Sermons by Katherine Ragsdale

Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.

Location: Massachusetts

you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"

Friday, September 01, 2017

Sermon in the Aftermath of Charlottesville 8-20-17

Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
Sermon 08/20/17
Is. 56:1.6-8
Mt. 15:21-28

We’ve had a rough week to 10 days. I’m a Virginian so the events in Charlottesville hit close to my heart: torch-bearing mobs yelling racist and anti-Semitic epithets, using Nazi chants and symbols. And then, I don’t know if the news in RI covered this, but just a few days later the Holocaust Memorial in Boston was vandalized for the second time this summer. Someone threw a rock and broke a tall glass panel with the numbers of those killed in the ovens inscribed on them. In over 20 years of its existence this memorial had not been vandalized and now – twice in six weeks.

I would bet that there are members of this community who can remember when young men and women from across this country volunteered to join others from around the world to fight, to die, to suffer things beyond our imagining – things so horrible that they’ve spared us even the stories, the memories  they faced all this to insure that Nazi-ism would not prevail upon this earth. To see those symbols, hear those words, feel that terror is not only repugnant and infuriating and evil, it’s also heartbreakingly disrespectful of the sacrifices of so many brave souls.

And it’s not just the rhetoric and symbols and rage which echo the nazis, it’s also the underlying sense of grievance, the world view, that ring too familiar. Remember Germany at the dawn of the rise of the nazis? The German Empire had been defeated in WWI, the economy was crumbling. And, instead of national and individual soul-searching to come to terms with the mistakes that had helped cripple the nation, instead of recognizing the inevitable tides and turns of history and planning for a future built on the best of the past, instead of that, they fashioned a movement of resentment and hate. A movement that blamed everything on the Other – the Jew, the Gypsy, the non-Aryan. And, even among the Aryans, on gay men and lesbians and people with disabilities. The loss of pride and power was blamed on the Other and straight, able-bodied, Aryan men intended to take it back.

Sound familiar? How can it be that in 2017, in the United States of America this can sound familiar?

What is happening, here, in the US, in 2017, is horrifying and infuriating. And we must resist. My hat is off to the Resist movement in its many manifestations. And it does manifest in many ways:
• This week’s enews featured a letter from the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of VA which included a list of things individuals and churches can do to respond and resist.
• You probably heard that the entire President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities resigned. Have you seen the resignation letter? It’s 6 paragraphs long (counting the final “Thank you.” The first letters of each paragraph spell RESIST.
• There are other traditions of adding humor to resistance to sustain spirits for the long-haul. I’ve been told about a story that has been circulating about a town – in Bavaria, I think – in which a nazi leader, Rudolf Hess, was buried. For years, decades maybe, neo-Nazis have descended on the town on the anniversary of the leader’s birth to stage a march. The townspeople hate it and have done everything they can think of to stop it. They even finally dug up the body and moved it out of town but the marchers came back anyway. So, eventually someone decided that if the group couldn’t be deterred perhaps they could be defused – perhaps their power to offend could be sapped. They started decorating for the march – painted start and finish lines on the road; made funny signs; and, at the end of the route, showered the marchers with rainbow-colored confetti. They refused to take the bait and made a mockery of the whole thing.
• I’m reminded of a long-standing response to protesters at women’s health clinics – pledge a protester. Supporters from around the country pledge a dollar, or a dime, or a hundred per protester. So when they show up in all their shouting, pushing, hair pulling, pinching, threatening nastiness at least the patients and providers can smile with the realization that each protester means more money to support the clinic.

There are lots of ways to resist and many of them can be effective – can offer a cure to horrible problems. But I want to propose that resistance is not enough. Cures are great but, in addition to usually coming with unpleasant side-effects, they generally only come into play after disease has taken hold and done damage. So let’s talk prevention.

We need not only to repudiate the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, xenophobic narratives of the alt-right; we need also to offer such a compelling vision of our own that the narratives of the alt-right are revealed as the pathetic, whining evil that they are. The stories that we tell shape us and they shape the culture. They become the air that we breathe, the ground in which our identities take root. We need to claim and declaim a vision so powerful that there is no air left for hate to breathe, no soil in which these cancers can grow.

We have such stories. As Americans we have such stories to tell.

Americans built a democracy that became a template for those around the world who yearned for freedom and justice and prosperity. This is not to say we’re perfect or blameless – we, like everyone, bear the mark of Cain. We’ve made terrible mistakes: the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, misogyny, the interment of Japanese Americans, exploitation and abuse of immigrant group after immigrant group. We’ve made mistakes and we still suffer the consequences of them, we continue to make more, and, no doubt, we always will but…

The Vision. The vision that inspired Patrick Henry and Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King – the vision calls us, again and again, to our better selves; it entices us to repair the damage and to live into the promise. Americans have a narrative to declare.

People of faith – Christians Jews, Muslims, people of many faiths all around the world have a vision and a story to share. We heard some of those stories in the readings appointed for today. Isaiah declared God’s promise that everyone is welcome in God’s presence: the foreigner, refugee, outcast, marginalized … all are welcome to the family of God. Then there was the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus’s first response to her, a member of a despised people,and a woman at that, was to ignore her, then to insult her with a racist epithet. But he allowed his eyes to be opened, he repented, and he welcomed her. In early Christian history Peter and Paul fought passionately about whether non-Jews could ever become followers of Jesus, Christians. Eventually inclusion won – the doors were thrown ever wider.

The stories we tell shape us and the world we live in. We must tell these stories of God’s love and inclusion, of our connectedness to one another as members of one body. Here’s another such story.

I want to take you back to the beginning, to the creation stories in Genesis. I say stories. You know there are two? One says God created light and dark, all the earth and its creatures, and humans, “male and female God created them.” The other is the one we’re more familiar with, the one we all learned in Sunday school. In that, God creates all the world and then takes dust and spits in in, turns it to mud, which is fashioned into human shape, and God blows life into it and thus creates ….(congregation responds “man” or “Adam). Yep, that’s what they told us, God created man and God saw that the man was lonely and so God created … (woman, Eve) right -- a “helper”helpmeet, someone to hand him the nails, do his laundry, fix his dinner – the little woman. We all know this story, right?

Here’s the thing about this story: it’s a great example of translator bias. Translator bias makes sense: each of us can only see through our own eyes from the point at which we stand. Which is why the more voices the better – we don’t know what we don’t know. For example: that word “helper or “helpmeet”? The Hebrew is “ezer”. Linguists figure out what a word in a dead language means much the way we learn our own language – by noting the context of its different uses. “Ezer” appears fewer than a dozen times in the Bible: once in this story, twice to refer to armies coming to Israel’s aid, and the rest of the times to refer to God coming to Israel’s aid –throwing quite a bit of shade on the “helpful little woman” interpretation. 

But here’s the other thing, the “helper” the “ezer” that God creates is not a woman created for the man at all. Because the text doesn’t actually say that God created “man.” Let me note here that my Hebrew has never been good enough for me to have figured all this out. This linguistic work was done by Phyllis Trible, one of the most respected scholars of Hebrew Scripture in the world.Trible has pointed out that the story actually says that God created ha’Adamah and that the literal translation of ha’Adamah is “creature of earth.” And interestingly, and very unusually for Hebrew, this word is not gendered. The text, in fact, refers to the creature of earth as “it” until God sees that it is lonely and separates out part of the earth creature and creates a second creature of earth. It is only at this point that “ish” and “ishah” , he and she, start to be used. In this story, too, God creates male and female simultaneously.

