Saturday, April 29, 2017

An Idle Tale

An Idle Tale
This weekend The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows will be consecrated as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, the first Black woman to hold this rank of leadership over a diocese in North America. Johns Hopkins University is making history with the residency of Nancy Abu-Bonsrah, their first black female neurosurgeon resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

This week saw the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Germany carpet bombing of the town of Guernica, Spain – “the first deliberate attack on a civilian target from the air — years before Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima, and decades before Aleppo.” [Washington Post, April 26, 2017] This week will be the 5th anniversary of the gun-shot killing of my two colleagues at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City: Brenda Brewington and Mary-Marguerite Kohn. And last week was the observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, worldwide.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers us a portion of Luke chapter 24 (13-35) for our consideration this week, but as is often the case, the crucial verses are omitted (9-11): “Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” These verses are crucial to fully understanding the story of the journey home and meal in Emmaus, as well as how it relates to these recent events and anniversaries. Such omissions are unfortunately a routine part of our otherwise busy lives, even within the community of faith.

First, the context of Luke’s gospel: Jerusalem is in ruins, smoldering, burned to the ground by the Roman Legions to quell a zealot uprising against the Empire – so Jerusalem is not unlike Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and today’s Aleppo. That is, those reading or hearing these episodes in Luke have themselves experienced an historic holocaust – (1.destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war. 2. (historical) a Jewish sacrificial offering that is burned completely on an altar) - at the hands of a ruthless empire. They are standing in the ruins of Guernica, Hiroshima, the Nazi Death Camps and Aleppo. We need to place ourselves there as well. It is a time for soul-searching and a search for meaning as part of the recovery process. Luke and others attempt to provide such meaning out of crisis.

The cross of Jesus also presented such a crisis. The “missing verses” 9-11 tell us that the first witnesses of the empty tomb and resurrection were women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. They announce a message of witness and hope to the eleven remaining disciples, all of whom are men. These men dismiss the witness and announcement of these women as “idle talk,” nonsense, mere twaddle. They dismiss the empirical evidence, facts and witness of not one or two, but a crowd of women, as an idle tale.

It is almost cliché! To this day men will wander and bumble about searching for direction while women will suggest simply asking for help, seek information, and ask for directions and facts. This dynamic is the source of endless jokes and cartoons. Yet, in the end it is not funny.  We still live in a world and a culture which is routinely dismissive of women – to our own danger and destruction. Which makes the news about The Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and Ms. Nancy Abu-Bonsrah of vital importance and recognition. Slowly we are beginning to accept the importance of the leadership of women, and in particular women from diverse backgrounds.

As the story in Luke continues (13-35), we read about the continued inability for another two male companions of Jesus to understand what has happened, admitting that they too don’t really know what the women were talking about, and still don’t grasp it even as the risen Jesus himself is standing there explaining it to them!

I say “companions” advisedly for it means “with bread” or “messmate” or “those who share bread.” It is only when Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives them the bread that these companions recognize that the person who has accompanied them on their journey home is in fact the risen Jesus. They race back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had “happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Take, bless, break and give. This became the ritual action at table that replaced the ritual of holocaust, burnt offerings, at the altar in the now destroyed Jerusalem Temple – both for the surviving Jewish community on Shabbat, and the emerging Christian communities in the actions of the Eucharist. Jesus is described as doing this on three distinct occasions: the feeding with bread and fish, at supper with the disciples the night before he is crucified, and again at dinner table in Emmaus.

Taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread. This is more than what some may call mere ritual. There is nothing mere about it. It is representative of how Jesus lived his entire life – taking, blessing, breaking and giving his very self, all that he is and all that he has, to others. All others – especially to those who are continually, routinely and easily treated dismissively by society. Take, bless, break and give is about a sharing economy over against an economy of endless acquisition and consumption. Take, bless, break and give is about extending the resources for healing and wholeness to more and more people, not just those who can “afford” them. Take, bless, break and give is about extending justice, peace and dignity – what the Bible calls shalom – to all persons, not some persons, not a lot of persons, but all persons. Take, bless, break and give means to extend the sharing of leadership and power to all persons as well – especially to women who have witnessed, interpreted and present facts so critical to the survival of the community and the world. Take, bless, break and give replaces violence like the ritual of holocaust burnt offerings, and strategies such as carpet bombing and using guns to heal our pain.

