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Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:5-12 - link to NRSV text
OR Micah 4:1-5 - link to NRSV text
1 John 1:1-2:2 - link to NRSV text
OR Acts 4:5-12
Luke 24:36b-48 - link to NRSV text

Jesus was well known -- perhaps even best known, at least in some circles -- for his proclamation of the kingdom of God. "Kingdom" isn't a word that necessarily means all that much, or all that much that's relevant, to those of us who don't live in a monarchy, but I think Jesus himself provided a pretty good translation for that phrase even for us in the prayer he taught his followers, "your kingdom come, [that is,] your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Our imaginations could run wild on that one. What kind of a catalog can you come up with for things that would be different if God's kingdom had come, if God's will were being done on earth as it is in heaven? Heck, what would NOT be different?

Jesus' earliest followers were exposed to a lot of speculation on that point. It was, as far as we know about first-century Judaism, a pretty popular point upon which to exercise imagination -- as one would expect for any not ground into utter despair in occupied territory, when the vast majority of people were shut out of citizenship, out of literacy, out of social mobility. And then there were the people who were shut out even further on account of their illnesses, their dishonored relations, or their honorable family's disowning them. They were lucky if they still felt included enough in any kingdom to dream of God's kingdom.

And so they dreamed. What would be different -- or better yet, what would NOT be different -- if God's kingdom really had broken through to this world?

When Jesus began his ministry of proclaiming God's kingdom, and more vividly and dangerously yet, living that out as reality in healings, exorcisms (driving out the powers of darkness with God's power is bound to get people's hopes up about driving out ALL oppressive powers with God's power), drawing together and building up God's people for the new world dawning. Small wonder that his disciples, given the kinds of hopes Jesus raised, seem often surprised at how much seems NOT to have changed despite Jesus' coming and proclaiming God's kingdom come.

A lot did change, to be sure. Lives changed when people were healed of diseases or freed from spirits that had shut them out of community. Women and men cast out by their families found a new family in the community of Jesus' "mother and sisters and brothers" who heard the word of God and strove to live it out together. And to be fair, eschatology -- speculation about what the end of the old era of injustice and the dawning of God's kingdom -- for many Jews in Jesus' time was focused on the time of the resurrection, when those who were martyred for righteousness were restored to live out the lives so unjustly cut short.

However, a few might have understood how Jesus could proclaim God's kingdom and still anyone could see that so many oppressive forces remained seemingly in power by seeing Jesus' message as being about what God would do in the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Many would have fled -- and did flee -- at Jesus' crucifixion; if they thought that before Jesus' death he would one of these days jump into some first-century equivalent of a phone booth and fly out in a suit with a huge 'M' on his chest (the 'M' being for 'Messiah' -- and props to Scott Bartchy for the image), that hope was dashed when Jesus died. But some might have clung to hope, thinking that at least on the day of resurrection, Jesus would be vindicated, and woe to his enemies on that day! Jesus would come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar's unstoppable cyborg in The Terminator -- a 'Christinator' before whom all enemies would flee, and then, if not before, NOTHING would be the same.

Well, this Sunday, we see what happens when the first light of the great day of resurrection appears, when God's chosen is vindicated, and here's what the glorious resurrected Son of God does:

He proclaims peace. He tells his followers not to fear. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to his followers, whom he commissions to proclaim freedom from sin and debt. Oh, and he eats some fish.

In other words, as far as people expecting some grand and explosive special effects moment, this is a transformation as anticlimactic as that of Princess Fiona in Shrek. The orchestral score swelled and has gone silent, that blinding burst of light came and went, and the world is still looking like a troll by any conventional reckoning.

And you know, that's why Shrek is still one of my favorite movies about the kingdom of God.

Because it's not about conventional reckoning at all. It never was.

A reader who's been paying careful attention will notice that Luke portrays the risen Jesus as doing precisely what the pre-crucifixion Jesus did. He eats with people. He proclaims peace, even (or especially!) to those caught up in spirals of violence they reckon to be inescapable. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to those who will hear -- precisely as he did at the very beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4.