That’s what Phyllis Trible tells us about what the text actually says. Here’s what Katherine Ragsdale thinks it all means and why it’s important to our topic today. In this story God creates the creature of earth which contains within itself all of what it means to be human, all of what it means to be made in the image of God. So, of course it was lonely for there was no other with whom it could be in relationship. And even if God had created a second creature of earth there could still be no relationship because they would be identical, each manifesting the entirety of what it means to be human – made in the image of God. So God took that creature of earth, containing all of what it meant to be made in the image of God, and separated it out. God created creatures, each of which contained part of the image of God, each of which was human in a different way.  God created difference. Male and female provide powerful and clear representations of difference but, actually, in that moment God created all sorts of difference – age and race and gender and sexuality and ethnicity, lovers of science and lovers of art, of music and language and sport. God’s first, great gift to humanity was difference. Suddenly there were others, different from one another, who could play together, bat around ideas, surprise one another to laughter, fall in love. 

But here’s the thing. That means that each of us contains within ourselves part of what it is to be made in the image of God. And others embody other parts of God’s image. So to more fully know God we need to know one another. And the more different, the better. People who are Iikeus may be the most comfortable to be around but people who are different are the most valuable to be around – they show us aspect of God that we could never see and know on our own. We need each other, in all our difference, all our particularity, in order to know God more fully, in order to become more fully human ourselves. 

And we need to tell that story -- along with all the other stories of love and joy, inclusion and mutuality, grace and hope – not just as a response to and curative for the hate but proactively, preventatively, as a celebration of our humanity and vitality.

We are the children of God – made, in all our particularity and difference, made in Her own image.

We are the children of God – the redeemed, who will stumble and fall but who are promised that our failures are not the end of the story and that our wounds can become the nexus of our greatest strength.

We are the children of God – accompanied through this world by the Holy Spirit. Never abandoned, never alone, given one another for companions and as reflections of the very image of God.

We are the children of God – one body, reflecting God’s own self not in spite of our differences but through them.
We are the children of God – we cannot be shy, we cannot tarry, for we have work to do, promises to keep, promises to claim.

We are the children of God – we have stories to tell, stories of life and love and hope and joy.

We are the children of God – let us never forget.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Easter Thursday, 2011
at Episcopal Divinity School

Gospel: Luke24: 36b - 48

This is the time of year when I most miss parish ministry – not Xmas, but Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter, which I always see as a happily conjoined pair.

I love the 50 days of festive Easter celebration – the Easter hymns and acclamations, the descants, the buoyant joy of it all. I also loved crafting, week after week, step by step, liturgies designed to help ground us in the solemnity and penitence of Lent – the counterpoint that gives Easter its resonance.

Now, it may sound a bit paradoxical for an old feminist theologian to love the penitential aspects of Lent. I came of age theologically in the 80s, on the heels of Valarie Saiving Goldstein’s pivotal journal article wherein she opined that, while Pride might be the original sin of man, that its opposite, lack of pride, might be the original sin of woman – the self-abnegation that caused us too often to consent to our own disempowerment – and, thereby, to fail to put our talents to full use in the love and service of God. Penitence, guilt, we thought, were just the Churches’ equivalent of the medical establishment’s valium; patriarchy’s tools to suppress our outrage, our righteous indignation – to keep us docile and in our place. So we rejected patriarchy’s tranquilizers – whether they came in plastic pill bottles or ancient liturgical texts.

And that was a good thing. But, like many revolutionary good things, in the long run it works better as one part of a both/and balance than as one pole of an either/or.

Revolutionary in its time, in this age of “look at me, me, me”; trophies for everyone; salvation through self-esteem – in such an age as this a guilt and penitence-free Lent looks more like an acquiescence to culture than a critique of it.

So I embrace a good old-fashioned Lent as, once again, a counter-cultural act and because, still, it is the ballast that gives Easter its meaning. I need Lent to remind me that I need Easter. I can’t be the person God created, and intends, me to be without God’s help – without Jesus. Which takes us to the heart of today’s Gospel.

Today’s Gospel speaks of both repentance and resurrection.

Before we fully dive into that, let’s pause and acknowledge that Jesus’ scolding of the disciples for doubting their eyes (or perhaps he was just poking fun, but, wither way) was a bit unfair. They saw him die; they’ve been hiding in terror for their own lives ever since. Now they see him standing before them and he laughs at them for thinking they’re seeing a ghost rather than recognizing that he’s their real, flesh and blood, companion restored to them?

But that’s what the text says – flesh and blood, standing before them.

This, by the way, is the point in the story when you lose credibility with a lot of the Xmas and Easter only church-goers. It’s why they checked out in the first place. There’s no way they’re going to believe shat is, rationally, impossible. You can, at this point, show off your great seminary education. You can brush off your Greek, your historical criticism skills, your best quotes from, and critiques of, the Jesus Seminar.

Or … what I usually do is simply acknowledge that there may well be people in the congregation who doubt that Jesus was really resurrected in the flesh. And, if so, they’re in good company. Many very smart and very faithful people share their skepticism and disbelief on that point. And many other very smart and very faithful people believe that’s exactly what happened. And we could spend a great deal of time arguing the point. But I won’t. Nor will I tell you which camp I fall into. Because I really don’t much care.

You see, I think the real danger is not believing wrongly on the facts of this matter. The real danger is getting so absorbed in the question of whether it’s factual that we forget that it most certainly is true. The truth matters far more to me than the facts. And the truth is – something profound happened. Lives were changed, the world was changed. Resurrection happened then. It happens still. I’ve seen it – in the Biblical texts, throughout history, in my own life, and in the lives of others.

Flesh and blood don’t matter all that much to me – resurrection and redemption do. Lent has reminded me that I need them – that I can’t be who God made and intends me to be on my own. I can’t know the fullness of life in God or grow into the full stature of Christ alone. Even on my best days I don’t get all the way there. And many of my days are not my best. I cannot save myself. I need Jesus. Jesus, who, this Gospel reading says, was to suffer and die.

This takes us into another conundrum aptly articulated by Joanna Dewey last week – Atonement theology. Atonement theology posits a God who functions as a sort of dispassionate bean-counter. Our sins carry a price. We don’t have enough virtue capital to cover that cost. The only way to stay out of debtors’ prison/hell is for someone to cover our bill. No one has that much virtue capital – except Jesus. Jesus dies to cover our debt, the books are squared, we get out of prison. Jesus, as the text says, must die.

Frankly, I have a hard time imaging how I could ever worship and serve such a God as that. I think I’d rather stay in hell.

But it says – the Messiah must die.

Could that, though, not mean that Jesus’ persecution and death were inevitable given who Jesus was and how the world is? Not that God intended, and wanted, Jesus to die but that the Father and Jesus both knew what the inevitable outcome of a life lived as Jesus lived it would be?

The world, as Lent has reminded us, is filled with both the wondrous goodness of creation and with sin. And sin, faced with absolute integrity, unblinking Love, always tries to kill it. Being completely, fully, who God intended Him to be, living with absolute integrity, Jesus was bound to anger and frighten and shame the powers and principalities – of course they killed Him.

Being who He was, of course Jesus must die – for our sins.

And, rather than cave to that oppression, rather than give us a half-hearted, partially actualized example of what it means to live into the fullness of Being, the full glory of God, Jesus saw it through – even unto that quite predictable death.

