Sacred Journey: The Meaning of Holy Week

Each year the church provides an opportunity to observe the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his betrayal, death, burial and resurrection. The week is steeped in symbolism and can be a very moving thing to experience.

First, it is important to understand that Holy Week is the final week of Lent and not a season to itself. The color changes from violet and unbleached linen of repentance to passion red. This deep blood red is meant to convey both the shedding of blood, which purchased our redemption as well as the intensity of the events. It is passion red that was the first liturgical color of the church

Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday is a commemoration of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had decided that this was the time when he would, in the words of the Evangelist Luke, “Set his face toward Jerusalem.” Upon entering, he rides in on the back of an animal, a donkey in Luke’s version. The gathering crowd lays palm branches on the road before him. To the onlooker, it seems to us a parade of triumph. In fact, it is a geopolitical statement whereby Jesus is using a gesture reserved for kings returning victorious from battle. He has now become a threat to the temple police and the government. In the few days that follow, the crowd shifts from a celebratory tone to a riot and shouts of Hosanna! become Crucify him!” in short order.

Liturgically speaking, this day begins with the congregation’s invitation on the journey. We celebrate that although the day is a day of somber observance, it nonetheless is a time of feasting as every Sunday is a feast of Resurrection.

Monday in Holy Week: It would seem that Monday is without importance, but Jesus actions are still important on this day. Traditionally this is the day of the withering of the fig tree. Symbolically it teaches us both that the power of faith has the ability to do things in the natural order that we think impossible. The fig tree also becomes a symbol of the Old Covenant. God is about to fulfill the Old Covenant with a new one. Jesus is about to enact a New Covenant in his own blood.

Tuesday in Holy Week: This day, although relatively un – ceremonious liturgically, is probably the day that purchased Jesus’ death. Jesus enters the Temple and is disgusted by what he sees. One level, he is disgusted by the commercialization of the sacrifice and that the temple, meant to be a house of prayer, has now become a circus of crafty business practices. But even more than this, the temple has become a sort of economic center for the Roman occupied Jerusalem. In an action rivaling our postmodern Occupy movements, Jesus turns over the tables and drives out the businessmen from their places, In doing so, he keeps both the morning and the evening sacrifice from occurring and shuts down trade for a day. This is essentially the one thing that modern biblical scholars agree created so much cause for the Sanhedrin to plot his death. This is also a day when the church gathers to hear the words of the psalms and the early church fathers in a service called Tenebrae. This service, (Latin for shadows), recalls in dramatic form how God knows the worst of this world and is still chooses to redeem it.

Wednesday in Holy Week: This is the day that Judas decided to plot with the Sanhedrin to deliver Jesus for a sum of thirty pieces of silver. Echoing the prophesy of the Psalms, the conspiracy is now in place and Judas looks for an opportunity to turn Jesus over. We do not know what darkness was in Judas’ heart. He seemed to have a problem with greed. The Gospel of Matthew even said that Judas kept the common purse and used to steal from it. But in the betrayal that follows on the next day, we see that Judas even wishes he had not agreed to act in betrayal.

Thursday in Holy Week, commonly called, Maundy Thursday: On this day we celebrate the last also the day when the Passover meal is changed forever. Previously, the Passover meal was to commemorate the passing of the plague of the firstborn over Egypt. It was a pivotal event that commemorated a vital part of the Old Covenant. When God saw the blood of the lamb over the doorposts and lintels, he would Passover the home and the firstborn would live.

Jesus takes this sacred feast and then re-interprets it according to the New Covenant. In this model, the Passover Lamb becomes Jesus, and the blood over the doors becomes symbolic of atonement. The feast of unleavened bread becomes a gathering of followers who celebrate the New Covenant in Jesus’ Body and Blood.

This feast, shrouded in the confusion of the disciples, acts both as the central act of Christian Worship thereafter, and a prologue to the three days which follow. Jesus gathers his friends and gives a new commandment that they love one another. Demonstrating servanthood, Jesus takes a basin and towel and washes the feet of his followers. Leadership is reinterpreted as servanthood.

