Thank you to so many kind people who kept me in their minds, hearts, and souls as they knew I was leading the worship this past Sunday at St. Athanasius in Brunswick, Georgia.
If you took the bet of me falling, you lost.
First off, it’s not quite like a bicycle. There are parts of the liturgy, the normal process of prayers that are stitched into your soul. A bodily sense of “this follows that”; phrases and sentences that have been etched on one’s heart, lodged in one’s mind, that surprisingly come back on the tip of one’s tongue, silver or tin. But there are slight variations in each parish, where there is a particular and peculiar custom that has been accreted onto the procedure that can trip one up. That happened to me on a couple of moments, but that was okay. The people of St. A’s were so gracious to me.
Secondly, the gift of the day for me was the preparation beforehand. First, it gave me a chance to spend a couple of hours with my new young clergy friend, DeWayne Cope. He graciously gave me time to walk through the service a week ago, to get me familiar with the “particulars” of which I spoke. I remember trying to learn “the way” of Christ Church’s liturgy after many years at a Cathedral. Moving from an aircraft carrier to a PT boat is an adjustment, but a happy one. And St. A has its own style, one that I love but slightly unfamiliar to me. Father Cope was so kind as he tried to familiarize me with the moves of this dance.
More importantly, it gave us the sacred space, sitting in the altar area, with no one around other than God, to talk about this profession we share. What a gift that was. This young, bright, committed priest who is in his first parish, fueled by a zeal for the work of the church, or what could be. I am betting that, other than his mother, I am his biggest fan. This gave us a chance to get real with one another, in the way clergy do when they get the opportunity for intimacy. By that, I mean putting aside the posturing that often occurs with clergy, comparing your measurements and metrics so that you wind up “bigger and better” in the assessment. I’ve played that game before, and now have the freedom not to play. Homey don’t play that!
No. Intimacy means sharing the passion, hopes, and fears of your heart with an “other”. There’s no pulling of a punch, no holding back. It’s rare.
Intimacy means sharing the deep thoughts of your mind with another competent person. You risk telling others of your wonderings, your imagination, your reflections without fear of dismissal. The other may not agree, but there is no sense in devaluing of the other’s concept.
Intimacy opens one’s soul to the other. A holy moment in which your journey is shared and valued by an Other, in the context of covenant with THE Other, God. It may be telling your story, your trajectory through time, this particular Holy Now that you find yourself in, or it may be scanning of the horizon as to what you are wondering about the future.
Intimacy is all of that, and it is what happened between DeWayne and me. That time, was brought about by his invitation for me to “sub” for him, and my desire to help a brother grab a break before Holy Week. That contractual transaction became the means of a spiritual connection.
Come to think of it, our time in the sanctuary area of the altar of St. A’s was what I do in spiritual direction with clergy, spiritual seekers, and spiritual refugees. And it is the gift and burden of this time in my life. I am grateful.
Thirdly, this experience afforded me a reason to move beyond the daily Bible reading that goes with the Daily Office, which is a part of my priestly vows, but also a part of my rule as a Third Order Franciscan. This week, I was messing with and being messed with by a portion of Scripture about Mary and Martha. When I am studying “for my life”, a.k.a. preparing for a sermon, I am a rigorous explorer. I had forgotten both the pain and the joy of that prep work. In the end, I was blessed by the labor of my research, learning more about the Gospel than I had previously known.
The original story of Mary and Martha, the one that is most familiar, is found in Luke. It’s the one where Martha is bitching about how lazy Mary is. They have become sort of the Odd Couple of the Gospel, Felix and Oscar. Bert and Ernie, Spock and Kirk. The Mary and David, to bring it home. Side note: this is the creative tension built in the human process to produce growth! More at another time, or see The Art of Intimacy by Tom Malone and Patrick Malone.
The Mary and Martha story, as I said, was in Luke. The story about the anointing of Jesus is in Mark and Matthew, but is the work of a non-specific woman, not named here as Mary. Also, the complainers about the spending of money that could have gone to the poor was attributed to all the disciples, not just Judas. By the way, the occurrence was placed in Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem, but it was the house of Simon the leper, not the Big Three of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Timing-wise, it was just before the final entrance into Jerusalem, and the week of what we now observe as Holy Week.
In the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Church departs from its reading of Luke for the first four weeks, and rather, goes to John. Again, the timing is the same as Mark’s and Matthew’s, before the entrance into Jerusalem, but the place and the actors are different.
In John, the story of anointing is placed following Jesus coming to Bethany at Martha and Mary’s request to heal Lazarus. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds his friend, Lazarus, four days dead in a tomb. He has the stone removed from the tomb, with the crowd commenting on the “stink”, confirming that Lazarus was not sleeping but decomposing. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, and he does, still bound by the burial wraps. Jesus says to unbind him and loose him. So this is the “backstory” to the anointing. They are rightly throwing a party for Jesus raising the dead, namely Lazarus, as a sign of what was going to happen to Jesus soon enough.
John conflates the anointing with the known story of Martha throwing a party while Mary anoints. Prattling Martha gets a support role in this story, as the focus is on Mary who anoints the feet of Jesus, giving Jesus the opportunity to point to the prefigured anointing at his death and burial. This also gives John the chance to point the finger at Judas, who is cast as the sole complainer. John editorializes about the scofflaw Judas, with this protest as just a part of his role as a thief, scoundrel. and betrayer. This is good dramatic writing by John, pulling traditions together to tell the story a bit more poignantly. Once again, this is a dark shift to the conflict with the government and religious structures just days out.
