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Archive for March, 2013

Good Friday

Crucifixion-Hasse SmThe Passover feast was over. One disciple left it early and vanished into the night. Later, Judas reappeared out of the shadows, no longer alone. He’d brought Temple police with him. Later, he threw the thirty pieces of silver back at the status quo. They laughed, and Judas could take it no longer. The pain was too great. The darkness too dark. How could Jesus ever forgive him?

Another disciple stood, rubbing his hands by a fire in the cold of the night. Three times, he vowed he did not know Jesus. And then in the cold gray dawn, a rooster crowed, and Peter remembered what Jesus had predicted. “Before the cock crows three times, you will betray me.” He wept for the memory of that. How could Jesus ever forgive him?

The other disciples had fled the Garden of Gethsemene and scattered through the dark streets of Jerusalem. Their world had turned upside down. A few hours ago, they had all been laughing, arguing, lifting glasses of wine, eating too much—in fact, by the time they went with Jesus to the Garden to pray, they found they were too sleepy to pray. But the clattering of swords, Judas’ drawn face appearing out of the shadows, that kiss, then the soldiers arresting their master—what had happened to turn this world upside down that quickly?

Jesus had said he would be handed over. And. . .put to death. Do you suppose?. . .No, it cannot be. He could not die. They knew he’d said you had to lose your life to find it. But wasn’t he talking in metaphors? And if. . .if Jesus was executed, what about them? Was it only a matter of time before soldiers showed up at the door and took them away?

Crucifixion was an ugly death. A long slow painful death where you didn’t die from the loss of blood as much as you died from asphyxiation. Your arms could not support the weight of your body without a lot of effort. And that effort shot daggers of pain all over your body.

It was almost over. A man dragged the crossbeam of his own death slowly through the narrow, stone streets of Jerusalem. When he fell for the third time, the soldiers grabbed a stranger, Simon of Cyrene, and made him carry it. They had no time for delays. Too many people to crucify on this day. This one wasn’t fighting them, but he was weak, as if all the life had already left him. As if he carried the weight of the world already on his shoulders, and the crossbeam just was too much.

The noon sun blazed, hot and shadowless, over a group of crosses. The one in the center was the one that mattered most. From the edges of the old rock quarry, his mother and Magdalene and the beloved disciple and then, a few others who appeared, watched. From a distance, they watched, and waited, and wept.

His mother spoke, as if she were in a dream:  “It only seems like yesterday that I was holding him for the first time. . .that night in Bethlehem. . .” She fell silent.

It was over. He was gone.

“A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky;

the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.

and every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine;

A barn shall harbor heaven, a stall become a shrine.

 

This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by;

The palm shall strew its branches and every stone shall cry;

And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull, and dumb,

And lie within the roadway to pave his Kingdom come.

 

Crown of thorns smYet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;

The sky shall grown and darken, and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry, for stony hearts of men:

God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.

 

But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high;

The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry, in praises of the Child

by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.”

Hymn #104 in Hymnal 1982

Text by Richard Wilbur, Music Andajar by David Hurd

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

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Washing Feet

It takes an act of courage

to take your shoes and socks off

to slip out of sandals

to let another human being

touch a part of you that may not be pretty.

baby feet

Baby feet are sweet and soft, and

mamas kiss them and count toes and

hold those tiny sweet soft feet

when they are cold and

splash bath water over them and

hear baby laughter.

bare feet adult

Big feet are rough and calloused,

some with corns, some misshapen, from

years of being on them.

Waiting tables or farming or

wearing cheap shoes or

pushing feet into fashions that are

unkind to human beings.

So it is hard to bare your rough,

misshapen feet to another’s touch.

 

Jesus washed feet.

One night, he became a slave during dinner.

He picked up a towel.

Took a basin and water pitcher and

began to go slowly around a table

to wash his disciples’ feet.

Feet that were rough.

Misshapen. Dusty from a day’s travel.

Feet that had walked roads with him

for three years.

Feet of people he loved.

Feet of people he needed to touch

one last time.

When Jesus was a baby,

Mary must have kissed his feet

all tiny and sweet and soft and

she counted toes and

heard baby laughter as she

poured water over them.

Christ washing feetTonight, Jesus washes the feet

of people he loves.

One by one. Slowly. Lovingly.

Maybe he washes his own mother’s

feet—I like to think so.

