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26
May

Reflections for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15

Imagine you have a vision. A voice from outside yourself, pulling you towards an adventure, a mission.

That’s what happens to Paul and his companions. They get a dream sign, a vision, in the voice of a man calling them into Macedonia.

Paul has been guided along roads for a long time already now—a journey with remarkable horizons but still, in an understood world—an eastern, provincial world at the edge of the Roman empire.

Now, they go traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going into Asia; they had an idea about what they could do in a place called Bythnia, but the Spirit of Jesus, gives some hard, definitive closure of that way. They allowing themselves to drift in a strong steering current, and thats part of what Luke is trying to get across in this narrative: God is actively shaping their path toward something as yet unseen.

Parker Palmer writes about a time in the middle of his life when, frustrated by the sense that his opportunity to seize life and claim calling was running through his fingers, went to stay with a community of Quakers to pray and seek what Quaker Christians speak of as “way”—the patient, confident openness to the experience of God revealing the path God would have you walk. Nothing but frustration. Nothing happens. Eventually he pours out all his angst to a woman of many years. This is how he relates what she said: “‘I’m a birthright Friend,’…’in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’”†

Ways are closed for Paul, and they’re helped by those closed possibilities to the coast in Troas. And here, in the vision, the man says “come over and held us” calling them across the Aegean—into Macedonia. That’s Greece.

That’s another place altogether. Its a dramatic step further from the known. Its a step onto a different stage. They’ve traveled into the land of epic myth—the vision comes to them in Troas: Troy—the scene of the Trojan War—the foundational epic of Greek and Roman imagination. And they’re being called across Homer’s wine-dark sea to the land of Alexander the Great, who stormed out of Macedonia once upon a time to conquerer of the whole world they knew. Now they’re set to sail the other way, carrying word of the kingdom of God.‡

 

What strikes me particularly about how this journey is described to us in Acts is this: we’ve heard about visions before in Acts: Ananias literally gets a street address in the vision that sends him to Paul; Cornelius doesn’t quite get an address, but he knows he’s to reach a man called Simon and Peter, staying a man named Simon, in a house by the sea; Phillip is guided to an Ethiopian courtier in a chariot. Pretty specific.

But in the dream this time, Paul gets….a province, a direction. Only that. 

They catch a ship and hop their way across, and eventually to the coastal city of Philippi. Philippi: not the provincial capital, not the biggest city. Just a place. This is where they decide it seems right to begin. And they are very much strangers in a place they just don’t know much about it. Up to this point we’ve seen Paul preach in synagogues first. Nothing like that here, at least not they they can find. The known way, the tried way isn’t on the menu. So, here is beginning of the proclamation of the good news in Greece: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.”

They have a hunch about where people might go looking for holy space, in a city without a synagogue. They went to a place where it looked like maybe somebody would show up—maybe, on the Sabbath, somebody who knew the God of Israel.  They go outside the walls of the city, by the water. And they waited. And when it turned out to be a place where women gathered,

that’s who they talked with.  That’s who they meet, and so that’s who they tell the story of the their journey there, and the remarkable why of it. That’s who they tell the story of Jesus.

And God was at work in this person Lydia, opening her heart. It was a man in the vision calling them to Macedonia, but it was Lydia who first heard them. And they aren’t like—we had this dream about a man, and we have an important mission, and we were wondering if you could take us to, maybe, some men. They speak to the women as if they are the whole point of this journey—to Lydia, who isn’t even from Macedonia.

And she was baptized and insisted that Paul and his companions stay in her household.  And because they had a place to stay, they could keep going back to the place by the water to talk to more people. And because they could keep coming back, they met and shared their story with others who became a community. And going back and forth to that place they eventually tangled with a young woman consumed by something that gave her clear eyes for secret realities—for who Paul was, and who he served. She served as a slave, and when Paul healed her of her possession, her masters were angry because now she was worth less to them without her clairvoyance. And because they got upset, and whipped up a court against Paul, Paul ended up in prison. Because Paul ended up in prison, he was there when an earthquake shattered the building and Paul could sit tight, and reassure a despondent prison guard and give him a vision of a whole new kind of life. And because he was still sitting in jail when word came that the generals wanted to shuffle him quietly out of the city, Paul could insist on a a face-to-face reckoning with the Roman colonial authorities. And free, they made their way back to Lydia’s house—which now seems to be the home of the church in Philippi.

Our Bishop Doyle writes about this passage in Acts that“The church must send, and empower people to go out, without plans! People should go and discover in the world what is up there and not overly plan their work. Certainly, there will be time enough to figure things out… but the beginning of mission is a Person attentive to the Holy Spirit and a Place and dependance upon God.”§

And there’s something else too. Everything that happens in Philippi, in Macedonia, begins with disciples showing up and talking with the people given to them as if they had been given to them.

Notes

† Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 38.

‡ This is probably how the original Greek-speaking audience would have heard this passage in acts, as resonant with the Homeric epics and the memory of Alexander. See: Robert Sorensen, “Paul’s vision of ‘a certain Macedonian’ in Troas: how might Luke’s original audience have heard the narration of Acts 16:9?”, Logia 21 no. 2 2012.

