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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the storyteller denies us the release that we need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard a story on NPR today.

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

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

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

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

What if that is the real transfiguration in this scene?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

Καὶ εὐθὺς ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς…

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

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

But Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has pointed out something interesting.

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

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

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

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

How did they know to come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is a good model.





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

This is useless interpretation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the storyteller says that Jesus can end this occupation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence is the force that keeps the world in control.

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

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

Go deeper than that.

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

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

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

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

I wonder what he means?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

…after John was arrested…

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

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

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

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

We are not done.  

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

We are not done. 

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

We as SO not done. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

“Follow me.”

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

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

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also knew what study requires.

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

But Bonhoeffer was no masochist.

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

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

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


Stop it.

We are done with interpretation like that.

Two things to notice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is what Nathanael does not have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what would a “holy breath” be?

There are two places to go for an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

What if?

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

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

Read this carefully.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

The other thing to think about is Herod.

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

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

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

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

Even if the storyteller is doing it.

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

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

But why is Jerusalem also ἐταράχθη?

Some possibilities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Provocation: First Sunday After Christmas: December 31, 2017: Luke 2:22-40

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

A Question or a Two:

  • When have you seen people do what Anna and Simeon do?
  • What do they look and sound like?

Some Longer Reflections:

Why do we assume Simeon is old?

Maybe it because his story is associated with Anna’s story, and she is 84 years old, which is well-aged In any century, old enough to have seen hopes and fears come and go and return again.

Maybe it’s because he is described as “righteous and devout.”  These terms, in my imagination, apply best to people with some age on them, some seasoning, some gracefulness that only comes with long practice.  Young people who are serious about religion I would describe as “enthusiastic,” and I would wait to see how they ripened.  Some grow deep and wise.  Some just get loud.  Simeon sounds deep and wise.

Maybe we think he is old because Mary lets him take the baby from her.  Not many mothers are going to hand over their newborn to some random young man who might never have held a baby.  An old man, who might be a grandfather with lots of experience, maybe she would let such a person hold her baby.  Maybe.  But maybe this is why we assume Simeon is old enough for Mary to trust him.

What matters most about Simeon, I think, is that he is described as “looking forward.”  That is an interesting phrase in English.  Because of the way our heads are built, we ALWAYS are looking forward.  But it is even more important to note that we are built, as human beings, to look forward, to peer beyond the messy present moment in an effort to see a future that corrects things that need correcting.  Tim O’Brien describes this human trait (in his his book The Things They Carried) this way: “You are filled with a hard, aching love for what the world could be, and always should be, but now is not.”  This is exactly what it means to “look forward.”  This is what Simeon is doing.

The word in Greek, προσδεχόμενος, is also interesting.  The first part of the word, προσ-, is caught by the “forward” part of the English translation.  It expresses a forwardness, a leaning and reaching that are essential to catch in rendering this word.  But the last part of this word, -δεχόμενος, doesn’t mean “looking.”  The metaphor behind this word in Greek expresses “receiving.”  So προσδεχόμενος suggests something like “receiving forward,” an activity that you can’t do unless you lean, reach, and stretch toward something that you need, but cannot yet grasp.  Once again, O’Brien gets it right: “…what the world could be, and always should be….”


The word for “waiting” in Hebrew, qavah, is behind this little scene with Simeon, and the Greek word προσδεχόμενος catches the Hebrew background better than does the English. Qavah (“wait”) carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.

Simeon, the storyteller informs us, is stretched tight.  If he were a younger man, he would be about to snap.  Thank goodness he has learned the lessons about waiting that only old people can learn.  They wait.  They feel the tension, perhaps more powerfully than young people even can, because they have waited so often, and so long.  For some essential things they have waited longer than I have been alive.  In my experience, this does not make them complacent, it does not make them cease to hope.  If anything, old people wait with a settled insistence that stuns me.

Listen to Isaiah 25:9: “it will be said in that day, ‘This is our God, we have waited for him.’”  I hear an 80-year-old voice when I read that verse, a voice that has waited for the end of labor and delivery, for children to finally find their balance, for wars to end, and for safety to return.

What matters especially in this story is that Simeon is not alone in his waiting.  Anna, a prophet, is waiting wth him.  And she speaks (a good thing for a prophet to do), she speaks about the baby to all those who were also waiting.  There seem to be a great many of them.

The older I get, the more I find myself to be waiting, the more I hear Tim O’Brien’s words to describe all of life.  When I was young, I waited for the end of the semester, or to graduate (from this school or that one).  I waited to find a job, to find a better apartment, or to own a house.  All of those things were just a matter of time, and I knew it.  Waiting was something you could put on a calendar, more or less.

