Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's, Olympics, Tranfiguration.

Today's sermon follows below. But I did want to say this to those of you who read on-line. Sermons are always targeted at a specific audience, usually the congregation a pastor serves in. This means that what you are reading in the sermon is only a part of an on-going conversation--like listening to someone talking on the phone.  So while there is a lot of me in the sermons, and the Word is the Word, what you don't know or read about are the stories of the people I work with and love in my tiny church. Who they are shapes what I say as much as who I am. Love to you all, and enjoy!

Sermon, Sunday, February 14, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

First Scripture Reading: Exodus 34:29-35
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 9:28-43

Now look. Today is Valentine’s Day. And I hereby give you permission to love it or leave it (says the divorced pastor). Today is the second day of the Olympics. And I hereby give you permission to love it or leave it. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. And I hereby give you permission to love it or leave it. But on this day, like every other day, we must attend to the complexities of life as best we can, and we are called to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves, other countries as we love ours, people who look and act differently than we do just as we love those who are practically carbon copies of our selves. I should just end the sermon right here.

Let me begin my discussion of Valentine’s Day by admitting that I will not be spending it with love and smooches and flowers and candy. For those of you who WILL be spending it that way, I salute you. My facebook and twitter pages on-line have filled with people expressing various sentiments about Valentine’s Day. Like this one: “Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love. happy valentines day to my love. You are my sunshine." One guy said “just a word of advice. wanna show someone you love them do it the other 364 days a the year w/words and actions not commercial garbage.” There are folks who have made elaborate plans, folks who agree not to celebrate the day, folks who are MOURNING that they do not have someone special to celebrate the day with, folks who have lost their beloveds to death or divorce, folks who wish they weren’t with their valentines, and plenty of folks who are just plain content being by themselves. On this day, like every other day, even though we make a great national effort and homogenizing love into a specific narrative, human complexity abounds, and love, like it always has, remains fickle and difficult to maintain the other 364 days of the year.

Who was the great Saint Valentine, you ask? Well the historical record is a bit murky on this one. There were several Valentinuses in those early centuries—it was apparently a very popular name back then. But the one we attach this day to was apparently either a priest or a bishop or a martyr and is from some place or another, the story varies. A quick Wikipedia glance (forgive me) offers this snapshot:
The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle, (1493); alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II, known as Claudius Gothicus. He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner -- until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor -- whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that didn't finish him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. Various dates are given for the martyrdom or martyrdoms: 269, 270, or 273. 
So what we have here is a priest committing crimes against the government by marrying folks who weren’t supposed to be getting married and aiding and abetting criminals. I kind of like this connection. As best I can tell, the folks who are best celebrating Valentine’s today are the folks helping out illegal immigrants, marrying gay couples, and in other ways going against the law and customs of the land. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I am spending the afternoon slouching in the corner of a coffee house, finishing Frantz Fanon’s book “Wretched of the Earth”, a philosophical/political text about rebellion and resistance in Africa against the colonizing forces which grip the land. Love it or leave it. But find some way to love the complexity of humanity. Love your neighbor as yourself. There isn’t just one way to do Valentine’s Day.

The Olympics! So exciting!! Athletes preparing for years, decades, for their shot at being the best in their sport for a moment in this world. They give up so much for these days. In a lot of ways they give up so much for all of us who lose ourselves in their struggles and triumphs for the next few weeks. And if you win a gold in a popular sport, you might secure yourself an immortal-ish name—a place in the hearts and memories of people, at least for a generation. And more importantly than that, the Olympics is a moment of triumph for so many, simply for the accomplishment of making the team, of trying their hardest, of getting lucky, of overcoming obstacles. It’s a metaphor for all of us in our daily struggles, and these athletes shine for us momentarily like Jesus did on the mountain, transfigured into larger than life characters who speak for us with their bodies. They glow. We make idols out of these folks--but with good reason. They are MAGNIFICENT!

