A Provocation: Third Sunday in Lent: March 4, 2018: John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A Question or Two:

  • What sign do you look for if you are trying to understand zeal?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, what’s going on here?

People are selling animals for sacrifice, and changing money so that people don’t have to use the Roman enemy’s money in the Temple, even though they are forced by circumstances to use it everywhere else.  This is not strange and it is not out of place.  Interpreters sometimes imagine that the sellers are being dishonest, but the storyteller does not even HINT at such a charge.  The storyteller only says that they are selling.

The word used, πωλοῦντας, is derived from the root verb, πωλεω, which (again) just means “selling,” but the related word, πωλεομαι, may carry an embedded picture of how the selling was done.  πωλεομαι refers to a “back and forth” action, and that may mean that the selling referred to by πωλεω is the kind of vigorous haggling that goes on in markets anywhere that price is settled as the result of bargaining.  I’ve heard it in Vietnam and it is spirited, to say the least.  My students have heard it in China, and it is loud.

So I suppose that Jesus could be objecting to the volume of the haggling, though that seems a little out of place: haggling would have been part of normal everyday life for him, so why would he get all nervous about it all of a sudden?  Maybe the storyteller wants us to imagine that Jesus’ “zeal for [God’s] house” leads him to demand a holy, charged silence for the Temple that echoes the silence found in the Holy of Holies.  Maybe he doesn’t want it loud like a marketplace.  Maybe.

There are many other possibilities.

One that interests me relates to the psalm that the disciples remember later on:  “Zeal for Your house consumes me.”  The Greek word behind “zeal” is ζῆλος (which is the word from which the English word, zeal, springs), and ζῆλος is a complicated word.  Zeal can be a good thing: it implies fervent passion, and deep commitment, and warm devotion.  But zeal can also be a dangerous thing: it implies fervid passion, and an abyss of unquestioning commitment, and incendiary devotion that is willing to burn the world down for a cause no one else can figure out.  ζῆλος is also the root of the English word, Zealot.  

So is Jesus being portrayed as fervently faithful, or as a fiery Zealot?

The story will bear either reading.  And the link made by the storyteller to the destruction of the Temple suggests that we are to remember that the Zealots were decisively involved in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Temple.  Could John’s storyteller intend to link Jesus to the Zealots, and to implicate both of them in the loss of the Temple, to implicate and to absolve in the same narrative gesture?  Go carefully here.  This interpretive line is about 3/4 inch away from active anti-Semitism, and if John’s storyteller is planning a jump across that short gap, I will not be jumping with him.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ zeal?

I was studying this scene today with some students and some pastors, and one of the students suggested that we ought consider other instances of zeal, instances in the news just now.  What if Jesus’ zeal ought to be connected with the zeal shown by students who survived the shooting at the school in Parkland, FL?  What if one of the keys to understanding this scene is to be found in the #NeverAgain movement?

I think my student might be onto something.

Zeal like that leads to opposition, even to death threats from actual Zealots who want to solve every problem by shooting guns.  Pilate also imagines that the best way to manage a conquered population is to torture and kill.  Interesting.

Zeal like that leads to missteps or to the possibility of mistakes of various sorts.  Missteps, whether from youth or passion, do not discredit zeal.  An event as awful as this shooting stirs a widely shared need to insist: #NeverAgain.  A hashtag is not a legislative agenda, nor is it the last word on solving the problem.  And Jesus drives animals and people out of the Temple at the very beginning of John’s story (and not at the end, as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Perhaps the storyteller simply want us to see his not-yet-managed passion, his energy which may result in the scenes in John in which Jesus is inexplicably harsh.

“Zeal for your house will consume me.”

“Zeal spurred by the poisonous fruit of toxic masculinity will consume me.”

“Zeal will eat me up, zeal that burns because of political frontmen who insist that the only thing that cannot be implicated in gun deaths is guns.”

“Zeal for all the children killed in schools will eat at me until serious people pick up this task and work at it until we begin taking steps to solve it.”  

A Provocation: February 26, 2018: Second Sunday in Lent: Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31-38
8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do Peter and Jesus “rebuke” each other?
  • Why does the word translated as “rebuke” (ἐπιτιμᾶν) have a root that brings in the notion of living honorably?

Some Longer Reflections:

We have made the cross into a metaphor, and “cross-bearing” has become a mild kind of private religious activity.  To the extent that I am correct in saying this, we have decided to actively misunderstand what Jesus just said.

Jesus said that anyone who follows him will pick up their own cross and join the parade.  This is not a call to silently putting up with private pain (“Everyone has their own cross to bear”).  This is not a summons to heroic discipleship in which the REAL Christians carry conspicuously heavier burdens of their publicly displayed “ever-so-full-of-faith-ness” (which is, I believe, to be distinguished from anything that amounts to actual faithful living).

To the contrary, Jesus just said that anyone who believes that this is the moment when God turns the world right-side-up (which is the task of the messiah, after all) had better get used to the fact that Rome will win most of the fights.  Those with power will, for the most part, keep that power, and they will exercise it effectively most of the time.  Efforts to establish justice will remain a hope, even a demand, but they will be blocked (or co-opted) much of the time.

And Jesus is, therefore, also saying that efforts to seize power and impose the will of God on the world will result in our becoming the new Romans, the new torturers, the new oppressors.

Jesus is saying that the cult of victory is always apostate, even when the cause is, near as we can tell, justified and good.  The cult of victory is just that: a cult.  When you hail victory, you would do well to remember what “Hail victory” becomes when you translate it into German.  “Sieg Heil” is blasphemy, no matter what language you speak.

So join the parade.  The forces of cynical power will win, at least in part, this time, just like last time.  And the people in the parade, each carrying the cross that will defeat them, will be ridiculed again, as always.  We will be called snowflakes.  Or socialists.  Or gun-haters.  Or immature.  Sometimes the taunts will even be right.  I have probably always been a snowflake, for good and ill.

Remember, though, that this call to join the parade comes in the middle of a story about the God who raises the dead to life.  Even the crucified dead.

This is NOT a story that fetishizes death, making “cross-bearing” into a kind of theological masochism (“Ooh, it hurts so good”).  That is a dangerous misunderstanding of Jesus’ words.  Dangerous, but common.

This is a story that says that even when cynical forces win, again, we are called to join the parade behind God’s promise to turn the world right-side-up.  The thing that cynical power does not understand is that God raises the dead.  Oddly enough, that means that Rome is finally unable to stop the parade of faithful people who believe in the possibility of justice.

Join the parade.

A Provocation: First Sunday in Lent: February 18, 2018: Mark 1:9-15

Mark 1:9-15
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the storyteller tell us that Jesus saw the heavens torn apart?
  • Why only Jesus?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are many things worth pointing to in this little scene: the heavens are torn, the Breath of God cast Jesus out into the wordless wilderness, while he was there, he was tested by the satan in preparation for serving as the messiah.

All of those moments are worth a slow, attentive reading.

When Jesus was tested, the wild beasts were with him, which seems an important part of the testing.  They are a reminder that anyone who imagines that the world is safe and under control has missed the most important point.  Nothing is under control.  At least nothing important.

But what seems really important to me this time through this text is the word that is translated as “repent.”

The word is μετανοεῖτε, and it is the word that generally is read as “repent.”  But the word itself is not quite so specific.  It means, simply, “change the way you think.”  That could surely imply repenting of sinful acts or ways of being, but it needn’t imply that at all.  

This time through the text what I see is a call to change the way you think so that you can entertain the possibility of actual good news.

Look at the phrase (either in English or in Greek).  If the approach of the reign of God is the motivation for Jesus’ words, then it makes more sense (to me, at least) to see the change he calls for as involving daring to hope.

We all learn, as we grow, that the way things are is the way things ARE.  The clouds are not made of ice cream, no matter what we thought as children.  And abusers who hold power are very likely to continue to hold power.  We learn such lessons whether we want to or not.  And we find a way to cope and get on with living.  But in the process we learn that hope is a luxury that we cannot always afford.  We make do.

Jesus is saying that, this time, the world is being turned right side up.

This time.  This actual time.  Now is the time to dare to hope.  “Change your mind,” he says.  “Now is the time.”

So I wonder, now perhaps more than before, if it is safe to hope, if I dare to give up on my hard-won cynicism.  I surely am not ready to go back to being naïve, but is this a moment in which hope might be necessary, not just possible?

One thing I do know: this kind of μετανοεῖτε seems more life-changing than much of what passes for repentance most of the time.  Even in the face of real wrong-doing, the question of whether it is safe to trust that this is actually a moment of change is the most important question of all.




A Provocation: Transfiguration Sunday: February 11, 2018: Mark 9:2-9

Mark 9:2-9
9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,

9:3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

9:4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

9:5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

9:6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9:9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is it so important for the storyteller to emphasize how very alone they were on the mountain?
  • Is that the only reason?

Some Longer Reflections:

Interpreters have paid careful attention to the way the Transfiguration scene echoes the Baptism scene, and to the way both scenes set up the audience for the Crucifixion.  These three linked scenes create the structure that makes Mark’s story work, and we have known that for a long time.

So this time when I sat down with the Transfiguration scene before me, I wondered about it.

I have heard good sermons that began by considering the mountain as one of the “thin places” known in Celtic spirituality, as a place where the divide between the earthly realm and the realm of the spirit was especially thin and permeable.  One ought to expect spiritual revelations to occur in a thin place.

I have heard good sermons that explored the Transfiguration as a revelation of the essential Divinity of Jesus.  The best of these sermons did not ignore the countervailing humanity that a theology of Incarnation must insist on, but all of these (generally very helpful) sermons saw the scene in Mark 9 as an occasion in which the “meat shield” (an odd term that emerged in a discussion of this scene the other day) broke open and Jesus’ deep Divinity shone out.

