Sit with it

This is a weird, in-between day for pastors, in particular, but for any church folk involved in the work of the congregation. We’ve laid Jesus in the tomb, but we know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and in the meantime, we have to get ready. There are flowers to arrange in the sanctuary, groceries to buy (or reservations to make), maybe even eggs to hide or last-minute additions to baskets for our little ones, and Lord knows, a word of witness to the Resurrection to polish, if not write from scratch.

Hoagie, the last of the Berners, at Evergreen on Holy Saturday, 2011

When I lived in Portland, I always took whatever dogs I had for a walk at Evergreen Cemetery. It seemed like the right place to be, a resting place with markers and monuments going back hundreds of years, yet still in use for more recent losses.

And there is a duck pond.

I found it to be the perfect liminal space, where thoughts of the unthinkable – a literal victory over death – seemed somehow plausible.

Every year I did my work there, walking with my words, from the first year when I wondered if I really believed in a bodily resurrection, to the last, when I believed it wholeheartedly.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56, CEB)

I’ve often thought of them on that in-between day, not knowing what was to come, expecting the sad but obvious ending – a chance to perform a ritual of respect and love for their friend and teacher. Unlike the busy preacher, chorister, or flower arranger, they could not fill the day with tasks. They could not, like my mother, press the pleats into a tiny Easter dress; or as my friend Mary Ellen and I used to do, make fresh ravioli on my big dining room table; or walk the dog or go to the German bakery to choose an appropriate dessert for tomorrow or stop by the dry cleaners for the pastor’s robe that needed cleaning (for the Lord’s sake, get there before they close).

They just had to sit with it.

Let’s remember they were not at home, so picture them in a rented room in Jerusalem, maybe the same Upper Room where the apostles retreated, or maybe in their own 1st century Air BnB. They lack the comforts of familiar space. They are each other’s family now. Which stage of grief were they in that day? After witnessing the crucifixion, I suspect shock was primary, but I want to think some among them were angry, too, angry at the betrayal, denial, and cowardice of the men who should have known better.

It’s tempting to rush ahead to rejoicing, so tempting that many in our churches skip straight from Hosannas to Alleluias. Today, at least for a long moment, I’m trying to sit with the shock, the anger, the grief, even the helplessness, as if I didn’t know what comes next.

Thank you, Lord, for the women you gathered around you, for their stories, for their courage. Amen. 


I’ve been reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. The full list of posts can be found here.

 

Standing witness

I’m living through this Holy Weekend the same way I lived through Lent, engaged by the scripture but still … at a distance. It’s not the first year I’ve been unoccupied by a church at this season – 2013 and 2014 were the same – but it’s the first year I’m fairly sure I won’t ever be in the role of local church pastor again. If I skipped church this weekend, who would notice? It’s a strange feeling.

And everyone who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance observing these things. (Luke 23:49, CEB)

I wonder about the experience of the women around Jesus, not just on this day, but throughout his ministry. Luke is less specific about the support they offered. Here they have simply “followed him from Galilee.” I’m not sure what that implies, although it certainly tells us that they traveled with him to what they must have assumed was the very and most bitter end.

We trust they were really there, both because someone had to bring back the eyewitness accounts, and because if the tradition gave women credit for something, it must have been true. Who were they? Were they friends from the beginning? Did they jostle each other for his attention, form alliances, keep to themselves? (The disciples certainly behaved like contestants on The Bachelor, each one making the case for his own superiority, each one taking pride of place.) You’ve got to say this for the women: they didn’t scatter.

At my Bible Study last week we considered how they found the courage to stand by and watch, even at a distance, the terrible things that happened to Jesus on that Friday. Maybe, someone suggested, they thought there would be a miracle! Yes, and I have often wondered if they expected some heroic rescue, whether by allies or by a change of Pilate’s mind.

Even at a distance, it was terrible. This feels like the most obvious statement one could make. The situation was terrible, the death was terrible.

