The Rabbi, my old friend: John !5

For Easter 6

My best friend is a Rabbi. We meet every Tuesday for breakfast. We were college roommates in a third floor attic apartment fifty years ago. His long friendship has helped me to read scripture through the eyes of a Jew. Of all the blessings in my ministry this is one of the big ones.

The Gospel of John is particularly problematic when read through his eyes. The Rabbi is not going to accept Jesus as the son of Gd. He is not going to resonate with the idea that we are engrafted on the vine of the Christ. His insights inform my own.  To be engrafted onto the vine of the Christ is to remember who we come from and who Jesus was and, for me, still is; a Jew.

This of course flies in the face of history and tradition and yet John’s Gospel is almost a mirror image of what was going on in the Jewish community after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. That event became the catalyst for the Jewish and Christian communities to forge a new identity, to find out who they were in this new paradigm.

The Pharisees gathered what was left of the tradition and became the school of the Rabbis. Every local community of Jews would now meet in a center for education and formation. The primary focus of the faith would be in the family and around the family meal. Celebrations such as Passover would be in the home, the elder usually male head of the family would lead the ritual reading. The mother would light the Sabbath candles and say the blessing. Observance of Kosher food laws and other ritual practices distinguished the Jewish people from their neighbors and inter-marriage with non-Jews was discouraged.  Survival for the Jews required a new definition of who they were and are. Surrounded by a hostile world, its evidence an almost eternal truth, the Jewish community is setting guidelines and procedures for survival and a new identity in Gd.

John’s community faces many of the same tests to their identity and survival. Some of the early faithful have fallen away and returned to the Middle Eastern and Southern European gods. The Jews fed up with the proselytizing of the emergent Christians, expelled many of them from the synagogue. Persecution that came with their identity as a new religion that did not hold to the Roman pantheon and their close relationship with the Jewish community, led to many falling away or running for their lives.

John’s almost mystical Gospel of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word, the Truth, the light and the life, were his largely successful attempt to craft an identity for the People of the Way in the face of a hostile world. It was a minority defense of his faith in the One God and His Son, the New Christ. John’s Gospel is written for a persecuted church that is trying to survive under the Roman Imperium.

Once John’s Gospel becomes the text for a majority culture it loses its initial purpose. It can become and has become an instrument of persecution to those, who will not believe. For those of us who have listened to these words over a lifetime, we can become blind to the potential of these words for harm. Words that should be sung and prayed and contemplated may and have become the tyranny of the majority.

The words of John in John 14: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the father except through me,” isn’t meant to be a club, but an invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Anyone who knows Jesus knows that confessing a faith with words and not living it out in its fullness is a mockery.  They are an invitation to live with a heart of love, a refusal to conform to the fads and fleeting allures of the times, to live with integrity and to seek justice with mercy and humility. It means to follow the steps of Jesus toward his death and resurrection and to hold Jesus like Mary in our arms as he weeps over the suffering world.

I can only show the love of God by becoming the best Christ that is within me, looking straight ahead and not worrying who and how many are seeing the same way as I. If those I meet along the way behave with compassion, they are true followers of the Christ whether they confess him or not. for the leaven of the Christ is love.  And isn’t that the Truth of the Christ of which John writes?

I met with the rabbi at our regular Tuesday morning outing. Trying to explain John as well as my lack of scholarship in the area, he said,

“I talk to Jesus.

I chuckled, “When did you last talk with him?”

“I’m serious, how recently do you want?” he said.

“I know you’re serious, I was chuckling at how familiar this conversation is for me.” I responded.

“I’ve been praying most recently to St Anthony to help me find my wallet.” He said.

We both laughed.

 

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Grandmother’s Model for Mission.

My grandmother was kicked out of Wales and sent to America. That’s the way I like to tell the story. Born to a poor family in Liverpool, her father in the merchant marine would come home for long enough to impregnate his wife and leave her with another mouth to feed and not enough income. Gram, as I would call her, was sent to live with her mother’s sister in Wales. One Sunday Gram was left alone as the rest of the family went to church. The table was set for Sunday dinner when they returned. A lace tablecloth adorned the table, the edges of the tablecloth hung unevenly over the sides. She found the scissors and cut the edges off. Not long after the aunt’s return from church, Gram found her way to the Boston aunt who would lovingly raise her. That’s the part of the story I remember. There may have been much more to it. It may have been a blow for freedom or some deep psychological flaw emergent in her personality. I was glad she made it to the USA.

