Saturday, March 30, 2013

May I Wash Your Feet?

It happened again on Thursday night. We had set the table, filled basins with hot water, set a dozen towels nearby, and strategically set a chair behind it all. The congregation recited the words of the Great Thanksgiving, the cup was lifted, the bread was broken, and an invitation was extended.

As you come forward to receive the bread and the cup this evening, you are also invited to have your feet washed as we remember Jesus' final commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us.


Not many of us like our feet. I became a consumer of Dr. Scholl's products at a young age when I realized my feet sweat a lot in gym class - and especially when I wore shoes without socks throughout the summer months. Thankfully this aroma has disappeared with age, but I know it well enough to recall how many uncomfortable moments it produced.

My feet don't exactly look great at the moment. Though sandal season is on the horizon, it's not quite here. My toenails are not even. They are not painted in pink.


How many of us like our feet? And how many of us will allow another person other than a person we are paying (and tipping 20%) at the nail salon to wash our feet?

I'm always amazed when people come forward on Maundy Thursday and sit in a chair as I kneel in front of them. They watch as I take their foot in my hands and pour hot water on top, gently caressing their foot and then repeating the process with the other foot before holding them both around a towel, drying off the dampness. It is an action that moves me to tears every Maundy Thursday as I look at these feet and recall the stories behind them, the challenges carried by them and the places they long to go.

I cannot wash feet without being profoundly grateful for the privilege of being a pastor.

We are welcoming new members tomorrow at Mount Vernon Place. I have had extensive conversations with one of these members about what it means to join a church and whether everyone needs a pastor. The conversations have been some of the most life-giving conversations I have ever had with anyone considering becoming part of our church family.

I don't know if everyone needs a pastor. I know that more people in our city go through life without one than choose to have one. But I also know the incredible gift that comes when someone allows me to be their pastor.

I am humbled to think of the times when I have been allowed into a hospital room to greet, hold and bless a child that is a few hours old. I consider it a sacred privilege to be welcomed at the bedside of one who is dying. I have never led a body to its final rest place in the cemetery without feeling like I am walking on holy ground. I hold close to my heart the life stories that have been shared with me because I am a pastor: stories of coming out as a gay man or lesbian woman, stories of relationships that are going well and marriages that are suffering, stories of babies being conceived and wombs that remain empty, stories of life and stories of death, stories of hopes and stories of dreams, stories of good actions and stories of actions we wish had never happened. It's a rather remarkable thing for someone to allow me to enter these places as I kneel before them, hold their lives in my hands, and offer a blessing, a prayer, a petition, tears and laughter.

I don't know if everyone needs a pastor.

But I pray - I so hope that when someone needs me to be their pastor that I am always available - that I show up, that I speak the right words, that I ask the right questions, that I allow the right amount of silence, that I laugh, and cry, and honor the sacredness and craziness and hopefulness and unfairness of life. I pray that I hold stories in my hands as though each story is fragile, as though a life could be made well or broken in an instant.

I learned a long time ago that pastoral ministry is a calling for which none of us are truly worthy.

I still cannot believe that people actually let me wash their feet.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Holy Tuesday

If the truth were told, I almost cancelled. My mind kept questioning whether I had good judgment in making a commitment to be on Capitol Hill yesterday morning at 6:50 a.m. I thought even more about the choice I had made when I set my alarm for 4:50 a.m. the night before. But I got up (only pushing snooze once). I arrived early. I had a Holy Tuesday.

It was during an Interfaith Prayer Service where I experienced laughter and tears, repentance and promise. A statement by a UCC pastor moved me. A song written for a man's wedding day made me laugh and cry. Watching so many couples be blessed made me weep. Seeing so many people standing on the side of love enabled me to see the love and teachings of Christ being made manifest.

And then moving towards the Supreme Court in mass while singing "This Little Light of Mine" gave me more joy than I've experienced in a long time. Seeing a sea of people with signs urging, hoping for, praying for justice and equality provided so much hope.

It was an appropriate way to journey towards the cross. There was passion and there were politics on display. Both seem rather appropriate during this Holy Week.

Sam Wells' book, "Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection" has been my reading this week. Wells shows how the resurrection changes everything. He writes:

Politics becomes the reorientation of life according to the freedom made possible by the power of overcoming death, and not just death but sin - through the power of forgiveness. Thus those aspects of society that had previously been just window become the key points of transformation, the nerve centers of the new politics. We still need laws, and we still need taxes, but the control of these things is no longer the definition of politics; politics is the reordering of passion in line with a new order of power. Now, in the resurrection of Jesus, we can see that every small gesture of reconciliation or care of the vulnerable is part of the way God is transforming the world. Power and passion come together at last. 

