by whitneyrice

She Restoreth My Soul

Today is a day for taking a risk from the pulpit, so here I go.

But I am able to take this risk because Robert took a risk today with the offertory anthem he chose.

And Robert took the risk because someone at our grad school took the risk to use this anthem in the chapel services we both attended.

And the chapel worship planner took the risk because the author of the anthem text, Bobby McFerrin, took the risk to write it.

And he took the risk to write it because of the witness of his mother. She took the risk to have a child, to influence her child deeply with her love, and it led, through a chain of courage, all the way to this pulpit today.

So what’s so risky about this anthem?

Well, it takes what is very likely the best known and most beloved text in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm, and changes the pronoun for God in it.

Instead of “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” you will hear the choir sing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need. She makes me lie down in green meadows, beside the still waters she will lead. She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, She leads me in a path of good things, and fills my heart with songs. Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land there is nothing that can shake me, She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand. She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes. She anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows. Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me, all the days of my life, And I will live in her house, forever, forever and ever.”

For some of you, calling God “She” will not be at all troubling. It will be beautiful and inspiring and even comfortable and familiar.

For others of you, it will be distinctly off-putting. You won’t be able to connect to it at all, and you’ll be wondering if it’s really okay to change the Biblical text like this.

Many of us fall somewhere squarely in the middle.

We’ve heard of the practice, we understand theologically that God is much bigger than our paltry human concepts of gender, but actually praying to God our Mother?

We do that pretty rarely, if at all. I mean, why would we? Continue reading

Enough With the Miracles Already

The status quo is the most powerful force in the world.

And sometimes it seems like Jesus’ mission is life is to break up the status quo, to challenge it, to upend it, to hit us over the head with how very un-normal life with him is.

And we kind of hate it.

Consider our stories today from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke. They are marked with fear and astonishment at the miracles being witnessed.

In the Book of Acts, Peter and John are going to prayer, and in the name of Jesus Christ they heal a man who cannot walk.

“All the people saw him walking and praising God,” Acts says, “and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.”

The same thing happens in our gospel story, tinged with even more intensity.

“Jesus himself stood among the disciples and their companions and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”

Even the very people who walked with Jesus on earth, who saw him perform miracles every day, kept getting caught off guard.

Why?

You would think after walking around with him for three years, seeing the healing and the feeding and the walking on water, they would be a little more adjusted to living among the miraculous.

Especially after Jesus had told them repeatedly that he would be raised from the dead.

Jesus wants an answer to the same question.

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he says.

The truth is that we don’t want to live in a miraculous world because that would force us to give up control. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Easter: Fools For Christ

April Fools’ Day is actually the best possible day for Easter. Why?

April Fools’ Day is a tradition with deep folk roots in many European countries.

In fact, we can even point to a special Anglican flavor of it—it is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Today we know April Fools’ Day as a time to pull pranks, trying to make someone look like a fool and be embarrassed.

Some people love practical jokes and think of them as all in good fun. I personally hate them and hide away from the world on the first of April for fear of falling prey to one.

But there is another tradition of foolishness that is deeply rooted in Christian theology. It goes all the way back to Paul himself. Continue reading

Friday: Mary and Joseph: At the Manger, At the Cross

Today is about loyalty.

Or rather, it is about loyalty and the lack thereof.

Everyone in this story reveals where his or her loyalty lies, and actions speak much louder than words.

So today becomes the opportunity for us to show where our loyalty lies, because what we receive on Good Friday is a pledge of loyalty to us that stares down the forces of death and hell themselves.

Loyalty is something we admire.  We consider it a virtue.

The difficult part of this story is that some of the people whom we consider villains in the story are showing admirable loyalty.

But where they choose to place their faith and commitment ends up being on the wrong side of history.

And that makes us afraid that we could be guilty of the same. Continue reading

Thursday: Final Table

So, I hate to cook, and I’m terrible at it.

Well, “hate” is perhaps too strong a word.

But I missed a lot of days in the “Stuff Women Are Supposed To Know How To Do” classes, otherwise known as “American Gender Socialization,” and I’m just really bad a lot of that stuff.

I cook poorly, I can’t wrap a gift properly, I seem to lack maternal instincts entirely, and I don’t decorate to the point that friends have said my apartment looks like a padded cell.

As you might imagine from someone who does not enjoy cooking nor has ever bothered to really learn, I have never seen a cooking show in its entirety.

I know there are entire television networks devoted to food and cooking, hosted by celebrity chefs.

And I admire greatly people who cook as a hobby, hunting down obscure recipes and turning out glorious creations that are as much art as sustenance. But I will never be among them.

I count myself lucky to occasionally enjoy the fruits of their labors, and offer to wash the dishes in thanks.

Due to my lack of familiarity with culinary culture, I was surprised to hear of a specific tradition in the restaurant business among chefs, and the book someone wrote about it.

It turns out that once chefs reach a certain point of proficiency, they like to engage in a little thought experiment with each other.

You’ve heard of the question: “If you were abandoned on a desert island, what one book or album would you want with you?”

Well, chefs and cooks ask each other and themselves: “If it were your last night on earth, what and how would you prepare for your final meal?” Continue reading

Wednesday: Disregarding Shame

As we continue our journey through Holy Week, our attempt to be faithful to Jesus in his hour of need, we need to ask: what prevents us from following him?