§ This comes from Bishop Doyle’s weekly commentary on the lectionary texts

http://hitchhikingthebible.blogspot.com/2013/05/easter-6c.html

12
May

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43

In the Book of Acts, we’re at Joppa, a port city in Roman Judea. An urban trading center, a city of the empire. A place where cloth goods in particular, clothing, was made for sale down in Jerusalem and exported into the wider markets of the Mediterranean.*

There was a disciple there whose name was Tabitha. Tabitha is an Aramaic name,

so she was likely a Jew in this essentially Greek city. It was important to the writer that a listener know what her name meant; they translate it for a Greek listener: it means Gazelle. Gazelle is a woman of at least some wealth, which is the strong suggestion when someone in her world is described as devoted to good works and acts of charity. She had the means to be charitable to others. And she was charitable to others because something had happened to her.  She was a person who had heard the story of Jesus, and been claimed by it. She was a disciple, a follower in the way. 

She became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.

Who are they, and where are they. We learn more after Peter has been sent for, and then arrives.

All the widows stood by him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Gazelle had made while she was with them.†

So, They are widows. And the writer gets that its a community. They washed her. They laid her in an upper room. All the widows are there, show the clothes Gazelle made when she was with them. The message they send to Peter is: come to us. This is a community of women. 

Its a community of women in a culture which had very clear expectations of a woman’s obligations, and they had everything to do with the household she belonged to. The household was the most basic and the most inviolable institution in the greco-Roman world. The fundamental unit. But what provided stability to society and empire, didn’t provide safety or security with anything like equality.‡

Households were headed by men, and having a place was about the ability to establish a relationship to a man. A woman who wasn’t connected to a household as a slave, or a servant, or a wife, or a daughter, or a mother or a mother-in-law was adrift. Unless she had her own wealth, if a woman was widowed, and couldn’t find another household that could or would incorporate her, she was terrifyingly vulnerable and in desperate trouble. There was just no space for her to fit.

But here are a bunch of widows together. And this is the place they share. When Peter decides to stay in Joppa after the miracle, they do not invite him to make himself at home. He has to go stay someplace else—in the household of a man called Simon the Tanner. This is the place they share.

Maybe its Gazelle’s own house. A house with upstairs rooms—maybe the kind of house that was a center of production for the clothing we talked about earlier.§ And we know that Gazelle was both a woman with some money, and a woman who was a master seamstress. She’s been supporting the community, but she’s also been making clothes, either to sell, or for the women themselves to wear—maybe they’re showing the clothes to Peter as they wear them, weeping around her body. She’d chosen to be with them, and to help them go on together. And when Gazelle died, they took care of her. We don’t know if Gazelle, herself, was a widow. But if she had some other family, some other people, the women, the widows took care of her in the end. They washed her, prepared her body. And they’d heard that Peter was not far, so they sent disciples to ask him to come to pray with them and comfort them, and to bury her, I guess. Which isn’t what happened.

There is more than one miracle in Joppa. One, is that Peter calls Gazelle by name, and the power that raised Jesus from the dead moves through him she wakes up and gets up from the bed and the saints and widows come rushing in and there she is holding his hand and alive.

But the greater miracle is that in Joppa, the new thing alive and growing in the world broken open by Jesus, was a place where women like these women could become a household of their own. The new thing alive and growing in the world introduced a woman with something to give, to people who needed it. And they ended up belonging to each other. A bunch of widows and Tabitha. No one was dead, it turns out. They were all very much alive.

Notes

* For a discussion of Joppa in the 1st century, and a reading of historical evidence, including archeological evidence, that suggest Tabitha could well have been a benefactress from her position as a producer of cloth goods, see Teresa Calpino, Women, Work and Leadership in Acts. esp. pp. 141-153

† David Bently Hart, in his translation of Acts, helpfully just translates Dorcas as “Gazelle” throughout.

‡ On the position of widows and early Christian communities of widows, see Dennis MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle

§ Calpino also identifies in the story suggestions that the household of widows we see in Acts 9 is connected to a workplace. pp. 159-160

09
May

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

The way we’ve shaped the bible into chapters and verses affects how it happens to us. So does the way we read and hear Scripture in worship. We, for example, very rarely read from John 20:31 straight into Chapter 21:1. If we did, we might snag on the way John writes ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” And then….there’s another page. The writer immediately starts telling us about another sign Jesus performed by the Sea of Tiberias.

It seems like John bottom-lines his reason for writing, wraps up the story, but then starts again. And it seems that way, most scholars agree, because John really did end his Gospel, and then the writer, or another writer in the community, reopened the scroll to add another story.  And that’s wonderful, because we get to ask why. I’m convinced that when we reckon with Scripture as inspired, as an action of God to reach toward us, we need to think not only about the words, but about the story of the words. God has moved toward us in the histories of people and communities. But for right now, the important thing is to recognize that we’ve just heard the conclusion of the fourth Gospel: Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. There was a lot more that could have been told, but the writer gave us the story of Jesus and Thomas, and decided that was enough—a sign so rich with meaning that John meant originally that it would be this story resonating in the hearts of the hearer in the silence after the reader sat down. This is a powerful sign!

We could talk about trust, about doubt, about signs and our vision for God in the world. But now, I want to think with you for a little while about how this story lets us see Jesus, what the Resurrection says about the meaning of having a body.

I recently encountered a theologian—Molly Haws— pointing out something that might be obvious, but that we don’t pause over: to be born again, you have to be born. The new life of the spirit requires the prior life of the body—a body that the wind of the spirit breathes new breath into. The breath can make alive the dry, helpless bones. But you need bones.