In the end, one might very well say that the paradigm” take, bless, break and give” offers us a pattern for our lives on how we might, as a society and as a world community, survive whatever overwhelming crises faces us. Such actions will always challenge the traditional power structures which increasingly, like ancient Rome, only seek to maintain a grip on, not share, power, resources and life itself. Such actions as “take, bless, break and give” challenge us to find new and more inclusive voices to lead, heal and sustain the world we live in. One suspects this to be a more fruitful strategy than either carpet bombing or continuing to be dismissive of women. To quote Rabbi Hillel once again: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"for fear of the Jews"

“…for fear of the Jews” – John 20:19
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. - Psalm 51:17 RSV

We traditionally read John 20:19-23(24-31) twice a year: the Sunday after Easter Sunday and fifty days after Easter on the Day of Pentecost. As one who had at one time considered converting to the religion of Jesus, and as one who concluded my college career writing a dissertation on the then complete works of Elie Wiesel (it was 1972), reading and re-reading this passage from the fourth gospel has repeatedly broken my spirit and my heart. The thought that the disciples, not just the ten but rather a mixed crowd of those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem the week of the Passover and witnessed the brutality of the Empire and its state-sponsored torture and execution of three young men, are afraid of “the Jews” is strange. It makes perfect sense, however, that if you were a follower of Jesus that you would be hiding behind locked doors. Yet, it is at best confusing to read, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”

It's the fourth gospel’s repeated use of the phrase, “…for fear of the Jews” that breaks my spirit and my heart. There can be no doubt that this passage, and others like it, has been used throughout the ages from the very beginnings of the early church to this day to justify vilification and violence against the Jewish people. Despite the obvious fact that Jesus and most of his followers were themselves Jewish – daughters and sons of the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel.

It won’t do to simply explain that the fourth gospel’s use of “the Jews” has mixed and varied meaning throughout the narrative: referring to the ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse crowds in Jerusalem every Passover; to the Jewish authorities, many of whom are on the payroll of Rome to “keep the peace;” to the mixed “opponents” of the Jesus movement made up variously of Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. The fact of the matter was that the Jewish population of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem was divided along many religious and political lines.

Lumping them all together is always the strategy of those who seek to capitalize on such divisions. As is pressuring some of those the oppressed to “manage” their “own people,” or be subject to the Empire’s brutalizing tactics yourself. A day spent in the US Holocaust Museum will help to understand all of this.

I would like very much not to have to get into this, but as the internet has made it possible for anti-Semitic groups to organize and find new improved ways to carry out similar vilifying and brutalizing tactics, to say nothing in the midst of Christian proclamation on this passage would be tantamount to allowing all this to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Just as dangerous is for Christians to assume that the ritual passed on regarding the forgiveness and releasing of sins is somehow new and uniquely “Christian.” As Richard Swanson observes, “When Christians imagine this, they are wrong. Or they are dangerous. Those would be the choices” [Provoking the Gospel of John (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland:2010) p.170]

Swanson correctly points out that the rituals of releasing/forgiving or retaining sins have a deep history in Jewish faith, especially on Yom Kippur, the high holy Day of Atonement when Jews seek to repair the damage that we do to one another. It is a day to confess sin and forgive sin. It is a time to take stock and make amends. If I had in any way cheated or otherwise sinned against you I would seek your forgiveness and offer to make amends. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends. I can return two more times. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends three times. I can then approach God for forgiveness. But if I am rejected a third, I retain the sin – and the offended individual retains the pain and suffering.

It’s a process. And we may as well admit it: some abuses are hard to forgive. Elie Wiesel when asked about forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust noted that he did not have the authority to speak for the millions of people, Jews, Gypsies, Invalid and Mentally Handicapped, and political opponents who were killed in the death camps. In our passage in John, Thomas recalls the torture, abuse and brutal execution two days previous. He asks to see the wounds of the risen Jesus. Thomas is to be commended for his courage, his memory and his integrity – and in no way deserves the slander of being called “Doubting Thomas.”