My mother’s mother, Annetta Jane Mason, was a tiny woman with what the photographer called a Grecian nose. She had a high almost nasal voice and spent at least one day a week cleaning, preparing the altar cloths and scrubbing the tiles around the altar at St John’s Church in Jamaica Plain. One of her beloved responsibilities was to take the flowers each Sunday from the altar and deliver them to the sick. One Sunday she brought me, I was five or six. It was a winter day in Boston. The sky was overcast and the thin grey light barely lit the one-room apartment where a woman, helpless, lay dying. The winter light shone through the sheer curtains that hung from the one window. The bedside table was cluttered with cups and saucers and medicine bottles, the sink was filled with dishes. Gram went into action. She cleared the bedside table, found a vase, placed the flowers, lit the stove and made ready for some tea and lunch, washed the dishes and went to hold the dying woman’s hand. I don’t remember what I did. I must have helped, but mostly I remember the whole scene in stunned silence and wonder. It became for me a model for ministry. To bring the flowers, find a vase, clear the table and wash the dishes and hold a hand. Gram probably also prayed with her. It may well have been from the Gospel of John, the one you will read this Sunday.

I had dragged my feet to get ordained. The various anxieties in the church about the new prayer book and hymnal and the ordination of women, while I sympathized with those in the trenches, to me it seemed a total waste of time. The work of the church was in the city and among the poor. Beside that, I knew for a long time that women were the backbone of the church, what could possibly be the problem with their ordination? But Gram kept on asking, “When are you going to be ordained?”  I finally set the date for December 14, 1976, fully five years since my ordination as a deacon.

The week before the ordination, Gram lay in her bed suffering with a pernicious cancer. I went to visit her. She was terribly weak. We chatted about some of the visions she was having due, she thought, from the drugs she took to ease the pain. She dreamed of a tall man with a beard and a tall black hat dancing with children in the back yard of her house.

I asked, “Gram would you like me to read something from the Bible? Weakly she replied, “Yes.”

I began the reading from John, the translation we all knew and loved at the time: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…” I heard my grandmother’s voice join in… “I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going….” She knew the entire verse by heart.

I told her that I would carry her to my ordination if I had to, but a week later she was too frail to withstand any movement. Immediately after the ordination I went to see her. “Gram I did it, I got ordained,” I told her. She smiled through her pain and weakly took my hand. She was gone to God within the next few hours.

Still, she is my model for mission.  Happy Mothers Day!

Easter 3, an afterthought

They say that when you dream, you are dreaming about yourself. The various characters and images in the dream are a part of you.  So is scripture. Who’s the gate keeper, the hired hand, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep?  Aren’t we all of these; the voice and cry of each asking to be heard. There’s always been a twinge of conscience when I hear the disloyalty of the hired hand, the one who works for pay. That’s me. And sure enough there are times when I run away when the going gets tough, either that or try to weather the storm by pretending there isn’t one.

That is the problem with a hired clergy: we are hired men and women. If only we didn’t love the congregation so much. If only we didn’t have this troubled relationship with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that rattles our hearts and minds and draws us toward love. After almost forty-five years of ordained life, I still have a twinge of conscience. I think it’s a good reminder lest we get too big for our britches and forget that the sheep that are secured by the gate are going to be left with some of our mess when we leave as well as the mess they make themselves. We are all mucking through to God.

If you read these offerings from week to week, you know how much, at least in my own mind, I tried. And mercy, as one old priest would always remark, “Lord have mercy” and thanks for the forgiveness that seems to keep floating down like a summer breeze.

And you can believe this or not, there are times that I was ferocious to protect the flock from those who would abuse or do violence. There were times when I would have laid my life down for them, but Jesus already did that. My heart is full of gratitude for it all.

Jesus Keeps on Breakin’ Through: Easter 3

It was the cockroach racing up the concrete block wall of the Project apartment that assaulted me with the pure presence of Christ. Of course I was always looking for a sign, any sign of the holy, scouring the ground for spores and scat and anything that would lead and guide me on…And keep me out of trouble with three good and not so good guys who I had to live when I was young. They had all been in the two world wars. Maybe the propensity of the mystic grows out of such common ground. So seeing signs of the Christ in a cockroach may not seem so unusual as you read on. 

Jesus stops with two disciples in a blowing alley. Thanks to artist Joe Forkan for the painting.

Jesus stops with two disciples in a bowling alley. Thanks to artist Joe Forkan for the painting.

The little church had agreed with me to do Bible Study in the projects. It was a six of seven week program during Easter on the great women of the Bible. The first meeting was in the projects in the home of Louise. The Archdale Housing Development and other public housing was built by the city in the forties to the sixties and by 1980 they struggled to keep the windows, doors and hallways secure and free of urine. 

