In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Easter 2A

A reflection on the readings for Easter 2A: Acts 2:14-41, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31 by
Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.

Everything in this week’s readings is about the assurance of faith, the certainty of belief in a God who has done certain things and can be trusted completely.

Everything except the Gospel.

I love that.

I love it because the Gospels are not the stories of perfect people getting it about God on the first try, but of misunderstandings and blunders and the whooshing sound that the point makes going over everyone’s heads. (Ever notice how often Jesus hears that sound? His physical presence was no guarantee that anyone would get what he was saying.) I love it because the stories in the Gospels show that faith is not a course we take for a grade, but a life we live. I love it because stories like this one show conclusively that we are not required to be perfect disciples—there are no perfect disciples. I love it because the story of Thomas, and the story of Mary Magdalene at the beginning of this chapter, are about people struggling with their faith, misunderstanding what they see and hear, and going on in faith anyhow. On a personal note, I love it because despite a lifetime of faith and throughout a lot of attempts to be more certain than I am capable of being, I’ve never stopped doubting and struggling. I’ve come to believe that those attempts to be certain were a waste of time—time that could have been better used asking the tough questions aloud.

The story of Thomas is part of a larger story. Chapter 20 begins with Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and meeting Jesus, a story some of us heard last Sunday; its center is Jesus’ appearing to the disciples and breathing out the Spirit upon them in the first part of today’s reading; then comes the story of Thomas. Thomas seems not to have believed Mary Magdalene, and he certainly isn’t impressed by the story of a whole group of disciples. Thomas wants his answer his way. Unlike most of us, he gets his answer his way.

No one in these stories is perfect. The beloved disciple, extolled by many commentators as the perfect example of faith and as superior to Mary Magdalene and Thomas, misses seeing Jesus at the tomb because he has run away, leaving his sister disciple weeping alone; he believes, but the text gives no evidence that he shared his belief with others. It’s not clear that Peter believes anything at the tomb. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and he has to tell her not to cling to him. The disciples see Jesus in the room with them because they are, despite Mary’s witness, hiding from the world outside. And then there’s Thomas, the kind of difficult person who says what others won’t admit they are thinking.

Many of us have been taught, over the years, to hear “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” as a rebuke to Thomas—and, by extension, a rebuke to us if we have trouble believing. It need not be read that way. It could be, instead, a way of acknowledging our doubts and our difficulties, our imperfect faith. It could be Jesus’ way of allowing us space to doubt like Thomas, to misunderstand Jesus’ appearance like Mary Magdalene, to remain silent when we could speak like the beloved disciple—and still to be present when Jesus is among us offering the Spirit.

Thomas and Mary do the one most important thing: they keep trying. Their faith and their perceptions are limited, but they keep seeking Jesus. They do so imperfectly, and Jesus comes to them anyway. They trust enough to keep going. Their struggles are ours, and we need not fear our own. Even in John, the gospel with an insistence on the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus, the gospel with the most exalted view of Jesus, the gospel in which Jesus is shown as foreseeing everything and predicting everything, shows the disciples as people with faith as imperfect as ours. Jesus works with that. He wants to be with people who ask questions, get it wrong, and even give him attitude.

Thomas and Magdalene have moments of certainty, as do all the followers of Jesus, and they tell each other about them. For many of them, their faith will lead to death; for all of them, it will last through their lives. It will not always be certain. It will not always be free of doubt. It will be enough.

Before I read theology, I read a lot of devotional books on how to have complete, joyous, permanent faith that wouldn’t take a stain or sustain a dent. They always produced considerable despair in me because I never had that kind of faith. Perhaps that is behind my uneasy response to the passages that are all about certainty and are the reason I like this Gospel better. Perhaps, having seen that neither doubt and certainty are the final word about one’s faith, I will be able to embrace certainty more.

Yes, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia. No, we aren’t always sure of that. No, that doesn’t settle everything. Yes, we still doubt and make mistakes and persist in looking for Jesus. Jesus is still with us and still offering the Spirit, which gives not omniscience, but hope. Faith is a conversation between believers, but not a competition: it’s not about who has more faith or less faith, but about what we can learn from each other’s faith and each other’s stories.

I love that.

This reflection owes much to two excellent academic articles by women theologians:
Lee, Dorothy A., “Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 58 (1995) 37-49
O’Brien, Kelli S., “Written That You May Believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67, 2005
The work of committed scholars is a great gift to the faith community.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Day

A reflection on John 20:1-18 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

Of the two Gospels in the Lectionary for Easter Sunday, I found myself drawn to John. A part of that attraction for me is Mary. Mary who went out to the tomb while it was still dark. Mary Magdalene who has been confused and merged with the other Marys of the Gospels. Mary who has been maligned through the ages as prostitute and sinner. Mary apostle to the apostles. Mary of the many narratives, is the one on this Easter morning who brings us the story, the one who is the bearer of the news. Ultimately not only the good news of that Easter morning that Jesus was not in the tomb, but the ultimate Good News that the love of God is stronger than death and the grave is not the end. This Mary has a story to tell us in her own words….

It seemed like so many days since the last time we were together, that night we ate and drank together. That night started out strangely, with him insisting on washing our feet. I mean, not that this wasn’t the thing to do before a meal, but to have the host do it, well that was just not what you’d expect. But then Jesus always was the master of the unexpected. And then there was that strange business with Judas. Of course it all made sense later, but at the time, I was so confused.

He spoke to us of so many things that night. He told us again and we must love one another. He said it very strongly, commanded us even to love one another, I remember he said, as he had loved us. I remember it made me think when he said that about the way he did love others. About the way he was with people, how he seemed to really see them, to be able to see their very souls, and what this did for their lives. Like the woman at the well who had such an experience of him that she left her water jar behind when she ran off to tell the others in village about him! I remembered how he healed that blind man, and how the man kept changing the way he talked about him calling him first a man, then a prophet then calling him “Lord.” I remember how that man stood up to the Pharisees and talked right back to them, asking “so why are you asking me all this? Do you want to become disciples too?” I had to laugh at that. I remember my own healing and liberation. I remember how he always included those who were out at the edges and those that the others left out, and that he preached that we must always forgive others, and that his love was a very radical kind of thing, and how he told us to do the same. So when he said that night to love one other as he had loved us, I knew he was asking a lot.

I think he tried to prepare us for what was to come….not just that he was going to die, but that he would be with us again, But he was right in that we did not understand all that he meant. But I had not always understood him. What he said or what he did. Healing people from illnesses, and even bringing his friend Lazarus back to life after four days in the grave. We all know that he had talked of eternal life, we all had come to know there would be a resurrection on the last day, but when he called Lazarus out and asked us to help him loose himself from those grave clothes, our belief in him as the Messiah was strengthened even more.

This was the Rabbi and teacher we loved, who had taught us all along, the one who had amazed us and sometimes baffled us but always loved us. But on that night there was something different about him, a new kind of intensity, an urgency. Now of course it all makes sense, but at the time, all I knew was that what he said was challenging and a little frightening. He talked about others persecuting us and even killing us for following him. And he kept saying he was going away, going to a place that we could not go, and if he did not do this, the spirit could not come. But that if he did go, this spirit he called the Advocate would come and would guide us into truth and righteousness.

And he said he was giving us peace but not the way the world did, but that we should not be afraid. I remember as much as trusted and loved him, I couldn’t help feeling troubled by all this talk of his leaving, and yes, I was afraid. I loved him with all my heart and I did not want him to go anywhere. We had only had him such a short time and he was doing so much good.

Love one another….Oh yes clearly I remember, he said that a second time. He said it so strongly, that command. I remember being a little taken aback by that, as he was so forceful about it. He said “no one has greater love than to lay down his life for a friend.” At the time I had no idea what was to come so soon, that he was talking about himself…his own great love, such great love.

He talked about how in a while we would not see him and again a little while and we would see him…and he said he was leaving the world and going to the Father. And we had no idea….no idea that this meant that in such a short time he would be taken from us, taken off for that travesty of a trial and be mocked and flogged and finally hung on that horrible cross. That was the worst day of my life, standing there with his mother, seeing the pain on her face as she watched him suffer and finally die. We just could not understand. After all that he said and did, for it all to end there, it simply made no sense. I really had believed that night when he said all those things, that he was that close to God, that he was more than just the wonderful Rabbi and teacher that I loved. But that day, I was there and saw it all, and I have to say that my belief in it all, in him, wavered. It pains me to admit it, but it did. When I went to the tomb that dark, dark morning it was to grieve him and to grieve the ideal of all he stood for. I had lost my hope. I had accepted the unacceptable. My Rabboni was dead, and dead with him were the dreams that the Messiah had come and all that came along with that. The group had broken up even before he was tried, hiding, fleeing, denying they knew him, afraid for their own skins. It was worse than if we had never known him. My heart was breaking, I really thought I might die from sadness. The only thing I could think to do was to go to the grave. If nothing else I could be close to the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid him. The garden was soothing, maybe I would find some peace just being near him there. But when I arrived to find that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, the bottom dropped out of my world even more. I had thought I could feel no worse, but I was wrong. My despair knew no bounds as I knew that the grave robbers had likely taken him. I ran for my friends, but all they could do was confirm what I had feared, the tomb was empty, the wrappings all that remained. They went back home. But I could not leave. Something just compelled me to stay. It was not hope, for I had none. There was nothing to hope in. It was not faith, for I had no faith left. It was not belief, for there was no one left to believe in. Then I looked in the tomb. I have no idea why I looked, Simon Peter and John had already told me there was nothing to see. But there were messengers there…two of them who asked me why I was crying. I told them of course, and it was then that I turned and saw the gardener; at least that was what I thought at first, that he was the gardener, or that he was another vision of some kind. That maybe I was just was just hoping that much to see him….but then I remembered that I had no hope, had no faith, had no belief. It had all dies on that awful cross with him. But then in the quiet of that empty place, I hear a familiar beloved voice say my name and I know who this was beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is he who has called by name, he who sees and knows all of me, he who has healed me, he who has recalled me to life even as he has risen from his own death. “Rabbouni, beloved teacher” I cry as I recognize him. I must not let him get away from me again! I cannot go back into that hopeless darkness now that his light has shone on me again. I grasp at him, but gently he pulls away and looks at me with great love, “Don’t hold on to me now. When I go to my Father, I will be available to all of you.” And I remember all of those things he said to us on that last night. And suddenly it all comes together and it all makes sense. This is Jesus, the Messiah, the Incarnate one of God. I trusted him then and I trust him now. This is the greatest news of all! I have seen the Lord and he is risen from the dead!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Palm/Passion Sunday

A reflection the readings for Palm Sunday by The Rev. Camille Hegg

Palm Sunday is a spectacle and a range of actions and emotions. It goes from Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem and disciples having to decide to follow him and ‘die with him’ as the gospel from last week says. Emotions in that decision had to had been vast and many. Crowds were there waiting for him, with palms on the ground to honor him. How did they know he was coming? Now, we have Twittter and Facebook that can send instant messages to many people to expect and to gather at certain places.

Palm Sunday is a good story. It has drama, mystery, pathos. It goes from festival atmosphere to the confusing, angering, sad actions of human beings reacting to what they don’t understand, and the death of an innocent man. It is a strange story, too. All those events and emotions in just a few paragraphs rather than not an epic novel with chapters nor a history book with footnotes.

In one liturgical day emotions which we experience in our lives happen. What begins with Palm Sunday ends with Passion Sunday. In many churches there is no final processional hymn, but a procession in silence to symbolize the absolute outrage and sadness of what happened.
We find ourselves confronted with outrage and sadness on many occasions. Sometimes, for me, the only response to both of these emotions is silence. Sometimes what starts as a good day ends with some unforeseen event that is sad or outrageous or angering. We may want to shout, but I find silence a better friend than shouting.

It was a Sunday in 1985. The epistle that day was the Ephesians’ admonition to wives to submit to their husbands and so forth. In preparing my sermon I decided it was time to preach on this text. I used a true example of the mother of a grown daughter who came to talk to me. The husband of the daughter had put the daughter in the hospital with internal bleeding, bruises, a black eye, and a broken collar bone. The mother who came to me asked me to pray that the husband would quit beating her daughter. I asked her if she wanted her daughter to go back home with the husband and this mother said, “Oh yes, marriage is sacred. She has to stay with him. I just want him to quit hurting him.”

All of us reading this have stories like this. I decided it was my time to speak about this text. Wiithout going into the sermon much further, I will say that I raised questions for the congregation and said that this was a misunderstanding of the gospel of love. I felt that I had done a good job of preparing and delivering the sermon. I received a very loud applause. I was surprised and I will admit it felt good. That feeling stayed with me through the morning. When I walked into my house after church the hpone rang and it was my sister telling me that our father had died that morning of a massive coronary. I was silent. I finally said that I would be there soon.

This story is nowhere near the events of Passion/Palm Sunday. It came to me as an instance of a time when I myself went from that ‘festival’ of the palms and the procession, (feeling uplifted from my preparation and delivery of the sermon, the congregation’s response), to the “passion” of the sudden, unexpected and stunning sadness of learning of my father’s death. Over the years I have pondered my father’s sudden death, but never have I thought of it in this context. A Sunday like this week’s does have something to say to us about life’s changes and chances. It is remarkable to me that the church, lectionary, seasons, community can help us process our lives amidst the changes and chances of our lives.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Seeing With New Eyes

A reflection on the readings for Lent 4A: John 9:1-41 by the Rev. Margaret Rose

I love to travel. Perhaps it comes from growing up in a small town where the world beyond always seemed to invite me to something more and better. And even as a child it didn’t much matter where outside: a bus to Atlanta to visit a friend when I was six, or a drive to an even smaller town nearby—Villa Rica which my mother reminded me meant “Village of the Rich” in another exotic language or so she said. That love of travel had to do with a desire to experience something new, visit another place and to see something I had not seen before. Now “traveling” has become a metaphor for seeing things anew, suspending belief and starting with a clean slate experiencing lives and sights that do not have my history or baggage. Traveling to far off places or to new neighborhoods allows me to let go assumptions or labels or judgments, generalities, or stereotypes.

