Saturday, June 24, 2017

Hagar's Children

For six years I took several 14-passenger busloads of girls from my religion class to visit a mosque – The Islamic Center in Washington, DC. If time allowed after the always wonderful conversation with Sheikh Abbas we would allow the girls time in the Center’s gift shop. In the gift shop there are bottles of something called Zamzam Water. This water purports to be from the well that God/Allah revealed to Hagar  when she and her son Ishmael were in danger of dying from thirst (Genesis 21:8-21). Legend says that Hagar ran between two hills seven times before coming upon the well that saved her life and that of Ishmael who is recognized in the Quran as having assisted his father Abraham in establishing the first monotheistic worship site, the Kaaba, in what is today Mecca, the religious and geographical center of Islam. Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael are revered as ancestors of the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.

Thus the importance of reading these stories in Genesis. Hagar is believed to have been acquired as a maidservant to Sarah while she and Abraham were in Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. We may recall (Genesis 12) that Abraham had Sarah pretend to be his sister, not his wife, “so that it may go well with me.” Indeed, Pharaoh himself takes Sarah as his wife and it goes well with Abraham who acquires sheep, oxen, donkeys, and male and female slaves from Pharaoh. The Lord is not happy with the ruse, however, and brings plagues upon the land of Egypt until Pharaoh also discovers the ruse and sends Abraham and Sarah and “all that he had” out of Egypt. Hagar is believed to be among the servants.

As Sarah has so far not conceived a child let alone a male heir for Abraham, it is she who suggests that Abraham take Hagar as a second wife, which he does and Hagar becomes pregnant. (Genesis 16) At this point Hagar begins to “look with contempt” upon her mistress who in turn treats Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away and is resting by a well when an angel of the Lord appears to her commanding her to return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel of the Lord commands Hagar to name the child Ishmael, or God Hears because “the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” The angel further announces that the offspring of Ishmael shall be numerous beyond measure, the same promise made to Sarah and Abraham! Hagar, we are told, submits to the Lord’s instructions (which is a root meaning of the word Islam – submission to God), returns and bears a son and names him Ishmael as the Angel of the Lord had commanded.

Abraham’s first son grows up and is among those males both slave and free who are commanded by the Lord to be circumcised as people of the covenant. Abraham is 99 and Ishmael is 13. A year later Sarah is promised a son, and despite the hilarious impossibility of it all, Isaac is born – Laughter, or He Who Laughs! Sarah sees the now teenage Ishmael “playing with” or “mocking” her now toddler son Isaac. She orders Abraham to dismiss them both. Abraham is distressed “because of his son,” but the Lord commands him to “do whatever Sarah tells you to do,” good advice for all husbands always and everywhere!

Abraham gives them some bread and a skin of water and sends her away. She and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, but soon the water is gone and the boy becomes faint. Hagar lies him beneath a bush and goes off at a distance so as “not to look on the death of the child. She lifted up her voice and wept.” Yet, God hears the voice of the boy and an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar saying, “What troubles you? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand for I will make a great nation of him.” And as God opens her eyes she sees a well nearby, fills the skin, and gives the boy a drink from the Zamzam well. He goes on to be lauded in pre-Islamic poetry and is, nearly 2,500 years later, mentioned ten times in the Quran as revealed to the prophet Muhammed, pbuh.

Hagar, as Jewish sages picture her, was a woman of humility and piety. Indeed, few others were privileged to have an angel of the Lord speak to them twice, and produce miracles for them! She is a woman of strength and perseverance. She is obedient and submits unto the Lord.

Unfortunately, she does not fare as well in Christian literature. Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians chapter 4 draws an odd allegory depicting the children of Hagar as “children of the flesh” and slaves unto the Law given at Sinai, while Sarah is depicted as having children of “the promise” who serve not in Jerusalem under the law, but in the “heavenly Jerusalem…now you, my friends, are children of the promise like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.” Ishmael’s “playing” with his little half-brother is characterized by Paul as “persecution.”

Such theologizing is only compounded and made worse by Saint Augustine who depicts Hagar as mother of the Earthly City of Sin, and the medieval scholar and reformer John Wycliffe who declares that the children of Sarah are redeemed, those of Hagar are unredeemed, “carnal by nature and mere exiles.”  One can readily see that such characterizations of a woman who faithfully submitted to the will of the God of Abraham can be read by Muslims as at the least unhelpful, and realistically problematic and blasphemous in today’s world.

It is interesting to note that although neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned in the Quran, Islam is largely a religion of practices, not philosophical ideas, and that to this day during the Hajj (one of the five pillars of Islam), pilgrims still run back and forth between two hills outside Mecca to recall Hagar’s attempts to save her son, and the miracle of discovery of the Zamzam well that ultimately revives Ishmael and saves the patriarch of an important religious tradition. And, as the Biblical texts in Genesis proclaim, Ishmael has become a great nation of people devoted to the One God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.

A lot of ink is spilled with little close investigation or analysis over things in the Quran that are easily misunderstood out of context – the context of the poetry itself, and the context of the culture in which it arose. It is safe to say the same is true of our Bible. Few of us have ever spent much time reflecting on these stories. Yet, we live in a daily world of generalizations like “the West,” “the Islamic World,” “the War on Terror” and other fictions and lazy catchall phrases that are the fodder for headline writers and zealots. The truth is always more nuanced and tied to context – context that is often stated in poetry, allegory and metaphor.

It is no wonder that when Pilate asks the soon to be crucified Jesus, “What is truth?” that Jesus has nothing to say. What can be said to the Pilates of this world who want to see all of life in black and white when we live in a world of a thousand shades of gray? How ironic it is that the stories in our Bible ought to make us more understanding of Muslim faith, history and culture. It  is, in fact, subsequent theological metaphors in Christian tradition that ought to be seen in part as the source of our own misconceptions of the world’s fastest growing religious tradition. Islam is not the problem. Not knowing our own stories is. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Gospel As Comedy

Faith, Hope and Charity – The Gospel as Comedy
It seems to have been a week that has tested all three-Faith, Hope and Charity. It is a week that has seemed endless in many ways, leaving some of us looking for, hoping for, praying for an end to it all – endless violence, endless scandal, endless finger-pointing, blaming and shaming.

Along come an old man and an old woman and Jesus to redirect our attention if only for this moment. Yet, this moment always promises to be just enough – just enough time to disengage from the seemingly endless frays that constantly demand our attention, our thoughts, our emotions – enough to allow ourselves to reboot, refocus and rejoice in the good faith, hope and charity that can form the very foundation “under everything that makes life worth living.”

