Maundy Thursday: Who Do You Say That I Am?

Genesis 12 ; Gospel of John 13, 18

I miss read the lectionary for today. I went to Genesis rather than Exodus. But that is when I realized something I had never thought of before.

It occurs to me that Sarai, the wife of the patriarch Abram, has something in common with Jesus. Both had their identities betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.

Earlier in this Lenten season we found ourselves confronted by the call of God to Abram to leave Ur, when we follow that narrative to Genesis 12 we find Abram and Sarai called again to leave for a new land. This time they are traveling from Haran into Egypt. Verses 10-20 are often left out of the lectionary which stops at verse 14. It’s almost as if the lectionary is trying to avoid the issue of true identity as it is fully raised in the text. You see, in the narrative Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. Thus, Sarai briefly becomes one of the wives of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh discovers this he returns Sarai to Abram and sends them on their way richer than when they arrived. So the patriarch seems to pimp his wife for wealth and power. Why would the lectionary avoid that!?

We don’t hear Sarai’s thoughts on these events. We can imagine what a wife might say to a spouse who asked her to pretend to be a sibling rather than a spouse~I’ll share my popcorn we can watch the show. But that is not in the text. What is in the text is that Sarai’s husband had to the power to change her identity, to say who she was. Furthermore we see that the redefinition of Sarai’s identity leads her to yet another whole identity completely.

It is Maundy Thursday, one of my favorite days of the Christian year. (Should I offer a prize for the reader who can guess my other favorite?) Jesus has gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover feast, to wash their feet, to proclaim that his body and life are given for them (and us), and to proclaim his coming betrayal. The text tells us that it is as Jesus does these things that the decision is made in Judas’ heart to betray the Master. Jesus even tells Judas to go and do what must be done. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, one of Jesus’ trusted friends is the one who betrays him. It is Judas who must decide who he thinks Jesus is, and then Judas based on that decision will collude with the powers that be. It is Judas who will signal Jesus’ identity with a kiss in the garden.

In both these texts the issue of personal identity are the key issues. In both of these texts someone else decides whom the other is and takes action that will radically alter the both the life of the other, the life of the decider, and the unfolding of history.

As a woman with disabilities, many of which are hidden, I know what it is like to have others decide who I am. I know what it is like to be “in the closet”, having relationships in which there is little knowledge of my disability, and the anger others show when I come out of that closet and let my full identity be known. I know what it is to be vulnerable with others to let them know the depths of my experience and have to trust that they will know with whom and when to share that knowledge. I know what it is like to feel that trust betrayed. To watch at the annual school-house parent night as your parent outs you sharing with the teachers about your disabilities in front of classmates and other teachers. I know what it is like in the workplace when co-workers sense there is something different about you, but not knowing what it is decide they will name it–and I know what it is like when others redefine your identity so far from your known truth that it disrupts and utterly re-routes your own sense of self. With disability it is not so much identity politics as it is identity of individuality/self that is intertwined with experience of living in a body so different from the norm that with world around you is rife with barriers that disable. Life with disability is asking each individual you encounter, in some way–who do you say that I am?

Loving God, You who know me better than I know myself. You who created me to be fearlessly and wonderfully made. Help me to know myself, to share myself, and delight in the friends I break bread with. Empower me to raise my face even when others define me in ways that threaten my identity or life. Grant me Your strength and love, to always know myself, and to do Your will. Amen.

Lent Six: In the Crowd

Reflection on Matthew 21.

This year as I hear the Palm Sunday texts, I find myself wondering about the people who were there welcoming Jesus. Who were they and what were they thinking? There were likely a variety of people there as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Many had gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. The city was full.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, as the people prepared for the major religious festival of the year, it has been said that something else was going on as well. The Roman Governor was entering the city from the other gate (Rev. Jerry Lawritson, New Testament Scholar/preacher). If this is so, it tells us a lot about the people who laid palms at Jesus’ feet and sang Hosannas.  The people who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were the people of little to no social standing, who would not be missed at an official welcome of the governor.

