Monthly Archives: January 2013

Ain’t Love Grand?

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I Corinthians 13

Ah, Paul on love. Not love with candy hearts and lace doilies, mind you, because for Paul love is not the way we’re supposed to feel about each other. Rather, love is a kind of conduct that builds a reliable community of faith. The love Paul describes is the divine gift that makes all God’s other gifts work correctly – that is, for the common good.

Exercised without love, even the best gifts won’t help a congregation over the long haul, and may even harm it, as the Corinthians are learning the hard way. So this lyrical passage on love is also just plain old Paul, hammering home his vision of what God really has in mind for people who call themselves ‘church.’

Because love is a gift, you can’t force it. But Paul says you can create conditions of possibility for receiving it by acting as if you already have it. You can develop habits and practices of love that train your heart to be responsive to grace.

These practices and habits will also serve as counterweights to the strong emotions and showy stars to which churches are prone to hitch their communal wagons, only to discover later that such things are ephemeral. They vanish as fast as they appear and leave us, as someone once characterized it, spinning our wheels like the Road-Runner in mid-air with no traction.

But Christ’s love was not a flash in the pan. It was a deed he did and kept on doing even after he was nailed to a cross. In order to build up Christ’s Body, then, Paul knows something more is required than occasional brilliance on the part of a few, or the thrill of excitement that momentarily animates a congregation. You need everybody to practice – to do love, to act patiently, to behave kindly, to conduct themselves humbly, in fact to rejoice over the good, and to stop being so damned rude. Not everyone can raise the dead like Jesus, preach like Paul, prophesy like John, be a martyr like Stephen, or fix heating systems like J. J. Sullivan & Sons; but everyone can take a walk on a “more excellent way,” as Paul puts it; everyone can learn to behave.

Of course, although marriage was not the original context of this strong corrective message, what Paul says about community-building love applies as well to married love, be it between Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve. So it’s no surprise that we hear it so often at weddings, even at weddings that are in church only because it’s traditional to have them there, or because it’ll make Grandma happy, or because it’s convenient to the reception hall.

It was chosen by a relative of mine for his wedding some years ago, and when he and his now former wife asked me to “say a few words” about it at the ceremony, I did. I said that if their marriage was going to last (since half of all marriages don’t), they’d need to cultivate habits that would make them receptive to the gift of love. I said that they could not kid themselves that all they’d ever need for their marriage to keep working right would be the feelings they had for each other on their wedding day.

That poor dreamy couple didn’t give a flying bull-pucky what I said. They were lost somewhere in Lace Doily Land. The congregation didn’t care either. They were fidgety because their children were fidgety, and probably also because I was saying a few words more than the few words I’d been asked to say. Afterwards, the groom’s father approached me. He had been listening, and he was offended. “Jeez!” he said. “Why did you have to say all that? You’ll scare ‘em to death!”

I felt bad, of course. I had unknowingly transgressed an unwritten understanding about weddings – namely, that when you’re asked to say a few words all they want you to do is say, “Ain’t love grand?” and sit down. Anyway, those two aren’t married any more, and it’s a darned shame, all the pain they caused each other. I wish that text had scared them more than it did. I wish it would scare our congregations too.

 

Trying on the Shroud

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–Ancient mosaic of Nazareth

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4: 21-30

I’m sometimes puzzled by the italicized headings in my Bible. Take this episode in the 4th chapter of Luke. It’s labeled ‘the rejection of Jesus by his townsfolk.’  I agree that trying to hurl someone over a cliff is  a pretty emphatic form of rejection. All the same, I think it’d be fairer to call this passage ‘the not all that unsurprising reaction of his kinsmen to a very petulant Jesus,’ or more succinctly, “Jesus provokes his neighbors to violence.’

What’s wrong with neighbors fawning over you? Isn’t it a perfectly human and ordinary thing to be proud of a newly famous hometown kid, and even to congratulate yourselves that maybe you had something to do with his success? Why is Jesus determined to preempt their 15 minutes of fame?  They barely get through their burst of amazement when he starts flinging accusations at them.

“You will doubtless say, ‘Doctor, cure yourself…’” Well, no, there’s no indication at all that they were going to say that. But he taunts them anyway with Bible stories about God extending to outsiders the mercy usually reserved for insiders. It doesn’t take long for them to get his drift: “That’s what I’m doing. You say you love me, but when I start acting like the God of these stories, you’ll try to kill me. So why should I do any miracles for you?”

Oh my. Of course, he’s right about the future, and he’s right about them. But they’re not hostile now, they’re not angry yet. Why pick a fight? The text doesn’t say, but this testy Jesus reminds me of people I know who suffer what hasn’t happened yet. Psychologists call it anticipatory grief. You know something bad is on the horizon and you feel its pain long before it arrives. Far be it from me to play shrink to my Savior, but Jesus’ baiting of his kinfolk at the outset of his prophetic career smacks of anticipatory grief.

It’s why Jeremiah manufactures all those reasons to say no to God’s call “to build up and to tear down, to plant and to destroy.” It’s that tearing down and destroying part he’s worried about, the part of prophesying that, as another preacher noted, makes it unlikely that prophets will die peacefully in their beds. There’s no such thing as a successful career based on trashing people’s sensibilities. Everybody knows that. So when the young Jeremiah finally says yes, he knows he’s just agreed, if not to a death sentence, at least to a really hard and thankless life.

At the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus is fast-forwarding to the worst case scenario, rehearsing a violent end at the beginning of his mission, trying on the shroud he will be buried in three years later, forcing the hometown folks to play their part and put it on him so that he can get a feel for its texture and dimensions, a feel for the role, the pattern of a prophet’s short and dangerous life.

Maybe it’s practice. And if it is, it poses a question for us.

Have we tried on any shrouds lately? Do we know the size we’re going to need? In what ways have we been rehearsing, even provoking the wrath to come—the wrath of the insiders who sense that they’re implicated in the great sin of mercilessness but can’t face it, and think that killing the messenger safeguards their illusion of righteousness? Have we been scrimmaging and skirmishing enough, flirting with the edges of cliffs, so that when the big battle comes down the road, we will be ready to see it through unflinchingly to the bitter end?

If Jesus is practicing, it poses a question for us. For us who say we believe in the merciful inclusive God and believe we’re totally with the program. For us who think of ourselves as the wideners of circles and the welcomers of all. For us who are so persuaded that God loves everybody without exception that we get provoked by the narrowness of those who don’t and commit mental violence against them, figuratively throwing them off cliffs of our own. For us who talk a good game. For us who must humbly confess that we have a long way to go in the business of following Jesus to the bottom of things, over the edge and into life.

 

 

 

In the Heart*

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Sometime in1206, a young dandy named Francesco Bernadone went out riding. He heard a dreaded sound, the bell that lepers rang to warn of their proximity. And there he was, a ragged spectre in the middle of the road. Francis’ gorge rose. But after a moment, he controlled his disgust. Impelled by something he couldn’t name, he dismounted, ran to the leper, and kissed him. He gave him all his money. Two years later, in the public square of Assisi, his father accused him of theft. Francis had been giving his own money to beggars and, now low on funds, had started dipping into his father’s. The bishop told Francis to cut it out and obey his father. Francis took off his clothes, folded them at his father’s feet, and walked away, naked. He took nothing for the journey. Then he went through all their cities and towns preaching good news to the poor.

In midsummer 1941, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz. In retaliation, ten others were selected for summary execution. As he was being fingered for death, one man fell to his knees and cried out, “I’ll never see my children again!” A prisoner who hadn’t been selected, a Franciscan priest, beckoned to the officer in charge. No one heard what he said to him, but when the ten were marched off to be shot, the man with the children was not among them. Friar Maximilian Kolbe was.

