Good Friday, Year C
Well, it finally happened, in my fourth year of blogging the lectionary -- I stared at the lectionary readings for days and in my mind just kept going back to two previous Good Friday reflections:
- "Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the 'Narrow Places'" -- a sermon for Good Friday, 2004
- Good Friday lectionary blog entry for 2006
I hope you find them helpful; I'll have to try harder to find something fresh next year (when I'll also be wiser with respect to the flow of seminary assignments and Holy Week).
God bless you and sustain you all in your ministries in this holy and challenging week!
Maundy Thursday, Year C
I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.
They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.
I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.
And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.
Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).
As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.
What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.
And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.
Do this in remembrance of him.
That's what we do.
Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.
As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.
What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?
Do this. Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God!
Palm Sunday, Year C
The Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
Anyone who's played enough with children of a certain age knows that human beings are deeply inculcated with a sense of how "it's supposed (usually pronounced 'spozed') to be." Fair is fair. Actions have consequences. We figure out how it's 'spozed to be' and, I think, mostly try to run our lives by it -- sometimes even when it's to our disadvantage to do so. We try to get what we feel we deserve (and feeling remarkable liberty to bend rules or disregard others' feelings or welfare when these things are in the way); we also engage in self-sabotage when we don't feel deserving of something that might otherwise come our way. The latter in particular is a puzzling phenomenon, but my hunch is that what's often responsible for it is fear of the unknown. If things are the way they're 'spozed to be,' at least they're predictable. When things and manners in which we are different -- even if they're better in some pretty clear ways -- they often provoke vehement resistance. We may not like the way things are, but in any case we don't like being disoriented.
This Sunday, we enter Holy Week, which I think could rightly be called the most disorienting time of the year. We start with at least several sets of strongly held belief as to how things are 'spozed to be.'
Crowds of pilgrims celebrating the Passover -- the feast of God's liberating God's people from foreign masters -- are convinced that God is supposed to liberate Israel from the oppressive rule of Rome. By conventional reckonings, Rome would be difficult to overthrow, but God's people have always found their victory in their god's might, not in the might of armies.
The Roman rulers have their own ideas of how it's supposed to be. If they rule, then their gods must be mightier than the gods of the conquered -- or perhaps the gods of the conquered have actually switched their allegiance to Rome (no doubt part of the emperor's agenda in having a bull sacrificed daily on his behalf at the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel). And once it's been established who's in charge, how it's supposed to be is that the conquered render taxes and tribute and support the social order as it is -- the peace of Rome made sure by the rule of Rome.
Some of Jesus' disciples were developing ideas of how it was supposed to be too. Jesus spoke often enough of God bringing a decisive change, of God's kingdom breaking through the way things are. Jesus' actions said the same thing, perhaps even more insistently -- "if by the finger of God that I cast out demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 11:20). Jesus' words and behavior also must have suggested to his followers that he anticipated a decisive moment in Jerusalem. Would this be when Jesus would finally stop the ambiguous parables, the invitations to dinner, and the talk about cheek-turning and praying for persecutors, and would he finally take charge in the way some expected from a person as powerful as he? Would this be when Jesus stepped up to lead Israel such that the nation would no longer be the suffering servant described in Isaiah 50, hoping for vindication but subjected to humiliation, and would instead confront and humiliate Israel's adversaries?
Jesus does act decisively on what we call Palm Sunday, but not in the way expected. Indeed, if anything, Jesus' behavior satirizes expectations for a conquering general or lord. He rides into Jerusalem not on an impressively outfitted white charger, but on a hastily borrowed colt. He wears no gleaming armor -- just traveling robes. He leads no great army, no defeated captives, no chests with spoils of war; he leads only his motley assortment of followers -- women and beggars and slaves as well as Pharisees and respected citizens. It's a grand send-up of an imperial parade, and despite the warnings of some Pharisees who know that Pontius Pilate is not known for his enjoyment of political humor at his expense, the crowd joins in.
He'll be breaking more rules as this decisive week progresses. Luke has Jesus' send-up of a Roman triumphal procession go directly to the Temple, where he engages in an all-too-serious demonstration against the elite Temple hierarchy, calling them "robbers." Small wonder that Jesus loses a lot of supporters from the crowd after that; most have come to Jerusalem to participate in the very sacrifices that Jesus would prevent by driving the money-changers and the dove-sellers out of the Temple (and if you haven't read any of my prior explanations of this, please see this one -- it is NOT true that these merchants were doing business in an inappropriate part of the Temple where they would disrupt anyone's worship, and there is no evidence at all in the text of any of the canonical gospels' telling of this story to suggest that the rates charged were exorbitant or even unreasonable).
