Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thanks To One Woman

Easter 2013 -  John 20: 1-18

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Or is he? Book after book, magazine article after magazine article, movie after movie, all try to tell us just who this Jesus was. Or, more properly, is! When to pin Jesus down as being this or being that is only to place him back into some kind of tomb. When we pretend that we know just who Jesus is, we simply domesticate him to be the person we need him to be and close him up in another tomb of our own making.

"The only excuse," writes John Shea (The Challenge of Jesus, The Thomas More Press: 1975), "and a lame one at that, for another book on Jesus is that we are never quite through with him. When the last syllable of the last word about Jesus the Christ has been spoken, a small, balding man who until now has been silent, will say, ‘Just a moment, I….’After two thousand years people still journey to Jesus. They bring a vaunting ego and last year’s scar, one unruly hope and several debilitating fears, an unwanted joy and a hesitant heart—and ask Jesus what to make of it. We have only gradually become aware of the hook in Jesus’ promise, ‘I will be with you always, even to the end of the world. ’This not only means he will not go away, but that we cannot get rid of him! He continues to roll back the stone from the caves we entomb him in. It is only because Jesus insists on inserting himself into the thick of our plots that we insist on commenting on him." (Shea p. 11)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

So after forty days of Lent and the magnificent journey of Holy Week, it all seems to hinge on the actions of one woman; one previously crazy and insignificant woman; one woman who, tradition maintains, once was possessed by evil spirits. A quintessential outsider, a powerless, and much maligned woman, the likes of which have been on parade all of Lent: the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Man Blind from Birth, Nicodemus, Martha, the confrontational housekeeper, Lazarus stinking in the tomb, and now Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

She leaves the house while it is still dark. That is, it is still Sabbath: time to rest. But she who had always been restless until she met Jesus can rest no longer. He was the only person who had ever made her feel healed, healthy, and whole. When she was with Jesus all the demons seemed to vanish into thin air. So she had followed him and ministered to him, listened to him and watched him as he spread his Good News of God’s love for all people.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

So Mary Magdalene is the first to find the stone rolled away from the tomb. She runs back to tell the others. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb! We do not know where he is?" Who is this "we?" Wasn’t she alone at the tomb in the still darkness of Sabbath morning? Are the demons back? Is it possible that she already knows that we who are reading her story are already with her wherever she goes? That we who come to eat and drink with him week in and week out on the first day of the week, that we are somehow inextricably linked with her so that wherever she goes we go, wherever she runs, we run, when her heart is racing, so is ours, because we, too, have been to the tomb in the darkness and can see that the stone has indeed been rolled away?

Mary, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved run back to the tomb. It is like a footrace. Peter, "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved," look like a couple of kids racing down the streets of Jerusalem, the City of Peace, the City of God’s Shalom. Their hearts and feet are racing! The other disciple outruns Peter. But then he puts on the brakes and does not go in. He sees linen cloths lying about, but stands back. Peter, ever the impetuous one, goes in and sees the cloths, like swaddling cloths, lying all about. As he surveys the scene, the other disciple comes in. Then we are simply told, “…he saw and he believed.”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

There is endless speculation as to who this other disciple whom Jesus loves might be. Some say John. Some suggest it is Lazarus, who otherwise says nothing in John’s gospel. Others say the Samaritan Woman at the well is the beloved disciple. Still others say it is whoever reads or hears this Gospel and also sees and believes. That is, the beloved disciple is you and me. As soon as we step closer to the communion rail and accept the bread and the wine for the first time, we, too, began to see and believe. And once one eats of this bread and drinks of this cup, one cannot help but have the feeling in your heart that you are a disciple whom Jesus loves. Each time that cup is passed to us at the Eucharist, we look into its depths beyond the dark wine shimmering gold and, trembling, we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

All this takes only a moment. Then the boys return to their respective homes. Only Mary stays behind, all alone, weeping. She stoops to look in, and where before there had been nothing but swaddling cloths lying all around, there were now two angels asking her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

And as she blurts out her answer she turns and bumps into someone else who is also asking her,
"Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why is everyone asking me these questions? Who are those men in white in the tomb? Can’t any of them see what has happened? Oh, no, it’s the demons again! I’m losing my mind! "You’re the gardener,” she says. “You tell me! Where have you put him? You should know, not me! You work here. You tell me. Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why indeed!!"

