A Short Essay on Jesus, The Good Shepherd: the 4th Sunday of Easter

The fourth Sunday of Easter always features readings from scripture describing Jesus as the Good Shepherd. They are familiar and comforting, thus run the risk of becoming sentimentalized to the point where the power of God’s word expressed through them becomes weak tea, lukewarm and way too sweet. This brief essay attempts to recover some of the world shaking power that lies within them. To do that, I need to go back to last Sunday’s story about the road to Emmaus.

In an internet exchange with other Episcopalians about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I commented on how Jesus came, uninvited and unrecognized, to walk along with two ordinary, unimportant disciples. Another person picked up on it, saying she walks with Jesus every day, which, frankly, missed the whole point. The two disciples didn’t walk with Jesus, Jesus walked with them without revealing himself. Why? For us the question isn’t whether we walk with Jesus; it’s whether he walks with us, perhaps uninvited and unrecognized. Why would God choose to walk with an ordinary person like you and me, doing the best we can along the road of life? Would he really do that? Yes, it’s what he did, what he does.

Why, is answered in part in this Sunday’s readings, and it can challenge us to the core. It revolves around what it means that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are members of his flock. More than a Good Shepherd, Jesus is also the gate and guardian of the place where we are safe and have life in abundance. Gates open to let us out, and to let us in. When Jesus calls us to leave our place of comfort and safety to forage in the world, will we hear his voice, the one that calls us each by name? There are wolves and lions in the world. Will we have the courage to follow him into a dangerous world? When he calls us to return to the safety of his fold, will we hear his voice, the one that calls us each by name? Will we surrender our make believe freedom to follow him?

These are important questions.

Like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the Good Shepherd readings tell us that ordinary, every day you and me are of much value, so valuable that God in Christ Jesus will defend us against all assaults of our enemies, and that surely trusting in him, we need not fear the power of any adversary. (BCP, 99)

But here’s the rub. They also make clear that in belonging to him we are owned by him. We belong to God not as property but as beloved children, friends even. It’s a problem, especially to those for whom the myth of self reliant American individualism inclines them to rebel against the idea that they’re not their own masters. The myth doesn’t create hermits. We’ll accept volunteered help if we think we need it, and it’s offered. We’ll help our neighbor if asked, but we won’t be forced into it. We say we can take care of ourselves, and expect others to do likewise. Anything less is irresponsible, lazy, maybe even cowardly. The myth says all rights are individual rights. God given perhaps, but once given they belong to the individual and no one else. To each his own. We’re not unaware of the greater good, and will partially surrender some rights, in reluctant measure, for the good of the community when forced to do so, but we won’t like it.

To be frank, it’s often a form of idolatry, mostly benign, but sometimes not. It’s not all bad. Personal responsibility and self reliance are worthy virtues if they follow in the way of Jesus. If they don’t, it’s idolatry.

Christians cannot be individualists in the mythical sense of the word because we are not our own possession. We are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP, 308). As Christians following Jesus in his way of love, we no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus who died and was raised for us. (2 Cor. 5.15). It is no longer I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2.20). These words from St. Paul can get a little out of hand at times. Let’s face it, he had a big ego and a strong sense of wanting things done his way, but he was onto something important.

We are not our own possession. We belong to God in Christ Jesus. We are individually known and loved and called by name. But we are not called to stand alone. We are also members of his flock, a community, the welfare of which is as important to God as our own. And there’s more. There are other communities unfamiliar to us, and Jesus is their shepherd also, which means they are our brothers and sisters in Christ though we do not know them, they don’t know us, and they may not know Jesus the same way we do.

Jesus took time out of his day of resurrection to spend the afternoon walking along the road to Emmaus with two ordinary, unknown disciples. He didn’t wait to be asked, he didn’t demand to be recognized, he just showed up. Why? Because they were his sheep, members of his flock, and they were as important to him as Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary and all the rest.

The road we’re on passes through a valley of pandemic death. Our time in that valley is difficult. It’s not the most dangerous valley ever, nor the worst of all possible times. The world has seen worse. America has seen worse. Some of you have seen worse. But it’s difficult just the same, and it’s a burden to everyone else in the world – all at the same time. That’s never happened before. Is Jesus walking with us, even if we’re unaware? Is there a table in the midst of it? Is it filled with an abundance of divine nourishment? Will we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread? Good questions to ask when you break bread tonight.

Two Ordinary People Walking to Emmaus: why are these hours of ambling along important to us?

The Road to Emmaus is a favorite among Easter stories (Luke 24). Read as it often is on the third Sunday of Easter, it seems as if some amount of time has passed. We need to be reminded that it was still the day of the resurrection. The tomb had been found empty, Jesus had appeared to Mary, she had told the others, they had gone to look, and Jesus spent some time with the leading disciples that evening. Between all this, Luke recorded that Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus for several hours with two of his lesser known disciples.

I find it an extraordinary episode that leaves me wondering. Following the resurrection, Jesus might have spent most of the day conferring with Peter, James and John, or maybe more time with his mother, or Mary Magdalene. But no, he spent most of the afternoon ambling down the road to Emmaus with two otherwise unknown disciples, one of whom was named Cleopas. Was the other a man or a woman? Could they have been Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas? Just to be clear about it, they were not walking with Jesus, Jesus was walking with them, and it’s an important difference.

The two didn’t recognize him even as the conversation turned to what had happened over the last week, and the astounding rumor that Jesus was reported to have been resurrected. Nor did they recognize him as he rehearsed scripture so they could better understand who and what the Messiah was called to be. They did not recognize him until he blessed and broke bread with them at dinner that evening, whereupon he disappeared. It’s such an amazing moment that one’s attention is drawn to it, to the exclusion of what went on before, and what went on before may be the more important. We’re talking about several hours of deep conversation, and that has to be important.

For one thing, Jesus went into a detailed examination of Hebrew scripture, which should be a clue to us that no one can truly understand what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus, unless they are well informed about the Old Testament, it’s content and meaning. What might that mean for us today? Think about it. On the day of his resurrection, Jesus spent hours of walking and talking with two “unimportant” disciples explaining the scripture’s meaning to them. If he thought it was that important, should we not also?

For another, we’ve never heard of these disciples before, nor will we hear of them again. They were not among his famous inner circle. They’re not named in any of the Acts of the Apostles, nor in any of Paul’s letters. Yet Jesus took an entire afternoon and evening dinner to be with them. Does he still do that? If he does, who does he choose to walk with? If it was you or me, would we know it? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said we should show hospitality to strangers because some have entertained angels without knowing it (Heb. 12). What if the stranger is not an angel, but Jesus himself?

It seems one of the most extraordinary things about Jesus is how much he cares for ordinary people and their deepest needs, how much time he will spend in company with them, and how willing he is to walk beside them without making himself known. When God’s awesome omnipotence removes ‘him’ too far away, this story should remind us of God’s desire and intention for intimate conversation, humbly walking with us along the road of life.

Scary Right Wing Ads on Social Media: a few random observations

Social media has shown a surge of angrily anxious ads about how left wing Democrats are using COVID-19 to push their radical socialist agenda. What they mean is unclear but they clearly intend to evoke something Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once said, or were rumored to have said. Given current government restrictions on public life, the ads remind their target audience of the old bugaboo that anything that can be labeled socialist is a straight path to the federal government controlling every aspect of personal life. In the old days we were told anything remotely socialist would lead directly to Soviet Russia or Red China; now it’s Cuba or Venezuela. In my younger days I thought only the most gullible would swallow that bait, but having witnessed a couple of generations raised on the likes of Limbaugh, Ingraham, Beck & Co., I have seen how well their propaganda has sold. It’s frightening partly because, in the name of freedom, it points toward right wing authoritarian rule.

As an opening gambit, right wingers have accused Democrats of larding relief legislation with pork. Did they? It appears their primary contribution was to do what they could to assure accountability and direct funds to areas of most critical need. Clearly more needs to be done, considering how quickly the small business PPP program was raided by major banks giving preferential treatment to wealthy clients, and how hard Trump has tried to keep distributions secret. So much for being the president who sold himself as the candidate for the working class.

Social media ad producers are deeply concerned that COVID-19 has exposed the need for and practicality of universal health care unrelated to employment. At risk are enormous profits to be made at the expense of adequate health care for all. The oft repeated mantra that the U.S. has the best medical care in the world has been revealed as the fiction it’s been for over half a century. With nearly every other nation having some form of universal health care, it’s obvious that it doesn’t lead to Russian communism, and certainly not to Venezuelan chaos. Moreover, we now more clearly understand that good health care for those at the bottom of the economic ladder is to care for men and women essential to the working of the economy. Their health brings better health to us all. Trickle down economics has never worked, but bottom up health care does.

For right wingers, universal health care is not the camel’s nose under the tent, it’s the whole damn camel opening it up for all kinds of what they call socialism. To ward it off, elections have to be manipulated to keep more of certain people from voting, but legislative moves to assure every eligible voter is able to vote, without restriction, mostly by mail, has thrown a wrench into their plans. How to stop it? Claim it’s a move to destroy the integrity of the voting system, even allowing non-citizens the vote.

Close behind is their concern that after fifty years of suppressing unions, the desire of the working and lower middle classes to again have a shot at the American Dream might be staging a comeback. It was OK for Trump to use the Dream as a campaign gimmick, but to think they might actually organize to get it back is threatening. The right of bosses to dictate working conditions under the guise of right to work may be ending. Trump’s campaign promises to recreate the high paying jobs of old were more than fantasy, they were deliberate lies. The public is more aware than ever about who essential workers really are. The right wing is desperate to find some way to block resurgent unionism, or anything like it. If they can block it, they will, and scary ads about socialism are part of it.

Added to their worries are concerns that a new Congress and president will move to increase federal support for public education, reassert oversight of environmental conditions, and refuel the move to renewable energy. It’s likely they would invest heavily in repairing the old infrastructure while building the new, with an emphasis on broadband access throughout rural America. Financing it would require a return to fiscal responsibility requiring a new tax code raising taxes on the very wealthy and reducing corporate subsidies. The right wing will scream it’s a return to out of control tax and spend policies, but the public seems to have caught on to that old canard. For an entire century it’s been right wingers who’ve ballooned the federal debt with deficit spending favoring the very wealthy while claiming to be fiscally conservative.

Finally they will bring out the folly of centralized economic planning compared to the economic vitality of a booming free market. Building America’s economic future doesn’t mean centralized economic planning, as fear mongers claim. It does mean restoration of the traditional American role for government, but in a way that right wingers can’t control. It should go without saying, but it has to be said over and over again: there never has been such a thing as a totally free and unfettered market where competition creates the best offerings to consumers making rational choices. Never. Not ever. The community, whether local, regional or national, has always and everywhere established rules by which the market operates. American’s value markets that are as fair, honest, open and free as possible, and know that it’s government’s responsibility to set the rules by which that can be assured. Our rules right now are inadequate and corrupt, but more of us are aware of that than we were a few years ago. A new congress and president will reestablish appropriate ground rules on which to rebuild the American economy, as they have each time a so called conservative Congress and administration have messed it up.

American Cultural Values, Culture Wars and Tea Party Protests.

Tea party type protests have blossomed in several states. Photos depict angry men and a few women, some armed, most dressed in jeans and camouflage carrying signs with slogans like “Don’t Tread On Me.” Here and there one can spot a confederate flag. They purport to be the voice of the common ‘man’ claiming the supremacy of hard working American individualists demanding that the government stay out of their lives.

We’ve seen it before in the early Obama years, and did not handle it well. Obviously they don’t represent whatever is meant by the common ‘man,’ but they’re playing off a popular myth of the American frontier about independent people making it on their own who don’t need governmental help, interference or oversight. Obviously they’re not making it on their own without government help. They’ve benefitted from it from the day they were born. Government isn’t an alien creature imposed on an unwilling public. It’s the system we’ve set up for ourselves to guarantee freedoms and provide services we have deemed are needed and defined in law. What some reactively deride as socialism has provided them with land, transportation, water, energy, legal protections, safe food and medicines, education, and a great deal more.

Libertarian disrespect for government, and associated fear of anything that can be labeled socialist, has often been a cover for retaining rights and privileges not freely and equally available to others. Despite the high ideals and aspirations of the American dream, our nation has had difficulty assuring that all people have equal, or at least equitable, access to rights and privileges that are supposed to be unrestricted. Attempts by elected representatives to create a more level playing field for all Americans have been labeled unfair, forced redistribution of wealth, or taking rights away from one group and giving them to undeserving others. In subtle and not so subtle ways, the driving forces behind these movement have been forms of white fear that they will lose their place of dominance and predominance in American society.

News reports about the current version of tea party protests provoke dismay at the selfish ignorance they represent. It’s the response their organizers hoped for because it inspires the crowd’s anger toward educated liberal elitists who look down on ordinary people, igniting yet one more engagement in the culture wars, and that’s what they want. Aid and comfort is offered to protesters by right wing commentators, white nationalists, white supremacists, and a variety of conspiracy enthusiasts who thrive on wedges deepening our political polarization, and assure the disfunction of Congress. They helped elect Trump once, and may do it again.

What do the protesters hope to gain? For some it’s a vaguely understood attempt to maintain white hegemony. For some it’s genuine fear that their tenuous hold on a barely decent life will be lost if others are given the same advantages they have. As an aside, some claim they’ve never had any advantages; the world was always been a hard place for them. Compared to others who look more or less like them, they’re right. For many it’s a preference for authoritarian leadership unfettered by legislative meanderings. In the wings are plutocrats and would be plutocrats who very much prefer a more fascist style of government in which their desire for a laissez-faire economy might be realized. It’s far easier and a lot cheaper to “buy” a president than an entire congress. It seems hard to believe, but a Pinochet type government for the USA has popular appeal among some of the wealthy and powerful. It turns out they put their money on the wrong person, but that’s a story for another time.

The point is, it all heads toward authoritarianism, ironically with ordinary libertarian men and women willingly surrendering the rights and freedoms they cherish.

What are liberals and traditional conservatives to do? We have a presidential election coming up, and the outcome is uncertain.

I suggest our collective public response to the right wing, and those who have been seduced by it, focus on the following, leaving sarcasm and moral outrage to private conversation and Twitter tweets.

Celebrate America’s moral values. Actively promote the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Take joy in new ways to continue forming a more perfect union. Take ownership of what government of the people, by the people and for the people means. Proclaim generosity over selfishness, citizenship as commitment to community, and authentic individualism’s recognition of interdependency. To put it another way, don’t let these values fall into the hands of tea partiers and their backers.

Protest parades that include displays of confederate flags, guns, and aggressive slogans are intended to intimidate others into giving way. Claims of being true patriots are intended to deprive others of their own right to claim patriotism. It can’t work when progressives define what genuine patriotism is, and make a point of celebrating it. Consider how it was done during WWII. It was a long time ago, and we’re not in a war like that, but the methods used pulled the rug out from under the America First movement that favored Hitlerism, and we are in a struggle to keep our representative form of democracy, and the freedoms it guarantees.

Advocate for the American Dream to include greater opportunity for more people, and economic policies that favor the lower and middle classes. Remind all that the American Dream is not possible if it doesn’t include respect for ordinary Americans of every race and creed.