But if we know Jesus at all, we know that he did not come to reassure people for whom the status quo worked perfectly well that they had nothing to fear as long as they continued to follow the rules.
Jesus' way involves something that religious people looking on an individual level call 'conversion,' and that rulers looking at their subjects call 'revolution.' Jesus' way calls on women and slaves and sons -- people whose will would normally, according to the rules, be subject to that of the family patriarch -- to make decisions for themselves: Should I marry, and if so, whom should I marry? No mention is made in any New Testament text that women or men need consider binding -- or consider at all -- the arranged betrothals that would have already been made customarily by family patriarchs. Should I remain to care for my parents and see that they get an honorable burial, or should I leave the village to follow Jesus? Just asking the question would be shocking in the first-century Mediterranean world (not to mention much of the world today!), and remembering that Jesus called upon people to ask it offers a ready explanation as to how Jesus might receive the opposition, persecution, and death he got.
That is especially true because Jesus' way asks even harder things of those in power, the family patriarchs and the social elite. It asks not just to be wiling to laugh at our society's ways of displaying wealth, status, and power, as Jesus did in his spoof of a triumphal parade; it asks them -- it asks us who are among the privileged -- to emulate his example as laid out in the early Christian hymn Paul quoted in Philippians 2. It exhorts us to use power not just to our own advantage or to their own family's, but to empower others. If all of us who call ourselves Jesus followers took this seriously, the Millennium Development Goals would be a warm-up act -- much as Jesus' overturning expectations as he entered Jerusalem and literally turning the tables on the Temple elites was a foretaste of an even more decisive display of God's power later in the week. Stay alert. What happens this week changes the world, and the most surprising reversal of all is on its way.
Thanks be to God!
Good Friday, Year B
You may find helpful one of my previous sermons for Good Friday: "Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Place." The Witness also has a wonderful piece for Good Friday from Reid Hamilton, "Loving Provocateurs," and for those of you looking ahead to Easter Sunday, a powerful piece from the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson entitled "The Missing Stone and the Empty Cross." I hope they're helpful to you.
And here's my reflection for Good Friday this year:
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 69:1-23 - link to BCP text
Hebrews 10:1-25 - link to NRSV text
John 18:1 - 19:37 - link to NRSV text
Good Friday is a hard day for a lot of us. It's often hard to think of what's "good" about it. Are you against capital punishment? Good Friday is a day when we remember it. Do you think of Jesus as someone who was clearly and absolutely innocent of any crime, whether against humankind or God? Good Friday is when we remember that Jesus was executed as a traitor in a manner many would have said demonstrated that it was God and not just the Roman Empire who had judged him disgraced. Are you of the general opinion that people who are good will also be successful and left at peace? Good Friday would seem to speak against that.
It's a hard day, and many of us only contemplate it in the context of a line Tony Campolo (whose work I deeply respect, don't get me wrong) uses -- "It's Friday ... but Sunday's a-comin!" We want to rush ahead to Easter, because Good Friday is about pain and humiliation and desertion, and at least in upper-middle-class American culture, we're all about denial of suffering, and above all denial of death. But Good Friday just isn't pretty. It doesn't fit in well with the Flash-animated slideshows on our church websites that show an endless parade of mostly young and always smiling faces. For us, Good Friday is an image problem, a downer that makes us comfortable.
But in my travels, I have met many, many people for whom Good Friday and the image of Jesus suffering on the cross is a time and an image of profound consolation. And when I've thought about what was different between those people and communities consoled by Good Friday and those distressed by it, my thinking keeps coming back to this:
Good Friday is a day when those who are suffering what Jesus suffered enter into the mystery:
God's suffering with them.
God knows the suffering of those who could read with all integrity and from their own experience the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah as THEIR story, the Psalms of lament as THEIR songs. God knows the suffering of the poor, of the refugees and the displaced, of those who live in fear in occupied territories, of those who feel constantly vulnerable to economic, political, and military forces beyond their control, or even of their whole family or village or perhaps even nation. God knows the suffering of the hungry and the outcast, of those taken advantage of because the world sees them as meek. God knows the grief of the grieving, the pain of seeing betrayal at the hands of those from whom you expected solidarity. God knows the anguish that just might be the hardest of all to bear -- the terrible loneliness of one who is suffering all of these things, and who feels torn from or abandoned by everyone who might provide consolation -- even God.
God knows all of the pain, personally and profoundly, because God suffered it all in the person of Jesus.
Our Lord naked on the cross, vulnerable to insects and birds, to sun and wind, and to the most predatory animal of all -- human beings whose humanity has been twisted by violence -- is an icon to the poor, suffering, and vulnerable that says:
You are not abandoned.
