Category Archives: Sermons

And Very Early in the Morning, While It Was Still Dark

Dawn

 “And very early in the morning the first day of the week,                                                         while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb…”  [Jn 20:1]

How good the dark is!

God dwells in it, unseen, beyond all naming, a mystery of love.

How good the dark is!

God’s Spirit brooded over the world’s creation with the midnight beauty of a raven.

How good the dark is!

Under cover of night God hurried Israel’s children out of Egypt, shadowing their steps with the great cloud of presence.

How good the dark is!

Jesus was carried in the deep hideaway of the womb. He was born at midnight when everything was still. He sighed his last sigh in a darkness that covered the earth at noon. And when he was taken down from the cross, they laid him in a grave cut from rock. They rolled a stone across to seal it, so that the dark, as Brian Wren says so beautifully, could be the cradle of the dawn.*

And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb.

Unless you bury a grain of wheat in the good black dirt, Jesus used to say, it will remain a grain of wheat. But if it is covered up for a while, it will rise and yield, and yield some more.

How good the dark is!

To speak of darkness on Easter—a morning shot through with gleaming alleluias, the day our ancestors called ‘the eighth day of creation’ illumined by the Sun that never sets—is not to diminish Easter’s glory, but only to confess this truth: that bright Easter is also a day of darkness.

A day of darkness because the Love that gave us Easter is as incomprehensible to us on Easter as on any other day. The Compassion that saved us by a resurrection is as unfathomable this morning as any other morning. The Mercy that meets us this day is so hidden to our hearts, so unthinkable, that all we can say is that we are in the dark.

We walk by faith and not by sight. We see only in a glass darkly the strange things Mary sees in the garden, as night gives way and first light comes.

To speak of darkness on this shimmering day is to say that Easter faith, like the seed of which Jesus spoke, needs its time in the dark. It can’t be believed all at once. It grows up slowly, maturing in the dark good earth of an open heart.

The risen Jesus does not reveal himself all at once. It took forty days for him to materialize—he gave his friends a little glimpse here, another there. It took time before they stopped mistaking him for a gardener, an angel, a ghost, a Bible-teaching stranger on the road. The fullness of Easter waited, curtained, while they prodded his strange body, now solid, with nail holes in his hands; now indeterminate, unhindered by walls and dead-bolted doors.

It took centuries for the deepest questions about him to rise to the surface in the pondering church; centuries for daily encounters in liturgy and service to give up their meaning; centuries for words to be found with which to declare in these and in so many other words, “My Lord and my God!”

It takes more than one trip to the tomb to see him. Before Easter fully dawns on us, we will all bend down more than once to peer in and count the folded garments. Make more than one search of the place. Hold more than one conversation with the angel. And more than once we will turn our heads at the sound of a Voice that knows our name.

We will only slowly learn what all astonished disciples have to learn—that he is especially hard to see if we expect him to be the way he was with us once upon a time. If we want him to put things back in their old places, and restore life like it used to be, he will slip our grasp. What he offers us now is not lucid or familiar; what he tells us now is dark: “Go and meet me someplace else, ahead of where you are today.”

To speak of darkness at Easter is to say that Easter is the thing we find most disconcerting—newness. Resurrection is original. Despite our need and our longing to unburden our pasts, to heal our memories, to change, Easter is the thing we most fear—that nothing will ever be the same. St Paul says, ‘We know what we are now, but what we will be we have no idea. The whole creation is on tiptoe, groaning in anticipation of it.’

Easter is glimmer of it.

It is ray, yes; but it is a ray of darkness.

And O, how good its dark is!

Alleluia!

Up From The Grave: A Meditation for Holy Saturday

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–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.

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–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?

Acting Out in Holy Week

800px-Zirl_Parrish_Church-Jesus_entering_Jerusalem_1–Triumphal Entry, Fresco in the Parish Church of Zirl, Austria

It’s not often we get theatrical in church. But during Holy Week, Christian congregations all over the world do. On Palm Sunday, for example, many hold a palm parade, or they read a gospel story together with sound effects. The kids generally take to these little dramas easily. Adults are a different story—especially Protestants, who are often more than a little reluctant to leave the safe confines of their sanctuaries and march around outside, waving palms and singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

What is the meaning of all this tramping about and shouting? Why, from the mid-4th century onward, have Christians practiced their faith in Holy Week by staging palm processions and dramatic readings of the passion story and carrying large crosses through city streets?

Dramas like these are one solution we create to the problem of distance. They are meant to erase the millennia between Jesus’ life and our own time. If we enter them wholeheartedly, they help impress past events upon our senses in such a way that that story and this one—Jesus’ story and ours—become one continuous story of faith.

When we dramatize events in Holy Week, are not “pretending” in the ordinary sense; we are remembering in an immediate way, such that when on Good Friday the beloved spiritual asks us, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, we can reply not only that we were truly there with him then, but also that he is truly here with us now.

Our liturgical dramas signify that there is no such thing as a safe distance from the old, old story of Jesus and his love. None of us is a mere spectator to the unfolding of his fate. None of us can hang back and dispassionately observe the goings-on as if we were uninvolved, as if we were not implicated in the events we are commemorating. At one time in the church’s history, this immediacy was experienced with such conviction that the ritual “passing of the peace” was forbidden during Holy Week for fear that one of the stylized kisses believers exchanged might turn out to be the kiss of Judas – for fear, in other words, that someone in the congregation might betray the Lord again.

Now, Holy Week is a tricky time. The scriptural texts we read during this week pose many serious difficulties. In our eagerness to experience the Passion we could slide over them to our peril. For example, I find myself increasingly pained by the New Testament’s caricature of first-century Judaism, a damning portrait we may unthinkingly take as “the way it really was,” thus perpetuating anti-Judaism, even among enlightened liberal Christians.

There are also difficulties in the traditional theologies of the meaning of Jesus’ last days. For example, I am no longer able to accept the notion of a God who sent Jesus into the world only to die, who indeed demands his death as past-due payment for human sin. This God regards innocent suffering as somehow glorious and desirable, and is pleased when the world’s victims meekly accept their crosses as Jesus accepted his. For centuries, it has been all too easy for the world’s blood-thirsty powers to co-opt this God for their own oppressive purposes.

And of course there are dangers in even the most innocent and fervent of the rituals we stage to help lodge the meaning of Holy Week under our skin. Those of us who love these spectacles must always be careful not to become overly-enamored of mere aesthetics, losing our way in the trappings and choreography, confusing the rituals that are meant to embody our relationship to God, the gospel, and each other with those relationships themselves.

All these pitfalls make “acting out” in Holy Week a slightly dicey prospect for thoughtful, faithful people, and for conscientious preachers. But even in the face of these difficulties, I remain persuaded that we are not meant to appreciate the events we commemorate this week primarily with our critical faculties, at a cool, removed, intellectual distance. Our lives will not be changed by rational appraisals of the passion of Jesus. I believe we are meant to wade in over our heads, to lose our ordinary bearings, and to let these events soak into our bodies and souls by way of all our available human emotions.

If we open up all our emotional valves this week, however, there is one additional pitfall we should guard against, and that is the error of thinking that what Jesus goes through is special. We must not remember and cherish these events only because they happened uniquely to the Son of God, but also because what happened to the Son of God happens to so many children of God. His suffering is horrifying, compelling and sacred beyond telling precisely because it is prosaic, commonplace, and despairingly ordinary.

When Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time a woman offers a radically-humanizing gesture in a radically-dehumanized world. When Jesus was misunderstood by his friends and misjudged and threatened by his enemies, it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time that honesty, personal authority, vision, difference and spiritual depth are mistaken for insanity, social deviance, fraudulence and malice.

As we joyfully enter Jerusalem with him, it cannot be lost on us that we are entering an occupied city. And we know that occupation was not invented by the Romans and that it did not die with their Empire.  We know also that it seems an inevitable turn of the dreary demonic cycle of human fear that the oppressed become the oppressor, the once-occupied become the occupier. We know from intimate experience that the flip side of adulation is contempt and disdain, that the line between failure and success is paper thin, and that there is no stable truth in crowds.

Employees of Enron, investors with Bernie Madoff, and folks who placed their trust in big banks and mortgage brokers know that it is hardly out of the ordinary to be betrayed for 30 silver coins. It is not as if before Jesus was led to the slaughter no innocent was ever crucified by the collusion of national pride, expedient politics, narrow morality, and assorted vested interests; and it is not as if no innocent ever suffered like that again, after he was taken down. Ask the disappeared of Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras. Ask the refugees of any war-torn nation you can name. Ask our own children shuffled about in the vast gulag of the foster care system, the enslaved and brutalized people of North Korea, the victims of a bizarre government AIDS policy in South Africa, death row inmates in US jails, and every person who will die too soon because of disparities in our health care system.

If we let ourselves go emotionally in Holy Week in order to experience the collapse of distance between then and now; if we enter the drama with our hearts vulnerable to the impact of the Passion, fully-open and receptive, we may find ourselves blown back and pinned to the wall by the pitiless everydayness of those ancient horrors. We have to brace ourselves not for the incomparable nature of Jesus’ suffering, but for its shocking banality.

Easter will put a new spin on all human suffering, of course, but if we hope to believe in Easter at all—if we hope, rather, to experience it—we need to dwell here first. We have go through sacred motions that bring us close not only to Christ, but also to each other. We have to go through them until, like that Human Being on the cross, our capacity for solidarity grows large and deep, until the world’s sorrow and suffering become much more fully our own, until our own pain is more vulnerably shared with others. Then on the third day, like him, we too might truly rise.

palm-sunday-message-donkey_1363605492–International Family Mission Photo

With this hope in mind, let us act out with all our hearts. Let us really be overwrought disciples, certain that this is the day Jesus will finally play the trump card and claim the throne of his ancestor, David. Let us really be donkeys, clip-clopping our modest way into the Holy City, bearing the peace-loving messiah. Let us really be a dizzy, cheering, chanting crowd hailing with sweet hosannas a king upon whom we want to pin all our misguided revolutionary, nationalistic and selfish hopes. Let us really be angry authorities, sick with anxiety about what the Romans will do if this thing gets out of hand, and coming to the reasonable conclusion that we need to get this fellow gone, the faster the better, before all hell breaks loose.

And yes, let us even try to be King Jesus, who, as it turns out, enters the Holy City not to conquer anyone, not to establish anything, but to do what he has been doing all along – to teach, rebuke, restore, welcome, reconcile, heal— and eventually, in the face of our unflagging insistence on being deadly, to reveal in his own helpless flesh the compassionate and stubborn presence of the suffering God who does not will our pain, but teaches us in Christ to bear each other’s, until the day when there is no more dying, and every tear is wiped away.

What Happened? A Sermon for Palm Sunday in a Time of War (2003)

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–Associated Press

Ah, Palm Sunday! There’s nothing like a good all-church breakfast, a funky parade on the street to signal to the sophisticates in Harvard Square out for a morning latte that it’s cool to love Jesus; nothing like a lusty rendition of “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and a dramatic gospel reading that gets all the kids into the act and makes the choir play the role of the donkey. Palm Sunday — the joyous bridge into the saddest week of the Christian calendar,  the day Jesus gets his glorious due in public, at least for a few hours, before things turn ugly.

I hate to spoil the triumphant mood, but I wonder if any of you is having even the smallest trouble celebrating Palm Sunday today? I ask because misery loves company — it has not been an easy morning for me. I am too painfully aware that the scene our gospel offers us is a triumphal entry of a conquering hero into a capital city in need of liberation from a long and brutal oppression.

Every time I have tried to meditate on this episode of triumph, my mind has wandered to a news clip I saw on CNN last week, the day Baghdad fell, the day that an excited crowd toppled the first big statue of Saddam Hussein. The camera showed what appeared to be a huge crowd of men dancing in the streets, jumping up and down and waving, of all things, palm fronds above their heads while reaching to shake the hands of the U.S. soldiers who were in the Square. I would not have been surprised to hear those palm-waving citizens of the great ancient city cry out, “Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Now, I know the difference between the Story of Jesus and CNN. I know that Jesus isn’t that kind of conquering hero. His entry into Jerusalem was a pilgrimage, not an assault — he went there to celebrate the high holy days with throngs of the faithful from all over the world. He had no troops, although the way some of the gospel authors write about that day, you’d think he was a great general with an army of millions. “The whole world is running after him!”, one of the city’s leaders is reported to have complained, alarmed at the uproar.

But Jesus had no army. He entered the city on a donkey, not a Bradley fighting vehicle. His disciples did not squelch the great claims about him running like sparks through the crowds (Messiah? Liberator? King?), nor did he himself try to quiet their praise, which was a mysterious departure from his usual modesty. But if you don’t count the palms and the shouting, the rest of the symbolism in the story points to humility, relinquishment and service. If this is a triumphant king, as our hymns declare, he is a king with a difference.

Jesus spent his entire ministry arduously redefining kingship, power, authority. He refused to win people’s hearts and minds by using the forces of warrior angels that the gospels imagine were secretly at his disposal. He turned aside attempts to lure him into taking up the kind of coercive authority associated with domination and empire; he took on instead the burden of our suffering and our sins. I know all this, and yet I can’t help it — today’s triumphant scene makes me uneasy. It is ripe for misunderstanding, and over the centuries there’s been no shortage of it.

The Christian community has struggled with the non-imperialist bent of its Savior from the moment Judas sold him out, disillusioned perhaps with Jesus’ meekness and lack of commitment to nationalistic purposes, right down to our own debate over the morality of this war. The history of the church is full of terrors perpetrated in the name of the Messiah-King. The fact that he redefined kingship as servanthood and authority as humble self-gift has never seemed to deter us from acting as if he had instead perfected the customs of conquest and the arts of dominance and duress. Full of the arrogance of the truth, the church has thrown its flag over the face of many a statue of fallen idols, only to demand from liberated peoples a new kind of submission.

U. S. soldiers have been propelled into the war by something closely-akin to this old Christian crusading spirit, and they have done the duty set before them with the loftiest of intentions, the best of courage, and, of course, with the deadliest of results. Whatever one’s views on the justice of the war, it cannot be denied that the rhetoric and symbolism of its prosecution has borrowed heavily from this shameful heritage.

Christians are not the only ones who make war, of course.; but we are the only ones making war who follow the Prince of Peace. We seem incapable of cleaning up our violent act — or even our liturgical language. How tricky it is in this wartime context, for example, to sing wholeheartedly about power and lordship; how complicated it is, at least for me, to hail the great victory even of this gracious, humble God. How many Christian congregations will sing lustily on Easter about battles won and conquest done, without reflecting seriously on these metaphors? My dear, wise colleague, Peter Sykes, took note the other day of one of my proposed hymn selections for Easter and asked me whether I was sure I wanted to have us all sing its militaristic words right now, in these wartime circumstances. The further question, of course, is whether we want to sing them under any circumstances.

mission_accomplishedOur tradition asserts that the Palm Sunday throng around Jesus was fickle: its mood quickly and ferociously changes; the cry for his execution replaces all the grateful songs of praise. The liturgy has long savored this bitter irony and offered it to generations of believers as a meditation on the psychology of sin and the behavior of crowds. Sadly, it is also a view of what happened to Jesus that is forever tinged with anti-semitism. The conviction that the same Jews who hailed him on Sunday lusted after his blood on Friday has fueled the Jew-Christ-killer myth and obscured the deeper point of the tale of the crowd’s behavior — namely, that “they is us.” The adoring faces of Sunday are ours, and so are the angry ones of Friday. If anyone is fickle it is you and it is me.