Thomas knows what we all know in our hearts: “Any resurrection, any resolution, and recovery [from abuse] that moves forward by forgetting the past will be insubstantial. Any moving forward that forgets the victims of past torture [and abuse] will be ill-prepared to deal with the continuing reality of violence and abuse.” [Ibid, p. 173] And we are those people keenly aware that it continues even in among those highest in our corporate, religious, military, sports and political spheres. We read about it every day. And frequently the victims are made to feel shamed or guilty of provoking the abuse. Consider the now established fact that in Maryland, and across the country, there are in storage thousands upon thousands of rape-kits that have never been processed to determine the veracity of allegations by the victims.

So Jesus breathes upon his disciples as a reminder. God my Father gives you breath to live and light to see through the darkness. This breath is God’s spirit that seeks “peace,” or “Shalom”: peace that secures justice and dignity for all people; not some people, not most people, but all people. This is what is meant by “Peace be with you.” And this breath is a reminder that all people, not just God, not just God in Christ, not just Christians, have the capacity and the responsibility to forgive or retain sins. That is, the charges against Jesus are bogus, as are any and all notions that this is some uniquely new Christian ritual.

“That is why,” concludes Swanson, “the scene with Thomas belongs with the scene in which Jesus talks about releasing and holding the memory of abuse. That is why the matter of forgiving is not as simple as abusers insist that it must be.” [Ibid, 173]

Jesus breathes on us. The word means puff, as if puffing on a fire with a bellows, of blowing on a dying ember to bring it from smoking to smoldering to a blazing fire of life, intensity and power. Jesus is literally meaning to set our hearts on fire to be those people in this world who like Thomas have the courage and integrity to name the wounds that cripple our society and become engaged in bringing peace, true Shalom, to all those who suffer and are oppressed in any way whatsoever. This is why the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. We owe it to him to become a refining fire for the life of all people and the world itself. Amen.    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Noli me tangere

Noli me tangere   (nolee may tongray)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
We may notice that the Resurrection in John is not, as William Temple has observed [Readings in St. John’s Gospel, (Macmillan, London: 1952)], a mighty and dramatic act such as Matthew paints it with an earthquake, the curtain in the Temple being torn in two, and the graves of all the dead opening and disgorging ghostly spirits to wander through the streets of Jerusalem. Nor do we see the hosts of evil routed and destroyed, but rather in the early morning pre-dawn darkness we witness the quiet rising of the Sun (The Son) which has already on the cross “vanquished the night. The atmosphere has all the sweet freshness of dawn on a spring day.” [375]

And the first witness is a woman, and she formerly one beset with demons and whom Jesus had returned to her right mind, Mary Magdalene – one of the few witnesses who remained with Jesus at the foot of the cross while the other fellow travelers and friends had run off to hide behind closed doors. Although after the events of the previous day it wouldn’t do for a disciple and follower to be caught on a lonely road on a night after Jesus has proved that we were the stronger than Caesar and his entire Empire, this once lonely and confused woman makes the trip to the tomb by herself.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

She sees that the stone has been removed. The enemies must have removed his body in the night. She races to tell Peter, who despite his repeated denials is still the leader of the remaining 11 disciples. Then she runs to tell the other disciple Whom Jesus Loved. She tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him.” We? Have the demons returned? Who else is with her? Seeing no one else, they race to the tomb, and the other disciple gets there first but puts on the breaks and just peeps in to see the linen wrappings lying there but does not go in. Peter goes in. Sees the linen cloths, and the cloth that had been on his head was “rolled up in a place by itself.”

