Easter Sermon 2013

On the 11th of April of 1945, a young man, Herschel Schacter, was serving as a rabbinic chaplain in one of the divisions of the US army fighting in Germany.  That morning, according to the NYT, he heard that it looked like troops would break through the German line around Buchenwald,  hell on earth created by the Nazi, a concentration camp.  Schacter commandeered a jeep and drove through much of the day across Germany and arrived at the gates of this hell, very soon after the allied forces had entered Buchenwald.  In later years, he spoke of how the smoke stung his nose, how the smell of burning flesh was everywhere, how death extended as far as you could look.

Stunned, he asked one of the soldiers who had been there for a while if there was anybody, anybody at all left alive and he was led to Kleine Lager, what amounted to a small camp within the camp.  There, in bunks that ran the length and height of the walls of each room of each building, he saw life, still flickering in the eyes of men, women and children who were terribly sick, and hungry, and beaten down, and especially, so terribly afraid.  “Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei”.  Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free”.  That was the phrase he repeated over and over again, trying to get as fast as he could to each and every room in Kleine Lager where there might still be life.  Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei.

The Times tells that those who were strong enough, got out of their bunks and followed behind Schacter,  the crowd swelling behind him as he moved through the camp.  I have to believe that in part, they needed to hear that phrase again and again to believe it was possible, let alone true.  Peace be upon you Jews, you are free.

In one space where quite literally, the bodies were stacked up, Schacter saw a tiny whisper of a movement out of the corner of his eye and found a little boy crouched behind some bodies.  Crying, Schacter bent down to pick him up.  He asked the little boy his name.  “Lulek”, the child responded.  And then Schackter asked his age.  The little boy answered, “what does it matter, I am older than you.”  That made Shacter smile and he asked him how that could be.  And the little boy answered “because you are laughing and you are crying.  I haven’t done that in a long time.”

Shacter stayed in Buchenwald for many months.  Much of what he did was pretty simple, actually.  He held services.  Buchenwald had been liberated a week after the Jewish Passover and over and over, Schacter broke and shared Matzoh bread, celebrated Shabbat with the people with the people who were slowly coming back to life.

One night, Luken and his brother were able to say Kaddish  for their parents.  The Kaddish is a Jewish prayer that exalts God, and is recited at funerals and by those who mourn.  Shacter presided at Shavuot, the holy feast in the Jewish tradition that celebrates the day Moses received the Ten Commandments.  And he was able to escort Lulek, and quite a number of other young orphans, including Elie Weisel, to Palestine, a few months later as part of the relocation effort he helped to manage.  Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei.

When Barack Obama was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, he met with the retired Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, who told our president this story because, in his words,  he need to thank “American people for delivering Buchenwald survivors “not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life”.”  You see, Lulek had grown up to be Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.

I am convinced that most days, we live not believing in Resurrection.  In part, that is because the spare and simple story told in all the Gospel accounts is so easily reduced to quaint and pretty pictures.  How can any of us put our hope and faith in a single event that happened so long ago?

For those of us who are ever so privileged, it is easy to slip into that “sophisticated hopelessness” called cynicism.  For those of us who left behind our home, our family, everything that gave us our identity, the temptation to give in the crass consumerism of our culture is mighty. We resist with everything we are and everything we have, those dark, harrowing moments of hell that come with great loss, deep grief and powerlessness.  We are so horribly scared of death.

The insistent voice of God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, that voice that, through the prophet Isaiah says, “I will make all things new” is the God of Resurrection that through the angel at the empty tomb says, “Don’t be afraid. He is risen.”   God’s will has always been that what was downtrodden be lifted up.  What was lost be found.  What was dead find new life.  That is what God has always worked towards and always invited us to participate in.  Today, we are reminded, because we so easily forget, that we are called to practice resurrection, to be people of the resurrection.  To run from place to place, and say, “Shalom Aleichem, ihr zint frei. Peace be unto you, you are free. (La paz sea con vosotros.  Sois libres).