This is not just the well-intentioned "I feel your pain" spoken by someone in a position of comfort to someone suffering; it's not some more pious version of "I've been there, and I remember just how much it sucked" that expresses at least as much relief on the speaker's part that it's over.
The broken body of the Christ is not some garment that God tried on, didn't like, and tossed aside to put on some more festive Easter duds; it is an icon of who God is in God's eternal nature. God was and is and always will be -- until the day when every tear is wiped from our eyes and sorrow and sighing shall be no more -- present with, one with, suffering with the suffering, the outcast, the poor. When we say "God identifies with the poor," we're not just talking about actor's empathy; we're talking about the core of who God is, how we best understand God's identity.
I'm reminded of a scene from The Quarrel, one of the best and most profound movies I've ever seen. The film follows two friends over the course of one afternoon -- the day of Rosh Hoshana. Both are Holocaust survivors: one has become a rabbi and founder of a Torah school; the other has abandoned his faith because of his experiences. The question that drives both of them is "Where was God?" Hersh, the rabbi in The Quarrel, is like Eli Wiesel's fellow-prisoner in Night, who can cry out when asked where God is amidst the suffering in the concentration camp, "God is in the muck with us!" Because Hersh finds God in the muck, he can say with all integrity that as he lay in the mud of the concentration camp as the guards kicked him, he could say whole-heartedly that he would not have traded places with the guard for all the treasure and comfort in the world.
That's the strength and power that comes from seeing God in the midst of suffering. If God is with us in the muck, in the most painful and painfully lonely moments of those abandoned and tortured by the empires of this world, then even in those moments, we can respond with compassion as deep as integrity, for we have seen in the suffering of the poor the very face of God.
Jesus taught this with words and deeds in the weeks before he set his face on Jerusalem, toward the cross. He said that the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are hated and reviled and persecuted were blessed, honored by God; he spoke woes to the rich and the comfortable and to the elites of Jerusalem at whose mercy he was, and found none. But he spoke even the woes with true and deep compassion, because he knew God's face, and would seek it even to death on a cross.
It's hard sometimes in our culture to live out Jesus' compassion. Many of us have been taught from before we could speak to fear anything and anyone who reminded us of our vulnerabilities -- to illness, to age, to misfortune, to grief, to loneliness, to death. We are tempted to surround ourselves with icons of perfect wholeness, of the cleanliness that Ben Franklin (NOT any biblical writer) claimed was next to godliness.
But God gave us Good Friday. We have the opportunity, however hard we gulp before taking it and however uncomfortable it makes us, to seek God's face in the suffering of someone this world -- our economies, our religious authorities, our empires and our fears -- took away everything: dignity, health, friends, family, and even life itself -- and we are invited to look in the muck to see God's face.
It isn't easy. There are reasons the writer of the spiritual said, "sometimes it causes me to tremble." But there is peace and forgiveness, the wounds that declared an end to anyone's right to wound, the death that declared an end to anyone's need to kill, the strength and courage and compassion to be naked before the powers of this world and to see in that the power of our suffering, dying, and living God.
Maundy Thursday, Year B
I had a chance to explore the issues that I think are core to our Maundy Thursday texts recently and experientially at the Provnce V young adults' retreat in Indiana, which took as its theme Micah 6:8's key instruction that what God requires of us is to do justice, to love mercy, and top walk humbly with God.
We spent a lot of our time wrestling with just what that last instruction to "walk humbly" means. We went at it from many different angles. We thought about people we'd met or knew of who we understood to be exemplars of Christian humility (Desmond Tutu was by far the name most frequently mentioned), and tried to figure out just what it was about this person that drew us as we encountered them not toward them as individual personalities but toward God, and towards God's call to the best in us. We struggled together with what the difference might be between the kind of instruction to "be humble" we might have heard as women, or as gay people, or as young people, or as people of color, or in any number of other ways, that simply boiled down to "I'm in power, and I don't want you to upset that; sit down and shut up." And we also played a game.
It's a game I've blogged about before. We print up labels ahead of time that can be stuck on each person's back. Each label says "monarch," "nobility," "guest" (someone suggested "merchant" might be clearer), or "beggar." Before the game starts, each person gets one of these labels on their back. The object of the game is to interact with everyone else you meet in a way that helps them guess what the label is on their back, so what you do is, once the game starts -- and the scene for the game is a social hour at the start of a grand banquet -- treat every person you meet as you think someone with the label you THINK is on your back would treat someone with the label you actually see on the other person's back.