Jesus died – for us.

We who follow the way of Jesus won’t pull it off as well as he did. That perfection of integrity will elude us (not because we’re bad people but because we’re people) yet if we manage to do even a middling good job of following Jesus, the world may well kill us, too – our bodies, or our dreams, our career, or our sense of self. It’s apt to happen; we may as well prepare for it.

But here’s the Good News –the Easter News:

Resurrection is true – whatever the facts of the matter. Resurrection is true. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, I am a witness.

When we get it together to risk and face those deaths – to go through them rather than around them – we invite resurrection and redemption; we become strong through our very wounds. We find ourselves blessed in ways that exceed our hopes and our best imagining. Through those little deaths we find ourselves ushered into new life – resurrected, born again, becoming ever more who we were created to be, redeemed.

And when we let God into our lives that profoundly; when we, through fasting and prayer as well as feasting and celebration, through hard work and service and steadfast love and joy cooperate in our own growth into the full stature of Christ – what our heirs will discover is that even the big death is not the end of us. Our lives, lived with that integrity, that openness to death and resurrection and redemption, our lives will comtinue to make a difference even after our bodies have returned to dust.

When the people of God gather to worship, work, or play together; when they stand at the altar, or march on the Capital, or kiss a child, we, too, will be in the midst of them continuing to bless them and shape the world.

We, too, will be resurrected, never really to die.

And that’s the Truth.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Baptized Into the Fullness of Life

Katherine Ragsdale

In just a few minutes we’re going to go over to that font and Baptize this child into the life and death of Jesus Christ. We’re going to pledge, on her behalf, to “renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God;*” to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever (we) fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbors as (our)self;” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” We’re going to promise to teach her to model her life on the example of Jesus of Nazareth.

So the question I have for you is … Why would we want to do such a thing to this perfectly lovely baby, to this infant who has never done anything to us? You do remember what happened to this Jesus whom we’re pledging her to follow? He was killed – rejected by the religious authorities and executed by the State as a threat to the established order. All that striving for justice and respecting the dignity of every human being was wreaking havoc on the social policies and traditions of the age. And the folks in charge were having none of it. For the most part they still aren’t. They killed Jesus and a good number of his followers, and they’ve never stopped. The faces have changed, as have the methods and the excuses. All too often it’s those who call themselves followers of Jesus and purport to be defending the faith who are doing the killing, or at least, cheering on those who do. But the fact remains, those who truly work for justice for all people; who insist on standing up to the powers that oppress the children of God; who refuse to compromise their integrity or hide either their talents or their passionate indignation are too often killed – by governments, assassins, or the inexorable toll of poverty and marginalization. Never to turn back from the path Jesus mapped can land us into some dangerous places.

Even should this child we love manage to find a less dangerous route, we have still promised to do everything in our power to deny her the contemporary version of the good life. Not for her this season’s American dream – the self-absorbed search for endless self-gratification; the quest for beauty and power and money enough to satisfy every appetite; the cult of celebrity bought at the expense of the loser class. No, if we are successful in fulfilling the promises we are about to make, the vows we are about to take before God and one another, this child will be denied, will deny herself, everything that modern culture has taught us defines success.

Why would we deny her that? Because we want for her so very much more.

We have learned, from our sacred texts; from our forebears and teachers; perhaps from our own experience, we have learned that money and prestige and power and beauty and celebrity and things can never assuage our deepest fears or sate our greatest hungers. They may sometimes bring pleasure but the pleasure is fleeting and never fully satisfies. We want more than that for this child. We want this child to have the rich, full, deep life that, paradoxically, can never be reached through the unrelenting attention to self-fulfillment that television and ad agencies preach from their bully pulpits.

Many years ago I had a dream. I still think of it as a dream about my vocation to the ministry. In this dream I, along with many other travelers, was invited into a grand castle. We were tired and hungry and our beautiful host invited us into a huge formal dining room. A wide table ran the length of the room, piled high with every food one could imagine. Heaping platters of roasted meats, bright vegetables swimming in exquisite sauces, vast bowls of dew-bespeckled fruits ready to burst their skins with ripeness covered the full length and breadth of the table. The aromas alone made us weak-kneed with desire. Our host smiled and urged us to eat to our hearts’ content. There was, she assured us, no end to the banquet before us. Her servants would replenish the feast as quickly as we could eat it. No platter, bowl, or goblet would ever become empty.

And suddenly I knew – this was not real food. It was merely an illusion. It had no substance to nourish us nor would it ever ease our hunger. Quite the contrary. We were so very hungry and this mock food looked like it should satisfy and delight us. If we began to eat it, its inability to truly feed us would make us hungrier still. With each bite we took we would become more desperate for sustenance and would crave the feast that appeared to be before us even more. We would seize more and more, quickly becoming captives at the table, unable to stop desperately ingesting the illusion that then left us hungrier, and more desperate, with each bite. Eventually we would starve – waste away and die – having spent the balance of our lives in this devil’s playground with all our energies devoted to ingesting that which could never bring us life or joy or satisfaction.

My job, in this dream, was to stop us before we took that first bite and became trapped, unable to pull ourselves away from the fake castle and its table, unable to return to the less glamorous, but ever so much more substantial and sustaining, real world. Our job, which we take on this day, is to teach this child the difference between illusions that will destroy the good within her and things of substance upon which she can build a life worthy of her talents and her passion.

Here is what we have come to know. A life devoted merely to self-gratification, to sating our appetites, to the endless search for pleasure, will never satisfy the deep hunger within. And the more we devote ourselves to such a quest the smaller we become as we struggle to deform ourselves into creatures petty enough to be so easily satisfied. We were created to be more than that. We were created to be big … vast … infinite. We were created to be one with God, the force that creates and animates and sustains all that is, seen and unseen, known and yet to be discovered. We were created to know, and fall daily deeper in love with, the wondrous grandeur and complexity of the whole created order. We were created to take our part in the care and keeping and unfolding of that creation, to play our part in a holy task that began before history and will continue beyond the scope of our imagining.

We come today to Baptize this child, beloved of God and us, into the fullness of life. We come to begin the life-long process of reminding her that someone as gifted and precious as she can never be reduced to mere appetite and ambition – and neither can any other of the children of God, gifted and precious in their own right. We come to begin teaching her that she matters and what she does matters, that every choice she makes shapes the world for better or for worse. Every time she meets the world with greed or jealousy or malice she will make the world that much meaner a place. Every time she embraces the world with integrity, love, respect, and peace she will make the world that much more holy a place. We come to remind her that she is a part of creation, intricately and intimately linked to everyone and everything that is. We come to encourage her to spend her life exploring and enhancing those connections.

We come to remind her that she has it within her to walk a path of holiness and righteousness and we come to pledge her our support. We ask her to do this not because it will make her life easier, for it is unlikely that it will. Probably it will make her life far more difficult than it would be if she chose a more self-absorbed path … a smaller path. The path of holiness and righteousness may someday get her killed, it will certainly bring her hardships, but it will assuredly make her whole. In knowing and embracing her connection to the whole of creation she will become big: bigger than any solitary soul has it within itself to be; big enough to be God’s own partner in the on-going creation of all that is; big enough to know a peace and joy and fullness of life that simply is not available to the self-referential, that cannot be contained by those who have made themselves small.