In our liturgy for this day, we celebrate both the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the disciples’ feet. We share in those things to both remember the act of love and care for one another. The day ends in darkness and with the stripping of the altars. The betrayal of Christ would make us think that all is lost, and to the disciples, it was.

From here, the church observes a vigil. Jesus asked his followers if they could not watch one hour. The church then is open until midnight and whoever would like to take an hour to pray may do so by signing up in the narthex. We watch over the last remaining sacrament in the church, sacrament that will be consumed tomorrow when, “It is finished!”

Good Friday: The betrayal of last night gives way to the underhanded and illegal activities that lead from Jesus’ arrest to his condemnation to die. Peter, warming himself, denies Jesus three times, just as foretold. Jesus walks to his death on a way called the Via Dolorosa. He is nailed to the cross and dies. While it would appear that the powers of sin and death are victorious, Jesus actually has undone the pattern of sin and death by meeting the death of creation with his own death, the righteous for the unrighteous.

The liturgies for this day are very simple. The church remains stripped. After recounting the death of Jesus as recorded by the Apostle John, the church venerates the cross. The symbol of death and shame is simultaneously a symbol of Victory. Following a fourth century custom, a simple wood cross is brought into the church. Three times the carrier says “Behold the wood of the cross, come, let us worship” then each is invited to make some connection with the symbol of our faith, some simply touch, some embrace the Cross, whatever is most meaningful for the worshipper. After that veneration, we receive, without fanfare or consecration, the gifts of God that were watched over the night before. The Body and Blood of Christ are given and received.

Holy Saturday: On the day after Jesus’ death, the Body lies in the tomb. Although the church waits for the rest of the story, the body of Jesus is about to make a transformation. Gathering at Dusk, the church throughout the world commemorates the fact that sometime during that night, Jesus broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave. The following morning, the tomb is vacant – empty.

The church has, for centuries, marked the night when Jesus conquered death by having a vigil. This is the time when the new fire of Easter is kindled, the lessons of salvation are read, baptisms celebrated and promises renewed, and the first mass of Easter is celebrated. It is this service that is the original Easter service. The first shouts of Alleluia are heard and the sanctuary is bathed in light – Easter begins!

Then, on Easter Morning, we begin forty days of a new reality. Jesus’ death, although real and atoning, could not contain him. As the first fruits of those who have died, God raises his body. Theologically, that tells us that the sacrifice of Jesus was truly atoning and that God has accepted that sacrifice. The risen Body is proof positive that the world order has now changed and what was once hopeless is filled with immortality.

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

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When Hate Fills Our Streets

The recent events in Charlottesville are alarming for our nation. As people who profess faith in Jesus Christ, it should be a matter of deep prayer for us to address the sin of racism, in our nation, our communities, and even in our churches. It is times like this that we are reminded that the Body of Christ has a lot of work to do.

I was once shown a DNA genotype profile that showed the genetic sequence of a man from Indonesia, a woman from Oslo, Norway, and two men from Nigeria. The profile showed something peculiar – there were more genetic differences between the two men from Nigeria than there were between the rest of the sample. In short, race is about perception, not real science.

Race is also a concept burned into our national history due to the Eugenics Movement. This group sought to “purify” bloodlines and systematically eliminate what were perceived as “defective” or “undesirable “. While there were some strong Eugenics Movements in the United States, the pinnacle of the Eugenics Movement was found in Nazi Germany’s attempt to create a “master race” of Aryans.

The racial divide in this country is not as simple as North vs. South. While it is true that the Ku Klux Klan began in the south during reconstruction, it is of note that there were strong movements of the Klan here in Nebraska. In fact, the cities of York, Fremont, Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, North Platte, Scottsbluff and even Grand Island had thriving hate groups. [1]

Since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, there have been two movements, which occasionally come to a confrontation. The first is a movement that saw the atrocities of the Holocaust and determined that this must never again happen. The second was a revival of Nazi ideology that on occasion rears its head. The events in Charlottesville are not something new. Similar skirmishes happen with these groups from time to time in places like: Skokie, Illinois (1977), Coeur D’Alene, Idaho (1999) and countless others.