Yet no one washes Jesus’ feet this night.

Soon, those dusty bare feet

will feel the hard dirt of a prison cell.

The cold stone of Pilate’s pavement.

The stones of Jerusalem’s city streets.

Soon, Jesus’ feet will be pushed together.

The last time anyone touches him,

it will be with rough hands.

Rough hands will savagely drive a spike through Jesus’ feet.

Basin and Towel

No one washes Jesus’ feet this night.

For what his feet will soon endure,

will I let him wash mine?

Will you let me wash yours?

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google images

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Betrayal

judas-pieces-silver“Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (John 13:21b)

Betrayal by a friend is a bitter pill. You taste it long after you’ve swallowed it and perhaps the memory of that taste never quite leaves you. You meet someone. He becomes your friend, then he decides to make your ministry his ministry. There is collegiality. Strength in sharing things along the journey. You talk about God and God’s work in the world. You help people together. You break bread together, drink wine together, laugh, share stories about your families, talk about your hopes for the future.

Then something happens.

Somewhere along the way, a small, imperceptible crack appears in the friendship. You have talked at times about the similarities in how you do ministry, who should be supported, where you hope to be at journey’s end. Yet suddenly, you know that has changed and you begin to wonder where things went wrong.

It might be in the eyes averted. It might be in the missed appointment. It might have been in the silences that grows longer and longer. It might be something he says to another in your hearing.

All you really know is that things have changed. There is now a yawning chasm between you and someone you love and trusted. Your soul is troubled, your heart heavy.

In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Because Jesus of Nazareth is light and life, he knows darkness when he sees it or when he feels it. No doubt when he looks at Judas, he feels darkness. Maybe Judas averts his eyes when Jesus looks at him. Maybe he is just too quiet or he is sharp-tongued with the disciple sitting next to him at dinner. Maybe he pushes his food around the plate, hardly touching dinner that he usually eats with enthusiasm. Whatever it is, Jesus knows. Jesus knows that Judas is about to leave the group, to slip out of the room, to go betray him to the Temple authorities.

Surely Jesus’ heart is heavy. He has shared a journey with Judas for three years, day in and day out. He knows Judas well—perhaps too well. Now, ever the loving host, he hands Judas some food. Then before Judas has swallowed the bread or meat, Jesus says “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

judasI wonder if Judas ever looks at Jesus again before he kisses him in the Garden of Gethsemene. I doubt it. I suspect that Judas averts his eyes, then gets up from the Passover table, grabs his cloak and quickly leaves the room without speaking to anyone.

Jesus’ next teaching to the disciples left at table is about love. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

This is a hard thing to do, is it not? It is easy enough to love your child, your spouse, your best friend. Yet to love some people is very challenging, because they are not all lovable. And what about the friend who has betrayed you? How do you love that one? How do you build a bridge across the yawning chasm that now exists after a bitter betrayal by a friend?

I suspect that you just hold on to the fact that you are not alone in this betrayal business. Others have suffered this kind of pain before and others will suffer after you. You love anyway. You pay attention in case your friend makes a movement back to you. You love God, know he loves God, and you hope that one day, the love you both have for God will build a bridge back to each other.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google images.

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Monday of Holy Week

CT banner“I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.”

It is not the Feast of St. Patrick, which occurred an octave ago (March 17.) Instead, it is Monday of Holy Week. On this gray, wet day which began in the Washington, DC area with a wet, heavy snow, many faithful Christians got up, tugged on boots, several layers of clothes and gathered to march in downtown Washington. Some of those faithful had actually boarded buses in Connecticut at midnight last night to travel through the night in order to arrive at Epiphany Episcopal Church downtown for breakfast. Others traveled from New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware and many other states to march together. Three people from St. Philip’s in Laurel went to march with me. Three others were planning to go to St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill to help pack bagged lunches for those who would head back to Connecticut after the march.

The Dioceses of Connecticut and Washington have instigated this march. It is to be a show of public support against gun violence in this country and around the world. It is to mourn the loss of innocent victims—in Connecticut, Sudan, Colorado, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, the Middle East—all around the world. A Holy Week Witness to challenge a culture of violence.

