A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: July 15, 2018: Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:14-29

14 And Herod the king heard,

for his name was becoming visible,

he was saying:

“John the Baptizer has been raised out of death

and on account of this the deeds of power are being worked in him. ” 

15 But others were saying:

“Elijah it is.”  

Others were saying:

“A prophet!

Like, one of the prophets!”  

16 But after Herod heard, he was saying:

“The one whom I beheaded,

(John, wasn’t it?),

that one has been raised.”  

17 For the same Herod sent

and arrested John

and imprisoned him in a guardhouse

on account of Herodias the wife of Phillip,

his brother,

because he married her.  

18 For John kept saying to Herod:

“It is not allowed for you to have the wife of your brother. ” 

19 But Herodias had it in for him

and wanted to kill him,

and she was not able.  

20 For Herod feared John

because he knew him to be a righteous and holy man.

He protected him;

he listened to him many times;

he was very much at a loss.  

He did listen to him gladly.  

21 An opportune day came when Herod

for his birthday

made a feast for his courtiers

and the commanders of the cohorts

and the leading citizens of Galilee.  

22 His daughter came in,

(the daughter of Herodias)

she danced and it was pleasing

to Herod

and to the dinner guests.

The king said to the little girl:

“Ask me whatever you wish and I will give it to you.”

23 He swore to her:

“Whatever you ask me I will give to you,

up to half of my dominion.”  

24 She went out;

she said to her mother:

“What shall I ask?”  

She said:

“The head of John the Baptizer.”  

25 After she went in

BANG with haste

to the king

she asked,

she says to him:

“I want…,

at once…,

I want you to give to me…,

upon a plate…,

the head of John the Baptizer.”

26 The king became very sad

on account of the oaths and the dinner guests

he did not want to put her off.

27 BANG the king sent a guard

he commanded him to bring the head to him.  

After he went out he beheaded him in the guardhouse

28 and brought the head his upon a plate

and gave it to the little girl

and the little girl gave it to her mother.  

29 And after his disciples heard

they came and picked up his corpse

and placed it in a grave.

(This translation is from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary.)

A Question or Two:

  • Who did Herod invite to his party?
  • Why did they accept the invitation?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are two examples of creativity in this scene.

Creativity matters.  It is a trait we share with God, in whose image we are created.

The first instance of creativity is rooted in how people are seeing Jesus.

They hear his teaching.  They see people healed and restored.  And they say, “Elijah!”  They say, “A Prophet!”

That is not simply a perception.  That is an interpretation, a creation.

We do it all the time.  Seeing isn’t just seeing.  Seeing always involves “seeing as.”  Sometimes we call it “recognition,” which incorporates cognition into perception.  And when we say that someone is “perceptive,” we do not just mean that the organs involved in sense perception are in working order.  We sometimes use the word, “perceptive,” when we are talking about people who have “insight, ” which is another word that involves seeing and something much more.

In this case, the act of creative seeing has its roots in faith.  For people to see Jesus and say, “Elijah!,” they have to know the stories about Elijah, they have to remember what he did and they have to remember that Elijah’s acts were seen as the acts of God in the world.  But more than that, they have to expect God to act like that again.

Think about that.

People see and hear Jesus.  They see Elijah because they remember Elijah.  And in seeing and remembering Jesus and Elijah, they see God.

That is important, given that God is achingly invisible, a word that needs to be said more vigorously, somehow.  “Invisible” seems too tame, too detached, too something.  It is not that God can’t be seen (like air can’t be seen, but is still obviously there).  The problem is that God NEEDS to be seen, and we cannot see Her.  That is what makes this seen of creative and faithful insight so important.  People need to see God, and they do see Her, because the stories they remember teach them how.

That is one of the things that worries me about the present moment.  I find fewer people who remember the stories that would teach them to see God acting in the world.  To be sure, many people DO remember those stories, but (in my experience) there are fewer people who know the stories well enough to look at Jesus and say, “Elijah!”

And I find more people who know stories about God know mostly sentimental and superstitious stories, which diminishes what they can mean when they say, “God!”

When the people in the story say, “Elijah!  A prophet!,” they expect that this perception will require something of them, something that will transform them even as God transforms the world. 

That is the real creativity in this scene.  It makes people new.  It remakes the world, raising it to life.

The second creative act in this scene comes a bit later, and has a rather different outcome.

Herod has a birthday.  Herod has a party.  Herod invites a crowd of people who, like him, are deeply woven into the play of power that is the Roman Empire: his courtiers, his commanders, and the “leading citizens of Galilee.”  Many of these people might have been (somehow) Jewish.  Herod was, though the rabbis refuse to recognize that murderer as a Jew.  But if the people at the party were (somehow) Jewish, anyone looking in the window would have seen them as involved and implicated in the play of Roman power.

