The subversive power of resurrection

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Part of my Lenten journey included the Stations of the Cross most Wednesdays. It was a blessing to make that journey-within-a-journey week after week. If you’ve ever participated in this service you are familiar with the verse and response: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Saying those words on my knees, over and over in the darkness of the Wednesday evening liturgy got them into my gut in a new way. O Christ, by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

So here we are, on the first day of the week, on the other side of the cross. Do we feel redeemed? What about the world? What would a redeemed world look like? I think most of us would agree that it would look different from our world.

I could tell stories of terror and violence on the other side of the planet, in Brussels, Istanbul, or Jakarta, but I don’t have to; it’s all around us. We could look at poverty and desperation in another hemisphere, but we need only walk around our block. We can read about broken hearts in the daily news, or we can find them in our neighbors, our friends, and sometimes, in ourselves. We could look toward another era, an earlier time, for fear and civic unrest, but it’s here, in our time. More and more people I speak with talk about their fears for our own nation, our place in the world. You don’t need me to tell you stories of bad news.

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We live in a time not unlike the time and place where Jesus’ first disciples encountered the empty tomb, a time deeply entrenched in a system of racial and religious prejudice and economic inequity that made everyone powerless to effect change.

What do we do about this? What do we have to say about this on Easter morning? If you get together with friends or family later today and talk to them about your morning, and if they say—as my friends often say—“Oh, yeah, it’s Easter….I forgot,” is there anything to say to them about this day that connects with the rest of life?

Yes. Tell them about the “subversive power of the resurrection.” I’m borrowing the phrase from New Testament theologian Nancy Claire Pittman, who has written that resurrection is “an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things, it is we ourselves who see … the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.”

Tell them about the subversive power of baptism.

Years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the baptism of my two-year-old niece. It was a complicated situation. My niece and her big brother were not churchgoers; my sister-in-law was having them baptized to please her father, who was dying three thousand miles away. My niece was having none of this. She screamed and cried all the way through the procession to the font. She hadn’t had her nails trimmed in a while and her mother, who was carrying her, had scratches on her neck.

The priest used a line I’ve borrowed whenever I’ve baptized a fussy baby. He said: “We all respond to God this way sometimes…” When it came time for the actual baptism, she struggled even more. The priest turned toward the congregation with a big smile and said: “I think we’re all going to get a little wet.”

In a few minutes, we’re all going to get a little wet. There are cathedrals that do asperges with giant branches of water from a swimming-pool sized font, and everyone gets soaked. This water is a tangible reminder of who we are, why we are here, and who we belong to.

When we blessed the water earlier this morning, we remembered the water of creation, the water through which God delivered God’s people into the land of promise, the water in which Jesus himself was baptized. This is the same water that fills our font, the water with which we washed each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, the water we used to wash this altar.

The water is the same water drunk by our enemies and those who wish us harm, the water that bathes the person with whom we are angry, the person who has hurt us, the person who doesn’t know we exist.

Remembering these connections across time and borders has never been more important than at this moment in our common life. Through the call-and-response of the baptismal covenant, we become active participants, stakeholders in the life of the one who rose from the dead and who goes before us in the transformation of the world.

LS20120612_stpaul_005-smallWe adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. The cross itself is redeemed: God turns a shameful death into triumph over death. Hence the crucifix hangs right here where we feast and celebrate. God redeems our sin and alienation, exchanging them for love and hope.

Easter does not erase suffering. Easter says that God never stops being present in suffering and that we, too, as followers of the risen Jesus, can be present for those who suffer, can be present in vulnerability, in love, in the mighty, subversive power poured onto us in the waters of baptism.

Before dawn, we heard the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that proclaims our Easter faith: This is the night when you brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land….this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.

We don’t say “that was the night,” but this is the night. Every time we proclaim resurrection we proclaim liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, good news for the downtrodden. The resurrection is now. The life we covenant to live in baptism is now. Like the prophets and storytellers whose words fill this day, we bring into this moment all the suffering and fear around us and we take from this moment the life that cannot die, the life that, as George Herbert says, killeth death.

The angels of the Lord ask: why do you look for the living among the dead? Witnessing and experiencing the subversive power of the resurrection, the subversive power of baptism, is as important now as it has ever been. Unless we’re going to live out our lives inside the empty tomb, we must find ways to wield our baptismal identity for good.

