Author Archives: sicutlocutusest

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

 

 

Even The Devil

Then the devil took him to the pinnacle of the temple,saying, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”—Matthew 4:5-6

satan

Even the devil can quote scripture.

 Shakespeare said it, but Jesus dealt with it—a Bible-toting devil tossing out passages with practiced ease. “Look,” he says, trying to get Jesus to jump off a building, “It says right here, and here, and here: ‘Nothing bad will happen to you.’ You can do it. Jump!”

The devil is proof-texting, cobbling together verses to argue his case, cherry-picking psalms to make Jesus think it’s “biblical” to do a really reckless thing, knowing that if Jesus takes the bait, he’ll end up dead.

It wasn’t the first nor would it be last time demonic intentions to do harm have come cloaked in biblical authority.

Now, the devil isn’t the only one who proof-texts. In the heat of moral battle, even ‘progressives’ disturb their Bibles for the right passages to prove him wrong. And themselves right. It’s a game we all play.

But while our government is busy traumatizing little lives, and too many citizens are obscenely proud of being indifferent to their pain—“They brought it on themselves! They broke the law!”—batting the Bible back and forth across the barricades misses the moral challenge by a thousand miles.

To do justice perseveringly it’s not enough to be armed with better scripture passages. The struggle isn’t about scripture. Not even about religion. It’s about humanness. The times require empathy, not verses; compassion, not one-upping; the retrieval of lost fellow-feeling, not “biblical” mouthing-off.

If we’ve been taking the Bible as seriously as it deserves to be taken, we’ll see that the best thing we can do at crucial times is to lay it down—quit the unserious game of dueling verses, and work harder, so much harder, at becoming fully human than at being right.

 Prayer

Thank you for the gift of Scripture, O God. May its wisdom teach us to put it down so that we can see each other and learn to care.

Who Is the God Who Wants Me to Do It?

gran-poder-rechi1

I mean no disrespect, and I have a ton of appreciation for all the hard working preachers out there lovingly laboring over their Holy Week offerings, but as a person less and less in the pulpit and more and more in the pews, I have to say it: If I hear one more moralizing sermon in Holy Week–or in any other week– I think I’m going to scream. Can’t you give moralizing a rest and for a change try inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, devotion and love, gratitude, and praise?

Not every sermon has to be an urgent call to become better Christians, or an examination of those places in my life where I have denied Jesus, or the ways in which I’m fickle and pivot from crying ‘hosanna’ to crying ‘crucify him’, or some such thing in which it’s clear I’m not doing what a good Christian should be doing and I need to do better. Not every bible passage is about us and our moral lives, no matter how earnestly a preacher stands up there trying to wring from it some principle or lesson for human betterment. They’re not all about what I should be doing for God, but every last one of them reveals something about what God in Christ has done–and is doing– for me. Every last one of them is primed to get me lost in the world of grace, disoriented by mercy, and remade for a new world no one sees yet, but in which somehow I’m living even now. And about that astounding possibility and promise, I hear so little. And I long for it.

I know your preaching teacher told you to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but I don’t need every sermon I hear Sunday after Sunday to relate to some obligation or cause or issue or item in the news. Sometimes I just want help gazing at Jesus. Sometimes I just need to be stunned by the odd attraction of the Story. Sometimes I am converted simply by a preacher making me feel in my flesh the ineffable beauty of the vast accomplished grace around me, the bewildering shame and glory of a love that loves me anyway. I don’t always need to be exhorted. But I always need an encounter. I always need a door. And your sermon could be that door if it’s not slammed shut with moralizing and demand. So give me some inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, adoration, love, gratitude and praise every now and then. Please.

And don’t worry about turning me into a self-absorbed navel-gazer unconcerned with the condition of the world or the plight of my neighbor. Please don’t think you’re being unfaithful somehow, that you’ve fallen down in your duty by not being bold or prophetic in calling me to the barricades of justice every week. I know I’m stubborn and hard-hearted, but it really lacks imagination just to tell me over and over, even artfully and creatively,  that I’m lacking something and need to do much better. It also misses the point, because when all else is said and done, the thing that will best turn my heart to the just purposes of God is a grounding, confounding experience of God.