We come to Baptize her into the fullness of life.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday, 2005
St. David’s, Pepperell (MA)
Katherine Ragsdale

It’s Palm Sunday, the longest morning in Christendom. It’s not your imagination; this really is going on forever. The problem is that we’re doing two liturgies, two days, in one today. We started with the Palm Sunday liturgy and then, with the reading of the Passion that we just completed, moved into Good Friday as well.

So why does the Church do this to us?

I’m inclined to tell you that you have no one to blame but yourselves, but the truth is, we have lots of people throughout the Church and around the world to blame. We do two liturgies today because we know that a lot of you won’t be here on Good Friday. And we also know that Easter without Good Friday is as hollow and as nutritious as one of those big chocolate bunnies your kids will find in their Easter baskets.

A free floating Easter of new clothes, bunnies, peeps, jelly beans, and the occasional joyful acknowledgement that Christ is risen can provide a nice spiritual sugar high – but it does not nourish us, it will not sustain us, and it trivializes God’s great work in our lives. So, knowing that, but knowing also that, short of tying us to our chairs and prying our jaws open, it’s not always possible to get us to take what’s good for us, the Church, in its wisdom, has decided to cram as much of the important stuff as possible into a meal we’re reasonably likely to eat. You can think of Palm Sunday as a regular family dinner wherein all the familiar dishes have been vitamin fortified.

First, we’re given Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In this part of our liturgy we’re reminded what it was the people wanted, what they were looking for. They expected a military savior who would end their oppression and get revenge. The lust for revenge is not alien to the people of God. We may be warned not to indulge it but there’s no point in pretending we’re strangers to it. Check the Psalms. The psalmists lament their grief and oppression, their pain and their loss. But what they’re really mad about is that the people who did it to them keep getting away with it. People hoped for, expected that Jesus was, the one who would smite their enemies as well as restoring justice.

Their first clue that they were not going to get what they were expecting should have come when he arrived. He rode into town not on a horse, the symbol of military might in that time, he didn’t ride in perched atop a tank. He came in on a donkey, more like an old VW van. This Jesus came not to conquer but to preach a new way; to announce that, all appearances notwithstanding, Empire could not, would not, prevail; and to stand firm in those proclamations even though it meant that the Empire would kill him, as he knew it would, as he knew it, being Empire, must.

But this morning we see the people, people not unlike us, still hoping for an easy way out – for someone to fight and sacrifice for them; to conquer for them; to win, for them, a peace that no one else can, in fact, bestow.
And when, on Good Friday, the chickens come home to roost, when the full weight of Empire fell upon this itinerate preacher, this son of a Nazarene carpenter, this apostle of peace – those people, people not unlike you, not unlike me, those people turned on him. Disappointed, angry that he wasn’t what they expected, they threw him to the wolves. Even his followers, who kind-of got it, distanced themselves – "I don’t know him; he is nothing to me."

These stories of dashed hope, betrayal, failure, despair, cowardice, and fear… these are our stories. These are what get taken to the cross and the tomb with Jesus on Good Friday. These are what get redeemed, these are the people who get resurrected, on Easter.

Easter does not promise us that everything will be pretty; it doesn’t tell us that we can just forget our problems, put our miseries and shortcomings behind us. Holy Week teaches us that we achieve resurrection, redemption, and Easter glory not by turning our back on these things or going around them, but by going through them and coming out, with Jesus, on the other side.

Easter is not here yet. Don’t rush it. May you, instead, enter fully into this time of the Passion and have a blessed Holy Week.


Monday, August 11, 2008

The Big Question

I asked it at one of the Lambeth press briefings but, just for the record, let's get it down here. (It has been reported elsewhere -- thanks Jim and Katie -- but may as well get it on my site, as well.)

The bishops were calling for moratoria on: 1) Blessing of same-sex unions; 2) consecration of lesbian or gay bishops; 3) incursions into each others' dioceses. They continually spoke of the need for concessions and sacrifice for the good of the whole.

Finally, I was called on for a question:

"Bishops, you continue to speak of sacrifice and that is understandable as Christianity is built upon the realization of the potential holiness of sacrifice. My question for you is -- do you see a difference between sacrificing oneself on behalf of others and forcing others to sacrifice themselves for you? And, if you do see a difference, what are the implications, then, for requiring the lesbian and gay faithful to sacrifice our lives, loves, and vocations as these moratoria do?"

Really, it just repeats a theme that has surfaced for years in my reproductive justice/abortion rights speeches: Sacrifice can be a noble and even holy thing but no one -- not politician, partner, or priest -- no one gets to tell someone else what sacrifice she must make.

Seems that, whatever the venue, that's a hard concept for some to grasp. Go figure.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sold into Egypt

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" -- that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Preparing to preach on this text today, I found myself thinking about the Church, its lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, and the Lambeth Conference. Ready to throw the gay and lesbian faithful into the pit to wither and die – having already thrown us there with centuries of denying our existence, much less our vocations; decades of asking us to remain quiet; two years of moratoria on blessing our relationships our consenting to consecrating any of us bishops – the Church, at Lambeth, has conceived the idea of drawing us out of the pit and bargaining us away for a profit.

The bargain? Our lives, loves, and vocations sacrificed to buy credit with those who insist we not be tolerated. Extending the moratoria shows good faith. Not to us, of course, but we, it seems, are not the ones who matter. And why should we, we’re on our way to Egypt. Sold for the appearance of unity, bargained away to make our betrayers look holy and self-sacrificing.

But remember what happened in Egypt. It was the one who was bartered away who saved not only the nation but also the family who sold him. Looking for redemption in the Anglican Communion? Keep your eyes on the folks in the many-colored coats (or boas). Keep your eyes on those who were sold into oblivion.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Gay Pride

All this Lambeth talk has me wanting to re-say a few things. So, here's a repeat of an oldie -- but still true:

Interfaith Pride Service, 6/14/03
Interfaith Pride Service
Boston, MA
June 14, 2003
Katherine Ragsdale

First, I’d like to thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. It is good to be here. I’ve just returned from a week in Washington – a week spent addressing a variety of peace and justice issues. And I need to say a word about that, because, if I don’t make an effort to de-compartmentalize, to integrate, my life, I spin out into a fragmented mess – and it’s not pretty. But I promise, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll bring us back home quickly.

So, first, there was a 2-day roundtable of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders—discussing the meaning of peace in today’s world and the conditions in the Middle East (and here at home) that might make peace possible. Only one person stormed out of the room, too angry, and, perhaps, too frightened to continue the conversation. That’s one too many, but, still, given the circumstances, not bad. For the most part, the group was able to embody the peace we yearn for.

Then there was a press conference by leaders of the women’s movement outlining some of the losses of freedom and dignity suffered lately and some of our plans to combat that. Let me tell you now – put April 25, 2004 on your calendars for a March on Washington for Women’s Rights – particularly reproductive rights.

Then we had a women’s leadership summit tracing the perils and oppression faced by women at home and across the globe and highlighting some of the ways governments, businesses, the entertainment industry, and activists are trying to respond to these challenges.

And finally, more informally, there was another of those exchanges where a gay man was arguing for our rights on the grounds that we can’t help being gay – the old take pity, have mercy, argument. You know, the one that concludes with a plaintive – who would choose this?

Let me answer that with three words:

Me! Me! Me!

In a New York minute! Me!

I can only hope that my straight sisters and brothers are as happy with their place in the sexual orientation continuum as I am with mine. But, alas, the conversation would not be de-railed; it continued with more insistences that we must be tolerated since we have no choice – the underlying assumption being that if we did have a choice we would, and should, choose to change.

