Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Do As I Have Done To You

This is a night of quite mixed traditions: Last Supper, foot washing, Agape meal, altar stripping, all night vigil. Then there is the first Passover. There is Paul’s take on the Last Supper. There is John’s take on the Last Supper. We tend to try and do them all.

Although it is often assumed the Last Supper was a Passover meal, even a Passover Seder, John’s account quite definitely places it “before the festival of Passover.” For John, it is not Passover and it is not a Seder meal.

The ritual behavior of blessing bread and blessing wine, however, is quite common around Jewish dinner tables year-round, especially on Sabbath eve. What is unusual is Jesus’ self-identification with the bread and wine.

Oddly, in all the chapters in John’s gospel that describe the Last Supper, there is no mention at all of bread or wine. None.

It can be seen in other parts of John’s gospel, but it is conspicuously absent from the Last Supper.

Instead, John offers the unique description of Jesus washing feet. He takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water in a basin and begins to wash feet and wipe them with a towel the night before Good Friday.

Perhaps we remember Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing his feet with oil and wiping them with her hair the night before Palm Sunday.

Perhaps we remember that foot washing was done by the lowliest of household slaves.

It is an extreme posture and activity to assume. Not unlike overturning the tables in the Temple precincts to make a point. Not unlike withering fig trees to make a point. Not unlike accepting a drink of water from a Samaritan woman in public. Not unlike eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, blind, lame and leperous people.

Jesus was not a moderate. He did not play it safe.

He picks up a towel like the one on our altar. This towel of ours holds the gospel book which contains the stories of Jesus and his extreme activities. It holds our offerings, our financial commitment to spreading his kingdom and continuing his work in the world. And it reminds us of this night before Good Friday and his washing the disciple’s feet.

It has been said by some that Jesus’ entire life was a ministry of the towel. When he was born in a lowly stable, his mother wrapped him in something like a towel. He stanches the flow of blood in a hemorrhaging woman with something like a towel. He prepares and cleans up tables before and after meals with towels. He wipes feet with a towel. And when he dies on the cross, he is wrapped in something like a towel and placed in a new tomb.

So this towel on the altar can be said to summarize his entire life and ministry of service to others. All others. Especially those who were not welcome much of anywhere else.

Maybe that is why Peter at first refuses to participate. Maybe that is why Peter pulls back from having his feet washed: he does not want to think of himself as being lumped in with all those others, all those unclean and sinful people Jesus insists on welcoming all the time.

Maybe Peter was the first to think, “There but by the grace of God go I.” Something a lot of well-meaning Christians like to think is what God’s grace is all about.

I used to help serve meals at Paul’s Place and had a music and prayer ministry there. One day Bill Rich, a colleague and friend, turned to me and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” I have never forgotten it.

I believe that is at the heart of Jesus and the washing of feet. There we all are. We are the poor. We are the sick. We are the broken and brokenhearted. We are the slaves escaping from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke. We are the poor Iraqi child who has no mother or father tonight. We are the poor Haitian who has no bed to sleep in tonight. We are the poor child born of a crack addict tonight. We are the men, women and children infected with HIV/AIDS. We are the hungry, the tired, and the unemployed. We are the mother, father, sister or brother who sits on Death Row. We are the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad waiting and wondering what tomorrow might bring.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word accepted a drink of water from a despised and broken woman. And the Word touched a bleeding woman. And the Word fed thousands of hungry people. And the Word picked up a towel, washed everyone’s feet and gave dignity to all of human kind. He made us one with himself and with all creation. He taught us how to love one another as he loves us. As God loves us.

Washing feet, eating bread and drinking wine makes us his own. It is his table. He denies no one a seat at his table. He washes everyone’s feet.

He invites us to do to others as he has done for us. Welcome them to his table. Wash their feet. Wipe them with a towel. His towel. Tonight we can feel what it is like to live with him. Tonight he wants us to wash one another’s feet so we can say, “There by the grace of God am I.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Palm Sunday Sermon

28 March 2010/Sunday of the Passion – Luke 19:28-40/Luke 22:14-23:56
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

[This is read BEFORE reading the Passion Narrative]

The Stones Would Shout Out

Jerusalem had been under occupation, first by the Greeks, now by the Romans, for a very long time – several hundred years. So who could imagine that this little rag-a-tag parade – donkey, palm branches, poor people strewing their clothes on the donkey – this seemingly brilliant satire on pomp and circumstances and high honors in this world, would in any way, shape or form signal a change was under way?

