Monthly Archives: March 2013

Francis Bernadone (1182-1226)

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Francis Bernadone, 1182-1226

I like my saints wild. The fierce ones, oddballs, out of kilter, the ones with edges and cracks and terrible visions, the ridiculed and the feared. The ones who sooner or later have to be tamed; who, with the passage of time and shifting angles of vision, must be edited so that you can read about them safely in prim collections of hagiographies, no longer strange, but ‘best-loved,’ birdbath ornaments for your garden.

Like Francis Bernadone. Of Assisi.

You know him—the “make me a channel of your peace” saint. The saint who preached to birds and did behavioral therapy with wolves. The environmentally aware, all-natural, organic saint of harmonious convergence. All that and more. And so much more. For Francis was free. So free, he was dangerous.

He was a young dandy, rich and frivolous. And attractive. He spoke French and sang ballads and threw parties. He harassed street people and had his way with women and was more trouble than his first biographers wanted you to know. Everybody knew him. Most everybody liked him. It wasn’t clear that he liked himself. He was restless.

He wanted something. He felt that it was coming, but he didn’t know what or where or when. Something that mattered. So he went off to war in shiny armor on a handsome horse, hoping maybe it was glory. Loyalty and courage and glory might be the thing.

He returned wounded, traumatized, a haunted peacemaker, turned around by the special grace that flows from the fact of your own futility, that permanent sting in your misled heart and your useless flesh. After that, he could never flee his own flesh or anyone else’s. He was drawn to the useless.

He started paying attention in church. He heard the gospel: “Sell what you have and follow me.” So he gave away what he had. Then he started stealing from his father, giving away what he stole to make beggars warm. There were too many beggars to count.

When his father found out, he dragged him off to the bishop for a public reprimand. Always one for street theatre, he stripped off his clothes in front of his father, the bishop, and half the stunned and clucking town, stripped off his legacy (his father dealt in cloth), stripped off his father’s name. He walked out of the city a newborn, naked as a jay. He had been baptized as an infant. That was the day it took.

He lived in the woods, hiked the mountains, prayed in their caves, and wandered around the olive groves beneath the town. He begged for his food, leaving a blessing in exchange. If there was nothing, he went hungry. If there was something, he shared. Dressed in a penitent’s tunic and belt, barefoot in rain and heat and snow, he was Lady Poverty’s mad courtier, pledging himself to her for life, and to her family of ragged and hungry, too many to count. To everyone’s revulsion, including at first his own, he embraced lepers, kissing their sores. Soon they knew him well in the leprosarium down in the valley outside the walls. He tended wounds. Townspeople pelted him with stones.

One day he was praying in the ruins of an old chapel and saw that a crucifix was still hanging inside. He gazed at it until it spoke to him: ‘Francis, repair my Church.’ And so he did, stone by stone. It is said that what Jesus meant was for him to reform his ‘capital C’ church, but Francis was a literal man. He was not one to do grand things when a tangible needed thing was in front of his nose. Before he was done, he’d repaired several abandoned chapels in and around Assisi, working with his rich boy hands until no one recognized him any more. He became a stranger.

But some young men of the town were moved by him. A few old friends, a relative or two. They joined him, then others came, too, unknown to Francis. All classes and conditions. Before he knew it he was in charge of a growing fellowship. He had no idea it would happen. He was ill-suited to leadership. And he was indiscriminate. He welcomed them all. Sometimes that was a mistake, and he ended up having to kick some bad men out. His companions urged him to put admissions policies in place. He didn’t.

He wanted the pope’s blessing for his growing band, so he walked down to Rome. Medieval Rome. Holy city, unholy cesspool. After some bureaucratic delays, Francis in rags got the blessing he wanted. Legend has it that at the end of his audience with the pope (whose name was Innocent, but who wasn’t very), the great man in ermine and gold came down from his throne, kissed Francis’ feet, and received his blessing.

He loved Sister Clare, who ran away from her noble house in the high part of town to learn to be like Francis. He loved Brother Leo and Brother Juniper and all the men who flocked to him, many of them exchanging, like Clare, finery and privilege for rags and humiliation. Francis wanted them all to be equals and so, among other things, he was wary of books and learning because of the pride and distinctions he believed they engendered. And he didn’t want the brothers to be priests. He loved priests because he loved the Eucharist—it was Jesus himself—and priests were the way you got it. But he wanted the brothers to remain small, menores. That’s what he called them—not the Franciscan Order, but Friars Minor.

