Monthly Archives: January 2013

Ain’t Love Grand?



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


–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*


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)


–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. Those Corinthians are still 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 claiming the inspiration 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 ever managed to temper themselves, the church would flourish on their skill and passion. Our churches are more likely to be ravaged by depression than by 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.

There’s a billboard on I-291 in Springfield, MA, advertising 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, “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, but good serviceable parts are scarce. We don’t look anything like the community Paul describes as the gifted body of Christ.

All the same, some metaphors have so much power that even our 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 discovered this when it was passing through a long period of serious and painful difficulty, some of its own making, some not. At times it seemed as if they were being torn limb from limb. Their custom was to begin every academic year with a retreat. 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, they were to decide which body part best summed up their 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 construct 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 conventionally quite un-beautiful. But it was oddly charming, too, in a pathetic sort of way. More importantly, they realized that this odd-looking, tired old body needed significant tending, and they felt compassion for it. Its weird appearance also made them laugh so hard that they began sensing that maybe there was still life in it, the life that had gotten them through all those years, more than enough life to get them through another year. They found wondrous grace in funny flesh and bone.

This wondrous grace was well-known to Paul. He gave us other images that speak not with exasperated judgment but with sweet pathos about the body we are —priceless treasure held in fragile clay jars, weakness as strength and glory, thorns in the side.

When Paul told the Corinthians that the body they formed was Christ’s, he wasn’t thinking about a perfect buff physique. He was speaking of 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 a healthier, stronger, and more coordinated church 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 the glory in all our ungainliness and lack , the strange loveliness God sees in our 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 that 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 we call the church—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.


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.


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..


–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


–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?

Thinning Memory, Ethical Wallop and Other Questions about Baptism


I. Excerpted from, “Long-Term Memory: Anamnesis and Christian Worship,” An Anniversary Lecture, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational: 375 Years on the Way, February 15, 2011

…I see the loss of the church’s deep experiential memory play out, among other examples I could cite, in the thinning of the baptismal ritual in many of the churches I’ve worshiped in during the last couple of years. Baptism in those communities is understood mostly as the symbolic act whereby we welcome a child (or occasionally an adult) into “the Christian family.” Even though most of the baptismal liturgies in use in those churches include bracing promises to renounce evil and engage in a life of demanding discipleship; and even though most retain all the scriptural references to mystical dying and rising with Christ, and some ever refer to the radical egalitarianism in which the rite implicates believers, the emphasis in many of these services remains laser-focused on family and welcome.

Now, I would be more content with this single focus if I thought, for example, that “welcome to the family” was widely understood in congregations as a “welcome to The Family that challenges families as the world understands them”; or if it carried within it the deep imperatives to be new creatures that relate to one another as original siblings, kin in the Sprit, that our ancient forbears found so immensely convincing about the Christian message. I wouldn’t mind it so much if what was being proclaimed in that welcome were the good news that there is a family for everyone, even for you; the grateful knowledge that without this new forgiving, healing, incorporating family born of water and the Spirit, we would all be profoundly homeless; and the urgent mission (therefore), the “thirst for souls”, that impels the baptized Christian to the side of the neighbor to extend to everyone God’s generous adoption. That kind of welcome I could be glad about. But most of the time the child is welcomed only to the Little White Church on the Green—which is not bad, of course; but it is niggardly. It withholds. It conveys only an infinitesimal fraction of the grace of the great Christian memory that baptism is, and not even its most saving one.  And if baptism is not about saving in some sense—choose your theology—it has nothing to tell us that the world can’t also say.

Were we remembering more deeply as the ritual unfolds, we would find ourselves thrust into the experience of Moses at the Red Sea fleeing for his life with his people, heading down in terror between walls of water, down to the seabed, to the very bottom of things; and there and only there, in trust and self-surrender, in a kind of death, finding liberation just as God promised; and then coming up alive and whole on the other side. And that shore then would be a shore here and now. It would be us standing on it with Miriam, ready to dance and praise in the face of every tyranny. It would be us who, with our own eyes now, see oppression’s inevitable future played out. It was, it is now, and it always will be washed up, broken, and destroyed.

