Monday, March 30, 2009

home again

I was away from our parish for eight days, for four consecutive two day denominational meetings. Yes, I am insane. Yes, I have a very patient congregation and an amazing staff. Yes, flying in airplanes these days is the pits. Yes, I am very happy to be home.

The first meeting was the United Methodist Study Commission on the Ministry. This is a continuation of the 2004-2008 study, with a different composition of members (more young adults). We will focus on most of the questions that concern our denomination, particular in relation to local pastors, deacons and elders. This group will have ongoing communication with stakeholder groups in the denomination, and will bring a report to the 2012 General Conference. I am hopeful about our beginning.

Then the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry met (these first two meetings are in Nashville). I chair the Ministry division, and we moved through a full agenda. Some good friends return on the board, but it is mostly filled with new persons. There are reports on United Methodist News Service about our work, and I spoke to the plenary group about a congregational perspective on the board's vision of developing a new generation of Christian leaders.

Then I flew to Austin, Texas. Two good friends met us there, and we took a day off, driving through the hill country. If I believed in reincarnation, I must have lived in Austin in a former life: the music, the food, the scenery, the people. Then, early in the week, I took part in a conversation with Bishop Robert Schnase about the Five Practices (see the link to the right). It was a very engaged small group, was directly relevant to what Providence UMC is doing, and is a sign of hope in our denomination.

And then, the fourth meeting: the inaugural gathering of the Faith and Order Committee of our denomination. The Ministry Study and Faith and Order actually coincide nicely, and it is the kind of work that I find meaningful: the theology, doctrine and discipline of our church. It was a quick meeting, a day and a half (and was in D.C.). Then an afternoon flight home. Nice to be back in North Carolina.

So, I have been back at it for the last three days: appointments, some related to weddings, on Saturday. Two sermons and a Bible Study on Sunday, And lots of administrative work today, with a visit to a member in a psychiatric setting in the afternoon. And now, my mind turns to Palm/Passion Sunday and the last word of Jesus from the cross: "It is finished."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

grief as the unfinished agenda of God (john 19)

We are reflecting on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. In a few weeks we will gather in the sanctuary, on a Friday evening, listening again to these words, spoken and sung, in the darkness of this space. We have listened to the first two of the words of Jesus: a public prayer, “Father, forgive them”, spoken by the Lord in the presence of his torturers; and “Today, you will be with me in paradise”, spoken to a thief who was crucified alongside him.

And now the third word. Jesus hangs from the cross and immediately we notice that he is not alone. “Must Jesus bear the cross alone?”, we asked last Sunday as we sang the hymn, and the answer has always been “no”. We do not bear our crosses alone.

Standing by the cross, John tells us, are Jesus’ mother, Mary; his mother’s sister, also named Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene. Evidently Mary, or Miriam, was a common name. With them was the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, most likely John, despite what we learned by reading The DaVinci Code! Jesus, who is being crucified, sees them and speaks to each of them. To his mother he says, “There is your son”. And to the disciple he says, “There is your mother”.

Jesus speaks first to his mother, Mary. Mary has divided Protestants from our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters. On the one extreme is Marian devotion and veneration, which has been on the increase in recent years; on the other extreme is the ignorance and avoidance of Mary.

This passage of scripture does not allow us to avoid Mary; she is there, at the foot of the cross, along with the other women. But if we read more deeply into the gospel itself, we know that Mary has always been there, that women have always been there, just as they surround Jesus at the cross. At the beginning of the gospel there was Elizabeth’s anticipation of the birth of John the Baptist, there was the Magnificat, spoken by Mary and modeled on the prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, which is much deeper in the biblical tradition.

Women are among the first to praise God, they are among the first to respond to the call to discipleship (“let it be to me according to your word”). Mary and Joseph take their baby to be circumcised, and Simeon says, to Mary, “this child is set for the rising and falling of many”, and more personally to her, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”. And now, at the conclusion of the earthly life of Jesus, this prophecy is realized. Mary and the women are with Jesus in his suffering. They will also be there to discover the empty tomb, they will be in praying in the Upper Room, they will be present in the earliest house churches in the Book of Acts.