On this glorious day of Easter (the whole season is Easter, folks -- like the whole twelve days of Christmas are Christmas!), it's worth recalling that from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry among us, he has been proclaiming that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," today is the day in which God's kingdom breaks through to this world, today is the day of the new life we've been waiting for. The people who thought that the "today" of Luke 4 was some kind of funky metaphorical time (much like the stuff people repeat about the various Greek words for time and the very, very special and absolutely distinct dimensions of meaning for each) probably continued to think that Jesus was spouting some kind of barely sensible metaphor or just plain kidding around when he said stuff like, "if it is by God's finger that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

But what if Jesus wasn't kidding?

What if Jesus really meant that TODAY is the day of salvation, the glorious day of the Lord, the day of resurrection, the day of the coming of God's kingdom?

I think sometimes that this is half the point of the accounts in the canonical gospels of the risen Jesus' appearances to his followers (or, in the case of Paul, to someone he was calling to be his follower). The day of resurrection, life in the kingdom of God itself, the glorious day we've all been waiting for looks a great deal like any day at all breaking bread with Jesus.

That's not to say that we have nothing left to hope for. Not at all. It's to say that if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that the God of Israel -- of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebeccah, and Leah, of Rahab and of Mary -- the Creator of the world, has raised this same Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and the way he lived among us as finally, ultimately righteous, if Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Christ of God, the anointed agent inaugurating God's kingdom, then we have to believe that the life of the kingdom of God is like Jesus' life:

Healing and freeing the outcast, eating fish with out-of-work fishers and breaking bread with women of any or no reputation or name. Speaking peace, of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, because weapons have no use at all in a world in which all are called to bless their persecutors and minister to their enemies. The writer of 1 John wasn't kidding when he said that he spoke of what was said and heard "from the beginning"; for this the world was made, and this is the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus birthed in community with any who would care for it, from the beginning. This was the life Jesus lived to the ending, even to death on a cross from which he did what he always did -- speaking peace to his fearful followers and his tormentors alike with his last breath.

Why should we be surprised, all told, that this is what the risen Jesus does? And for those of us who have experienced even the slightest whiff of the messianic banquet in the fellowship Jesus welcomes us to -- with sinners and saints, with the joyous and the grieving and the bewildered -- why should we be surprised when Jesus' table in the messianic kingdom looks a great deal like the table Jesus set for his followers from the beginning, on the night before he died, on his first days after God raised him from the dead?

And for any who hunger or thirst for a new life, a different world, a peaceable kingdom in which each one of us is welcomed for the beloved child of God we are and is growing into the person in Christ we were meant to be, what kind of sign are you waiting for? There is bread and wine, there are people to journey with, and the life of the risen Christ, of the new world, is here among us, if you're willing to seek it where Jesus did.

Today is the day of resurrection, of the inbreaking of God's kingdom, and no regrets of yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow should keep you from it.

Thanks be to God!

April 27, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Eschatology, Luke, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

email notification

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that in yesteryear, one could sign up for email notification when there was a new entry. Unfortunately, Bloglet, the company that provided that service, was ridiculously unreliable, so I eventually suspended the email notification service.

It's back! FeedBlitz, which thus far I've experienced as far more reliable than Bloget was, is providing email notification service, so I've once more posted a form to sign up for it; if you sign up, or if you were signed up to receive email notification via Bloglet in days of yore (although not if you were one of the ten anonymous subscribers -- I had no way to move those over to the new service), then you should receive each new lectionary blog entry via email once it goes up. To sign up, just look for the form to fill in your email address in the right-hand sidebar under 'subscribe.'

As this is a new service, I'll be grateful for any feedback you can give me about how it's working (or not working) for you. If, like Bloglet, it turns out to cause more trouble than it's worth, I'll disable it, but I'm hoping it'll work well. I know there are a lot of readers who have never really gotten into the whole RSS thing (it's very cool, I tell you -- you can see one use for it explained here in simple terms for users of the Firefox web browser), but who want to know when something new goes up without having to check the site all the time. If that's you, please do try out the FeedBlitz service for email notification, and let me know how it goes.