I saw glimpses of transformation yesterday. I have experienced the same transformation as a pastor in ministry with many LGBT people. And what I did yesterday may be the most faithful witness I have made for a resurrected Christ who proclaims how he has come so that we might have life and life abundantly in a long time.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday Anger

It's Palm Sunday. Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. Before the week is over we will have the chance to gather with Jesus for the Last Supper on Thursday, have our feet washed as we remember his commandment to serve one another, and then wait near a cross where he was crucified on Friday. It's an amazing week for the Christian Church. The days that separate today from Easter are game-changing days - days we need to remember and keep holy.

We often think of and remember a gentle Jesus on Palm Sunday. We imagine Jesus coming into Jerusalem bouncing on the back of a borrowed burrow. We think of calm crowds lining the streets and singing "Hosanna" while the religious authorities grow furious. Palm Sunday is the stuff that Children's Bible storybooks are made of as we always ask children to parade for us on Palm Sunday.

But that's not all that happened on Palm Sunday.

None of the lectionary assignments offer the full story of Palm Sunday. We much prefer a gentle Jesus to a Jesus who gets angry. But if we keep reading the story we encounter a Jesus who weeps over the city of Jerusalem and then goes straight to the temple in order to drive out money changers. He even makes a whip in the gospel of John.

What happened to gentle Jesus?

Jesus is furious because the religious authorizes have become so focused on ridiculous rules and saving themselves that they have forgotten the call of God placed upon their lives. They are ignoring the prophets who have instructed them to love God with all they have while loving their neighbor as themselves. They are not doing justice and loving mercy.

We concluded our sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins today with an examination of the sin called "anger." It's a sin we know well. I get angry when I am driving. I get angry when I feel like my husband is not listening to me. I get angry when untrue statements are made about me. We get angry over all kinds of stuff - much of it not worth our rise in blood pressure.

But Jesus sets a different example for us today. He shows us what it means to have our anger rooted in love and justice. Jesus embodies righteous indignation. This anger is one that can lead to all kinds of change in the world.

When I was preaching this morning I shared different things that make me angry. I arrived downtown just in time to see a young girl who was clearly a victim of sex-trafficking get out of a pick-up truck. I wanted to run the truck down so the man would get arrested. I see victims of sex-trafficking waiting for their pimps to pick them up any time I arrive downtown before 7:00 am - it does not matter what day of the week it is. Sex-trafficking makes me angry.

I also shared how homelessness makes me angry. While I love and adore urban ministry, I serve in a constant tension over what to do with people who sleep on our porches. I hate driving into a city where I pass countless people asleep on park benches. It drives me nuts that corners of our church buildings are regularly used for bathrooms or that the stone is stained by urine. I don't believe that the capital city of the United States of American should have so many homeless people on its streets. A lack of care, programs and affordable housing makes me angry.

And I shared how our United Methodist Church's official teaching on homosexuality makes me angry. I completely disagree with our church's teaching on homosexuality. I believe we are harming people with our teaching instead of doing good. Telling gay and lesbian brothers and sisters that they are incompatible with Christian teaching because of their sexuality makes me angry. Being able to marry a couple who are not members of our church and who have only known each other for a few months while not being able to marry couples who are active members of our church, faithfully following Jesus, and who have been together for decades makes me angry.

What makes you angry?

What would happen if we were to follow Jesus' example and allow our righteous indignation to turn into action this week? What if one of the ways to make this week holy were to allow our anger that is rooted in love and justice be transformed into working for justice for others? What would this change look like?

On Tuesday morning I'll arrive on Capitol Hill at 6:50 to be part of a prayer service before the Supreme Court starts to hear oral arguments on marriage. I'll then process with clergy and followers of Christ to the steps of the Supreme Court. I firmly believe that marriage is a gift that all people should be entitled to receive and enjoy. Perhaps there is no better time for me to be part of this processional and prayers than Holy Week.

But I may need to do more. Before the week is over I may also need to finally schedule that trip to New York City so our church members can see a transformational model of homeless ministry. I may also need to reconnect with Courtney's House to see what more we can do to get victims of sex-trafficking out of the hands of pimps and into a more abundant life.

What makes you angry?

How could your anger be transformed into working for change this Holy Week?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why My Church Needs Pope Francis

"I knew the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation before I could even ride a bike." 

These words are the words that started the best admissions essay I read in my four years as Director of Admissions for Duke Divinity School.  The student who wrote these words ultimately chose another school. I cannot remember his name, but I'll never forget his brilliant essay. He was an exception - and so are his words.

