The Politics of Pastoring

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One of the most frequent questions that people ask me when they find out that I am a pastor (other than the classic “you look so young to be a pastor!”) is this:

Do you talk about politics when you preach???

The folks who ask this question are varied–they are young and old, rich and poor, but mostly, they are asking the question from outside the church.  They are genuinely curious–is preaching political?

In a recent blog post, Jan Edminston was reflecting on this question and on what it means for a pastor to be political, and for me at least she touched on something that I have noticed: when people ask this question, they are often assuming that the church as a “position” or a “side” to defend.  They assume that the pastor (that’s me) is out to convert the masses to a liberal or conservative interpretation of the bible.  But, as Jan reminds us, “the bible is an equal opportunity offender.”

What does that mean?  Well, for me it means that the Bible defies our own political categories.  I certainly *could* waste precious preaching time defending the platform of the Green Party, or the Libertarian Party, or any other political movement of the moment. But at the end of the day, the bible has a God Platform, and it doesn’t match up with any of the political identities that we have created.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways,” preaches Isaiah in the fifty-fifth chapter, reminding us that God has priorities and values that often do not line up with our personal and communal motivations.  Which means that part of following God is learning the platform.  Part of following Jesus is paying attention, not just to what God says, but to what God does.

When I pay attention to Jesus (who, let it be said, paid a heck of a lot of attention to the Hebrew Scriptures), what I see is a rabbi who preached resistance to the political and religious empires of the world.  I see someone who was deeply concerned about the wholeness of the community, which meant that the well-being of the marginalized–the poor, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the outsider–could not be ignored.  I see someone who spent more time preaching about the Kingdom of God and money than he ever wasted on worrying about sex or any of the many varied social issues that so often trip our churches up these days.  And I see someone who was willing to walk straight into the jaws of death at the hands of the empire because he believed fiercely and completely that God was with him.

So am I political in the pulpit?  You bet I am.  But not in the way that most people have grown accustomed to interpreting that phrase.  I don’t waste my time telling people who to vote for; instead, I spend my hours fretting over how to help people put down their own agendas so that they can pick up God’s.  To use a metaphor that a preaching professor once taught me, I spend my days examining Scriptures like a jeweler would a diamond, wondering–what sort light is God bending into the world through this text?  What are we called to see that is unexpected, refracted through the lens of time, culture, and the experience of the holy?  What endures, and what has passed away?  What is God’s agenda here?

To use the words of Jesus: “not my will, but Yours.”

 

 

 

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A Reflection on Easter Morning

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

 

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What happened?

That’s what my son says every time he hears a bump or a crash or a siren. What happened, mommy? What happened?

We could ask the same question about the Gospel story this morning: What happened?

We didn’t hear the stone.

We didn’t see Him rise.

We weren’t met on our knees by men in dazzling clothes in the early dawn light, who tell the women, “he is not among the dead, but the living.” Who ask them to remember words these men have never heard—could they be angels?

No. We are with Peter. We stand with the eleven, who come to this news second-hand. We receive this Gospel from the mouths of others: from our church. From our family. From the word of God open before us today.

What happened?

Perhaps that question is inevitable—when something we cannot explain occurs—an earthquake, a terrorist attack, a medical diagnosis, Donald Trump—we desperately want to understand. We start looking for answers, for proof. We run with Peter to the tombs of the world, needing to see the grave clothes for ourselves.

But he isn’t there. Remember? Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Like so much of our lives, this question—what happened?—is met with more questions. We don’t get easy answers at the tomb. Instead, we are told to remember. To reflect. To consider everything that happened before the cross. To ponder Christ’s insistence on the Kingdom of God, which he said could not be crushed by human hands.

We are asked to look beyond the inevitable darkness of a world that so often deals in death and suffering. For we all have seen the world blanketed in crosses too often borne by the poor and the vulnerable, the stranger and the refugee, the sick and mourning. We have watched as good, righteous, innocent people have been gunned down, blown apart, disappeared by a world that is so often unjust. We know what death looks like.

But this? This is different. As we stand before the empty tomb, as we ponder the space where the bodies ought to lay, we are asked to do something far more difficult than acknowledge the world as it is. We are called to remember the world as Jesus said it is meant be. The world God created, where every blessed thing is sacred. Where the sick are tended, the poor are fed, the stranger is welcomed. A world where political and religious power are no match for the justice and righteousness of a God who loves what he has made fiercely, fully, completely. A world where death has no sting, and there are no tears, for the Lord God is in the midst of the people.

Why do we seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen.

On this Easter morning, we who wonder—what happened?—cannot stay here. If we want to know what has happened, we have to leave the tomb. We must leave the grave and go out into the world, where the risen Christ is waiting for us. We must set aside our need to know, and seek Him out.

