Saturday, March 30, 2013

we didn't start the fire

Easter Vigil, Year C
March 30, 2013

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.”* Amen. 

It begins with light. 

Out of the formless void, the churning chaos of darkness that covers the earth, God brings order with the command: “Let there be light.” The reflection of light on the last lingering raindrops creates a colorful symbol of God’s vow to never destroy the earth again by way of flood. Abraham gazes intently at the light from the flickering flames consuming a ram in place of his beloved son, God’s blessing still ringing in his ears. God calls Moses to action from the flames of a burning bush, and later God’s presence in a pillar of fire lights the way for the Israelite refugees as they make their escape from Egypt.  

“We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning.”**

It begins with light. 

A room lightened by a surprise appearance, where a young woman learns of the incredible child she has been chosen to bear. A path lit by a beacon of light so that lowly sheep herders and foreign sages can find this child. The child himself, who shines as the “light of all people” in the midst of a time of darkness (John 1:4). Who baptizes people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Whose teaching and way of life ignites a movement. 

“We didn't start the fire.
No, we didn't light it,
But we tried to fight it.”

It began with darkness. 

Whispers in the night from leaders who felt threatened by Jesus’ teachings and claims. A rogue disciple left the dinner table to plot betrayal. The total darkness of the garden punctuated by torches of an angry mob. A sky suddenly blackened as the last breath leaves the crucified king. The last rays of sunlight extinguished as a stone was rolled into place in front of the tomb. 

“We didn't start the fire.”

It begins with light.

In the early morning hours, just as the sun begins to make its presence known, a group of women slowly make their way to the tomb with heavy hearts. The stone is rolled away, allowing sunlight  to filter into the empty tomb, where a dazzling presence reveals that the Lord is risen. Days later Jesus prepares a breakfast of fish and bread roasting over a charcoal fire, revealing himself to his disciples for the third time.   

“We didn't start the fire.
But when we are gone
will it still burn on?”

It begins with light. 

Tongues of fire appear above the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit. They proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, setting hearts ablaze. Centuries later, missionaries are sent by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, with instructions to “go forth and set the world on fire.” And so throughout the ages, people from all walks of life, from royalty to martyrs to ordinary people, light up the world by making God’s all-encompassing love known through both words and actions. 

“We didn't start the fire.”

Our service begins with light. 

From the flames of a new fire we light the Paschal Candle, a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial and radical love for the world. We hear stories of God’s saving work throughout history, stories of light in the darkness. These are our stories, for at our baptism we are adopted into God’s family, united with Christ in both his death and resurrection. And tonight, we welcome Milo and Ruby into our Christian family. We join them in renewing our own baptismal vows, remembering our commitment to be bearers of Christ’s light to the world. We give thanks by breaking bread together, that precious meal that nourishes us as we journey into the darkness. Finally we go out, carrying the Light of Christ within us, for this is what it means to be an Easter people. 

“We didn't start the fire.
But when we are gone [it will] still burn on.”

"The Empty Tomb" by Rik Berry
found here

*Breathe On Me Breath of God: words by Edwin Hatch, melody (Trentham) by Robert Jackson
**We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel

Friday, March 29, 2013

a story of foot washing

My explanation of foot washing for the Maundy Thursday service (March 28, 2013). 

A Story of Foot Washing

It was a custom in Jesus’ time that hosts would provide water for their guests to wash their feet. The roads were dusty and many people wore sandals, so offering water to help make their guests comfortable was a way to show them hospitality.

There are examples throughout the Bible of foot washing. When 3 strangers visit Abraham, he calls for water to be brought for them to wash their feet (Genesis 18:4). Abraham’s nephew, Lot, does the same when 2 angels arrive in his town (19:2). Rebekkah’s brother, Laban, provides this for Abraham’s servant (24:32), and Joseph does this for his brothers when they visit him in Egypt (43:24).

