Maundy Thursday, Year C

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 - link to NRSV text
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 - link to NRSV text

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!

April 3, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Exodus, Forgiveness, Healing, Holy Week, Humility, John, Matthew, Passover, Purity, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Exodus 3:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Luke 13:1-9 - link to NRSV text

The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:

A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"

The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:

"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."

That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.

I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.

In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:

"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.

"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.

This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.

In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.

And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"

There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."

That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."

If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).

But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.

Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:

I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.

But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?

And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.

I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.

Thanks be to God!

March 8, 2007 in Exodus, Faith, Lent, Luke, Pastoral Concerns, Redemption, Resurrection, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

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

Feast of the Holy Name, Year B

Exodus 34:1-8 - link to NRSV text
Philippians 2:9-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 2:15-21 - link to NRSV text

Our reading from Exodus for this week says something that was a truism in Jesus' culture:

Who you are is largely about who your parents are. Your name, your identity in the world, is your family name, and especially your father's name.

But it was widely known that Jesus' father wasn't Joseph. It meant that Mary his mother faced the possibility of death at the hands of a brother or father seeking to protect the family honor. I've blogged and preached about that before. Joseph had a price to pay as well for his refusal to abandon Mary, and we get a hint of it in this week's gospel; it's most likely that his family disowned him, or he and his wife would have been able to stay with extended family for Jesus' birth.

It also means that Jesus was subjected to whispers in the village until the day he left it. He was called “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Everybody knew that nobody knew who his father was, and everybody knew that Mary's name was no status symbol, given her pregnancy by someone other than Joseph. “That young man will come to no good,” people murmured as Jesus walked past, “no family, no honor.” His parents' iniquities would be visited upon him, and his name was mud.

And yet this Sunday, when we remember his naming, is the Feast of the Holy Name. God gave him “the name that is above every name,” according to the hymn in Philippians 2, the passage an early Baptismal hymn that's on my mind every time I bow at Jesus' name in the liturgy. God gave Jesus the name that is above every name because Jesus, the most powerful person on earth, didn't exploit that power to try to seize the throne. He didn't seek the company of the powerful, but he used his power to exalt the powerless, restoring the outcast to community and ascribing dignity to those the world despised. He met them with compassion born of experience, because he shared their name in other's eyes. No name, from nowhere, the bastard from a backwater village.

And God gave him the name that is above every name. God exalted him, lifted him up, and Jesus lifted up his sisters and brothers among the despised. Jesus carries the name at which every knee should bow, but he teaches his followers that they will find and serve him by seeking and serving those furthest from the center of power -- the sick whose illnesses render them impure, the prisoners literally barred from community, the poor beggars outside the city gate.

That's the heart of why we call him the Son of God: because Jesus does what his Father does, and Jesus' words and example, his life and his death, taught us that his Father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca and Rachel, is always at work on the margins. God looks at those whose name is mud and calls them God's own beloved child, made in God's image and deserving the reverence that comes from being mindful of that.

Jesus' name was mud, and God called that name holy. That dignity, that gentle power, that holiness, can be found when we look at the outcast as Jesus saw them, rather than as the murmurers saw Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

December 27, 2005 in Exodus, Honor/Shame, Justice, Luke, Philippians, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Proper 25, Year A

Exodus 22:21-27 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:34-46 - link to NRSV text

White American middle-class churches are particularly prone, it seems, to an assumption that spirituality, and Christianity in particular or by extension, is primarily about interiority -- about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one's self. This Sunday's texts put the lie to that. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "love" was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. When Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 6:5, says, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," he's spelling out what is implied in calling God "Lord," and what is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4: when God is Lord, that position is filled; no others need apply, as all our faculties are fully devoted to God's service.

And when Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a commandment which Jesus says is of equal importance with the first -- I'm with Daniel Harrington (with whom I often disagree on other points) that "there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others" (from p. 315 of his commentary on Matthew). Self-esteem is a fine thing, to be sure, and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology, but these interior emotional states just weren't a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.

So what does this command mean, then? The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the gospels, namely James 2:1-17, will be a major help in figuring that out. When Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself," he was essentially saying, "treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood" -- that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. You may notice that this passage in James treats "faith" and "love" almost as synonyms; while American churches tend to read both as interior mental or emotional states, in first-century Mediterranean cultures true faith and true love are both matters of affiliation backed up with consistent action, of treating people with respect and enacting rather than merely professing compassion.

In other words, the kinds of facts we see laid out here show just how far we have to go in loving our neighbors as as our own family. Bread for the World is right: we have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to bring everything we've got -- our voice and our political power as well as our financial resources -- to bear in living out God's mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. It's true that our sins, things done and left undone, have built a world in which coming from a family or a region trapped in extreme poverty means a death sentence issued before birth, a world built around the kind of favoritism that the Letter of James condemns writ large.

But it's also true that Christ came to save the world from sin, and Christ is both calling and empowering us to do what it takes to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. That means not only sending direct aid to feed people in places like Haiti, but also working to end U.S. policies that dump highly subsidized rice on the Haitian market, creating the hunger we're supposedly dedicated to ending. That means making trade fair, creating economic opportunities for children around the world that we want for our own children. That means working for educational opportunities around the world so that every child has the kind of chance to succeed that we want for our own children.

For that reason, our text for this Sunday from the Hebrew bible seems especially well-chosen:

God said, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
    -- Exodus 22:21-27

These days especially, the temptation seems especially strong to churches and their members to reduce the Gospel to one point, and for some it's the more specific the better -- the better for use as a very specific litmus test, I suppose. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is given a wide-open invitation to do the same, and he declines. Asked what one commandment is most important, he gives two -- and not just any two. The two commandments he gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor (and for who would be exempt from the category of "neighbor" in Jesus' mind, I can think of no better place in Jesus' teaching to turn than the "Parable of the Good Samaritan"). There's a point of Jesus' morality that I derive from this that I think is a timely one in our current climate of polarization:

Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they're NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God's love and therefore are beyond the call of God's people to ministry, Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. In other words, we may as well take the energy we devote to coming up with a clever question to exempt us and give it to the call of love that is before us. The book of Exodus is spot-on in presenting this as a matter of national security; there is no better way to undermine the agenda of terrorist groups who would drum up hate against us and make widows and orphans of our families than to love our enemies, overcoming evil with good. And in citing the two greatest commandments, Jesus has shown us also that this is a matter of spiritual fidelity as well, that in serving our neighbors around the world as we would our own flesh and blood, our lives stand as testimony to the lordship of the one God who made us all. There is no call more consuming, and none more fulfilling.

Thanks be to God!

October 19, 2005 in Exodus, James, Kinship/Family, Love, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Easter Day (principal service)

Exodus 14:10-14,21-25;15:20-21 - link to NRSV text
Colossians 3:1-4 - link to NRSV text
John 20:1-10(11-18) - link to NRSV text

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.

March 24, 2005 in Colossians, Easter, Exodus, Holy Week, John, Women, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack