Friday, April 2, 2021

Reflecting on Betrayal at the Triduum

 We are in the middle part of the Triduum...the Three Days...which lead up to Resurrection Sunday aka Easter. These days are of special importance to me as this is typically the time that I find myself confronted with questions, thoughts, epiphanies that have often greatly shaken and shaped my spiritual journey and helped move me toward deeper understanding and empathy for others.

This year has (so far) not been the same type of internal shifting. I'm not sure if it's just weariness from a year of pandemic living or arriving at a place in my seminary career where I'm supposed to be winding down and yet I have "things," papers and projects, that I have no energy for and yet I have to do them. Church's are not open and so I watched my diocesan's service and got my own tub of water and stuck my feet in it to attempt to have some sort of "felt" experience of the Maundy Thursday foot washing...only to tune into another service where the preacher was denouncing the practice. Church in the year of pandemic has been...as the French say..."interesting." 

So, whatever is going on in me, the shifting doesn't feel as if we're going to my spiritual nerve center this time. And I think that's OK.

What I am thinking about is Judas. 

"What?!" you say, "You're thinking about the betrayer and not our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ???!!!" 

Yes, that's right. I'm thinking about Judas. 

Throughout Holy Week, where we've been treated exclusively to the Gospel of John's account of the events of Jesus' final stand in Jerusalem, we've seen Judas the thief, Judas the complainer, Judas the betrayer. He is the one who receives the bread from Jesus, the bread that Jesus "dips into the dish"(John 13:26a) and hands it to him, announcing that "this is the guy who is about to stab me in the back" and yet the other disciples seem to be oblivious to this. They're all still pre-occupied with the idea that somebody might betray Jesus and doing an internal inventory of their hearts. They are so focused on themselves that they don't see what's just happened. And how could they see it? We're told Satan entered into Judas at that moment, but it's not like there is some physical forked-tongued, horned creature that manifests before their eyes. That's not how Evil works. It's much more cunning. It's odorless. Tasteless. But highly infectious. 

And while "Satan entered into him" (John 13:27a), and Judas goes off to fulfill his part in the unjust arrest and persecution of Jesus, I think there is some secondhand spreading of the sin of Judas that we, those left with these Gospels, might want to consider. 

Judas played a particularly active role in carrying out evil against Jesus, but the other eleven succumb to something we might think of as maybe not as egregious and yet sinful. Note how they all clutched at their hearts and kept asserting that they would never betray Jesus. I mean, Heaven forbid they do such a thing, right?

And yet...they did betray him.  Peter denied knowing him, and Phillip and James and Andrew and all the rest? When the Roman soldiers showed up and broke up their gathering in the garden to arrest  Jesus, they stood by and watched. Yes, Peter attacked Malchus and cut off his ear only to have Jesus tell him to put away the sword. Violence isn't the answer. And Jesus, still modeling Love for his disciples, gives himself up to the authorities and tells them to let the other men go (John 18:8). And apparently, they went. Away. Hiding. For John, this fulfills the Scripture...which can be traced to Psalm 41:9:

"Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me." 

We can play a game of "What if all the disciples had claimed to be Jesus?" just like in the film clip "I am Spartacus!" It certainly would have undermined the mission of Jesus to fulfill the task of dying on the cross to save the world. But I'm not thinking about that. Where my mind has been going today is how much have I or you or we been like one of those eleven? How have we been so worried that we might stand accused of being "the betrayer" that we get self-absorbed and fail to see when the betrayal is happening right before our eyes? 

That was brought to light today for me when I was doing a social justice walk that centered around John's Gospel for Good Friday (note: this is a terrible Gospel to reference if you want to do any sort of interfaith work with Jews for an obvious reason). We were walking through Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown section of D.C. Here, amidst the beauty of the trees, we contemplated Pilate's actions in carrying out the demand to have Jesus crucified (another aside: Pilate gets a very sympathetic treatment in the Gospel of John even though the Roman Emperor finally dismissed him as Governor because he was even too cruel and sadistic for the Romans!) The priest who offered a short homily on this passage noted how laws get obeyed and are left unquestioned and unchallenged until someone notices that there is something not right about the law and stops refusing to go along. Such was the case of the Loving couple from Virginia who finally challenged the ban on interracial marriage, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that paved the way for marriage equality for the LGBTQI+ community. Certainly, I have had my eyes opened in the past decade to the inequity in the justice system. As the daughter of a judge, I was brought up to believe that courts were neutral territory, the one place where the minority mouse could roar like a lion and be heard. 

Sadly, I have seen over and over and over and over how this American ideal is not a reality. I have listened to so many stories on the news and in person with my friends about how the system does not treat people of color as mighty mice allowed to roar but rather as pesky rodents that need to be put away...sometimes forever. It has been sobering and saddening. With the trial of Derek Chauvin going on in Minnesota, and the quest for justice in the murder of George Floyd, all of this is very much on mind. 

