Category Archives: Miscellaneous Commentary

A Noonday Meditation on John 4:1-42 (and Matthew 25:35)

IMG_4806

I thought of you today when I got back from my walk

cranky from too much sun and dying for a drink of water.

You wanted water too when you sat at Jacob’s well.

Then she came along with her jar, and gave you lip

about not having  a bucket. The two of you

talked theology for a while, trying to pinpoint the difference

between well water and metaphysical water,

and then you got down to that business about her life,

which didn’t change the conversation all that much,

because life and water are twins.

Then your flustered followers arrived and raised their eyebrows.

She put her jar down, which is a good metaphor

for surrender, or maybe for change, and went flying off

to tell everybody you were the messiah

because you knew everything about her and still thought

she was worth talking to. Then villagers came to see you

for themselves, begging you to stay with them, like those two

on the way to Emmaus would do, when evening fell

on the eighth day. And I realized, as I was standing

at my kitchen sink holding a glass under cold running water

and thinking about you, that in all the talk and commotion,

nowhere does it say if you ever got the drink you came for.

So I was wondering if you did, and I don’t think so.

Which means you are still thirsty.

Which means if I go to the well today, I will find you.

Which means if I bring my bucket to wherever you are

needing help in the heat of the day,

you could drink.

An Eastertide Reflection: Judas, Peter, and the Apostate Church

800px-The_Denial_of_Saint_Peter-Caravaggio_(1610)–Peter’s Denial, Caravaggio

I think Christian tradition has been too hard on Judas and too easy on Peter. Judas sold Jesus to the authorities, but he never lied about knowing him. His betrayal was terrible, but it was up close, to Jesus’ face, sealed with a kiss, among friends. Peter kept his distance. He wouldn’t even say Jesus’ name. Among strangers he denied all ties to “that man.” He sought warmth by a fire while his Teacher was tortured. His renunciation was as cold as that night was cold.

Tradition turned Judas into the evil archetype of betrayers. In two places in scripture we are told that he met a gruesome end, and the implication is that it was well-deserved. In Christian imagination, he ranks just a fraction of a notch above Lucifer. Unforgivable.

Tradition turned Peter into the impetuous disciple who could never quite get or stay with the program, but whose heart was always in the right place. Peter was clueless, lovable, a little pathetic. And forgivable.

We are told that Peter wept bitterly when the cock crowed and he remembered Jesus’ prediction about his triple betrayal. We are told that Judas wept too. His remorse was profound. When he could not undo it, returning the silver, he despaired of forgiveness. He could not live with what he had done, We don’t know why Judas despaired, or why Peter did not, but because Peter held on, he became the symbolic heart of the nascent church. Because Judas could not hold on, he became an eternal embarrassment and a terrible shame.

I have reflected elsewhere on the regret I feel that the Story has Judas dead and gone before Jesus rises.* Every year at Easter, my imagination feels compelled to re-write the scriptural account to save him. If Peter lived to experience Christ’s mercy pour out for him from the empty tomb, why not Judas too, even though he died? Do you have any doubt that Jesus forgave him? Do you have any doubt that one of the fish on the fire that morning by the lake was for him?

We let Peter off the hook, but Peter did not. Even after the encounter at breakfast with the risen Jesus on the beach, even after making his triple affirmation of love, Peter never forgot what he did. When the time of trial came for him again, his legend goes, he refused to be crucified in the same manner as the Friend he did not deserve. He demanded instead that his tormentors nail him to the cross head down. I think the church would do better to remember Peter not as we have re-made him, a lovable bumbler, but as Peter knew himself, an unworthy betrayer of the first magnitude, on a par with Judas.

They are not that different, Judas and Peter. They belong close together in the church’s memory, not far apart, as if Peter were a success story and Judas a failure. As if the goal of discipleship were to get it right instead of to live in perpetual need of mercy, to know oneself permanently in need of healing, pardon, and peace.

We idealize the apostles of the first church as moral heroes and brave martyrs, and when we do, we miss the most compelling thing about those earliest followers and their mission: it was all about the mystery of weakness; it was all about the mystery of grace. Here’s what I said about this mystery in the reflection I alluded to above:

These days, many congregations want to renew themselves. They ask questions about identity and purpose—who are we as a church, what is our mission, how can we be more faithful? Well, here is a model we might all consider to our benefit—the earliest church, which was nothing more than a few sinful, weak, mortified disciples huddled around a fire tended by Jesus, eating with him. A church composed of apostates, guilty of denials and betrayals and fearful flight. A church born not in rising to the occasion, but in running from it. A congregation of weakness and shame. A fellowship of the unforgivable.

