For All The Saints: Living the Communion More Than One Day A Year


Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet…

So, who wrote that? Teresa of Avila?

Nope. Methodist minister, Guy Pearse. He wrote the first few lines in 1888. The rest was added in 1892 by English Quaker, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, of the York, England, Rowntrees, who were chocolate makers, like the Cadburys of Birmingham.

But a chocolate loving Quaker is not as sexy as a 16th century mystic. Who wants Sarah Eliza Rowntree when you can have Teresa of Avila? That’s what a well-known blogger said to me when I pointed out the misattribution on his site. He said, “Yeah, I know, but Teresa’s name makes people want to read it.”

In 1968, a Harvard undergrad named Keith Kent wrote some guidelines for student leaders as a class assignment. He called them “Paradoxical Commandments.” We know them as the “Anyway” prayer of Mother Teresa. Seems you’ll never get your 15 minutes with a saint in the neighborhood. They’ll steal your stuff every time. There’s just something about a saint that confers authority even on clichés. You can write, “You must let the dog out,” sign it “St Francis of Assisi,” post it on Instagram, and within five minutes it’ll go viral.

And speaking of Francis…

We Protestants say we don’t “do” saints, but we sure “do” Francis. If we have outdoor statuary, it’s often Francis in a birdbath. And somewhere in our churches there’s a copy of a familiar prayer (that he didn’t write) that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Who cares if in addition to loving birds and peace, Francis loved priests, popes, and transubstantiation? Somehow this medieval Catholic has become a saint even modern Protestants can love.

But we aren’t supposed to love saints. We don’t canonize them. We don’t pray to them. They don’t do miracles for us. We don’t believe it’s just the few, the fine, and the dead who are saints, but all the baptized, including you and me. In most of our UCC churches, all it takes to become a saint is to sign up for a committee. Nothing canonizes you faster than volunteering to fill a slot on the Board of Christian Education!

We say saints aren’t special, yet we reverently share Facebook memes with their supposed sayings. We don’t privilege canonized saints over ordinary people, but we let Teresa of Avila steal from Sara Rowntree and get away with it. We don’t believe saints have special powers, yet some of us will pray to Jude, patron of hopeless causes, when we really need a parking space, or to St Anthony when we’ve lost our glasses.

We all know that the Protestant Reformers downplayed devotion to saints. It made a lot of sense to do that in the 16th century. But now? No one is collecting their relics and selling them any more, at least not where I live. No one is making crass bargains with them in return for a cure. No one thinks they can get us or our relatives into heaven if we donate a bundle to a hospital in their name. 

There are no insurmountable theological obstacles to our veneration of the saints, nothing to keep us from honoring and emulating them. St Paul told the early Christians to imitate him insofar as he was imitating Christ. That’s precisely what we do when we set the saints before us so that we might gain encouragement and derive fruitful lessons for our own discipleship. It’s what we do when we light a candle in memory of dear departed grandmother Smith or Pastor Jones on All Saints Day, too, acknowledging the many ways their example of Christian life has shaped and inspired us to be who we are.

And if we believe that the saints are with God and living still, even asking for their intercession is not terribly different from asking our earth-bound friends and neighbors to pray for us. Protestants have reconsidered and adapted a great deal of our pre-Reformation heritage, including more attention to ritual and the liturgical cycle, and even to fancy vestments. Why not the saints? And yes, I do mean the “big” ones, canonized or otherwise universally esteemed saints, as well as the more domestic, local ones. 

We call them “the church triumphant”—the church triumphant, living members of the church, still active in and crucial to its mission. If we want to be the church, the whole church, and nothing but the church, we can’t go about our mission ignoring an entire segment of the membership! Bad enough we do it with children and youth. And old people. Recovering a vivid sense of the communion of saints could make a big difference in the way we live into the church, its mission, and our own discipleship. I think we need the saints. 

Why? 

The saints shows us the myriad ways grace takes shape in real human lives.

