Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Reflection 2016

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

From the time that I was a young child, I can remember that my mom loved to announce the rising at Christ at Easter. Even during the years when I could have cared less what was happening in the church on Easter morning, my mother would be on the other end of the phone, gleefully and joyfully proclaiming, "He is risen!" Clearly, Easter was a favorite holiday for her, and spoke to her in a meaningful way. It only seemed appropriate, then, that the recessional hymn at her funeral at Christ Church in Exeter would have to be "Jesus Christ is risen today."  And what a good, and right, and joyful thing it was that the assembled congregation belted out that hymn with full gusto. A real tribute to my mom's delight in the resurrection...both in her earthly life and what I imagine is her life with the Communion of Saints.

Singing of the risen Christ in full-throated voice is precisely what one should do today if one believes in this incredible and crazy story. Nothing can be more amazing then the thought that not even death could trample down Love. No tomb can keep it contained. No locks can keep it hidden away. Absolutely nothing stops the power and beauty and radiance of Love. 

It would be easy to simply keep this resurrection tale on the pages of the Gospel and say, "Well that all happened then." But I believe the reason my mom used to call me every Easter to remind me that Christ is risen is because that tale isn't just one for the books of the Bible; it is a truth that speaks to us today, and is needed in our lives today. Not a physical raising from the dead; but the metaphorical coming to life that must happen in our lives if we are to keep on going in a world that desperately needs people to be alive with Love in their hearts and singing songs of joy on their lips. As our country's political landscape grows more hostile and divided, now...more than we need people to tap into that root of Jesus' message: we are to love one another as God has loved us.

If Jesus Christ is to rise, we must also rise with him and in him to be the force of Love and change this world needs. Alleluia!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Core of This Night is Love

Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of what is essentially one long, three-day worship service that will culminate in the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. And as I’ve told many people, “You can’t have Easter without Good Friday…” Well…you don’t experience Good Friday without first preparing with Maundy Thursday. Tonight, we will participate in three rituals, each which carry a particular meaning and each which offers an opportunity to enter more closely into this most holy, vulnerable, and ultimately, triumphant time for Jesus and for us.

In a few moments, we will re-enact Jesus getting up from the dinner with the disciples, and washing the feet of Peter. This is another time in which Jesus turns convention upside down. In the First Century Palestinian culture of his day, it was the job of a slave to wash a person’s feet as a way of showing hospitality. But Jesus wants to teach his disciples a new way—one in which the person who is a person of privilege and power—removes the outer garment, takes up a towel, and washes the feet of the lowly servant. 

Jesus is baptizing them into the ministry to carry on his mission of a new commandment: “To love one another as I have loved you.” We, too, through taking part in this ritual are also being invited to remember that we are capable of loving one another because God so completely and deeply loved us. It is because of this love that we can carry out the many ministries of this church…from the school…to the Saturday Lunch program and Clothes Closet…and Oak Street Mission…Halcyon Home…A.A. meetings…Kairos…the list goes on and on. And those are just the ministries springing forth from St. Thomas, and don’t account for how any one of us is working every day to live into the words of our Baptismal Covenant: to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Without love as our starting point for these actions, we won’t be able to succeed.

This brings me to our second ritual of tonight, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Sunday after Sunday, we come together, shoulder-to-shoulder around the Lord’s Table to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. John’s Gospel places the institution of the words of the last supper elsewhere in his narrative, but the other evangelists make Jesus’ declaration of the bread and the wine as symbolic of his body and blood part of the events immediately preceding his arrest and execution. Again, the disciples must have wondered what crazy thing Jesus was doing declaring bread and wine his body and blood as the blessing over these elements…breaking and distributing in the same way that he did with the feeding of the five thousand. Puzzled as they might have been they all participated in this ritual of the New Covenant…even Judas Iscariot who would betray him and Peter who would deny him and all the others who scattered at his arrest. Flawed, bewildered, and sinful, they were all bound to one another by him, and with him, and in him, through eating and drinking this common bread and single cup. 

And here we are, two thousand-plus years later, equally flawed characters, and striving to follow God, also receiving Christ’s body and blood into our own bodies. This bread and this wine becomes the fuel that feeds our ability to love the world…even when the world may not seem to want to love us back.  That’s our mission…and we do it no matter what…because God loved us first…with no exceptions or conditions… so that we could pass that love on to others.  And God expressed that love through his Son…who said “Take. Eat” and “Drink this all of you.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Jesus is saying: “Every time you receive this communion, this common meal, remember: this was a sacrifice so that you could be liberated through me to love one another as I have loved you.”