Just the kind of church Jesus wanted. The kind of church he’ll always love. The kind of church to which he will always come, in which he will always dwell, to which he will always tend with the sweetest condescension. The kind of church in which any Peter or any Judas would feel at home.

The best thing any church could hope for is to be filled with Judases and Peters. People whose lives are marked by the humiliation and the humility that come from knowing exactly what they deserved but did not get. People whose actions in the church and in the world are characterized therefore by the most reverent tenderness for the weaknesses of others. For their cruelties and betrayals. For their unpardonable sins.

The straightest route to faithfulness any church can take is through human fragility, where the depths of guilt and shame are met by the unrelenting, anticipatory, all-covering, blame-withholding mercy of the Lord.

If what we strive for instead is a church of the strong, the good, the steadfast, the productive, the able, the clever, and the powerful (even the spiritually powerful) who are perfectly capable of cooking breakfast for themselves, we may never have a church at all. And we might never have a mission either, because feeding Jesus’ lambs, inviting the whole world to come and have breakfast, sharing with others the mercy bestowed once upon a time around a charcoal fire—these are not things you can do if you’ve never been around that fire yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you’ve never felt the joy of realizing it isn’t going to drop—ever; if you’ve never understood how much you actually owe, and how clean the ledger has actually been wiped.

It is precisely the ones who should never have been forgiven, but who were, who are called to tend Jesus’ sheep. It’s not something he entrusts to just anyone. He seeks out the worst for the job. And he makes them the best by love.

By love alone.

___________

Bring Me A Donkey

1846 Christs_Entry_into_Jerusalem_Hippolyte_Flandrin

‘Bring me a donkey,’ he said to us. A donkey? I stared at him—‘Jesus, you can’t afford to buy a donkey. You can’t afford to rent a donkey. You don’t have any money. You don’t have a house. You don’t have even a change of clothes.  And you want us to get you a donkey?’

‘It’ll be tied up in the village,’ he said. ‘Go, bring it to me. If anybody tries to stop you, just tell them I need it.’

It was like that with him. He did the strangest things. Sometimes it was too much. It was like he was forcing you to choose. You could walk away, or you could take a deep breath, believe him, and go one more mile along the road. We often wondered who was taking the bigger risk, the ones who left, or the ones who stayed.

Anyway, Jesus was waiting for an answer. So I shrugged. Made my choice. Again.

‘Okay,’ I said.

On the way to the village we practiced our lines—‘Nice donkey you have there, Mister. We’ll take it now. No, no, really, it’s okay, we know it’s your donkey, but Jesus needs it.’

On the way back with the animal in tow, I kept asking myself, ‘Why does he need a donkey? He walks everywhere. I’ve never seen him ride.”

Later, after everything was over, his mother reminded me that he had ridden once before, when he was a baby, the night the angel told Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt to protect him from Herod.

People say that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to signal peaceful intentions. It’s true—he wasn’t a conquering hero. He believed meekness was more powerful than violence. He was a servant, not a king. But after Mary told me about that time they fled into Egypt, I wondered if he chose the donkey as a kind of course correction.

Maybe on the back of the donkey, in the midst of all the street theater that day, he was thinking, ‘I escaped back then. This time I won’t get away.’

This time no angel-dream would save him in the nick of time. No mother keep him warm at her breast. No father protect him from the tyrants and the sword.

This time he wouldn’t ride away from trouble. He would ride straight into it. On the donkey. On the carpet of coats and shawls. Through all the shouting and the palms.

———

Image: Entry into Jerusalem, A. Flandrin

Up From The Grave: A Meditation for Holy Saturday

p584556463-3

–The Harrowing of Hell, School of Simon Van Taisten, Austria, 1460-ca 1503

At that moment…the tombs were opened, and many who had fallen asleep were raised.” —Matthew 27:45-6

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was shockingly intent on offering the world freedom and life. When it came to rescuing the lost, forgiving sinners, consoling the hurt, welcoming strangers, mending divisions, refreshing the exhausted, and releasing captives, nothing took precedence over freedom and life—not reason, law, moral codes, politeness, political expediency, fiscal prudence, or maintaining family harmony.

Jesus never preached, prayed, commanded or did anything in the name of God that constricted a human heart, afflicted a human body, narrowed or embittered a human mind, or chained the human conscience. He was, he is, nothing but freedom and life.

And so it brings us up short  every year in Holy Week to see him taken, bound, tortured, defeated, paraded around, nailed up, pierced, dead. It disturbs us to hear him groan wildly, like all vulnerable and tortured people do, desperate to know whether the Minder of Life, so mindful of others, has any memory of him.

But it should not surprise us that the moment he dies, the dead live. According to a tradition enshrined in the earliest Christian creeds, and still pointedly celebrated by the Orthodox, the first thing the dead Jesus does is “descend to the dead.’’ On Holy Saturday, he heads down into the haunts of the long-gone.

There he comes face to face with the given-up-on—all his hopeless, ungraced ancestors languishing under the earth—and he preaches the gospel to them. He springs from death his fellow-dead, he “harrows” Hell, he wrests them from the grip of all that would hold them back from life, he carries them away with him, and souls too long consigned to oblivion enter the joy of the living.

6506502553_006c1eb79b_b

–The Harrowing of Hell, English, c. 1240

The gospel of Matthew notes a bizarre scene: it says that at the moment Jesus gives up his spirit, tombs in the city crack open. Jesus is not yet even deposited in his own grave, and the dead and buried are leaving theirs. They “enter the city and show themselves.”

Even before Jesus is raised, there is so much life still left in his love for us that it cannot help itself: it keeps intruding into forsaken places. It keeps finding lost things, it keeps bringing them home.

What, then, about us who, in our peculiar ways, are shades inhabiting our own indistinct valleys, nether regions of self-concern and self-importance? What about us who languish in the hell of that sophisticated hopelessness we call cynicism, or who are just plain done in by the enormity of justice’s demands? What about us who hide our pain under our privilege, and who cannot for the life of us break the chain of hurts received and hurts inflicted? resurrection

–Resurrection of Christ, unidentified

On this Holy Saturday, and on all our lonely forsaken Holy Saturdays , shall we let the dead Jesus come down to us, to whatever Sheol we have been consigned by life and pride and fear, defeat our demons, and take us with him from shade to light? Dazzled by our rescue, still carrying our shrouds as evidence, will we go about our own cities, giddy and pink with his new breath in our lungs, opened eyes lit by the power of death-defying love? Will we show up in these streets, announcing to all the good news he preached to us—that God loves life fiercely and will not abide anything that constricts a heart, afflicts a body, narrows or embitters a mind, traps a conscience, or seals a human being in a grave? If we knew that neither grave nor Hades could ever hold us again, would civility, law, caution, politeness, harmony, morality, political expediency, fiscal prudence, or anything else ever shame us away from the gospel?

Practicing in Lent

20EuroCents

In 2002, I was on vacation in Spain during the first week in which the peseta was retired and the Euro introduced as the official currency. ATM machines dispensed only Euros, taxi meters displayed fares in Euros, restaurant menus listed prices in Euros  – everyone was using Euros, but it was far too soon for anyone to be at ease with them.

I saw a woman who’d been walking briskly down the street suddenly stop short, take a handful of coins out of her purse, stare at them for a while, move them around on her palm, arrange them in different ways –by size or value – trying to get a literal feel for the new tender.

I saw grown men huddled over pocket calculators at kiosks and in bars talking themselves through simple transactions aloud, like children learning to count.

Whenever it was time to pay for something, the world slowed down, and everyone became a learner. What had been a reflex the week before, when pesetas were the common coin, had suddenly to be practiced as a deliberate act.

When people in the ancient world asked to be baptized into the church, they were not marched straight to the font. They first underwent a lengthy period of instruction and moral reorientation. The human life they thought they had mastered had to be re-learned in the light of the Gospel.

2EuroCentsLike people with a new currency, neophytes practiced  – they turned over coins of grace in their palms day after day, took time to count aloud each transaction of mercy, attended to the tasks of being a new kind of human with purpose, and approached the ordinary with discipline, with an intention of excellence.

Only thus, over time, did the disorienting shock of Gospel living became second-nature. Only thus did the faith they had received root deeply, and their witness flower in the world.

The season of Lent originated in these preparations for baptism, a ritual that signaled the end of one life and the start of another. For us, Lent is a holy opportunity to adopt and undergo a similar converting discipline, to learn anew what some of us thought we’d already mastered – a fully human life in Christ, facility with the new coinage of grace.

Perhaps this year, with the world as grimly attached to a currency of violence and exclusion as ever, we might use these forty days to practice some of the things required for a successful introduction of a new tender — slowing down, cultivating a learner’s pose, taking deliberate care with mundane transactions, paying attention to the sacred potential of the ordinary, maintaining an intention of excellence, practicing the faith.

1EuroThe example of the saints, living and dead, declares that if we practice gratefully over time, by God’s help we will eventually come to transact life with ease and poise, and with such graceful mastery that the dying world will know a resurrection and a life beyond its wildest dreams.

Wedding Wine (John 2:1-11)

With thanks to Kathy Coffee..

cana

–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.

According to Matthew

Epiphany-Josephat-Rest-Gentile_da_Fabriano_030-e1356892384419

–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

Housekeys: The Flight Into Egypt

40.59a-b_SL1

Eastman Johnson,  A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862)

Matthew 2:13-22

Unlike Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s has no journey home to be counted, no overbooked inns, no shepherds, no manger, no swaddling clothes. Instead, Matthew has Joseph and Mary already living in a house in Bethlehem, their own house, presumably; and it is there that the Magi visit the child Jesus and give him gifts.

After the Magi leave, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is coming after the Child. The tyrant is prepared to slaughter many children to be sure he’s rid of one. Joseph should take his family and run for it, the angel says; cross into Egypt. Stay there until the tyrant dies.

Here’s what I wonder…

After he woke up, and while he was still shaking from the dream, and after they had packed a few things and saddled up the donkey, did Joseph take the key to the front door of his house in Bethlehem, string it on a rawhide cord, and tie the cord around his neck?

Or did he give the key to Mary after he boosted her onto the beast, handing up the child first, and then the key? Did she tuck it in the travel bag underneath the diapers and the talcum powder and the brand new copy of Goodnight Moon?

At the end of their street, did Joseph stop and turn around? Did he look back at the house they had just abandoned, one ear cocked for the hot breath of the horses, the other for the boots of bloody soldiers, conscripts most of them, kids, just following orders?

Did he find it surreal that he, a terrified man fleeing with his family, was also, in that very moment, wishing he’d gotten around to fixing the creaking tread on the stairs, the one Mary said would come right up some day and trip her, sending her headlong down the narrow flight? Did he say to her with his eyes, “Hold onto that key. Don’t lose it. I’ll fix the stairs, really I will. As soon as we get back…”

And when they made it over the border and found a place that rented to people without papers, did he wrap the key in a cotton cloth and place it in an olive wood box with leather hinges and a brass latch, and place it in a niche in the wall, and cover the niche with an old calendar from a company selling insurance?

And on days when no one would give him work, or during the night when Mary was out cleaning offices, or that first time he realized that his toddler couldn’t remember anything about home and was acquiring an Egyptian accent, did he take the key from its niche behind the calendar and lay it on his palm and rock over it, singing songs of Zion in a foreign land? Did he dream at night of return? Or did the good St Joseph drink himself into a stupor over what was lost? Did he buy too many lottery tickets? Did he take out his rage on the furniture?

And when the news finally came that Herod was dead and they could go back home, did he take the key from the box, knot it back on the cord, and tie the cord around his neck? Or give it to Mary to put in her bag, this time tucking it into one of the little boy’s sneakers so that it would be easy to find if they got to their door very late on a moonless night?

And when they crossed the border again and discovered that the danger had not passed—because for the refugee, the exile, the poor, the person with the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong opinion, the wrong sexuality, the danger never passes—and Joseph decided not to go to Bethlehem where they had a house with a door that the housekey fit, but to settle up in the Galilee, what, I wonder, became of that key?

What did he do with a key that was useless in a new lock in a new house, a key that opened no doors in Nazareth? What became of the key that worked only in the lock of the front door of the little house in the little town of Bethlehem?

Here’s what else I wonder:

Whose necks do such keys hang from now? In whose bags packed for a midnight dash to the border are they tucked away underneath the baby’s shirts and the sippy cup that quacks like a duck when you squeeze it? In whose small boxes are those keys resting? Who is rocking on tired knees singing songs of home over them, like lullabies to a baby, or anthems to a flag, or offerings to a god?

And what traumas are being inflicted, what grievances are being nursed, what resentments are building, what terrors contemplated, what weapons amassed in the name of keys and locks and doors and houses and memories and dreams and towns and lands and borders and nations?

How will it end, this Christmas story? For this cold hard story is as much the story of Christmas as the one about lowing cattle and awestruck rustic men. How will it unfold, and how will it end, this story of Jesus, barely begun?

And is there an angel lingering over earth fierce enough to rouse us from our deep and heedless sleep? Is there any message frightening enough to alert us to the danger we’re in? Is there any light from heaven bright enough to show us this old story as our neighbor’s story, and as our own?

If God Can Find A Corner Small: A Carol for Christmas

Unknown_painter_-_The_Nativity_-_WGA23511

1.

If God can find a corner small,

a town constricted as a tomb,

to house the sweeping Life of all,

we too can find a little room.

2.

If God requires but little space,

an unassuming mother’s womb,

to birth God’s spacious Gift of grace,

we too can be a little room.

3.

If little room is room to spare,

a stable’s manger plain and rough,

to cradle everlasting Care,

we too have room, and room enough.

4.

And even if we still mistake

a mansion’s pomp for God’s embrace,

whatever room we sinners make,

Good Love will gladly fill the place.

A NOTE ON TUNES:

You can sing this carol to the tune, ANDREW, Hymn 467, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth’ in The New Century Hymnal. [You will need to repeat last line of each stanza of the carol in order to fit the tune’s 8.8.8.8.8 meter]

A really lovely LM tune, NORWICH, was composed for that same text (“Mothering God”) by Carolyn Jennings. It is at # 735 in the Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. And a wonderful choral setting of this same tune is by Zebuloma Highben, and can be found at Augsburg Fortress. I like this tune very much for this carol.

For a more meditative mood, you might use CONDITOR ALME, alternating verses between a soloist and the congregation, or choir and congregation.

A Communal Reading for Christmas

A Communal Reading for Christmas

NOTE:  This Communal Reading stands in for the gospel reading from Luke, as a paraphrase. The actual text of the reading from Luke could be printed in the bulletin, if so desired. The “script” below should be prepared as an insert for congregation and readers. Shepherd reads from center chancel. Child reads from his or her place in the congregation (standing on a pew if need be, with a cordless microphone, or a very big ‘outdoor voice’). The Choir should be prepared to burst immediately into the refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” from Angels we have heard on high at the indicated places. The Shepherd should be a skilled adult reader who can really tell a story. The Child should be willing to raise her hand and jump up and down a bit, like an eager student. In general, everyone should take their time, and ham it up. No rehearsal should be needed if all the ‘characters’ practice their lines beforehand on their own.

bassano_jacopo_the_annunciation_to_the_shepherds–Jacopo Bassano

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke

[Luke 2:8-20]

Shepherd: I remember that night. How could I forget it? We were tending sheep in the fields when all of a sudden, the dark sky began to shine, and shine, and shine!

Choir: Was it the moon breaking through the clouds?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t the moon!

Congregation: A shooting star flashing across the sky?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t a shooting star!

A Child: I know! I know! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining!

Shepherd: Yes! That’s right! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining! And that angel of the Lord scared us half to death! We fell flat on our faces with fright!

Choir: What happened next?

Shepherd: The angel of the Lord spoke to us!

Congregation: Spoke to you? What did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know! The angel said: “Do not be afraid! I have great news for you and the whole wide world! Today, in Bethlehem, the City of David, a savior is born!”

Shepherd: That’s right! A savior was born!

Choir: What else did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: Hey! You know everything!

A Child: Yes, I do! I pay attention in Sunday School! Anyway, the angel said to go to Bethlehem to find the savior. To look in a manger, not a palace. To look for a baby, not a king. Wrapped in strips of cloth, not in a velvet robe!

Shepherd: That’s right! That’s what the angel told us! And then, oh my goodness! Then, the whole sky was filled with angels! A million of them!

Congregation: A million?

Shepherd: Well, maybe half a million. And they all began to sing!

Choir: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherd: And then they disappeared!  Just like that. They were gone. And everything was the way it was before – dark and cold, and very, very, very, very quiet.  And we looked at each other, our eyes as wide as saucers, and we said, “Should we go, then, and see for ourselves?”

Choir:  And so you went, didn’t you?

Shepherd: Yes, we did. We went to Bethlehem. We saw Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger. We saw everything the angel said we would see. We saw it all, and it made us glad. And so we told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people – and now you know the story too.

Congregation: It’s a wonderful story! Who could have imagined it?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: There [he/she] goes again! All right, tell us. Who imagined it?

A Child: God imagined it!  And God brought made it happen! God did it for us!

Shepherd: For us, yes. Because God loves us, God did it for us. And for everybody, and for always, and forever and ever. Amen.

Everyone: For everybody! And for always! And forever and ever! Amen!

Choir [and everyone joining in]:  Gloria in excelsis Deo!