Surprise!

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. – Luke 24:37

Surprise! I’m back!

Why are you surprised?

Mary Magdalene told you, I know. She’s had her demons,
but she can tell a story. Joanna can, and Mary, too,
and if they couldn’t they had company to share the tale
the angels told them. Oh, but no: you didn’t listen,
did you? You called it just an idle tale?

But why are you surprised?

I walked for miles toward Emmaus.
Cleopas and (sorry, I forget the name)
spent hours with me, fire in our feet
and in our hearts and then I broke the bread.
Which they just told you, right?

So why are you surprised?

You didn’t listen when old Simon there,
my so-rock-headed friend, said, “I’ve seen him!
Jesus lives!” He doesn’t have the gifted tongue
of Mary – no, not yet – but still you might
have done the favor of believing him.

Yes, why are you surprised?

Did I not tell you once and twice and so
and on again, again, again, that death
would come and death would go and I
would rise to come and speak with you?
And you are fearing ghosts, for heaven’s sake.

Sigh. Why are you surprised?

All right. You’ve heard the story thrice, and nope.
So here I am. You see me? Unconvinced.
I’m speaking right? You stubborn… argh.
Try touching. There’s even wounds to see
and feel; there’s bones beneath the skin.

No. You are still surprised.

For pity’s sake, can we move on from this?
I’m hungry. Have you anything to eat?

A poem/prayer based on Luke 24:36-48, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Third Sunday of Easter.

The image is Christ Appearing at the Apostles’ Table by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308) – http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/duccio/buoninse/index.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3925674.

One of the fascinating literary features of the Gospels – more in some, less in others – is the way the evangelists let the Twelve stand in for the uncertainties, ignorance, and earnest-but-not-educated yearning of their readers. As a result, the Twelve (Eleven in this passage) have something of a slapstick comedy feel to them. When they become figures of wisdom, authority, and talent in Acts of the Apostles, it comes as something of a literary (if not spiritual, thanks to the Pentecost event) surprise. In tribute to their earnestness which is also ours, I offer this… “Try and catch up with me, will you?” version of Jesus.

Touched

“So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.'” – John 20:25

Stretch out your hand, Jesus.
Mine is stiff and still.
Stretch out your hand, Jesus.
I dare not reach to you or anyone.

I have no need to touch your scars.
I see those well enough.
I have no need to deepen your wounds
(except that I already have).

No, stretch out your hand to me, Jesus.
This season has been long and lonely.
Stretch out your hand, Jesus,
so I may feel your gentle touch.

A poem/prayer based on John 20:19-31, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Second Sunday of Easter.

The image is Reunion – Thomas and Christ by sculptor Ernst Barlach (1926). Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36069401.

All Spirits

For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. – 1 Peter 4:6

I would wish you a restful Holy Saturday, my Savior,
a Sabbath to honor God’s rest in Creation,
a Sabbath to honor the leisure of freedom,
a Sabbath between work done and to be done.

Yet this one verse of Scripture bewildering
rings also with promise and grace,
that your love would encompass not only
the living, but also raise up the dead.

We honor the dead in our memory,
unless we seek to excuse the living,
and then we defame them, abuse them,
discard them as surely as Pilate intended for you.

So Jesus, I pray you forgive my hope
that your Holy Saturday set aside rest
to welcome all spirits, once living, still living,
into the new life for which you had died.

A poem/prayer based on 1 Peter 4:1-8, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year B, Holy Saturday.

The image is The Harrowing of Hell by Michael Burghers (1647/8–1727) – Copied from the 1904 work “Plays of our Forefathers” by Charles Mills Gayley, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3434524.

Directions

Thursday of Holy Week, April 1, 2021

[Jesus said,] “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

We’ve struggled, Jesus, really struggled
with all these words, these words.
“Love one another”: Sure, it sounds so good to say
but when the chips are down
what does it mean, you know?

Like who, exactly, should we love?
My life is burdened, Jesus, with
a host of people I have no great feeling for.
I’ll treat them all OK, you know,
but more? They’d take advantage sure.

