Living Rooms

Our next door neighbors in Paragould were Iva and Harold Hicks.  Mr. and Mrs. Hicks never had children of their own, and they served as a kind of third set of grandparents for the four Thompson kids.  When my older brother Robert and I decided, at ages seven and five, to run away from home with suitcases full of toys and cookies, it was Mr. and Mrs. Hicks who indulgently heard our litany of complaints against our mother, and who then convinced us to run back into mom’s arms by innocently asking what we planned to eat when the cookies ran out.

Thompson kids 1979

The Thompson kids, not long after Robert and I ran away from home.  (That’s me in the Dr. Pepper t-shirt. Robert is in the yellow shirt.)

We were in Mr. and Mrs. Hicks’ house often, and we always entered through the back sliding glass door into their sunken den. The den was a warm room, full of color and life.  The den was the center of Mr. and Mrs. Hicks’ activity and interaction.  Through the sliding glass door, they could look out into the woods behind their house and watch all manner of wildlife.

Once when I was very young, I remember being in the Hicks’ kitchen and glancing through a doorway opposite the den.  In there was a dark room, filled with furniture that looked stiff and uncomfortable.  The air seemed stale, as though no one had walked through the room to stir it in quite a while.  The room was sterile, vacant, and lifeless.  It gave me the willies.  “What room is that, Mrs. Hicks?” I asked.  “Oh that,” she replied.  “We never go in there.  That’s the living room.”

Many of you have a knowing, raised eyebrow right now, because for you, as for me, that’s a fairly accurate description of the living room in our own homes.  In daily practice, the living room is often the opposite of its name.  It’s not the room in which we live.  It’s not the room in which we relax, interact, laugh, or love.  It’s the room we set apart just in case someone important pays us a visit, where the white furniture has no stains, the carpet is pristine, and the coffee table lacks any rings.  It is, in other words, a museum piece—or a tomb—but it is anything but a living room.

Women approaching the tomb

The women approach the tomb, expecting to be received only by the dead.

 

On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other women who loved Jesus approach the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body two days before.  Jesus is dead, and with him something in them has died.  They go to the tomb, because they don’t know what else to do.  At least, they think, they can anoint Jesus’ body according to their religious custom.  But the women don’t expect anything unusual to happen.  They expect to be received only by the dead.

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We haven’t always had living rooms.[i]  They’re actually only about a hundred years old.  Prior to that, the main room of a house was called the parlor.  The parlor was, indeed, a formal room, in which gentlemen called on ladies, guests were met, and business was transacted.  Importantly, the parlor was also the room in which, when a death occurred, the body would lie in wake.  The parlor truly was, in part, a tomb.  As much as where a homeowner received the living, it was where he received the dead.

In 1918, this last became the primary use of the parlor.  By the end of that year, 116,000 American doughboys had been killed in the First World War, and over half a million people had died of the Spanish flu.  Not since the Civil War had Americans experienced death on such a vast scale, in such a concentrated time.  Homes became places of near-constant mourning.  Windows were more or less permanently draped in black.  Caskets crowded out furniture.  And the parlor took on a new name: the death room.  Think about the psychology, the emotional toll of that: the heart of one’s home, one’s sanctuary, became indelibly marked by the pallor and stale air of death.

There were several reactions.  One was the birth of a new industry, that of the “funeral parlor,” in which wakes were removed from the home altogether to a designated space elsewhere.  That development was a mixed bag and one about which I have some opinions, but that is for another day.

Another reaction was from, of all places, the magazine Ladies Home Journal.  A publisher of room layouts in every issue, the Journal would no longer ultimately be in the business of death, it declared.  Henceforth, it would not include in its house plans death rooms by parlor or any other name.  Instead, the focal center of the home would become a living room.[ii]

Ladies Home Journal living room, c. 1918

Ladies Home Journal living room layout, c. 1918

Rather than being overly formal or adhering to the rigid conventions of the day’s style, living rooms were supposed to be just that, spaces alive with the character of those who lived in them.  The living room was to be the heartbeat of the family, where memories were made and joys were shared. If one was invited into the living room, he was given entrance to a place of relationship, laughter, and love.

The center of our homes is still called the living room, but often it is more like a tomb. We’ve allowed it to become something other than that for which it was inspired, a stale and sterile place instead of one that engenders love and kindles joy.

Similarly, the hearts of the women in the Gospel had become, with the death of Jesus, death rooms of hopeless mourning, for their leader and friend, and for the apparent demise of the better kingdom he preached with such passion.  Good Friday, for us as for them, can seem so much more convincing than Easter.  Just this past week, the continuing histrionic rancor of our political season further sapped hope, and the brutal terror attack in Belgium further stoked anxiety and fatalism.  Jesus is dead.  Grace decays.  Maybe it’s easier if we just give in to that psychology and render death rooms of our hearts.