The projects in Roslindale, a neighborhood in Boston Massachusetts, were better off then some, but there was a great gulf between the poor who lived in them and the rest of the marginal working and middle class who lived outside and around them. Some of the politicians had successfully used fear of the poor and the marginal to cultivate votes. It had worked for too long, still does. My work it seemed was to bridge the gulf, or fly over it. 

About six parishioners from the church assembled and drove as a group to the projects. Louise, a Baptist, had told me when I knocked on doors throughout the project to get the lay of the land, that rather than a youth center or a refurbished swimming pool, trashed by a kid driving a stolen VW Beetle through the fence and into the pool, Louise wanted bible study. I wanted to open the pool. For now bible study won 

I was proud of the six who had come. It was an act of great courage for them. In the room from the church was Helen the matriarch of a large family of plumbers. In her sixties, she liked to dress in tight cashmere sweaters that showed off her figure. She wanted me to be there to bury her she said. Her son Richard Trethewey can be seen on “This Old House” on public television. Helen was one of the saints. Marion was the Senior Warden, a formidable woman, never married, whom I had known for most of my life, and she was a debt collector for Filene’s, her brother was there and three other women. From the projects were Louise, Alice a mother and African American, Rita from Puerto Rico who spoke little English, and a white mother with a learning disabled son and three others. We crowded into the living room of the Louise’s apartment.  

As we said prayers and sat for meditation on the reading about Miriam, the sister of Moses, the cockroach started to climb the wall. It was the only one that showed itself that evening; the others were somewhere lurking, because cockroaches like to come and forage at night.  

After a heart opening discussion, we said the blessing and shared simple refreshments of crackers, cake and Kool Aid. It was our Eucharistic Feast. “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ comes and will come again.” 

The cockroach once more opened my eyes to some of the insults and injuries of poverty, the cockroach which is as common among the poor as hunger.” The brazen cockroach did not evoke comment or shrieks from the church people. Instead they continued, shared insights, put themselves into the shoes of Miriam.  They were present to a greater and lesser degree in that room with each other bridging the divide that separates us from each other and from the Christ who breeches all barriers and  unbridgeable divides. I thought, with a great sigh of relief afterwards, “It could have been otherwise.” (Note Jane Kenyon’s poem, Otherwise) 

The next week we gathered at the house of a parishioner. Parishioners picked up Louise and Rita and the others and drove them to the home of a recently widowed member of the congregation. She had set the table for a feast with linen and a lace table cloth. The room was simple yet elegant and the woman had baked for two days. She displayed bone china in her glass enclosed cupboard. I remember Louise’s complaint afterwards. She protested that the woman was “putting on airs”. I chuckled. My grandmother, pure and unbridled working class English from Liverpool poverty, used to say the same thing about the ladies who wore expensive hats to church. I said, “Louise, it may have looked that way, but she had done her very best to show you welcome and hospitality.” Also she was terribly lonely since her husband’s death. So while the Christ crosses that divide, it’s harder for people. We continued to work with our prejudices for the next five weeks and for some of us…much longer. 

Within five years the community did organize with the people in the projects. The city with much encouragement from the organized churches, aptly named, Project ACTS, came up with at least five million dollars to take the VW Bug out of the pool, restore the pool and its buildings and set up an inter-racial and inter-ethnic community council to care for the building and those who would use it. It is still in use almost forty years later and as far as I know it has not been vandalized again.

 

 (Here’s a poem that is apt for our life together. While it may not be directly relevant to the text this week, here it is anyway, may you enjoy and may you have and be enough)

 

Enough

by David Whyte

 

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
until now.

Until now.

A Poem for the day

(Here’s a poem that is apt for our life together. While it may not be directly relevant to the text this week, here it is anyway, may you enjoy and may you have and be enough now and at all times) 

Enough

by David Whyte

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
until now.

Until now.

A David Whyte poem from
Where Many Rivers Meet

 

 

Easter 2: Jesus Keeps Showing Up.