Herod had a party, and at the party Herod’s daughter danced.  We do not know what kind of dance this was, only that it was danced by a little girl, and that it pleased the crowd.

Let this disturb you a bit.  No matter what is going on, there is something dangerous going on.

Herod offers the little girl a reward for her dancing.  The girl asks her mother what this reward should be.  The answer is disgusting, but not surprising, given that this is Herod’s family: murder runs in this family.

But now comes the act of creativity. 

When the little girl goes back to Herod, she does not simply repeat her mother’s words.  That would have been shocking in itself.

When the little girl goes back, she says:



I want…,

at once…,

I want you to give to me…,

upon a plate…,

the head of John the Baptizer.

She does not simply repeat what she heard.  She improvises.

My students and friends who play improvisatory jazz have told me that the way you learn to improvise is to play scales, to play through ordinary chord changes and melodic progressions.  You play basic scales and changes and progressions until they work their way into your body, until you physically re-member them.  Then, and only then, can you leap off what you have heard, leaping so that you can land in the arms of that which you have re-membered.

The little girl also knows stories, and she remembers them.  This scares me to death.

It matters what stories we re-member.

It matters very much.  It matters because those stories are what make us able to see God acting in the world.  What stories are we re-membering these days?

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 8, 2018: Mark 6:1-13

Mark 6:1-13
6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

6:10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.

6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus send the disciples out into communities were no one seems to know them?

Some Longer Reflections:

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

I used to think that this scene was about how the old folks from the old hometown insisted on underestimating Jesus.  I might have been right to think that.  The storyteller seems to agree with me.  But working with actors has taught me never to assume that the first way you play something is the only way it can be played.  My first assumptions may still be correct.  But actors teach you that there is always more.  Always.

Here’s a thing: the people who have known you since you were a goofy kid are not overly impressed by your press releases.

This truth has more than one edge.  Sometimes people who have known you forever use that long acquaintance to undercut you and your achievements.  Gaslighting is used to “keep you in your place.”  Maybe that is what the crowd is doing in this scene.  Maybe they are trying to keep Jesus small and submissive.  Women experience this all the time.  So do men.

But there is another edge here, as well.  Communities also keep us grounded.  They keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.  What if that is what is going on in this scene?  What if Jesus’s community is reminding him to keep his feet on the ground even as he reaches for something beyond all human reach?  What if they are right?

This scene is strong enough to stand up to reading it against the grain.

When people ask, “Who do you think you are?,” it is not always an attempt to constrain you.  Sometimes, especially when they know you, they are reminding you that the world is turned right-side-up by small deeds as much as by large ones.  Ordinary lives and regular responsibilities are as much a part of saving the world as are grandiose schemes.  Sometimes they are more important.

If the crowd in this scene is telling Jesus to remember who he is, that is an important act in the gospel of Mark.  In this gospel, Jesus does not enter the story having been introduced first as being at the side of God (see the gospel of John).  He does not even enter the story as a result of a virgin birth (see Matthew and Luke).  He is drawn into the story by the words of Isaiah the prophet and of John the Baptist.  If Mark were the only gospel we had, we would properly assume that Jesus is a builder like his father, an ordinary tradesman who hears Isaiah and John and responds.  His response, in that case, is the response of a faithful Jew who knows that the world asks more of us than that we simply plod along just doing our jobs.  But the crowd is here reminding him that the world also needs us to do our jobs.

Seen in that light, the crowd is perhaps reminding Jesus that high hopes require hard work, and that faithfulness has more dimensions than just those that soar to the heavens.  They are reminding him of the need for balance.

They may still be wrong.  The storyteller thinks they are.

But it worth remembering (in every generation) that if faithful and hopeful people flit off into the heavens, the battle will be won by cynics who take advantage of their idealism.  Martin Luther might (or might not) have said that if he knew that the world was ending, he would plant a tree.  Rabbis have said similar things.  So have people who have eaten fruit from trees that were planted in the middle world-ending catastrophes.

Maybe the messiah needs balance as much as we do.

Or maybe not.

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 1, 2018: Mark 5:21-43

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

5:35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”

5:36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

5:37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.

5:38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

5:39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”

5:40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.

5:41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

5:42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.

5:43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


A Question or Two:

  • Why does this story follow the story of the storm in a boat?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a remarkable little story.  In twenty short verses, two women are healed.  One woman had “suffered under many physicians” for twelve years.  One woman had only been alive for twelve years.  Both are well at the end of the story.