I grew up in the South. The town I served before coming to be your rector (Ocala, Florida) had one school that was not desegregated until 1986 – No, that is not a typo – 1986! My hometown, St. Petersburg, Florida, had a 10pm-dawn curfew (no residents of color were permitted north of Central Avenue) that existed on the city codes until 1967. My grandparents used to tell of having to hurry to get their housekeeper home before the curfew time. This is insanity!

I also was blessed to have parents and grandparents who were not part of this racist history. I grew up in an environment where I was consistently taught that since we all came from two first parents, we are essentially one family. As a Christian, I am even more convinced of our unity, because Jesus’ death was for all of us. If we hate, we are actually turning against our own family.

I struggle to really understand how anyone could hate another so much as to cause death. Yet at the “Unite the Right” rally, Heather Hayer, a 32-year-old woman was mercilessly run over by an Ohio man. This senseless act also injured 19 other people. I think back to the savage treating of African-Americans by people like “Bull” Connor who released police dogs and fire hoses on black protesters in Birmingham or the countless lynchings that dotted the American landscape. We have come far, but not far enough. The end goal should be a vision like that in Revelation, where the people of God are from every “people language, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

I do think there is hope. Larry Trapp, once the Grand Dragon of the KKK for Nebraska, denounced a lifetime of racial hate and violence after experiencing the loving kindness of Rabbi Michael and Julie Weisser. Trapp had organized Neo-Nazi meetings, sent out hate literature and intimidated African-Americans and Jewish leaders. Some claimed he was even involved in several arsons and bomb threats. After he made threatening phone calls to the Weissers, they responded with messages of love. Trapp asked the Weissers to meet with him. After speaking with them, he renounced his hateful associations. I find hope in stories like this. Martin Luther King spoke of this power to change, saying, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

While we certainly pray for those who have hearts filled with hate, we need to also demonstrate our own commitment to all of God’s children. If we are serious about our Baptismal Covenant, we see that “striving for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” includes eliminating some of the silent racism that allows these problems to perpetuate. Things like promoting fair wage equity and hiring practices, encouraging our children and grandchildren to have friends who are different from them.

We have a long way to go to have a just society. Little by little, as the Kingdom of God on Earth, I hope to see us eventually get there. Pray for those who hate. Demonstrate love in all your affairs. May God’s Kingdom come, on Earth, as in Heaven.

Robert+

[1] Michael W Schuyler, “The Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, 1920-1930,” Nebraska History 66 (1985): 234-256.

 

A Christmas Carol – for a New Ebenezer Scrooge

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On the 19th of December, 1843 when much of our frontier was still unsettled and where Christmas was not even a recognized holiday in much of the United states, Charles Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall released a novella about the power of the human spirit to embrace new and revive old ways of celebrating the nativity of Our Lord.  A Christmas Carol told the story of bitter and hardened Ebenezer Scrooge, a type of many joyless lives of the period, and his nocturnal encounters with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come then visit Scrooge.  From these three encounters, Scrooge has a revelation about himself and the world in which he lives.

But to understand why this story had so much power, we must look at why it was written.  In Great Britain, festivals such as Christmas had been banned during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (commonly called the Interregnum by Anglo-Catholics), an 11-year change of constitutional government that eliminated the monarchy in favor of parliamentary control.  During this time, the Puritans in control banned the Book of Common Prayer, replacing it with the Westminster Directory, assumed a Presbyterian form of government, and stripped the calendar of most of its celebrations – including Christmas.  So the original Grinch, or Scrooge, that stole Christmas was Cromwell’s protectorate.

That brief point in time, and the Puritan influence that remained thereafter, was a joyless time liturgically. Many of the customs that our families observe were eliminated.  There were no Christmas trees (a Germanic custom), no Christmas cards, and no carolers.  These three things began to make a renaissance at the same time that Great Britain was dealing with some of its social ills.

Slavery in England and her colonies was abolished in , But they were only beginning to deal with the social ills of their day.  Tiny Tim in the story becomes the archetype of struggling families, borne out of Dickens’ own struggles with poverty.  Now on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, English families had a decision to make, and so do we.

While we have trapping abounding in nearly every store since August, the spirit of Christmas that Dickens sought the standard Englishman to embrace was not a thing of externals.  Sure, the tree and cards are nice – they point to a joyful cause to celebrate.  But I think Dickens was inviting us into something deeper – a turning around of the coldness of heart to see the image of God in others amidst a holy season.

Consider the Tiny Tims of your life.  Perhaps the forgotten person fed at Messiah’s Saturday suppers.  Or consider the hungry man who has exactly $17 left from his disability check to feed him for the month – a man who is a regular visitor at our church office.  Maybe it is an aunt or uncle that is lonely, but the whole family has written off as odd or eccentric.  We all know that one person.   

So as we prepare for the 12 days of Christmastide, as we have our office parties and our Christmas get togethers, let us not forget those to whom Dickens’ addressed the Christmas Carol.  Soften your hearts toward those who would know no real Christmas.  And hopefully, it will not take three Christmas phantoms to remind us of the true purpose of the Incarnation. God so loves us that he took human form and in his life, ministry, atoning death and resurrection, he shows us what real life is all about.

A most blessed Nativity to all,

Robert+

A Triduum of Sorts

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All across the face of the earth, the days of October 31st, November 1 and November 2nd will be celebrated in different ways. Some will border on the fiendish or the macabre. Still others will speak the joys of heaven and the need we have for a savior. Each year, the church invites her members to contemplate what it means to be human and live into the promises of life everlasting. It is a Triduum of sorts. It is not sacred in the same way that the Easter Triduum is, but important nonetheless.

First, let’s explore Halloween. It depends who you ask, but in Christian circles this day is either celebrated as a joyful celebration with children in costumes, bobbling for apples, and scaring neighbors for treats, or a sinister side, dark, and demonic. To some, Halloween finds its place in churches as a cause to get together children and celebrate a night of fantasy. Others find this very close to Satanism. Today, in all but the most reformed or fundamentalist traditions, the former is true. Episcopalians have embraced the celebrations of Halloween when they were revived in the 1800s. It is important to note that Christmas was not observed in America until the 1800s except among Roman Catholics. The Calvinists in New England even made its celebration illegal. When the Church of England was reformed in the years following Henry VIII, many celebrations we find common and popular today were effectively outlawed.Today there is even an official liturgy for an “All Hollow’s Eve Vigil” found in the Book of Occasional Services. In our American culture, we have come to understand that Halloween can be a fun time byall. We need not dwell on the superstition that once plagued these events and concentrate on the community fellowship that these celebrations provide.

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Secondly, let’s consider the origins of All Saints’ Day. The Church celebrates each saint on his or her own “saints day”. Usually this is the anniversary of their death. But with innumerable official saints, only a small percentage can be formally recognized. To that end, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed a celebration called All Saints’ Day. Originally May 13th, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. Beginning with the ministries of leaders like Patrick, the church sought to“baptize”pagan festivals and give them new meaning. Easter (originally a pagan celebration of spring fertility) and Christmas (the fall celebration of the Winter Solstice) share this feature. In establishing this feast, there were some problems that needed to be overcome. The ancient Celts celebrated a pagan festival called Samhaim (pronouncedsaw-in). They believed that it was around the first of November when the dead had ability to come back to the world of the living. The Church had a choice; baptize the festivities with new meanings, or risk not evangelizing the peoples they sought to reach. The Church chose to create a three-day festivity with new meanings. It is from this festival that lighting bonfires (quite literally bone-fire), bobbing for apples (in celebration of the Roman God Pomona who controlled the trees and their produce), and trick-or-treating (the Celts left out dishes of sweets for the familiar spirits that they believed roamed the streets in order to avoid a trick). In England, soul cakes were baked in expectation ofd oor-to-door beggars who would promise prayers for the deceased in exchange for these baked goods.

Recognizing saints, who by the Church’s own definition are deceased, tied in quite nicely with the needs of the people, and the aims of the church. I doubt that really convinced the native Celts of the new meaning, but the “All Saints’ Triduum” certainly has been catechized over the generations to include these odd elements of superstition,while teaching that although life is changed by death, it is most certainly not ended. At the end of the 10th century, the Church added another celebration, All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recognize all the faithful departed, even those to whom the Church would not ascribe a capital “S” to their title of saint.

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Thirdly, All Souls’ Day, observed on November 2, is celebrated with Requiem Masses. The living pray on behalf of those who are on their soul’s journey. Historically, this was understood to be the souls in purgatory, a concept alien to Anglicans, and rather misunderstood even among Roman Catholics. While the Scriptures do not speak of Purgatory as a place, they speak of the merits of “purgation”, that is, that we will be changed (1 Cor 15:51) in God’s presence as we see him as he is. Because of the association with Purgatory, a concept the Protestant reformers wished to remove from the theology of the Protestant Churches, All Souls’ Day was suppressed. It was brought back into use inthe Episcopal Church during the time of the Oxford (alsocalled Tractarian) Movement in the 1840s. Much of the Catholic elements of the Church of England before the break with Rome were restored in varying degrees in the years after. All Souls’ Day lives on today in Latin America.  All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” (The Days of the Dead). This is when when families pray for, remember, and hold vigil for the deceased–particularly the recently deceased. At St. Stephen’s these elements of our faith speak to our hope in the life everlasting.While elements surrounding Halloween are cute and novel, we need make sure they are also observed for their Christian connotations. It has been said that that is the one day of the year that the Dominical Cycle (feasts of our Lord including Sundays) and the Sanctoral Cycle (feasts of the saints) meet.

Real Government, Real Deliverance

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The year 64 CE was a particularly disastrous year for the church. It was that year that the apostles Peter and Paul were both executed, Paul by decapitation (since he was a Roman Citizen) and Peter by crucifixion. The early years of the church were not easy and Paul writes his young curate Timothy with these words that epitomize the struggle of swimming upstream in a hostile culture.

“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Surely you have heard the old saying, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I hate to point out the serious error of this phrase, you see, viols, the precursors to modern violins and violas were not invented until the 16th century. But what is true is that Rome did burn. And Nero, who is alleged to have set the fire himself to raze the slum parts of the city, blamed the Christians for setting the fire.

The year of that fire, you guessed it– 64 CE.

So if Paul trusted in the Lord for his deliverance even though he knew his time of martyrdom was coming, so what does that deliverance look like.

#1 – Deliverance does not come from the state. We live in a country that is often called post-Christian. I really think that was a misnomer. Sure, more people were in church in the 1950s and early 60s, but that was because of cultural associations, not true faith. I think the number of true believers is probably pretty constant in communities like this, but when the benefits of association are no longer culturally supported, then the numbers dwindle.

Let me be clear. We are not a post-Christian society because we never were a truly Christian Society. In fact, a vague deism is the best way we can describe any spirituality America ever had. The “In God We Trust” slogan referred to a vague God, un-defined by doctrinal precepts, and constructed in such a way that orthodox Christian, Jew, Unitarian, and Muslim could rally around the idea.

Furthermore, while the first amendment’s freedom of religion clause allows the expression of Christianity, it does not support anything but its right to exist. In fact, if ever the tax-exempt, and tax-deductible status of churches were revoked, you can bet that the institutional model of Christianity would disappear altogether.

The Bible does not even support the idea that the state is reliable to defend the believer. God allows human governments, but he certainly is not blessing America any more than he blesses any other government. God alone is our true governor.  When we read these words of Paul, we must note the context of his defense. Since he was a Roman citizen, he was allowed certain unalienable rights (sound familiar). This was the right to a fair trial, the right to face his accusers, and in the case of a capital crime, the right to a “humane execution” whatever that means or does not mean is the subject of another blog.

So Paul is correct in stating that God provides our deliverance. And even in his imprisonment, God was working. Since Paul had the right to have his capital crime judged by the emperor, this put the Praetorian Guard (the defenders of Caesar) as his jail keepers. It gave him a premise to share the gospel, and a great many of them became Christians due to Paul’s personal testimony.

#2 Deliverance is not from friends – When Paul is accused, his friends scatter, just as the apostles scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.

