Monthly Archives: April 2011

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY, YEAR A

Exodus 12:1-14a

Psalm 78:14-20,23-25

I Corinthians 11:23-26[27-32]

John 13:1-15

“The Lord Jesus, after he had supped with his disciples, and had washed their feet, said to them, ‘Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done for you?  I have given you an example,  that you should do as I have done.’”

During Jesus’ time, no one seemed to understand exactly what he was doing or to what purpose.  They were expecting him, after his arrival in Jerusalem to the “Hosannas!” & cheering of the crowd, to overthrow the hated Romans & establish a Jewish kingdom in its place, so they could finally lord it over their oppressors.  But we now know that that was not his intent at all – not even close.  The disciples & most of his other followers just didn’t get it, did they?

Do we?

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, charges his listeners to “Examine yourselves.”   Tonight, before we wash feet & take part in the Eucharist, we are called to do the same.

Who do we think Jesus is?  And what does it mean to follow him?

In Jesus’ time, only the lowliest servants in a household washed the guests’ feet.  For Jesus, their rabbi & Lord, to perform this service was an appalling, even scandalous act!   Peter’s reaction would be typical – “You will never wash my feet!”  But Jesus patiently explains it to him; & Peter, with his normal all-or-nothing approach says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands & my head!”  Poor Peter just doesn’t understand what Jesus is trying to teach him here.   The point is that we are to be servants to one other in love, following the kind of agape love that Jesus modeled for us.

And not only that, but Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples, even the feet of Judas, his betrayer – this kind of self-sacrificing love is not reserved for a special few, it is given without judgment, without consideration for the person’s worthiness or unworthiness,  but to all . . . especially those who are most in need of forgiveness, of notice, of kindness.

Now how many of us practice that kind of love to others on a daily basis?

There’s the difficulty.

It’s one of the more difficult aspects of being a Christian – and it’s not an optional piece of the package.  Examine yourself – that’s what Lent has been about, an examination of our conduct as Christians – searching out where we meet the requirements & where we fall short, where we “miss the mark” – another term for sin – identifying those things we want to try to correct in our behavior.

If we could live by Jesus’ example of washing others’ feet (at least metaphorically), what would that look like?

As I meditated on tonight’s readings & thought about the example Jesus set for us, I thought about all the nit-picking & back-biting, the mean-spirited behavior & anger, & the general lack of kindness being practiced by assorted people in varying circumstances & spilling over into our lives; & I began to wonder about what the world would look like if we really practiced Jesus’ kind of self-giving, if we replaced hubris & self-righteousness with humility & kindness, not just with our friends, but with those with whom we differ, on small issues & large alike.

What if . . . ?

What if, for example, members of Congress knelt to wash the feet of those with opposing views, Republicans with Democrats, liberals with Tea Partiers?  Imagine John Bayner & Harry Reid, washing each other’s feet.  Just imagine.  How might that change the way they deal with one another on key issues facing this country?

And what if those who oppose immigration reform, washed the feet of those who had just made the hazardous crossing of the deserts of Mexico, paying a “coyote” to bring them across our southern border to enter this country illegally?

What if those on Wall Street humbled themselves to wash the feet of the unemployed or those dispossessed of their homes by huge interest payments on their mortgages that in turn pay their Wall Street bonuses?  & visa versa, if an unemployed person washed the feet of a stockbroker?

What if Christians washed the feet of Muslims?  Or Buddhists?  Or Sikhs & Shiites knelt to each other?  How would this change our perceptions, our way of interacting?

What if those who judge the homeless as “losers” who won’t even try to get a job, knelt to wash their feet?  And how would it feel to have a homeless person wash yours?

There actually has been a group who ministers (I think it’s once a week) to those who gather under the Burnside Bridge.  They serve food, they trim hair & beards, they offer some health services . . . & amazingly, they wash the feet of the homeless, really! – in an effort to follow Jesus’ example to the letter!  And the people on the receiving end of this self-giving act are so grateful to be treated with such kindness & love, as if they too deserved to be cared for with a gentle touch, kind words & loving hands – actions that perhaps the rest of us take for granted.