I know you can’t give me that experience, you can’t make an encounter happen, that’s the Spirit’s job; but you can create the conditions of possibility for it by drawing out beauty and awe, pathos and praise, identification and love from your own spirit, from the deep places where you yourself feel captivated and astounded by that Face, and simply tell me about it. Just contemplate the scriptures and speak to me of God. I hunger for that, and I don’t think I’m alone. As an old, funny, faithful guy sitting in the pew behind me once muttered, after yet another moralizing harangue from the pulpit, “I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I really want to know is, who is the God who wants me to do it?”

 

 

 

And Alleluia Is Our Song: A Post-Easter Sermon

Reading: From Discourse on the Psalms, St. Augustine of Hippo

“Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because in the life to come we shall rejoice forever in praising God. We won’t be ready for that life of praise unless we train ourselves for it in this life now.”

“So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we lift up our petitions. Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. For we have been promised a glory we possess now only in part. Because the promise of glory was made by the Lord who keeps promises, we trust it and are glad; but since full possession is delayed, we long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised. When yearning is over, praise alone will remain.”

“So I urge you, praise God! That is what we tell each other when we say, ‘Alleluia.’ You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and your neighbor says the same to you. When we say, “Alleluia,” we are urging one another to praise the Lord. And this praise comes from our whole being; in other words, we praise God not with our lips and voices alone, but with our minds, our lives, and with all we have and do.”

“We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in church; but when we go on our various ways again, it may seem as if we stop praising God. But if we do not cease to live a just life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from the path of justice. If you never turn aside from that path, your tongue may be silent, but your life will cry aloud, Alleluia! Praise the Lord!”

 

Sermon: “And Alleluia Is Our Song”

I don’t know if you noticed, but during Lent not a single Alleluia escaped our lips in worship. Maybe you sneaked one in at home or at work, but here in this sanctuary we didn’t say or sing Alleluia for six straight weeks. And that was by design.

Banishing Alleluias in Lent is a custom that dates to the 4th century. Some congregations even have a ritual for it—the kids make alleluias out of cardboard and glitter. During worship they lock them away in a box. And there they remain until Easter Day when Easter joy resurrects them.

Alleluia is one of a handful of Hebrew words we still use in Christian worship, along with Hosanna and Amen. Words with a surplus of meaning. Words so expressive ‘as is’ that the church has never wanted to translate them.

Hosanna—the heart’s cry for salvation and deliverance.

Amen—the word of faith-filled assent, the people’s word.

And Alleluia—the shining word of praise, the transporting word that fills earth with heaven.

But not in Lent. Not in the sacrificial season. The missing Alleluia is a form of fasting. We’re meant to feel its absence and to long for its return as we long for life to spring from death.

The 4th century North African bishop, St Augustine, is credited with a famous saying about Christians—“We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” He never said it, at least not exactly that way, but he could have. He preached often about Easter and about the Easter Alleluia. He called it the believer’s defining song, the song we’ll sing forever in paradise, which is why we need to train for it now by singing it a lot on earth. It’s a song we don’t even have to voice. As long as we live justly, Augustine says, our lives will sing it for us.

Alleluia—our defining song. Without it, we aren’t fully ourselves. It’s hard, even unnatural, for us not to sing it. And so after six weeks of silence when Easter finally comes, we break out. During the Fifty Days of Eastertide, we say and sing as many Alleluias as we can, as often as we can. Like catching up on all the chocolate we gave up, or the beer, in these weeks we’re catching up on Alleluias.

By their joyful sound and sheer proliferation, we alert the whole world to what Easter has done for us—the indestructible hope it’s given us, the love we experience that never turns us away, the promise of everlasting life. When we sing Alleluia into the world, we invite everyone who hears it into that same hope, that same love, that same new life: We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.

But let’s be honest. We don’t always feel like Easter people. We don’t always feel like singing. When a brutal winter leaves us grumpy and exhausted; when an illness knocks the hope out of us; when the human mayhem and natural disaster we read about in the headlines shocks and depresses us, we find ourselves asking, Where’s Easter in all this? How in the hell can I sing Alleluia’? How in this hell can anyone sing Alleluia?