So – war, poverty, religious disputes, politics, freedom, civil rights, gender, sexuality … it was a long week. And, frankly, I can’t quite decide whether to be energized and impassioned that there is so much good work for us to do and so many amazing people with whom to do it, or to be overwhelmed and depressed because there is so much important work to be done and, even with so many talented, passionate people working so hard, the end is nowhere in sight.

Energy, passion, depression, despair – and let’s not even get into frustration, righteous indignation, and outrage. I suspect that this cauldron of emotions is not some odd shortcoming peculiar to me. Perhaps you, too, know all these feelings. Perhaps they play tug of war with your psyche, heart, and spirit, as well. And perhaps, you, like me, find that, given the free reign of benign neglect, in this world of so many injustices and so much violence, the emotional balance seems, more often than not, to tip toward frustration and despair.

Actually, I think it speaks well of us that we look at the world and, even from the positions of privilege and comfort most of us inhabit, we notice the wrongs of this world and they matter to us. I pray that we may never become blind to the injustices that surround us – never cease to notice – never cease to care.

But -- but...

Even as we commit ourselves to noticing and caring about those things that require and deserve our attention – things we have to, have to, fix – let us not make the mistake of noticing only those things. Let’s never allow ourselves to become so focused on the work yet to be done that we neglect to notice and celebrate our successes and our blessings.

This, too is human, I think – this tendency to hyper-focus on the work ahead and miss the bigger and more complex, nuanced, and deeply textured picture. But it’s a dangerous tendency – for all too often it leaves us discouraged. Dis –couraged. And to be dis-couraged makes me useless and it erodes my soul’s health. I suspect the same is true for you.

So, let’s try to resist that temptation to narrow in only on the job ahead am try to look at the whole picture for a moment.

It is true that there is plenty of important work ahead. The NGLTF reports that fully 1/3 of lgbt college students experience harassment. We know that there are far too many schools and families where it is not safe for teens to reveal or explore their sexual orientation. We know only too well the benefits that are denied to too many of us because we can’t get legally married. Personal and professional frustrations, roadblocks, and even dangers, persist for all too many of us or our sisters and brothers. There is work to be done.

But, sisters and brothers, just in case you haven’t noticed, let me make this very clear – the work that remains to be done? We do it as victors. We know the outcome of this struggle. We have already won.

Listen to this:

88% of Americans support equal opportunity in the workplace. (Only a generation ago I’m not sure 88% of Americans knew we existed and, of those who did, I’m not sure 88% would have supported our right to live – much less to be given equal opportunities)

Today, 75% of Democratic voters, 70% of Independents, and 56% of Republican voters supported sexual-orientation non-discrimination laws.

Only 40% of the public supports our freedom to marry (still – 40%!) but 73% believe we should have inheritance rights and 68% think we should get Social Security survivors’ benefits.

96% think HIV and STDs should be covered in sex-ed in the schools.

Today, any day of the week, a child anywhere in this country can turn on the television and find images of happy, healthy gay people. Doctors, lawyers, sports and entertainment figures, parents, grandparents, members of Congress or the clergy … on television, in the movies, in the newspapers, in our communities, any child in America can find evidence – reason to hope – that they, too, can grow up to lead a happy, fulfilled life, no matter what their sexual orientation.

This was certainly not true 30 years ago when I was a teen who didn’t even have the vocabulary to conceptualize why I didn’t fit in. This is huge. Every gay child has access to signs of hope. And every straight child has exposure to the idea that other sexual orientations are simply other ways of being – or, as my then 10 year old nephew explained to his 6 year old brother, “of course women can marry women and men can marry men. It’s really no big deal.”

We have changed the world and there is no going back. As you have Acted Up in the streets and cared for one another in your homes through those early, devastating years of the AIDS crisis, our community set a new standard for compassion and commitment; as we came out of our closets and faced down the bashers and oppressors, we added a new category to the list of the courageous; as we raised our children, adopted others, claimed our alliances, named our loves, we have changed the meaning of the word family. And every family in America (even the 17% of them that follow the old Ozzie and Harriet model) every family in America has been enriched by this broader definition.

The world has been changed in profound – awesome – ways. And we have played a part – a large part – in making that happen. Gay pride? You better believe it!

Yes, we still have work to do. There are laws yet to be passed, kids yet to be saved, opportunities yet to be opened up and explored. And, as long as we’re broadening our vision, let’s remember what God told the children of Abraham:

You must never take advantage of a stranger, for you know what it is to be a stranger. You, whom God has set free from bondage and need, must never ignore the bondage or need of another. You who have been so richly blessed must share your blessings with those in want.

Sisters and brothers, the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East; the rise of poverty and the loss of hope here at home; the loss of civil liberties, freedom, choice, and opportunity – we are not free to ignore these either. We who know what it is to be marginalized, denied opportunity and hope, denied basic human rights, denied safety; we who know these things and yet have been so richly blessed, are not free to ignore the plight of others.

We have work to do – but we have powerful tools with which to do it. We have the communities and alliances we have built over the years, we have our passion and our vision, we have the things we’ve learned.

Let me just highlight a couple of those things –

1) We have learned not to give in to the temptation to be dis-couraged. We have learned not to be afraid.
Fear undoes us –
It renders us useless
It erodes our souls
And it is a faithless an ungrateful response from those who believe that we are never abandoned to the fray, never left alone, unaided or uncomforted – from those who have been carried so very far already.

2) We have learned that you cannot sustain a movement, or a spirit, on opposition – to anything, no matter how worthy of opposition it may be. Movements and spirits are sustained by vision – by what we are for not what we are against. As we march, today and every day, we march not primarily away from all that is wrong but toward all that is good and true and honorable and just. Yes, there may be, will be, skirmishes along the way, but they are incidental. They are not the point.

The vision is the point. We march and we fight and we persevere because we yearn for a world where every human being grows up safe and loved, where her dignity is respected and his particularity is celebrated. We dream of a world where everyone understands that the God who created us loves us -- and where true love is, God’s own self is there.

3) We have learned that Gandhi was right – you must become the change you wish to see. We will achieve our vision not by hiding and hating but by loving and celebrating. The world we dream of – a world free from fear – can be ushered in only by our own fearlessness. A world of rich diversity, beauty, love can only be achieved by our own refusal to be seduced by despair, our own refusal to live small, to be less than we were created to be. We win the ability to love only by loving – with powerful, extravagant abandon.

4) We have learned that we can afford to live like that. For the victory is already ours. And our adversaries would do well to remember the words of Gamaliel, a Pharisee and elder of the land who warned those who wanted to eliminate the followers of Jesus. Be careful, Gamaliel said. If this is of man alone it will surely fade of its own accord. But if it is of God nothing you can do will stop it – and you might even find yourself to be working against God’s own self.

We know where God is in this. We know it deep in our hearts – in our very marrow. And we see the evidence. The world has already changed – more profoundly than we could reasonably have hoped. Surely it is God who saves us – we shall not be afraid.

Yes, there is work to be done and, as people who have been so richly blessed, we are not free to shirk or disengage. We must press on – but we do so secure in the knowledge that the victory is ours; the prize has been won and claimed for us already. We do so grateful and proud to be allowed to play some part in seeing God’s love for the world brought to light and fruition.

Sisters and brothers – we are blessed to be able to be a part of this. Blessed to have each other. Let us press onward, march forward, this and every day, fearlessly, with confidence and joy, with grateful hearts, and yes, with Pride.