Jonathan Daniels was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, when he answered Dr. King’s summons to Montgomery in March of 1965. He stayed on, working to register voters in Lowne’s County, Georgia, one of the most dangerous counties in the deep South. In mid-August, he was with a group of picketers who were arrested and jailed. The day they were released was a scorcher. They were deposited on a country road with no transportation and not much idea what to do next. Three of them, including Daniels, walked over to Varner’s Grocery to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman and his shotgun. He leveled it at Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her down and caught the full blast.

Every day, everywhere, and in all times, Christians of every kind wake up, say their prayers, feed their children, go to work, come home and make dinner. They do not cheat the poor. They persevere in kindness. They delight in this world. They praise God for love and breath. They ask for pardon and healing. They help their neighbors. They forgive their enemies. They confront evil and try to make peace. And every now and then, some of them forfeit their lives for others. They could do otherwise, but they choose to do these things, often at unspeakable cost.

What has gotten into these people?

I want to say Jesus. The Jesus of the gospels who is proclaimed and preached in the church. The Jesus you may encounter when you ponder those stories. The one who is risen and lives in the communion of the table and the communion of the saints. What has gotten into them is Jesus.

From the start, Christians followed his teaching. But it was never enough to follow a teaching. To follow at a bit of a distance. They sensed that there was something else, something deeper than ethical likeness they desired. They spoke of it as being “in Christ,” “I in him and him in me,” even  “Jesus in the heart.”

They talked about having  Jesus in the heart like Jews spoke of having Torah in the heart. Torah, they said, is not some stern, exacting Law we are bound to follow: it is a honeycomb, its thousand cavities brimming with gold. To study Torah is to thrust your fingers into the comb and bring out the honey. The more you savor Torah—lick your fingers, roll it on your tongue—the more it turns the heart sweet.

For many Christians, Jesus seemed like that too. He gets into your heart. For some of us, it happened as naturally as growing up. From earliest childhood, we heard stories about him. We learned them by heart. We learned songs about him too. We sang them by heart. And over time we came to believe that Jesus knew us and cared about us. He was a growing sweetness in our hearts.

For others, he got in more by surprise. We were in college, or working  jobs in another town. We’d blown off church. We’d get back to it some day, we said, maybe when we had kids. Meanwhile we spent Sunday mornings celebrating the liturgy of the roller blade, the NY Times, the Everything Bagel. Then one day we heard an old hymn, and it made us cry, or something else sparked deep emotions. We never realized that Jesus could be in the heart, but suddenly there he was. In ours.

Now, some Christians say that to have Jesus in the heart we must get on our knees, admit we’re lost, confess him as our Lord and Savior, and beg him to come into our hearts and save us. If we don’t do that, they say, we’ll have only bitterness to look forward to, and we’ll deserve its every sting. They even say that if you have  Jesus in the heart you’re worth more to God than those who don’t. But if you have him in there, he will show you  how favored you are. He will bless you with everything you could ever want or need.

It will feel warm and good to have him in there, they say. He will always be our friend. He will get us out of jams. Find us parking spaces and a spouse. Give us smooth sailing straight to heaven. Set us up on thrones to lord it over the ones who refused him as they go off to their well-deserved destruction.

But when you read the gospels, you discover that’s not exactly how it goes. What you find out is that Jesus in the heart will do you no good in the smooth sailing department. He won’t let you do any lording, either. He doesn’t do thrones, unless they’re shaped like a cross.

He won’t get you out of anything. He’ll get you into something. And it won’t always feel good. At times it will make you feel more lost than found. At times it will feel more like an injury than a cure.  It will break your heart. It will also heal your heart. It will make you brave.

And every time you think it’s enough to care only about your own kind, Jesus in the heart will tell you who your neighbor is. “A man was going down from Jericho to Jerusalem and fell among robbers…”

Every time you think it’s enough to do good only to vetted and deserving people, Jesus in the heart will ask you the question he put to the sheep and goats, “Did you see me? I was the one in jail. I was the beggar. It was me who was homeless and high. I was the refugee.”

Every time you think it’s okay to go with the crowd, isolate the misfit and pick off a stray like the woman caught in adultery, Jesus will bend down and trace your hypocrisy and betrayal on the dusty dirt floor of your innermost heart.

