We are facing our mortality more than ever these days, the threat of covid-19 looming large in every conversation, news story, or trip to the grocery store. How (when) will it affect me and the people I love? What will happen to those who are particularly vulnerable? Will we have enough toilet paper? Our fear and anxiety are often based, if hidden from our minds, in our fear of death – of losing control over our mortal, physical selves, and entering into the Great Unknown. We’re afraid of becoming dirt again, for to dirt we shall return.
At least in modern English, “dirt” is a negative concept. If something is dirty, it seemingly has lost its purpose and is fit only for the rubbish bin. When a person is dirty, it justifies isolation and exclusion until they are clean again.
How do we hold dirt, humus, the earth in a more positive light…where to return to stardust, to return to dirt is not bad but necessary for the continual renewal of the cosmos? In the midst of our fear and anxiety, can we “ground” ourselves in trust, that the Love which made us, is remaking us still, and will continue to use us “dirt creatures”* in the transformation of the universe? Can dirt be beautiful without being sanitized? Can mud, smeared on our blind eyes, give us hope to see again?
who delights in the messiness of mud,
we pray this day for the peace of the dirt.
We praise you for the rich earth beneath our feet,
holding ancient memories of its time among the stars.
We praise you for the dirt’s revolutionary vocation,
breaking down what is spent in order to nurture new life–
dead leaves and moldy fruit,
last month’s casserole forgotten in the fridge,
our beautiful and bloodied bodies —
transformed into new beloved communities
of flesh and fiber.
We praise you for the inherent goodness of mud,
slathered on our world as a healing salve.
May your gentle hands shape the earth each day,
enlivening the dirt with your Breath of Life.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker. Amen.
*When God forms the first human from dirt in Genesis 2, the better translation of what is formed (ha-adam apar) is “dirt creature.” The creature represents humanity in its fullness.
Last week, on my day off, I walked from our house to the art museum on campus. For the first time, I realized that I could spot Lake Mendota on Speedway Rd. – just the smallest of vistas between various buildings, but there it was, still frozen and frosty white. Since moving to Madison, I have missed the presence of a body of water just outside my door. I never tired of sitting on our front porch in Linville, looking down the hill to Linville Creek and listening to its gentle current. Leaving that porch and that creek was hard; and the waterfall-themed white noise app I use at night rarely convinces my brain to shut off like Linville Creek did.
But this lake vista, a surprise sighting as I walked on the sidewalk along a street busy with cars, gave me pause – and delight. Each time I have driven up Speedway Rd. since, I have waited for that moment when my eyes catch sight of that sacred body of water, the “blood of the earth.”*
whose presence is like a stream in a desert,
we pray this day for the peace of the waters.
We praise you for the lifeblood of this watershed,
for Yahara, the Catfish River**
for Mendota, the lake “where the man lies”
for Monona, the “Teepee Lake”
for Waubesa, the “Lake of the Rushes”
We praise you for the snow and ice,
that encrust the world,
and slow our hectic pace.
We praise you for the gentle rains,
that awaken the earth in spring,
and nourish the crops in summer.
May your healing love cleanse the waters of this world,
from the aquifers below to the storm clouds above.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
*pulled from a quote by Chuang-tzu, in Grounded: Finding God in the World by Diana Butler Bass.
**Names used by the Ho-Chunk peoples. (Mendota, Yahara, Monona, Waubesa)
This week, the scripture-inspired element for our Peace Lamp prayer is air.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep, We pray this day for the invisible mixture of compounds we call air. We praise you for air’s generative movement, bringing life from the four directions, carrying pollen and seeds, giving reason for new growth.
We praise you for the way wind enlivens our world, the ambling tumbleweeds, the gentle breezes of the lakeside, the way our kites take flight on spring afternoons.
We praise you for the oxygen that fills our lungs, to sing our songs, to offer our praise, and to simply be.
We pray this day for the shalom of the air, that it, too, will benefit from your healing and liberating love. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
During Lent at Madison Mennonite, our weekly Peace Prayers are being shaped by the elements (nature, earth, fire, wind, water.) As I wrote this week’s prayer on nature from Gate 12 at the Dane County Regional Airport, four F-16 fighter jets took off on their daily practice flights, one after another. Thundering by on their exit, the noise shook the terminal. We could hear nothing else. It was terrifying. My body seized, chest tightened, and tears came to my eyes. Christ, have mercy.
While I can hear the jets taking off from our home and feel their abhorrent power even miles away, today, simultaneously writing a prayer of peace for nature, I was utterly convicted again how much our world needs peace. While the empire stays at war, prepares for more war, plays war, and builds ever-more-destructive weapons of devastation, we must pray and work for peace. Christ, have mercy.