Working with actors to explore biblical stories has taught me to look for those physical moments when the story crystallizes.  I see three really important crystalline moments in this story (there are more, but we’re only looking at three for now).

First, the woman comes up behind Jesus in the crushing crowd and touches his cloak.

In the middle of a jostling crowd, there is one intentional touch.  Two things happen out of this touch, both of them bodily: the woman knows “in her body” that she had been healed, and Jesus knows, again in his body, that  δύναμις (power, potency) had gone out of him.  That means that this crystalline moment unites two bodies in shock and transformation.  Watch that as it happens.

Second, the woman comes forward and falls down in front of Jesus.

This decisive action breaks the energetic but pointless dithering that we see Jesus doing.  Jesus appears even frantic, turning and turning around in the crowd, hunting and hunting, looking for the woman who had touched his cloak.  This random chaos suddenly resolves when the woman acts.  This is worth noting.  It is not the Messiah who is moving this story forward, it is the woman.  Jesus does not find her, she comes forward to him.  She may be frightened and trembling, but she is the actor that allows the scene to move forward.

The third moment takes more careful attention.

If you aren’t watching carefully, you will miss it.  I missed it for years.  It wasn’t until I started working with actors to explore these stories that I first saw it.  Now I can’t unsee it.

Jesus is speaking to the woman who came forward.  Messengers come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died.  Jesus hears them, and speaks to the father.  At first interpretive glance, this appears to be a scene that is all about Jesus’ decisive actions and words.

At first glance.

But the crystallizing moment is hidden in a tiny dependent clause.  All of these actions take place “While he was still speaking.”  If Jesus can be interrupted, he is not the decisive actor in this scene.  And the messengers trigger a shift in the scene, but that does not make them the central characters.

The storyteller informs us that Jesus is still speaking.  But that means that the woman is still listening.

I had never imagined what the message of the girl’s death would have done to the woman who touched Jesus, the woman who came forward and fell at his feet.  The first time I explored this scene with actors, the woman, kneeling at the center of the scene, heard the words, looked up sharply, and her face fell.  She heard that the little girl had died while Jesus was turning and turning around in the crowd, searching for her.

As is so often the case in Mark’s gospel, the storyteller trusts the audience to see what just happened, and leaves it to draw its own conclusions.

While he was still speaking, the messengers came.  While he was still dithering, the little girl had died.  Do not leap ahead to the end of the story and insist that everything turns out alright in the end unless you have felt the crushing realization that your child has just died, that a lovely 12 year-old life has just ended on the very brink of adulthood with the promises of the future beginning to blossom all around her.  Do not leap.  Do not insist.  The grief of the parents is real, and your need for a happy Jesus-ending obscures your ability to empathize.  In the gospel of John, when Jesus delays and Lazarus dies, both Martha and Mary say, pointedly, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I imagine Jairus might have started to say something similar to Jesus when he realized what messianic dithering had cost him.  I imagine that the girl’s mother might have said the same thing to Jesus even after her daughter was raised to life.  Or at least she thought it.

If this last crystalline moment catches your eye like it catches mine, how do you preach?  How do you ponder?  How do you imagine Messiah?

It seems to me that this moment while Jesus is still speaking teaches us to be suspicious of any notion of Messiah that sounds too much like a stereotypical “superhero.”  If our notion of Messiah offers quick and simple solutions to every problem (Miracles While You Wait!!), then the woman whose face fell stands staring at our notions in disbelief.  If there is not enough Messiah to go around, and only those who beg the right way or believe the right way, or were born the right way are rescued, then the woman’s reaction is also my reaction.  “Messiah” is a promise for all of Creation.  Anything less inclusive simply re-inscribes the randomness of life, makes it (in fact) into Scripture.

And that will not do.

This crystalline scene focuses our attention.  A “partial” Messiah (in all of the possible senses of “partial,” including “partisan”) is no Messiah at all, and properly spurs protest against a world that accepts luck and calls it virtue.  (You know the snappy saying: “He was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple.”)  Sometimes we witness luck and call it a miracle, or see it as evidence of Divine Favor.  God is surely woven into the reality of the real world, and when people thank God for an unexpected recovery from illness or an escape from death, they are surely right to do so.  But proper faith in Messiah uses miracle stories to focus our attention on people whose daughter dies while Messiah wastes time.  If we are to be messianists (Christ-ians) and not simply gamblers who have not yet crapped out, we have to learn from the woman whose heart stops when she hears that the daughter died.

