Vine and Branches

I am the vine; you are the branches!

There is an old African saying:

If you want to go fast – go alone; if you want to go far – go together.

In these weeks following Easter we have opened again for in-person worship alongside our continued livestream. We are all experiencing the joy of moving tentatively, yet assuredly forward together – moving into a time when not everything is defined solely by the pandemic. Despite our in-person worship still having some restriction – the biggest of which is still no congregational singing – everyone who has the experience of returning says how good it is to be back!

The experience of pandemic restrictions on our church and social lives has paradoxically expanded our sense of virtual connection. This alone will not be enough. We must rise to the increasing challenge to give an account for why we exist. In a world increasingly moving away from institutional church affiliation this is the most important question of all and will dictate the contours of our future.

As more and more of us return to in-person presence in worship – our livestream worship becomes an additional long range arrow in our quiver. Virtual worship enables participation from those among us who for reasons of age or infirmity, temporary sickness, or other reasons – cannot be physically present in worship.  What it is not, is a permission to stay away from in-person worship!

I see our livestream worship as an outreach channel connecting us with the spiritually curious – whose curiosity about faith might be encouraged through their exposure to our online worship – those who might one day risk the counter cultural action of walking through our red doors for an in-person experience on Sunday morning.

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

Jesus focused on relationships not religion. He certainly had little interest in forming a new religion with an institutional product. Jesus projected his experience of being in relationship with God into the relationships he built with his followers. By extension he taught them how to make their connection to him into relationships with one another.

In the 1st letter of John, Jesus says:

No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.

This is a later echo of Jesus Great Commandment recorded in John’s gospel:

Love one another – by this the world know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

His teaching points to a way of life that seems simple enough! Well at least clear enough though not necessarily simple to live.

Elsewhere, Jesus paints word pictures of what relationship with God looks like through the use of arresting metaphors that draw their power from being taken from every day and the familiar aspects of life. Last week’s gospel portion from John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the good shepherd whose love for the flock has a very intimate and self-sacrificing intensity. In today’s gospel – He continues in John 15 with another powerful metaphor – that of the vine and its branches. This is a metaphor that speaks of the organic life of relationship.

It seems to me that the future of the church in our own century lies in a return to Christian communities defined as vision movements putting core spiritual values into concrete practice. This will require letting go of our investment in church as an institution. I don’t mean we should abandon the institution but allow the nature of our identity and sense of purpose to shift with and not fight against institutional decline. In other words, to take advantage of institutional decline to be freed and renewed by the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

Such a shift in orientation will go to the heart of our evangelism. Is our evangelism aimed at shoring up the flagging membership of the institution, or is our evangelism focused on winning hearts and changing lives? Do we want to revive our flagging enculturated institution – or will we take a new opportunity to put into practice Christ’s counter-cultural message of love – and in the words of St Paul –  give a good account of the faith that is within us?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

Through cracks in the institution of the church –  a new vision movement emerges – inevitably setting in motion the cycle from movement- to institution – to decline in motion once more.

Historically, we find ourselves in the scary but also exciting institutional decline stage of the cycle. As we contemplate the overall cycle of larger decline – at local levels we continue to celebrate signs of vitality. For instance we are moving to celebrate the success of our recent capital campaign. For some, this is a sign of the revival of the institutional St Martin’s fondly remembered. For most of us, we are not so sure. We grope our way forward – somehow sensing that our recent campaign success must be used to transition us into a different kind of future – the contours of which have yet to fully emerge.

I’m a member of a small parish working party that is currently participating in a five-week stewardship seminar series involving a wide range of attendees from across the Episcopal Church. The first question we have been asked to address  why we exist?

Simon Sinek in a video called Getting to the Why, addresses the question: why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, they have proved themselves more innovative than the competition yet like their competitors, they are just computer company, operating in the same business climate and conditions as every other computer company.

Sinek drawing three concentric circles on the board wrote why in the center of the three circles – then how in the middle circle, and finally what in the outermost circle. He noted that every single person in an organization will know what the organization does. Some will know how the organization achieves what it does. But he claims very few will know why the organization does what it does.

By the why – Sinek is referring to purpose not product. What is the cause or belief that explains not only why an organization exists but also the paramount question – why should anyone else care? Most organizations begin at the outer circle and move inwards. They will tell us what they do and maybe how they do it but are silent on why they do it. Making a profit or a product is not a why – it’s a result or a goal. In contrast, innovative and inspired organizations move from the center circle outwards – telling us why they exist before moving onto what they do and how they do it.

