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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The earth produces of itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might change everything.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

But this time I find myself thinking about the sabbath.

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

This is a promise we all need.

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

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

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

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

This kind of apocalyptic impatience always makes me nervous.

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

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

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

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

Time’s up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

For God to be properly Triune…

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

For God to be properly Triune…

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

And, for God to be properly Triune…

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some other suggestions that might help:

May the blessings of gratitude and generosity embrace us all.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

The prepositions are wrong, for one thing.

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

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

The verb is also wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what if Jesus is talking about Torah observance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

“You are the same kind I am.”

That is worth a long, slow think.

Jesus also talks about joy.  Notice that.

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

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

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

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

It also implies that their joy will be fulfilled.

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

Stop and think about that for a moment.

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

C.S. Lewis described joy this way:

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

So καθαίρει is a good word for “prune.”

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

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

Which translation implies a bigger fire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

That’s how you bear fruit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24:48 You are witnesses of these things.

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

In a story like this, every detail has implications:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, Jesus ate something.