It should be clear by now that the American Dream requires some form of universal health care not dependent on employment. Ideological commitment to one way or another is self defeating. Stick with the concept, universal health care not dependent on employment. Like Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, the REA, and SBA loans, it’s an essential element of the American Dream.

In the wake of C-19, remind the voting public about who is included among essential workers, and be advocates for better pay, benefits and respect. Raise them up at every opportunity.

Right wing provocateurs and media hucksters will be turning up the volume. Do what Woodward and Bernstein did. Follow the money. It will almost always come back to an informal and loosely coordinated cadre of wealthy people who would prefer a less democratic, more authoritarian government they can more easily control. They’re fully aware they need the support of those whom they consider to be the lower classes. Having successfully seduced a good many, the fact remains that they care nothing for them. They’re simply useful political tools and necessary but expendable cogs in the machinery of wealth generation for themselves.

Making that known, and keeping it known, is a truly conservative, pro American, patriotic thing to do. Claim it.

Tea Party Liberals

A few loud Bernie or Bust voices have been raised in favor of voting for Trump rather than Biden. Of course Trump salivates at the possibility. One might wonder at the self defeating logic, but there is a logic, and it’s unsettling. It comes in two related versions, at least as far as I can tell.

The first envisions that four more years of Trump will be so disastrous the people will rise up in revolt: think of Paris in the summer of 1848. It’s a Bizarro World liberal form of tea party politics. Although its adherents claim they’re in it for the good of the people, the emotionally driven self centered selfishness of the claim, and their unwillingness to negotiate, suggests otherwise.

The second, like the first, is also a form of tea party politics revealing an affection for authoritarianism, and distrust of representative democracy. Like tea partiers, they also revel in conspiracies about who really owns and controls the representatives. They correctly understand that representative democratic processes, free of tea party intransigence, are unlikely to agree whole hog to their agenda. Representatives will take parts of it, adjust them for current conditions, and enact something workable if not fully adequate. It’s messy, but it’s the way of representative democracy. If they can’t have an authoritarian socialist as president, they’ll take an authoritarian fascist. At least it will give them a sense of certainty that democracy is unable to provide,and an opportunity to be smug about what’s happening to the country.

The High Cost of Reopening

As COVID-19 social and economic restrictions drag on, patience is growing thin. We are social creatures after all. It’s part of our DNA. We’re also economic creatures. Livelihood is tied to the complex world of commerce in which the goods and services we need and want are produced and distributed through networks that provide jobs giving us income to purchase goods and services. We want it back, and soon.

A few elected officials, and some corporate types, have publicly argued that reopening our social and economic lives soon and quickly will increase the virus death toll, but that’s the cost of getting things moving again. Other lives, they say, depend on it. In the abstract, the additional dead aren’t particular persons, perhaps a family member or friend. They’re just statistical probabilities factored into a cost-benefit analysis. It’s the kind of analysis used in times of war when it’s possible to estimate how many will die in the battle, not as persons but as numbers. We go to war a lot. Few of them are necessary, or have any redeeming moral value, but we’ve learned to glorify battle, or at least tolerate it, as a symbol of nationalistic pride. The thing is, we’re not at war. The world has not been invaded by soldiers, but by a virus with no moral intent, no particular goal, it’s simply doing what viruses do to creatures that have no immunity to it.

The high cost of restricting the economy and social lives can be measured in dollars and emotional discomfort. Many will be dramatically less well off than they were a year ago, some businesses will fail, and emotional health will be strained. But not many will die because of it. Many will die, who otherwise would not, if we eliminate restrictions too quickly or unwisely. How is that cost measured? What moral justification is there for deliberately planning for the unnecessary deaths of people who did nothing other than get in the way of a virus? Left unsaid, but understood by too many, most of the unnecessary dead would likely be old, poor, black, brown, and really, don’t you know, of not much value anyway.

