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.

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 6, 2018: John 15:9-17

John 15:9-17
15:9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

15:11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

15:15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

15:16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

15:17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus keep talking about “remaining” (translated as “abiding”)?
  • What could it mean to “remaining in his love?”

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus says that the disciples are no longer to be called “slaves” (a better translation of the Greek), but are now and forever to be called “friends.”  The Greek word is φίλοι, and that implies that all partners are equals, that all are colleagues.  Aristotle wrote that a friend is “another self.” 

Think about what it means for the character who has been identified as the Word who was with God in the beginning, who is (in fact) God, to say to ordinary people: you are my equal, my colleague, my other self.

All this reminds me of something my grandmother told me back when I was a child.  We were talking about what it meant to be kind.  My grandmother, who spoke Swedish until she came to the States and learned English as an adult.  My grandmother said that she thought you were kind if you treated other people as being “the same kind as you.”  I don’t even care if her etymology is in any sense correct.  What she understood about people (and the English language) has changed the way I think about both.

What if Jesus is actually saying, “I no longer call you slaves.  I acknowledge that you are the same kind as I am.”  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….

“You are the same kind I am.”

That is worth a long, slow think.

Jesus also talks about joy.  Notice that.

Jesus is joyful, and he wants his joy to fill his disciples.

So much of general Christian religious thought focuses on how much human sin disgusts God.  It’s not just Jonathan Edwards and his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, though that is a classic example.  In such interpreters, even when they focus on grace, the message boils down to something like, “You should be blown away by the amazing gift of being loved even though you are despicable.  After all, grace is unmerited, remember?”  In extreme forms of such thought, God is angry and shudders at the thought of having contact with the depth of human sinfulness, and humans are to be destroyed by the sheer power of this goodness.

You can take such thoughts and build them (carefully) into workable theologies, I suppose.

But Jesus in this scene takes an entirely different approach.  “I have said these things to you,” he says, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  There is no anger here, only joy.  Jesus is joyful, and he wants his followers to be joyful, as well.  And not only that.  He wants their joy to be complete.  The Greek means that their joy will be filled full to the brim.

It also implies that their joy will be fulfilled.

This last notion has implications.  “Fulfilled” is a word used when the discussion is about prophecy, hope, and expectation.  But that means that, somehow, human joy contains within it a promise of Divine fulfillment.  Joy is prophetic.  Joy makes promises.  Joy fosters hope.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Joy is not simple happiness.  Joy is deeper, more overwhelming, more life-giving.  Joy is the first time your child calls you Mama.  Joy is the time your aged father holds your hand and tells you how proud he is to be your father.  Joy is looking your partner square in the eye and hearing a promise of love, support, and commitment.  Joy is discovering the depths of sexual intimacy with someone who loves you deeply, slowly, and warmly, someone with whom you are forever safe and free.

C.S. Lewis described joy this way:

“Joy—that sharp, wonderful Stab of Longing—has a lithe, muscular lightness to it. It’s deft. It produces longing that weighs heavy on the heart, but it does so with precision and coordination…It dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away. It pricks, then vanishes, leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that joy can be “as poignant as grief.”

And perhaps these two old friends have opened up a way that joy can be a promise and a prophecy: joy is tied to longing and to aching, and as such creates a need for fulfillment, for completion.

“I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

 

Maybe one important task this week is to stop and reflect on what it would mean to build Christian theology on Jesus’ words about the sharing of joy, and not on our humiliation in the face of God’s forgiveness.  What if joy is grace, and grace is a deep, abiding kindness?

 

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 29, 2018: John 15:1-8

John 15:1-8
15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.

15:2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

15:3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.

15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

15:6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

 

A Question or Two:

  • Why is there so much agriculture in the Bible?
  • So you know enough farmers to be trusted to interpret the Bible?
  • What are you going to do about that?

Some Longer Reflections:

Vines. An earth-worker (γεωργός, translated as “vinedresser”).  Branches.  Bearing fruit.

Or, rather, NOT bearing fruit, since that is the circumstance we meet first.  Branches that do not bear fruit are “removed.”  The Greek is a bit stronger than that.  The verb is αἴρει, which can mean “remove,” or “pick up to throw away,” or “seize violently,” or “destroy.”  The word is strong, and the audience would hear the violence.  

