Saturday, April 27, 2019

"For Fear of the Jews"

Anamnesis – Remember. Every Second Sunday of Easter we read John 20:19-21 – and often refer to this Sunday as “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” It is a story, however, that is not about doubt at all. Nor is it about a lot of other things that have been ascribed to it. Such as Anti-Semitism.

It’s a story that begins by depicting ten of the remaining disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” (Judas is gone, Thomas is not there) What the text in John appears to be doing is to observe the divide between Galileans who live in northern Israel, and Judeans who live in and around Jerusalem in the south. The northern folk tend to be farmers and fishermen, while those in Jerusalem represent the Priestly caste and aristocratic remnants of the ancient monarchy. Many of the Judeans have been forced to work for Rome to carry out the Empire’s subjugation of the Israelite population, which was and is to this day a diverse and pluralistic society. These Judeans were seen as collaborators with a system of oppression.  Many in the north resented and feared “the Judeans,” and for good reasons: onerous taxation for the Temple and the Empire being first and foremost, and the military enforcement of such taxation.

The point being, arguably until after Jesus and after the fall of the Temple in 70 ce, there was no such entity as “the Jews,” as we know them today. Try explaining that to white supremacists. Nevertheless, we who read this year in and year out owe it to ourselves, our Jewish neighbors and the world to be clear that this passage, which is likely written in a Jewish community in the late first century, is not advocating that Jewish people are to be feared.

Then there is the misunderstanding that somehow Jesus and the New Testament introduce new notions of forgiveness and love. In fact, throughout the history of Israel, forgiveness was a well-defined process about which Jesus reminds his disciples. If someone sins against another, that person can ask to be forgiven. Depending on the nature of the offense, however, and in whatever stage of psychic or physical recovery the offended party may be, forgiveness may be refused, or “retained” in the language of the story. The offender may return two more times asking for forgiveness, and it is up to the offended party to continue to retain the sin, or forgive it. If refused a third time, then, and only then, may the offender seek forgiveness from God. Which is the basis of many of the confessional Psalms of Israel which seek God’s intervention in resolving such matters. Holocaust survivor and writer, Elie Wiesel, when asked if he could ever forgive those who carried out the Holocaust responded, “Who am I to forgive on behalf of so many?”

The danger, as the Christian Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer correctly observed, is to mistaken Jesus granting blanket powers to forgive to the disciples without the repentant offender asking for forgiveness. Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” It is equally cheap grace and chutzpah to claim that Jesus and the “God of the New Testament” introduce love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness form the background of the entire covenant relationship between Israel and its God, a God who repeatedly punishes his people by loving them even more! The dangers of cheap grace and Christian co-option of love, grace and forgiveness have also led to Anti-Semitism and worse in the history of the church: just think of the damage caused by the sinful outcomes of the Crusades, Pogroms and the Holocaust. These moments in Christian History could be considered by today’s standards as racial hatred and acts of terrorism. In my lifetime I have known Jewish people who when they were young would have to run home from school during Holy Week with Christian youth chasing them, beating them up and calling them “Christ Killers” – for fear of the Jews? Yes, in American towns and cities. For fear of the Christians.
It’s too bad that all of these misunderstandings and dangerous readings of this text have persisted since there are at least three important moments recorded in this Resurrection Appearance. Jesus appears behind locked doors and announces, “Peace be with you.” No doubt speaking Aramaic it is more likely to translate this with one word, “Shalom.” God’s Shalom as depicted in the Biblical narratives consists of social justice for all people, especially for those without resources, represented as a class of people called “widows, orphans and resident aliens.” This last means strangers who are to be considered as neighbors who are to be loved. Love means doing something useful or helpful for them whether or not you even like them. Imagine that as an Old Testament Ethic! We do well to note that Jesus says “Shalom” three times. Such repetition in Hebrew culture and literature means emphasis. He is sending the disciples out from behind closed doors to work on behalf of God’s Shalom for the whole world – every person, every creature, every speck of dust deserves to be taken care of and loved.

Next comes what many view as an odd moment. Jesus breathes on them. Not so odd for those who know the very beginning of the human story. God scoops up a handful of dust and moisture, fashions what some call a “mudman,” and breathes into its nostrils giving us life. The same word is used in Genesis chapter two as in John 20. And this breath, pneuma in Greek, ruach in Hebrew, can also mean wind and spirit. The breath, wind and spirit of God is that which animates all living things, creatures, plants, oceans, lakes and river life. Jesus is giving them a booster-shot of God’s spirit-breath to give them the energy and vitality they are going to need as they are sent out to work on behalf of God’s Shalom.

