Sign Value: It’s A Thing

During the pandemic, some congregations began using all-in-one containers of bread and juice that look for all the world like holy Keurig cups, or those little crinkly plastic coffee creamers you get in motels. You peel back a lid of plastic film to find a perfectly round, perfectly white, stiff and starchy stamped out wafer, and underneath, a precisely measured prim little thimbleful of juice. Exactly the same for everyone, compact, sanitary, not cheap, but very convenient. 

I devoutly believe that the contents of that little contraption, duly blessed and consumed, were true Communion for all who partook of them. Which simply confirms my suspicion that Jesus has a quirky sense of humor and an infinite store of humility to be pleased to come to us by such fleshless, bloodless signs. That’s what you’ve got? Yuck, but good to go. Not even plastic can keep me away.

Still, judging by all the meals Jesus enjoyed that earned him a reputation as a glutton and a drunk, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in real chewy, slurpy, unprepackaged food, so that, having consumed his ample life, we might be present to the world in real chewy, slurpy, bodily, ample unprepackaged (and even unsanitary) ways, a kind of holy excess of real presence to all who hunger for the taste and mouth feel of companionship and compassion, not pale, plastic, finicky facsimiles thereof.

And judging from the miracles of multiplication Jesus performed, I wonder if he might not be just as happy to get back to being present with us in food distributed not according to strict, uniform, and teensy parity, but according to the measure of real hunger and need and the human right to a share of enjoyment of all earth’s goods, with doggie bags when we’re done, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present through food banks and soup kitchens and doorstep casseroles and loud table whacking advocacy in the halls of power for economic justice for those who starve amid plenty. 

And judging from all the stories Jesus told about plowing and sowing, owners and workers and wages, I think he might be just as pleased to be present to us again in food that’s recognizable as food that labor actually produced, food that somebody sowed, reaped, milled, kneaded, baked, pruned, plucked, pressed, refined, bottled, and transported, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present to those who do all that every day yet whom we deem essential only when there are mortal risks to run and they’re the ones running them for us, present to them with a living wage, better conditions, and other effective affirmations of labors’ worth and workers’ dignity.

And judging from the gospels where Jesus is never depicted as eating alone, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in, with, through, under (or whatever you believe) signs that have to be taken, touched, broken, poured and passed from human hand to human hand, not personally packaged for antiseptic private ingestion, so that, having consumed his life, we might abandon the aloof isolation, self-protection, and self-delusion in which we often operate, reading and discussing the latest powerful book about issues and the people who have them but not rubbing bodies with anybody in hard won relationship, and be present to the world like he was and still is when we obey him, among and within and beside and wholly given away.

The holy Keurig cups were a necessary fallback (and they can still be useful for home visits and the like), but in my view the fact that they have been sold in bulk for years and widely used in many Protestant churches as a safe convenient delivery system for the Lord’s supper long before Covid came along, with its prudent precautions, betrays a fear of mingling and contamination that, were you to take a hard look at the history of such things would turn up no shortage of racism and xenophobia, a horror of a different sort of viral and uncontrollable infection, the hordes and all that.

Then there’s the sacramental minimalism they represent, the not so subtle embarrassment that we have to “Do this” as Jesus commanded, so we do it a little grudgingly mostly because he said we should, and even as we talk a good game about the feast, God’s abundant banquet table, the bread of heaven, and y’all come, we don’t have to bless and serve food that any basic regular person would recognize as such, and we don’t have to love it or enjoy it, much less be it or become it or live what at Christ’s table we say we do, re-member, and become one bread, one body, one flesh and blood.

The coffee creamer container with the tiny wafer (you can’t make me call it “bread”) and lipslip of juice were OK as emergency rations, but you can’t escape the possibility that they conveyed nothing of the lusty tasty gospel Jesus but rather a miserly, private, flavorless Jesus, convenient to use in the comfort of your own home or in a sanctuary where everyone can remain where they are and need not bestir themselves in any way to take and eat or to go and do likewise in this God-beloved world that so desperately needs abundantly-communionized people to communion all of life in Jesus’ holy and abundant name.

We like to say that a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. True, but not just of inward things. Sacramental signs point to outward reality, too. Who we think God is, who we think we are, what we think we are doing in Jesus’ name as Christ’s Body fed with his life, what we are called to become, how we think the world was meant to be, how it was meant to feel and taste and smell and sound, and where that meant-to-be world is breaking in around us with justice and celebration, pardon and healing, reconciliation and joy. 

People read signs. What are we giving them to read? 

People feel meaning, they suss it out almost unconsciously from ritual actions and words. What are ours conveying?

No Christian Seders, Please–One More Time

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember the supper Jesus shared with his disciples “on the night he was handed over,” a night that fell during the Jewish observance of Passover. The synoptic gospels recount that during that meal, Jesus gave thanks for bread and wine, spoke mysteriously of them as his body and blood, and shared the loaf and cup with his friends. He also told them to “do this” in his memory. Thus, Christians believe, he instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion.

To mark this special night, some churches hold solemn Communion services, others mount joyous Love Feasts. Many stage a moving service of light and shadow called Tenebrae. And in some churches, members wash each other’s feet, emulating Jesus’ humble act of service to his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of John. All these are traditional practices drawn from the rich storehouse of Christian liturgy. 

Lately, however many congregations are adding a new observance to the standard repertoire—a Passover Seder. Sometimes a rabbi or a Jewish family is invited in to lead the Seder, but mostly these “Christian Seders” Seders are put on by Christians for Christians, without Jews. Churches that hold these meals do so sincerely and devoutly, aiming to honor Jesus’ Jewishness, explore the Jewish roots of Christianity, deepen their appreciation for Communion, better appreciate its origins, and educate themselves about the practices of their Jewish neighbors. 

