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.

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Mr. Santa Chase

Nevertheless, those who receive instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow. Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Galatians 6: 6-10 (TNIV)

I was seven years old when Santa Claus appeared on my doorstep-long white beard, skinnier than I imagined and dressed in ‘normal clothes’ (perhaps he was going incognito for Christmas morning). But there he was! Carrying a package just for me!

My parents were delighted and looked relieved, and I was overjoyed to receive a handmade SASHA doll that Christmas! What a joyful day!

Charles Chase, aka SantaAs I grew up, I recognized Santa Claus in our small town. He worked in a shop called the Folk Music Center and was known-in his Claremont, California home as Mr. Chase. Mr. Chase (my Santa) made appearances throughout the year at the shop that sold those special dolls, along with guitars, ukuleles, banjos and drums, music from all over the world and the most fascinating coloring books I’d ever seen. The Folk Music Center, I imagined, was the southern California outpost of Santa’s Workshop, specializing in all-things-hippy.

Later in my life I heard the story from my parents’ perspective. As they were doing their Christmas shopping at the Southern California outpost of the Santa’s Workshop. they mistakenly picked up the display model container without the doll inside. They did not realize the container was empty until Christmas Eve when they were wrapping up the gifts for the grand unveiling on Christmas morning. Panicked, they phoned Santa at his home late Christmas Eve and asked him for some help. Instead of a cranky daughter who would open an empty package on Christmas morn, they woke to a delighted and amazed little girl who’d been privileged to a personal visit from Santa himself.

Mr. Chase, in his decision to help out a frazzled and panicked set of young parents, is the embodiment of Paul’s words in Galatians 6: 9-10:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

If we sow the seeds of love, joy, peace and hope in the busy holiday season, we will reap the harvest of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Conversely, if we sow the seeds of anxiety, distraction, stress and dysfunction, we will reap the harvest born of those negative things.

In our franticness and stress have we given up trying to do good? When does our activity become a spiritual detriment? How can we be the embodiment of the good news for others this season?

***

Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens is a native of Southern California, where she began her work experience as an artist. She achieved her Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Art from Scripps College in 1994. Her call from God occurred rather suddenly in 1998 and God provided a path to attend seminary. Krista is a proud graduate of the Claremont School of Theology achieving her Masters of Divinity in 2001 and her Doctor of Ministry degree in 2007. Her doctoral thesis was centered in Ethics and pertains to the disciplinary rule for single pastors to be celibate and is titled: A Choice for Whole Love: Single and Celibate in the United Methodist Church. Krista’s previous appointments include an Associate Pastor position to the congregation of Kailua United Methodist Church in Kailua, Hawaii and a Senior Pastor position to the congregation of Westchester United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. She was ordained as an Elder in the California-Pacific Annual Conference in 2005 and has been the pastor at Hamburg’s International United Methodist Church since 2007.

Good Grief: Memorial Day 2010-2011

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember those we have lost to war and those we have lost whom we love. I thought I would post a sermon in acknowledgment of the day. The following sermon “Good Grief” was preached at the Community Congregational Church of Pacific Beach on May 30, 2010. This particular sermon provided a context to speak to my congregation about our collective grief. I find it highly relevant a year later, so I am posting it here. For all those we have loved and lost…we remember on Memorial Day.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

Good Grief

Lamentations 3: 19-30    John 11:1-20, 30-37

On May 5, 1868 General John A Logan, as the commander-in-chief of a veterans organization issued a proclamation that Decoration Day should be observed nation-wide.(1) Decoration Day is very traditional throughout parts of America. So traditional in fact that we don’t know when or where it started. It seems to have just appeared in multiple communities, perhaps as a corporate response to death. What we do know is that Decoration Day came to be celebrated throughout America around the end of the Civil War. It was a time, historically, during which the gruesomeness and numbers of human deaths not only seemed unparalleled in American history, but devastated communities because the war was so divisive. As General Logan sought to make Decoration Day a national event, May 30th was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary date of a battle.(2)

Decoration Day has played an important role in American communities. As early as the 1880’s Decoration Day was also called Memorial Day in the South. This name change to Memorial Day in the South may have been a political one to accommodate people who also mourned Confederate soldiers.(3) So Decoration Day became “Memorial Day.” But I feel compelled to point out to you that to this day in the South, Memorial Day, in addition to being a day to honor those who died in the Civil War and World Wars is still held as a day set aside to remember and honor all those loved ones that the community has lost from its corporate life.