His fiercest desire was for peace. More than anything pax et bonum, his habitual greeting. Which is why he is the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat headed east where he hoped to convert the Sultan to Christ and end the bloody fifth crusade. He was appalled by the Christian armies, their violence and immorality, every bit as much as he was afraid the Saracens would go to hell if they didn’t believe the gospel. He was struck by their piety, praying five times a day. They were also clean. The Christian commanders tried to stop him, but he snuck away under cover of night and crossed enemy lines. He got the audience he wanted, staying several days. Francis explained the good news to the surprised and curious Sultan. He did not succeed in baptizing him, but it is said that the Sultan thought Francis was a lovely man, the best Christian he’d ever met, and made sure he got back safely.

He tried for reconciliation everywhere, adjudicating local disputes, making treaties. Even, it is said, taming a ravenous wolf who was killing livestock and terrorizing people in Gubbio. The deal Francis struck with people and beast stipulated that the wolf would behave if the people fed him. Afterwards, whenever the wolf came trotting into town, newly meek and peaceable, he found food at the doors and left satisfied. The people said, as the wolf loped away, that he reminded them of Francis.

Francis was not naïve. He knew what he was up against. The onslaught of demons, the persistence of violence, the imperviousness of the haughty, the sluggishness of the Church, the sly corruption of error, and the betrayals of his own heart and body. But Francis loved Jesus, and with unhinged joy he sought to be like him down to the last detail of freedom and agony.

And so on days blistering and freezing, he and his brothers prayed and preached on street corners, demanding repentance, announcing mercy. Through nights dark and shimmering, he prayed alone, too; persistently, on a mountain, a half-demented mystic crying loud for Christ. The visions that came to him there were garish and beautiful and full of pain. It is said that on one such night, seraphim he saw in the sky cut the Lord’s own wounds on his scrawny body, his hands, his feet, his side.

And then the poor scarecrow lived just a little too long. Long enough to see his then thousands of brothers dispute his meaning, split into factions, grow to despise each other. Long enough to see new leaders reinterpret him. Saints’ deaths are sometimes bitter like this. Blind and gaunt, on his final night he asked the brothers to lay him on the ground, dust to dust. With his last rasping sigh in the morning he told them, “I have done my part. May Christ teach you to do yours.” He also said, “We have only begun to live the gospel.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that the new leaders began building a gigantic basilica to house his remains. Wildly beloved by the people in the final years of his life, the dead Francis was soon to be a wildly beloved and profitable saint. The way of the world. Our way.

Francis lives now with Jesus in the heaven of his longing. It is said that in the morning mist of Paradise, angels cannot tell the two apart. There are talking birds there, and reformed wolves, and singing water, and Leo and Clare. The Pope too, crooning duets with the Sultan. And there are lepers, thousands of lepers, rosebuds blossoming on their skin where Francis kissed them.

Prayer                                                                                                                                                           Most merciful God, on this day when we remember your servant, Francis, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, so that by following his example, we may become fierce for justice and delight in every creature with perfect joy.

 

 

Liturgy for Maundy Thursday

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PRELUDE

*HYMN Come gather in this peaceful place  (aka Come gather in this special place)

GREETING AND INVITATION

Dear Friends in Christ,

peace be with you on this holy night.

Why do we gather? What is this night?

It is a night of love

for on this night Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment:

to love each other as he loved them.

It is a night of communion

for on this night Jesus gave not only a commandment,

but also a sign: bread and wine broken and poured,

to remember him.

It is a night of loving service

for on this night Jesus gave us not only a commandment,

not only a sign,

but also an example: on his knees with basin and towel,

washing feet.

It is also a night of betrayal

for on this night a man Jesus loved

sold him for money,

and brought soldiers to seize and bind him

as he prayed.

This night is joyous, fierce, tender, terrible.

We begin in light, with memories and stories, friends and feasting.

We end in shadows, with a queasy fright.

We begin as the friends of Jesus did long ago: together, as one.

We end as they did: scattered in the dark.

We begin as they did: singing of love and deliverance.

We end as they did: without a single sound.

Friends, be at peace on this holy night.

Enter it with open hearts.

Now let us pray.

PRAYER

[This Collect may be offered by the leader or prayed in unison.]

God of deliverance and love,

look with pleasure on your people who gather here.

Send your Spirit to embrace us,

so that with hearts for a time made free of care,

we may receive in abundance the blessings of this night.

With Jesus we pray that whatever may come in life or in death,

your will, not ours, may be done.

Glory to you, yesterday, today, and forever.

Amen.

A READING FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES Exodus 12:14-17; 24-27a

Remembering God’s deliverance: Observing the feast of Passover.

 SILENCE (allow 40-60 seconds)

*RESPONSE

[The people stand for prayer.]

Let us pray.

Holy Deliverer, Breaker of Chains,

long ago you acted with power to save your people,

enslaved in the land of  Egypt,

and in every generation

the people of your heart remember.

At table they tell the story and they sing your praise.

On this holy night, with Jesus, our brother,

we too remember: We tell the old, old story

and we praise your faithful love.

As we eat the food and drink of liberation,

free us forever from the violence

that is our way of life,

and set us on a pilgrimage of peace.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 A  READING FROM THE EPISTLES I Corinthians 11: 23-26

What we have heard, we hand on to you: When they were eating, he took bread…

*RESPONSE  HYMN  Draw us in the Spirit’s tether

A READING FOM THE HOLY GOSPEL John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

The mark of the new community is love and service.

 SILENCE (Allow a full 40-60 seconds, or longer.)

RESPONSE ANTHEM Jesu, Jesu

[The choir sings this hymn in unison, unaccompanied, slowly and meditatively. A footwashing ritual takes place during the song. [See note on footwashing at end.] When footwashing is over, the confession follows. If footwashing is not done in the service, the following Collect might be used as a response in place of the anthem, with the people standing.:]

*COLLECT

Gracious God, on this holy night,

impress upon our hearts the example of Jesus,

whose love embraced all people

and whose service extended even to the washing of feet.

May we know him from this day forward

not only in the broken bread and brimming cup,

but also in the bent knee, in the water poured,

in the touch of selfless hands —

in service given and received,

and shared with all the world.

In remembrance of him we pray. Amen.

INVITATION TO CONFESSION

Jesus said: If anyone has something against you,

before you come to the table with gifts, make peace.

Then bring your gifts, then bring your lives.

Dear friends, let us make peace in our hearts.

Then, let us lay down the burdens

that keep us from loving each other and our God.

SILENCE (Allow at least one minute or longer for people to reflect.)

SONG OF CONFESSION  These I lay down [Chalice Hymnal]

You may remain seated for the song.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

Beloved, by the mercy of God

we have put down our burdens

at the feet of the one who in suffering love

laid down his life for us.

Rejoice and be glad:

Pardon, healing and peace are ours

through Jesus Christ, good brother and friend.

[Continue immediately with the invitation to share a sign of peace, below…]

*PEACE

On this night he gave us a charge:

Love one another as I have loved you.

Faithful to his commandment,

we forgive each other’s faults, as we confess our own,

and we offer each other a sign of his peace.

[The people share a sign of peace, after which they sit for the anthem.]

 ANTHEM   Now the silence [Jaroslav Vajda]

[Note to choir: Where the text has “the Father’s…” substitute “our dear God’s…”]

 GATHERING AT THE TABLE

[When the anthem concludes, there is a brief silence, followed by this invitation to gather. After the invitation, the people come forward to stand in a circle around the table in the chancel. They remain standing for the entire communion liturgy, until the Service of Light and Shadows begins. Provisions should be made for those who have mobility challenges, or who prefer to remain in their seats.]

Come now and take your places at this table,

citizens of the kingdom,  heirs to the riches of God’s love,

friends of Jesus, who is our peace.

[Once all are assembled, the leader begins the Eucharistic prayer.]

 INVITATION

Beloved, let us celebrate with Jesus at the table of peace.

For he loved his own, even to the end.

Let us eat the Feast with him.

For now nothing can separate us from his love.

And let us love one another well,

For he laid down his life for us all.

PREFACE

Praise to you, God of glory!

Your love created the universe and sustains it.

You breathed life into our dust and placed us in paradise.

You found us when we hid ourselves, ashamed of our sin.

Your love shaped a people,  and you are their God to this day,

in an alliance that lasts forever.

In the fullness of time, you called us also to be your own,

through the tender ministry of Jesus.

You spoke to us with his human voice

and healed us with his human hands.

He gave us his life in bread and wine,

and suffered for his faithfulness on the cross of shame.

But you loved him faithfully, raising him from the dead.

You sent his Spirit into our hearts

and adopted us, making us heirs of his glory;

forever we belong in your household of joy.

Holy and wonderful God, all your creatures testify to your love.

With them, we too declare it, as with the angels of heaven we sing:

SANCTUS Holy, holy, holy…

REMEMBERING AND GIVING THANKS

Now, O God, we remember Jesus.

SILENCE (15-20 seconds)

We remember that he longed to celebrate the Passover with his friends.

He arranged for a meal, his last in this life.

We remember that he gave them a new commandment:

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

We remember that he gave them an example:

He knelt before them and washed their feet.

We remember that his betrayer was with him.

Jesus loved and served him too.

WORDS OF INSTITUTION

And we remember that on that night,

with danger and death in the air,

Jesus remembered with joy

the deliverance of his ancestors

from the oppression of Pharaoh.