Were we remembering more deeply, we would find ourselves in the presence of Jonah, so unwilling and so despairing over God’s love for Jonah’s enemies, swallowed by the big fish and taken deep, but not left to languish in that watery death. Hauled up, spit out, made new, he goes to preach mercy, almost against his will. And that same fish would swim right in here and gobble us up too. It would be us in that belly, us spit up on the shore newly gasping for air, us bringing mercy to an improbably repentant people, us weeping under a bush as we come to terms with the unpalatable good news that God will do anything to save.

And we would see Naaman, too, the proud general washed clean in Israel’s unprepossessing river; and the man born blind (the newly-baptized in the ancient church were called “illuminati”, and the story of the restoration of his sight was often read at baptisms); and our dear brother Jesus at the Jordan, unembarrassed, as he always is, to be found smack in the middle of a line of sinners on the bank, ready to undergo a baptism he didn’t need but passionately desired. All this would all be happening in and for us too, right now, as with water we baptize.

Mighty stories, dangerous rituals, deep memory… these are the things that makes for communal transformation and human joy. If they have grown pale and weak in our churches, how shall we go about recovering them? …


II. Excerpted from “Just Praise, The Ethical Wallop of Worship,” Keynote Address for Christians for Justice Action, UCC General Synod 28, July 4, 2011

…. What would happen if the sacrament of baptism were celebrated with greater and more creative attention to the sign value of its characteristic elements, gestures, and words? Take away the teacup and candy dish fonts that are in use in many congregations where child baptism is celebrated, for example, and replace them with generous pools that can accommodate great volumes of water—so much that you might finally believe it when you’re told that baptism is a watery grave, a healing bath, a cataract of grace. And stop sprinkling little dainty drops over foreheads, but instead plunge the child or the adult into the water and get everyone good and wet in the process. Then watch what happens bit by bit over time as a congregation begins to see and hear and feel the risk and danger of it, the extraordinary joy of it, the healing peace of it. Watch what happens when you marry the mighty water stories of scripture—the flood of Noah, the swallowing of Jonah, the parting of the Red Sea, the Woman at the Well—to the dangerous ritual of water; what happens when the Christian imagination does its work. It may not be long before someone asks whether to baptize like this, drenching people with abundant clean water, is not only a sign of God’s abundance and of God’s will to heal and save us in the water’s depths (thanks be to God!), but might also be a counter-sign of privilege and wealth, as it is in all those places around the globe where people die for want of water. Then let someone wonder why it is that water, which should be free to all, has become a capitalist commodity. Then let your immersed people wonder what, as baptized Christians, they should be doing about that. Then you’ll know that worship is slowly working justice into the marrow of the bones of that church.

You have to be careful with this stuff, though. In one congregation, the Deacon who habitually assisted with baptisms got tired of reading the same few lines about little children being allowed to come to Jesus every time the sacrament was administered. He figured there was more to the story. So he began reading from Galatians 3 instead—‘for those baptized into Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are equal in Christ.’ One year months and six baptisms later, he went to his pastor with a question about why the font was located so far away from the people, why only ordained deacons and ministers got to say anything, and why only the clergy could pour the water. He’d noticed that the Word and the ritual seemed to be contradicting each other, and thus he also noticed for the first time the subtle reality of hierarchy and clericalism in his supposedly non-hierarchical, non-clericalist church, as well as the potential of baptism to be subversive of it just by being baptism. That question caused trouble in his church. Either they had to stop baptizing, or they had to change the way they did things so that the sign value squared with their practice.