Now, that’s a good theological question, but we don’t always treat it with respect in church. Sometimes we call it ‘doubt’ and repress it. You look around and everyone else appears to be singing lustily at the top of their lungs, and if you find it hard to join in, you wonder if the problem is you: Maybe I just lack faith. Maybe if I just tried harder to believe, I could sing Alleluia in that big beautiful trumpet-y way you’re supposed to sing it. Maybe if I had more faith, I could sing it right, without the sadness of knowing how many people in this world are suffering as I sing, without the depression of knowing how many tyrants are still upon their thrones.

A composer-in-residence at a congregation I know used to write occasional pieces for the choir. One year she wrote an Easter Cantata that didn’t have a big showy trumpet part. Its lyrics were mystical, and it was mostly in a minor key. It lacked swelling crescendos. It did have an Alleluia, at the very end, but it was not particularly cheerful or triumphant. It was more poignant and wistful, deep and full of mystery.

After the service, a leader of the congregation came flying up to the pastor. He was livid. “That wasn’t Easter,” he said. “That wasn’t Easter. Don’t you ever let anything like that happen in this church again!”

By the time Easter rolled around the next year, that pastor had left that congregation to serve another, so I don’t know what they sang that holy day. What I do know is that that angry parishioner was wrong when he said, “That wasn’t Easter.” He was wrong to think that the only real Easter joy is unclouded, the only real Easter songs are energetic anthems in the key of D with soaring descants for bold sopranos.

A minor key Alleluia is as much Easter as any major one. What that dear lamb didn’t notice was how many people around him were weeping as it was being sung,, how many stones were rolling away from the entrances of their personal tombs.

That was Easter every bit as much as the first Easter was Easter—you remember, the one that happened when, while it was still dark, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”Like that other Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeping outside her brother’s tomb. So many stones, So many tombs. So many tears.

“And as Mary wept,” the story goes on, “she stooped to look inside.”

Do you know what that’s like? When a life has ended, and you’re not ready for it to end? All you can do is turn and look back. Back to a past that’s leaving you behind. And you don’t want to be left behind. You would do anything to stop time from sweeping the one you love away and out of sight, while you’re stranded there, alone.

For Mary, life was wherever Jesus was. That’s how it is when you’ve grown to love someone that much. Now he’s gone, and he’s taken life with him. And to make matters worse, there’s no body. No body to weep over.

And when I hear that, I think of the family and friends of people lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Family and friends of African immigrants drowned at sea. The disappeared, taken by militias and never seen again. And of people buried under the rubble of earthquakes and bombed-out buildings in war-ravaged cities. No body to weep over. Just an emptiness where a living presence once had been. An emptiness, a sorrow, a hanging question.

And that’s how Easter begins. That’s how Easter unfolds. That’s where Easter always is. In all sorts of hellish places, be they global or intimate. It’s there that the Lord of Life sets up a throne.

And Mary stood weeping at the tomb. And then… ‘Mary,’ Jesus says. He returns in the midst of tears. ‘Mary,’ he says. And death gives way to life.

Easter always comes like this—in the midst of tears. We just might sing our purest Alleluias in the grave, in the ruins, in our pain, from the place of our most honest questions. It’s not a matter of more faith or better faith. Please don’t wait for perfect faith to sing an Alleluia. Just sing one wherever you are with whatever you’ve got.

Anybody can sing in the sun. When we sing in the deluge, when we refuse to stop singing no matter how bad it gets, when we choke out the song of life through tears, that’s when—that’s precisely how—the world knows that Easter is true.

In the face of all the things there are to complain about, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things there are to be angry about, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things that frighten us and make us pull back into our shells, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things that break our hearts, Alleluia.

In good times and bad, Alleluia.

With the first cup of coffee in the morning, waking up to the day God has made, Alleluia.

With our last prayer as we’re settling down to sleep—another hard day, yet studded with grace and blessing, Alleluia.