Proper stories of Messiah teach us to see those people who are left vulnerable.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: June 24, 2018: Mark 4:35-41

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was Jesus asleep?  Do not answer hastily.

Some Longer Reflections:

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

What a question.

Interpreters sometimes make fun of the terrified disciples, pointing out how dense they must be.  “Don’t they know who is in the boat with them?!”, they ask.

It goes on from there.

Faith is made into an Olympic event, an achievement.  Fear is shamed, with Jesus as the authority.

This is dangerous.  Think about it before you make it part of your theology.

Yes, I know, Jesus said it.  In this scene, Jesus does shame the disciples for being afraid.  And for Christians, Jesus is an unquestioned authority.

That does not change my judgment that it is dangerous to shame people for being afraid, and if that is what Jesus is doing, then he is dangerous, too.

But gospel stories are more complicated than that.

Gospel stories are complicated, and reading them is not so simple that you can just pick isolated moments that appeal to you and call it the gospel truth.  This simple scene is more complicated than it looks.

This scene is part of the larger story that Mark is telling, and even though generations of interpreters have said that Mark’s gospel is simple, uncomplicated, rough, and straightforward, that mostly reveals that biblical interpreters are not always good at reading stories.

One of the central complications in Mark’s story lies in the way Jesus is presented.  Sensitive readers, now a long time ago, have noted that Jesus apparently has more success early in the gospel than he has in later scenes.  He heals more people; he feeds larger crowds; he attracts large crowds of believers, while at the end of the story the crowds call for his death.

While I do not find this reading of Mark’s story altogether persuasive, I appreciate the way this interpretation pays attention to narrative change and development.  Mark’s storyteller does indeed tells a story that progresses, and that means that the characters also change.  Assessing the characters requires paying attention to the whole story, and what they say or do in any individual scene.

So where does this scene in the boat in the storm fit into Mark’s whole story?

I work with actors, and several years ago we were studying this story together.  The actors noted how easily Jesus handles deadly danger in this scene.  The fishermen in the scene knew boats and they knew storms.  This one could kill them, and they knew it.  They had every reason to be afraid.  Jesus was not afraid, and the storyteller shows us why: he has mastery over the forces of death-dealing chaos.  He speaks and there is a dead calm.

But the actors noticed that at the end of the story things are different. 

Jesus is again assailed by deadly force, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate who is the face on the Roman hurricane of chaos and deadly force.  Taking the model seen in the “Storm in a  Boat” scene, Jesus should awake from sleep and quietly calm the chaos.  From the cross he should confidently announce his upcoming resurrection, mocking the Roman confidence in cruelty.  He should at the least echo the words of heroic martyrs in the stories we love to tell about them: he should say something about regretting having only one life to give for the kingdom of God, or something like that.

The actors noticed that Jesus says none of this.

“My God,” he screams, “why have you abandoned me?”

These two little scenes fight against each other.  The actors created a performance that wove the two scenes together.  They found that the first scene lends power to the last scene.  They found that the last scene is decisive.  To make this clear, they quoted Jesus’ own words back to him.  When Jesus screamed in agony, they asked him, “Have you still no faith?”  And in the dead calm that followed that question, Jesus asked, “Don’t you care that I’m dying?”

I will remember the impact of that scene forever.

I think that Mark’s storyteller intended that.  That memory makes it clear that raising the world to life and justice is not simple, and not the least bit easy.  It is not enough to be awakened from sleep, to be woke, as it were.  The fight against chaos is real, as is the fear.

And the fight against chaos is long.

So, if the question is: Why are you afraid?, the answer is that there are things worth being afraid of.  And if the question is: Have you still no faith?, the answer is that sometimes faithfulness and confidence are not at all the same thing.  And if the question is: Don’t you care that we’re dying?, the answer is that the messiah now knows what that question means.  The crucifixion scene in Mark’s story makes that clear.

It may be that the only kind of messiah who can actually help turn the world right-side-up is one that knows why people ask why God has abandoned them.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: June 17, 2018: Mark 4:26-34

Mark 4:26-34
4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

4:28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

4:29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

4:30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

4:34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus use agriculture to talk about the reign of God?

Some Longer Reflections:

This week a single phrase has caught my ear: “The earth produces of itself.”

The actor in the parable dumps seed on the ground.  “Scatter” sounds too technical, too much like a National Geographic special on television with skilled farmers sowing seed in carefully tended fields.  The word in Greek is βάλλω, and that word just means “throw.”  It implies a heedless act. 

Joseph Sittler, an amazing preacher and interpreters, suggested (now many years ago) that “dump” is the best translation.  I think Sittler was correct.  It could be that the person is indeed a skillful farmer, but the storyteller uses a word that treats the sowing as “dumping,” essential an act that has nothing to do with having a good crop. 

