Saturday, April 18, 2009

Living This Side of the Resurrection

Yom HaShoah 2009
Acts: 4:32-25/John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.” John 20:19

The first and most important thing one might observe about this account of Jesus appearing to the disciples twice (once without and once with Thomas in the room) is that these disciples of Jesus are living on the wrong side of the Resurrection. Although Mary Magdalene, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved have all been to the tomb, and Mary has seen the risen Lord, they are all still living out of fear.

Upon reflection, that is not so odd, since they no doubt fear that what happened to Jesus on Good Friday could easily happen to anyone who professes to be a follower of his.

The anonymous author(s) of John, however, write from a much later date when both Jews and Christians are under persecution by Rome. It was an atmosphere of fear in which this gospel was written. As such, Jews and Christians in first century Israel were in hiding for their lives. We had a shared history at the point in time. Our memory of that, however, is lacking. This has caused problems.

The second thing we might notice is that the text is usually translated “for fear of the Jews.” Now on the surface of it this should cause us to wonder. For all the followers in that room were Jews. What the Greek text of the New Testament says is “for fear of the Judeans.”

It is up to the reader to remember that all the Jews in the room behind locked doors were Galileans, not Judeans. Galileans were considered somewhat like country bumpkins – not sophisticated, socially inferior, from the wrong side of the tracks. Way back in chapter 1 of John, Nathaniel asks Philip who is telling him about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” which is in Galilee?

It was just as true back in the first century as it is today, not all Jews are alike, come from the same background, or think the same things.

The third thing, and the most tragic thing, is that it is all too easy to see how a text like this could be used to support anti-Semitism. “Well, if the disciples feared the Jews, how much more should we fear the Jews?” the argument might go. Whereas if you are talking about Judeans, a pluralistic culture even way back in the time of Jesus, one would be strained to make a similar argument.

Thus the importance of Thomas, and Jesus’ words to Thomas. Thomas, far from doubting, wants desperately to live on this side of the Resurrection, without fear, and with the kind of love for others we see reflected in the description of the early Christian community we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…there was not a needy person among them.”

Once given the opportunity, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. For they live with out fear, but accept the gift of Jesus peace – that is in the text and in the original Aramaic, Shalom.

God’s Shalom was to shape the lives of Christians eternally. Evidence of God’s Shalom would be striving for justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

The Church has throughout time forgotten this elemental gift of Shalom imparted by Jesus that night behind closed doors. We have the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism and the Shoah, the Holocaust, repeated episodes when we have lost our way – which is meant to be His Way, the way of God’s Shalom. The Church has spent too much time on the wrong side of the Resurrection.

All because we cannot remember who we are and whose we are. We forget that we share a history, Christians and Jews. We forget that from the beginning of Christianity and the beginning of modern Rabbinic Judaism, we were both persecuted by the same oppressor: Rome.

Memory can be the beginning of healing. Healing is what is needed, and why we stop to remember today. We need to remember because should we forget, we can allow terrible things to happen again. And to forget – to forget the Holocaust, to forget our shared history – is the second worst thing that can happen to us- the worst being indifference. More powerful than hate, indifference allows evil to continue unchecked, unchallenged.

It is tragic that it took until the 1960’s for the Church, beginning with the Catholic Church and Vatican II, to begin to acknowledge our part in fanning the flames of anti-Semitism, thus allowing indifferent attitudes to allow millions of people to be carried off to the camps and near certain annihilation. Fortunately, individuals like Mr. Morris Rosen survived to tell us their story. We have been privileged here at St. Peter’s to welcome eleven survivors, one son-of-a-Survivor, and one liberator to share their stories with us.

Our prayer must be that we accept the gift of God’s Shalom Jesus means to give us so that we might become brothers and sisters with all those with whom we have a shared history. Our prayer must be that we remember that at the outset, Christians were a pariah people in the Empire. We of all people should know how wrong it is to scapegoat others for whatever is wrong with the world. Our prayer must be that we will be those people who accept responsibility never to be indifferent to evil in this world. We must remember it was the Shalom of two Jews in the first century who invited us into a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Jesus and Paul.