He told the victory story, ate bitter herbs,

shared the unleavened loaf,

and drank the cup of blessing.

In love for us, he took the bread,

gave thanks to you, and broke it.

[Note: The bread is not to be broken here, but at the fraction, below.]

He gave it to them, saying:

“Take and eat this, all of you:

this is my body, broken for you.

Do this and remember me”

And when the supper was over,

he took a cup filled with wine,

blessed it in your name,

and passed it to them, saying:

“This is the cup of a new covenant in my blood.

Do this and remember me.”

PRAYER TO THE HOLY SPIRIT

Holy Spirit, come make all things new.

Bless this bread and cup, and us who share them.

May they be for us life-giving food and drink.

Give us love for each other,

and make us your servants in the world

until your new age of justice comes,

and every creature  beholds it.

We pray in the name of Jesus,

who welcomes us all and taught us to say:

THE LORD’S PRAYER

THE FRACTION

[An appropriate chant or song is sung by all as the one loaf (or loaves) is broken into many pieces and placed on plates and baskets for distribution. The deacons assist in the fraction. Song suggestions: One Bread, One Body…. Ubi Caritas…]

 INVITATION

Friends, if you are hungry for a taste of what is to come,

when all creatures great and small will feast together

without fear in the household of God;

if you yearn to feast on a love

without condition and without end;

if you are thirsting for forgiveness,

given and received in humility and in joy,

then open your hearts to this meal,

a sign of grace, a gift of peace, the bread of life, the cup of joy:

[lifting bread and cup, if desired]

The gifts of God for all God’s people!

SHARING BREAD AND CUP

[Communion bread is distributed to all, followed by cups for intinction. After all have received, the people give thanks together.]

*THANKSGIVING

Let us rise and give thanks.

Thank you Holy God,  

for life in the Spirit of Jesus,

for gladness in this bread and cup,

for love that cannot die,

for peace the world cannot give,

for joy in the company of friends,

for the splendors of creation,

and for the mission of justice you have made our own.

Give us the fruits of this holy communion:

oneness of heart, love for neighbors, forgiveness of enemies,

the will to serve you every day, and life that never ends.

In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 [Dismissing the people to return to their pews, the leader says:]

“And after they had sung the hymn,

they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

[The people return to their seats. The communion table and chancel are cleared of all signs of celebration. Appropriate instrumental music may accompany the people’s return to their seats and the clearing of the chancel.]

SERVICE OF LIGHT AND SHADOWS

[Here follows a brief and very simple service of short readings about the garden prayer, arrest, and “trial” of Jesus, interspersed with responsive chants, verses of a hymn, short choral pieces, or brief prayers or collects. After each reading and response, lights are dimmed or candles are extinguished until the sanctuary is in darkness. There is a time of silence, then lights are brought up just enough so that people may depart in safety. The people should leave in silence.]

 ******

Footwashing

Footwashing may be done in a symbolic way, e. g., one member of the congregation or the pastor washes another person’s feet in a stylized, mime-like ritual, center chancel. If this option is used, opportunity for others to wash and be washed might be provided before or after the liturgy, perhaps during an pre-service agape meal or love feast, or after the service in a chapel or fellowship hall set aside for this purpose. Footwashing of more than one person or a small group of representative disciples may also be done in the service itself: there may be a general invitation to wash one another’s feet at stations set up around the sanctuary, or the deacons of the church may be sent to stations to wash the feet of those who wish to participate. The congregation needs to be prepared for a slightly longer overall service. If footwashing of all who wish to take part is the choice, quiet music or appropriate hymn-singing should accompany the ritual.

Just Around the Corner

CrocusInSnowIt was Marathon Day in Boston ten years ago. A sharp wind was blowing off the harbor. The sun was pale, and the buds of the storm-bent dogwood in the yard were unconvincing. The calendar said Spring, but you needed a winter jacket. It was no weather for T-shirts and shorts, unless you planned to run 26 miles in them.

Two young men carrying a six-pack apiece came down the street and ambled by my front window. They were wearing  T-shirts and shorts, but they didn’t look much like marathoners.

It made me shiver just to look at them. All the same,  I was glad they’d apparently decided that the calendar was right, that this was in fact a Spring day, maybe even a beach day, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

They were onto something, I thought, going by the season, not the conditions, dressing according to things unfelt and unseen. It was a profession of faith.

Jesus’ first disciples claimed, after his death, to have seen the Lord. We who have come after them have believed without seeing. We have acted as if it were Spring, no matter the season. Generation after generation, we have worn light Alleluias in all kinds of weather. We have dressed according to the Word, not the conditions.