What if the tables were turned, & we suddenly found ourselves in the minority, the person who was looked down on by others?  What if you were forced to walk in someone else’s shoes?

Morgan Spurlock, has tested this over & over again on his program, “30 Days” where he finds people on both sides of a question (be it gun ownership, the homosexual lifestyle, illegal immigrants, organic food, or a host of other issues) – those who are willing to live with people from an opposing point-of-view & those who are willing to have them in their homes.  For 30 days one person lives the lifestyle of a person or family with whom he or she is in total, sometimes vehement disagreement . . . & it changes them, the people on both sides!  When we get to know each other as people, not just statistics, not just “the others,” or “those people”, we are given the opportunity to have understanding, to be kind, even generous in our dealings with them.

What if . . . ?

Not all of us can commit to a specific one-to-one ministry with others.  And we can’t be all things to all people.  But neither can we stand by & do nothing – that’s not what Christians do!  What we can do, each of us, is to begin to change ourselves & the way we deal with others.  We can begin by treating each other with kindness.  We can begin by giving up our assumptions of superiority & the idea that somehow we alone have the inside track on what is fair or right or true.  We can begin to honor the Christ in others, in all others.

So, find something that brings tears to your eyes – a person, an organization, a situation that tugs at your heart, where you can make a difference (& you can!).

Then, get down on your hands & knees & wash someone else’s feet . . . if not literally, then figuratively . . . & perform a self-sacrificing act of love . . . in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

The Rev Katharine Holland
St. David of Wales
April 21, 2011

Hidden with Christ in God

Since you have been raised with Christ,
seek the things that are above, where Christ is
.

It is not often that we hear someone sing us a love song, in real life. Maybe in the movies, maybe on the radio. If we are really lucky, somewhere along the way we might have a boyfriend or a girlfriend who says: “This song reminds me of you” or “This song perfectly expresses how I feel about you.” Or maybe someone picks out a special ringtone just for you. My beloved used to make me mix tapes. Now he makes me playlists.

I will never forget one of the first weddings I did as an ordained person. The couple told me that they wanted to say some things to each other during the service, before exchanging vows. When the time came, and it was the groom’s turn, the best man handed him a guitar and he sang to his bride. With no text or music in front of him, he sang the beautiful love song by Bruce Springsteen: If I should fall behind. If I should fall behind, wait for me; if you fall behind, I’ll wait for you.

And if you’re sitting here thinking about how no one ever sings love songs except in old movies, I’ve got good news for you: Someone has sung you a love song. Listen to the words of God as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 I have loved you with an everlasting love:
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

Now, if you’re familiar with Jeremiah, you know that he’s not a very lovey-dovey guy. And even he can get excited about God’s love. Easter is God’s love song. Easter is God’s love song to each one of us, just as it is God’s love song to the first disciples at the tomb and to everyone in between.

Mary Karr, who converted from atheism to Catholicism in her early forties, has written a poem about Resurrection which goes like this:

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and blood ink—
till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void,
even for pain, he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest’s door,
and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he longs to flow into—
from the sunflower center of your chest
outward—as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

*

            Only a poet can put words to that void between this life and the next.

It’s your limbs he longs to flow into, she writes. It’s your limbs he longs to flow into. Christ is in us and with us, as we are in God. Christ’s resurrection is our new life.

*

 The snippet of the Letter to the Colossians we heard this morning is about how we respond to God’s love song of resurrection, what we do with this new life we have been given. Since you have been raised with Christ—says the scripture—seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Seeking “the things that are above” does not mean “up there somewhere, someday,” it means living our lives as resurrected people continuing the ministry of Jesus in the world God loves so much.