And what is faith? As one has put it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] Abraham, the old man, “and he as good as dead” [Heb 11:12!], has heard it all before – a place to call home, to be a blessing to all nations, and descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, stars in the sky, atoms of dust in the universe – most all of which, 95% of which we are told, remains not seen.

He and the old lady have been on the road to this home, these blessings and promises of children for nearly 25 years now and in their weariness have settled down beneath some terebinth trees – trees sometimes considered sacred in that region, if only because of the stories associated with them like this one. [Genesis 18]. The journey from Ur to Mamre and this oasis of trees has been anything but a blessing. Twice Abe has had to order Sarah to pretend to be his sister, rather than step-sister and wife, so as not to be killed by hostile war-lords along the way who would make off with this obviously still desirable woman who was already in her sixties when the journey began. There were problems with his nephew Lot and his family, and even more problems with Sarah’s hand-maid Hagar and the son Ishmael she bore from Abraham himself. All the things promised by Lord YWHW remained conspicuously ‘not seen.’ Like Woody, like Pete, like every one of us, the old man and the old woman have seen some hard travelin’ too.

Along comes the Lord, in the disguise of three men. A foreshadowing of father, son and holy ghost? We should note the character of hospitality to these otherwise strangers. Abe does not wait for them to knock on the tent door but races out to greet them, bows, offers water, arranges to wash their feet and invites them to rest. Then orders Sarah to get cooking, finds a good and tender calf to serve with curds and milk. Note also, this is no kosher meal! Abe stands by looking on as they eat, waiting to see, perhaps, how many Michelin Stars their little oasis might earn whence comes the comedy.

“This time next year I (we?) will surely return and Sarah will have a son.” Now you think they might both say something like, “Sure, sure, we’ve heard this all before,” which they had over and over again. But no. Sarah laughs. This is no chuckle. It is belly busting out loud fall on your face, tears streaming down your face, laughter! The narrator solemnly and somewhat piously notes, “…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” As if even the narrator has given up all hope on all the promises made and re-made. The Lord hears her laugh and asks, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” Abe’s hope for even one or two stars begins to fade. Sarah denies laughing, which is hard to do – and hard to distinguish from all the tears shed these past 25 years just waiting for this very moment and having long ago given up even the very thought of becoming a mother. “Oh yes, you did laugh!” says the Lord. Having used up all their tears there is nothing for the old man and the old woman to do but laugh, thinking it’s too good to be true. It turns out that the truth of it is that it’s too good not to be true!

Indeed, the next year things do not improve for the family overall as the regrettable episode at Sodom and Gomorrah intervenes, and Abraham is ordered to circumcise not only himself but all males young and old, slave and free. Yet, along comes chapter 21, and lo and behold, Sarah is holding a bouncing little baby boy. Sarah is laughing again. Sarah is laughing still. “Everyone who hears will laugh,” she declares. We are meant to laugh at the very thought of it, rather than  piously intone, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God.” It’s all a cosmic joke! It is the foundation of our faith, of our very life, to be able to laugh with Sarah to this day! The significance of all this is captured in the boy’s name: Isaac, which means laughter, or he who laughs.

If that’s not enough, here’s another one. In the ninth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus sending his twelve disciples out to do the work he is doing, ‘and greater things than these.’ After noting that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few, he gathers them and us together and gives them and us authority. He gives them authority because he sees that the crowds that had gathered and followed him from place to place like so many camp followers during the War for Independence were, in the words of Matthew, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus gives them, and us by proxy, authority over “unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” He goes on to say, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” These are marching orders for divine Charity! One notes that the disciples forget to laugh! But, this is the Gospel as divine comedy. We are meant to laugh, if only at our disbelief that we can do any or all of this that Jesus himself authorizes us to do.

Where does the laughter of Sarah and Abraham come from, asks Frederick Beuchner in his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale? “It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way comes from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness, but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.” [p.57] When we succumb to only the tragedy and darkness that confronts us almost daily, we often become paralyzed, or even worse, simply used to it.

When we go deep beyond the tears and laugh we free ourselves and are reminded of the often ridiculous promises of hope and redemption that have been given us by traditions that have been forged on the anvil of tragedy and darkness. We recall the faith of our mothers and fathers, our Sarahs and Abrahams. We remember that nearly all that lies ahead of us is in the realm of the  not seen. And that for the promises to come true we need to respond to the call for laborers to go into the field for the harvest, authorized to perform extraordinary acts of divine charity!

The fields are ripe and the harvest waiting, and the laborers are few. Our gospel of divine comedy is meant to make us laugh beyond our tears so that we can be free to join with those individuals of yesterday, today and tomorrow who in the hour of deepest darkness respond to the call, “Here am I, O Lord send me.”                                  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Third Person

Day of Pentecost ~ Acts 2: 1-21/John 20: 19-23
We name you wind, power, force, and then
            imaginatively, “Third Person.”
We name you and you blow …
blow hard,
blow cold,
blow hot,
blow strong,
blow gentle,
blow new …
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
Blowing the church out of despair to new life,
Blowing little David a shepherd boy to messiah,
Blowing to make things new that never were.
            So blow this day, wind,
                 blow here and there, power,
                 blow even us, force,
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
            Come, come spirit. Amen.
            -Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, (Fortress, Minneapolis: 2003), p.167

This day we call Pentecost is about making things new that never were. Even Pentecost is made new. Formerly it was an Israelite agricultural festival, then a celebration of God giving God’s people Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and now it is transformed again as that day when the wind blew, or the breath blew depending on your reading, and the gift of the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, hiding, cowering people into hopeful, public, proclaiming people.

Luke (in “his” volume II, Acts) and John present similar yet vastly different accounts of this world changing event. In Luke there is wind and fire and the sound of rushing water. In John Jesus breathes on them. That is, there is some serious blowing going on. In my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, Baron Munchausen, the Baron has some sidekicks: one with incredible vision, one with incredible speed, one with incredible strength, and one with incredible lung-power. Gustabus can blow over an entire platoon of soldiers with a single breath! So, when we read of Jesus blowing on the disciples, it may in fact be more like Gustabus than the gentle, intimate breath felt on one’s neck from the one sitting next to you. This Breath/Spirit/Wind can knock you across the room and around the world!

The word is Ruach. When we hear of this ruach we are to think of how the ruach of God hovered over the waters of chaos we call creation in Genesis 1, and the same God of Israel is depicted breathing into a handful of moist dust to enliven the first person in the very next chapter, Genesis 2. We are not to concern ourselves with the Bible making up its mind. God’s Spirit-Wind is capable of taking any form, force or character. It is the power of life, the power of creation, the power that can blow something out of nothing!

Next, the two stories share a picture of Jesus’ friends huddled behind closed doors, in a house, fearful of all that lies on the other side of the door. There was good reason to be afraid. Jesus was dead, though not exactly gone. The Roman soldiers were looking to round up his followers. In Acts he has already ascended into the heavens, in John he keeps coming back and coming back and coming back again. No wonder they are afraid!

Then Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” followed by a display of his wounds on his hands and his side. As if to say, “See, here, this is what fearful people do to others.” Then he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father sends me so I send you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” Then all this stuff about forgiveness.

One suspects that when the Risen Lord breathes on you you feel it. You really really feel it. It moves you to a new and unexpected place. It sustains you, enlivens you and gives you the courage to walk out the door and do and say everything you do In His Name.

Next, he gives them power to forgive. How do you want your forgiveness? He teaches them to pray, forgive others as you wish to be forgiven. Don’t forgive and you carry it with you forever. That would be the retention part. Those who feel the breath are to become a community of forgiveness, forgiving the way we would like to be forgiven.

How hard is that? Look at his hands and his side. And consider what is really being said here: get outside of this locked room! Get out in the world! It’s time to make things new that never were! No time to sit around and be afraid. It is time to blow the world into a new world of Shalom and Forgiveness. Shalom. That would be his word, not mine. Peace is about as anemic a translation of Shalom as we can imagine. Shalom means justice and peace for all people. Not some people, not a lot of people, not most people, but ALL people! Shalom means respect and dignity for ALL people. Shalom means seeking and serving Christ in ALL people. Shalom means taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

One day when our daughter Cerny was still in grade school she asked me, “Dad, what’s the common good?” This was her homework assignment. We talked about it. I should have said, “Jesus calls the common good Shalom.” He breathes on us. God breathes in us. The Spirit blows us away! So that we might have life and have it abundantly. So that we might be energized. So that we might be driven out the doors! So that we might get out into the streets and provide for the common good. For all people. What the Bible is all about is The Common Good combined with a huge helping of forgiveness.

In the end, my friends, it is all about this Shalom he talks about. My goodness, he says it over and over again. He calls us to receive his Spirit and his Shalom. It is up to us to accept it, get out of here and work for the common good. That is Pentecost. It does not get any simpler than this: Time to make things new that never were!

So blow this day, wind/ blow here and there, power/ blow even us, force/ Rush us beyond ourselves/ Rush us beyond our hopes/ Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.    Come, come spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire!

Saturday, May 27, 2017


So that they may be One, as we are One
As we noted on Thursday evening, the Sunday Lectionary assumes most people miss the Feast of the Ascension, so “Voila!” We get Luke’s version in the book of The Acts of the Apostles chapter 1. Though we miss the intro: In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles whom he had chosen.”

And it turns out that Theophilus translates roughly, “God Lover,” or “God’s Beloved.” You are God’s Beloved. We live in God and God lives in us. But I get ahead of myself.

As they watch Jesus return to Love from whence he came, two men in white robes ask the pivotal question: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. Jesus is leaving and he is coming. Which means that although they saw him leave, he is still here. Life with Jesus is often a paradox.

Enter the so-called High Priestly Prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John – arguably the most mystical of all the gospels. Jesus is praying. Approximately 1200 years later, Eckhart von Hochheim, known as Meister, or Master, Eckhart wrote about prayer: If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. Jesus is thanking God for giving us to him. “They used to be yours, and you gave them to me.”

Jesus also says it is time for him to be “glorified.” Glorification in this case refers to the revelation of God’s Love in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. By glorifying God, Jesus makes visible the presence of God through, as the two men in white (who are they?) “all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.”

What the two men in white seem to be saying, as cool as it is to see him ascend to the God of Love, it’s time to get to work on all that he taught you- feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoners, welcome the strangers, clothe the naked – meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people – and all creature, and all creation.

And the bonus is that those God has given him have been given eternal life, which it turns out is not a future in heaven or immortality, but rather a life shaped in the image of God as revealed in Jesus – here and now. As Meister Eckhart also said, “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” Quit standing around looking up into the heavens and get to work!

Despite all the rhetoric about Pentecost being the birthday of the Church, I have always thought that distinction belongs to the Ascension. He has to leave so that we can get to work doing all he did and taught, “and greater things than these you will do.”

And he prays for our protection as we are that manifestation of Jesus that continues on in the world. The world does not always welcome the Jesus in us, but that only brings us closer to Jesus who is the life and light of the world. Another paradox. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.”
The Light is so near to us, he prays that we may be One as he and the Father are One. This recalls the beginning of the fourth gospel that tells us that Jesus, the Word, the logos, was with God in the beginning, and is God, and that all that was created came through Jesus, the Word. I suspect Eckhart was deeply immersed in the Gospel of John for he also says, “Every creature is a word of God.”

This means us as well as the fish in the sea. Another mystic who lived a half century before Eckhart was another German, Mechtild of Magdeburg. She writes:
A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of its making,
Gold doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
Must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?

That is, life is not about beliefs or doctrines or creeds or liturgies. It is not a discipline or a practice. It is the most intimate experience of being alive, like breathing itself. Breath, the difference between life and death. At age twelve Mechtild had a spiritual experience in which she saw “all things in God, and God in all things.”

The importance of the Christian mystical tradition is its insistence that we must treat one another, every creature, every thing the way God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. He prays, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”

He who is coming is always here. As the most recent Nobel Laureate of Literature writes:
Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, “Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign”
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?
            -Bob Dylan, Pressing On

He ascends, yet all the while he is here. It all comes from within. And it is all around all the time in all things. He prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. What’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been. This is eternal life: knowing God and knowing Jesus, who are one and that same. We are one and the same. Eternal life is here and now.

“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me,” writes Eckhart.

All because we see the Son rising, and listen to the men in white, and come to know God as God knows us.  It’s time to stop standing around and tell others the good news, for later he prays for on behalf of those who come to believe because of our word. He is the word, and through his word we come to know that we too are the word. We live in God and God lives in us. We are one, as God and Jesus are one. Do we get that? Thank you!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

He Returns To Love

Ascension Day
It is the Ascension of Jesus in the first chapter of Acts. He who came from Love returns to Love. A crowd of followers stand and watch. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” ask two men dressed in white robes. Who are these guys?