Ever since faith graced us, it has been the church’s mission to go about in T-shirts and shorts in a world hunkered down for a frost that shows no sign of thawing; to put our faces into cold winds off the water as if they were zephyrs; to love the unconvincing buds as if each struggling sprout were a paradise.

The world longs for an early, a later, and an everlasting Spring. God wants to give it such a season through the witness of our faith-filled lives. In a few short weeks it will be Easter. May the Spirit find us dressed for the occasion.

Prayer for Lent IV Luke 15:1-32]

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Light a lamp to find me,

housekeeper, wife of hope.

Sweep the corners,

peer under beds;

for I have been mislaid,

I’ve rolled away,

and I am worth a fortune.

lamb

Brave the wolf to find me,

head counter, minder of lambs.

Beat the bushes,

shout down canyons;

for I am easy prey

out here alone,

and I am worth a flock.

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Watch at your window,

maker of our homeward way.

Kiss my photo,

cross off the days;

for I remember you,

sick in my sty,

and I am worth the wait.

Image: Retour de l’Enfant Prodigue, by Michel Ciry

The Big Upset (I Corinthians 1:1-18)

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–The Oregonian

Like millions of sports fans who are about to undermine the nation’s productivity this month, I really enjoy the NCAA college basketball tournament, March Madness. One of the things true fans always hope for is at least one Big Upset, like the improbable victory of the nine hundredth seed over number one.

You know—the skinny kids from the small rural campus of a poorly-funded State University who wear really ugly uniforms and are coached by a rumpled old aw-shucks guy from Central Casting who’s toiled in obscurity for forty-seven years and who now, on the brink of retirement, has finally got a team in the tourney and is coaching what everybody knows will be the last game of his career because his first opponent is… Duke.

And then the magic happens. Out on the court the scrawny scrappers are in The Zone. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. Everything they throw up goes in. Meanwhile the Blue Devils have been replaced by aliens from outer space who don’t know how to run in sneakers, and before you know it, the bumpkins from Podunk have pulled even with a second to go, and they have the ball. Of course the desperate heave from half court goes in at the buzzer—nothing but net!

Ozymandias, king of kings, look upon these ruins and despair! O how the mighty have fallen! Depression settles over Durham, delirium breaks out in the heartland, and you are out six hundred bucks in the office pool. Games like these become the stuff of legend, and no matter how much money you lose when a loser wins, it makes you glad to be alive. All the way to debtor’s prison you bless the day you were born to see it.

‘Fess up, all you sophisticates who profess to be indifferent at best to the world of sports—even you choke up when the water boy finally gets in the game and makes the play that saves the day. When David beats Goliath, Cinderella gets the Prince, and the Cubs win the Series, you know that someday, somehow, everything is going to be all right.

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The apostle Paul put his money on the underdog. And he urged the church at Corinth to follow his lead. The Corinthian church was a small congregation struggling to survive in an ultra-cosmopolitan social environment in which there were plenty of opportunities for the wealthy and the talented to become Somebody.  Made up mostly of low status members, the church did have a few who were people of means and influence and these ‘number ones’ were demanding a disproportionate share of attention. They insisted on enjoying inside the church the same privileges and deference they enjoyed outside. Their sense of entitlement kicked up a good deal of resentment in the less affluent and influential members of the church.

Others in the community had become devotees of a charismatic teacher who rose to prominence in the church after Paul’s departure, and these groupies were going around condescendingly dropping their guru’s pearls of wisdom all over the place, shaming the hoi polloi who did not possess their superior knowledge or their gold standard of faith.

A woman named Chloe ratted them all out to Paul, who was horrified by the way pride of status and knowledge was driving a wedge into the unity of the church. For Paul, lording your Lexus or your Ph. D. over the high school dropout and the welfare mom was not just bad form, it was a theological failure, a fundamental misreading of who God is and the way God works.

Paul didn’t tell them simply to cut it out and be nice to each other. He wasn’t going to settle for superficial friendliness. He grounded his vision of right Christian conduct in the pattern of God’s own conduct—the God who habitually chooses the things the world discards to show up the things the world values. In other words, Paul wanted to imprint on the Corinthians the sign of the cross.

The prize should always go to the sleek and the strong, the smart and the influential, right? Don’t bet on it, Paul said. What looks like wisdom to the world is in fact foolishness. And what looks like foolishness to the world is in fact wisdom. If you don’t develop a discerning eye capable of penetrating this mystery, you will bet on the favorites and lose your shirt every time.