Peace Prayer for Nature
Giver of Life,
We pray this day for the peace of the natural world.
We praise you for the trees,
who send their roots deep into the earth, and their branches to the skies.
We praise you for the rising and falling of the landscapes,
the driftless regions, the prairies, the dells, kettles, and moraines.
We praise you for the many creatures who live here,
from the smallest prairie dog,
to the honking wild goose,
to the slinking coyotes.
May your Spirit of Shalom permeate the natural world,
sustaining life in all its good forms.
We ask this in name of the Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
To those women considering ministry, to those who feel a strong call to the Church but question the Church’s readiness for them, to those in the midst of interviews for a ministry position, to those who simply love the church, may your path be filled with friends who tell you over and over again: Your voice matters. Your strength is good. You set your boundaries. Your gender is an asset. You have all the power you need. Your sisters are there for you. Your dreams are a crucial part of the Gospel.
Your voice matters. You have experience. You have knowledge. You’ve been trained for this. You’ve rarely had the title that encompasses all you do. Some will question your experience, knowledge, and education, and they will question you for various reasons. It will feel like crap. You will have to keep giving evidence of why you’re legit. (You’ll resonate with the Black Woman proverb*: You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.) It will be exhausting. Especially in spaces where you’re the only woman, it will be really hard to speak up. Do it anyway, if you can. But remember you are also entitled to give yourself grace on the days you can’t.
Your strength is good. Your strength will be intimidating. And the range of responses to it will be varied. Some will be caught by your assertiveness and want to dampen it. Don’t be surprised when others, including other (and usually, older) women, fear your strength and try to reassert the patriarchy. (These women are often blind to how they’re perpetuating patriarchy, pandering to the men they think they’ve got to keep happy.) Some folks, with whom you’ve established some level of trust, will acknowledge openly how your strength impacts them. They’re the ones who love you enough to see that your strength is a gift, even when they sometimes feel threatened by it. Love them and be gentle with them. (They’re human, too.)
You set your boundaries, no one else. People will say things like, “I see you more as a friend than my pastor.” It’s great, as relational beings, to be seen as an “equal.” But you’re not. And that’s hard to explain, especially in power-illiterate communities. Find ways to explain your boundaries in simple terms, and stick with them (both the boundaries and the terms). Teach your congregation that pastoring isn’t something that you can just turn off. Also, ministry is political. It relies heavily on trust. And in political, trust-based communities, there are always power dynamics to talk about. Setting your boundaries means you’ve reflected on the politics of trust, and know how to leverage your power in ways that are beneficial for you and the community. (When you thrive, your community is likely to thrive. “As the leadership goes, so goes the congregation.”)
Your gender is an asset. Of course, your gender will “invite” all sorts of asinine comments, largely in the form of microaggressions. People will comment on what you wear, your tone of voice, your earrings, your haircut, etc. much more easily and frequently than what you say in your sermons or Sunday School lessons. It will take awhile, but you will learn how to respond more quickly and more effectively to these comments. You have the power to redirect conversations and to ask others not to comment on these things. You have the power to say no to unwelcome physical touch. You will shake and your voice will waver, but that’s okay. That’s the Spirit trying to make her way into the world.
You already have all the power you need, and the Spirit gives it to you freely. No one else can empower you. (Empowerment, as a thing, is really a sham, a ruse wherein oppressed folks are tricked into thinking they have to wait for power to be given to them by the culturally-powerful. You need no one’s permission to claim your liberation.) What you will need is people who create space for your flourishing, and who will reflect your commitment to celebrating everyone’s inherent dignity and power.
You need other ministering women in your corner. They’re a special breed with incredible capacities for empathy. They’re also wise and can spot when the patriarchy is trying to dupe one of our own. And they’re willing to wait for one another, check in with one another, and choose one another over institutions and even their favorite men in power. They’ll call out your crap and then offer to help add it to the collective compost bin.
Lastly, do not sell yourself short. Find spaces that offer you room to spread your wings, not ask you to clip them. Look for a church that actually believes in the good news of Pentecost, where your dreams and visions are welcomed as just that — new realities of collective healing and liberation for all (including you!)
In the midst of Love Feast worship service, in which we reflected on the post-resurrection sighting of Jesus in Luke 24, I offered this prayer during our “Joys and Concerns” prayer time.
God of Love, like the pilgrims on the way to Emmaus, you journey with us through life. When we step tentatively through treacherous terrain, when we march defiantly for liberation, when we plod through uncertainties and confusion, and when we dance with unbridled delight, you accompany us, taking the same route and matching our pace.
Faithful God, We offer you these prayers, trusting that you reveal yourself to us, on our roads to Emmaus, in the fellowship of this beloved community, and in the breaking of bread. Amen.
