Resistance Costs!

You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Luke 12

A powerful accusation coming at the end of a difficult passage. Luke 12:49-56 seems to fly in the face of our preferred image of Jesus as the advocate of peace.

Within the overall context of his ministry, Jesus preaches a message of peace. But in Luke 12 he recognizes that peace does not come without cost. Peace is never peace at any price. Jesus is recognizing that conflict – which may even spur some to violence – is an unavoidable outcome of the kingdom’s coming.

Jesus lived in a context riven by political and religious violence. The question of whether violence should be used as a tool to achieve social reform – let alone something that could hasten the coming of the kingdom – was a very poignant one for Jesus.

As it was for Jesus, so it remains for us to live in a world riven by conflict that feeds violence. The question remains – what is the appropriate Christian response when in the face of endless social conflict political violence is increasingly taken by some as a justifiable option while waving a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

In Jesus’ life and teaching we detect a complex interleaving of two related strands of nonresistance and nonviolence – two forms of protest against systemic evil.

Nonresistance not only rejects acts of violence but also rejects confronting those responsible for existing evils – seeking solidarity with the victims and offering no defense even if we ourselves become subjected to violence at the hands of the powerful. Practitioners on the path of nonresistance seek to change the world around them through sacrificial example.

By contrast, nonviolence seeks change through directly confronting the social evils of injustice and oppression. Nonviolence is the demand for change through confrontation that stops short of resorting to violence to win the argument. When faced with the prospect of violence, the path of nonviolence merges into the path of nonresistance.

In the larger frame we see both nonresistance and nonviolence as essential elements in the Christian path. Jesus’ journey from death to new life shows God taking the ultimate path of nonresistance. The new thing God does through Jesus is to bring about profound change through self-sacrifice. But in his teaching and ministry Jesus follows the path of nonviolence in his confrontation with the systemic evils of injustice and oppression.

The meaning of Jesus words in Luke 12:49-56 seem to be that conflict is the inevitable outcome of the kingdom’s coming. The kingdom’s message of peace and love will also require a nonviolent confrontation with systemic evil. For the kingdom’s peace is not peace at any price. As Christians we are called to engage in the conflicts of the present time while refuting the use of violence as an instrument of change.

Violence takes many forms. Which brings us to Jesus’ stinging rebuke – you hypocrites! We Christians are hypocrites when our pretense to peace and love is a fig leaf that conceals the violence we claim to reject.

For instance, as a gay man I experience it as the height of hypocrisy when the church teaches that members of the LGBT community are to be loved and welcomed while denying us the same God given rights to love and fulfilment enjoyed by heterosexual persons. Love the person hate the sin is a form of pseudo acceptance that continues to give aid and comfort to the forces of homophobic violence.

August 14th is the commemoration of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, civil rights martyr, 1965. When Calendar commemorations coincide with a Sunday, they normally transfer to the nearest weekday following. However, it seems consistent with Jesus’ message in Luke 12 to specifically honor Jonathan Daniels today.

Robert Tobin (son of parishioners Bob and Maureen Tobin) in his recently published book Privilege and Prophecy provides a narrative of the Episcopal Church’s evolving identity and social activism during the period 1945-1979. Drawing extensively on archival materials and periodicals from multiple sources, he provides an intimate picture of how Episcopal leaders understood their role and responsibilities during a time of upheaval in American religious and social life.

He places Jonathan Daniels (pp 125-127) against a background of Northern white Christian hypocrisy in the civil rights era. Tobin notes the white liberal romantic identification with Southern black suffering – as an avoidance of the violence of racial discrimination on their own doorsteps. So much Northern white Christian advocacy for racial equality was conducted from the safety and protection of positions of white privilege. As John Butler, a prominent Episcopal churchman of the time noted – demonstrating publicly in the South had required less personal courage that confronting the genteel racism of his parishioners while a rector in Princeton, New Jersey.

Tobin cites the great William Stringfellow who commented:

that they (Northern white liberals) do not despise or hate Negroes, but they also do not know that paternalism and condescension are forms of alienation as much as enmity.

Tobin p125-6

You hypocrates! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Jonathan Daniels was a young Episcopal seminarian at Harvard’s Episcopal Theological Seminary (ETS) struggling with the paradoxes and ironies of his horror of racial oppression from his position of white privilege. Like many others of his ilk, he joined the Selma marches. But unlike many, he took to heart Strongfellow’s rebuke.  He not only marched but also felt compelled to remain afterward to register black voters, tutor children, and help integrate the local Episcopal church.

In so doing, he explained:

I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value …. as the price that a Yankee Christian had better be prepared to pay if he goes to Alabama.

Tobin p126

In mid-August 1965, Daniels was shot dead as he shielded a young black activist, Ruby Sales from the deadly aim of Tom Coleman – an unpaid special deputy -subsequently acquitted on the grounds of self-defense by an all-white jury.

John Coburn then Dean of ETS later confessed:

It took a long time to realize that Jon was a martyr. He was just a typical, questioning, struggling student, trying to make sense out of the issues, conflicts, and injustices of our society.

Tobin notes that over time, Daniels came to be revered in the wider church as a Christian martyr who gave his life in the cause of human dignity. (127)

In the memory of Jonathan Daniels, we honor an exemplar of the interleaving of Christian nonviolence and nonresistance. Daniels embraced nonviolent protest in the face of the evil of racism – and accepted the ultimacy of nonresistance because he had come to the realization that his possible death was the price that a Yankee Christian had better be prepared to pay if he goes to Alabama.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, no but rather division.

Luke 12

Once again, our nation roils in the tumult of inflamed hatred and manufactured grievance. The abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the recognition of a varied and richly human LGBT+ experience are milestones of achievement along a long and conflict riven march towards a future that will be better than our past. For progressives like myself, I count these milestones as signs of the kingdom’s coming. But as Jesus so rightly recognized not everyone does – bringing urgent poignancy to his words: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

We are living through another period when five in one household will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

In his 1838 Young Men’s Lyceum speech, in which he warned about mob violence and people who disrespected America’s laws and courts, Abraham Lincoln said:

As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Time to do more than interpret the appearance of the earth and sky – we must learn how to accurately interpret the present time!

Habitat

Al and I returned to Providence, arriving at 10pm Thursday evening from our month in the country. Well, it was a little over a month but who’s counting. I return with a renewed sense of the importance of change – change in habitat.

After five days in London, catching up with friends and binging on theatre while staying on a yacht moored on the Thames – not quite Russian oligarch and more James Bond 007 circa 1982, we returned to the region in Southwest France where we have vacationed for some 40 years.