But I found myself wondering about how all of this works when the Transfiguration and the Baptism are linked with the death by torture with which the story reaches its goal.

In all three, Jesus is at the center of vision.  In all three there is an Elijah, even if he only appears in a taunt delivered by a crowd of Roman murderers who cannot understand Aramaic, the Jewish language.  In all of them Jesus is identified as “son of God.”  In the last scene, however, the identification comes, not from God, who should have broken the silence and spoken, but by the centurion in charge of the murder.  Imagine the power of the scene if God had, once again, claimed Jesus as son.  The storyteller set up the story so that we would imagine that, so that we would NEED that.  The story would indeed offer a spiritual revelation if God spoke, saying the only words God ever says in Mark’s story: “This is my son.”

But the storyteller denies us the release that we need.

The centurion finishes the shameful murder by taunting Jesus’ corpse, hanging lifeless on the cross.

So I have been wondering: what happens to the Transfiguration when it is linked to the murder of a man who cannot save himself and come down from the cross?

As I wondered, I picked up Martin Luther’s translation of this scene, and found a small surprise.  The Greek tells us that Jesus was μετεμορφώθη (“metamorphosed”) before them, using a word that almost begs for interpreters to imagine Jesus as a caterpillar in the process of becoming a butterfly.  Luther tells us that Jesus was, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, verklärt.  Your German lexicon will tell you that verklären means that something earthly is heightened into something more (my Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch uses the word Übererdische here).  This is a wonderful word to use in this scene, and offered a nice surprise since I had expected that a more common word for “transformed” would be used.  Part of what makes Luther’s translation so interesting to me is the fact that verklären sits in the lexicon right next to verklaren, which means “clarified.”  Oh, what a difference an umlaut makes!

So I looked also in my grandfather’s Bible to see how this scene was rendered there.  In Swedish, Jesus is förklarad, which means “clarified.”  (Except in biblical situations, my lexicon tells me, where it uniquely means “glorified.”)  I have long distrusted theology that requires words to mean something different inside the “church world” that they don’t mean in the real world.  (As Bonhoeffer wrote in the EthicsDie Welt Welt bleibt, the world remains the world.)

So what if we read this scene not as a transformation of Jesus, but as a clarification?

It is intriguing to me that the Swedish also tells us that Jesus’ clothing became “klar,” which means exactly what it sounds like.  His clothes, in Swedish at least, become transparent.  This suggests that my grandfather might just have grown up imagining that the revelation on the mountain was a revelation of Jesus’ regular human body.

I like this way of reading this text.  It connects better with the Crucifixion, and makes it clear (!) that both scenes reveal Jesus’ human body, vulnerable, beautiful, and exactly like our bodies.

I heard a story on NPR today.

It was a story about a border agent who patrolled the desert of the American south looking for people entering the country illegally.  He told of his commitment to his work.  He told also of his decision to leave that work.  That decision was rooted in his reflection of the night that he arrested a middle-aged woman who had been abandoned in the desert by her guide.  She was alone.  She was lost.  And she was injured.

The agent knelt before her, tending to her badly injured feet, and the woman thanked him.

“How could she thank me?,” he said.  “I had arrested her and she would be deported.  How could she thank me?”

Her injury, her vulnerability, her human reality, bodily, physical, and needing care,  led him to rethink his work and his responsibilities.  All of that was clarified when he tended to her injured feet.  So he changed.

What if that is the real transfiguration in this scene?

What if it is Jesus’ human vulnerability that matters, both on the cross and on the mountain?

You can read this scene other ways, customary ways, and read it well.  This time I am going to read it differently, just in case there is a revelation hiding in his body exactly like mine: vulnerable, mortal, limited.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 4, 2018: Mark 1:29-39

Mark 1:29-39
1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.

1:30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.

1:31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

1:32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.

1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.

1:34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

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

1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.

1:37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

1:38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A Question or Two:

  • “The fever left her…”
  • If this metaphor implies the the fever is a personal entity that can leave, why do we still use the metaphor?
  • What might that suggest?

Some Longer Reflections:

Καὶ εὐθὺς ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς…

That’s how the scene begins.  Another εὐθὺς, another “immediately” that adds intensity to the scene (and that should have been translated but was not).  And another link to the synagogue.  So this is later in the same sabbath that set up last week’s preaching text.  

They go to the home of Simon and Andrew, a home the brothers apparently share with Simon’s mother-in-law.  She is ill; Jesus heals her; and she rises and serves them.  This is all fine and good, though, as one of my students, now a pastor, said: “What?  No one except the mother-in-law could boil water?  Good question.

But Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has pointed out something interesting.

The word translated as “served” is διηκόνει.  This is a word, Moltmann-Wendel notes, that this word, when the subject is a woman, is usually translated as “served,” or “cooked,” or “waited tables.”  But when this verb has a male subject, everything changes.  With a male subject, διηκόνει is generally translated as “acted as a deacon for the community.”