When you are tempted to aim for power, status, and prestige, sacrificing the people you love to your ambition, in your heart Jesus will say, “In the wilderness I was offered dominion of the world. It was tempting. You are tempted too. But you don’t have to lose your soul.”

When you face a decision you know is right but you’d do anything not to have to make it, Jesus will say, “I set my face towards Jerusalem and the cross. Follow me.”

And when you come up against the most severe, the most frightening, the most painful trial, you will look in your heart for him. And you will find him there as he is in his Passion, full of anguish. A man who knows what’s coming, who’d love to escape it and lead a life without challenge and suffering, and who is sweating blood over it, terrified and alone. His shaking hand will reach for your shaking hand. It will never let you go.

 

——–

*The latter part of this reflection is based on (and some portions paraphrased from) a short unattributed piece I found on the internet and kept in my files for many years. I have subsequently lost that hard copy. I would eagerly acknowledge the author and put quotation marks wherever they belong if I had a new copy and/or could discover who the author is.

Body Image (I Corinthians 12)

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–Frankenstein monster, Mark Newman

In chapter 12 of I Corinthians, Paul tells a bunch of loose-cannon Christians that they can’t be for themselves and against each other and still be a church. How, he asks them, do you dare give pride of place in a congregation to only some talents and ideas? How can you regard only a few specially-gifted members as important? Imagine what your body would be like, he says, if one organ incapacitated all the others—if, for example, your eye or your liver took over and tried to run the whole show. A body can’t thrive convulsed with self-importance, envy and contempt.

Imagine instead, Paul proposes, a community that rejects divisive standards of human worth— gender, wealth, family, education, orthodoxy—and honors you if you exhibit the slightly insane virtues of confessing your sins, serving the least, and loving your enemies. Imagine a body whose many parts harmoniously perform indispensable, inter-dependent functions. Imagine a church wherein members harness the passion that flows in diverse forms from God’s one Spirit to engineer the common good. Imagine a body so united that “the suffering of one is the suffering of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.” Imagine a fellowship of body-builders, all dedicated to sculpting one wondrous physique, gift by gift, call by call—or to switch the metaphor, as Paul often does—living stone by living stone.

Imagine, indeed! The truth is that it’s hard for us to imagine such a church, except maybe wistfully. Corinthians are alive and kicking in many of our communities, still overly-proud of gifts that should humble them, still quarreling about whose calling is more important and whose ideas about the church are right, still trying to outdo each other, still advancing private agendas, all in the name of the Holy Spirit.

Now, there are days when I wish we had even more Corinthians in our congregations! To be sure, their hyper-spirituality requires discipline, a dose of selflessness; but if Corinthians manage to temper themselves, the church flourishes on their skill and passion. Our churches seem more susceptible to depression than Corinthian rambunctiousness: in many congregations, the people’s gifts are unidentified, undeveloped, or simply withheld; only a few members express the conviction that we are a body meant to grow healthy and strong; to be a member means to be a pledging unit with a vote, not a living stone edifying Christ’s body; we lack confidence that we have the resources to build his life and share it with the world.

There’s a billboard on I-291 in Springfield touting an auto body shop. It features a big green monster right out of Frankenstein—head bolted to a thick neck, limbs stitched roughly to an ungainly torso. The sign says that this is “the only body we can’t find parts for.” You could slap a picture of some of our congregations up there and say the same thing! Our body needs serious work, and good serviceable parts are scarce. It doesn’t look like the community Paul describes as the gifted body of Christ.

All the same, some metaphors have so much power that even the worst failings do not weaken their grip on our hope. Some things remain real and true even when we can’t see or touch them, even when we don’t believe or live up to them.

A seminary faculty that shall go unnamed once passed through a long period of serious and painful difficulty, some of its own making, some not. At times it seemed like they were being torn limb from limb. Their custom had been to begin every academic year with a retreat. Even during this awful time, they continued to gather. One September, at the height of the troubles, they came together as usual, and to kick things off they did an ice-breaking, community-building exercise based on Paul’s image of the body.

