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July 25 St James the Apostle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Testament has many Jameses, so let’s sort them out.

First, there’s James, called “the Just,” who is Jesus’ brother. We read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. He appears to be the overseer of the original church in Jerusalem. When a bitter controversy about circumcision for Gentile converts arose, he eventually endorsed Paul’s uncut version of the gospel (ahem).  For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most scholars agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, the year James the Just was martyred, so he wasn’t.

Next, there’s James, son of Alpheus. We traditionally call him James Minor, Little James, James the Lesser, and maybe that’s because we know only that much about him—very little, far less than we know about any other James. He is remembered in the calendar of saints on May 1, May Day, together with the apostle Philip and the proletariat revolution (which Jesus began and we have yet to finish).

Finally, we come to James the Apostle, our honoree today. In the gospels he is introduced as one of the two male children of Zebedee, a fisherman in Galilee, and Salome, who would later be identified as one of the ‘pious women’ in Jesus’ entourage. John is the other son, and both he and James are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” James is one of the first four disciples Jesus called to follow him.

This James is the James of “Peter, James, and John”–the little trinity of disciples who form Jesus’ inner circle and show up at the big moments, like the T-Fig; they were also the ones Jesus angrily rebuked after they tried to call down fire on a Samaritan town.

When he and his brother went traipsing after Jesus, they may have taken their mom with them. At least she was with them as they all went up to Jerusalem for the last time. She asked for special places for her two boys in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus asked them in return if they could drink his cup. They said, “Yes, we can,” but they forgot to ask what was going to be in it. It’s hard to know if they would have been so eager it if they understood how bitter it would be

In subsequent tradition, James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. In addition to what we learn about him in the New Testament, sometime in the 9th century a pious Christian legend grew up about his having gone off to Spain to preach the gospel and, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, somehow ending up buried back there, in a field of stars, Compostela. Which is why thousands of pilgrims tramp across Europe every year on one of the many routes known as the “Camino” of Santiago (Iago, Jacobo, Jaime, James), enduring all sorts of physical indignities to reach his shrine.

The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to defeat the Muslims in Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged an uneasy, sometimes violent, but still somehow fruitful civilization (for the era, that is; believe me, they weren’t having interfaith dinners or anything). ‘Santiago Matamoros,’ his devotees called him—James the Moorslayer—turning him into the mascot of a royal policy of forced Christianization that gave rise to coerced conversions and eventual expulsion. But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your brand long after you’re gone, so this ought not be held against him.

After St. Teresa of Avila died in the 16th century, her devotees wanted to make her Spain’s patron saint, but there was a small hindrance—Spain already had one: St James. For quite a while an unseemly ecclesiastical tussle about patronal primacy ensued. In the end, it was decided to retain James, but Teresa was named patron of a bunch of important national institutions, like the Armed Forces, so that she wouldn’t be sad about losing.

Extra tidbit: James is the only Christian saint I know of who is routinely depicted wearing the costume of a pilgrim on the way to his own shrine–a broad brimmed hat, a drinking gourd, a cape, a walking staff and a cockle shell.

 

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

 

 

Even The Devil

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

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Even the devil can quote scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Prayer

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

Who Is the God Who Wants Me to Do It?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Preaching John 10:1-11


I’ve heard countless sheep and shepherd sermons over the years. Some have informed me that sheep are the world’s stupidest, smelliest animals. Others insisted that they’re smart creatures, clean and good-natured. One preacher read us a long excerpt from a biblical encyclopedia article about shepherding as a disreputable profession in Jesus’ day. Other preachers referred to the same information, only a bit more artfully. In one oddly memorable sermon, an older preacher regaled us with his youthful escapades around sheep on a hippie commune. Still another shared a travelogue of her recent trip to Ireland where, she assured us solemnly, ‘you can see a lot of sheep.’

All these sermons eventually meandered home to their various points and conclusions, some of which were worth the wait. Still, every time this text comes up in the Lectionary, I find myself praying that preachers will resist the temptation to indoctrinate or entertain us with lore about sheep, lest they and we be led, like sheep, astray.

They do this, I think, because they believe that, lacking real-world knowledge of sheep and shepherding, we’ll fail to grasp what Jesus is getting at, so they contextualize, ‘splain, describe, and illustrate. The irony is that Jesus’ audience had way more sheep culture than we do, even after we’ve heard a dozen sermons on ovine IQ, yet they had trouble grasping his message, too. Notice that about halfway through, Jesus seems to register some perplexed looks, some unspoken confusion. ‘You’re a shepherd? Funny, you don’t look like a shepherd…’ It appears that they have no idea what he’s talking about. So he re-winds and changes the metaphor. ‘Okay, not a shepherd; this time I’m a gate. The sheep gate. Got that?’

Um. Maybe…

We progressives say we’re not literalists, but the truth is when things aren’t straightforward and clear, we get as nervous as the next person, as eager to nail things down as any fundamentalist. We say we prefer heart over head, yet in our need to get to the factoidal bottom of things, we cling to our commentaries and seminary notes,  forgetting to feel. But in texts like these, the thing is to feel, and to try to help other stubborn literalists to feel, too. Forget sheepy information and encyclopedia articles, one to one correspondences, the sheep equal this, the gate means that, God is represented by X, in Jesus’ day a sheep pen measured so many square feet… We’re not in that world, we’re in a different world, the realm of acute, converting feeling.

We’re also not in the world of ethics. At least not immediately. It may be true, for example, that identifying oneself with a shepherd was not an endearing comparison, that it probably had the same upending shock value as identifying with a Samaritan. If this is right, it does suggest some compelling ethical applications to the church’s  mission to stand with the outcast and oppressed. Yet as important as moral applications are for provoking conversion and commitment, they’re not the only means to that end. What happens when we routinely resort to moralizing is that our exhortations eventually go the way of all churchy language—in one ear and out the other.

The best-kept secret of preaching, alas, is that people are capable of coming to deep ethical conversion and courageous commitment by way of awe as well as (and maybe more than) moral exhortation. But we hardly ever give them awe. The most important stories don’t work by explanation or exhortation. They work by imagination, goose bumps, nerve endings. Explanation has its place, but only just enough to set the stage for wonder. Too much, and we’ll end up with heads full of animal husbandry and hearts bereft of mystery, truth, and power. No one was ever converted by knowing the exact dimensions of a sheep pen in first century Palestine.

We might be converted, however, if we suddenly felt the overwhelming fear in the text: the trembling terror in lurking bandits, thieves and strangers; all that looking-over-your-shoulder for killers. We might be saved if we go down through the fears we can articulate—money woes, our children’s futures, illness, aging, and diminishment—to finally touch the fears we cannot speak or face—that maybe no one knows our name, that maybe no one could ever want to “own” us, that we could be picked off at any moment and no one would care.

We might be converted if our nerve endings start to twinge in longing for recognition and dignity, safety and nourishment, belonging and life, in sync with the same desires of other human beings, and of all creation. We could be saved if we’re led by imaginative preaching to hear in the air the name-knowing voice that echoes in this text and in all the scriptures, beginning to end–the ancient litany of tender and insistent calling that resounds in the church’s heart deeper than any fear.

Instead of trips to Ireland and seminary notes, we might be changed by a mirror held up to the vivid Jesus in this text; by a long, loving gaze at him as he works his poet’s heart out attempting to capture our imaginations, trying out one metaphor after another in an ever-turning prism of meaning and possibility, until some glint off one of its surfaces ignites a small flame in us, and something shifts to make way for a little more light. And then a little more, until everything is fire.

Jesus’ Syllabus

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“If you do not hate your father and mother… you cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26

I know a professor who’s delightful in the classroom. His courses routinely overfill. But he loathes those huge classes. He suspects many students come for his style, not his material; to be entertained, not educated. He can’t get a personality transplant, so he’s revised the course requirements—now it’s a killer. This semester, the crowds thinned out fast.

“You must hate your family…” That’s a killer, too. Jesus sounds tired of being the teacher everybody likes but nobody learns from. Tired of crowds that come for surprising stories and clever banter with lawyers but remain unchanged. Maybe he’s stiffening the requirements to thin them out.

Or maybe he’s having a smelling-salts moment, head snapping back as he comprehends, with mind-clearing clarity, how much it’ll cost him to love what is most worthy of love, and to love it in and above all other loves. Maybe he’s saying it aloud to make it real for himself as well as for us: “I will have to loosen every tie that binds.”

Here’s a horrible vision of life: I’ll love you and let you live if you’re like me; I’ll hate you and kill you if you’re not. It’s the ruling vision of our world. We know the ferocious consequences of its demonic irrationality. The question is whether we have any sense at all of the sacrifice it’ll take to destroy it and create the boundless fellowship of God.

Jesus says, ”You want to be my disciple? Then don’t come to me casually as if we were going to a picnic in the woods instead of a pitched battle in the anguished heart of the world. Read my syllabus. Read it again. Then come, follow me.”

Prayer

I’ve read it, Jesus. I’m not sure I can do it. Give me courage and grace.

 

 

And

 

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“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  [Mark 1:35]

At her denomination’s annual meeting, a social justice activist listened impatiently to a keynote address about spirituality. She was heard to mutter, “The world’s in flames, and these bliss-ninnies want to do guided meditations.”

In her view, ‘spirituality types’ are several singing bowls removed from the problems of the real world, clueless about root causes and systemic solutions. You want to pray? Do justice. Let that be your prayer. Want to linger devoutly over Scripture? Linger over Matthew 25. Then get to work. Enough with the navel-gazing!

Meanwhile, the keynoter was wondering why the ‘social justice types’ always seem so touchy, so grumpy. They have this air of fatigued arrogance about them, she thought, as if everything hinges on them—world peace, justice for he poor, an end to hunger. They can’t relax for even a nanosecond, because maybe, just maybe, the next action or petition will be the thing that finally fixes everything.

Jesus, Scripture says, puts his body on the line all day. And in the wee hours he prays. He never separates inseparables. For him, the kingdom comes by wonder and strategy, protest and ecstasy, imagination and politics, beauty and meetings, service and solitude, rallies and gratitude, rest and work, resolutions and praise.

It’s not a competition between the soul’s silence and the noise of the street. It’s not the sanctuary versus the subcommittee. It’s not even a matter of finding a balance, or making equal time. It’s about that and. About yielding our whole selves—every gift and skill, picketing and praying—to the Living One, in the sure and certain hope that, with us and without us, the kingdom comes, work of our hands and pure gift beyond our dreams.

Prayer
In prayer and action, O God, we hope in you. In you alone.