We read on that only one friend is even still around:  for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” 2 Timothy 4:10-11a NRSV

Yet for all his associates in the ministry, deliverance is not coming in that way.

If we look Acts, chapter 8, we see that there is no evidence of the church coming to the aid of Stephen before he is stoned. In fact, Acts 8:1 tells us that the believers were scattered and “devout men” only buried Stephen. No one came to save Stephen – they ran!

3# We cannot expect deliverance from non-Christians (and some of these are from with n the church as well as from outside)

Paul, says that just as his friends are off in distant places, accusation came, not from friends, or the state, but from those who are intent on discrediting the church.

He writes:  Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” 2 Timothy 4:14-15 NRSV

Even for all the problems Alexander caused, he simply offers caution to Timothy, not a cause for revenge, or even avoidance. He is not saying discredit him on Facebook or dig up some dirt on him.

Today’s world is filled with angry vitriol about how people perceive the church. We are either irrelevant, or to some, we are an evil to be opposed.

The Post-modern Alexander the Coppersmith is still with us saying :

+ look at all the priests who sexually abused children, tell me the church is not corrupt, or,

+ look at how big Joel Osteen’s house is, tell me we shouldn’t tax the church, or

+ those who simply tell our children that the institutional church is just a con game.

We simply must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven. It is from there that we expect our supreme governor.

Heed the warning of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in rulers nor in any child of earth for there is no help in them.” So if there is no help in Government for Paul, no help in friends, no help from outside the church how are we to proceed in this postmodern world.

Again the Psalmist provides wisdom: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where shall my help come? Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The Lord, who spoke our present created order into existence. Knows you, loves you, and cares for you in a way no other deliverer can muster or promise.

We are at the edge of an election. Lots of titles and praise, slander and bitterness is being thrown out. Facebook and Twitter are cause for angst. Families fight as if elections are salvation.  People have forwarded things that easily could be considered slander – all for what? They really don’t convince anyone. And furthermore, if we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, that means even one who may be the candidate of the opposition.

The next time you post, or tweet or argue, I pray the words of Paul to Timothy would ring true. Our deliverance comes not from the state, or friends, or strangers, but from God. In the end of life, as Paul was facing, truth becomes clearer. Paul understood with the clarity of eternity and not the myopia of current events.  I encourage you to see this time with the lenses of eternity.

Robert+

Justice and Discipleship

Justice and Discipleship

 

I confess that one of the most difficult part of my Christian journey to address within myself is God’s desire for us to be a people of justice. All too often in our western society, justice is confused with political agenda. At times that agenda is from the right, and at times it is from the left. Even within our own Episcopal tradition, that tension is lived out by both sides, some “the Republican party at prayer” and others, who “eat, sleep, and dream on their left side.” I am a self-professed centrist or moderate. It is far easier for me to talk of issues of mission or evangelism. Perhaps that is because these are usually places where the thrust is from a united front. We want people to love God, be cared for, and fed. Thus, if we are to care for our neighbor, we are automatically people who must seek justice.

Recently, I got into a rather heated ‘discussion’ regarding the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In previous versions of the prayer book, the covenant is implied, even if not overtly proclaimed. The last question is one that causes some to cringe, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? (BCP p. 305). Perhaps my defense of this question is rooted in my love for a book that I think is the finest piece of liturgical scholarship in nearly five hundred years. The Baptismal Covenant is my framework for understanding myself in relationship to a God who loves me to the uttermost. So why the issue? This, and other perils in our faith journeys, might have a tendency to point to self and not to God. I wholeheartedly want my life to witness to God’s justice and God’s peace. How are we to reconcile the confusing messages of justice and righteousness? How are we to choose from what is God’s and not a reflection of our own understanding given our culture and upbringing?

First, let me point out that so many of our struggles can be classified as “right” or “left”. In times of great social and moral turmoil, there are “new lights” and “old lights”. In fact, Diana Butler Bass does a phenomenal job of clarifying the whole basis of the movement we are currently experiencing in her work Christianity after Religion. In every age there are those who resist the move of the age and those who radically embrace it. It was true in both the first and second Great Awakenings, it was true in the Charismatic movement of the 20th Century, and it is true now.