Commendable as their intentions are, however, a Seder by Christians for Christians is rife with difficulties. The first problem is simply historical. Despite what Christians have been taught, historians aren’t certain about what sort of meal Jesus’ Last Supper actually was. Apart from the ritual sacrifice of “unblemished” lambs in the Temple, we know very little about other customs pertaining to the Passover Festival in Jesus’ day, especially practices that people may have observed at home. 

Jesus shared a meal with his friends during Passover, a meal layered with significance for him and his friends. That much is clear. But whatever that meal was and meant, it was not a Seder. We can be sure of this because the Seder was introduced into Jewish ritual life generations afterJesus’s lifetime. The Seder Christians have adopted is a blend of traditions that were developed in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. With the traditional focal point of Jewish religious practice in ruins and the people dispersed, Temple sacrifice became impossible, and rabbis began developing new forms of ritual life to define and anchor Jewish identity differently in changed circumstances. The Seder was one of those new forms.

Ironically, some scholars believe that the Seder developed in part as a reaction to the growing dominance of the Christian church and its sacred meal, the Eucharist. If this is true, Christians who celebrate a Seder today are celebrating a meal that was meant at least in part to criticize them and to draw a sharp line between of Jewish rites and Christian ones. An anti-Christian critique is no longer a feature of contemporary Jewish Seders, but the polemical history of this tradition should alert us to an important fact about rituals—they do not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to everything we do, and in this case, the context is complicated and fraught. 

For starters, then, when Christians hold a Seder for themselves, hoping, among other things, to do what Jesus did on Maundy Thursday, they are engaging in an anachronism. Neither Jesus the Jew nor any pre-70 CE Christian ever practiced a Seder of any kind, let alone celebrations like those that many churches today hold to “reenact” the Last Supper. But the Christian Seder is problematic for much more consequential reasons than this historical slip. Chief among them is the stubborn persistence among Christians of the ancient doctrine of supersessionism, sometimes called “replacement theology.” 

In its simplest form, supersessionism asserts that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism in God’s plan and affections. There is now a New Covenant that replaces the Old. Jesus and the Church have completed and perfected what Judaism lacked, rendering it at best merely preparatory, and at worst obsolete. Despite years of interfaith efforts, supersessionism continues to shape our Christian thinking. We may not be conscious of it, and if we become conscious of it, we may reject it; but we draw on it whenever we adopt a defining ritual of Jewish identity and instrumentalize it to illumine and explain Christian beliefs. 

This happens frequently at Christian Seders. Christians are told, for example, that the lamb on the Seder plate represents the sacrifice of Jesus, who is the Lamb of God; the bitter herbs point to his crucifixion; and the greens speak of his resurrection.It’s also common to interweave Jesus’ “words of institution” with the traditional Seder blessings of bread and wine, in effect celebrating Christian Communion as part of the Jewish meal. When we lay Christian meanings on the Seder in this way, especially when we insert Communion into the ritual meal, we send a message that the truly valuable thing about the Haggadahis the way it points to Jesus. The Christian Messiah, not the Exodus, becomes the “true” focus and “real” meaning of the night. The Jewish meal is nice, but it is also somehow less until Jesus perfects it, turns it into something new, something better, something more. 

This is to write Jews out of their own story, replace them with Christians and the Christian story, and relegate the Seder’s ongoing significance for Jews to the distant background as a mere shadow of the real, a pallid preamble to the main act. 

Congregations that hold Christianized Seders also urgently need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. The long, violent history of Christian appropriation of and contempt for Judaism should make us think long and hard about doing it. It is no accident, to cite just one example, that throughout the Middle Ages, bloody pogroms regularly erupted precisely during Holy Week. These murderous rampages were often prompted by rabid anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on Jews—and not just on ancient Jews, but on all Jews throughout the ages— and demanded unsparing violence against them. 

Before inserting Communion into a Jewish Seder, it would also be bracingly instructive for Christians to remember that one of the great historical slanders against the Jews was the accusation that they stole consecrated Communion wafers and pierced them with sharp objects, subjecting the Body of Christ to the same torture they inflicted upon him on the cross. This is the shameful history of falsehood and contempt we inescapably carry with us whenever we engage in something like a Christian, or Christianized Seder. 

If Christians knew this history better, we might show more restraint. But many of us do not. As a consequence, although few of us consciously think the religion of our Jewish neighbors is inferior to our own, this old reflex continues to assert itself; and we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and unwitting slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to believe it their religious duty to defame, forcibly baptize, exploit, expel, and murder Jews. 

The Christian Seder is a prime example of just how unexamined the fraught relationship between these two faith traditions remains, and thus how easily the consequences of ignorance could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our supposedly enlightened, interfaith, inclusive age. That it could never happen here, that it will never happen again, that good liberal Christian folk would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week innocent of our history, still acting out inherited patterns of disdain. 

Remembering and retelling the story of the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt is one of the Seder’s characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder in Holy Week, we Christians might devote ourselves to remembering and retelling our own story in a way that does not ignore or downplay its bloody chapters. With lament and repentance, we might turn to the Jewish Jesus for the help we need to close that shameful book forever.  

It is a good thing to want to learn more about the Jewish roots of our faith and to honor the Jewishness of Jesus; but performing Jewish rituals absent actual Jews is the worst way to accomplish those goals. Ritual is inescapably contextual. It arises from and is lodged in a particular community’s experience. We are not Jews, and we cannot celebrate a Seder on our own out of anything remotely resembling the actual experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. 