Are these the same two men dressed in dazzling white clothes in the tomb? The same two who said, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

Like the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Butch and the Kid are trying to outrun the Pinkerton Agents, holed up behind a rock, looking back at the cloud of dust that was the Agents and Butch says, “Who are those guys?”

And why do we look up into the heavens? Humans have been doing this forever – and ever. Looking for some way out of here. As the Nobel Laureate put it:
There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief

That’s what makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ so unique: it is not about escape. It’s about waiting patiently upon the Lord to deliver, right here, right now. Well, not exactly right now. As he is ascending the people ask when? When will we be delivered? Jesus says, “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set by the Father. But you will receive Power from the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the Earth!”

First, we notice that the Luke 24 account of his ascension actually precedes Acts, and that Luke and Acts are Volumes 1&2 of Luke’s full account to Theophilus – literally “God Lover”, or “Friend of God”, or “Beloved by God.” God’s Beloved. That is, you and me.

Next, we note that Luke has Ascension occur on Easter Sunday, Acts has it forty days later.

Evidently Luke/Acts is not reporting “history” the way we usually understand it.

Luke has the Ascension end Gospel and the time of Jesus.

Acts has the Ascension start the time of the Church: a time to Witness – to the ends of the Earth.

In Luke, all the action moves from the world to Jerusalem.
In Acts, all the action moves out from Jerusalem to the world.

In Luke – Jesus says, “Wait in the city for all God’s Spirit and Glory to break in – wait for further instructions!” Stay here until further notice.

In Acts two men in white ask:What are you standing around for? What are you looking for? Get moving, get going, moving on and out! The Time of Witnessing begins with his departure. It is time for Action, Mission, and witnessing. Not Standing around, watching and waiting.

In the past I have done a balloon release at the end of the Ascension service. It’s fun to stand there and watch them float away. But, it’s a bad idea since it causes ecological problems for other creatures. And it’s a Bad symbol because we end up standing around looking up like the disciples instead of getting on with it!

The very last words of scripture are, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” Yet, in the most real sense he never left. We live within this paradox. He is coming, and he is here when we know where to look.

See the Son Rising
See the Son Rising
See the Son Rising
He is here

He is here in the city
He is here in the streets
He is here in our singing
He is here in the people that we meet

Alleluia Alleluia he is here
Alleluia Alleluia he is here

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Come and Listen

Come and Listen
Come and listen, all you who fear God,
And I will tell you what he has done for me!-Psalm 66
We pray that his promises exceed all that we can desire – and we may as well admit it: we desire an awful lot! Can we separate out what we need from what we want when naming our desires?

Meanwhile the psalmist opines, Our God is in the heavens – he does as he pleases! You don’t have to like it, you don’t get to vote on it. What a God! Their gods are made of human hands and live in shrines made by human hands. Their gods are made of silver and gold - religion cast as money! They have feet but they cannot walk; they have eyes but they cannot see; they have ears but they cannot hear; they have mouths but they cannot speak; they cannot even make a sound with their throat! And any god that cannot clear its throat will never get you out of exile.

Meanwhile, how much misogyny and racism and drug addiction and nativism and religious bigotry and debt and alcoholism and misinformation and alternative facts and wars on people and wars on drugs and wars on wars does a society have to have before it admits it is living in exile?

Then he says, “I’m in you, and you’re in me, and He is We, and We are all together,
Coo coo ca choo!”

And he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are his commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. Love one another as I have loved you. And love your neighbor as yourself!

And how has he loved us? With all his heart, all his mind and all his strength, not considering his equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the life of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. And he promises to send us an Advocate – the breath of truth, the true breath. He gives us breath, the true breath. Breath – that mysterious air that distinguishes life from death.

He leaves us not alone. This Advocate, this True Breath, is given, as life is given, as all is given, as all is gift! The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein! Jesus promises to blow breath into those who keep his commandments. Just as God blew breath into the first man and woman in the Garden.

This breath is the true breath that brings Jesus to life after death on the cross. This is resurrection breath. Giving us this breath gives us a portion of God’s essence, the breath, wind and spirit that blew over the face of the waters in creation becomes our very essence. True breath gives new life, reborn life, resurrection life. Real life beyond life with the idols of silver and gold – religion cast as money. True Breath to resurrect those living in exile, to resurrect our dry bones.

Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me, for us, for all. “I’m in you, and you’re in me, and He is We, and We are all together, Coo coo ca choo!”
Jesus’ last gift was the Paraclete or Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, or the True Breath – what we casually now call the Holy Spirit. Later in John’s Gospel, on the evening of resurrection, he literally breathes this Spirit of Truth on the disciples.

A colleague pointed out the other day that in Greek culture, which had heavily influenced Israel before the Romans came along, the Advocate was someone in a courtroom separate from your lawyer and separate from the judge. This parakletos was an independent intercessor who could interrupt the proceedings at any time on your, on our, behalf. As Jesus earlier says to Nicodemus, this spirit comes from we know not where and takes us we know not where, where we have never imagined going.

Our colleague went on to say, Here’s how it all sets up. We are to love one another as he loves us. He knows that one day God the Father will be our judge on all of this love, Jesus will be our lawyer, and the Spirit shall be our parakletos, or intervening Advocate. It looks as if the odds are stacked in our favor! And this parakletos is the True Breath or Breath of Truth, the very Breath he breathes on us, is the very breath that gives us life, and not just life, but eternal life.

All three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in this narrative from the fourteenth chapter of John, appearing together for the first time. He concludes this portion, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Words meant to both comfort us and challenge us. They challenge us to remember just who we are and whose we are.

“Then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars!”

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year-old carbon, caught in the devil’s bargain. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Master Eckhart once said: Man’s best chance of finding God is looking in the place where he left him. Where did we leave him? That’s where we’ll find him. Or, maybe the True Breath, the Spirit of Truth, will find us first! 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

If it's not about Love, it's not about God!

If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God!
Chapters 13-17 of John describe the Last Supper. It is, therefore, the night before Jesus will be executed by the Empire. In chapter 13 Jesus washes the disciples’ feet as a sign of the kind of life they are to continue to live after he is gone. He has come from God and is returning to God. He comes from Love and returns to Love. And in these chapters, he is assuring them that the Life of Love – love of God and love of neighbor – they have experienced walking with him these three years together will continue. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:33-35) We come from love, we return to love and love is all around.