Interpreters often concentrate on the way unproductive branches are hacked out and hauled away to be burned.  I have even heard sermons that took the main point to be: “Bear fruit, or burn!”  Such interpretations (even ones that are not so over-the-top) read a double contrast in the scene: 1) between dead branches and branches that bear fruit; and 2) between the destruction of branches that do not produce, and the honoring of those branches that do.

And then comes the next verb: καθαίρει.  You do not have to read Greek to see that these two verbs are closely related.  In fact, they are the very same verb.  The only difference is that the second verb, καθαίρει, has a prepositional prefix.  The force of the prefix is to intensify the force of the base verb.  So, if αίρει means “to seize violently and destroy,” καθαίρει means something even more violent: “obliterate,” or “reduce to nothing.”

Yes, the word means “prune,” as well.  This is not too much of a surprise if you you have watched an actual orchardman prune an actual tree.  I had always imagined that pruning involved cutting out a few broken branches, and maybe removing a branch if it crossed over another and rubbed on it.  And then I watched as a friend, and orchardman, actually pruned a tree.  Pruning involves a LOT of cutting.  A LOT.  It looks drastic.  Violent even.

So καθαίρει is a good word for “prune.”

But I am still struck by the way the second verb surprises the audience.  The flow of the story, reinforced by a common assumption (among many Christians in the U.S., anyhow) that REAL religion is about the fork in the road, the sheep and the goats, the faithful and the unfaithful, all this leads many interpreters to read this scene as focusing on Divine Judgment, as threatening destruction for all those who do not measure up.

When translators and interpreters get caught up in this flow, it affects the way they read everything else in the scene.  For instance, in Greek, verse 2 begins with the words πᾶν κλῆμα.  The word, κλῆμα, means “branch,” and the NRSV translates πᾶν as “every.”  But πᾶν is a strange little word in Greek.  You can translate it into English as “every,” that is true.  But it also means “each,” or”any.”  So listen carefully to the options: Jesus could be saying, “Every branch that bears no fruit is taken away to be burned.”  Or he could be saying, “Any branch that bears no fruit is taken away to be burned.”  Or it could be, “Each branch.”

Which translation implies a bigger fire?

That matters.  It shapes the tone of the scene.  The more burning branches, the more angry apocalyptic fire driving the theology.

To my ear, “Every” implies a big bonfire burning so hot you could get a sunburn from ten feet away.  To my ear, “Each” implies a smaller fire, and “Any” implies that there is a general practice operating here, and if there were, in fact, any branches that simply did not produce, those few branches would be burned.  But not in a blazing hot bonfire.  I know orchardmen who burn the pruned branches in the wood stove in their saunas, or use the wood to heat their homes.  Some use the apple wood to smoke pork.  A bonfire would be wasteful, and the real world is not kind to those who waste.

This is one of those scenes that you should read aloud before you decide what it is all about.  What you will hear is that the fire is barely mentioned, but over and over Jesus talks about bearing fruit.

This is not a story about destruction.  This is a story about being fruitful.  

And what does it take for a branch to be fruitful, according to Jesus?  In English, Jesus says that you have to “abide.”  That sounds both religious and vigorous, and brings to mind older, formal English linguistic anger: “There is one thing I simply cannot abide….”

The Greek word is μένω, and it just means “remain.”

I have worked with actors for many years, now, and they have taught me to pay exquisite attention to verbs.  Scenes are built out of verbs, and actors hunt them down and do them with all their might.  If the verb says “run,” they run.  If the verb says “shatter,” they shatter.  And from this physical exploration of the scene they learn how to play their part.

This verb says “remain.”  So do what my actors taught me: do the verb.  Physically.

Remain.

(You realize that just means “sit there,” right?)

That’s how you bear fruit.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 22, 2018: John 10:11-18

John 10:11-18
10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

10:12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.

10:13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

10:14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

10:15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

10:16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

10:17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.

10:18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

This will be short.  Between recovering from jetlag after returning from a conference in Italy (organized by the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship and focusing on Translation and Theatre) and working with students who are in the midst of major research projects, I find myself starved for time.

So I shall attempt to write briefly, but usefully.  I shall attempt this.  I shall.

Jesus says, in this scene crowded with sheep, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”

There are things about this that are easy to understand, for instance, “laying down” and “taking up” life is about death and resurrection.  That’s easy enough, as long as you don’t have to fully understand resurrection.