Now who, after being tortured and nailed to a cross unto death, then wrapped with one hundred pounds of spices and linen cloths, upon being raised from the dead takes the time to roll up the head scarf and neatly place it just there? Never you mind, this is Jesus we are talking about after all. The other comes in to look more closely and all we are told is that he “saw and believed.” Not what he believed or what he saw. But believe he did!
 Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
The narrator, the invisible hand who offers this account as an eye-witness, tells us they run home and are effectively clueless as to exactly what is going on. Not Mary. She remains at the door of the tomb, weeping. She peeps in to see what Peter and the Other Disciple saw, but instead there are two beings in white, one at the head, one at the foot of where Jesus had lain. There had been two criminals on either side of him on the cross, and now two of what can only be angels asking her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Why am I weeping she screams inside of her head, why am I weeping? What kind of question is that? You are sitting in his tomb? Why aren’t you weeping? Why?!

She gathers herself and steadfastly replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Her confidence is back. He is now “my Lord,” not the Lord, and now I do not know, not we do not know. Before the angels can reply, she turns and sees Jesus, but she does not know it is Jesus. Evidently after the resurrection we do not look like we look here and now. And this unrecognizable person is also asking her why she is weeping. Why is everyone asking me why I am weeping? Isn’t it obvious? His tomb is empty.

Then comes one of my very favorite lines in all of scripture. I don’t know why I love it so, but it is so Nero Wolf or Raymond Chandler or Benjamin Black sounding: “Supposing he was the gardener … the gardener! She proceeds to accuse him of stealing his own body, which in a sense one might say he has since, after all, he is God’s Word made flesh who dwelt among us, and surely it is only God’s Word that can bring himself back from the dead.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Then “the gardener” says just one word: her name. “Mary.” Only one voice had ever said her name like that. Only one voice could make her feel healed and whole and as if she really is one of God’s Beloved children. Rabbouni! she shouts!! It is him. He’s not dead. Or, is he? She must reach out to see if it’s a ghost or a real person for the next thing Jesus says, in Latin of course, “Noli me tangere!” (nolee may tongray) Which roughly translates, “do not touch me”, “do not hold on to me”, or as Temple’s translation has it, “don’t cling to me!” [379]

Which is really the heart of the matter is it not? Once we come to see Jesus and recognize Jesus for who he really is; once we come to understand what he was doing in the world is what we are meant to be doing in the world, the temptation is to cling to him. Because like Mary, Jesus is able to make us feel healed and whole. And, like Mary, he gives us something to do. He makes her the first evangelist, sending her back to the sisters and brothers of the community that has gathered around him and tell them that just as he came from Love he is returning to Love; he has come from the Father and is returning to the Father. My God and your God, my Father and your Father! That is, you are God’s beloved. God is your Father just as God is my father. Mary Magdalene: this woman once beset with demons becomes God’s chosen messenger to announce the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection and that we are all children of the one Father in Heaven!

But there is to be no clinging. Because I come, says my Lord, to set you free. And if you cling to me you won’t be free to do the things I do, and greater things than these. Let go and set me free so that you may be as free as the wind, as free as the Spirit, as free as the very breath of God in the cool of the garden in the early morning as the Son is rising! 
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Know, my sisters, my brothers, he 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.
There is a hidden place in your heart 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! 

Friday, April 14, 2017

God's Passion, Our Passion

Good Friday 2017 - John 18:1-19:42 
God's Passion/Our Passion
Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story - what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened that day nearly 2000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles - one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John Jesus is Light - and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today's world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy like the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in ISIS, in Syria, in chemical weapons, dropping MOAB, the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those  mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know some things about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil - specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Yet, so much more among a people commissioned to take care of people who live on the margins but who increasingly go about business as usual – to be focused only on religious ritual and not religious practices. Even more so, John and John’s community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the Imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

Every April, April 4, we celebrate the life and death of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the church we observe the date of a martyr's death, not their birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, TN, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama,  jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination - segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century's most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr's book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that "groups are more immoral than individuals." This is just as true today as when Neibuhr and King brought it to light. It is observed that more often than not individuals rarely act immorally, or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group - however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the "herd mentality" that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, The Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history. The list of examples, sadly, is endless

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the Devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, "Goodness" or "Godliness" can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which that year was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of "rubberneckers" always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences will be for those who dare to act out of Goodness and Godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day,  that God’s new revelation and God’s 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, as his last act of divine charity  gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit.