The body is not a husk, or an enemy. As much as we’re often trying to get away from our bodies, to escape our bodies, the Resurrection proclaims the awakening and transformation of the body.

New Testament scholar Candida Moss writes that the way we tend to think of Jesus rising and appearing with his wounds may be a little off. Thomas asks to see the marks of the nails, and to place his hand in the marks. And we imagine wounds. We paint Jesus with wounds. I’ve often spoken about wounds. But the word used to describe the marks made by the nails in Jesus body isn’t a word used to describe open wounds. Used in the context of a body, she argues, its more like a depression or, really, like a scar.

You may be wondering why it matters whether Jesus shows up in that room with open wounds or with scars. Here’s why: if Jesus reveals scars, it means that whatever kind of body Jesus rises in, it’s a truly living body. A body that isn’t static. A body in which what was torn knits into scars.

If that’s what Jesus’ risen body is like, the marks aren’t just symbols of his sacrifice, or even as proof that it really is him. If the wounds of the crucifixion have become scars in the Resurrection, maybe what we see in Jesus is what glorification is like for all God’s beloved, embodied, wounded ones.

Jesus carries marks of the cross in his wondrous, mysterious risen body because the crucifixion happened to him in his body. And that tells us that Resurrection doesn’t obliterate our history. No. It breathes new life—life that can heals and grows into the perfection of our identity before God.

So our bodies aren’t something to be discarded or escaped. Our weird, remarkable, rebellious flesh is the place where we are found by and experience God. In our substance.

We need to hear that in a culture that holds up the body everywhere as a spectacle, and but which teaches us to be pretty disgusted with our actual bodies. Most of us struggle to have any unashamed peace at all with our bodies. We distrust our bodies. Our bodies are the place where we suffer. We suffer from the collapses and the breakages of our bodies.

And we need to hear that because our bodies are the place where we suffer the costs of sin. The sin of misogyny, the sin of racism—these are, as a great Priest and scholar Chris Bryan points out—evils about the body. He writes “What do they involve if not the claim that because my body is in some way different from your body, that makes me a better person than you, or else perhaps a worse person than you, and it even gives me the right to oppress or abuse you, or you the right to oppress and abuse me.” And, he writes “it is bodies that are starved…and abused.” Its bodies that are assaulted. Its bodies that are condemned to ingest unsafe drinking water.

And if there is in the end justice for what is suffered, God’s healing justice, there must be justice in and for the body. And justice isn’t forgetting, and it isn’t wiping away. Its a redeeming answer to what we have experienced. And that,  Father Bryan goes on, is what we are shown in the body of Jesus: Jesus, who knew the struggle and delight of a body, and who offered his body to be broken, receives an answer from the Father—he receives justice—in a body that has been redeemed.

And he, the Apostle Paul writes, is the first fruit, of all those who will be gathered out of their graves.   

Your body is your story, and your story matters to God. If you are frustrated that you aren’t big enough to reach all the light switches. If you can run so fast, you laugh with delight in what your legs and lungs can can do. Or you are heartbroken at the places your body can no longer take you. If you don’t trust its mystery. Even if your body seems to betray you. Even if you are ashamed of your body. Even if you struggle to claim the goodness of your skin. Even if you hold in yourself the trauma of a wound.

Our story has been written, it is being written, in our bodies. And at our last awakening, the promise of the resurrection is that God will author something new in it.

Notes:

Moly Haws cited essay is “Put Your Finger Here: Resurrection and the Construction of the Body” Theology & Sexuality, 13 (2) (2007): 181–194.

Christopher Bryan’s quoted thoughts are found in The Resurrection of the Messiah.

Candida Moss’ discussion of resurrected body of Jesus can be found in Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity.

18
Jul

Reflections for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

i
I come from people who were never surprised by bad news–people with hope, with enormous resources to go on, but with a genetic strand that encountered and accepted bad news like a bill in the mail. “Ah, there you are.”

The way that worked out for me was the expectation that good things came with bad things somehow hitched along: gifts required some loss; a given talent meant some corresponding inability; get something, give some other hope away.

Paul writes about his vision of heaven–this mystical insight beyond anything that could be said–and then he says “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” And on a really deep level I’m thinking “that sounds right.”

That way of responding to to God, through whatever it was afflicted him, seems to have been helpful for Paul. But I just got stuck there, without asking for removal, because I assumed the same reply Paul received: that it was necessary. And that, it turns, out, was often a really unhelpful story to tell myself, because the losses and absences and inabilities in my life were not and are not cosmic balance for some other gift.

I say that because maybe you’ve told yourself a story like that; maybe its easy for you to decide that the thorn has a reason. After all, its “a thorn in the flesh” that has place in our talk.

But maybe, too, the way Paul understood how and why this affliction came is a distraction from the reason he tells the story.

ii
Things are going badly wrong in Corinth.

Paul is in the midst of a long and painful argument. Its difficult to see
because of how 2 Corinthians is put together today, but its assembled from letters going back and forth, as Paul and the community reached a point of open rupture.