Most of all we must accept the blessing and gift of God’s Shalom Jesus desires to bestow upon us – those of us who have not seen but have come to believe. It is our greatest privilege and joy to live into His blessing. It is our calling to live on this side of Easter with doors open, with no fear of those who differ from us, so that through believing we may have life in His name. The God and Father of us all desires that we choose life in all that that entails. Blessed be God’s Holy name, forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Divine Partnership

Easter Day B 2009 – John 20.1-18

Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

John gives us what is perhaps the most interesting, most entertaining and easily the most sublime of all the Resurrection appearances recorded in Matthew, Luke and John. The attention to detail gives us plenty to ponder. The race to the tomb by Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” has an old-school cartoon feel to it, imagining them racing, racing, racing, and all of a sudden putting on the brakes. One can see that sort of long skid, dust and smoke of the scorching braking action of their sandals as they ponder who is going to go in first. Why were we in such a hurry in the first place?

But it is surely Mary Magdalene who anchors John’s account in the garden. The garden, of course, is suggestive of a return to Paradise, that first garden where God and the man and the woman used to walk in the cool of the evening. Some point to this setting of the resurrection as Christ offering us new access to the garden, a complete reversal and transformation of the long alienated human condition. No longer are we barred from returning to Eden; the way back is opened to us for those who choose to follow in the Way of Christ.
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

It is Mary Magdalene who bears our sorrows, the sorrows of all those who stood by and witnessed the death on the cross. All his disciples, the women who supported His ministry, all saw it as the end of the story, the end of his presence, the end of hope. She weeps as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. She weeps as we all do when struck with a profound loss. As she weeps she bends over to look into the tomb, for the burial chambers are small and low to the ground.

She seems unfazed as two angels, good messengers, are in the tomb asking why on earth are you weeping. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” No matter how many times he had told them all, it is obvious that no one, not Mary, not Peter, not the beloved disciple, had any idea what he was really talking about.

So she turns around, bumps into someone she presumes is the gardener, who is also asking her why she is weeping. As she continues to explain her sadness and loss the gardener says one word, and one word only, to stop the world from spinning: “Mary.” He says her name. And with that, and just that fast, she knows it is the Good Shepherd who knows all His sheep by name – It is Jesus. He is Alive!
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

He does not look the same. He is physically alive, but transformed in some new way. Alive enough, it seems, to hold on to him. Perhaps she falls and grabs onto his feet. Perhaps she embraces him. Perhaps she falls into him in a near faint, but he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And off she goes to say, “I have seen the Lord!”

In her little book, The School of Charity: meditations on the Creed, Evelyn Underhill writes: “When Christ said, ‘My Father and your Father – My God and your God,’ He made a declaration which must enslave and transfigure the whole lives of those who realize what is implied in it; conferring on them the tremendous privilege of partnership.
’Fellow-workers with God, because co-heirs with Christ.’ After that, the soul’s own life is to be ‘in the Spirit’: that is, delivered from the tension and struggle of those who are ever striving to adjust the claims of two worlds, because gladly subordinated to the mighty purposes of God. Everything is left behind which does not contribute to those purposes; and so, all that is left is harmonized within his Peace. To them that are perishing, says St. Paul, such a programme is foolishness: ‘but unto us which are being saved it is the Power of God.’ It is, in fact, what Christianity really means; and if Christians chose to stand up to this obligation, they could transform the world.”
The School of Charity, p. 69
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Do we so choose? That is the question. Do we choose to accept the offer to live in partnership conferred by the words, “My Father and your Father, My God and your God?” We may as well admit it, there are many tempting alternatives. Some like Freud, Marx, Feuerbach and others have criticized Christianity and religion in general as nothing more than believing what one wants to believe for the sake of comfort, an illusion grounded in the human longing for consolation. Apparently it never occurred to them, or their modern-day acolytes, that atheism and agnosticism might be equally illusory, grounded in the human longing for autonomy. Alistair McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford notes, “One of the driving impulses that brought the modern world into existence was the human desire to be free – free to make our own choices, choose our own destinies and not be accountable to any higher authority for our decisions.” Resurrection, (Fortress, Minneapolis:2008) p. 30

From Maundy Thursday through Easter Morning we find ourselves facing a progressive series of questions. Can we accept Christ, or anyone, doing something for us? Will we allow Christ and His disciples wash our feet? Do we accept the handing over of Christ’s Spirit from the Cross? Are we ready to claim our Belovedness? Will we, or do we, allow God to disrupt the rules of our world? And finally, Do we choose to accept the partnership conferred by the words, “My Father and Your Father, My God and Your God?”