Paul knew that the cross is a tough nut to crack. He admitted that it is a ridiculous thing to preach allegiance to a savior who was executed, and in such a humiliating way. Because we do not, most of us, live in a shame and honor culture, it may be hard for us to grasp the shock to the system that Jesus’ death caused among his contemporaries. It does not even seem odd to us to wear that little electric chair around our necks to accessorize our fashionable outfits.

But cultured pagans found the cross disturbing. The claims being made for the man who died on it struck them as shockingly absurd. And it was not only the sophisticated who found it outrageous. One of the earliest depictions of Christian beliefs comes to us in a mocking bit of graffiti found on a wall on Rome’s Palatine Hill. It dates from around the year 200 and shows a cross upon which hangs the body of a man who has the head of a donkey. Underneath, the artist scrawled a caption, “Alexemonos worships his god.”

Paul noted that his preaching kept the attention of Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles right up until the moment he came to the stubborn fact of the cross. Then they balked. But Paul could not silence the centrality of the cross: for him it is the key to healing and wholeness, to a right relationship with God, and to a new and revolutionary way of life—a life in the Body, the church. For Paul, the church has a shape, and it is cruciform.

Because this is its shape, the church vulnerably and unwisely opens itself to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue. It deliberately looks foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who are not blood kin, wasting its resources on the stranger. It chooses to look weak by offering forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy is a luxury few prudent persons can afford.

For Paul, the church is cross-like in its form and practice—everything it says and does in the world seems futile and out of joint. But this is the way God acts, this is the pattern God chooses, and in this odd way God is working the miracle of reconciliation promised from of old.

But the world—smart, self-sufficient, sleek and strong—does not think it needs anything. And so it does not place any bets on the scrawny team and its outrageous mascot who have come to town to play. Paul believed that if the church retains its cruciform shape; if entitlement and elitism and the lust for security and power do not erase the sign of God’s foolishness from the church’s body (which was Paul’s fear as he wrote), the world will be in for a Very Big Upset.

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Every Sunday most of us worship in the presence of a cross somewhere in our sanctuaries. In my former congregation, the cross was enormous, suspended from the ceiling. It cast a long shadow: there was no way you could miss it. I preached under that cross every Sunday, and I often wondered whether we saw it as the folly it is, whether we understood that it was meant to mark us as hopeless underdogs; or whether we saw it more as a sign of triumph and victory, or whether we saw it at all.

There’s an old canard among Protestants that Catholics have crosses with Jesus’ dead body affixed because Catholics are morbidly preoccupied with Christ’s suffering and death; and Protestants have empty crosses because we are correctly focused on the good news of the resurrection. That’s all very nice—if it were true, and if it didn’t slander our Catholic neighbors, if it didn’t so blithely clean up the awful violence at the heart of our tradition, if it didn’t so neatly let us off the hook for wrestling with that scandal, and if it didn’t hide from view the underdog savior who had so little interest and even less skill in playing the world’s games accroding to the rules of the number ones.

Martin Copenhaver has observed that “one of the dangers of being in church as often as we are is that it all starts to make sense to us. We speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that we begin to think, ‘Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.’ And yet week after week we talk and act as if we believe all sorts of things in church that we wouldn’t let anyone put over on us in the real world. Stuff you would choke on in everyday speech, you somehow swallow in a prayer or a hymn or a sermon. ‘Blessed are the meek. . . .’  ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘Love your enemies’ ‘Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.’” We have what Copenhaver calls a “tiresome tendency” to transform the Christian faith from “a sign of outrage and contradiction, insubordination and usurpation” into ho-hum everydayness and “the cement of social conformity.”

Not everyone has this tiresome tendency, of course. I remember standing near a cross a few years ago, a cross much smaller than the one that hung in the sanctuary of my former congregation. It was no match for the gusty wind out on the Cambridge Common where the Rev. Jed Mannis set up a little communion table every week, rain, snow, or shine, serving the homeless women and men of the Outdoor Church. I had gone out there, just a few yards from our church door, to deliver the sandwiches that our kids made for the members of that Church each month, and which we consecrated at the table along with the bread and wine of communion.

I was going just to drop them off, but I decided to stay. I was glad I did, because apart from Jed and a seminarian, at one o’clock when the service was supposed to start, I was the only one there. Not a homeless person in sight. And I thought to myself, “Now this is ministry. This is selfless service. You show up perseveringly week after week, and offer the gifts you have. Of course, nobody actually comes, but it doesn’t matter. After all, it isn’t about numbers, it’s about being present. It’s an offering, pure and simple.”

This would have been a meditation wholly acceptable to God had I not also been subtly congratulating myself for being out there in the first place—it was very cold—and if in the back of my mind I was not also at the same time thinking that even ‘though numbers don’t matter, it was too bad that more homeless people were not there. With bigger numbers it might feel more like a successful ministry, and I would have something tangible to point to when I asked people to continue supporting it financially.

