I was ordained deacon in my sponsoring parish nearly 20 years ago, and the following Sunday the bishop visited. I was scheduled to read the gospel. I walked down the aisle, opened the book, and said “the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Mark,” waited for the response, and started reading. Before I had read more than two sentences I could tell something was wrong. Somebody came up and tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “that’s last Sunday’s gospel.” So I flipped the page, and started over: “a continuation of the Gospel according to Mark.” After the service the real deacon in the congregation said to me, “Don’t worry. Every Sunday I make a mistake. By the time I die, I may have made them all.”
We all worry about whether we’re doing it right in here – and some of us obsess about whether others are doing it right. I got an earnest, hand-written letter this week from a woman who wanted to know if the Good Friday Mass of the Pre-Sanctified should use wine and bread or only one kind – and exactly when the font should be emptied – before or after the Maundy Thursday service. I wondered if the altar guild was having a fight with the priest over what “properly and in good order” really means.
Well, take a deep breath. If we can keep laughing at ourselves perhaps we won’t begin to build more idols out of the sacrifices we offer.
Isaiah’s prophetic rant is a pretty good imitation of a parent most of us can remember: “Oh, you children! Even animals behave better than you do! Wash your hands – and behind your ears – and if you can’t clean up your language, I’m going to wash out your mouth!” And then he gets really serious – “your sinfulness costs others and abuses them. You are stained red by their lifeblood.” He reminds us all that living in peace will require continual turning around, and seeking justice for the weak and poor and defenseless.
The psalmist is even blunter. In one translation, verse 9 says “I will take no bull from your house!” He may be talking about ritual acts, but the broader meaning remains. Consider what is most centrally important – not rubrics, but righteousness. Without justice, mercy, and truth, all our yearning to “do it right” can only fail, and fail utterly. So give thanks for what we have been given, yield to the awareness that we will never do it all correctly or justly, and keep turning around – strive for a new mind and heart.
Jesus says pretty much the same thing – the greatest among you must be your servant, for the mighty will fall and the fallen will be raised up.
We are continually and specifically invited to look at the red stains on our hands and our wallets, and be washed clean in the living blood of the compassionate heart of God.
I once heard a pastor in Arizona challenge a group with this story. “When a mother asked me why I was taking her daughter and a group of other young people across the border to learn about life on the other side, she said, ‘why would you do that? We’re not illegal aliens and we don’t want anything to do with them!” And he said to her, “ma’am, I eat cheap lettuce and tomatoes in the winter, and I live in a house that was built in the last ten years. I support illegal immigration. Do you support illegal immigration?”
None of us can live clean. We are as deeply interconnected by our individual actions as by the structural evil that infects all human societies – the principalities and powers that seek to tear down rather than build up.
Building up, raising up the fallen, is the work of all liturgy – in the daily work of people in the world as well as in communities gathered for worship. We cannot approach the throne of God except in solidarity with all who suffer diminished lives, and worship is empty as long as we think otherwise. We profess to seek the world of John’s revelation and the justice proclaimed by every prophet and child of Wisdom: where the water of life cleanses bloody hands and brings life abundant, every tear is wiped away, every belly filled, every child housed and cherished, and injustice and exploitation ended.
Our humble confession is that we cannot aspire to that world cleanly or in full consciousness, but we can keep turning around and returning to the labor. The good news is that this is a full-employment initiative. It needs the partnership of all, and the clamoring voice of each, for the blood is flowing all around us – the racism that continues to pervade this nation and the world, the many forms of enslavement– human beings trafficked for labor and sex, minorities incarcerated for minor offenses, wage and debt slavery that dooms so many to less than abundant lives, and the me-first consumerism that drives so much of the rest. The self-centeredness of original sin has never been particularly original – it is the same old bloody theme, played out in glitz and flash, but never new. From the Crimea to Caracas, from Congo to Chelsea, human beings continue to look after our own interests.
Perhaps the most central focus of our Lenten journey is self-examination. How do I hold my neighbors’ lives in my hands – is it in thrall or in blessing? Do my own appetites limit or expand the possibility of greater and more abundant life for all my neighbors? Who can help me see that more clearly? How am I defending myself with righteous rubrics or extended justifications? Examine your life, and then use your voice, joined to a symphony of lament, beseeching heaven’s aid in a liturgy of death-defying hope.
We can’t live completely clean, but we can all become more conscious. May we be blessed with neighbors who will help to open our eyes and wash our hands – and remind us of the psalmist’s words: I will take no bull from your house.