Of course, any farmer knows that it makes a great difference how you plant, but the storyteller is aiming our eyes at all that we DO NOT know.  And good farmers know that this list is long.  In this case, the storyteller focuses on just one thing: the seed grows, “he does not know how.” 

Martin Luther agreed (Luther, M. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe 120 vols. [vol. 19, p. 496]. Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-2009): if you could understand a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.  My father was an Ag teacher, and from him I learned to hear the wonder that any good farmer has in the face of the ordinary miracle that attends her everyday work.  

All of that sets the background for the sentence that caught my ear.

The earth produces of itself.

The Greek for this sentence is: αὐτομάτη  γῆ καρποφορεῖ.  The final word, καρποφορεῖ, means “bears fruit,” which is the essential act on which all life depends.  My father taught me to understand that the more you understand about agricultural fruitfulness, the more you are embraced by wonder.  The words before that wonder-full word are  γῆ, and they mean the earth, picking up the Greek root that becomes part of the word, “geography.”  

It is the first word that matters most.  The word is αὐτομάτη.  “Of itself” is a good translation of this word, but it misses something.  The word, transliterated, is “automaté.”  That is the word from which the English word “automatic” comes.   

Stop and think about that for a while.  The ordinary earth produces automatically. 

Jesus says that this is a good image of the reign of God.  

But that means that the miracle of the reign of God happens automatically: Creation produces it of itself.

Stop and think about this VERY slowly.  We have invested barrels of theological ink in insisting that the reign of God is an external reality separate from us and our world.  God has been presented as entering the world (some truly unfortunate praise songs picture it as an invasion), but the storyteller has Jesus say that all this happens from WITHIN Creation.

The reign of God is like this: the earth produces it of itself.

This might change everything.


A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 10, 2018: Mark 3:20-35

Mark 3:20-35
3:20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.

3:21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

3:23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?

3:24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

3:25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

3:26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.

3:27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

3:28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;

3:29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”–

3:30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

3:31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.

3:32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

3:33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

3:34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

3:35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

A Question or Two:

  • Did Jesus’ mother hear him when he spoke?
  • What did her face look like when he asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Some Longer Reflections:

It won’t do to ignore the way that Jesus treats his mother.  Members of cults say such things.  Be careful of interpretations that imply (usually accidentally) that Christian faith should encourage cult-like fanaticism.

This week, however, I find myself thinking about the Holy Spirit.

The Greek reads τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον, and the part the matters most is τὸ πνεῦμα.  If you have been reading my recent Provocations, you know that I argue this is best translated as “the Breath.”  Though τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον has become a reference to the third person of the Trinity, in its origins the phrase refers to the act by which God brings life to Humanity (adam in Hebrew) in Genesis 2, to every living being with every breath (which involves God blowing Breath into your nose each and every time), and to the Messiah who was crucified by Pontius Pilate, but then raised to life by the Living Breath of God (see Romans 8:11 for one instance; read it slowly). 

I think it’s good to be nervous around the idea of an unforgivable sin, if only because it sounds like you might be daring God to have limitations.  Can God create a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?  That sort of (useless) thing.  It also sounds like you might be imposing YOUR OWN limitations on God, saying that God can forgive ANYTHING, except, of course, this one thing that THEY do, but we don’t.

I have heard earnest Pentecostalists say that the only thing God can’t forgive is the actions of those denominations who “stifle” speaking in tongues.

I’ve heard well-intentioned Christians say that the only thing God can’t forgive is people who “reject” the absolutely free gift of grace.  The evidence of this “rejection” varies: sometimes these ideologues claim that anyone who “decides to follow Jesus” is trying to earn salvation, sometimes they claim that, since knowledge of God is equally available to all people regardless of culture or land of origin (drawing this from Romans), anyone who is not Christian has obviously rejected God’s free gift (thus carefully misreading everything in Romans).

I have even heard Lutheran ideologues claim, face to face with survivors of sexual abuse who ask how God could allow such horrible things,  that this questioning amounts to “trying to play God,” which is the basic human sin against God.  Stop and think about that.  That would mean that Jesus on the cross in the gospel of Mark sins (probably against the Holy Spirit) when he asks how God could abandon him.

I am nervous around such theological abuse.  The notion of an unforgivable sin leads to abuse.

So I am thinking about the Holy Breath and why it is so important.

