Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Still Easter 2: Hearts on Fire

I have some favorite passages of scripture.

The theological and slightly sensuous conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (ask me about the song I wrote about it).

The liberation anthem sung by Mary, Jesus' mother.

Pretty much everything in Genesis, but in particular: the story of Hagar.

The friends who lower their buddy through a roof and into Jesus' presence for healing.

The midwives' shenanigans in Exodus. The burning bush in Exodus. Miriam's arc in Exodus and beyond.

That there is a tree of life.

It's ridiculous, really. So many it starts to feel silly calling them "favorites." But then there's this:

A couple of people (maybe, a couple) are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus (a site for which there are about 7 contenders, not sure where it is, really, except, a day's walk or thereabouts). Jesus falls in with them, but they can't recognize him. They try to school him on Jesus, because he acts clueless (a little). But then he begins to talk to them about scripture, and suddenly, they are in the presence of a rabbi.

(Hey, this feels kind of familiar.)

They invite him to stay with them when they get to their house. (A couple, I'm pretty sure.)

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” ~ Luke 24:29b-31

I don't know why, but I feel this passage viscerally. Because it's a story about a stranger getting under your skin, maybe? A story about the elusive nature of knowing, or not knowing. A story about something you can't quite identify, which reveals itself as something at the very core of you that you'd forgotten, or tried to bury, or abandon.

But then, there it is. And it's real, and it's undeniable, and it brings with it both grief and joy, an ending and a beginning.

In my own life I have so many stories of gathering around a table with friends, and finding more there than I could have hoped or imagined. And it's never long enough, even though that time is more kairos than chronos, and timeless in its own way.

But the question that's asked--"Weren't our hearts on fire...?" suggests that we know before we know.

We know, even before we know. And then we spend our lives marveling at it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Still Easter 1: The Resurrection Body

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.   ~ 1 Corinthians 15:41-44a
... and [Mary Magdalene] saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”   ~ John 20:12-17
A few years ago, I started hearing about Zombie Jesus. I wondered what on earth that could mean, as the Zombie appeared to be everywhere already-- TV, movies, video games. But this idea and image started popping up on social media, and I have to admit, I just kind of snorted and looked the other way. 
But eventually, I had to have a closer look, and in order to understand what Zombie Jesus is about, all you have to do is do a Google image search with those words. 
(If you've never done this before, go ahead, I'll wait.)
See what I'm talking about? I think the Zombie Jesus phenomenon is nicely captured in this image and text.

Yeah, that sounds nuts.
And if this were my understanding of resurrection-- that Jesus was basically resuscitated and then the once-dead corpse taken bodily into heaven-- I am pretty sure I wouldn't be doing what I do for a living. This is the fundamental misunderstanding that lays the groundwork for this understanding of faith. People think resurrection = resuscitation.
Nope.
Resurrection sure looks like resuscitation in some of the appearances of Jesus. (I'm looking at you, this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 20:19-31), in which Jesus shows his disciples his hands and side as proof that it is he, truly, who stands before them...)
... But wait: How did he get into the room again? Oh yeah. He appeared, despite the locked doors and all. Hmm.
Earlier in that same chapter, we have Mary Magdalene's encounter with Jesus, and notice, she doesn't recognize him at first. (Not recognizing Jesus happens a couple of times, actually.) And then, apparently, Mary tries to embrace Jesus, to which he replies...
Nope.
The gospels seem to be telling us something about the resurrection body: It is not the same as the physical body. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states this pretty emphatically. There are different kinds of glory, be begins, and notes: what is sown, the seed, is perishable... but not what is raised. Or, who is raised.

Jesus is appearing to people, and maybe also doing things that seem very body-based, such as eating with them. But he is also appearing out of thin air, leaving the same way, and establishing boundaries around his body that seem like new rules to his friends. His body seems continuous with the body he had as he walked the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem-- eating, wounds-- but also, discontinous with it. Changed. More, Paul suggests, glorious.
If I had to summarize my faith (in contrast to what you can find on the Zombie poster above), I might say something like:
I trust in Jesus as a window through which I can see some of what God is. He was a Palestinian Jew who taught, healed, and offered an unconditional welcome to all kinds of people; he also was tortured and killed by the state because he was seen as a threat to Roman sovereignty. And afterwards, his followers experienced him as alive again-- raised from the dead-- for a limited time (between 40-50 days, or thereabouts). After that, they found themselves empowered to take on his ministry, and did so, and that's why I know about him. I have been invited into his community through baptism, I confirmed those promises for myself in young adulthood, and I believe that Jesus' way is the best way: a way of love, healing, welcome, and table fellowship that includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, welcoming the immigrant, remembering and affirming the humanity of all, including those society casts away, such as prisoners and the poor. I think this way of living is at least partly what he meant by "eternal" life-- that's not something for later, it's something for now.
It's not about resuscitation. It's about glorious life.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lent 26: Holy Saturday

It is the bright morning of the day before Easter, and the sun is blazing so directly into the window of my study that it makes it difficult to see the screen of my laptop.

