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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Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network, Day 1

I have spent today talking with and listening to people with and without disability who advocate for inclusion for people with disability (PWD) in their/the church context. These are people from around the US, and we will soon be joined I am told by persons from Canada. These are people who have physical disabilities and people who work with persons with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with disabilities.

We have gathered to for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) for North America. EDAN is a program of the World Council of Churches. We have been joined by Samuel Kaube and his wife for this historic meeting in Denver. Mr. Kaube is the Executive Director of the EDAN program for the WCC. Mr. has graced us with his knowledge of the work being done by PWD and their allies around the world to gain understanding and inclusion in the churches around the world–the very Body of Christ. He has shared some with us about the work that other EDAN groups have done in other areas of the world; he has shown us the books about disability theology that have been written in other areas of the world and told us of how parts of India and Asia are starting to include the area of disability awareness in theological institutions.

I love this, it is part of what I feel called to do in my life and in my ministry. But it also raises a good number of questions for me. One of the new ones of which is, why is North America so behind the rest of the world when it comes to organizing for access and inclusion within the churches? Given the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act is now over two decades old one might think that the issue of accessibility and inclusion in the American churches is an issue long since solved. WRONG. Churches and institutions owned by them are exempt from the ADA, and have long failed to meet their moral and ethical obligations to PWD. I have said it before–the churches are among the most inaccessible places in America due to both physical and attitudinal barriers (discrimination). Yes, I said there is discrimination against PWD in the American churches. If you are shocked I am glad, and I hope you will start to raise the question of why in your own church setting. PWD in the churches need allies. If you are not shocked I am probably preaching to the choir–when will we get loud?

Another question, as one of the participants here put it “where are our allies” and “why is this not seen as civil right’s issue”?

Yet another is why have we not begun to formulate a disability theology, or even theologies, pertinent to the North American context? Is there something about the religious history of America or the decisive role religion has played in American culture over the last twenty years that is preventing us from doing so? And why, Why, WHY, is it that nearly thirty years after PWD were guaranteed access to education that PWD are still not included in the greater histories of the American people, and that disability perspectives are not taught at any level in our educational system, and that  our theological educational systems not only fail to include disability as a theological lens to be explored in diversity but do not even encourage their faculty to be aware of how disability has been studied and/or addressed by every facet of theological education?

There are several people at this meeting who have been doing this work for much longer than myself. At times I feel dwarfed by their work. I have had moments when I wonder if I am too emotional, if I have been hurt too deeply by the system that disregards PWD to effect change in any meaningful way and yet, I find myself drawn to this work and I have been in invited to participate. I am looking forward to where the conversation goes and, meanwhile, I hear the poets and theologians from whose work I have learned urging me to write on…and yet I am still listening for the inspiration of the words that are to come.

Death and Advent

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
… Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

—Psalm 49: 5-11, 12

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

I must admit I am composing this devotional afresh just before it is to be posted. I had to. The mixed metaphors of this holy season have caught up with me. Advent, a season of waiting, formerly a season of penance, is full upon us today as we enter the midpoint of this season. I have been struck in reading the devotionals written for WWSIC (particularly those that follow the daily lectionary) at how the advent season is so admixed with the passages of Jesus’ death and ultimate resurrection bringing new life into the world, even life after death.

Life and death. Are these not the crux of the Advent season? In the time of year when we witness the “death” of the sun and foliage; in this time of year when Earth herself seems to go into hibernation, it is hard to not be reminded of the realities of death. I think of this both figuratively and literally.

As Psalm 49 from today’s lectionary reminds us, none of us shall live forever. Rich or poor, we are but creations of God, and no matter how wise or wealthy we may work to become, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” And yet, many of us find ourselves in a culture that wants us only to seek knowledge and wealth. Moreover, we find ourselves in a cultural season that celebrates overconsumption and greed. If we find ourselves not pondering physical death this season, we may be pondering spiritual or financial demise. And, just where in a season of joy, hope, love, and peace are we to sit with such woes? In Advent we await the birth of Christ and all that means. But this does not mean that all is “well with my soul” in the waiting. In the waiting we find the realness of life: the aches, pains, fears, and contractions that come before birth, particularly when it is unknown how the labor may go.

The season of Advent is dark. The love, hope, joy, and peace we yearn for may not yet have come. Still we wait. It is a wonder to me how and why we do this. Professionally and personally, I am keenly aware this season of how myriad emotions of the human experience—particularly loss—changes the waiting. And I’m aware how experiences of injustice and oppression make the waiting seem like it will simply go on and on, and that change to finally bring relief may never arrive.

And there it is in the lectionary this week: the presence of death in the season of Advent. It is a reminder that we do not live forever. But it also a reminder of God’s promised work in the world. In the passage of Isaiah for this week we are told that God intentionally sends one to help the “oppressed,” “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” It is a promise that even when the world seems most troubled, God is still working out a way out of no way. It is a hopeful text, telling us that God is seeking to liberate those who have been exiled for years—even generations—in a foreign land; that God is coming even for those in a culture that leads them to believe that materialism and greed is all that exists. And God is not only coming for those who mourn—for loved ones or beloved values—but God is going to provide all who mourn “a garland instead of ashes.”