If we remember all that he said before, perhaps we will be swift to find him—for we will remember that Christ is among us whenever we feed the hungry, or give something to drink to the thirsty. That he is among us when we tend the wounds of the sick and the suffering and welcome the stranger. He is with us when we visit the prisoner, and clothe the naked. He is with us whenever we reach our hands out to grasp the hand of another beloved child of God.

So go. Make haste to find him. Grasp the hand of your neighbor and discover the Good News that the women proclaimed and the apostles wondered at—that he is risen, that he is among the living, that God has triumphed over death. And we are witnesses to these things.

Alleluia. Alleluia indeed!

 

 

A Reflection for Good Friday and Holy Saturday

I didn’t have the  chance to write what I wish I could have yesterday, but as I was thinking and pondering the reality of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday, of all that was lost and all that was suffered by Christ, I came across the following quote that I wanted to share.

In the March 16th article of Christian Century, scholar Stephanie Paulsell writes, “On Good Friday we ponder the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of God’s vulnerability to everything that can happen to a human being…it’s also a day to ponder that the trajectory of Jesus’ life, from the arms of his mother to the arms of the cross, is a path upon which mothers and children are often still forced to travel. Because it’s even more dangerous for them to remain at home, mothers send their children on journeys across Central America, across the Aegean Sea, and on the many perilous refugee routes that crisscross the globe. And the cross on which Jesus died is crowded with mothers and their children this Good Friday.”

As we stand at the foot of the cross, we are challenged to remember the people who continue to suffer as Christ today.  Refugees who risk their lives.  Innocent people who undergo torture (because Jesus’ story teaches us that sometimes, the innocent are persecuted, tortured, and even killed by the state).  Children who drown in the waters and are trafficked in the deserts. All of them are Christ’s  body, broken before us.

For me, it is a challenge to really think about what Christ meant when he said, “When you welcome one of these, you welcome me.”  It sounds very peaceful and sweet, but what he is actually saying is something far more difficult for us to live out.  “Hey you!” Christ cries from the cross.  “See this body? Broken? Bruised? Afflicted? Whenever you see another suffering, that is ME.”  Imagine how the world might be different if we viewed all suffering bodies in this way?

Perhaps that is what we are called to reflect on in the silence of Holy Saturday.  We who watch and wait and despair of the darkness may also find ourselves asking questions: who else is hanging on the cross with Christ? Whom does the power of this world seek to silence?  And how are we who remain called to bear witness to a suffering world?  Do we stand with the women, who refused to leave Christ’s side?  Or will we run and hide for fear of the powers of this world?

 

A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Mark 14:17-25

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

 

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Who do you invite to your dinner table?  As Jesus approaches the hour of his death, he gathers around him his most beloved and trusted friends, the twelve disciples.  As the darkness gathers beyond that room, Jesus take the time to be present with those to whom he has taught everything he knows.  And as one of his final lessons, he breaks bread.

Scholars often point out that, before sex or any other form of “joining together”, meal-sharing has since ancient times been the central expression of unity and intimacy between people.  In the Psalms, trust in God is expressed when people gather at table, even in the presence of their enemies.  Abraham greets God’s messengers with a meal; worship in the temple is centered around the giving and receiving of God’s generous gift of food to eat and enjoy.

So it isn’t surprising that Jesus would tell his final lesson with the elements of bread and cup.  For the last few days, he has again and again told his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, and that he will suffer and die.  Again and again, they have struggled to hear his words.  He has asked them to pick up their cross and follow him; they have argued over who will be the most powerful.

And so now, as he breaks bread and pours the cup, he reminds them, reminds us, that even at the table of communion we are challenged, for at the table we cannot ignore or pass over the reality of Christ’s suffering.  “Take; this is my body….This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the connection between our communion at table and our participation in the journey of the cross.  See, it turns out that, when Jesus asked us to pick up a cross and follow him, he meant it. As would-be disciples of the Lord, he asks us to “get busy” doing what Christ did.  And as we stand on the edge of Good Friday, we are reminded that if we do as Christ does, we may be punished for it.  We may find ourselves abandoned, imprisoned, even put to death.

In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan reflect that Jesus is incredibly consistent in the week leading up to his death.  Again and again, he will remind his followers that the Kingdom of God invites particiation–that as disciples, Jesus calls us to serve, to kneel, to follow, to tend.  That we cannot have the glory without the struggle that precedes it.  That if we are going to walk this path, we need to be willing to “drink the cup” that Christ drank.  In other words- if we would call ourselves disciples, then we will find ourselves where Jesus is: in opposition to the powers and principalities of this world, which would prefer that things stay the way they are. And when we place ourselves in the path of empire, we need to be prepared for the possibility that we may get run over. We may endure struggle, suffering, even death.

But when we follow Jesus, we must also remember: we are not alone.  We are with Christ.