Even at a distance, even today, it is terrible.

And even today, the world is full of terrible things, terrible violence and mayhem and cruelty.

I wish it felt like comfort to know that God in the person of Jesus suffered the reality of some of the worst things humans can do, wish it felt like comfort to know he understands the hearts and minds of 8-year-old murder victims and poisoned babies, to know he feels the outsider pain of queer and trans folk, to know he hurts with brown and black people oppressed everywhere, to know that he embodied the story of death by religious bigotry.

Last night I thought hard about whether to even go to church. I’m feeling powerless to do much, and aware of my lack of place in any congregation. I wondered, who will care if I go? What difference will it make? Then I got a text from kathrynzj encouraging me to come to worship. The other preacher at my house said later she could feel me trying to decide what to do.

As I crossed the street, I thought, “I guess Jesus will notice I’m here.”

And I want to think he noticed them, too, that he knew, in those last terror-full hours that someone cared, that the women understood how to bear witness and embody a ministry of presence, even at a distance.

Holy Jesus, I cannot stop the troubles of the world, but I promise to keep standing witness. Amen.

Brown body, brown bread

Dear friends,

In the category of things we take for granted, I never thought much about what kind of bread we used for Communion, only whether it was fresh and tasted good. I grieved over stale bread cubes, grimaced over the flavor of rosemary focaccia dipped in grape juice, and groaned (quietly) over moldy pita grabbed from the church freezer by a deacon when someone else failed to provide. I took offense at being given a slice of bread to break – would you vivisect our Lord, I asked nobody in particular?

When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him. He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” (Luke 22:14-16, CEB)

Meanwhile, I earnestly deconstructed our white, Victorian images of Jesus. Yet it took years before I thought about the image being projected by the bread meant to represent his brown body. Whether pita or loaf, ciabatta or challah, it was all the same color. 

It was all white. 

Yesterday I went to the grocery store and looked for bread with my wife, for her service tonight. She wants to fill three baskets without keeping the people who need gluten-free separate from the rest of the congregation, and I thought we could find a multi-grain loaf in the gluten-free section. We stood reading ingredients together. In the tiny print, we found something wrong with every loaf. We will keep trying. We can all keep trying.

Jesus commanded the disciples to love each other, and the same mandate applies to us. We have the power to send a message of love to the church and to the world with each word we speak, each action we take, each loaf we share. When that bread is broken tonight, I’ll be thinking of all of you, tearing pieces of bread, in churches of all descriptions, for people of all descriptions. I will be treasuring this community of the faithful tied by bonds of love, across all kinds of human-made boundaries. I will be thinking of your faces, the ones I know in person, and the ones I know as little pictures on Facebook, and the ones I imagine in the words you write. On this night when we want all to go well, may the bread be flavorful and fresh, and the cup a sweet reminder of the One who lived his life with so much love, Jesus Christ. May the meal convey welcome not just to a collective all but to each one who receives it. And may each and every one of you be blessed, just as you are a blessing to those you serve and a blessing to me.

Faithfully,

Martha


I’m borrowing my own words today from the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader for Maundy Thursday.

Enter Satan

When I was a student at an Episcopal girls’ school, there was a column in the student newspaper entitled, “The Devil Made Me Do It.” For this middle schooler, the phrase had no prior meaning – I’m sure it was meant to be hilarious, some account of youthful antics written by a popular upper school girl – and left me feeling vaguely distressed. What had a big girl done? And can the devil really be responsible for our mistakes? In the household where I was raised, you didn’t blame anyone else if you got in trouble. In fact, I remember getting the blame even for things I hadn’t done often enough that I began wondering if I had done the things for which other kids at school got in trouble.

If only I had been leaning on Luke’s account of Holy Week, I might have felt less perpetually guilty.

By means of an inverted Deus Ex Machina, the gospel of Luke turns the corner in Chapter 22. We don’t hear about Judas being annoyed or disturbed over Jesus’ behavior, as we would in John. Instead he is suddenly possessed and the story moves forward as if inevitable.

The Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called Passover, was approaching. The chief priests and the legal experts were looking for a way to kill Jesus, because they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve. He went out and discussed with the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard how he could hand Jesus over to them. They were delighted and arranged payment for him. He agreed and began looking for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them—a time when the crowds would be absent. (Luke 22:1-6, CEB)

In Sunday School this week, we talked about whether this outcome was a plan on God’s part, and I wish I had said, when arguing against it, that it seemed unlikely God would collude with Satan in carrying off a dreadful scheme against Jesus. Judas won’t get to blame the devil. He’s going to pay the price for his own sinful action. He won’t be spared because God had it planned this way all along.

For some people the idea that God is in charge of everything is comforting. For them, it seems obvious and somehow excusable that God would send Jesus to die, that death was always the plan.

I don’t believe it, cannot believe it. I believe in a God powerful enough to redeem us without sending his Son to the cross. It played out this way because people couldn’t handle having God in their midst. Of course God had the victory over death and sin in the resurrection, but I don’t think that means Jesus’ death was inevitable. It was only horribly likely.

The gospel really doesn’t make the case for the kind of vicarious atonement held true by many Christians. Luke, in the writing, needed the twisted plot, the entry of personified evil, to make sense of it all. Enter Satan, who made Judas do it. Enter the Devil who makes us do it. Why confess? Jesus will cover it.

No.

I don’t believe in this either. The human mind clearly has the capacity for exceptional cruelty and hatred and torture, not to mention blasé injustice, without any help from the supernatural. Just read the headlines.

I wish, in this Holy Week, we would look to Jesus instead, to his witting action and gentle courage and abiding love. Imagine a world that embraces that kind of redemption, not a free pass from our responsibility, but saving grace from bigotry and brutality, a rebirth of mercy and love.

Lord, I take responsibility for the things I have done and left undone. Have mercy on me. 


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

All of this has happened before

I never saw the original version of Battlestar Galactica, but I got on board with the second edition with enthusiasm due to having sons of the age and inclination to love it. The Book of Pythia, a text sacred to the polytheistic human characters, contains the prophecy, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The characters, living in the aftermath of a galaxy-wide apocalypse engineered by the Cylons (their robot former servants), see themselves in their scriptures, fulfilling prophecies so ancient and dusty they had become little more than quaint and arcane to most.

I think we read our own texts the same way, because we can’t quite make sense of them.

Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. (Luke 21:29-33, CEB)

Certainly, things happened, but unless we’re living in a dream, the world did not come to an end. And these days God’s kingdom feels very far away, unless we’re looking toward an apocalyptic end and a desire for the world as we know it to end just so that terrible situation will be over.

I’ll tell you, the contrast between life in my home, which is what I would describe as energetically harmonious for the most part, and life in the world, which I would describe as violently cacophonous, makes it hard to know where we are on God’s calendar. We’re living a life I want to think exemplifies the world as it should be: faithful and loving service to God, an affectionate family, cats and dog, church, music, knitting, and baseball. We’re queer to boot. This is all good. But out there is so much cruelty: powers and principalities both governmental and corporate using jackbooted thugs to intimidate People of Color, especially Black people, and women, and my particular minority, not to mention anyone who doesn’t happen to share their white straight cis-het privilege or benefit from it indirectly by colluding with it.

Which brings me to more Jesus.

“Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.” (Luke 21:34-36)

Look, being dulled by drinking parties, or baseball, or knitting, or whatever keeps you calm while the White House Press Secretary is denying the Holocaust and doctors are being carried off airplanes and little children are being shot through their teacher, seems pretty natural under the circumstances. Numbing out is apparently nothing new, and considering what I’ve read about the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, I’m unsurprised that Jesus gave this particular warning.

It occurs to me that the world is always like this. I say that not to say that we should give in to the powers that be. Every moment is a crucial enough one that persisting in the fight on behalf of God’s kingdom is worth it. God’s not going to do it in our place.