And take those baptismal promises we ask people to say. What if we were to stop trying to find inoffensive, progressive ways to say what the baptismal liturgy has traditionally named unflinchingly: that Satan and all his minions really are roaming the world seeking the ruin of souls and employing every wile to seduce us into evil’s kingdom, and that without the shield and strength of our baptism, we are easy prey, and that our subtle and overt compacts with this death-dealing cohort must be broken and renounced once and for all? What if we stopped laughing at that quaint language and re-appropriated those bold and bizarre images as straight talk that pulls no punches about what we are actually up against in this world. Over time, baptism and after baptism, what if our communities were to experience the power of the ancient act of abjuration, the determined swearing off of evil, the costly renunciation of the deeply satisfying rewards of sin, growing thereby a sharp consciousness of our vulnerability and a holy confidence that we can do all things in Christ, who claims us through these waters?  Over time, ritual act by repeated ritual act, might it happen that the baptized community becomes a disciplined and resistant community, increasingly detached from everything that could distract, allure, and encumber us when the time comes to choose up sides, increasingly daring in its death-defying confrontation with evil in themselves, in the church, and in the world? …

Contemplating Jesus’ Baptism: An Opinionated Opinion


–Haskovo Historic Museum, Haskovo, Bulgaria

On Baptism of Jesus Sunday, one of the most important commemorations of the season of unveiling we call Epiphany, we are often quick to turn the ancient Christian memory about Jesus at the Jordan into an intra-psychic contemplation of ourselves.

Rather than focus our religious imagination on the revelation about Jesus as God’s child and chosen one for the work of redemption, and on what sort of redeemer he is, we move immediately from Jesus’ experience to our own. We make Baptism of Jesus Sunday all about our own baptisms and our own naming as ‘beloved’ by God.

Now, this is true and well done insofar as we believe that in our own baptisms God accepts and adopts us in Christ. We are indeed God’s beloved, God is indeed pleased with us, and we can indeed move confidently into our own ministries, and towards our own suffering and deaths, secure in this necessary knowledge.

It is also true and well done insofar as this powerful and transforming message of our belovedness is desperately needed by so many in our pews (including by us who preach this message). We whose lives are often overwhelmed with experiences of inadequacy, isolation, rejection, and shame; or for whom God has always loomed too large as judge and antagonist need this message. It must be preached repeatedly and perseveringly, yes, even on Baptism of Christ Sunday.

But the fact remains that Jesus’ baptismal experience is his own, not ours, and it is unique: we are not the messiah, no matter how often we may mistake ourselves for him; and it is not through us, except by the divine grace of incorporation in him and the extension of his ministry to us, that healing comes to the world. The voice at the Jordan was for him, not us; it addresses him and his identity, character, and mission, not us and ours; and it effectively grounds his loving, sacrificial ministry in ways only he could know and with graces only he could draw upon.

No matter how much we may wish to appropriate Christ’s baptism, we have to acknowledge some difference and allow some distance between him and us so that we can contemplate with awe, as the ancient festival intended, the mystery concealed and revealed in this striking event.

Our tendency is to assume that everything in scripture has an obvious, immediate, and necessary application to our own experience and our own needs. And we are, in my opinion, also far too quick to assign ethical imperatives to everything the gospels say about Jesus. It makes us nervous simply to let a story hang out there for our contemplation without moralizing it. Our protestant tendency is always to skip sustained contemplation of Jesus and sprint to the question of us.

I think the immediate focus on ourselves misses the point sometimes. It’s useful, to be sure; but it isn’t all there is. I wonder whether we would discover something even more ‘useful’ by means of a more imaginative and more lingering gaze at Jesus himself in these stories. What would we see that we haven’t seen before because we took our eyes off him to talk about what we need, who we are, what we are required to do and become?

What is hidden here that steady contemplation might unveil? What if we permit the stories to be truly the stories of Jesus first, focusing our attention on him as the only protagonist worth thinking about — the one in whom we too are learning, by patient contemplation and wide open hearts, to be well pleased?

Four Sermons on Baptism: 4. Have You Been Saved?


–Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark

Luke 15:1-7

Baptism of Bryn M.

 One of the most ancient words in the Christian vocabulary is the word “salvation.” It shows up in practically all our hymns and prayers. We think we know what it means, sort of, but a lot of us would be hard-pressed to define it. It is like beige. Or wallpaper. It’s a background word. We hardly notice it.