It doesn't usually take more than a few minutes for pretty much everyone in the room the be able to guess accurately what label is on his or her back, though the more I do this game, the more I get out of observing how people behave toward one another when the object of the game is to help the other person figure out just where in a hierarchy s/he fits. I always ask people afterward to talk about how the game felt to play -- how it felt treating people whose labels said "beggar" like trash, how it felt having to bow and scrape before someone whose label said "monarch," what we all noticed about what people could freely associate with whom and under what circumstances.
This last time I played the game was particularly interesting in some ways for me because it was the first time I'd played it with a group of people I didn't know well, and who didn't know me. I was the guest speaker -- an honored guest in a group of people who were truly gifted at helping someone feel honored -- and my label said "beggar." Everyone was trying to play the game well, and so most people there were obliged to treat me pretty badly in the context of the game -- and yet for so many of them, it clearly wasn't a comfortable relationship to act out. One "monarch" charged past me nearly knocking me over as his role demanded, but apologized to me as soon as the game was over. Others couldn't even play out the domination of lordship for the five minutes or so that the game demanded, and started exploring right away how a Christian member of the "nobility" might be able to break some of the unspoken rules that would help me guess I was a "beggar."
It's a good game to try sometime, and I particularly love to try it -- and to talk about what playing it was like -- in intergenerational groups. Children love to meet their parents when their parents are "beggars" and they are "monarchs," and I think in some ways it does both sets of people good to try out the roles.
My mind always goes back to that game on Maundy Thursday, when we do this strange game of washing one another's feet. On Maundy Thursday, it's the person with the most high and institutionally stable status -- the bishop or the rector -- who starts the game, kneeling at the feet of someone (often someone who's visibly uncomfortable with the relationship being acted out) to play the slave (let's skip the nicer word here -- we're talking about a power relationship, with all its discomforting aspects) and wash her or his feet.
And then we wash one another's feet. My favorite moments in this sacred and solemn game are the ones that upend our usually hierarchies, but it often -- when I can manage to be fully present, to play my role and to understand everyone else's role fully -- is a moving experience throughout.
It's an experience designed to invite us to try on a role of Christian humility.
"Humility" is a hard word for many of us -- me included -- to appreciate. Too often, it sounds like "humiliation" -- a word for which my working definition is "what it feels like when someone higher in the hierarchy makes someone lower realize just how low they're supposed to be." But it doesn't have to be this way. Imagine what it would look like if it was more like this:
Your job in the game is to treat other people in a way that will help them realize what the label on their back is -- what their true identity is. And what would our lives look like if our whole lives were that game ... and if we treated every interaction with another person as an opportunity to let them know what their real label, their true identity, was:
God's child. Beloved sister or brother. Gifted member of the Body whose gifts I -- we -- need to do what we were born to do, what will make us whole.
Doing that doesn't mean treating ourselves as if we were crap. God doesn't make crap, and Jesus didn't understand himself to be crap. Heck, the Gospel According to John, the one that features the footwashing, has Jesus being just about as clear about his own identity as any person ever was.
Jesus washed his disciples' feet not because he thought he was crap, but because he wanted each one of them to know just how precious, how deeply beloved and highly valued s/he was, that the Son of God, the Word of God through whom all the world was made, would without hesitation and with complete and unfeigned adoration wash her or his feet.
Jesus didn't do that only by footwashing. Every time Jesus broke bread -- and I think it's safe to assume that Jesus, being human as all of us are, broke bread at least twice on every day of his life -- he did it with other people in such a way as to help them realize not only who he was -- which is, to be sure, a profoundly important thing to understand -- but who they were:
Beloved child of God. Sister or brother to God's Son, the Anointed. Of more value than countless banquets or footwashings could demonstrate ... so it's a very, very good thing indeed that we've got an eternity at the messianic banquet to demonstrate that to one another.
But anything of eternal importance is far, far too important to put off to eternity: Jesus invites us to start tonight, start to play with and live more deeply into the threefold truth of who Jesus is, who we are, and who the person before us, behind us, beside us, whether in the pew or in the grocery store or on the interstate in our morning commute is.
The Gospel According to John teaches us with Jesus' washing his followers' feet on his last night before death. The Gospel According to Luke makes the same point by showing Jesus instructing his followers in what it meant every time they saw him break bread: You're invited. You're valued. The King of the Universe sees you as having dignity worth serving even beyond his own.
Come to the table. Come to the basin. And Jesus will know when you've got the game, when you know who you are in relationship to who he is and who others are, when you share his love for others, and serve and empower them as he did -- and does.
Thanks be to God!