Even if the writing of the scriptures was a reflection of a male-dominated culture, and the interpretation of the scriptures across the centuries has been shaped by the men who have been teachers and leaders, there has always been an undeniable presence of women throughout the gospel, from the anticipation of his birth to the agony of his suffering to the desolation of his death to the surprise of his resurrection to the miracle of his appearances.

Women are always there, pestering judges until they act on behalf of justice, interceding for a child who is sick, washing the feet of Jesus with costly perfume, taking the risk of touching his garment, hosting a meal among a small group of friends, caring for the details and listening to the teaching, offering a small gift that represented everything, and on a very bleak day, they showed up to mourn. We sometimes miss the women who fill the biblical narratives, paying more attention to the apostles or the prophets, but when it counts, at a critical, decisive time….at a crucifixion, who is there? The women.

There is your mother, there is your son. In another sense Jesus is saying something more: Take care of each other. We see the cross of Jesus, we see his suffering, but we also do not take our eyes off of each other. In our culture suffering and death isolate us. Years ago a family joined our church in Greensboro. He was a retired insurance executive, and they seemed to be a happy couple. Some time later he went into the hospital, and I visited him about every other day. I learned that they were from the Chicago area, had retired first to Florida, found it to be too hot and too crowded, and then had moved to the piedmont region of North Carolina to be near their adult daughter.

His hospitalization was an extended one. After many weeks his health deteriorated, then, unexpectedly, he died. I was asked to plan and preside at his memorial service. I met with his wife and daughter, and the service was set for one of the local funeral homes. This was unusual for our church; most services were held in the sanctuary, but this was the request of the family and it was fine.

The service was scheduled for a weekday morning, at 11:00 a.m. I was in the office, thinking I would leave at about 10. Someone came by to talk, it took a few minutes, it was more like 10:20 when I left. I arrived at the funeral home at about 10:40, and a member of the staff took me into a side room. “You can enter the chapel through this door”, he said. “You will know it is time to begin when the organist stops playing.”

I walked into the chapel slightly before 11, and sat down. The family had not really known many people in our church or community, or so I thought. I sat down, looked at my notes… then I looked out at the long, narrow chapel, and it was absolutely packed. As I scanned the room I did not notice a single familiar face. Even more disturbing, I did not see any member of the family. At this moment the organist stopped playing. With my Bible and prayer book in hand, I stood up to begin the service.

Now I am a very cautious person by nature, and a lot was flashing through my mind in a split second. Was I in the right memorial service? Had I come to the wrong branch of this funeral home? I paused for a moment. I was ready to begin the liturgy, and then I stopped: I might be in the wrong place, and I might be about to start talking about the wrong person! It was a screenplay for a very bad movie, and I was about to be the main character!

So I motioned for the staff person, and we stepped outside. “Is this the service for…and I gave the name?” He assured me that it was—my heart rate began to slow down a little! “Then where is the family?” Or, he said, they are in the side room, which was just to the left. They were separated by shutters in what funeral homes call a “family room”. From an angle, they could see me, and I could see them, but they could not see those who had come to attend the service, and those present could not see them. It had a separate entrance, so the family never had to converse or interact with those who were present that day. I went back in, and we resumed the service. The mother and daughter have actually been lifelong friends, I later officiated at the daughter’s wedding, then baptized their children, all of which is another story.

Still, something about that morning has stayed with me. The architecture of that chapel seemed, upon reflection, to be unfortunate. Suffering, grief and death separate us and yet in these seasons of life we are most in need of connection, community and compassion.

In a crisis, our tendency is to withdraw, and suffering isolates us. In the crucifixion, Jesus is with the women, who are drawn in a public way into his passion. The cross is not a private religious experience, and it is a gift that John remembered not only what Jesus had said, but also those who were present in the last moments of Jesus’ life.

Is grief public or private, visible or hidden? The question is still with us. I think of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where the mothers of disappeared children, victims of a brutal military regime, gather on Thursdays to mourn, to protest, to inquire. This has been a part of the controversy of publicly acknowledging the bodies of fallen military returning to our country from war. Should the flag-draped caskets be photographed, or viewed, or should them remain hidden? We are inclined to be alone, but there is a part of us that needs to be in community.