These words were written to a community of new followers, who would have recently been baptized, probably during an Easter Vigil like the one we had last night. Baptism is how we enter into Christ’s death. This makes sense when we understand that the action of baptism is not symbolic washing, but symbolic drowning. This acting out of drowning in baptism is the way that followers take part in the resurrection. When St. Paul talks about being raised with Christ, he’s talking about rising out of the baptismal pool, the way Christ rose from the dead.

God’s love song is that we belong to God. Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection. Our life is God’s life. It is our limbs God longs to flow into. Our work is God’s work. We sing our love song back to God when we continue Jesus’ work of healing, reconciliation, and transformation. This is our Good News.

Of course, over and over again we forget who we are and whose we are. We let ourselves get torn up by anxiety, competition, or greed. Pick your poison. We come down off of wonderful spiritual mountain-top experiences, maybe even a lovely Easter Sunday at church, and we go home, we change our clothes, we get together with family members with whom we struggle, or we’re alone and we wish we weren’t, or we go back to work and feel insecure or hurt, or someone takes our place in line at the grocery store when we’re hungry and tired, and we think bad thoughts.

And this is why we have Easter, year after year. Jesus’ rising to new life with God happened only once; ours happens over and over again. This is why we celebrate the resurrection every week, Sunday after Sunday. Because we, too, have been raised from the dead, and we sometimes forget that. We forget—even in the course of a day, some days—what God’s love song sounds like. The Easter dying-and-rising experience is for anyone, any time, who ever says: I don’t like my life, I don’t like the way I feel or the way I think or the way I live. Anyone.

I know many of you are familiar with the concept of “altar call” and may even come from traditions that have them, days and seasons when people are invited to give their lives over to Jesus in a very public way. Some of you may have even responded to an altar call. Here in the Episcopal Church we think we are far more reserved than that. So I bet you didn’t know that we have an altar call every week. Our altar call happens every time we bless bread and wine in the name of Jesus and say “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

This is how we live into the having-been-raised-from-the-dead experience that we share with Jesus. This is how we remember who we are and whose we are. Sharing ordinary bread and wine made extraordinary by all of these unlikely people gathered in one place at this unlikely banquet table—this is how we get together in community to say we belong to God, and God isn’t done with us yet.

God has loved us with an everlasting love. Let us sing our love song to God: Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

Let these branches be signs of victory

Let these branches be for us signs of his victory.

Remember these words from way back in the beginning of the service?  Let these branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail Him as our King, and follow Him in the way that leads to eternal life.

Often on the Sunday of the Passion we come to this point in the service awash with our own awareness of human evil and pain, having just cried out Crucify him! Crucify him! and heard Jesus’ cry of pain and betrayal from the cross. The pain of misunderstanding, of misplaced human ambition, the pain of the failure to recognize God….all of this leads to the pain of the cross. When Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, it is to this excruciating place that we are called to follow.

In the history of Holy Week worship, Palm Sunday was the day that celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and all that entails. The King of Glory comes, the nation rejoices. Ride on, ride on in majesty. The King that the prophet Zechariah proclaims—Zechariah is the one quoted in the gospel we read during the blessing of the palms, talking about the donkey—Zechariah says “your king is coming to you” and goes on to proclaim a king who will bring peace to all the nations, and freedom to all in captivity.

Over centuries, the Palm Sunday service morphed into a hybrid between Good Friday and Palm Sunday, for the very practical reason that people weren’t coming to church on Good Friday like they used to, and so they weren’t getting the message that suffering and death precedes resurrection and Easter. So this Sunday became a both-and Sunday, both the joy and triumph of the palms and the suffering and death of the cross. We participate in both parts of the story.

Buried in this painful passion gospel are the seeds of human goodness: in Peter’s tears, in the centurion’s conversion, in Joseph’s generosity, even in Judas’ excruciating remorse—in each of these moments we can find our own God-given capacity for reconciliation, forgiveness, self-giving love, and conversion. In each of these moments, these seeds of human goodness, the characters in the story have—even if just for a second—taken on the mind of Christ.