Finally, last but not least, there is Thomas. He was not present the first time Jesus appeared to the ten. They tell him what happened, but he wants to see for himself. And not just see, but place his finger in the mark of the nails on Jesus’s hands, and place his hand in Jesus’s side. Richard Swanson in his book Provoking the Gospel of John describes it this way. “The Jesus who enters this scene is explicitly the Jesus who was tortured to death in chapter 19. The crudely gory scene of his death is reprised in the crude details of the scene with Thomas. The Jesus who enters the scene has gashes and gaps where no living human has gashes and gaps. Thomas insisted that he must touch those marks of torture or he will dismiss talk of resurrection as meaningless drivel. This is not a man who doubts; it is a man who remembers. Thomas, like Wiesel, remembers the damage that was done, remembers the torture, remembers the crude physical violence. He is to be commended for his memory and for his integrity. Any resurrection, any resolution, and recovery that moves forward by forgetting the past will be insubstantial. Any moving forward that forgets the victims of past torture will be ill-prepared to deal with the continuing reality of violence and abuse. That is why 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. Indeed.” [p 173]

As such, this story is meant to make us remember, and to re-evaluate our beliefs, just as Thomas declares his belief for his Lord and his God. Things we ought to re-evaluate would be the death penalty, torture, eg as water boarding, the entire criminal justice system and prison system, not to mention the past and ongoing treatment of native peoples in the Americas, and the Church’s role in historic Anti-Semitism and the abuse of children and women. The very things this passage has been used to justify are same things the narrative means to warn us against repeating. To paraphrase our Lord and Savior, let those who have ears hear. Like Thomas, remember. Amen.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Resurrection Here and Now!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

It has been observed by some, at long last, that in the New Testament there is no description of the resurrection. Given all the detail to much of the rest of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it suddenly strikes some as odd. Although, much the same can be said about the Crucifixion. On Good Friday, the Fourth Gospel uses only four spare words, “…there they crucified him…” Luke simply has, “…they crucified Jesus there…” In either case, that’s four more words than the resurrection is allowed.

We see an empty tomb, some discarded linen, the sudden appearance of men or a young man dressed in white delivering messages, from which we move right on to a Risen Christ appearing to the likes of Mary Magdalene, or two people walking home, or visiting the scared and hiding disciples behind locked doors.

Curious, isn’t it, that it is only now occurring to some that what many consider the pivotal moment of Christian Faith, his rising from the dead, receives no attention whatsoever?
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Equally overlooked, it seems, until Richard Rohr points it out in his new book, The Universal Christ, is that Paul in a letter to the Corinthians seems to imply that resurrection is a general principal of reality, not a one-time unique occurrence, but rather is a pattern of creation that has always been true when he writes, “If there is no resurrection from death, Christ himself cannot have been raised!” [1 Corinthians 15: 13] Or, as Rohr understands Paul to be saying, “…the reason we can trust Jesus’s resurrection is that we can already see resurrection happening everywhere else.” [Rohr p170]

Paul sees resurrection as a general principal of all reality. Modern science agrees. Nothing is the same forever. The Buddha understood this 600-years or so before Christ when he taught, “Everything is changing. Nothing stays the same.” And we now know, thanks to science, 98% of the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year, and every seven years every cell in our body is new. Even I can see that the landscape of our yard is not that same as it was last year, let alone when we purchased it in 1995. Caterpillars go into a chrysalis cave and emerge as butterflies. Stars become Red Giants, Supernovas and Black Holes. Stardust becomes human beings, human beings become dust. Suggests Rohr, “Resurrection is another word for change, but particularly positive change – which we tend to see only in the long run. In the short run it often just looks like death.” [Rohr 171] Thus, in our burial liturgy we say, “Life is changed, not ended…”
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

And really, how can we expect any one of the four Gospels to give a moment-by-moment description of physical forces the likes of which remain mysterious even to modern science. And is it not more impressive that the ancient imagination could some how give rise to things that only modern science is beginning to understand?