Maybe redeeming the world is redeeming fear and turning it into courage. Perhaps redeeming the world is about redeeming doubt and turning them into good news. What if it’s redeeming complacency and resignation, to turn it into outrage and action? What if redeeming the world is about finding stories of love winning, and telling those stories. Maybe redeeming the world is about being those stories, living those stories. Let’s find out.

 

 

Stage directions from the Bible

I am a huge fan of the works of William Shakespeare. Like a lot of people in strange lines of work, I was an English major, and so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, not just the obligatory eighth-grade reading of MacBeth and tenth-grade reading of Romeo and Juliet, but throughout college. Last fall I had an ongoing discussion with my son about why it would behoove him, as a possible college English major himself, to take a Shakespeare elective in his last semester of high school. (He is having none of it.)

randjAs I’ve reflected these past few weeks on the Gospel of Mark, the thing that has me thinking about Shakespeare is not any particular play, but stage directions. Shakespeare’s stage directions were always very spare, essential three- or four-word instructions that Shakespeare left, instructions that always included a verb and only more if absolutely necessary. The most famous of these comes from “The Winter’s Tale”: Exit, pursued by a bear. Somewhere in the development of playwriting—and if your studies took you out of the 17th century you will know more than I do about this—stage directions became far more than the bare essentials. Some playwrights seem to need to spell out every minute detail of a scene, leaving nothing to individual directors, producers or, heaven forbid, the actors.

Mark’s gospel is like Shakespeare’s stage directions. Especially this Epiphany season. Our gospels resound with Epiphany verbs. These are the verbs that reflect what Jesus did. They also are our one-word stage directions for being followers: Come, proclaim, repent, believe, call, leave, go, follow, teach, heal. 

Much is left to the imagination. And, we hope, to the Spirit. As we strive to follow, believe, go, or teach, no one is going to tell us where to stand or what to wear or what to do with our hands. That’s up to us. Gloriously challenging and freeing. What Epiphany verbs are going to direct you in the coming weeks?

The Curses of Psalm 69

Psalm 69 always comes around on a Friday in the Daily Office in the Episcopal tradition. It’s fitting, if you think of every Sunday is a “little Easter” and every Friday as a “little Good Friday.” Why not include the Psalm that includes these Good Friday words?

They gave me gall to eat, *
and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm-69-29-web-nltThis morning, Psalm 69 came around again and I had a vivid memory of being in the chapel of the first church I joined in Portland in a dark, rainy Friday morning in 1987. The priest, deacon, and I were about to say morning prayer. The deacon would write the psalms for each day on a clipboard he’d attached to the chapel wall. Marker held aloft, he paused and turned to the priest to ask: “Shall we leave out the curses in Psalm 69?”

Psalm 69 is one of those psalms that gives the Bible a bad name, gives God a bad name,  section is marked as optional in our collection of daily readings.

Psalm 69 is in a special category of psalm called an “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalm. It begins familiarly enough:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

The psalmist is surrounded by enemies, and God is his or her only hope. Familiar enough, right? The psalmist prays fro God’s unfailing help. But then, two dozen verses in, the psalm takes a twist:

 Let the table before them be a trap
and their sacred feasts a snare.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
and give them continual trembling in their loins.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.

Let them be wiped out of the book of the living
and not be written among the righteous.

Really? Of course we want to leave out the curses. Most people do. And yet. The curses remind us that the people who wrote the psalms believed in a God who could handle all of their hateful, vengeful feelings of which, I imagine, in their collective heart of hearts, they must have been just a little bit ashamed. The angry, cursing psalms are not an indictment against an angry, vindictive God, but rather a confession of an angry, vindictive people. The God whom they try to co-opt into their pain is a God who can handle the whole infinite range of human emotion–that’s the blessing of the cursing psalms.

Yes, we can leave out the curses of Psalm 69. But isn’t it good to know that we can leave them in?

The thing we rarely talk about

In which Sara explores a Dirty Little Secret, with apologies to her areligious readers.

One morning during our Coast-to-Coast walk, we found ourselves sharing breakfast at our B&B with a couple we’d seen a few times over the past few days. We had a lively breakfast conversation, early on in which the woman and I discovered that we were both priests, I in a church in Portland, Oregon, and she in a parish in North Yorkshire. We talked of many things, although I’m sorry we didn’t exchange names throughout our conversation. She and her husband were ending their walk at the next village, which was a half-way point for most walkers and an ending point for some. As we passed each other in the hall during the time between breakfast and setting off, she said: “It’s too bad we didn’t meet each other earlier; we could have been saying Morning Prayer together all this while.”

Ah, yes. Morning Prayer. The Daily Office. The Prayer of the Church. The Office to which English clergy are bound by their ordination vows, in a way that Episcopal clergy ordained in the United States are not. We are bound to pray, and I many priests I know are indeed faithful to the traditional Office, but more are not. I have always envied those from branches of our Anglican Communion who do, in fact, manage to say the Office twice a day as a matter of course. Ken Leech once wrote: “the moment the Office is a place you go, rather than something you pray, you need to reorder your priorities” (or words to that effect).

I have often described clergy prayer life as a “dirty little secret.” The secret being that most of us who are ordained, if we were to reflect with complete honesty, on our prayer life, would say we didn’t have much of one. (And I would venture to say this applies across denominational lines; I don’t think Episcopal clergy have a monopoly on spotty prayer.) As St. Paul says, we, whose work is so often to encourage others in prayer, “do not pray as we ought.” Speaking only for myself, of course.

My prayer life is almost always its most regular and fruitful while I’m on vacation. Sabbatical has proven no different, although the shape of my prayer has changed from stage to stage. For some time leading up to sabbatical and including the first few weeks, I read through the whole Office faithfully each morning using the wonderful resource of Mission St. Clare. I have especially enjoyed knowing that a growing handful of folk from St. David’s use it each day. And yet, I have missed the Prayer Book with its beribboned heft, and found myself packing it, rather than the iPad, for my trips in May to Alaska and then to Ashland.

IMG_0213The Mission St. Clare app depends on good wifi, which has often not been present over much of the past several months. In mid-June, after some rich conversations with colleagues about such matters, I began experimenting with a pared-down version of the Office which allowed me to focus more on the gospel narrative and on prayer. Then, at the last minute while packing in London for the Coast to Coast walk, I jettisoned the Prayer Book, having no room for it in my backpack. Instead, I took with me a leaflet which is always tucked into my journal, of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. In Edinburgh, post-Walk, I have been re-united with my Prayer Book and have the sublime luxury of staying in a community which gathers for morning and evening prayer. So for these two weeks, my prayer life runneth over. I wake up and make myself tea and pray the BCP morning office in bed around 6:30 or 7. Then at 9:15, most mornings, I gather with community members for morning prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. At the end of the day, the community prays evening prayer from the Society of St. Francis, and at bedtime I return to my beloved Daily Devotion for the Close of Day. (“Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God” is one of my favorite scripture passages of all time. Why would anyone end the day with anything else?)

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I mention all of this because this summer I have dined at the smorgasbord of the generous variety of practices and prayer resources within our Anglican tradition. I know some who would say that the Benedictine principle of stability calls us to stick to one form of prayer whether we like it or not. However, it has been both refreshing and important to allow myself–at times of necessity–to avail myself of different practices. (Call it the Ignatian principle of God’s presence in desire, if it’s possible to so drastically mix monastics, mid-blog.)  It will be interesting to see which of these practices continue when I am home, left to my own devices, and returning to that other “office” where I go each day, and where I am relied upon by others as a Woman of Prayer.

I know that many people pray without ceasing, without aid of any written text. You may be one of those people. For me, written, structured prayer…it’s how I roll. I am both grateful for and dependent upon our rich tradition of psalms, lectionary, and prayers handed down through the ages. I appreciate the freedom to dip into it, in all of its fullness, and to acknowledge–if not always respond to–the invitation to go ever deeper.

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Disciples of the Desert Monastic Abba Agathon are said to have asked him: “Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort? Abba Agathon answered: “I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

I assume, naively perhaps, that laypeople have a better time of faithful prayer because their consciousness is less cluttered with Episcopocultural “shoulds” about such things.  And yet I have no reason to think that Abba Agathon was talking only about clergy when he described the struggle of prayer. So this question is for anyone reading this post: How goes the battle for you?