Stuck in traffic, surrounded by dozens of drivers, each with their own story, their desires, hurts, and fears, and that one behind you who just gave you the finger and hit the horn, Alleluia.

When someone you love is dying, and you feel sad and frightened, and yet there’s tenderness there, too, even holiness, in the space where people gather, in the sound of their voices mingling, and the expressions in their faces as they keep vigil, Alleluia!

When your newest grandchild comes into the world, and so much joy breaks forth you forth you’d think it was the first baby ever born, and you can’t help but worry what kind of world you are giving her, Alleluia.

When you turn another year older and you don’t want to think about what year it is, Alleluia.

When you fail others, when you look inside and see how much work Christ’s resurrection still has to do in you, Alleluia.

When you read the paper or listen to the news and grieve, when you become angry, impatient and frustrated, or you just plain yearn with all your heart for the kingdom of God to come, to finally come, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

We are Easter people. People who know that life has triumphed over death but that somehow the battle still slogs on. People with one foot in joy and the other in longing. People of the already and the not yet.

Alleluia is our song.

A song sung with lives that try to be loving and just. A song lived out against the odds. With or without descants and trumpets, in major and in minor keys, in harmony, in community, alongside some who belt it out and others who can barely whisper, we laugh it into the world, we weep it into the world, we do whatever it takes to sing, ‘Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia…’

‘They Have No Wine…’ John 2:3



“They have no wine.” That’s all Mary says to Jesus after noticing the newlyweds’ embarrassment. Could she be more indirect?

He knows what she wants but he’s not feeling ready. He tells her it’s not time to reveal his glory and suffer the consequences. The wine he could make would be free to the guests but cost him plenty.

Mary marches right over to the serving table as if he’d said ‘no problem’ instead of ‘no way.’ She once said a costly yes; she’s not about to take no for an answer from him.

Because they have no wine.

It’s human history she’s talking about. Life’s disappointed guests have been milling around with empty glasses from time immemorial. She’s waited long enough for the mighty to fall, for the poor to dance at the wedding, for the kingdom’s elixir to flow. Three Persian potentates once bent their knees to him. Why is he still knocking out chairs and cabinets in Nazareth? She wants him out of the house.

He gives in and produces liquid heaven in preposterous quantities. He squanders it on us, the undeserving who can’t distinguish rotgut from Rothschild. He becomes the wastrel we need him to be.

Thank you, Mary.

Prayer
When we are reluctant to act on our callings, O God, send Mary to remind us, “They have no wine.” Get us out of the house.

Epiphany: Hide and Seek with the Divine

Our planet has come full circle: things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the North, is winter.

But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.

A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain.

A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud.

A season of unveilings, it starts with a glimpse of baby skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments.

A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

In the dead of winter, the church gives us God-sightings, gives them as if to persuade us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact stirring all the time, ardent, vivid, and porous. As if to say that this stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, a startling game of hide-and-seek with the divine. As if to say that heaven’s flame burns hot here too, not just on the other side of Peter’s gate.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces — Epiphany is the church’s way of impressing on us that discipleship is as much being spoken to as it is speaking, as much adoring as serving, as much perceiving as doing, as much finding as seeking.

Seeking is never over, there is always more to find. But in Epiphany, the Spirit seems to desire for us a momentary end of seeking. She brings us to an encounter with the immense and saving beauty that burns in Jesus, the bright beauty destined for us all.

She lights the lamp and leads us:  “Come closer,” she says. “You’re getting warm. Now over here. A little more. Yes, yes. Now do you see…?”

And if we are attentive, we do perceive it. We fall on our knees.

 

 

 

Epiphany Year B: Who Is Jesus?

 

Epiphany is the mystical season par excellence, the season of coming to know beyond knowing, of coming to love what we come to know. It is a season of light, but it is also a season of deepening mystery; for just when we think we have grasped him, he slips away, inviting further following and more profound revelation and the testing of our love. Just when we think we have grasped him, he asks us the defining question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and we need to start over.