Now, I have nothing against cooking.  In fact, I love to cook, and the hospitality that goes with preparing a good meal for guests is a marvelous thing we share as human beings.  But acting as a deacon is also a marvel.

In ancient communities of faith, the διακόνός (deacon) was the person responsible for connecting need with resource.  If someone had lost their home, the διακόνός was in charge of knowing whose child had gone off to college, so there was an extra bedroom.  If someone was hungry, the διακόνός was the person who would connect them with someone whose garden had produced an incredible number of tomatoes (not to mention the spaghetti squash).  The διακόνός facilitated the care in the caring community.  The διακόνός was the one who made it all work.

Which makes the next moment in this scene from Mark’s story very interesting indeed.  The storyteller informs us that, “That evening, at sundown [that is to say, when sabbath had ended and the world went back to normal] they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.”

How did they know to come?

You can make up all sorts of answers, and some of them even work pretty well.  But notice that the storyteller just told us that Peter’s mother-in-law διηκόνει αὐτοῖς, she “deaconed” to them.  It may have involved cooking.  But taking my lead from Moltmann-Wendel, I think the whole town came to the gates of the house because she connected need with resource.  

I think the whole town came because Peter’s mother-in-law went house-to-house and told everyone who had a family member who was “sick or possessed with demons” that there was a resource available, and the resource was God’s messiah, sent to turn the world right-side-up.

By the way, the storyteller revisits this theme at the end of the story.

When Jesus has been tortured to death, all the men with names have run away.  They have left the story and will not return.  But then we discover that Jesus has not died alone.  He has, in fact, died surrounded by people who have been with him since the beginning of the story in Galilee, who have followed him all the way up to Jerusalem, all the way to his death.  He has died surrounded by people, we are told, who had “deaconed” to him.  These people were women, and they have been doing, all along, exactly what Peter’s mother-in-law just did.

I think the storyteller just told us that it was the women who made Jesus’ whole career possible.  When the four friends brought the paralyzed man to the house where Jesus was teaching, perhaps one of these women told them where to find him, and maybe it was another of these women who pointed out that there are ways to get into a house that don’t require doors or windows.  And when Jairus came to find Jesus, perhaps it was some of these women who told him when Jesus would be arriving.  And the woman who came up behind Jesus in the crowd may have had coaches, deacons.  Perhaps she even became one of the deacons, herself.  Maybe she was the one from whom the Syro-Phoenician woman heard that Jesus was in the house and might be of help with her daughter.

Look at each of the healings in Mark’s story.  Ask yourself: who spread the word?  Who connected need with resource?  And think of Peter’s mother-in-law.

She is a good model.





A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: January 28, 2018: Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28
1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,

1:24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

1:27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jesus in the synagogue?
  • Why is the man with the unclean spirit there?
  • Are their reasons similar or different?
  • How do you know?

Some Longer Reflections:

The translation of the beginning of this scene is weak.  In English, it reads: “when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”  He did indeed go into the synagogue, and he did indeed teach.  But the Greek doesn’t simply say “When the sabbath came….”

The Greek is  καὶ εὐθὺς τοῖς σάββασιν, and two things matter about this phrase. 

The first is the word εὐθὺς, which Mark uses all the time (more than any other NT writer.  It is usually translated as “immediately,” though it does not always refer to time.  It is always an intensifier.  When Jesus does something εὐθὺς, he may do it right away, but he surely does it with vigor, focus, and powerful purpose.  So the storyteller is emphasizing that the matter of going into the synagogue is not random, not casual.  It is intensely intentional. 

And the last part of the phrase is even more important.   The reference to the sabbath (τοῖς σάββασιν) is in the plural, so the storyteller is NOT saying, “There was this one sabbath, and Jesus went into the synagogue….”  The storyteller emphasizes that Jesus went to the synagogue sabbath after sabbath after sabbath.  It is a distributive expression.  It means that if it was sabbath, Jesus was in the synagogue, every time.  

That may be why he is invited to teach.  The people in the synagogue knew him well.  You don’t get to teach in a synagogue just because you show up.  The storyteller presents the scribes as being in charge of the synagogue and as being the regular teachers there.  The storyteller also contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes, who taught without basing their teaching on their own authority.  Too often interpreters pick up this lead and make fun of the scribes and of Judaism in general.  Too often the point is that Judaism “lacks authority,” while Christianity has all sorts of authority.

This is useless interpretation.

And it misses the fact that the scribes will have invited Jesus to teach.  It also misses the point that the storyteller makes at the end of the scene: they ALL were amazed.  All of them.  Including the scribes.

Studying Torah teaches you how to maintain stability in a world that is out of control.

Torah trains you to live an orderly life that testifies to the love God has for Creation.  Therefore, the authority of Torah does not (MUST not) depend on the personal authority of individual teachers.  Such free-lance authority would lead to chaos.