Is grief public or private, visible or hidden? The inclusion of this aspect of the suffering of Jesus on the cross answers this question for us. This has always been one of the most fundamental instincts of the church of Jesus. When there is a tragedy, a crisis, a death, the church gathers. We gather to sit and wait. We gather to sing and pray. We gather to ask questions that have no answers, and tell stories that sometimes, for reasons we cannot explain, make us laugh. We gather with gifts of flowers and food. And in some way it all began at the cross. This was no solitary experience. It was precisely the time when Jesus most needed a community, and it is precisely the time when we most need a community.

There is your mother, Jesus says, there is your son. We sometimes look at the cross and we see our sin, and we imagine that the barrier that separates us from God and each other is essentially moral. The cross bridges human unrighteousness with the righteousness of God. But if we look at the cross and see only sin, repentance, forgiveness and salvation, we are missing something. The cross represents something else, and that is suffering and death. The cross is the sword that pierces through the human soul.

Jesus leaves behind a legacy of words, and one of the most striking is ours for today: here is your mother, here is your son; take care of your mother, take care of your son. The last words of Jesus are relatively few in number, and this is a model for us. It is not so important that we talk, or say “the right thing”, or explain what is happening. In some ways there was no explanation for what was happening on the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus asked, and next Sunday we will reflect on that word.

The community of disciples left behind by Jesus is given the amazing mission of being his body; the apostle Paul understood this when he wrote that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer. There would be grief, he realized, in his death, which he must have known was imminent. Jesus had promised that he would not leave us comfortless, that he would come to us, in the form of the Holy Spirit, the gift of presence, a sign that God is with us, we are not alone, we are connected as members of the one body, a body that takes the form of a cross.

Living bodies are not static, they change over time, life is not static, families are not static, churches are not static. Maybe Lent is a reminder that we learn, throughout our lives to give up something, and sometimes the most difficult sacrifice is to give up someone we love. When human beings die they leave a legacy, the words that are remembered, but also the people who remain, and in this way Jesus was human. He saw the people who were near to him, and his suffering was bound together with his own grief, and so he leaves a simple legacy: Do you see your mother, your father, your brother, your sister? Take care of each other.

Sources: Scot McNight, The Real Mary. Tom Knight, John For Everyone. Fleming Rutledge, The Seven Last Words From The Cross.

Monday, March 23, 2009

the dwelling place of God

In the history of Israel, the temple is the dwelling place of God (Psalm 84). Much of the most ancient biblical narrative is shaped by the search for, construction of, destruction of and reconstruction of the temple, the dwelling place of God, and for good reason: there was a strong desire to be in the presence of the Lord (see the psalms of ascent, 120-134). At the beginning of the gospel, Jesus is questioned by some of his critics, and he responds sharply: "destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it" (John 2). John comments simply that he was "speaking of the temple of his body" (2. 21). In the letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is wrestling with immorality in the community of those who are following "in the way", and he asks a question: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" (1.6.19).

There is, in the flow of the history of scripture, the development of an idea: the dwelling place of God is a place (Jerusalem), it is in the incarnation (Jesus), and it is in and among those who follow Jesus (the church).

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, we are listening to the last words of Jesus from the cross i our congregation. In the tradition the first of these words is the public prayer of Jesus to his Father, in the presence of his torturers: "Father, forgive them"(Luke 23). Later, the first deacon, Stephen, as he is being tortured, will recall these words just prior to his own death, and will speak again in prayer: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"(Acts 7). Luke records, without comment, that Saul was present to witness this event, and that he consented to the death of Stephen.

Many biblical scholars sense in the words of Stephen the beginning of Saul's (Paul's) conversion to the way. Paul does experience the risen Christ with whom Stephen prays, and he begins, after a time, his own work of bearing witness to this message of forgiveness and grace. He would live in the tension between law and gospel, and at the end of the letter to the Galatians, which wrestles with the divisions that are present in the church, he says simply: "I carry the marks of Jesus branded in my body"( 6. 17).

The dwelling place of God is surely in this tradition of radical forgiveness. "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (a verse that runs like a thread throughout the Hebrew Bible); Jesus embodies this very nature of God, and especially on the cross; and his followers turn their eyes toward him, especially in the season of Lent, in remembrance. A broken church finds its life in the midst of a broken world, and yet it is the dwelling place of the Crucified God.