Then it happens. He says one word. "Mary."
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

She has heard this voice before. Only one person ever said her name in just this way. But it does not look like him. It cannot possibly be him. But suddenly her heart is racing again! It is about to leap out of her chest as she throws herself on the one she has supposed to be the gardener! Thank God I am not crazy after all. The demons are not coming back! They are never coming back. It is Jesus. "Rabboni!" she cries as she embraces him.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

And for a moment it seems as if it is all in her hands, in her embrace. It appears as if she can hold it all back, keep him there, hold onto him forever and ever, when he says, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the father, my father and your father, my God and your God. Go and tell the others."

And with that, she is given a new task. And our text simply says, "She went and told the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord, and she told them all the things he had said to her."

It took courage for Mary to go back to the tomb. It took even more courage for her to let go of Jesus. But in doing so, she gives birth to the Church. By her witness, by her testimony, the history of the world is changed, made new, transformed. Her words to his friends are the first Easter sermon ever preached! Because of her testimony, we know and experience resurrection today! Mary continues to run through the ages to this very day, gathering us all to be a community of his people, his beloved disciples.

Like those first disciples she calls, we all race to the tomb and stoop over to see for ourselves. Like Peter, Mary and the beloved disciple, we do not all see the same things, we do not hear the same voices. Except the one voice that calls us each by name.

He calls us today. He calls us by name. He calls us to be his beloved disciples. Jesus calls you to be with him. He calls you to know he is here, even now. He calls you to 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.

As with Mary, he also calls us to let go of him. We can shut him up in tombs of our own making, or we can be like Mary and let go, and go and tell others about our Risen Lord. In letting go, like Mary, we will find that we are more fully embraced by him, by his love and by his God than we could ever imagine.

And like the people who were changed by this one woman’s words, the lives of others will be changed by ours. We are never quite done with Jesus. And thank God, he is never quite done with us!

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
And so are we… And so are we! Amen!

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Work of The Cross

Good Friday 2013

Just some thoughts about the one day of the year that continues to be problematic for the life of the Church and the World. Tradition has it that we read the Passion according to the Gospel of John on Good Friday. And on Palm Sunday we read the passions according to Matthew, Mark and  Luke in a three year rotation. It is long considered that the passion narratives in all four gospels were among the first, if not the first, Christian writings after, of course, Paul’s letters which precede all the gospels in what has come to be accepted as “final form.”

I say problematic because these four passion narratives, and how they have been interpreted, especially on Good Friday, have been used to foster anti-Semitism [ultimately leading to the Holocaust and the kind of resistance to the modern state of Israel we still experience today], and at the same time have left much of western Christianity, particularly in its more evangelical forms, with a reductionist view of just how it is that the cross is central to Christian faith, life and witness. That reductionist view, of course, is that “Jesus died for our sins,” a view that often leads to assertions that we must share in the sufferings of Christ – an assertion that has had disastrous results for countless persons who have been urged to patiently accept child abuse, spousal abuse, clergy abuse, political abuse,  and bullying and abuse of any kind.

Having recently spent a full afternoon at the National Holocaust Museum, I had plenty of time to reflect on my lifetime engagement in Christian-Jewish dialogue. It is one of the great tragedies of the Church that although Jesus was, is and remains a Jew, that Good Friday has been used to accuse the Jews of killing Jesus – all Jews for all time. The direct result of such proclamation has been pogroms, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, ghettoization, Holy Week murder and persecution of Jews, all setting what appeared to be a perfect justification for the Nazi Holocaust’s attempt to exterminate every living Jew on earth.

The charge that “the Jews killed Jesus” can be derived from the passion narratives if one fails to grasp the setting in which the crucifixion took place in first century Israel. The region, like most of the Mediterranean and beyond, was under the military occupation and rule of Rome. Like all oppressors, the Romans “appointed” certain leaders in the Jewish community [and all communities throughout the Empire] to enforce the rule of Roman law – which leaders happened to be primarily the Temple priesthood and Jerusalem aristocracy. The Nazis would use the same strategy in the camps and ghettos. It does not help that the New Testament narratives refer to these appointed leaders [seen by many as collaborators, yet one must be sympathetic to the bind they found themselves in] simply as Judeans [literally citizens of the region of Judea, not all of whom were even Jewish], and that translations of the New Testament Koine Greek shortens it simply to “the Jews.” The Jews did not kill Jesus. Period.