Recognizing and naming the racism in the systems in our society is the start. The next step is to work to change them. How will I make efforts to push for the sentencing of people who are black and brown to be the same as for whites? How will I stand with black and brown people who feel overpoliced on the one hand, and underserved by the police when they really need it on the other? These are some of my questions. Maybe you have your own. But I think considering them, continuing to listen to communities of color, are part of the work of not being like the disciples who move on and don't get in the way of Jesus' arrest. I know how easy it is to do that and how intimidating it is to step into those situations. I also know we cannot look away or take comfort in our own self-righteousness any more. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Meeting Jesus in the Parking Lot

 


It was a cold and icy night (really...it was!) in Alexandria. I had just driven up the street from the seminary to pick up a wonderful meal prepared with love by an Afghani refugee. It was not just dinner for me: she had prepared meals for others in the dorms who are left to fend for themselves on Saturday night.

As I climbed out of my car, I heard a shout. It was a man walking into the parking lot toward me. At first, I thought it might be one of my fellow seminarians. But as he came closer, I saw he was a middle-aged Chinese man. He was motioning with his hands and pointing to his head and ears. I couldn't tell if he was deaf or what was going on, and the COVID protocols of mask-wearing wasn't making things any easier. He opened his phone and showed me an address: 3221 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
OK. I asked if he was trying to get to that address. More wild, nonsensical arm motions, as if he was shoveling or something. Shoveling? Circle? Huh?
I typed out the address where he was on my phone. He squinted, read it, and looked exasperated. He started making more circles. He made a motion like eating.
"Are you hungry?" He shook his head no. Some more gestures that told me nothing.
"I'm really sorry," I said, holding a bag of Afghani dinners in the freezing drizzle. "I don't understand what you're asking. Are you trying to get to that address?" More pointing at his head, circles, shoveling.
Feeling terrible both that I couldn't understand his arm motions, and that I was holding other people's dinners that were getting colder by the second, I finally motioned for the man to follow me. I tried to get him to come inside at least the common room area of my dorm (to stay warm). He wouldn't, so I told him to stay outside and I would be right back. He started calling someone (all the names on his phone were Chinese symbols). I quickly ran to the rooms of people waiting for their dinners. It was reduced to a knock on the door and leaving the food outside their door as if they were all on quarantine. I found the man waiting for me as I was on the way to the last dorm. I stopped again to see if he was able to reach someone. Clearly, no.
"Do you want me to drive you to that address?" He pointed to me, then to himself. I figured this was the best we were going to do to get to "Yes, that's what I need you to do for me." I told him to wait one moment, ran the food up to the last person, and on the way out, I alerted a classmate to what was about to happen. Living in Florida, I am extremely cautious about taking men I don't know in a car. I wasn't scared. Just cautious.
I plugged in the address to Waze. He also showed me a video he had shot of the destination.
"Ah, OK!" It was Alexandria Commons. I knew exactly where we were going.
As we drove there, someone called him back. An animated but relieved sounding Chinese conversation ensued. Then he held the phone toward me.
"Hello? Do you speak English?" Obviously, no. The woman passed the phone to someone else.
"Hello? You are with our friend?"
"Yes, I am driving him to 3221 Duke Street."
"Oh, thank you! Yes, we're a restaurant. Thank you! Can we give you something to eat?" I tried to decline, but they insisted, so I asked for a noodle dish.
When we arrived he (and the chef and the hostess) were all very happy. He insisted on having a couple of selfies with me. They were insisting on me having dinner on the house.
The hostess, who was a young Asian woman named Amy, wanted to know where I found their friend.
"He wandered onto the campus of the Theological Seminary." She noticed my ID card which was hanging outside my coat. From there, we determined that he had gotten turned around trying to find his way to the restaurant. Turns out that he lives in one of the large apartment complexes way up at the other end of Seminary Road. Amy was so happy that I agreed to drive him on a night when nobody wants to be on the road.
"I was going to drive to Baltimore this evening," she told me, "but it's too icy."
"Oh, no. This is not a night to drive to Baltimore!"
As I was leaving with my food, Amy wanted to know if I work at the seminary.
"No, I'm a student."
"Oh? What are you studying?"
"Well, I'm preparing to become an Episcopal priest."
"Oh! So, is that like Catholic?"
"Well, sort of. We left the Roman Catholic Church a long time ago. We're the Episcopal Church."
I thanked them for the food in the only Chinese I know learned from watching too much "Sagwa" on PBS. My grateful friend followed me back out to my car for one more selfie. And we waved good-bye.
Despite language barriers, the language of God is love...which tonight came in the form of rescuing a lost man, delivering him to his friends, and a very delicious noodle dish for dinner from grateful people. My Afghan meatballs, for which I am also grateful, will wait for tomorrow's lunch.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sermon During a Troubling Epiphany Season

 

Sermon for St. Thomas
2nd Sunday After Epiphany (MLK Jr./pre-inaugural of Biden/Harris)
January 17, 2021
Readings Ps. 139; 1 Sam 3:1-10; John 1: 43-51

 

Welcome to the season of ‘A-ha!’