Easter Sunday, when Eddie Wiggin showed up, none of us knew he was coming. Eddie is the son of a parishioner who was, until the time of his death, a very active and beloved member of the congregation. Their son Eddie was born with Down syndrome and when he first was born he was sheltered, hidden from the congregation, until a former priest of the church said, “Bring him to church.” He learned to serve at the altar, skills that I was impressed he had not forgotten. Eddie was pressed into service. The banner that his parents gave to the church was taken down and he carried it in procession. But he could not see in front of him so he had to be guided by Ed Hammond, an older man also with Down syndrome, into the church. The moment was priceless. The two could not see and so the last of the procession inched forward while the front of the procession had already arrived at the sanctuary. Up the aisle walked the young crucifer and torch bearers in front of the full choir, while Eddie, Ed, Jim Wilson, the associate priest, and I trailed along behind Eddie to the singing of Jesus Christ is Risen today. It was a holy moment, one that I had not anticipated. I know there were some who were dismayed at the slow pace of our banner bearers. Certainly they had their points. I was terribly spontaneous sometimes and enlisting the inexperienced Ed into the procession was a stretch. And yet his father had recently died in the hospital while I stood beside him with the doctor, an orthodox Jew, as we shut off the life support and we each held a hand while his heartbeat slipped away, his stepmother in the emergency room bed only twenty feet away. So when Eddie showed up, there was a rightness to have their son carry the banner that was given by them to the church. I walked entranced by the sheer poignancy of the event. The music continued until the two banner carriers reached the front of the church, and we clergy found out places. We could have gone home. It was enough, another homely incursion of Jesus through the locked doors of our hearts, breaking in to show us that what we do now is filled with the life of those who have gone before and those who will come after. And yet that day and so many times before and after, Jesus walked with us, slowly almost painfully coming with us up the aisle, walking with the two Eddies, two valiant  ones with good souls, leading the clergy, So there are times when we are the church and times we are akin to those frightened disciples behind bolted doors. And it is to that church also, to which the risen Christ comes. The risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you.” And tells them he is sending them out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing on them the power to forgive sins. Church is a gift from a God who refuses to leave us be. God comes to us. God’s presence makes the church. To the church who has nothing, Christ gives everything: Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness. Church isn’t my hard work, your earnest effort, our long-range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us.* *The last paragraph is inspired by Tom Long..

When Eddie Wiggin showed up, none of us knew he was coming. Eddie is the son of a parishioner who was, until the time of his death, a very active and beloved member of the congregation. Their son Eddie was born with Down syndrome and when he first was born he was sheltered, hidden from the congregation, until a former priest of the church said, “Bring him to church.” He learned to serve at the altar, skills that I was impressed he had not forgotten. Eddie was pressed into service. The banner that his parents gave to the church was taken down and he carried it in procession. But because of the size of the banner he couldn’t see in front of him so he had to be guided by Ed Hammond. Ed Hammond was an older man also with Down syndrome. He had become a regular server at the early service and his advancing Alzheimers sometimes left him confused. Into the church we came. Because the two couldn’t see, those of us bringing up the rear inched forward while the front of the procession had already arrived at the sanctuary. Up the aisle walked the young crucifer and torch bearers in front of the full choir, while Eddie, Ed, Jim Wilson, the associate priest, and I trailed along behind Eddie to the singing of Jesus Christ is Risen today. It was a holy moment, one that I hadn’t anticipated. I know there were some who were dismayed at the slow pace of our banner bearers. Certainly they had their points. I was sometimes spontaneous and enlisting the inexperienced Eddie and the failing Ed into the procession was a stretch. And yet Eddie’s father had recently died in the hospital while I stood beside him with the doctor, an orthodox Jew, as we shut off his life support. We each held a hand while David’s heartbeat slipped away. Mae, his stepmother, lay in a bed in the emergency room only twenty feet away. So when Eddie showed up, there was a rightness to have their son carry the banner that was given by them to the church. I walked entranced by the sheer poignancy of the event. The music continued until the two banner carriers reached the front of the church, and we clergy found out places. We could have gone home. It was enough, another homely incursion of the holy through the locked doors of our hearts, breaking in to show us that what we do now is filled with the life of those who have gone before and those who will come after. And yet that day and so many times before and after, it was, I think, Jesus who walked with us, slowly almost painfully coming with us up the aisle, walking with the two Eddies, two valiant  ones with good souls, leading the clergy, So there are times when we are the church and times we are akin to those frightened disciples behind bolted doors. And it is to that church also, to which the risen Christ comes. The risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you.” And tells them he is sending them out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing on them the power to forgive sins. Church is a gift from a God who refuses to leave us be. God comes to us. God’s presence makes the church. To the church who has nothing, Christ gives everything: Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness. Church isn’t my hard work, your earnest effort, our long-range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us.* *The last paragraph is inspired by Tom Long..

So there are times when we are the church and times we are akin to those frightened disciples behind bolted doors. And it is to that church also, to which the risen One comes and announces, “Peace be with you.” And tells them he is sending them out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.

That Easter Sunday the two Eddies led us out of the church. We left the banner behind and they walked hand and hand in front of us down the aisle as the three Haitian sisters and cousins led the choir as we sang,”O Happy Day.” On the way to God as the rafters rang, we danced and sang.