A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14 (19): John 6:35, 41-51: August 8, 2021

35He said to them
Jesus did:
     I AM
     the living bread.
          The one coming to me will certainly not be hungry;
          the one being faithful toward me will not be thirsty 
               in any way.  
     36But I told you:
          you have seen me and you are not faithful.  
     37Everything that he gives to me,
          everything my father gives,
          to me it will have come.
     The one coming to me 
          I will certainly not cast out.
               38because I have come down from the sky 
                    not in order that I do my will 
                         but the will of the one who sent me.
                    39This is the will of the one who sent me:
                         that everything that he has given to me
                         I lose nothing out of it,
                              but that I raise it in the last day.
                    40This is the will of my father:
                         that everyone who see the son 
                              and is faithful toward him
                         should have aeonic life,
                         and that I should raise them
                              I myself 
                         in the last day.
41They grumbled therefore,
     the Judeans did,
concerning him because he said:
     I AM
     the bread,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
42They kept saying:
     Isn’t this one Jesus the son of Joseph?
     Don’t we know the father and the mother?
          How now does he say:
               Out of the sky I have come down?
43He answered,
     Jesus did;
he said to them:
     Don’t grumble with each other.
     44No one is able to come to me 
          if ever the father,
                the one who sent me,
          should not drag them.
          I myself will raise them in the last day.
      45There is a scripture in the prophets:
          They will all be taught by Elohim.
               who hears from the father 
                    and learns
               comes to me.
               46Is it not the case that no one has seen the father?
                    No one, that is, if not the one who is from Elohim;
                         this one has seen the father.
     47Amen amen I am talking to you:
          The one who is faithful has aeonic life.
          48I AM
          the bread,
               the living bread.
          49Your fathers ate in the wordless wilderness. 
               They ate the manna 
                    and they died.
          50This is the bread,
               the one coming down out of the sky,
                    in order that anyone who should eat of it
                        should also not die.
     51I AM
     the bread,
          the one that lives,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
               Anyone who should eat of this bread,
                    will live into the aeon.
     The bread that I will give:
     It is my body
          for the sake of the life of the beautiful world.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do interpreters think it’s funny that the people in Jesus’ hometown are puzzled (and disturbed) when a guy who was born just like anybody else says he “came down from the sky?”
  • Wouldn’t you be disturbed by something like that?

Some Longer Reflections:

      No one is able to come to me 
          if ever the father,
                the one who sent me,
          should not drag them.
          I myself will raise them in the last day.

Normal translations have God “drawing” people. That works. But the word in Greek is ἑλκύσῃ, and it has a vigorous physical metaphor in it. The word is used for dragging ships down to the sea.

Next to this image, “drawing” sounds so tame. It implies a mild attraction. One who is drawn to something is sort of interested, even intrigued. Someone who is drawn to something is intellectually interested. I like being intellectually interested, and being an academic, this interest goes deep and draws me with some real force.

But ἑλκύσῃ asks me to imagine a boat being dragged down to the water. People are hauling on ropes, synchronizing their strength and sweating. Their hands are calloused, their muscles are well-practiced in this essential act. The boat has to get into the water. If it doesn’t get dragged into the water, it is no more than an odd yard ornament. Life and livelihood depend on the vigorous act of dragging the boat.

This is more than even the most powerful experience of being intellectually drawn to some insight or complication.

No one connects with the work of the messiah (whose work, at its heart, is the turning of this beloved Creation right-side-up) unless God drags them to that work. God sweats. God has calloused hands and well-practiced muscles, and on this strenuous work depend both life and livelihood.

This is the place to begin reading this scene.

If you begin with Jesus’ statement that the people in the scene lack faithfulness, you will read this scene as marking, somehow, the faultline in the narrative world: some are faithful, others are not. The obvious sermonic conclusion is: Be Faithful!.

But remember, these are the people who have pursued Jesus across the Sea of Galilee because (as the storyteller has informed us) they saw Jesus’ act of feeding people as a divine sign. There is a faultline here, but it marks a fracture in John’s story itself. There is an earthquake going on. One layer of the story sees rejection everywhere it looks. One layer sees God dragging all people to the work of right-side-upping the Creation, which God “so loves.”