We know that Mary did. We know that Peter did. We know that countless witnesses who have taken the time to bend over and look into the empty tomb have made that choice to be in partnership with God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the world is a better place. We who choose to enter into this partnership are children of the Eternal Perfect whose essential nature is Generous Love! We are destined to manifest the splendor of God revealed that morning in the Garden. It means a new quality of life possible to us, awaiting us; not somewhere else, but where we are now!
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
Allelluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
And so are we! And so are we! Amen!

The Great Disruption

Easter Vigil B 2009

Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
An empty tomb and frightened women: this is where Mark leaves things for us to sort out.

Sure, you can look in your pew or home Bibles you will see, usually in tiny print, short and long so-called "endings", but these were added by people in the church a century or two later who were disturbed that Mark offers no narrative of the Risen Lord appearing to anyone like the other three gospels do. All he gives us is a messenger boy and some truly upset women whom we are told tell no one the message.

Long assumed to be the oldest Gospel, Mark leaves it to anyone who wants to take the time to carefully contemplate his telling of the tale to make up their own minds on the matter of resurrection and have their own encounter with the Risen Lord!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Much speculation, as you can imagine, surrounds this unusual stopping point. The simplest answer very well might lie in the opening sentence of Mark: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark sees no need for an ending to the story. The story of the Risen Lord continues right down to this night! There is no need for testimony from anyone. The messenger in the tomb has said it best, "...he has been raised."

Note the passive voice, "has been raised." Jesus is the object of the action done by another. This other has seriously disrupted the normal patterns of life and death. The women know exactly the identity of the unnamed subject of the passive verb. Fear and trembling is a time honored reaction of those in the Biblical narrative who come face to face with a revelation of the God who creates life and death in the first place. Surely God has the authority to disrupt and change things. Leaving the question for those of us reading and hearing this Word of God's, Are we willing to accept the ways in which God seeks to disrupt and change the rules of our world?
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

We are those people who through Baptism need not spend our time arguing or debating just how such a thing as The Resurrection of the Body can possibly happen. Nor do we need to waste time over the historicity of the thing. We only need to discern its meaning for us today.

For this it helps to remember that although Mark’s account may be the first and oldest of the Gospel accounts, there is an earlier Biblical witness, and that of course would be Paul! The earliest mention of an encounter with the Risen Lord is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, comprising much of the first chapter of that epistle. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed to me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ!” Gal 1.11-12 Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus.
And Paul is the earliest of Biblical witnesses to reflect upon just what this means for us, and what it means for Paul is change, death to one’s old self, and becoming a new creation in Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Gal 2.19-20

Several days a week as I do my contemplative prayer here in the sanctuary, I read this from 2 Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away, Behold the new has come! All this is from God who through Christ reconciles us to himself and gives us the ministry of Reconciliation.” 2 Cor 5.17-18
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

So what Paul tells us is that we can have individual experiences of the Risen Lord beyond all that we have been taught or have read; that the Risen Lord is the crucified one announced to the women at the tomb, who loves us and changes us; and that by our Baptism we are made new and given a specific ministry, that of Reconciliation.

Anyone looking at the church today from outside would find this to be fascinating, given all the bickering, carping, moaning and debate that exists both within and between churches! We often look like anything but those who are called to reconcile the world.
We are clearly in need of some serious disruption of the ways in which we look at and live our lives!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

So there I was in Atlanta’s Heartsfield Airport, my flight delayed for hours, sitting in a two-gate sitting area with others who had already been delayed even longer. I am sure you can picture just what this looked like, or specifically what we all looked like: grumpy, unhappy, sweaty, angry, and not particularly pretty! I decided to plug in my earphones and listen to the Gorecki Third Symphony, a particularly mystical piece of music. I was reading a passage from Evelyn Underhill on the Fruits of the Spirit, where she quotes Paul and observes that the fruits he lists all proceed from Love.

“To be unloving is to be out of touch with God. So the generous, cherishing, Divine love, the indiscriminate delight in others, just and unjust, must be our model too. Be ye perfect. To come down to brass tacks, God loves the horrid man at the fishshop, and the tiresome woman in the next flat, and the disappointing Vicar, and the mulish parent, and the contractor who has cut down the row of trees we loved to build a lot of revolting bungalows. God loves, not tolerates, these wayward, half-grown, self-centered spirits and seeks without ceasing to draw them into His love. And the first-fruit of His indwelling presence, the first sign that we are on His side and He on ours, must be at least a tiny bud of this Charity breaking the hard and rigid outline of our life.” Underhill, The Fruits of the Spirit, p.15

I then closed my eyes and began to pray with my sacred prayer word, which is Ruach, the Hebrew word for Spirit, Wind and Breath of God.