Though I was raised in the church and went through confirmation classes, I had no idea what the words "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation" meant until I got to seminary. I knew there were differences between the Protestant United Methodist Church of my upbringing and the Catholic Church but I could not tell you what they were.

It did not matter.

My parents found enough of the spiritual life they needed at the Methodist Church, and I went right along. Why did I need to learn about the Catholic faith? It seemed more important to me to keep on going to what made sense to me while others continued to go to the church of their own choosing.

I continue to value diversity when it comes to our faith. There are many Sundays when I long for the fresh winds of the Spirit that blow through the Assembly of God Church in tangible ways. There are other Sundays when I would not mind a little incense when we think about the aroma of the offerings we make towards God. There are still other Sundays that I wish we had an immersion pool to use when we baptize adults so that we could see the power of dying to our sins and being raised with Christ. As I look at all the different denominations founded on Jesus, I believe we have more in common with each other than we allow ourselves to believe. Though we are far from being one, there are many things in which we find a oneness.

And to the outside, we are one. We are simply "the church" which means that when one member suffers we all suffer together.

One of the most compelling books I have read by someone who left the faith is William Lobdell's "Losing My Religion."  I found the book in a local Busboys and Poets, started to read it and could not set it down. Lobdell tells a powerful story of falling in love with God, having a mountaintop experience with Jesus, and then being assigned by the Los Angeles Times to cover the child sex abuse case in the Catholic Church. His eight years on the religion beat exposed him to a giant cover-up overflowing with hypocrisy, efforts to cover the church's ass at all costs, and deep corruption. He lost his faith completely and there are countless others like him. Even my search for the book on Amazon just now paired Lobdell's book with two additional books about preachers who left the church and became atheists. Sometimes the closer we get to the fire the more we get burned.

"If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." Paul wrote these words to a church that had no idea how many divisions awaited it. But we do. I know well what happens when one part of the body is going astray, and how this one part impacts everyone.

I see it every time Westboro Baptist Church shows up to picket with signs full of hatred. Many of us know that Westboro is the farthest thing from Christ's love, but they still call themselves a church, and their actions impact me and my church.

I saw it when a member of the United Methodist Church compared homosexuality to beastiality on the floor of our General Conference last year, when delegates to our church's meeting could not even agree to say that we disagree. Our actions impacted countless other churches whether Methodist or not.

I see it every time a member of the cloth gives into the temptation we all face on a daily basis whether it is an extramarital affair or sins around money.

And perhaps even my life has been a stumbling block to others at times whether it is how I choose to spend my money, the words that come from my mouth, or the choice of beverage in my hand.

Our actions matter. Most people have no idea what the difference is between transubstantiation and consubstantiation and most people don't care. They see one church - a church that is constantly falling short of the glory of God - a church with leaders who are regularly falling and sinning - a church that is a long way away from what Jesus created it to be when he said, "You are my body."

Pope Francis did two incredibly prophetic things yesterday within the first hour of his life being transformed. First he took the name Francis. He took the name of a Saint whose legacy continues to have a profound impact today. It was Francis of Assisi who said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and use words only when necessary." It was Saint Francis who had a life-giving ministry to and with the poor. It was Francis who said, "make me an instrument of your peace."

Our church - our Protestant and Catholic Church - can learn a lot from Saint Francis. We have come a long way from his simple life amongst people we consider poor. We could use more of Francis' legacy in our churches.

Pope Francis then asked an overflowing crowd to bless him - to pray for him. Our church - our Protestant and Catholic Church - could be transformed if all our members took time to daily pray for their pastors, priests, bishops, nuns and pope.

The eyes of the world are upon the church once more. They are upon the Catholic Church, waiting to see if Pope Francis can bring about reform and healing to a church known for monetary and sex scandals. What Francis does matters - not just to Catholics but to my United Methodist Church, too. I'm praying for Pope Francis, that he may be a saintlike leader just like his namesake, having courage to make much needed changes. And as I pray for him, I'm also praying for me and my own church. Forgive me for all I have done to ever lead someone away from God and the church instead of towards it. Forgive us for our hypocrisy, for being anti-homosexual as a denomination, for not always being like Christ. Forgive us for building a fortress when we had an opportunity to instead set up a foundation that gave money away where it is much needed.

There's a lot at stake. I love the church. I believe Jesus still has the power to change and transform lives and that he does it best through the church. The city in which I live desperately needs the church. I need the church. Our world needs the church - at its very best - Christ's body reaching out, bringing in, loving, serving, caring and transforming.

God, make us all instruments of your peace....and love, and mercy and grace. Make us like you. Amen.