Worship during Epiphany Year B brings us gospel stories that ponder Jesus’ identity and recount people’s responses to him as, in the light of his presence, their hearts open to the gift of God’s mercy.

In the first week’s story, wise men “from the East”—scientists and philosophers—discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own.

Next, John baptizes the grown-up Jesus, and at that moment—as Jesus is identified with sinners— the curtain lifts and we hear that he is God’s cherished child, that God is pleased with him.

Two more stories are about people who perceive in him the “Lamb of God” who pardons sins and reconciles enemies. When asked by these would-be followers where he lives, Jesus says, “Come and see.” In following him there, disciples receive deeper revelation of who Jesus is and what his way is about.

On the last Sunday, we experience a disorienting moment atop a mountain. There the disciples see Jesus suffused with the glory of God. They are so enthralled that they wish they could remain forever enveloped in that great, transforming light.

We often say that light is the season’s theme, and it surely is. We watch Jesus call followers, who seem compelled by his light. We watch him teach and heal, “leaking” the light that is in him all around, revealing God’s intentions and the character of God’s Kingdom. We see the light that lives in him lift shadows of despair, violence, and injustice.

But for all the light that is dawning; for all the revelations of Jesus’ identity that abound in these texts; for all the excited talk about the Messiah and the Lamb of God; for all the rush to get in on the ground floor and follow him; for all the hope that the Kingdom of God might finally be near, confusion about Jesus does not go away. In fact, the mystery deepens.

It won’t be long (Lent begins early this year) before we are reading stories in which even his closest friends scratch their heads, perplexed by the implacable enigma of this man. Even John the Baptist, who had earlier recognized him as God’s chosen one, will ask, “So, are you really The One?”

There will be so many claims swirling around him that Jesus himself will eventually ask his disciples, “What are they saying about me?” And “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”—a question that will still haunt him — and us — when he’s hanging on the Cross.

When we are asked, “What is your faith about?”, many of us answer that it is about love, or justice, peace and reconciliation. But if that’s all we say, we may be sidestepping its one truly distinguishing characteristic—the person of Jesus himself. If Christianity is not about him and about the ways in which he is a window onto the character of the God we worship, it doesn’t have much that is new or distinctively compelling to offer.

And that’s a problem, because many of us grew up in traditions in which Jesus was not a sympathetic character. He was a stern, all-seeing judge of our sins. He was the one in whom, on the Cross, God took out the wrath that was meant for us, and so now we feel that we owe Jesus an eternal, un-payable debt.

Or he was an ethical exemplar—for some, a this-worldly political figure whose revolutionary stances we admired; for others a cardboard character, a flesh-and-bloodless moral paragon, too perfect to feel close to or even to admire.

Some of us got the “gooey” Jesus, all long light hair and dreamy eyes; a white, romantic, handsome guy from Central Casting with a lamb draped over his shoulders, and he embarrasses us now.

Some of us dismiss Jesus as a mostly made-up character in a story too weird and implausible to credit.

If the Christian faith really is, in the end, not just some generic ethical teaching about love and justice; if it not merely a religion that stems from a long-ago and far away mythical Jesus, but is in some sense about Jesus, the embodied kingdom of God; if he is the “way, the truth, and the life” as the gospel says he is, sent to lead us in a unique and graceful way into the arms of a God determined to restore all creation in justice and love; if Jesus is somehow necessary, then maybe the project of Epiphany is to let him ask us, over and over, the same question that he asked his first followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

Maybe in these few weeks of Epiphany, we might make a deliberate effort to drop our learned responses to him, our preconceived ideas about him, our skepticism, even our distaste, in order to ponder his mystery with a new and genuine openness to what the Spirit might reveal to us about him.

We call ourselves followers, disciples, but some of us hardly know the one we are following. Maybe it’s time to walk and talk with him, maybe this is a chance to see whether in the talking and in the going—in the practice— the transforming light he shed wherever he went might envelop our lives too.

If he is the one the Christian tradition claims he is, things could really change. But that remains to be seen. It remains to be seen, it remains to be heard, to be touched, and even to be tasted, in this precious season of Jesus, this season of light.