In the New Testament there are two main examples of foot washing. Two Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus at dinner with his friends and disciples (John 12:1-8). There, in an act of gratitude and love, his friend Mary poured oil on his feet and dried them with her hair.

Now we find Jesus and the disciples gathered at a meal once again, but this time Jesus does the washing (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). This may not seem like a big deal to us today, but back then, it was alarming! You see, when hosts provided water, guests would either wash their own feet or the host would bring out a slave to do the washing. So the thought of Jesus, the Son of God, washing his disciples’ feet was absurd!

Think about if your teacher or principal offered to wash your feet. Or your boss. Or even the president. You’d feel pretty awkward, right?

Well, that’s how Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, felt. “You’re never touching my feet,” he said. He probably felt embarrassed to see Jesus, his teacher and friend, as well as the Messiah, in this lowly position. He didn’t want to be a part of it. Maybe he was also embarrassed to let someone he cared about so much touch his feet. “My feet are smelly and dirty—why would I let the man I believe is God’s Son come anywhere near them?” [This might remind you of John the Baptist saying he was unworthy to even untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals (John 1:27)].

But Jesus replied that this is what he was all about. Jesus ministered to the poor, to the marginalized. He treated everyone as if they were worthy of God’s love, regardless of their background or their faults. “I’m doing this not because I think I’m less than or because you need it. I’m doing this because I want to show you how much I love you. If you don’t let me wash your feet, Simon, you are missing out on what I am all about.”

At this point Simon, always the enthusiast, goes a little overboard and asks Jesus to wash his hands and his head. I imagine Jesus chuckles and says, “You don’t need a bath, Simon; this is just a symbolic washing.” When Jesus is done washing everyone’s feet, he tells them to continue his example, to serve and love one another, just as Jesus did.

And so we’ve kept up the tradition of foot washing throughout the ages. In fact, today Pope Francis went to a Juvenile Detention Center and washed the feet of 12 youth, male and female, from Catholic and Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds. After drying their feet he even kissed them.

This evening we, too, have an opportunity to wash each other’s feet (or hands, if you’d prefer). It may feel weird or scary to be so vulnerable with each other. But remember that God loves us exactly as we are, whether our feet are smelly or perfectly pedicured.

So now I invite you to come forward as you feel moved, while we sing together a song from Ghana found in our Episcopal hymnal, Jesu, Jesu.

therefore I have set my face like flint

Wednesday in Holy Week, Year C
March 27, 2013
Here are the readings.

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

“The Lord God helps me...therefore I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). As I was reading the passage from Isaiah, this line caught my eye. What does it mean to set your face like flint? Flint is a hard rock that was commonly used to make tools during the Stone Age. It is a sturdy rock, and has been used all the way up to today, especially in England, as building materials for walls, churches, and homes. So to set your face like flint could mean you clench your jaw and square your shoulders--literally harden your features--in preparation for facing things known and unknown. 

In Luke’s Gospel account, we are told that Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus does not go into this week ignorant of the consequences of his actions; he knows he is in danger, knows that to travel to Jerusalem is a death sentence. And so when this verse is read, I imagine Jesus setting his face like flint: he takes a deep breath, murmurs a prayer, pulls himself upright, and with a grim expression determinedly continues his journey. 

As we mark the progression of Holy Week, we remember how deeply Jesus is hurt by both betrayal and denial by some of his closest friends. How he is beaten with whips and words, mocked by those who have so recently joyfully proclaimed him king. How he is hung upon a tree as a warning to those who would follow him. Broken and scarred, physically and emotionally, Jesus seems to have lost the strength that set his face toward Jerusalem. 

But flint is not just known for its strength and stability. When struck, it produces sparks. So too, Jesus, struck and then killed, rises from the grave victorious, igniting a spark that sets the world on fire. 

That same fire continues to burn to this day. We may be in the throes of Holy Week, but we know that Easter is on the horizon. Jesus demonstrates that the Lord God can help us face whatever lies ahead. With God’s help, we can set out on our own journey. With God’s help, we can face the obstacles that inevitably appear. With God’s help, not even death can stand in our way. 