If you picture Bordeaux on a map of France and follow a line eastward through the famous viticulture landscapes of the grand cru Bordeaux wineries – St Emilion comes to mind – you come to Bergerac – whose most famous son, Cyrano is immortalized in a rather bad statue in the old town. Bergerac lies on the banks of the Dordogne River – a town of quaint half-timbered houses along winding cobbled streets. Bergerac gives its name of the specific wine region – producing both crisp sauvignon whites and reds but especially famous for the sweet wines of Monbazillac– the perfect accompaniment to the local cuisine which features duck and duck and more duck occasionally supplemented with goose. Here you find the famous Foie Gras, and a cuisine that incorporates a multiverse of woodland fungi – including the famous and illusive black truffle.

This is a very agricultural region of vines, plums orchards, corn, and sunflower fields. Of ancient bastides – fortified villages dating back to the 100 years war between England and France with names ending in ac – a vestige of the original Occitan language of southern France.  

Eleanor of Poitiers brought the duchy of Aquitaine as dowry to her marriage to the English king, Henry II. Aquitaine remained under the English occupancy between 1362 and 1451. Today the region hosts a large English expat community; a region famous for its rugby prowess and the Bordeaux wine so loved by the English they christened it Claret. The novels of Martin Walker, centered on his hero Bruno, chef de police in the small fictitious town of St Denis, capture the essence of contemporary life in this region.

Over the years we’ve stayed in many gites, small farmhouses and barn conversions. We try a new one each time and enjoy tootling past the places we’ve stayed before. We’ve learned that traditional barn conversions that keep the original construction are best rather than more modern adaptations because – as was sorely tested this summer – in a region where air conditioning is unusual, it’s the 3 ft thick stone walls and heavy terracotta tiled roofs the provide the best respite from the heat.

Speaking of heat, we arrived having just missed one heatwave in mid-June to very pleasant temperatures and bright sunny days before the onslaught of the worst heatwave since records began. Beginning in Spain, over the course of 10 days in the middle of July it moved accompanied by temperatures of 100- 106 up through France and into the British Isles, where it broke all temperature records. The local regional authorities from Aquitaine to Perigueux-Dordogne cancelled outside Bastille Day celebrations and banned firework displays. Fortunately, our farmhouse sheltered us comfortably, but for several days we really couldn’t venture outside much. Although except for one evening we did manage to eat out under on the covered patio at around 8pm most other evenings – dreaming of next year in Trondheim.

Everywhere one is aware of the effects of global warming. The vines – until recently regularly clipped of excessive foliage to allow the fruit’s exposure to the sun, are now allowed to retain their foliage to protect the ripening fruits from the increasingly brutal sun. Forest fires were an ever present danger. We awoke one morning to hazy and smoky skies as the winds had blown the smoke from the huge fire at Arcachon – some 80 miles away on the coast. It’s an eerie experience to smell smoke and not know whether its source is far away or closer to home.

Habitat is a wonderful word. The French use this word in ordinary speech to simply refer to the place where someone lives – the space – geographic, environmental, and relational -where the routines of daily life are lived out. In English habitat carries the same meaning as in French, but it has a more technical – less colloquial application- applied more generally to describe non-human environments say for plants and other living species. Habitat evokes an exploration of not so much the location but the patterns and routines of day-to-day life and how these interact and are challenged through the impact of stepping outside of our habits into new settings – in order to experience a shift in head space.

I count myself immensely fortunate to be able to go away and know that the life of the parish continues uninterrupted by my absence. I can take a month to enter a completely different habitat -as in – an emotional and intellectual head space in which a different setting and pace of routine works its different magic. I’m indebted to all of you, and esp. to Linda+ and the staff team – without whom my month away – if it were at all possible – would certainly be a more stressful and worry filled experience.

Transitioning between habitats – is an important pilgrimage experience.  We set out on pilgrimage thinking our goal is a destination. On arrival we find it’s not the destination as much as the experience of the journey that is life enhancing. Habitat signifies more than a place. It signifies a state of mind.

As human beings we have a need for stability. But it’s so easy to confuse stability – consistency of habit with predictability and controllability. These days it feels risky to travel internationally. The scramble for the timely COVID test has been replaced by the increased likelihood of last-minute flight cancellations. Two in our house party found out that their flight back from Bergerac to London was cancelled 12 hours prior to departure. We had to scramble to rebook them on a different flight out of Bordeaux – an hour and half drive away- to make their connecting flights back to the US.  

For anyone embarking on any kind of travel today in the face of so many unforeseeable and uncontrollable factors – airline and airport chaos, lost luggage, pandemic risks, and all the inconveniences of climate pressures, growing economic instabilities, and the erosion of international security require a certain attitude of mind capable of facing the unforeseeable and unpredictable turn of events.

Yet, the risk to step outside of one’s normal habitat is worth it. But to even say this is to make the mistake of assuming that to stay in the familiar and the somewhat predictable is risk free.

In Luke’s Gospel this morning Jesus counsels that life is full of unforeseen events. None of us can know at what time the thief will come, or at what hour the master will return. To live as if we can guard against unforeseen eventualities, is an illusion. Being able to withstand the challenges of the unexpected and unforeseeable involves a quality of heart.  Jesus reminds us that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If the capacity to take risks is not part of our treasure trove of experience, then fear will be where we find our hearts.

I return to routine life – both with some anticipation for new challenges and opportunities still unforeseen lying over the horizon, and also if I’m being honest, I return with more than a hint of reluctance to jump back too quickly into life as before. Not being anxious to get back into the pressures is a newish experience for me. One I interpret as a sign of emotional maturing. I also return thankful.

Thankful for having had the possibility of stepping outside the familiarity of day-to-day life to experience the way a different habitat – location and setting works its magic on me. I return to my normal habitat with a sense of an enlarged and more trust filled attitude to life. I return thankful for all of you that have made this experience so easy and worry free for me.

We may not know at what hour the thief will break in or at what hour to expect the master’s return. Yet, we live with faith that whatever happens we will be ready to face developments refreshed by a more open and less risk averse attitude of heart and mind. Jesus warns us about being afraid. He reminds us that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. In my experience the kingdom comes in different forms and in different ways from anything I might otherwise have expected. The trick is to let it!

Hands on the Plow

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Plowing season has been thrust upon us – the urgency of the moment is upon us. Can there be no better time to get our hands dirty.

In Dobbs v’s Jackson the Supreme Court enshrines a specific moral and religious worldview, that a supposedly biblical and reactionary understanding of Christianity can be imposed upon wider society. Of course this is not stated, but is concealed behind the legal fig leaf of Originalism – an approach to the Constitution that mirrors a literalist reading of the Bible.

The overturning of Roe comes at the end of a week in which the Supreme Court also declared that state law cannot restrict second amendment rights, and that conservative religious schools are entitled to state money to support their exclusionary agendas – thus preserving the gravy train of public funds. The reversal of Roe v’s Wade is the third ruling in a week that makes clear the direction of the conservative Justices in future rulings.

I want to offer one fruitful line of response – namely the renewal of a progressive and inclusionary understanding of Christian discipleship among Christians of the mainstream – a term covering liberal and progressive interpretations of the teachings of Jesus.

There is a phrase: every-person ministry. Every-person ministry means the fitness of a Christian community for God’s purposes depends on the investment of each person in its life of discipleship.

The contours of discipleship vary from person to person. God not only calls us as we currently are but also as the persons, we have the potential to grow into becoming. What that looks like is a matter of individual temperament, individual gifts, passions, and concerns – these are the lenses through which God’s call is illuminated in each of us.

But in most churches of the mainstream membership rather than discipleship characterizes our relationship to Christian community.

Members are concerned with supporting the organization to which they belong:

  • Members see themselves as supporting the clergy and others to whom they look to perform the ministry.
  • The demands of membership are intentionally kept low so as not to discourage people from joining, and to encourage people to remain by asking little of them.
  • Members notoriously vote with their pocketbooks and ultimately with their feet when they don’t get what they want or feel their specific needs are not being met.

Disciples see themselves as active participants in the Church’s ministry and not just supporters of the organization:

  • Disciples are invested in their relationship with God.
  • For them building a strong church is the most effective way of making a difference in the wider world with which they feel deeply involved.
  • Disciples are spiritually fed by lives of prayer, study, and reflection.
  • They experience deep gratitude for the good things they enjoy, seeing them not as things to own, but hold in trust.
  • Disciples express their sense of gratitude in generous lives of service and a passion for justice.

One Christian is no Christian according to the early church father, Tertullian. By this he means Christian identity is a group not and individual thing. We respond to our call through loving God and loving the people among whom we live out our lives, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, one breath at a time. In short, as Christians, we respond to God through participation in lives of discipleship within Christian community.

A Christian community ideally is a pilgrim community – a community on a journey towards the greater realization of the kingdom of God. The relationship between individual disciples and the community of disciples is one of mutual strengthening. As disciples we are strengthened through participation in the pilgrim community. The community is in return, strengthened by our participation as individual disciples. If you think being present for the breaking of the bread or being active in the work for justice represented by communities like St Martin’s is a matter of personal option, think again. We are now seeing the deep consequences of failing to appreciate the extent to which the community is weakened by our lack of or lukewarm participation in the life of discipleship of a pilgrim community.

Pilgrim communities are spiritual communities that encourage, equip, and sustain us to work together to become the change we long to experience in the world around us. I think we are all gripped with a sense of the urgency for change. The thing about gripping – if we grip or are gripped too tightly – the result is paralysis.

In reversing Roe, for the first time the Supreme Court has taken away an established constitutional right from millions of Americans – on the spurious justification that the right is not spelled out in the Constitution. On this basis there seems no reason to trust they do not intend to further roll back constitutional rights the Court has extended for same gender marriage and sexual identity equalities. Afterall, as has been already demonstrated, their word is hardly their bond.

The purported love for the yet to be born is an easy way to avoid acknowledging your part in the perpetuation of injustice in the world.

The Methodist Pastor David Barnhart writes:

The unborn are a convenient group to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them because they cease to be unborn. … They are in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus, but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible.

Jesus said: Follow me. The response he got was straight out of the mainstream Christian playbook. Lord, let me first go and bury my father – in other words sorry Lord I’m really busy. Jesus said: Let the dead bury their own; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. But what he heard was: I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say goodbye to those at home. To which Jesus gave and instruction: No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God!

Jesus makes his meaning plain: No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Every person ministry requires the participation and energy of everyone. There is no room for those who stand on the sidelines expecting others to do the work. No use huffing a puffing about the audacity of the religious right if you are not going to do the work needed to preserve and defend a more authentic Christian vision.

Christian community can be a force for good, but as we see Christian community can also be a facade for more pernicious doctrine and a defense of the indefensible. A lot hangs on what the exact nature of being organized involves and the goal for which we organize. Is the rallying cry back to the future or is it working for a future different than the past?  

Jesus has a habit of cutting to the quick by employing more than a little hyperbole. His words in Luke 9 need to be heard in the context of urgency. Jesus has turned his face towards the road to Jerusalem. This is the road of discipleship and if we are willing to travel with Jesus on this road, we will learn what it means to move beyond the commitments of membership to embrace the urgency of discipleship.

On the discipleship road to Jerusalem the first lesson we learn is that there is no time to lose; there is no room any longer for hesitation. The second lesson of discipleship is that there is no yesterday and no tomorrow – only today. Whoever puts a hand to the plow and looks back is lost. Imagine what we might achieve if we really take this to heart.

Once again, the assertion of patriarchy – the fear-fueled maintenance of gender inequality – casts its dark shadow across the bodies of America’s women – trans as well as cisi gendered – with clear implications for members of the LGBTQ community and other minorities who do not identified in the text of the Constitution.

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Plowing season has been thrust upon us – the urgency of the moment is upon us. Can there be no better time to get our hands dirty.

Happy Coincidences

This past week Al and I have been glued to a drama streamed on Prime pay to view set at the height of the Cold War and concerns Russia’s return in 1956 of the Porkkala Peninsula to Finland – a peninsular that Finland had been forced to lease to Russia along with ceding the province of Karelia as part of the peace treaty that ended what the Finns refer to as the Continuation War – the second Finno-Russian war from 1941-44 – actually a sub-theatre of the larger conflict between Nazi Germany and Russia after 1940.

With the Russia-Ukraine war very much in our minds today – Shadow Lines offers a glimpse into the perpetual struggle of Russia’s European neighbors against its neo-colonialist and imperialist designs. Shadow Lines give us a glimpse not only into Finnish-Russian relations at the height of the Cold War but also into the tensions between pro-Western and pro-Soviet factions within the Finnish political establishment – playing out against the background of Moscow’s own internal tensions with the rise of Khrushchev and the defeat of the Stalinist faction led by Molotov.

In Shadow Lines there is depicted a brief homosexual affair between an American CIA agent and the nephew of the head of the Finnish Security Service. It’s a very short interlude – yet it captures the spark of hope that comes in a moment when perhaps for the first time it’s possible for these men to imagine liberation from the crippling isolation resulting from the oppression and persecution that characterized societal attitudes towards the love that dare not speak its name. This is 1956, and of course the affair is doomed. It no sooner sparks then it’s over. To provide more detail would simply be to spoil your viewing experience.

On June 19, 1865, the Black dockworkers in Galveston, Texas, first heard the news of Lincoln’s Emancipation order. Chris Manjapra writing in the Tahlequah Daily Press notes: The arrival of Union troops in Galveston brought the promise of freedom for the enslaved. There were speeches, sermons, and shared meals, mostly at Black churches, the safest places to have such celebrations. The perils of unjust laws and racist social customs were still great in Texas for the 250,000 enslaved Black people there, but the celebrations known as Juneteenth were said to have gone on for seven straight days.