Some of you know that my father’s family is in the South. I can tell you that in rural Alabama, Memorial Day—and indeed the remembrance of loved ones who have died—is a bit different from it is here in urban California. Here we have large cemeteries in different regions of the city and often you have to go out of your way to get there. There, cemeteries are scattered everywhere throughout the community, and often they have no walls or fence— just acreage you pass daily on the sides of the roads.

As is common in that rural area, my own father is buried in the churchyard of the church closest to the family land. Many people visit the graves of loved ones daily or weekly. This is part of the Southern culture and expected of those who mourn. But even after mourning, there is a cultural expectation of remembrance.

My step-mother in Alabama makes silk floral arrangements and she will tell you that most of her business is done between April and May each year preparing floral arrangements that will decorate the tombstones of loved ones on the local celebration of Decoration Day and when flags are added to the graves to recognize Memorial Day. And yes, in parts of the South some people plan these arrangements out months in advance. To neglect to decorate the graves of your loved ones this time of year it is a serious cultural taboo akin to forgetting Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some ways all this effort of decoration seems strange. But in some ways, being adopted into my step mother’s culture, it makes sense and seems almost comforting to have a communal event remembering and honoring individual losses and creating public space for the needs of those who grieve.

If this still seems foreign to you, I can liken the rituals of Decoration Day only to the cultural and religious festival of Dia De Los Muertos—Day of the Dead—that we in southern California may witness at the beginning of each November. Indeed, in some lore about origins Decoration Day there is a mention of a woman who wrote that decorating the graves with flowers should be held as a “religious custom of the South.” (4)

Mourning and grieving is not something we often talk about. Because we avoid it, some even say that observation of Memorial Day should be returned to May 30th rather than observed as a three-day weekend that serves more as the opening of summer than the national day of mourning and remembrance it was intended to be. We must admit that with all the commercial sales and BBQ’s and our beautiful beaches mourning and reflection is not something that we really want to do—not with summer coming! Indeed there are many reasons to be distracted from the reality of death.

Our text this morning, however, is one that speaks of the realities of death and is one that clearly shows us a religious custom of grieving. The eleventh chapter of John and its account of mourning leading up to the raising of Lazarus is a text packed with theological implications. There is the question of why Jesus waited two days rather than going to Lazarus immediately and why this seemed so offensive to Mary and Martha. There is the conversation between Jesus and Mary about who and what resurrection is—and its underlying debate about the existence of an afterlife that persists in the Jewish faith. There is the implication that discipleship means following Jesus even when the journey is potentially to one’s own death and then there is the whole issue of Jesus having control over life and death in what comes next in the gospel—the raising of Lazarus, which in the Gospel of John will be the last straw that leads the temple authorities to arrest Jesus.

However, it is the scene of mourning that is of particular interest. Not only are the sisters and family of Lazarus mourning, but community members and friends of the family have also gathered to mourn Lazarus. The Gospel of John is clear that Lazarus and his sisters were friends of Jesus. For Jesus is not sent message that Lazarus, but that he who you love is sick. Jesus is part of the community of friends and family who join in the mourning. It was part of the religious and social customs of the time not only for others to join in the mourning, but for this gathering to continue for a week. Jesus arrives on the fourth day (of mourning). And in one of the most profound moments of the narratives we have of Jesus’s life we are told that “Jesus wept.” (verse 35)

He simply wept for his friend Lazarus. And the grief of Lazarus’s sisters.

Before the gospel account gets on with its important points of drawing parallels between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Christ or illustrating that Jesus has power over death or even suggesting that God is about to do a new thing, never seen by humanity, it proclaims that even the Son of God pauses to mourn and to grieve.

It is a gospel lesson that we may do well to relearn in this twenty-first century. Too often in our fast paced world the once-natural processes of life and death are rushed so production is not slowed and we don’t fall too far behind.

In some cultures it is normal to have an extended period of mourning when a loved one dies. But too often in our American culture, we get three days’ bereavement leave. According to tradition not only would Lazarus’ sisters have a week of mourning after the funeral but another month of lesser mourning and, depending on the relationship one has with the person who died, the period of mourning may last up to a year. To us this period of mourning may seem a luxury, but it may be necessary.

Before the Civil War, death was a common part of life. In the period following the Civil War, when Decoration Days were first established, the numbers of deaths society had to adjust to because of the war was uncommon and so required a new approach to corporate mourning.