Friday, March 13, 2009

out on the weekend

The week has been a full one. I participated in the second round of Board of Ordained Ministry interviews. I have listened to the reflection in the blogosphere about BOM processes across the connection, and join in the consensus that all of this is far from perfect. I also heard Gil Rendle, of the Texas Methodist Foundation say earlier in the week that the mistrust of institutions seems to be accelerating---I knew this, but it helped to give me a context for what I was thinking and hearing about the ordination process. And of course the immediacy of internet communication makes the responses more visible. Evaluating candidates for ministry is a grueling process, and I can say that there is no joy---absolutely no joy---in the deferring of any candidate. I can also say that that the discernment process is not only about the dreams and needs of the candidates; it is also about the dreams and needs of a local congregation, somewhere, but even, at a deeper level, it is about the dream of God and the needs inherent in God's mission.


So I headed into the weekend way behind in my sermon process. I am working through a series on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Tomorrow's word is from John 19; Jesus says to Mary, "behold, your son", and to John, "behold, your mother." As background I have plowed through Scot McKnight's The Real Mary (an evangelical response to our ignorance of the mother of Jesus), a brief collection of Carylye Marney's Holy Week sermons, another brief collection of Fleming Rutledge's Holy Week sermons, a glance at Raymond Brown's magisterial commentary on the fourth gospel, and a scanning of Tom Wright's John for Everyone. I have never preached on this passage, and although I have read these words, and heard them sung at Good Friday services, I have never given them a great deal of thought. The series has been helpful to me in this regard. The sermon that is taking shape is about the grief that is the legacy of Jesus, the presence of women there and what that means, and what this unfinished grief means for God's agenda in our world.


I met with a couple this morning who are to be married in the summer. This was the first of two premarital conversations. I always enjoy these appointments, even as I mourn the unrelenting commercialization of the wedding scene, which increasingly brings stress into the whole experience and especially to the couple, and of course much of this outcome is self-induced---finally the couple must accept responsibility, as adults, for what is happening.


After this I went to make a couple of hospital visits. It was not my "day" to visit (actually our Stephen Ministers visit on the weekends), but these were two people that I cared about, I had missed connecting with them all week, and sensed that next week might be more of the same. On Saturdays there is relatively little traffic in Charlotte, and the hospital parking lot was fairly empty. It turned out to be a good day to visit Neal and Robert. I was somewhat amazed that Robert watches a dvd of the weekly sermon, which is taken to him by a lay member of our parish.


Then I drove home, ate lunch and watched ACC basketball. UNC lost, Duke won, some kind of "great reversal" of last weekend's game. I love the ACC tournament, and am generally happy for teams that get less acclaim (like FSU, in this case) to progress through the weekend. The last day is almost like the last few miles of a marathon: these teams have been playing all weekend, most of the games have been decided in the final seconds, and it is all about endurance. Then a breather, then March Madness, which is its own kind of fun.


Then out to celebrate with two friends who have been married fifty years. Too much food and drink, lots of laughter, years of relationships, seeing their grandchildren grow up to now be in college and high was well done, and a reminder that a busy week can quickly become, before you know it, a busy life, a week becomes a year and a year becomes ten years and ten becomes fifty. The couple had achieved objectives professionally, working in three countries, traveling a great deal, always magnetically drawn back to Charlotte and yet there were threads that tied it all together---a gourmet dinner group, a golfing group, a sunday school class. It was all quite moving.


A side conversation at this dinner with a friend who manages a very nice restaurant in Charlotte: could he give me some gift certificates to pass along to persons in our congregation or community who are having a difficult time, gift certificates that would cover the cost of a meal. This was a reminder to me that ordinary Christians are making the connection between the economic crisis we are living through and their own gifts and resources.


Tomorrow should be a great day: Holy Communion at the first service, new members at both services, an update on our strategic plan, a meeting of our worship and music leaders, and a community lunch for anyone who wishes to join us, no cost, donations welcome.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

"a sublime madness in the soul"

"In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men [and women] who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with the malignant power and "spiritual wickedness in high places." The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done."

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932. p. 277.