Palm Sunday, Year B
When I was new to the Episcopal Church, I had a hard time with the Palm Sunday liturgy. In particular, I bristled when the congregation played the part of the crowd, calling out "Crucify him!" As far as I was concerned, Jesus was crucified by the power of empire and of the elites who owed their position of privilege to imperial power. That wasn't me, I thought -- I wouldn't have shouted such a thing, I'm not part of that crowd, and I didn't want to play the part; I just wanted to get back to studying the New Testament -- something I funded by doing technical writing.
It was a very good gig, that technical writing -- flexible hours and very good pay. And doing that was what got me thinking differently about the drama we enter on Palm Sunday. I started thinking about my technical writing job, and why it paid so well. I worked at Jet Propulsion Labs in southern California. Mostly I worked writing training materials for a software package teams at the labs used for collaboration. It wasn't exciting, but it seemed like a pretty innocent way to make a living.
Of course, as you might have guessed, a lot of projects at Jet Propulsion Labs involve propulsion and guidance systems. These are often used for scientific exploration and research, of which folks at the labs were (rightly) proud. But I found myself wondering one day whether our work was so well funded because of the other potential uses the system had. Satellites can be used to observe the weather or for surveillance of enemies. Propulsion and guidance systems work for missiles as well as for craft used to explore the solar system.
I started feeling uncomfortable. I didn't work on any technology used to make weapons; I worked on technology that helps people communicate and work with one another, whatever their project. It was no more my business if the workgroup was making weapons than it was their business if someone used their rocket to kill people rather than to gather knowledge. Or maybe it was my business -- after all, I was happy enough to take the money.
I wondered whether I should quit the job, maybe work more in parishes. It wouldn't pay anywhere near as much, but at least my hands would be clean ... or would they? What am I really accomplishing if I go to work in a parish where I ask other people to do work I think I'm too holy to touch so they can pledge the money that pays my salary?
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world
35% cotton, 6% polyester, the journey begins in Central America
In the cotton fields of El Salvador
In a province soaked in blood,
Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun
Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.
Then we move on up to another rung -
Cargill A top-forty trading conglomerate,
takes the cotton through the Panama Canal
Up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time
In South Carolina At the Burlington mills
Joins a shipment of polyester filament
courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of Dupont
Dupont strands of filament begin
in the South American country of Venezuela
Where oil riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day
Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world,
Upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago
Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas
To the factories of Dupont
On the way to the Burlington mills
In South Carolina
To meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador
In South Carolina
Burlington factories hum with the business
of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric of Sears
Who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea
Headed for Haiti this time -
May she be one day soon free -
Far from the Port-au-Prince palace
Third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications
For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse
It leaves the third world for the last time
Coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me
This third world sister
And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse
On sale for 20% discount
Are my hands clean?
(Sweet Honey in the Rock, "Are My Hands Clean?" Live at Carnegie Hall)
There's a place -- a very important place -- for "following the money," paying close attention to what we buy and how we make a living so that we support the kind of justice-making to which God calls us. The impulse to do this so that MY hands can be "clean" is fundamentally misguided, though -- much as my balking at participation in the liturgy in Palm Sunday was.
It isn't about me, and in this world there's no way I can keep my hands clean. This world is so caught up in systems of war and exploitation, systems that preserve or increase the privilege of the rich at the expense of the poor, that there's no way I can "opt out" of it in such a way that my hands are clean. There's no way in this world.
That's why Jesus came -- not to clean my hands, but to change the world.
If all we were called to do was to keep our hands clean, we could try to do it by isolating ourselves -- don't interact with other people or their money, and you won't be entering into relationships that exploit. But Jesus didn't say, "avoid doing to others what you don't want done to you"; he said, "do to others as you would want them to do to you." We are called to a life of passionate and profound engagement with the world, relating to sisters and brothers everywhere in a way that helps us to live more deeply into our Baptismal Covenant to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
And we have an excellent model for how to do that in the person of Jesus, whose calling wasn't just to hang out with God in some pure and detached realm, but to plant the seeds of God's kingdom come, God's will done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. He did it with humor and theater, as when he staged a brilliant send-up of a Roman lord's triumphal procession into the city. Roman rulers and generals would trot in on a noble white charger, wearing gleaming armor and leading mighty armies forcing along a procession of humiliated captives and displays of the spoils of war. Jesus borrows a humble donkey and leads a procession of bedraggled fishermen and loose women laughing and dancing in some peasant street theater along the same route Pontius Pilate might have used in his procession of might. But a sense of humor is a mighty asset if what you're seeking is God's kingdom.