In order to make sense of this scene, you have to start by recognizing what Breath does.  In a world created by Genesis 2, all life, all activity, starts with God blowing Breath into every human nose.  In the ancient world, people whose actions were absolutely incomprehensible were imagined to have a foreign, hostile Breath blown into them.  That is what Jesus’ opponents claim about him: the Breath that gives him life and activity is foreign, dangerous, evil.

Their claim is sinful because it imagines that they understand God so thoroughly that anyone who disagrees with them must be animated by a foreign force.  Their principle is simple: if I don’t understand it, it must be evil.

Their claim is unforgivable (as nervous as that makes me) because this principle is one we never get tired of following.  We refuse to imagine that God could animate Christians who construe things differently.  We congratulate ourselves on our Christian faithfulness when we identify ways that our faith is superior to Islam, or Judaism, or Atheism, or any other ism.

And when we come to the understanding that Truth is (and must be) Unitary, we insist on believing that this notion confirms our own private ideology.  Monotheism (and its associated confession that Truth is One) does not (MUST not) confirm ideology.  Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics to see this notion analyzed.  Bonhoeffer understood that “ideology vents its fury” on anyone who falls prey to its false simplification.  Monotheism stretches us, requires us to consider God’s Truth as it exists in difficult complexity, not in private ideological certainty.

In the face of the complexity of real life, ideological certainty is blasphemy.

It is a blasphemy that we mistake for faithfulness, and that is what makes it durable, inescapable.  It may even make it unforgivable.

A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: June 3, 2018: Mark 2:23-3:6

Mark 2:23-3:6
2:23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.

2:24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”

2:25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?

2:26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

2:27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;

2:28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.

3:2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.

3:3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”

3:4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.

3:5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

3:6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is it important to the storyteller to place the man with the withered hand precisely in synagogue?
  • Why emphasize that he is an observant Jew?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are plenty of conventional readings of this scene, and all of them have their value.  Many sink their roots in criticizing religious rigidity.  Many see this as a scene about the growth of personal freedom.  Some see it as the blossoming of a humanism that knows that sabbath was made for us.  And some even see this scene as the moment when the sabbath comes to fruition.

All of these readings are valuable, and all hand us something worth reflecting on.

But this time I find myself thinking about the sabbath.

The idea that this scene shows the sabbath bearing fruit catches something important about the depth and importance of the practice of observing sabbath.  Sabbath is finally not about resting from labor.  That is how it starts, with God resting not from fatigue (say the rabbis), but simply because it was sabbath.  Human beings need rest because fatigue is a very real reality, especially after the story told in Genesis 3, which sees the brokenness of Creation especially in the fact that, even after hard and diligent work, the ground bears thorns.  Hard work is too often fruitless.  Sabbath promises that all of Creation will finally be freed from futility.

This is a promise we all need.

This is a promise to be protected.  That is why the Pharisees reacted as they did.  They are portrayed (in most interpretation, and maybe even in Mark’s story, though that is complicated) as irrational opponents of Jesus the Messiah.  But even if 1st century audiences would have shared this judgment, they would still have known (and lived) the promise of sabbath.

This is important: if Mark is critical of the Pharisees and their view of sabbath, it was because Mark and the early Christian community believed that Sabbath had been fulfilled, life had triumphed, and futility was finished.  They pilloried the Pharisees because they were impatient with a world that had not fully come to rest.

One of the things I love and respect in Judaism and Christianity is the way they use Divine promise to fund the idea of justice, the way they both validate the complaints of people who have been attacked or oppressed.  Sabbath does that, and Messiah does, too.  Both Sabbath and Messiah give justification for complaint, and measure that justification against a notion of proper justice.

But this scene, and most of the usual readings of it, express impatience with anyone who does not see the world the way the community thinks you should.  Anyone who does not see the actions of Messiah as evidence of the enactment of the Messianic Age, the fulfillment of Sabbath, is an enemy.

This kind of apocalyptic impatience always makes me nervous.

Impatient people who are charged with apocalyptic hopes sometimes act without limits, without scruples.  Bad things happen in a hurry.

But this week I have been nervous about my nervousness.  Hope and impatience are close kin, and passive patience is always an ally of structural injustice.

I don’t have an answer to this problem.  My first inclination is to remember the importance of Sabbath, and to try to help impatient people persevere, help them stay in it for the long haul.

But right now I’m more inclined to try to learn how to persevere in impatience.

Time’s up.

A Provocation: Trinity Sunday: May 27, 2018: John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’

3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.

3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do translators read πνεῦμα (in 3:6 and 3:8, for instance) as “Spirit” (note the capital letter) one time and as “wind” (note no capital letter) the other?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is Trinity Sunday, and we have yet another text from the gospel of John.  Not only that, but we have Nicodemus traipsing through the lectionary yet again.