Which leads me to our third and final ritual tonight: the stripping of the altar: the final act carried out by our altar guild. Everyone on the team knows their role. They know how to reverently and carefully remove, fold, and put away all of the linens and cushions and brass, leaving behind…an empty table. The first time I was here at St. Thomas, I was struck more by this ritual than I’d ever been before because it was done with all of us staring in silence during the symbolic action of stripping away all signs of God…in the same way Jesus was stripped down to his naked self to be killed. The ripping sounds of the Velcro on altar hangings were a chilling reminder of the brutality Jesus faced from his persecutors and the Roman authorities. If it was difficult for me as an observer to watch, I wonder what it must be for the altar guild as they do that tearing and taking away.
This empty, bare table is the image we’ll be left with for this evening, and it is an unsettling and disturbing one. It raises the idea that to face death…in hopes of the resurrection…all manner of “things” must be stripped away. That’s certainly true of physical death. You can’t pack a bag of your favorite things and take it with you to the Communion of Saints. It is also true of the small deaths we face every day. The loss of a job, for example, not only means the loss of income and maybe health insurance; for many, it can mean the loss of a huge part of their identity. How many of us make small talk with strangers about what we “do” for a living as a way of saying, “This is who I am.” We become the work that we do, and find our self-worth caught up in titles, and various degrees, that when the day comes when we are no longer “doing our job,” we are at a loss about how to “be our selves” without title to set us apart.   How do our various labels and identities…and the meanings layered upon them…actually interfere with us fulfilling our mission to truly love ourselves and love one another as God has loved us?  What beliefs are we clinging to about ourselves that might be hindering us from entering fully into relationship with God and blocking us from loving people in this fear-filled world?

Whatever impedes us from getting down to that single truth—that we are beloved children of God here to love and be loved—tonight is the time of reckoning and to strip those things away.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Sin of Ungratefulness

Heading into Sunday, I knew I was wanting to pick something from the Gospel of Luke as the launching pad for our Education for Ministry group to use as the starting point for a theological reflection. Year Two had just finished reading the Gospel according to Luke, and Years One and Three would not be totally unfamiliar with the contents. My week had been so busy and hectic that I didn't have time to see what the lectionary had in store for Sunday. So, how fortuitous that the Gospel lesson just happened to be the parable of the prodigal son.

Separate from my group, I did my own theological reflection as I listened with my very lesbian ears to the oh, so familiar parable. It started with the criticism of Jesus for eating with--ahem--sinners. The unclean. The outsiders. The untouchables. These were all the type of company Jesus liked to keep, and the holier-than-thous of his day were aghast. This is actually what prompts Jesus to tell a series of parables about various lost and founds, but our lectionary diviners decided to spare the deacons a longer passage than what the prodigal already provided. As many times as I have heard the story (we even used it at my dad's funeral), I found myself deeply moved by the narrative of a son who goes off, blows all of his inheritance, ends up lost and lowly when he decides the only thing to be done is to return home to his father, and beg to be treated as a hired hand instead of a son. The father, upon seeing his younger son and without hesitation, runs to greet him and insists on having a huge party to celebrate this lost one. Meanwhile, the older and loyal son who never once did anything to disgrace his father hears all the hub bub and asks, 'What's all this then?' When he hears that the younger son returned and that everyone is celebrating this particular sinner, he fumes. The father goes out to meet him and the older son rails and complains about the party. The father, unfazed, listens intently and lovingly reminds the older son that he hasn't forgotten all that the older has been and done. But--c'mon, son--let's celebrate the return of our lost one. The story ends there. We don't know if the older son ever comes around to seeing the joy in the face of his father.