Peter, of course, wants to follow him home, to the dwelling place of God’s eternal love for all persons and all of creation. You cannot follow me now, says Jesus. I need you to remain in the world but not of the world. I need you. I need you to walk in the way of Torah, in the way of God’s Word, in my way, the way of Love for one another and all others. Don’t you remember, Peter: You are to Love God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. AND, Love your neighbor as I Love you, as God my Father Loves me. After all, you know where I am going. Then comes chapter 14, a source of endless trouble and misunderstanding. Thomas, the one who insisted on seeing the Risen Lord himself, the one who upon seeing him proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”, that Thomas, says, “Lord, we do not know the way, we do not know the road, we do not know the path.”

To which Jesus says, “Sure you do, Thomas. I Am. I Am the path, I Am the truth, I Am Life – the Life that is the Light of the World!” The path, the road that leads to truth and life would have reminded his Jewish audience of halakha, “the way one walks.” Richard Swanson likens this to the Lakota people who talk about “walking in the sacred manner,” that is, the way that human beings were created to live. Halakah means walking in the ordinances, the commandments, the way, the path, the road of Torah living, which this Jesus summarizes as “loving God and loving neighbor.” It is nothing less than The Way of God. If it is not about Love it is not about God! [Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p.315]

It is not about some exclusive road to walk in the sacred manner. It is about the particular way in which the community of Jesus is called to walk. There are no claims to superiority, exclusivity or any other kind of special place in God’s universe. It is all about what we are to be doing when after tomorrow he is dead and hanging on a Roman cross. Love those neighbors.

When asked, “Who is our neighbor?” Jesus, a real shrewdie replies with a story. A person is attacked on the road and left for dead. A priest walks by, a Levite walks by, a lawyer walks by, but a Samaritan stops and provides health care and healing for the person. Three Israelis walk by and a Palestinian stops to help the person. Hillary Clinton lies beaten on the side of the road and the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee walks by, a Democratic Senator walks by, and then Donald Trump comes along and says, “I will enact an affordable care act to take care of you and all others in need!” Which one is the neighbor he asks? You get the picture, yes?

The disciples have been walking on this road, following him, he who is the human face of God, for three years. Yet, now Philip, the one, you recall, to whom some Greeks came and asked, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” – now this same Philip asks Jesus, “Hashem, show us the Father.” Jesus must have sighed, a long, exhausted and frustrated sigh. How many times must I go over this, Philip. I AM in the Father, Elohim, YHWH, the one who said, “Light!” and there was light and life and love. You have been with me all this time, you have seen the works: the blind receive vision, those who are broken we bind up, those who are hungry we feed, those who are thirsty receive drink, those who have sinned are forgiven, those who are strangers are welcomed, refugees are given safe haven, prisoners are visited and comforted. If you cannot trust me, if you cannot trust the Father, trust in the works themselves. Because if you do trust in the works themselves, you will do the works that I do, and the one who trusts in the works and is faithful toward me will do greater works than these! And why? How? Because I AM going to the father. I Am returning to the dwelling place of the Father’s eternal Love. Because I am leaving you, you, all of you, every one of you and all of you together will do greater works than these!

He is not leaving them, he does not leave us, alone and helpless in this world of deep darkness. The Way they have walked with him continues in them, in us, in all who trust in the works themselves. His departure does not signal an end to the Way in which they have lived with him, but rather a beginning of continuing to live this Way, which is none other than that Way that Loves God and Loves Neighbor – all neighbors, most especially those beyond the community of God’s eternal Love. Because if it is not about Love – a love that accepts and welcomes and cares for all persons and all creation – then it is not about God!

The Word, the logos, must be weary of trying to explain this to them, to us, to the world. The logos in Jewish texts often is Torah – the commandments, the Way of God. And the logos in this text is Jesus. So, if the logos is Torah and Jesus, then the whole sense of being faithful and trusting of Jesus begins to make sense. Christians tend to read this as evidence that they alone have real access to God and God’s Love. Yet, Jews like Jesus and Paul speak freely of Torah as the path to God on which even non-observant gentiles and even atheists may already be walking as well. Torah is as basic as gravity. How can you supersede gravity? So, think of Jesus as the gravity that draws people and all things to God and God’s Torah and a life of halakha.

This world Jesus speaks of is God’s world. It is not a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other kind of world. He has come from Love and returns to Love so that we might be the Love that is all around all the time everywhere for everyone. Those who can understand this and trust it in any way possible will continue the works, “and greater works than these will you do!”

It is no wonder so many Christians try to focus exclusively on being the Way rather than taking on the responsibility to do “greater works than these.” Jesus is not asking simply for belief or faith. He wants action. He wants works of Love. Anyone can say he or she believes or has faith. But, says Jesus, if you truly wish to be with me and in me you will continue the works themselves, and greater works than these. No doubt he is still waiting for Thomas, Philip and all of us to get it. How weary he must be of saying this. How patient he is just waiting for us to get with the program, the movement, The Jesus Movement, the Way of Torah, the way of halakha, the Way of God’s eternal Love! I can hear him sighing right now. Can you? When will we walk upon this Earth in the Sacred Manner? This is what he is still asking. What will we do?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Good Shepherds and Bad

Good Shepherds and Bad
It is astonishing, really, that so much is done in politics, business and policy in the name of Christianity, or even worse in the name of Jesus. Whether it is healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, abortion, or state-sanctioned violence whether it be warfare or the death sentence, leadership in this nation too often hides behind the Bible to justify actions that are quite simply un-biblical.

In my branch of the Christian franchise, The Episcopal Church (TEC) we pray that when we hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that we “may know him who calls us by name, and follow where he leads,” without any thorough examination of what it really means to know the God of the Bible and where this God leads us – or at least tries. What we are left with is the evidence of actions on behalf of those who coopt the name and will of God which quite rightly leaves many to choose atheism as a rational alternative to what we see and hear every day in the news and in our own lives.

“To know” in Biblical Hebrew is rendered roughly “yada.” In context it is used to describe the intimate relationship between the first man and first woman (Genesis 4: 1, 17, 25) resulting in sons, one of whom, Abel, is himself a shepherd. In Proverbs 12: 10 to know connotes a quality of mercy and compassion for the needs of others, all others and all creatures. And in Jeremiah 22: 15-16, talking about King Josiah’s good shepherd qualities, “yada” connotes doing justice and righteousness; specifically judging the cause of the poor and needy. “Is not this to know me, says the Lord” [YWHW, the God of the Exodus, the one who hears the plight of slaves in the Empire and leads their escape to freedom].