Stirrings…

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Everything is just right inside our little church–flowers, but not too many.  The paschal candle we will light for the first time tonight at the Great Easter Vigil, came out of its box painfully bent.  A rolling on the hot roof of a car and it is just right.  All three of the baptismal candidates are ready.  One is a young adult, the other two, delightful children. They were painfully shy when they first started coming to our church; day before yesterday, the two of them chatted away with me,  so excited about today.  One was concerned about what would happen to his Mohawk hairstyle when he gets baptized.  Together, we did the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd presentations about Baptism and about the Last Supper.  The oldest of the candidates was the one most moved by the simple image of the Light of the World.  Earthenware vessels we used all through Lent are packed and put away and the silver chalices and pattens have been shined so they positively gleam.  My sermon for tomorrow is almost complete.

Huh?  Well yes, in fact, the shoes are here too…

Where Am I to Live?

foot washing artI sound like a broken record.  Times continue to be tough, especially at work.  Learning to be a genuinely plural faith community is hard.  Being honest about the ways power and survival dance with each other means facing into truths about own my humanity that I’d rather look away from.  Learning to be a very plural faith community when resources are not what they used to be and you can’t throw, save, raise, or rely on money to solve the challenges of ministry means finding resources somewhere else, some other way. It means living in a new place.

I go to bed tired these nights.  I continue to carve out the time to walk regularly but I’m having some GI problems and many nights I walk through pretty bad stomach cramps.  It is awfully tempting to turn back.  Once about 2 weeks ago, I finally gave in to the pain, called my spouseman and asked him to come get me.  My guess is, I am dealing with anxiety and I also know I need to get myself to the doctor. Part of the reason I keep walking is to sleep better at night.  But I wake up a lot, mind racing, zombies roaming and hissing along the paths of my soul during the witching hour.

Now we are back in Holy Week.  Maundy Thursday to be precise.  I can’t read the appointed passage in John without some sense of irony.  The description of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and then breaking bread with this band of friends makes me want to think that this all played out in the context of centeredness.  Surely at some level, there was a degree of mindfulness about the significance of that moment pervading the space where Jesus and his friends gathered.  Time slowed down, everyone breathed deep, deep belly breaths and like Emily, in Our Town, the men and women sharing that meal with Jesus  saw, really saw, the gift that was their life, especially their life together.

Having worked in the church for so long, I know better.   It was nothing at all like that idyllic version.  People’s minds were racing like mine does too often these days.  There were fast-moving, roiling undercurrents of resentment, the bleak sense of urgency and certainty that too much of what was being done was being done wrong and for the wrong reasons.  Fear distorted perceptions and anxiety made it hard for this small community to laugh.   For those who could see the writing on the wall, how tempting it must have been to simply walk.  Burned out and convinced that weeds had choked the living daylight out of each and every seed of grace that had been planted, I bet at least some of Jesus friends wracked their brains trying to figure out if there was anything, anything at all they could do instead of continue to follow this path.

Such a gentle, kind, subversive and confrontational act it was to ask to wash people’s feet that night.  That gesture becomes an even more brutally difficult message when it isn’t the Messiah but someone I don’t necessarily like (and I know is no Jesus) who has to wash my feet.  It is so totally counter-intutitive to claim that our hope comes in choosing to live in a place where people are pushing and pulling and jostling and struggling to have their agendas heard and respected and then having to act out kindness with each other.   Here?  This is where you want me to live?

In Search of A Lost Time

When I travel these days, all I care about is getting where I’m going with a minimum of hassle, lugging as little gear as possible. With my bionic hip, I know that I will set off all the security systems and will be felt up and pawed and prodded and poked ad nauseum. I wear clothes that make that easier on all the parties involved. I wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. I do this dissociation thing and last week, with sequestration already making a difference in airport staffing, tried to put myself into a trance state to get through the misery of airports and flights where the flight attendants are overworked, under paid and cop royal attitudes. I hate it.

It wasn’t always like this. My family travelled a lot from the time I was a baby. In the very early years of my life, the airline we flew out of Colombia on was Panagra.

panagra

I remember flying on DC-4’s a lot. And the excitement when DC8 and 720’s began flying into Colombia. Eventually, Braniff International took over Panagra. When we’d go to Panama to spend summers with my grandmother, Braniff was the airline that got us there. Braniff was so. cool. Their planes were painted in these far out colors, some of them had an Alexander Calder design. My brothers and I crossed our fingers when we were flying to Panama that we’d be on a Calder.

calder

For a few years, their flight attendants wore these incredibly beautiful Pucci uniforms:

braniff pucci

And when it was time to go with a new designer, they went to the total opposite extreme, turning to Halston to design their next ‘look’.