Sticking with Apple he gives an example. (If you click on the link here or above – listen from 2:17- 4:02.)

Following Sinek’s approach compare the following two pitches:

We have a beautiful church and an active community. We marry progressive theology to traditional worship. We have fun and do good– want to join us?

and..

Everything we do strives to give an account of the faith within us to become better equipped for the purpose God has for us. We are a community on a journey together in the belief that if you want to go fast journey alone but if you want to go far journey together. We will be greatly strengthened by your presence with us. Will you join us?

Jesus said

I am the vine; my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes and makes it bear more fruit. … I am the vine; you are the branches … because apart from me you can do nothing.

The Good Shepherd

The Lectionary – the texts for Sunday worship revolves on a three-year cycle. This may suggest a tedious repetitiveness. For instance, every three years the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Easter is always the good shepherd passages from John 10. It’s always tempting for the preacher to recycle the sermon preached three, or six, or even nine, years ago. After all, what new insights can be shared that have not been shared before?

The texts may repeat, but each repetition is read – and more importantly – heard within a new context. 2021 is not 2018, nor is it 2015. Changing context brings a dynamic quality of the unexpected to the reading of familiar texts. Words matter. But it’s context that makes them so.

The historical themes of human folly repeat, but they repeat in new contexts. So much of our recent experience of populist authoritarianism forged in the heat of the cultural grievances that accompany the transition between the collapse of the old order and the arrival of the new– is historically familiar because as Mark Twain wryly observed, history does not [exactly] repeat itself, but it [certainly] rhymes.

Coming out of the Trump presidency we continue to live through the repetition of history’s dark old themes of race and religion expressed in the grasping for simplistic and caustic authoritarian responses in the face of complex social change. History rhymes in our current period. Context changes everything! Even the old rhymes and familiar topes now sounding into a new context of global environmental catastrophe.

Our world – the earth our island home – is shifting on its axis. The earth shifting on its axis is not a metaphor, though it is also this. Our planet is now literally shifting on its axis as the effects of human induced glacier and polar ice melt is literally shifting the geographical magnetic points of axis – generally known as the north and south poles.

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote this past week of the marked shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation – a process first noticed in the 1990’s and now rapidly accelerating.

The geographic north and south poles are points at which the axis of rotation intersect the surface of the earth. But these points of intersection are not fixed and changes in the earth’s mass resulting from the redistribution of water in the oceans is causing the axis points to shift.

Increasingly dire consequences – if you forgive the pun – will increasingly flow. The currents that stabilize climate are changing because of both ice melt and the pumping of stored land water which eventually flows into the increasing rise of the oceans. These changes – now irrefutably the consequence of human induced global warming – are having – and will continue to have – multiple knock-on effects.

The recent flurry of international efforts – thankfully ones in which the US has retaken a leadership role – only underscore what climate science has been telling us about the dire impact human induced climate change is now having on the very rotation of the planet.

Texts may be unchanging, but the contexts in which they are read and heard are not. Words may matter, yet it’s the constantly changing contexts into which they sound – that makes them so.

Hearing the words in John 10 in 2021 – we find Jesus speaking about himself as the good shepherd. Amidst the environmental catastrophe now threatening a future of global extinction – how does the good shepherd text now sound to us?

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that in the 21st– century context is easily missed.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

The following comparisons make my point.

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded by John. Cited by B.W. Johnson in his commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891)

Reminiscent of the way birds swarm – wheeling and turning – forming intricate patterns before re-swarming and moving across the sky as one – I watched as down in the valley the placidly grazing sheep began to race here and there – scattering before reforming into a flock moving first this way then that and eventually as on flock up moving up the hill side. I heard their panicked sound as they rushed over the brow of the hill – chased by the incessant barking of the shepherd’s dogs –who like the sheep wheeled and turned in response to his shrill whistles – wheeling around to drive the bleating stragglers back into the flock before diving among them -nipping at their heels in order to drive the sheep forward in response to the shepherds’ commands. The shepherd moved towards the sheep pen gate – opening it so that his dogs could drive the panicked and complaining sheep through the narrow opening into the corralled space of the fenced off holding paddock. With the sheep safely inside, the shepherd mounted his ATV and calling his dogs to follow as he headed off into the dusk. As night settled, the sounds of aggrieved panic among the sheep subsided – as with darkness falling, they settled down for the night.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that we are likely to miss because of the changed sheep husbandry practices of the 21st– century context. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that modern shepherding practices in highly mechanized farming economies should revert to ancient Middle Eastern practice. The point is to reconnect with the spiritual message of Jesus’ shepherd metaphor – that is to connect with the spiritual purpose for which he employs it.