I think we are finally getting to be a place where more and more people are being accepted as part of the human family. Don’t get me wrong, the work is far from finished, but more and more people are finding a voice in the church. That is a good, healthy, and holy thing. In fact, when we take the verses of the Bible that speak of justice to our neighbors, or purity of life out of the Bible, there really is not much left. Oddly enough, when the church ought to be living into the issues that bring the most people into the fold, we still are arguing about the barriers that drive us apart.

Author William Herzog tells us in his book Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: a Ministry of Liberation, that if we remove the texts from the Bible concerning debts and purity in the Old Testament, we have little else. On one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with justice references concerning debts. What is left are verses describing purity. The church has been an old pro at enforcing these boundaries for a long time. What we have failed to realize is that Jesus essentially challenged all of those teachings while emphasizing justice. The unthinkable under the Old Covenant is commonplace – and expected – in Jesus. The un-clean are made clean; the Sabbath is given for the betterment of humankind, and not humankind just to live into a rule. Even taboos of food and drink, established for a time, are now no longer necessary. They established a chosen people’s boundaries for a season, but after it was established, no longer were those confines needed.

At a time when the church is fighting itself, perhaps we can be the better people and get out of our own boundaries and parameters and get back to the part of the scriptures that Jesus said was important. Can we find a united front in recognizing that the church is the one institution or movement that has the ability to work with the power of God? I think we can.

Think of it this way:

-If you have ample food, you should care that others are fed as well. That is justice!

-If you have a job that helps you earn what you need to survive, you should care that another has the same chance at that pay, however different they are from you. That is justice!

-If you have been fortunate enough to be in a clean, safe house, you ought to care that others have clean, safe homes too. That is justice!

-If you live in freedom, we cannot be blind to those who live in modern slavery (human trafficking). That is justice!

-If you received an education, then you should care that others can get a good education too. That is justice!

And the list goes on…

I think at the end of life, when we stand before God, he will not ask us how well we separated ourselves from others in an attempt to be pure. Perhaps just as our righteousness is imputed, so also our purity will be. After all, Scripture tells us we will be as a chaste virgin…without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27, Col. 1:22, Jude 1:24). God cares deeply about his people – all of them. God wants us to be perfect as God is perfect, therefore we must learn to be just as God is just.

This has been a difficult post to write, challenging to me in so many ways and I hope you that read it find it just as challenging. If you are like me and need to work on this part of your Baptismal Covenant, take comfort. God is working in us to accomplish all that is good and pleasing in his sight (Eph. 2:20, 2 Cor. 6:7).

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help!

Examining our Prejudice and asking, “Do you want to be made well?”

Bethesda

Every person I know seems to like an underdog.  We look for those people who exemplify the person who persists above all odds.  This is the stuff of made for television movies, especially those found on the Lifetime Channel.  When we look at stories like that of righteous Job in the Old Testament, we see courage to face our tails in the midst of things we do not understand.

This week, the church will read the Gospel of John, 5:1-9.  I am particularly struck by a question, “Do you want to be made well?”  Jesus asks this to one person, not the many that are gathered there.  Likewise, Jesus confronts us with what it means to understand what it means to be truly human, created in the image and likeness of God.

First, the setting.  Bethesda is known for its five porticoes and its stirring, curative waters.  It is not unlike Lourdes or Walsingham, places that are sites of pilgrimage and where the water is associated with healings of various kinds.  Even the name, Bethesda means “House of Flowing”.  So the belief was, if someone were the first to enter the pool when the waters became stirred up (presumably by an angel), that person would receive the curative effect.

The scene must have been ghastly.  Unwashed, handicapped bodies all hoping for a miracle.  The area would have the scent of an out-of-control Port-O-Let latrine.  I cannot imagine Bethesda being high on the AAA’s must visit list for tourists.  But this is the imago humanitae – the image of the state of humans in the full effect of fallenness.

