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.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 11, 2018: John 3:14-21

John 3:14-21
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

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

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

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

3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do translators insist on bringing Evil into this scene when the two words translated as “evil” mean, more properly: 1. “broken and worn out things that are thrown away,” and 2. “pointless?”
  • It is rather a different thing to say that someone’s deeds are evil than to say that they are pointless.  And “pointless” is the word Jesus uses in this scene.

A Few Longer Reflections:

Two things:

  1. Making sense of this scene requires thinking again about what “believe in” means.
  2. If God did not “send the Son into the world” (whatever that means, exactly) to condemn the world, why do so many Christians invest so much energy in condemning the world?  Asking for a friend.

The first matter (“believing”) seems so simple.

People of faith are often called “believers,” so we MUST know what that means, mustn’t we?  So does it mean that we believe God exists (think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: “I DO believe in spooks.  I DO believe in spooks.  I DO, I DO, I DO believe in spooks.”)?  Apparently not.

Interpreters have spent a lot of time arguing that “believing in” has to mean “trusting in.”  This works, both as a reading of the text, and as a foundation for theology.  This understands “believers” as “trusters,” as people who, at the root of their being, rely upon God.

But trust is a funny thing.  There are people I trust.  Period.  And there are people I do not trust, and perhaps may never trust, never again.  Trust is built up, and lost, through experience in relationship.

But this is what makes for theological complications in this way of reading.  In the abstract, it is easy to affirm that God may be trusted, in all things and in all times.  But real theology, like real life, is concrete and relational, not abstract and clean.  In real life, and real relationships, people I know claim, on the basis of experience, to have lost trust in God.  Elie Wiesel, in his book, Night, notes that in the midst of his experience in the hands of Nazi murderers he never doubted God’s existence, only God’s character.  And the book of Job raises similar questions in any attentive reader.

But if this scene from the gospel of John is about trust, then such loss of trust leads to condemnation.  This will not do.

The word could also be rendered simply as “believe.”

In that case, what is at stake is “believing God.”  I’m not entirely sure how I would read that line of interpretation.  This reading implies an on-going relationship, which seems promising.  And this way of reading the scene seems to make room for both Wiesel and Job: both believed God when God spoke pardon and kindness, when God rejected pettiness and partiality, when God was revealed high and lifted up.  Both believed that God properly establishes justice and enacts mercy.  And because they believed God, they called God to account for not stopping the trains to Auschwitz.

I am still suspicious of any theology that finds it productive to meditate on condemnation.  But it seems less pernicious to link condemnation to the refusal to call God to account than to link it to being honest about having lost trust.  The two options seem opposite to each other, and it seems wiser to set honesty on the side of salvation.

This last possible reading is tied to another.

The Greek word behind all of this wondering is πιστεύω, which can mean all of the things interpreters have postulated, and can be as elusive as this discussion makes it.  It helps, perhaps, that the gospel of John is a Jewish writing.  The verb, πιστεύω, is related to the noun, πιστις, which (in a Jewish text) is best read as referring to “faithfulness.”  And “faithfulness” (in a Jewish text) refers to living a life of Torah observance.  

Such patterns of life are distinctive, being tied to a person’s teacher.  One of the things students learn from their rabbi is how to shape their lives in accordance with the rabbi’s teaching,  This shaping might be called πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν, literally “living faithfully into him.”  This would mean that this scene from John’s gospel offers “salvation” (whatever that is, exactly) to those who shape their lives in accord with the Messiah.  

Does this mean shaping one’s living and working and hoping by the promise that all things will be turned right-side-up, that justice is both a promise and a possibility?  That would mean that God offers rescue and restoration to those who dare to hope.  Such daring hope is surely a gift from God, and surely gives life.

Or does this mean shaping one’s living and working and hoping by the model of the crucified Messiah?  This is a more complicated shaping.  It is tempting to say that this means shaping life by an even more audacious hope, the hope of resurrection.  And perhaps I will say exactly that in a little while.  But any proper theology will first stop, stunned by the death by torture that makes resurrection necessary, the only road to hope.

Reading crucifixion with real theological seriousness in not easy.

It requires continually finding a way to focus simultaneously on justice and on failure, on succeeding and on falling short, on promising life and on the grinding reality of death.  The resurrection of the Messiah only comes after Rome has tortured him (and his evident promise), tortured him to death.

Maybe that is the point.  Maybe pattern of life rooted in Jesus the Messiah is a pattern that knows that Rome always wins fights like this.  And God raises the Messiah anyhow.

Maybe that is what the Torah observance we learn from Jesus finally comes down to: ANYHOW.

Death wins.  But anyhow….  Yet another generation needs a movement tied to #MeToo, or #NeverAgain, or #TimeIsUp.  But anyhow….

“Anyhow” is another word for “#ShePersisted.”  I could live with that.  Maybe that is the point, since this is finally a story of resurrection.

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.