“The Lord God helps me...therefore I have set my face like flint.”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

just the way you are

All Saints Episcopal Church
Lent 5, Year C
March 16-17, 2013

Here are the readings. Here is a recording!

May only God's Word be spoken, and may only God's Word be heard. Amen.

These 8 verses in John’s Gospel are saturated with symbolism and seasoned with imagery. On the outside it looks like a simple dinner party with friends, but the meal is laced with betrayal and accusation and the guest list includes Israel’s Most Wanted and even...a zombie.

In the chapter before this, Jesus performs a miracle for his friends Martha and Mary. At Jesus’ command, their brother, Lazarus, who’s been dead for four days, comes alive and walks out of his tomb, still wrapped in the cloths they buried him in. That’s right; Jesus’ friend has become a member of the walking dead. Jesus’ popularity, already on the rise, explodes.

Not surprisingly, this terrifies the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders. They are threatened by Jesus’ power and popularity and are fearful of retribution by Rome, a nation not so fond of disturbances within its territories. In order to protect the nation and the temple, the leaders decide that Jesus must be stopped--permanently. They order the people of Jerusalem to inform them of Jesus’ whereabouts so that they can arrest him. The act of bringing someone back to life has set in motion Jesus’ own death. 

When today’s passage opens, it is six days before Passover, the religious festival remembering how God brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. As part of preparation for the festival, Jews able to do so travel to Jerusalem in order to purify themselves. In the midst of all the excitement, there are whispers of whether or not Jesus will dare to show up, now that his life is in danger. Rather than become a fugitive, however, Jesus travels to Bethany, only about two miles away from Jerusalem. He does not shy away from his fate but continues his ministry.

At this meal, waited on by his friend Martha and in the presence of the resurrected Lazarus, he dines with the disciples. Everyone always talks about how beautiful this next part of the passage is, but from the point of view of the people sitting at the table I’m betting the whole situation is pretty awkward…Just imagine it: the guys are having a lively conversation and all of a sudden Jesus’ friend (a woman, no less) walks in and begins to pour perfume on his feet. The men gasp and stop talking, their wine glasses hitting the table as they crane their necks to get a better look. Undaunted, she continues, noticing with sadness the blisters and layers of dust on his tired feet. She gently rubs the oil into them and then takes her hair down and wipes his feet with her hair. Such an intimate gesture is not common among friends, especially friends of different genders. To let her hair down and use it to wipe his dirty feet is to lower herself to the status of servant. It’s unclear whether she is motivated by gratitude for restoring her brother to life or whether this is an act of worship, but regardless, it is a powerful scene.

Judas Iscariot, beginning to get a headache from the strong smell of the perfume, interrupts the moment with a protest. He is upset at what he deems a misuse of money, and no wonder--the perfume is made of nard that comes all the way from India. It’s worth a year’s wages--which, if going by today’s minimum wage standards in Nebraska, translates to roughly $15,000. “Mary, are you crazy? We aren’t exactly rolling in dough here. Just think of how many people we could have helped with that money!!!” 

To be fair, Judas does have a point. $15,000 would make a huge impact in their ministry; just think of how many times large crowds follow them around! When faced with such poverty on a regular basis, Mary’s action seems excessive, wasteful. But John (who really doesn’t like Judas--at all) lets us know that Judas isn’t thinking of the poor when makes the accusation. The hypocrisy of complaining of misuse of money while lining his pockets with coins from the common purse is not lost on us. 

In response to Judas’ protest, Jesus comes to Mary’s defense: “Leave her alone.” He sees in her action a foreshadowing of his approaching death. Whether or not she knows it, by anointing his feet Mary is preparing him for burial. The very next day Jesus will make his way to Jerusalem, flocked by crowds hailing his arrival with palm branches. By the end of the week his body will be taken off of the cross and placed in a tomb.    