General principal of creation or not, it is clear that the women who arrived at the tomb on the third day, what we call Sunday, were not expecting it to be open, let alone empty. By the way, we often sing of Christ’s “three-day prison,” but from noon on Friday to dawn on Sunday is barely 42 or 43 hours, short of two days let alone three! Jesus was obviously in a hurry to get on with things. And as depicted in the art of Eastern Christianity, he was already off doing what he is depicted at doing best: freeing people from whatever bondage imprisons them. In the painting and icons of the East you see him literally dragging people out of jails, locks flying, and pulling people out of Hell, not thrusting them into it, but literally and figuratively abolishing any idea of hell.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

We might pause for a moment to note that in Luke, and in the other gospels, the primary witnesses to all of this are women. Luke names three of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James. There were others who remain nameless. They did not see the body and were “perplexed.” Then two men in dazzling clothes, (not the Transfigured Jesus, and not time-travelers from Saturday Night Fever) reminded him that he had told them that this would happen. They run to tell the eleven, who immediately write their witness off as “an idle tale,” – or, as another translator puts it, “They appeared in the men’s eyes as women’s trinkets, those words did.” Women’s trinkets! Oh, my!

Yet, Peter is either curious, or takes them more seriously than the other ten, redeems himself for his previously miserable behavior and goes to look for himself. “…then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the empty tomb. I picked up a book I had not looked at for some years. It is a collection of writings by the first American-born saint, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, a former Episcopalian who became a Roman Catholic and founded the Sisters of Charity, first in Baltimore, later moving their center out to Emmitsburg. The writings were collected from her journals by Dr.Sister Ann T. Flood, who supervised my seminary field work for two years working with abandoned and homeless teenagers in group homes in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. She was drawn to the poetry of Mother Seton, and somehow the spirit led me to open that book and to see one of the very last poems she had written as she was dying at the age of 47.

If the moment of resurrection can be described, I believe Mother Seton comes close:

The sleep and dream of life
awakening to another life
the horizon of futurity
the pure skies of heaven
dawning of eternity
Rising sun of Immortality
angelic singing
views immense
Jesus – infinity itself
boundless light
all delight
all bliss
all GOD
all this may be tomorrow
if only from the sleep
and dreams
of life
I may
through penance
and innocence
truly awake in Jesus!

From Courage and Grace
Dr. Ann T. Flood, SC    2010

I cannot escape reading and re-reading these words of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. It is as if she already has seen, and heard and smelled and felt the next stage of our evolution. And she sees this stage we call life as a time of sleep and dreams. This is a woman who has witnessed the power and truth her Lord’s resurrection in the midst of what was a difficult life that often demanded her utmost courage and grace.

Most of all, Mother Seton sees that what emptied that tomb, what changed Jesus to Christ, what made all things new, is what awaits us all. One day we will all “truly awake in Jesus!”

That is why we are here this morning: to witness for ourselves the empty tomb. To imagine, if only for a moment, this moment, what resurrection, positive change, does look like,  will look like, if only we take the time to stop and join with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, Mother Seton and all the other nameless women who have witnessed first hand what we will all experience first-hand.

We Come from Love, we Return to love, and Love is all around. Rohr suggests elsewhere that “…fully Implanted Love cannot help but evolve and prove victorious, and our word for that final victory is ‘resurrection.” [Rohr 180] One day we will all “truly awake in Jesus!” as Mother Seton sees in her vision. That day can be now for those who want to see, hear, smell and know the reality of Love that is all around us; of which she and those she followed and those she taught are so much a part of:
awakening to another life
the horizon of futurity
the pure skies of heaven
dawning of eternity
Rising sun of Immortality
angelic singing
views immense
Jesus – infinity itself
boundless light
all delight
all bliss
all GOD

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 19, 2019

Good Friday

It is good, sisters and brothers. It is very good.

It’s a dance. A ritual that plays out throughout history to this day. Those with power dance with those who are powerless. Those with power do their best to incite violence among the people over whom they exert their power day by day by day. To incite violence, the powerful believe, will divide the rest and will justify their own violence. Violence begats violence.

On the corner of the Baltimore Museum of Art is a neon-light sculpture that sums up this dance we call The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as it blinks through the night: Violins – Violence -Silence – Silence – Violence – Violins. Back and forth it goes, a kind of colorful yet relentless reminder of the dance we Christians call Good Friday. It is hard to see what exactly makes it so Good as we rehearse once again this dance of Violence. What are we meant to see in this Dance? Why do we rehearse this once a year?