For reflection: Given that Niebuhr wrote in the Great Depression, what lessons can we continue to learn from his economic and social thought? What illusions are we abandoning? What are the new illusions that are needed? What resources might lead us to a "sublime madness in the soul"? Where do you locate the spiritual wickedness in high places? And how is rationality, at times, the enemy of hope?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

reinhold niebuhr on moral man and immoral society

"So civilization has become a device for delegating the vices of individuals to larger and larger communities. The device gives men [and women] the illusion that they are moral; but the illusion is not lasting." (p. 49)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

paul farmer and south meck high school

This picture brings together two amazing dimensions of my life's journey thus far. Pictured is Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, subject of Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains", and physician to the poor in Haiti. I served on a panel discussion with him at Wofford College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

He is wearing a South Mecklenburg High School sweatshirt. He spoke there yesterday. South Meck, of which our younger daughter is a graduate, is a racially and economically diverse school that is not blessed with some of the resources of other high schools (public and private) in our area.

So I was thrilled to see this picture today. Welcome to South Meck, Dr. Farmer!
  • ECHO_01

    Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer is welcomed to South Mecklenburg High School with a standing ovation Tuesday. The Echo Foundation sponsored his visit as part of its Voices Against Indifference initiative. JOHN D. SIMMONS –

  • ECHO_03

a rant about the rant

Listening in on a couple of the recent rants from CNBC, among others, has brought me to a clarity about our present economic dilemma. The CNBC guys are essentially saying "feed the markets", "feed us". It is almost as if they are children (troubled children?) who want the attention that the busy parent (Obama) is not giving them. The less attention they receive, the more they misbehave. Perhaps they know that there is a finite amount of money, and they want to be at the front of the line (in the past we have called this a bailout). They are supposedly anti-government, and yet their appeal is clearly with an outstretched hand toward big government.

The parent insists that he is all about change. He wants to help people with education, health, and work (the future of green jobs, in a world of diminishing energy resources). Yet it is true that the parent is surrounded, within the inner circle, by individuals who pay close attention to the rant, having profited themselves from the trough of the market on the way to the inner circle. The parent insists that he is going to give the money to education, health and the environment first. The market rants grow louder, questioning the wisdom of the parent, and the child becomes more and more disturbed. The child cries out, "trust us with the money, feed us, and it will trickle down to schools, health and jobs." Perhaps the parent knows that change is never easy, and the rant is simply the vocal resistance to change. Perhaps if the parent feeds schools, health and the environment, new markets will be created, and old, irrelevant and corrupt markets will pass away. But not without a fight.

Monday, March 02, 2009

a faith that stretches us (mark 1. 40-45)

From the beginning, stories circulated about Jesus, healing stories, stories about how lives were changed, even transformed. This morning we will look at one of these Jesus stories, a very brief story, it is only a few sentences. A leper comes to Jesus. Leprosy was a physical condition having to do with the breakdown of a person’s skin. Lepers were profoundly sick people and were required to be quarantined. But the isolation went deeper than simply keeping distance from others. Listen to these words from the book of Leviticus:

"The person who has a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes. And let the hair of his head be disheveled. He shall cover his upper lip and call out “unclean, unclean”. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is the unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp." (13. 45-46)

Lepers were outcasts. Think for a moment about the outcasts who live just beyond our range of vision, who dwell, as the Old Testament says it, “outside the camp”. Who are they? Well, a leper comes to Jesus. The leper kneels, a gesture of humility. Already, the outcast sees something in Jesus. Through the language of his body he is acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Through his words we sense this as well, there is a trust and a confidence: “If you will, you can make me clean”.

We can pause for a moment and consider those who are outsiders, and recognize that something spiritually is going on in their lives. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, called this “prevenient grace”, the grace that is present before we respond, prior to our acceptance of it, a grace that is present, to some degree, in every person. The writer of Leviticus could only see the outsider as unclean. In the Jesus story, something else is emerging.

Instinctively, we know this to be true. Our lives often intersect with outsiders: that family member who never attends church, except perhaps on Christmas Eve and at Easter; those who are in prison; the homeless; those with a mental illness, like depression, or those who struggle with addictions. We could name others who challenge our conventions, who in some way choose to live as outside the mainstream. And here the scripture is in conflict with itself and there is a tension. It is a tension in which we all live. We call them unclean, they sometimes claim themselves to be unclean, and yet, they know somehow that to be in the presence of Jesus is all about change, even transformation. “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Now read the scripture closely. The leper comes into his presence, and “Jesus is moved with pity”. The original greek language of the New Testament is better expressed as “compassion”, and some versions even say that “Jesus is moved with anger”, and each translation is correct.