It is worth considering the matter of “laying down life.”  Customary Christian theology drags out whatever Atonement Theory the preacher prefers at this point.  So Jesus “lays down his life” to buy off God’s fury at human sin.  Or he lays it down to calm God down and satisfy his irritated honor.

What these customary reflex responses tend not to notice is that the matter of “laying down life” in this scene is rooted in the sketched story about sheep, hired hands, and deadly external threats, wolves, in this case.  The image is one of protection, not sacrificial payoff or satisfaction of offended honor.

That difference matters, I think.  When you encounter a metaphor, or a parable, or a mashal, be careful not to leap too quickly or easily to the “meaning.”  A proper metaphor (or parable, or mashal) does its work by challenging you, by puzzling you, by forcing you to stop and think.  “Meanings” are too often what we leap to so as to avoid hard thought.  “Quick!,” we say, “Fit this back into the dogma!”

Do not leap to the “meaning.”  Stop and think about the lack of fit.

Protection.  Loyalty.  Danger.  Real threat.  This is a story about what it takes to live in the world we really live in.  In this real world, there are people with power, and some of them protect their power by attacking anyone who opposes them.  Sometimes it is with adolescent tweets that carry implied threats.  Sometimes it is with calls for physical violence.  Sometimes it is with a strutting display of firearms, daring opponents not to notice the size of their, well, guns.

Some of these threats we handle by organizing ourselves in political and societal groups.  The ballot box is a partial protection from bullies with power.  The legal system is another.

But for all of the protections we build to stabilize our life together, sometimes it is not enough.  Sometimes everything goes to smash.  It happens to everyone.  And it happens too often to be called a rarity.

When everything goes to smash, sometimes someone has to step up and stand in between us and deadly threat.  Sometimes a third grade teacher has to walk toward a shooter in order to protect the little children (the age of my eldest granddaughter) and give them a chance to escape and survive.  Sometimes someone has to lay down her life.

(By the way, DO NOT come around me with the idea that all it would take is to give that teacher a firearm.  Why is this a bad idea?  How long do you have?)

Sometimes someone has to step in between.  Life sometimes leaves us no other option.

“For this reason the Father loves me,” says Jesus, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”  I understand the reaction of love.  I love the memory of the courage of those teachers who walk toward the shooter, and the memory of the firefighters who run toward the fire.

What is crucial here (for a preacher, anyhow) is the resurrection.  This scene in John’s story paints a picture where walking toward the shooter, or running toward the fire, is the thing that brings us all to life, the thing that changes the world, the thing that takes away the bully’s power.  The Freedom Riders acted this out, and they changed the world.  The people who stood up to Sheriff Bull Connor knew this, and they changed the world.  The children who walked into school between mobs of screaming White Racists, they knew this, too.  And in some cases they all laid down their lives because they believed that the resurrection had changed everything.

Easter is is a time to pray that they were right.

 

A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter: April 15, 2018: Luke 24:36b-48

Luke 24:36b-48
24:36b While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

24:37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

24:38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?

24:39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

24:40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

24:41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

24:42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,

24:43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,

24:46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,

24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

24:48 You are witnesses of these things.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the storyteller care that it was a piece of broiled fish that Jesus ate?

Some Longer Reflections:

“Have you anything here to eat?,” asks Jesus.

In this scene, this is part of anchoring Resurrection in the real world where real people really live.  Real people eat.  Jesus eats.  That means that the Christian faith is NOT a disembodied abstract religious feeling, or a faith that only ripens in heaven.  The Resurrected Messiah does not transform his followers into spirits who are free from earthly concerns because they are above it all.  The Resurrected Messiah, instead, joins his disciples in one of the most earthly and everyday of activities.  He eats just like we eat.

In a story like this, every detail has implications:

  • Jesus eats.  That implies that physical existence is real and significant.
  • Jesus eats.  That implies that the real world is as real to the Resurrected Messiah as it is to us.
  • The Resurrected Messiah eats.  That implies that Resurrection works out its meaning in the real world, not in heaven.

Stop and think about that.  The Resurrected Messiah engages the real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world.  “Going to heaven” (whatever that means) is so much simpler.

I am writing this on the anniversary of Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” sermon.

“I have seen the Promised Land,” said Dr. King.  “I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Go read Dr/ King’s last speech (you can find it at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm ).   Or, better yet, go listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDl84vusXos ).