We have one pattern—Christ. But Christ comes in all shapes and sizes. Race, gender, class, nationality, marital status, ability—you name it, in every time and place God has made saints from the material at hand. All different, all saints. To see the particularity of the saints helps us claim the particularity of our own discipleship. I don’t have to be anyone but me to witness faithfully to the gospels. In fact, if I’m not me, in all my particularity, I’m not witnessing faithfully to Christ.

Now, to be honest, over the centuries the church has not always done well in showing us the full range of human particularity in those it has named as its saints. For too many of those centuries, the official saints have been predominantly white, male, straight (as far as anyone knew or wanted to believe) and in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, celibate. The more we reflect on the saints, however, and the more we wonder about what makes for one, the greater the chance we will expand the old parameters and add to the rolls people from every race and clan, every condition and class, every geography and time. 

The saints enlarge our notion of community.

We say, “St Swithen’s by the Sea is a friendly community,” and “St Polycarp by the Pool is an active community.” But ‘community’ is one of those weasel words that can mean a lot of things. Too often it means only us like-minded folk, this happy, homogeneous little bunch. But when it comes to the ties of affection, aspiration, and accountability that bind the church in Christ, we need a thicker, more durable word, a word that fills the gaps we would happily leave unfilled—we need a communion. A communion of all the saints. If our idea of community is too thin or too parochial, too inward looking or self-regarding, too non-confrontational and not sufficiently challenging, the active presence of the saints in glory will enlarge it. The saints always bring a bigger world to our smallish one.

The saints teach us it’s not all about us in the now.

One of my missions in life is to convince everybody that just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were stupid. Or benighted. Or naïve. We who live today think no one’s ever been as clever and enlightened as we are. This is (as scholar Peggy Bendroth says) “presentism.” Like most all isms, it’s bad. The ‘now’ is a very narrow slice of human experience, after all. When you’re stranded in the present, you quickly come to the end of your own resources. You’ll easily grow cynical and defeated.

What might it do for a church like the UCC, still captive to the culture of the West, if, for example, we were to make the acquaintance of the patriarch Timothy who in the late 8th century was head of a church that extended over a vast territory—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Tibet; and which by the 11th century encompassed a full third of the world’s Christians?

How would it spark our imagination and enlarge our sense of possibility if we knew that, unlike his medieval European counterparts, Timothy did not look to secular emperors or kings to guarantee his authority, did not amass wealth and power, and did not persecute people of other faiths, but interacted and cooperated with them without fear, contempt, or hostility? (One of the emblems in use in Timothy’s church was the cross sitting on a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.) So many things we think of as challenges unique to the 21st century were normal for Timothy in the 8th and 9th—globalization, interfaith encounter, the complexities of living under regimes of other faiths.

And that’s just one example out of millions. The witness of the saints helps us recover parts of the Christian story we’ve forgotten. The saints offer us insights and practices, convictions, and hopes that stir and challenge our thinking and doing today. Even the sometimes bizarre “past-ness” of the saints is a gift. It teaches us that we will one day seem bizarre to our descendants too. This is much needed humility for presentists like us who believe that, compared with silly ancient people, we’re the cat’s meow.

The saints held the treasure in earthen vessels.

The saints are indeed wonderful, but they weren’t born wonderful. They worked out their salvation in fear and trembling. If we imitate them, it’s that “working out” that we imitate. It’s one of the most encouraging things about them. Living in communion with the saints we see how God’s power really is manifest in weakness. How else to explain John Wesley with his embarrassing boundary violations, a man so frustrated by his inability to fix himself that he wrote to his brother, “I do not love God, I never did”? Or a Teresa of Avila, a people pleaser (“I could be bought off with a sardine”) so unwilling to say no a person who’d once done her a favor that she endangered the safety of her nuns? Or a Simon Peter, whose denial of Jesus was every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal?

Maybe you find the notion of sanctity off-putting, especially if you think it means moral perfection. You know you can’t reach that, and people who try to be perfect are usually insufferable. But the saints’ holiness is different—it consists in their having really needed forgiveness, and in having loved the world out of an experience of undeserved mercy undeservedly received. The communion of saints is a communion of sinners. Forgiveness made their faithfulness possible. God’s power shone brightest in these sinful people who knew they depended on mercy for everything.

The saints witness to the ordinariness in being extraordinary. 