After seeing what I saw on CNN, however, I wonder if the crowd around Jesus on Palm Sunday might have been more conflicted and ambivalent than capricious or fickle. The episode we meditate on today is a scene of high jubilation, to be sure; but a powerful undertow of danger courses beneath it. At any moment the joyous jostling parade could get badly out of hand; at any moment, things could get (as Secretary Rumsfeld remarked with blood-chilling off-handedness) untidy. Might this not be, then, a crowd filled also with fear?  For when the camera pulled back from the other palm-waving crowd in a Baghdad city square, it revealed many other people standing on a sidewalk watching them. The faces of those bystanders were so sober and reserved that it did not surprise me to learn later that, when interviewed, they spoke of anxiety, fear, resentment, and profound humiliation as they watched that toppling of that statue.

Glad and grateful to be liberated from a tyrant, they asked nonetheless what they should make of liberators upon whom they must now depend, with or without their consent; what they should make of a principled war for their freedom that in the end is no less a war than wars of unabashed greed and conquest are — it is causing the same death and destruction, paving the way for the same pillaging and lawlessness, opening the same opportunities for the bloody settling of old scores. In their guarded, weary voices I tallied up the price of human violence — unfathomable and unending. In their somber faces I read the bitter truth that those who crush your crushers can, whenever they want to, crush you as well.

In the crowd that hailed Jesus; in the crowd that thrilled to his disciples’ heady claims that here was the promised liberator king; in the crowd that may well have taken up arms had Jesus roused himself and consented to it, had he galvanized them all in his cause and armed them for the glory of God; in that dizzy, chanting, cheering crowd, there must also have been a few who wondered whether stone would be left upon stone when that day was done, and who looked at him and his excited, fist-pumping, thumbs-up disciples with dread and resentment.

There was, we know, never anything to fear from Jesus, he was not into regime change or nation building; but within a week of all the hubbub, the powers crushed him anyway, just in case. His disciples betrayed him too, and ran away.

There is no explaining our love for violence. No explaining our choice of it again and again. And we do choose it, time after time. I am at a loss to know the reasons, the same as you. But now we have Holy Week ahead of us, and Holy Week asks us at least to stop and ponder the fact of this our most perverse human choice. Holy Week asks us at least not to hide our violence from ourselves any longer, but to stare it in the face. Holy Week asks us at least to look at it squarely, played out on the very body of God.

PalmSunday-01–Icon of the Entrance Into Jerusalem, Athanasios Clark

The husband of a seminary student* tells this story:

Last summer my three-year-old son and I stopped off at the seminary library to return a book for a friend. This was his first time inside the old stone building… As we stepped through the bright red doors into the darkened vestibule, he stopped in his tracks. There, on the wall to his right, hung a crucifix, about five feet tall.

I watched his young eyes study Jesus’ agonized face, the dying body hanging on a tree, the nails piercing his hands and feet. I knew the image was a new one to him. Although he’s been raised in the church, the crosses in our Baptist congregation are all clean and sanitized; their Jesuses all resurrected and ascended.

For a moment, I considered hustling him back out the door, trying to shield him from this holy horror in the same way that I “rewrite” the violent plots of his Batman comics when I read them aloud. But it was too late; he had already taken it all in.

I thought he might cry. Instead, without taking his eyes off the dying Jesus, he spoke words filled with sadness, mystery, and wonder: “Daddy, what happened?”

In this time or war, it’s the question for all of us.

What indeed?

_____________

*Doug Davidson, The Other Side, March 2002.

Preaching Isaiah 50: 4-9a The Suffering Servant

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–Image by Marcella Paliekara

This well-known Holy Week text presents a number of challenges for the conscientious preacher. One challenge lies in its pairing with the hymn of obedient kenosis in Philippians and with Mark’s passion story, making the identification of Isaiah’s Servant with Jesus irresistible. There is nothing new in this. The first Christians reached into Hebrew Scriptures for passages that spoke to them of Jesus’ life, illumined his significance, and confirmed him as God’s anointed one. The New Testament authors bequeathed these Christological interpretations to us. One of them is that in Jesus, the Servant has reappeared.

It is not wrong for subsequent Christians to read this text through such a lens. The challenge in a post-Holocaust, multi-faith world, however, is to do it in a way that sheds light on our Christian story without reading Jews out of theirs. We ought not employ this text as a direct prediction of the passion of Jesus, drawing neat correspondences between the Servant and Jesus (the Servant was obedient, Jesus was obedient; the Servant was silent, Jesus was silent, and so on); or imply that this passage is “really about Jesus” or “proves” that it was God’s plan from the beginning that Jesus should die in this way.