At 10:30, people spill out of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square to begin the first Station of the Cross and our walk. Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut (I think it was he—I could not see him from where I stood!) welcomes us and thanks us for coming, then Bishop Mariann Budde welcomes folks as well. She leads us as we say “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” the Lord’s Prayer and a Renewal of our Baptismal Vows. Then we are off, walking towards the White House. A man who walks near me, wearing a plastic poncho over his clothing, but no coat, begins to sing “Balm in Gilead.” I cannot join in because he is not singing the hymn to the tune I know, but he is unfazed by the lack of voices joining his. He sings louder, seguing from one hymn to the next.

We cross the street to stand in front of the White House for the Second Station. Ironic. The scripture from John is the one where the chief priests answer Pilate with the words, “We have no king but the emperor.” Jesus is a dead man walking because his own people vow allegiance to the political powers rather than to God’s new way of love in the carpenter from Nazareth, the one who becomes the Christ.

“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.”

Before me, colorful umbrellas bob like bright flowers in the gray morning. A light “mess” is falling—something that seems to be unsure whether it is supposed to be snow or rain. Down Pennsylvania Avenue the crowd moves, slowly but surely. Behind me, one man beats a drum slowly. Others sing as they go. I see friends from other states and hug them. Many clergy have worn black cassocks as part of our public witness. All around me, I see the face of Christ.

“Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger. . .”

Bishop Mary GlasspoolI had seen my colleague Bishop Mary Glasspool at the beginning of the march. She had flown from California to be here, and it was good to see her again (I had known her when she was rector of St. Margaret’s in Annapolis, MD). Now, in the mess that has pretty much decided it will be light rain instead of snow, she is beside me. During the meditation, the leader asks us to turn to our neighbors, hold a hand or shoulder of that person, and ask for prayer: “Pray for me, a sinner.”  Mary and I do that, grin, then hug.

CrossAs we get ready to move again, she says, “Follow the cross. Follow the cross,” and I respond, “Always a good idea, isn’t it?”  We part as the crowd moves, but I have felt the holiness of prayer, of connection in relationship, of collegiality. The cross is lifted above the crowd, bobbing a bit like the umbrellas.

“. . .Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

At the Seventh Station, we stand in front of the John A. Wilson Building (houses the Mayor and Executive Council of DC). A man with a big camera climbs up on the side of the wide steps to get a better view of the crowd. He almost gets arrested, because two security guards begin to tell him that he cannot be up there. He does not seem concerned in the least, and only when their voices rise across that of the leader of this Station does he slowly begin to descend from his perch.

Holy God,

Holy and Mighty,

Holy Immortal One,

Have mercy upon us. 

At the Ninth Station, on the edge of the Mall, we pray by name for the Vice Principal and teachers in Newtown who, in December, offered their lives to protect the children in their care. We pray by name for all the children who died that day by gun violence. We remember all those who are victims of violence. We pray for peace. We ask God to guide us as we nurture and care for the children in this country and in this world. Our children and grandchildren deserve better than a life where they huddle in the corner of classrooms or in lockers, where they remember the popping sounds of gunfire that kill their brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, parents.

“I bind unto myself the Name, the strong Name of the Trinity. . .”

We move along the wide sidewalks, our marshals indicating we can no longer walk in the street. The U.S. Capitol looms as we approach; the last part of our march is across a soggy lawn to stand and pray. Way up on one of the balconies, I see four people looking down at us. Do the staffers or congress members know why we are here? Do they care? I wonder what difference our walk in the messy weather has made. By the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Station of the Cross, the purple cassocks of three bishops ahead of me were obviously wet at the bottom. Now, at the end, I wonder if my black cassock is in the same shape. (Later answer: yes.) The backs of some folks’ coats are drenched. People share umbrellas with someone else. We pray together for peace: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. . .”

At the end, the crowd begins to break up. Some go to meet with their congressional representatives. Some go to other meetings. Some of us begin to walk to a Metro station, to head home. Some board buses. All go with God.

Betsy and Sheila smOn this Monday of Holy Week, I give thanks for my brothers and sisters who cared enough about violence to come long distances, to walk, or to offer prayers from afar on our behalf. I have not walked so far in about two years, so yes, I am very weary and I’m sure my legs and feet will talk to me tonight. But it was good to see friends from near and far, to walk together for something greater than ourselves, to be a public witness against violence. By the end, my feet were cold, but my heart was not. The walk was good for my soul.

“Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit Word: praise to the Lord of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord.”

