Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday

I am officially tired of the Gospel of John.  It's not that the readings during Holy Week aren't wonderful ones but I'd like to hear from Luke tomorrow.  Ah well, that's not what we are mandated and, after all, it is Mandatum Thursday.

This I command you, to love one another.  We would be happier probably if this commandment had followed something other than the washing of the disciples' feet.  That is uncomfortable enough already without having it linked to loving.  We understand how giving our infants a bath is an act of love but we aren't so sure about how washing our teenagers' sneakered, sockless feet might be the same act of love.
And then there's all those other feet in church with us.  Sure we love each other but that doesn't mean we want to touch everyone's feet.  Jesus doesn't particularly care if we want to or not.

Jesus tells Peter that refusing to have his feet washed has no part of Jesus.  Jesus washes the feet of all twelve disciples, too.  He doesn't pass over Judas but treats him with the same love he has for all the others.  Jesus washes all the feet because he loves all of the disciples and he knows that in some way or another, all of them will let him down, even betray him, that night.

There are two great acts in the service on this night.  The first is the washing of feet, something we are all encouraged by our Lord to do.  It is a symbol for us of our servanthood and reminds us that humility is a good thing.  It also says to the one whose feet we wash, you are loved, loved by the one who first washed feet and loved by me.  As you wash someone's feet, think of all the people you love enough to do this for.  Then think of all the people who have betrayed you in one way or another and ask yourself if you could wash their feet.

The second is coming together to share in the Eucharist.  This is something we do all the time in the Episcopal Church.  It is the action that brings us close to our Lord as we honor his command to Do this.  It is also, for Christians, as holy as Passover is for our Jewish brothers and sisters.  It is a clear sign that God is with us, that God saves us from ourselves.  As you come to the table to take the bread and to drink the cup, look at those who are there with you.  Remember that Jesus came to earth for all of us, that there is no one at this table who is lesser or greater than the next.  We are all loved intensely by the God who created us, died for us and rose again that we might live.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Whereever there is charity and love, God is there.  Footwashing and feasting, charity and love.  May they fill our hearts and spil over into our actions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whiplash Sunday

Palm Sunday is so odd!  Who needs two gospel readings in one service?  We are somehow supposed to begin the morning jubilant and excited.  "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!"  We are supposed to cast off our winter cloaks and lay them on Jesus' path, damping down the dust on the road and showing honor to this great teacher we have been listening to and following for some part of these last three years.

And then, just as we settle into the pews after singing All Glory Laud and Honor, we are confronted by the end of the week and are cast again as that same joyous multitude but this time, we are demanding Jesus' life!  Just like that we go from praise to spitting.  It's the kind of shift in thinking that gives me a crick in my neck and an ache above my eyebrows.  What's more, reading this story as we do 2,000 years after the event (give or take a few dozen years) gives us a warped sense of what happened.  Too bad the multitude of disciples didn't have Luke's manuscript handy at the start of the week so they could see and hear clearly.
You see, those folks understood the significance of the Mount of Olives, how the Messiah was supposed to come from there.  They likely thought the donkey a strange touch but some of them knew there is prophetic writing to back it up.  But they didn't have Luke's description of the scene like we do.  They were too busy being in that place, feeling the excitement and joy and looking forward to what was surely to come next - the victory of the Messiah over the Roman oppressors.

We, though, see the scene through Luke's eyes.  We feel the sense of the multitude that victory and triumph belong to Jesus even as we see the paradox of that victory in the image of this king riding on the young donkey, certainly not an animal fit for a king.  Try as we might, we cannot manage to be so caught up in the crowd's emotion that we miss that detail.  Luke makes it stand out for us.

And few who were there likely heard the Pharisees rebuke Jesus, demanding that he silence the people.  Would they have understood the reference to the stones crying out in Habakkuk?  There the stones cry out for injustice done against the peoples: war and violence, slave labor and degradation.  Here, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the stones would cry with that same message for he has spent his entire ministry speaking for these same peoples - those marginalized by war, economics, greed and even religion.

Now on the other side of the city, another triumphal entry is occurring.  It is the season of the Passover when tempers run high in Jerusalem.  So Pilate, the Roman governor is coming into Jerusalem with his troops to make sure that the peace is kept throughout the festival.  His entry is far more regal with his servants and troops arrayed before and behind him.  No one dares get close enough to lay down a cloak or palm branch here.  Pilate himself likely rides in on a fine horse or in a gilded chariot driven by a personal slave.  Yes, Pilate is coming to bring peace, too, peace to the territory of Judea and especially the city of Jerusalem, the peace of submission to a mightier nation. 
Yet the multitude knowing what is happening on the other side of the city, still shouts out, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.!" They, too, expect peace, the peace of the kingdom of God brought about by the reign of Christ.