And yet, there are complexities here as well. I have been listening to stories of journalists and other protesters who have been unable to travel to Canada to be at the games because of their disagreement with the Olympics. Vancouver itself lies on land which is claimed by indigenous people and was never properly ceded to Canada. (And hmm. Many of us live on land that has similar claims.) The international excitement over the Olympics and concerns over security have provided incentive for the police force in Vancouver to increase surveillance, to increase their weaponry, to target folks who speak out against the Olympics. Our love, as spectators, for speed and excitement and record breaking, ultimately led to a bob sled track that defies gravity, and an athlete died on Friday as he took a corner too fast in an effort to be the best, the fastest. Less dramatically, the pressure to perform, to win, leads many athletes to push their bodies past brokenness. And in the United States, the Olympics highlights racial injustice—it takes money, time, health, and privilege to become an Olympic athlete, especially in winter sports which require special equipment and access to specific environments. NBC created a list of “model” women Olympians to follow. Every woman on that list was a white woman, despite the fact that many of the women competing in the Olympics this year are women of color, both from the United States and internationally. Love it or leave it. The Olympics again showcases the complexity of the humanity God made. Moments of triumph and greatness are always surrounded by injustice and grief. (Here are a few of the women of color from the U.S. who are competing this year).

And the transfiguration. A few verses earlier is the famous moment when Jesus asked, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And the disciples shout out John the baptist and Elijah, and some ancient prophet. And then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter (that know-it-all, teacher’s pet disciple) says, “The Messiah of God.” Then Jesus tells them that those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life will save it. The kingdom of God is at hand. And then they go up a mountain where Jesus starts to pray and he begins to glow, his clothes becoming dazzling white. Moses and Elijah the prophet show up—almost exactly like certain scenes from Star Wars with Luke talking to the spirits of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, and eventually his father, Darth Vader, aka Anikin Skywalker. Awestruck, Peter says hey! let’s put up some tents for you guys and stay a while. And then God himself blows over in a crowd and tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, God’s Son, the Chosen. Struck silent, a few days later, Jesus and the disciples are off healing again, when a man brings his son to Jesus for healing. The disciples tried, he says, but nothing happened. My son is still possessed by this demon! And Jesus utters these unkind words, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” And then he heals the boy, and all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Jesus in dazzling white robes, amazed disciples and crowds, a healed boy, the greatness of God. But I am struck again with ambivalence. How much longer must you bear with me, Jesus? My own thoughts go to “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Who do I say that you are? Is this a trick question? Why don’t you TELL me who you are, O Elusive God?

And then there’s this story of a boy with seizures, made out to be possessed by demons. These days, our understanding of medical science has expanded beyond what it was 2,000 years ago, and we no longer believe that people with medical conditions are inherently evil or sinful or to blame for their condition. Or do we? How often do we see people with disabilities portrayed in terrible ways on television, in our schools, within our families? The stigma surrounding mental illness permeates every aspect of our society. How many of us have an uncle Joe or Aunt Sue that no one ever talks about, who lives out of sight, never spoken of, never visited? We are all just a small step away from disability in our lives—if we live long enough our bodies and minds will fail us for sure. And so what does this passage tell us? In a moment last night, I wondered if perhaps this passage expresses Jesus’ exasperation at our need to have everything fixed into tidy bundles—our unwillingness to accept the imperfection of our human bodies and minds. I wonder if he didn’t look at this little boy with seizures and whisper to him “You are beautiful and human and wonderful, with or without seizures.” I wonder with the Transfiguration, if Jesus didn’t become concerned with the cult of personality that had begun to stick to him like glue. I wonder if he wasn’t exasperated that the people around him had lost their ability to function, to do right, without him. I wonder if he didn’t shake his fist at God and say “Stop making my clothes glow and popping in on a cloud! You’re not helping!”

On Friday night I was at the Wawa because it was late and I was hungry and nothing else was open. There was a long line at the cash register, and I had time to people watch. A woman in line had beautiful, beautiful hair. The clerk spoke to her and suddenly she smiled with her whole body. She glowed. I was transfixed. We have these moments of beauty and love in our lives--they are gifts from God. Moments of romantic love, the beauty of an athlete, the wonder of glimpsing God, a stranger who lights up the room with her smile. They are gifts, and they are momentary. Lots of work to be done in the interim. We are given just enough time to enjoy, but there's no time to linger. We are needed in the world. 

Love it or leave it, Valentine's Day, Olympics, Transfiguration Sunday. Still and all, we are called to love, to help one another, to seek Truth. So go.

1 comment:

  1. Good message, Katie. Thanks for posting your sermons.