Near the end of the third and final movement of the Gorecki, after some time in silent prayer, I opened my eyes. That’s when it happened. Everyone in the seating area, the mobs of people streaming up and down the concourse, was transfigured. They were glowing with a brightness that no fuller on earth could make them! And they were smiling, happy, gliding around the gate area. I just stared with my mouth open for how long I do not know. But I was seeing them all as God sees them, and it was good, it was good, it was very very good! I think I was smiling with them. I no longer feared that if I stood up and stepped away someone would swoop in and take my seat.

Suddenly, without warning, and surely without any notice on my part, the Gorecki evidently finished, my MP3 player shuffled to the next file, which of course was the letter “H” for Howlin’ Wolf, the Greatest Hits! What a surprise! I laughed out loud. And I laughed hard! The vision was gone. People were looking at me with that, “Why is he laughing?” kind of look. The spell was broken, and we were all back to our sweaty, angry, grumpy selves. But I had seen with my own eyes how God sees us all, and my sisters and brothers, it was good.
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

There’s not much more to say. Which I believe is Mark’s point by ending “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” just the way he does. Mark is hoping we will each take a look inside the empty tomb and catch a glimpse, a vision, of just how God sees us and loves us, really really loves us, no matter how irritating, disappointing or revolting we or others may think we are.

Know, my sisters and brothers, little by little,
It takes time
Jesus will reveal to you just how much
He watches over you and loves you.
He calls you to follow him
So that you might do something beautiful with your life
And bear much fruit.

The world needs you,
The church needs you,
Jesus needs you,
They need your love and your light.

There is a hidden place in your hearrt
Where Jesus lives
This is a deep secret you are called to live
Let Jesus live in you
Go forward with him!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
And so are we, and so are we….Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Divine Charity from the Cross

Good Friday 2009
Perhaps the most meaningful assignment of my undergraduate studies was to translate the Book of Ruth from Hebrew to English. Not being naturally good at foreign languages, it was a daunting task. Yet, in the process I experienced some of the most mystical and transcendental moments of my life. I can vividly recall upon realizing the inner meaning of a phrase like “So I am going to the go to the field and glean,” where the word laqat, glean, occurs twelve times in the chapter. This unusual repetition serves to highlight the fact that Ruth is no ordinary migrant worker. She comes under the protection of the Israelite practice, an indispensible law, of deliberately leaving some grain in the field so that it may be gleaned by the most vulnerable members of society: widows, orphans and sojourners. I would run into my roommate’s room, wake him out of a dead sleep, shouting, “Charlie, Charlie, do you know what this text is trying to say in Hebrew? It is so incredible! So Exciting!” Charlie might mumble, “Sure, Chief, whatever you say….” roll over and fall back asleep. Leaving me to say a silent prayer of thanksgiving that Dr. John Gettier had given us this assignment to open my mind and imagination to the wonders that lie within the Hebrew text.

The story, as we all remember, involves a woman of Bethlehem and a widow living in Moab, and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah (from which the exalted Oprah is a corruption!), also widowed from Moab: Naomi’s husband and two sons have died in a famine. With all the husbands dead and gone, there is no one to provide for them, so Naomi sends the girls back to their home as she intends to return to Israel having heard that in the midst of the current famine, YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “had visited his people to give them bread.” Sounds like the beginning of a new Manna Season! Naomi knows full well she has no one to provide for her, no family to marry Orpah and Ruth, and that Moabites might not fair well at all as resident aliens in Judah. Orpah goes home, but Ruth takes the chance to go with Naomi- to support her mother-in-law. Back in Bethlehem Judah Ruth goes to work gleaning barley in the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. Boaz becomes her protector, thus providing sustenance and protection for Naomi and Ruth. Eventually, with some cunning advice from Naomi, Ruth marries Boaz.

Ruth is one of those people living off the gleanings of the field we heard about on Palm Sunday. She sacrifices a safe life at home in Moab to take care of her mother-in-law Naomi, and thus becomes the great great great great great grandmother of Jesus through the line of David, all because she trusts God’s Divine Charity. She exemplifies a life of sacrifice for others combined with trust in the ways of God.