What Jesus does in the synagogue does not contradict the work of the Torah-teachers.  In the eyes of the storyteller, what Jesus does supports the intention of Torah from the start.  In the eyes of the storyteller, Jesus goes a step further: he demonstrates the ability to overrule those things that are out of control.

That is what the “unclean spirit” represents, a world in which some things are dangerous and make no sense.  The word translated as “spirit” is πνεύμα, and this is the word for the breath that God blew into Mudguy’s nose in Genesis 2, the breath that made Mudguy into a human being.  To say that the man in the synagogue has an “unclean spirit” is to say that something is deeply wrong.  He is dangerous.  He is out of control.  What he does makes no sense.  He is controlled by a different principle, a different force, a force that is also dangerous and out of control.

What force is that?  The rabbis in the ancient world sometimes implied that demonic possession was the result of being occupied by Rome.  That means that Rome is the force that cannot be controlled, the “spirit” that fills the world with people who have been made into dangerous enemies.

And the storyteller says that Jesus can end this occupation.

So this scene is not simply about demonic possession, whatever that is.

And the scene is certainly not about the weakness of the scribes.

This scene paints a picture of the messiah being able to free people from the force that controls the world and makes it dangerous. 

That means that the question for this week is: What is the force that controls our world and makes it dangerous?  What is the force that fractures communities and drives us apart?

There are several contenders: greed, resentment, anger, patriarchy.

One of my students, for her senior thesis, is doing an ethical analysis of the narrative world of the television series, Sons of Anarchy So, because I am her thesis advisor, I have spent the past many days watching the series.  There are seven seasons.  That is a lot of anarchy.

The people at the center of the story are members of a motorcycle club.  They sell illegal weapons.  They sell drugs.  And they love each other.

Because of that love, because of their ethic of loyalty to the members of their own community, they carry out vengeance against anyone who hurts a member of their family.  Early in the series, these acts of vengeance (which are extremely violent and bloody) bring the world back into balance.  At least they seem to.  The story is structured so that we relax when we see enemies punished, when violence is repaid with violence.

Violence is the force that keeps the world in control.

But even at the beginning, the violence is itself uncontrollable.  And in the end, the violence destroys the world and the family at the center of it.  

It was hard to watch Sons of Anarchy.  The blood was too much, and the violence was too pervasive.  But the story made me wonder whether violence might be the force that we cannot control.  Perhaps we are all possessed by the notion that payback balances the world.  It is easy to demonstrate that the president-for-now believes that.  He said as much in one of his “books.”  It is also easy to point out instances of deep dysfunction in the legislature, in cities, and in families.

Go deeper than that.

If messiah’s task is to free Creation from the forces that finally make us destroy ourselves, then interpreting this little scene near the beginning of Mark’s story asks us first to discover the ways we are possessed by a love of violence, the ways we are trapped in a system of endless payback.  Before we can interpret this scene, we have to discover the ways we ourselves are possessed.  We have to discover the ways we are TRAPPED.  

So this past week I listened to a report on the radio.  It dealt with the necessity of preparing for a war with North Korea.  This preparation necessarily involves training more and more brigades in tunnel warfare.  The necessity of this training is probably a legacy of the war in Vietnam, where fighting in tunnels was also necessary.  I remember the stories from those days, and the brutality of such fighting.  The realities of the world require us to train young people for that brutality.  It is necessary.  It is out of our control.

It will not do to interpret this scene from Mark’s story by pretending that we, as followers of the messiah, are free from such brutal necessities.  That means that, in some real ways, in the story we are the man possessed by an unclean spirit.  We have no choice.

And therefore we are the person to whom Jesus speaks: “Be silent, and come out.”

I wonder what he means?

A Provocation: Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 21, 2018: Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.

1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

1:19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

1:20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why did all this happen after John was arrested?
  • Where was Jesus before this?

Some Longer Reflections:

…after John was arrested…

This past week I heard a man on the radio.  He was talking about getting arrested back in the 1960s because he sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter.  I also heard on the radio about the death of the man convicted in the deaths of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  In 1964, as part of the Freedom Summer Drive, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were working to register voters in Mississippi.  They were young, about the same age as my youngest son.  And they were killed by white supremacists.  Some people today might call the killers “fine people.”  I would not.  Killers are killers, and those who join groups that supported the killers are not fine people.  I might call them “accomplices-after-the-fact.”

Showing up and announcing that the world was about to change did not bring safety (or even success) for John the Baptist.  It did not bring safety or success for the Freedom Riders back in the 1960s.  A member of the congregation I served 30 years ago was one of those Freedom Riders.  She told me about her experience when I had expressed frustration at the state of civil rights issues in our country.  “Nothing changed,” I had said.  Then she told me her story.  “A lot changed,” she said, “but we are not done.”

I wonder if that is what Jesus said “…after John was arrested…”?