Only Rome had the power and authority to crucify – to order and carry out capital punishment, or state sponsored execution. What is described in the passion narratives, therefore, is a highly charged and complex political event taking place at the busiest time of year in Jerusalem, the time of the Passover. As a result of identifying this tiny group of appointed leaders as “the Jews” led early Christian preaching and apologetics to lay the charge of killing Jesus to the Jewish people at large. Which is ironic, since it is often now argued by scholars of all stripes that Judaism as we know it today did not actually exist at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee, but rather like Christianity itself, grew out of and after the crisis of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 CE [common era]. And which is tragic because I know faithful Jews of my own generation who grew up in cities and communities in the United States in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s who every Holy Week had to take cover or be chased down by Christian hooligans and beaten up, or worse, for having “killed our Jesus.” It was not until 1963 and the Second Vatican Council that the Church in Rome finally renounced the charge of Deicide [killing God in Christ], and the protestant denominations have been playing catch-up ever since.

Jesus of Nazareth was killed by Rome as an example to the rest of the citizens of Judea and Galilee: do not even think of challenging the power structures of the Empire [ie a social prophet in the tradition of the earlier Old Testament prophets], and do not even think of initiating a movement as was rapidly growing around Jesus, most specifically around radically inclusive meal practices which formed the locus of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries. Any movement that challenged the authority of the Empire and subverted accepted social boundaries was to be stopped, quashed, before it could gain any traction or attraction. Little did Pilate, Herod or even Caesar imagine that this one execution among thousands would galvanize the movement, not halt it, and that the movement itself would one day become The Empire [which would become a problem for the Church that we are still trying to work our way out of].

As to the kind of Atonement theology that says, “Jesus died for our sins,” there are many models of interpretation of what the crucifixion means for us, none of which has ever settled into becoming anything like a doctrine of the Christian faith. When one tries to honestly answer the question, “Why was Jesus killed?” the historical answer has to be because he was indeed a social critic or prophet, and he was a movement initiator, and more importantly a passionate advocate for God’s passion for justice, and a radical critic of the system of domination [briefly sketched out above] who had gathered a growing community of followers. There were other charismatic leaders, many of whom were advocating armed revolt. Jesus may have looked like a similar threat, but his equal passion for God’s reconciling love for all humanity sets him apart – and of course in modern times has been the role model for non-violent resistance movements as initiated by Ghandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to name a few.

Beyond the historical answer, however, one is hard pressed to find a single interpretation of the Cross among New Testament writers, let alone church theorists throughout the past 2000 years.  Some stay close to the historical answer – the authorities and their agents rejected Jesus and killed him, but God vindicated him by raising him to life again – the authorities say no, God says “Yes!” Another New Testament interpretation says that the Cross and Resurrection [properly understood as one continuous event, not two separate events] defeated the Powers That Be – described as “principalities and powers,” or “the prince of the power of the air,” and other such ancient locutions. These “powers” extend beyond Rome and Jerusalem, of which they are just functionaries. The Cross in this interpretation exposes the domination system that kills Jesus as ultimately morally and literally bankrupt. The idea being, why would one devote oneself to this and similar domination systems if in the end they are exposed as being morally bankrupt?

The next two New Testament views are similar – The Cross reveals “the way,” understood as the way of internal and spiritual transformation that is at the heart of nearly all religions throughout history. And this Way is grounded in the depth of God’s profound Love for  us that he would send a Son, or become incarnate as  one of us himself, to embody the way that is truly “The Way” that reflects God’s own character and passion which is grounded in love, justice for all people, and self-giving.

This leads naturally to the sacrificial understanding, “Jesus died for our sins.” Although this view of The Cross did not assume its fully realized form until about 900 years ago, it has become the dominant and most emphasized view in popular Christianity. It depends on seeing “the work of Jesus,” or the life of Jesus as primarily set in a framework of sin, guilt and forgiveness – as opposed to seeing the work of Jesus as being primarily about healing, teaching, social prophecy and as the initiator of a movement within Judaism [importantly, not as “founder” of Christianity, which some like to attribute largely to Paul, Peter, and other early followers of the Jesus movement].

The idea, of course, is that we have all sinned against God and are guilty. At the time, the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood held a monopoly on how to seek forgiveness – through appointed sacrifices in the Temple. So God, the model goes, provides the perfect sacrifice for all our sins in the person of Jesus. Now forgiveness and access to the presence of God is possible, but only for those who believe that Jesus died for our sins.