And yet, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and the others approach what they believe to be a death room, a tomb.  They expect the air to be stale with decay, which is why they bring the aromatic spices.  They expect the mood to be one of overwhelming mourning.  They expect to meet only the dead.

But instead, the women arrive at a room dazzlingly alive in ways that exceed any earthly understanding.  The space that should be draped in darkness is emblazoned with light.  Where there should be a corpse, there two angelic messengers with words of joy and hope.  The tomb, it turns out, will no longer ultimately be about the business of death.  It has become a living room!  And the women’s hearts, which had been broken, begin to mend with the promise that they will meet Jesus again, and soon.  He will come to them very much alive, and his new life will transform theirs.

Empty tomb

Is there room for the living Jesus in our hearts?  You see, it is again Easter Day, and again the world hangs in the balance.  That is not hyperbole.  That is not exaggeration.  That is Gospel truth.  Messages of death are all around us: Death caused by terror; death of relationships; death of joy; death of hope.  But here, today, the message is life, the life that cannot be bound by death, the life that tears the black bunting from the window and rolls the stone from the tomb.  It is the message of a God who says, after Jesus is removed lifeless from the cross, “I’m not done yet” and turns the stale, sterile, and lifeless tomb into a living room.

On this Easter Day, what message do we take back into the world?  When all the myriad forces of death come calling, how do we respond?  Among those around us, do we kindle joy?  Do we foster relationships among all God’s people, filled with laughter and love?  Do we, with the women, take the message of the living Christ with us wherever we go?  Are our hearts living rooms?

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[i] https://blogsurabhi.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/what-is-the-origin-of-the-term-living-room/

[ii] This information comes both from the blog post cited above and from a lecture delivered by Lauren Winter at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference at Camp Allen, Navasota, TX, in October 2014.

Removing our cloaks

We began our service this morning according to a Christian custom that goes back at least as far as 381 A.D.  It was in that year that the pilgrim Egeria traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter.  She arrived a week early, and as she approached the city she witnessed a group of people processing down into the city from the Mount of Olives.  The crowd waved palm branches as they chanted, “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  These early Christians represented the people who crowded the road as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.

Today we reenacted this venerable tradition.  We processed to glorious song, and we waved our palm fronds before us.  But if you paid careful attention to the liturgy of the palms this morning, you may have noticed that in what we have just enacted there is a disconnect with the reading we heard at the outset of the service.

Palm Sunday Triumphal Procession

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to take at least once during life.  The pilgrim’s first stop upon reaching Mecca is the miqat, or changing room, in which he removes whatever clothes he has on, including jewelry, and dons a stark, plain, white garment known as the ihram.

Eventually, the pilgrim makes his way to the mosque housing the Kaaba stone, believed by Muslims to have been built by our shared father Abraham and symbolizing the faithfulness of God, where the pilgrim falls in with thousands upon thousands of identically-plainly dressed Muslims to ritually walk around the Kaaba seven times.

Before he arrived in Mecca, the pilgrim might have been a peasant or a king.  But in Mecca he strips himself bare, ritually divesting himself of any and all indicators of his station.  He removes his world, as does everyone around him, and he gives himself over to God.

Muslim pilgrims at the Kaaba

Muslim pilgrims circumnavigating the Kaaba stone

The disconnect in Luke’s account of that first Palm Sunday, which we read this morning, is that there are no palms!  There is no throng waiting for Jesus like the party awaiting the returning Longhorn or Aggie football teams after an away game victory.  Unlike Matthew, Mark, and especially John, Luke’s recollection lends its focus to a different aspect of the story.  In Luke, the emphasis is found less in the enthusiasm of the people (though that is present, too) and more in the deeply personal and committed action of each gathered individual.  First, we are told, the disciples remove their cloaks and lay them on the back of the colt, as a blanket on which Jesus can ride.  Then, we are told that passers-by stop and shed their cloaks to straighten and smooth as best they can the way along which Jesus travels.  Clothing, then as now, is a powerful symbol of who we are, what we do, and how much we matter relative to others in the world.  And what Luke tells us on Palm Sunday is that first the disciples and then the various people they meet along the road remove their cloaks and lay them down in service to Jesus the Christ.  Whether the person be a peasant, a wealthy landowner, or a scribe, those whose eyes look up from the road and see not a fool on a donkey but God in their midst strip themselves bare.  Each person removes his world and lays it at the feet of Jesus.  They foreshadow the very model that Jesus himself will set five days from now, when he, too, is stripped bare and when he commits himself on the cross and gives all that he is to the service of the lonely and the lost.  Riding on that colt on Palm Sunday at the beginning of the week, he invites all he meets to join him; to lay down their lives with him against the way of the world that instills injustice, prejudice, and fear; to side with him for love.