Much has been said about the desire to get back to normal, and even more about it being a new normal different from the old normal. Is it possible, and what will it look like? It’s not only possible, it’s certain. Contemporary examples of new economic and social life abound in communities battered by forces of war and nature: Christ Church after the earthquake; New York after 9/11; New Orleans after Katrina. Astounding to many, the same can be said of Middle Eastern villages coming back to life after years of warring devastation.

What it will look like for us remains unknown, but it will be a modification of the old normal, not a revolutionary change. Restaurants will open, but perhaps not the old ones. Stores will open, but perhaps not the old ones. Wealth will have been redistributed, but the rich will still be rich, and the poor will still be poor. Maybe the electorate will have figured out that right wing scare mongering about the evils of socialism was a lie, that a new system of health care for all is needed now, not later, and that long eroded labor rights must be restored. Maybe the “tax is theft” tea party mantra will die a COVID death, and we will finally understand taxation as public investment in our collective well being for now and into the future. There are lots of maybes about education, infrastructure, broad band, and systemic injustices. We shall see.

I have no idea how the governors will coordinate with one another to reopen society. Were they to ask, I would suggest starting with construction and construction related services. Move on to professional services: banks, accountants, lawyers, realtors, etc. Next restaurants and other places of social gathering, but with temporary restrictions on occupancy. Finally, at some remove: arenas, theaters, concert halls, etc. To build economic momentum: raise and index the minimum wage; enact some form of universal health care independent of employment; prohibit stock buybacks financed by any form of government assistance; strengthen labor’s right to organize and negotiate; invest heavily in new forms of public education open to all, restricted to none; invest heavily in expansion of broad band for the whole country; invest heavily in restoration of existing infrastructure, and new infrastructure for the 21st century, notably petroleum free energy.

No doubt you have your own ideas to add.

Good Friday: Good Lord, What’s it Good For?

It’s Good Friday, and the last of these short essays on Holy Week.

One question comes up every year: Why is it called Good Friday, what’s good about it? I don’t know is the most trustworthy answer I can give. The day is not called Good Friday in most other languages. For them it’s Long Friday, Holy Friday, Sorrowful Friday, or Holy Friday. The O.E.D. suggests that in ages past the English Church called all significant religious days Good, but what did it mean? Some claim, says the O.E.D., that it comes from German Got for God, others say from German Gut for good. Take your pick.

I supposed it could be good because Jesus’ salvific act, part of which takes place on the cross, is beneficial. It brought blessings beneficial to you and me. Why would I say the cross is only part of Jesus’ salvific act? It’s hard for us not to dissect events into their individual parts, judging them separately, but Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection are one single event in which the mystery of salvation is made fully ours. It’s why our single three day long service of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter has no blessing or formal dismissal between each of its parts. It’s why, in an odd way, a crucifix hanging on the wall signifies Christ’s resurrection as much as it does his crucifixion.

The readings for Good Friday begin with a portion of Isaiah where God says his servant will bear our infirmities, carry our diseases, and like a lamb, be led to slaughter (Isa 52). Think about his earthly ministry: How did he heal so many? By absorbing their infirmities and diseases into his being of perfect love, putting a measure of his perfect love in their place. His crucifixion was an act of absorption into his being of all the evil, greed, fear, cowardice, and unintended error of those who put him there, and those who abandoned him there.

As I wrote last week citing Karie Hines Shah, “Jesus suffers not because it is horribly rare but because it is horribly common.” Jesus suffered as thousand of others had, and would for centuries to come. He suffered with the guilty and the innocent, right through to the end. It wasn’t God’s punishment for our sins, and it wasn’t unique; the empire was filled with crucifixions. It was the final and most profound act of our Lord sharing in the reality of our lives, and a sign that we would share in the fullness of his. It was a sign no one could read until the resurrection, and then they began to see more fully: it was all of a piece, one saving act for all people in every time. As I wrote before, does God really, truly know what you and I go through as mere human beings? Yes. God does because God has.