Other, very different people have acquired authority in Corinth; impressive people, perhaps even claiming themselves to be greater apostles. And the church seems to have been persuaded by their show of strength—maybe some of the same people who, from the beginning, cut away at Paul for his unpolished Greek oratory—“they say, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

So, Paul arrives at the point of saying that if it has come down to boasting, ‘ok, I’ll boast.’ Its anger and heartbreak and it spills out of Paul so forcefully, that he seems to shock himself—-“I am talking like a madman” he says. He lists everything that’s happened to him since he began to travel and preach:

“imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

“If I must boast,” he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

Paul has been naked against every storm. And more, he admits the inner toll of his apostleship-—how exposed his heart is to all that happens in the churches; “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” He is no immoveable tower. His passion makes him vulnerable.

Why does he admit this? Why does he lay himself bare like this?

He tells a story about how, fourteen years earlier he had his vision and received his thorn. And he asked for it to be taken away three times, and Christ said to him “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So,” Paul says “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

He’d never told them that before, but that–that word of Lord–is how he got through, the whole time. Through everything that reduced and terrified him.
Through everything.

Perfect in weakness—that’s the paradox of the incarnation. That’s a paradox of the cross itself.

The weak in Christ get to know something the strong never do: being loved for themselves. The weak, who know that the value of life cannot be understood in terms of what they can make, or do, or control, but in the irreducible value invested in them by God who made them; who know have nothing to grasp at, no false proof, but the company of God as a witness and assurance that they are loved. And, for most of us, that kind of knowing will be a lifetime’s journey.

18
Jul

Reflections for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5:21-43

i

I want to meditate with you on the middle part of today’s reading from Mark: the interruption in the healing of Jairus’s daughter, when a woman breaks into Jesus’ attention and into the story.

First, I want to talk about a way we often think about this story that, is, I think, a problem for the church. Then, I want to point to a way that I think this story goes right to our experience of suffering and hope. And last, I want to look hard at the way we see Jesus in this story.

ii

Its common for this passage to be preached and understood as an example of Jesus crossing religious boundaries to redeem the dignity of a outcast woman.
It goes like this: because the woman had a flow of blood, she was perpetually ritually unclean, and probably marginalized by her community.
By touching Jesus, she committed a significant offense, transmitting her ritual impurity to him, making him unclean. Jesus apparently couldn’t care less about this
and has therefore, yet again, dismissed the ritual life of religious Judaism.

But here’s the thing: ritual impurity never gets mentioned in the passage.
There’s not much evidence to suggest that women were, in any meaningful way, isolated or shamed or shunned because of bleeding. And, really, that stands to reason. People just about couldn’t avoid ritual impurity in the normal course of everyday life.
If you were touched by a person with her kind of ritual unclean-ness, you became unclean only until sunset—not the end of the world. And if she has washed her hands in water, she wouldn’t have transmitted impurity at all. Being ritually clean mattered to Jews—it just doesn’t seem to matter very much in this story. And we can see the profound way in which Jesus affirms the dignity of this woman—God enfleshed calls her daughter!—without throwing her culture under the bus.

So, lets put that aside.

iii

Its also common for this passage to be understood as a teaching about the power of faith. In this way of reading, the woman is the center of the story. And, in some ways, she is the center of the story—the person we connect with. The woman who has been loosing blood; loosing station—Mark tells us she had given all she had to physicians, which means this illness has slowly devoured her prosperity;
loosing hope—she has suffered much under physician after physician, trying remedy after course of remedy, and had only gotten worse. She’s is dying in slow motion
and she is desperate. And as the crowd moves with Jesus on his way to Jairus’ house,
she seizes her moment to reach out and touch him, because she has seen enough of Jesus to believe—in spite of everything that has happened to her, every dashed hope—
that even a touch will heal her.

iv

But what about the part of the story that, maybe, we least know how to make sense of:
the picture of Jesus himself. The crowd moves together, and the woman wends her way toward Jesus from behind. She touches his cloak, and knows immediately that she is healed; the bleeding ceases. And here is what Mark writes:
“Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him,
Jesus turned about in the crowd and said,
“Who touched my clothes?”

Jesus didn’t decide to heal her. She didn’t winningly plead for mercy, or convince him of her faith. A woman who has, in a real way, lost control of her own body—a body that bleeds and will not stop—touches Jesus and discovers he is not exactly in control of his body either. She touches him, and power goes forth from him.

In the same way that the woman was immediately aware that something had happened in her body—that the flow of blood had stopped—Jesus was immediately aware that power had left him.

All he knows is that someone, among all the people pressed and jostling alongside him, has touched him in a way that has claimed something from him.
“Who touched my clothes?”
He doesn’t know. He looks and he waits until the woman, awestruck and trembling, falls before him. She tells him the truth, and he tells her the truth: your faith has made you well. Then he tells her to go and be healed of your disease, which isn’t him deciding to heal her— that already happened. Jesus probably telling her “go, now that the bleeding has ceased; begin the seven days wait that Leviticus demands,
and then be washed and give a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Then live your life, healed.”

But she was made well when the power went out of him. And there seems to have been no boundary in, or around Jesus to limit or control how he received her when she came to him. But he was no less God in that moment.

Its never been easy for the Church to be at peace with the plain and concrete sense of this story. Because Jesus is so vulnerable here–things are taken from him.
But what if that’s the point for us.

Imagine—really, imagine now—how it would feel to learn that people who knew you thought about you, and spoke about you, as weak. Some of us would rather almost anything. Many of us would be debased rather than be thought of as weak. We want to be strong. We want to be masters of ourselves and of circumstances; we think about strength as the capacity to exert control—to dominate—rather than be controlled. We are drawn to that kind of strength, and we long to see it reflected in ourselves.

