Tuesday, June 19, 2018

2018:4 - The Head Table

The visit of the Italian tourists on Sunday evening (see 2018:3 post) became the source of conversation in class on Monday morning. As a way to practice English conversation I asked my students to talk about what they had seen, what they had heard, and what they had noticed.

It's always interesting to listen to their responses and hear the things that stand out for them. For my students, mostly in their 20s, from a country where 41% of the population is under the age of 20 and 61% of the population is under the age of 30, the age of the tourists was noteworthy. Most in the Italian group appeared to be in their late fifties, sixties, or older.

Some of the students commented on the words of the Italian bishop from Viterbo who preached and presided at the Mass. In his homily he had spoken a strong ecumenical word, "we are not Orthodox or Catholic, Coptic, or Latin, tonight we are one in Christ."  

As the conversation was coming to a close, one of my student asked, "And what about you, Pastor Amy, what did you notice?"

What I noticed as I sat in the dining room following the service on Sunday evening was that the head table was filled with very important people, as would be expected. There were priests - Italian and Egyptian, bishops - Orthodox and Catholic, important people in the church - the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church and the Vatican Ambassador to Egypt; and they were all men.

"How sad," I thought to myself as I observed these sons of Christ's church. They are all able to communicate with each other through the Italian language that they share, but because they are all men, they also communicate through the shared language of male privilege in a church that still honors men above women. The dominant voices they hear, the stories that shape their experiences and realities are primarily the voices of other men like them, except when they choose to invite a woman (and often it is only a single woman) to their table.

I was not disappointed that I was not at that table. I was disappointed that these leaders in Christ's church still live in a world and lead a church where theirs are the dominant voices and experiences that shape the decisions that are made and the ways the story of Jesus is told.

It's easy to read this and think that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where I am called, is beyond this. I am called to an ELCA congregation where I serve as co-pastor with another woman, Pastor Abigail Zang Hoffman. Since 2013, the ELCA has been led by a presiding bishop who is a woman, Elizabeth Eaton. This past synod assembly season across our church, six new bishops were elected who are all women. I rejoice in all of these things.

The scene of the head table made me sad because it was such a vivid example of the world that many of us live in today, myself included. It is too common for me to sit with and talk to people who look like me, who talk like me, who share the same kinds of life experiences as me, who affirm the same political views as me, who talk about Jesus in the same way that I do. As I looked at that table of men on Sunday evening and willingly, even eagerly, judged them, I can't help but turn my disappointment toward myself and ask: "who sits at the tables where I sit?"

Like an Italian bishop who preaches and I'm certain sincerely believes, "we are all one in Christ," all our words are like dust until we dare to live as though those words are true. We encounter the presence of Christ when we share bread and conversation with those in our communities who we know and love, that is something that many of us have come to expect of life in Christian community. What is surprising, world-expanding, and a great blessing is when we encounter the presence of Christ in people whose lives and experiences are vastly different from our own.

Perhaps we can start to ask one another, "who is sitting at your table?" And maybe, we can even help one another to sit at new tables together. I'm confident the Spirit of Christ will help us. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

2018:3 - Received

An image of the Holy Family along the Nile
Matthew 2.13-18 tells the story of Mary, Joseph and their child, Jesus, who become political refugees from a tyrannical ruler named Herod, who announces a plan to kill all boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem under the age of two. Matthew tells us the family escapes into Egypt where they stay until the death of Herod.
The site of the crpyt

This Bible story is not one that is well-known to many Americans, but for Egyptians, regardless of faith, this story of the refuge that the Holy Family sought and found in their land, is a profound story that shapes their understanding of what it means to provide hospitality and care to guests. For centuries, monasteries, convents, and churches have claimed to be built in places where the Holy Family rested along their journey. At a Metro station just a few stops north of the seminary, you can visit a church built over a crypt where the Holy Family is said to have stayed. (I like to call these sites part of the "Jesus Slept Here" tour!)

This year marks the start of a year celebrating the sites that welcomed the Holy Family throughout their journey. On Sunday evening (June 17) at the seminary we welcomed bishops (Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, and Roman Catholic), the pope's ambassador to Egypt, the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church, numerous priests, and some 50 Italian tourists who have traveled to Egypt to journey to the traditional stops along the Holy Family's journey.

We prayed together and then we ate together. In true Egyptian fashion every comfort and need of the guests was considered. When your country has provided shelter and care to Jesus, the Savior of the world, you carry a special awareness of the hidden nature of Christ, who is in all people.

Each time I come to Egypt, I see new examples of what it means to be received by God's love. In part it means to see the other not as a problem to be solved, or a danger to be averted, but as a hidden Christ to be welcomed. My own faith has been deepened by considering how I embody the welcome that I receive whenever I come to this land, the first to welcome Jesus.

Monday, June 11, 2018

2018:2 - Bounty

A table of bounty had been set before us ... chicken, Egyptian mulukhiya, kofta, dolmas, cucumber and lettuce salad, fresh bread. That's what happens when you travel to an Egyptian home for a meal. Every specialty of the house is placed before you. Not eating is considered an insult and so you taste ... everything. It is not a burden because the food is delicious.

Sunday we were invited to Amir's home for the midday meal. Amir was a student in past years and will visit America with another seminarian in July and August. He lives about 45 minutes from seminary by taxi, subway and foot, and so we made our way.

We sat with Amir's tiny mother in her ornate, air conditioned sitting room in an ancient structure built by previous generations of family. The flat-screen TV was on the wall and her son and grandsons attended to their various smart phones from time to time throughout the afternoon.

Through those gathered, she told us about her 73 years of life. She showed us a wedding picture from the mid-60s. She told us about her youth in Upper Egypt and then her early years of marriage in Cairo when she would go to a nearby source to carry water from the common spigot for the family's needs.

As I listened, I thought about the changes that this woman and others of her generation in Egypt, have seen in the course of their lifetimes. From animal transport and no electricity or water in homes to all of the modern conveniences of life today. In the course of her lifetime, she has experienced changes that spanned multiple generations in my family.

Faced with all that she has seen and the pace of change that she has witnessed, she could be bitter or simply tired. Instead, she sat with a smile on her face and warmth emanating from her being. "It is a blessing for me that you have come to my home. You are welcome anytime."

I'm certain that THIS is what being received by God's love looks like. I only hope to provide her son with such a reception when he travels to our home later this summer.