Notice that the Promised Land is not in heaven.  “Something is happening in our world,” said Dr. King.  “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

If you know anything about the history of the rising up of masses of people to which he refers, you know that none of those situations was at all simple.  The process was messy and full of setbacks and missteps.  But it was real, and it took place in the real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world that we live in.

When Jesus eats, it is not so we can escape the complicated world.

It is so we can listen to Dr. King with new ears.  The Resurrected Messiah makes a difference in the real world.  No matter how complicated that is.

And it will be really complicated.  The women who organized the Women’s March know that.  The students who organized the March For Our Lives know that.  The candidates who are running for office and the people who are registering voters know that.  The people who take this moment seriously (and I know women and men, students and old people, Republicans and Democrats and Socialists and Libertarians who take this moment seriously), those people also know that.

The question will be: Will we continue to take the complicated world seriously?

Remember, Jesus ate something.

 

A Provocation: Second Sunday of Easter: April 8, 2018: John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A Question or Two:

  • Did Thomas put his finger in the nail holes?
  • Why, or why not?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This time as I read those words, I noticed two things:

  1. Radical Connectedness
  2. Radical Honesty

These two belong together.  Together, they make is clear that the damage we do to each other is between us.  We CAN forgive, and that is what it takes.  It is also all that it takes.  And when forgiveness happens, actual forgiveness, we are set free from being bound to a past that haunts us.  We are radically connected. 

But this scene, in its radical honesty, recognizes that sometimes we cannot forgive.  Sometimes we simply cannot.  I don’t know that it is useful to imagine what such crimes might be.  There are a few, maybe more than a few.  I hear the words of a mother, a grandmother, mourning a young black man shot to death by people I think of as protectors and public servants.  I hear the voice of a young woman, attacked by someone she thought she could trust.  I see her face when the institution, the business, the church, the school, the platoon turns their back on her.  I see her reaction to being abandoned by the people that should have had her back.  I hear old men telling stories of being called “boy.”  I hear their grandsons grinding their teeth as they learn that every contact with white society will be viewed as a confrontation.  They grind their teeth because they have been taught that they will only be safe in these “confrontations” if they surrender elaborately every time.

I hear.  I see.  And I wonder what we do when we encounter something that cannot be forgiven. 

I don’t think we do best to begin by meditating on those instances of astounding forgiveness: Mennonites who forgive the man who murdered their children; families who forgave the “dead man walking;” Pearl Harbor survivors who forgave each other for the things they had to do in time of war.

These stories are amazing, and may even offer the real way forward.  But the danger is that we use such astonishing feats of forgiveness to shame the grandmothers, the young men, the women who carry memories of stalking traumas that terrify them.

  • We shame such people because we are tired of hearing their stories.
  • We shame them because we can’t think of a way to undo the wrong and therefore choose to pretend that it didn’t happen in the first place.
  • We shame them because they remind us that we are surrounded by people whose basic experience of the world involves violence and danger of a sort we cannot wish away.
  • We shame them because their very existence reminds us that schools and communities and everyday realities guarantee that the disparities tied to race and class will continue.

This time reading this scene from John’s gospel I remember Bonhoeffer’s words about cheap grace and forgiveness without repentance.  It is not as simple as I thought it was when I first read Bonhoeffer in high school.  Nor is it as simple as the proponents of what they sometimes call a “muscular Christianity” think.  Grace is a gift, not a reward for getting pumped up, and Bonhoeffer knew that.  Bonhoeffer understood that the world we really live in is the only real world.  And in this world, we do real injury to each other, and some of that damage cannot be forgiven.

But Bonhoeffer also understood that this makes grace the only force that can create the world and preserve it.  

But note that Jesus’ words in this scene make it clear that this grace can only be enacted between us.  We are radically connected, and the creation and preservation of the world hangs on how we honor each other.

 

 

A Provocation: Easter: April 1, 2018: Isaiah 25:6-9

Isaiah 25:6-9
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

A Question or Two:

  • Why are the women in Mark 16 terrified by Resurrection?
  • What does Isaiah 25 suggest about their terror?
  • Don’t answer quickly.

Some Longer Reflections:

So this is probably not the text you expected.  You should ask yourself, Why?

Why would you choose this text as a preaching text for Easter?

And why, exactly, is Isaiah a surprising choice?