The good shepherd offers us timely images. The first is of the shepherd who calls the sheep to follow him – because like the suckling human infant who instinctively recognizes the mother’s voice – his sheep intimately know and trust his voice. The second metaphor is of sheep being driven forward panicked by fear. The sheep in the modern context know nothing of the shepherd’s voice. If they hear his voice amidst the cacophony of whistled commands and incessant dog bark – it’s the voice of impatiently shouted commands addressed not to them, but to the dogs herding them.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Which metaphor will speak to our experience of God?

Jesus uses the good shepherd metaphor to communicate the intimate nature of relationship with God. The essence of this relationship lies in being attuned to the sound of God’s voice guiding us amidst the challenges we face. The voice we can trust – helping us to distinguish in these challenges the new opportunities that will lead us into a future that is more than a mindless, fear driven repetition of our past.

Recognition means to be able to distinguish the siren voices of the choices born of fear; simplistic short-sighted solutions resulting in the exercise of crude power; siren voices that have never led us anywhere good before. Recognition means the capacity to listen for the timeless sound of God’s voice calling to us through the ancient texts of our scriptures as they sound into new contexts. We learn to tune in – and with trust to follow the familiar voice that God uses to call us to our vocation as Christians in the world.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Nothing has changed. It’s still as true now as it was when Jesus first uttered this teaching.

Jesus offered these words to his followers in anticipation of the chaos and collapse that was coming. Through his death and resurrection – the willingness of the good shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep – God opened a new chapter in the story of salvation. Our lives unfold – equipped for God’s purpose -shaped by this story of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

Although we know its ending, this story is not yet over. We continue to live into its truth that through the good shepherds willingness to lay down his life for his sheep a new future is opened up for us.

The followers of Jesus made it through. Trusting to the sound of God’s voice guiding us to better choices – in the knowledge that through the good shepherd’s willingness to ultimately pay down his life for his sheep – we become the good shepherd husbanding the process of God’s good repair.

Superspreaders of Joy

Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed The Secularization of America noted the latest Gallup poll showing that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this phenomenon. Generational shift – with many millennials and those following rejecting the value system espoused in the Christianity of their parents. The post boomer generations have come to associate Christianity with the Southern Baptist -Evangelical kind of Christianity which they see as simply a religious handmaid for a paranoid, nationalist, political agenda. The polarizing language of them and us that accompanies this paranoid worldview – repels more spiritual seekers than it attracts. One might argue that this may be a case of tossing the evangelical baby out with the otherwise Christian bathwater. However, such argument is neither here-nor-there when we consider that non-Evangelical Christianity is now seen as only so much bathwater.

Douthat notes that the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The members of this section of the population – to which you and I actually belong, do not take kindly to any external judgements being made on the virtues or not of individual choice – delivered from on high by some remote authority. Like the rich young man in Mark’s gospel we seek the answer of salvation only in as much as it does not challenge our own moral self-sufficiency.

Two influences transformed the experience of the followers of Jesus. The first was pneumatic inflation with the Holy Spirit. According to John’s account, Jesus puffed the Holy Spirit into the band of dispirited followers in the upper room, banishing their fear with his peace. The second was material need. A members of a community of relatively poor individuals, living in a hostile religious and political environment, they realized that a radical sharing of resources was the only way they could survive. They clearly found this approach to a common life supported by their memory of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another.

Both these influences led to the transformation of the followers of Jesus from a disconsolate, grieving band into a dynamic and confident community. Their radical approach to living in a new and inspirited way equipped them to use their limited resources to avoid the pitfalls of what usually happens in situations of scarcity – the tendency to division into haves and have-nots. Willie James Jennings, the current professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, sums this all up: We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Jennings here articulates the heart of the millennial critique of privatized – capitalist inspired – religion.

Luke also records the post resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples. The settings and incidental details change but the essential reports of the kind of experience between Jesus and his disciples remain consistent. Yet, Luke hints at a third aspect of the early Christian transformative experience. He tells us that they were overtaken by joy while still in the midst of doubting and questioning.