It is the sealing of the new covenant in Christ’s blood. It’s the covenant we, as Christians, are living into. It is not for us only, but for the whole world. Jesus, the light of the world, has given into our hands a portion of his light to guide our way, and to shed light that others might follow with us. It is Good.

Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

Today, Christians in the Western tradition of the church enter a single worship service spread over three days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. It begins with the story of the Last Supper Jesus had with this friends, and concludes with the proclamation of the resurrection of Easter.

Maundy Thursday is so named for the new commandment, mandatum novum. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. It is the commandment under which we live to this day. It is the first of the Great Three Days, the holy triduum. The gospel record says that the Last Supper was celebrated on or near the Jewish feast of Passover, and there is a strong metaphorical relationship between them.

Passover remembers the deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. When God passed over the homes of Hebrews enslaved there, ‘he’ delivered them from death, and gave them life. It meant salvation, freedom from their days of bondage. A path was opened for them to become the people of God. Moses, God’s chosen agent, lead them to a promised land of their own, teaching them on the way what it meant to be a people of God. It was not an easy path, but it is one that has been trod by generations of faithful Jews for more than 3,000 years. For us, it was a foreshadowing of a greater deliverance from death and bondage, and a new path toward a greater land of promise, led by the Word of God made flesh, Jesus. The symbolic blood of Jesus, our paschal (which means passover) lamb signifies for us deliverance from death to life extending into eternity with God. It signifies our deliverance from bondage to the burdens of life that deter us from intimacy with God, not for some, but for all humanity.

On this first day of the Triduum, we read from John’s gospel that adds to the story of the Last Supper by remembering how Jesus took the role of a slave, stripped down, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples. As has been explained many times, it was a disgustingly dirty task only a slave could be forced to do, and Jesus did it. Then he commanded the disciples to go forth and do the same for those whom they would serve in years to come. Not all congregations practice washing feet on Maundy Thursday, but for those who do it is a powerfully emotional act. Whether done or not, it is a reminder to all clergy and parishioners of their proper role as followers of Jesus.

We also read from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, providing us with the earliest description of the institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. It comes at least a decade or two before the first gospel record was written, and he says Jesus personally told him about it. Later he also says it had been explained to him by those who were present. Both can be true. In any case, Jesus took bread and declared it his body given for them. He took a cup of wine and declared it his blood, the blood of the new covenant. He is not only the paschal lamb delivering us from death into life, he is truly present with us and in us whenever we participate in the Holy Eucharist. We Episcopalians affirm that Jesus is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. It is, in every way, Holy food and drink, so we take joyfully, but seriously. Other denominations have other views, but I’ll go with something Queen Elizabeth I is often cited as having said: “Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and break it; and what his words did make it, that I believe and take it.”

One final word for the curious: No, Jesus and his friends did not sit on one side of the table looking out at an artist painting the scene.

The Politics of Holy Week

I write commentary on the political scene, but some may feel it out of place during Holy Week. I can understand that, and I’m not going to dwell on current events here. Yet it can’t be ignored that the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion were driven by political interests. It was politics that got him killed. Theology had little to do with it.

Jerusalem’s religious leaders had worked out a tolerable rapprochement with their Roman overlords that kept them in political control and assured them a pathway to economic success. It was tenuous because a restive population could upset the whole arrangement if they got out of hand. For their part, Roman procurators had to generate a flow of income to Rome, keep local rulers from asserting too much independence, and be quick to put down any sign of rebellion. They were already in an undesirable place, and any failure on their part could lead to something even worse. In Judea’s case, the Herod family had found ways to ingratiate themselves with the Caesars, so social back channels made it treacherously difficult for Jerusalem’s Jewish and Roman leaders to keep their balance.