What drives us away from his presence? What keeps us from living up to our aspirations to love God and our neighbor with freedom and joy?

Shame.

Shame shows up all over our texts today, and it turns out that shame is one of the deadliest barriers lying between us and faithfulness to Jesus.

Our Hebrew scripture lesson is the third of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah. Although this text can stand on its own with rich meaning, as Christians, we hear these verses in the voice of Jesus.

It describes the pain and indignity of what he will go through on Good Friday, and his willingness to endure it: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”

Pulling out someone’s beard and spitting on their face are ways of imparting shame to someone. They demean and devalue the victim.

And most of what happens to Jesus on Friday is designed to enforce shame, all the way up to and including his death on the Cross.

Crucifixion is intended not just to kill someone efficiently—that could be done much faster by beheading them, as happened to John the Baptist.

Crucifixion is a slow, painful death in full view of the world, meant to be a spectacle showing everyone that the crucified person is a criminal and the dregs of society.

And the victim is robbed of all dignity or privacy.

As he slowly loses strength, he is reduced to animal pain, losing control over his body and his mind in full public view.

As with all shame processes, it robs the person of his or her identity, crushing him completely until he dies, no longer who he was or wanted to be.

Praise God, we will never have to go through something as terrible as crucifixion, although we must always remember our brothers and sisters around the world of all faiths who are persecuted for their beliefs.

But what the world did to Jesus on the Cross, killing him not just with violence but with shame, the world tries to do to us. Continue reading

Tuesday: Dying to Feed the World

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

In a gospel reading so rich with meaning and import, it can be easy to skip over this one sentence.

But this short piece of the text sums up in many ways the entirety of Jesus’ life on earth, and how we are called to join him in Holy Week.

The grain of wheat falling into the earth is a simple agricultural image, easily accessible to the people hearing it in Jesus’ time.

But the meaning is so much deeper than it first appears, when we think about it in terms of how and why Jesus gives us his life.

What is Jesus talking about? What does it mean to be a grain of wheat?

Well, first, it means smallness.

You’ve seen grains of wheat—you know you can hold hundreds in a handful. And yet it creates a large plant that then becomes bread for the world.

We could not sum up Jesus’ life on earth more clearly or simply than that.

And the original smallness matters.

Jesus came to earth as one person, born into a poor family in an obscure location.

There may have been angels and Wise Men at his birth, but aside from drawing threats to his life from a fearful king, these early accolades earned him little.

He lived a normal childhood in an ordinary town. Just like most of us.

A grain of wheat does not stand out among its fellows.

You can’t pick it out from others and say, “That’s the one. That’s the one who will change the world.” To be a grain of wheat is to be small and hidden, unappreciated, unrecognized, then to burst forth with growth.

So far we follow the metaphor. Great work for the Kingdom of God can come from one seemingly ordinary person, a person who is radically open to God’s grace flowing through them.

That’s encouraging. That’s hopeful. That’s something we can get on board with for ourselves in terms of following Jesus.

We all like to hear about how we’re full of wonderful things just about to happen if we say yes to God.

But then the image takes a turn. Continue reading

Monday: Grieving a False Jesus

Holy Week opens tonight with John’s story of Jesus’ final meal with the Bethany siblings, and we’re going to trace Mary’s story.

She was the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and she knew grief.

Mary’s first grief was the death of her brother.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were probably the closest thing Jesus had to personal friends.

If the twelve apostles were his chosen students and fellow ministers, the Bethany siblings were the ones he went to when he needed some downtime.

They spent many an evening together in the little house in Bethany, laughing, talking, eating, and sharing their lives.

We know how close they are from a thousand small details in the text, not the least of which is the sisters’ message to Jesus begging him for help: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

But Jesus doesn’t come. He doesn’t arrive.

For some greater purpose, Jesus does not come to the rescue, and the worst happens. Lazarus dies.

Mary loved Jesus as a friend, as a teacher, as a companion of her heart.

She loved him, and she believed in him. Moreover, she trusted him.

But now Lazarus is dead, and Mary and Martha blame Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say.

Mary’s grief for her brother is mixed and mingled with an equally deep grief she can barely bring herself to acknowledge: she is grieving the death of the Jesus she thought she knew. Continue reading

PaIm Sunday: Proving Scripture Wrong

Palm Sunday is an invitation of the most extreme kind.

If you picture a polite and proper written invitation to an important event, it’s usually on pretty white paper and arrives quietly in your mailbox with a diffident request for an RSVP.

Palm Sunday is an invitation to events that shatter the status quo and reconfigure the universe, and it arrives with strikes of lightning, booms of thunder, and crowds shouting themselves hoarse in the streets of Jerusalem.

We are here now to make our answer to the invitation of Palm Sunday.

Jesus is hailed by the crowds today, and we throng along with them, waving our palms with bright, self-congratulatory allegiance to our matchless king.

And then we have a choice.

Many of us will go home and not darken the door of spiritual encounter until Easter Day.  But that is a mistake.

As your priest, I’m selfish and I hope you come to some of the darkly beautiful liturgies that lie before us this week.

But what I really want is for you to enter the sanctuary of your heart to be with Jesus.

Whether you come to this building between now and next Sunday is beside the point.

Verse 12 of Psalm 31, our psalm for today, struck me as I began to work with Holy Week this year.

“I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.”

In some ways, I feel like this is Jesus’ greatest fear. Continue reading