I wonder who the people who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palm and song thought Jesus was. Did they think he was the Messiah come to meet the Roman occupier/governor? Did they think him a spiritual leader come to the temple for the holy days? It hardly matters for whichever of these the people believed,  the end result is that they recognized that a change had come, the world was about to shift. And they were brave enough to proclaim it.

The people who welcomed Jesus were a people who hoped. Who believed that occupation and oppression could not last forever and were brave enough to say so. They were people who believed that God would respond even to those whom the world did not respond to.

This holy week I think of the people who may not always be missed at the major social functions. I think of the people who live on hope. I think of the people who risk all they have to proclaim that another way is possible. I marvel at their faith.

 

 

Living Does Not Lead To Death–Lent Week Five

John 11: 1-45

The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.

I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…”  They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always  bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges  humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.

John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.

That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.

I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

John 9

Preached at New Hope UCC, Deland,FL on January 19, 2014

 

I want to start by thanking you, and your pastor, for inviting me to speak today. I recently meet your Associate Conference Minister, Sara Lund. When she learned I would be in your Conference, she asked if I would willing to preach and speak about UCC Disabilities Ministries, the UCC Mental Health Network,and the UCC’s  commitment to be “Accessible to All” or A2A. I told her that I would.

I bring you greetings this morning from the UCC Disabilities Ministries Board. I also come to you as a person born with mild cerebral palsy, which mostly manifests as a mild speech impediment; as a person who has acquired disabilities; as a person who has been a caregiver for people with disability; as one who has been a support system for persons with mental health concerns. And I come to you as an ordained minister, a hospice chaplain, an activist, a scholar, and yes, there is yet more they I could say. I share these aspects of myself not to toot my own horn, not only to give you some introduction of who I am but also to show you that no one person can be described in any one way.

When it comes to our text for this morning the notion that people are very complex and have many attributes to share with the world is something we want to keep in mind. Our scripture this morning is a very complex text. It was traditionally a text used to teach about Baptism in the early church (1). But what kind of text is it? Is it a healing story? Is it a miracle? Is it about a sinner being being saved? Is it about blindness? I think those are all good questions. However, I do not think those are questions I will strive to answer today. Instead I would like to talk with you about who the people in this text are. The man born blind, the Pharisees, and Jesus. All of these persons are complex, just as we are.

Let us start with the man born blind. We know more about him than we do about most of the people whom Jesus encounters in the gospels. We know he was born blind.

We know that he was at least of an age to be considered an adult. We know both his parents were alive—they too appear in the text. We know that he begged for a living.

We know that he was known to the community even though he was excluded from the community because he lived with blindness, thus his need to beg. And we also know that through this encounter with Jesus this man had a spiritual conversion and came to understand who Jesus was.

But there are also some important things that we do not know. We do not know if he had ever heard of Jesus before this event. We do not know if he wanted to be sighted–This is one of the few instances in which Jesus heals a person without first asking permission, or being asked, to do so–and we do not really know what happened to this man after he became sighted.

For many people with disabilities, the things we do not know about this man are very important to think about. In the UCC we talk about churches becoming “Accessible to All” and while this means that we want our worship spaces to physically accessible, it also means that we want our church congregations—our people to be accessible, and welcoming to people with disabilities as well. In this sense A2A is as much about the understanding and hospitality with which we greet one another as it is about our buildings.

One of the mottos of the disability rights movement which you will hear in the UCC is “nothing about us without us”. This means people with disability want to be consulted about the things that affect them. So we wonder how did the man born blind feel about becoming sighted? He was not consulted before hand. We do not know how it changed his daily life,the text does not tell us that we only know how it changed his spiritual life for he proclaimed Jesus a prophet to the council of Pharisees. Which was a very bold thing for someone of his social standing to do. Some say his response to the Pharisees shows his wit and intelligence traits he had that were not related to his disability or that he developed as survival mechanisms living with blindness. (2) Perhaps one of the most important things this text tells us about the man born blind is that it was his encounter with the person of Jesus, and not his physical healing that led to his conversion and understanding of who Jesus was.