The gospel records of Holy Week are about Jesus teaching us his final lessons, demonstrating what it means to follow him, and giving us his presence in the holy food and drink of the Eucharist. The records are about God’s salvific work and the shredding of all that separates humanity from intimacy with God. They’re about forgiveness, love, healing, reconciliation, and the visible triumph of God’s love over all that would oppose it. They’re all of that and more, but not about politics, at least not for those who followed Jesus to the cross, nor to us who are immersed in the narratives of the week.

To Jerusalem’s leaders it was all about politics. It was never about anything else. They had little interest in Jesus’ religious teachings. Peddlers of odd religious ideas came and went. There were lots of wonder workers and magicians who claimed miracles at least as good as his. What made him dangerous was the growing public conviction that he might be the messiah, the political leader who would restore Israel’s independence and face down the emperor. The proclamation that he was not beholden to Caesar’s authority, his apparent ability to unify Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles, and his appeal to the lower classes, asserting that they found favor in God’s eyes, it was these that made him dangerous.

They’d gotten rid of John the Baptist with no problem. Making quick work of Jesus should be a piece of cake. It didn’t work out as they planned. They’re dead and gone, Caesar too, but Jesus is still here, and still dangerous for the same reasons.

Crucifixion was tried once and failed. And what a dismal failure it was. No point in trying again, but there are other ways to neutralize him. Some try to domesticate him, removing him from the realm of politics to the inoffensive realm of platitudes and tea parties. Others divert attention away from Christ’s way of love by appropriating his name to sell snake oil cures and investment opportunities guaranteeing riches (for themselves). The more sophisticated force his teachings into their political agenda, then box it up and nail it shut. They know well that letting Jesus take the lead, and following where he goes will not be to their liking.

It won’t work, no matter what it looks like at the moment. The tomb is empty. Death had no power over him, neither did Caesar. The trivialities of domestication, diversion, appropriation, and political legerdemain are the last resorts of charlatans used to delude the gullible, but God is not amused, and Jesus will not go away.

Wednesday in Holy Week

There is a steely determination in the lessons for Holy Week, a determination to complete the work Jesus was called to do, no matter what the consequences. Consider that he hosted a dinner party for his closest friends and followers, knowing two things. One, in only a few hours he would be led away to his mock trial and execution. Two, not only Judas, but everyone around the table would betray and abandon him. And he knew something else; in the disciples’ moment of greatest weakness would be sown the seeds for the strength they would need for the years to come.

We, of course, know the end of the story, but they didn’t. They couldn’t imagine the next hour, much less the next three days. We know the end of the story as recorded in the gospels, but like the disciples, we have no idea what the next hour or day will bring. Our most concrete plans are always conditional. If nothing else, it’s demonstrated by the sudden onset of COVID-19 and stay at home orders that have disrupted everything.

When we left Maui for Walla Walla, the airport was as crowded as ever. The plane was full. Arriving late in the evening in Seattle, we stayed overnight in a nearly vacant airport hotel. The next day we went back to SeaTac for our Noon flight to Walla Walla. The airport was all but empty – very spooky. Spookier it’s become these last few weeks. We had well laid plans for medical appointments in Portland, and family visits in Texas and Virginia. They were not to happen. When will it be over, and what will we do when it is? We have no better idea than the disciples did about what lay ahead of them.

What we do know is this, Jesus is the Son of God, and the events we will remember over the next few days culminate in his resurrection. We know his disciples went forth to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus to the whole world. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews urged that being surrounded, as we are, “by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

There is too much to unpack in those words right now. Suffice it to say this: the sin we are to lay aside is not our moral failing, but our reluctance to follow where Jesus has led. When the text calls him the pioneer of our faith, it means he did more than blaze the trail, he prepared it to perfection so that we might more confidently follow him on it. And on it we will be in the company of a great cloud of others who went before, walk with us, and will follow in our footsteps.

In closing, let us remember in prayer our Jewish brothers and sisters for whom Passover begins on April 8. They are the forerunners of our faith, and among the great cloud of witnesses traversing the centuries who have trusted in God for deliverance, even as the world conspired against them.