Nothing against Nicodemus, or John 3:16, for that matter.  We have just seen them before.  (You could go to my Provocation for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017 to read my take on Nicodemus.)

This text from John is chosen, I suppose, because it not only mentions God, but also mentions the Son and the Spirit.  Just for a moment I worry because the Trinity is God, according to Christian doctrine, so there is no specific mention of the Father in this passage, unless you decide to think of the Father as God, and of the Son and Spirit as somehow God’s subordinates.  Which is a heresy.

Talking about the Trinity is like that.  You hardly get to say 20 words before someone detects heresy.  Trinity Sunday is therefore a good time to sin boldly, and believe more boldly still.  So said Martin Luther, though not in this context.

There are many ways to consider the Trinity.  Here is one that I draw from soaking myself in the gospel of John.

For God to be properly Triune…

…there must be the Father, who is the agent of Creation, which makes the Father the author of beauty, intricacy, and creativity.  John’s storyteller begins this story with a consideration of Creation of the Cosmos (usually translated as “world”) which God (in all of God’s perspectives and actions and persons) “so loved.”  This action of “so loving” is what marks Creation as an act of the LORD, of the God whose Name is never pronounced, but whose every act is Mercy.

For God to be properly Triune…

…there must be the Messiah, who is the Utterance ( λόγος, John 1:1) and agent of the Father, by whom the Father turns the Creation right-side-up, thus keeping the promise implicit in calling the world-as-it-is a Creation.  John’s storyteller thus tells the story of Messiah as a Creation story, and identifies Messiah as the Logic ( λόγος, John 1:1, again) of the Cosmos, which is to say that turning things right-side-up is, from the beginning (Ἐν ἀρχῇ, still John 1:1), is the coherent theme of the architecture of the Cosmos.  Thus, Creation is Re-Creation, and healing the universe is the essential act of Creation, which makes sense because in Genesis 1:1 (Ἐν ἀρχῇ, again) God begins by correcting the dangerous chaos that already existed.  So this means that living in the world as a Creation of the God whose Name is Mercy requires us to be honest about the cause for complaint about the way things are.  Tim O’Brien said it well: “You are filled with a hard aching love for what the world could be, and always should be, but now is not.”  (The Things They Carried turns out to be a book about the Trinity.  Who knew?)

And, for God to be properly Triune…

…there must be the Breath (πνεῦμα, translated in John 3: 6 as “Spirit” and in John 3:8 as “wind,” but always meaning “breath,” especially when it is God who is breathing).  In New Testament texts, πνεῦμα is the agent of Resurrection because it refers to the breath that God blew into the crucified body of Messiah, raising him (and all Creation) to new life.  Since this is the Resurrection of Messiah, it becomes clear that Messiah’s work of turning all things right-side-up can only be a result of Resurrection.  Anything less is mere tinkering with this-and-that.  The miracle of Resurrection is the only way the world will ever be right-side-up, and this miracle of πνεῦμα, of the Breath of God is promised with every breath that God blows into our noses (see Genesis 2): that also is Holy Breath.

So there is Father, there is Messiah, and there is Breath.

Messiah is the structuring Utterance of the Father, made possible by Breath (since oral speech requires breath). And Breath is the vivifying agent of Resurrection that makes it clear Re-Creating is the act of Creation from the very beginning, when the Father began it all.  The Father loves and gives.  Messiah is a teacher sent from God who turns the world right-side-up.  And the Breath blows where it will.

So this is the Trinity, for Trinity Sunday when the reading is from John’s gospel.

Is it a heresy?  Probably.  Is it useful?  I think so, since it focuses our attention (theological and otherwise) not on the niceties of doctrine but on the necessities of the real action needed to participate in the work of the Triune God: turning the world right-side-up and raising to life.



A Provocation: Pentecost: May 20, 2018: Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,

2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.

2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

A Question or Two:

  • The people gathered in Jerusalem were from every nation under the sky.
  • Why does it matter that it was EVERY nation?

Some Longer Reflections:

Last Pentecost I wrote about one of the interesting oddities in the scene in Acts.  You can read the whole Provocation by going to https://wordpress.com/post/provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/5327

In particular, where the English translation (2:6) refers to people in the crowd hearing in their “native language,” the Greek identifies it as the “language into which they were born.”  The meaning is the same, or closely similar, but the nuance is worth thinking about.  The miracle is not that all the differences that separate people were removed.  Quite the opposite: the differences were explicitly preserved, recognized, and approved.  All the people heard about the mighty acts of the God who alone is God, and they each heard about God from the heart of the culture into which they were born.