It is the week of the Passover celebration, which begins tomorrow for our Jewish sisters and brothers - time to remember God’s power to deliver a rag-a-tag band of slaves who once were no people from the grip of an earlier empire. It was a miracle of course, but it made them into a people – the People of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God who says, “I Am who I Am.”

Typically, and Egypt and Rome were no exception, control of prisoners, slaves or occupied territories is best administered by appointing some of the subject people’s own as overseers – or Kapos as they were called in the concentration camps of Hitler’s Final Solution. So it was in ancient Jerusalem under Rome – Sadducees and Priests were the ones to issue proclamations of Pilate, Herod or the Emperor. They were the ones appointed and paid to keep order and administer the Empire’s justice. It is a brutal system. And brutality is brutality, yet those who design the system and make the brutality necessary bear the greater blame. We do well to remember that as we listen to this tale called the Passion.

So along comes this noisy rabble on the busiest week of the year with the one they believe holds the power to the begin a new kingdom of Israel for Israel, and the Pharisees are nervous. Nervous, no doubt, that their adversaries, the Sadducees and Priests, all on the Roman payroll to keep things in Jerusalem calm, will not be pleased to host such a disruption, no matter how ridiculously silly it appears next to what it is like when Pilate or Herod or one of the Caesars comes to visit the “city of peace” – Jeru Salem.

Jesus knows they are right. He has said on several occasions that once he gets to Jerusalem there will be trouble. Yet, he says, unless we begin to be the change we want to see in the world, even the stones of the city ramparts would cry out loud, so long have those hallowed stone walls awaited the return of the king – a king – any king but Caesar.

We continue the satire when we call this little episode in Luke Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem! The very next verse (19:41) reads, “As he came near the city, he wept over it.” I have some idea what he must have been feeling. From the Mount of Olives as our bus stopped to let us look at the city on the hill of Zion, one time the Temple Mount, now even today occupied real estate, I stood there, looked at it by the light of the setting sun and wept, repeating to no one but myself, “It’s all there….it’s all there….it’s all there.”

Abraham climbed this mount to sacrifice his first-born son, Isaac, only to be issued a reprieve by God in the thicket providing a ram instead. Here David and Solomon and a succession of Kings established the Temple and the golden age of Israel. Irony being a standby of middle eastern life, it would be the Herods who rebuilt the Temple after the first had been destroyed. Jesus seems already to know it too will be destroyed soon after the Roman legions take him out of the city to be crucified when, who knows, some of the same hopeful yet eternally frustrated rabble lose their patience and mount a revolution against Rome in the year 67 – just a few years after Paul declares in his letter to the church in Philippi, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The attempted revolt was not of the mind of Christ, but one can hardly blame them for trying.

As predicted, he is arrested and sent to trial. Pilate and Herod bounce him back and forth, toying with the Son of God like cats with a mouse. Jesus has not much to say, until they send him out to “the place which is called The Skull” – so called because of all the unclaimed bodies and bones left on the hillside as a chilling reminder to any who would even consider challenging the Empire.

On the way we will hear that Jesus has little concern for himself, but grave concerns for the City of Peace and its people. As we recall when we contemplate the Stations of the Cross which surround us on all sides each time we gather to worship in this space, he says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.”

Those who first heard or read Luke’s account some years after the attempted revolt know what happened when the wood was dry: Rome burned the city to the ground. The Temple, the very center of the Jewish Universe was laid waste. “I am just one Jew,” he seems to say, “Rome will do far worse than this, far worse when the wood is dry.” Eyewitness accounts exist. Estimate run as high as one million Jews were killed as Rome quelled the Revolt, the last to die being holed up on top of Masada by the Dead Sea.

Finally, we would do well to take note that despite the tragic turn of events, even on the cross Jesus continues his mission to find lost and scattered Israel. He finds them in the oddest places – tax booths, among sinners, amidst prostitutes, among the unclean and gentiles. Now he finds a faithful Israelite, one willing to take responsibility for his own actions, nailed on the cross next to him. He continues the work of evangelism under the worst of circumstances with the most meager resources – simply his Word and the Good News – “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

It is a moment that is meant to give us hope that Jesus still continues his mission to gather the People of God and may one day even gather us. We too join the criminal on the cross when we sing, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Saint Luke!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn, Turn Again

7 March 2010 – Lent 3C * Exodus 3:1-15/Luke 13:1-9
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Sin, Repentance and Grace

When the God who declares from a burning bush, “I AM who I AM….tell them I AM sent you!’ becomes flesh and dwells among us, life gets very interesting. Pilate slaughters a group of Galileans. A tower in Siloam kills eighteen others. Do you think they are worse sinners than anyone else, asks The Word made Flesh?