Traveling has become a state of mind which is about heightened senses and paying attention to surroundings, getting away from the routine in order to get at the heart and soul of a place, a culture, a person. Some days even walking to work is like traveling, if I have allowed my mind to be uncluttered by the worries of the day and can simply observe the life around me. Taking notice of the environment, of who and what is there. It may be a “green raincoat day” or a “dog walking day”, or one where it seems everyone needs help crossing the street. Patterns emerge I had not seen before. No doubt they are not real patterns but part of everyday, but with open eyes I somehow see what I had long ignored.

This may be a simplistic way to think about the story of the Man Born Blind in John’s gospel. Certainly, it is one of the “miracle stories” but the real truth of the text is in the whole story and the movement from those whose eyes may see but who are spiritually blind to the truth that sight does not rest in the eyes only. ( This is no doubt why the RCL has included all 41 verses of the story.) The lead up offers one more example of Jesus turning the social structure on its head—healing on the Sabbath, and the discussion of whose fault it is that the man is blind and Jesus’ retort that this is not about sin but the need for healing. Neither his parents’ guilt nor his own is the culprit. (Something we would do well to remember.) The deep lesson of the text comes in the dialog between the blind man and those who hear about or witness the miracle. The man born blind becomes increasingly insightful even as the religious leaders are more blind to the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the miracle.

The dialog plays out like a comedy street scene: the beggar is healed by Jesus using what might be a folk way of mud and saliva and prayer. The onlookers do not believe it is really the same man or that he can really see so they deny it among themselves: This wasn’t really the blind beggar was it? No, just someone like him is the reply. Others respond to the blind man’s proclamation that he can now see by whispers of denial among themselves: He wasn’t really blind in the first place. Still others go to his parents to confirm his identity and his infirmity.

Clearly , the Pharisees did not want to have their eyes opened to Jesus. To accept that the healing was of God would call into question their set rules, would have forced them to give up some very precious and long held understandings about life codes and ways of worship. Their privilege as religious leaders might be called into question. They had a lot to lose by listening to the words of the outcast better, a blind man, a lot to lose if they began to explore the possibility that this healing was of God, or that Jesus might possibly be the prophet or a foretold messiah. In short, a lot to lose by having their eyes opened. Those physically able to see became spiritually blind, unable as they were to risk the loss of comfort, power and long held assumptions of their faith.

The blind man, however had nothing to lose. He knew his infirmity, his blindness, and knew that Jesus had opened his eyes. As he told the story, becoming aware of Jesus’ identity, he is able to proclaim it. The poor blind beggar is open to grace and to Jesus as the Christ. The one who was blind is able in the end to see most clearly physically and spiritually.
What about us? What helps us to see most clearly the healing that God offers us? Perhaps first it has to do with recognizing the places where we too suffer from spiritual blindness, examining what we hold most closely and imagining that others may hold opposite views just as faithfully. In a parish I served, we decided one year to have a program called “Controversial Issues and How to Talk about Them” As one might expect, the series included such topics as sexuality, economics, abortion. There were those who were clear about what the moral or Christian response to each dilemma was to be. But the group agreed that the ground rule for the work would be “sacred listening”, acknowledging that each of us may have some blindness within ourselves. The ensuing conversations were not easy. But the transformation made possible by the commitment to listening created bonds of community which would not be broken across lines of disagreement.

A few years later, the youth director of that same parish had twins, born prematurely, and as it turned out one is completely blind and the other with significant visual impairment. I recently visited them back in that same small town where I grew up. The boys are now about 2, and though there are ongoing issues, they are healthy. As Luke and Jack romped and tumbled and climbed over each other, their mother and me, as they ran around the house shouting and laughing, I could not help but think of the text for today. When this young couple discovered they were pregnant, their joyful expectation of parenthood did not anticipate so great a challenge. Some of the ready made plans had to be forgotten. No doubt this Sunday, these parents will be listening to the text and wondering if Jesus might come by to spit on the ground and hold healing mud on the eyes of their two boys.

But it may be that the healing mud has already come. The eyes of the parents are open to the deep life of God’s spirit working within them and their boys. And they have become a gift to the community they serve. Would I want their eyes to be repaired? Of course. But the ability to see does not depend on it. Thanks be to God.