Easter, so often imaged as the risen Sun. Son.

Today would seem to be a swell day for Easter. The optics are absolutely on point.

But, alas, Easter does not come according to our timetable. My Easter sermon has the working title, "Who Will Roll Away the Stone?" It makes me acutely aware that we may have two-ton boulders sitting on our hearts, but that does not mean we can dictate the moment when they will be removed.

So today is a day for waiting. (And writing.) And understanding that there are things we cannot see yet, life-things, that are going on, but they are going on in the dark.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Lent 25: Thursday in Holy Week, Mercy House Meditation

This meditation was shared at Mercy House during a Holy/ Maundy Thursday service.

First Reading Mark 14:13-16; 22-26

           [Jesus] sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. 
           While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Second Reading John 13:2b-7, 33-35

           And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,  got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  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.”

Mercy House
On Thursday of Holy Week, Christians enter into the most sacred days of our year. On this day we remember a meal, a gathering at night of Jesus and everyone who was closest to him. And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 

The first reading Ann shared with us gives us some of the logistics of that meal. Where would they eat? How would they know? Jesus sends two of his companions to work out the details. Then we find them at supper, with Jesus sharing, not only bread and cup, but also his startling, enigmatic words. Holding broken bread in his hands, he says, “This is my body.” Holding the cup, he says, “This is my blood.” 

This is my life, Jesus tells the people who know and love him best. Watch, as I pour out my life for you. This is love.

In the second reading, shared by Sister Joanna, Jesus startles his friends in a different way. He rises from the table and ties a towel around his waist, and proceeds to wash the feet of his friends.

In the ancient world, in the Middle East, it was a strong tradition of hospitality that you would wash the feet of your friends when they came to your home to dine. And hospitality in a climate that could be harsh and hostile was a life or death matter. Everyone was expected to offer it, even to their enemies, because everyone needed to be able to depend on it when they had the need. 

Jesus washes the feet of those gathered at table together, and it causes dismay among them. Peter speaks up, and we can tell he feels that Jesus has somehow reversed the order of things, that they ought to be washing his feet, not vice versa. “You don’t understand now,” Jesus says, “but you will.” And then he makes himself clear: Watch, as I show you how. This too is love.

In the ancient world as Christianity began to spread, devout followers of Jesus explored different ways to follow him, and some, you may have heard or read, chose lives of solitude, living alone, even in caves, so as to be able to focus themselves entirely on the scriptures and penance and prayer. And a wise man named Basil was skeptical about following Jesus in that way. He wondered, “But whose feet will they wash?”

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus shows us love. He gives us the gift of himself during that meal around a table. And he reminds us that, if we count ourselves among those who are gathered at his table, and receiving his hospitality, service to one another is at the heart of our calling. 

I feel as if, here at Mercy House, among residents and those who love them and those who care for them, this is probably the very definition of preaching to the choir. “Service to one another is at the heart of our calling.” But maybe I can also suggest this: it is a holy thing to serve, and it is also a holy thing to let someone serve you. Peter had to learn that. Those who would serve Jesus, must first let ourselves be served by him.

So perhaps I can offer this: On this Holy Thursday, as Jesus shows us love, as he pours himself out for us again: How can we let Jesus serve us? How can we let down our defenses, and let him love us, just as we are? 

That is what Jesus wants to do. That is what he tries to do, every day, in every way, by every sign, if we can manage to pause, or to lift our heads, to take notice. Jesus, who breaks the bread and pours out the cup for us… Jesus, who ties a towel around his waist and shows the ultimate hospitality to us… Jesus longs to love us. Just as we are. Let our prayer be: Jesus, help me to let down my defenses. Help me to let you love me. Today. Right now. Just as I am. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

I owe thanks to the producers/ writers/ folk of Pray-As-You-Go for the inspiration for this meditation.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Lent 24: Wednesday in Holy Week: Unnamed Women

There was a certain moment when it was pointed out to me that many--most--of the women in scripture are unnamed.

I don't know why I'd never noticed that before. I suppose I had been stuck for a while on all the Marys... gosh, there are a lot. Of. Marys.

Mary Magdalene, of course. (Not a prostitute. For the record. Premier witness to the resurrection, and a woman to boot.)

Mary the mother of Jesus. (Probably should have mentioned her first?)

Mary of Bethany, also sister of Martha. (Not the same as Mary Magdalene. Also not a prostitute.)

"The other Mary" (from Matthew's resurrection account). We know she's not Magdalene, and she's most not likely an "other" if Jesus' mother. She might be....

Mary the mother of James. (From Mark's and Luke's resurrection accounts.)