Canadian educator, Paul Olioff, puts it this way:

“TheHaggadahJews read around the Seder table is not an abstract story. The Jewish customs which some non-Jews are now embracing were practiced for years under the worst conditions, where every lit candle and every prayer risked being disrupted by the violent arm of authority, and entire communities prayed not only for a future homeland in Jerusalem, but for their very existence in that temporary space to last until the holidays the following year. It’s not just an aesthetic, but a tribute to a people who survived against all odds for centuries as a perceived enemy and a geographical minority. When I go to a Seder, I am always initially amazed the tradition has survived for this long.”

Christians can appreciate the Seder, admire it, be moved by it, learn about it, even joyfully participate in it when invited by Jews to do so. But aSeder will always ring hollow if practiced apart from the very people who have been layering it with meaning year after year after year. Adrift from its moorings in the complex web of Jewish spirituality, family life, and centuries of struggle and joy, it can only be a caricature, little more than pious play-acting. 

To put it even more pointedly, a Christian Seder is a kind of theft. We may justify it by saying that the Jewish story is also our story; and in terms of origin, texts, and traditions, there is indeed much we share. But it is not onlyour story. It is first and forever also the ongoing, defining story of a people, a people we are not. We cannot do with this story whatever we please. We especially may not dilute or denude it of its specifically Jewish character to make it mean something Christian. We Christians urgently need to understand and accept that Jewish practices have vitality and meaning beyond their relationship to Christianity. We would do better to advance the project of understanding not with a Christianized Seder, but rather through building sincere relationships with Jews to discover together how best to learn with honesty, care, and respect. 

To this end, congregations could invite a local rabbi to visit and talk about what a Seder means to Jews. She might even lead an instructional Seder for the church. (Just don’t invite her to do this during Passover when she is as busy and frazzled as your pastors and musicians are during Holy Week!) Or members could engage in a small group study of modern Passover rituals on their own, reflecting together on various versions of the Haggadah, but refraining from actually doing the ritual. 

If members of the congregation are lucky enough to have Jewish friends or know families who would invite them, interested folks might participate in a Seder in a Jewish home. This is the best way for Christians to experience the Seder, both because it is properly grounded in Jewish family and relational life, and because it is humbling. As a Christian blogger married to a Jew observed:

“Sitting as a minority at a table full of people who are part of a community that has celebrated Passover for hundreds of years, many of whom have eaten these foods every year since they were born, with individuals who look forward to this holy feast with the same anticipation Christians feel for Christmas, Christians might sing Dayenu (“It would have been enough…”) and feel that the blessings that God has extended to you are truly enough, and you do not need more.”

Christians could also choose to attend a public Seder. Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer these meals every year, particularly on the second day of Passover when it is customary to welcome anyone to celebrate and learn, as the words of the Haggadahdeclare: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Christians should accept.

Whatever the avenues for learning and participating, the guiding principle should always be that the Seder is Jewish, and Jews must be the ones who choose to share it with us. That they will often do so happily and generously should encourage us even more to avoid the offense of borrowing their distinctive practices without permission, then baptizing what we borrow.

The fact that during Passover Jesus gathered his friends, ate supper with them, commanded us to love each other, gave us a new way to know him in bread and wine, and humbly served us by washing our feet matters mightily to us Christians. The great drama of Maundy Thursday cries out for enactment, for remembering and ritualizing its wondrous scenes and their surplus of meanings. Most of all, it cries out for a meal. We can and should do what Jesus did that night by holding warm intergenerational suppers, great messy potlucks, happy love feasts, and solemn celebrations of Holy Communion. But not Seders. 

We have our own feast. Let’s let the Jews have theirs. 

No Christian Seders, please!

The Fires of Hell

At the end of the age… the angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire.”—Matthew 13:49-50 (NRSV)

There’s a reason Christians have traditionally depicted Hell as an inferno. The horror of fire is meant to deter us from sinning. To burn forever in flames, who’s not afraid of that? 

Not many of us, apparently. Sinners are hardly an endangered species. It’s Hell that’s in trouble. These days, a lot of us just don’t buy it. We can’t believe that Jesus wants us to live moral lives based on fear. How could a truly loving God consign us to eternal fire? Hell may exist, we joke, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s there. 

Meanwhile, toxic darkness falls hours before the sun sets in Australia, Borneo, and Brazil. Countless creatures flee towards extinction. Flames siphon life-assuring oxygen from the air. Politicians and profiteers steal indigenous peoples’ agency and place, dignity and livelihoods. Unique ecosystems vanish, unrecoverable. 

Maybe Hell is due for a revival, at least as a bracing metaphor; although even hellfire seems too pale an image for what we deserve, we who disbelieve metaphorical flames while remaining oddly indifferent to real ones. 

Even eternity in Hell seems too light a sentence for us who’ve convinced ourselves that firestorms happen only far away, and who don’t mind that things burn as long as it’s not us.

It was a world-changing day when humans discovered fire. It’ll be a world-ending day when we’re no longer afraid of it. It’s a soul-damning day when God calls desperate from a conflagration, and we whistle blithely in the blistering wind. 

Prayer

Deliver us, O God, from the fires of Hell.

O Holy Night

December 24, Christmas Eve

“For the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken; for a child is born to us… the Prince of Peace.”—Isaiah 9:4

It’s the O holy night, the silent night, the all is calm all is bright evening of our dear savior’s birth. 

In the realm of heavenly peace, jittery angels wait for God’s signal to depart.

In the midnight sky, the Star positions itself over the manger, dimming its light until the big reveal.

Around fires in the hills, shepherds swap bawdy stories, scratch at fleas, glad for quiet, no wolf or thief. 