If we let it, I think this story opens up our eyes to see that even as Jesus was been going about astonishing with power, he is crowded, and claimed ceaselessly;
he can stop the storm on the sea, and he is almost defenseless. Jesus is not his own possession; and he is completely free to love.

10
Jun

Reflections for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 3:20-35

the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

I
The Gospel from Mark today overflows any possible message with this picture of Jesus who is so confrontational—speaking of binding a strong man; speaking of an unforgivable sin; refusing his family to create something new. It overflows any message with questions.

I wonder if we might just imagine Mary.

II
“Is it true you tried to stop our Lord?”

There was no end to the questions pious people came to ask her,
hushed, awestruck.
Nobody was ever brave or coarse enough to ask Mary that.
And now the truth was hard to remember—if
she really had meant to stop him.
It was like trying to remember
how you felt around a stranger before you loved them.

“We didn’t understand,” she says.

“Jesus left to go find John at the Jordan and be baptized,
and I thought he would come back to Nazareth and his work and to us,
like everyone else had.
But then it was so long, and we didn’t know where he was.

“People from by the sea came and said he himself was going along
healing what couldn’t be healed. That he was casting out demons,
and saying that the Day of God had come. He had chosen the twelve.
We had no idea what was happening to him.
We heard about the crowds.
Jerusalem people were coming to measure him, all pressing in.
He was in Capernaum. So we went to him ourselves, to bring him home.

“Our kin decided he’d lost his mind.
I just wanted to look in his face.

“All the way we walked, I wondered what I would say to him.
We had a relative there who took us to the house where he was.
But we couldn’t get through the people to him.
The men from the Temple had given verdict
of a demon in him because he frightened them.
Except for the fear, they looked dead all the way through.
But we were all afraid. Even the silent, sick ones waiting for him;
the constable with the flitting eyes and the hand on his sword;
the woman with the pallid baby who kept mouthing “see us, Sir.”

“The boys were telling the people who we were,
shouting into the house.
I stood in the street outside the place,
listening to the crowd inhale and exhale,
imagining his voice in the middle of them, making that happen
and I thought: let him go far enough,
and whatever this wind, this spirit, is will just take him.
He was already letting go, already facing away from me.
And he refused to come out.

“He had other mothers and brothers
who listened to him, and he’d stay with them.
That was his answer that came back to us. You know that.
It didn’t hurt me when he said it;
there was always more of him than I could hold.

“He was my child.
The Christ was the boy who would go down
sometimes with me to wash
and would look back from the water, so perfect,
and somehow full of something
I prayed to see erupt into blossom,
and also feared more than anything
because it would mean his life.
God knows I loved him.

“Is that what you wondered at?” she says.
“That I was part of what had to be broken for him to be the Christ for us?”

“Did you leave people behind to follow him?
I’ll tell you the goodness of this:
He was talking about us that day.
You and I have become that family; he made us sister and brother to him now.
Grace and peace be with you.”

“Grace and peace be with you, Mary,
mother of the anointed one,
blessed among women.


Notes

I’m indebted to Matt Skinner’s recent commentary which gets to the heart of the conflict and the emotion in this passage: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

05
Jun

Reflections for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2:23-3:6

Jesus entered a synagogue
and a man who had a withered hand was there.
Mark says that some of the Pharisees
who had been trailing behind Jesus were there too,
and they watched to see if he would cure the man on the sabbath.

There were differences in the way teachers, and religious sects,
and ordinary Jews interpreted and followed the law—
probably differences even in what they understood the precise words of the law to be.
What you could or couldn’t do on the sabbath
was a very live question in Jesus’ time.
But work was out.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work…
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;

The voice of God sounded the law
to the people in the desert at Sinai,
saying that the sabbath
is patterned into all life
from its very creation in the beginning:
“in six days the Lord made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day
and consecrated it.”

So the sabbath was given
as a way of living in response to God’s way of creating,
and God’s way of being with creation.
Sabbath is the day of delighting with God
in the goodness of creation’s turning
and growing and flourishing.
And if God could rest, so must God’s laboring creatures—
rest from their busy making and trust the ceaseless work of God
to sustain everything with enough.

When Deuteronomy narrates how Moses
spoke the law on behalf of God,
he commands that “you shall not do any work.
You, or your son or your daughter,
or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey,
or any of your livestock,
or the resident alien in your towns,
so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”

So the sabbath was also given as a way of remembering that God is a liberating God, and that the people who were slaves once in Egypt, who now have people in their power cannot forget that God is still and always a liberating God. The sabbath is meant to restore peoples’ vision. Sabbath reveals and reminds of God’s intentions in creation.

The sabbath is near the heart of Israel’s identity as people made and claimed and liberated and accompanied by God. Following the commandment faithfully was what it meant to live as God’s people.

And so we shouldn’t be surprised
that how to behave on the sabbath was a matter of vital importance.
And we shouldn’t be surprised that the sabbath commandment came with teeth; Moses declares that anyone who works on the sabbath is should be put to death (and right down to the time of Jesus, Jewish writings suggest throwing the book at violators of the sabbath).

Here’s the thing: the Torah isn’t explicit about what work is.