April 26, 2006 in Administrivia, Site News | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

I've posted my reflection for this week at The Witness, my employers and -- especially this week, after spending a good chunk of Monday and most of Tuesday with board members, my inspirers.

It's called "The Missing 'FOR' and the Risen Life."

April 19, 2006 in Acts, Easter, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Easter Day, Year B

Have you ever had a moment when watching a movie when you really, really wanted to shout out to one of the characters, because: a) you just KNEW what was going to happen, given the genre conventions and other information at your disposal, though not necessarily at the characters'; and b) you also just KNEW that what the character was about to do was not going to fit well with what you knew about how the universe of that story worked?

It happens in romantic comedies: you just KNOW about two-thirds of the the way through the movie that if only the hero would come clean to his beloved (or maybe the genders are the other way around in the particular story you're watching) about that silly lie/stupid game/what-have you s/he'd been playing when they met, the beloved could handle it. You know that's what's going to have to happen to get to that happy ending you anticipate; the hero (or heroine) doesn't.

It happens in horror films. I wish I had $5 for every movie in which some character who would be perfectly sensible in real life I'm sure responded to some other character's disappearance/mysterious rending and slurping noise outside/etc. by traipsing outside (usually in some really flimsy clothing) to investigate, when we ALL know that this is precisely what you are NOT supposed to do in the genre.

I'm convinced that genre is important in terms of how we see our life stories as well. What I've been talking about -- that business of you as audience knowing something that the characters don't know and SHOULD know to make things right as you both understand it -- is called dramatic irony, and I think that in a lot of ways Easter is the biggest injector of it into the stories of our lives.

We all have heard and in many cases have internalized stories of how the world works, of what our lives are about. I once knew a woman who told her life story -- and more importantly, lived it out -- as if it were a tragedy. She started with so much potential, but every moment thwarted her. Now she was in a position where she might actually graduate from college, and she was dating someone she was convinced was her true love ... and that made her all the more convinced that something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong. She or her beloved would die in a car crash, or something equally tragic was going to happen. The possibility drove her to distraction -- literally, with respect to her studies, and soon her extensions in courses were lapsing to 'Incomplete' marks which lapsed to F's. But what if she saw her life as a comedy -- starting the story with challenges, and finishing it with love and wholeness? Might that help her make decisions and find courage to live her story out that way?

At 3:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday, Jesus' followers faced a story they knew all too well. Poor people meet someone who says that they working together can make a real difference in the world, see that much more of God's kingdom come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. These stories are dangerous to people in power, and it's amazing how quickly people in power -- people who are quick to dismiss such stories in their earliest stages as the musings or wishful thinking of religious crackpots and ne'er-do-wells -- will crack down on the storytellers and the chief actors.

Judas the Galilean, Theudas in Egypt -- these were just a couple of the people whose stories were familiar to various factions of the hopeful in Roman-occupied Palestine, and the end of such stories was all-too-familiar too. The empire strikes back, but with no grand episode to follow: the would-be hero, "our only hope," dies in some particularly shameful way, and the crowds following scatter. The empire continues, and sensible people give up any idea that the story of the world is an epic or a romantic comedy, and start thinking more like Macbeth did in his worst moments: it's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury (why can't they at least let us sleep, if we're not going to hope?), signifying nothing. It's like Waiting for Godot without the humor, and maybe with some annoyingly obvious super-title as a kind of Cliff Note on the play in progress: HE'S NOT GOING TO COME, YOU IDIOT, AND IF HE DID, IT WOULD MAKE NO DIFFERENCE.

And all the landlords and factory owners chime in:

So get back to work, you louts. Just get back to work.

I suspect that Good Friday and Holy Saturday were as hard as they were for Jesus' closest followers at least as much because of the ways it fit so very, very well into stories they'd internalized as The Way Things Are as they were filled with any kind of shock. Perhaps they'd entertained hope that things would really be different with Jesus. That "perhaps" became a "what if?" so very, very strong that women and men left their homes, their families, every kind of security and respectability they knew to gamble it on the possibility they imagined when they looked at Jesus:

That maybe -- just maybe -- the world is headed for the destiny for which God made it. Maybe the world was made by a good God, who cares -- not as an inventor who hopes that his machine runs as planned, though he long ago moved his attention on to other projects, but as a lover or a parent lives with the one s/he loves, intimately involved and constantly encouraging and empowering the beloved on to something more beautiful and joyous and faithful and whole. Maybe the universe really does arc toward the justice for which it aches.