There are other Christians, however, for whom “salvation” is not a wallpaper word. It is a foreground word, a word always on their minds. Given half a chance, these brothers and sisters will confront you with “salvation” whenever they can. And wherever they can—say, on the bridge over the Mass Pike as you’re heading to Fenway Park for a ballgame.  They accost you, wearing sandwich boards that are painted with flames (signifying hell, where they believe we all deserve to be). A picture of Jesus on the cross is superimposed over the flames (signifying the way to avoid hell. The only way). As they hand you a tract, they ask, “”If you died tonight, would you wake up in heaven or in hell?” And then, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”

They believe that “saving” you is the most loving thing they can do. After all, if there is a God, and if God means business, and if God’s business involves assigning eternal reward and punishment, and if there is a divinely-appointed way to avoid the punishment and get the reward—namely, affirming with your lips that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior—then it really would be in your best interest to listen to them and do what they say.

Hardly anyone does. Especially outside Fenway Park. There’s no hope that they are going to have much success with Sox fans anyway. Most of us have already sold our souls to the devil.

Have you been saved?

The typical theologically-liberal reply to that question is not yes or no, but “it all depends.” It all depends on what you mean by ‘saved’—saved from what? Surely not from damnation. Not too many of us believe in damnation. It flies in the face of our conviction that God is all-forgiving and utterly gracious. We say things like, “Well, maybe hell exists, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s in it.” When pressed, we include even Hitler and Pol Pot in God’s mercy, and if God can redeem those monsters, God will certainly redeem us, who are much smaller potatoes.

If “getting saved” basically means “going to heaven,” then, with hell out of the picture and no purgatory to worry about (Protestants don’t hold to a doctrine of purgatory), all we mainline Christians have to do to “get saved” is to die. Which takes no special talent. Sooner or later we all die. Our somewhat wan theology about all this salvation business is neatly summed up by 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine who once wrote, “I love to sin. God loves to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged!”

But surely salvation is about more than where you end up when you die. Our parable today is all about salvation, but it has nothing to say about what happens after death. That’s not to say that nothing happens; it’s only to say that Jesus is not preoccupied with that in this story. He just wants to find that one lost lamb.

When we tie our notion of salvation too narrowly to the matter of our fate after death, we always end up also narrowing the grand complexity and thickness of Christian life and faith. That one might be saved simply by affirming that Jesus is Lord is a case in point. The odd case of limbo is another. Recently it was reported that the Catholic Church is going to abolish limbo. For the clueless, I’ll explain.

Traditional Catholics believe that everyone inherits the “original” sin of Adam and Eve and that we are therefore born into the world in a condition of radical separation from God. Only baptism can take that sin away and restore the human friendship with God. If you die unbaptized, you can’t go to heaven.

Where does an unbaptized soul go? If it’s not its fault that is has not been baptized—say, in the case of a newborn— it goes to a “place” or state of being in hell called “limbo.” There the soul is “punished” by being deprived forever of the vision of God, which is the greatest joy of the saved. But it is mercifully spared the eternal torment of those who are in hell through their own damned fault. In limbo, there is no active suffering, only the deprivation of God’s presence. If a soul is in limbo, it is simply, well, in limbo. Avoiding limbo is the reason that Catholics tend to baptize their babies as soon after birth as possible.

The idea of limbo was meant originally to be a consolation in the face of a very strict doctrine of original sin and a very narrow idea of salvation-as-fate-after-death. At least an unbaptized child is spared the pains of hell. But this teaching about limbo was in fact a source of terrible anxiety for parents. And when a child did die before being baptized, it caused them unspeakable agony. On top of the grief of losing a child, grieving parents had no hope of ever being reunited with her.

The current Pope Benedict is on record as saying that the doctrine of limbo is not “pastorally useful” any more. Many Catholics doubt it ever was. They can’t wait to see it go the way of fish on Fridays.