It is clear that my teacher, the Freedom Rider, was correct.  We are not done.  Not even nearly.  The people who refused to serve Black people at their lunch counters believed that any “race mixing” violated their religious principles.  The Supreme Court has been asked to consider whether “religious principles” allow people to refuse to serve people to whom they object.  Lunch counters or wedding cakes, it’s the same issue.

We are not done.  

Federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map this past week because it was obviously drawn to create and preserve a political advantage.  Take a look at the map ( go to https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/us/north-carolina-gerrymander.html).  If that is not gerrymandering, the word has no meaning.

We are not done. 

Read through the tweets (some of them perhaps generated by bots?) that erupted when Doug Jones won the special election in Alabama.  They are full of claims that lots and lots and lots of Black people voted illegally.

We as SO not done. 

There are many things with which we are not finished: affordable health care, protection from harassment in the workplace (and any place), protection for people who come to our country for political freedom, religious liberty, and economic opportunity.  This is just the short list.

So listen to what Jesus says after John was arrested: “Their time is up,” he says.  “The new day is on the horizon.”

Well, actually that was Oprah, but Jesus says the same thing.  He even uses the same basic metaphor to talk about how near the Reign of God has come.  The word translated as “has come near” (ἤγγικεν) is the word you would use to describe the moment just before the sun breaks above the horizon.  Get up early, an hour or two before sunrise, and wait for the sun. Watch the horizon.  It is still night, and will be for a long, cold time, but you can see the sky getting lighter, even two hours before sunrise.  Watch the horizon.  Just before the sun actually rises, the horizon looks as if it were boiling.  And then the first edge of the sun pops up, and the whole sky changes.  In the next few minutes, I swear I can feel the earth turning under my feet, and then the sun breaks free and rises.  Even on the coldest winter day, you can feel the warmth.  

Do you suppose Oprah knew what the text for this Sunday would be?

You don’t have to like Oprah, or want her to run for president to feel the rightness of what she said.

Before you preach, listen to the old song, “Here Comes The Sun.”  You could listen to the Beatles version (you can find it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/NI5iR52f65o).  Or you could listen to Paul Simon sing it with Graham Nash and David Crosby (https://youtu.be/muFOeZSIC2U).  Make sure that you listen to Richie Havens (https://youtu.be/VBbXKsKXyNU).

But above all, wait and watch.  The Christian faith does not teach you to put up with the way things have always been.  As my teacher taught me: “A lot changed,” she said, “but we are not done.”

A Provocation: Second Sunday After the Epiphany: January 14, 2018: John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51
1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

1:44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

1:46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

1:47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

1:48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

1:49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

1:50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

1:51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus tell Philip to follow him?
  • It is a simple question, but take it seriously.

Some Longer Reflections:

“Follow me.”

With these words, it all starts: all Christian life and Christian theology.  And not just Christian life and theology: Jesus has issued the summons a rabbi offers to a potential student, and Philip responds.

Becoming a student requires moving your feet, committing your self, engaging in the bodily work of study.  Studying changes you forever.  Every actual student discovers this.  Philip clearly knows it in this scene.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also knew what study requires.

His book, translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship, is originally titled simply: Nachfolge.  The physical fact of following is the heart of discipleship.  For Bonhoeffer, it was clear that this following consisted in “obedience unto death, even death on a cross.”  This, all too often, leads to masochistic theology that courts opposition and begs for persecution.

But Bonhoeffer was no masochist.

I read him as a realist.  Following Jesus and learning Torah from him requires a settled realization that the task of the messiah always tangles you up in the very real complications of the very real world.  “The world remains the world,” he says in his Ethics, and he means it.  Too much of Christian hope seems (to me, at least) to be made of cotton candy.  It is sweet and airy, and it will make you sick to your stomach if you make it your regular diet.  Bonhoeffer expected that Christian hope would have to make its way in the real world where things are difficult to figure out.

The storyteller in John’s gospel knows this, as well.

All of this makes Jesus’ comment upon meeting Nathanael most interesting.  He says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  Some interpreters waste their time (and their moral authority) by supposing that we should read this is a veiled insult directed at Jews in general.  These interpreters suppose this statement to mean that Nathanael stands out because, unlike other Jews, he (at least) is honest.


Stop it.

We are done with interpretation like that.

Two things to notice:

First, Jesus refers to Nathanael as an Israelite.  Of course this is appropriate, because he is Jewish.  He simply is.  But it is worth noting that Jesus uses the form of reference (Ἰσραηλίτης: Israelite) that Jews use in ancient texts when speaking to other Jews, a form of reference that claims the other as a brother Jew.  When outsiders speak of Jews, or when Jews speak to outsiders, they refer to Jews, not as “Israelites,” but as Ἰουδαίοι (Judeans).  Jesus begins by calling Nathanael his Jewish brother.

Second, Jesus says that Nathanael has no “guile.”  I am guessing that you have, for the most part, not used that word recently.  At least, not when speaking aloud.  People know what the word means, but we don’t say it much.  The word, of course, refers to clever trickery.  It implies the playing of word games meant only to trip and take advantage.