And may God continue to bless us and those we love this and every day.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Advent III, 2006 (Dec. 17)

One of the older heresies of the church is Marcionism (not “tian” but “cion”). Marcion asserted that there were two Gods – the "Old Testament" God and the "New Testament" God. The Old Testament(sic) God, he said, was a god of wrath, judgment, and vengeance and violence while the New Testament God was a god of love and mercy and salvation. And Marcion insisted,the New Testament God had prevailed over the Old Testament God and, therefore, we ought not even to be reading about the dead, overcome, Old Testament God.

There’s nothing like today’s readings to turn Marcionism on its head. Listen to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,

(Zephaniah 3:14-20 NRSV)

And from today’s psalm (85):

You have been gracious to your land, O Lord,*
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people*
and blotted out all of their sins.
You have withdrawn all your fury*
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.

No love? No mercy? No joy? No salvation? Really? And that’s the God Marcion said was only about judgment and wrath. Listen to what that God promises.

And then, on the other hand, we have the reading from the New Testament, which is supposedly full merely of the love and mercy and joy and kindness of God. We get, from the Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist, “You snakes. You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come? It will do you no good, for even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree, ready to chop down all those who do not bear good fruit – the fruit of repentance and righteousness – and cast them into the flames. The axe is there and ready to go. You are doomed. God is coming back to gather the few faithful and the rest are destined to be burned as on a trash heap.”

This is what we get today in the New Testament – where we don’t have to encounter a God of judgment and wrath! But, ok, having demonstrated the fallacies of Marcionism, let’s put it away and see if we can figure out what all this means for us. Because the reason Marcionism was deemed a heresy in the first place was that the Church, in its collective wisdom, determined that the truth is to be found not in any one simple message but in the bringing together of these different, often complex, sometimes contradictory messages and trying to make sense of them as they fit together.

So let’s look just at these readings appointed for today and see what we might learn from trying to fit them together.

First, we have Zephaniah saying to the people who had been suffering and outcast and were now entering the reign of one who was allowing them to worship God and to keep the law, “ Rejoice, Israel. Look, I am bringing you home where you will be allowed to keep the law, allowed to be the people I created you to be, allowed to bear the fruits of righteousness, allowed to be my people.”

And we have John saying, “We are called to bear good fruit.” After screaming “You brood of vipers, the axe is laid at the foot of the tree” to the very people who were following him around looking for hope, they looked at him, a bit dumbfounded I’d guess, and said, “Well, ahhhhh, uhhhhhh, what should we do?” And to the whole lot of them he said “ Well, for starters, you who have plenty, share with those who don’t. If you have two coats – you can only wear one at a time; give the other to someone else. And if you have more food than you can eat, share it with someone else. If you have more than you need, share it, because until we all have what we need, none of us can be saved.”

That’s the basic message – for the general public. But then the scourge of the earth were also there seeking the way – the tax collectors. {A boo, hiss from the congregation. Preacher laughs and responds – sure go ahead, a little rehearsal for Purim over here – boo the bad guys.} And these were the bad guys. The tax collectors weren’t just the IRS – collecting taxes that we resent paying sometimes, but know they’re going to help other people… no these tax collectors were private contractors of the Roman Empire. (Some of this may sound familiar to you in other, more modern contexts).

The Roman Empire occupied Israel. They had come in and defeated them, abolished their government, and were occupying their land. And they levied taxes against them. But, rather than collect those taxes themselves, they sub-contracted out to private enterprise. And those private contractors, oddly enough, made as much money for themselves on the deal as they possibly could. They went in and were allowed to charge anything they wanted, exorbitant amounts, as long as Rome got its share. So the tax collector could for example go to Courtney here, whose taxes Rome had assessed at $1 and require her to pay $50, send the $1 to Rome, and keep the other $49 for themselves – the cost of doing business. (I know it sounds absurd to imagine that private enterprise would do something like that – but that’s what they were doing.)

And they were despised for it. So they asked, “How about us?” For who would expect that the God of Israel would save them at all after what they’d done? And John said simply, “collect what is owed and don’t use your position to take advantage of others. That’s enough.” And then the soldiers came. Not soldiers of Israel; Israel had no army. The soldiers of the occupying force. The soldiers of Rome came – the occupier – and said, “How about us? Can we possibly be saved?” And John said, “Don’t use your superior strength to bully, terrorize, or extort. It may even be true that you are underpaid but take that up with Rome. Where you are, as the occupier, settle for the wages Rome gives you. Don’t steal, Don’t take more from people who are completely under your control and your power.”

John said, the axe is lying at the root of the tree but there are things you can do to change your lives to get salvation. Because John kept coming back to salvation. John echoes for us Revelation, that apocalyptic book that says the world as we know it is coming to an end. But he also echoes that part of Revelation that says, “and Empire cannot save us.” And self-absorption cannot save us. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us and God has saved us. We have only to claim it and, in doing so, to produce the fruits of righteousness.

But that’s a hard message. For, in the very act of saving us, God severs us from the false gods of empire or self – which can be uncomfortable and frightening. Empire causes, not resolves, the violence, injustice, and oppression which hold us in bondage – in hell --and which God’s wrath will destroy. And self isn’t big enough to save the world – and to save merely ourselves is intrinsically impossible. Self-fulfillment will make us neither happy nor fulfilled. When God’s new life brings an end to injustice and oppression, to idolatry of empire, power, money, celebrity, pleasure… those of us who depend on those things will lose our foundations.

That’s the warning. The Good News is – those were never stable foundations anyway and we’re offered an alternative. There is Hope in John’s promise. But it’s a promise that leaves us nothing to rely on but God and, as we talked about last week, it’s hard to rely on God in the period of waiting. We can adopt optimism (let me ask you to remember what we talked about last week -- the difference between optimism and hope – and we’ll probably talk about it again before the season is over) we can adopt a Pollyanna-ish optimism that ignores the awful things that are around us – sometimes in our own lives, always somewhere in the world. Always there is someone who has a heart that is broken too badly to be mended with simply an upbeat attitude. Always somewhere there is destruction and oppression and catastrophe too great to say simply, “Oh, well, that’s horrible, but eventually it’ll all work out for the best.” Optimism won’t address the really big stuff. Only hope in that which is unseen can get us through. But how do you hold on to that hope?

Well, the truth of the matter is we’re given some advice on that in today's reading from Paul. Paul says:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In rejoicing, in holding onto Hope, we will be given a peace that surpasses all understanding and that guards both our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. But how? How do you do it? You know, the truth of the matter is, it’s not easy but it has something to do with focus. Whether it’s driving a car or a golf ball, aiming a bow and arrow or a camera – whatever it is, you tend to get what you look for and at. You tend to do what you see and you become what you do.

As a friend and as a counselor, I have encountered people, (you probably have them in your lives too) people who have been hurt in their lives -- abused, abandoned, they have suffered greatly – until that has become their life’s story. And it doesn’t matter what else happens, it doesn’t matter how amazingly they may be blessed, their life story remains one, in their own minds, of their damage. They, in fact, drive happiness away. They would murder love before they would embrace it because it interferes with their life story.

And those stories are also based on truth. I’m not saying to ignore the painful facts of our lives. Any therapist will tell you, you ignore them at your peril. That which you ignore is apt to bite you from behind. You have to face them, and you have to deal with them, but they don’t have to become the focus of your life. They don’t have to become the only thing you look at. They don’t have to become your life story. They don’t have to define you.