That’s what it means to have an “Epiphany.” An “A-ha!”

What we didn’t fully understand, now we get it.

What we didn’t see clearly, now comes into focus.

All of that is certainly true for the prophet Samuel in our Epistle reading and it is also true in our Gospel. Samuel doesn’t fully grasp that God is calling him; Nathanael doesn’t believe there’s a great one coming out of Galilee.

In fact, he scoffs at Phillip’s “A-ha” and declaration: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.” 

Nathanael’s answer?

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

 

Understand that Nazareth was a tiny very rural village in Galilee. So this is a little bit like saying, “Can anything good come out of Metcalf?”

Nothing of great importance could possibly come out of such a place. Undaunted Phillip responds: “Come and see.”

Phillip has already heard the call and experienced his epiphany. He’s insistent that Nathanael must meet this new Moses. 

When Jesus lays eyes on Nathanael, he exclaims:  

“Here is truly an Israelite with no deceit!”

We can almost see Nathanael’s jaw drop, and his eyes get big. We sense that his heart must be pounding a little faster. This Jesus, who he was so ready to dismiss as a nobody from Nazareth, has sized him up as an Israelite of great stature.

Nathanael stammers, “How do you know me?”

Great question, since the two had never met before. And yet Jesus has more knowledge of Nathanael than Nathanael has of himself. It’s as if he knows Nathanael’s “sitting down and rising up” (Ps.139:1) Suddenly it is starting to dawn on Nathanael that this man, who tells him “I saw you under the fig tree,” is someone he must respect: he is a Rabbi. He is God’s Son. He is a king of Israel. The one moniker he has yet to utter is that he is meeting the Word made Flesh…the one who had come to earth to dwell as one of us. What he knows is his life is changed in this encounter.  

These epiphanies…and “A-has” are wonderful, and finding God is amazing. But we also see how hard it is to perceive God. It takes a nearly blind Eli to interpret this voice calling for Samuel…and it takes Nathanael getting past his skeptism to meet Christ. We don’t always get the message the first time, and once we do, the challenge is how do we respond to a call. Once called by God, there is no other option but to follow and walk in a new path with no guarantee about the outcome. Now, the church likes to talk of “call” as applying to those of us who seek to enter ordained ministry. I have been asked countless times now to tell my “call story” to committees or groups of strangers.

But God calls more than those who are entering the sacramental priesthood. The call of God extends to everyone to “do justice. Love kindness and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8). Serving God and living into following Jesus is not a spectator sport. God seeks out true disciples to love and serve in their communities, to do the work of lifting up the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoner, and liberating those who have been oppressed. This is the work of love…and it is not easy. But just like the prophet Samuel and the disciple Nathanael…it is the proper response when one has made a true commitment to follow God and respond to that commandment to “love God, love neighbor, and love yourself.”

I can’t think of a better time for us to hear that call of Love than right now. Amidst the anger and destruction and the violent attempts to overthrow the government…there is still a call from the One who knows us completely to live in Love. 

I’ve been reading Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s book “Love is the Way.” It’s an autobiography with lots of reflection and Christian teaching. He has a chapter called “The Real E. Pluribus Unum”… our national motto of “Out of many-one.” In it, he speaks of the division we’ve had in the country, where we are more “pluribus” than “unum.” And he acknowledges the Anglican Communion has had its own share of in-fighting.  

A few years ago, when Bishop Curry was in England for the Royal Wedding, there was a press conference featuring him and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. As you might expect, one of the reporters wanted to know how these two men could be sitting together and participating in such a high-profile wedding while there was still disagreement between them on the topic of same-sex marriage. And Bishop Curry without missing a beat told the journalist, “We follow Jesus. He teaches us the way of love; he didn’t teach us the way of agreement.”

Jesus…the Prince of Peace who specifically calls us to love our enemies…seeks a specific type of love. As Curry says, this call of Love is deciding to commit to do what is best and right and good…as best as you can figure it out…for the other person. You don’t have to like your enemies. But you do have to decide that working toward a common goal of civic order that reflects goodness, justice, and compassion ultimately reflects the will and love of God for all people.

Goodness. Justice. Compassion.

This is the way of love that has been missing for too long. The call to us now in this season of Epiphany is to tune our ears and listen and follow the command to love and respond like Samuel to that call with “Here I am.”  The Word of God from John’s Gospel is still with us. We are to remain open to those “A-ha” moments when we find Christ in the other and stand for goodness, justice and compassion.  

To be Christ’s disciple isn’t about being a cheerleader for our Savior. It’s about Christ stirring us into the action of bringing heaven and earth closer together, and rejecting the attempts to draw us into isolation, selfishness, and greed.

The hymn lyricist Cecil Frances Alexander says it best:

Jesus calls us from the worship
of the vain world's golden store;
from each idol that would keep us,
saying, "Christian, love me more."

 

In the name of God…F/S/and HS.