It is still a common perception. Look at the lunatic suggestions of Pat Robertson regarding the earthquake victims in Haiti! We think of this kind of Blame Game as some kind of ancient mindset, but we may as well admit that we all get into it at one time or another.

Jesus, as I AM made flesh, can hardly believe people think this way. After all as God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had he not made it perfectly clear: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Jonah 4:2, Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Joel 2:13, Matthew 5:45).

Jesus announces in effect, “The sin is found in those who think the sin is found in those who have misfortune fall on them.” [Timothy Shapiro, New Proclamation, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2006 – p.199] What separates us from God, then, is our sense of justice, not God’s sense of Justice.

So Jesus says to repent of this kind of thinking, turn away from the Blame Game altogether, and show some mercy, the kind of mercy God aka I AM likes to show for everyone, everywhere (Note: Please re-read the Book of Jonah).

To repent means to turn around or turn back. The idea is that we are walking with God, or walking with Jesus, and then suddenly we find ourselves distracted by say the 3,000 commercial messages that bombard us each day. Or, some personal crisis. Or, the day to day cycle of dropping kids off, picking them up, driving them somewhere else, picking them up again. Or, the boss just gave us two weeks notice. And on and on it goes. We find ourselves walking in circles at best, rather than walking with or at least toward God.

To repent means to come to our right mind about the way in which we are walking and to turn, or re-turn, to walking in the Way with Jesus, the Great I AM in the flesh. Or, get crushed by the weight of your sin. Notice, by the way, it is always our choice – we can walk with God or be crushed by the weight of our sin. Repentance seems, all in all, a very good idea for all of us.

Included in all that is the Grace God shows for all people, at all times, everywhere – especially when we choose to Repent! (Note: Read Jonah one more time!)

Then comes this enigmatic little agricultural metaphor or parable just dripping with Judgment and Grace. It seems there is a joke in the Greek. The word for manure is in fact not so refined – it is street slang, or what we in some more innocent era called a swear word.

So think of the harshest possible word for manure, and imagine the gardener – read tenant farmer – saying it to the wealthy absentee landowner, followed by “and if in a year you are still not happy YOU cut it down”! There would be serious snickering among the tenant farmers and servants in the crowd who only dreamed of ever shooting back at their superiors in such a fashion.

And what the story seeks to convey in part is that the absentee owner does not get his hands dirty, knows little of how to tend fig trees, and is trying to tell someone who knows the tree, the soil and the kind of care necessary how to do his or her job.

On the other hand, perhaps what the landlord is getting at is that the gardener has not been doing her job of caring for the tree – perhaps, oh I don’t know, the way we have not been particularly good at caring for God’s creation.

And it is the gardener who introduces the notion of Grace – “Sir, let it alone.” Don’t blame the tree, don’t order me to cut it down – give it another chance; give me another chance! Give it a moment of Amazing Grace. Give it a chance and it will bear fruit in its own time. The problem being God in Christ wants it on God’s time, not ours!

When we are finished laughing do we get that we are the Landowner blaming the tree for its lack of fruitfulness? Or, we are the gardener who has slacked off on our God given responsibility to care for God’s tree, whatever that may represent: creation, the poor, widows, resident aliens, etc.? And that we are the tree, standing in need of God’s Amazing Grace?

God only knows every day we wake up and get out of bed God is bestowing upon us a great deal of Amazing Grace whether we deserve it or not. Another way to put this, we are all, at the end of the day, complicit through what we do or don’t do to contribute to the misery of others and the devastation of the very planet God created and calls “good” – and not just good but, “very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

Let those who have ears hear: we are called to bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16) – or be chopped down and become so much firewood.

Lent is a season that means to remind us that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But it is God’s primary attribute to have mercy upon us as long as we keep on repenting of our various sins, most especially it seems the sin of playing The Blame Game. The Good News is that God does not want to blame us, God wants to save us and so came to live among us as one of us to teach us about Sin, Repentance and Grace – so it is that the Great I AM becomes flesh and dwells among us to this day!

The Best News is there is time to accept God’s Amazing Grace, Repent and Sin no more before he begins to chop down our trees!

Walk with Jesus wherever you may be
Turn turn turn turn again
May he find good fruit growing on your tree
Turn turn turn to the Son and the rain

Even now my axe is set to your tree
Turn turn turn turn again
Turn back to me and set yourself free
Turn turn turn to the Son and the rain