After all, forty days ago we repented every sin on Ash Wednesday, reminding ourselves that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. Return. Re-turn. How often must we turn, turn till we come down right? Who are we in this dance? A dance involving the power structures of the Empire and those the power structures are meant to govern – by govern, of course, we mean hold the people in check. Keep them distracted. Pharaoh distracted them by making them work harder and harder. Make more bricks, he said. Now make the bricks without straw, he said. Then recognizing that there were more of them, he says, kill the babies lest they become so great in number that they can overthrow us and our power and our accumulated wealth. Violence begats violence. Violins, Violence, Silence.

It was anything but silence that day in Jerusalem, the Day of Preparation. People had come from all over the ancient world to see the Judeans rehearse their festival of Freedom from Domination Systems that produce almighty wealth for a few, The Passover. Once upon a time a group of slaves had successfully escaped the endless dance of violence to a new life, a new land, a new kind of Freedom by relying solely on the Good Providence of their God. A God who provides them with Daily Bread – that is, a God who discourages piling up great barns filled with the Produce of the Land, but rather learning to live on what is provided and necessary for the day.

Life in the Roman Empire was no fun for those who worked all day and often into the night only to see the produce of their weary hands and bodies sent off to fuel the Empire and its engines of population control, the most evil of which is State Sponsored Public Execution – of which Crucifixion was the most brutal form of torture leading to certain death, death on a Roman Cross.

Pilate was the most brutal of the brutal. He toys with his victims like a cat with a mouse. He speaks of truth. “What is truth?” This time, however, the victim is no victim. This time the victim seems possessed of a greater power as he refuses to dance. “Don’t you know I have power?” thunders Caesar’s appointed Governor and Instrument of Brutality to “keep the Peace.” “You have no power – your only power comes from above, ie Caesar.” Surely that angers Pilate to have the truth of the matter laid bare.

Some in the crowd have been impressed with the victim’s teaching, but even more so the young man’s ability to not simply talk the talk, but walk the walk. This Galilean welcomes sinners and eats with them, they say. He welcomes all to his table – which even he acknowledges is not his at all, but it is his Father’s table. There are no rules governing who can sit at his Father’s table since his Father welcomes all people from everywhere, no questions asked. He goes so far as to invite all who have been outcast to return, to re-turn, to the presence of the one who is Love Incarnate – a love that many waters cannot quench, a love that offers a place at the table for widows, orphans, resident aliens, “Give me your tired, your poor,” he says day in and day out, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” I’ll welcome them. I’ll love them. I’ll care for them. I’ll make them whole once again. Not with violence of torture and execution, but with the violence of love.

Jesus is not alone. The narration makes it look that way, but don’t believe the standard account. Jesus is not alone. There are those who walk with him in our own day, those who pick up the torch of freedom for all. They have names like Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Martin, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero. They and others all share in his care for the powerless, showing them that power comes from within, not from the Empire and those who do the Empire’s bidding.

Archbishop Oscar Romero. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture in El Salvador. He spoke out against violence, especially state sponsored violence. He preached the Word of God, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Among his sermons Romero said the following:

We have never preached violence.
except the violence of love.
which left Christ nailed to a cross,
   the violence we must each do to ourselves
   to overcome our selfishness
   and such cruel inequalities among us.
The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword,
   the violence of hatred.
It is the violence of love,
   Of brotherhood,
The violence that seeks to beat weapons
   Into sickles for work.  Nov 27, 1977

For those who love God, all things work for their good.
  there is no misfortune,
  there are no catastrophes
  there are no sorrows, no matter how extraordinary,
  that cannot become crowns of glory and of hope
When suffered with love for God.   December 1, 1977

And just moments before he was assassinated while celebrating Holy Communion at the altar in an El Salvador hospital chapel:

God’s reign is already present on our Earth in mystery.
When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.
That is the hope that inspires Christians.
   We know that every effort to better society,
   especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained,
   is an effort that God blesses,
            That God wants,
            That God demands of us.”   March 24, 1980

That day in Jerusalem most people were busy shopping, procuring the necessary food items to celebrate Passover, the Festival of the Lord, the Festival of Freedom from the violence of Empires. They had no time to waste on another of Rome’s Show Trials. Most had never heard of the young man from Galilee. But there were those who saw and heard. Those like Archbishop Oscar Romero who risked walking the walk of the young man from Galilee – who risked preaching the Violence of Love.