As a part of Eastern Mennonite University’s Academic Festival, I presented the following paper on Maundy Thursday. The scriptures for this paper are John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-17.
Today is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday – that day in the midst of Holy Week where we’re not necessarily sure if we want to show up for worship at church or chapel…because we know what’s supposed to happen on Maundy Thursday: footwashing.
I’m guessing if you’re here, you knew something about that possibility. Maybe what surprised you was the reading – or rather, re-reading – the scripture from John 12 that was the lectionary text a few weeks back and is not typically read on Maundy Thursday.
My cheeky explanation for this double-reading of John would be: Behind every man’s “great idea” is a woman rolling her eyes…because she had the idea first…
But really, the goal of this presentation is two-fold:
First, to consider the way John 12 sets the stage for John 13, finding undeniable links between them by paying attention to the sensory-rich narratives.
The second goal is to argue that the feasting and footwashing of Maundy Thursday promote a hermeneutical community where rituals are shaped by the interpretive embodiment of all believers.
We’ll begin with the sensory parallels. I’ll start with taste.
In John 12:1-2, Jesus is coming to Bethany to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus [bless his heart] is smelling a bit fresher than he had been the last time Jesus was in town, and so a feast is set out for Jesus. The text reads that at this meal, “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” We don’t know too much about the meal or what was served, but we know it is in the context of celebration. Most of the action of this story will happen, seemingly, in the midst of a dinner party.
Switching to John 13 verse 2, “And during supperJesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,got up from the table…” Again we don’t know much about the details of this Passover meal, but it is, again, a festive time. What is important in both of these stories is that they are necessarily framed around a table. A time of fellowship and feasting. The path into any ritual, into sacred space, is often paved with food.
The second sense is sight. I want to draw our attention to how these two scriptures invite us to look around to see that both are gatherings of Jesus’ beloved ones.
Backtracking to John 11:5, we learn, and this is a first its kind of mention in the gospel, that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus…” So gathering for a meal with them, as they do in John 12, would certainly be punctuated by knowing looks and smiling eyes – a meal full of those moments where you look around the table and think to yourself, “I love that person. I love that person.” And so on.
Then in 13:1, John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus’ love is conveyed here in the actions and teachings, and of course, later in John 13, Jesus gives a new commandment – to love as Jesus loved.
The writer of John indicates that at both meals, there is deep intimacy and trust. Using our senses, we are invited to enter into these rituals deeply seeing one another, and, if possible, deeply loving one another. Rituals are meant to deepen love. To offer healing. To make the journey more bearable.
Third is hearing. In both chapter 12 and 13, we hear Jesus’ words. That’s not particularly special. Rather, the connection between the narratives is that Jesus responds to misguided indignation.
Judas, appalled by the liquid gold being spilled out onto Jesus’ feet, erupts with resentment. “How could she pour out this vast amount of fine oil? Why didn’t she sell it? …the money could have been given to the poor.” (“…or to me…”) Jesus responds, “Leave her alone. The poor’s not who you are concerned about anyway.”
Or in chapter 13, poor Simon Peter, in a huff, goes on and on about how Jesus is doing a strange thing. Three times, Jesus responds calmly to the indignation. “Peter, later you will understand. Peter, I must wash your feet. Peter, just your feet will do.”
The Divine Voice knows our indignation well; our refusal to show up at the table, our unease at being served by the Master. Yet, if we listen, we may hear a compassionate response.
Fourth is the parallel of smell.
“Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…” (13:5) The room is full of bodies likely less frequently bathed than the modern Western person. Feet, once sweaty and now crusty with dust and sand, are exposed. It is a normal odor, and there is a lot of it.
Mary comes in with a jar of nard, and drizzles on Jesus’ feet. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (12:3b) It is an unexpected odor for this occasion, and there is a lot of it.
Research shows that the sense of smell, perhaps more so than the other senses, is closely linked with memory. Before we take the bread or the wine, let’s smell it. Smell this in “remembrance of me.” As you take a friend’s hands or feet out of the water, pay attention to the smell of lavender essential oils wafting into the room. Remember the nameless marginalized people who point the way to Jesus, like the woman, who in Mark 14, anoints Jesus. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what they have done will be told in remembrance of them.” (Mark 14:9)
Lastly, touch. There is surprising touch in both texts.
The Greek verb ekmasso, “to wipe,” is used three times in John, twice in reference to Mary’s actions wherein she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair; and once in reference to Jesus’ actions in wiping the feet of the disciples with a towel. The only other time that this verb is used in the New Testament is in Luke 7, where an unnamed woman similarly wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
There is great tenderness in these touches; it is not aggressive, violent, or used to show power over. It is gentle, the act of a servant. As Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger writes, “In both meal scenes, the unusual action is a symbolic act full of meaning, and both times it involves the feet of the recipients.”