Such a sense of humor is a key ingredient in something that Jesus shows in our epistle and gospel readings for this Sunday -- a healthy sense of self. That's not a phrase I hear often to describe Jesus, but I think that the passage in Philippians 2 for this Sunday shows precisely that. Jesus knew who and whose he was. He lived in a way that was centered in his identity as God's beloved child, and so he didn't need recognition from the world to know who he was -- he could simply BE who he was in the world. That's a life of integrity as well as humor and joy.
And these are gifts we need to receive and experience on this road we travel following Jesus. This road leads to some very dark places -- dark places are what the light is for, after all. The crowd's cry of "crucify him!" is one of those dark places, and I've found that when I can enter into that place rather than trying to deny it's there, that's an opening for the light of Christ to transform it. It's the kind of experience that makes sense for me of Isaiah's vision of how God redeems suffering:
- through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
- Out of his anguish he shall see light;
- he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
- The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
- and he shall bear their iniquities.
My hands aren't clean, and that's a good thing, since I'm following someone who didn't mind dirtying his hands in deep engagement with the world -- sometimes playful, sometimes painful, but always transformative.
Thanks be to God!
Easter Day (principal service)
In this Sunday's gospel, we meet the first apostle of the risen Jesus -- namely, Mary Magdalene. All four gospels in the Christian canon unanimously affirm that the earliest witnesses to the risen Jesus' appearing are women. And in this passage in the Gospel According to John, the Risen Jesus sends (and the Greek word apostolos, or "apostle," means "one sent") Mary Magdalene to tell the other disciples what she had seen: Mary Magdalene becomes apostle to the apostles, her witness making theirs possible.
But when Mary first sees Jesus, she doesn't recognize him. The gospels have different ways of getting it across, but there's something different about Jesus after God has raised him from the dead. He does things he didn't do before, like appear in locked rooms (John 20:19). And he is the same person, but there's something different about his appearance; his friends don't realize immediately who he is when they see him.
And yet, this is the same Jesus; the gospels also make that very clear.
But something has changed, something that's hard to pinpoint, but that's so profound that at times even Jesus' friends don't recognize him.
New life, resurrection life, is like that. When we receive it, for the first time or on a deeper level, things change.
Relationships change. Jesus addresses those who were his followers as sisters and brothers (John 20:17). As we live into the new life Jesus brings, we find ourselves receiving those who were friends, or even enemies, as our sisters and brothers.
Our understanding of power changes. The risen Jesus hasn't become the fearful agent of vengeance that some wanted him to be before his death, and some still want him to be now. The one who came among them as a servant still works among them by serving: the risen Lord cooks breakfast for his friends (John 21:1-14). Indeed, his friends seem to recognize him because the risen Jesus does what he has always done, calling them by name, breaking bread, breathing peace. When we recognize Christ's new life, we also recognize God's power. We finally understand that Jesus' unconditionally welcoming everyone to feast with him wasn't a way to pass the time until God came with power to set things right: it was the way God's power is revealed and the world's redemption takes place.
Our vision changes. When we take in the new life Christ offers, we can see Christ's presence everywhere -- in Creation and the creativity that is God's gift, in the eyes of a child, in the heart of an enemy. In injustices and wounds, we see opportunities to participate in the risen Christ's healing and redemption of the world.
Our heart changes. The more we take in Christ's new life, the more we experience Christ's compassion. We learn to see others as people God loves and has given gifts we need to be the Body of Christ in the world. And as we learn to love those whom we saw as unlovable, we experience the unreserved graciousness with which Christ loves us.
Our sense of what's possible changes. In Egypt, the freed slaves saw armies advancing and saw no way out; prophets like Moses and Miriam saw a way forward by plunging into the waters. What seemed to be certain death became a call to new life, as the scattered Hebrew slaves became a people, God's people. In Judea, some looked at Jesus' cross and saw death; some looked at the empty tomb and anticipated death for themselves, as Roman law decreed death to grave robbers. But what looks like death is an opening for new life.
It might be hard to recognize at first, but new life has come among us, and we are invited to become more truly who we are in Christ, more truly ourselves, more fully the presence of the risen Christ in the world. That is the strange and wonderful news that Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, bears to us now. And when we take that news in, we, like Mary's first hearers, will find ourselves sent forth to be known and make Jesus known in the breaking of the bread, the healing of the sick, the loving of the unlovable, the reconciliation of each of us to one another and to God in Christ.
New life has come among us! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God.
Great Vigil of Easter, Year A
Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly ...
-- Matthew 28:6-7
At the end of Matthew's gospel, an angel of the Lord appears before Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, echoing the angel's two appearances to Joseph at the beginning of the gospel, in Matthew 1:18-24 and 2:13-15. And in the end, as in the beginning, the import of the revelation is "Get going!"