The prophet Ezekiel gets on a roll when this same Lord commands the prophet to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them – to you shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak; you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured; you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So, they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and scattered they became food for all the wild animals.” [Ezekiel 34]

In calling the bad leadership to task the qualities of good shepherds is outlined along the same contours of just what it means to know (yada) and follow the Lord. It is worth observing that Israel in this context is a placeholder for just what tribal, cultural and national leadership is meant to look like. That is, this is a Biblical view of what good shepherds are all about. This is not about “theocracy” or the establishment of religion. But it is an honest view of what the Bible, or Judeo-Christian tradition, considers good shepherd leadership to look like, which in the end is not specifically religious but rather a compassionate way of looking at how we are meant to care for one another, for all other people, all other creatures, and the environment itself – for without a healthy and well cared for environment there will be no life at all.

And if this looks at all challenging, one need only look at the New Testament’s description of what early Christian community looked like in the generation after Jesus: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” [Acts 2:44] “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and not one claimed ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds ow what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” [Acts 4:32-36] This is what life with good shepherds looks like. This is how the early church lived and survived tremendous persecution at the hands of the Empire.

The tragedy for the church came about in 313CE when by fiat of the Emperor Constantine the church became the Empire and adopted all the trappings and behaviors of the Empire. One might say the church allowed itself to be coopted and tenured by the Empire. As such, the church for hundreds of years abandoned the qualities of good shepherd leadership and became just another bureaucratic functionary for the machinations of Empire. Sanctioning such barbarism as The Crusades, The Inquisition and numerous other tragedies, the church as such abandoned its rooting in the Biblical qualities of good shepherd leadership. If Abel was the first good shepherd in the Biblical story, the church after 313 more closely resembled his brother Cain.

This leaves much for us to ponder as we listen to talk that claims to represent Christian leadership. Do those who make such claims hold fast the views of good shepherds all the way back to the likes of Abel through John’s portrayal of Jesus as “the good shepherd”, and descriptions of the early church in the book of Acts? [John 10:11ff] Or, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to reform the post-Constantine church, are those making such claims clinging to the church of Cain, Empire and unfettered power sustained by a culture characterized by Walter Brueggemann as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism – committed to notions of self-invention in the pursuit of self-sufficiency”? [Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2012) p. 4]

As Moses puts it before God’s people before they dare enter into the land of promise, “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and hold fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…” [Deuteronomy 30: 19-20a] Length of days depends on our knowing the God who is the Good Shepherd, not the church or any other temporal representative. Length of days means hearing his voice and following in his way. From beginning to end the Bible is steadfast and unwavering as to what good shepherd leadership consists of and really is: merciful, just, compassionate, with concerns for those who are most vulnerable and in need. We will know it when we see it. Until then, all the rest is idle chatter.  

Saturday, April 29, 2017

An Idle Tale

An Idle Tale
This weekend The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows will be consecrated as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, the first Black woman to hold this rank of leadership over a diocese in North America. Johns Hopkins University is making history with the residency of Nancy Abu-Bonsrah, their first black female neurosurgeon resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

This week saw the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Germany carpet bombing of the town of Guernica, Spain – “the first deliberate attack on a civilian target from the air — years before Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima, and decades before Aleppo.” [Washington Post, April 26, 2017] This week will be the 5th anniversary of the gun-shot killing of my two colleagues at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City: Brenda Brewington and Mary-Marguerite Kohn. And last week was the observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, worldwide.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers us a portion of Luke chapter 24 (13-35) for our consideration this week, but as is often the case, the crucial verses are omitted (9-11): “Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” These verses are crucial to fully understanding the story of the journey home and meal in Emmaus, as well as how it relates to these recent events and anniversaries. Such omissions are unfortunately a routine part of our otherwise busy lives, even within the community of faith.

First, the context of Luke’s gospel: Jerusalem is in ruins, smoldering, burned to the ground by the Roman Legions to quell a zealot uprising against the Empire – so Jerusalem is not unlike Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and today’s Aleppo. That is, those reading or hearing these episodes in Luke have themselves experienced an historic holocaust – (1.destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war. 2. (historical) a Jewish sacrificial offering that is burned completely on an altar) - at the hands of a ruthless empire. They are standing in the ruins of Guernica, Hiroshima, the Nazi Death Camps and Aleppo. We need to place ourselves there as well. It is a time for soul-searching and a search for meaning as part of the recovery process. Luke and others attempt to provide such meaning out of crisis.

The cross of Jesus also presented such a crisis. The “missing verses” 9-11 tell us that the first witnesses of the empty tomb and resurrection were women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. They announce a message of witness and hope to the eleven remaining disciples, all of whom are men. These men dismiss the witness and announcement of these women as “idle talk,” nonsense, mere twaddle. They dismiss the empirical evidence, facts and witness of not one or two, but a crowd of women, as an idle tale.

It is almost cliché! To this day men will wander and bumble about searching for direction while women will suggest simply asking for help, seek information, and ask for directions and facts. This dynamic is the source of endless jokes and cartoons. Yet, in the end it is not funny.  We still live in a world and a culture which is routinely dismissive of women – to our own danger and destruction. Which makes the news about The Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and Ms. Nancy Abu-Bonsrah of vital importance and recognition. Slowly we are beginning to accept the importance of the leadership of women, and in particular women from diverse backgrounds.

As the story in Luke continues (13-35), we read about the continued inability for another two male companions of Jesus to understand what has happened, admitting that they too don’t really know what the women were talking about, and still don’t grasp it even as the risen Jesus himself is standing there explaining it to them!

I say “companions” advisedly for it means “with bread” or “messmate” or “those who share bread.” It is only when Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives them the bread that these companions recognize that the person who has accompanied them on their journey home is in fact the risen Jesus. They race back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had “happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Take, bless, break and give. This became the ritual action at table that replaced the ritual of holocaust, burnt offerings, at the altar in the now destroyed Jerusalem Temple – both for the surviving Jewish community on Shabbat, and the emerging Christian communities in the actions of the Eucharist. Jesus is described as doing this on three distinct occasions: the feeding with bread and fish, at supper with the disciples the night before he is crucified, and again at dinner table in Emmaus.

Taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread. This is more than what some may call mere ritual. There is nothing mere about it. It is representative of how Jesus lived his entire life – taking, blessing, breaking and giving his very self, all that he is and all that he has, to others. All others – especially to those who are continually, routinely and easily treated dismissively by society. Take, bless, break and give is about a sharing economy over against an economy of endless acquisition and consumption. Take, bless, break and give is about extending the resources for healing and wholeness to more and more people, not just those who can “afford” them. Take, bless, break and give is about extending justice, peace and dignity – what the Bible calls shalom – to all persons, not some persons, not a lot of persons, but all persons. Take, bless, break and give means to extend the sharing of leadership and power to all persons as well – especially to women who have witnessed, interpreted and present facts so critical to the survival of the community and the world. Take, bless, break and give replaces violence like the ritual of holocaust burnt offerings, and strategies such as carpet bombing and using guns to heal our pain.