In the little town of Bethlehem, strangers who came to be counted lie four to a bed in bad motels, grateful for any bed at all. Innkeepers and beggars count the bonus coins of these last days, a temporary gladness. Crouching at corners, hard soldiers familiar with blood are tossing dice, muttering curses, ears cocked for trouble. 

In Jerusalem, Herod sleeps in a velvet chamber, sheets of Egyptian cotton tucked under his chin, digesting a dinner of lamb and mint, dreaming of music and wine. 

In a nasty shed, Mary labors, Joseph is silent, the cattle are lowing, and little Lord Jesus will soon be asleep on the hay.

Then the angels will sing and the shepherds will run and see and the Star will explode and people in town will wonder why there’s so much noise in that back alley, ‘though not enough to call the soldiers, who are still tossing the dice, muttering and cursing, waiting for much bigger trouble.

It will come.

Sleep on, all you Herods. It will come.

Prayer

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,  And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his holy name. (“O Holy Night”, v. 3)

Missing

December 24, Christmas Eve

“This will be a sign for you …a child, lying in a manger.”—Luke 2:12 

We know all we know about the first Christmas Eve from a few gospel stories, all written decades after the fact, all different in detail. They have this in common, ‘though—no animals are mentioned at Jesus’ birth. No lowing cattle, no braying donkey, no stamping sheep, no droopy-eyed dromedaries parked outside. 

Which is why, when it comes to Christmas, imagination is more reliable than Holy Writ. Christians know what to do with the bare bones of a good story: add flesh. 

No animals? But there’s a manger, so there must’ve been animals! The evangelists probably just forgot. Surely God wants this corrected. Henceforth, then, let us sing about the donkey in the corner stall, paint loveable lambkins into the scene, arrange cattle in crèches where they belong and, while we’re at it, throw in Godzilla and a cat. 

Thus have animals become gospel. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

I once got a card showing Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. An ox muzzles at it, stink-eyeing the babe, as if to say, “You’re cute, little boy, but you’re lying on my dinner.” Ugh, I moralized, there it is on a Christmas card—humans monopolizing all the space, making life hard for every animal but us. 

But I also felt glad. Glad the ox was even there. Glad that we humans, so self-centered most of the time, noticed for once that a vital part was missing and rushed to paint, write, and sing it back in. Glad, too, more than I can say, that tonight is born for us the One in whose bright realm no one is ever missing, no creature great or small left out of Love.

Prayer

Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.

“And All The Merry-Hearted Sigh”

From the UCC StillSpeaking Writers Group Advent Devotional 2019

The earth dries up and withers…
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore…the wine dries up, the vine languishes, and all the merry-hearted sigh.”—Isaiah 24:4-7

Not everyone can drink safely. Alcohol is deadly for some people. So not everyone responds well to the use of wine as an image of earthly wellbeing. Still, for as long as humans have cultivated grapes and drunk wine, imagination has made the metaphorical link: fat grapes heavy on the vine, free-flowing wine in ample supply, merry-hearted people singing—all’s right with the world. 

So when a poet speaks instead of withering vines, shriveling grapes, and wine in short supply, we stop in our tracks. When erstwhile flushed consumers sigh, when all they do is sigh, our blood runs cold. 

The trouble is moral before it is ecological: breathtaking human fecklessness has sickened everything. Our arrogance, greed, and violence have us in a death spiral. All creation is swept into the vortex with us. There is no wine.

In Advent, we kneel in this devastated wasteland of our own making and thirst and thirst for want of wine until we finally feel how much we need a savior; until our hoarse sighs turn Heaven towards us with the gift of a joy-maker who knows we have no wine and comes earthward anyway.

He will soon be arriving to our sagging feast. When he appears, he will take immense jars of countless bitter tears and turn them into song. He will draw out wondrous drink and re-start the wedding. It will be safe for all, and he will consume it with us, merry-hearted. He will make us well, the Earth well, and all manner of thing well.

Prayer Marantha! Come, Lord Jesus!

For All The Saints: Living the Communion More Than One Day A Year


Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet…

So, who wrote that? Teresa of Avila?

Nope. Methodist minister, Guy Pearse. He wrote the first few lines in 1888. The rest was added in 1892 by English Quaker, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, of the York, England, Rowntrees, who were chocolate makers, like the Cadburys of Birmingham.

But a chocolate loving Quaker is not as sexy as a 16th century mystic. Who wants Sarah Eliza Rowntree when you can have Teresa of Avila? That’s what a well-known blogger said to me when I pointed out the misattribution on his site. He said, “Yeah, I know, but Teresa’s name makes people want to read it.”

In 1968, a Harvard undergrad named Keith Kent wrote some guidelines for student leaders as a class assignment. He called them “Paradoxical Commandments.” We know them as the “Anyway” prayer of Mother Teresa. Seems you’ll never get your 15 minutes with a saint in the neighborhood. They’ll steal your stuff every time. There’s just something about a saint that confers authority even on clichés. You can write, “You must let the dog out,” sign it “St Francis of Assisi,” post it on Instagram, and within five minutes it’ll go viral.

And speaking of Francis…

We Protestants say we don’t “do” saints, but we sure “do” Francis. If we have outdoor statuary, it’s often Francis in a birdbath. And somewhere in our churches there’s a copy of a familiar prayer (that he didn’t write) that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Who cares if in addition to loving birds and peace, Francis loved priests, popes, and transubstantiation? Somehow this medieval Catholic has become a saint even modern Protestants can love.

But we aren’t supposed to love saints. We don’t canonize them. We don’t pray to them. They don’t do miracles for us. We don’t believe it’s just the few, the fine, and the dead who are saints, but all the baptized, including you and me. In most of our UCC churches, all it takes to become a saint is to sign up for a committee. Nothing canonizes you faster than volunteering to fill a slot on the Board of Christian Education!