A more respectful treatment would be to comment on the text as the song of a real or imagined figure (or figures) in the Jewish story of Babylonian exile and internal division who, in faithfulness to his vocation to listen for and speak refreshing truth to those who are “weary” (v. 4), meets resistance that turns hostile and violent. By extension, it is also the song of any innocent person (including Jesus) who chooses not to resist his oppressors, and by the exercise of that freedom offers witnesses powerfully to the justice of his cause. The Servant suffers in a particular context, but he does not suffer alone. Throughout the ages, countless people are shamed by like violence. Many suffer “out there,” unknown to us; but many sit in our pews every Sunday, hoping for a word of encouragement and healing. Is there such a word for them in this text?

This leads to a second challenge. What are we to make of the Servant’s affirmation that he “set his face like flint” in the face of violent hostility, “gave his back” (v. 7) to those who struck him and “did not hide his face” (v. 6) from those who spat on him? The text says that the Servant allowed himself to be shamed in this way, refusing to flee or fight back; but the homilist must avoid suggesting that humiliation and suffering are good or desirable, or that God is pleased when someone is abused for righteousness’ sake.

Because the Servant suffers unjustly, it is tempting to glorify his pain as the price one pays for being on God’s side. To do so, however, runs the terrible risk of blessing the cruelty unleashed on the innocent. It also allows us to conclude further that violence meted out in retribution to people who are in fact guilty is justifiable because it is deserved. The preacher’s job is to keep in tension the admiration we feel for the courage displayed by people who submit to their oppressors nonviolently, and the ethical call to us, inherent in these instances, to reject the glorification of martyrdom and make a new world in which the oppression of the innocent is unheard of, no one has to face a decision to submit or resist, and even the guilty find mercy and redemption.

A third pitfall awaits in the defiant affirmations of the Servant in the final verses (vv. 6-9). The Servant calls out his attackers, daring them to prove him guilty, knowing they cannot. He is sure that God will settle the score—the shamed now will be triumphant later. The preacher will naturally want to help the congregation see themselves in the Servant, their lives confidently staked on the eventual triumph God will bestow. But she will also take care not to allow this identification to sour into a sense of Christian entitlement and victimization (We were always a Christian nation, but now “they” won’t let us pray in schools: we need to get this country back to Christ where it belongs!). She will help more if, while pastorally acknowledging the place of some of us among the oppressed, she also makes us face the identity of the oppressors. The hard truth we need to hear, especially as we enter Holy Week, is that “they” is often “us.”

Jesus once observed that opposition to prophets arises mainly within the “family circle.” This appears to be the case here. The likely context of this passage is a struggle between factions of long-exiled Jews, some of whom have adapted to and prefer Babylonian ways, and others who refuse to abandon or “acculturate” the received tradition. The Servant stands on one side of this internal struggle for the meaning of faithfulness, his own kin on the other. The preacher might help us contemplate the likelihood that people of faith are not (just) victims, we are also victimizers.

We wreaked havoc in the past on people of other faiths (Christians are not alone in this, of course, but from our pulpits we are speaking to Christians); and if the current wave of Christian Islamophobia is any indication, we are still bearing false witness against our religious neighbors and condoning shameful acts of exclusion and assault. We also routinely heap contempt on fellow Christians who believe differently from us. We believe that this internecine blood-letting is justified as long as it is for righteous ends. The preacher can remind us that religious violence is not special violence exempt from the commandment to love the neighbor and forgive the enemy. Violence in any form is violence. Naming it for what it is may be one of the most important homiletical tasks of this holiest of weeks, when the Lord of Life meets his violent death.

The Big Upset (I Corinthians 1:1-18)

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–The Oregonian

Like millions of sports fans who are about to undermine the nation’s productivity this month, I really enjoy the NCAA college basketball tournament, March Madness. One of the things true fans always hope for is at least one Big Upset, like the improbable victory of the nine hundredth seed over number one.

You know—the skinny kids from the small rural campus of a poorly-funded State University who wear really ugly uniforms and are coached by a rumpled old aw-shucks guy from Central Casting who’s toiled in obscurity for forty-seven years and who now, on the brink of retirement, has finally got a team in the tourney and is coaching what everybody knows will be the last game of his career because his first opponent is… Duke.

And then the magic happens. Out on the court the scrawny scrappers are in The Zone. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. Everything they throw up goes in. Meanwhile the Blue Devils have been replaced by aliens from outer space who don’t know how to run in sneakers, and before you know it, the bumpkins from Podunk have pulled even with a second to go, and they have the ball. Of course the desperate heave from half court goes in at the buzzer—nothing but net!

Ozymandias, king of kings, look upon these ruins and despair! O how the mighty have fallen! Depression settles over Durham, delirium breaks out in the heartland, and you are out six hundred bucks in the office pool. Games like these become the stuff of legend, and no matter how much money you lose when a loser wins, it makes you glad to be alive. All the way to debtor’s prison you bless the day you were born to see it.

‘Fess up, all you sophisticates who profess to be indifferent at best to the world of sports—even you choke up when the water boy finally gets in the game and makes the play that saves the day. When David beats Goliath, Cinderella gets the Prince, and the Cubs win the Series, you know that someday, somehow, everything is going to be all right.

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The apostle Paul put his money on the underdog. And he urged the church at Corinth to follow his lead. The Corinthian church was a small congregation struggling to survive in an ultra-cosmopolitan social environment in which there were plenty of opportunities for the wealthy and the talented to become Somebody.  Made up mostly of low status members, the church did have a few who were people of means and influence and these ‘number ones’ were demanding a disproportionate share of attention. They insisted on enjoying inside the church the same privileges and deference they enjoyed outside. Their sense of entitlement kicked up a good deal of resentment in the less affluent and influential members of the church.

Others in the community had become devotees of a charismatic teacher who rose to prominence in the church after Paul’s departure, and these groupies were going around condescendingly dropping their guru’s pearls of wisdom all over the place, shaming the hoi polloi who did not possess their superior knowledge or their gold standard of faith.

A woman named Chloe ratted them all out to Paul, who was horrified by the way pride of status and knowledge was driving a wedge into the unity of the church. For Paul, lording your Lexus or your Ph. D. over the high school dropout and the welfare mom was not just bad form, it was a theological failure, a fundamental misreading of who God is and the way God works.

Paul didn’t tell them simply to cut it out and be nice to each other. He wasn’t going to settle for superficial friendliness. He grounded his vision of right Christian conduct in the pattern of God’s own conduct—the God who habitually chooses the things the world discards to show up the things the world values. In other words, Paul wanted to imprint on the Corinthians the sign of the cross.

The prize should always go to the sleek and the strong, the smart and the influential, right? Don’t bet on it, Paul said. What looks like wisdom to the world is in fact foolishness. And what looks like foolishness to the world is in fact wisdom. If you don’t develop a discerning eye capable of penetrating this mystery, you will bet on the favorites and lose your shirt every time.

Paul knew that the cross is a tough nut to crack. He admitted that it is a ridiculous thing to preach allegiance to a savior who was executed, and in such a humiliating way. Because we do not, most of us, live in a shame and honor culture, it may be hard for us to grasp the shock to the system that Jesus’ death caused among his contemporaries. It does not even seem odd to us to wear that little electric chair around our necks to accessorize our fashionable outfits.

But cultured pagans found the cross disturbing. The claims being made for the man who died on it struck them as shockingly absurd. And it was not only the sophisticated who found it outrageous. One of the earliest depictions of Christian beliefs comes to us in a mocking bit of graffiti found on a wall on Rome’s Palatine Hill. It dates from around the year 200 and shows a cross upon which hangs the body of a man who has the head of a donkey. Underneath, the artist scrawled a caption, “Alexemonos worships his god.”

Paul noted that his preaching kept the attention of Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles right up until the moment he came to the stubborn fact of the cross. Then they balked. But Paul could not silence the centrality of the cross: for him it is the key to healing and wholeness, to a right relationship with God, and to a new and revolutionary way of life—a life in the Body, the church. For Paul, the church has a shape, and it is cruciform.

Because this is its shape, the church vulnerably and unwisely opens itself to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue. It deliberately looks foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who are not blood kin, wasting its resources on the stranger. It chooses to look weak by offering forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy is a luxury few prudent persons can afford.

For Paul, the church is cross-like in its form and practice—everything it says and does in the world seems futile and out of joint. But this is the way God acts, this is the pattern God chooses, and in this odd way God is working the miracle of reconciliation promised from of old.

But the world—smart, self-sufficient, sleek and strong—does not think it needs anything. And so it does not place any bets on the scrawny team and its outrageous mascot who have come to town to play. Paul believed that if the church retains its cruciform shape; if entitlement and elitism and the lust for security and power do not erase the sign of God’s foolishness from the church’s body (which was Paul’s fear as he wrote), the world will be in for a Very Big Upset.

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Every Sunday most of us worship in the presence of a cross somewhere in our sanctuaries. In my former congregation, the cross was enormous, suspended from the ceiling. It cast a long shadow: there was no way you could miss it. I preached under that cross every Sunday, and I often wondered whether we saw it as the folly it is, whether we understood that it was meant to mark us as hopeless underdogs; or whether we saw it more as a sign of triumph and victory, or whether we saw it at all.

There’s an old canard among Protestants that Catholics have crosses with Jesus’ dead body affixed because Catholics are morbidly preoccupied with Christ’s suffering and death; and Protestants have empty crosses because we are correctly focused on the good news of the resurrection. That’s all very nice—if it were true, and if it didn’t slander our Catholic neighbors, if it didn’t so blithely clean up the awful violence at the heart of our tradition, if it didn’t so neatly let us off the hook for wrestling with that scandal, and if it didn’t hide from view the underdog savior who had so little interest and even less skill in playing the world’s games accroding to the rules of the number ones.

Martin Copenhaver has observed that “one of the dangers of being in church as often as we are is that it all starts to make sense to us. We speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that we begin to think, ‘Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.’ And yet week after week we talk and act as if we believe all sorts of things in church that we wouldn’t let anyone put over on us in the real world. Stuff you would choke on in everyday speech, you somehow swallow in a prayer or a hymn or a sermon. ‘Blessed are the meek. . . .’  ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘Love your enemies’ ‘Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.’” We have what Copenhaver calls a “tiresome tendency” to transform the Christian faith from “a sign of outrage and contradiction, insubordination and usurpation” into ho-hum everydayness and “the cement of social conformity.”

Not everyone has this tiresome tendency, of course. I remember standing near a cross a few years ago, a cross much smaller than the one that hung in the sanctuary of my former congregation. It was no match for the gusty wind out on the Cambridge Common where the Rev. Jed Mannis set up a little communion table every week, rain, snow, or shine, serving the homeless women and men of the Outdoor Church. I had gone out there, just a few yards from our church door, to deliver the sandwiches that our kids made for the members of that Church each month, and which we consecrated at the table along with the bread and wine of communion.

I was going just to drop them off, but I decided to stay. I was glad I did, because apart from Jed and a seminarian, at one o’clock when the service was supposed to start, I was the only one there. Not a homeless person in sight. And I thought to myself, “Now this is ministry. This is selfless service. You show up perseveringly week after week, and offer the gifts you have. Of course, nobody actually comes, but it doesn’t matter. After all, it isn’t about numbers, it’s about being present. It’s an offering, pure and simple.”

This would have been a meditation wholly acceptable to God had I not also been subtly congratulating myself for being out there in the first place—it was very cold—and if in the back of my mind I was not also at the same time thinking that even ‘though numbers don’t matter, it was too bad that more homeless people were not there. With bigger numbers it might feel more like a successful ministry, and I would have something tangible to point to when I asked people to continue supporting it financially.

It was at that moment that I jumped off the Podunk bus and ran straight into the Duke locker room. Off the cross and into busy, self-sufficient, downtown Corinth. And it was also at that point that six homeless people (who do not have as many places to go as important people do and therefore do not care quite as much what time things are supposed to start) showed up and the service got underway. Jed invited me to read the scripture of the day. It was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You have not heard that story until you have heard it outside with a nasty wind whipping everything around, and a small wooden cross repeatedly crashing to the frozen ground. In the company of people who live in a vast outdoor wilderness of indifference and violence every night and every day, I read the story of Jesus and his forty-day struggle with the demons, while six heads nodded knowingly. And when Mark noted that Jesus was “with the wild beasts” all that time, two of the men exchanged glances. Yes, they knew about that too. And when we came to the part about the angels ministering to an exhausted, anguished Jesus, one of them interrupted and said to Jed, “You are my angel.”

Afterwards, Jed told me that earlier that morning, at the Outdoor Church in Porter Square, when he read the part about Jesus leaving the wilderness and preaching that “the time of salvation is now”, the people had interrupted and asked out loud, some with tears and loud voices, “Now? Now? What does that mean, ‘now’?

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What shape are our churches in? That’s a question we usually answer by counting heads, poring over budgets and spreadsheets, checking the roof and the boiler, and wringing our hands over the nominating slate for the upcoming year. What if we looked instead at the pattern of our life together to see whether it resembles a cross? Are we living in a cross-shaped way, or have we gone over to the Duke Side?

On whom or what have we put our money down—on ourselves, our plans and skills, our sense of entitlement, the standard of living we cling to or strive for, our common sense, education, liberal platitudes, timid generosity, limited hospitality, and our busy, talkative, anxious and sleep-deprived lives?

Or have we wagered everything on the foolishness of a savior who vulnerably and  unwisely opened his arms to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue; who deliberately looked foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who were not blood kin, wasting his grace on the stranger; who chose to look weak by offering healing and forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy was a luxury few prudent could afford?

Are our congregations in the best shape they could be in—the shape of Jesus’ cross, working miracles of reconciliation and service and and healing wisdom? When the world casts a glance our way, does it see the nonsense it should see—frayed uniforms, no tall guys, a losing game plan, a pathetic coach? Or does it see only a reflection of its own superior winning ways?

Are we the Big Upset in the making so many people long for, so many people need? If those folks bet on us, staked everything they have, would it be a safe bet, even a sure thing?

The cross of Jesus is the foolishness of God, Paul claimed, the hope of every living thing. But this is a hidden mystery. We need eyes of faith to see it. We need discerning hearts to embrace it. We need to reveal it to each other as we pray with open spirits, as we read our stories and eat our meals at open tables, and as we give and take the grace of Christ through open doors onto the open road, out into that hard and frozen world where underdogs hardly ever win.

Who’s to Blame? A Reflection on Luke 13:1-9

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A friend’s college age son decided to go on a trek through Tibet before starting his junior year. Tibet is a romantic place, but it can also be dangerous. My friend couldn’t help imagining all the terrible things that could happen to him there. What if he loses his passport and gets stranded at some remote border? Gets food poisoning or altitude sickness? What if an insect bite poisons him? What if he stumbles off a steep trail into a bottomless ravine? Or gets swept up in social unrest and lands in jail? Or gets drunk and, in a stupor, runs off and marries the thirty-nine year-old trek leader?