My three-year old niece, whose parents aren't churchgoers, was visiting us last weekend, and so on Sunday, she went for the second time in her life (the first time was for our blessing last year) to a church. When her mother dropped her off at our house, she made sure to explain to our niece as best she could what church and the nursery there would be like. She said it would be a little like when mommy went to the gym, and there was a special class for the children to enjoy some exercise while the parents worked out. Our niece immediately understood, and from that point on referred to going to church by the name of the children's class at the gym: she called church "Stretch and Grow."
If we live the gospel, then the gospel will always be characterized by change (at the same time that it remains recognizably the same gospel, not “another gospel”). In order to avoid our running aimlessly or beating the air, and to avoid our disguising our stubbornness as piety, church should be a place where we learn how to change. And how to disagree about how we should change.
This kind of language of what it means to be the Church would probably strike many in our culture as odd. The Church doesn't have much of a reputation as a change agent these days, and the metaphors I hear most often in popular culture tend to be along the lines of church as rock -- a metaphor that (to my recollection) appears only once in the New Testament. Rock is pretty stable, and that can feel comforting. Rocks are very easy to paint; you can do it with a limited pallette, and you can take as long as you like to capture them on canvas without worrying whether they will fly off. Rocks are also known for being unyielding, cold, and without nourishment.
I think Karl Barth was onto something when he quipped that doing theology is like trying to paint a bird in flight. I think it's like trying to paint the feathers on the wings of a hummingbird in flight. Has anyone ever seen what a living hummingbird's wings look like? I haven't, and I used to love watching them at the feeders in the back garden when I was growing up. And perhaps I'm not much of a painter, but I'd say that the best way to get across on canvas what a hummingbird's wings look like would be to show the arc of their motion. When painting a hummingbird's wings, blurring is more realistic than stasis.
When we're tempted to think of church solely as rock, I think it's worth reminding ourselves that while the church is referred to once in the New Testament as rock, there's another metaphor that's far closer to the center of what we're called to be. We are the very Body of Christ, and an angel of the Most High God has revealed that Christ and Christ's Body are very much ALIVE.
Christ is alive, raised by the God of Israel, and so we know that the Word of God is not dead and calcifying but living and lifegiving. Christ is alive, and so we know that God is still speaking, working, teaching, and healing. Christ is alive, and he's on the move!
We may have come to this place seeking rock, a solid, if not particularly comfortable, place to lie. But God's power has shown us just how empty that place is, and we're called to die to it. An angel charged Joseph to journey to Egypt not to settle there, but to bring new life out of that place of slavery. The angel charges Mary and Mary to enter the tomb not so that they can embrace the stone, but so that they may spur the rest of Jesus' followers on to Galilee.
Jesus is ALIVE, and as Christ's Body, we are called to experience the life of the Risen Christ too, freed from all that would keep us from that life. We're not to hang around the tomb to erect a shrine; that's what you do for the dead. We're called to follow him to Galilee. When we get there, we will find ourselves commissioned to bring the Good News and the new life of the Risen Christ to all. And when we're on the move with Christ, we can experience Christ's presence with us to the end of the age, even at the ends of the earth.
The Lord is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God.
Good Friday, Year A
I've long appreciated and admired The Witness, with its fabulous masthead proclaiming, "A Feisty and Opinionated Journal since 1917." God willing, I plan to have a long (and feisty!) career, and I'd be very pleased if at the end of it, my bio read even a little like their history from their 'About Us' page:
Since 1917, The Witness has been examining church and society in light of faith and conscience - advocating for those denied systemic power as well as celebrating those who, in theologian William Stringfellow's words, have found ways to "live humanly in the midst of death."
I encourage you to read The Witness regularly, and you'll find my reflection for Good Friday there. It's called "The Narrow Place." While you're there, check out the rest of the site. It recently got a new look, and I particularly appreciate the excellent and moving photography now featured on their welcome page.
Maundy Thursday, Year AThe Simpsons, Season 2 called "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish." In it, Homer Simpson, the bumbling father of the family, is told that the blowfish he has eaten was not properly prepared, and so is poisonous -- he has 24 hours to live.
What would you do if that happened to you?
I think Homer does what most of us would do. He makes a long list -- a list that's probably been growing in the back of his mind for a long time -- of things he'd wanted to do before he died, and he hadn't done. He has to cross off the major achievements -- climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, make millions, win an Oscar, that sort of thing -- immediately. There's no time to do those.