It is that “giving up,” that handing over,  that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means spirit, breath and wind. All three are understood to come from God. God's breath is our breath, God's spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit-the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, Joan Baez, and  just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with Evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for me, for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to Evil. To stand your ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or, to simply walk away and say I will not participate in this.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, as to how much Goodness and Godliness just one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John's, it is that final moment when Jesus bows his head and hands over his spirit to you, to me, to us, to the world - that moment when God's Passion becomes our Passion!

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is will we accept his spirit? Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails so as to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His spirit. The world needs your spirit. The Church needs your spirit. You can accept His spirit which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit. The World needs you. The Church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another. Our choice must be to accept that spirit of Goodness and Godliness, the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When you do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good. A very good story! This is why we call it Good Friday!

The Wonder Of It All

The Wonder Of It All!
It all began with feet. Of course, there were other beginnings. There are always other beginnings, many beginnings. But every now and then I have had these visions. I don’t know what else to call them, but the language of vision seems to fit. And this one had to do with feet. It was Providence in the late 1970’s. A family friend invited us to attend the Episcopal Church downtown, Grace. Grace. Surely it was Grace’s church! I sang in the choir, in the bass section. Gregg Romatowski, the Music Director and Organist, kept the bass section in the front row across the chancel from where he sat at the console so he could keep an eye on us. I’m not sure what he thought we might do, but there we sat and stood and kneeled at all the appropriate times. During communion, we were on our knees singing an anthem while the congregation came up the steps, through the chancel to the railing for communion, and then begin the return trip to their seats, and eventually out the door marked “Exit.” The Fire Code requires the sign which really should say, “Entrance” because it is the entrance to our mission field. That’s where Jesus sends us after he has fed us with his body and blood.

I cannot remember when really, but let’s say it was Holy Week, and there I am on my knees singing. All of a sudden I found myself staring down toward the floor and seeing all these feet. Big feet, small feet, fast feet, slow feet, in shoes of all kinds. Fancy shoes, work shoes, orthopedic shoes, dress shoes, sneakers, sandals, shoes of all kinds. Each pair telling something about the person in those shoes as some were worn on the outside edge, some on the inside edge, some with bulges here, some with bulges there, some polished, some worn plain out. Just all kinds of feet of all kinds of people in all kinds of shoes going to the altar of the Lord for daily bread and then returning to their seats and finally to the mission field.

Soon I could see centuries, millennia really, of people walking to the Lord and returning to the world of mission, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year all those feet, all those different, individual and well-worn feet following Jesus wherever he goes. It was a fantastic and glorious vision of faith and hope and charity all embodied by feet.

In what one classmate of mine at seminary called a Felliniesque Scene, at the Last Supper, or the First Eucharist, in the thirteenth chapter of John, there is no mention of bread or wine. But Jesus does say, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Or, something very much like that. For instead of passing around bread and wine he disrobes, takes up a towel and a bowel of water and begins to wash feet, the disciple’s feet, our feet.

Immediately Peter, God bless him, protests: Master, I should be washing your feet. Jesus insists, No, this is what Christian leadership must look like, and unless you let me do this you will have nothing to do with me. Peter then asks for a bath head to foot. No, you have had a bath [ he was speaking of baptism that would become the initiation rite for his church], but your feet are in need of washing. For it was the custom in those days to greet dinner guests at the door and the youngest slave in the household would wash their feet, since walking around Jerusalem to visit the Temple, the place where God makes God’s name to dwell, gets your feet dusty, and hot, and tired. It was usually a child. He once said that if you want to participate in the life of God you must come to that life like a child. So here is Jesus, acting like a child slave insisting on doing something for us, his disciples. And like Peter, we may as well admit that we tend to resist this.