Then Jesus enters the story.  Jesus sees an individual with a story.  He sees a person, with infinite human dignity.  A person for whose sinfulness, he would offer his life.  Jesus was also confronted with the powers of death and Hell, powers that seek to reduce us to categories and generalizations, instead of looking at the person, the face, and the name. Interestingly, he does not address with a massive program.  No 501c3 is launched here.  He addresses the issue by loving a person.

To appreciate this one person’s journey, we journey back thirty-eight years.  This is the time when the affliction first hit this man.  The pharisaic tendencies of all of us are like those that ask others whom Jesus healed, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  We want to point the finger – to call out the blame instead of resting in the situation and saying, “It is what it is, now, what can I do?”  If we could put ourselves in these shoes it would be like looking back at  1977, 38 years prior.  Jimmy Carter was President.  Debby Boone was topping the Pop charts.  Anita Bryant had just received a cream pie in the face for her opposition to gay rights.  That is a long time ago.  For thirty-eight years this man bore the effects of fallenness:  the world, the flesh and the Devil.

Jesus chooses to look into the humanity and see the goodness of the person.  I like to think that I choose to think in this way.  Often I fail.  Often, I am the one who needs the healing because I see with eyes that see situations, not the human face of God staring back at me. I wonder how many of us do that.  When does it happen? All the time.

There are those who choose to see addiction as moral failure.  They use phrases like, “Once a user, always a user.” They fail to see the disease as the effect of the fall and not the sum total of the person.  The addict is one for whom the power of the Prince of Darkness is actively influencing and oppressing.  To see addiction as moral failure (and not disease) is to dismiss the fact that the spiritual warfare is all around us.

Consider poverty.  We have all heard things like, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps – you wouldn’t be in this mess if you made better choices!”  Having worked among those who have lost so much of their freedom to poverty, I know that there are so many other issues to figure into this equation.  No one wishes to be poor, no more than one wishes to be an addict.  For some, important life lessons need to be learned (and taught).  For others, there are issues of family of origin, or culture that contribute to the poverty paradigm.  In these cases too, can we see the human face – the one so beloved of God?

In all of the “others” we might consider seeing the shadowy reflection of ourselves.  These are they who are in the midst of the Great Tribulation – real life – the world the flesh and the Devil all around us.  But do we want to be made well?  Do we want the eyes of the Kingdom, or the eyes of fallen humankind?

There are still others that will see a hopeless victim.  A pawn in the game of life, one to be pitted, but no more.  These are these who see a problem, acknowledge its reality, but still choose to do nothing.  This is a victim mentality.  In all of this, the Apostle Paul tells us that we are more than conquerers!  We are not looking at a victim at the pool, we are looking at a human being created in the image of God.

When we see the disabled man at the sheep gate, who do we see?  Do we see “a sinner”? Well, so are we!  Do we see “a victim”? So are we!  Instead, I choose to see myself, my own failing attitudes, the things that need to be drowned out of me that I may show Christ, and not self.  Furthermore, I see that same man who struggled for those 38 years reflected in this 38 year old priest.  “Yes”, I reply.  “I want to be made well!”

What Jesus offers us is healing.  Do we wish to be made well, place blame, or play victim?  When we come to the waters today, who are we and what do we seek.  For many of us, we will choose to die in our prejudices.  This is both a physical and spiritual death.  These attitudes are too engrained for many.  Some folks even see prejudice as the construct that affirms that they are somehow better.  That is sad, it is a tragedy.  Still others will make a choice to see that when they make distinctions between themselves, they are actually choosing to identify with the oppressor, instead of the liberator, the King of Kings that sets men and women free from their bondage.

Healing also means walking – getting on with life.  We WERE brought to the waters with curative power.  It is Baptism.  There the fallen bits of humanity were buried with Christ in his death.  But there we also mdd a promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  That means the “other – the shadowy reflection of ourselves.

Do you want to be made well?  It starts with a change of perspective.  When you see the “other”, I hope you hear the voice of the Spirit asking you, “Do you want to be made well?”  God is in the resurrection business.  For some, it is old ailments healed.  For others, it is mental bondage broken.  For all of us, it is putting to death any idea that we are better or worse than others.  In all these things, we can be, if we choose, more that conquerers through him who loved us to the uttermost.