We say saints aren’t special, yet we reverently share Facebook memes with their supposed sayings. We don’t privilege canonized saints over ordinary people, but we let Teresa of Avila steal from Sara Rowntree and get away with it. We don’t believe saints have special powers, yet some of us will pray to Jude, patron of hopeless causes, when we really need a parking space, or to St Anthony when we’ve lost our glasses.

We all know that the Protestant Reformers downplayed devotion to saints. It made a lot of sense to do that in the 16th century. But now? No one is collecting their relics and selling them any more, at least not where I live. No one is making crass bargains with them in return for a cure. No one thinks they can get us or our relatives into heaven if we donate a bundle to a hospital in their name. 

There are no insurmountable theological obstacles to our veneration of the saints, nothing to keep us from honoring and emulating them. St Paul told the early Christians to imitate him insofar as he was imitating Christ. That’s precisely what we do when we set the saints before us so that we might gain encouragement and derive fruitful lessons for our own discipleship. It’s what we do when we light a candle in memory of dear departed grandmother Smith or Pastor Jones on All Saints Day, too, acknowledging the many ways their example of Christian life has shaped and inspired us to be who we are.

And if we believe that the saints are with God and living still, even asking for their intercession is not terribly different from asking our earth-bound friends and neighbors to pray for us. Protestants have reconsidered and adapted a great deal of our pre-Reformation heritage, including more attention to ritual and the liturgical cycle, and even to fancy vestments. Why not the saints? And yes, I do mean the “big” ones, canonized or otherwise universally esteemed saints, as well as the more domestic, local ones. 

We call them “the church triumphant”—the church triumphant, living members of the church, still active in and crucial to its mission. If we want to be the church, the whole church, and nothing but the church, we can’t go about our mission ignoring an entire segment of the membership! Bad enough we do it with children and youth. And old people. Recovering a vivid sense of the communion of saints could make a big difference in the way we live into the church, its mission, and our own discipleship. I think we need the saints. 

Why? 

The saints shows us the myriad ways grace takes shape in real human lives.

We have one pattern—Christ. But Christ comes in all shapes and sizes. Race, gender, class, nationality, marital status, ability—you name it, in every time and place God has made saints from the material at hand. All different, all saints. To see the particularity of the saints helps us claim the particularity of our own discipleship. I don’t have to be anyone but me to witness faithfully to the gospels. In fact, if I’m not me, in all my particularity, I’m not witnessing faithfully to Christ.

Now, to be honest, over the centuries the church has not always done well in showing us the full range of human particularity in those it has named as its saints. For too many of those centuries, the official saints have been predominantly white, male, straight (as far as anyone knew or wanted to believe) and in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, celibate. The more we reflect on the saints, however, and the more we wonder about what makes for one, the greater the chance we will expand the old parameters and add to the rolls people from every race and clan, every condition and class, every geography and time. 

The saints enlarge our notion of community.

We say, “St Swithen’s by the Sea is a friendly community,” and “St Polycarp by the Pool is an active community.” But ‘community’ is one of those weasel words that can mean a lot of things. Too often it means only us like-minded folk, this happy, homogeneous little bunch. But when it comes to the ties of affection, aspiration, and accountability that bind the church in Christ, we need a thicker, more durable word, a word that fills the gaps we would happily leave unfilled—we need a communion. A communion of all the saints. If our idea of community is too thin or too parochial, too inward looking or self-regarding, too non-confrontational and not sufficiently challenging, the active presence of the saints in glory will enlarge it. The saints always bring a bigger world to our smallish one.

The saints teach us it’s not all about us in the now.

One of my missions in life is to convince everybody that just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were stupid. Or benighted. Or naïve. We who live today think no one’s ever been as clever and enlightened as we are. This is (as scholar Peggy Bendroth says) “presentism.” Like most all isms, it’s bad. The ‘now’ is a very narrow slice of human experience, after all. When you’re stranded in the present, you quickly come to the end of your own resources. You’ll easily grow cynical and defeated.

What might it do for a church like the UCC, still captive to the culture of the West, if, for example, we were to make the acquaintance of the patriarch Timothy who in the late 8th century was head of a church that extended over a vast territory—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Tibet; and which by the 11th century encompassed a full third of the world’s Christians?

How would it spark our imagination and enlarge our sense of possibility if we knew that, unlike his medieval European counterparts, Timothy did not look to secular emperors or kings to guarantee his authority, did not amass wealth and power, and did not persecute people of other faiths, but interacted and cooperated with them without fear, contempt, or hostility? (One of the emblems in use in Timothy’s church was the cross sitting on a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.) So many things we think of as challenges unique to the 21st century were normal for Timothy in the 8th and 9th—globalization, interfaith encounter, the complexities of living under regimes of other faiths.

And that’s just one example out of millions. The witness of the saints helps us recover parts of the Christian story we’ve forgotten. The saints offer us insights and practices, convictions, and hopes that stir and challenge our thinking and doing today. Even the sometimes bizarre “past-ness” of the saints is a gift. It teaches us that we will one day seem bizarre to our descendants too. This is much needed humility for presentists like us who believe that, compared with silly ancient people, we’re the cat’s meow.

The saints held the treasure in earthen vessels.

The saints are indeed wonderful, but they weren’t born wonderful. They worked out their salvation in fear and trembling. If we imitate them, it’s that “working out” that we imitate. It’s one of the most encouraging things about them. Living in communion with the saints we see how God’s power really is manifest in weakness. How else to explain John Wesley with his embarrassing boundary violations, a man so frustrated by his inability to fix himself that he wrote to his brother, “I do not love God, I never did”? Or a Teresa of Avila, a people pleaser (“I could be bought off with a sardine”) so unwilling to say no a person who’d once done her a favor that she endangered the safety of her nuns? Or a Simon Peter, whose denial of Jesus was every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal?

Maybe you find the notion of sanctity off-putting, especially if you think it means moral perfection. You know you can’t reach that, and people who try to be perfect are usually insufferable. But the saints’ holiness is different—it consists in their having really needed forgiveness, and in having loved the world out of an experience of undeserved mercy undeservedly received. The communion of saints is a communion of sinners. Forgiveness made their faithfulness possible. God’s power shone brightest in these sinful people who knew they depended on mercy for everything.

The saints witness to the ordinariness in being extraordinary. 

In St Francis’ world, lepers were frightful creatures. One never got close to them. It was extraordinary that anyone took up the calling of caring for them. Francis and his first brothers did. When he reflected on this, Francis noted that it was one of the effects of his conversion. After he was converted, he wrote, “I did not turn away from lepers” any more. But Francis didn’t become a saint in that moment he stopped turning away. He had to keep re-turning towards them day after day, not turning away again and again.

Holiness is not a matter of a moment, but of a lifetime of moments of not turning away, a lifetime of persevering practice, purified and shaped by an ever-deepening commitment to Christ. We rarely think of it when we think of saints, but it’s there—the unromantic routine, the sheer drudgery of doing things faithfully day after day with no audience, no reinforcement of the self, no consolation. And so we learn that sanctity is more about discipline and perseverance than mystical flights and heroic deeds. 

Without the saints, we won’t remember what we must never forget.

Right before he invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler spoke to his staff about the Armenian genocide 24 years earlier—a horror invisible to the outside world because those who knew about it chose to say and do nothing. He assured the generals that no one remembered the Armenians. And no one had ever paid a moral price for what was done to them. There’d be no moral price to pay for the invasion of Poland either, he said—not in a world with such a short self-serving memory.

As Peggy Bendroth says, “The world’s unwillingness to remember one genocide will always enable the next.” Bendroth concludes that remembering is an ethical obligation. But we don’t remember alone. We need a community to remember—a whole community, the communion of all the saints. If memories are partial or local or lost, she says, we’ll end up believing we’re not the kind of people who burn witches or look away from holocausts or criminalize the poor. But when we remember with all the saints, “they will say to us, ‘Well, we were that kind of people. You could be too. You’re not immune.’”

We need the saints. We need to be in everyday communion with them. But how do we do that? It takes practice. It is a practice. Here’s the shape it might take:

Invoke the saints often

Especially at the Font, the Table, at annual meetings and other crucial gatherings, and when new members join. Create and introduce a litany of the saints as a regular part of these celebrations. Acknowledge their presence with you as you gather to worship, as you decide big issues, as you bury your dead. Treat the saints as active members of the community on whose encouragement, inspiration, and prayers you rely. Make the cloud, the communion itself, a key part of how you understand the church, your church. When people ask how many members you have, say “Billions!”

Learn about their lives

Big saints and little saints—make it part of your church’s formation efforts to get to know one or two every year in order to appreciate and be inspired by the diversity of ways God has acted in human beings to produce holiness, service, and wisdom.

Tell the saints’ stories to each other and especially to your children, as you would the stories of family.

Because they are family. Don’t be afraid to hang pictures of saints in your church. (The icons of Robert Lenz are perfect for this practice.) People will say, “That’s too Catholic!” Tell them to get over themselves. It’s the family photo album. When we look at the photos we remember who we are, where we came from. We hope to see family resemblances, to discover who got Francis of Assisi’s feet, the belly laugh of Jonathan Daniels, Bishop Romero’s justice-seeing gaze, the vibrant intellect of RBG, the courage of Sojourner Truth. And millions more. Tell their stories.

If your children or grandchildren have a saint’s name, look up their saint’s day on a calendar of saints.

Celebrate that day annually, along with the child’s birthday, baptism day, and other anniversaries. If a child isn’t named for a saint, make up a saint’s day for them, and on that day bless God for the saint the child is already becoming.

Honor your baptisms in every way you can

The holiness of the saints is nothing more than baptismal grace unfolding over a lifetime. At every baptism, and on your baptism anniversary, remind yourself and each other how incarnated and particular this grace is, and that it’s at work in you.

Desire to be a saint.

When I was a child, the nuns taught us to aspire to sanctity. They meant moral perfection, and that was wrong. But their encouragement wasn’t. Understood rightly, growing into a generous and generative Christian maturity should be our dream. So next time you sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” be serious about the last line of each verse—“…and I mean to be one too!” It’s just anther way of affirming our baptismal commitment to the cause of Christ, aka discipleship.

Celebrate the heck out of All Saints Day!

Remember your dear local saints, but don’t confine yourself solely to the local list: celebrate all the saints in glory—past, present, and to come. Make All Saints day more than a kind of congregational memorial day. Make it a festival of the whole church, a day of baptismal renewal, a day to thank God that, by grace, all of us who truly “want to be in that number” surely will be.

By these and many other practices, make sure the saints feel at home in your church. Make sure they know that no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey, they are welcome here!

Image is “The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas; http://www.catholicworldart.com.

The Next Day: A Palm Sunday Reflection

Bethany

Mark 11:1-11

Jerusalem. The feast of Passover. Thousands of pilgrims crowding into the city to sacrifice the lamb, to remember that God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, to tell the great story of plagues of frogs and the angel of death, of a hurried escape under cover of darkness, of Moses and Pharaoh and the charioteers, of walls of water to left and right, the dry seabed at the bottom, and new life on the other side. 