What struck me, again, was Jesus’ words: The poor will always be with you. I played with the congregation, asking if they ever thought of words that they, wished to God, Jesus had NOT said. I confessed my wishing Jesus had gone lighter with the striking of the cheek, turning to offer the other cheek, in the wake of the Oscars. Or how about the command to forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors. That has been a tall order for me, especially when someone that you thought was close, betrays you. I mentioned that there were a few so-called colleagues, even a bishop or two, that I had to view in light of this passage. I might wish Jesus did not say those things about Kingdom living in the power of Love, as Presiding Bishop Curry pushes, but Jesus did, and I have to deal with it.
But this “the poor will always be with you” seems like Jesus is saying we should just accept this reality. That’s just the way it is, people say, but is this what Jesus intends? That’s what I have heard some people bring up in the face of our work with the poor, the structures that rig the game, and perpetuate the plight of the poor. It bothered me that Jesus would say such a thing.
But my scholarship and digging paid off. There is a passage of Scripture in the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch. in fact, the Law is contained in the first five books of the tradition. The scroll of the Torah is trotted out every Sabbath, and read from, with honor, awe, and reverence, the listeners bending their ears and souls to the Tradition. In Deuteronomy 15:11, it gets real clear: There will always be the poor present in your land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
Jesus was no doubt quoting the verse, which he had heard as a child, memorized in his formation, and studied as an adult. There is a recognition of reality, but with the admonition of an act of love in opening your hearts and purses to the needs of the poor. The ointment of nard had its function as a symbol of what is coming: anointing the dead body of Jesus at his burial, but it does not relieve us of the ethical demand to care for our neighbor. It is the basis of all the Law and the prophets.
I loved making the connection, which shamefully I had not made before. I just ignored Jesus’ “poor will always be with you” like I do with Uncle Charlie’s racist comments at the family’s Thanksgiving lunch. This unlocked it for me within the context of the Covenant that formed Jesus and provided the platform for his radical Kingdom ethic. I was a happy student that night, which should clue you in that it is not hard to make an old priest smile.
It reminded me of my first days in seminary, learning how to translate the original Greek New Testament. Accurately called Baby Greek, it began with the clearest construction in the letter of First John. It is relatively easy, compared to more challenging sentence structure and conjugations. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered it in Greek. It was so clear, so clean, right in front of you in the fourth chapter. The text says this in verse 20: If anyone says, “I love God.” and hates his brother, he is a liar, for if he does not love his brother, who he has seen, he cannot love God, who he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God, should love his brother, also.
Now, this is hilarious. As I am looking at my old Oxford Bible, copying those verses into this South of God article, what comes on the radio. It is from that Jersey boy, Jon Bon Jovi, and his powerful song, You Give Love A Bad Name. Pure synchronicity. Those of us who say, even advertize that we love God, betray that commitment by our treatment of sisters and brothers who do not necessarily fit our “acceptable” categories. We give God a bad name.
And at times, the institution of Church, with a pressing concern for our own survival, the survival of the institution writ large, behaves in a manner that gives God a bad name. In this season of Lent, a time of repentance, may we look squarely at our failures to live out of that covenant, and turn, recommitting ourselves to this radical love, which gets messy and fails the expectation of perfect religiosity.
My concluding comment is to mark my renewed gratitude for not serving as the pastor of a congregation at this time in our country. It is tough duty. And if you are someone thinking to yourself, “It’s not that hard!”, you may be one of the ones that make it difficult. I am so grateful that I can be a bearer of grace and reconciliation, without having to deal with the bureaucracy, the budget, and the air conditioning of churches. As my main man, Jon Batiste, screams, Freedom!
When I move my body like this, I feel like Freedom! That’s the pregnant line from Jon’s Grammy-winning album. Now, just for fun, what do imagine how my body is moving when I feel freedom? How does your body look when you get a whiff of your innate freedom?
We’re heading into Holy Week this coming Sunday, prepping us for the celebration of Easter. I know we tend to get a bit more serious, maybe even somber, when we are in this pregnant time. But I would follow up my question about freedom by asking you if you might approach this year’s Holy Week, in the wake of Covid, war, and cultural strife, with some playfulness.
How might the Spirit be calling you to break out in some wild act of love toward your neighbor, your community, and God’s Creation? Do you dare raise the question in your heart, mind, and soul? It’s a holy time this week when heaven is brought down to our everyday existence. Or, maybe it’s that we lift up our lives to the Eternal, looking afresh at the gift and the call. Holy Week is a special time, a threshold experience where you can more fully recognize who you are, and whose you are. I am struck again by a powerful and paradoxical statement in the Book of Common Prayer, as it describes a holy and joyful life with a prayer for peace at the conclusion of Morning Prayer “in whose service is perfect freedom”. Freedom exercised in service to God and neighbor. That says it all for me. Freedom, indeed. This prayer in the morning, re-minds me of the mindset by which I intend to engage the world. How might I be of service in the creative moment of this new day?
Blessings as you dance your way through this Holy time.