But again, we cannot really share their enthusiasm.  It seems naive to us who watch the drama year after year from such a great distance, a distance of more than time.  We know what will happen when these two great figures meet.  There is nothing peaceful in the encounter.  It is painful, confusing and maybe even a little embarrasing.  When you hear the Passion, have you ever felt like someone sitting in the stands saying, "Come on Jesus, you can turn this around.  You've got the power and the words to change their minds and make them see the light.  Just do it!"  You know who is going to win and you know it looks like you are backing the loser.  This time, we hope the story will end differently, that the orchestra will break into Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Jesus and Pilate will clasp hands in solidarity and stride off for a festival banquet.
God doesn't do peace like that.  "The peace of God," says the hymn, "it is no peace  but strife closed in the sod.  Yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God."

The multitude of disciples is all gone now.  They have wandered away all week long as the peace they longed for seems less and less likely to occur.  Enough of them stayed long enough to be turned against Jesus and to demand his death.  The last eleven have put great distance between themselves and Calvary by the time Jesus is nailed on the cross, fearing for their own lives.  No one wants to be crucified, after all. 

Even Pilate doesn't get the peace he expected to bring to this city.  The Jewish leaders have dragged him into this interreligious warfare despite his best attempts to stay out of it.  And those leaders of faith and Temple get no peace, either.

We don't feel peace, either, do we?  This is one of those times when the grace of God, the peace of God, the love of God seem to have withdrawn from us.  For we know that we are the multitude of disciples.  We get caught up in the excitement and joy and sometimes we are convinced to turn away.  We are uncomfortable playing the part of that multitude when they cry, "Crucify him!" because we know we have done so and will probably do so again even though we try hard not to. 

But, my brothers and sisters, do not fear.  The love, the peace and the grace of God surround us now just as the disciples were surrounded.  Whether we find ourselves bold enough to stand at the foot of the cross or too afraid to come very close at all, God is standing with us.

God is with us all this week as we hear the stories of that first Holy Week.  Let us allow ourselves to feel that presence, to share God's pain and sorrow just as God shares ours.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Figs, Sins and Mercy

The crowd around Jesus is large, a multitude of thousands according to Luke, so many that they are stepping on each other in an attempt to get closer. The chapter before our reading today is one familiar teaching after another about possessions and anxiety and the coming of the kingdom of God. But they keep peppering Jesus with questions and it is clear that they do not understand him.

In frustration, Jesus cries out that if they are able to tell the weather from the clouds and the winds, why can’t they interpret the present time.

It is in the midst of that conversation that someone mentions the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate’s forces while they made their sacrifices in the Temple. It would seem that they are telling Jesus they certainly can interpret the time. We just don’t know exactly what their interpretation is. Are they saying that the Romans are getting bolder, that it is no longer safe even in the Temple, that now more than ever they need a King David-like messiah who will rid them of the oppressors?

Or are they saying that the fate of these Galileans is proof of the fact that they were not righteous ones making sacrifice but sinners who got what was coming to them. Perhaps they believe that God strikes down sinners who dare enter the Temple!

Whatever they meant, Jesus immediately turns the talk to sin, repentance and, yes, judgment. “Do you honestly think these Galileans were more sinful than all the others? Do you think the eighteen people killed when the tower fell were the only sinners in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, what happened to them had nothing to do with their sins.”

And that’s where everyone there probably began breathing a sigh of relief. Except that Jesus hadn’t gotten to the period of his sentence. “No; but unless you repent you will perish as they did.”

What? Does this mean this multitude needs to go home and lock themselves in their houses so that nothing can fall on them and Pilate can’t get to them? Didn’t Jesus understand that they were merely pointing out they could interpret the time? Is he telling them that they are not righteous, that God’s judgment could fall on them, too? You can begin to understand why some of these same people will turn against Jesus, can’t you? He is intent on poking them with a sharp stick.

And then he tells the parable of the fig tree. Fig trees have often been used by the prophets to represent Israel. The man in the parable probably lives in town, an absentee landlord. Note that he “has” the tree planted and it is to his vinedresser, a servant, that he is talking. All the man wants is the fruit. And when there is none, he decides that the tree should be cut down.

Now any gardener will tell you this is reasonable. Figs use up a lot of nutrients in the soil, nutrients that the grapes would be getting otherwise. And their sole purpose is to produce figs. If they don’t, then taking the tree out makes sense.