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This verse has been misused over the centuries to justify indifference toward the less fortunate. But Jesus is not saying to ignore the poor; his entire ministry is focused on the “least of these.” Think of the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of the sick, the simple, nomadic lifestyle he chooses. Jesus is referring here to a verse in Deuteronomy (15:11), which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ ” Fundamentally, Jesus is saying, “Yes, Judas, it is essential that we continue to make helping the poor a priority; this is what I have been teaching you all along. But Mary is right to honor me this way; I’m not going to be here forever. Your work with me will be done soon, and then I’ll need you to continue my ministry after I’m gone.”

We might expect Judas to go storming off in anger, which is what he does in Mark and Matthew’s versions of the Gospel. In their accounts, immediately after the anointing, Judas goes to the chief priests and provides them with information that will lead to Jesus’ arrest. In John’s version, however, while Judas will eventually betray Jesus, he waits around for a few more days before doing it. Surely by now Jesus knows who is going to betray him, and yet, Judas is still included at the table, is still part of the inner circle. 

Both Judas in his brokenness and Mary in her extravagant devotion are present at the meal. Sounds a lot like another meal I know of. We have elements of both Mary and Judas within us. Some days we’ll approach the altar with hearts bursting with love and faith that can move mountains. On other days we’ll approach the altar tentatively, our hearts heavy with the knowledge of our brokenness. Either way, all of us are welcome to the table exactly as we are. We know this because we see God’s love revealed in the person of Jesus. Regardless of our faithfulness, God’s love for us is unconditional. And if Jesus can welcome Judas to the table, then there’s room enough for us. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

love with reckless abandon (the prodigal dad)

All Saints Episcopal Church
Lent 4, Year C

Readings found here.

Out of all the Gospels, Luke is my favorite. Sure, the other Gospels have some powerful things to say as well, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Luke. You see, Luke is an amazing storyteller, and his stories portray Jesus as the champion of the marginalized. Luke’s Jesus is a guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty: he hangs out with the poor and the oppressed, he cures lepers, and he even enjoys eating with sinners and tax collectors (gasp!). This gets him in trouble with the religious leaders--the Pharisees. In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son. 

The Prodigal Son. I bet most of you have heard of it; I think only the Good Samaritan is more familiar than this story. Prodigal means wasteful or reckless (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary), and this certainly describes the action of the younger son. Biblical editors gave it this title, but I think this story should be called something different. How about: The Two Most Ungrateful Sons. Ever. 

Case #1: The younger son strolls up to his dad one day and says, “I’m sick of waiting around for you to die. I want my share of the land now.” When his father gives it to him, he waits a few days and then sells it. All of it! Let’s think about this: The land means everything to the Israelites. It’s the land promised to them by God after walking around the desert for 40 years. It’s the land that they were kept away from during the Exile. It’s their home. To sell it means he has no respect for his culture or his family, or even God. 

With the money he makes from selling the land, the younger son takes off, leaving behind all that he has ever known. He spends all of the money just in time for a famine to hit. Completely broke, he hires himself out to a pig farmer. Not only is this gross, but it’s a cultural taboo; Jews aren’t supposed to be around pigs (they are considered unclean, so their meat is forbidden). On top of all of this, he’s starving but no one gives him anything to eat. This is pretty much as low as he can get. He decides that he’d be better off working as a servant for his dad than where he is now. So, motivated by food, and not necessarily repentance, he returns home. 

Case #2: The older son has a hissy fit when he finds out there is a party going on for his delinquent little brother. He tears into his dad, complaining that he’s been working his butt off with no appreciation. “You never threw me a party!” he whines. “But your son, who, may I remind you, wasted his money and dishonored your name, comes waltzing back home and you throw him a huge party! This is so unfair!”

What did I tell you? Most ungrateful sons ever. 

But if we focus on the two sons solely, we miss out on talking about the father. He’s actually the main character in this story. So let me propose another title: The Prodigal Dad. 