In St Francis’ world, lepers were frightful creatures. One never got close to them. It was extraordinary that anyone took up the calling of caring for them. Francis and his first brothers did. When he reflected on this, Francis noted that it was one of the effects of his conversion. After he was converted, he wrote, “I did not turn away from lepers” any more. But Francis didn’t become a saint in that moment he stopped turning away. He had to keep re-turning towards them day after day, not turning away again and again.

Holiness is not a matter of a moment, but of a lifetime of moments of not turning away, a lifetime of persevering practice, purified and shaped by an ever-deepening commitment to Christ. We rarely think of it when we think of saints, but it’s there—the unromantic routine, the sheer drudgery of doing things faithfully day after day with no audience, no reinforcement of the self, no consolation. And so we learn that sanctity is more about discipline and perseverance than mystical flights and heroic deeds. 

Without the saints, we won’t remember what we must never forget.

Right before he invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler spoke to his staff about the Armenian genocide 24 years earlier—a horror invisible to the outside world because those who knew about it chose to say and do nothing. He assured the generals that no one remembered the Armenians. And no one had ever paid a moral price for what was done to them. There’d be no moral price to pay for the invasion of Poland either, he said—not in a world with such a short self-serving memory.

As Peggy Bendroth says, “The world’s unwillingness to remember one genocide will always enable the next.” Bendroth concludes that remembering is an ethical obligation. But we don’t remember alone. We need a community to remember—a whole community, the communion of all the saints. If memories are partial or local or lost, she says, we’ll end up believing we’re not the kind of people who burn witches or look away from holocausts or criminalize the poor. But when we remember with all the saints, “they will say to us, ‘Well, we were that kind of people. You could be too. You’re not immune.’”

We need the saints. We need to be in everyday communion with them. But how do we do that? It takes practice. It is a practice. Here’s the shape it might take:

Invoke the saints often

Especially at the Font, the Table, at annual meetings and other crucial gatherings, and when new members join. Create and introduce a litany of the saints as a regular part of these celebrations. Acknowledge their presence with you as you gather to worship, as you decide big issues, as you bury your dead. Treat the saints as active members of the community on whose encouragement, inspiration, and prayers you rely. Make the cloud, the communion itself, a key part of how you understand the church, your church. When people ask how many members you have, say “Billions!”

Learn about their lives

Big saints and little saints—make it part of your church’s formation efforts to get to know one or two every year in order to appreciate and be inspired by the diversity of ways God has acted in human beings to produce holiness, service, and wisdom.

Tell the saints’ stories to each other and especially to your children, as you would the stories of family.

Because they are family. Don’t be afraid to hang pictures of saints in your church. (The icons of Robert Lenz are perfect for this practice.) People will say, “That’s too Catholic!” Tell them to get over themselves. It’s the family photo album. When we look at the photos we remember who we are, where we came from. We hope to see family resemblances, to discover who got Francis of Assisi’s feet, the belly laugh of Jonathan Daniels, Bishop Romero’s justice-seeing gaze, the vibrant intellect of RBG, the courage of Sojourner Truth. And millions more. Tell their stories.

If your children or grandchildren have a saint’s name, look up their saint’s day on a calendar of saints.

Celebrate that day annually, along with the child’s birthday, baptism day, and other anniversaries. If a child isn’t named for a saint, make up a saint’s day for them, and on that day bless God for the saint the child is already becoming.

Honor your baptisms in every way you can

The holiness of the saints is nothing more than baptismal grace unfolding over a lifetime. At every baptism, and on your baptism anniversary, remind yourself and each other how incarnated and particular this grace is, and that it’s at work in you.

Desire to be a saint.

When I was a child, the nuns taught us to aspire to sanctity. They meant moral perfection, and that was wrong. But their encouragement wasn’t. Understood rightly, growing into a generous and generative Christian maturity should be our dream. So next time you sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” be serious about the last line of each verse—“…and I mean to be one too!” It’s just anther way of affirming our baptismal commitment to the cause of Christ, aka discipleship.

Celebrate the heck out of All Saints Day!