But the vinedresser asks for more time, for mercy on this tree. He will take better care of it, loosen the soil and fertilize it with manure to give it more nutrients. “Just give it this one more year, sir, and let’s see what happens.”

We are not told what happens to the tree. The disciples don’t ask for an interpretation of the parable. Maybe they understand this one. So why do we - I - have a hard time with it?

The first part of the reading makes good sense to me. I don’t for a minute think that bad things happen because God is striking us down for our sins or even the sins of our ancestors. That was the common belief at the time and it is still widely believed today. If it weren’t, then Pat Robertson’s statement that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment wouldn’t have made the news, would it? When bad things happen to our dear friends, we don’t always know what to think. Well, Jesus makes it clear that we can stop thinking those things happened because of a person’s sins. Bad things often happen to us when we sin but God doesn’t cause us to become terminally ill or be hit by a drunk driver. Rather we live in the consequences of our own bad decisions, something which can be pretty hellish.

I do believe that Jesus is telling the multitude and us that we may well die without having made our sins right. If the only time we confess is here on Sunday, thinking that will take care of repentance for another week, we are sadly mistaken. There is a prayer in The Great Litany that asks the Lord to deliver us from dying suddenly and unprepared. Just like those who went to make their offerings in the Temple and found themselves the victims of state oppression. Or those who happened to be walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. Confession, repentance and reconciliation are daily activities. We don’t store our sins up all week long and get rid of them all at once. Some might take years but that just means we need to work on them for as long as it takes.

But the parable reminds me that even though the wrath of God doesn’t manifest itself in cancer or car accidents, the wrath of God still exists. Judgment Day will happen for all of us. An author I read this week said she imagines it will be like standing under a glaring spotlight and being bombarded by all the pains she has caused others, pains she meant to inflict and pain she didn’t know she had. For me, it has always been like the parable of the wheat and the weeds that grow up together, are harvested and then separated with the weeds being burned up.

I believe we will stand face to face with the Lord and be judged. I believe we can know a little of what that will be like every day when we sit down with God and talk about what we’ve done and what we haven’t done, about how we have hurt or been hurt and what we need to do about that.

But before we go thinking that we need to live our lives in fear and trembling waiting for the ax to be put to our roots, we need to remember the end of that parable. It’s about mercy and it says that even in judgment there is mercy. They come together as part of a whole. We all want mercy, rely on mercy when we go wrong, pray for mercy at least every Sunday - Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

So I believe that, in some odd way, judgment is something we ought to look forward to. It won’t be painless but we will come away truly cleansed of all our wrongdoings, perhaps truly recognizing God’s love and mercy for the first time, so that we may increase in knowledge and love of the Lord and go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in God’s heavenly kingdom.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Haiti and dining out

Time flies and I've not been motivated to post much, I guess. Almost two months has gone by since the last one.

I've been thinking about Haiti a lot since the earthquake. John Talbird brought a "mite box" calendar to our Diocesan Convention to encourage people to continue contributing to the relief efforts there. Our Diocese has had a companion relationship with the Diocese of Haiti - the fastest growing diocese in The Episcopal Church - in the past and there are still strong ties.

One of the things the authors of the calendar remind us is that we are not called to be benefactors of the people in Haiti but rather friends. That is certainly a different take than most of what we hear in the pleas for us to help. It is one thing to send a check to help nameless, faceless people but quite another to send help - a check or goods or warm bodies with the right skills - to stand with our friends and rebuild with them. I feel blessed to know John and others who go to Haiti regularly and bring back stories about the people there. I know, too, that those folks are also taking stories about us to the Haitians.

Yesterday's calendar entry was about the difficulty of transportation during tropical rainstorms. "Imagine unpaved roads of mud that have endured centuries of animal and vehicle traffic. The ruts are so deep that the trenches swallow tired. Puddles are three and four feet deep at times. Torrential rains can make travel so impossible that no mechanical vehicles can operate there." I am thinking of the many days this winter when county schools have been closed because of snow. Our small amounts of snowfall haven't begun to make travel as impossible as it can be in Haiti and yet, we have closed school countless times in the last two months!

Reading this calendar is incredibly humbling. Realizing that Chile is now also suffering the after effects of an earthquake and a tsunami requires me to rethink my priorities. I read the summary of my credit card expenditures for 2009 just this morning. I am ashamed to see what I spend eating out, for instance, and that is nothing compared to the general catchall "merchandise"!

So this is the year that I take living simply to heart. I'm not quite sure that will extend to going to the library rather than the bookstore but it will definitely take in dining out and "merchandise."