It was at that moment that I jumped off the Podunk bus and ran straight into the Duke locker room. Off the cross and into busy, self-sufficient, downtown Corinth. And it was also at that point that six homeless people (who do not have as many places to go as important people do and therefore do not care quite as much what time things are supposed to start) showed up and the service got underway. Jed invited me to read the scripture of the day. It was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You have not heard that story until you have heard it outside with a nasty wind whipping everything around, and a small wooden cross repeatedly crashing to the frozen ground. In the company of people who live in a vast outdoor wilderness of indifference and violence every night and every day, I read the story of Jesus and his forty-day struggle with the demons, while six heads nodded knowingly. And when Mark noted that Jesus was “with the wild beasts” all that time, two of the men exchanged glances. Yes, they knew about that too. And when we came to the part about the angels ministering to an exhausted, anguished Jesus, one of them interrupted and said to Jed, “You are my angel.”

Afterwards, Jed told me that earlier that morning, at the Outdoor Church in Porter Square, when he read the part about Jesus leaving the wilderness and preaching that “the time of salvation is now”, the people had interrupted and asked out loud, some with tears and loud voices, “Now? Now? What does that mean, ‘now’?

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What shape are our churches in? That’s a question we usually answer by counting heads, poring over budgets and spreadsheets, checking the roof and the boiler, and wringing our hands over the nominating slate for the upcoming year. What if we looked instead at the pattern of our life together to see whether it resembles a cross? Are we living in a cross-shaped way, or have we gone over to the Duke Side?

On whom or what have we put our money down—on ourselves, our plans and skills, our sense of entitlement, the standard of living we cling to or strive for, our common sense, education, liberal platitudes, timid generosity, limited hospitality, and our busy, talkative, anxious and sleep-deprived lives?

Or have we wagered everything on the foolishness of a savior who vulnerably and  unwisely opened his arms to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue; who deliberately looked foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who were not blood kin, wasting his grace on the stranger; who chose to look weak by offering healing and forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy was a luxury few prudent could afford?

Are our congregations in the best shape they could be in—the shape of Jesus’ cross, working miracles of reconciliation and service and and healing wisdom? When the world casts a glance our way, does it see the nonsense it should see—frayed uniforms, no tall guys, a losing game plan, a pathetic coach? Or does it see only a reflection of its own superior winning ways?

Are we the Big Upset in the making so many people long for, so many people need? If those folks bet on us, staked everything they have, would it be a safe bet, even a sure thing?

The cross of Jesus is the foolishness of God, Paul claimed, the hope of every living thing. But this is a hidden mystery. We need eyes of faith to see it. We need discerning hearts to embrace it. We need to reveal it to each other as we pray with open spirits, as we read our stories and eat our meals at open tables, and as we give and take the grace of Christ through open doors onto the open road, out into that hard and frozen world where underdogs hardly ever win.

Prayer of Praise Lent III

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O Gardener of Life,

your mercy is steadfast, sure.

With care you plant us.

You turn the earth around us

and water our roots with love.

Even when we bear no fruit,

year after struggling year,

you are patient.

Your hope for us leafs out and flowers.

From the sweet fruits of your labor

you make a feast—

a banquet for all the famished,

free and fine.

At the table we tell the story:

God alone is good!

Together we sing your praise:

Honor and glory, gladness and thanks,

now and forever. Amen.

 

Who’s to Blame? A Reflection on Luke 13:1-9

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A friend’s college age son decided to go on a trek through Tibet before starting his junior year. Tibet is a romantic place, but it can also be dangerous. My friend couldn’t help imagining all the terrible things that could happen to him there. What if he loses his passport and gets stranded at some remote border? Gets food poisoning or altitude sickness? What if an insect bite poisons him? What if he stumbles off a steep trail into a bottomless ravine? Or gets swept up in social unrest and lands in jail? Or gets drunk and, in a stupor, runs off and marries the thirty-nine year-old trek leader?

So she set out to minimize or eliminate all those dangers before he even boarded his flight. Her minute preparations made the Secret Service look slipshod. She called me from time to time to obsess, and I tried to be supportive. But one day, I’d had enough: “For Pete’s sake, woman! Just let the boy go! You can’t stop something from happening to him on the other side of the world!”

She burst out laughing. “You can tell you’re not a mother. Look, here’s how it goes: You worry and plan to give yourself a sense of control. That way, God forbid, if something does go wrong, you won’t blame yourself for not having done everything you possibly could. Wait. Scratch that. You’ll blame yourself no matter what.”