I spend a great deal of time telling people – people I counsel, friends – you get to choose. You don’t get to choose all the facts of your life – the disasters and the griefs that befall you, but you get to choose the story you tell about them. You get to choose the memories you hang onto. You don’t get to choose all the ones that stay with you – some always will. But, but, if you choose to focus on rejoicing, then the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus and minimize the damage that those things can do.

So much comes down to the stories we choose to tell. We’re told that our story is one of Hope. We’re told that our story is one of faith in that which is beyond our imagining, faith in a promise that we will be saved and that the fruits of righteousness can blossom in our lives no matter how much we have suffered, how much we have been damaged, no matter how much pain we have experienced, the fruits of God’s love can blossom in every one of our lives. We can be the instruments that bring about the promise of God.

How do you do that? How do you focus? Here’s more from Paul in Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

You will become what you do and where you look. You will go where you look, and do what you see, and become what you do. So, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things... and the God of peace will be with you.


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Doubting/Faithful Thomas

Easter 2
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

You have, no doubt, noticed or learned, by now, that the Church operates on a three-year cycle for our Eucharistic readings. Each year in that three-year cycle we hear a different Gospeler’s version of the Passion on Palm Sunday, and of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But, oddly enough, each year, on this second Sunday of Easter, we hear the same reading from John; the same account of Thomas’ first encounter with the Risen Lord.

That, all by itself, should be enough to catch our attention; to signal to us that there’s something going on here that the Church considers very important. And if that doesn’t suffice to make us take notice there’s the fact that a figure of speech has developed from this story. It is this story that gives us the phrase “doubting Thomas.” Thomas said, in effect, “I don’t believe he can have, or has, risen from the dead and I won’t believe it unless and until I see it for myself.” And for that he has picked up the epithet of “doubting” and a reputation for a lack of faith.

I think Thomas got a bum rap. Let’s think about what else we know about this guy. This is the same guy, who spoke up in the Gospel reading from the week before Palm Sunday. Jesus has received word of the death of Lazarus and he makes plans to return to Jerusalem to deal with that. The disciples ask him if he’s lost his mind. “Rabbi,” they say, “we were just there and they were threatening to stone you. Why would you go back there?” But Jesus is adamant; he’s going back. Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Not, “Hey, he’s Jesus, he knows what he’s doing. It’ll be fine.” No Pollyanna confidence, just a deep commitment to the rabbi he followed. “If he is set on doing this thing that will surely get him killed then let us not abandon him. Let us go and die at his side.”

And why didn’t Thomas see get the opportunity to see for himself at the same time as the other disciples? And let’s be fair and remember that the thing Thomas asked for, a chance to see for himself, was exactly what the other disciples had already had. Jesus came to them while they were hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thomas, like the women but alone among the men, had, apparently, found the courage to leave the hiding place. He was out when Jesus first appeared. Upon seeing for himself he immediately proclaimed his belief and his allegiance.

So, this raises the question – what is most indicative of faith, what we say, what we believe even, or what we do? I am reminded of the parable Jesus told of the father with two sons who said to them one morning – over a hearty breakfast, I’m sure. I’m having visions of Ben Cartright and the boys. “Sons,” he said, “there’s a lot of work to be done today. I have a field that needs tending.” And, says Jesus, one of the sons said, “Certainly, Father. Whatever you say.” But he never showed up at the field. The other son said, “Sorry, Father, but I have other plans and no interest in the field, anyway.” Yet this son did go to the field and worked hard there all day. Which son, Jesus asked his disciples, did the will of his father? Which son was faithful?

You see, faithfulness is not about having no questions. It’s not about having no doubts. It’s not even about always being willing to do what we’re called to do. Faithfulness is about doing it in spite of our questions, our doubts, and our unwillingness.

And this is a good thing. For doubts are ubiquitous and it would be a pity if having them made us faithless. There are, I suppose, some people whose faith is so strong and pure and deep that they never question, never doubt. For the most part people like that scare me – too often their lack of doubts extends to how the rest of us ought to live out our own faith. But there are, perhaps, some who have this deep, unshakable, un-agitatable faith in their own hearts and lives. And more power to them. But most of us, I think, have doubts and questions from time to time. Fortunately, we are in good company and have good role models. Abraham and Moses, the Psalmists, Mary, the Samaritan woman, Peter, Thomas – even Jesus himself who prayed, “Must this happen? Can this cup pass me by?”

Faith is not about having no doubts. Faith is about living out our commitments even in the face of doubt. It’s about fulfilling our Baptismal covenant even when it seems fruitless and unwise. In that covenant we promise to be regular in our attendance at “worship, in the prayers and community and breaking of the bread.” It is not unfaithful to find sometimes that the worship doesn’t speak to us or that we cannot find God here. Faithfulness simply requires that we keep the promise, trusting, even when we can’t feel it or see how it could be true, that the community our presence helps to build is for us, too, and will feed us, too.

We promise, in our Baptismal covenant to “work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Our faithfulness is found in our commitment to doing that even when the world’s cutthroat version of success seems more attractive. In fact, during those times, most of the time, I hope, when we see clearly that nothing of value can be bought at another’s expense, that mere things will never satisfy us, that only in our connections to one another and to our God can we ever hope to find peace or joy – in the times when we can see that, it takes no great faith to respond accordingly, to follow the laws and directions of God that we can see will lead us to our greatest joy. It’s precisely in those other times, the times when we can’t see it, the time when the world’s temptations are so tantalizing and promise so much, and we can’t see through the deception – it’s in those times that our faithfulness is tested and called forth.

Thomas, I think, is a very model of faithfulness. When he saw nothing but death and disaster before them, he still stood firm in his commitment to his teacher and set forth to die by his side. When, for all he knew, his fears had been fulfilled and all hope lay entombed, he was still out in the streets. Thomas, a man of questions and doubts, was faithful to his commitments, and to his friends to the end.

I want to share with you something written by an old friend and colleague of mine, the now Bishop of Maine, Chilton Knudsen. In a homily at the funeral of a deacon from that diocese, Chilton said:

Janet’s love affair with God was all-consuming, ecstatic, intimate and real.

Like all genuine love affairs, it had stormy moments, feisty pushings and pullings, seasons of disillusionment, and the fullest, most absolute fidelity of which we flawed humans are capable, responding to the total fidelity of God.

Janet taught us that passionate God-lovers are not sweetly pious people driven by the need to keep everyone happy, to compulsively smooth every ruffled feather…God-lovers are not always nice, but they are

Faithfulness is about being real – honest about our doubts and tenacious about our commitments. May we have the strength and commitment, the faithfulness, of Thomas.

Easter, 2005

St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

Today’s reading from Acts is an interesting choice for this most major of all the Feasts, Easter Sunday. You may have noticed that we’re halfway through that reading before we get to anything about the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. The first half of the reading is about an argument. We’ve talked about that argument before. It was part of an on-going fight between Peter and Paul – two of the great leaders of the Church. It was an argument so intense that it threatened schism. Imagine that, schism within the Church!

Peter and Paul were fighting about rules. What were the rules for someone wanting to join this community of the followers of Jesus? Peter said that anyone could join, even those not born Jewish, as long as they were willing to become Jews – to convert and conform to Jewish law. Paul opined that maybe God was doing such an incredibly new thing that all the old rules were up for grabs. Paul thought that God was calling into this community even goyim as goyim. Even those who didn’t become circumcised or keep kosher could be welcomed. Peter was more than willing to let anyone become “one of us” as long as they were willing to become like one of us. Paul wanted to throw open the doors and welcome people in their own uniqueness. So they fought and one suspects that those around them at the time wondered if the community could withstand that fight.