This has always struck me as odd for several reasons. First, it seems to place a limitation on God’s forgiveness – God can forgive only if an adequate sacrifice is made. Which implies that Jesus did not die on the cross for what he was doing, but rather it was part of a plan, God’s plan. To kill one’s own Son? To kill oneself [understanding Jesus as God incarnate]? And that God’s forgiveness is somehow limited only to those who “believe,” however that is to be understood.veness is somehow limited only to those who "ess persons who have been urged to patiently accept child abuse, spousal abu

Further, at the time, “Jesus died for our sins,” meant something entirely different – it meant that the Temple’s monopoly on forgiveness and access to God has been superceded, circumvented, denied its intrinsic power over the people of God. It was an anti-Temple statement.  It was a subversion of the sacrificial system itself.  It meant, in effect, that access to God and God’s forgiveness is taken care of through the life, death AND resurrection of Jesus, with emphasis on ‘the life.’ That is, there is access apart from the Temple sacrificial system – access, as Jesus’ life at mealtimes indicates, which is open to all persons at all time.  “Jesus died for our sins” makes the positive assertion that such access has come at a cost – a dear cost to God and to all humanity. Yet, how odd it is, then, that the religious movement that makes the  assertion that “Jesus died for our sins” would within four hundred  years would claim for itself a monopoly on grace, forgiveness and access to God,  and today tries to make the case that it, the Church, has paid this costliness. How offensive and disappointing that must be to God! Such hubris, however, appears to be the hallmark of our time throughout all dimensions of our common life.

Finally, purveyors of this view see the work of the cross as forgiveness for “my sins,” as opposed to “our sins.” It devolves very quickly into a very individualistic piety. Whereas on the Cross the work of Jesus is meant to free us from all systems that mean to  enslave us [thus the intrinsic Passover imagery associated with Easter], all systems of domination that mean to exert a monopoly on God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s Way. Which is to say, to believe in the Cross of Christ, to accept it as saving or atoning at all, is to accept it on behalf of all humankind which means to gather all creaturely beings into a commonwealth of love through the overcoming of sin in all of its communal dimensions – power structures that mean to dominate, control and otherwise monopolize access to God and God’s Way.

The very heart of Jesus life, death and resurrection, is teaching, healing, and social criticism that exposes the bankruptcy of all domination systems that seek to exert a monopoly on access to God, God’s forgiveness and love – that is, a life devoted to Christ’s own reconciling work of the radical acceptance of all people at his table without prerequisites. Jesus does not ask anyone for their resume or transcript – he simply says follow me. Good Friday is Good because of this fact, and the fact that he is risen, he is present to all persons in all places at all times. One wonders how Holy Week and Good Friday might be re-visioned so that it might put the emphasis on the Good?  The Cross is central to Christian faith because it failed! It failed to stop the man and it failed to stop the movement he began. Despite losing sight of its precious and costly origins, there are quarters of the Church in which the good work begun on the cross continues to this day. How fortunate are those who happen upon a Christian community that sees the Goodness of Good Friday and follows in the Way of Jesus in embodying the character and love of God, continuing his work of reconciliation in the world. Amen.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Whose Side Are We On Anyway?

24 March 2013 - Palm Sunday – The Sunday of the Passion : Luke 19-23

Palm Sunday – The Sunday of the Passion. My first thought is that we would be better off reading and hearing chapters 19-23 of Luke as if we were hearing them for the first time so as not to be influenced by earlier impressions and years of interpretation and reinterpretation.

It would probably help to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John side by side. That, of course, would take the better part of a day! But at least we might readily see how each evangelist tells a very different story. This in turn suggests that there is no single, objective telling of this tale, but many tellings and retellings yielding new insights and new meanings for all who take the time to spend time with these sacred texts. If we could go back somehow to hearing Saint Luke’s telling as if for the first time we might notice a few things.

We might notice, for instance, that Jesus’ actual crucifixion takes up only four words in the midst of a longer descriptive sentence (“..there they crucified him…” Lk 23:33), whereas the motif of the mocking of Jesus by Herod and his soldiers, Pilate’s soldiers, by the ever present “crowd,” and even by one of the criminals hanging beside him runs throughout virtually the entire narrative. Suggesting that Luke and other first century believers want us to reflect on the fact that those who held political and religious authority (which in reality was one and the same thing in Jerusalem since the High Priests at the time were political appointments made by Rome), those who represented the God-King Emperor Caesar, those who are mocking are made fools of by their own words and actions since the reader and hearer of these texts knows that the only real King that matters is in fact the very one they are mocking: Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of God (to use Luke’s own favorite name for Jesus).

That is, this confrontation in Jerusalem is not really about an internal religious dispute at all, but rather is a showdown with Caesar’s empire. And the active participants in this showdown really boil down to two: God vs. Caesar who would be god. And the question begged by all the mocking behavior throughout this story is this: Who do you believe is really in charge of things? God or Caesar? (Lk 20:20-26)

Caesar, like Pharaoh before him, represents the powers of domination built into human institutions. What Paul calls the “principalities and powers,” those people and institutions that hold the world in bondage, and whose functionaries have names like Pharaoh, Herod, Pilate Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, Amin … the list is nearly endless. The list might also include institutions such as slavery, colonialism, corporate raiding of resources, industrial pollution, armament industries, banking and mortgage systems, apartheid, and all institutions and systems that deprive the common good of liberty and resources with the necessary armed backing of a militarized government. On Palm Sunday, Jesus begins to challenge the empire so understood.