What Jesus is unmasking is our pride, our need to control, our need to be independent and to be important and look important in our robes and stoles and chasubles. He is also reminding us, wrote Archbishop William Temple back in 1952 (Readings In Saint John’s Gospel), that our first thought must never be, as Peter suggests, “What can I do for God?” For the answer to that question, quite honestly, is Nothing. God does not need all the liturgical garb and ritual. The question must always be, “What would God do for me?” The answer to this question is Quite A Lot! “He would cleanse me,” writes Temple, “when I recognize that I need to be cleansed, and acknowledging that I cannot cleanse myself. Moreover, it is to each singly that the cleansing service is offered, according to our own stains.” (p. 210)

We read that he who came forth from God is returning to God, and in the mean-time he is loving “his own” to the end. Washing feet demonstrates this love, and he concludes that if he washes their feet then they must wash each other’s feet. And we are those people who know that “his own” includes the poor, the hungry, the blind, the sick, the lame, prisoners, widows, orphans and resident aliens – outsiders of all kinds. We are to approach “his own” with the same dignity and humility with which he approaches them and us. Our first duty is to allow Christ first to serve us, to cleanse us, to sustain us, and empower us, as he says in chapter 14, to do the things he does, “and greater things than these shall you do!” And it all begins with washing feet.

Now once a year the custom has evolved for clergy to wash feet as some sort of sign of our humility. Yet, it strikes me as not entirely humble for just the clergy to do this. It is like taking center stage on a stage for which there is but one center: Jesus. And the text says all followers of Jesus are to do this, not just those of us with dog collars and stoles and chasubles on. Our Catechism says the Laity are the first order of ministers in the Church. We are all baptized into the ministry of the laity, into the ministry of Jesus Christ. So, it seems more natural that we all get involved in this foot washing. I need to wash your feet and I need to feel Christ washing my feet.

Getting down on one’s knees before another person tends to level the playing field. As does taking off my shoes and socks and allowing someone else to touch, let alone wash, my feet is also humbling. In our culture humility is in short supply. Perhaps it begins with feet.

We are all of us are leaders in the Church. We are leaders who follow – we follow Christ who always goes ahead of us. We need to remember we are always to ask, “What would God do for me?” As Holy Week unfolds, it turns out that God does an awful lot for me, for us and for the world. I’ll never cease to be bewildered at the Wonder of it all! Here comes the wonder of it, look at the wonder of it, here comes the wonder of His love. He asks, Do you want me to love you? Do you want me to care for you?  [Heartsfield – The Wonder Of It All]

William Rich, another great priest and preacher once urged us at a clergy renewal of vows in the Diocese of Connecticut: Allow yourself to accept God’s love and care. Allow God time in your prayers to thank you for what you have done for God today. Let Jesus wash your feet today, whatever that may mean for you. He is ready to love you and care for you. He had his feet anointed in Bethany a few nights before. He knows how good it feels and wants us all to feel that good. Doing the things that Jesus does, “and greater things than these,” begins with first allowing him to wash our feet. Like I said, it all began with feet. Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

We Are All Complicit (Thank you Jonathan Stonbely)

We Are All Complicit
As we reflect on the events of Palm Sunday and The Passion according to Matthew, we are reminded by Saint Paul to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” - Philippians 2:5-11

The “mind of Christ” Paul lifts up is that of a self-emptying Christ – that is Christ Jesus does not regard equality with God, that is being created in the redeeming love of God, something to be grasped, exploited or held onto, but rather empties himself, taking the form of a slave, a servant, humbling himself unto death – even death on a cross.

The “mind” of God, the “mind” of Christ is self-emptying; that is, God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. And more: God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate in powerlessness so that the power and glory of God can enter the world. (Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace, (Paulist, New York: 1987) p.4.

More provocative than this, however, may be the realization that Christ had no assurance of a reward for his self-emptying. He acted on our behalf without any view of gain. This is what God exalts and vindicates: self denying service for others to the point of death with no claim of return, no eye upon reward. (Proclamation [Fortress, Minneapolis:2007])p.232

That is Christ is utterly unlike the power brokers like the Chief Priest and Pilate. Pilate, instead of making a moral and right decision he polls the crowd. He takes advice from advisors, including his wife and her “dream,” but he cannot be moved from simply responding to the public opinion polls. “Who do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ, Messiah?” In Aramaic it is a false choice, for Barabbas translates “son of the father.” Do you want Jesus the Son of the Father, or Jesus the Christ, the Messiah? One can see the confusion this sort of “choice” really is, and what a lack of true leadership looks like as Pilate lets the mob make the decision.