braniff halston

I was a little girl seeing all these wonderfully sophisticated fashions evolve and I was entranced. My brothers always wore coats and little clip-on ties. I had to wear socks with lace and it was one occasion my mom would allow me to skip the orthopedic shoes in favor of white patent leather mary jane shoes, even though it meant I limped more. I wore gloves and a hat and when I was 8, I even got to carry a purse. In the regular coach section, we were served 3 course meals and occasionally, if we were traveling with my grandmother and we were in first class, it was four or five courses. There was real china and real crystal and cloth napkins regardless of section. What we liked most was we got to keep these itty bitty little salt and pepper shakers. And regularly, we were invited into cockpits because we were such well behaved little children.

There was a darker part to all this travel that came to me in a flash on Saturday. I got an aisle seat one row behind the bulkhead in coach. As I came through the business class section, I noticed a youngish woman with a cute little toddler on her lap. I didn’t really notice the people in the bulkhead row. For some reason the mom and her baby had to move from one seat to another and like a shot, a young woman in jeans and blouse stood up from the row right in front of me and rushed over to help move mother and child from one seat to the other across the aisle. One look at the mom’s rings and I realized the young woman who’d rushed to help her was the child’s nanny.

I had forgotten that until my little brother was 8 or 9, our nanny usually came along too. And we sat in one part of the plane and she in another. All my mom’s household staff had uniforms of different degrees of formality and when we travelled, Noehmi, our nanny, had to wear one of her more formal uniforms. Unlike the young woman who was on my flight this Saturday, there was no room for doubt about the fact that Noehmi was a servant. This is another part of my life that I took for granted and now makes me terribly, horribly uncomfortable when I remember.

eastern airlines

When it came time for me to go to college, Braniff kept going in and out of bankruptcy and Eastern Airlines took over their routes. To get to college, I’d fly to Miami, then to Atlanta on Eastern. There I’d catch a flight on Piedmont Airlines to Lynchburg, Virginia. By then, there was added incentive to dress up to travel–coming in on a student visa, I always had to pass muster with the immigration officer in Miami. It was terrifying to think that I might be mistaken for a Colombian drug mule (the drug routes from Colombia were opening with ferocity). Probably it was wishful thinking to believe that if I dressed up, I’d look clean and innocent enough. But there was still something about traveling in style that mattered–I remember what care I took choosing my luggage, one of the graduation gifts I got from my parents.

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Whatever, it took me long into adulthood before I quit caring. There was a lot about travel in those days that was pretentious and silly. The way our family treated Noehmi was some of the worst of the colonial ethos I was shaped by. And recognizing all that, I also realize what an incredibly lucky little girl I was…

Honor Thy Parents

The Family

The Family

My mom was always pretty high maintenance.  As the cancer progressed, she got quite demanding and often cranky.  She and I also had such an intense relationship built around the common purpose of getting (and keeping me) on my feet and walking that I gave a lot of time and energy to that relationship.  My relationship with my dad is fundamentally different.  It is not so fraught with undercurrents of unresolved conflict and struggle for power.  It is easy for us to simply sit in silence together for long stretches of time, perfectly content to keep each other company without talking.

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It is also far more cerebral.  In the two days I spent with him up in Boquete, our conversation ranged from what it was like studying with Peter Drucker when Dad got his MBA at Univalle in Cali, at a time when Harvard Business School had an extension program in our state university, to the concept of Singularity, to the work of Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher who recently died, to the “baby pictures” of the universe that were taken through the Planck Telescope and published by the NYT this week.   It is exhilarating and astounding to have these conversations with a man who at almost 86 is still more curious and engaged with learning than most people I know.

With his long career as a small business owner, my dad loves to hear my version of being a ‘small business leader’ myself, as the priest-in-charge of a mission parish.  We have a good time exchanging ‘white knuckle’ stories about the risks and challenges of keeping an organization going against stacked odds. At the periphery of my consciousness, I am aware of how much it matters to me to that he respects the work I am doing and that I am able to demonstrate how he helped shape how I work as a professional.  His mantra was always, “read the instructions”.  That is such an essential part of me that I know myself to be my father’s daughter.   Each of these precious gifts of time in his presence are opportunities to honor my father.