God is still waiting for us to step to it.

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Maybe today, God, instead of asking for more of what we need, we should be taking count of what you have already given us and figuring out how to use it to serve you.

So say we all?


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

How terrible it will be

When we are lamenting the current day’s disasters, and come across this text, I guess it’s fair to say we were duly warned.

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that its destruction is close at hand. At that time, those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those in the city must escape, and those in the countryside must not enter the city. These are the days of punishment, when everything written will find its fulfillment. How terrible it will be at that time for women who are pregnant or for women who are nursing their children. There will be great agony on the earth and angry judgment on this people. (Luke 21:20-23, CEB)

Today there was a murder-suicide in an elementary school; two children were injured. (Edited to note with sadness that one of the children died.) Yesterday bombs went off in Coptic Christian sanctuaries. Last week internal chemical attacks killed adults and children in Syria. A few weeks ago in a US drone strike in Syria, a mosque was struck during worship. (Our military has denied the veracity of this report despite social media images.)

We are killing each other everywhere, and there is no sanctuary.

When I read scripture with warnings like the ones Jesus offers in Luke 21, I like to think that we are explaining backwards. Jerusalem had fallen, horribly, before Luke’s account was written. But this feels like inevitable, eternal prophesy right now. Substitute any place name: Mosul, Alexandria, San Bernardino; Portsmouth, Portland, Mechanicsburg.

If my mind goes to mothers and children, maybe it’s because I think of how ferociously, yet helplessly, protective I felt when my children were small. I would have done anything for them if danger had threatened, yet I would have been no defense against weapons designed to destroy.

It’s coming, wherever we live, unless and until we stop reveling in killing each other. 

I wish I knew how to make it stop.

Dear Lord.

How terrible it will be.
No, how terrible it is.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

Widow and orphan control

When I’m writing sermons or speeches, I can’t stand to have a paragraph run from one page to the next. I often edit a phrase here or there just to make the pages come out even. It’s a fiddly way of approaching rewrites, but there are always a few extra words, and since they are mine, I feel empowered to deal with them ruthlessly.

Pic­ture a para­graph that starts at the bot­tom of one page and con­tin­ues at the top of the next page. When only the last line of the para­graph ap­pears at the top of the next page, that line is called a widow. When only the first line of the para­graph ap­pears at the bot­tom of the first page, that line is called an or­phan.

Widow and or­phan con­trol pre­vents both. Or­phans are moved to the next page with the rest of the para­graph. To cure wid­ows, lines are moved from the bot­tom of one page to the top of the next. It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than it sounds, be­cause cur­ing a widow can­not cre­ate a new or­phan, nor vice versa. (Practical Typography)

The story of the widow and her mite (two small copper coins) opens Chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the version of the story found in Mark comes up in the latter part of the year, often right in time for stewardship season, when we love the story of a sacrificial giver. “You well-off people sitting in the pews, look at the widow and her devotion to God! You would do well to follow her example!”

This tiny story is orphaned without the previous verses, inconveniently located in Chapter 20.

In the presence of all the people, Jesus said to his disciples, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They love being greeted with honor in the markets. They long for the places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” (Luke 20:45-47, CEB)

See what I mean? If you go straight to the widow, you might not catch on to what Jesus is saying.

All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had to live on. (Luke 21:4)

The religious authorities should be – according to scripture are – responsible for the care of widows, and orphans, too. We make too much out of admiring her faith without stopping to interrogate the system that allows her to give everything away without saying, “Sister, let us help you.”

Despite the best efforts of editors who made chapters out of gospels, in Jesus’ teaching, there’s no keeping them tidily on one page, to be forgotten or follow the rules that convenience the power structure. In Jesus’ teaching, they trail conversationally from one page to another, demanding our attention. In Jesus’ teaching, there is no widow and orphan control.

Lord, I am trying to listen to you and make my life the kind that will do justice to your teaching. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.