But there are a lot of important things he hasn't done yet that he could do, or at least start. He teaches his son to shave. He tells those he loves how he feels about them. He calls his long-neglected father in the nursing home and tries to renew their relationship. And the guy who would rather stay home making his famous ultra-sweet "moon-waffles" wrapped around sticks of butter than go to church gets a recording of Larry King reading the entire bible, and he listens to the whole thing after his family has gone to sleep. He finally gets to some of the most crucial items on his very long list of "things ... left undone," and in the process, lives out what might be the best day of his life.
What would you do, if you thought you were going to die tomorrow? Jesus faces that question on the night we now call Maundy Thursday.
I do believe that Jesus performed miracles, but he could have known without a hint of the miraculous what was coming. It was Passovertide, when all pious Jews were commanded to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were about six million Jews spread across the Roman Empire, and a significant percentage of them headed for Jerusalem. The city was clogged with pilgrims (ever seen footage of what Mecca looks like during the Haj? Jerusalem probably looked something like that during Passover) there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from unjust foreign rule.
That's a situation that would make any governor in the empire jumpy. Pilate stood to lose his job if there was trouble, and he was not a man to take chances. During Passover, Pilate lined the pilgrims' way into the city with crosses, the victims on them serving as an endless and unspeakably horrific living tableau of what would happen to any who dared disrupt the peace of the empire.
Even then, Pilate made sure that his guards could keep careful watch over the Temple, where streetcorner prophets proclaimed a God who was more powerful even than the armies of Rome. Guards stationed in the taller building next to the Temple could see directly into its courts and be ready to respond if there was a disturbance.
Days before, Jesus had entered the city surrounded by crowds who loudly proclaimed him, and not Caesar, as king. And then he made his way to the Temple, where -- in the midst of vast and easily agitated crowds -- he was shouting, overturning tables, pushing people.
And so he knew what was coming. Jesus and his friends had walked by those crosses on their way to Jerusalem, the city toward which Jesus, transfigured and in the company of Moses, set his face to accomplish a new exodus. I do believe that Jesus worked miracles by God's power, but no supernatural knowledge would have been needed to see that Jesus was headed for a cross. Jesus knew that this night was probably the last before his death.
What would you do, if it were you?
Here's what Jesus did:
He put on a dinner.
He did what he did every night: he invited people to eat with him. He invited his friends; he also invited the man whom he knew would betray him. He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked and places in between, and he broke bread with them, and offered them wine. He ate with them, as he had countless times before. He celebrated the Passover with them, as he did every year.
That's a life lived with absolute integrity. Jesus knows that in all likelihood, he's going to die tomorrow. This is the time for any unfinished business -- to say anything that needs saying, to do whatever has been left undone, put off.
But Jesus does what he always does, because what he always does, his entire career -- his healings, his parables, his wonder-working -- was doing what he does this night, what he does every time he sits down to a meal. When people want to talk about Jesus' power, they often talk about the spectacular, the stilling of the storm, the raising of the dead. But Jesus' power is demonstrated at least as clearly in what happens when he breaks bread.
When Jesus broke bread, everyone -- the Pharisee and the leper, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners -- experienced God's welcome at his table. When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed. When Jesus broke bread, serving any who came to him, people experienced what REAL power, God's power, does:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
-- Luke 22:25-27
Jesus, having lived with integrity to his last meal, does what he always does: he issues an invitation in the breaking of the bread. On this night, as Jesus invites us to his table, he invites us to live with that kind of integrity, to remember him EVERY time we break bread -- at the altar, certainly, but also in the lunchroom and the dorm cafeteria, the family dinner table or the counter at the diner. Whenever we break bread, or draw breath, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus, until he comes to complete the redemption of the world for which God anointed him.
And there is another invitation, in this breaking of bread. For on this night, on the night he was betrayed, on the night before he died for us, Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered, "This is my Body." Not just the bread, but the company who gather to share it: this is Jesus' Body, given for the world. And whenever we gather with others made in God's image, other for whom Christ gave himself, Jesus invites us to do so in remembrance of him, aware of and honoring his presence.
It's a solemn charge Jesus gives us tonight. Paul cites Jesus' words on this night to back up his contention that those who fail to "discern the Body" gathered for the Lord's meal, those who fail to recognize everyone Jesus invites to his table as being members of the Body of Christ, are "eating and drinking judgment upon themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29).
But what an opportunity, to encounter and receive Christ in the homeless veteran in the Winter Shelter where we volunteer, in a client with whom we're having a business lunch, in a daughter as we share a snack before bedtime. What an opportunity, to live every moment as an invitation to feast with Jesus, who held every meal as if it were the Messianic banquet.
That's the invitation we receive tonight, to approach this table as if it were the Last Supper, to break bread in the presence of the one who celebrated his last supper as he did every meal, to be the Body of the one whose body was broken for us.
Thanks be to God!