Archive for October, 2021

“Radical Hospitality,” (Sermon, October 17th 2021)

O God, may I speak each day according to your wisdom, and in each woven thought, be our wind and our star. Amen.

Last week I was finally able to have my first home visit with a new friend. She was recently baptized into the Coptic Orthodox Church, and I had bought her a little gift, so we arranged to meet at her place and have dinner together.

When I arrived, she was busy in the kitchen cooking a big pot of muttar paneer, which she served with naan. She then disappeared into her walk-in pantry asking me what I wanted to drink. She had so many options! I chose cider. We decimated everything.

After the main course, she fixed me a cup of herbal tea from David’s, and I commented that it smelled exactly like an After Eight chocolate.

“OH I have those!” she exclaimed, and brought them over.

Those of you who are or have friends of Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent can probably predict what happened next.

It didn’t end there. She had more treats: a slice of pineapple cheesecake! A glass of orange juice! Fruit and wine! She offered all of it with abandon.

And it didn’t even end there. She put two neck warmers in the microwave – one for her and one for me. She had some skin cream she wanted to try, so she brought the tube over so we could both use it. She had a bag of scarves her sister had given her and encouraged me to take what I wanted.

As I’ve made friends within the Sufi community where I met her, I’ve been astonished by the hospitality displayed to total strangers as well as friends, no matter what economic station one occupies in life. I still laugh about the time I went to dinner with three friends – one Turkish, one Syrian, and one Pakistani – and sneakily managed to pick up the cheque, and how I really thought they were going to murder me when they found out! Anyone who’s ever met someone from those cultures knows the dance of, “No please, I insist.”

Image description: A large round dish containing knafeh, a golden brown spun pastry and cheese dessert topped with pistachio and cashew. Served to me in Nablus, Palestine.

Personally, while I know plenty of individual Western folks who are similarly oriented, it’s not something I’ve ever expected as a matter of course, and even when it is displayed, it’s not usually as extravagant.

I was thinking of this as I read today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was from a culture of extravagant hospitality. The foundational Jewish myths he grew up with show Abraham entertaining angels and a widow offering her last loaf to Elijah. When sending out the disciples, Jesus confidently told them to depend on the kindness of strangers, who offered hospitality to travelers as a matter of course.

In Chapter 10, Jesus has just taught the disciples that only those who are like little children will enter the Kingdom of God, and those unwilling to sell all they own cannot enter. Finally, they turn toward Jerusalem, and for the third time Jesus explains what is going to happen to him there. Today’s reading begins immediately after that moment.

I’m always shocked by the presumptuousness of James and John here. They’re as clueless as Peter but seem to lack his humility. Looking at this scene through that cultural lens, this is incredibly inappropriate. The normal posture of students is one of humility, obedience, and deep listening. The anger of the other disciples is perfectly in keeping with their cultural milieu.

Mark often depicts the disciples in an unflattering light, but we can also read this moment as a sign that Jesus’s teaching is working. It’s become clear over the course of several chapters that Jesus wants to challenge traditional social conventions. Back in verse 29, he told the disciples that those who left behind their families will receive “a hundredfold now in this age.” He wants to create a new community based in service and mutual love. A chosen family. And he’s shown the disciples, many times, that he is a powerful healer, and can provide bread for all who hunger, with leftovers, yet! This is someone who truly owns and uses his privilege well!

Who wouldn’t want to sit at the right and left of someone like that?

This isn’t a fanciful reading if we take note of Jesus’s response to James and John, which is not, “How dare you order me around?” but “What is it you want me to do for you?”

Even in this moment, he is showing them that he’s different. He’s doing something new. Again, he owns and uses his privilege well. Maybe what they want is totally within his power. Even if you’re the kind of person who believes Jesus was omnipotent and knew everything, he still wanted to model this new way of leadership for them. He reads them generously. He offers hospitality.

But they prove that they still don’t understand how this community is to be built.

And he still acts as a gentle host. He doesn’t say, “Haven’t you knuckleheads been paying attention?” He doesn’t take out his red pen and write F across their foreheads. Whenever I read this passage, I imagine his tone becoming so, so gentle.

“You do not know what you are asking.”