Remember your dear local saints, but don’t confine yourself solely to the local list: celebrate all the saints in glory—past, present, and to come. Make All Saints day more than a kind of congregational memorial day. Make it a festival of the whole church, a day of baptismal renewal, a day to thank God that, by grace, all of us who truly “want to be in that number” surely will be.

By these and many other practices, make sure the saints feel at home in your church. Make sure they know that no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey, they are welcome here!

Image is “The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas; http://www.catholicworldart.com.

The Next Day: A Palm Sunday Reflection

Bethany

Mark 11:1-11

Jerusalem. The feast of Passover. Thousands of pilgrims crowding into the city to sacrifice the lamb, to remember that God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, to tell the great story of plagues of frogs and the angel of death, of a hurried escape under cover of darkness, of Moses and Pharaoh and the charioteers, of walls of water to left and right, the dry seabed at the bottom, and new life on the other side. 

Excitement runs high in the city during this feast of freedom. Some people use it as an occasion to stir up the age-old expectation that maybe this festival, this year, the liberating God will do again what God did long ago. Maybe at this festival, this year, the messiah will appear; or maybe at this festival, this year, an insurrection will finally get rid of the Romans… 

Jesus’ disciples are thinking like that too—maybe at this festival the Teacher will show his true colors; maybe at this festival he’ll install the kingdom of God; maybe the mysterious ‘hour’ he keeps talking about is now. 

They begin a victory chant. They get the crowds to hail Jesus as messiah and king. And once they start shouting, there’s no stopping them. But it would go a lot better for Jesus if they kept still. The louder the crowds, the bigger the trouble.

The Romans don’t care about the festivals of the Jews. What they care about is order. When crowds run riot, they have a no-nonsense way of dealing with it—crucifixion. It’s showy, it’s brutal, it works. As soon as the commotion begins, eyebrows shoot up at headquarters. The rabbi is losing control of his people. Get a cross ready, just in case. 

Beneath all the joyful street theatre, an undercurrent of violence is crackling. Every joyous wave of the palm heightens the tension. Jesus rides into the city to shouts of joy, but everyone’s looking over their shoulders. 

Soon Jesus arrives at the Temple. If we were reading the gospels of Matthew or Luke today, this is when Jesus causes yet another disturbance, trashing the money-changers’ stalls. But in Mark’s story, the version we heard just now, that provocation doesn’t occur today. It happens tomorrow, the next day.  

In this story, it’s quiet at the Temple. Not much going on, nobody there, really. Jesus just looks around. Doesn’t do a thing. Then, the story says, “because it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” 

Because it was already late. Maybe too late. The authorities have taken note.  

Jesus walks the two miles to Bethany with his friends. To Bethany, the closest thing he has to a real home, the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. To Bethany, the safe house, the refuge and rest. Jesus walks to Bethany. He’s home before bedtime.

Here’s what I wonder: 

What went on that night in Bethany after all the hubbub and danger in the city? 

Did Jesus sleep soundly, or did he lie awake? 

Once he had some space to think about the day, did he toss and turn, worrying that the crowds were so big? That they’d hung their hopes on him? Called him messiah and king? 

Does he fret over what might come next? Imagine the forces of order matter-of-factly dispensing with him? Crushing him in the machine of stability? 

Jesus got home before bedtime. I wonder what kind of night he had. 

Did he stay up, talking with his friends? Had they calmed down, come to their senses? Do they realize what they’ve done in stirring things up? 

Does Martha beg him not to go back the next day? Does Lazarus, recently restored to life by Jesus, tell him he should value his life and not foolishly risk it? Do the disciples suggest that he stay out of sight, or issue a conciliatory statement, take a more gradualist approach and defuse the anxiety of the authorities, be prudent and patient and wise? 

Does he wrestle with it, pray about it, finally tell them he won’t back off? Won’t hide? Won’t stop teaching, healing, being who he is? Won’t do anything except what he’s always done, which is to trust in God?  The God who brought the people out from slavery, led them through the sea, through suffering to freedom, from death to milk and honey on the other side? 

And did he explain to them that the next day is not really all that different from any other day—because every day is the day you are called to risk everything for the sake of the world’s healing? 

Did they stand and pray with him before going to bed? Promise God and each other that no matter what happened, they would always be his friends, always stand up for him, heart of each other’s heart; and that when the time came, they would wash his body for the grave?

The ancient rabbis used to say that the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea was not that God parted the sea; it was that one fleeing Hebrew, the first in line, dared to step out and go down deep onto that exposed sea bed, a huge threatening wall of water to his right, another to his left. 

It’s not news that God wills life and freedom for us. It’s big news, good news, when somebody trusts God enough to risk a step towards claiming it. God always parts the waters for us. Whether we dare walk through them, that’s the hanging question.

God opened a way for Jesus, parted the waters. The exposed seabed beckoned him back to Jerusalem the next day, leading him eventually to a place called the Skull. By going down deep into that mysterious beckoning, Jesus will find life. Indestructible life will rise from his grave. And he will share it with us. 

God parts the sea for Jesus and called him to step out. What we fail to consider sufficiently is that he could have chosen not to go. He could have stayed in Bethany. 

We know by heart every detail of what happens after he gets out of bed the next morning, says his prayers, breaks his fast, and makes the trek back to the city. 

We know every sordid, sad detail of what happens after he makes the choice between buckling under to order, stability, power, and resolutely embracing our human hope for freedom, mercy, and justice. Hope that won’t calm down, be quiet, or go away just because somebody needs it to, just because somebody tells it to, just because someone believes it’s better for harmony, better for the rest of us, to kill all challenge and crucify all question. 

Three years earlier, in other waters, Jesus had undergone a baptism; he’d been immersed in a bath of preparation. Did he know right then everything he was preparing for, commit all at once to it all? Or like us, did he have to keep committing and re-committing one day and the next day, saying yes to God again and again, as the way was revealed step by step, and the consequences of each previous choice unfolded?

If that day three years before was his baptism, this night in Bethany is his confirmation. This night he embraces again and with more clarity who he is and what he is called to do.

The next morning, he gets up and he goes deep. He walks the dry seabed into the city, a path lit only by God’s faithfulness and love for his people, and for us. 

And ever since that night in Bethany he has been especially present and vivid in all the faith-choosing and faith-confirming moments of our own lives. He’s been especially present and vivid in every daily ‘yes’ we say to God, even when prudence tells us to stay home, when common sense commands us to be afraid, when we know no one would blame us for not risking our lives.

Through all our own long nights in our own Bethanies, those places in us where fear wrestles with faith, where safety struggles with trust, he is with us. In every conversation and discernment, every imagination and dread, every deeper and stronger resolve, he is there. 

And every morning that we leave some safe house and go back, back to our own looming Jerusalems, back to God knows what, we will know him. As we walk the seabed, making our way down to the bottom of the things that matter most in this life, the few things that are worth every sacrifice, we will look up and see great walls of threatening water on our left and on our right, and we will see him too, behind us, ahead of us, within us, above us, beside us. Always. Come what may. 

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

satan

Even the devil can quote scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Prayer

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

Who Is the God Who Wants Me to Do It?

gran-poder-rechi1

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

And Alleluia Is Our Song: A Post-Easter Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “And Alleluia Is Our Song”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a 2008 Easter sermon, Kate Layzer asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Kate says: In the face of all the things there are to complain about, Alleluia.

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

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

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

In good times and bad, Alleluia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia is our song.

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

‘They Have No Wine…’ John 2:3



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

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

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

Because they have no wine.

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

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

Thank you, Mary.

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

Epiphany: Hide and Seek with the Divine

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

But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Epiphany (RCL Year A): Who Is Jesus?

Epiphany is the mystical season par excellence, the season of coming to know beyond knowing, of coming to love what we come to know.

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

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

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

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

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

Then we read that Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit, causing his fame to grow throughout Galilee. After another healing, of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, we’re told that “the whole city” has gathered outside the door. “Everyone is searching for you, “ the disciples tell him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image:  “Black Christ,” an icon created by the Rev. Canon Warner Traynham, former rector of St. John’s Church, Los Angeles, now the proCathedral of St. John.