So she set out to minimize or eliminate all those dangers before he even boarded his flight. Her minute preparations made the Secret Service look slipshod. She called me from time to time to obsess, and I tried to be supportive. But one day, I’d had enough: “For Pete’s sake, woman! Just let the boy go! You can’t stop something from happening to him on the other side of the world!”

She burst out laughing. “You can tell you’re not a mother. Look, here’s how it goes: You worry and plan to give yourself a sense of control. That way, God forbid, if something does go wrong, you won’t blame yourself for not having done everything you possibly could. Wait. Scratch that. You’ll blame yourself no matter what.”

You have to blame somebody, blame something. Your boss, bad karma, the system, the stock market, your gene pool, a communist plot, El Niño—or God. And that’s what’s going on in this story from Luke. The talk is about whom to blame for the frightening things that had happened. Maybe it was the victims themselves. Maybe they’d been bad. If they’d been good, they would’ve been spared, right? Maybe God is punishing them?

Most people I know don’t believe that. Still, when disaster strikes, it’s like a reflex—they wonder who did something wrong. Barbara Brown Taylor tells this story: A toddler’s vision suddenly blurs. A tumor is growing in her brain. On the day of surgery, her mother paces the waiting room. It smells of smoke, the ashtray is full. “It’s bad,” she says to the chaplain, “and it’s all my fault. God is punishing me for smoking. I tried to stop but I didn’t. So my child got cancer, and now she’s going to die.” The chaplain tells her God wouldn’t do such a thing, but the mother prefers a God who teaches lessons to bad mothers by killing toddlers to a God who is absent or powerless. If her daughter is dying, Taylor writes, there has to be a reason. And she is willing to be that reason.

It happens all the time. A young man I know recently told his parents he’s gay. And they, who consider themselves knowledgeable, liberal, and accepting, immediately began a frantic search through their past behaviors trying to pinpoint the thing they did wrong in their parenting to cause him to be gay.

When both the dean and the president of Andover Newton Theological School died one after the other many years ago, people at the seminary were convinced that something was wrong with the school itself. They decided we should all take better care of ourselves, as if in return for a reduced class load, a daily hour at the gym, and low-fat lunches God would be obliged to let us all live to ripe old ages.

Whenever something bad happens, we examine our habits, our diets, our relationships, our world-views, our family trees, hoping to find a cause, a reason, an explanation, so that we can stop creating our own calamities. We have an urge, Taylor says, to make sense of the senseless mingled blood and collapsing towers of our lives. There has to be something, someone to blame. And, like anguished mothers in waiting rooms, many of us have a nagging feeling that it’s us.

Jesus asked the people who came to him if they thought maybe the victims were awful sinners and had thereby caused their own catastrophes. Was God punishing them? He doesn’t wait for them to reply. He answers his own questions, and his answer is firm. It is not true to say that God is punishing us when tyrants commit atrocities, towers fall, workers shoot co-workers, babies get tumors, marriages fail, children disappoint and earthquakes ravage some already desperate part of our geography.

Sometimes terrible things just happen. And sometimes someone is to blame for what happens, and sometimes, no one is—and it’s certainly not the case that God is getting even.

And yet, Jesus says, and yet… Just because God isn’t staying up nights plotting castigating catastrophes to even the score for our sinning doesn’t mean we can go on living any way we please. Even though there is no causal cosmic connection between our conduct and the disasters that befall us, he says we still need to repent and change. He says our lives depend on it.

It’s one thing to say that God punishes us for our sins with disasters, or when bad things happen to us it must be because we are bad people. It’s another to acknowledge that our actions have consequences, that our self-preoccupied conduct sends ripples, even tsunamis, into the world far beyond the borders of our private lives, and that our unwillingness to love our neighbor can in fact be fatal.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he says we will all surely perish if we don’t change. He urges us to repentance not because God is lying in wait for us, but because too many of us are lying in wait for each other. God is not punishing us; we are punishing each other pretty skillfully, all on our own.

It’s important to be clear about this because some of us may think that once we have rejected the idea of a payback God; once we have consoled ourselves that God is a loving and merciful God who would never do such things to us; once we have disclaimed a direct punitive connection between our failings and the cosmic and everyday catastrophes of this life, that’s all we need to say and there’s nothing more to do. We’re home free and life goes on. But we are not done; there is more.

That “more” is Jesus’ call to repent and change. That “more” is his parable, his invitation to live differently; to tend to one another, not cut each other down; to bless the soil in which our neighbor is rooted, not curse him for breathing and taking up good space; to expect that everyone can and will bear fruit some day, and not despair of anyone too quickly, or at all.

Jesus isn’t playing the blame game, and he doesn’t think we should either; but he won’t let us go without a warning. He warns us that we will all shrivel up, dry out, and perish if we keep on behaving like the owner of the fig and not like the gardener; if our deepest reflex is not mercy, but blame; if our approach to the fruitless neighbor is anger and disowning, not patient knowing love.

If the axe in our hand falls too fast on the struggling tree, soon there will be no trees left at all, no shade, no food, no air, no life–for all alike are struggling, all alike need mercy, all alike require the tender care of Christ to grow.

If you have ears to hear, listen.