And what if that's so? Why buy stock in a dying empire? Why pour heart and soul and precious hours and energy into relationships that are all about capital and its uses, about master and servant, about the countless iternations of being around one another without being WITH anyone? Why spend another instant on anything other than that for which you and I and the whole world was born?

That's a dreamer's talk. We know that; I'm sure any one of us could remember parents or teachers or friends or lovers or bosses or co-workers saying as much. If the dream is just dreaming from which responsible people eventually wake up, then trying to stay in the dream is just a recipe for stasis or loss in terms of the world's measures of achievement and heartbreak in terms of what happens when a dream meets disappointment.

Judas the Galilean died. Theudas the Egyptian died. Martin Luther King's words may live forever, but his body died from a bullet before I was born. And so what?

So what? Here's a what if:

What if the universe really does arc toward justice, toward wholeness and reconciliation and life?

Jesus died. That much is true, and no Christian should say otherwise. (This, by the way, is why the Gospel of Judas is a big deal to historians, but not to Christians; to Christians it's just another attempt for people who don't want to believe there is such a thing as death for anyone good to believe that a figure as powerful in the imagination as Jesus taught them as much. He didn't.) Jesus died, and it wasn't pretty. Jesus got the worst of what the world and all its empires and armies -- plus all its pettiness and personal betrayals -- have to dish out. If we've entered fully into Holy Week, we've entered into that experience, and of God's full, involved, passionate presence with all who suffer.

Jesus died. As far as Pontius Pilate was concerned, that was the end of the story -- a story as familiar as it was unimportant, of one peasant among countless dying in the way that it's an uppity peasant's lot to die. Not even a tragedy -- that would give the story too much dignity. Just a very short story that even then wasn't over quickly enough.

And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the very Creator of the universe and inspirer of every true prophet, raised this Jesus from the dead.

This was not the happy ending, and I love, love, love how the writer of the Gospel According to Mark gets it across to us, because Jesus' resurrection is SO not the end of the story, of the Good News that we have for the world.

Because Jesus' resurrection is not just about Jesus.

It's about God. Jesus didn't raise himself, you know -- at least, that's not what the scriptures in our canon say. God raised Jesus. Jesus had the nerve not only to hang out, break bread with, and bless and forgive the dregs of society, but to say that GOD did the same. Lots of good fathers and mothers taught their children what kind of end would find someone who tried that kind of stunt, someone who tried to insinuate that the God of the universe was the same kind of indiscriminate deadbeat he was, and respectable society breathed a huge sigh of relief when Jesus met the death they all said he was headed for. Work hard, pay your taxes, and don't cause trouble, and you could take over the family business; follow someone like Jesus, and you'll end up just where he did. The cross. Game over, and it wasn't all that fun for anyone.

But that is nothing like the story we have to tell. The story we have to tell is that the very Creator of the universe raised Jesus as a righteous Son of God from the dead, and that means that God is every bit as ridiculously, incomprehensibly loving and merciful as Jesus made God out to be. So the story of Jesus' resurrection is a story about God.

It's also a story about the world.

The Creator of the world raised Jesus, vindicated what he said -- and, more importantly, how he lived. So if Jesus was right about God, then maybe God wasn't joshing when, looking at the world and at humanity in it, God said, "It is very good." Maybe God means to make good on God's word.

Actually, no maybe about it. Jesus' resurrection confirms for us that those wild-eyed prophets -- all the way down to Jesus, and on to Jesus' followers -- are right when they say that the world really is good, and the God who made is really and truly and absolutely tirelessly is about redeeming it from anything that tries to say or make it otherwise. The might of the world's mightiest empire couldn't stop Jesus or his followers; not death or Satan or any kind of power can't either.

