Archive for October, 2021

“Bearing an untold story,” (Sermon, October 24th 2021)

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52

Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

These Gospel healing stories are complicated. For their ancient audience, they were evidence of Jesus’s great power, but also signs of the new community Jesus was building, because disabled people were seen as unclean or broken. To be “liberated” from disability was to be lifted out of poverty and scorn and brought into community. They were stories of hope and reintegration.

But as we seek to build a better and kinder world, we should recognize that the way we still talk about disability is pretty problematic. Often we hold onto that ancient framing of disability as brokenness that needs fixing, but a lot of disabled people, particularly those disabled from birth, have said clearly that they don’t feel broken. Most of them are just as glad to be alive as the rest of us, aside from the difficulties of managing in a world that’s often hostile or indifferent to their needs and voices. Many have said that the only time they actually feel in need of fixing is when they run up against the roadblocks of an ableist society. This is why many people within that community are reclaiming the word disabled, because it is society that disables them, not their bodies.

Abled people also often frame disability as something that needs to be heroically overcome, loudly and publicly. We want to see those born with disabilities win medals at the Special Olympics, or become motivational speakers who tell all of us to reach for the stars. Obviously if disabled folks want to win medals or become motivational speakers, they should. But all too often, these are the only narratives that abled people are willing to celebrate or acknowledge. When disabled people are struggling or telling us about their struggles, we often shower them with platitudes and toxic positivity. We ask them if they’ve tried some herb or supplement or alternative treatment. We see their cultures and tools as things to be transcended rather than celebrated and preserved, like what often happens with the Deaf community and sign language, or with wheelchairs, which many disabled people say they do not feel “confined” or “bound” to; they are tools that impart freedom of movement. We may feel suspicious when we see someone who doesn’t “look” disabled making use of accessibility tools, and wonder if they’re “faking” it. We complain about political correctness when we’re told that slurs like “dumb” and “idiot” and “crippled” and phrases like “willfully blind” and “turn a deaf ear” are hurtful. We often touch disabled people and their wheelchairs without permission. We frame autism, Down’s syndrome, and other neurodivergences as a “burden” for parents to bear or a “problem” for society to solve. Some of us even say outright that we’d rather be dead than live a life requiring help from other people, implying that a life which requires such help is worthless.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

There are stories that go untold, and stories that go unheard. Either way grieves God’s heart.

And now to Bartimaeus’s story; talk about untold stories. It’s clear that at one point, he could see, but that’s all we know. We don’t know how he lost his sight, or how long he’s been without it. We don’t know what life was like before he lost it. All we know is he is a blind beggar, and his name is “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” which is redundant because Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus.

Oh there’s a clue here. And it’s not the only one. The words Mark uses are so rich. Let’s look at a few.

The name Timaeus means “honour.” Don’t be fooled by social convention when you see the blind guy doing his best to survive with the only form of employment he could access in this society. He’s a son of honour.

And the word for “blind” that Mark uses is τυφλός , which comes up in the other Gospels but almost incessantly in Matthew, who loves to talk about hypocrisy. Like in English, it can signify the physical disability or ignorance, refusal to see. It can also signify dimness, or opacity. And it has a fascinating double meaning. The same word signifies someone “raising a smoke,” or something “smouldering,” which makes sense, because it’s hard to see in a room full of smoke.

Or a room full of incense.

Incense fills the temple to remind us that holiness has a smell, and God desires us so deeply that They want to fill our senses, to crowd out everything that distracts from Them; to remind us of a bush burning, smouldering, a sign of future liberation; to remind us of the cloud veiling Sinai, which obscured the vision of the Israelites not to oppress but to protect, a sign of the covenant which was to come down the mountain on stone tablets and on the shining face of Moses.

If Bartimaeus’s eyes are veiled with smoke, as this word suggests, well, maybe the smoke was coming from his own burning unconsumed heart, a heart yearning to be seen, burning with holy fire.

Again, the Greek bears this out beautifully. The word translated “cry out” came with this amazing definition from the lexicon I consulted: “cry out,” κράζω, inarticulate shouts that express deep emotion.”

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Bartimaeus is out there in the desert of Jericho’s apathy, unseeing and unseen, smouldering, and he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Here he proves, unequivocally, that he understands who Jesus is when no one else does. “˜Son of David” is a confessional title. The disciples, sighted, do not see Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus, unsighted, does.

He cries out, “Have mercy on me!” Sounds like a hierarchical call from a groveling servant to a master, like an admission of guilt, and of course this is how the people around him would have heard it, because in those days they linked physical disability to sin. But no, it’s so much more wonderful than this. Historically, ceremonially, this pronouncement is a reminder of the Covenant, the bond between humanity and God. Bartimaeus knows Jesus not only as the Messiah, but as a physical manifestation of God’s promises to humanity.

So it’s not, “Save me from my disability!” It’s “I belong to you!”

No wonder people told him to be quiet. They don’t want to be reminded that despite their exclusion, he is part of the covenant.

And we know how Jesus responds.

Not only does he enlist the community to help Bartimaeus make his way over; we know Jesus is all about mutual aid. And then, most beautifully of all, he does not make any assumptions about what Bartimaeus wants.


Bartimaeus, having spent much of his life sighted and wanting to regain that, asks for sight. And Jesus grants this request, which is well within his power, at no cost.

And what does Bartimaeus do in response?

He doesn’t go back to the community that excluded him and sought to shush him, the community that will now surely use his story as inspirational fodder to absolve themselves of that sin of exclusion, and indeed any further responsibility toward him.

He follows Jesus to Jerusalem.

Strangely, he disappears after this. We never hear of him again in the Gospel.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

I like to think that Bartimaeus, with his strong voice and his strong faith, led the cheering and hymns at Jesus’s fantastic performance art entrance into Jerusalem. And then I like to think maybe he was swept up in the magic of Passover at the holy city, and finding a place to start anew there. I like to think of him resting in the peace of knowing he belonged to God, still burning but no longer smouldering: burning clean, because his story is no longer untold.

And I can only pray that when I next walk by him on the street, I see him.

Recorded for use at St. Margaret’s, as I was preaching in-person at St. Paul’s

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

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:35-45

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 Indian – 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)

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11:25-30

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.