Start with the love. Start with the God who drags people, with all the considerable Divine energy available, to the work of the messiah.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13 (18): August 1, 2021: John 6:24-35

24When therefore the crowd saw:
     Jesus is not here;
          neither are his disciples;
they embarked into the little boats. 
They came into Capernaum,
seeking Jesus.
     25They found him
          across the sea;
     they said to him:
          when have you come here?
     26He answered to them,
     Jesus did;
     he said:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               You seek me, 
                    not because you see signs,
                    but because you ate of the breads 
                         and were stuffed.
                    not to earn the food that is destroyed,
                         but the food that remains into aeonic life,
                              the food that the son of adam to you will give.
                                   For this the father stamps with approval.
                                   This Elohim stamps with approval.
     28They said, therefore,
     to him:
          What ought we do,
               in order that we do the works of Elohim?
     29He answered,
     Jesus did;
     he said to them:
          This is the work of Elohim:
               In order that you are faithful toward the one whom that one sent.
     30They therefore said to him:
          What therefore are you doing, 
               in the way of a sign,
          in order that we see and be faithful toward you?
          What are you working?
               31Our fathers,
                    the manna they ate in the wordless wilderness,
                    exactly as it had stood written:
                         Bread out of the sky he gave to them to eat.
     32He said therefore to them,
     Jesus did:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               Not Moses has given to you the bread out of the sky,
               But my father gives to you the bread out of the sky,
                    the true bread. 
                         33For the bread of Elohim is the one that comes down out of the sky 
                              and gives life to the beautiful world.  
     34They said therefore to him:
               always give to us this bread.
     35He said to them
     Jesus did:
          I AM
          the bread of life.
               The one coming to me will certainly not be hungry;
               the one being faithful toward me will not be thirsty in any way.  

A Question or Two:

  • If Jesus is going to insist that the people who have followed him throughout this chapter are not seeking him because they saw signs but because they saw food, why does the storyteller inform us in the previous scene in chapter 6 that the people did indeed see signs. They involved food, but they saw them as signs.
  • Was Jesus not listening to the storyteller?

Some Longer Reflections:

Every pastor I know is weary: it is Year B, it is the middle of the summer, and we are sliding into yet another month-and-a-half of Bread of Life texts.

  1. Barley bread.
  2. Bread of life.
  3. Bread from the sky.
  4. Bread of life from the sky, like manna.
  5. Living bread that we gnaw on.
  6. More gnawing on bread from the sky.

It’s enough to put you on a theological paleo diet.

Many of the pastors I know best are living in Ephesians in order to think about almost anything other than bread. This reminds me (and dates me) of the Monty Python sketch from the 70s, only with bread, not spam. https://youtu.be/_bW4vEo1F4E

So, what can you make out of all this bread?

Here is a try: Why all this talk about living bread from the sky? The Jewish people in the wilderness were also fed on quails. Why not have Jesus identify himself as the Quail of Life, the living quail that comes from the sky?

That, of course, would be a little silly, but not a lot sillier than Jesus as bread. What is it about bread?

Bread is an agricultural product, and as such emerges as a regular food when people are getting their main food from planting grain and not from hunting and gathering. There is, of late, a kind of anthropological nostalgia for the period of human history before agriculture. Some people think of it as a golden age of peace and harmony.


But the development of agriculture also provides a more stable source of food, and thus allows settled communities. That suggests that the Bread of Life carries a different metaphorical message than would the Quail of Life. Quails you might find, or might not. Bread is more reliable. For all the very real risks of farming, it is more trustworthy than hunting for food.

So maybe one way to look at all this burgeoning bread is to read it as a source of life that can be trusted. “I am the living bread,” says Jesus. “You can trust that you will not be hungry, and never be thirsty.”

And if the beginning of his sentence is a sneaky reference to God’s self-identification to Moses (“I am that I am”), then I should translate it as “I AM the living bread….” If this is a reference to the Divine Name, then (reading with the rabbis), this is a reference to the Mercy Attribute of God. In this case, Jesus’ words come into English as “I AM, the God Whose Name is Mercy, is the living bread, you can trust God’s durable Mercy like you can trust the grain crop and the bread that comes from it. Mercy will certainly keep you alive.”

I kind of like that reading.