Waiting is more complicated these days.  I have friends and students who are waiting to be deployed, some of them for the third or fourth time.  I am waiting with them, and I wait for them to return.  But I find myself stuck with O’Brien’s “hard, aching love.”   I find myself feeling the tension of generations of mothers and fathers who waited for any of this to make real sense.  I feel more acutely the tension between the historically repeated necessity of sending our children off to war and the historic awareness (expressed in John McCutcheon’s song about the Christmas truce in WWI, Christmas in the Trenches) that:

The ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame

And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

I am waiting with friends facing difficult diagnoses, waiting for remissions, or for cures, or for aggressive disease processes to work themselves out.  I suppose that I used to think that these separate hopes exclude each other, but even my limited experience with waiting has taught me that even “cures” can turn into end-stage disease states with a rapidity that leaves us dizzy and disoriented.  And I have learned that it can go the other way, as well.  Waiting is complicated, these days, and that is true even before we add in the waiting we all do for a day when we find the political will and the fiscal sanity that will allow us to treat medical care for all of us as a cultural priority.

Waiting is very complicated.  Given Anna’s age (and Simeon’s probable age), neither of the central characters in this scene would have been around to see how Jesus’s story worked itself out.  Neither would have seen Rome condemn him to death.  Neither would have witnessed the torture that killed him.  Before you leap to the resurrection, imagine what Anna or Simeon would have said if they HAD lived long enough to stand at the foot of the cross and watch.  What would they have said then about the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem?

It’s worth asking.  Waiting is complicated.

A Provocation: Christmas Eve: December 24, 2017: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why shepherds?
  • Why angels?

Some Longer Reflections:

Here is a thing to notice: This scene starts with a massive show of strength.  Caesar Augustus sends out a decree.  His subordinates leap to carry out the order, and all the world is forced into motion.  Caesar can do that.  Rome can make that happen.  That is how the world works, and this week is a good week to reflect on that hard truth.

But at the end of the scene, we are shown something else.  First there is one angel with a message.  And then suddenly we discover “a multitude of the heavenly host.”  We all know this moment in the story.  We have seen a multitude of Sunday School Christmas programs, and many of them had a multitude of kids from the congregation wearing haloes and praising God.

It is worth remembering, however, that this “heavenly host” is better rendered as the “army of the sky.”  Notice, first, the army.  That is what “host” means, but the word is not often used in regular speech (except in Christmas programs), so the impact is lost.  In Greek, the phrase is πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου, and it refers to a powerful army.  

Stop and imagine what the shepherds saw: not cute little cherubs, and not sweet angels.  They saw a sky full of heavily armed warriors.  They saw an overwhelming military where moments before they had only seen stars and maybe cloud or two.

The end of the scene balances the beginning.

At the beginning we see an intentional display of Roman power.  At the end we discover that the sky is full of an army that makes Roman might look puny.

And it was there all the time.

That is why it is important to translate οὐρανος as “sky,” not “heavens.”  “Heaven” is a religious place, impossibly far off and impossible to reach until you die.  The sky is always there, right over your head.  And the sky is full of angels, warriors in the fight to turn the world right-side-up.  The storyteller is making an obvious point: Rome can make the world jump when it issues a decree, but Rome cannot fill the sky with an army.  And even when Rome can make the whole world jump and run, all it really accomplishes is that the Messiah is born in the perfect place: Bethlehem, David’s home.  Rome is not even in control of its own power.  And Caesar Augustus has no idea.

That’s what happens when the sky is full of angels. 

The collision in this scene between Roman power and the power of the army of the sky is worth thinking about.

The temptation is to pretend that the sky full of angels makes everything dandy, to imagine that all we have to do is assert this little bit of theology in the face of very real power and we will have preached the sermon that fixes the world.

Not so much.

Before the sermon begins and after its last echoes fall into the corners of the sanctuary, the real world remains unrepentantly real.  In the real world, the abuse of power works far too often, maybe even most of the time, and a pretty sermon won’t charm it into compliance.  Come to think of it, that was true for Jesus, too.  In the end, Rome killed him, which is what abusers always do.  They may kill your body, or they may kill your hope and break your spirit, but they will kill you.  It matters that we remember this.

So what is the point of this story with a sky full of angels?  If Rome retains control over life and death, what is the point?  Christians have historically tried to solve this by relying on heaven.  After we die, we go to heaven.  Simple.

The problem is that this solution leaves Roman power untouched.  It leaves the abusers in control. In fact, it needs the abusers to win before theology has any effect.  The abuser still kills you, and then you go to heaven.