It is worth asking the question, “How can I lay down the world I have built around me?  I must eat.  I must provide for myself or my family.  People at work and at home depend on me.  I am part of a system, a spoke in a wheel.  What would it even look like to remove my cloak and lay it on the ground for Jesus?”

It is a fair question, and it is one for which the Gospel provides us an answer.  There is a small-group exercise that is sometimes conducted in church gatherings during Holy Week.  Participants are asked to imagine who they would be in the Passion story.  Mary Magdalene?  Simon of Cyrene?  Pilate?

For most of us, who in our culture enjoy great status and comfort, I would argue that we are represented by Joseph of Arimathea.  We are not the disciples, to be sure.  We do not live hand-to-mouth nor do we give up all that we have—including family and home—to devote ourselves to the Gospel.  Let’s not kid ourselves; that’s not who we are.

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea retrieving the body of Jesus

But listen again to what Luke says about Joseph:

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

Jesus is crucified, and Joseph anguishes.  What does he do?  How does he respond?  He could forget about this Jesus, who preached the kingdom Joseph had come to anticipate.  He could go back to his privileged life as though it had all been a misunderstanding.  In an atmosphere where those who rock the boat tend to find themselves hanging from a cross, that would surely be the safest decision.

But that’s not what he does.  With courage, Joseph uses his very status in service to the Gospel, in the way that one might take off an ornate and expensive cloak to cover the road leading into Jerusalem.  He goes to Pilate (into the lion’s den), who will only see him because Joseph is a member of the Jewish council, and asks for Jesus’ body.  There must then be a moment of tension so thick you can cut it with a knife, as Pilate stares at Joseph trying to decide if Joseph, too, is an insurrectionist, if he, too, is an enemy of Rome.  But the moment passes, and Pilate turns the body over to Joseph.  Please understand, no one else could have accomplished this; not Peter, not the mother of Jesus.  Only Joseph, because of who he is in the community, because of his standing, and because he is willing to take the cloak of his life and lay it on the road in service to the Gospel.

Friends, the final journey of Jesus has begun.  Jesus needs us to walk this Way.  He needs us to take these clothes that we wear as symbols of status and worth and render them truly valuable.  He needs us, even in the face of risk and challenge, to strip ourselves bare, and offer whatever we have in service to the One who seeks us out in love.  He comes now.  There are cracks and fissures in the road.  It can be treacherous.  The colt may stumble.  Our cloaks—our lives—are needed.

Retelling the story

“Hell,” says Pastor Rob Bell, “is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”[i]

Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.  That is, surely, a different way to think about the concept.  As Episcopalians, we usually don’t think about it much at all.  Not a lot of hell talk comes from Episcopal pulpits.  On the rare occasion that we do consider hell, we think of it as a mythological geographic location—somewhere down there, beneath the floorboards, like the molten river in Tolkien’s Mordor, where a gargoyle-like Satan sits atop a grotesque throne.  Or, we apply the name to violent places on this plane of existence: Hell is Somalia in the 1990s, or tsunami-ravaged Thailand.

But Rob Bell says that hell is “our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”  If he’s right, then hell is not somewhere.  Or, hell can be anywhere.  Hell is wherever we are, on this plane of existence or the next, if we refuse to trust God’s retelling of our story.  But what, exactly, does that mean?

Rob Bell

Rob Bell

Today’s Gospel passage is Jesus most famous parable, known popularly as “The Prodigal Son.”  Our lectionary leaves out that Jesus tells this story immediately after offering the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin.  That’s important, because it reveals to us that this story is, at its heart, a parable about being lost.  Even more specifically, it’s a parable about losing ourselves in our own stories.  That’s what happens here, to the parable’s younger son.

At the parable’s outset, the young man, who has just come of age, has obviously been telling his own story for some time.  He has an image of himself, of the man he wants to be, of the mark he wants to make in life.  It is an inflated and unrealistic image, but when has that ever hindered the young?  The son goes to his father and brazenly asks for his inheritance while the father is still alive.  Culturally, it’s difficult for us to grasp the radical finality of the son’s request.  He is saying to his father, “I am done with you.  I cut our lives asunder.  I am me, and you are no part of me.”

That is the theme of the young man’s story, the one the young man has been telling himself, and, taking his inheritance—which the father freely gives, we should notice—he runs with it headlong into ways of living that are wild, exposed, and dangerous.  To his credit, the young man follows that storyline to its logical conclusion.

By the end, the young man is lost within his own story.  As he sits in the sty competing with the swine for peapods, he has become a perverse version of the character he has written for himself.  He is spiritually and materially destitute, and virtually hopeless.

Last Sunday Kayleen Asbo was our Lenten speaker, and both on Sunday morning and Sunday evening she presented a truly riveting exposition of Dante’s fourteenth century poem, The Divine Comedy.  Dante, Dr. Asbo pointed out to us, wrote The Divine Comedy at a point in his life when he’d become lost within his own story.  Numerous events had led him to a place not entirely unlike that of the Prodigal.  Indeed, The Divine Comedy begins with Dante saying this: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.  It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear.  It is scarcely less bitter than death.”[ii]

Dante in a dark wood

“I came to myself in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.”

Dante writes seven centuries distant from us, just as Jesus spoke two millennia ago, but they could both just as easily be talking to us today.  We are good, postmodern people.  We pride ourselves on writing our own stories, on charting our course, on seeking our own destiny on our own terms.  Some stories are grand, others more down-to-earth, but eventually any of our stories can write us into a corner, or a dark forest, or the mud and muck of the pig sty.  We may find ourselves at the dead end of our mistakes, our grudges, our pride, our sorrows.  And our souls, like Dante’s, admit, “It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that forest it.  Just thinking of it recreates the fear.  It is scarcely less bitter than death.”

But though Dante’s poem begins with a descent into hell, it ends in heaven.  And though the Prodigal Son wallows in the mud, the parable ends with a party.  How is this?  How do those whose souls—whose lives—are in such distress experience such a change?  The key is in a phrase that these two stories share, word for word.  In that dark wood, Dante says, “I came to myself,” and among the swine, Luke says, the Prodigal, “came to himself.”

In both stories, the same phrase.  What happens there?  That moment is the pause, the flash of insight in which Dante, the Prodigal, we realize that though the narrative of our lives is well under way, and though we have written into it plot trajectories that sometimes seem set, the ending is yet unwritten.  It is the moment that makes all the difference, the shaft of light that splits the difference between heaven or hell.  It is the first glimpse of grace.

Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.

The Prodigal’s hell does not quite end even there.  Though he picks himself up and makes the long walk home, he does so as a dead man walking.  He keeps writing his own story.  He will return to his father’s house, he tells himself, not as a son but as a slave, as one deserving of nothing, because of the pain he has willfully caused and the errors he has repeatedly made.  But when he approaches the house, he discovers that the father he had written out of the story has been waiting just off stage all along.  The father runs to the son headlong in love, and before the Prodigal can speak the next chapter he has drafted, the father retells the story.  The father retells the story.  He recasts the characters.  He alters the plot.  He provides a new ending.  “My son was dead but is alive again!  He was lost but is found.”

The Prodigal is stunned by his father’s embrace.  He can scarcely believe it.  But he does not refuse the retelling.  He trusts the love of the one he’d earlier written off, and the world that had been hell becomes heaven.

Prodigal Son-Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son”

Now, we know Jesus’ story, his parable, does not end there.  We know that the other, elder son is waiting by the door.  We understand his indignation at this, frankly, horrible brother who has returned.  We appreciate his work ethic and his sense of duty.  We sympathize with him.  Indeed, every time I have preached this passage someone in the congregation has reached out to me the following week about the unfairness of the parable, in common cause with the elder son.  No doubt, it will happen again this week.

But it is clear that the elder son also lives in hell.  There is no way his bristling sense of being wronged, or of entitlement, or his seething anger have only just emerged.  He, too, has long been writing the story of his life, and it is one in which he is the good son, but probably never quite good enough; the one always overlooked, the one upon whom never quite enough recognition is showered.  Each slight abrades his soul.  And each time he tells this narrative to himself is another step into his own darkened forest.  The story becomes its own simmering hell in which he is lost.  For many of us, if we’re honest, this also sounds familiar.

In the end, the very end, the father also offers to retell the elder son’s story.  “Son,” the father says, “You are always with me.  All that is mine is yours.”  Every grace and every gift the father gives not because of the son’s virtue or duty or right, but because it is grace.

Does the elder son experience Dante’s moment, the Prodigal’s moment?  Does he “come to himself”?  Does he see that even he is lost in a dark thicket and needs to be found?  Does he allow the ending of his story to take a new turn?  Jesus doesn’t say.  The story is left open-ended, just as are our stories.

Friends, hell is not a place.  Or, hell can be any and every place.  Because hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.

Rob Bell says, “What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.  [God’s] is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news.  It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved.  That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done,” we are loved.[iii]

For the remainder of this Lent, review the story of your life that you have so far written.  Are you the younger son?  The elder son?  Is the story you are writing the one you want to live?  Is it heaven or hell?  And if the latter, what if—what if—we paused to look for the shaft of light in the dark forest?  What if we came to ourselves with the realization that the ending is not predetermined.  No matter what we are or what we’ve done; no matter what we’ve neglected or failed to do; God runs headlong toward us in unmerited and inescapable love.  When we allow that to be the storyline, hell becomes heaven.  The feast begins, and we discover that we are God’s guests of honor.

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[i] Bell, Rob.  Loves Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 170.

[ii] http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/DantInf1to7.htm#anchor_Toc64090910

[iii] Bell, 171-172.