Fast forward to the Day of Preparation before the Passover many years later. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand that God’s new revelation and Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.” Underhill, The School of Charity, p. 26.

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the last supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he;” Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall.

But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, looks down on his mother and the disciple he loved standing beside her. He seems to connect her plight with that of Naomi – there is no one to care for her. “Woman, behold your son; Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’” In effect, the disciple whom Jesus loved becomes Ruth to Mary’s Naomi.

Can we even begin to comprehend this moment, while hanging from the cross Jesus’ full attention is still on helping others. He looks down from the cross, assuring their future care to one another in the hour when he might seem to be the one in deeper need. This is God’s Divine Charity still showing us what it means to be a disciple of his. This is God’s Giving Love generous to the very end.

Then with no cries of dereliction, no cries of abandonment, Jesus simply declares, “It is finished. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Or, as we used to say, he handed over his spirit.

His spirit is the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity. It is the Spirit that hovers over the waters of creation. It is the Spirit that descends upon Jesus like a dove accompanying the voice, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus has nothing left to give away, he gives away the Spirit of God.

To whom does Jesus hand over his Spirit? The text, of course, is not specific about this. But we do know that Mary and the beloved disciple are there at the foot of the cross. Is it too much to imagine that Jesus hands over his Spirit to the beloved disciple?

There has been much speculation as to the identity of the beloved disciple. Some saying it is John, and at least one scholar makes the imaginative suggestion that it is the Samaritan Woman at the well – that first witness to the Christ.

But wouldn’t it be just like the Fourth Gospel to intentionally leave that identity a mystery – leaving open the very real possibility that the beloved disciple is anyone who hears this story and believes. That is, the beloved disciple is you and me.

Begging the question first glimpsed last evening at the foot washing: are we ready to receive the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity? Can we care for one another as Ruth cares for Naomi? As Boaz cares for Ruth? As the beloved disciple cares for the Mother of God, Mary Theotokos?

John’s Jesus seeks to comfort us from the cross. He seeks to call us to accept God’s love so we might share it with others – all others. It is what makes Good Friday good after all! He hands over his Spirit so that it may continue to live through all who accept the gift of becoming His Beloved Disciple. As we take the bread of His Body, as we look into the Chalice filled with His own blood, may we become those people who say, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the living Christ who is coming into the world. Entreat me not to leave you, to turn back from following after you. For where you go Lord, I will go. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. I will continue your life of Divine Charity in all that I do and all that I say.” Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The Ministry of the Towel