Now, I know that this internal Catholic discussion about original sin, baptism, salvation, and our fate after death has little to do with us as Protestants of the more open, y’all come, God is merciful to everyone variety. We have a very different view of original sin and a very different view of baptism. We are in no rush to baptize babies! We do not worry about their eternal fate if, God forbid, they should die without the sacrament. Washing away the stain of original sin is not the first (or the second or the last) thing on our minds when we baptize.

And yet when you look closely at our baptism service, you can find traces in it of a concern about sin and salvation. There is language that alludes to cleansing and rebirth. We make promises renouncing evil and turning towards the things that make for eternal life. We mention forgiveness.

Why do we keep that kind of talk? Isn’t baptism more about welcoming people into the Christian family? Isn’t it the moment when we hear God say to us, “You are my beloved”?

We keep traces of the language of sin and forgiveness because the family of faith into which baptism ushers us is not just any old company of people. The church of Jesus Christ has a specific character. More than anything else it is a company of the pardoned, a congregation of the redeemed, a new kind of family characterized by a life-long and life-giving dependence on forgiveness—God’s and each other’s.

In our UCC tradition, baptism does indeed speak primarily of our unconditional acceptance by God as God’s beloved children. But the amazing and precious thing about this gift of acceptance and adoption is that God bestows it on us “just as we are, without one plea.” God gives it to human beings who may come into the world free of sin, innocent, fresh and clean, but who never stay that way. And don’t you think God knows that we won’t stay that way? And yet, knowing what God knows, God embraces us anyway. Baptism’s waters plunge us into an ocean of forgiveness in which we will need to be swimming all the days of our lives.

You do not have to believe in original sin transmitted almost genetically from generation to generation in order to be persuaded that sooner or later actual sin plays a disruptive role in every human life and in every human society. No one and no society escapes its ravages—the revolting headlines of the last week’s carnage in Iraq are proof enough of that.

You do not have to believe that we come into the world already infected by sin to acknowledge that it isn’t all that long afterwards that each of us fall sin-sick in our own way, secret or public, great or small.

You do not have to believe that at our birth original sin radically separates us from God in order to take seriously the common human experience of estrangement, alienation, and loneliness that are like a persistent undertow, dragging our longing to be whole out into a vast sad sea, and against which we feel helpless to resist.

I don’t believe that the simple affirmation that Jesus is my Lord and Savior guarantees me a place in heaven if I should die in the night. In the same way, I don’t believe that left unwashed, the stain of some inherited original sin will damn me to hell at worst, or at best perpetually suspend me in a limbo of futility between my worst fears and my best hopes.

What I do believe is that I need and desire mercy. I need assurance of mercy. Assurance that my own real and deliberate sins will not cause me—now or in the end—to be forgotten or lost. Assurance that I will not—now or in the end—have nowhere to call home.  Assurance that I will not ever—now or in the end—vanish like a dream from the heart of God.

So far, Bryn, our newest little sister in the faith, has not hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided that she’s more righteous than the rest of us and started treating us that way. She is the very picture of God’s pleasure, holy and innocent. It’s hard to imagine her sinning when you look at her now, but even her besotted parents know that it won’t be long before she’ll be needing mercy just like the rest of us.

And so today we have done the best thing we could do for her. We did for her what loving hands once did for us. And loving hands before them did for them. We presented her to God, who is the mercy we crave. And by water and the spirit God made her part of this great, wide and embracing family of Jesus where it is always and everywhere simply a given that our need for daily saving will always be met by his endless need to save.

We have made a preemptive strike on Bryn’s life, moving it out of the lost column into the found. And by the vows we made to her today, we have become for her, with Christ, the shepherd who will track her down when later on she gets lost for real—as often as that happens, and as long as it takes to find her.

Every time we do this, we glimpse the meaning of Christian fellowship, and the nature of the Church. Every time we do this, we exercise the debt of love we owe each other because God first loved us. Every time we do this, we create and re-create the blessed tie that binds. Every time we do this, a window opens on the character of God, and what we see in that window overcomes us with a joy no circumstance can alter. Every time we do this, the ancient hope for a new world and a new way of living in it together materializes among us.

If salvation is anything, this is it.

If it is to be found anywhere, it is here.