The King James Version of the Bible says of Jesus, that “his bowels were moved with compassion”. In the Western World we sometimes imagine that we think with our heads and feel with our hearts, but in the Jewish worldview we respond, intellectually and emotionally, in a wholistic way, and it comes from deep within the gut. Have you ever been affected by something that literally tied your stomach up in knots, or maybe you literally, and I don’t want to get too gross here, you literally had to expel what was inside you, you were compelled to “throw up”? This is the mixture of compassion, a deep identification with the one who suffers, and anger, a strong reaction to the injustice of the situation. Call it a kind of holy discontent.

I once lived in a rural community that did not have the kind of services that a community like Charlotte has, services for us and services for those who live on the margins. These services simply did not exist. One day an elderly grandmother was keeping her grandchildren and a couple of other children---there was no childcare in this community. In the afternoon she feel asleep, and one of the small boys walked down to the pond and drowned. The trauma of this loss and the guilt felt by the grandmother led to an outpouring of compassion for them, and then anger about the situation, and a holy discontent surfaced about the absence of a safe place for children. All of this subsequently led to several of the churches getting together with the county and beginning a child development center.

A holy discontent can stretch us beyond the status quo, from what is to what might be. Jesus felt pity, compassion, anger for this obviously sick person. He was once asked why he spent so much time with the outcasts and his response was simple: The physician goes to the sick, and not to those who are already well. I must say, as an aside, that Providence is filled with very gifted medical professionals, and I never read a passage in the gospels about healing with thinking of them, physicians, nurses, therapists, and other professionals who are daily in the presence of pain, suffering and trauma, and who are healers.

Well, Jesus is deeply moved to be in the presence of the leper, the leper who is moving toward him. Watch his response: He stretches out his hand, and touches him. When the first stories were being passed around about Jesus, one of the most striking recurrences was this simple fact: He touched those who were untouchable. He loved those who were unlovable. He made insiders of those who were outsiders. He healed those who were sick. He washed those who were unclean. He saved those who were thought to be unworthy. He stretches out his hand. Now I want you to think about that physical action of stretching for a moment. To stretch is to reach for something that is almost outside our grasp, but not quite. To stretch is to do something that is a bit out of the ordinary. But stretching is also good for us. When we stretch, we become more flexible. When we stretch, we lengthen our muscles.

When Jesus stretches out his hand, he is expanding the reach of the love of God and the love of neighbor. The early Methodists grew, as a movement, because they were moved with compassion for outcasts, and they saw them, all people, within the reach of God’s outstretched hand. Listen to these words of Charles Wesley:

"O that the world might taste and see/ The riches of his grace
The arms of love that compass me/ Would all the world embrace
." (193, Hymnal)

“If you can”, the Leper says, “you can make me clean”.
Jesus stretches out his hand and says, “I will; be clean”.

Immediately the leprosy leaves him, and he is made clean. The holy discontent leads to action, the compassion leads to healing. But the story does not end there. Jesus says, to the man who is healed, go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering. This was about the simple reality that the man needed to be restored to the community, and the community needed to be restored to the man.

Why would Jesus have injected this request to go and see the priest? This seems quaint to us, something that would never happen in our culture, “you’ve been separated or sick or in a bad place and there is a transformation and someone says to you, go see Bill or Tara or Ken or Teresa, and get them to give you a piece of paper that certifies that you’re kosher now?”

It would not quite happen that way, now. We have now a great understanding of the concept of the priesthood of all believers. And so when a person has been an outcast, when that person meets Jesus, and there is a change, a couple of things need to happen. The person who meets Jesus needs to become a part of his body, the church. There is no personal salvation outside of the church. And the church needs to welcome the outsider just as Jesus did, seeing not the differences, not the uncleanness, not the sin, but seeing the grace that is somehow mysteriously at work in this person’s life. This is radical hospitality.

