Dignity and Worth

You may stain your sword with my blood, but you will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.

Saint Agnes of Rome, martyr (c. 291 – 304)

There are times in the journey of life when we face the harsh realities of our existence. That harshness all too often comes in the form of other people, our history being full of the tension that exists in relationship. Differences abound, and in the face of sometimes insurmountable conflict of perspective we are confronted with a question, the answer to which has lasting impact: who is the other person?

This question, of course, has led to a great many calamities and wars on national and global levels. But locally, individually, a diverging of perspectives is equally as real and complex, and perhaps more emotionally charged. Is the other person sitting across the room from me a friend or a foe? How I treat that person depends a great deal on the answer.

Saint Agnes of Rome, a teenager martyred for her choices in the face of such tension, is one of seven women honored in the recitation of the Eucharistic prayer in the Roman Catholic Mass. While many legends surround the life and circumstances of Agnes, she was likely martyred for choosing to dedicate her life in the service of Christ and the Church rather than one of the Roman suitors seeking her for marriage. Agnes’ choice to dedicate herself (and more radically, her body) to the work of Christ was a bold move for a young girl in any time, but for Agnes it was a move that ultimately cost her life.

As her Roman suitors looked upon her, they didn’t see another human of equal stature, worth, and dignity. They saw property, someone and something that could be controlled, bought, owned. The radical message of Agnes’ choice was a denial of that kind of worldview and a full embrace of the message of Jesus, whose Gospel accounts hold women in a place of high honor and esteem.

On this feast day of Saint Agnes, which is shared with the civic remembrance of the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is essential that we give due and proper consideration to the question, “Who is the other person?” Like Agnes, Dr. King was martyred for answering that question in ways that defied the over/above model of human social constructs and sought to bring down a culture of white racial supremacy. And while Dr. King’s legacy is one of vocal action, St. Agnes’ legacy of quiet determination is no less resilient. There are many forms of the question, “Who is the other person?” that exist in many times and in many contexts. But if the answer to that question is anything other than “an image-bearer of God,” the answer is wrong.

Let us recognize the dignity and worth of each person, each people, and act in ways that uphold and empower everyone in their journey. And in doing so, may we realize a justice and freedom from oppression that flows among us and work to heal the world for which Agnes and Martin – and their Jesus – gave their lives.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

Healing Waters

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

The Gospel according to Luke (3:21-22)

On Sunday the Christian year told the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It is a beautiful story of Jesus approaching among the crowds and receiving a message of divine affirmation from God: “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

As I reflected upon the story, I remembered a moment from my doctoral work several years ago. During one of my final residencies we ventured south of the Fleming Island, Florida campus to the beautiful St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs on the banks of the St. Johns River. The building was adorned with the motto “Come to the Waters” and was an appropriate place for a baptismal renewal service. After several days of immersion in a theology of baptism the trip was a welcome respite from the headiness of our studies, allowing us to practice with our bodies the rituals of the Church.

We gathered in the sanctuary for song and prayer then moved outside to the banks of the river to remember our baptisms: the drawing up of our very selves into the divine. One of our professors, an Episcopal priest, invited us forward to dip our hands into the water and share a story of our experience of baptismal renewal. I shared of my ongoing struggle with depression, deep sadness and loneliness, and the trouble I have experienced finding a theological and liturgical home. I told of a particular time, during my novitiate in the Order of Saint Luke, when the depression and oppressive feelings of failure were so heavy upon my spirit that the only thing that would get me out of bed was the ritual each morning in our order of remembering our baptism. I shared that, in the days when the sadness was so deep, and the loneliness so raw, I would place the water on my forehead. For when I could feel nothing of the Divine, my body felt what my spirit could not. And it is exactly what I needed.

For me, being a Christian is living this kind of mystery. Baptism is a ritual of bearing for and in us a grace of God, speaking to the beautiful and mysterious way in which God draws us up into the restoration of all things in Christ. Baptism is God’s doing, not ours. The narrative thread of water that is woven throughout the Bible is one of healing and hope that God brings to us.

Baptism and its remembrance as a way to live into God’s ongoing healing is necessary for us as Church. It touches our bodies and spirits with the essence of earth and reminds us that God cares for our most basic needs. And without that kind of remembrance in the pilgrim journey we will be anemic in our witness of beauty and truth.

God desires our spirits and bodies to be healed, and baptism is God’s work in moving us toward that healing. In past dark days of loneliness and sadness, as I splashed water on my forehead and remembered my baptismal identity, God’s spirit was with me even though I didn’t feel it. In these days, when I still feel the lingerings of loneliness, sadness, and failure, God offers the cool running waters of hope and renewal. They are the same waters that touched my face years ago. They are the same waters that Jesus felt pour over his head. And it is the same sentiment that God speaks to us that was said to Jesus: “you are my beloved.”

I think God understands that sometimes our bodies need to feel God’s love so that our spirits can understand it. So, friends, feel the beauty of God in the waters today. And experience how God is nourishing you in the journey of faith.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

God Beyond the Walls

Kings remote and legendary will pay homage,
    kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth.
All kings will fall down and worship,
    and godless nations sign up to serve him,
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
    the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
    he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
    when they bleed, he bleeds;
    when they die, he dies.

Psalm 72:10-14 (The Message)

I have never been a powerful person. In fact, I have lived most of my life as an outsider. I grew up poor, ministered as a high-church liturgist in the low-church tradition, advocated for a disavowal of the nationalistic fervor in American Christianity in a religious movement steeped in patriotism, and moved theologically leftward as many of my friends and family remained conservative. While none of these parts of my life necessarily warrant an outsider label, it is the context in which they occurred that caused me to feel like I was standing beyond the wall, gazing in. Would I ever be able to go inside?

Perhaps you, pilgrim, feel the same way.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on Sunday, January 6, is a reminder that the God of the Christian tradition is a God of those on the outside. The appointed Psalm text in the liturgy for Sunday is a rich song of irony to those at the center of power inside the walls. It is a song that emphatically declares God’s priorities. And in so doing, it tells us something profound about how God both understands and exercises power.

Psalm 72 sings, triumphantly, that a true exercise of power isn’t dwelling inside the walls and basking in the glory of protection. It is the active pursuit of liberation and solidarity. The mystery of the divine is that God not only sides with those who find themselves down-on-their-luck or purposely oppressed, God is part of that group. God doesn’t stand at the center of the religious bureaucracy, God walks with those who are cast outside the walls. God “opens a place in [God’s] heart” for such people, but even more, God bleeds “when they bleed,” God dies “when they die.” God dwells in the margins in solidarity with the outsider – a wondrous and beautiful mystery.

I think Psalm 72 sings the good news of Christianity. It is good news for you who have been pushed out of the church. It is good news for you who have been pressed down under the thumb of someone wielding their power. It is good news for you who have been hurt, broken, betrayed by those who had the ability to stand up and help you. It is good news because when you are pushed out, pressed down, hurt, broken, betrayed, God is there with you, lamenting with you and opening a place in the divine heart for you. 

The Magi, whom we remember on Epiphany, were stargazing magician-priests from far outside the religious and cultural power centers of first-century Judaism. Yet they go to find Jesus, heralded as kings, and pay homage to the God wrapped in fragile flesh, held in the arms of a poor, young, seemingly insignificant girl in Bethlehem.

God opened a place in the divine heart for these pilgrims. The Magi followed the light to that place, and they still show us the way. So, don’t gaze up at the wall and lament your status on the outside. Gaze up at the heavens, beyond the paltry constructs of the “powerful,” and behold the wonder of starlight that is illuminating to you the Holy One, standing right beside you.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,