That had to be figured out, and you wanted to err on the side of caution.

But when it came to the practices of healing,
there was a big interpretive problem—
The God-given law absolutely forbade work
on the day of sabbath rest for the sake of life.
Life was God-breathed and precious.
It was also precarious; Sheol was near. Sickness—
and who could say with certainty what sickness—threatened it.
So, could a person heal the sick on the sabbath?
Though some teachers held that you could intervene if death threatened, the broad answer was no.

So, here is a man in the synagogue.
He has a hand that doesn’t function.
There have been people crowding to Jesus’ seeking healing;
they cut holes in roofs; they grasp at him,
challenge him—demanding that he act for them.
And maybe the man with the withered hand
also hopes Jesus will heal him too,
but he doesn’t seem to have come to the synagogue to be made well—
he’s just part of the assembly,
in the synagogue because its the sabbath.
But the pharisees notice him.
They wonder if Jesus will notice him too,
both because he’s becoming famous as a healer,
and because they’ve just watched his disciples
picking grain on the sabbath,
which is work by anybody’s definition.
Challenged, Jesus claimed authority over the sabbath
to set aside a sabbath prohibition.
They were not impressed.

So now, the man with the withered hand becomes,
for them, an opportunity to find out just how
liberally Jesus will behave.
They look at him, and they see a useful trap.

Jesus does see him, and sees his hand.
He tells him to stand up in the midst of the crowd.
Jesus knows he’s being watched,
so before he does what he’s going do,
he challenges the watchers:
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath,
to save life or to kill?”

That’s not really a question.
Nobody thinks its lawful to do harm on the sabbath.
Jesus is doing two things at once.
He’s pointing at the pharisees
and saying that they are standing here
in the synagogue on the sabbath
meaning to find a way to harm him.
And Jesus claims that what he is about to do is saving life.

Now most people probably wouldn’t have seen it that way.
The man could have waited until the sabbath was over.
His life isn’t in danger;
his hand has probably been like this for a long time;
maybe it has always been like this.
To heal on the sabbath was work.

But Jesus is revealing what the healing—
what all his healings—are about:
the restoration of people to the fullness of life.

And Jesus is here now,
in whatever synagogue he’s walked into,
and the man is here.
And, yes, its the sabbath.

The men watching him are silent.
And Jesus gets angry.
I don’t think he’s angry
because they interpret the law against work on the sabbath
in a way that he rejects as cruel.

He’s astonished and brokenhearted
that they cannot find it in themselves
to hope that some newness has broken in,
some rupture in the possible.
The someone of remarkable power
is standing in their very midst
and they cannot hope that the one with authority over the sabbath
will make this man fully alive.
To hope, even secretly, that even if the law is the law,
that Jesus will heal him anyway,
for the man’s sake.
They fail to love.

This is a story about the longings of the heart,
and the ones who get lost here, fail because their compassion fails.
They can’t see the man as a man with pain and hopes and dignity and potential,
and desire the good for him.

I’m not at all sure
that what we see here is a conflict between legalism and freedom,
or between conservative and liberal interpretations of the law,
or Jesus radically setting the law aside.
The law is good and a gift.
The law gives moral shape to the world.
And love is the highest commandment.

Jesus is teaching that the law is a grammar for love,
and sometimes love exceeds the capacity
of that grammar’s rules to express it.
And sometimes that is going to lead us into a woods, a wilderness,
where we don’t know how to hold the law and live out love.

But we are called to that sojourn.
And if we can’t keep our hearts awake in those places,
and be confused and disoriented by the conflict,
we’re usually going to solve our crisis by denying
the dignity and full humanity of the people involved.

The Lord we follow shows us to a better, and a harder way of that–a way of compassion that must be our way as we are changed into his likeness.

16
May

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48

A centurion named Cornelius lived in Caesarea, and he had a dream vision of an angel. The angel called him by name and said: send men to Joppa to bring back a man with two names, who’s staying at the house of a tanner.

He sent them. Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa on a rooftop having a dream of his own,
about a descending sheet full of animals. And a voice told Peter to kill and eat.
But some of the dream-sheet animals were forbidden to Jews for eating. So Peter said, essentially, “nope; some of these things are unclean.” And the voice said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So Peter sat on the roof, thinking about this confusing dream. And the men from Cornelius the Centurion showed up. A voice told Peter that they were sent by the Spirit, and that he should go with them. So he, and a group of Jewish believers, went.

He must have kept on wondering about that sheet and the animals and the voice on the walk to Caesarea because, once he saw the crowded house waiting for him, he said “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He asked what this was all about,
and Cornelius told about his vision, and said they had gathered to hear what the Lord has given Peter to tell them.

“I now realize,” Peter says, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” But he told them again—told them the good news of what Jesus had said and done.

And then right in front of them, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius, his friends, his slaves, his family. And “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Cornelius was a Gentile—a non-Jew. He was born outside the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the people God had made covenant with. Jews were blessed and separated, but knew that being outside the covenant people of God, not a descendent of Jacob, is not to be outside all covenant or outside the love of God. Peter says “I realize how true it is that God…accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”He’s not being struck with a new idea; he’s being confronted with something he knew already, but hadn’t fully reckoned with: God had always promised a wideness of blessing among the nations and peoples of the earth. And here is Cornelius—a Gentile who has seen an angel, who prays to God and supports the poor of the synagogue, who Luke describes as “a devout man who feared God.”