In the end, one might very well say that the paradigm” take, bless, break and give” offers us a pattern for our lives on how we might, as a society and as a world community, survive whatever overwhelming crises faces us. Such actions will always challenge the traditional power structures which increasingly, like ancient Rome, only seek to maintain a grip on, not share, power, resources and life itself. Such actions as “take, bless, break and give” challenge us to find new and more inclusive voices to lead, heal and sustain the world we live in. One suspects this to be a more fruitful strategy than either carpet bombing or continuing to be dismissive of women. To quote Rabbi Hillel once again: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"for fear of the Jews"

“…for fear of the Jews” – John 20:19
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. - Psalm 51:17 RSV

We traditionally read John 20:19-23(24-31) twice a year: the Sunday after Easter Sunday and fifty days after Easter on the Day of Pentecost. As one who had at one time considered converting to the religion of Jesus, and as one who concluded my college career writing a dissertation on the then complete works of Elie Wiesel (it was 1972), reading and re-reading this passage from the fourth gospel has repeatedly broken my spirit and my heart. The thought that the disciples, not just the ten but rather a mixed crowd of those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem the week of the Passover and witnessed the brutality of the Empire and its state-sponsored torture and execution of three young men, are afraid of “the Jews” is strange. It makes perfect sense, however, that if you were a follower of Jesus that you would be hiding behind locked doors. Yet, it is at best confusing to read, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”

It's the fourth gospel’s repeated use of the phrase, “…for fear of the Jews” that breaks my spirit and my heart. There can be no doubt that this passage, and others like it, has been used throughout the ages from the very beginnings of the early church to this day to justify vilification and violence against the Jewish people. Despite the obvious fact that Jesus and most of his followers were themselves Jewish – daughters and sons of the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel.

It won’t do to simply explain that the fourth gospel’s use of “the Jews” has mixed and varied meaning throughout the narrative: referring to the ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse crowds in Jerusalem every Passover; to the Jewish authorities, many of whom are on the payroll of Rome to “keep the peace;” to the mixed “opponents” of the Jesus movement made up variously of Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. The fact of the matter was that the Jewish population of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem was divided along many religious and political lines.

Lumping them all together is always the strategy of those who seek to capitalize on such divisions. As is pressuring some of those the oppressed to “manage” their “own people,” or be subject to the Empire’s brutalizing tactics yourself. A day spent in the US Holocaust Museum will help to understand all of this.

I would like very much not to have to get into this, but as the internet has made it possible for anti-Semitic groups to organize and find new improved ways to carry out similar vilifying and brutalizing tactics, to say nothing in the midst of Christian proclamation on this passage would be tantamount to allowing all this to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Just as dangerous is for Christians to assume that the ritual passed on regarding the forgiveness and releasing of sins is somehow new and uniquely “Christian.” As Richard Swanson observes, “When Christians imagine this, they are wrong. Or they are dangerous. Those would be the choices” [Provoking the Gospel of John (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland:2010) p.170]

Swanson correctly points out that the rituals of releasing/forgiving or retaining sins have a deep history in Jewish faith, especially on Yom Kippur, the high holy Day of Atonement when Jews seek to repair the damage that we do to one another. It is a day to confess sin and forgive sin. It is a time to take stock and make amends. If I had in any way cheated or otherwise sinned against you I would seek your forgiveness and offer to make amends. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends. I can return two more times. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends three times. I can then approach God for forgiveness. But if I am rejected a third, I retain the sin – and the offended individual retains the pain and suffering.

It’s a process. And we may as well admit it: some abuses are hard to forgive. Elie Wiesel when asked about forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust noted that he did not have the authority to speak for the millions of people, Jews, Gypsies, Invalid and Mentally Handicapped, and political opponents who were killed in the death camps. In our passage in John, Thomas recalls the torture, abuse and brutal execution two days previous. He asks to see the wounds of the risen Jesus. Thomas is to be commended for his courage, his memory and his integrity – and in no way deserves the slander of being called “Doubting Thomas.”

Thomas knows what we all know in our hearts: “Any resurrection, any resolution, and recovery [from abuse] that moves forward by forgetting the past will be insubstantial. Any moving forward that forgets the victims of past torture [and abuse] will be ill-prepared to deal with the continuing reality of violence and abuse.” [Ibid, p. 173] And we are those people keenly aware that it continues even in among those highest in our corporate, religious, military, sports and political spheres. We read about it every day. And frequently the victims are made to feel shamed or guilty of provoking the abuse. Consider the now established fact that in Maryland, and across the country, there are in storage thousands upon thousands of rape-kits that have never been processed to determine the veracity of allegations by the victims.

So Jesus breathes upon his disciples as a reminder. God my Father gives you breath to live and light to see through the darkness. This breath is God’s spirit that seeks “peace,” or “Shalom”: peace that secures justice and dignity for all people; not some people, not most people, but all people. This is what is meant by “Peace be with you.” And this breath is a reminder that all people, not just God, not just God in Christ, not just Christians, have the capacity and the responsibility to forgive or retain sins. That is, the charges against Jesus are bogus, as are any and all notions that this is some uniquely new Christian ritual.

“That is why,” concludes Swanson, “the scene with Thomas belongs with the scene in which Jesus talks about releasing and holding the memory of abuse. That is why the matter of forgiving is not as simple as abusers insist that it must be.” [Ibid, 173]

Jesus breathes on us. The word means puff, as if puffing on a fire with a bellows, of blowing on a dying ember to bring it from smoking to smoldering to a blazing fire of life, intensity and power. Jesus is literally meaning to set our hearts on fire to be those people in this world who like Thomas have the courage and integrity to name the wounds that cripple our society and become engaged in bringing peace, true Shalom, to all those who suffer and are oppressed in any way whatsoever. This is why the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. We owe it to him to become a refining fire for the life of all people and the world itself. Amen.    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Noli me tangere

Noli me tangere   (nolee may tongray)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
We may notice that the Resurrection in John is not, as William Temple has observed [Readings in St. John’s Gospel, (Macmillan, London: 1952)], a mighty and dramatic act such as Matthew paints it with an earthquake, the curtain in the Temple being torn in two, and the graves of all the dead opening and disgorging ghostly spirits to wander through the streets of Jerusalem. Nor do we see the hosts of evil routed and destroyed, but rather in the early morning pre-dawn darkness we witness the quiet rising of the Sun (The Son) which has already on the cross “vanquished the night. The atmosphere has all the sweet freshness of dawn on a spring day.” [375]