I find myself thinking more and more about what this implies.  Pentecost, read carefully, hands us the obligation to find a way to honor the differences that are too often used to separate, divide, and isolate people.

Today begins the month of Ramadan for my Muslim friends, colleagues, and students.  You may well have sent greetings to your friends, colleagues, or students.  I have, this year like every year.

But this year I am thinking about Pentecost and the life-giving task of understanding  and honoring truths that come across lines of difference.  And I am thinking about one of the traditional greeting for Ramadan: Ramadan kareem, which wishes that one may have a generous Ramadan, a month of weaving gratitude and generosity together.

I would like to understand that blessing in the language into which I was born.  I am a Christian, a Lutheran, in fact.  But I share with my Muslim friends, colleagues, and students a confession that God is One, despite the crazy fragmentation of the world.  That does not mean that I imagine that I should observe Ramadan.  But it does mean that this year I take it as a Pentecost discipline to absorb what Muslims in my community can teach me about being a human being, and about worshipping the God who alone is God.

Here are some other suggestions that might help:

May the blessings of gratitude and generosity embrace us all.



A Provocation: Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2018: John 17:6-19

John 17:6-19
17:6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.

17:7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;

17:8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

17:9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.

17:10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

17:11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

17:12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.

17:13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.

17:14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

17:15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

17:16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

17:18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

17:19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does joy matter so much?
  • What does it mean for joy to be “fulfilled?”

Some Longer Reflections:

One small observation this week: Verse 15 is not about “the evil one.”  And it’s not about building a wall against whatever we are being protected from.

The prepositions are wrong, for one thing.

If the notion were that we need to be protected AGAINST something, the preposition would be  κατα, a word that directs its energy combatively, taking aim against an enemy or measuring itself against a standard.  That is not the preposition that the storyteller uses.  

The storyteller uses ἐκ, which is a word that extracts itself from something (you can even hear the ἐκ in “extract”).  

The verb is also wrong.

If the point were that there is a force, or even a single entity, that threatens us, there is a perfectly good Greek verb that expresses that kind of protection: φυλάσσω, which establishes a defensive perimeter that bristles with weapons, all aimed at any enemy that might appear.

But the word here is τηρήσῃς, which is the word (with the addition of a prepositional prefix) for what Mary did with all the things she had heard and seen about her son after they found him in “his Father’s house” after being missing for three days in Jerusalem.  It is the word for how Jews cherish and guard the teaching of Torah.  It is a guarding that relies on loving and embracing, not on going to war against.  

And, finally, the last word in the phrase does not mean evil.

That is why there is no “evil one” in this scene.  Jesus asks, in Greek, that his followers be extracted τοῦ πονηροῦ.  The word πονηρος does not mean “evil.”  It means “pointless.”  Jesus is asking that his followers be extracted from pointlessness, from work that, when you finish, all you get is tired.  This, by the way, is what Genesis 3 says is the consequence of the actions of Eve and Adam in the garden of Eden: human beings work hard, and the soil yields only thistles.  I’ve had jobs where the only good thing was that they paid me to show up.  Pointless work is something everyone experiences, sometimes for an entire career.  Jesus asks for deliverance from such work.  

But he is praying also for freedom from a deeper kind of pointlessness, from the kind of waste that consumes an entire life: hard work with no good outcome, relationships that add up to nothing, hopes that starve to death, dreams covered with the dust of repeated disappointment, abilities ignored, and potentials exhausted.

So, how does a protective embrace extract a person from such pointlessness?

It is worth noting that Jews understand that embracing Torah does precisely this.  Torah observance wraps all of life in pointing to the God who orders the world in love.  The embrace of Torah, therefore, gives a pattern and purpose to everything, and this embrace pulls the people out of pointlessness.

So what if Jesus is talking about Torah observance?

It is, to be sure, a distinctiveness to the storyteller’s notion of the Torah of the Messiah.  It embraces the cosmos with the promise of healing and balancing, of comfort and wholeness.  The Messiah is God’s act to turn the cosmos right-side-up.  This is the promise that kept God’s people alive in all the generations since the Exile.  Promises like this draw their energy from an honest awareness of the way the world really is, and at the same time such promises validate that awareness.  Promises like these allow you to say: “This is NOT the way the world is meant to be.”  Or, as Tim O’Brien wrote when describing life in a war zone: “You are filled with a hard, aching love for what the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”

The Torah of the Messiah tells Jesus’ followers that that hard, aching love is finally being answered.

The result, says Jesus, is that joy is finally fulfilled.