One way of reading all the mockery in this story would be, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

Another thing we might notice if we were hearing this for the first time is no mention at all of any notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. This comes as a surprise to those of us living in a culture where the loudest Christian voices would assert that this is the Good News. As if Jesus had to die. As if the powers that be could not possibly be moved to change and begin to look out for and care for the whole world and all the people and creatures therein. Jesus’ life and teachings would seem to indicate that his Good News for the poor, the persecuted, the broken and brokenhearted is a vision of God’s love, God’s Shalom, God’s healing and forgiveness made available to all. As if the most basic message of the Gospel is not: “You are created by God, You are a child of God, You are beloved by God, You are accepted by God,”  but rather “You are a sinner and someone had to die and pay for your sins before God could love you and accept you.

As if there is some limit on God’s power to forgive; namely, God can forgive only if adequate contrition and sacrifice is made. As if Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary – not just the consequence of what he was doing – which was renouncing the splitting of the world into warring camps, holy and unholy, clean and unclean, tax payer and tax collector, men and women, Jew and Samaritan, Christians and non-Christians, all the while renouncing the way of armed might to change the world, and advocating a way, God’s way, of unity, the way God intends the world to be.

As if we have already forgotten the lesson of the Prodigal Son, a story in which Jesus himself asserts that no special machinery is necessary for forgiveness. The father is pictured as already heading out to greet and forgive his returning Son before the son can say or do anything.

As if another act of violence is the only way to get God’s attention. As if God’s plan for salvation, the making whole of humankind, requires a death. Jesus did not incarnate God by dying. Jesus was executed by Rome for carrying out God’s will, not because his being crucified was God’s will.

Jesus’ commitment to a vision of God’s world, God’s kingdom, God’s reign, committed him to a struggle for justice, right relationships, and non-violent resistance to the principalities and powers. Jesus shows us how to do justice, how to love kindness and how to walk humbly with our God. Jesus was passionate for God and God’s way. When his disciples attempt to protect him by the sword, actually cutting of the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus shouts out, “No more of this!” No more of this. Do we hear this? Do we want to hear this? His passion is for “No more of this” kind of armed struggle. This is his understanding of God’s will. This passion for God is Jesus’ Passion. Jesus calls us to join him in his passion.

Perhaps we can be helped in this by noting that among the dictionary definitions of the word “passion,” in addition to the traditional understanding of “Christ’s sufferings in Jerusalem,” is this: “Boundless enthusiasm.” And surely we are those people who remember that the word enthusiasm comes from the roots en, meaning “in,” and theos, meaning “God,” literally meaning “inspired by God.

This narrative in Luke asserts that Jesus is boundless enthusiasm incarnate. And that this boundless enthusiasm inevitably leads to a life of God’s compassion, sympathetic concern for the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support or to show mercy.
Jesus’ passion is his passion for God and God’s way, which is a life of compassion, forgiveness and mercy for others, all others.

We do well to remember that the Roman appointed Temple Priests in Jerusalem pictured as presenting Jesus to Pilate held a monopoly on the forgiveness of sin through the system of Temple sacrifice, a system that required money and goods. That is, social and economic status controlled access to God and God’s forgiveness.

Thus, to think of Jesus as a “sacrifice for sin,” as some new testament writers do, is an assertion by those writers that the monopoly in Jerusalem is over. That is the death of Jesus was not God’s will, nor was it in any sense Jesus’ vocation or mission. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, inseparable dimensions of who he is, are a proclamation of radical grace, mercy and forgiveness. Is it any wonder that those in charge of the monopoly on forgiveness wanted him dead?

Lest we feel too good about finding ourselves on his side of this story, however, we will do well to remember that in only a few hundred years after his life, death and resurrection, the church would claim for itself an institutional monopoly on grace and access to God. Leaving us to wonder, can we hear this narrative in such a new way that we can moved to make Jesus’ passion our passion?

In a world increasingly divided against itself, there are countless souls awaiting our response to this central story of our faith that we call The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke. First we must spend time with this story. We must try to hear it as if for the very first time, setting aside all that we have been taught about it, all the traditions that have come to surround it, contain it in an attempt to domesticate it. Who do we believe is really in charge? God or Caesar? Whose side are we on anyway? Amen.