What stands out to me most from this week’s Isaiah text is the promise that God has already “clothed me with the garments of salvation / covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It is a comforting promise, even as I mourn a colleague, and as I am reminded of all those whom I/we have lost this year. It is comforting to me as I think of a friend fighting for life in the ICU even as I write. It is promising to me, this promise that God is not only coming but has already provided garments and robes for me, and all people, at our meeting, the way a mother prepares for her newborn. As the darkness of the season deepens it is comforting to know God is sending someone to meet me on the way, someone who will bring good news and will make me—and all of us—welcome even in the darkness. In the end, it is a mixed metaphor of both death and birth, of waning and waxing.

I Used To Be A Murderer

Yes, that’s right: I used to be a murderer. That probably comes as a shock to most of you. I mean, this is Pastor Mary Jo, champion of non-violence and believer in the holiness of all life–Pastor Mary Jo, who doesn’t even eat meat, for crying out loud! Besides, how can someone who was a murderer stop being one? Once a murderer, always a murderer, right?

Let me tell you a story. It could be a parable or a fairy tale… but it isn’t. It really happened, but because it involves people who probably don’t want their personal business bandied all over the internet, and because the details aren’t important, I’m only going to tell you that I was convinced that someone was such a threat to my family that I designed a detailed plan to commit murder if I thought it necessary.

I knew that even contemplating murder was sinful. I knew that it would cause God sorrow, that it would tear my family apart and cause them even more hurt. I knew that I would either be killed myself or go to prison for a very long time; I was willing to pay the price–even though I knew how evil it was.

Fortunately, that “someone” disappeared from the picture and I came to my senses in pretty short order… although I can’t say for certain which came first, his departure or my repentance.

The point is I am not the same person I was when I plotted to take a human life, the life of someone who had value as a child of God and who had people who loved him every bit as passionately as I loved my family. I am not even the same person I was when I felt angry at my spouse earlier this week.

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.
(Matthew 5:21-22, RSV)

People who physically commit murder have a possibility of being rehabilitated. In the years that follow sentencing an individual may come to realize the wrongness of what they’ve done, to repent, to “find God, ” to become a better person, to grow. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. ” (1 Corinthians 13:11, RSV) When the switch is pulled or the poison injected all of that potential for positive change is destroyed.

Troy Davis may or may not have killed a police officer in 1989. Lawrence Russell Brewer was unquestionably involved in the brutal and racially motivated murder of a black man ten years later. What they have in common is that both were executed on September 21, 2011–one in Georgia, the other in Texas. Their deaths did not serve to resurrect the men who were murdered–Mark MacPhail and James Byrd, Jr. Their executions were not acts of justice; they were acts of retribution.

Thank God, I didn’t act on my sin of the heart. I had a chance to change, to grow, to contribute to the world in a positive way. With just a few different choices… it could have been me. I used to be a murderer.

I’m Afraid of Falling (So What Am I Doing in This Ivory Tower?)

Ivory tower rook piece from a chess setMy undergraduate degree is in Cultural Anthropology, and during my junior year of college an Anthropologist told us that the education we were receiving would very likely distance us from the people we would eventually work with. (Never mind any cultural or religious or economic differences!) I’ve carried that warning in the back of my mind ever since. Now I have a Masters of Divinity and I’m working on a Doctor of Ministry degree and widening the distance whether I want to or not. The problem is, I’m realizing more and more that the distance is not just between myself and the people I work with; it’s frequently between myself and the people closest to me … and sometimes I feel like crying.

Three days a week I’m surrounded by people who have high expectations for themselves and others, who have respect for people who are not like “us.” Three days a week I’m in the company of people who believe in nonviolence and interfaith dialogue. Outside the ivory tower of academia–and specifically religious academia–I often encounter people who think telling ethnic jokes and making fun of people with disabilities (in private, at least) is funny. I have to contend with people who think it’s okay to denigrate any religious beliefs that aren’t close enough to their own.

So what’s a “nice,” left-of-progressive, lady preacher to do? I know, I know—I should be prophetic and call people to account for their ignorance and insensitivity. I find that very difficult. I don’t want to be seen as the humorless religious fanatic, or jeered for being uber “politically correct.” I don’t want to be the “bitch” that spoils everybody’s fun. I don’t want people I love to avoid me. Yep–it’s all about me. And that’s the problem.

The disease of the self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to the soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring the sickness under control [1]

I want to do the right thing. I want to stand up for justice. Really–I do. I also want to be compassionate, humble, nonjudgmental. So I sympathize with the Apostle Paul, who was moved to write, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [2] It’s a sin of commission and omission. I stand on the battlement of the ivory tower, knees shaking, trying NOT to look down… and paralyzed by fear. I want to do the right thing; I’m just not sure what the “right thing” is.

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[1] Charlie Peacock. “In the Light.” Copyright 1991, Sparrow Records.
[2] Romans 7:19, RSV