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton (Pictures by McJilton)

Hymn #370 in The 1982 Hymnal, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

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Salvation. Marcus Borg calls this word “a loaded word.” Author Kathleen Norris calls it one of her “scary words”—included in a group of words like “incarnation,” “revelation,” “atonement,” etc.

I am familiar with the loaded nature of the word “salvation” and the fear it invokes. As the oldest child of a southern Baptist minister, I have heard about salvation all of my life. The importance of accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior and being saved—that is, going to heaven when I die and not to the fires of hell—was stressed over and over. I found myself wondering about this seemingly bi-polar God who was full of love one moment, and in another, full of wrath and judgment. Was God really like this?

What a relief it was for the Episcopal Church to encourage me to use my intellect, to explore the original meanings of words like salvation. I felt like I could exhale when I learned that salvation has many meanings in the original languages. The Hebrew word for salvation, as Kathleen Norris reminded me, “means literally ‘to make wide’ or ‘to make sufficient’” This concept makes sense to me. It is also one that Marcus Borg reiterates in his own way. Liberation from bondage. Return from exile. Rescue from peril. Salvation is a new way of living, of transformation.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” For the past several years, this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer has tugged at me. What does that mean? For what are we praying? If God’s will is to be done on earth just like it is in heaven, what does that look like? What would I have to do to make that prayer a reality?

Here is where I think salvation comes in. I agree with Borg’s premise that being saved is not about what happens after I take the last breath I will take in this life. I now believe in salvation as a way of transformation (and I use that word “believe” as we do in the Creed—something to which I give my heart). If I have an adult fear about salvation, it is that after I take my last breath, the question I will face is what I have done in this life that brings God’s transforming love, either to one of God’s beloved creatures or to God’s beloved creation.

The narrow way of salvation that I heard about in my childhood has, itself changed in perception. It is a narrow, difficult way for me to love someone who is not particularly loveable. It is a narrow way for me to pay attention to how much gas I consume as I do errands. It is a narrow way to look at my privileged life and know that others have not had the chance, or the desire, to have decent shelter or enough food or acceptance and love or a good education.

This week, the Laurel Winter Shelter closes. During the bitter cold, a variety of congregations provide shelter for men and women, each taking the groups on a weekly basis. St. Philip’s Parish hosts both men and women the week after Christmas. There is, of course, not universal agreement about the overall theology of what congregations should be doing for the homeless. Some congregations believe that we must proclaim salvation to our homeless guests as John 14:6 proclaims—that singularly Christian, narrow path to God. They do not believe that a literal salvation from winter’s bitter cold or hospitality and a listening heart is all that we should do for homeless folks.

Because I lived in that culture for my formative years and understand that viewpoint, I no longer agree with it. I come to God’s salvation, that wide place of shalom and love, out of my experience, my Christian heritage, my heart and my intellect. I believe that it is not my role “to get someone saved.” That is for God to do, in God’s way and in God’s time, and I think it may happen out of, and in the midst of, community. What is my role as a Christian believer who lives in community? What do we need to be doing for God’s salvation? I believe it is to live into my understanding of how beloved I am of God, and out of that place of love and acceptance, to turn and love my brothers and sisters. How each of us does that is different. Yet we are all called into community to play a part in God’s salvation. We must each ask ourselves what we can do to make this world, in real time, show more of God’s love and fullness. Perhaps that will mean a literal salvation of someone’s life, especially in the cold winter. Perhaps that will mean a larger salvation as we break bread together with someone and take the time to listen to their stories. Perhaps salvation happens as we work for justice with social or political structures—justice that will result in the transformation of lives.

In this salvation, there is no fear. There is only love.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Source: Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: The Berkley Publishing Company, 1998), 20.

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Community and the Diner

Cold sunlight glints off silver as I walk up the steps. I push open the door and the warmth of the diner washes over me. Sharon is moving a white cloth with determined focus as she wipes the counter. She looks up as I move towards a booth in her section.

Cup of Coffee “Coffee?” she asks.

“Yes, thank you,” I reply.

“No cream, right?”

“Right.”

The diner is quiet. At 11:00 on a Friday morning, I slide into a red-cushioned booth with a table rounded with silver on its edges—one that makes me remember the table in Mama’s kitchen in the 1950s—and presided over by a big container full of sugar (the kind you pour), salt and pepper shakers and yes, a mini-jukebox with selections that still feature Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty.

