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.

the-empty-tomb

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?

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.

“But mom! What’s JESUS!?”

Twelve years ago I enrolled my son into a lovely, if somewhat precious, alternative preschool in Southeast Portland. Twelve children and two wonderful teachers gathered some combination of two or three days each week from nine to noon to play outside (rain or shine), make art, make friends, play trains, eat snacks, and generally be about the business of transitioning from toddlerhood to kindergarten.

As the fall unfolded, the rains began, and we all looked toward the darker season, I learned that, as for the rest of us, December was going to be a busy month for preschoolers. They were promised a different special guest every week, giving presentations on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the winter solstice. I decided it might be fun for the kids to learn about Advent, the Christian tradition’s four-week countdown to Christmas. I would show them the Advent wreath, teach them how to make a simple one using greens from the school’s huge backyard, and talk about lighting the candles one by one as we wait for Jesus to be born, the same way many of the kids had waited for their baby brother or sister to be born.

Some humorous conversation ensued, in which the more experienced teacher had to interject the assurance that Jesus was not actually going to come to anyone’s house on Christmas Eve, at which point some of the kids began to focus on Santa, who most certainly was coming on Christmas Eve.

My three-year-old then made piped up to ask: “But mom: what’s Jesus?” I could’ve been mortified that the son of a church lady and aspiring clergy mom didn’t know who Jesus was, but really I thought it was hilarious. And a good question. How would you answer it?

What's your image of Jesus?

Quick: what’s the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the “J-word”? Chances are it’s the “Breck Jesus.” Jesus with the long blond hair, looking off into another world. For me, it’s different every day. Some days it’s the Che Guevara Jesus (bottom left in the picture). Some days it’s the National Geographic Jesus. Lots of times, the image of Jesus I most readily imagine is the icon from true old-time religion, called “Christ Pantocrator.”

Christ Pantocrator

Most of the people I know who are put off by Jesus don’t really know about the upstart guy that I try to follow, who was all about sharing food with friends and strangers, preaching about economic justice, and making food, health care, and hope available to everyone, regardless of their gender, socio-economic status, age, moral fiber, nationality, or religion. That’s what I think Jesus is.

And – bonus fun fact – there are tons of great stories about Jesus and food. What’s not to like?