When the New Testament writers—when Jewish writers of their generations—
talk about a Gentile who “respects God,” they’re talking about a particular sort of person:
a God-fearer. A God fearer was a person who, in the stew and swirl of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean world, had encountered Judaism, and were drawn to trust the power of the God Jews worshipped. Many adopted parts of the way of life that came with that relationship. They went to pray and hear the Scripture read in synagogue; some ate the way Jews ate. But they had not abandoned their ancestral gods. Jews were glad to accommodate Gentiles who fell into this category. For God-fearing Gentiles to go further meant circumcision but also—and in a way that can only have been traumatic—abandoning your whole way of being a person in community, in a world where acting out loyalty to the religion you had inherited meant everything.

Cornelius and his household haven’t gone that far. He probably respected and devoted himself to all kinds of gods. Actually, as a Roman Centurion, that would have been inescapable. But he’s more than a casual, curious, occasional attendee at the synagogue. He and his family have come to know a particular and powerful relationship with the God of Israel. They are God-fearers and, from the perspective of neighboring Jews, they’re righteous Gentiles. They’re pagans who get it. But they have not given up their old, inherited identities. And I think that matters. It isn’t like Cornelius has been banging on the door to Judaism and the Jews have kept him out. He could have accepted circumcision, given up the other gods, and been a Jew like that. He didn’t.¹

Turning to God alone, with all its painful consequences in their social world, is going to be the central demand made on Christ-believing Gentiles. That’s what Paul will go to the Gentiles preaching. And, if we could hear what Peter and his friends spent those next days talking about with Cornelius, it would probably be just that. But Peter doesn’t say a thing about that here; he’s just retelling them the good news of Jesus that they’ve already heard, and that has charged them with anticipation. But there’s probably an altar to some other god in plain sight while Peter’s talking.

The household of Cornelius, as they were, turned to hear what God had to say.
And as they were, the Holy Spirit fell on them.
If that surprises us—that God would act like this—then maybe we can recognize
how we still get to share in the astonishment Peter and his friends experienced.

We see difference easily.
Its fairly easy for us to decide that the ways we are different make us unequal. That’s the endless wound of human tribalism and we all participate in it, in large ways and small.

We also participate in a different kind of storytelling—
a kind of storytelling in which we regard one another as equals
by identifying with others in a way that renders our differences superficial, illusory.
We decide that we are the actually the same, and so we’re equal.
We do this. We say things like, “I don’t see color.”
And what we’re doing is erasing each others’ particularity—erasing one another’s histories, stories, perspectives. We look at someone else and just see ourselves,
which means we can’t actually see them at all.

What radically strains our hearts, is to accept someone else as both actually different from us, and also equal. That way of seeing and regarding is what we are called to in this story.

The Pentecost of the Gentiles is not the destruction of “us and them.”
There are Jews, and there are Gentiles, and difference between them is meaningful.
What’s happening is the shocking, undeniable, inrushing of the Holy Spirit in a way that forces Peter and his fellow disciples to confront that they are different and of equal worth to the God who pours our grace with scandalous impartiality. “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” Peter says.

We need to hear this.
We need to hear this because we are embedded in connected but different histories.
We embody histories, and we have different stories. We do not experience the world alike.
We are different—we have constructed difference, made it real—
and we cannot erase one another by denying that.
We cannot look say we are the same
when that refuses the truth of one another’s experience.
That is not the community called together and gathered up in Christ,
the communion born through the Spirit.
We are different and not erased in that body. We are equal,
and absolutely and equally beloved by God.

 


Notes

1. In thinking about Cornelius’ identity as a god-fearer, I’m indebted to Paula Fredriksen’s scholarly exploration of early Christian belief in the context of ancient near-eastern religious life. For more about this discussion of god-fearers, see especially her article “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins who’s time has come to go” http://www.academia.edu/15574563/_MANDATORY_RETIREMENT_Ideas_in_the_Study_of_Christian_Origins_whose_Time_to_Go_has_Come_
and also an essay “How Later Contexts affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect is the Mother of Anachronism” http://www.bu.edu/religion/files/2010/03/CRINT-13-Fredriksen-offprint.pdf

24
Apr

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (And also Earth Day)

John 10:11-18

The good shepherd lays down life for the sheep given into their care. They do more than place their life in danger; they choose final sacrifice. That’s what makes the shepherd good. Jesus says that the Father loves him because he lays down his life freely, and he lays it down for the sake of the sheep he is gathering up into one flock—that know him with the same perfect comfort that is between Father and Son.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” I once heard a preacher say that answering the question that Jesus asks pointedly in three of our Gospels— “who do you say that I am”— leads inescapably to another question: “who does Jesus say that you are?” Well, Jesus seems to say that we’re gathered and incredibly beloved sheep. Sheep who listen and follow his voice. And since Jesus says, again and again, that his way of life and death should become our way of life and death, the Good Shepherd, seems to be calling us to see that being his sheep means being good shepherds too.

So, you’re a shepherd in ancient Palestine. You don’t own sheep. You hang out with somebody else’s sheep. You keep them together; you keep them moving over good grass and watch out for hurt ones and sick ones; you face whatever threatens them in the middle of nowhere with a stick.