Even now that my mom is dead, there are still ways of honoring her as well.  It’s in my walking.  Pulling out all her still lovely tablecloths and linens and crystal and china to help my dad have the kind of party my mom used to revel in.  What  I can’t do is grow orchids like she did, in fact, I have a knack for killing all green things by just looking at them, it seems, but that’s ok.  There are others: Paulino, her gardner who still works for my dad, and Sherod, my husband, who keep orchids beautiful and exotic like she liked them.

My mother also loved seashells.  She and I walked long stretches of beaches in many different places looking for them. We were both particularly intrigued by small little shells.  On a couple of recent beach outings I found some that I knew she would love and brought them with me to Panamá.  There is a particularly beautiful Jewish tradition about visiting the grave of a loved one that that I became familiar with years ago.  When you visit a grave, you leave a small rock or pebble on the tombstone, a sacrament of your presence there and also, a way of affirming that the project of a person’s life is still being constructed and built up, long after they are gone.

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There is no grave for me to visit, but there is a picture of my mom next to the chair where my dad sits and reads and I put my little treasures on the table in front of the picture and next to the small flower vase that has fresh flowers every day.  Pastora, my parents’ housekeeper gives us—and mom—that gift day in and day out.  She knows how much my mom loved flowers.  It is her way of remembering and it is strangely comforting, now that I am preparing to board a plane and leave, again, to know that my mom is being cared for in this small way.

Honor thy parents.  Who knew that keeping one of the Commandments of my faith could be such a piercingly sweet and meaningful yes to life.

Bits and Pieces

A Nita Orchid

A Nita Orchid

My time in Panamá is winding down.  On Wednesday,  my dad and I travelled from the city up to Boquete, where my dad lives, after 2 days of lots and lots of time waiting to see doctors and get tests.  The verdict is still out but the surgeon he consulted seems to think there are several steps my dad can take to alleviate the pain and deterioration of his walking that appears to be the result of nerve compression in his spinal column.

We managed to split our time between waiting around for doctors who were running late and a lovely visit to the observation deck of Miraflores Locks, part of the Panamá Canal.  A tour boat, a gorgeous sailboat and a Japanese car container ship went through the locks while we were there.  Even now, so many years after the Panamá Canal was returned to Panamanian jurisdiction, lines of demarcation between the Canal Zone and the ‘outside’ are so clearly visible.  Another split.

Miraflores Lock Right Before Opening

Miraflores Lock Right Before Opening

Vessels After Going Through the Locks

Vessels After Going Through the Locks

We split the city as soon as we could, boarding an Air Panama flight from Albrook Airport to the fair city of David and then driving up the side of Volcán Barú to Boquete.  It is hard being here only for two days.  I’ve spent enough time here these past few years to have patterns and rhythms that I slip into with my dad.  I’m walking away from them this afternoon to catch a flight back to the city so I can fly to Miami tomorrow.

Morning Walk, Wednesday

Morning Walk, Wednesday

I never quite got to leave home this time.  The situation with the charge of Assault and Battery brought against Maria at her school a few weeks ago came to a head at the very end of last week, when we found out that she had been remanded to a 90-day substance abuse program with an agency that provides services to seriously delinquent youth.  I got daily, sometimes hourly reports, from Sherod, navigating through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of craziness until finally, finally, late yesterday afternoon the State Attorney’s office decided to drop the charges.  Our notions of innocence until proven guilty and a system of justice are quaintly antiquated, it seems, and it was only the influence and determination of two privileged parents working with an incredible support team that won that dismissal for Maria.

Work is also filled with pressure as we continue to develop new revenue streams for our ministries with a very small staff and a volunteer base that is being challenged to grow in many new ways.  Yesterday, conference calls, emails, and several texts with my spouseman and boss, were tucked in among preparations  to host a cocktail party for 30 of my dad’s friends.  Today, I am sitting in the living room filled with my mother’s presence that still aches with emptiness, learning fast and furious what I can about gondola and wall shelving units and what it costs to purchase them second hand.  My dad is dozing in his recliner while I write.

Bits and pieces of life like shards of colored glass.  Beautiful, sharp-edged, lit on fire by the sunshine that’s been playing over the geegaws and tchotchke on my mother’s living room table.

What's Left

What’s Left