In which I discover universalism in an unlikely place

I moved to the city where I currently live in May 1986. My first task, after making the beds and finding the grocery store was to find a church. I was twenty-six and a relatively new Christian, having been baptized two years earlier. I had never worshipped anywhere besides the church in which I was baptized, a shabby but beautiful place with an informal Prayer Book liturgy as the container for liberal-progressive theology and a strong emphasis on the arts. The cross-country move was an opportunity to continue sorting out what kind of Christian I might turn out to be.

photo 1 (38)On a beautiful June morning I walked to the church closest to our house, and soon found myself in the back of the church’s long, narrow interior of brick in different shades of brown. When my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I saw elaborate renaissance-style paintings covering the wall behind the altar and in a small side chapel. Candles, paintings of saints, and gorgeous Tiffany-inspired stained glass windows were everywhere. I was a sucker for Christian art although I didn’t know much about it. I loved the stillness and the darkness.

The congregation was small, a couple dozen people, evenly divided between young men and old ladies, several of whom covered their heads with bits of lace, the elderly Anglican version of a Catholic mantilla. With a tank top and Indian wrap skirt, I felt a little bare and out of place. The pew was pleasantly cool when I sat down. A moment later the organ prelude broke the silence, and a few minutes after that, we stood for the opening hymn. The basic structure of worship in the Episcopal Church is the same the world over, a fact that is a source of comfort to some and a source of tedium to others: Opening hymn, opening prayer, song of praise, two bible readings with a psalm in between, another hymn, a reading from the gospel, a sermon, more prayers, and communion. I found this predictable order reassuring.

After the reading of the gospel, I heard—and felt—the collective creak of the pews as we all sat for the sermon. I looked forward to hearing what the priest had to say, as a way of learning more about that particular church. So far, I liked it because of its beauty and its size; I thought a small congregation would be easier to get to know.

Then the priest began to speak.

“I’m going to tell you all about an important thing that happened just a few weeks ago.”

He stood in a pulpit about five feet up from the rest of us, reading from a sheaf of papers.

“I received a phone call from my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He lives in Seattle; we’ve lost touch the way family members do when they don’t have much more in common than blood ties.”

This made me think of my brother, who was a year younger than me and had moved to Taiwan when he graduated from college, to make his way as an English teacher and English-language radio announcer. We had little in common and didn’t talk much, but were very close nonetheless. We always would be.

“My brother called me to say that his eldest son, my nephew, had died suddenly in a house fire. He was twenty-seven.”

I was twenty-six. In my youth I had not been able to imagine living past twenty-five, and now I had survived many of the dangers, toils, snares of a turbulent adolescence, was a newly-married lady, and felt like the best of my life lay before me. The priest’s words made me shudder.

“My brother was calling me because he wanted me to help him plan his son’s funeral, and he wanted me to officiate at the funeral.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for the priest. I had begun—crazy cart-before-the-horse person that I am—to think about perhaps becoming a priest someday, so I had been thinking about things like weddings and funerals from that new perspective. I couldn’t imagine how I would plan a funeral for someone in my own family, let alone offer words of comfort and explanation in the face of such a tragedy. I imagined that priests learned such things from seminary and from experience. My mind wandered off to contemplate what fun it would be to study theology and scripture at the graduate level.

“I told him, of course”— he lengthened the space between each word, for emphasis—“I told him that because his son was not a baptized Christian, I would not be able to help him.”

I think I sat up two inches straighter in my pew, as if that stretch of the spine could make me better understand what I had just heard. I must have heard wrong, I thought. How could this be? As I puzzled over these words, he continued about the benefits of a Christian burial and the promise of heaven. His message horrified me. I looked around. No one else seemed particularly shocked. A few people nodded at the priest’s words, in agreement. I waited until everyone stood for the creed before slipping out.

photo 2 (41)On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

*                        *                        *

Last week I visited that church again, for the first time since that early June Sunday twenty-seven years ago. It was an amazing experience. The music was to die for, especially the cantor. The liturgical style was reminiscent of my favorite parish in New York City, St. Ignatius of Antioch, where I did a year as a seminarian intern. (St. Ignatius used far more incense!) The stained glass is even more beautiful than I remember it. The head-coverings, which I felt sure would have faded out of fashion by now, were out in full force, on women and girls of all ages. I looked around a bit when I arrived to be sure I was not the only woman without one.

The order of service had changed a bit over the decades, and I missed the predictability of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Sparing my patient readers the details let me just say that there were things about it that made me, shall we say, cranky. I almost left several times but had gone with the feeling that I needed to finish the service that I had left unfinished 27 years earlier.