The letter to the Philippians, which we heard today, begins: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

As we complete our Lenten fast—in whatever form that fast may have taken for each one of you—as you prepare for Easter, I want to ask you to do three things. First, imagine the kingdom where every nation experiences peace, and where captivity in all its forms is overturned. Second, look around you and look for signs of God-given Spirit shining through the people you love and the people you don’t love. Third, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. In these things you will find the victory of which these palms are a sign.

Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Musical Musings: Lent

It’s been a long time since you’ve heard much from me, but I just have to let a few musings out before the season concludes. It’s worth it, really: read on..

Lent, if you ask me, is all about good ol’ J.S. Bach, the baroque pioneer.  I always try to throw one selection in every week (did anyone notice that we had two this past Sunday, thanks to Zach and Valery both lending a musical hand?) to keep the service appropriately moody, tumultuous, tense. Composers in this period were hesitant to combine emotions within one movement of a piece, unlike their classical period friends – that’s you, Mozart – who humorously toyed with tonality. Perfect for Easter, not Lent.

Bravo to the many parishioners and guests who have correctly identified some Bach in the service. The second most discussed music bit during our Lenten season has been the fabulous setting of When From Bondage We Are Summoned we borrowed from Wonder Love and Praise. Go ahead, click on the link and sing it for your neighbors – that’ll keep them from stepping on your flower beds. No, it’s not jolly but how exciting to sing (you all sound excellent!) and moving to hear. The haunting tune, Grid, and accompaniment is by a living composer (gasp!) named Thomas Pavlechko at a hymn writing conference. The name of this Dorian tune came from a member of the audience at its premiere who exclaimed: “That tune has grit!” Tom though the said it contained “grid,” whatever that means, and thats how we know and love it today.

I wish there was a video of a choir or parish performing When From Bondage.. but it is noticeably absent from YouTube. You’re lucky we’re not singing it this Sunday or else I would record you all! Nevertheless, I always dust off my recordings of Handel’s Messiah during Lent. “You mean that Christmas song?” Yes yes.. It is most frequently performed at Christmas, but that’s only one-third of the story. Literally. Handel’s magnificent work is written in three dramatically titled sections – The Annunciation (should be called: The One Everyone Performs), The Passion (aka: Overlooked Due Programming Competition), and The Aftermath (Warning: For Messiah Dorks Only!) Locking it away until Advent is surely a sin! Of course, if you bring your whole block to the Easter Vigil, they will all be saved when they hear I Know That My Redeemer Liveth from the final section.

Looking ahead, the great 40 days are right around the corner. So, comment here with the hymns or songs you love to sing during the Easter season. I’ll be listening!

Facing death

Grant your people grace…that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.

So, this guy and his buddy are playing golf on a Saturday morning, at their regular weekly tee time. They are near a road winding past the course to the nearby cemetery. A funeral procession passes by. The guy is in the middle of a wing but he stops, rests his club, bows his head, and removes his hat as the hearse passes by. The other guy is struck by his friend’s display of reverence and afterwards says “wow. That was really nice of you.” The first guy says: “I figure it’s the least I can do. After all, we were married for 35 years.”

What does this have to do with today’s gospel or the fifth Sunday in Lent? Only that it points to the tendency in many of us, to have complicated feelings about death.

At best, our relationship with death is ambivalent. The advertising world earns a huge portion of its keep from our longing to stay young forever. With the help of products with names like “anti-aging formula” and tag lines like “turn back the hands of time,” we’re all supposed to have young-looking skin and young-looking hair. As a culture our preoccupation with looking and staying young is almost idolatrous.