Guile is a tool used particularly by people with power to trick people without power.  Think of the old song, The Preacher and the Slave by Joe Hill.  The chorus goes:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and Pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (It’s a lie).

These beguiling words are offered by preachers to keep workers and other common folk quiet and subservient.

Listen to the stories told next to the hashtag #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter.

Read the comment sections that follow these stories, or listen to the dismissive comments made by opponents.  “What about mistreatment of men?” someone will ask.  “Don’t white lives matter?” asks another.  These questions are wonderful examples of guile.

And that is what Nathanael does not have.

That is a good thing.  Nathanael has no power to preserve.  He is a person of faith living under Roman domination.  Guile will be of little use against Rome.  People with power are not impressed with fancy word play, and that is why (it seems to me) that it is of little use to get suckered into Twitter matches with the president-for-now.  Some of what he tweets is politically offensive to me and to those who share my particular political positions.  But some of what he tweets has struck even members of his own party as foolish and unhelpful.  (Note, for instance, the reaction of Mike Rounds, Republican senator from my home state.)

But responding with clever wordplay will (for the most part) make little difference.

If the task of the Body of Christ is the task that led Jesus through his life and career as messiah, then our task is to participate in the raising of the Creation out of death.  This will not be accomplished by guile, but by simple, stubborn following.  Sometimes the task will require nothing other than partisan politics, messy and divisive as that can be.  And sometimes the task will require multi-partisan cooperation on tasks more important than countering juvenile tweets.

“Here is truly was a generation not satisfied with guile.”

That would be a lovely thing to have future generations say about us, regardless of our political persuasion.  We might even get something done that goes beyond partisan politics.

A Provocation: The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2018: Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the voice from the sky say: Beloved?
  • No, really: Why?
  • Go to Phil Ruge-Jones’ Early Sermon Seeds on Facebook to help think about this.

Some Longer Reflections:

John has indeed baptized with water.  Baptizing is his essential function: you can tell this from the way he is named when he enters the story.  And he did this baptizing with water, which is only natural since water is what is used in significant Jewish rites of purification.  Those rites provide a way for ordinary people to return to a state of “ordinariness” after having come into contact with holy mysteries like blood or semen or corpses.  Those mysteries are, to be sure also ordinary, normal in their own way.  Menstruation and ejaculation are normal and healthy parts of everyday life.  But they are also tied to the mystery of the gift of life, and that is why the Jewish community developed rites that allow people to come into contact with them and still return to their ordinary jobs and responsibilities.

In this scene, John is washing people to prepare them for the work of turning the world right side up.  This means that washing is to be understood as facilitating the crossing of the border between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Washing in this scene, then, is the mirror image of the usual rites of washing.  Those rites allow crossing back to regular life.  This washing allows people to cross over to the truly extraordinary act of re-balancing the world, which is a holy mystery if ever there was one.  Washing is the gateway.

But what is really interesting here is that John points ahead to a washing with the Holy Spirit.

This activity is so charged with energy that Christians have been interpreting it vigorously throughout our history.  Pentecostals have read it as a reference to a divine action that results in the bestowing of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.  Lutherans (and many others) have linked the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” to the sacrament of baptism which is understood to create new life in the person baptized.  Both of these readings are charged with power.  They are different from each other, but both see the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” as decisively connected to the heart of the faith.

But it remains unclear just what “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” means.

As an experiment, avoid dragging the Third Person of the Trinity into your interpretation.  Maybe the Holy Spirit belongs here.  You can always bring the Trinity back in if you so decide.  But for now, notice that the Greek here is ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ. The word ἁγίῳ means “holy.”  And πνεύματι could mean “spirit,” but you would do well to stop and think about what you think a “spirit” might be.  There are all sorts of theological ready-made answers, but I have come to distrust theological answers (especially of the ready-made variety) when they require me to assert the existence of an non-material material, a non-thing thing.  So I am struck that πνεύματι mainly means “breath” or “wind.”

So what would a “holy breath” be?

There are two places to go for an answer.

The first is to Genesis 2.  When God has formed the Mud Guy (adam) from the soil (adamah), Mud Guy is still only an intricately-formed mudpie.  He lies inert and lifeless on the ground.  And then God puffs breath into his nose, and the Mud Guy becomes a living being.

This breath is the original holy mystery.  It is the reason that blood is so powerfully holy (“the life is in the blood,” which is to say that the breath of God goes straight from your lungs into your blood).  And the word in Hebrew (ruach) means “breath“ or “wind” and is translated into Greek as πνεύμα.

So John is linking this greater “washing” with the act of God that created life in Genesis 2.

A second link comes in Paul’s letters.  Look at the times he uses the word πνεύμα (translated as “Spirit”).  His uses of πνεύμα are the seeds out of which our notions of the Holy Spirit grow.  But if you look closely, you may notice that Paul’s talk about Spirit are tightly tied to his words about the resurrection of Jesus.