It’s not because I think the Resurrection isn’t important.

Resurrection is, as near as I can tell, absolutely central.  Certainly it is central to Christian faith.  It is also central to Jewish faith, at least historically.  All Christian notions of Resurrection grow straight out of Jewish theology from the early centuries of the Common Era.  Though it no longer plays anything like that role in most current Jewish theology, historically it did.

You may have noticed that I have been pretty insistent about capitalizing Resurrection.  That is because it is bigger, theologically, than just the odd assertion that, once upon a time, a dead ceased to be dead.  It is an odd assertion because returning to life after being certifiably dead is impossible, and if it happened it would be an oddity, a quirk, or a circus trick.

The Resurrection is not simply a quirk.  The Resurrection is not a circus trick.

Resurrection is bigger, and this old love song from Isaiah makes that clear.  On Easter, Christians do not merely celebrate the oddity of one guy coming to life after being certifiably dead (which is why it matters that Jesus is discovered alive on the third day: that is how long it took for ancient Jewish society to be sure that a person was actually dead).  For Christians, Jesus’ return to life is the beginning of what Jewish faith hears in Isaiah’s old love song: this is a “feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear,” and it is for ALL peoples, not just Jews and not just Christians.  This is when God will wipe away all tears, remove all disgrace, and remove the shroud with which all of us cover our faces when we are deep in grief.  God will swallow up death forever.  This is Resurrection.

This is what people called for when they marched in the streets last week, and it doesn’t matter whether you think I’m talking about #PalmSunday or the #MarchForOurLives.

The word, hosanna, means “Make us safe; Save our lives; Do it now,” and that is what people at both marches said.

Isaiah catches something important about that request, that desperate demand.  Isaiah sings that, when Resurrection finally wraps Creation in its arms, people will say: “This is our God; we have waited for him.”  The Hebrew word for “waited” draws its energy from the physical metaphor of a string (perhaps on a violin) that is twisted and stretched too tight.  Waiting for Resurrection stretches us to the breaking point and beyond.  That would be an important thing to remember this Easter.  The whole Creation, all peoples (not just Christians), all of us together are waiting for Resurrection, for a life together that is not ripped apart by senseless death.

But that means that the cry from last week (whether in the streets of Jerusalem or Washington, D.C.) is still the cry for an honest observance of Easter: “Make us safe; Save our lives; Do it now,”

May it be so.

A Provocation: Good Friday: March 30, 2018: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
52:13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

52:14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals-

52:15 so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

53:2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

53:3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

53:4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

53:8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

53:9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

53:10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.

53:11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

53:12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Isaiah (and not just in this passage) focus so much on oppression and real injustice?
  • Who is the “servant?”  Is there more than one answer?
  • If there is more than one answer, what does that suggest?

Some Longer Reflections:

Read the words of Isaiah 53:4 slowly and carefully.  This has been read as the seed of atonement theory, as the setup for the idea that the Messiah substitutes for us somehow.  Read the words slowly and very carefully.

They do not say what we have often made them say.

The first thing to notice is that the sentence is structured as a contrast between what the servant did and how we assessed him.  The servant is weak the way we are weak.  The servant is sick the way we are sick.  The servant is just like us, maybe more like us than we would like to admit.

And that is why we carefully keep the servant at a distance.

This little verse reflects with painful accuracy a basic truth of human life: we fear our fragility, and we protect ourselves from it by rejecting it when we see it in people around us.

When we see a fragile person, marked by mortality, we blame them: with lungs like that, you must be a smoker; with teeth like those, you must not care about hygiene; to be stuck in a job like that, you must be lazy.  We even invoke God, because “God” (in this instance) functions as the guarantor that everything that happens has a reason.  So if disease and disaster are the result of being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted,” then we have no responsibility for those that are “less fortunate.”

Listen to the health care debate in the United States, and not just the comment sections on articles about the Affordable Care Act.  Listen to the politicians themselves.  They echo the words of internet trolls: both are incensed that ObamaCare “takes money from healthy people to pay for sick people.”  (Of course, this is what ALL insurance programs do, but never mind.)  This troll-speak is founded on the notion that we are all absolutely separate from each other, all atomized individuals with no connection to, and no responsibility for, each other.

This is a lie.

The key, I think, is the way Isaiah speaks about “our infirmities,” and “our diseases.”  When it comes to fragility, we are all in it together.  There is no other way to be human.