And should we ask about abusers, Lord?
How do we love the ones who do not love,
who hurt and harm and rape and kill?
What love do they deserve, when they
will just abuse the more, you know?

How can we love the ones who do not love
themselves, who cannot stretch
their circumstance to make their living better? They
absorb the love we give, you know,
and offer nothing in return.

Then there are those who love themselves
alone, or love their wealth, or love their weapons. They
accept so little of the love we give.
They offer only scorn, or pity, or at worst
the flying messengers of death, you know.

Love for the rank unlovable, you ask?
I’ll wait until your back is turned to roll my eyes.
For all the reasons anyone could name,
there are just some, you know,
that not even their mothers could give love.

A complicated mandate, this mandatum,
requiring more than words to get it all
assembled, like a fine-laid piece
of furniture, not just a rough-laid
table like this one tonight, you know.

So Jesus, could you give us illustrations?
A picture and directions? You know?

Why…

Why…

Why are you washing my feet?

A poem/prayer based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Maundy Thursday.

The image is Christ Washes the Apostles’ Feet, a 12th or 13th century mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily, Italy. Note the Latin “Mandatum” – commandment – at the top of the mosaic. Photo by Sibeaster – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10756980.

A Piece of Bread

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples–the one whom Jesus loved–was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” – John 13:21-27

For centuries your followers have sought to make
the choice of Judas make some sense.
Was he just greedy? Was he bereft of soul?
Did he have some agenda you would not accept?

Despite the Gospel writers’ efforts,
Judas’ treachery remains a mystery.

The greater mystery is how you shared that bread –
the bread we break in honor of your death –
how did you share that piece of bread and know,
and know that he contrived your death?

Who is it, Lord? your closest friend inquired.
You knew. You knew the name as well as you
discerned the anguish that approached, that would
be on its way, when you extended bread.

Were I to know such things, could I extend
a piece of bread as to a trusted confidante,
and breathe, “Do quickly what you do.”
The answer is a clear and easy, “No.”

Yet you released the bread into betrayer’s hand,
and put your life into his hand.
He took his hand into the night
to take your life.

Despite the Gospel writers’ efforts,
Jesus’ love and bravery remain a mystery.

A poem/prayer based on John 13:21-32, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Wednesday of Holy Week.

The image is by unknown artist (ca. 19th century) – http://www.rav.sik.si/sl/e-knjiznica/artoteka/item/zadnja-vecerja-2, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17358033.

Sweet-Scented Dust

Monday of Holy Week, March 29, 2021

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. – John 12:3

Oh, Jesus, must you say such shocking things?
She had, indeed, done such a precious thing for you,
so tender and so intimate, so grateful
for the love you bore for her and Martha.
For after all, you brought their brother back.

And now, with scent of spikenard rising in the house,
you spike the words of Judas, keeper of the purse,
by speaking of the day you would be laid to rest,
a tragedy that perfume could not sweeten, not
with rivers poured upon your lifeless corpse.

Oh, pause now, Jesus, for you shock us once again,
for must we ever have the poor with us?
Could not the rivers of the scent we’ve not poured out
transform this world into a paradise on earth?
Perhaps they could – but bottled they remain.

Except for this one jar unstopped above your feet,
the oil dripping from your soles into the earthen floor,
still warm from your still-pumping heart,
now rising to enchant your breath, their breath, our breath,
sweet-scented dust inhaled to death and life.

A poem/prayer based on John 12:1-11, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Monday of Holy Week.

The image is Mary Magdalene Anoints the Savior’s Feet by Dominik Mosler (before 1880) – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82653427.

In the Throng

Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
– Psalm 118: 25-26a

Festival season. Who needs it?
The city packed with visitors
(Okay, the vintners and the innkeepers: they need it).
Just throngs of throngs of throngs.

The throngs are noisy, just not quite
this noisy. What’s amiss?
They’re piling up along the road
from Bethany toward the Temple gate.

Good heavens. Now the trees are waving
as they strip the branches down,
to lay them in the road. I see
the hues of cloaks and coats as well.