Like many political and religious leaders, Pilate lacks vision – not only about his power and how it might be used, but about his own place in time. We are not unfamiliar with the kinds of myopia and impatience with complexity that blinds Pilate, and the Pilates of all eras and every generation, to the larger scope of things. We are all too familiar with leaders who use polls to devise policies, who use slogans rather than detail their policies, thus pandering to lazy minds rather than teaching people how to reason with real insight and compassion. Such practices are in full evidence in Jesus’ appearance before both the religious and the Roman leaders. Thus, his story serves as a cautionary tale on the daily machinations of power.

We might also notice the economy of the narrative in Matthew. Only six words are used to describe the actual crucifixion itself, and then almost obliquely – “And when they had crucified him…” Then immediately all attention returns to the actions and responses of those on hand: dividing up the spoils, mocking, torturing and tormenting the crucified one. So it is again when Jesus dies, only five words suffice, “and yielded up his spirit.” His Ruach, the very breath and spirit of God, he gives up, lets it go to invigorate his followers.  This is self-giving beyond all human imagination.

An important note on the line of the crowd’s often spoken by the congregation in unison: “His blood be on us and on our children.” We must confess, as a Church and as a culture, these words have been used to justify the very worst kinds of anti-Semitism. The Church has been complicit. This was not the intent of Matthew or Matthew’s community, many if not most of whom were Jews. It does foreshadow, however, that the very next generation, the “children” in the text, suffer the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and nearly all of ancient Israel, an act on the part of Rome that was already fact at the time these words were written. That’s where it is meant to stop. If only that were true.

The fact is that there are those whose lives are lived on the cross with Christ day in and day out. Just this week we have had the images of innocent children and adults having been attacked with poison chemicals seared onto our mind’s eye. Each child has a name, and parents, many of whom were also killed. I was deeply moved as a young family friend searched the internet to find the name of every single person who died in Syria in this attack and posted them on Facebook. “Please pray for them, for their families,” Jonathan wrote. “And then call your representatives, and express your outrage. It is the least we could do, because we are all complicit as Americans and as human beings. We allowed this, and we did nothing to stop it in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and now in 2017. Look at these names. You may have trouble pronouncing them, but try saying them out loud.” I tried and could not get past the first two or three of the fifty-nine names. Perhaps when we read aloud “His blood be on us and on our children,” we can at least remember them all, all fifty-nine, each a child of God. And all others whose lives hang on the cross every day.

To let the mind of Christ become the same mind that is in us means to become cooperators in him with respect to everyone and everything else – to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace for all persons; to respect the dignity of every human being. With God’s help and an attitude of self-giving, self-emptying, with no eye on reward nor claim to return, we may yet hear the good news in this ancient story so that we may indeed let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, According to Saint Matthew….(26:14-27:66)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

None Of Us Are Free

If One Of Us Are Chained, None Of Us Are Free
Several things weigh on my heart this week. On Thursday, March 30, Amy Bleuel,age 31 died.
Amy began a worldwide movement to empower people with mental illness, addictions and suicidal thoughts. It is called Project Semicolon. Said Amy, “In literature, an author uses a semicolon to not end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going.” People drew or had a semicolon tattooed on their wrist or arm as a reminder to keep going. Amy succumbed to the darkness and died of suicide Thursday. Yet, she improved the lives of many throughout the world. 

Earlier in the week veteran White House reporter April Ryan asked the Press Secretary a reasonable and important question. Instead of answering the Press Secretary lit into her, demeaned her, told her to “stop shaking your head,” leaving most in the press room shaken and bewildered. April is a woman and she is African-American. On another channel, a morning show anchor asked to comment on a floor speech by U.S. Representative Maxine Waters responded, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.” Ms. Waters is a woman and African-American. Even after a tepid apology later in the day the same anchor made even more disparaging and demeaning comments about her.

I often try hard to stay away from this kind of thing, but as with the prophet Jeremiah there is sometimes “a fire in my bones” that must come out. As we have spent five weeks of Lent exploring what it means to be “the light of the world” in a world of darkness, when the darkness continues to assert itself, especially against women, I find myself recalling a song I first heard in 2002 on the Grammy winning Don’t Give Up On Me album by Solomon Burke: “None of us are free/None of us are free/None of us are free/If one of us are chained/None of us are free.”