It is through the man born blind’s discussion with the Pharisees that his understanding of who Jesus is made clear. So who are these Pharisees? The Pharisees in the text are the religious authorities who are expected to uphold the laws and traditional customs. They question not only the man who had been born blind, but his parents.

It seems strange to us that after talking with the man himself the Pharisees call for his parents but it may be according to social custom. There are many places around the world where to this day people with visual impairments are not qualified to be legal witnesses because they are blind and it is assumed they cannot identify the perpetrators of crimes against them (3). This may play a role in why, globally, women and girls with visual impairments are statistically the most likely to become victims of sexual violence. (4)

Certainly this group of Pharisees is behaving as a legal board, for they call the man born blind back a second time. This is when the story turns sour—at least as I read it.

After the Pharisees question the man and his parents, this time they start with an imperative command “Give Glory to God!” It is a statement which puts a knot in my stomach not because the man is being asked to Glorify God, but because it sounds like a self-righteous command. It was the role of the Pharisees to see that all things glorified God, but the text bothers me because there is no dialogue here. In the text, it is a council of authority ordering around a person whom the community considered to have no legal standing, because he was blind, to do something.

This interaction of the man and the council of Pharisees reminds me of a youth in San Diego who maintains a blog and documents each time someone comes up to him in public lays hands on him, prays, and demands that he stand to walk. (Most people don’t realize this still happens, it does.) Not only when the Pharisees issue this command but when they go on to suggest that the man born blind was born in sin we should feel uncomfortable. For this is a clear example of bullying a person because of their disability and the text tells us it done by the religious structure itself.

To often we sit in church, we read parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and we think, thank goodness we don’t do that in our church. The problem is we do. Well meaning church going people too often find themselves bullying others especially people with disabilities. One Sunday, when I was still using a cane and preaching at my home church one of the trustees, who I’d know for years, came up to me and said “stop using that cane, you don’t need it”. He did not know the specifics of my medical needs. He was a bully.

Last summer I was on the delegate floor at the UCC Synod. One of the resolutions we were to vote on at Synod was becoming an anti-bullying church one of the other delegates who knew I was representing UCCDM at synod said to me “you don’t really have a disability, but its nice that you speak up for those who do.” I told him I did have a disability his reply was “no you don’t”. So we had to have short tense conversation. I told him he was a bully.

It did not feel good to me to have that conversation at church. But it reminded me that even in our churches we are not as aware of the hidden disabilities of our church members as we should be. When you know the small needs of another you are truly in community.

There is another person in this text—its Jesus. It seems to me that in this text we see one of the stranger things Jesus does, it is a Sabbath day when no work is to be done, Jesus walks up to blind man and puts mud on his face and tell him to go wash in the pool known in Hebrew as “sent” (5). We understand why the early church may have used this text to talk about baptism.

But then Jesus disappears for much of this text. It is not until after the man born blind has been questioned and driven out of the  community that Jesus reappears. And what Jesus does is sit with the man who had been born blind Jesus welcomes the man and sits in community with him to tell him about the Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus soothes the stings of exclusion. Jesus’ words about the those who see becoming blind seems to be an admonition to not be so self assured, to not be so self-righteous that one becomes exclusionary.

It is Jesus in this text who shows us the way to be church, the way to be loving and community minded. It is Jesus who is not only welcoming but seeks out those excluded because they may have a history of disability, or any other reason. It is Jesus who reassures the man that he too has a place in the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus has come into the world to assure him of this.

It is Jesus my friends who calls us to radical hospitality and radical welcome. It is Jesus who sends us all in search of new vision. It is Jesus who comes to be with us when we feel we have been driven out for following proclaiming his work in our lives.

So my, friends, it is because of Jesus’s work in our own lives that UCCDM seeks to encourage all settings of the UCC to be “accessible to all”, to include people with disability and mental health issues, not only in our building but in our fellowship and leadership. It is because of Jesus that I ask you to join in this work to open the way to full inclusion in your local church for the local church is the heart of the church. This where inclusion welcome matters most.