The language we use about death avoids the reality of being human. We don’t like to say that someone died. We say that they “passed away” or “passed on.” This kind of language distances us from our own humanity, and also from the experience of grief. To talk about death as “passing away” can be a disservice to anyone in the midst of a shattering experience of loss.

The paradox of our culture is that on the one hand, we treasure life so much that we distance ourselves from death through cosmetics and euphemism. On the other hand, we flock to movies and TV shows where human life seems to have no value at all. As a nation, when we go to war, we refuse to number the dead on the other side of the conflict, as though those lives have no value. Don’t get me started about video games.

It is into this world that is so ambivalent about death, that Lazarus intrudes.

Lazarus did not “pass away.” Nor was he obliterated by the click of a button in a video game. Lazarus shows us how real death is, and we hear about him in wonderfully earthy language: There is a stench because he has been dead four days. The King James version writes: “he stinketh.”  In soap opera terms, we can say that Lazarus is dead, dead, dead, dead. Lazarus is no less dead than the pile of dry bones we hear about from Ezekiel.

So what is God up to? Why does Jesus raise Lazarus? Lazarus is killed by the religious authorities soon after his resurrection, and so he doesn’t have much of a life. The language leading up to the raising of Lazarus almost sounds like Jesus is just showing off. What’s up with that?

While this story is told as a miracle story, like the feeding of the five thousand or the wine at the Cana, this story is also a parable. Like all gospel parables, it reveals something about the Kingdom of God. This parable points us beyond Lazarus’ resurrection to Jesus’ resurrection from a similarly dark, dank tomb. Lazarus’ tomb is opened to prepare us for the rolling away of another stone on Easter. Just as we heard Jesus say in this Gospel, “Take away the stone,” at the Easter Vigil we’ll sing “Roll away the stone; see the Glory of God.”

The miracle story of Lazarus points to the real miracle of Easter morning. And the miracle story of Lazarus also points to the miracle of our triumph over death, our new life in Jesus Christ, life that puts earthly death—death with a stench—in a different light.

In the Kingdom of God, here, now, God goes into the dark, dank places of our lives and revives us. In the same way that Jesus says of Lazarus: Unbind him, let him go, this is what God does for us.

Being bound by sin, by regret, by self-preoccupation, or by fear, keeps us from the eternally full life God creates in us. When we pray about the “unruly wills and affections of sinners,” this is what binds us—all the distractions of our lives that call us away from true love. God unbinds us, through grace. In Jesus, in the Kingdom of God, death no longer has a hold on us. This is what Sunday is about, not just in Lent and Holy Week and Easter, but week after week, year after year. We gather with song and prayer and we offer to God all that binds us.

* * *

Through the story we enter next week, we get to look death in the face. With Palm Sunday we begin the incredible journey through Jerusalem to the Cross and Easter, acting out in one wonderful service after another the movement from death into new life. If we give ourselves over to the events of Holy Week, Lazarus’ unbinding becomes our unbinding. As we move closer and closer to the cross, let us listen for Jesus’ voice saying of us: Unbind them. Let them go.

Seeing and being seen

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

In the summer of 2003, I was overcome beyond my own understanding with a vision of creating some kind of outreach ministry for sex workers on the streets of Portland. I had just returned from seminary, where during a summer internship in London I experienced a street ministry to prostituted women which changed me. It changed my understanding of sex work and it changed my understanding of coming alongside people on the margins as a follower of Jesus.

When I got back to Portland I did a lot of poking around to learn what kind of ministry was already being offered to women who made their living on the street. The answer at that time was: not much. I made a connection with another recent seminary graduate who was at that time assigned to Sts. Peter & Paul on 82nd Avenue. She had a similar vision. Together we dreamed up something we first called a “midnight mass for working women.” Our dream began to take shape into something else, something that eventually became Rahab’s Sisters, a ministry of presence and hospitality to women on the margins.