First, they were asked to think about the gifts they possessed, the unique contributions each made to the seminary. Then, each was to decide which body part best summed up his or her presence and activity in the school. They thought about it. Then they paired off to share their reflections. “I think I’m like an eye,” one told the other… “I function like a neck,” another said.

And that, they thought, was the exercise. But then they were instructed to get up and actually make a body, one part arranged next to another as it would be in a human form. And what a misshapen thing they made! It had two heads, three hearts, no brain and no belly, four eyes, a foot, a neck, six hands, and one part that remains unidentified to this very day.

Right away they saw that their body was unbeautiful; but it was oddly charming, too, in a pathetic sort of way. More importantly, they realized that their awful-looking, tired old body needed tending, and they felt compassion for it. Its weird appearance also made them laugh so hard that they began sensing that maybe there was life still in it, the life that had gotten them through all those years, more than enough life to get them through another one. They found wondrous grace in funny flesh and bone.

This wondrous grace was well-known to Paul. He gave us other images that speak with real pathos about this body we are —priceless treasure held in fragile clay jars, boasting of real weakness, thorns in the side. When Paul told the Corinthians that the body they formed was Christ’s, he wasn’t suggesting that this beloved body was perfect and buff. He knew that it is a body imprinted with the nail marks of human brokenness, signs of sin and frailty carried in Jesus’ flesh even into resurrected glory. Paul was speaking of a body that has yet to attain full stature, whose sufferings, he says daringly, we get to fill up in our humble love for each other and our service to the world.

We usually read this text and dwell on the undeniable imperfections of the body we are. We hear Paul scold us for our unwillingness or inability to play the part we have been given, all the ways we want to be a part we are not, to be honored and spoiled. We feel bad that we are more like warts on Christ’s body than its beauty marks. All this is true, and striving to be healthier, stronger, and more coordinated is called for, no doubt. But if the body we are is truly the body of Christ—the one who knew our frailty and took it as his own, becoming obedient even unto death on a cross—we also need to learn to perceive its deepest secret glory, the loveliness God sees in its unloveliness, in its perpetually-underdeveloped quads, its trifocals and bad hair days.

Along with exhortations to take our rightful positions and perform our necessary functions in humility and zeal, the Spirit also offers us the gift of laughter, tenderness and compassion for this odd, ungainly little monster we are. She offers the gift of awe as well. For how could we not be awed when we see through God’s eyes that this mystic body—imperfect, misshapen, and marked with nails—is still by grace quite full of life and still by grace capable of life-imparting. It’s a mystery, to be sure, but the truth remains: for God we are nothing less than body beautiful.

And for that we say, Thanks be to God.

At All Costs, Ecstasy

MLK_Jail–Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, booking photo, Birmingham Jail

John 2:1-11I

“They have no wine,” Mary says.

Such an odd, indirect thing to say, “They have no wine.” Yet Jesus knows what she’s after. What he hears her say is, “Do something.”

He is in no mood to do anything. He doesn’t even make sympathetic noises about how mortifying all this is for the poor just-marrieds. He turns his mother down. “This has nothing to do with us, woman.” His ‘hour’ hasn’t come, he says; that mysterious ripe time we hear so much about in John’s gospel, an ‘hour’ that includes his death.

Mary is not eager for that suffering to come any more than Jesus is. Yet a long habit of pondering has only magnified the urgency: The hungry (and the thirsty) will be filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. How much longer should this revolution wait? His hour may not have come, but maybe his minute has—and a wedding seems like just the right place to kick off the great reversal.

That’s why, over at the servers’ station, she is acting as if he’d said ‘no problem’ instead of ‘no way.’  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says, which is good advice for servants of every time and place. So Jesus goes over and starts giving instructions, and before long, six stones jars are filled to the brim with water.

The way he accomplishes the miraculous changeover is discreet, but the results are showy: he makes exquisite wine in preposterous quantities. When the steward tastes it, he just about dies. Who is this who plies with liquid heaven undeserving fools who can’t discriminate between rotgut and Rothschild?