So maybe this story does fit in with our Resurrection narrative of the day. Because this was a fight about who the Resurrection was for. Before we can decide if we care about what God is doing today it helps to know who God is doing it for. Does what we celebrate today matter to me? Is it for me? Am I included?

The fight told about in Acts ends with the words that start today’s reading. Peter has a dream – a vision from God – after which he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Peter came to agree with Paul that the Good News of God in Christ, the gift and grace of the Resurrection, is for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. It’s for circumcised and uncircumcised, gay and straight, kosher and tref eater, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, those who strive to know and follow the rules and those who fling themselves forward in faith – all of us.

This day is for all of us.

So, given that what we celebrate today is for us, matters to us – what is it that happened; what is it that we celebrate?

Today was the first day of the next week – the week after everything fell apart and hope died. Jesus had been executed.

It was inevitable. He had been standing up to the Empire and people were starting to listen. He was saying that Empire would not, could not, can not ever, survive. He said that starving the poor to fatten the wealthy, trampling the weak to protect the powerful, subordinating all things to the ambitions of Empire, was not only immoral, it was untenable. It could not work for long.

Rome couldn’t ignore that. He had to be stopped – he had to be crushed, as an example – so they executed him. Jesus’ friends and followers went into hiding. They locked themselves in, hoping to avoid the same fate that had befallen their leader. They sat out the Passover, the Sabbath, in hiding.

And on that first day, while the men still hid in fear, the women gathered their oils and perfumes and other supplies and set out to tend the body of their dead friend. Not prudent, perhaps, to be seen, in broad daylight, tending to the body of an executed insurrectionist, but sometimes we all need to let our hearts lead us places our heads know better than to go.

So, off they went to the tomb – and they found it empty. They must have been outraged as well as grief-stricken. The authorities had removed the body to keep it from becoming a rallying point. Without a by-your-leave or even a by-the-way to the family, they had taken even his corpse. All things, even common decency, had been made subservient to the needs, or fantasies, of the Empire.

Except they hadn’t.

He hadn’t been removed; he’d been resurrected. He had Risen.

Now, this is the point where I always expect to lose some of you. I’m sure there are at least a few folks in the room who are saying to yourselves right now, “Well, that’s a lovely story. Very sweet. But surely I’m not expected to actually believe in the Resurrection – that someone rose from the dead. It’s all a misunderstanding or a manipulative fiction.” So, should you be one of those people, let me say to you that you’re in excellent company. There are many people, respected scholars, faithful church-goers – bright people of strong faith and good conscience who don’t believe in a literal Resurrection – as there are bright, faithful people who do believe in it. Good, bright, faithful people who disagree. So, either way you go, you’re in good company.

And thinking about whether the Resurrection literally happened or not can make for an engaging academic exercise – but it’s not the point. There’s a danger of becoming so obsessed with the facts that we lose sight of the truth.

Here’s what’s true:

Out of dust and ashes – utter defeat – God created something new and beyond our imaging. And 2000 years later it still shapes our world. Those fear-filled men came out of hiding to proclaim what they had come to know – the power of Resurrection. And, as they had feared, some of them were killed for it. Some of them were killed horribly. And they did it anyway. Because the power of the Resurrection was too intense to be ignored.

Resurrection – those amazing times when things work out, not in spite of all that has gone wrong but somehow through, even because of, the very wrongness.

We know some of the times the Bible tells of. We know of times of living in happy complacency, occasionally wondering, perhaps, if there’s something missing, if there’s not more than this, but mostly just glad of our blessings and contented with our lives.

And we probably also know the times of yearning for more. Times of despair and hopelessness. Times of frustration. Times of loss and pain and bewilderment. And we know how those things pass and life goes on and gets better and all is, eventually, well again.

But, if we pay attention, we will also, every now and then, know the amazing miracle of Resurrection – when all our pain and loss are not erased, not negated, but transformed. When, against all reason, all logic, all possibility, our wounds become our strength, our loss becomes our victory, our pain becomes our triumph. We are re-born. Everything is new. We are new. It doesn’t just get better – heal with time. Our lives, and we, are transformed. Our trials are redeemed. We are Resurrected.

At Easter, we are called to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection – and our own.

Christ is Risen and so are we. Risen to new life – new work, new responsibilities, new possibilities, new joy.

We are followers of the Risen Lord; how can we expect anything less than Resurrection for ourselves?

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Work of the People -- Good Friday, 2005

St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

We gather tonight to do together the Good Friday liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek for "public service." Today, we generally translate it as "the work of the people." So we gather tonight to do the work of the people – to do our work. And the work before us today, in this liturgy, is to pray for the world.

There’s certainly plenty to pray about:
We are at war. People beloved of God and their families and friends are killing, and being killed by, other people beloved of God and their families and friends.
Children in other parts of the world are dying of AIDS in vast numbers. In fact, entire nations are being decimated by this, not curable but certainly treatable, plague.
People everywhere go to bed hungry and without shelter.
Our schools remain unsafe. Last week the headlines spoke of the most recent school "gunman." Next to the headline was the picture of a boy – a child. There was no "gunman" involved. Children are killing children.
And, even as we sit here, political points are being scored over the body of a helpless FL woman while those who love her fight rather than mourn.

This is the world we’re to pray for. It’s hard to know where to begin.
And sometimes it’s hard to know why to begin. For, no matter how hard we pray, when we leave here tonight it’s a good bet that all these problems/tragedies will still await us. The only thing we might well expect to change as a result of our prayer tonight is … us.

Which is a pity. Most of us would, I suspect, prefer magic prayer. You know, the kind of prayer where, if you get it just right, if you want it badly enough, if you pray hard enough – presto, it magically appears. We could fill this church to the rafters if we preached convincingly about that kind of prayer. But it would be a lie – or, at the very least, wishful thinking. We know better.

Instead of magic we get offered an opportunity to change ourselves. To turn our hearts to that which is, and those who are, broken. To turn our heads and our hands to doing God’s work of re-creation, restoration, blessing, healing, resurrection, in and for the world. Which is, of course, where any transformation starts.

It’s not as if we, God’s creation, really need magic, after all. There’s not a problem I listed that doesn’t have an answer within the grasp of willing human hands. You, or I, or even you and I, individually, may not have the power, the knowledge, the ability to repair all those wounds ourselves. But humankind as a whole?

There are enough resources on this planet to satisfy the needs of every living creature. We’ve sent people to the moon, decades ago, yet we can’t figure out how to distribute resources across the globe? We may not be able to stop death (but why would we want to. Death is a part of our lives and provides the context that gives poignancy and meaning.) We may not be able to stop death or to eradicate all disease, but we know how to stop an epidemic, and how to care for our ill, and even how to say good-bye to our dead.

It’s not that we, humankind, can’t do these things; it’s that we don’t want to – not enough, anyway.

And so we come here tonight to do our work. To pray for this broken world in the hope and faith that those prayers will change us. They’ll make us want that healing just a bit more, work for it just a bit harder, risk and sacrifice for it just a bit more courageously.

We come to shape ourselves more fully into who God intends us to be and to invite as much of the world as we can reach to join us in the journey.

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