Category Archives: Sermons

Once in a Garden: Meditation for Earth Day/Creation Sunday


The tree of Life, allegory with birds perched on branches. Mosaic pavement; 4th century CE

The first gift God gave humans was to make us from clay, to give us kinship with dirt. God named the first earthling adam, meaning ‘human,’ from the root word, adama, meaning ‘soil.’ To be human is to be grounded, in the earth. And when we remember that we’re dust, when we know our place, we become wise. And that’s a great gift.

The second gift God gave humans was breath, kinship with God, a sharing in God’s own life. The adam is related to God by breath, and every breath the human draws is full of God’s own desires. The earthling resembles God in this way: he’s drawn to beauty and full of appetites.

Which is one reason God gives adam another gift, The Garden, “beautiful to look at and good for food.” In the Garden, he could satisfy his desires, especially his desire for God. For God lived in the Garden too, strolling in the cool of the evening among rocks and plants and streams, with kitties, kangaroos, earthlings, earthworms, bunnies and bears.

And that was the way it was, once in a Garden—shared life, companions and kin, creatures all, made-in-the-shade of the Tree of Life that grew in a Garden near Eden, in the East of God’s new and wonderful world.

Now, it wasn’t all play and no work for the human. The world outside the Garden was perfect, but unfinished. Help was wanted: an on-site tiller of soil, someone who would care for the earth. God made the world with room in it for involvement and participation, for evolution and improvement. That’s why God made the earthling, the first gardener.

You’ve probably heard that God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ To multiply and have dominion. And God does say that, in one story. The Bible has two creation stories, and in the second, God doesn’t say ‘fill and subdue,’ but till and care. The first story leads to possession and mastery. But the second story leads to belonging and participation. In this story, the humans have work to do, but it’s joyful work, because when they care for the earth, earth cares for them, too.

Then the story takes a sad turn. A smooth talking serpent appears and plants seeds of mistrust in the human heart. And that mistrust becomes a wedge. It splits things:

Humans had never felt shame in being naked; now they do. Their relationship with their own bodies is broken.

Once they’d walked with God; now they’re afraid of God and try to hide. Their relationship to God is broken.

Once they called each other ‘my own flesh and blood’; now they turn on each other in accusation and blame. Their relationship to other humans is broken.

God closes the Garden and sends the humans into the world outside. There they discover that their relationship to nature is damaged too. Participation in the world now brings suffering as well as joy. The story says that’s a punishment, but it’s not really. It’s just that we’re so deeply connected to the world that when things aren’t right with us, they’re wrong in nature too. And nature won’t be right again until we are.

But even with all its hardships, the world was still wondrous. Yet it never fully satisfied us like the Garden did. We planted garden after garden ourselves, hoping to sense God’s footfalls in the grass, to see flowers that don’t fade, to hear God speak to the heart. But nothing we made was like what we lost.

The story goes in many directions from here. For Christians, it goes to Jesus, God’s Child. The story says he came to find and stay with us who’d become so lost and lonely. He left his own Eden with God and took an earthy body, just like ours.

But by then, we were so practiced in ignoring our kinship with creatures and God that when he came to us in human flesh, breathing the divine breath, we did to him what we were doing to each other.

We treated him like a foreigner, even though he stirred a deep memory when he told stories of gardens and seeds, trees and birds, lilies, and harvests gathered into barns.

We said we didn’t know him, even though he ate, drank, sang, and danced with the happy abandon of one who knew what life was like in the Garden.

We regarded him as a stranger, even though we heard the accent of Eden in the way he talked and felt its cool breezes in the way he lived.

In a cruel twist, when we seized him, it was in a garden. And when killed him, we buried him in one too.

The ancient creeds say that as soon as he died, he descended to a gloomy place where for eons long-dead ancestors were waiting for the Messiah. Jesus “harrowed” them. That’s an old word for raking. Like a harvester, he raked them up and gathered them into his new life. Later, back at the garden tomb on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene saw him, but she thought he was a gardener. She wasn’t really wrong.

Genesis is the Bible’s first book. It recounts the first creation. Revelation is the Bible’s last book. It promises a new creation when time ends. The new earth, it says, will be like a jeweled city with walls and towers, but in its center God will plant a Tree of Life, just as God did once in a Garden.

The Tree will yield a different fruit each month, and its leaves will be medicinal for the nations—for all people, no matter who. A Tree of diversity and healing, a Garden undefiled. It’s hard to imagine. We hide guns in our gardens. We bulldoze thousand-year olives. We delude ourselves, thinking we can demean, ignore, unhouse, and kill each other, and exploit water, earth, air, and animals, and suffer no lasting harm.

But now, as we witness the effects of our self-delusion, the truth scripture teaches is stark. In disappearing ice caps and disappearing bees, in bad water and very sick children we see plainly that there’s no separation between human beings and nature, between this nation and that nation, between this continent and that island, between our own generation and those to follow. We’re in this together. For better, and for worse.

Some people say it’s too late for the earth, too late for us. But although earth has been entrusted to our care, it’s still God’s earth, not ours. We can either believe that or we can despair. It’s still God’s creation. We can either trust God or despair.

I think we won’t despair. I think we will read and study and pray the Garden story, over and over. I think we’ll speak to each other about Eden and the earth, about creatures and God and divine breath, about Adam the gardener, and Jesus, the new Adam, the harvester of life. I think we won’t despair because we have this great green story and in it, a mission and a calling.

I think we won’t despair. I think we’ll ponder how to invest our money and how to reduce our footprint and how to organize and how to protest and how to vote. I think we’ll do all those things and more.

And it won’t seem like much against the odds. But each small thing we do will be a kind of remembering. Each small step a re-connection of broken kinship, an act of love. Small thing by small thing, we will become ourselves a Garden, an oasis, a taste of Eden, at play and at rest as God intended for us and every creature under heaven. Small thing by small thing, by endless grace and persevering response to grace, God’s glorious will for the earth and for all creation will shine and shine again.

Render Unto Caesar: On Not Knowing What It Means, or What to Do


–Titian, The Tribute Coin

Exodus 33: 12-23; Mark 12:13-17

Our gospel story opens with the arrival of representatives from two factions who have put their heads together and come up with a trick question for Jesus. The first group is the Pharisees, a religious party of committed laypeople with whom Jesus had a lot in common, even though they are portrayed in the New Testament as his most intractable enemies.

For reasons scholars disagree about, but which may have something to do with the emperor setting himself up as a divine son of god, the devout Pharisees were resistant to paying the head tax to their Roman overlords.

The other faction, the Herodians, advocated pragmatic collaboration with the Romans. They get only one other mention in the gospels, and we don’t know much about them; but their name implies sympathy with a line of violent and irreligious puppet kings who ruled in Judea at Rome’s behest, and who were generally despised by pious, nationalistic Jews. That these two opposing factions are in cahoots gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘strange bedfellows’.

They begin their interview with Jesus by lathering on the flattery: ‘You are so sincere, Jesus; you truly teach God’s way…’   Jesus is thinking, ‘Blah, blah, blah!’ Then they pop the trick question. “Is it lawful to pay the tax to the emperor?’

It doesn’t take a mind reader to figure out what they are up to. Jesus knows that if he says, ‘Yes, we should pay the tax,” the popular base that resonates with his anti-imperial preaching will complain that he flip-flopped and gave into the special interests; in the next election they’ll vote for Ralph Nader. If he says, ‘No, we must not pay the tax,’ Bill O’Reilly will label him a dupe of the radical peace movement, and the NSA will step up the monitoring of his library books.

Give one answer, and your followers abandon you. Give the other, and the authorities have proof that you are a garden variety insurrectionist and will deal with you by the usual means. This Gruesome Twosome appears to have Jesus over a barrel.

Jesus asks to see the denarius used to pay the tax. He inquires about the image stamped on the little silver coin. They tell him that it is the emperor’s. Jesus says, “Well, then give him what’s his, and give God what’s God’s.”

Apparently this is a great answer. We are told that the Pharisees and Herodians heard it and went away amazed. But why? What were they amazed about? What did they make of Jesus’ reply? What did it mean exactly? What did they report to the party bosses back at headquarters?   Had they won? Had they lost? Is it clear to you what actually happened? It isn’t clear to me!

Once at an ordination I was participating in, a famous preacher gave a mesmerizing sermon that left everyone in the sanctuary breathless. Afterwards, in the reception line, a couple of colleagues sidled up to me and said, “Wasn’t she amazing?” I allowed that yes, indeed, she was. Then one of them whispered, “But what did she say, exactly?” I had absolutely no idea, and no one else did either, as it turned out. A great turn of phrase is worth a lot in my book, but it doesn’t always say anything.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ It’s got a nice Zen-ish ring to it. But what does it mean? And what precisely are we to do with it?

Some theologians think that Jesus was talking about two distinct realms of human life—the secular and religious, or maybe what we call church and state—and telling us that we are citizens of both, one foot planted in each. God sanctions earthly government and requires our loyalty to it as long as it is godly; but when it is ungodly, or when it demands from us the absolute allegiance that pertains only to God, we must always give precedence to God’s claim on us, or risk idolatry.

Now, if that is what Jesus meant, it seems simple enough. If you think, for example, that the war in Iraq was an unjust imperial project; and if, after it took more than 2,000 American lives, untold Iraqi lives, and cost billions a day, you are more persuaded than ever in your Christian conscience and in your judgment as a citizen that preemptive war is just plain wrong, then you should not fork over the taxes that pay for it if you should be asked to support such an immoral misadventure again. Right?

On the other hand, some of you might think, taxes also pay for public education and other things that are needed and good, and one would not want to harm those interests by refusing to pay. Others might wonder, what will happen to me if I withhold my taxes? And wouldn’t it be a futile gesture? Would it really stop a war? And still others of us might say, I can’t think about this right now, I have a meeting.

Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. What does that mean? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

Another line of interpretation says that when Jesus told the ambassadors to give to Caesar what belongs to him, he was being facetious: the overarching truth is that nothing belongs to Caesar. Everything is God’s, and claims by the Empire to possess and control its subjects with ultimacy—claims implicit in the coin’s inscription identifying Caesar as divine—are simply blasphemous.

This interpretation has given rise to various and sometimes contradictory approaches to Christian civic life. One place to which it has led is to withdrawal from the world. This is the separatist, or sectarian, impulse exemplified by the internal exile that evangelical Christians in this country once imposed on themselves—before they came to love power, that is—as the most faithful way to be a disciple in a lost and corrupt world. It is still what many religious home-schoolers believe. Minimize your involvement lest you be tainted by the idolatry of the State.

But even sectarians make compromises. Maybe you don’t run for the local town council or school board, maybe you don’t even vote, but if the government should ever move to take away your church’s tax exemption, I’m guessing you will get on the horn and call your Congressperson, or hire an attorney and use the courts for redress.

Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. What does that mean? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

In most cases, using this passage to describe a reasoned approach to the question of the Christian citizen’s relationship to government ends up generating all sorts of complications. It’s no wonder that another typical line of interpretation gives up trying to relate this story to politics, citizenship and government altogether. Instead the story becomes a stewardship message: Give Uncle Sam what belongs to Uncle Sam, it says, but don’t forget also to give St. Polycarp by the Pool what belongs to St Polycarp by the Pool—pay your dues to your country and to your church! Render unto Caesar…

So, what did Jesus really mean?

I have no idea. And I doubt that all the Pharisees and Herodians back at headquarters did either. Whatever they understood by it, it did not convert them on the spot; it did not deter them from further confrontation with Jesus; it did not ensure him the lasting loyalty of his followers either, and it did not win him the mercy of Pontius Pilate. Whatever Jesus meant, he did not mean to save his life.

Now, we all know that this is not the only place in the scriptures where Jesus is deliberately cryptic. It isn’t the only story in which we hear that people walk away amazed, even though we are not quite sure what that amazement was about. It’s not the only instance in which the theory we spin from what Jesus says seems at first so straightforward, and then turns out not to be. Not the first time that we are left to work out the implications for ourselves, and to discover the unsettling truth that faithful disciples can and do work them out in different and even conflicting ways. It isn’t the only example of Jesus’ resistance to cooptation and manipulation.

And I think that it is in elusive moments like this one that Jesus, whom Christians believe is ‘God with us’, most reminds me of the God who is not with us in any ordinary sense, but is the Hidden One whose ways are not our ways, and who is under no compulsion to explain or justify anything at all to mortals.

This is the part of God’s biblical character that seems most forbidding to us, this absence, this stubborn silence. Many of us are impatient with Zen-like utterances. We don’t want a God that slips eternally through our fingers. But in some ways it is only this hidden, cryptic, elusive and unknown God that you can really trust to have your best interests at heart.

When by divine reticence God lets us know that God is not who we think God is; when God won’t give us a straight answer to a simple question; when God amazes us without letting on what it’s really all about, God is doing human beings a huge favor.

Because like Moses, we keep asking for clarity. We keep demanding the truth about God. We want the picture sketched out. Put the instruction manual in our hand, we pray—tell us plainly who you are, what you want, and how, precisely, we should regulate our social, political and ecclesial lives according to the gospel. But the saving grace that we are granted instead of all this clarity is simply that we are finite, partial and contingent. We want it all, but the gift and blessing we are given is to see only a little light, as we peer out from the cleft in the rock where God has thoughtfully stashed us.

Never in this life to know everything is not a cause for sadness and frustration. Not to know everything is a cause for gratitude and praise, because, by glimpsing only God’s back, we are shielded not only from a blast of full frontal glory we could not possibly endure, but we are shielded also from pride—and from the violence and contempt that always go with it. If we can be content to see only snatches of truth, if we can resist claiming more about God’s being and God’s intentions than any finite human can truly claim, we may, by God’s grace, be les likely to set ourselves up in God’s place, with all the dreadful, familiar consequences that such self-delusion always entails.

I once had student who had a great crisis of faith and left the seminary, abandoning all thought of a pastoral calling. He had many reasons why this was a good thing to do. Mostly it was a move prompted by a need for intellectual, theological and moral purity. He did not think he could be a pastor with complete integrity; he had mixed motives, his ego was untamed, he wasn’t sure that he had enough faith, or faith of the right quality. His departure seemed a sad waste to me, since no one accepts this calling with complete integrity, without a mixed motive or a doubtful cloud on the horizon of the heart. If complete personal coherence were a qualification for ministry, there would be no one serving. But one thing he said has stayed with me, and it challenges me all the time. He said, ‘I don’t know how I can get up and preach to people every Sunday as if I knew what God wants. I am afraid to speak as if I actually knew what God is saying.’

Today in our nation a large number of Christian voices are not, apparently, the least bit perplexed or stymied by Jesus or by the God of Jesus. They seem to know precisely what God means and exactly how to practice what Jesus preaches. They are often invited to tell our pluralistic nation all about it on TV. They are happy to do so. You have seen and heard them. They seem unafraid that they may be presuming too much, overreaching. No shadow of doubt or complexity haunts them.

I do not wish to judge anyone’s faith. I am in fact eager for the good news about what God is doing for the world in Christ to be heard in the street and on the airwaves. I myself hope always to speak with joyful confidence about the good news, never being ashamed of the gospel. But I also pray every day, for me and for all of us, that I might be protected from myself, from my prideful need to know it all, my anxious need to control even God, my presumption and overreaching in speaking in God’s stead—and from the violence and contempt that lurk in the shadow of such self-delusion.

I want to be protected from myself by the very God who refuses so wisely to be fully known, so that from the cleft in the rock where the hidden God has so compassionately hidden me, I may tell the amazing story of what I do not know, as well as the wondrous story of what I do know—and do so with humility of speech, with modesty of exhortation, with joy in my human limitations too many to count, and with a reverent and awe-struck heart before the One whose Holy Name cannot be pronounced, but whose seen and unseen love is everlasting.

I invite us all to the do the same.

The One Down God: Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus















TEXT: Matthew 13:13-17

Not every story about Jesus made it into the gospels. And not all the gospels tell the same stories. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary only in the gospel of Luke. Jesus turns water into wine only in John. And only Mark ends his account of the resurrection on a note of fear. Different communities prized different stories. So when a story shows up in all four gospels, you know it represents an early Christian memory that everybody thought was too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Jesus’ baptism is one of those stories.

We always read it at the start of the Epiphany season between Christmas and Lent. It’s a season of insight and revelation, when hidden things are made plain. All the gospel passages assigned to Epiphany’s Sundays shed a little light on the mystery of who Jesus is. As we watch him speak and act in these stories, our picture of him clarifies, and we catch glimpses in him of who God is and what God is up to in the world.

And sure enough, in Matthew’s version of the baptism story, we get a big revelation about who Jesus is. It comes right after Jesus wades out of the Jordan. The heavens open, the Spirit alights, and a voice declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.’

But we also learn a little more about who God is and what God wills. There’s no thunderclap, bright light, descending bird, or James Earl Jones voice accompanying this revelation, however. To see it, we have to go back to the flustered conversation John has with Jesus in the opening lines. Did you notice it?

Jesus presents himself for baptism, but John doesn’t seem pleased. He doesn’t say, “Good morning! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He says, “I know who you are. Please go away.” He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. “Me?” he says. “You want me to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!”

Why does John try to keep Jesus out of the Jordan?

The clue is in the kind of baptism John was offering. John was baptizing ‘for repentance.’ He believed the messiah had come. That’s why he’s preaching a message of urgent change. And, we read, crowds of people were coming to him, ready to repent of their sins, change their lives, and receive the appointed one.

They symbolized their willingness to change by immersing themselves in the river. They washed away their sins, they sloughed off their old lives, they left all that sorrow, hurt, and regret in the Jordan, and went away to live clean in the new age that was already dawning.

And now, here is that new age in person—Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah, the sinless one, God’s chosen person. But if that’s who he is, what’s he doing here lined up with sinners? Why is he asking for a washing? Isn’t he already clean? Besides (and here’s a second clue to the revelation), isn’t it humiliating for someone ‘high up’ like Jesus to be baptized by someone ‘down low’ like John?

John is the opening act, not the main event. The understudy, not the lead. The bridesmaid, not the bride. So how can an inferior baptize a superior? That’s not the way the world is arranged. You know that if you watch Downton Abbey.

‘Why you?’ John wants to know. ‘And why me?’

“Because,” Jesus answers, “in this way we do God’s will.” In this way everyone sees what God is up to. And what God is like. I go down in the river below you. You stand above me. You go one up. I go one down.

Ah! The revelation dawns. We know from the voice that speaks after the baptism that Jesus is God’s dear Son. But it’s when he submits to the baptism in the first place that we discover what kind of Son this Son of God is.

Who and what is the Son of God? He is one down, immersed in the river of human frailty and sin, turgid with tears and suffering, malice, carelessness, indifference, failure, and endless regret.

Why is God pleased with him? Because he gets into that water with us, side by side.

“Me, baptize you? God forbid,” says John. “You’re the messiah, the big shot of God. You should baptize me.”

“God forbid,” say all of us who spend most of our lives doing everything we know how to get ahead, climb the ladder, be somebody, go one up.

“God forbid,” say we all, who fear being one down like we fear quicksand and the dark.

“God forbid,” says everyone who expects their god to act like one and lord it over the cosmos.

“No,” Jesus says, “we’ll do things God’s way. I’ll go down. With you. Where you are. In the deep where all your hard stuff is swirling around. Where there’s the danger you could drown, danger you could get lost, danger you could succumb to your despair. That’s where I’ll go, a sibling in your own flesh. That’s where I’ll always be. That’s how you’ll know that God is not against you. That’s how you’ll know you’re not alone.”

And so, Matthew’s story says, John consented, and Jesus was baptized.

There’s another story in another gospel that sounds a lot like this one. We read it on Maundy Thursday. Jesus gets up from the table, pours water into a basin, and wraps a towel around his waist. Then, on his knees, he moves from one foot to the next, washing the dirt away.

He comes to Peter. Peter recoils. He tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. “Wash me? Not you! Get up! You’ll never wash my feet.”

Peter’s frantic with embarrassment. Jesus is the Teacher, the Lord. Peter is the follower, the idiot disciple. This isn’t proper. It should be the other way around. Peter watches Downton, too.

But Jesus says to him, “If I don’t wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” If you don’t let me serve you, you won’t know me, or God. If you insist on proprieties, you’ll miss the gospel. If I don’t kneel before you, you may never know the converting grace of love.

And so, the story says Peter consented and let Jesus wash him.

‘The King and I’ is an old, dated movie. I’m showing my age just by mentioning it. And you’re showing yours if you remember it. But there’s a scene in that movie in which Anna, the English governess of the Siamese king’s children, learns the protocol for being in the royal presence. No one’s head must ever be higher than the king’s. If he’s in the room and you’re taller than he is, you have to stoop or lower your head so that his remains higher.

The king enters the room. Anna lowers her head. Then playfully—but also to show that he can—he lowers his. She lowers hers again. He stoops down. She stoops even lower. Finally he drops to his knees, and she has to go flat out on the floor. The point is made.

But now imagine that scene the other way around. Imagine a completely new protocol—the king has to go one down. No one’s head can be lower than his. He’s the one who ends up prostrate before the governess.

This is Jesus.

And this is his God.

Over the centuries, a great many Christians have been embarrassed by this revelation, put off and dismayed by a God who stands in the sinners’ line, who bathes in our messes and kneels at our feet. We’re always trying to turn the one down God into a one up God, and when we do, we justify all sorts of pompous nonsense and bloody mayhem in the name of God’s one up-ness.

But sometimes, some blessed times, we’ve managed to love the one down God. We’ve let ourselves be drawn to the sweetness of Christ’s humility, swept up in his kindness, his refusal to lord it over us, his eyes that look up at us and not down.

The have-nots have never had much trouble loving him, but even some privileged and powerful people have fallen hard for his humble, hidden majesty. And when they have, they’ve found themselves in the Jordan, over their heads in human empathy and solidarity, immersed in a mystifying kind of joy.

I think of Francis of Assisi, the dissolute son of a wealthy merchant. He had an epiphany about the one down-ness of God while he was gazing at the figure of the abandoned Christ on the cross. It took Francis a long time—don’t believe all that medieval nonsense about instantaneous conversions—but eventually he fell in love with the poor and humble Christ. And out of that powerful attraction, he began giving away everything he had, and most of what his father had too.

This profligacy did not endear him to his proud and influential father, who was apoplectic at the sight of his privileged son one down among the leprous poor. But Francis was smitten by them. He ended up a beggar among the beggars, a disowned and displaced man. He waded into the Jordan with Jesus and never looked back.

Not everyone who’s attracted to the one down Jesus ends up disowned and begging like Francis. His is not the only way. Your heart can be broken open and your life re-humanized by the revelation of God’s humility in all sorts of ways. We each have to find our own path downward, as individual disciples and as a community of disciples. But one thing is true for everybody—if we feel even the slightest attraction to the one down God, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves in some discomfort, torn between the life we have now and the joy we sense is waiting for us under the river with him.

I once had a testy discussion with a woman new to our church about the foot-washing that was part of our Maundy Thursday service. She was aghast at the thought of it. “Why do you do such a weird, uncomfortable thing in this day and age?” she wanted to know. “We don’t wear sandals. Our feet don’t get dirty and need washing like they did in Jesus’ day.” Apparently she’d never distributed clean socks to homeless people. When she said ‘our feet’ she meant the clean healthy feet of people like her. “Furthermore,” she declared, “foot-washing is unhygienic, awkward, servile, and embarrassing.”

I said, “Your point?”

She said, ‘Well, all I know is you’re not touching my feet.’

But she surprised me. And maybe herself. She showed up, got her feet washed, and washed other people’s feet, too. Later, she confessed to a deacon that she’d wept when one of the oldest members of the congregation got down on his knees kind of creakily to dry her feet. She also confessed she’d gotten a pedicure earlier in the day. I guess foot-washing is more tolerable if your feet look good. I guess you can go one down as long as your feet are still one up.

But I’m not knocking her, believe me. It wasn’t a small thing for her to dip her beautifully lacquered toes into the Jordan with Jesus. Even a faint light in a great darkness is light. Even a slight unveiling can illumine the world, and maybe save it.

It was something big, her timid embrace of the distinguishing mark of a disciple: kneeling, one down. It was something, her beginner’s acceptance of the inescapable paradox of Christian faith: down is glory, lowliness is joy, embarrassment is glory. It was something, that start, that little falling in love, that little baptism, that epiphany.

And on this day of Jesus’ baptism, I wish something like that for us all.

‘Do This’ [Luke 22:7-23]

dark bread on white

The night of the last supper, all was not well among Jesus’ disciples. Everyone was on edge. They all saw the handwriting on the wall—soldiers and swords, crosses and nails. One of them had already sold Jesus to the authorities. And Peter was boasting he’d be brave and follow Jesus, even if it meant certain death. Every time he said it, eyes rolled. It was Peter, after all. But they were all off kilter, scared and queasy. None of them felt much like eating.

The Bible says Jesus was aware of their fear and confusion. He loved them. He knew their hearts were in the right place, but he also knew he’d end up alone. They were so frail.

As was he. He would have given anything to escape what was coming, and in prayer he begged God that it might pass him by. The Bible says fear ran down his face like drops of bloody sweat. He had seen crucifixions. He could imagine his.

The only difference between Jesus and his disciples was that when the time came, he didn’t run. But that doesn’t mean he welcomed his fate. He didn’t feel much like eating either.

But that’s what they did. On the night Jesus was betrayed, they shared a meal. They gathered at a table. Because that’s what they’d always done. A large part of their three years together was spent at tables.

In Jesus’ ministry, the table was where things got real—eating together, they began to understand that God’s love for them was full of mercy, no matter who they were or what they’d done. There they were, saint and sinner, rich and poor, all welcome to eat.

The table was where truth got told—Jesus would tell you stories about invited guests who were too important and preoccupied to come to a king’s banquet, so the riff-raff took their places, going into the kingdom ahead of the privileged and powerful. And so the last are first.

The table was where the vision of Jesus’ movement got spelled out in object lessons of service and humility. Jesus on his knees with a towel around his waist, dragging a bowl of water from foot to foot, washing his disciples clean. ‘Servants,’ he told them at that table, ‘are not greater than their master. What I have done for you, now do for each other.’

The table was where pardon was given—to a sinful woman who could not stop bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to an odious little tax collector who’d climbed down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus to a meal in his home.

At table with Jesus it somehow felt possible for hard things to get better, and lost things to be found. At table with him, you could imagine a time when you would be able to forgive just about anything.

And so that queasy night they ate with him. And while they were at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’

The bread, his broken body. A sign of broken dreams, broken promises, broken hearts. A sign of mercy and presence to show us that in things that break, God is there.

‘Take, eat, all of you. Here is frailty made blessing,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And after the supper was over, he took a cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, drink, all of you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for the pardon of sins.’ Medicine for what ails you. And a covenant, a promise that we can begin again. And we will.

’Take, drink, all of you. Healing and the dawn of a new day,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And then he said to them, ‘Do this.’

Do this. To remember me.

Do this, and I am with you.

Do this when you’re broken. Do this when you sin. Do this when you get sinned against. Do this when you’re afraid. Do this when you just can’t believe the way hard things have dropped into your life uninvited. Do this when you disagree and fear you won’t find common cause or a clear way forward. Do this when you want good company, when you don’t want to be alone. Do this when you’re joyous and want to multiply your joys. Do this when you’re grateful and want to taste again the goodness of the Lord who’s been so good to you.

Do this. Come to the table. Sit down. Eat and drink.

And so on that awful night they did.

Now, if I were making this story up, I’d tell you that after eating with Jesus, all the disciples got up from the table, repentant, converted, faithful and brave. I’d tell you they were loyal, loving Jesus and each other with a love that could withstand anything. I’d report that they didn’t abandon him, but were with him to the end.

But ‘m not making this up.  And that meal didn’t make the weak strong, or cowards brave. It didn’t give Peter a personality transplant or any of them more wisdom than they had when they first sat down, which was pretty much zero. They shared with Jesus a meal of love and memory; a meal whose heavenly food and intimate company was all they should’ve needed to find a faith nothing could shake. But it wasn’t. They went out that night and failed him, and he went to his death alone.

After Jesus rose from the dead, they ate together again. At Emmaus he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, just as he did that last supper. And just as on that night, they were still who they were—betrayers, deniers, deserters, willing spirits with weak flesh.

In Galilee, he grilled fish and bread for them, and they ate breakfast in the cool dawn air by the lake. And just as on that last night, he fed Peter, who had sworn just two days before that he did not know and had never met his tender Lord. The table isn’t magic. But it is necessary. We have to eat. Jesus knows we always have to eat.

Jesus and his disciples ate together many times after his rising. And after he ascended to heaven, they keep on eating with him in the Spirit, in the church, in a holy communion.

For two thousand years Jesus has been eating and drinking with disciples like us whose hearts are in the right place but whose lives are still kind of a mess. Two thousand years of ‘doing this,’ and we’re still suffering the small cuts and deep gashes of our human frailty. It hurts. The damage is real. There’s no denying the pain or evading the consequences. And still he comes to us. Still he says, ‘Sit down. Eat and drink. You, just as you are. You, just as I find you. Come. Do this. Do it again.’

What matters to him, it seems, is what’s real. What matters is that we are who we are. That we don’t hide our wounds in the dark where no light can reach them for healing. What matters to him is not that we have the right answers or the right opinions, or even the best behaviors, but that we do this. That we come to the table, come together, come as we are, and do it again and again and again.

It might take us another two thousand years to fully grasp the table’s lessons, two thousand more to perceive the table’s truths, two thousand more to be transfixed by its mercy, transformed by its grace, caught up in its dynamics of self-gift and resurrecting love. But he is patient.

And in the end—who knows?—it may be that becoming perfect, or even becoming ‘better persons,’ isn’t the most important thing. Maybe just being together is. Maybe just eating and drinking is. Maybe just the fact that he is with us is enough. All he asks is that we don’t stay away because of our weaknesses, and that we don’t prevent others from coming because of theirs. ‘Do this,’ is all he says, ‘even when you don’t feel much like eating.’

Anchor your hearts here, he commands us. In bread and cup. At a table. And so we do. For as long as we meet here again and again, as long as we are together giving thanks for the amazing grace that so willingly embraces the poverty and beauty of our hearts, as long as we are sharing the meal of life, all will be well, even when it isn’t, he is so kind.

So come to the table today, lay it all out, everything you have—your emotions and questions, your strengths and weaknesses, your beauty and your struggle, your joy and praise and thanksgiving. Here with each other and with him, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, you will taste and believe again, like never before, the trustworthy Word of the Lord—that as many times as we stumble, we’ll be helped up; as many times as we fail, we’ll learn and grow; whenever we sin, we’ll be pardoned; when we’re sinned against, we’ll find a way to offer pardon; when we’re full of joy, our joys will multiply. And when we die, we’ll rise.

Do this, our Brother said.

Sit down. Eat. Remember me.

Do this.

I am with you always.

Do this.

Again and again.

Until I come.

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman [Exodus 1:7-2:10]


Image: Pharoah’s Daughter Rescues Moses from the River–Synagogue Dura-Europos

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you’re clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you’ve chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you’ve ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not one more step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will rise: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he tossed in the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which Pharaoh’s army is arrayed against us, no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

Reflection on the Healing of a Blind Man [Mark 8:22-25]

ImageI once had the privilege of listening to a conversation among blind Christians who were discussing the healings Jesus performed for blind men. Some wanted to be those blind men. They said they would jump at the chance to see the world they had never seen.

Others disagreed. They would not ask for sight, or accept it if it were offered to them. They did not feel deprived because they could not see; they related to the world in ways that were full and good, not in spite of being blind, but because they were blind.

Still others weren’t sure how they felt about those healing miracles. Being able to see would be wonderful, but having to leave blind culture behind would not.

But there were two things they all agreed on:

First, they didn’t like that the healing of the blind is often preached as a metaphor for coming to insight out of ignorance, or crossing from moral darkness into the light of faith, as if to say that being blind is something God thinks is bad. In fact, one of them said he was permanently miffed at the prophets, the evangelists, and Jesus himself, whom he otherwise loved, for using the bestowal of sight to the blind as a way of talking about the kingdom of God, implying that it’s a place where there ought not be any blind people, or people with disabilities of any kind.

Now, I have had blind parishioners and students who used blindness as this kind of metaphor themselves. They were not the least bit put off by it; which leaves those of us who are sighted with a challenge when we try to be respectful both to the text and to metaphor and to real live people whose experience includes blindness, but who, like all human beings, do not agree with each other about what being respectful about all this means. But this group agreed that the stories were irritating to them.

The second thing they all agreed on was that they liked these stories anyway. The espcially loved the chutzpah of the blind man in one of the gospels, the one we call ‘the man born blind,’ who sticks it to the authorities after his sight is restored, taunting them for being so stupid when they were supposed to be so smart. And they loved the enthusiasm and determination of Bartimaeus, who was no wallflower, but hollered and hollered and ran to Jesus when Jesus called his name.

And the thing they loved most in this story was that Jesus touches the man and touches him a lot—taking his hand, guiding him away from the village, touching his eyes not once but twice, as a kind of booster shot, since the healing power didn’t completely succeed the first time.

They liked the way Jesus touched the man as if Jesus knew how critical touch is to a blind person, that it’s one of the main connectors between a blind person and her world. The tactile way. The human and bodily way. The sacramental way.

One of the most thoughtful people in the room was a fellow who had lost his sight as a young man. He told us that the first thing that happened to him after he started venturing into the world as a blind person was that people seemed afraid to be near him. They moved away, in part to give him space to maneuver with his red-tipped cane, he assumed, and for which he was grateful. But they always gave him a much wider berth than was actually necessary. And when people did touch him, to assist him across the street, for example, they seemed to push and steer him rather than guide. Their touch seemed nervous and unsure. Ordinary human touch had suddenly become complicated; he missed its ease and naturalness. He felt a loss of a small fraction of his humanity in this. He didn’t want to be healed in his eyes, but his diminished spirit could have used some care.

Perhaps you and I devoutly wish for healing from a disability, or from cancer, or from a mental illness. Perhaps we would love Jesus to march right up to us and cast out our demons, settle our stomachs, pacify our angry friends and relations, convert our politicians, and pay our bills. Or maybe we are at peace with our limitations, at peace with the way of life we have fashioned in spite of and because of our many challenges. Maybe we don’t want or need a change in the status quo so much as we long for more faithfulness, love, courage, and grace to live in and with and through it all. Each of us is different. Each of us frames the question of peace and wholeness and reconciliation differently. Our metaphors for what ails us and humanity everywhere may or may not include blindness.

But here’s one thing most of can agree on:

Our wonderful world is also a world of sorrow. Each of us bears some burden that is sometimes too heavy to carry alone. And being in this flesh, in a body that so keenly bears, feels, and expresses all our longing and pain, one of the ways we receive the well-being we crave is through the reverent touch of another. By not avoiding each other’s deepest need, but by touching it, and making it our own.


Now You Can Begin


The evangelical author Philip Yancey tells a story about one of his college roommates, a German named Reiner, who returned to Germany after graduation and began teaching Bible at a camp for people with disabilities. Using his college class notes, he started giving stirring lectures on the victorious Christian life: “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you already have a victory!  A full and victorious life!” All this he announced energetically to a roomful of paraplegics and young people with cerebral palsy.

Reiner had never addressed a group of people lacking motor control. He found it disconcerting. What he didn’t know was that the campers found listening to him equally disconcerting. Some complained to the camp director that they couldn’t make any sense out of what he was saying. “Well, tell him!” she replied.

One woman did. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun in a room without windows,” she told him. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, overcoming, victory over our circumstances. That has nothing to do with us.”

Reiner was crushed. He was also angry. The message seemed clear enough to him – it was biblical, it was pure St Paul, it was why he loved the Lord. He thought about telling them that they lacked faith, that they needed to love Christ more so that they could triumph over adversity.

Instead, by some grace, he spent the night praying.

In the morning he went to class and told them, “I don’t know what to say. If I can’t preach victory, I don’t know what to preach. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. I just don’t understand.” Then he just stood there in front of the class, hung his head and was silent for a long time.

After a while, the woman who had confronted him spoke up from the back of the room. “Okay. Now we understand you. Now we’re ready to listen. Now we can begin.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Some commentators say he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, that he represents wimpy “closeted” early Christians who feared social ostracism. Others say that it’s because in John’s gospel, night is usually a metaphor for ignorance and confusion.

But it could be simply because Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Devout Pharisees often set the night aside for Bible study. The psalms say that our hearts instruct us by night, that the righteous meditate on God on their beds. This prominent Pharisee is accustomed to nightly study, and on this night, the subject of his study is Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t make things easy for him. He rebuffs Nicodemus’ well-meaning offer of faith based on signs. Then he shocks his common sense with talk about a new begetting from above, ignoring his protest that starting over is impossible, especially once you’ve gotten to be of a certain age. Finally, Jesus unnerves him with a description of the Spirit-led life—an anarchy of breath and wind and energies unseen.

By the time Jesus is finished with him, Nicodemus is reduced to futility. All he can muster is a helpless “I don’t understand…”  before he hangs his head and keeps still.

If Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn, Jesus sees to it that no ordinary learning takes place. He aims not to help Nicodemus understand, but to make him begin at the beginning; not to help him know, but to reduce him to unknowing, to drive him into a wilderness of silence, a desert of humility and obedience.

Nicodemus hails from a constituency that knows things—the Law, the oral traditions, the customs, the prophets, the prophecies. “Rabbi, we know,” he says to Jesus. “We know who you are, we know what you do.”

But  Jesus doesn’t care about what Nicodemus knows. He cares about Nicodemus’ life. He wants to save it, and to do that, he first has to undermine it, undermine the sensible, reasoned thing that passes for a good and virtuous life. And at the end, when all Nicodemus can do is throw up his hands and keep still, Jesus knows he has him.

Nicodemus lives in everyone who has ever come up against the limits of reason in the death of a child, in the powerlessness of addiction, in the panic that no one will ever love us the way we want or deserve to be loved, in the derailment of a dream or a career or a relationship, in the failure of prayer, in the blank dullness of depression, in despair over the human condition, in the world’s greed and violence that spirals and builds with no end in sight, in the futility of our efforts to know and love and improve ourselves, and to control and change the world, in the face of ineluctable death.

Nicodemus lives in all who have come to the end of our convictions and assumptions, our denominational identities, our doctrines, our pictures of God, our wisdom or skill or courage or knowledge or self-confidence; who have hit that limit hard, head-on, and finally thrown up our hands in defeat in the face of implacable mysteries; in all of us who have ever hung our heads in humility and surrender, who have ever just stood there as if obeying something, someone immensely powerful; stood there long enough, humanly enough, nakedly enough to finally hear a voice speak out of the silence and redeem us, saying “Now you are ready. Now you can begin.”

He lives in all of us who, reduced to the futility of our ignorance each day, begin again each day, are born from above again each day, and who are, by  grace, becoming every day what we practice, while the Spirit moves where it will in the world. Moves in this world God so loved that God sent a beloved Child, not to condemn, not to condemn, but to save.

Send Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31]


Museum of Romanesque Art, Barcelona. Wall painting from San Clemente, Tahull (Lléida).

Several years ago, I was attending church in a well-to-do neighborhood of Boston. One Sunday, the deacons announced a new policy to deal with beggars who showed up at the office looking for handouts. They would no longer give out small amounts of cash. Instead, they would give out vouchers good for groceries at local supermarkets. They were very clear, however, that the vouchers would not be valid for alcohol, lottery tickets, or tobacco.

At coffee hour, people spoke approvingly of this decision. Everybody knew that for years the church’s money had been ending up in the cash register of Marty’s Liquors. Nobody wanted the church to be an “enabler,” but they didn’t want to turn people away empty-handed either. Grocery vouchers seemed like a good way to help without doing harm.

Now, I was feeling peevish that morning, not in control of my mood or my mouth. Thus it was that I asked what the deacons would do if a beggar didn’t want to buy groceries, but wanted to rent a DVD of “The Sound of Music,” or maybe take a Duck Tour of Boston, or buy a few carnations to brighten the corner where he lives?

This was not well-received, and the conversation went downhill fast. I was to blame, of course. It was an unfair thing to say, even for someone feeling peevish and looking to make a point. Everyone, including me, knows that beggars who show up at church doorsteps are not usually looking to spend an evening with Julie Andrews. Many are homeless, drifters, active alcoholics, mentally-ill. Not a few are con artists who give you a long detailed spiel about their woes. If you were to give them all money, sooner or later you’d get taken for an expensive ride, or you’d do real harm. And if word got out on the street that St. Polycarp-by-the-Pool was dispensing cold cash from the front office, it could even get dangerous.

So it’s no surprise that most churches have adopted a no-cash- approach to helping people who wander in from the street. The voucher plan was prudent. It was plain old good stewardship, for us and for them. It also gave the deacons a warm feeling. One deacon remarked that the church should be proud that our vouchers would keep street people from guzzling or gambling, and get them to eat a healthy meal for a change. I valued my life and didn’t say out loud what I was thinking about that—namely, that if the voucher plan was really aimed at getting street people to eat, say, more leafy green vegetables, then we should have put red meat on the exclusion list along with the booze, the scratch tickets, and the smokes.

Vouchers? Okay, fine. It makes a certain sense. But did we need to be so tickled about it? Why were we congratulating ourselves? Wasn’t it enough that we were the ones who had the wherewithal? The ones who got to stake out the ethical territory? The ones who could designate the proper objects of our compassion and choose the precise terms of our generosity? Wasn’t it enough that we were in a position to shape other people’s morality?

You’d think that upon announcing the voucher plan, we all would have had the good grace to feel a little embarrassed. You’d think that we would have reminded ourselves that the proper posture for giving someone a food voucher is not on your high horse, but on your knees.


Lazarus was a beggar who could have used a voucher. He was starving, lusting after Dives’ garbage. We don’t know much about him; the parable lacks the sort of data people like to have when deciding whether and how to help. We do know his name (he is the only character in Jesus’ parables to be given one), but we don’t know how he ended up starving at the rich man’s door. We don’t know if he was one of the ‘deserving’ poor, or whether he’d been a lazy, drug-addicted oaf, or simply peevish and ill-tempered like me. We don’t know whether he cornered the rich man every time he left the house to pelt him with pathetic stories of woe, or whether he just lay there, mute, day after day. All we know is that he was at the gate, open-sored, hungry, and visible.

And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.

We don’t have much information about the rich man either. Did he invite friends over to laugh and point at Lazarus, have his goons lean on the beggar to scare him off, gag at the sight of dogs licking his sores? We don’t know if he was a cold fellow who habitually averted his eyes from unpleasantness, or a self-preoccupied man who never saw the beggar; or if he did notice him, said an honest prayer for a sorry case, but stuck to his policy of never giving cash to street people, for all the high-minded reasons those deacons had decided on vouchers. We know only that he was rich, dressed well, ate well, and enjoyed his confortable life.

And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.

If you’ve read the gospels half-awake, you aren’t surprised by that reversal. Jesus is unnervingly repetitious about the mortal risks the wealthy run—so much so that two chapters later, the disciples get exasperated with him: “But (if what you say is true), Lord, how can anyone be saved?” It’s a familiar theme with an expected twist.

Yet there’s something in this story of reversal that has always struck me as odd. When the rich man wakes up in Hades, he is up to his neck in flames, but he doesn’t seem to realize that his new situation is for real and for good. He doesn’t seem to grasp that there is no way out, even for a Somebody like him.

Of course it’s not lost on him that he’s suffering, and that his wealth and Egyptian cotton underwear have been shot to hell. No doubt he’s sorry now that he failed to do right by Lazarus in life and would do things differently if he had another chance. But even hellfire has not burned away the capacity for self-delusion that made it easy for him to sin so greatly by omission while he was alive. In the afterlife, he has no wherewithal, but the stubborn residue of wherewithal remains. Privilege clings to him, even in hell.

“Send Lazarus,” he says.

This is not an idle line. It betrays life-long habits of command and control, habits that now make him oddly insensible to the gravity of his situation. He thinks he can still make things happen. He thinks he is still maneuvering in the earthly geography of status, power, wealth, and worth. He now recognizes that Lazarus is a man he should have helped more in life, but even now he wouldn’t trust him with cash. At best he will let Lazarus be his gofer. “Send Lazarus to bring me a drink.”

The rich man may be a damned man, but he is an important damned man who, as a courtesy, out of deference, should be exempt from the unrelenting thirst that so many others have known, exempt from the thirst of the beggar outside the gate.

It doesn’t work, but he isn’t deterred. “Well, then, if you won’t send him over here to me, send him to my kin as a warning.” The rich man believes that even in hell no problem is insoluble if you can just get your best people working on it, or if you have the right connections. God is bound to make an exception for people in the network: it’s one of those perks that money used to buy.

But there is no good news for the rich man. Abraham’s reply is truly terrible: Some outcomes cannot be altered. Some lines cannot be crossed. Things eventually harden. It is too late. There is no return. “Between you and us a great chasm is fixed,” says Father Abraham. Even the progenitor of the faith cuts no ice with a God determined to be just to the poor.

This is a bleak and unforgiving parable, one of the harshest stories in the gospels. It warns us broadly about the moral peril we incur if we ignore the needs of the poor who lie begging at our gates all the time while we go about the business of being and having and doing in a routine of indifference. But it also warns us about the delusion that persists in us even after we have seen the error of our ways and been shown the truth; even after we have acknowledged and acted on our duty of mercy towards others.

It speaks of the stubborn residue of privilege that clings to our egos and produces in our souls a mostly unconscious and unexamined confidence, a confidence that permeates and perverts even good deeds and intentions; a confidence that leads us to assume that because of who we are, we know what’s good for ourselves and for others, we can influence outcomes, we can define and ensure our own and others’ integrity.

The deep chasm in eternity that is fixed between Lazarus and the rich man is a snapshot of the scandalous distance that exists between the poor and the privileged here on earth. But it also depicts the chasm that exists inside each of us—the distance between our unthinking entitlement, condescension and judgment, and the sublime reality and true privilege of simple creaturehood; the distance between thinking of ourselves as self-made and the humility of knowing Who in fact made us, and of owing ourselves completely to that Other; the humility that establishes us in common cause and kinship with every human being and every creature, and makes plausible and possible our ideals of mutuality, love and justice.

There’s no final grace, no last minute reprieve in this parable for the privileged, entitled, self-deluded rich man; but we can hear some good news in it for us, for we are still living and thus still susceptible to a breakthrough. We can still hear Moses and the prophets. We can still listen to Jesus. We can still help each other to love being creatures and to love each other because of our common human condition, and to aspire to nothing more or nothing less.

There is no second chance for the man in the story, but there can be for us. We resemble him more than we know, but the God who makes the sun to shine on the wicked and the benighted as well as on the good and the just is ever-able to illumine our ignorance of our human condition and reveal our creaturehood to us as an unfathomable mercy. From the One who made us, there is courage, grace and healing at every turn, and Jesus promises that it will not be denied to the humble, searching, contrite and broken heart. Our task is to live fully into the calling issued by God from the beginning: to be creatures with our Creator, to be who we are before God and one another, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

To love them as ourselves.

It is hard, but it is possible. We have the Holy Spirit. We have the church’s ancient means of grace—prayer, sacrament, song, service. We have God’s Word. We have each other. And we have today.

And thank God for that, because this sober parable tell us plainly that for us who have the wherewithal for so much good and do not do it, there might be no tomorrow.

Muddling Through


–The Prophet Elisha Cleansing Naaman, Giogio Vasari, 1560

2 Kings 5:1-19

Years ago when I became a seminary administrator, a colleague at another school gave me some advice about dealing with the faculty: “Always remember, faculty members are people; and even when they have Ph. D.’s, publishing records as long as your arm, and noble religious motives, they still tend to act out of simple self-interest. So when you want them to do something, bank on the fact that they’ll invariably ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ If you figure out the answer before you approach them, you’ll go far in this business.” In other words, my job was to outfox self-centered intellectuals bent on advancing their own agendas!

Now, this struck me as pretty cynical, and it didn’t take me long to discover that it was not right: it was only partly right. If people acted only from self-interest all the time, it would indeed be easy to deal with them. But things are more complicated than that. It turns out that not only members of seminary faculties but all of us as well are motivated by a bewildering array of convictions, internal contradictions, needs, and frisky passions, many of which we are unaware of, cannot name, or don’t care to, and some of which, perversely, actually undermine our true self-interest.

Given this maze of self-asserting and self-subverting motivations, sometimes the most you can do as a leader is create conditions in which people can muddle along towards the goal the best they can, intervening only occasionally to keep them on track. Thus will the ragged human convoy of high-minded posturing, insecurity, piqued honor, hurt feelings, good humor, intelligence, and good will eventually wend its way to insight and accomplishment. The trick is not so much to outfox as to outwait.

I could have learned all this a lot sooner just by opening my Bible to the story of Naaman.

Here we have a proud and powerful man making his way towards health, a restorative knowledge of God, and a new understanding of himself; but only by fits and starts. What is in his self-interest is abundantly clear: to find a cure for the disease that threatens his career, his place in human company, his very life. When we see the huge amount of capital he takes with him to Israel, we can only imagine the sums he has already spent on specialists in Aram trying to find a cure, with no results. When the servant girl tells his wife about Elisha, the prophet in Israel, it has the anguished tone of last resort: “If only the master would go to Israel…”

If simple self-interest ruled Naaman, his story would be a lot shorter than it is. He would have gone to Samaria and done exactly as he was told. But since there’s more to human motivation, there’s more to the story.

You heard his rage when the prophet did not come out to him with all the fanfare Naaman thought he deserved. You heard his contempt for the simplicity of the plan, his haughty dismissal of the river Jordan. Where he comes from, the people are better-behaved, rivers course through their channels with power and beauty, and the gods are charming and sophisticated. Never mind that there was no cure for him there; Naaman craves respect even more than he craves health. He is so sure he knows what is right and fitting, so certain of what should happen, that he almost refuses the gift God is preparing to give him.

Almost, but not quite. Because it seems that God really wants him. And God’s mercy will wait him out. When Naaman doesn’t get the flashy respect he thinks is his due, God does not close the door on the offer of health, but lets Naaman go off to vent and strut. No lightning bolt consumes the pagan general in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends to warn him off his temerious display of pique. God abides the tantrum until Naaman rids himself of our common human propensity to work hard against our own good. And when the servants appeal to the general again, when he finally relents and obeys them, we begin to glimpse in him what God has seen all along, a man of faith.

For we’d be wrong if we regarded his healing and conversion as something sudden, a shocking miracle. What God outwaited in the story of Naaman was not just the tantrum he threw when he felt dissed; what God patiently awaited was the fitful progress of a transformation that had been advancing well before Namaan set foot on the soil of Samaria or waded into the puny Jordan.

When, back in his own house, the great warrior stooped to accept advice from women, God’s grace entered that slender opening, germinated in him, and began its wait.

When this loyal Aramean subdued what must have been revulsion at the idea of asking for help from an enemy, the grace of that enemy’s God widened the fissure in his soul a little more, made even more room in his heart for wholeness.

When he gave up his rage, overcame his sense of entitlement, relinquished his sophistication, surrendered to his own servants, and headed humbly for the water, his healing was already well underway.

Long before Naaman waded out into the Jordan, God had already established a pulse of faith in him—an irregular one, perhaps, and weak; but enough of a pulse not to be arrested by his prideful rage. When the mighty Naaman finally decides to give the prophet’s cure a chance, he is already far enough along in his healing that there isn’t a lot more for the disagreeable Jordan to do. All that remains is to go into the water and meet, knee-deep in mercy, the One God who had, unbeknownst to him, engineered all his victories and who had, unbeknownst to him, always presided over his life. Once awash in this revelation, Naaman, “a great man” from the start, becomes God’s man for good, a servant of the Living One.

Naaman has come a long, ragged way. The man who derided the unappealing river and the bush league prophets of Israel now goes home with mule-packs full of Israel’s soil, so that back in Aram he may spread it our, kneel down on it, and worship God on holy ground.

Now, I would be deceiving you if I told you that this is the end of his story. But while we live, healing is always a work in progress, our lives are always unfolding, new afflictions come at us from the outside and eat away at us from within; and the great tangle of passions, weaknesses, desires, hopes and needs that impel us raggedly through this life never quits threatening to derail us. Naaman’s skin will be, by God’s mercy, new as a boy’s forever; but the integrity of his heart, the depth of his faith, the wholesome trajectory of his life? Well, that’s another story.

He’s come a long way, but for him and for us there is always an iffy road ahead. We will always be traveling back and forth from Aram to Samaria, from our self-subverting passions to liberation in the humble trickle of pardon and healing. We will always be tempted to spurn simple mercy in favor of some other more sophisticated solution to our basic brokenness. Our progress from self-subversion to graced immersion will always be ragged, full of fits and starts.

But the story of Naaman instructs us not to worry too much about our one-step-forward, two-steps-back advance on wholeness. There is such a thing as “progress enough for now.” God does not expect even the miraculously-cured Naaman be mature in faith completely and all at once. I think that’s why the prophet Elisha, who is usually very jealous of Yahweh’s prerogatives, does not hold Naaman to the highest standards after his conversion.

You heard their exchange: Naaman is sensitive to the fact that in serving his king back home, he may need every now and then, for ceremony’s sake, to go with him and pay respects to the old gods in the House of Rimmon. And so he asks for the prophets’ blessing on this unavoidable compromise.

Elisha could have invoked the first commandment and insisted on a no-compromise-with-idols policy. But he doesn’t. It’s almost as if God takes whatever God can get. Given the erratic character of our human procession toward wholeness and some of the deadly pitfalls lining the road, even the God who demands that we put “no other gods before him” is not as touchy as we think about a now-and-then concession to the status quo.

Progress enough for now. Maybe that’s the good news in this story for us, especially those of us who expect so much of ourselves that we become enraged with others when they fall short. After all, Naaman is no stranger to us. If we are honest, we see in ourselves all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors in this story: desperate need, consuming self-importance, offense-taking and feeling dissed, tantrum-throwing, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, eating crow, giving in — and we’ve all secretly hoped to be permitted a few of our necessary compromises. So to watch God leave Naaman alone while never leaving his side is a huge relief. It is also a strong antidote to perfectionism, a bracing reproach to our thousand-and-one daily judgmental impulses, a real cause for gratitude and praise.

God outwaits us while in everyday weakness our healing begins. While we futz around in life, God locates the fissures of possibility in the heaped debris of our fear and vented spleens. God infuses them with tender mercies, and in spite of ourselves we slowly learn to breathe the Spirit’s air. We are not all led to God by miracles, but we are all led to God by grace.

We will never approach the river of wholeness except “the best we can,” which is not that great all the time, Nonetheless, we are going to that river, whatever the reason or unreason that moves us. We may be just muddling through, making progress in fits and starts, but we are nonetheless being drawn inexorably into the healing waters of God by hidden grace. And we are going to wade right in.

Knee-deep in unaccountable love, we are going to meet the One who gives us all our ragged victories and is sovereign over all our lives. And then we are going to get up and go back to our countries healed and grateful, carrying within us the holy ground of faith, the sacred soil of hope.

We are going to be healed and grateful enough; that is, enough to know that we need healing and faith. Healed and grateful enough to know that we will never not need grace. Healed and grateful enough to stop demanding that God deal with us on our own self-defeating terms. Healed and grateful enough to give in to the simple, humble, unflashy and unclassy ways of God.

Healed and grateful enough to believe that whenever our stubborn rage subsides, God’s forgiveness waits.


The Real World

I recently read a ranting criticism of ‘religious people’ that I found infuriating, and hilarious. The topic sentence of the writer’s attack was that people like me (yes, I took it personally) who live by “old fairy tales”—i. e., the Bible—are deluded, and not a little useless as citizens of something the author called ‘the real world.’ Apparently, I live with my head in the clouds spouting unrealistic inanities about universal peace, love, and abundance for all; whereas sensible and morally serious people have their feet more firmly planted on the ground. They know that in the “real world” you have to face facts, make tough choices, and compromise your ideals.

An Episcopal bishop once commented on what he called a “very silly” op-ed piece in the local paper that argued that in the ‘real world’ the last thing we need is compassion and other mushy-headed values. What we need is unrestrained capitalism and unequivocal support for strategic U.S. allies, even the nasty ones. “My response,” wrote the bishop, “is to fantasize that there probably is a special place in hell for people who take religious types aside and deliver condescending lectures about the ‘real world’, as though standing at a thousand death beds, knowing first-hand the many forms of human misery, and nurturing hope where the system is not about to provide it were somehow ‘unreal.’ It’s those who think that the ‘real world’ is about the acquisition of wealth and power, and not about their generous dispersal, who live in unreality. It’s people who struggle for status or who are obsessed with control who are not free. It is those who would be embarrassed to be a little less affluent who are ‘unreal.’”

Now, this is not to say that there is an ‘us’ who have it right and a ’them’ who have it wrong. We are always crossing over the boundary of hope into the land of cynicism, and back again. The world that demands we face facts and deal with ‘reality’ is our world too. When we lack a habit of discernment and resistance, we frequently find ourselves echoing our detractors. Prayer and hope and mercy are fine most of the time, we end up saying, but sometimes you’ve just got to face facts. We are not immune to the silly—and deadly—notion that the ‘real world’ is more real than the kingdom of God.

The critical question is who gets to say what’s real. Remember this famous flap in the Reagan Administration? Questioned about the conservation of forests, then-Interior Secretary James Watt replied that it won’t make much difference in the end if we have this or that policy of conservation because, “After the last tree is felled … Christ will have returned.” And after that, presumably, we will have no need of trees, or of the planet for that matter. Bill Moyers summed up his astonished outrage in a NY Times op-ed piece by noting that in American politics, “the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seats of power.” And that was in the Reagan Administration. If we added our own examples, we’d be here all day.

I have long held the opinion that the best thing we can do in the face of the decline of the so-called mainline is to turn our energies to the renewal of congregational worship. I’m not talking about duking it out over styles of worship, but about recovering the ethical wallop of worship—the ways in which worship of any kind, if it is laser-focused on God and the ways of God in history, can be a stay against delusion. For every time a congregation gathers to ponder together one of those ‘old fairy tales’ and confess its hope in the vision of life it describes, it renews a struggle over who gets to name the facts. It is (or can be) a habit-forming exercise in discernment and resistance, a form of fact-finding, a bracing reality check.

What’s at stake in all our praising, singing, and silence-keeping; our confessing, assurance and offering; our praying, peace-passing and blessing is the very definition of ‘real.’ The kind of ‘real’ that allows us to see how precious are all the people and things the ‘real world’ has abandoned as useless and hopeless. The kind of ‘real’, as Will Willimon writes, that allows us to see a nondescript teacher “squatting in the dust with a gaggle of common fisherfolk and former tax collectors and know that they are the light of the world.” To hear an opinionated Paul tell a “ragtag crowd at First Church Corinth, after chewing them out for fighting in church and acting bad in their bedrooms,”  ‘You are God’s treasure.’” To recognize in our own congregations, just as we are without one plea, God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world, and see “a sneak preview of God’s cosmic redemption on-going in our midst.” And to encounter a million people like the woman in Louisiana who raised, on a maid’s income, sixteen foster children, and who, when asked how she did it, replied, “I saw a new world a-comin.’”

A new world. A real world. God’s real real world.