We cannot enter into ritual disembodied. There is always touch: between people, between people and the earth, between people and the elements.
Taste, sight, hearing, smell, and touch: I hope it’s clear, at this point, that Mary’s demonstrations in chapter 12 set the stage for Jesus’ actions in John 13. And fundamental to this parallel is that bodies and their sensuality are crucial to telling the stories, to presence in the rituals, and in communing with the Divine.
This brings me to my second point: that feasting and footwashing not only invite radical fellowship; they also attend to our sensuality, and so we press for the radical embodiment of all believers.
Anabaptists have this thing we call the hermeneutical community. Lydia Neufeld Harder defines the hermeneutical community as “an approach in which conscious commitment to a community of reference and accountability accompanies an openness to dialogue and critique.” For Anabaptists, this “conscious commitment” is directly related to the foundational place of scripture for the church. Discernment of scripture is necessarily both dynamic and communal – meaning that authoritative interpretations require an awareness of the particular context where interpretation is happening (dynamic), and that individual interpretations are only acceptable when brought to the faith community for further engagement. Harder connects the idea of the priesthood of all believers to the discernment of scripture, writing, “All participants in the community must have the same opportunity to initiate and be involved in the discussion. They must have the same chance to express attitudes, ideas, and feelings.”
In other words, Anabaptists think that we need one another to do scriptural interpretation and every committed member should have an equal voice in that interpretation.
The next step though, that I am encouraging, given our texts this Maundy Thursday, is to explicitly recognize that interpretation doesn’t stop in our heads and our mouths. We believe that faithful discipleship affects our ethics. John 12 and 13 strongly suggest that we pay attention to the way our bodies interpret scripture through ritual.
The priesthood of all believers remains a central tenet of our faith; the embodiment of all believers is where the priesthood of all believers finds its feet.
Karl Koop writes, “Making sense of the faith is not simply an intellectual activity for spectators; neither can it be carried out on the basis of some disembodied, ahistorical principles. It demands that interpreters themselves be participants…”
The invitation this morning is to join in the cosmic experiment with the Divine, placing ourselves and our bodies in the stories of the holy scripture. What Mary intuited at that celebratory meal was that she could not sit still in the kitchen or even at the table. She took her body and placed it at the feet of Christ.
I like to imagine, then, when it was all over, Jesus was thinking about it and what Mary had done, and he said to himself, “I’ve got this great idea…”
And thus we have a weird holiday, where we at least try to submit ourselves to one another and try to have a relatively pleasant meal together, where we take our shoes off and our socks,
We can’t do Maundy Thursday without our bodies. And that can be petrifying. And yet, this is the form that Jesus took. And these bodies are part of what God so dearly loves about the world that God gave their only child.
Join us, if the Spirit leads, for this experiment in a full-bodied encounter with the Divine.
 I rely on the inspiration found in Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz. “The Fragrance of Her Perfume: The Significance of Sense Imagery in John’s Account of the Anointing in Bethany.” Novum Testamentum 52 (2010), 334-354.
This week’s passages dip into that timeless good fruit/bad fruit metaphor. From the Jeremiah passage, we are reminded that to trust in God means to send roots deeper, to nourishment that makes better fruit. There are certainly allegorical parallels here to the passage in Matthew 7:24-27, where Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish builders. Psalm 1 also uses the imagery of a tree, where one prospers and bears fruit when trusting in God’s holy teachings. Both Jeremiah and the Psalmist allude in no uncertain terms to what happens to those who follow “mortals” or human teaching – it is death. For Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, he implores his audience to not trust words that are not true, words that don’t yield what is good. Some have been saying that Christ has not been raised; yet, regardless of human capacity to understand, Christ was raised by God. The onus of proof, or of the possibility to produce “good fruit” is not on humans, but on God’s action and teaching.
In our context, whether one is a good or bad fruit is often tied into cultural preferences, stereotypes, access, and privilege. We have created a sort of “respectability” theology, where those who “work the hardest” and “trust God the most” are obviously the most faithful ones, the ones God has chosen to bless. Yet, what of our learned racism? What of our learned sexism? How much harder it is for a black man to be seen as “good fruit” in our context!
Luke, then, fully ushers us into a suspicious reading of the other texts and begins to address our respectability theology. The ones who are respectable and find blessing are those who have been denied it. The good fruit is grown in places that surprise most of us. Jesus, in Luke, reminds us to be wary of applying our image of a “good fruit” to God’s.
The collective call of these passages is to root deeply in God’s trust, acknowledging that God has the final word on what “good fruit” is, and to stand in solidarity with those who both seek to trust in God and face systemic, cultural prejudices that automatically characterize them as “bad fruit.”