Excitement runs high in the city during this feast of freedom. Some people use it as an occasion to stir up the age-old expectation that maybe this festival, this year, the liberating God will do again what God did long ago. Maybe at this festival, this year, the messiah will appear; or maybe at this festival, this year, an insurrection will finally get rid of the Romans… 

Jesus’ disciples are thinking like that too—maybe at this festival the Teacher will show his true colors; maybe at this festival he’ll install the kingdom of God; maybe the mysterious ‘hour’ he keeps talking about is now. 

They begin a victory chant. They get the crowds to hail Jesus as messiah and king. And once they start shouting, there’s no stopping them. But it would go a lot better for Jesus if they kept still. The louder the crowds, the bigger the trouble.

The Romans don’t care about the festivals of the Jews. What they care about is order. When crowds run riot, they have a no-nonsense way of dealing with it—crucifixion. It’s showy, it’s brutal, it works. As soon as the commotion begins, eyebrows shoot up at headquarters. The rabbi is losing control of his people. Get a cross ready, just in case. 

Beneath all the joyful street theatre, an undercurrent of violence is crackling. Every joyous wave of the palm heightens the tension. Jesus rides into the city to shouts of joy, but everyone’s looking over their shoulders. 

Soon Jesus arrives at the Temple. If we were reading the gospels of Matthew or Luke today, this is when Jesus causes yet another disturbance, trashing the money-changers’ stalls. But in Mark’s story, the version we heard just now, that provocation doesn’t occur today. It happens tomorrow, the next day.  

In this story, it’s quiet at the Temple. Not much going on, nobody there, really. Jesus just looks around. Doesn’t do a thing. Then, the story says, “because it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” 

Because it was already late. Maybe too late. The authorities have taken note.  

Jesus walks the two miles to Bethany with his friends. To Bethany, the closest thing he has to a real home, the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. To Bethany, the safe house, the refuge and rest. Jesus walks to Bethany. He’s home before bedtime.

Here’s what I wonder: 

What went on that night in Bethany after all the hubbub and danger in the city? 

Did Jesus sleep soundly, or did he lie awake? 

Once he had some space to think about the day, did he toss and turn, worrying that the crowds were so big? That they’d hung their hopes on him? Called him messiah and king? 

Does he fret over what might come next? Imagine the forces of order matter-of-factly dispensing with him? Crushing him in the machine of stability? 

Jesus got home before bedtime. I wonder what kind of night he had. 

Did he stay up, talking with his friends? Had they calmed down, come to their senses? Do they realize what they’ve done in stirring things up? 

Does Martha beg him not to go back the next day? Does Lazarus, recently restored to life by Jesus, tell him he should value his life and not foolishly risk it? Do the disciples suggest that he stay out of sight, or issue a conciliatory statement, take a more gradualist approach and defuse the anxiety of the authorities, be prudent and patient and wise? 

Does he wrestle with it, pray about it, finally tell them he won’t back off? Won’t hide? Won’t stop teaching, healing, being who he is? Won’t do anything except what he’s always done, which is to trust in God?  The God who brought the people out from slavery, led them through the sea, through suffering to freedom, from death to milk and honey on the other side? 

And did he explain to them that the next day is not really all that different from any other day—because every day is the day you are called to risk everything for the sake of the world’s healing? 

Did they stand and pray with him before going to bed? Promise God and each other that no matter what happened, they would always be his friends, always stand up for him, heart of each other’s heart; and that when the time came, they would wash his body for the grave?

The ancient rabbis used to say that the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea was not that God parted the sea; it was that one fleeing Hebrew, the first in line, dared to step out and go down deep onto that exposed sea bed, a huge threatening wall of water to his right, another to his left. 

It’s not news that God wills life and freedom for us. It’s big news, good news, when somebody trusts God enough to risk a step towards claiming it. God always parts the waters for us. Whether we dare walk through them, that’s the hanging question.

God opened a way for Jesus, parted the waters. The exposed seabed beckoned him back to Jerusalem the next day, leading him eventually to a place called the Skull. By going down deep into that mysterious beckoning, Jesus will find life. Indestructible life will rise from his grave. And he will share it with us. 

God parts the sea for Jesus and called him to step out. What we fail to consider sufficiently is that he could have chosen not to go. He could have stayed in Bethany. 

We know by heart every detail of what happens after he gets out of bed the next morning, says his prayers, breaks his fast, and makes the trek back to the city. 

We know every sordid, sad detail of what happens after he makes the choice between buckling under to order, stability, power, and resolutely embracing our human hope for freedom, mercy, and justice. Hope that won’t calm down, be quiet, or go away just because somebody needs it to, just because somebody tells it to, just because someone believes it’s better for harmony, better for the rest of us, to kill all challenge and crucify all question. 

Three years earlier, in other waters, Jesus had undergone a baptism; he’d been immersed in a bath of preparation. Did he know right then everything he was preparing for, commit all at once to it all? Or like us, did he have to keep committing and re-committing one day and the next day, saying yes to God again and again, as the way was revealed step by step, and the consequences of each previous choice unfolded?

If that day three years before was his baptism, this night in Bethany is his confirmation. This night he embraces again and with more clarity who he is and what he is called to do.

The next morning, he gets up and he goes deep. He walks the dry seabed into the city, a path lit only by God’s faithfulness and love for his people, and for us. 

And ever since that night in Bethany he has been especially present and vivid in all the faith-choosing and faith-confirming moments of our own lives. He’s been especially present and vivid in every daily ‘yes’ we say to God, even when prudence tells us to stay home, when common sense commands us to be afraid, when we know no one would blame us for not risking our lives.