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11 (16): July 18, 2021: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30And the apostles gathered to Jesus 
     and reported to him all the things that they did 
     and the things that they taught.  
31And he says to them: 
     You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little, 
          for those coming and those going were many 
          and they did not even have time to eat.  
     32And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place 
     33Many saw them going off 
     and knew them 
     and they ran together by foot from all the cities there. 
          They came there ahead of them.  
     34After he got out, 
          he saw a great crowd.
          He was moved for them: 
               they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.
          He began to teach them many things.  
35It was already mostly evening 
his disciples 
     after coming to him 
were saying: 
     It is a wilderness, 
          this place, 
     and it is already mostly evening. 
     36Release them 
          so that they go in to the circling fields and villages 
          and buy for themselves something 
               and eat. 
37But he answers,
he said to them: 
     Give to them, 
     something to eat.  
They say to him: 
     Should we go and buy eight months wages worth of bread 
     and will we then give to them to eat?  
38He says to them: 
     How many loaves do you have?  
     Go see.  
And when they knew they say: 
     and two fish.  
39And he commanded to them to sit down, 
     all of them, 
     banquet by banquet, 
     upon the green grass.  
40They sat down, 
     row by row, 
          in hundreds and fifties.
41He took the five loaves and the two fish; 
he looked into the heaven; 
he blessed and broke the loaves.
He kept giving to his disciples 
in order that they should set it before them 
and the two fish he divided to all.  
42They all ate and were stuffed.
43They picked up fragments 
     twelve baskets full, 
          also from the fish.  
               44Those who ate the bread were five thousand males.  
     he forced his disciples to get into the boat 
     and to go ahead into the region by Bethsaida, 
          until he releases the crowd.  
          46After he ordered them off,
          he went into the mountain to pray.  
47When it was evening,
     the boat was in the middle of the sea, 
     he was alone on the land, 
     48he saw them tortured in their rowing.
     The wind was against them.
     About the fourth watch of the night 
     he comes toward them,
          walking upon the sea.
          He wanted to go past them.  
     49But when they saw him 
          upon the sea 
               they thought that he was a ghost.
               They screamed.  
               50For they all saw him 
               and were thrown into chaos.  
     BANG he spoke with them 
     and says to them: 
          Be brave.
          I AM. 
          Stop being afraid.  
     51He got into the boat, 
          got in with them. 
     The wind stopped
          and they were ecstasied beyond all measure  
               52for they did not understand about the loaves. 
                    Their hearts were calloused. 
53After they crossed upon the land 
they came into Gennesaret and dropped anchor.
     54As they were getting out of the boat, 
     BANG they recognized him. 
     55The whole of that region ran around 
          and began to carry 
               upon pallets 
          those who were in a bad way.
     They carried them around wherever they heard that he was.  
     56Wherever he went into a village, 
     or into a city, 
     or into a field, 
          in the fields they placed the weak.
     They kept calling him 
     so that they touch even the fringe of his garment.
          As many as touched it were rescued.

A Question or Two:

  • The storyteller informs us that Jesus saw the people as “sheep that did not have a shepherd.” What did he see that led him to that conclusion? Could it have been the fact that the crowd ran, all on their own, all the way around the lake to meet him on the other side? Could it be that the crowd seems to see Jesus as messiah, and (to Jesus’ mind) that alone is evidence that they are vulnerable, at risk, and too eager to leap to world-changing conclusions?
  • The storyteller tells us that Jesus, in response, “taught them many things.” Why not tell us what those things were? What is your hypothesis about the content of that teaching?

Some Longer Reflections:

The lectionary decided to omit 20 verses. Such choices have to be made, but it is worth noticing what was chosen to be omitted: Jesus feeds 5000 people who ran around the lake to be with him, and then Jesus walks out to join his disciples in the boat where they were “tortured in their rowing.” In the text as cut, Jesus goes from teaching to healing, and both activities are motivated by a crowd that runs to him.

We are told that they run to him because they know him, or because they recognize him. Which means they have been informed about him, somehow, by someone. The storyteller has also told us about this. At the end of the story, after Jesus is dead and after all his male followers have abandoned him, the storyteller opens our eyes to see how very many women are still following Jesus. The storyteller informs us that, though we somehow missed them, they have always been there, following from the very beginning all the way to the very end. And, we are told, as they followed Jesus, they “deaconed” for him. Deacons were people whose mission it was to connect need with resource. How did people know whom to run to? Not because Jesus looked just like his messiah mug shot in the Post Office. They knew because the women told them. They pointed out which one was the messiah, and told the crowd what they might hope for.

That means that at the heart of the messianic movement devoted to turning the world right-side-up is a key collaboration: the women (whom we miss, consistently) collaborate with Jesus, and the result is that Jesus is acclaimed as messiah. The result is that Jesus carries out the tasks that make him the messiah.

This last bit wants further reflection. Interpreters have, for a long time, noticed that Mark’s story of the messiah is decisively shaped by 2nd Isaiah’s songs, especially those about the Servant of God who suffers. This recognition is significant. The shape of the gospel is formed by the shape of Jewish hope at the time of the return from Exile. The storyteller knows the old songs of hope, and uses them to link the career of Jesus (who was murdered by Rome) to the moment of return from the Exile (a disaster inflicted on the Jewish people by Babylon). This creative link remakes the present moment (after Rome crushed the First Jewish Revolt and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple), reshaping it into a moment when hope is re-born.

Such re-shaping, such re-imagining is crucial to theology. It is why what Lutherans call the “theology of the cross” is central to my own theological work. A theology of the cross “calls a thing what it is.” This is crucial. This theological beginning point insists on seeing crucifixion for what it is: catastrophic torture, a dead end. A theology of the cross cannot leap over the murder of the messiah to get to a cheerier message, cannot treat it as a simple transitional stage on the way to glory. As I said, a theology of the cross calls a thing what it actually is: the lynching of the messiah crushes hope.

And the resurrection is the deep, world-altering miracle that creates hope as something altogether unlike mere optimism. Hope only becomes hope when it has stared into the eyes of impossibility.