“Hosanna! Save us!” now they shout,
a cry both pious, quoting of the psalm,
and eminently timely in these times.
“Blessed is the one who comes!” – but who?

Oh, dear. This doesn’t look so great.
No horse. No guards. No retinue.
A dusty teacher on a colt,
escorted by rough peasants.

A glance to one side or the next
reveals that not all shout or celebrate.
The priests, the guards, the noble ones:
They watch with faces set and grim.

And I would make my way away
from this, for I have things to do
that will not muddle me in symbols
of revolt, of pitiful defiance,

Yet the throng still presses, holding me
in place to watch the colt’s slow steps,
to listen as they shout, “Hosanna,” and
to wonder if such saving could arrive.

I fear, however, that the only route
from this display leads not into a royal seat,
but to the tender mercies of
a Roman governor.

Such mercies are not tender, no.
Such mercies lead beyond the Temple’s court
to where the hill is crowned too oft
with human figures writhing on a cross.

I watch the colt-borne teacher ride away,
followed by the throng, releasing me
to find my path again. My road will be
much easier than his.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 11:1-11, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Sixth Sunday in Lent, Liturgy of the Palms. 

The image is Einzug Christi in Jerusalem by Wilhelm Morgner – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155912.

Gift of the Greeks

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus…” Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come…'” (John 12:20-21, 23)

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” “I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts.” (Virgil, The Aeneid)

They bore no gifts for you, just asked to see you, Jesus.
Did you see them? John didn’t say. Instead, he quotes you
(at some length) reflecting on the seeds that die and live,
on lives that end to save themselves, on followers
in service, honor rising from humility.

Somehow you saw in their plain inquiry
the gathering malevolence that would
first strike you down, then lift you up,
then bear you breathless to the stony grave.
Stern gift, this glimpse into the future’s agony.

They could not know that they had given you
the indicator of the time.
They could not know that you had made the choice
to give the world yourself, and giving,
draw them, one and all, into the arms of God.

A poem/prayer based on John 12:20-33, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent. 

The Apostle Saint Philip by El Greco (ca. 1610-1614) – qAERMjY3wbk87w at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29844123. I could not resist using Doménikos Theotokópoulos’ portrait, as his Spanish nickname El Greco means “The Greek.”

Starting Over

“Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.'” – John 3:3

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” – John 3:19

“You do not understand these things,”
you challenged Nicodemus, and I feel
a comfortable swell of pride because
I understand these things quite well.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

Is it so hard to understand
that you demanded people to revise their lives,
begin again, as if they were twice-born?
I understand these things quite well.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

The difficulty lies not in the metaphor –
we’ve got that cold – but in the living of
the metaphor, the struggle to begin again.
I understand these things quite well.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

Who wants to take a truly brand-new start
when there is so much stuff we have amassed,
such power, such persistent privilege?
I understand these things quite well.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

He knew, I know, the comfort of the shadows,
the safe familiarity of precedent,
the bland acceptance of persistent ills.
I understand these things quite well.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

My comfort is that you have stated that
God’s purpose is redemption and renewal.
There is always room to start anew.
I take assurance from this well of faith.

As did, I’m sure, the teacher Nicodemus.

A poem/prayer based on John 3:14-21, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent – with John 3:1-13 included as well for context.

The image is Jesus Christ and Nicodemus by Matthias Stom, ca. 1640-1650 – https://www.blindbild.com/darmstadt-hessisches-landesmuseum-darmstadt-gemaldegalerie-november-2014/hlmd-matthias-stom/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88614990. I am particularly drawn to the use of the single light source in this painting.

Picking Up

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. – John 2:15

After the uproar and dispersal,
after the zeal and shouts,
after the sheep and doves
and cattle and bankers
had been driven out:

You know what you’ll see
in the Temple?
The same thing we see
in our Temples.

Tables replaced.
Stalls re-erected.
Coins re-stacked.
Business resuming
in God’s House.

A poem/prayer based on John 2:13-22, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Third Sunday in Lent.

The image is The Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple (ca. 1568) by Jacopo Bassano, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53240101. Jesus is barely visible in the background of the painting.