Maundy Thursday begins with a meal, and ends with a conviction.  By the dawn’s light, Jesus will be handed over for a death sentence, his followers will have scattered, Peter will have denied him, Judas will have betrayed him, and Jesus will be alone.  The unity of the table will seem to be shattered.

 

But.

 

Even from these bones, God will breathe life.  For every time we gather at table, we rebuke the darkness and the fear that caused Jesus’ disciples to abandon him.  We remember that even those who were afraid were welcomed by Jesus, reconciled and redeemed on Easter morning.  We testify to the truth: that being a disciple is HARD work, that we WILL fail, but that God’s love in Christ can transform us.

 

A Prayer for Maundy Thursday:

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired I am weak I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, take me home.

Holy God, as we stand on the threshold: between the past and the present, between your ministry and your death, between hope and fear, send Your Spirit to be amongst us.

To those of us who are afraid of the cost of discipleship, give us courage.

To those of us who are tempted to flee when the risks become high, console us with the knowledge that you welcome the broken and the fearful into Your arms.

To those of us tempted to sell you out, to give you up, either because we don’t understand Your Kingdom or because we have other ideas, remind us that even the enemy was welcome at the table, and that Christ loves us even at our worst.

To those of us who would condemn you, persecute and even kill you, break our hearts with the compassion that comes from God, and the courage to act humbly and righteously in the midst of a violent and broken world.

And to those who would stand on the fence, taking no sides, convict us.  Open our hearts to the knowledge that to do nothing is to choose.

Holy God, help us always to remember this truth: that as often as we love, help, hurt, fear, condemn, and ignore our brother or sister in Christ, we do it to you.  May we never forget: the drama of Holy Week is re-enacted every. single. day.  Give us eyes to see, and feet to walk the path your Son Jesus Christ walked, then and now.

 

Amen.

 

Holy Wednesday

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Mark 14:1-11

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Possibly the worst feeling in the world is getting bad news.  When we hear that someone is sick, or suffering, or struggling with employment, housing, or more, it can be tempting to minimize the revelation, to rush past reflection and move on to a future joy or hope.  Certainly, when someone is ill, or worse, someone dies, it is almost guaranteed that the mourning will be inundated with platitudes reminding them that “it will all be okay” or that “God wanted another angel.” We may hate hearing these words, but many of us will admit that we have been tempted to say the same, or similar.

Turns out that, on the road to the cross, the disciples want to rush right past Jesus’ reminders that he will suffer and be killed.  They would rather focus on his glory.  And so, instead of reflecting on what it would mean for their Teacher to die, they fight over who will be the first when his Kingdom comes.  Instead of preparing their hearts and minds for the trials of the Triduum (the three holy days leading up to Easter), they debate which disciples Jesus will choose to sit on his right and his left.

Only this unnamed woman seems to get it.  While the disciples are scuffling over future glory and titles, she bends before Jesus and pours nard on his feet. Because while the rest of the disciples grasped for the future, she was reflecting on the present, where Jesus told his disciples again and again, if you want to follow me, you must take up your cross. If you want to become great, you must become a servant. If you wish to be my disciple, you must be willing to die.

No wonder Jesus rebukes the disciples who would scold her.  She is the only one who seems truly to have “heard” Jesus. And no wonder we remember her; on the cusp of Maundy Thursday, as Judas would betray Christ and the forces that would kill him gather their strength, she alone pauses to reflect upon what this means.

We who journey towards the Cross with Jesus this week are invited to bow with the woman. We are called to set aside our striving, and instead pick up our cross.  To resist the temptation to run to Easter, and instead prepare for Christ’s death.  There is much to be done before the tomb is empty, and we who would follow Jesus cannot simply skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable. If we are to embrace Christ, we must take all of him, and we cannot have the cross without everything that comes before it.

A Prayer for Wednesday:
Servant God,
We who would follow you,
We who would serve you,
We who would worship you–
Today we pause and remember the woman who alone acknowledged your Sacrifice.
For on the way to Jerusalem, Your disciples ignored Your warnings, and instead focused on your future glory.
She alone bent down, and, pouring ointment on your feet, prepared your body for death.
She alone listened, heard your call to servant-leadership and served You.
She paused and worshipped while Judas ran and betrayed.
She showed us what it means to be your Disciple when your disciples could not, would not, hear You.
Help us, O God, to kneel with the woman, to pause and acknowledge your sacrifice, and to serve one another as you have served us, so that we too might be called disciples of our Lord.
Amen.