For Jews, the servant shines a sharp light on our tendency to protect ourselves by staying separate from anyone who reminds us of mortality.  For Christians (since we can’t help but think of Jesus), the servant clarifies for us the impact of a crucified Messiah: the only redemption, the only atonement, is one that brings all people, and all of Creation together, united as one fragile, connected community.

Any other response, especially any response that imagines that the point of redemption is that we can all go to heaven, one by one, leaves us still accounting the servant as “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”

Isaiah is right: such an accounting is simply wrong.  May this be a truly good Friday.

A Provocation: Sunday of the Palms: March 25, 2018: Mark 11:1-11

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

A Question or Two:

  • A colt that has never been ridden is pretty small.
  • Why is Jesus planning to ride such a small animal?

Some Longer Reflections:

Palm Sunday arrives every year, and though the gospels differ from each other in important ways, the central action of the day, and the key words and hopes, are the same.  Or close enough.

So maybe you’d like to look at my Provocation from last year as a start.  Go to https://wordpress.com/post/provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/5292 to read it.

Now, some notes for this year:

The people chant the same thing every year: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna” is a word with a history.  It is a call for rescue, for a change in the world.  It means, “LORD save,” and the “na” on the end of the word makes the plea even more intense.  Sometimes people translate it as “please,” but this seems far too mild, given how and when this little particle is used.  I translate the whole word as, “LORD, save, NOW!!”

And the chant ends with a reference to the “LORD.”  American Christians hear “Jesus” when the text says, “LORD,” but there are no American Christians in the crowd.  Everyone, specially including Jesus, is Jewish, and when you see LORD in a Jewish text, behind it is the unpronounced Name of the God whose Name is Mercy.

That means that the crowd’s demand (NOW!!) is rooted in a reliance on the God who rules the world by means of Mercy.

And the entire crowd joins the chant.

That matters in Mark’s gospel (all the gospels, actually).  These stories about Jesus are not only stories about Jesus.  They are stories about all the people, all who are waiting for Mercy to mean something real.  The Messiah enacts Mercy, and by doing so brings the reign of God.  And the whole crowd is waiting for exactly that.

Jesus, in Mark’s story, knows that, too.  When he prepares the disciples for the inevitable question about what they are doing, he tells them to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”  He is also talking about the LORD, the God who reigns by  Mercy.

The question, then, is how does God “reign by Mercy?”  And what would that mean now?

It doesn’t mean that we are somehow to back down, back off, give in, melt in the face of the heat of opposition.  Mercy is creative.  Mercy is engaged.  Mercy is reciprocal.  Mercy is a lot of things, but Mercy is not soft.

The reign of Mercy does not simply equate to a regime of forgiveness, though they share characteristics.  Forgiveness and Mercy are related, and real forgiveness requires solid Mercy.  But equating forgiveness with Mercy makes the career of the Messiah only about my private sinfulness that needs to be eliminated before a Holy God.  This is what much of American Christianity is satisfied with, and the problem is that this tends to make Christianity into a redemptionist cult: the mechanisms of eternity are bent to remedy instances of selfishness in little babies.

Please hear me carefully.  I am actually generally impressed with theologies that see Sin (not sins) as an ontological reality, as something that needs to be overcome as part of the heart of the work of the Messiah (I am a Lutheran theologian, after all).

But there is more to the creative work of the Messiah, more even than overcoming ontological Sin.

The “more” is Mercy.

Mercy becomes crucial when the sins we are talking about are real crimes, not everyday little offenses.  And frankly, I think that the problems we are trying to solve involve real crimes.  We are trying to come to terms with how we live together after endless generations of women have been told that sexual assault is simply the price for being involved in business.  We are trying to find a way to uproot the effects of the enslavement of people in the United States.  That enslavement still bears Strange Fruit, to quote the song sung by Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

This is a task too big for forgiveness.

Trying to cast it that way leads to endless delay.  We first have to figure out who REALLY was to blame, and who REALLY  was not.  People like me (my family has been on this continent only since the beginning of the 20th century, for the most part) claim loudly that we are not to blame.  People then claim that enslavement was a normal practice in Africa, so we were actually doing a people a favor by enslaving them here, because conditions were better in the Land of the Free and the Home of the….  Well, never mind.  It goes on from there.