Mary (actually, the Aramaic version of Maryam/ Miriam) was the most popular name for women during the New Testament period.

So, lotsa Marys.

But back to my original point: there are many, many women in (both testaments of) scripture whose names we never know. And for a long time, I assumed that it was because they were not considered important enough to remember.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, one anointed Jesus.

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” ~Mark 14:3-8

There are four accounts of Jesus being anointed in scripture, three of them in Bethany, where Jesus often stayed. And yes, there is an account of Jesus being anointed by Mary of Bethany, but: the woman in this story is not identified as Mary; and the woman in this story anoints Jesus' head, whereas Mary anoints his feet.

It is Holy Week. Of course, she doesn't know that in the same way modern readers of the New Testament know it-- the context from start to finish. But she may well know that Jesus made somewhat of a splash riding into Jerusalem-town on a donkey a couple of days ago. She may well know that, since then, he has both raised a ruckus in the temple by throwing out the money-changers and dove-sellers, AND by preaching/ parable-ing provocatively there. Jesus is certainly aware of the the perilous position he finds himself in.

Is it possible that this unnamed woman is, too? Does she know she may have just this one opportunity to give him a precious gift, to express her appreciation for him, to show him love?

Is it possible she is, indeed, anointing him for his burial?

I have been thinking about those times when we say our last goodbyes. Five years ago this month I flew to Wyoming on Easter Monday to see my dad for the last time. I didn't know that for certain. But I did know the likelihood of another such trip, even within the same year, was unlikely. And he was failing... anyone could see that. The difference in his condition since I'd last seen him (five months earlier) was significant. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and nephew were caring for him perfectly, beautifully, loving him with everything they had, but death was coming anyway, as it does.

Death comes. Sometimes we are well aware of that fact, and other times we are caught by surprise-- shocked, even.

I have been thinking about this nameless woman who anoints Jesus, much as the celebrated anointing in Psalm 133:

How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
    life forevermore.

Jesus is among friends. He is experiencing, possibly, that unity of kin... that feeling of oneness we have in perfect company, when the food and the wine and the conversation and the smiles are all real and unforced and joyfully shared. It is blessing forevermore. Even unto death.

The unnamed woman is celebrating the moment, a moment which may or may not precede a death. (It does.) And maybe her lack of a name isn't, as I once suspected, about her being considered unimportant, or not worth recalling. Maybe her lack of name allows us to name her as we need to-- to see ourselves in her, to see in her the ones we love.

Today I'll call her Patricia. Today I'll pray that I have the nerve and the wisdom to show love extravagantly the next time I have the opportunity, at a moment which may or may not precede a death. But a moment which will, nevertheless, be blessed forevermore.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Lent 23: Monday in Holy Week, 2018

The air takes on a different character for me during Holy Week. I saw it on Friday. It was my day off, but I made my way to church anyway, in search of a particular book I decided I needed for my sermon (The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus' Final Week in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan).

I'm sure it's partly to do with the light; brighter mornings, longer dusk. But it also has to do with the light and air at church. The sight of the Fellowship Hall set up for our Palm Sunday Breakfast. The sight of that cleared away, and the same space set up for Maundy Thursday.

Something is stirring. I feel the character of this week in my bones, and day by day I am reminded of what is coming.

On the day after Palm Sunday, according to the gospel of Mark, the first thing Jesus does is to have a little fit over a fig tree that is not giving figs.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. ~Mark 11:12-14

I can understand Jesus' disappointment. Like many people my age, my initial introduction to figs-- the wonderful objects known as Newtons-- was my only experience for a long while. It took college and a course on D. H. Lawrence for me to decide to eat a fresh one. It was a very rewarding experience: sweet, delicate, a tiny bit exotic, and, like an early-blooming flower, fleeting.

Jesus is angry that something God created is not living up to its purpose. And he curses the tree, in the presence of his disciples.

And if that were all there were to Monday in Holy Week, we could chalk it up to very human jitters at a very momentous time. But that's not the only thing.

Jesus then goes to the Temple, and what he does there, arguably, is the straw that breaks the back of both religious and civil tolerance of who Jesus is and what Jesus says. This is most likely the reason he is hanging on a cross within days.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
    But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. ~ Mark 11:15-19

Jesus is angry at what he witnesses in the Temple: a system of religious practice which excludes the very poorest from access to the rituals of their faith. The clue is his focus on those who sold doves.

Fig Tree, by Alex Proimos, Syndey, Australia.
Made available by Wikimedia Commons
In Leviticus, those who want to make an offering for the blotting out of their sin bring a sheep-- unless they are poor. The poor can bring an offering of two doves (Lev. 5:7). And if you can't afford doves, you can bring a small amount of flour (Lev. 5:11).