And because of Jesus, and Romero, and Tubman, and Martin, and all those who have seen and heard what happened on that day in Jerusalem, the City of Peace, the City of God’s Shalom, we have been welcomed by the young man from Galilee as God’s own Beloved. We see now that as we gaze upon the image of the crucified Christ our hearts soften toward all suffering, to see how we ourselves have been bitten by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always softened toward us. We gain compassion toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

There are those who spend whole lifetimes on the cross, and Jesus chooses to be with them, to join them, to offer them comfort as he shares in their afflictions. We know who they are. We are called to love them as he loves them.

We look upon Rome’s instrument of torture and death and see new life for all people everywhere, here and now.

God’s reign is already present on our Earth in mystery.
When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.
That is the hope that inspires Christians.
   We know that every effort to better society,
   especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained,
   is an effort that God blesses,
            That God wants,
            That God demands of us.”  

That is why this day is Good. So good. So very very good. For we know that we are not alone any longer – that there is an end to violence and suffering, and that the end begins here, and now, in our seeing and hearing this story of Divine Love and Compassion for all people here and everywhere, world without end. God’s reign is already present on our Earth in mystery. It is good, sisters and brothers, it is very good. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

A New Commandment/Mandatum

Inscribed on a bronze tablet at the foot of the Statue of Liberty are these words of Emma Lazarus:          The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These might well sum up the themes of the Christian observance of Maundy Thursday. The lessons remind us of where the story began: the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt celebrated annually as Passover. Jesus and his friends on their way to Jerusalem the week of Passover. We read Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, the Lord’s instructions to Moses and Aaron the particulars of how to celebrate their freedom as “a festival to the Lord.”

As John portrays the scene, however, the Last Supper Jesus shares with his friends is the night before the day of preparation for the Passover – not a Passover seder. We can imagine that Jerusalem is bustling with visitors and pilgrims from all over the ancient world and not at all aware of what is happening in that upper room. Yet, freedom was on everyone’s mind we can be sure as the oppressive bondage of Rome was felt as an infringement on the freedom of peoples throughout the extensive Roman Empire. Perhaps that is why even gentiles traveled far to be in Jerusalem for this annual festival of freedom – a festival that demonstrated a hope that one day all people might once again be free from the yoke of Rome just as the Israelites had once escaped slavery in Egypt. Until we are all free, we are none of us free.   

Slavery. Because of our particular history with slavery in the United States, a history that still remains an open, gaping wound in our common life to this day, we sometimes lose sight of the various kinds of slavery still practiced at home and abroad, including what we now call human trafficking. Until we are all free, we are none of us free.

 This is no doubt one reason Jesus, as leader of a movement of God’s love, mercy, justice and forgiveness, takes on the role of a common household slave as he washes his disciples’ feet. Peter speaks out for all of us to express just how shocking this moment really is. “You will never wash my feet,” he cries out. Many of us feel uncomfortable accepting such service from others. It seems to make us nervous when friends and others go out of their way to be helpful, especially if it is to do something as tactile and intimate as washing one’s feet. The youngest slave, a child, was assigned this task in an ancient world where one walked long, rocky and dusty roads to arrive at one’s destination. Upon entering a household, this child would wash your feet. We can allow ourselves to think about just how good that must have felt.

But for one’s master, one’s teacher, the leader of a movement of God’s love to get down on his hands and knees to wash feet – it’s simply unimaginable. But had he not said to enter God’s kingdom one must come as a child? And has Peter, have we, already forgotten that at dinner the week before Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, had anointed his feet with expensive ointment and wiped them with her hair? Has Peter forgotten the unnamed “woman of the city” who knelt before Jesus as he was dining with a Simon the Pharisee, and washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair? Dare we allow ourselves to think that perhaps these two women were prophetic and had inspired Jesus to do the same?