As I read around and reflected on the grief in our text this morning, it was interesting to note that while pastoral care, psychology, and even biblical scholars agree that death is a separation of relationship that has to be experienced and in time readjusted to, that all these disciplines also make note of the fact that the sheer number of deaths in the World War I and World War II forever changed how we culturally approach the reality of death by making burials more industrial and less personal. Following the thousands of tragic deaths on 9/11 and the wars that have followed, some (scholars) seem to question how we might cope with all our losses. (5)

How we might ever cope with our grief is a good question. It seems clear that we can’t avoid mourning. It seems clear that a short bereavement will not fill our needs. The Gospel of John shows the human and divine Jesus pausing to mourn. Generations before us have set time aside for us to grieve and remember those who have died. Many religious traditions, including our own Christian seasons of Lent and Good Friday, require periods of mourning. Still, culturally we avoid mourning and deny death.

Lamentations is one of the few books permissible for Jewish mourners to read. It is a book that chronicles the complaints and grief of the people following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Here we find an ancient doxology detailing God’s faithfulness, speaking from a time and place that seemed to its author the end of the world. It’s not just about faith, but there is something more in it. The word “hope” it uses (in verse 21) also means “expectation” indicating that even in the most dire of times we can expect God’s faithfulness. (6) Perhaps this was the source of the expectation Mary and Martha had of Jesus to come to Lazarus. Our modern expectation is not necessarily that God will fix all things to our liking but an expectation that God will come and be there in depth of our despair.

We never know when God may do a new thing. But we know God is present with us in our joy and in our sorrow. There is a wisdom we have been given which we may want to recall this Memorial Day, as we remember our personal losses, and as we mark the death of 1000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is this:

There is a time for everything…
a time to be born, and a time to die…
a time to weep, and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn, and time to dance…
a time for war, and a time for peace.

—Eccs 3:1, 2a, 4, and 8b

*** Endnotes

  1. “Memorial day” [on-line] at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_day accessed On May 29, 2010.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. “Confederate Memorial Day” [on-line] available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_Memorial_Day accessed May 29, 2011.
  5. Gene Fowler, Caring Through the Funeral: A Pastor’s Guide, (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2004)
  6. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.6. (Nashville:broadman, 1971) 216.

Late Night Chaplain Thoughts

in the gardenAlzheimer’s is a terrible disease. I often hear patients’ families explain it as losing their loved ones “over and over.” Along with strange and embarrassing behaviors there is the pain of the patient not remembering who you are. Often mother does not recognize daughter nor husband recognize wife. It’s an awful pain to see that someone with whom you have shared memories and your life and yet they can not recall your name.

I watched similar experiences happen to my grandmothers, although neither suffered with Alzheimer’s. My mother’s mother was a proud woman always concerned with me “acting like a lady.” I think I must have heard that gentle reminder (not so gently) enough times to equal the hairs on my head. (How does a lady act anyways? I digress. ) Watching her decline was something I did not really understand until I began working hospice. I still don’t think I fully understand it now. I remember thinking each time I saw her, and that was often enough, feeling as if I was seeing less of her or at least the real her. On the other hand,  you might say my dad’s mother was the ‘rebel’ of the family: the opinionated Democrat living amongst right-winged Republicans. This makes me laugh now. I remember her vitality shooting pool with her in the basement and catching lightning bugs in the backyard. As different as they were watching them slowly change was a terrible thing I can remember not wanting to be around them at all, because they were not the same people. I have to force myself to recall some of these memories and feelings as I think I have forgotten most of them on purpose. Not too long ago I was sitting with two friends enjoying a glass of wine and making homemade cookies when one asked me how much of my family history fuels my desire to work hospice; a job where impending death and debilitating illness is an every day occurrence. This is a question I am still considering.

Getting back to my original concept, Alzheimer’s is terrible and yet I find it fascinating. I am often amazed at what memories are remembered and which ones are forgotten. I know the clinical jargon short term verses long term memory, but for me as a chaplain I am more interested in what is imprinted in someone’s soul. What was encouraged? What was important? What changed them? Today I had a routine visit with an Alzheimer’s patient even in the midst of her paranoia and sundowners all I had to say or sing was “I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses…” —and sure enough there she was joining me in the chorus. Listening to her voice, old and frail and completely off pitch, but there it was, the words perfectly remembered. After our duet was finished she took my hand and said “it was there sleeping and you woke it up.” During my moment of complete silence due to me simply not having the words to respond she stroked her grey hair and said “you know in the garden there is no confusion and total healing.”