Somehow, this seems like less than what the angels (or the shepherds) had in mind in this scene.  They seem to have imagined that peace would take place on earth.

That is another reason to translate οὐρανος as sky.  This scene is not about a heaven that is hopelessly far away.  The storyteller is painting a picture of a real world that is livelier than Rome imagines.  

On the cover of the program for the Christmas Vespers Service at Augustana University where I teach they reproduced “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Anton Mengs (you can see the painting at https://goo.gl/images/ybjMfi).  Go to the website and look at this fascinating picture.  There is a mother and there is a baby and there is a crowd of adoring shepherds.  As you would expect.

But just barely over their heads, closer than you might expect, the room is full of angels, crowded together, within reach.

A friend of mine tells me that Celtic spirituality teaches that the spiritual world is just about 36 inches above our heads, which makes it always near to us, but always just out of reach unless you are Michael Jordan.  But, says my friend, there are in the world “thin places,” places where the spiritual realm is so close that a breath from that realm would rustle your hair, so near that you can experience it while still remaining a creature of earth.

Mengs has painted “The Adoration of the Shepherds” as a “thin place.”  The angels are so close they could knock your hat off.

The storyteller in Luke has done the same thing with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Abusive power is real, but so is the army of the sky.  The angels are always there, barely above our heads.  We just don’t see them.

The storyteller opens our eyes.  

For a day, practice imagining the crowd of angels just above your head.  Practice imagining, with the Midrash Rabbah, that every blade of grass has its own angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow!”  (Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 10:6)  I find myself imagining that Mary thought of the world this way.  Maybe that is why she was not frightened when Gabriel appeared: she had always imagined him standing there, just out of reach, just beyond sight.  Maybe that is why Mary chose to be mother to the Messiah.

The abusers still have the power, and they regularly win.  But maybe the strength of the #MeToo movement is due, at least in part to the crowd of angels whispering to each strong woman, “Grow!  Grow!”  The abusers may have the power, but the truth-tellers have the strength, and that makes all the difference.

Just like it did for Mary.  Treasure this strength, and ponder it in your heart.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 24, 2017: Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38
1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

1:35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

1:38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Mary take this moment to give the angel a biology lesson?
  • Why does Mary choose to be part of God’s project?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is an angelophany.  All that means is that this is an angel-appearance story.

No kidding.

But there are rules that govern these things.  An angel doesn’t just show up.  They (apparently) have to play it by the book: the angel shows up, the person to whom the angel appears is afraid, the angel says, “Be not afraid.”  And then the angel delivers the message they were sent to deliver.

Read a bunch of angel-appearance stories.  You will see that they follow this pattern.

And that is what makes this scene in Luke so interesting.

Most of the elements are there: the appearance is typical, Gabriel gets his line right and says, “Be not afraid,” and he delivers his message successfully.  Most interpreters don’t notice that there is something missing.  But there is.  And I think it matters.

The storyteller never tells us that Mary is afraid.  Sure, the angel tells her not to be afraid, but we are NOT told that Mary was afraid.  When Gabriel appears to Zechariah earlier in the story, Zechariah is afraid.  The storyteller says so.

But the storyteller, this time, does not say that Mary is afraid.

Stop and think about that.

On cultural averages, Mary is likely to have been 12 or 13 years old.  Even in a world that required young people to grow up in a hurry she is still a young girl.  And she is not afraid, not even in the face of an angel who stands in the presence of God.

In fact, in the face of an angel, Mary “ponders.”  The word might be better translated as “debated,” or “dialogued.”  It is a verb that is used to reveal intellectual analysis.  And then, in the face of a biological impossibility (which angels might not exactly understand, after all, since they do not procreate), she asks a direct question without hesitating.  And the angel responds.

At the end of all of this, Mary chooses to act as the servant of the LORD and as the mother of the Messiah.  She does not submit, she chooses and she acts.  This matters.

It also matters that when she explains the situation to her auntie, Elizabeth, she goes well beyond what Gabriel has said to her in this brief conversation.  Mary chooses to be the mother of the Messiah on the grounds that this will result in the toppling of the proud and pointlessly powerful.  Mary acts so that the poor might be raised up.  She chooses to join the effort to turn the world right-side-up.

Jesus comes from a strong family.  He has a courageous mother.  This also matters. 

The world will not be turned right-side-up by submitting.  It will take real courage, durable commitment, and the kind of creative stubbornness that real accomplishment always requires.  The repairing of the world is, of course, a gift from God, but this gift requires the kind of strength Mary displays in this scene.  It requires persistence.  Mary persisted.

May we also persist.