Shouldn’t joy expel any doubts and questions? It seems that whatever joy is it is not a panacea for doubt.

So, what is joy? In our society we are dedicated  to the pursuit and achievement – if we can – of happiness. After all, doesn’t the constitution guarantee us Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?

In common parlance joy and happiness are used interchangeably. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as: a state of well-being and contentment: joy. It’s my contention that this near universal conflation of happiness and joy causes us endless emotional and spiritual confusion.

Happiness is an emotion – a transitory emotional state – often no sooner felt then lost. Happiness is the fruit of an experience of fortuitous events – something goes well, and we feel happy in response. When the wheel of good fortune turns, happiness is replaced by a multiplicity of opposites: despondency, disaffection, sadness, even depression.

Despite the dictionary definitions – joy is not an emotion or transitory emotional state like happiness. Joy is a spiritual virtue – a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart. Joy is also motivational – propelling – compelling us to choices we might otherwise not risk taking. Joy – persists in the face of the chances and changes – old Prayerbook language for the ups and downs of this mortal life. Joy persists despite the ups and downs in life – because – it’s not a transitory emotional state. Once it enters our lives, along with the companion spiritual virtues of hope and love – joy motivates our future direction of travel.

In trying to tie joy down all I can do is point to an experience of the persistence of joy in my life. Looking back I can trace joy not in the feelings I felt but in the choices I felt compelled to make. It is joy that has sustained someone like me – always doubting, second guessing, questioning – in the Christian faith. But if I can point to one single instance – On the feast of the Falling Asleep of Blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus, August 15th, 2005 our granddaughter Claire Elise was born. This event became a central organizing experience of joy in the middle years of my life.

All grandparents will know what I am talking about here -parents too – but the joy of grandparenthood far surpasses the joys of parental responsibility. I can only say that Claire’s birth marked a serious invasion of joy that in my experience has little comparison.

Claire’s birth set a chain of events in motion -the end result being a major life change. After 30 years of productive professional and fulfilling personal life in London, joy compelled Al and I to risk a major relocation from the UK to the US at a midpoint in our lives. Joy – a spiritual orientation of the heart – a longing for the connections of love in the life of our granddaughter compelled us to leave the familiar and secure and journey into the unknown of a future with no fixed certainties. Joy – the orientation of the heart became the compass setting – pointing towards the future.

The process of migration – a complex process of leaving, arriving, and the ups and downs of settling involved many emotional and material challenges. Al and I came without jobs and few assurances for the future. The risk for me also included the uncertainties of immigrant status. Moments of happiness came – and – just as quickly went.

I believe that the essence of joy’s persistence lies in its nature as an irresistible motivational compulsion that carries us through whatever challenges we might face – the doubts and the questions.

Douthat laments: My anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis is in some senses comparable to the changes facing the early Christian community. Both situations involve a challenge of transformation. How will joy motivate – propel – compel us to be the active agents in the changes we want to see in the world around us? I think this is a question that lies at the heart of the persistence of joy among us.  In this moment of time new directions open up before us – new opportunities which hitherto we considered unrealistic become imaginable possibilities. However, as with hope and love, joy motivates but also compels us to take a risk.

The presence of joy in Christian communities – the source of which lies in the continued presence of the power of the risen Christ among us – makes us magnetic. To be magnetic is to be a community of attraction. I’m not sure many in the 1st-century flocked to the fledgling Christian communities for rational, worldly sensible reasons. I think they were attracted by the joy manifested by these communities.

We face some enormous challenges concerning the future of Christian communities in an ever-secularizing society. As we face the urgent imperative for renewal, we have to stop asking where is our renewal to come from? The source of renewal lies within us – in our ability to show how the faith within us makes a difference in our lives.

The early Church grew by leaps and bounds because people wanted what the first Christians seemed to have had. In a joyless world they became compelled by joy to join risk-taking communities. No one explained joy to them, they just became infected by it.

Douthat notes it is a mistake to focus too much on overt obstacles to people finding what they desperately seek in the Church. There are many barriers for them to overcome first – an important one being the way the Church currently is. Many barriers to active participation in organized communities of faith could as Douthat notes – be partially removed, rolled back a little way. But the rub is something else will still be needed – which he articulates as the impulse, the push, that makes people seek and knock and ask.