We get swept up in this metaphor because it speaks of God’s selfless, self-emptying, love. And we get swept up into the metaphor because we know we’re the sheep here. Saving us at the cost of everything seems awesome because of how we value what’s saved. We have dignity, worth. We matter. Actual sheep matter less.

I’ve known and liked sheep. But if its ever down to me or a sheep….

So here’s the crux of this metaphor about shepherding: Allowing yourself—precious and remarkable you—to be killed for the sake of something like a sheep. Deciding they are worth your life. And who here is going to watch the bandits or the wolves come down the hill, and think, “this seems like a good trade.” But if we’re imagining ourselves into the parable, that’s what happens. And there you are dead in the valley. The sheep don’t have any capacity for gratefulness; they’re munching grass around you like you’re a weird rock. Those who find you will not think this was noble. They will figure you tripped and something inexplicable happened. No one in your family can write, so your people will remember until they don’t; nobody is going to carve a stone that says, “died for sheep.”  There’s a deeply uncomfortable, almost tragic, smallness to that right?

But that’s what the good shepherd does. What the good shepherd does smashes against our instinct to weigh everything against ourselves; the constant evaluation we’re in the midst of: is this person, this place, this thing worth me, a piece of me, all of me.

Jesus doesn’t choose the sheep he cares for. They belong to him because the sheep have been given to him. And he lives out the demands of love for them because it is the command of the Father who sent him into the world, out of love for the world.

What are we given to be shepherds of?

Articles appeared this last week that described the data and conclusions of a just completed survey of the Great Barrier Reef—those multitudinous galaxies of coral that have arced the northwest coast of Australia since a time when humans were wandering tribes; before agriculture; before bread;

fifteen thousand years before the faintest trace that humans imagined cities or kings. In the summer of 2016, water warmer than ever possible since this great reef began, briefly smothered its northern reach. The same phenomenon developed last summer in a different stretch. The effects were instantly recognized as catastrophic, but what’s clear now is that half the living coral along its 1,400 miles starved or died in the heat. The reef in those places now is an archipelago of bones: what the reef has left behind, as some new, radically different and radically less diverse system emerges.

These smothering periods of warm water began in the late 1990s, and marine scientists expected that the sensitive corals would suffer as Coral Sea and earth’s oceans warmed and their circulation altered. But there’s shock nonetheless that in the space of two summers this much of the reef, and the vast web of life it has nourished, has collapsed. The expectation has been that if dramatic and immediate transformation of the way humankind pollutes the atmosphere arrests that warming of our planet below an increase 2 degrees Celsius, the reef would survive in some form. That’s not what is happening.

That isn’t happening because so many remarkable ways of human flourishing are bound up with the burning of fossil fuels. The human experience has been transformed, and continues to be transformed, by an outwardly racing horizon of knowledge, mobility, sustenance. Staggering newness and possibility. It goes on. But our way of being in this world is absolutely dependent on pollution on a vast scale. And we are being overtaken by the costs.

The reef is being destroyed—this planet is being devastated within the space of human generations—because God set us in the midst of creation to be its caretakers but we have been thieves, and we have been bandits, and sometimes we have behaved like hired hands, but we have refused to be creation’s shepherd. Would you lay down your life to redeem a billion—a billion—dead corals?  God forgive us that in unison we would say no in our hearts.

And thank God for so loving the world. The scripture does not say that God so loved humankind. God so loved the world: the whole creation that has its breath and tide from God. And we should consider the possibility that the God who set us in a garden has not willed our salvation as an end in itself, but for the sake of the whole groaning creation. Consider that we are being made fit creatures to dwell as a part of this. Made fit to live as God’s image-bearing creatures in the world—to be God’s shepherding creatures, as Christ has shepherded us. And that no more diminishes us than the Good Shepherd, who laid down life for his sheep, is diminished by his sacrifice. That is Christ’s glory. And the only glory of humankind is to reflect that glory in our capacity to take up the caring, loving labor of God in the world.

01
Apr

Reflections on Good Friday

All the careful, distinguishing detail—
all the detail
in which the Gospel writers
tell their stories of Jesus’ judicial murder—
arrives at a common silence:
When the procession—Jesus;
the scattering of disciples, mostly women,
who would have been waiting outside Pilate’s headquarters, sick,
not knowing what was happening until he emerged with the crossbeam;
his executioners; the military and religious functionaries—
when the procession arrives at Golgotha,
and all of the accounts simply say “they crucified him.”
The whole process of breaking a human being onto pieces of wood.
The tools of it. The executioner’s craft. The flinching outcry of nerves.
All of that, disappears within a
verb.
“They crucified him;” they made him into a dying person.
And I am struck by the ordinariness of it—
how the act of crucifixion itself required no explanation,
the particular experience of a person merited no elaboration,
because if you had seen one person tortured like this,
you had seen them all. Flesh is flesh.
The instinct to survive is what it is.
Nails are nails.
Jesus enters a horrifying
commonplace.

John tells us that a handful of women
came to stand near the cross
— his mother, his aunt, Mary Magdalene.
This is nearly the last, before Jesus turns away from earth:
he looks at them.
He sees his mother, looking at him.
He watches her, watching him
breath out the life that had bloomed in her body.
They are entwined in this pain;
their gaze is an exchange of sorrow,
a bottomless wound.

This is how God,
the Mother of creation,
has always watched her children.
Near. Willing anything to make it stop.
Refusing to look away.