Which brings us back to the tasks that made Jesus the messiah. Mark’s storyteller presents the doing of those tasks as the result of the women, who are as invisible as God in Mark’s story, collaborating with the messiah who will be murdered and raised. I have thought about this narrative structure for a long time. Mark’s story is tightly told, with no wasted movements. That inclines me to expect that the work of the women can only be understood if it is read in line with the basic narrative structure of the story as a whole. That is to say: the collaborative creation of the career of Jesus as the career of the messiah is the through-line that makes Mark more than just a random collection of “stuff Jesus did.”

The women, through their collaboration, make Jesus into the messiah who will be crucified and then raised. They do this by seeing the actual needs of actual people, and calling them what they are: obstacles that make it impossible to hope for the world to be turned right-side-up. And that means that the women in Mark’s story emerge (upon reflection, once their work is revealed) as the people who know the songs of 2nd Isaiah better than anyone else. They see the crippled people who will not be able to walk back to the Land of Promise. They notice the people who cannot see, who therefore could not follow the road home safely. They are pointedly aware of the people who cannot hear the song of freedom that Isaiah sang, and who therefore cannot join in singing that song. The women in Mark see all this, and they call it what it is: an obstacle that makes optimism irrelevant. And they connect need with resource, they bring people to the Jesus so he can do for them what a messiah must do. As a result, the women make it possible for hope to be born in the story.

At this point, you can take any sermonic turn you choose. But notice that we are, now as always, surrounded by necessities that are also impossibilities. You have to call things what they actually are. The problems we must solve if “Black Lives Matter” is to be more than a necessary slogan are stunningly complex and perhaps beyond our ability to solve. The legacy of abuse in the Indian Boarding School system (not just in Canada, to be painfully obvious) has left marks on people and families that we can scarcely assess, let alone heal. The knots that transgender people have to untie just to live make the legendary Gordian Knot look like two half-hitches.

No matter what sermonic turn you take, this set of scenes requires that we remember that if the problems we face were NOT impossible and necessary (at the same time) we would not need to tell stories about messiah at all.

What gives me hope is the work of the women in these scenes. They identify impossible problems that must be solved and thus become accomplices of the messiah.

A Provocation: 1st Sunday after Christmas: January 1, 2017: Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,

2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,

2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

A Question or Two:

  • How long did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have to hide out in Egypt?
  • Why did the angel not know about Archelaus?
  • Why did the warning in a dream take place after Joseph had already seen the danger?

Some Longer Reflections: 

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Listen to these words slowly.  Listen for the sound of a mother’s wailing.  Remember how many times you have heard that sound.  Listen to these words from Matthew yet again.  Slowly.

Matthew also listened.

He listened to Jeremiah (31:15), who listened to the wailing at the time of the deportation to Babylon.  But Jeremiah also listened to Rachel, wailing out of the old stories in Genesis (35:18).  Jeremiah listens, and hears in Rachel’s wailing the shrieking of mothers who had survived the siege of Jerusalem, compassionate mothers who, perhaps, had boiled their own children and had eaten them when the starvation was at its worst (Lamentations 4:10).

Matthew listened to Jeremiah and to Rachel.  But Matthew is listening also to the shrieks and wails of those who saw the destruction of the Second Temple, those who survived the Roman siege of Jerusalem, those who knew the wretched depths to which human beings can be forced under imposed extremity.

Matthew listens, and then tells us the story of messiah, of Emmanuel, of God-is-with-us.  Listen to how Matthew tells the story.  This messiah, this God-is-with-us, hears the same shrieks, hears them as his family runs for their lives in the middle of the night.

I sometimes have listened to this story with some irritation, angry because Jesus escapes while all the rest of the toddlers are killed.  My anger is not directed against Matthew, nor is it directed against Jesus.  My anger is directed against biblical interpreters who hear this story as a tale of Divine Providence and can only see the escape.  Some even hear in it a promise of rescue acted out by a God who is a very present help in time of trouble.  I am angry with such heedless interpretation because it is glad as long as it gets to save Jesus.  It does not care about the other toddlers, two years old and younger, who were killed even though their mothers and grandmothers, fathers and big sisters died trying to protect them.

But Matthew listens, even when his interpreters do not.

Matthew knows that refugee stories often tell us of desperate midnight escapes.  Matthew knows that sometimes even parents and children get separated in the dark and never again find each other.  Because Matthew listens, he tells a story of messiah that does not pretend that the world is pretty and calm.  Matthew’s messiah story spins the wailing of every generation together and weaves it into a shocking story of how God is present in the Creation.  God is with us in the bodies of refugees.  God is with us in the corpses lying in the street.  God is with us in the desperate midnight escape.  And in each case, God is with us, not because everything turns out alright in the end.  God is with us precisely because it does not turn out alright.  Rachel’s wailing is a sign of the presence of God, not of the absence.  Rachel’s voice is God’s voice.

This is a shocking way to tell a messiah story.

Listen to it slowly.  And then listen for the voice of God, with us in our world.


  • “Oh God, he shot him!  Oh God, he shot my baby!”
  • “This may be the last time we can talk to you.”
  • “This is what it’s like to be married to a cop: my husband has nightmares, flashbacks, he’s afraid that tonight will be the night, more dead bodies at another car crash, another shooting, another suicide.  He’s afraid he will hesitate and it will cost him his life and leave his daughter without a dad and me without a husband.  That’s what it’s like everyday.”
  • “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.
  • “How do I help my kids deal with my husband’s deployment?”
  • “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
  • “Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”
  • “I have been quiet about the fact that my husband is deployed to Afghanistan online. This is to protect his safety and mine”
  • “Go home to wherever you came from and I know you are probably an illegal and take your stupid son with you. How many fathers of your children who are clear mixed.  You both don’t belong here you n******.”
  • “Be careful being married to a cop because they tend to have a lot of issues. Being a cop is a stressful job and scary because you never know when something awful is going to happen. Try getting marriage counseling maybe that might work.”
  • “My husband is deployed and I feel vulnerable.”

A Provocation: Christmas (Proper III): December 25: John 1:1-14

John 1:1-14

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,

1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

A Question or Two:

  • What might it mean to say “the Word was God?”
  • What is it that makes “Word” and Deity somehow compatible?

Some Longer Reflections:

The beginning of the gospel of John is loaded with Loaded Words: Beginning, Word, Life, Light, Darkness, World, and Flesh, to choose a few.

Each of them needs a capital letter or it looks wrong.  And most of them (as is the case with all loaded words with capital letters) mean more than will fit into any single translation.

The first word, ἀρχῇ, is the ordinary word for “beginning.”  

But nothing in John’s story, especially not the ordinary stuff, is ordinary.  The word ἀρχῇ shows up as a root in “archaeology,” which is the study of artifacts from the deep past, the beginning of human life and society.  So the notion of “beginning” is tied up in notions of things that are very old.  But we study archaeology because we imagine that human beginnings teach us something about the human present.  Archaeologists, if you listen carefully, are always finding links between the things that human beings cannot stop doing and artifacts that reveal the first time human beings did that particular thing.  We grow crops; we build shelters; we use language; we paint.  All of these things are studied by those people who study beginnings, and what they discover about beginnings sheds light on human life now.  At least we expect it to.  

The second word, λόγος, means “word,” of course, but it also means “logical principle.”  

In ordinary usage, it can mean “story,” which makes sense, since stories, in order to make sense, need some kind of narrative logic.  In a Jewish text it also means Torah, which also makes accumulating sense, since most of Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is narrative, and since the logical principle of the universe is Torah.  

Life, ζωὴ in Greek, is next.

The Greek word gives us “zoology,” which is not the study of zoos, but also is not the study of human beings.  The Greek word is thus broader than the English derivative, but the development of the root in English reveals something worth noting.  The Life that came into being through the Word appears to include animal life.  At least the word ζωὴ does not exclude that life.  This fits with patterns seen (but not often commented upon) in Jewish Scripture, where God’s breath makes a human being into a nephesh chayah, which has been translated on occasion as “a living soul.”  The same word, nephesh (translated as “soul”), is used in other passages to name the Life of animals.

This Life is identified with Light, φῶς, from which root English grew the word, photography, which refers to writing with light.

This Light, we are told, shines in the Dark and is not overcome.  This truth can be confirmed by standing outside, especially on one of these longest, darkest nights of the year, and looking at the stars that speckle the sky.  The Dark does not extinguish the Light, it does not even threaten it.  In fact, the thing that makes it difficult to see the light of the stars at the other side of the universe is not the Dark, but the light of the town in which I live.  Dark actually helps our seeing, because it makes the light stand out.  Though John’s storyteller knew nothing of this, it is worth reflecting on how Light connects us to the actual other side of the universe.  In the vast Dark of space, light comes to our eyes across lightyears of space, allowing us to see not just across vast distances, but also into vast depths of time.  This is especially true if you look at photographs written with light from huge telescopes.  These photographs tell us the story of light from stars that may very well have long ago burned out, stars that write the story of the very beginning of the universe.

The word for “world” is much more interesting in Greek than in English.

The word κόσμος gives us the word “cosmos,” which (to my ear) suggests the vastness of space.  But it also gives us the word “cosmetologist.”  The Greek word is more interested in the beauty of the universe than in its vastness.  You can see this also if you look at photographs write with the aid of the Hubble telescope.  Galaxies and nebulae, gas clouds and varieties of stars, all stir awe even as they remind us that these beautiful things are actually places so far away that human beings will never go there.  That has not stopped us from telling stories (mostly in the form of science fiction and fantasy) of human events transported to these places impossibly far away.  If you read such fiction, you will have noticed that we tell such stories in order to imagine bigger, brighter, darker, stronger, and weaker things than other fiction generally allows us.  

The last word (for now) is Flesh, σὰρξ, is similarly loaded, but in (somehow) the opposite way.  

This shows up best in Hebrew and in texts in Greek that are still dreaming in Hebrew.  And John clearly has a Jewish imagination.  In Jewish Scripture, any talk of Flesh is also talking about Body.  This is true here in the beginning of John’s story.  The λόγος, the organizing principle of the universe, the Light that links us to all of Space and all of Time, the link that allows our imaginations to reach beyond, always beyond, that λόγος becomes a Body.  A body.  A single, limited body, defined by its location in one place at one time, known by its individual particularity and by its resemblance to every other body (every-body) in its family, evidence of its genetic bondage to them.  Bodies grow taller and then shrink as the pads between their particular vertebrae shrink.  Bodies grow older and can never reverse this process.  And because the particular cells that make up any particular body have a limited lifespan, bodies die.  All of them, whether they had an origin (ἀρχῇ) as the logic (λόγος) of the universe, spanned by light (φῶς) shining in the darkness of the beautiful cosmos, all of them die.  Bodies die because they are fragile.  

That may be the most important Christmas reflection out of this beginning of John’s story for this year.

Bodies die because they are fragile.  This is true when cities like Aleppo are destroyed in raging warfare.  This is true when drinking water is contaminated by yet another “completely unlikely” oil spill.  This is true when another ordinary disease weakens and finally kills another ordinary body, even when that ordinary body is a mother or a grandfather or a newborn baby.

John’s story does not have a manger, or a baby Jesus to be placed in that manger.  But John’s story has a body.  An ordinary body, a son, to be clear.  And it is this ordinary body, not the universe-spanning Light, that lets us see glory.  Look carefully at the translation above.  The glory that we see in this translation (unlike other, older translations) is not the glory of “the only Son of the Father.”  It is the glory of a father’s only son.  An ordinary father.  An ordinary son.

There is something about the fragile, ordinary particularity of the Incarnation that may need extra reflection this Christmas.  The glory at the beginning of John’s gospel is a fragile glory, rooted in our astonishment at the birth of our children and at the death of our parents.

We have been reminded of our fragility lately, and of how ordinary we are.  The problems we face are going to be solved, not by Superheroes that guard the entire Universe.  The problems that we all have to solve, the problems worth thinking about at Christmas, are problems that call for ordinary people who solve the particular part of our problems that they can reach, the part that they have any chance of understanding.

This is what the Incarnation suggests this year at Christmas.

A Provocation: Christmas (Proper II): December 25: Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

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 is it shepherds?
  • “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”  Who, exactly, was part of this “all?”
  • How many people were gathered in this group?

 Some Longer Reflections:

(This large text for Proper II is the same as the large text for Proper I, but the intent appears to be to focus first on the birth and second on the shepherds and angels.  That works.)

The angels are difficult.

This is partly because they are angels.  While I know people who expect to see angels around every corner, I do not expect such things.  I have no objection to angels, and even manage to imagine them to be as real as other things that I do not directly experience: the various flavors of quarks, the Higgs boson, the working of my own pancreas, and, well, God.  But I do not trust the idea that one ought invest time in trying to see angels.  I think that is because I am pretty sure that anything you invest that much energy in will yield “experiences.”

But angels are difficult for other, more important, reasons.  In this scene, the angels show up in a multitude.  That’s easy enough to handle.  It is not clear how many it takes to make a “multitude,” but a hundred angels are no harder to imagine than is one angel.  That is not the difficulty.

Angels are not cute.

Popular imagination has made angels into charming creatures rather like fairies, but without the bells on their curly shoes.  But the angels of ancient Jewish imagination were not cute or charming or fairy-like.  The word for angel, ἄγγελος, means “messenger.”  These messengers traveled between the presence of God and human society, bringing God’s messages to our attention in a way we could not miss.  That is what we have seen Gabriel do earlier in Luke’s story.  So the voice of the angel is the voice of God, and the presence of the angel is the functional presence of God.  This charges the scene with the shepherds with real power.  

So part of the problem with angels is that they ARE the presence of God.  Angels show up, but it is God who appears, and speaks, and sings.

It is the “heavenly HOST” that causes the most trouble for me.

“Host” has become a “bible word” when it is not used as an illustrative word.  We may face a “host of problems,” but we do not generally refer to a large group of people as a “host.”  Except in church.

The problem is that the word “host” is a metaphor that has largely lost its referent.  The word in Greek is στρατια, and it means an “army.”  This is a military word, and in this scene it names a large group of soldiers.  It is not a squad of angels that shows up in the sky; it is not even a batallion.  It is as if the 101st Airborne has arrived in the skies near Bethlehem.  The entire division.  There are angels in the sky.  There are many, many of them.  

And they are armed.

That is the difficult part.

To be sure, it makes great sense.  The storyteller is making a point: the Emperor Augustus parades his legions of soldiers, making it clear that he has the power to determine the shape of human affairs, the Emperor forces the entire world to travel to ancestral homelands to be enrolled, the Emperor issues mandates at will, and then an entire Division of angels arrives to make it clear that Augustus has only limited power.  Point taken.

When God aims to turn the world right-side-up, the Emperor might as well whistle as try to oppose the effort: the messiah is backed by an entire Division of angels.

But if the angelic army has showed up to do its duty, why is the world still upside-down?

Why are starving children still waiting for messiah to bring in an age of abundance for all?  And why are women in war zones still hiding from firefights?  Shouldn’t the Prince of Peace have set things right by now?  This is a problem.  That is the real question.

Perhaps Luke’s story has the same problem with angels that I have: they may be real enough, but we do not have anything like direct experience of their impact on the world.  If so, then Luke’s story aims to create puzzlement: how can so much evident theological power have no impact on the real world?  The storyteller provides a messiah, an army of angels, and a mother who calls for the hungry to filled with good things and the rich to be sent empty away, but none of this actually happens.  Perhaps we are meant to wonder why.

But then why make this a story about the messiah?  Why not just make it a story about a teacher, a healer, a prophet, even?  But when you begin a messiah story by having Mary promise that arrogant power will be thrown down, and then back that up with armed angels, as a storyteller, you have to follow through.

I have friends, colleagues, who insist that this scene is built this way so as to refuse power.  Jesus is, in their reading, absolutely non-violent, and the angels, though armed, are noncombatants.  We have talked about this.  I find the idea of a God who subverts all our notions of success and strength highly attractive.  When Dorothee Soelle (in her book, Theology for Skeptics) writes about the Incarnation, voluntary dependence, and powerlessness, I find myself cheering.  If all that God does is oppose force with force, all Creation gets from the bargain is continuing violence.  And our addiction to violence is aided and abetted.

But even as I cheer, I worry.

I get nervous that this approach will morph into some kind of “spiritualizing” project.  It is a short step from affirming strategic non-violence to deferring all “right-side-up-ing” of the world to a time either after death or above the surface of the earth.  Again, resurrection and promised paradise I can make sense of as well as I can make sense of gluons and tau neutrinos.  It is not the lack of tangible effects that makes me worry.  A great many processes are going on at all times without being normally observable.

What I am nervous about is the sleight-of-hand that goes with deferring all effective messianic activity onto another plane of being.  That sounds too much like a dodge, and evasion.  If the real interpretive point is that the work of the messiah affects souls, not bodies, then I must ask Jesus’ question from Luke 5: “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say: ‘Get up and walk’?”  That’s the beauty of so much religious talk: it is easy to say, and hard to demonstrate that it has any impact on the real world.

If Luke’s storyteller goes to all the trouble of enlisting an army of angels just to make the point that messiah only impacts souls (whatever they are, exactly), then that seems a foolish investment of narrative resources.  If the savior that is announced only saves souls, you don’t need angels to do that.  And if the messiah who comes only affects our interior state over against God, then messiah could simply have sent a memo.  There is no need for a physical presence to make a gaseous, spiritual point.  And if the LORD (the Mercy Attribute of God, which the angels identify with Jesus, the messiah) only enacts spiritual mercy, Mary (and all the mothers of starving children) will ask how this fulfills any part of the contract implied in the Magnificat.

Interpretation that chooses only to speak to “spiritual realities” is theological oxycontin.  It is a drug that leads to an addiction that may be even more dangerous than our addiction to violence.  Addiction to violence will kill us, but addiction to a painless spiritual existence will calm us down when others are killed.  This drug will make it possible for us to walk up to the driver’s side window of yet another blood-spattered vehicle, make the sign of the cross, and bless the dead black man inside, ushering him into a heaven where we don’t have to care about the societal structures that allow us all to smile blandly when law enforcement officers kill him.

I cannot believe that God sent the messiah to make it easier to smile blandly.

Happy Christmas.

A Provocation: Christmas (Proper I): December 25: 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:

  •  Just curious: why do you think the angels appeared to shepherds?
  • Was it because David was a shepherd?
  • Was it because shepherds were not judged to be trustworthy?
  • Or was it because the shepherds were out in the wilderness alone and the angels needed lots of sky for their appearance and song?
  • Just wondering.

Some Longer Reflections:

In Matthew’s story, Jesus is  born several years earlier, during the reign of Herod.  Luke has Jesus birth take place well after Herod’s death.  Which gospel is right?


It does not matter how you answer this question, at least if you are asking about truth and accuracy.  Jesus was born some day, some year, some hour, apparently in Bethlehem.  It does not matter when it happened.  We could not settle that question even if we thought it was important to be correct.  It does not matter.

But it does matter that both Matthew and Luke tie the birth of messiah to actions of the Empire.

Matthew ties the birth to the genocidal rage of Herod (we will explore this scene next Sunday).  Luke ties the birth to Imperial pretense.

This is not the first time in the history of the world an emperor snapped his fingers and expected the world to jump and run. It will also not be the last. People who love power exult in being able to make people do whatever they want. Sometimes they exert this power just for revenge.  There might be a minority president-elect who drools when he thinks about revenge.  There just might be such a person.

But Luke’s storyteller is not too terribly impressed with Imperial pretense.

The main effect of the Roman order that made the world jump and run was to bring families together.  In particular, Rome guaranteed that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in Bethlehem, wrapped in deep Jewish history.  Jesus and David are now tied together, and Roman power is undercut by its very demonstration of power.  Oh well.

 Also, there is no inn in this story.  

Period.  The word in Greek is κατάλυμα and it means “guest room” and it is full.  With families gathering all over the world, guest rooms will fill up.  It does not matter if the guest room is full.  After the guest room is packed with people, families make beds on the couch, and then on the other chairs.  People will be sleeping on the floor, maybe even under the coffee table.  And after all of those spaces are full, the family will get really creative.  Jesus’ family appears to live in an old-style peasant house, like a German Bauernhaus, with the family living on the upper level and the farm animals living on the lower.  The κατάλυμα might be full.  That does not matter.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are family, and they are not turned away.    

That is the rule, even for people dominated by an power-hungry ruler.

That is the rule, especially for families who resist.

There is always room for family.  

This matters.  If we were reading the gospel of John, then indeed “his own received him not.”  At least sort of.  But in Luke’s story, his own not only received him, they welcomed him, they sheltered him, and they saw in Mary’s pregnancy the promise of the future of the family.  Of course they would find a place for her and her baby, even if they had to improvise.  A manger will work as a cradle, in a pinch.  Roman power created the pinch.  Jesus’ Jewish family created the solution to the problem  

This is not the first time Luke’s storyteller has presented family as the well of strength, the cell of resistance, in the face of danger.  

When Mary first learned that she was untimely pregnant, she ran to her auntie in the hill country and Elizabeth (whose name indicates that God’s oath is trustworthy) welcomed her. This is also not the last time that family will provide the energy that resolves a scene in Luke’s story.  When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple (the stable Jewish center of the world) they are met by Simeon and Anna who play the role of grandparents in the scene.  And at the end of the story, the “daughters of Jerusalem” wail for Jesus as if he were their brother.  

In Luke’s story you can always count on family, especially when the pressure and the danger are unbearable.  With family, we can bear anything.  That is one of the main points of Luke’s story.  That is, in fact, crucial to the way Luke has chosen to tell the story of the messiah: messiah comes as a member of a family.  That family shares the work of turning the world right-side-up, which is the central task messiah must carry out. 

Luke’s story is complicated, to be sure.  Families are like that.  But even with the complications, it is still a story that surrounds messiah with a family that makes the story possible.

Of course there is room.

Notice, in passing, that Mary treasures all this.

Given the events of those few days (a long trip, a family welcome, a first birth, a flock of shepherds talking about a host of angels), that is not too surprising.  But Luke’s storyteller does not paint Mary as overwhelmed and dewy-eyed.  We are told that she “treasures” what the shepherds said.  The word in Greek is συνετήρει, which is a word for what faithful people do with the words of Torah.  Mary analyzes all that has happened; she meditates on all of this, and expects to learn essential truths from her probing meditation.

Mary also “ponders” what she has heard.  This word also is a word that indicates sharp-minded intellectual analysis.  The word is συμβάλλουσα, which is the root of the English word, “symbol.”  It implies that Mary sees a deep significance in the events of these few days, a significance that she will analyze and understand, no matter how long it takes.  

She did the same thing when Gabriel visited her.  On that occasion, she also analyzed what she heard, and the fruit of her analysis appears in her independently composed Magnificat, which I think reveals why she agreed to take on the risks of giving birth to the messiah.  The world needed to be turned right-side-up, and the powerful needed to be put down from their thrones, even if all this entailed real risks for Mary.  She knew what she was getting into.  

Now Mary is told stories of an army of angels.  She stops to analyze what this means, and to extrapolate what might happen next.

The storyteller, therefore, has set up a narrative problem for the audience.

A story that begins the way Luke’s story begins ought to end with a glorious victory.  Luke’s story will end with an ascension of Mary’s baby into the heavenly realms, to be sure.  But the world is not right-side-up.  And Mary would know this.

And presumably continue with her pondering.