In the process of developing this ministry, I met a man who ran the only other drop-in center for women in prostitution. I’ll call him Jeremiah, not because that was his name, but because I’ve been reading the prophet Jeremiah all week, and because this guy always reminded me of that prophet: relentlessly honest, critical, and faithful to his cause. My Jeremiah had started a program similar to what I wanted to start, but it was difficult to talk with him because he was so incredibly mistrustful of anyone who was part of a church or wanted to do outreach through a church. He had been emotionally damaged by the church as a child and many of the women he worked with had suffered emotional and physical abuse in the name of organized religion. I finally got him to talk with me, and I and my co-conspirators visited with him several times.

After weeks of learning from Jeremiah, hearing his advice, both solicited and unsolicited, and discussing his ideas and opinions amongst ourselves, we were ready to open our doors.  I met with him one last time and he gave us a final piece of advice: to buy ourselves a giant golf umbrella so that if it was raining we could still stop and offer shelter and conversation to women we met as we walked up and down 82nd Avenue inviting them to Sts. Peter & Paul. He also gave us something rare from someone like Jeremiah—he gave us a blessing I will never forget. This critical, mistrusting, church-averse guy said: When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it, and that is how you’ll take part in their healing. When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it.

* * *

As he walked along, Jesus saw a man. As he walked along, he saw. Who do we see as we walk along, as we move through our lives? Writer Mary Karr talks about the tendency to see the rest of the world as nothing more than traffic.  It is likely that until Jesus encountered him, the man who regains his sight has been seen his whole life as nothing more than the traffic around the edges. Outside of their condition, people like him were, for the most part, invisible.

When Rahab’s Sisters started, the volunteers began each Friday night gathering with prayer. Our prayer was always for God to open our eyes, that we might see the women who needed to be seen by us. We meant this in at least two ways: although the area is known as the heart of the sex industry in Portland, it is easy to walk down 82nd and not see any vulnerable women. They are invisible the same way that the outcasts were invisible to most people in the world where Jesus traveled and taught. But they are there. Seeing them takes vision, and love, and practice. Rather like bird-watching.

The other kind of seeing we prayed for was to see them as the full, complete, complicated, multifaceted, beloved human beings they are. We prayed to be able to see as Jesus saw.

* * *

Today’s gospel, this long, long story, is both a healing story and a story about ministry on the margins. While the man who receives his sight receives an extraordinary gift of clarity and faith (Of course I believe in Jesus, he says. He opened my eyes) faith is God is rarely a stumbling block for those whom the world casts out or ignores. The real message of the Gospel is how our eyes are opened and how we are healed when we see. So perhaps a better message is that “Seeing is healing.”

The story challenges us to think about what we really believe about our own power to heal. The story asks the question: if you or I went up to a blind man sitting by the side of the road and knelt down, made a paste of mud and saliva, and applied it to his eyes, would he be healed? My answer is a good Anglican answer: yes, and no. Whatever damage to his optic nerve or retina that caused the blindness might or might not be healed by the application of mud.

But for you or I to see him, to stop, kneel down beside him, and touch him—that would be a two-way miracle of healing. I have a friend who is a therapist to the most difficult troubled young people imaginable. She speaks often about the incredible work and wonder of seeing them in a way that they haven’t been seen before, seeing them as God sees them. It is in this seeing that healing happens.

I want to say one more thing about today’s gospel story. Because of the social mores of the day, the man born blind is also, from birth, a social outcast. Once the man’s eyes are opened, insult is added to injury and he is formally cast out of his religious community because of his interaction with the unorthodox healer Jesus.  When Jesus learns this, he once again goes to the margin where this man is, and speaks with him. This is where we are to follow in the way of Jesus. Over and over again, we are called to the margins, whether it be to the margins of our own comfort zone, the margins of our city, or the margins of the social or economic world where we live. When you look there, what do you see?

Let us pray: Jesus, help us to ever look outward to the edges where you live, and give us grace to see with your eyes, that we might be healed of our blindness, and enter your kingdom.