This notice appeared in the service bulletin for the day and also in the season missal in the pew:

This parish observes a closed communion. Following the historic practice of the Anglican Church, preparation for Communion includes sufficient instruction and the Sacrament of Confirmation If you are not prepared to receive, we invite you to join the communicants at the Altar rail with your arms crossed over your chest to receive a blessing.

eucharistBy the time, after about 90 minutes of praying and chanting, it was time for communion, I was not sure I wanted to receive it. And I was not sure it was intended for me, as a woman priest with no mantilla and affiliated with a much more open and inclusive brand of Anglicanism than theirs. But I was hungry for Eucharist. I read over the notice again and decided that I had indeed received sufficient instruction, and was indeed prepared to receive.

It was at the altar rail, sometime between receiving the bread and the wine, than an amazing thing happened. I felt a little shudder in my chest, a catch in my throat, a familiar little prick in my sinuses, and I began to weep. Weeping at communion is not, of course, an abnormal occurrence for me or perhaps for you. What seemed strange was to do so at that place where I’d begun to get my back up a bit, and where I’d spent much of the service taking inventory of all the ways I surely disagreed with that community about so many things.

What I realized, at that moment and in later reflection, was that I was gobsmacked by the power of the Eucharist, by the mysterious capacity of the sacrament to transcend differences and, more to the point, to outsmart all of our interpretations and expectations. Rather like God. This sacramental experience, in that place whose identity seems to be all about affirming separation and difference, was, in fact universal. That little wafer, thin enough to melt in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to chew Our Lord, binds me to everyone in that place and, more importantly, binds all of them, whether they like it or not, to a whole host of others, many of whom are not necessarily the kinds of people with whom they might choose to share that holiest of meals.

When I visited that church 27 years ago, it was where I learned that I was a universalist. The second time I visited a week ago, I learned that–at least in my opinion, from which many of you may differ–the Eucharist makes universalists of us all.

In which I attempt to reconcile the Spirit of Pentecost with my intense desire for solitude

pentecostMay 19 was the Feast of Pentecost, which marks the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter and the descent of the Holy Spirit among us, life continuing on the other side of the Cross. You can read all about it. It’s been one of my favorite feasts of the church year ever since my husband and I attended Grace Memorial for the very first time. It was Pentecost, 1997, and the youth group created the rushing wind described in Acts 2 by running up and down the aisles holding opposite ends of an enormous banner that flew over–barely–the heads of all of us in the pews.

lego crowdThis year, I’m on sabbatical (into Week 3) and had a rare opportunity to get up on Sunday morning and worship wherever I wanted. I had many wonderful options and spent several days weighing them. The result? I went to the gym. This is something I do almost every Sunday before church, but my sabbatical celebration this week was to sleep in, drink tea in bed, and get to the gym right around the time someone was about to proclaim the Pentecost Gospel at Saint David’s. What I found was that the gym feels different at 10:30 on a Sunday morning than it does at 7:00. For one thing, there are more people. Lots and lots of them with yoga mats tucked under their arms. People working out in pairs, twos and threes, not just muscle-men who take turns being the spotter and the grunter and otherwise hardly speak, but dyads and triads of friends and couples, having fun together, visiting and laughing. The church of gym, a communion if ever there was one. I was glad to see everyone having such a great time, and glad for my ear-buds which provide solitude in the midst of community.

(The day before, I’d spent seven hours in a 12×12 room with 16 other people, talking. We called it a “retreat.” The people are wonderful and the conversation memorable and worthwhile, but a retreat it wasn’t. I–the extrovert–came away exhausted, wanting to tear my hair out and shout, like Liza Doolittle: Words, words, words!)

pentecost cupcakesIt was odd to go through Pentecost Sunday without any of the traditional things we do on Pentecost: proclaim the gospel or sing in other languages, wear tongues-of-fire red, or eat church birthday cupcakes. Instead, I spent the day looking forward to getting away from it all. That seems incongruous, to me. Pentecost is a community celebration if ever there was one, if only because for many churchgoers, it is the equivalent to the last day of school and the beginning of summer vacation.

solitudeWhat my intense eagerness for solitude has to do with Pentecost, I’ve decided, is that just as Pentecost is all about breaking barriers between people in order to establish communities of Jesus-followers imbued with the power of the Spirit, so can solitude, and time away from traditional forms of worship be a form of breaking barriers and crossing boundaries. Especially for a church-lady-extrovert like me. I’ll let you know how it goes.