So thank you for including me today, thank you for thinking about your building, and thank you for considering all aspects of accessibility (A2A) and joining in this journey to inclusion with us.

####

Endnotes:

(1) Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. (Abington: Nashville, 1996.) 76.

(2) Ibid, 72.

(3) Ibid, 70.

(4) Women with disabilities presentation at the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network Pre-Event, General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, October 29, 2013.

(5) Black, 68.

 

Third Sunday in Lent: Busy Woman Called By God, Again.

 “How is it that you ask….?” John 4:9

Life is hectic. Life can be down right hard. Life is also full of the holy. Life is full of the unexpected. And occasionally the ordinary tasks of life are holy and unexpected, for it is the midst of daily life that God finds us.

In the narrative that we hear from the Gospel of John this week we hear the Samaritan woman asking Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me to get you a drink” (John 4:9). Yes we know the next line of the gospel almost by heart it is an explanation that Jews and Samaritans don’t speak to one another. This is confirmed later in the text when the disciples return and are flabbergasted to find Jesus not only speaking to a woman but a Samaritan woman!

I am sure that most of this has been pointed out from countless pulpits today. I, myself, however, I want to just slow the whole reading at John 4:9. I want to simply turn over and over the words “How is it that you ask me?”.

Many people, but particularly women, know what it is like to have a person come up and ask you for something. It sometimes seems that we do so much to care for so many persons. Life can lead us to think that we simply don’t have time for one more thought or one more task…and always someone will appear to ask. And then we have to reply.

As I read this text I wonder at the tone of voice the Samaritan woman used. The tone of voice of voice she used would have contributed much to the meaning of the conversation. Was she snappy? Was she annoyed? Was she exasperated? Was she using a question to tell him to buzz off? We don’t know her tone, we can only guess. It does seem she is a little amused–this man wants water from a deep well but brings no bucket.  I almost cannot help but hear her insinuating that  Jesus is simply being silly, at the very least she seems to indicates she believes he is ridiculous.

Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who saying to you…” (John 4:10). “If you knew…” ok, let’s stop the text right there. Jesus knows all the worries and pressures on this woman, as is confirmed later in the text. She is a busy woman, with many people in her life, she comes to draw water from the well which can not be simple because it is a deep well. Her life is about existing in both practical and social terms. She is a woman of ethnic identity who is looked down upon by others. She knows oppression. She knows manual labor. She has not sent a servant to fetch the water so she may very likely be poor as well. And here is Jesus interrupting her busy life, getting her attention, to tell her about the One who can provide living water.

Yes, the text is about living water and racial strife and getting to the Truth of the matter…we hear that each time it appears in the lectionary and all of that is important. But in the quiet of this text, if we stop to hear Jesus say, “if you knew….” Then we may also find God, and the Son of Man, coming to find us where we toil. Coming to interrupt our work…interrupting our gathering of basic needs to say there is more to living than toil, I, God can provide what you more deeply need. This is not to say that basic needs such as food and water and shelter are not important they are and God is concerned about these. But God is concerned with the spiritual aspects of our lives that are much deeper than our physical needs ever can be. And Jesus finds this woman at her toil to teach her this.

We know how the narrative ends. The woman is converted by her encounter with Jesus and goes out to proclaim his holiness to her village. She proclaims Jesus as a prophet, That is the ending of this narrative. We all have encounters where we feel God is with us, teaching us. When God comes to us to offer depth and meaning and we find ourselves busy with the daily tasks of life how do we respond?

Oh God who inspires all things. Grant me discernment so I may head your call and your meaning no matter what task I may be involved in, when you arrive. Grant that in my busy-ness I may hear you and seek what you have to offer in that moment. Grant me your peace and courage to respond to you, even if social taboos would have me shy away from doing so. Refresh me and send me out to my community anew.  Amen.

Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.