The cup that Jesus drinks is the drink of ultimate hospitality: the laying down of one’s life for others. The baptism with which he was baptized is the baptism of dying to oneself in order to live for God in service to the world, of offering up what you would normally only do for those you loved the most to not just everyone, but everything. The whole created universe.

James and John still insist they can do it, and again Jesus allows that they are sure to understand in the end…but humbles himself by saying it is not in his power to grant what they ask. Again, upsetting the hierarchy, showing himself to be a servant even as he is also a teacher.

As the other disciples become angry, they all prove that they still don’t get it. They are not only bickering among themselves, but trying to re-establish what’s familiar. “How could you question the teacher?” “Weren’t you listening?” “God, you guys are so embarrassing!” Really sounds like a family, huh?

But Jesus puts a stop to all of that immediately.

“Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”

It’s so beautiful because it’s simply an extreme version of something they would have all been taught since birth. Hospitality is not something to only practice within the confines of one’s home and biological family. It’s also not patronage, something to use in order to import obligation. It’s something to be given freely, and it can be practiced even among these disciples who have left behind their homes and families. “You are the family,” Jesus says. “You, gathered together, are home for one another.”

Biblical scholar, seminary professor, and Episcopal priest Wil Gafney puts it better than I ever could. She writes, “It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life. You can keep that crown.”

Gathered here, together, we can leave behind the demands of capitalistic over-achievement, of passing, of having to perform in spaces that don’t give us space. We can rest in the peace of being able to just be. Whether you’re caught in the system and trying to survive, whether you’re forced to fight for your dignity every day, or whether you’re entangled in privilege and afraid to lose it all, here, you have permission to be vulnerable.

Food for your heart is here, more than you need. Love for you, beautiful and utterly unique you, is here, more than you can imagine.

But this place where all of God is offered up to us, freely, with love, isn’t the end goal.

It’s practice.

What good is the best meal in the universe without a few guests?

“Francis and Majnun,” (Sermon, October 3rd 2021)

Good evening, St. Brigid’s. I’m so, so glad to be with you. My name is Clare Morgan, my pronouns are they/them, and I will serve among you as interim pastor for the next nine months. I am thrilled to get to know you, the gathered community of Christ’s beloved here in this place.

Today, we and these very good doggos and kittehs and birbs and hammies and piggies and bunnehs and all other creatures on this earth observe the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who is dear to me as someone carrying the name of his best friend, St. Clare of Assisi.

But I’m also going to introduce someone else to you, because I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I read the stories of Francis, a child of God most known for his poverty and desire to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church.

That other person is Qays Ibn Al-Mulawwah, more commonly known as Majnun. Over the course of the pandemic, his story has been healing to me, so I wanted to share it with you.

There’s a lot of debate over where Majnun actually existed. A poet carrying this name existed, but the things he became known for have become mythic – truer than true. Living sometime in the 5th century, born of a Bedouin tribe in Saudi Arabia, he became infatuated with Layla, a woman of Hawāzin origin. Their families, like the Montagues and Capulets, forbid them from being together. The name Majnun actually means “possessed by jinn,” or, if you’ll forgive me for the slur, “crazy.” His love for Layla is said to have become so great that it pushed him into madness, which drove him to abandon his family and run into the wilderness, where he becomes a poet, praying for his words to be carried to Layla, who was said to have received them but for her own protection kept her love hidden. In the story they never marry, but their love never dies.

This story has become one of the most beloved stories in Middle Eastern and Central Asian tradition. In the grand tradition of The Song of Songs, it is read among mystics as a cipher story for the soul’s longing for God, and God’s hidden desire for the soul. The most famous rendering is probably the one composed by Nizami Ganjavi, Persia’s greatest romantic epic poet, who completed his masterpiece when our Francis was a young child. Mysticism was really thick in the air all across the world back then.

Majnun and Francis both had blessed childhoods, growing up in well-to-do families with good education and plenty of resources. Francis, the son of a cloth merchant, was a dandy who loved high fashion, good food and wine, and gallivanting around the country playing sports and having fun with friends. Majnun, or Qays as he was still known, was born to a kind-hearted Bedouin sayyid, and grew up with great beauty and wisdom. By the time he was in school he was already a gifted orator and poet.

And then, one day, everything turned upside-down for both of them.

Francis grew aware of the poverty and illness that surrounded him every day, in the face of beggars and in his service as a soldier. Love plants the seeds and grows wild within him. He became exceedingly generous, even reckless, with the wealth his father allowed to him, which annoyed his father immensely. Francis eventually had a foundational mystical experience, receiving a command from Jesus at a ruined church in San Damiano. Jesus asks that Francis help rebuild the church, which he does by spending even more, as well as renouncing his rich lifestyle and becoming destitute, begging one brick at a time.

Like Francis, Qays also finds himself caught up short by Love. He enters school and first lays eyes on Layla, so beautiful inside and out that he becomes bewitched. Remember here that the mystics see Layla as a cipher for the divine, and Majnun the human soul. While things are perfect at first, with the two of them lost in each other, their love begins to attract attention from others who mock them for their intemperate displays of affection. The couple tries to mitigate these whispers by spending time apart, but it makes them burn all the more. Worse still, Layla begins to attract attention from would-be suitors whom her father deems better suited than poor Qays, who was becoming more embarrassing by the day as he sought without success to tame his passion. Like all true mystics, he is unsuccessful, and eventually earns the name of Majnun, the madman.

The two fathers eventually find themselves at an impasse with their wayward, wild-hearted sons. Francis’s father ends up taking him to court in an attempt to retrieve some of his lost riches. Francis famously renounces his family by removing the clothes his father had given him and standing before the court naked before walking away into a new life of poverty and itinerancy, befriending lepers, preaching to birds, and composing songs of praise to all of creation.

Likewise Majnun’s father, who tries everything to help his son, finally brings him to the Ka’aba, the holiest site in Islam, and pleads for him to pray to God for liberty from this obsession. Majnun does the opposite. Nizami, in Rudolph Gelpke’s translation, renders his prayer thusly:

“Let me love, oh my God, love for love’s sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is!”

Majnun then also chooses to walk away, living among the beasts of the wilderness and singing incredible love songs, which are so powerful that those who happen across him begin to actually share them, singing them in the streets. Creation itself in the wind and birds also bear his words to Layla, who waits in her tent, holding her own heart-shattering love inside, just as God’s love must always, even for the most mystical of us, be known primarily by faith until we return at the end of our lives on earth.

It is in the joyful overturning of convention that these two prophets offer worship to the object of their desires. In their so-called madness, they embody a profound truth: that it’s those very conventions, stereotypes, and unspoken rules that are the sickness. True love unbound by politeness and civility is where God becomes most manifest. True love is embarrassing. That’s why Jesus says the wise don’t understand it. Only children do. That’s why he too, as Love incarnate, wandered through the wilderness of mortality and humanity, loving us madly and embarrassingly.

Drawing by the author

Francis and Majnun’s stories have a hint of romantic tragedy about them, both burning with a love that to some extent isolates them from the world around them. Both stories include friendships with other humans and animals – such an amazing confluence between the two – and indeed, as proper for all mystics, the ultimate erasure of all separateness in the wildfire of God’s love.

For Francis, this occurred in 1224, about two years before his death. While fasting in Mount La Verna, he received a vision of a crucified angel on Holy Cross Day, and found himself overcome with ecstasy shot through with incredible pain. Tradition then tells us that, as the angel departed, Francis discovered the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his hands and at his side. Overwhelmed by desire for his beloved, he had in a sense become his beloved.

Again, in an incredible confluence, the Sufi master and poet Fakhr al-Dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī, contemporary to both Nizami and Francis, relays the following story, as translated by Omid Safi:

“This radical love

is a fire

When it enters a heart

it consumes everything in the heart

Even the Beloved’s image

is effaced away

from the heart

Majnun was burning in this love

They told him: “Layla is coming”

He said:

“I am Layla”

And lowered his head”

May we never allow convention, heteronormativity, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other principality or power temper our love. May we befriend and bless these friendly beasts, empowering them for the work of love. May our love for one another never be less than our love for God. May we like Christ be pierced by love. May we like Majnun become love.