By a quirk of the local calendar, in Providence this year, Gay Pride and Juneteenth celebrations fall on the same weekend. Two themes link the gay interlude in Shadow Lines and Juneteenth. The first is the theme of hope that is sparked in the oppressed in a moment of epiphany when the dark clouds of persecution part to allow a glimpse of rainbow of liberation to seep through. The second is the illusory nature of the first flush of promise. Like all epiphanies it’s no sooner here than it’s gone. The persecution of gay men not only continued but increased in ferocity as the 1950’s progressed.  The shocking white collusion against black liberty known as the era of Reconstruction maintained the literal if not the legal enslavement of African Americans until the challenge of the black led Civil Rights movement in the middle of the 20th-century.

The era of agitation for change beginning in the late 1960’s gave birth to two great emancipation movements – Gay Liberation and the black led Civil Rights. Looking back over 50 years we can see the huge inroads these protest movements made into institutional and societal oppression and persecution of LGBTQ  and African Americans. Yet, we are living in a period when the forces of reaction are once again rallying to roll back the gains of the civil rights era not only for the African American and LGBTQ communities, but also for women, for the movement for Women’s Rights was also a fruit of the larger civil rights struggle.

Pride is the official term that came to identify the movement for what was then known as gay liberation. Although not an officially adopted title for the black and women’s liberation movements, pride – the experience of claiming the full stature of one’s God given human dignity – is the underlying motivation in all three liberation movements. Although the gaining of civil and legal rights is paramount in making inroads into societal attitudes of discrimination and oppression – at the heart of the liberation struggle lies the experience of pride, as in, the experience of a profound reordering of an internal sense of self.

LGBTQ persons, African Americans, and women are emblematic communities of representation for all communities of race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation who once again find themselves in the cross hairs -literally as well as metaphorically – of domestic terrorism – both individual and organization led.

The convergence of Pride Weekend and Juneteenth celebrations in Providence this weekend is a coincidental reminder that at the heart of this weekend’s celebrations of gay and black pride there has never been a more vital need to continue to demonstrate and to protest the forces of reaction whose trademark is domination implemented through violence.

At the end of the N.T. reading for Pentecost 2, we find prophetic words from the Apostle Paul. Paul was not always prophetic. Paul was a man who understood well the societal and political limitations of preaching a message of liberation for all in a world violently conditioned by male patriarchy and economically dependent on a culture of slavery. More often than not – his social message is veiled as a result. But every so often the power of the Holy Spirit overwhelms him as it does in chapter 3 of his letter to the Galatians where he proclaims that within the community of the baptised there is no longer the oppression rooted in gender inequality, racial superiority, and the economic subordination of one human being to another. For all are made one in Christ. To: no longer male and female, no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, had Paul been writing today he might have been inspired to proclaim the abolition of a fourth category of sexual identity discrimination – neither gay or straight, neither gender fixed or trans-gender.

Paul begins his abolition of discriminations supporting oppression with: For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. Today we baptize two young boys, Giovanni and Masiah into the family of Christ in the world – incorporating them through baptism into the community that strives to seek to be more fit in this world for the purpose God calls it to.

As a preparation to witness Giovanni and Masiah’s baptism, we will be asked to renew our own baptismal promises. In the Baptismal Covenant we will promise to – with God’s help – seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, striving continually for justice and peace among all people by respecting the dignity of every human being.

As the church, we are the community bearing witness to God’s love for the world. That love is not a sentimental or hippy-dippy kind of feeling. Christian love is always a verb – as in to love – as the living out of love through lives lived striving for the betterment of our world.

On the weekend of Gay Pride and Juneteenth fall together, it is good to be reminded that love as Jesus modeled it – is a social movement with a finely tuned radical agenda – and justice is its name.

In the Image of —

The Bible may not explicitly speak of God as a trinity – a divine community, but Christian experience of God became fundamentally contoured by it – mystery whispering to us through the Scriptures.

The Trinity means a lot to Episcopalian-Anglicans. I mean – who knew? My first sermon at St Martin’s was on Trinity Sunday in 2014. I preach on this anniversary each year with a sense of the poignancy of the Trinity lying at the heart of my love for this community.

Despite its popularity as the dedication for many of Episcopal-Anglican churches – the Trinity is poorly understood if not downright incomprehensible to most of us. Even the Lectionary struggles with suitable readings for The Trinity because – yes you guessed it – there is no explicit mention of The Trinity in the Bible – although John’s Prologue and Genesis 1 hint at it.  We find the clearest statement of the Trinity of God in the Nicene Creed – so in other words – clear as mud to most of us.

Despite the incredulity of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we Christians believe that God is one. It’s just that for us the one God is a divine community and not a solitary being. How do we know that God is community and not solitary? We know it through our experience of God. We know that God is the creator – the source of all that is. We also know that in Jesus, God the Creator entered underneath the tent of creation – showing us that in a human face and in a human life – all that is essential to know about God is revealed to us. We know through the indwelling of the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – the divine energy’s infiltration of everything in creation. We are saturated with the inflation of the Holy Spirit, whom the first Christians clearly associated as the Spirit of the risen Christ – empowering them to collaborate with God in the ongoing healing of the world.

Our gospel for Trinity Sunday comes from John 16. At verse 12 we encounter a very significant sentence in which Jesus explains to his disciples that there remains much he does not have time to explain to them. He recognizes that they have already had their worldview blown open – consequently they have no bandwidth for more. But Jesus goes on to make them a promise. He tells them that when the Spirit of truth comes, they will be guided into all truth.

The Bible may not explicitly speak of God as a trinity – a divine community, but Christian experience of God became fundamentally contoured by it. At the heart of their experience of God they were guided into further understanding – a process gathering momentum until by the 4th-century Christians were ready to give expression to their fundamental experience of God in the Nicene statement.

We believe in one God, the father – the creator of the world; we believe in the Son who was with God in creation and became one with the creation in becoming human; we believe in the Holy Spirit – the giver of life.

At the heart of our understanding of God is the mystery of relationship. This relationship has been traditionally referred to in the gendered terms of father, son, and spirit – the spirit carrying the male pronoun he/his. But gender here is a red herring. At the heart of the traditional language of the Trinity is the notion of relationality. Taking relationship to be the essence of Trinitarian language, today we can avoid the gendered overtones by referring to God as lover, beloved, and love-sharer. Relationship not gender is the key characteristic that identifies the Christian experience of God.

The Christian experience of God as divine community whispers to us through the Scriptures where we find in Genesis the extraordinary statement Let US make humanity, in OUR own image. And so, it was – humanity, male and female, fashioned in the divine image.

The divine image lies at the center of our human experience.

Our modern development of a psychologically informed understandings of human nature identifies us as relationship seeking beings. From the first moments when the newborn reaches for the mother’s breast – the impulse for connection – relational seeking – can be witnessed. All therapeutic work – regardless of theoretical school has a single aim – to repair our broken experience of relationship by equipping us with more successful skills in future relationship seeking.

We experience love through relationships. Our relationships are nurtured in community beginning with the community of the family and moving outwards from there. No one is an island – as John Donne reminds us – because we are not fashioned in the image of a solitary deity. We are fashioned in the image of a God who enjoys love as the fruit of mutual relationship within community.

In Western art the Trinity has been largely depicted diagrammatically as a triangle or as overlapping or concentric circles without beginning or ending. The eye follows towards the completion of the circle only to find itself back at the beginning.

Western depictions of the Trinitarian nature of God depict the divine unity but miss the essential truth that God is relational and communal. It is to the Eastern Christian Tradition of Orthodoxy with its deeply mystical-devotion to the Trinity that we find the most complete depiction of the essential nature of God. This is a picture not for the mind, but for the heart.

Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another reflects the conversation about human creation we hear in the first chapter of Genesis. In Rublev’s icon we see three individuals, but our eye is drawn to their essential oneness – for in the face of each, reflects the faces of the other two. Rublev’s icon is the fruit of his prayerful heart’s enthrallment in the endless mutual gaze of divine love.

Contrary to modern depictions of self-discovery as an internally driven, autonomous process, we discover who we truly are reflected in the gaze of another looking back at us. The newborn experiences itself firstly through finding itself reflected in the mother’s face as she lovingly gazes upon her infant’s face – flooding its developing senses with the hormones of wellbeing.

Jesus tells us that we will continue to be guided into all truth. In 14th-century Moscow, Andrei Rublev was guided by the Spirit into all truth. His was not a truth of the mind but of revelation of the heart – an enthrallment in the mutual gaze of divine love – leading him to depict each of his three faces absorbing and reflecting one another.

The mutuality of love ricochets within the divine community before radiating outwards as the energy – the metaphysical -metaphorical raw material for creation. We are made as relationship seeking creatures – discovering our personhood in relationship with others. The Trinity not only whispers to us through the Scriptures but echoes in the DNA of our human nature. What is the whisper? What is the reverb echo?

That to live lives of mutual love through relationship – is to be most like God.

The Power of Remembering

We continue to mourn events in Uvalde this past week. On Thursday, in E-News I wrote:

I find myself crying out: Oh Lord, will enough be enough? Let change come soon! But this prayer needs to end with the line we say every week in the post communion prayer: ‘And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do’.

We continue to mourn events in Uvalde this past week.

A sense of outrage has been further stoked this weekend by the juxtaposition of optics. On the one hand, elementary school age children talking of their need to have predetermined hiding places worked out in anticipation of being shot and white men drooling over weapons of battlefield destruction at the NRA conference – held not only in the same week, but in the same state as the Uvalde tragedy.

The Evangelist Matthew writing of Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s newborn sons in the days following Jesus’ birth, quotes directly from the prophet Jeremiah, (31:15):

 “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Generations of our children continue to be traumatized by the unpredictable risk of being slain in the course of an ordinary school day. When school shootings become almost as common as school plays.

‘When, Oh Lord, will enough be enough?  

When legislators owe a debt of fealty to the NRA in return for lavish campaign funding – enough will never be enough – ensuring that nothing will get done to make our country a safer place for innocent bystanders – safe for children in school, worshippers at prayer, concert goers, and shoppers in the market.

When, Oh Lord, will enough be enough?  

Today is the Sunday of the Memorial Day Weekend and remembering in our theme. The staff have been preoccupied with the enormous task of clearing the offices in preparation for a long overdue renovation. One of the challenges we’ve been grappling with has been how to deal with the accumulation of archival material. It’s everywhere, whole filing cabinets full – the result of decades of shelving the problem by just ignoring it – cramming it into yet more filing draws or removing it to an even more chaotic document dump in a mildewing room under the Great Hall stage.

During my time as rector the debate has continued unresolved between the archeologist-minded and the pragmatists over not only what to save, but how much to save. Do you save everything, or do you make representative selections?  I’m not an archeologist – and so I tend towards the pragmatists – some materials are emblematic of our history and must be preserved for posterity. Let me hasten to add that I’m not speaking of the parish’s official document records – registers, minute books, legal documents which are all in the walk-in safe. The question is – in the draws full of Sunday bulletins, past stewardship materials, and other yearly communication letters dating back decades – how much of this is necessary to save?

The argument will remain unresolved, I suspect. What’s slightly aggravating from the pragmatist angle is that among those who argue for the preservation of everything there is no one prepared to take on the archival task. Like so much else in contemporary parish life, we’re long on opinions of what to do, but short on actual hands prepared to do it!

A deeper reflection on our archival quandary goes to the heart of what it means to remember. How to preserve a continuity of memory begs the question of not just what and how to preserve memories, but what do memories teach us – what lessons are we to draw from memories?

The Memorial Day weekend betokens the promises of summer after the grueling experience of a New England winter. The three-day Memorial Day Weekend is a godsend for many of us, and so I trust that families and friends will find time for well needed recreation.

However, the Memorial Day Weekend evinces national memory – in particular, the memory of the fallen in war – the men and women who gave their lives for the defense of the nation.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War Joseph Laconte writing about the tenacity and courage of the ordinary British soldiers who endured the unspeakable horrors in the trenches of the Great War, comments:

Historians still debate the ultimate achievement of these soldiers, and the causes for which they fought. Were they merely fodder for a vast and merciless military machine that ravaged Europe to no good end? Or did they play a vital role in halting ….. aggression and preventing the dominance of a brutal and oppressive juggernaut over the Continent?

Laconte locates the origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision for the Hobbits and the role they played in confronting evil in his seminal Lord of the Rings epic. Tolkien the soldier, lived among, and fought alongside very ordinary men plucked from the shires and towns of the British Isles. Laconte observes that the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work.

A nation’s collective memory of war is a patchy thing. Some wars we like to remember – others we try to forget. Within the collective consciousness of a nation’s war memories there are conflicting lessons to be learned, and in the case of the repressed memories, relearned.

Laconte’s words are applicable to the men who made up the armies of America’s iconic war, the American Civil War – men plucked from the farms and towns of a nation barely 90 years old. It is said that there is no more brutal conflict than when fellow citizens – brothers, cousins, fathers, and uncles take up arms against one another. As the armies of the Civil War crossed and re-crossed each other in what must at the time have seemed an endless game of tug-of-war for territory and advantage, it was also the women, the children, and the old men who remained at home who bore the brunt of this savage conflict in which they endured the horrors of war in the hope for something better.

Flash forward to 2022 and Laconte’s words can be reapplied to Ukraine’s defense of their desire to exist. Ranged against them are once again the forces of sacred violence shaken well into a heady cocktail of Russian religious and imperialistic dreams. For this is a war that floods our 24/7 newsfeeds with the direct horror of war’s savagery when waged against unarmed civilians – the men, women, and children of countless Ukrainian villages and towns. Yet, despite the daily horrors of war, resistance to scared violence is mobilizing the collective will of ordinary people willing to bear the horrors of war in defense of their hope of a future better than their past.

Ukrainian experience is not unique. Around the globe other peoples are facing the evils of oppressive governments or caught up in the endless cycles of communal and religiously stoked violence. Most telling from our American point of view is to note how the significance of Ukraine’s experience is not being lost on Taiwanese and other SE Asian democracies. But Ukraine differs in this respect. This conflict represents an attempt to destroy the rules based world order – an order which even China is wary of upsetting, preferring instead simply a greater influence within it. It is already creating dire economic and food security consequences for countless millions across the globe. Our support for Ukraine represents our realization that we cannot successfully stand aside.

Memorial Day preserves our collective memory of war. Important as this is, more important is the question concerning the lessons to be drawn from such memories.

20+ years of low-level insurgency wars in the Middle East are the result of drawing the wrong lessons from our collective memory of war. To our cost the withdrawal from Afghanistan only cemented the realization that we should not have been there in the first place. Afghanistan is the resurfacing – the Deja Vue experience – of living through something we’ve lived through before. Vietnam, our war memory we’ve tried so hard to forget – and because we had convinced ourselves to forget, became Afghanistan.

Failure to remember is the most dangerous thing a nation can do with its collective memories of war – for what we fail to remember we are destined to endlessly repeat. But drawing the wrong conclusion from among the divergence of war memories is the other danger.

Despite some superficial appearances to the contrary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not 1914 again. It is not a European parochial entanglement we can afford to sit out. It’s 1939 again. It is a confrontation with a brutal and oppressive juggernaut in the hands of a regime that has no qualms in employing military power to maximum destructive effect. A regime inspired by the heady mix of religion and imperium – driven not only to subjugate its neighbors but heedless of the huge sacrifice exacted from its own population. A regime for whom enough will never be enough.  We need to access the right memory if we are to avoid drawing the wrong lesson and heading off in the wrong direction.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, And A Great War, Joseph Laconte uncovers the sources of the hugely imaginative writings of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S Lewis. Both men enjoyed a strong friendship forged by their common experience in the First World War. Their friendship grew out of a mutual need to take the memory of the horror of their experience of war and sublimate it into imaginative works of fiction that hold in tension the horror of war with the hope for something better. Together, Tolkien and Lewis created a transgenerational rediscovery of faith, friendship, and heroism – qualities so much in need today.

Before the memory of the fallen we must stand in silence:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. 
For the Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon

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Don’t Look Up!

Image is of the ceiling of the Chapel or the Ascension at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

Words of advance warning from Jesus to his disciples fit well with the Ascension of Our Lord coming up on Thursday this week. Because Ascension always occurs on a Thursday – the 40th day after the resurrection, the normal custom is to celebrate Ascension on the Sunday after. This year to preserve the Memorial Day weekend commemoration we are anticipating the Ascension on the Sunday before – today -Easter 6.

The Ascension of Jesus presents its own set of challenges to belief. It’s only in Luke, that the Ascension appears as a discrete event. Otherwise, it’s somewhat fuzzy. For instance it’s only hinted at in John’s gospel:

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

In John, Jesus alludes to his imminent departure, but beyond offering reassurance of even better things to come – gives no further details.

I think the important point to hold onto here is not when, where, or how the ascension of Jesus took place – but that with the Ascension the pivotal transition point is reached – when the ministry of Jesus morphs into the ministry of the Christian community. Clearly Luke’s graphic account of the event is powerfully influenced by Elijah’s ascension recorded in the 2nd book of Kings. In like manner – as the mantle of Elijah fell upon the shoulders of Elisha – giving him a double portion of his master’s spirit, the double portion of Jesus Spirit descends upon the church at Pentecost – but first like Elijah, the master must ascend.

Last week I emphasized that God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision primarily not for a future in heaven but a call to action in this life. The Revelation to John is explicit on this point:

I saw the new Jerusalem descending to earth so that from henceforth the life of God is to be found among mortals.

The function of imagination is to construct meaning out of events that are not directly observable to the human eye – and yet – events that nonetheless shape our experience. Religious imagination builds pictures that highlight into sharp focus choices to be made, actions to be taken, and directions to be followed – or avoided – as the case may be.

If the function of religious imagination is capable of multiple meanings that shape inferences of things unseen then the nature of the image matters.

Biblical imagination pictures a metaphorical ladder rising from earth to heaven – with Jesus ascending upwards before disappearing in the clouds. This is not an image that works well for the modern religious imagination. Instead of a ladder disappearing into the clouds – might we better picture heaven and earth no longer up and down but as parallel dimensions with a conduit opening in the membrane separating them. Along this conduit there is a two-way flow between the divine and temporal dimensions or between what we might call Our Space and the God Space.

The Ascension is the first stage of the pivotal transition point – when the ministry of Jesus becomes the work of the Christian community to carry forward. The image of a conduit opening between dimensions allowing a two-way flow between them better speaks to our modern sci-fi influenced imagination. Through the conduit opening between dimensions Jesus returns to the God Space – releasing his all-empowering Spirit to flow in the opposite direction – from the God Space back into the church – the divine energy of the God Space permeating Our Space.

The real question to ask about the Ascension of our Lord is – so what next?

Traditional religious imagination pictures two possibilities in answer to the question: what next? So for instance it’s interesting that Ascension Day provides two collects.

Listen:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.

Compare:

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.

We see how religious imagination struggles with the question: so, what next? We long to throw up our hands – giving up on the evils of the world – to ascend with the Lord and there with him to dwell. In response to experience there is something in us that longs for God to rescue us from ourselves and the mess we continue to make of the world.

This is an image that attracts us in the present time as we stare into the abyss of the pandemic, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of holy war – or sacred violence as I’ve been naming it. Things seem to be going from bad to worse according to every measure of progress. So, it’s a natural response to pray for God to – beam us up, Scotty.

Yet, in the Ascension of Jesus God promises to fill all things and to abide here with us – amidst all the pain, disappointment, and sheer messiness of this world. We must not fall into the temptation of wishing to be rescued out of this world. Instead, we must stand firm – empowered by a double measure (a reference to Elisha’s request of the ascending Elijah) of the Spirit of Jesus to face up to the challenges ahead in the knowledge that God is here  -empowering us in the age-long struggle to realize the kingdom of God – the new heaven on earth.

The Ascension of Our Lord is a central truth of our Christian faith. The nature of this truth does not lie in the when, where, how mechanics of the event as Luke pictures it. The truth of the Ascension lies in its place along the continuum of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Let me demonstrate by tabulating the following points:

  • In the birth of Jesus, God the Creator came to dwell within the tent of creation.
  • In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God the Redeemer broke the grip of sacred violence upon the human heart. I’ve spoken of sacred violence within the context of Russia’s holy war against Ukraine. But sacred violence is all around us. It is currently fuelling the denial of a women’s access to safe reproductive health, the sacpegoating LGBTQ persons, the embrace of white supremacy, and the connivance with domestic terrorism.
  • In the Ascension of Jesus is now pictured as an interdimensional movement – the Spirit in Jesus returns to the unity of the divine community.
  • But in so doing Jesus does not discard his humanity like a suit of worn-out clothes. In the Ascension, Jesus returns to the God Space clothed in the fullness of his humanity.
  • The Ascension, allows a double portion of his Spirit to flow back through the interdimensional conduit into Our Space – where we, his body on earth become empowered to continue the work he began.
  • The Ascension is a prerequisite if Pentecost is to follow. This two way traffic through the conduit between Our Space and the God Space results in Jesus bearing humanity into the heart of the divine community, so that – as Revelation poetically phrases it – the home of God now comes to dwell among mortals. From henceforth to be human is to be most like God.

These now are the profound implications for our role in the what’s next in God’s work of renewing the creation – when we tire of gazing heavenwards – that is.

Making All Things New

In 2022, we face three mammoth challenges: pandemic recovery, averting ecological catastrophe, and combating the resurgence of sacred violence – the violence of empire – that once more has raised its head in Europe. I list these not in order of importance as each is of equal urgency.

This week we publicly acknowledged one million COVID-related deaths in the US. The enormity of this fact continues to numb us into collective amnesia. Many millions more are still dying or yet to die in parts of the world where vaccine resistance and COVID denial are still major influences on public and governmental opinion.

We continue to fiddle while the earth burns and floods – turning a blind eye to a massive environmental degradation that is fueling increasingly desperate population movements. The resurgence of sacred violence- the violence of empire – is not simply a massive shock to the European nervous system, but carries profound knock-on implications for international global food and energy stability – though in reference to the latter we can only hope that this sharp shock is enough to wean us off our fossil fuel dependencies.

In these days of the Easter Season, we remember that Jesus was a victim to sacred violence at the hands of forces driven to protect the vested interest of those who imprison the holiness of God – limiting and controlling it within human structures – the boundaries of which are always ruthlessly policed.

Yet, Easter reminds us that Jesus is raised on the third day as God’s demonstration that love is stronger than death. In the cross and resurrection God-in-Jesus breaks (present tense) the grip of sacred violence as the default of the human heart.

That love is stronger than death – this is our Easter song.

The melodic themes of our Easter song sound through the Sunday readings. Alongside Luke’s historical accounts of communal transformation, the Revelation to John take the form of the recitative:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. I heard a loud voice saying, “See the home of God is among mortals … see I am making all things new”.

Or as Belinda Carlisle sang it:

Ooo, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth. Ooo, heaven is a place on earth.

Our Easter Song opens with Luke’s central melody of community transformation – the words from Revelation augment the main theme with a recitative of divine expectation – before returning to restate Luke’s main theme, but this time in the tonalities of John’s Gospel teaching on love in action.

On Easter V it is Revelation’s recitative of a new heaven and a new earth that I want to focus attention.

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. (Tom) Wright writes about Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of God’s new project – not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

Many Christians today think that resurrection means spiritual life after death. They reason – we don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that because resurrection is an internal spiritual experience that means all of us will go to heaven to live with God when we die.

Disregarding the events at the empty tomb and the physical nature of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances is an invitation to care more about the life to come than the life to be lived. Focused on our destination in heaven we neglect the duty to leave this world in a better state than the one we came into.

Resurrection as an internal, individualized, spiritual experience is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. Pie in the sky when you die may be clever alliteration – where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one – but it is truly, terrible theology. In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise. In other words, it breaks the continuity linking the resurrection of Jesus from God’s ultimate goal – which is the resurrection of the whole of creation.

Through the Hebrew prophets, God continually affirmed the goal for the resurrection project – as it were – which is nothing short of the repair and renewal of the face of the earth. It’s only within the continuity of this promise for the whole creation that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense.

The melodic cadences of Revelation’s recitative boom in our ears:

See! the home of God is among mortals … see I am making all things new”.

Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present. To anticipate the future is to work tirelessly in the present to not simply prepare for the future, but to realize the promise of the future in the present.

Anticipation is fruitless without present time action!

Jesus’ resurrection is not an individualized spiritual experience but a collective and collaborative enterprise of next steps in the real time unfolding of God’s future purpose – our collective realization of God’s dream of a physical renewal of creation in a new heaven and a new earth. Future anticipation requires decisions made and actions taken, now! Our urgent need to slow and reverse the process of the escalating climate catastrophe is the primary imperative of living out in the present time the blueprint for the future hope of a new heaven and a new earth.  In that project we have a vital role to play.

See the home of God is [and will always remain] among mortals!

Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooo, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooo, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooo, heaven is a place on earth.

Our Easter song concludes with a restatement of Luke’s main idea of  the transformation of community. In the tonality and rhythm  of John the Evangelist we hear Jesus’ solo voice ringing clear:

Where I am going you cannot come so I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples.

Remember love is not a sentiment – it’s an action – and Justice is its name.

I am the Good Mother: 2022 Mother’s Day thoughts

Image: Suffer the little children, Lucas Cranach-the-elder

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through our first hearing our mother’s voice.

 

John paints Jesus through the power of visual metaphors – Light of the world, Lamb of God, and throughout his 10th chapter, the Good Shepherd. Through these skillfully drawn word pictures John seeks to etch arresting images of Jesus that stick in our imaginations.  

Throughout chapter 10, John portrays Jesus playing with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to offer images through Jesus of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand. He is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf. He lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

In the last section of Chapter 10 John continues to develop his metaphor of Jesus the Good Shepherd in four key statements.  The key identity statement – I am the Good Shepherd is amplified by four actions – hearing, knowing, following, and giving.

My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life.  

We hear his voice like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but echoing in our minds and beating with the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment – we hear Jesus’ voice as the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2022, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that begs for a reframing of the good shepherd metaphor.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. The life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future. It’s life here, now, and still to come.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through our first hearing our mother’s voice.

Nurture echoes nature – but not always.

Jesus the good shepherd – the image of divine love as the good mother evokes in us the most profound image of the nurturance. We learn to love because we were first, loved. Yet, the process of learning to love through first being loved may encounter many vicissitudes along the way. Many of us enjoy the gift of love and loving because of the indelible memory of first having been loved. Others of us find love and loving to involve a risk – felt to dangerous to take – a lifelong struggle to trust when our experience of early mothering proved untrustworthy.

In a period when as a culture we are struggling to delineate the biological hardwiring of gender from gender identity, something psychologically and culturally softwired and amenable to fluidity and change – it’s important to draw another distinction – that of between birthing and mothering.

In the most usual course of events, being pregnant triggers the instincts of mothering – giving birth ushers woman and infant into the complex and sacred relationship of mothering. We are fortunate if we experienced the nurturance of being loved because the woman who birthed us was also the one who mothered us. Unlike Jesus who is the good (perfect) mother, human mothers only need to be good-enough, not perfect.

The concept of the good enough mother is a psychological one that originated with the great 20th-Century British father of Object Relations – Donald Winnicott. Winnicott combined the rare skills of being both pediatrician and psychoanalyst. By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother-infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough but not perfect, is a reminder for us all that in the arena of love, the quest for the perfect is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and not excessively conditional.

Good-enough mothering teaches us how to love through the experience of being loved. In the usual course of events, good-enough mothering is found in our early experience with our birthing mothers – but not always so. Good-enough mothering is also a human capacity that need not be gender specific to either birthing women or women in general.

I recognize there’s a great deal of complex and highly contested opinion in this arena and I cannot seek to do justice beyond painting in the broadest of brushstrokes. Human beings are resilient and highly adaptive. Early experience of good enough mothering can be provided by a father who stepping out of the usual supportive role for fathers around the birth of a child -enters the sacred space of mother and infant to compensate for post-partum and other emotional difficulties preventing early bonding between a birthing woman and her infant. Although they do not benefit from the hormonal triggers of pregnancy, at birth a man can enter into what Winnicott termed the relationship of primary mother-infant preoccupation. This will necessarily be the case for one of the partners in male same gendered relationships.

Let me restate that human beings are highly resilient and adaptive.

For it is also the case that for some, interruption in the early learning to love through the experience of being loved can be later compensated for in the love of a grandparent or other close relative. Although of a clearly different order, early difficulties can be repaired through the love of a teacher or mentor, through the redeeming love of a spouse or significant other – relationships in which we experience the essential quality of unconditional love.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for good enough mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development.

On Mother’s Day 2022, I’m writing in the days following the leak of a Supreme Court opinion calling for the overturn of 50 years of legal precedent established in Roe vs. Wade. In a recent PBS Newshour interview with the Arkansas Attorney General defending her state’s zero abortion legislation -while fiercely decrying abortion for any reason save that of the medical necessity of saving the mother’s life – note, not an insignificant concession among anti-abortion state officials – she was asked about her state’s child welfare provisions.

Despite her steel magnolia smile honed for the camera, and her peon to the thwarted potential of each unborn life, she struggled to make a convincing defense of child welfare support in Arkansas. Arkansas presents a fairly typical picture of child welfare and family support provision among states seeking to abolish the right to abortion. The KIDS COUNT Date Book of 2021 – is a 50-state source for the most recent childcare information available. Using the key indices of economic well-being, education, health, family and community context, Arkansas ranks 34th,35th, 41st, & 42nd, out of 50, respectively across these indices.

Survey data from the last year add to the story of Arkansas’ children and families in this moment. When viewed through the lens of racial equity an even more dispiriting picture emerges with 39% of Black children and 27% of Hispanic children living in poverty. By comparison, only 16% of Arkansas’ non-Hispanic white children live in poverty.

On Mother’s Day 2022 it has to be asked yet again why those who most loudly extoll the preciousness and unique potential of each unborn life seem on the basis of statistical evidence to care so little about the born lives of the children born into the systemic injustices of racism – children deprived the privileges of the much-touted level playing field of American life?

Jesus said: I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. Even though the life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future – whatever the joys of the life still to come might be, it’s the quality of life in the here and now that should matter most to us – and by which, Jesus makes clear, we shall be judged.

Reflections on Quasimodo (Low) Sunday

Quasimodo derives from the Latin introit "Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite",  by which words  the Church closed the octave of Easter with special reference to the newly baptized neophytes, as well as an allusion to the general transformation through the Resurrection.

Vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt – and also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs. These, like our own Anglican-Episcopal communities are communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah – the Christ. He begins:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them - he showed them his hand and side and said 'Peace be with you'. Then he puffed into them saying 'Receive the Holy Spirit".

It’s not doors with metal locks – but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious – that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body. The post resurrection Jesus embodies a continuity between the divine and the human. From now on being human is to be most like God!

Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff or inflate. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind-spirit of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.

John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe – earning him the epithet doubting Thomas. The epithet tells us something about the Tradition’s ambivalence towards doubt. But Thomas wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.

I think that curiosity is a prime requirement in the spiritual life. There can be no curiosity where there is no doubt. It seems that for Jesus, doubt is not the barrier. The barrier is anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear – for the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

John 20 relates how Jesus’ breathed into the disciples inflating them with his spirit and propelling them onto the pages of the New Testament as a dynamic community. In John, the inbreathing of the Spirit and the resurrection appear to be coterminous. It is Luke who translates this experience into an ordered chronology of sequential events: death-resurrection-ascension-spirit inflation.

The canonical arrangement of the N.T. books place the gospel of John between the gospel of Luke and Luke Acts. It makes some sense to keep all the gospels together. But it breaks the continuity of the Lukan narrative –for Luke’s is a story in two parts. The first part concerns the life and times of Jesus. The second concerns the life and times of the early community that emerges to continue Jesus’ the mission and purpose in the world.

In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we have his vivid firsthand portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus. We are surprised to find that within a short space of time the community emerging from the ragbag band of followers displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is as important as believing. Matt Skinner notes:

Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs. 

There is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction of a transformation in the followers of Jesus into a community imbued with Jesus’ sense of mission and purpose. They are not just motivated by the memory of the man they loved and have now lost. They are now empowered –pneumatically inflated with the breath of his spirit. The memory of love and loss becomes an-every-moment experience of radical transformation. For the first Christians – as Paul’s letters to his fledgling communities corroborate – because the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head, they’ve become charged with an energy to live in a radically new way. Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs.

Matt Skinner further notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so. The key to their solidarity has something – though not everything – to do with their use of money and the reordering of resources.

We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: [that is] distance and boundaries between people.

Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale

It’s worth noting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comment again- that being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

At the heart of the early Christian transformation in shared consciousness lay the radical practice of putting being human at the heart of being Christian. In the Classical World this was a radically new approach to living – one that enabled small communities of relatively poor people to become magnets of attraction. Placing being human at the heart of being Christian triggered a second radical shift in the way these early communities organized themselves to achieve what they saw as their purpose in the world. Resources, i.e., money and access to commodities – were no longer the marks of division between the haves and have nots. They became instead, tools for the fostering of solidarity –of a shared investment in community. The early Christian communities emerge as centers where flourishing flows from mutual interdependence – where individual flourishing depended on everyone flourishing.

From each according to gifts – to each according to needs.

The early Christian picture Luke paints for us – amply corroborated by Paul’s letters to his missionary communities may not be exactly a translatable blueprint for us in 2022. But in the challenges facing us today we see how putting being human at the heart of being Christian – together with a more equitable distribution of resources becomes once more a radical manifesto for living.

In 2022, we face three mammoth challenges: pandemic recovery, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of sacred violence. Does the Easter story still empower our transformation? Are we capable of a transformation in consciousness like that experienced by the first Christian communities? Over the next weeks of the Easter Season – some 50-days in all – though seven have now passed – even if definitive answers continue to elude us – we will explore the implications that flow from asking such questions.

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