As Sharon puts a cup of hot coffee down in front of me, I tell her what I want to eat—two eggs overlight, patty sausage, one slice of toast—and in what looks like one long motion, she disappears into the kitchen, yelling out my order. I hardly have time to look upat the muted TV that constantly shows Fox News, or down to pull out my I-phone to check e-mails, before she reappears with a steaming hot breakfast.

As I eat, I think about my “to do” list for Holy Week. Things that have not yet been crossed off. Young people with whom I need to talk, to see if they will read for our Passion Narrative on Passion Sunday. Liturgy yet to be written for the Holy Wednesday Contemplative Prayer & Healing service. Sermons yet to be written for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil,  Easter Sunday.

In this 1950’s local silver diner, no one cares. I am anonymous. Someone who is hungry on a Friday morning. They either don’t know or don’t care that I have a faith community, that I lead one faith community on Main Street. That Holy Week is almost here.  I am simply someone who is, for a few minutes, just part of this particular community. This community has some interesting folks. The owner who sits in his small office, counting money and getting ready to deposit payroll. The tattooed cook in the back. The man who often lurches around in unsteady gait as he buses tables—now eating his own breakfast on a diner stool at the counter.

Two middle-aged men walk in, looking like they have been two days without shaving. One announces,

“I wanna sit where I can see Keno.” There is only cryptic conversation after that—interrupted briefly by Sharon asking for their order—as both men stare above my head at the Keno game in progress. She disappears through swinging doors again and I can hear her announce to the cook,

“Two scrapple sandwiches on white.”

Because I am an Episcopal priest, and because I practically cut my teeth on a Southern Baptist church pew in my father’s church, I tend to think of community in faith terms. I know I am in a distinct minority these days. In the South, people used to ask—and rather freely, I must admit—the question “What’s your church home?” In other words, they assumed you have one. I have not lived in the South for many years, but my guess is that this question is still asked in some places.

Yet the assumption that people have a church home has changed dramatically, whether you live in the  South or somewhere else. Most of the world has moved on, into a post-modern, post-Christian place. Young people find the Church irrelevant. Lots of people, both young and older, have wearied of Christians who say one thing and do another. Of course the viewpoints of conservative Christians still manage to get a lot more press than liberal ones. One might well argue that conservatives have promoted their positions about scripture and theology much better than liberals.  And regardless of position on the theological spectrum, I would argue that most folks these days talk about the importance of scripture (sadly, Episcopalians among them), yet don’t take the time actually to READ scripture with mind and heart. However, that is a subject for another day. I digress.

Tastee Diner 2On this mid-March morning, I sit in an old diner that has existed in this town since the 1950’s.  Its bathrooms smell of a Clorox-filled mop. Its red cushions are smooth from years of peoples’ bottoms sliding across them Its round silver-trimmed bar stools still beckon with an invitation to spin them like I did as a child in such a place.

The waitress has probably done this job for all of her adult life. Her face is lined, her hair gray. She notes to the cashier that her feet hurt. Yes, I imagine they do. I imagine she has walked miles in this diner. Scrubbed that counter countless times. Filled sugar containers, re-filled salt and pepper shakers, stuffed the silver napkin holders until they bulge. Stood and shook her head when tight-fisted or contrary people have left a pittance of a tip (or worse, no tip.)

She is a member of this particular community. So, for a few minutes, am I. What do we have in common? I have never asked her what gives her life meaning or what gives her joy. I have never mouthed the words, “What’s your church home?”or even “Do you have a church home?” I suspect she would look at me as if I were one of the homeless folks who sit at the counter and talk to themselves.  That is not her language. That is not her world of experience.

Yet in this community, I can still bring God’s presence in my life with me. I can greet her by name. I can say “thank you, Sharon,” when she brings my breakfast. I can smile gratefully when she comes over without asking to top off my cup of coffee. I can press a 20% tip into her hand as I leave, and as she says “Have a good day,” I can respond, “You, too, Sharon.”  Is this the language of faith? Perhaps not. But I hope that on some level, it is the language of God’s love. God’s unconditional, radical, hospitable love—in the middle of an old diner, with people who cook someone else’s breakfast. With people who hang onto the Keno game like their lives depend on it. With people who rely on someone’s generosity to tip them well and whose feet hurt.

If she ever happens to wander into my community, I hope we will welcome her with at least the same respect she gives me when I wander into hers.

© Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures by McJilton

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