Some of the lyric goes on, “And there are people still in darkness/And they just can't see the light/If you don't say it's wrong then that says it right/We got try to feel for each other, let our sister’s know that we care/Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.” These assaults on women are wrong. And Solomon Burke, and Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell who wrote the song are right: if I don’t say it’s wrong “that says its right.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness (John 3). The Samaritan Woman at the Well lives in the darkness of her broken life (John 4). The Man Born Blind lives in darkness (John 9). And now in chapter 11, Lazarus lies dead, wrapped in cloths, in a tomb – the ultimate darkness. His sisters Martha and Mary call for their friend Jesus, the light of the world, while Lazarus was still sick. Jesus intentionally delays going so that the “glory of God” can be revealed. So that the long held promise of resurrection to new and eternal life with God is not a promise far off but instead for those who walk in the way of Jesus resurrection is a very present reality here and now.

When Jesus finally decides to go the disciples attempt to restrain him. There are people in Judea, officials both religious and civil, who wish to kill him. In fact, immediately after Lazarus comes out of the tomb and Jesus declares, ‘Unbind him, and set him free,’ the forces gather outside and decide that it is ‘better that one man die than that Rome come to destroy us and all of Jerusalem with us.’ In fact, by the time John’s gospel was completed this had come to pass. The darkness is great. Over a million of Jesus’ fellow Jews were killed and Jerusalem and its Temple burned to the ground in that first Holocaust.
So-called Doubting Thomas rises to the occasion to say, “Let us go with him that we may die with him.” Those of us who know the rest of the story know that in fact the disciples scatter and hide at the sight of their Lord on the Roman Cross. Yet, in John’s gospel Jesus’ last act on the cross is to “hand over his spirit,” the spirit that is the Light of the World.

Lazarus’ story may be even more powerful as a metaphor – a metaphor for whatever darkness grips our souls and grips our land. Whether it is mental illness, or demeaning women and people of color; whether it is facing cancer or the loss of a loved one as Martha and Mary experience in this story, there is darkness of all kinds. We are all Lazarus. And the devil, Satan, who began our season of Lent with temptations, is still hard at work. To deny this is to be asleep – itself a metaphor for death, be that spiritual death or literal death. It all has to do with allowing the darkness to have its way with us. Or, not.

We make three renunciations in our Baptism: We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God; We renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; We renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

But do we? Do we renounce these signs of ever present darkness? Do we choose to repent, to turn about, and become the Light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and which, according to John’s gospel, the darkness did not overcome?

We might think this stuff is primitive, talking about Satan and personifying evil, but then look at the Veterans we send to war who cannot get seen at the VA, or get a job, or shake the mental torment of PTSD. Look at the women and girls sold into sex-trafficking, or bullied in school or online, or disrespected on national television. Look at the growing numbers of our fellow citizens in all walks of life addicted to opioids, in part as a result of pharmaceutical marketing schemes that minimized their dangers. When does a people declare that it is time to become light and renounce the darkness we see all around?

One last note. The text says “and Jesus was greatly disturbed” as he approaches the tomb. Twice. The translators spare us from what the text really says. The word means agitation, indignation, even anger. It even can mean he snorts in anger. Jesus snorts! He is agitated and indignant and angry with the darkness that Lazarus’ death represents. That the people around him are willing to allow darkness to continue. He is snorting mad he is so “disturbed.”

“Unbind him, and set him free.” “None of us are free, if one of us are chained, none of us are free.”  To walk in the Light of Christ, to become a “child of the light,” means to allow ourselves to become snorting mad with the indignities and difficulties and sadnesses we witness all around us. As that contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, put it so well: If we are for ourselves alone, then who are we? And, if not now, when?

Amy Bleuel, April Ryan, Representative Maxine Waters. Unbind them, and set them free. None of us are free, if one of us are chained, none of us are free. While Satan is still at work there is much for us to do as Children of the Light.