A colleague in seminary called John’s narrative the Felini Last Supper: across several chapters there is no mention of bread or wine, body and blood, but rather Jesus stripping down, putting a towel around him, getting down on his hands and knees like a child slave to wash feet. No doubt it was shocking then and it ought to be shocking now as there are children all over the world and right here in the United States being trafficked as sex slaves every day – along with women and men. Jesus seems to be saying, ‘We may be about to celebrate Passover, but as long as one of us is chained none of us are free! This is what I must do, what we all must do, until all men, women and children are free once and for all.” Until we are all free, we are none of us free.     

Amy Jill Levine reminds us in her book, Entering into the Passion of Jesus, that “the week of the Last Supper is Passover, when Jews celebrate freedom from slavery. The time should remind us that slavery still exists, and its effects still exist.” [p 125] She goes on to suggest that Jesus chooses to act as a slave to invite followers of his to do the same. “They could choose to give up their freedom to God who then becomes the only master they ever have. If God is their master, then no earthly master, no earthly slavery, has true power.

“The idea makes sense, but it should not cause us to celebrate slavery; it should force us to remember that there are people, then and now, who suffer slavery, from Israelites in Egypt to the slaves that appear in the New Testament….to the slaves who exist throughout the world today. It is insufficient, Jesus tells us at the Last Supper, to take up the role of a slave when we know there are actual slaves, human beings being treated by other human beings as property. To be a servant leader, to take on the role of a slave, also means taking on the role of freeing others – not only from sin but from bondage. The risks of eating that bread and sharing that cup and getting down on our knees to wash one another’s feet are high. We give up personal authority; we serve others; we are to free others.” [Amy Jill Levine, Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2018, p 126]

This is the very essence of the New Commandment, the New Mandatum: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. … I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Do this in remembrance of me. “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” This is what it means to enter into the passion of Jesus.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Palm Sunday 2019

Why do we do this? Every year we read two accounts of the final days of Jesus, ending with a young man hanging on a Roman cross – crucified, the most horrible form of state authorized execution – as an example to others: Do not challenge the Power of the Empire; Do not challenge the monopoly on Access to the God of the Bible – The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Power and Access. Palm Sunday this year we read Luke’s account: Luke 22:14-23:56. On Good Friday we read the account in John.

Threats to those who possess Power and Access are routinely dealt with by acts meant to instill fear. Such fear is meant to temper any thoughts to challenge the Power of the Empire and the monopoly on Access to the God of the Bible. Historically, such acts of fear have included acts of mass killings: genocide and holocaust.

Where and when the story before us takes place, Jerusalem during the week of the Feast of the Passover, calls us to look back at two previous holocausts: the killing of Hebrew babies ordered by Pharaoh and the killing of Hebrew babies ordered by Herod, the King of the Jews under Caesar. Passover in Jerusalem would also be a time to remember the destruction of the First Temple in the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem during the Passover festival, there are already hints that a new holocaust and destruction of the Second Temple was not far off. Indeed, in Luke’s account as Jesus is lead to the cross, he says to the women along the way, "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?" I am just one man, he seems to say. Much worse is on the way. In fact, when Luke is writing this account, the city and the Temple have been burned to the ground, and upwards of one million Jews have been killed by the same Roman Legions tasked by Pilate to execute the young man from Galilee. A young man who asserts that there is no Power but that of God, and that no one and no system of sacrifice can control Access to this God of all Creation.

We do well to note that at the time of Jesus many of those in charge of Access to God through the Temple system of Sacrifices have also been tasked by Rome to enact the will of the Empire. They live lives of a kind of affluence and privilege not experienced throughout the rest of the country. We do well to note: Jesus did not divide the people of Israel. Rome divided them against themselves, so often the strategy of colonial rule.

As Jesus enters the city in what can only be described as the highest form of political theatre, on a donkey with people placing their own cloaks, their own clothing, along the way, perhaps to cushion the footsteps of the beast of burden, the procession is in stark contrast to the arrival of Roman dignitaries on mighty steeds, legions of soldiers, incense burning before and after the procession to protect the Royal visitor from the “smell” of the people and the city streets. Jesus enters as one of the people, one of us, and one can imagine the shouts of triumph and praise punctuated with much laughter and joyful mockery of those who control all Power and Access within the city walls.

Some in the crowd have experienced Jesus and have followed him to see what comes next. They know him as a man who provides Access to God through healing, sharing meals together and his teachings on forgiveness and mercy – such healing, forgiveness and mercy and access to the God of all Creation is free and without charge, without sacrifice, available here and now.