Maestra Marin Alsop was describing the end of the third movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a wild and even tempestuous passage with instruments and themes all crashing about the orchestra at once, when she said, “And then it seems as if Mahler pauses for a moment and asks, ‘What else can I throw in here? The kitchen sink?’ When suddenly out of nowhere there appears the briefest of gaps in the soundscape and he tosses in one small but assertive ruffle on the snare drum – the only time the snare drum is sounded in the entire symphony.”
That is sort of what traditions have done to Maundy Thursday. What ostensibly is a time of remembrance – a re-membering – of what we refer to as The Last Supper has become a pastiche of readings, music, foot washing, communion, agape meal, stripping the altar, reserving the sacrament, moving us from that moment of the birthing of God’s people, the Exodus/Passover, to our attending to our Lord’s final prayerful moments in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. In the midst of it all, John, oft referred to as simply The Fourth Gospel, inserts just such a snare drum ruffle, directing our attention to the Heart of Christianity, if not the Heart of All Biblical Religion.
It is so artfully portrayed by the anonymous author(s) we call John, that one might miss the chiastic structure of this carefully edited narrative from the thirteenth chapter of John. It begins, “…Jesus knew that his hour had come…Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And ends with the mandatum from which we get Maundy, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love begins and ends this enigmatic little episode. Enigmatic in that here in John’s re-membering of the Last Supper, there is no mention of bread or wine, only foot washing – foot washing bracketed by the Word of God’s Love, what Evelyn Underhill terms “the Divine Charity.”
On a night when we are directed to recall that first moment of God’s saving Love in orchestrating the Great Escape from Egypt we call the Exodus, that archetype of God’s mighty acts in history, a powerful display of God’s mighty love for God’s people, we get instead, drum roll, God on his knees, wrapped only in a towel, washing feet.
It is easy to understand how the disciples, ably represented by Peter, might be expecting a bit more than this on their last night with their Lord and Master. No doubt they want something to remember him by, and perhaps even a bit of his power over death and sin and disease. After all, had he not just come from Bethany where he had raised Lazarus from the grave?
Surely they remember Elijah’s departure where Elisha asks for “a double share of your spirit.” Elijah obliges, leaving behind his mantle he has just used to part the waters of the River Jordan. Elisha picks it up and discovers he too can now make waters part at his command, itself a not-so-subtle reference to that salient moment of the Great Escape! So Peter must be thinking, what will Jesus leave to us on his way out of this world? Is it any wonder Peter seems repulsed to discover that Jesus does not pass on a mantle of authority but rather, drum roll, a towel?
A towel: something used to dry dishes, wipe off tables, wash children, staunch blood, clean wounds, cool fevers, swaddle babies, mop up sweat, blot away tears, warm aching joints, wrap a crucified body and lovingly lay it in a tomb in a garden. To those paying any sort of attention at all, Jesus’ entire ministry might be said to be a ministry of the towel.
So it is we have a towel on the altar of St. Peter’s throughout the mass, Holy Communion, the Last Supper. It holds the Book of the Gospels, those stories that mean to invite us, call us, into a life of service on behalf of others – lessons in humility, hospitality and enacting God’s love in community. We then place the offering plates on the towel containing within them signs of our commitment to extend our Lord’s ministries of the towel beyond the walls of this sanctuary of His. Who owns the church? His mission – serving In His Name. And finally, at the end of the service on Sundays the towel remains as a reminder of who we are, whose we are, and what we are meant to be doing as we depart this sacred space to go back into the world – the world which God so loves that God gives his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.
Note how first and foremost he wants us to experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of service, to accept God’s Divine Charity into our hearts, and minds, and souls. This is the first and great commandment. Jesus knows that unless we possess some awareness of our own vulnerability and dependence on His Divine Charity, our care for others easily devolves into condescension. And unless we allow ourselves to be schooled in the images of the towel and a basin of dirty water we might easily neglect the small, exhausting, inelegant demands of service while seeking out instead spectacular and showy acts of power like parting the waters rather than lovingly pouring them over another’s tired, aching feet.
Finally, we see Jesus not only wash the feet of the faithful disciples, but in full knowledge of the coming betrayal, he washes the feet of Judas as well. For among those of us capable of embracing the dual humility of being served and reaching out to serve others are those who become active agents of reconciliation in a world that is in deep need of such Divine Charity. Think here for a moment about the life and ministry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Or our friend back in Connecticut, Mary Wolfe. Mary is the wife of Pierre Wolfe who teaches the heart of the Gospel in this way: We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. Mary is a prison warden, and as a sign of God’s reconciling Spirit, she and Pierre go throughout the prison on Maundy Thursday to wash the prisoner’s feet.
We come this evening to remember who we are and whose we are. We find a God who is about to be lifted up high upon the cross showing us how we might glorify His Name as he lifts off his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, and gets on his knees to wash our feet. Before coming to Christ’s Table for a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, we should give careful thought to those in our world in need of our humility, our hospitality, and our service, especially those who are in deep need of reconciliation - beginning with and including most especially ourselves.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Palm Sunday Sermon