And so, we have this brief two thousand year old story about Jesus healing a leper. What can it possibly mean for us? It might move us to the awareness that we are all outsiders to the grace of God, that we all come to Jesus as the leper comes, we kneel in humility, we have trust and confidence in his power to change us, even to transform us, and we put ourselves in a place to be healed. This is as basic as it gets, and the more sophisticated we become, the more clearly we need to remember this.

The story might also help us to recognize that we are, somehow mysteriously, the body of Christ. And this has a practical meaning for us. We are being called to stretch. At the conclusion of services when we have Holy Communion, we do something that is very important. We touch each other. And I will say something like,”Holy Communion brings us closer to God and closer to each other.” Some people did not like doing this, at first. We all have our personal preferences, I know that. But for me it has a very profound meaning. Holy Communion is not just about who we are in relation to Jesus. Holy Communion is about who we are in relation to Jesus and to his body, the church, and to the outsider. Jesus fed not only the disciples, but the multitudes.

We are touched by the grace of God, and we touch each other. Jesus stretches out his hand, to touch us, and we stretch out our hands, the body of Christ stretches out its hands to touch the world: and when we do this, there is transformation. Think of the Joy Class or Disciple in prison. Think of the Emergency Winter Shelter or the Haiti Mission. Think of the Hope Center in Latvia or a visit to a member of our church with Alzheimers or a couple with a brand new baby. A healthy body stretches. And when the church is the body of Christ it stretches, and is always being stretched!

Jesus lived a long time ago, but Jesus is not dead. He is alive today, he is stretching out his hand, to you and to me. And if he has gotten inside of us, into our not only our minds and our hearts but also into our guts, if the result is some mixture of compassion and anger, holy discontent with the world as it is and hope for the world as it might be, then his hand continues to stretch out. And how can that be? How are you going to stretch this week? I think you can figure that out. If you read this story, and think about your world, the world that you live in every day, it will become clear. You are the best person to figure out how you are being stretched. This is your spiritual exercise for the week. I want you to stretch. You can do it!

St. Teresa of Avila was a mystic who lived in the 16th century. She wrote a few words that are wonderful, and if we take them seriously, a little scary. But they are truthful. “Christ has no body on earth but yours.No hands but yours, no feet but yours.Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out into the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”

Let us pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us, in your spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you. Amen." (Book of Common Prayer)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

in the cold and snow of winter

Actually, at the moment it is just very cold and wet. I spent some of Friday and all of Saturday at Lake Junaluska, which is just west of Asheville. We have a small cabin there, and generally do not get to it from about middle October until about this time. A part of my yearly ritual is speaking to our confirmation class at this retreat at Junaluska, so it works out great. I can go the night before, check to make sure nothing has bursted or flooded, rest a little, get a change of scenery, take advantage of the fact that our place there has no cable or internet, and slow down a little. Without the external stimuli, I spent the time listening to NPR and reading, especially two very strong articles in The Atlantic, one on Rowan Williams' leadership through the crisis of the Anglican Communion, the second by Richard Florida on the economic collapse and how it will change American geography.

I am making my way through Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (MMIS). I chose this in part based on a Speaking of Faith conversation between David Brooks and E.J. Dionne on Niebuhr, in part due to his prominence as a theologian of influence on Barack Obama. I also had a class on "Christianity and The State" in Divinity School and read virtually all of Reinhold Niebuhr's works; I remember finding them to be profound and then promptly heading in a different direction in later classes. I wish I had integrated his thought, especially his realism, into my understandings of personal and social holiness. I am also drawn to MMIS because of its context; published in 1932, it was Niebuhr's reflection on the economic experience that had shaped his Detroit pastorate, and the larger society. There are gems all along the way in MMIS.

At any rate, I walked around the lake a couple of times (2.5 miles), ate at a couple of restaurants that are favorites (Clydes and Duvalls), visited with a friend whose husband was my senior pastor just out of divinity school, and finished the Sunday sermon. Then I met with the confirmands, which was a blast. I talked about salvation, sin and grace, they asked lots of questions, we ate lasagna, and then we worshipped. Then a member of the church and I drove back to Charlotte, a 2 and 3/4 hour trip through the rain and fog, but blessedly uneventful. We returned at about 11:00 p.m. I dropped Tom off at the church---he was a leader in our "day of service" today, and I headed home, in time to sleep a few hours and arise for today's services.