We are mistaken, I believe, that Jesus had to die as some sort of payment and sacrifice for our sins. Indeed, our sins are many, and his call to turn our lives around, repent, and begin a new way of living, walk a new path of love, mercy and forgiveness lies at the core of his teaching, and even more so in his actions. Actions that threaten those who would control Access to God through appointed sacrifices in the Temple, and those charged with maintaining Roman controls of Power.

As Franciscan priest, monk and theologian Richard Rohr reminds us, Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. God’s mind did not need changing. God loves all creation and at ever step of the way of creation’s unfolding God declares it to be good. We are good. We are God’s Beloved. No, Jesus, says Rohr, came to change our minds about God – and about ourselves – and about where goodness and evil really lie. [Rohr, The Universal Christ: Convergent Press, 2019 – page 151].

For hundreds of years before Christ the Hebrew Prophets had repeatedly reminded us that our God does not require human, animal, grain, oil and fruit sacrifices. What God wants us to do is to embrace what is good: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8]

Jesus comes to us to show us just what justice and mercy look like, and how to walk humbly with God and with one another. How to show justice, mercy and humility toward others. In his life, even to his death, he utterly destroys the very notion of there being any sacrificial requirement for God to love us. “Go, learn the meaning of the words, what I want is mercy not sacrifice,” he says, quoting Hosea who himself adds, “I want knowledge of God, not your holocausts.”

God is love. Love cannot be bought with sacrifice. Forgiveness that needs to be bought and paid for is not forgiveness. God in Christ on the cross spills blood to reach out to us in love meant to utterly shock the heart and turn it back to trust and love of the Creator. [Ibid Rohr, 144]

As Paul urges the church in Philippi, urges us, “ 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 exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2:5-11]

Jesus died because he lived a life that said that the Power of God is greater than any earthly pretender, and that Access to God is offered freely to everyone and everything throughout all creation. Rohr suggests that the meaning of the death of Jesus reveals the problem we are up against and gives us a way through it:
It is not God who is violent. We are.
It is not God that demands suffering of humans. We do.
God does not need or want suffering – neither in Jesus nor in us. [Ibid Rohr 146]

The problem of divine love is settled from God’s side. In our insecurity, we keep re-creating necessary sacrifices. As we listen to this story with the eyes of our hearts open, we are to know that in this story God is calling every one and every thing, not just a few chosen ones, to God’s self – to the very heart of God’s love, justice, mercy and humility.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Spikenard Sunday

The Silence of Lazarus - John 12:1-11
It is six days before Passover, or the night before Palm Sunday, making it 6 days before Good Friday, and thus 8 days before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Lazarus in a story that centers on his sisters Martha and Mary. Previously in chapter 11 it is described as the home of Martha and Mary in a story that centers on Lazarus in which Lazarus, who had been dead , anointed and in a tomb for four days – long enough for Martha to point out in the finest phrasing of King James English, “Lord, he stinketh!” – stumbles out of his tomb very much alive. A link is made, therefore, between the life and resurrection of Lazarus and the life and death of Jesus, as Mary is pictured at Jesus’ feet, anointing, massaging, his feet with the oil of the spikenard plant – an aromatic ointment that grows above 3,000 feet in places like the Himilayas, making it a rare and expensive import, used in perfumes, medicinal ointments, and to prepare bodies for burial hopefully to stave off the fate of those like Lazarus who after a few days “stinketh.”

After giving Lazarus new life, there are now those in the employ of the Roman occupation who want them both dead. Jesus has been walking from Galilee to Bethany. Jesus is flesh and blood, and walking great distances on dusty, rocky roadways and paths, presumably wearing only sandals, if that. Is it too much to assume that having Mary massage and perfume his tired feet with her hands and wipe them with her hair might feel really really good? The Greek word ekmasso, to wipe, is the same verb used in the Fourth Gospel to describe Jesus washing the disciple’s feet at the Last Supper (John 13). Jesus’ command that disciples must be those people who wash one another’s feet is then presaged and demonstrated by Mary’s devotion of gratitude and love toward Jesus.