Palm Sunday 2009 – The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
It is often questioned why Palm Sunday is also the Sunday of the Passion. What starts off as what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry” to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Liturgy seems to race all the way forward to Good Friday by the end of the liturgy of the Word.
The stock answer, of course, is that it’s because so few people make it their business to go to church on Good Friday to hear Saint20John’s Passion. This way at least a Passion narrative is read and heard by those who only come on Sundays.
It has also been observed that Mark, which is our gospel for Year B, can be viewed primarily as a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. That is, to understand Mark at all, one must look at the cross. The whole narrative in Mark moves us toward the cross. As one reads the full version of the Passion, we immediately sense how the Passion events seem to play themselves out in horrifying slow motion.
As much as we would like to have Jesus not go to Gethsemane, as much as we might wish to stop Judas, as much as we would like to get after Peter for his three denials of Jesus, in Mark, the cross is not to be avoided. Mark concludes with a young man sitting in the empty tomb saying, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He was raised.” For Mark, Jesus is the Crucified One more than the Risen One.
Also, on this question of why the Passion seemingly intrudes upon Palm Sunday – “It never did when we were younger!” the people cry – it is the Passion that places the entry into Jerusalem in some sort of understandable context.
We may as well face it, Jesus and his rag-tag parade of the poor, the halt and the lame, sinners and outcasts, and he himself riding into town not on regal horseback but on a pathetic little donkey, does not a p articularly triumphal entry make. “…others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.” Way back in Leviticus 19:9 God orders, 'Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.’ This was so widows, orphans and resident aliens and sojourners might find a bit to eat – an extension of Manna Season if you will. Telling us that these people are without resources, without family, and without daily necessities. In a word, they are poor. So at best, in the midst of Passover, Jerusalem’s busiest week of the year, it was an annoying little demonstration of the poor that symbolically challenges the occupation of Rome and the authority of the religious professionals, the Pharisees, the Priests, and the Herodians.
We are to remember that all the way back in Chapter 3 of Mark, we read, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians were those Jews who were already conspiring with the ruling party of the successive Herods, who in turn were in a political alliance with Rome. They were considered by the people to be collaborators with the occupying enemy, Rome.
That is, we must recognize that the little demonstration we call Palm Sunday was, in at least one dimension, a political demonstration. Taken together with the next event in Mark, which is the episode at the Temple with the animals and money changers, it is easy to see how once word got to Pilate, whose primary responsibility was to maintain public order, something would have to be done to calm things down so that the Passover celebration could come off without any further disruption.
Also, given the fact that people in the streets wanted nothing more than to get rid of the yoke of Rome, Barabbas – which curiously translates as “son of the father” – a known insurrectionist, becomes a more attractive captive to liberate since he at least was willing to take to the streets and kill as many Romans and collaborators as necessary to inspire some sort of wider scale insurrection or civil war.
The key to this whole story very well may be that Jesus refuses to fight the pain that has been inflicted on him by inflicting pain. He refuses to overcome injustice with an easy, optimistic plan for progress. He refuses to fight back against the shame poured out upon him by a mighty, flashy display of Rome’s imperial power: crucifixion.
As we pray at Station Five of the stations of the cross:
“Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the frie ndless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Service. We speak of a service economy, and businesses looking eager to “serve” the public. But such service comes of self-interest. It is not service in terms of laying down one’s life for the customers’ sake, but rather it is service intended to impress – like Pilate, whom we are told wished “to please the crowd.” Jesus does not serve to impress or please, to win the favor and sympathy of those whom he helps, let alone those whom he confronts. Jesus is the chosen one of God who has displayed his power over demons and disease, who chose to serve and refused to avoid suffering and even death on a cross.
Because all those things that we decry as the power of sin in our world and in our lives, even death itself, will not be overcome by force. They will only be overcome by the service and ransom of the very one, the only one, who needs neither to serve nor to pay off any debt.
Meister Eckhart writes, “Our Lord says in the Psalms of a good man that he is with him in his suffering.”
“With him,” continues Brother David Steindl-Rast in his little book, Meister Eckhart: The Man from whom God Hid Nothing. “This is not the God above the clouds, enthroned in immovable detachment. This is a=2 0lover who suffers when we suffer. I ponder this mystery, and a word of the Dalai Lama comes to my mind… ‘Your Holiness,’ someone asked, ‘your Buddhist tradition has so wonderful a way of overcoming suffering. What do you say to the Christian tradition that seems to preoccupied with pain?’ With his compassionate smile the Dalai Lama gave an answer that went straight to the common ground of two traditions. ‘Suffering,’ he said, ‘is not overcome by leaving pain behind. Suffering is overcome by bearing pain for the sake of others.’” (p. xvii)
Could this have been done any other way? Perhaps it could have, if we could live lives without suffering and sin and death; which, of course, is another way of saying, “No.”
What we see in Mark’s version of this narrative is a Jesus who does not so much defeat death but rather refuses to avoid it. His forsaken cry from the cross should not be tempered into anything but a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives – individually, as well as collectively as the church, as a community, as a nation, and as the world – the world God creates and loves.
Make no mistake about it, this entire narrative takes place within the context of an international military and political occupation and conflict. Jesus rises above the petty political, religious, and military background noise. He literally=2 0is raised above it all on the cross. He defeats sin through bearing sin. He defeats death by dying on a cross.
In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life. Such life is not easy in a world still mad with power and prestige, a world that wants to sell a path of service to others as a commodity to be purchased rather than as a life lived like Jesus lived his. It’s a good thing the good news can only be given away!