Through all our own long nights in our own Bethanies, those places in us where fear wrestles with faith, where safety struggles with trust, he is with us. In every conversation and discernment, every imagination and dread, every deeper and stronger resolve, he is there. 

And every morning that we leave some safe house and go back, back to our own looming Jerusalems, back to God knows what, we will know him. As we walk the seabed, making our way down to the bottom of the things that matter most in this life, the few things that are worth every sacrifice, we will look up and see great walls of threatening water on our left and on our right, and we will see him too, behind us, ahead of us, within us, above us, beside us. Always. Come what may. 

July 25 St James the Apostle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Testament has many Jameses, so let’s sort them out.

First, there’s James, called “the Just,” who is Jesus’ brother. We read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. He appears to be the overseer of the original church in Jerusalem. When a bitter controversy about circumcision for Gentile converts arose, he eventually endorsed Paul’s uncut version of the gospel (ahem).  For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most scholars agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, the year James the Just was martyred, so he wasn’t.

Next, there’s James, son of Alpheus. We traditionally call him James Minor, Little James, James the Lesser, and maybe that’s because we know only that much about him—very little, far less than we know about any other James. He is remembered in the calendar of saints on May 1, May Day, together with the apostle Philip and the proletariat revolution (which Jesus began and we have yet to finish).

Finally, we come to James the Apostle, our honoree today. In the gospels he is introduced as one of the two male children of Zebedee, a fisherman in Galilee, and Salome, who would later be identified as one of the ‘pious women’ in Jesus’ entourage. John is the other son, and both he and James are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” James is one of the first four disciples Jesus called to follow him.

This James is the James of “Peter, James, and John”–the little trinity of disciples who form Jesus’ inner circle and show up at the big moments, like the T-Fig; they were also the ones Jesus angrily rebuked after they tried to call down fire on a Samaritan town.

When he and his brother went traipsing after Jesus, they may have taken their mom with them. At least she was with them as they all went up to Jerusalem for the last time. She asked for special places for her two boys in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus asked them in return if they could drink his cup. They said, “Yes, we can,” but they forgot to ask what was going to be in it. It’s hard to know if they would have been so eager it if they understood how bitter it would be

In subsequent tradition, James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. In addition to what we learn about him in the New Testament, sometime in the 9th century a pious Christian legend grew up about his having gone off to Spain to preach the gospel and, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, somehow ending up buried back there, in a field of stars, Compostela. Which is why thousands of pilgrims tramp across Europe every year on one of the many routes known as the “Camino” of Santiago (Iago, Jacobo, Jaime, James), enduring all sorts of physical indignities to reach his shrine.

The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to defeat the Muslims in Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged an uneasy, sometimes violent, but still somehow fruitful civilization (for the era, that is; believe me, they weren’t having interfaith dinners or anything). ‘Santiago Matamoros,’ his devotees called him—James the Moorslayer—turning him into the mascot of a royal policy of forced Christianization that gave rise to coerced conversions and eventual expulsion. But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your brand long after you’re gone, so this ought not be held against him.

After St. Teresa of Avila died in the 16th century, her devotees wanted to make her Spain’s patron saint, but there was a small hindrance—Spain already had one: St James. For quite a while an unseemly ecclesiastical tussle about patronal primacy ensued. In the end, it was decided to retain James, but Teresa was named patron of a bunch of important national institutions, like the Armed Forces, so that she wouldn’t be sad about losing.

Extra tidbit: James is the only Christian saint I know of who is routinely depicted wearing the costume of a pilgrim on the way to his own shrine–a broad brimmed hat, a drinking gourd, a cape, a walking staff and a cockle shell.

 

Three Questions

the-good-samaritan-after-delacroix-1890-Vincent-van-Gogh-1920x840.jpgIn his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. glossed the parable of the Good Samaritan. He described driving from Jerusalem to Jericho during a trip to the Holy Land. Having traveled that winding road,  he said he could imagine the fear of the two men who didn’t stop to help the bleeding victim in the ditch.

Dr. King imagined them asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

Then he turns to the Samaritan. Dr. King imagines him asking a different question, the reverse: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

The first question is full of fear, but the second creates Beloved Community. The first distances, the second closes a gap. It’s full of the empathy that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the lens through which they view every moral decision. It’s the most important question of all.

There is a third question we could ask ourselves when cries for help assault us, however. It’s not the empathetic question of what will happen to the suffering person if I fail to help, nor the fearful question of the peril I could be in if I do. It’s the existential question of what happens to my humanity when I pass my neighbor by. We could frame it this way: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will I become? What will happen to my soul?”

Our nation’s current immigration policies are creating horrific trauma. The violence being done to our neighbors by the people who ordered this policy, who are implementing it, who are passively or actively supporting it, and who are failing to do everything in their—our—power to stop it, is incalculable and lasting. And so is the violence we are doing to ourselves. Soul damage. Heart damage. Conscience damage. Damage to our humanity. This self-inflicted trauma also corrodes and corrupts for generations. No one escapes its consequences.

What harm could befall me if I stop to help my suffering neighbor? This is a question of fear, creating even more suffering, alleviating none.

What will happen to my suffering neighbor if I fail to help? This is a question of empathy, creating solidarity, healing, and hope.

What will I become if I pass the suffering by, if I ignore it, if I inflict it, if I condone it, if I participate? This is a question of truth, acknowledging that, act by act, omission by omission, I harden or soften my heart, I awaken or deaden my conscience, I become more human or much less, I live a soulful life or die.

Image: Vincent Van Gogh