 

 

A Prayer for the World in the Wake of Brussels

31281944_1_x.jpgHoly God-
We live increasingly in a world of violence, and we offer our prayers today for those in Brussels whose world has been pierced by the sword of terror.
For civilians who fear the threat of bombs in public places–airports and subways, markets and malls–we pray.
For the families of the dead in Brussels, but also in South Sudan, in Syria, we cry in mourning.
For first responders, police and fire and hospital staff, who balm the wounds, comfort the dying, tend the traumatized, seek the perpetrators, we beg that you would watch over them.
And for those of us who wait and watch from a distance–give us courage to be a people of peace where we are. Help us to preach the Word of Jesus’ Kingdom, to seek unity with our neighbor, and to meet the violence of this world with the kiss of peace.
May it be so. Amen.

Holy Monday

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

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illustration by the Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy, pastor of 1st UCC Rochester

I suppose that it should come as no surprise that we find Jesus at a dinner party in the days leading up to his death.  Even as, in the words of John’s Gospel, the powers that be conspire against him, Jesus takes time to gather with friends (and with enemies, too) for a meal, for fellowship, and, ultimately, for communion.

And as Jesus sits at table with his not-dead friend Lazarus, we are treated to a surprise (then again, it seems as though there was always a Monty-Python-worthy “something completely different” moment about dinners with the Messiah).  Here, suddenly, is Mary.  The same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha labored in the kitchen now arrives with a jar of costly perfume, and pours it on her Master’s feet.

Let’s just take a moment and consider this moment: here you are, sitting with your friends and waiting for dinner, when along comes another friend, who proceeds to dump a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on your feet and wipe your feet with her hair.

What are we to make of this moment?

Judas, whom we were not aware of until this moment, interprets this action as a waste.  He makes a mental calculation and concludes that Mary has wasted the perfume.  He’s like the over-achieving kid in the front of the class (for the record, that was me as a kid) who knows what the answer is supposed to be and almost seems to delight in pointing out the mistaken logic of her classmate.  “But Jesus,” he cries.  “Shouldn’t we have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor?”  Isn’t it always better to give than to receive?  Haven’t you taught us that the poor are the center of your Kingdom, and therefore the most important concern?

And he isn’t wrong.  Certainly, Jesus spends his brief and remarkable preaching career railing against injustice, particularly when it is directed at the poor.  According to the Gospel of Mark, it is on this day that he enters the temple and overturns the tables, effectively shutting down the Temple’s activities as he rails against the collusion between the religious authorities and the political powers of Rome.  His life is a constant witness to remember the orphan and the widow, to care for the sick, and to befriend the stranger.  His ministry is a witness to the power and the  challenge of God’s call to live in communion with all of God’s created people.

But in this moment, at this table, surrounded by friends, Jesus cuts Judas short.  “Leave her alone,” he commands, and we  can almost feel Judas recoil in surprise.  And then Jesus reminds us that life, for him, is not an unending dinner party–he is headed somewhere.  To Jerusalem. To judgement, condemnation, suffering and death.  On a cross.  Even at this table, in this moment, he will not let his disciples–his deepest and closest spiritual friends–forget that his journey leads to death, and that his days are numbered.

For what it is worth, I do not think that Jesus is discounting the poor at this moment in John–instead, he almost seems to be saying to Judas and Mary that they are both right.  That the poor will always be there, and that we will always be called to serve and minister to the poor. But we must also take the time to worship the God who gave us hearts with the capacity for compassion for our vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Worship becomes an opportunity, a portal through which we can walk and remember our call to serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast.  Worship opens our hearts and our eyes and our ears to hear and see and taste again the Good News we have discovered in Christ, so that we may be encouraged for our ministry with the poor, who are with us.

 

We need moments of worship. Because there will always be those whose forced are aligned against us.  Those who tell us that the poor are lazy, that the hungry had it coming, that “it just isn’t our job” to help those who struggle.  There will always be those who deny the Kingdom and everything that it represents, perhaps because they worship other Gods–money, power, fame–or perhaps because they are frightened by what Christ represents–justice, righteousness, freedom for all of God’s good creation.

So on this Monday of Holy Week, let us pause and reflect with Jesus.  Let us kneel down and worship with Mary.  And let us remember that our ministry of service in the world finds its heart and its soul and its sustenance when we bow our heads at the foot of the cross.

 

Prayer for the day:

Holy God, Friend, Teacher, and Savior- we praise you.  For like Lazarus you have drawn us out of the snare of death, and have set our feet on the rock.  You have sat with us at table, have gathered us into community, and have called us your friends.  You have taught us that it is good and righteous and pleasing to God to serve the hungry and the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, tend to those in prison. And you have sustained us by the presence of your Holy Spirit as we gather in prayer and praise.  During this Holy Week, sustain our worship.  Strengthen our hearts, that we might draw near to you, falling down before you like Mary and offering the gift of our very selves.  Help us to bow our heads and bend our knees, so that we may have the strength to stand and walk the way of the cross with you, confident of of the hope of Resurrection.  In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.