In either case, the poor are being asked for something they cannot afford. And if they cannot afford to bring items to be sacrificed, that more or less guarantees that they will have no ability to access divine mercy.

Jesus is angry that something God created is not living up to its purpose... to be a house of prayer for all people, not just those who can afford the cost of the ritual.

... All of which puts the fig tree in a very different context. The fig tree and the temple seem to be commenting on one another (a fact made clear on Tuesday morning when Jesus and the disciples walk by the tree again, and see that it has withered).

Jesus has not come to town to make nice. He has come to speak the truth.

All around me... both in my community here in the Southern Tier of New York, and in the virtual (and very real) online community of preachers... we are making preparations for sharing this story this week. I don't know of anyone who is tipping over tables in any particular sanctuary. But I do know that the call to justice doesn't end when we walk in the doors of our sanctuaries. If anything, it should be given birth there. Justice is more truly "God-given" than many of the items usually asserted to have divine origin.

Praying with and for all who lead and participate in worship this week, that words of truth may be spoken and heard, in Jesus' name.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lent 22: Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Taken. 2009, Part 3

Dinner was a real celebration (insofar as a person who is melting from relief and nervous exhaustion can celebrate). It wasn't a late night, and nobody broke out the champagne, because in the morning I would see how people who weren't a part of the church leadership (then, a session of 12 people plus a clerk) would respond.

I had an early staff meeting, 8:30, because I wanted folks to know what was going on before the phone started ringing. (For some reason, I imagined the phone ringing off the hook.) I did the same as I'd done with the session, handing out copies of the letter the rest of the congregation would be receiving in the mail that day. While they read, my emotions caught up with me, and I started to cry. Which made our sweet administrative assistant cry, too. And then I tried to explain that I was only crying because I was tired and stressed, and that things had actually gone well with the session the night before, and then the staff began saying kind and supportive things as well.

One gentleman was quieter than the others, and after the meeting was over, he disappeared for a time to his woodshop downstairs. He was our maintenance person, our handyman, and he was particularly gifted at woodwork and creating beautiful items of all kinds (I have a bread basket complete with napkins and a breadwarmer made by his wife, a doohickey that helps me not burn myself when pulling the rack out of the hot oven, an herb planter, and countless other useful and lovely items made by him in both my home and office). I was a little worried at his quietness, and I thought I'd give him some space. I realized that I was likely entering a season of a lot of potentially delicate or even difficult conversations, which might be painful for me or for the congregants or both. I thought this might be the first one.

About an hour later he popped into my office with a tear-shaped cross made of wood, which, upon closer examination, actually contained flames-- the Holy Spirit's fire. He had just made it, he'd begun carving it as soon as he'd left the meeting. "This is for you," he said, "for strength."

That's when the tears really came. I walked over to him and gave him a hug. That cross still hangs in my office. I have never forgotten that loving, moving gesture, which so reassured me at a moment when I truly did not know what lay ahead.

The rest of the day I fielded a couple of phone calls... not a ton, the office was reasonably quiet. A few folks dropped by, including a woman who told me that she and her family had known even before I arrived that I had a partner and she was a woman. They even knew who she was. And they'd never told a soul. This shocked me a bit, though I'm not sure why. Of course, it's a small enough community that someone would know someone, etc. I said, "So... what did you think? Why didn't you say anything?" She shrugged and smiled and said, "We decided we'd see how we liked you. And it turned out, we loved you."

This is where the motto of Harvey Milk-- "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"-- must be given its due. Milk said, "Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all." His logic was: If all the LGBTQ people would come out, millions of people would discover that they already knew us, and they already loved us.

Near the end of the day, there was one more person I had to visit. A formidable woman, elderly, she was in the fight of her life against cancer. But she was also known for her fighting spirit in the context of life at church. She was a force to be reckoned with. And I just loved her.

I dropped by her house, because I hadn't heard from her, and that worried me. When I got there, she invited me in, and began to talk to me about how she'd been feeling, medication changes, etc. Finally, I said, "Have you gotten your mail yet, by any chance?" "No," she said, "It usually gets here by five though." "Oh," I said. "Well, there's a letter from me in it." And I told her.

Before I was finished but after the big reveal, she interrupted me. "People think this is a brand new thing. This is nothing new. This has been around forever. Michelangelo! The Emperor Hadrian! When I was a child, two of my teachers at Loder Avenue School lived together in the same house. They were both women. Maybe they were in a committed relationship! Who knows! It's no one's business, and it doesn't matter to me."

As I drove home that day the conversations I'd been having swirled around in my head. I couldn't quite believe how well it was going. I know this isn't everybody's experience, and a couple of tough conversations were still to come. But at the end of the first twenty-four hours, the expressions of support, the kind words, the warm emails and phone calls, and the hugs were winning. Overwhelmingly. I had come out... it was still early days.... but already, it was grace upon grace.