The Creator of the universe, the Lord of all that was, is, or ever will be, is redeeming all that there is, and as a witness to Jesus' resurrection, I would not dare to bet against this God.

So what if the world really is headed for justice, for freedom, for peace, for love, for wholeness?

I'll close with an image from my youth in southern California, where I loved to surf. It's a common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel yourself along the surface of the wave. Not so. Surfing is really more like well-planned falling. The wave rises up, and if you're at the top of it and pointed downward on a surfboard that floats on the surface, the board will be propelled down by gravity, while being held up by the water beneath. The trick of surfing isn't to paddle hard enough to get to where you want to be -- it's to align yourself with the wave and the shore such that the simple force of falling down with gravity's power and the simple fact that on a smooth and buoyant surfboard pointed in alignment with the wave and the short, the path of least resistance downward will be parallel to the shore. That's how you get a long, exhilarating ride.

So what if God raised Jesus from the dead? What does that say about the world, about our place in it?

Mark does a wonderful thing with this. Mark 16:8, the last verse of the book, is pretty much a half-sentence in an obviously interrupted train of thought. Later Christian writers tried to finish it in centuries to come with things that made sense to them -- appearances of the risen Jesus who gives detailed instructions on what to do until the end of the world itself. But Mark did something different, and brilliant.

Mark ends the movie where it's obvious the story isn't over. He says that a mysterious young man greeted the women at the tomb, told them to tell Jesus' other followers that Jesus isn't in the tomb, that he has gone ahead of them. The women leave.

And it is SO not the end of the story. Coming centuries later, there are things we figure happened next: the women told the men. The men probably didn't believe them at first, but eventually (hopefully not as slowly as men came to believe women's witness about things like ordination) came around. Jesus' followers and Jesus' liberating word did go to Galilee, and Samaria, and Rome, and Egypt, and Spain, and even unto Los Angeles and El Paso and the Falklands and Auckland -- you get the idea.

Well, you get the idea if you use your imagination.

That's what the non-ending "ending" of Mark's gospel compels us to do. Use our imagination.

And that's a very good thing to do, because there are still messengers who can tell us reliably that Jesus has gone, is going, will go ahead of us, to places and contexts we haven't dreamed about yet.

In other words, I doubt this movie is even two-thirds over. Jesus is risen! What if that's so? What if God is really redeeming the universe? What if Jesus isn't just here, but has gone ahead of us, is waiting to meet us? For Pete's sake -- the original St. Pete, whose nickname when his friends wanted to rib him must have been Peter "Surely Not" Cephas, for all the times he couldn't believe what was in front of him until he got his board aligned with it and let it carry him along.

Jesus' resurrection tells us that, contrary to what those who fancy themselves the Powers That Be in this world might say, Jesus' way is worth betting your life, your world, the whole world on, because the Maker and Lover of the whole world is behind the movement. Jesus' resurrection tells us that God's way isn't the undertow that will leave us cold and alone, but is THE wave -- the most exhilarating ride there is, if we're willing to align ourselves with it.

Jesus' resurrection tells us that the Creator of the universe is bring the universe to LIFE, and you can bet your life on it -- with God, with Jesus, with us.

Surf's up!  The Lord is risen!

And thanks be to God.

April 15, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Isaiah, Mark, Redemption, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Good Friday, Year B

Dear All,

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.

April 13, 2006 in Hebrews, Holy Week, Isaiah, John, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Maundy Thursday, Year B

Exodus 12:1-14a - link to NRSV text
Psalm 78:14-20,23-25
- link to BCP text
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 [27-32]
- link to NRSV text
John 13:1-15
OR Luke 22:14-20 - link to NRSV text (John) (Luke)

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!

April 11, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eucharist, Exodus, Holy Week, John, Luke, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Palm Sunday, Year B

Liturgy of the Palms:
Mark 11:1-11a - link to NRSV text
Psalm 118:19-29 - link to BCP text

Liturgy of the Word:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 - link to NRSV text
Philippians 2:5-11 - link to NRSV text
Mark (14:32-72) 15:1-39 (40-47) - link to NRSV text

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!

April 6, 2006 in Holy Week, Isaiah, Justice, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack