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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A Star and Dreams More Powerful

Today is Epiphany, my favorite day of the Christian calendar! It is the celebration of when the wise leaders, religious  leaders, scholarly leaders of the world acknowledge the humility of God-among-us-in-the-flesh. It is the great revelation of the world acknowledging God–even as a small helpless babe.

In the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2) God is found because the learned, the insightful, the sought-out-for-advise-giving saw a star rising in the East. These leaders, the wise men, saw a new star and followed through foreign lands in the hope of seeing the greatest of a kings–a babe asleep in his mother’s arms. I wonder what the other wise men said as they packed their bags for the long  journey. Were they laughed at? And if not why did only three make the journey? What would they have told the border guards as they crossed from nation into nation? Surely, telling them you were going to see a new king would have raised suspicions. Is that why Herod called them to meet with him? Come to think of it, the wise men surely knew Herod was among the most ruthless of rulers in the ancient world, and THAT is saying something. And still the wise men had the courage not only to cross the desert on their journey, but to risk their lives in crossing Herod because they held onto the hope that the child beneath that star was more powerful than the most feared ruler of the world.

One of the things that always strikes me in the Christmas-Epiphany narratives cycle is the role of dreams. Joseph is encouraged in a dream to remain with Mary rather than dismiss her in her pregnancy. The wise men are warned in a dream after seeing Jesus the infant, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. And finally, the dream seldom heard as more that a footnote, is Joseph’s dream in which the angel again comes and warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into another nation. We live in a world where we seldom make decisions based on dreams, at least the ones that come in sleep. In the modern world we are more apt to follow the big dreams that come to us by way of national pride or Hollywood. These are not the dreams of the biblical narrative. The dreams of the wise men and the dreams of Joseph are, rather, those dreams that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we have gone inward enough to still ourselves and discern the will of God.  It is often God’s dream for our lives that leads us on journeys more powerful than we could have imagined, even if it is not a journey that follows the screenplay we ourselves had envisioned.

What dream has God put into your heart, that frees you from the tyranny of oppressive forces, and calls you onward to great journeys in search of the promised hope of justice and the personal opportunity to behold God and know, beyond all doubt that no matter the cruelty of the world, that God is with you, and indeed all of us?

Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.

Stigma 2012

votive candles in the foreground with christ on the cross on the wall in the background; taken at historical basilaca

Today is World AIDS Day. A day the world focuses on the need to address this worldwide health issue. Its not an easy topic to address because so many people would rather not talk about it. Ignoring something does not make it go away; it only makes it dark and secret and that much more scary. HIV/AIDS remains perhaps one the greatest social taboos we have to address. And perhaps this year that is what we must focus on in our fight against HIV/AIDS. Continue the struggle to find a scientific medical cure, yes. Continue to foster the prevention of HIV infections. Continue to pray for peace from the social, financial, emotional, and other impacts that this disease brings to so many–whether they experience the illness themselves or are in relationship with someone who does.

All people are subject to stigma, in a whole variety of ways. What we often forget is that stigma and the negative impact it carries is one of the most damaging experiences an individual can encounter, but it is also the one experience that we as human beings have the most control over. Stigma is our attitude nothing more and nothing less. We can decide to change it and it is done–and it costs no money, only human will.

As a hospice chaplain, I have come to learn where many of the public restrooms in my community are. I sometimes have to stop there as I move through my day. I have even learned which public bathrooms supply soap and where I need to bring my soap in with me. Many of us maybe surprised to find how clean our park restrooms really are.  A month or so ago I stopped at a small park to use the restroom. I noticed on the wall of the stall scratched into the paint the words “Kim has AIDS”. I have no idea who Kim is, if this is true, or a just a kid’s prank. But it made me think. First I thought eww is this bathroom clean enough to use? Then I thought who are the people who come in here to who would need to graffiti this?  In just a few moments I recalled that World AIDS Day was soon approaching and wondered how I would mark it. I wondered about “Kim” if she were ok an getting the help she needed. And I realized anew how strong the power of stigma is.

Stigma can move you from no emotion on a topic to so much emotion on a topic that you want to flee, and this can happen in an instant. Because of the power of stigma, we have a choice: to embrace the HIV+/AIDS community and seek solutions with them or we can jerk away, leaving them to find solutions on their own. Jesus calls us to reach out to persons effected by stigma, he does so countless times in the gospels bringing stigmatized persons back into the fold of society, and that is the radical message of love. Jesus subverted stigma and so can we. Stigma can be not only subverted but reversed by the simple act of human will.

We are all affected by stigma. I am not perfect–on some level wondering if the bathroom was clean enough to use after seeing the graffiti on the bathroom wall was a reaction of my own internalized stigma. So this year I join the world in prayer and reflection on this World AIDS Day. I join in praying for friends who have died from the effects of AIDS, those who have been isolated by the stigma of AIDS and who die alone as a result, systems that marginalize people with HIV/AIDS, as well as friends and colleagues who live with HIV or AIDS. I pray for Kim. But this year I also pray for myself. I pray that God might grant me the grace to see stigma when I see it, to face it, and somehow turn it around. And I pray for the humanity of the world, that we might learn to change the things that we can and that we might turn our attitudes and stigmas about HIV/AIDS around so we might reach out to our brother and sisters and learn to all be one.