle will make sense, and the chaos will turn into some kind of order that he can control, or at least make peace with. He thinks, worries, wonders, about these things a lot. But that particular evening, just for a moment as he watches the sun begin to go down between the two distant mountains, he becomes aware of a subtle change in the air. It may be something you know. This moment when the earth baked by the sun since the morning starts to give up its heat to the cooler evening, with a bit of a fresh breeze; the threshold of  the day ending and the evening beginning, with a a kind of give-and-take, relinquishing and recovery, a rhythm, and a sudden unexpected sense that some sort of silent music might just be under everything.

 As I say he, will keep himself busy with his plans to move to the city, to be a successful person, to know what needs to be done, to be able to answer the questions of what matters and who is in control. But this silent music gives him pause for just a moment.

And that was one moment when I realized for a very short while (over 50 years later I've never forgotten it) that where I was, even though I thought it was in a cultural desert and a land I needed to escape from, might instead be a place for faithful pilgrimage, for a knowledge and a wisdom that was more than information.

Now fast forward some 30 years. A middle-aged mean is walking across a park in the middle of San Francisco. I joke that I spent my 20s making up for my teens and my 30s making up for my 20s, but there's some truth there: I was a bit of a hippie in my 20s, then  a perennial student and graduate student in my 30s, and when I got to my 40s I was doing campus ministry and teaching part-time as an Anglican layperson at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. I was somewhat underemployed and very underpaid but after a number of years wandering around doing a bit of everything I was working at something that seemed to connect, not only with what I needed but with what the world needed as well; an effort that seemed right and true, with some real mercy, making a difference in a very small way.

So I was walking across this open space and up ahead there was a hill of newly replanted grass set apart, circled by strings tied to sticks stuck in the ground and one small sign in front with three words printed in big black letters: "Shortcuts Cause Erosion" and I saw marks of dog paws and peoples shoe heals cutting across the new growing grass and realized I live in a world full of shortcuts. crowded with erosion. And that I was part of that world

Now this could be San Francisco in the 90s, Egypt or Babylon or Jerusalem a few thousand years ago, or Wodonga, Wangaratta, or anywhere else now: a green field of a world scarred by a lot of shortcuts, And I am a part of that world, we all are. It starts in Eden or anywhere,  whenever some snake in the grass tells us to take shortcuts to find a place where we can feel at home, be in control, on top of things at whatever cost. But it doesn't work and those shortcuts never fail to turn around and bite us in the end, painfully, while we're just trying to just holding on to what we thought we wanted, to follow those noisy and conspicuous desires of ego, of flesh and senses, cutting through to the place we thought we wanted to be. Those shortcuts end up killing us, like the letter to the Ephesians says, with our hands full of treasures that aren't worth it and our hearts aching from all the trespasses that took us where we shouldn't go.

Now I'm not bragging about my sins, the fact is they weren't that flashy, anymore then anyone else's, and the fact is too that everyone does the best they can. But I did see, that day at the park, that there were some serious reasons to avoid the shortcuts and get back to Jesus; there always are, and it's often isn't easy.

Because, as Sebastian Moore writes in a book called, "The Crucified Jesus is no Stranger," when we look on Jesus, God's light of love, we can clearly see our own shadow, all those mindless worthless shortcuts, and it burns like a snakebite as well, and there is something is us that wants to push him away, to protect what we thought we wanted to have, to hold on to that old history of who we thought we wanted to be.

That's part of the story of our lives, everybody lives: just jump forward to Holy Week, where todays lessons are taking us. Where are you as that week winds to an end? Are you with the faithful women watching from a ways off, are you with the scared and scattered apostles, running from their own denials, are you with so many in the crowd, feeling the sting of this Jesus, and pushing him away at any cost? Most days, I will confess, I am all over the map.

Here's a quote from, I think, Austin Farrer: "We are invited to exchange our living death for His dying life."  That's the good news from todays Gospel. We are invited to take up the truth that to hold on to your life, no matter what the cost, is a shortcut to nowhere, and to go beyond that. Instead to lay down our history and our burdens and our prizes and to take the chance to open our arms wide like Jesus for a bigger hope and a larger life. For when we listen and learn and look at the Lord, at what he says and how he lives and dies, we can see that sunset in the middle of the City, of every city, and every place; a certain promise, calling us to give up our ego and come to our heart and soul, to give our life away in love, to take the long way home in the surprise and hope of that God-given sunrise.

Here's how John Donne finishes his poem Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward. We can end here too.

O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree...
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.