What if the πνεύμα he is talking about is the breath that God blew into Jesus’ nose as he lay in the tomb, the breath that raised him from the dead?

What if?

This same breath now creates new life not limited by death in all those baptized into Jesus’ death and gives gifts that create a new experience of life for all those who have this πνεύμα blown into them.  (This, by the way, seems to catch what both Pentecostals and Lutherans are trying get at when they talk about “baptism with the Holy Spirit.”)

If we read ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ as “being washed with the Breath of resurrection,” this washing does indeed mark a momentous crossing between ordinary and extraordinary.  And the particular nature of this extraordinary created reality is important: in a world where Power (especially the power to kill) is the real, effective Deity, the storyteller opens to us a world in which Power does not have the last word.

Read this carefully.

If you take this as a set of magic words, this could be nothing more than whistling while you walk past the graveyard.  Such readings are of little practical (or theological) use.

But notice that this scene makes it clear that Power will indeed have its way.  There are no magic words, and there is no supernatural deliverance from domination.  Resistance does not guarantee success.  Not in the short run anyhow.  But being washed with Resurrection implies being committed to resisting nevertheless.

Out of death comes life.  But only out of death.

Buckle your chinstraps, girls and boys.  This will get rough.


A Provocation: The Epiphany: January 6, 2018: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


A Question or Two:

  • Poor Herod.
  • Do you suppose he tweeted about this?

Some Longer Reflections:

The heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of the Messiah to pagans from the East.  Or maybe better, the heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of Messiah BY pagans from the East.  Both happen.  Both matter.  And that would imply that the notion that the world needs to be set right-side-up is not an insight only Christians can have.  Or only Jews.  Or only religious people.  Maybe we all know that the world needs to be set right, and thus the revelation that comes clear this Epiphany might be that we are ALL in this together.

That is worth thinking about, especially if you are accustomed to being right and to having the Truth.

The other thing to think about is Herod.

Herod claims the title, “King of the Jews.”  Herod maintains his hold on this title through the use of brutal force.  The next scene in Matthew’s story shows Herod ordering the slaughter of toddlers in and around Bethlehem in his effort to hold power.  His next act is to die.

But I see Herod in this scene, and in this scene the storyteller informs us that he is frightened.  In English, anyhow.

And “all Jerusalem” is frightened with him.  In English.

The Greek word is ἐταράχθη, and you can indeed translate this as “frightened.”  I think, however, that such a translation over-determines the word.  I think that the word is more open-ended, more allusive than “frightened” allows.  But before we consider that, notice what this way of translating implies.  Herod is frightened.  Jerusalem is, too.  They are made to be basically similar.  They are both afraid of the baby born in Bethlehem  and this similarity suggests that the whole city of Jerusalem is complicit in Herod’s genocidal attack.  Be careful of such interpretive lines.  Blanket condemnations are dangerous.  It’s time we stopped issuing blanket condemnations.

Even if the storyteller is doing it.

I am not convinced, however, that Matthew’s storyteller is doing that at all, and that is because the Greek original is more interesting than the English translation.

The word ἐταράχθη means that Herod was “shaken.”  I like how wide open ἐταράχθη leaves things.  There are many ways of being shaken, only some of which involve fright.  I rather enjoy the image of big, powerful Herod being afraid of a toddler.  I suspect that the storyteller (and surely the translators) share my reaction: Herod is being undercut.

But why is Jerusalem also ἐταράχθη?

Some possibilities:

Perhaps Jerusalem is shaken because they have learned that bad things happen when Herod is upset.  That does not imply that Jerusalem is on Herod’s side, but only that the people in Jerusalem have learned that Herod is dangerous.  The storyteller will make it clear just HOW dangerous he is in the next scene.  This means that Jerusalem is an ally of the reader who learns to fear Herod.

But what if Jerusalem is shaken because word has gotten out that there is reason to believe that Messiah has been born?  This possibility is worth careful consideration.  The word ἐταράχθη does not pre-determine the KIND of shaking that has happened. For Herod, it is negative.  He feels the earthquake beginning and he is afraid.  The people of Jerusalem feel the earth move under their feet and rejoice.  This, also, is a possible reading of ἐταράχθη.

And maybe we are simply supposed to notice that everyone in this narrative world is shaken.

Herod is shaken.  Jerusalem is shaken.  Bethlehem will be shaken.  Jesus’ family (as a consequence) will be shaken.  And Jesus will also be shaken.

This last shaking really matters.  Matthew’s storyteller opens to us a world that suffers earthquakes and other disasters.  When Messiah is born into that world, Messiah is shaken, too.  Necessarily.

This is necessary because otherwise he would not be “Immanuel.”  Matthew’s storyteller insists that this must be a story about “God-Is-With-Us,” and that must mean that Messiah suffers earthquakes and disasters exactly the same way we do.

This s not a story of magic deliverance.  This is a story of Incarnation.  This is, therefore, the real revelation in this story.