This is not a task for forgiveness.  The task is to discover, invent, and enact a way to let Mercy (re)create our life together.

I do not know if we are up to it.  We shall see.  For now, I will listen to the oddly durable hope revealed by the cry of the crowd on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

May it be so.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 18, 2018: John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33
12:20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.

12:21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

12:22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

12:23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

12:24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

12:27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.

12:28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

12:29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

12:30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.

12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

12:33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

A Question or Two:

  • Why were these Greeks going up to the feast?

Some Longer Reflections:

Some Greeks, otherwise unidentified, want to see Jesus, which is to say that they desire insight into the Messiah.  Who are these Greeks?  We are not told, they are just random people.  They are going up to the feast, so they might well be (at least) Jewish wannabes.  How did they find out about Jesus?  Why do they want insight into the act of God to turn the world right-side-up?  We are not told.

All this is puzzling enough, but completely unexplained is Jesus response to this request from unknown Greeks.

“The hour has come,” says Jesus.  “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth….”

He goes on: “Those who love their life lose it…, now my soul is troubled.”

And he concludes, “Father, glorify your name.”  The words echo the Lord’s Prayer (without exactly reproducing it), and both prayers echo (and reproduce) Kaddish, the prayer that is prayed in Sabbath services, where it echoes its use at funerals.

Perhaps this part of Jesus’ response at least makes sense: the one theme that seems to hold Jesus’ scattered responses together is death.  In his memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel recounts the phenomenon of Jews standing in the death factory at Auschwitz and saying Kaddish for themselves.  Perhaps Jesus is doing the same.

But if he is, then the pain of this scene is underestimated by interpreters.

And it was all set in motion by a request for insight made by people identified as Greeks.

Something is happening, something odd.

But what?

Some thoughts:

  1. If these Greeks are simply Greek-speaking Jews (and there were plenty of them in the ancient world), then I see no motivation for the scene.  John’s storyteller does indeed have events erupt from nowhere, but that seems farfetched as an explanation for this scene.
  2. The scene has more coherence if these Greeks are pagans, outsiders who are requesting insight and understanding of the Jewish faith.  There were many such pagans in the ancient world.  They were called “God-fearers” and records tell us that they saw Judaism as a noble philosophy and that they attached themselves to Jewish communities seeking to learn what it meant to live a life that honored God’s Mercy.
  3. This matter of honoring God’s Mercy is bigger than it seems, since God’s Mercy is linked by the rabbis with God’s unspoken Name, which Jesus just glorified (remember the Lord’s Prayer and Kaddish).  So maybe Jesus’ reaction is rooted in astonishment at pagans who, somehow, understood that God governed the cosmos by Mercy.
  4. And these surprising pagans have gone further.  They are asking for insight into Jesus, the Messiah.  The Messiah is God’s act of Mercy to turn the cosmos right-side-up.  This is not just an expression of admiration for a noble philosophy.  It is a confession that the power structures of the world need to change.

And so it is that Jesus says: “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

We are accustomed to reading this as a kind of exorcism ceremony in miniature, with the impact being that devilish forces have met their match.

This works (more or less), but it misses the point.

The forces that ruled the world in which Jesus lived were pagan forces.  They spoke Greek.  And Latin.  And they held privilege and power that they assumed simply belonged to them.  Rome strip-mined the outlying provinces to support the life of its Empire.

And now some Greeks, some random pagans, are seeking insight into the healing of the world that will require the overturning of their power and privilege.

So why does Jesus begin immediately to talk about death?

Go carefully here.  There is no salvationist or redemptionist language here, and there is no substitutionary sacrifice.  Jesus only talks about seeds and soil, images of fertility and new beginnings, new life.  Go very carefully here.

The “right-side-upping” of the cosmos is not accomplished by overthrowing Roman power.

Rome kills Jesus.  Rome wins.  Pilate taunts him and laughs at his truth, and then he has Jesus tortured publicly so that he (and the hope for re-balancing the cosmos) will die slowly and painfully.

Except death does not have the last word.

The last word, especially in John’s story, is a repeatedly erupting word of life.  Jesus keeps on rising from the dead in John’s gospel.  Every time the story tries to end, he shows up again.

And it all started with a surrender of privilege, on the part of Jesus and on the part of the Greeks who wanted to see the Messiah.

Maybe it always starts, in God’s reign of Mercy, with a surrender of privilege.