I mentioned that my lesbian ears were hearing this story, and unlike previous times, I found myself connecting the introduction of what inspired Jesus to tell this parable (the complaining people about him eating with sinners) to the response of the older son to the party his dad threw for his wayward younger sibiling. The "How dare you?!" response is one that felt very much like what is happening in the Anglican Communion at the moment with the insistence that The Episcopal Church be punished for having the audacity to love those whom the world despises namely it's LGBTQ members. The protest and posturing against my particular kind and my church has been painful to witness, and the lengths to which some have gone, with reports and covenants and any way possible to turn a religion of love and welcome into one of law and "right thinking only" has left me puzzled. Much in the same way I think the father in this parable must have felt initially at his oldest son's pouting. And the father reminds the oldest son that by celebrating the youngest doesn't mean that the father loves the oldest any less; in fact, how much more could he love him since he knows that the oldest has been with him the whole time? And, as the father notes, we have reason to rejoice because the one who left has come back and our family has been restored to its threesome. Similarly, at a time when the skepticism about religion in general and Christianity specifically is on a meteoric climb, we should rejoice and be glad in those moments when the lost and those who had rejected the church or felt unwelcomed and excluded dare to cross the threshold of the red doors to come in on a Sunday morning. To complain that this has somehow demeans God or the Anglican Communion is churlish. And I think that's what Jesus was driving at with his nattering naysaying audience. To criticize him for hanging with "the wrong kind" of people was the type of mean-spirited and judgmental behavior that would guarantee that the love of God would not be spread, and definitely would not reach those who could stand to come into its embrace.

While the younger brother may have sinned by demanding his inheritance and then squandering it on living the high-life, the older brother is committing a sin of failing to see the blessing his father had already bestowed by loving him and giving him all that he had year-in and year-out. Celebrating the return and reconciliation of the lost one should be a joyous occasion. And it's that joy manifested in us that will spread the love of God to the people who are still searching to find their way home.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Calming the Raging Storm

Jesus Stilling the Tempest by James Tissot

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” --Mark 4:35-41

I had a profound and important experience of this Gospel passage Sunday morning. 
Sunday, I would be meeting again with the Convocational Discernment Committee in Albany, Georgia. These meetings are not comfortable places for me to be. As I described in the previous post, it feels as though I'm being taken out into the wilderness. There are no sign posts, no markings, no place for me to be sure of where I'm going as I field questions and attempt--repeatedly--to explain myself and why I'm feeling called to ordained ministry. The metaphors that have cropped on these trips are just way too rich and plentiful: my phone's GPS doesn't work at different key moments of finding my way through the south Georgia countryside. And, on the way home from my first meeting, I was re-directed along a road that was totally unfamiliar and took me six miles out of the way of where I was trying to go and left me wondering if I was destined to drive in circles all night. 
This is when the God came crashing, as it were, into my early morning dreams. In this one, I found myself recalling the Mark Gospel lesson from a few days ago when Jesus is asleep in the boat and the storm kicks up and the disciples are in a panic as the waves are crashing and rocking them in their sea vessel. They rush to Jesus and demand that he wakes up.
"Jesus!!!" they were screaming. "Jesus, get up!! Save us!! We're all gonna die!"
Weary and sleepy Jesus gets up, goes to the front of the boat, raises his hands and calls for the stormy seas to "knock it off!" And they did. And Jesus looks at the disciples, still rubbing his eyes, and says, "Where's your faith? You know, I got this!" and goes back to bed, leaving them all awe struck. 

As I was dreaming about this lesson, I kept mulling it over and attempting to figure out, "Who needs to know 'Don't panic. Relax. Jesus has got this.'" What group of people in our society need to know this simple message?

I woke up, still letting this dream work through me. Waves crashing over the boat must have felt unsettling. They must not have known that the storm was coming when they set sail, and so this might have come on suddenly and caught them off guard. I likened this feeling to what happens in life when we are faced with numerous challenges and strife. 

That's when it hit me: who needs to know to be still and know that God has got this? Me.

I realized that I had been thrashing. My first meeting with the CDC had left me rattled and I needed this assurance that Jesus would calm the storms.

I did need that. As I waited for the committee to call me into the room with them, I could feel the anxiety rising up inside me.

"What are they saying? What more do they need to know? What curve balls will be thrown at me?"

I tapped back into the dream...and breathed slowly and deeply. I envisioned Jesus standing before me and commanding the anxiety in my head and heart to cease. 

"Be still. Be still and know that I am with you." 

This helped. It kept me grounded, and prepared me for Round Two with the CDC. I think it even helped to give me the ability to have a better conversation with the committee. I started the meeting with various acknowledgments of things I had thought and prayed about after I left them the last time. I included in that prayerful consideration the realization of being able to trust and let go. 

Thank you, Jesus.