You have to blame somebody, blame something. Your boss, bad karma, the system, the stock market, your gene pool, a communist plot, El Niño—or God. And that’s what’s going on in this story from Luke. The talk is about whom to blame for the frightening things that had happened. Maybe it was the victims themselves. Maybe they’d been bad. If they’d been good, they would’ve been spared, right? Maybe God is punishing them?

Most people I know don’t believe that. Still, when disaster strikes, it’s like a reflex—they wonder who did something wrong. Barbara Brown Taylor tells this story: A toddler’s vision suddenly blurs. A tumor is growing in her brain. On the day of surgery, her mother paces the waiting room. It smells of smoke, the ashtray is full. “It’s bad,” she says to the chaplain, “and it’s all my fault. God is punishing me for smoking. I tried to stop but I didn’t. So my child got cancer, and now she’s going to die.” The chaplain tells her God wouldn’t do such a thing, but the mother prefers a God who teaches lessons to bad mothers by killing toddlers to a God who is absent or powerless. If her daughter is dying, Taylor writes, there has to be a reason. And she is willing to be that reason.

It happens all the time. A young man I know recently told his parents he’s gay. And they, who consider themselves knowledgeable, liberal, and accepting, immediately began a frantic search through their past behaviors trying to pinpoint the thing they did wrong in their parenting to cause him to be gay.

When both the dean and the president of Andover Newton Theological School died one after the other many years ago, people at the seminary were convinced that something was wrong with the school itself. They decided we should all take better care of ourselves, as if in return for a reduced class load, a daily hour at the gym, and low-fat lunches God would be obliged to let us all live to ripe old ages.

Whenever something bad happens, we examine our habits, our diets, our relationships, our world-views, our family trees, hoping to find a cause, a reason, an explanation, so that we can stop creating our own calamities. We have an urge, Taylor says, to make sense of the senseless mingled blood and collapsing towers of our lives. There has to be something, someone to blame. And, like anguished mothers in waiting rooms, many of us have a nagging feeling that it’s us.

Jesus asked the people who came to him if they thought maybe the victims were awful sinners and had thereby caused their own catastrophes. Was God punishing them? He doesn’t wait for them to reply. He answers his own questions, and his answer is firm. It is not true to say that God is punishing us when tyrants commit atrocities, towers fall, workers shoot co-workers, babies get tumors, marriages fail, children disappoint and earthquakes ravage some already desperate part of our geography.

Sometimes terrible things just happen. And sometimes someone is to blame for what happens, and sometimes, no one is—and it’s certainly not the case that God is getting even.

And yet, Jesus says, and yet… Just because God isn’t staying up nights plotting castigating catastrophes to even the score for our sinning doesn’t mean we can go on living any way we please. Even though there is no causal cosmic connection between our conduct and the disasters that befall us, he says we still need to repent and change. He says our lives depend on it.

It’s one thing to say that God punishes us for our sins with disasters, or when bad things happen to us it must be because we are bad people. It’s another to acknowledge that our actions have consequences, that our self-preoccupied conduct sends ripples, even tsunamis, into the world far beyond the borders of our private lives, and that our unwillingness to love our neighbor can in fact be fatal.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he says we will all surely perish if we don’t change. He urges us to repentance not because God is lying in wait for us, but because too many of us are lying in wait for each other. God is not punishing us; we are punishing each other pretty skillfully, all on our own.

It’s important to be clear about this because some of us may think that once we have rejected the idea of a payback God; once we have consoled ourselves that God is a loving and merciful God who would never do such things to us; once we have disclaimed a direct punitive connection between our failings and the cosmic and everyday catastrophes of this life, that’s all we need to say and there’s nothing more to do. We’re home free and life goes on. But we are not done; there is more.

That “more” is Jesus’ call to repent and change. That “more” is his parable, his invitation to live differently; to tend to one another, not cut each other down; to bless the soil in which our neighbor is rooted, not curse him for breathing and taking up good space; to expect that everyone can and will bear fruit some day, and not despair of anyone too quickly, or at all.

Jesus isn’t playing the blame game, and he doesn’t think we should either; but he won’t let us go without a warning. He warns us that we will all shrivel up, dry out, and perish if we keep on behaving like the owner of the fig and not like the gardener; if our deepest reflex is not mercy, but blame; if our approach to the fruitless neighbor is anger and disowning, not patient knowing love.

If the axe in our hand falls too fast on the struggling tree, soon there will be no trees left at all, no shade, no food, no air, no life–for all alike are struggling, all alike need mercy, all alike require the tender care of Christ to grow.

If you have ears to hear, listen.