Wait--what? You may be thinking, “Lara, what do you mean? The dad isn’t wasteful or reckless--he's just a big softie!” My point exactly. The father’s love for his children is so great that it could be considered reckless. He loves his kids with reckless abandon, even though they don’t deserve it!

Case #1: When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, the father gives it to him. When the son sells the land and moves out of town, his dad doesn’t chase him down. According to Deuteronomy (Deut. 21:18–21), a son who is rebellious and disobedient is supposed to be stoned to death. But the father lets him go, even though it breaks his heart. 

We don’t know how the father reacted at first. Maybe he was angry and bitter, maybe he was sad and mopey. All we know is that when the younger son finally returns home, he doesn’t even make it to the house before his dad is running to him. You can just imagine the dad, searching out the window day after day, just willing his child to return to him. And when he finally sees the familiar form walking up the pathway, he doesn’t stop to think twice, but, filled with compassion, he lifts his robes and runs to him. He doesn’t care about what his son did to him, he doesn’t care about whether or not his neighbors see him running like a fool; all he cares about is having his baby boy back, safe and sound. His joy is so great that he ignores his son’s apology and throws him a huge party, inviting the entire community to join in the celebration.  

Case #2: At some point the father realizes that the older son is not there. He leaves the party to come find him. He sees the son stewing outside and brushes aside the son’s yelling and accusations. “My son, you have always been by my side. Now that I’ve given away your brother’s share of the inheritance, literally everything I have is yours. You could have asked me for something, and I would have given it to you. But we have to celebrate your brother’s return. Don’t you get it? He was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!” 

We don’t know if the younger son is ever truly sorry for what he had done. And we don’t know if the older son ever swallows his pride and joins the party. All we know is that the father repeatedly demonstrates his unconditional love for his children, even when they do not deserve it. 

Think back to right before the beginning of the story. The passage begins with Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and sinners; people considered less than by society, people the younger son probably hung out with. And yet, despite their wrongdoing, despite their dishonest way of life, Jesus welcomes them to his table, shares meals and stories and laughter with them. Loves them with reckless abandon. 

This upsets the Pharisees, the religious leaders who devote their lives to having a right relationship with God. They know that maintaining a relationship with God is hard work. So, like the older son, they are upset when people who don’t follow the rules are invited to the table. Now, I don’t think the Pharisees are evil. The Pharisees believe that the way to honor God is to follow strict rules so that they will be holy, set apart. They’ve got so much respect for God, but the problem is, it’s all vertical, top-down. Don’t get me wrong; I think we need to have a healthy sense of awe for God, to appreciate that God is powerful and mysterious and there is no way we can ever comprehend all that God is. 

But Jesus comes to show us that our relationship with God should not be based on fear.  Jesus shows us that God’s love is unconditional. We are loved just as we are with reckless abandon, regardless of our past or future sins. And if we truly believe that we are all created in the image of God, then we are called to recognize God in each other. God is not just hanging out up in the sky somewhere; God is in our very midst! One of the most moving lines in Victor Hugo’s book Les Misérables is this: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” This is what Jesus is trying to tell us! In Jesus, God becomes human. In Jesus, God spends time healing the sick and feeding the hungry and teaching the “wrong crowd.” In Jesus, God is hung upon a cross like a criminal. What greater example of God loving us with reckless abandon is there? 

This is why we come together every week. We come to be reminded of our baptism into God’s family. A baptism that calls us to "respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP 305)--to purposefully seek out the marginalized and the pious and bring them to the table. This table. Here, we become equals in God’s eyes. Here, we approach the altar in all our brokenness and bitterness and receive unlimited forgiveness. Here we taste and see that God is so good. 

In this season of penitence, we seek to strengthen our relationship with God. We ask God’s forgiveness for the times we mess up. Remember, God’s love is not wasted on any of us. Regardless of our past, God is watching for us, ready at any moment to gather us in his arms and invite us in.

picture found here