Who indeed? This is the question of every epiphany. Who is this waster, who produces more than the world can drink? Who is this prodigal, who doesn’t seem to know the price of things? This is the question that the Spirit keeps whispering to us in the hope that we too, like the steward, might come to find the answer, taste God’s surprising vintage, and go about tantalized all our lives.

II

The head steward has no idea where the wine came from. But the servants know. Good servants always know. So do disciples, and if you go back and read the first chapter of John’s gospel, you’ll see that Jesus had just called his first set, five to be exact. John says that it was at Cana that these first few “believed in him.” Not before the wedding, note; but at the feast they believed. And not because he performs any old miracle, but because it’s this one.

They’ve all heard the words of Isaiah read in the synagogue: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you!” They’ve heard Wisdom, too: “She has set her table and poured her wine,” the wine of joy in the Spirit, free of charge and available to all in God’s New Day.

When Messiah comes, everybody knows, a giddy glee — not unlike inebriation (but safe ) — will grip the world. These disciples feel it now in Cana. Who is this? It must be Messiah. And they believe in him.

But they would not have been at the wedding at all, and would not have believed, if they hadn’t responded when he called days earlier, if they had not first followed him. Things happen in this order: Jesus calls, you follow, and then, in the course of following, of living with him, of going where he goes and doing what he does, you discover him as the source of joy, the fount of new wine, and you trust him, you believe.

So, in addition to being a story about the abundance of God’s New Day in which every creature’s watery old life is changed into a ruby red new one; in addition to being a story about the slap-happy joy of being in the presence of God’s Appointed One whose mission is to change mourning into gladness and keep the gladness coming in great unquaffable quantities; in addition to all that, this story is about belief and discipleship.

Between the lines we learn that it’s in the following that love, knowledge, and experience combine to make for faith. You’re a disciple if you go on the road with Jesus, go with him to weddings, and drink from the cup he proffers.

III

Today our nation commemorates the life, work, witness and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chances are you’ll be hearing a lot about Dr. King’s dream today, as if he’d been only a dreamer, as if the dream had been precious and peculiar only to him. You’ll hear people quote from his March on Washington “mountaintop” speech, that what matters is the content of character, not the color of skin, as if that were all he ever said.

And that line will be repeated with astonishing denial, or astonishing cynicism, or astonishing naivete, since, to take only one case, skin color can still be the difference between life and death in our criminal justice system. You’ll hear that line repeated as if he’d never also made daring critiques of the demonic nexus of racism, poverty, capitalism, war, and prison.

You’ll hear a lot about dreaming, as if all we need to do is dream on, now that he’s dead, as if dreaming on honors him. But Dr. King was not only a dreamer: he was first, last and always a disciple. He got up when he was called, and he followed. He went to the mountaintop and he went to the wedding. His eyes had seen the glory of the Lord and his lips had tasted the wine of Cana. And his faith was formed, perhaps even discovered, and certainly strengthened, in a community, following the Liberator, on the road, on the march, with Christ.

To my knowledge Dr. King never preached on John 2:1-11, but there’s no doubt he lived this story; for only from a deep awareness of abundance, only from a conviction born of the experience of everlasting reliability, only in the company of God’s Christ who keeps providing us not with enough but with forever far more than enough, only in the company of fellow followers who had also tasted the wine, could any flawed human being stride toward his inevitable “hour” so unflinchingly.

Drinking deeply of the wedding wine is still capable of intoxicating God’s people with hope, against the odds. And the hope it instills is still able to yield in us the substantial fruits of courage and perseverance, forbearance and resistance. It is still powerful enough to reveal to us nothing less than the joy of the cross.

It’s a good thing too. For if we are following, like Dr. King, we are inevitably on our inebriated way to a mountaintop. Make no mistake, the mountaintop we are going to is an imposing hill called Golgotha.

You remember, don’t you? From Cana, Jesus goes directly to the Temple in Jerusalem. Flush with the wine of messianic joy, he strides to the money-changers’ tables. You know what happens next.