And the first witness is a woman, and she formerly one beset with demons and whom Jesus had returned to her right mind, Mary Magdalene – one of the few witnesses who remained with Jesus at the foot of the cross while the other fellow travelers and friends had run off to hide behind closed doors. Although after the events of the previous day it wouldn’t do for a disciple and follower to be caught on a lonely road on a night after Jesus has proved that we were the stronger than Caesar and his entire Empire, this once lonely and confused woman makes the trip to the tomb by herself.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

She sees that the stone has been removed. The enemies must have removed his body in the night. She races to tell Peter, who despite his repeated denials is still the leader of the remaining 11 disciples. Then she runs to tell the other disciple Whom Jesus Loved. She tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him.” We? Have the demons returned? Who else is with her? Seeing no one else, they race to the tomb, and the other disciple gets there first but puts on the breaks and just peeps in to see the linen wrappings lying there but does not go in. Peter goes in. Sees the linen cloths, and the cloth that had been on his head was “rolled up in a place by itself.”

Now who, after being tortured and nailed to a cross unto death, then wrapped with one hundred pounds of spices and linen cloths, upon being raised from the dead takes the time to roll up the head scarf and neatly place it just there? Never you mind, this is Jesus we are talking about after all. The other comes in to look more closely and all we are told is that he “saw and believed.” Not what he believed or what he saw. But believe he did!
 Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
The narrator, the invisible hand who offers this account as an eye-witness, tells us they run home and are effectively clueless as to exactly what is going on. Not Mary. She remains at the door of the tomb, weeping. She peeps in to see what Peter and the Other Disciple saw, but instead there are two beings in white, one at the head, one at the foot of where Jesus had lain. There had been two criminals on either side of him on the cross, and now two of what can only be angels asking her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Why am I weeping she screams inside of her head, why am I weeping? What kind of question is that? You are sitting in his tomb? Why aren’t you weeping? Why?!

She gathers herself and steadfastly replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Her confidence is back. He is now “my Lord,” not the Lord, and now I do not know, not we do not know. Before the angels can reply, she turns and sees Jesus, but she does not know it is Jesus. Evidently after the resurrection we do not look like we look here and now. And this unrecognizable person is also asking her why she is weeping. Why is everyone asking me why I am weeping? Isn’t it obvious? His tomb is empty.

Then comes one of my very favorite lines in all of scripture. I don’t know why I love it so, but it is so Nero Wolf or Raymond Chandler or Benjamin Black sounding: “Supposing he was the gardener … the gardener! She proceeds to accuse him of stealing his own body, which in a sense one might say he has since, after all, he is God’s Word made flesh who dwelt among us, and surely it is only God’s Word that can bring himself back from the dead.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Then “the gardener” says just one word: her name. “Mary.” Only one voice had ever said her name like that. Only one voice could make her feel healed and whole and as if she really is one of God’s Beloved children. Rabbouni! she shouts!! It is him. He’s not dead. Or, is he? She must reach out to see if it’s a ghost or a real person for the next thing Jesus says, in Latin of course, “Noli me tangere!” (nolee may tongray) Which roughly translates, “do not touch me”, “do not hold on to me”, or as Temple’s translation has it, “don’t cling to me!” [379]

Which is really the heart of the matter is it not? Once we come to see Jesus and recognize Jesus for who he really is; once we come to understand what he was doing in the world is what we are meant to be doing in the world, the temptation is to cling to him. Because like Mary, Jesus is able to make us feel healed and whole. And, like Mary, he gives us something to do. He makes her the first evangelist, sending her back to the sisters and brothers of the community that has gathered around him and tell them that just as he came from Love he is returning to Love; he has come from the Father and is returning to the Father. My God and your God, my Father and your Father! That is, you are God’s beloved. God is your Father just as God is my father. Mary Magdalene: this woman once beset with demons becomes God’s chosen messenger to announce the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection and that we are all children of the one Father in Heaven!

But there is to be no clinging. Because I come, says my Lord, to set you free. And if you cling to me you won’t be free to do the things I do, and greater things than these. Let go and set me free so that you may be as free as the wind, as free as the Spirit, as free as the very breath of God in the cool of the garden in the early morning as the Son is rising! 
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Know, my sisters, my brothers, he calls you to be with him.
He calls you to know he is here, even now.
He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.
The world needs you, The church needs you, Jesus needs you,
They need your love and your light.
There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives,
This is a deep secret you are called to live, Let Jesus live in you, Go forward with him!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

And so are we! And so are we! 

Friday, April 14, 2017

God's Passion, Our Passion

Good Friday 2017 - John 18:1-19:42 
God's Passion/Our Passion
Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story - what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened that day nearly 2000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles - one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John Jesus is Light - and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today's world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy like the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in ISIS, in Syria, in chemical weapons, dropping MOAB, the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those  mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know some things about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil - specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Yet, so much more among a people commissioned to take care of people who live on the margins but who increasingly go about business as usual – to be focused only on religious ritual and not religious practices. Even more so, John and John’s community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the Imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

Every April, April 4, we celebrate the life and death of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the church we observe the date of a martyr's death, not their birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, TN, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama,  jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination - segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century's most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr's book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that "groups are more immoral than individuals." This is just as true today as when Neibuhr and King brought it to light. It is observed that more often than not individuals rarely act immorally, or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group - however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the "herd mentality" that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, The Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history. The list of examples, sadly, is endless

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the Devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, "Goodness" or "Godliness" can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which that year was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of "rubberneckers" always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences will be for those who dare to act out of Goodness and Godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day,  that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.” Underhill, The School of Charity, p. 26.

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the last supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he;” Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity  gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit.

It is that “giving up,” that handing over,  that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means spirit, breath and wind. All three are understood to come from God. God's breath is our breath, God's spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit-the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, Joan Baez, and  just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with Evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for me, for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to Evil. To stand your ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or, to simply walk away and say I will not participate in this.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, as to how much Goodness and Godliness just one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John's, it is that final moment when Jesus bows his head and hands over his spirit to you, to me, to us, to the world - that moment when God's Passion becomes our Passion!

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is will we accept his spirit? Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails so as to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His spirit. The world needs your spirit. The Church needs your spirit. You can accept His spirit which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit. The World needs you. The Church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another. Our choice must be to accept that spirit of Goodness and Godliness, the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When you do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good. A very good story! This is why we call it Good Friday!