June 12, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Fiona. She’ll be four soon. I’ve never met her, but I know her mother, Heather, a little bit and her father Justin. I know Fiona through the incredible blog Heather writes detailing her life with Fiona called “Star in her eye.” I highly recommend it. Fiona is adorable. She loves the movie the Sound of Music. She loves crayons, and spicy jalapeño cheese. She also has a genetic deletion; she’s missing the top part of one of her chromosomes, #4. This has a multi-syllabic, hyphenated Germanic name that I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce, but it means that she’s “developmentally delayed.” Which means, among other things, she is quite small…at almost 4 she still weighs just around 20 pounds and is under three feet tall, even though she eats and eats and eats. It also means that Fiona and her parents work with a lot of different medical specialists.
In a recent blog post, the family made the four hour round trip drive they make every six months to the nearby hospital for x-rays. Fiona views these trips as “an opportunity to spread her social skills and love of hats to unsuspecting strangers.” She’s a charmer who delights in showing her hat to everyone she meets, and now people inevitably smile when they see her. That wasn’t always the case. As the blog goes on, Heather recalls bringing her tiny, newly diagnosed newborn to the hospital. “As a new mother,” she writes, “I was getting tired of people’s disconcerting glances at my baby’s very tiny body. But I reasoned that doctors were surely used to the body as different. Doctors would surely revel in the myriad unique ways a body could present itself. A hospital, I thought, would be the one place where we’d feel normal.” It didn’t happen.
Heather learned that “doctors preferred bodies they could fix.” The medical narrative she heard in both explicit and implicit ways was: “your child’s body is damaged. This syndrome is sad. This syndrome is a litany of limits. Developmental delays. Low tone. Seizures. Kidney reflux. Heart defects. Intellectual disabilities. Brain abnormalities. And on and on. Life-span limited. Bodies broken. I’m sorry and [insert a half-smile] good luck. She’s beautiful though. She’s got good eye-contact though. She might be higher on the spectrum, you never know. [In other words, there’s hope for your kid still to be a person we value.] We’ll wait and see. Come back in three months.”
She also heard other narratives: from other parents and experienced from within her own soul that said, “my child is human. Complex. Loved. Beautiful. Capable. My child keeps learning. My child loves music. My child does not speak but can crack a joke. My child does not walk but can torment his younger sister. My child has proven every doctor wrong. My child is an excellent judge of character. If you are an [expletive], my child will not like you. My child is loved. Loving my child hurts. I carry grief. But the grief is a heartbeat inside a body of love […], I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Two different narratives. A medical one, your child’s body is damaged; and a maternal one: my child’s body is different and beautiful. What she learned from wrestling with these two different narratives is a lesson we all need to learn; the difference between the narratives isn’t about more or less or different information, it’s about perspective—how we see, and how we choose to live with what we see. And it’s also about power. Heather writes: “I realized there were many ways of viewing Fiona and people like her, and that the dominant one, the one in power, the one with enough money to build atriums above its hallways, can’t help sometimes but sketch a big fat frowny-face over my kid’s life”…and yet, she says,…here is Fiona, “waving heartily to every stranger, each once-unsmiling person now grinning with brief delight. […] [Fiona] walking inside the very belly of the medical model [that] she admittedly needs at times: [but] walking unfazed by its agenda of labeling and diagnosing, of fixing or frowning. She moves through its very architecture untouched. Hi there! Hi doctor! Hi nurses! This is my hat! You can pronounce my litany of diagnoses, but I can change your neurochemistry in a half-second.”
Last week I said that prophets are everywhere. That there are still prophets among us. Well here’s proof. Fiona is a prophet. Heather is a prophet…she’d probably freak if she heard me say that…but for me she is, because she highlights so effectively the crux of what we’ve been talking about for the last couple of weeks—the difference in narratives. The difference between the royal—Game of Thrones—narrative: the narratives of power, and money, and privilege that dominate our lives and too often drown out any other; and the prophetic narratives: the multiple, sometimes disturbing, sometimes confusing, but always pointing (however haltingly or incompletely) to wholeness, and life, and grace.
There are dominant narratives in every aspect of our lives. We may not even be aware of them, but they exist; and there are prophetic narratives aching to break through into our consciousness.
Today in a very Game of Thrones episode we encounter Jezebel. Now just stop for a moment and think of all the images and connotations that name conjures up. Jezebel. Controlling, promiscuous, fallen women: these are echoes of the domineering narratives of misogyny, sexism, and racism that continue to haunt us. This whole encounter between Jezebel and Ahab plays on dominant gender narratives. How easy is it to see Jezebel as acting like a man, and Ahab is acting like…a woman. Her line, “Do you now govern in Israel?” is basically, “be a man!” But this isn’t how men or women behave because they are men or women, this is how people consumed with jealousy, hatred, and greed act regardless of what gender they are. But the dominant gendered one is often the first one that comes up.
Simon the Pharisee has a narrative about the woman at Jesus’ feet—she’s a sinner. She shouldn’t be here. And, he thinks, because Jesus can’t figure this out he must not be a prophet. But Jesus reveals that this woman is really the prophet here. She is demonstrating with her actions the prophetic narrative that Simon could have enacted himself—providing lavish hospitality—if he hadn’t fallen into that other narrative first.
These competing narratives—dominant (or domineering) and the prophetic exist in every aspect of our lives. The most striking examples I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks have emerged from the sentencing hearing in the Stanford sexual assault case. If you want an example of a very contemporary prophetic narrative, check out the letter the victim wrote to her attacker that’s gone viral. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty other more subtle ones. They creep up all the time—like the gender dynamics in the story from Kings; like seeing Fiona as someone with a disease first which maybe blinds us to seeing her a whole. The dominant narratives appear all the time and often before we notice it we’re making subtle and not so subtle judgements about everything: This is good, that’s bad. She’ll probably never be able to do that. What did she expect? Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know she’s a sinner, a “Jezebel?” Sometimes—maybe most times—scripture is trying to urge us to see this tendency in ourselves…to point out through story, like Jesus does with Simon…the dominant, incomplete, and often just wrong narratives we hold on to…the narratives that may help us feel safer and more secure, but that ultimately diminish us—all of us—and harm others.
We actually need both narratives, but they need to be in conversation with each other. It’s when one becomes domineering, and blinds us to other possibilities, then we’re in danger of becoming like Ahab…turning our face away, sullen and resentful, or convinced that we and we alone know what is good and just and right. Next week we’ll actually see Elijah fall victim to this.
I invite you to pay attention to yourself and your own reactions to things, and you’ll see this happening all the time. And then also be open to and on the look out for those other ways of seeing. The ways that soften your vision to see grace, and love, and wholeness even in the midst of brokenness. If you start looking for these prophetic narratives, the ones that challenge us to expand our horizons, to reject the superficial and to yearn for the deeper more whole and hopeful answers and experiences, I promise you’ll begin to see them everywhere. You might see them in a disturbing story from scripture, or in the form of charming, a three-foot tall girl wanting to show you her hat. If we have eyes to see, and ears to hear. Amen.