Wedding Wine (John 2:1-11)

With thanks to Kathy Coffee..

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–Les Noces de Cana, Louis Kahn, 1949

They have no wine, Mary says. If she says it any louder, the guests will hear and head for the door.

It’s a little indirect, but her drift is clear. She wants Jesus to do something about it.

He’s been hanging around the house for thirty years, knocking together benches and chairs. His father likes him home. The sign on the door says Joseph & Son.

The gold is long since spent on groceries, the frankincense a whiff in the walls, the mystic myrrh tossed on a shelf in the shop.

Building chairs is a good job for a son, but this son was knelt to by Persian wizards. She can be forgiven if she thinks he’s destined for greater things.

She wants him out of the house.

She says, They have no wine. And they have been thirsty since Adam.

Not yet, he says. What you ask will be free for them, but will cost me plenty. One more order of chairs…?

Soused and surly, the guests are frantic to take the edge off.  Any wine will do. The old purveyors line up to supply them rotgut, smiling their oily smiles, rubbing their hands.

She thinks, not for this did the angels sing that starry night. Not for this, my darling dear, that you have a mother.

Since the day John leapt in the womb, she has been tasting it. She can taste it now: wedding wine. Bouquet of the cosmos, undertones of Eden, the finish of revolution.

She turns to the servants.

Do what he tells you.

Pour paradise on drunks.

Some Quick Notes on Some of Baptism’s Ethical Edges

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–Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Photo

We do not vaguely follow Christ, or imitate him generally. Our discipleship has a distinctive shape, individually and collectively—a “baptismal” shape. Baptism packs an ethical punch that stamps the spirituality of the church with distinctive markers. Among them:

  • Baptism is a radical equalizer (Galatians 3:27-28, 4:6)—There is now no Jew or Greek, male or female… All who are baptized are one in Christ, all have the same “father,” all are equal heirs, all are a royal priesthood, a people set apart; all have complementary precious gifts (charisms, graces) that are all necessary for the building up of the Body of Christ. The baptismal answer to all questions of distinction, discrimination, and subordination is ‘no.’ The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality is truly alive in diversity of every kind and in profound mutual regard. And the Christian who is living out his or her baptism every day is a person who rejects the normativity of one group over another.
  • If baptism is “an immersion in Christ’s death,” which death was an act of barrier-breaking, as Paul says, baptism is also therefore an act of radical reconciliation, bringing together those who were once far off and those who were already “in.” The gospel tells us that Jesus died “outside the walls.” That is where baptismal life must unfold, beyond all the walls and barriers erected to keep some of us safe, tidy, clean, and apart from others. The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will be a church always working to break down whatever walls continue to separate us from the most dreaded “them.”
  • The equality of the baptized (or priesthood of all believers) is subversive of all clericalism and hierarchy. There may still be offices and roles for the sake of the Church’s unity and order, but the Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will show forth in every way the essential equality of all the baptized, and each one will take on his or her priestly role with grateful gladness.
  • Baptismal renunciations of Satan: we abjure ‘him’ and his kingdom (all his minions and all his powers)—we reject  not only individual sin but also all the systemic structures of evil and injustice (Christians in the civil rights movement called baptism the “sacrament of integration”). The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will be an engaged and resistant community, risking everything for the sake of justice.
  • Immersion or dunking (as well as anointing of the senses and extremities in some traditions) and even sprinkling, if done generously, consecrates the whole body for God and underlines God’s commitment to flesh and materiality (‘body’ is as central to the baptismal rite in some traditions as it is in the communion rite). Solidarity with real bodies is at the heart of the Christian life…implications? The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will engage the “corporal works of mercy” assiduously, honoring all bodies (implications for ministries—health, healing, visitation, prisons, addiction, shelter, food, accompaniment, etc.)
  • Water (and oil and salt and flame…)—The natural elements “mediate” God’s promises in some way/doctrine of creation/the creation truly matters… Ecological concerns are infused in us at baptism just as much as the “charisms.” The Church that recovers a baptismal spirituality will be “green”!
  • What would you add to this list?