While Mary attends to Jesus’ physical needs, we are told, quite simply, that “Martha served,” and that Lazarus sat at table with him. It ought to be duly noted that later in this same chapter 12 Jesus states, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (12:26).” Thus, Martha’s service becomes another model act of discipleship, serving others, again before Jesus speaks on the subject. [Gail O’Grady, John, Westminster John Knox Press,Louisville:2006 – p.123]

In addition to the four of them being friends, it may be construed that this family of two sisters and a brother are grateful for what Jesus has done for Lazarus – that this is a meal of thanksgiving, and that the sisters in particular serve and attend to Jesus out of sheer gratitude and love. The only other person identified as being present is Judas, “who was about to betray him.” Unlike the sisters, the only disciple present is shown to be acting in ways utterly unlike those expected of disciples of Jesus.

Unable to grasp what is happening at this thanksgiving meal and celebration of new life, Judas complains that using the costly spikenard ointment is wasteful.  After all, it cost upwards of 300 denari, more than a year’s wages for the average worker. This money, he argues, could have been used for taking care of the poor.  The editors of John insert, “But he said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put in it.” Judas, as we all know, is only in it for the money.  And, evidently, Judas either has not been paying attention to the several times Jesus has alluded to his soon to be accomplished death on a Roman Cross, or has no real grasp of the consequences of his own upcoming actions.

No doubt with some sense of resignation and tedium at having to repeat himself, Jesus says, “Let her be – leave her alone. She only bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It was the late Kurt Vonnegut, who in a Palm Sunday sermon points out that this can come across as somewhat of a joke – albeit a dark one at that. Vonnegut also points out that whatever Jesus said, it was in Aramaic, translated into Koine Greek by the evangelist, and later rendered in archaic English before presenting itself in its more familiar rendering in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). And that when it comes to translation, jokes are the first to go!

Unfortunately, as Vonnegut also observes, this statement – which in one sense is a statement of fact since Judas appears not to “have” Jesus at all, but rather sees Jesus as a means to a monetary end – has often been paraphrased by those who want to blame the poor for being poor as meaning something like, “The poor are hopeless, we will always be stuck with them.” Which inevitably leads to the kind of talk that says the poor are lazy, or dumb, have too many children, drink too much, do drugs, cheat the government, and somehow still manage to drive around in Cadillacs. If you have ever been poor, or served among them, you know this is patently false.

What are you worried about, Judas? There will be plenty of poor people for you to serve and care for after I am gone.  In fact, you could be out there serving them right now. Can’t you see, Mary and Martha are acting out of love and devotion, and you can only think about your greedy little self? There are people right outside the door just waiting to kill me and Lazarus (verse 11). Lazarus, the silent one over here, is still adjusting to new life.  I have been walking from pillar to post to proclaim my Father’s message of mercy, love, justice and reconciliation for all people, including our enemies. Tomorrow I am walking into Jerusalem to confront the rulers of this age and my certain death. Mary gets it. Martha gets it. Lazarus gets it. Some of the folks outside the door get it. Are you really the only one here that still does not see why I am here? This is a thanksgiving meal. We all give thanks that Lazarus is still among us. Could you please just for one moment not think about the bottom line, but try to live into this moment of mercy and grace? The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me. Keep the poor need you.
Vonnegut concludes that this is a Christian joke, “which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, and yet chide him about his hypocrisy all the same.” [Hypocrites You Always Have With You, The Nation, April 19, 1980-p.469]

We might wonder just why it is that Lazarus, who in a sense is the central character of chapters 11 and 12, is depicted as never saying a word in the midst of all of this: being set free from the tomb, given new life from having been dead, to having Jesus in his home, at his table, sharing a meal – a celebration of thanksgiving for the Lord who offers to sit with each of us every moment of every day. Thanksgiving, by the way, is the translation of the word Eucharist, the ancient Greek word used in the early church to describe Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Mass. This last, Mass, itself comes from the Latin word for dismissal, the final action of the weekly Eucharistic Feast – that moment when those who do choose to sit with Jesus at table week in and week out are sent back out into the world, into the mission field, to serve those Jesus loved – the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. Jesus is with us always to the end of the age – provided we choose to go where he goes and serve those he serves. If only Judas could have seen this. If only he could have known. Yet, we must never forget, as St. Luke observes in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, “he was numbered among us.” May his loss be our gain. Judas, and all of us, might benefit from Lazarus’ silence. Sometimes it is better to say nothing and just watch and listen. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (12:26).” Amen.