St. Michael and All Angels
February 24, 2013
Every day we make choices. Some of them are conscious. Some are nowhere near our awareness. Abram vacillates between doubt and faith. Those around Jesus chose between power and vulnerability. Some choices are so obvious and others are much more subtle. We respond to people and situations in ways that may be large or small. We may grasp the impact of our response, or we may have no idea just who will be touched by our actions.
My partner, Anne Marie was teaching music in a poor, tough middle-school several years ago. She took 200 Spanish-speaking students to participate in a show choir festival. It was a bit risky. These kids aren’t your typical show choir kids. But it seemed like a good opportunity for them to share their talents, their language, and their culture, and connect with other kids from the community. They sang their hearts out and wowed the audience with their big soulful sound. When they finished, the judge stepped onto the stage and commented that their school uniforms weren’t really performance attire, and their shoes were kind of ratty. The judge went on to say that singing one song in Spanish was a novelty, but singing all their songs in Spanish was overkill. They needed more variety. What she didn’t realize is that each song was a different genre from a different country. There was a lot of variety in their music… ranchera from Mexico, son from Cuba, reggaeton from Panama, cumbia from Colombia. These kids who already knew they were different than the kids in the fancy costumes, were deflated.
Several months later, Anne Marie was at a meeting with music teachers from other schools who were planning a multi-school event. Anne Marie asked if they could sing one song in Spanish. The others said no. When she asked again, they said no and they finally said they weren’t even going to do the event. Some months later, she was with these same teachers, and they reminisced about what a great event it had been. The message was clear. Her kids and their music weren’t welcome.
Anne Marie was angry and disappointed. She had hoped her kids would see the value in their gifts. She went to complain to her principal, and her principal responded with a question: “So, what are you going to do about it?” Now she had a choice to make. She could walk away and lick the wounds of racism and pain or she could respond by entering more fully into the human family where things are far from perfect. To this day I am astounded by her response. She decided to create an opportunity for kids to share the wonderful skills they were learning. She contacted the National Hispanic Cultural Center and found immediate support to begin the Festival de Bellas Artes. The following year, she held the first festival with 700 children and youth from Albuquerque and beyond. There was mariachi, folklorico, choral groups, guitar, and even a Middle Eastern dance group. Some kids traveled from Las Cruces to participate. It was an amazing experience! Students described that, for the first time they felt their cultures and their talents were being honored by the larger community. The kids and their talent were celebrated and embraced enthusiastically. The Festival de Bellas Artes just completed its fourth year last week with over 1100 elementary, middle, and high school students sharing with each other, attending multi-cultural arts workshops, and performing to completely full theaters. It has become an event that all ages look forward to each year. Several of my friends volunteer at this event because it is stunning to experience the energy and talent of so many kids and adults who work with them.
I’m telling you this story because I am amazed at the choice Anne Marie made when it was clear that her students’ gifts weren’t welcome at existing events. She could have become bitter and left it at that, but she chose to create something that would celebrate the unique gifts of kids in the community. It didn’t occur to her that the choice she made would have such profound impact. She simply did what seemed right to her in that moment.
We all carry within us the capacity to respond more than one way to life. Every day we make choices about what we will eat, what we will do with our body, how we will respond to people we encounter, what we will do with feelings that show up in us… especially the unwelcome ones. It is easy to simply react and a lot more work to stop and reflect on where we are and how we want to be in any given situation. I see this dynamic in the readings today. God tells Abram his reward will be great. In this conversation, we see Abram as a man of faith and doubt. One minute he doubts how God can reward him and the next minute, he trusts in God’s promise. The scripture describes a man who believes in God’s promise and then a man who says, “Wait a minute. How is this going to work again?” That is the human condition. We believe and we doubt. Frederick Buechner calls doubts the “ants in the pants of faith.” That is a good description of all of us. Doubt and faith reside together in each of us. Abram made a lot of mistakes but somehow in this situation, he was able to choose faith and his descendants were as great as the stars.
How many times a day do we hold out for a pure yes or no only to find it never comes? We are yes and no. We are generous and self-centered. We are human and we are made in God’s image. We will never be pure love and compassion. It doesn’t mean that we don’t intend to love every moment, but we will always fall short of perfection. And yet, at the end of every day (and the beginning and middle too!), we are God’s beloved. I remember a youth litany years ago that started, “We are neither good nor bad, we are both. And because God loves us, let us love one another.”
In the Gospel lesson, the people can choose to follow Herod…the one Jesus calls a fox. Or they can follow Jesus, a hen who wants to gather us under her wings. It’s a choice we make every day. Will we follow power and cunning or will we follow steadfast love? The invitation to follow the hen isn’t an invitation to believe in our own worthiness. It’s an invitation to be drawn toward the one whose love breathed life into us and calls us into a human family of compassion and healing.
Last night a group from St. Michael’s kicked off the Year of the Pilgrim by watching the movie The Way. This movie shows a motley crew of people making the pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It’s a fabulous example of mixed motives: real human beings making a journey and annoying each other, showing each other kindness, responding out of their own brokenness, finding deep compassion, and becoming the body of Christ as they travel together. What happens on the journey is that they keep investing in the path and by doing so; they are investing in one another. They make choices every day they travel together that cause pain and healing. Every step on the pilgrim journey is a choice – a choice to acknowledge our vulnerability (because it’s there!), a choice to be receptive, a choice to be grateful, and a choice to see God in one another. This human condition is a funny thing. When I mess up, I often say, “It’s hard to be human!” I wish that all of my choices were pure and beautiful and holy and good, but they are not. Yet somehow God is in all of it.
There is a Native American Legend about an old Cherokee teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The grandfather simply replied, "The one you feed."
Every time I hear this story, I realize that I am making choices about what to feed all day long. The season of Lent is a time of returning. It is a time to take stock of our lives and make choices. Often we give something up or take something on as a way of reflecting on who we are and how we are living. What are we feeding in our lives? Is that what brings us life? Does it bring life to others? In the Adult formation series, we are looking at our core values and asking these questions. We realize as we look at our values that we often hold conflicting values. We are continually making choices about which value will lead in any situation. It’s important to take stock of our values because they help turn us toward God and the life we have been given. We can lean toward the human family and choose healing knowing that we won’t get it all right, but that we belong to a God whose love is greater than our doubt and fear.
We make choices as a community as well. It is my hope that in the coming months and years, we will look at our choices with great care and ask, “Who are we feeding with this choice?” We too, can lean toward the community or pull back seeking security. Leaning into one another can be risky, but it is where love and hope are found. It’s also important to remember God’s grace when we mess up or feed something that causes pain. We ask forgiveness each week for what we have done and for what we have left undone. Then we begin again. God is in all of it breathing life and love into each of us and gathering us under her wings.