What’s required today as the church faces increasingly rapid institutional decline? I’m convinced that the answers – whatever they may be – lie within us as communities inflated with the Holy Spirit and motivated by joy – continually moving beyond happiness into joy – moving through sadness into joy – joy a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart – a motivational – propelling – compelling force that enables us to persist in taking risks despite our endless doubts and fears. How attractive – how infectious might that be for a world hungry for belonging?

After the Pandemic -Transformation?

Contrary to popular assumption and in many cases widespread belief, vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt. – being communities that recognise that the seeds of faith are most often sown in the fields of doubt. Healthy Christian communities also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs – communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

The American religious landscape is dominated by church traditions where doubt is seen as the enemy of faith and where correct believing opens the doors to belonging – where to admit to honest doubt closes the doors to membership.

The Episcopal Church and its Anglican Tradition stand in vital opposition to the prevailing expressions of both conservative and populist Christianity in America. Anglican Tradition and experience has always prioritized belonging over believing. Our experience – in tolerating doubt and prioritizing belonging – reflects the Scriptural accounts of life in the first Christian communities – depictions coming to us through the earliest N.T. accounts of early Christian community.

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 or 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 facts 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.

Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff. 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 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. The epithet doubting Thomas is unfair. He 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.

It seems that for Jesus doubt is no barrier to membership in him. What excludes is not honest doubt but anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear and the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

But it is the pneumatic inflation of the disciples into a dynamic community that is the remarkable discovery from John 20.

In Chapter 4 in Luke’s Acts we have Luke’s second vivid portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus.

We are surprised to find that within a short space of time a community has sprung up from the band of followers which 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 an important as believing.

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

Many preachers have been quick to deduce from Luke’s description of the Jerusalem community – an early blueprint for Christian socialism. The question that is hard to answer is given what we know about human nature did the Jerusalem community really live this way? The next portion of the chapter tells us of Ananias and Sapphira – who sold property but secretly squirrelled away some of the proceeds for their exclusive use – giving us a glimpse that not everyone was able to rise to demand to hold all in common.

But there is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction. For how else could a fledgling community of mostly poor folk survive in the midst of a wider hostile context? It’s also clear that their encounter with the risen Christ’s pneumatic inflation of the Holy Spirit into them was an every moment experience that accounts for their radical transformation of perspective. For them – as Paul’s fledgling communities continually attest – the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head and they are living in a radically new way.

Taking these two factors together leads us to reasonably deduce that koinonia – the common life – where each gives according to their ability and each receives according to their need – resulted from both material necessity and pneumatic empowerment.

That is then, but what about now? Despite the model of early Christian community presenting a continued challenge to us which we ignore at our peril – the point for us lies not in the simplistic demand to adopt early Christian or even later Christian socialist koinonia as a blueprint for our communal life. The question is more how might this power for transformation inherent in gospel-shaped lives bear witness among us?

Matt Skinner 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.

Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale, knocks the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of Luke’s depiction of the Jerusalem community he notes that

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

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis in a way that is in some sense comparable to the early Christian experience of the post resurrection Christ – we are in a moment of time when new directions open up – directions hitherto considered as only unrealistic possibilities.

The long-term learning from the pandemic – galvanized by our current experience of imposed isolation and social distancing – offers us a renewed vision of Christian belonging – We have an urgent opportunity to creatively process our guilt as those relatively unscathed who nevertheless cannot sit unchanged in the face of nakedly exposed fault lines that maintain injustice and gross inequality.

The community Luke depicts may not be exactly a workable blueprint for us, but it might be a visionary encouragement for new directions of travel as we commit to using our resources and privilege to destroy what resources and privilege usually create – impediments to belonging and believing together.

On the Friday we call Good

Cover picture: The Way of the Cross, Sadao Watanabe

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Rose, Bette Midler

Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere bystanders – spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.

It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has set for him – seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he has the comfort of knowing ahead of time how things will end – or that’s the way we like to view him.

But we must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants with Jesus in his Passion. This requires us to choose a different focus – viewing him through a different lens.

We need Jesus to be more like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our lives unscathed. Walking with Jesus on the Via Dolorosa – his road of sorrows – we need to reconnect with the pain of our own losses and sorrows. When we do so – we do not imagine ourselves to be heroes, somehow valiantly marching on – unscathed. We do not imagine our own suffering to be heroic. Suffering is only heroic when it is viewed from outside – through the lens of the onlooker.

Our commonality with Jesus – is that like him – we too know sorrow and are acquainted with grief. He treads his road, a road he nevertheless chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.

As onlookers of his Passion – what do we feel? Maybe admiration for someone who has more courage than we; maybe gratitude – as if his suffering has relieved us of the necessity of ours. If this is all, then we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love. Jesus is no noble victim – coerced into sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. Jesus chooses to tread not the road of suffering but the road of God’s transforming love.

The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken, –  who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live …

Entering into the way of love leads us to more than a new perspective on our own suffering. Entering into the way of love leads us to a new perspective on the world’s suffering. When we enter into solidarity with the suffering of others – those near us – our neighbors, our family and friends; when we feel a connection with the suffering of those far from us – unseen by us except through the screens of our TV’s or online – we cannot remain unmoved by the necessity of love. For us as a community, the way of love means uncovering and facing-down the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and our collective memory. It means risking loving and taking hurt’s risk.

Entering upon the way of love – above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of seeing – transformed by a new way of being, one step at a time –  transformed from timid and grateful onlookers – into willing collaborators with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.

From mere spectators to active participants with Jesus on the road to the cross is a movement through belonging-into-believing; a movement from fear-into-loving – from protected isolation into being loved.

This is not a hero’s path.  Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On the  Friday we call Good, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but by the necessity to love – for God – the impossibility is of not loving enough!

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

The Rose, Bette Midler

The Clash of Storylines

For a perspective on the events beginning on Palm Sunday I can do no better than to paraphrase Mark Twain: History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Travelling from the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary at Bethany – a stone’s throw from the city – Jesus enters Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates as a dangerous rumor takes hold among the pilgrims and citizens overcrowding the city. The crowds are awaiting his arrival with dangerous anticipation.

Jesus could slip unnoticed into the city. Instead, he is choosing to announce his arrival in a tableau – a vivid and dramatic reenactment from the prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O Daughter of Jerusalem behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 9:9

Surely this is a dangerous play – feeding into the growing ecstatic expectations among those carpeting his way with palm fronds stripped from the date palm groves surrounding the city.

The waving of palms is a significant echo in the crowd’s Jewish collective memory – a particular echo that tells us most about their expectations. For some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple – defiled by the statue that the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes had placed of himself in the Holy of Holies. Using palm branches, the Maccabean partisans cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement – an event Jews, today, commemorate in the festival of Hanukkah.

A question remains for us however. Is it not curious that Jesus seems to play into the false expectations the crowds have of him as a latter day Judas Maccabeus – a liberator king come finally to lead an overthrow of the hated Roman occupation? Continuing in the mold of Judas, Jesus’ first action after entry to the Holy City will be to cleanse the Temple of the forces of exploitation – those who motivated by greed exploited the necessity of the people – an action of Temple rededication – no longer a den of robbers but restored as the house of God.

The question remains unanswered. Jesus’ consistent stance on his own messiahship has been to play down conventional Jewish expectations – and in the end – only a week away at this stage – to dramatically frustrate and disappoint the crowds who like modern fickle voters inflict their disappointment on him with a vengeance.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem – preferring the sea breezes and all mod-con conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima, now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea. Pilate loathed and feared Jerusalem’s ancient rabbit warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. He most feared the pilgrim throng crowding into the city for the Passover- which required him to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

For Passover was Israel’s collective memory of liberation from an earlier period of slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus’ arrival were in insurrection mood.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. This is a week in which conflicting narratives or storylines intersect and clash with alarming result.

  1. There’s the storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersecting with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing.
  2. Both are confronted by the storyline concerning the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world-through-Israel.

This clash of storylines leads events take an unexpected turn – and rapidly spiral out of control.

Things come to a head  on the eve of the Passover (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples graphically demonstrates the kind of messiah God, not the people, hs in mind.  Turning hierarchy on its head he washes his disciples’ feet. Taking the Passover bread and wine he associates them with his body and blood – soon to be broken and poured out. He leaves them with his simple mandate – maundy in Middle English: love one another as I have loved you; by this shall all know that you are my disciples.  Jesus’ kind of love has consequences: arrest, show trial, and crucifixion – the actions of a loving God’s costly confrontation with a sinful world.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion – surfaces in identification with that of Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. After the shutdowns of 2020 this year we are relieved to return once again – if somewhat piecemeal – to an experience of Holy Week and Easter as a communal celebration.

For we journey with Jesus as a community journeying to the cross – bearing within us not only our own individual maladies and sufferings but the overwhelming maladies and sufferings of the world around us. Liturgy is the form this journey takes. Liturgy is the transport – taking us together through sacred time. In sacred time – where there is no past and no future only the eternal now – we move beyond memory, becoming in present time – participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, – he or she no longer is.

We long to do the brave thing – until that is, the moment when we don’t.

In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week.

With the disciples, we will share in the breaking of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup – actions that constitute us a community that ministers to the world.

With the disciples, we will accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we too will fight sleep to keep watch with him.

With the disciples we will follow Jesus on the way of his suffering and we will long do the brave thing – until the moment when we won’t.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

History’s associations trigger memory in real time – uncannily echoing within our contemporary tensions. You see, human beings don’t change much.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior – until that is, he or she no longer is. We long to do the brave thing – until that is, the moment when we don’t.

Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.

Problematic Questions

On the 5th Sunday of Lent, we begin a period known as Passiontide. Passiontide prepares us to move into Holy Week, which for us will begin next Saturday afternoon with an outdoor celebration of the Liturgy of the Palms followed by a livestream celebration on Palm Sunday.

This year we enter this more solemn season troubled by increasing societal division – marked in particular this last week by another shooting atrocity. If any shooting atrocity is not bad enough, this week we have been reminded again of the violence of an emboldened white, male supremacy, which in addition to its traditional targets of blacks and Jews – fanned by the former President’s reckless and mendacious racial tagging of the Coronavirus has over this last year become increasingly focused against the Asian American community.  

The recent shootings across Atlanta should also focus our attention on the sex industry and the vulnerability of the many women of color and in particular of Asian ethnicity who predominate in this industry. Race and anti racism is once more on the national agenda. White supremacist violence and the creed of white supremacy is now something that approaches a national law and order crisis in the face of homegrown terrorism threats. We see a nationwide legislative advocacy of voter suppression bills that have been recently described as Jim Crow in suits. We have witnessed a sharp increase in anti semitic rhetoric and threats against Jews and Jewish property. This is the national atmosphere as we approach Easter 2021.

Holy Week and Easter each year raise an uncomfortable question for Christians – to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

To what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western Anti-semitism?

It’s important to distinguish this question from another question often asked: are the Evangelists – the writers of the gospels, anti semitic? These are two different questions and have two different answers. Within the context of the 1st-century, the gospel drumbeat of the Jews, the Jews as the catchall phrase identifying the opposition to Jesus can be best understood as expressing a quarrel between two emerging Jewish movements following the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

The gospel writers were Jews themselves, writing for mixed Jewish and increasingly Jewish-Gentile communities – who as followers of Jesus had been expelled from an equally young and still emerging Rabbinical Judaism. The gospels express a resentment that is a typical Jewish resentment against an opposing Jewish faction. Church and synagogue now face each other on opposite sides of the street – each with competing versions of Israel’s story.

The roots of antisemitism do not lie here but in the later emergence among Christians of the belief that in Christ God had rejected the covenant with Old Israel in favor of the new covenant with the Church as a New Israel. Despite Paul’s vehement rejection of this idea, this belief nonetheless took root and down the centuries grew into the doctrine of supercessionalism o replacement theology. I believe the roots of Western antisemitism can be found in this later development of supercessionalism or replacement theology and not in the attitudes of the gospel authors. Once launched, antisemitism has found any number of historical narratives of envy and resentment quite unrelated to erroneous Christian theology.

In the 20th-century, mainstream Protestant Churches together with the Roman Catholic Church emphatically rejected supercessionalism. Current Church teaching affirms St. Paul’s teaching. As the earliest Christian writer Paul taught that Christians were not subject to the Jewish law but that God nevertheless remained faithful to the covenant he had made with Israel.

Today’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah on the fifth Sunday in Lent throws and interesting light on the question to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

In the 31st chapter of the prophet Jeremiah he proclaims:

The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt.
   “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.

These beautiful words are uttered against a background of national disaster. Jeremiah is speaking in the immediate crisis of 586-7 following the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to captivity in Babylon. In response to this catastrophe, he offers words of comfort – prophesying an eventual restoration after a period of suffering. So far so good. However, the startling significance in Jeremiah’s prophecy lies not in the promise of return and restoration but in the way he is signaling the emergence of a profound shift in the psychology that would eventually underpin Jewish religious life.

The promise of a new covenant marks a turning point in the spiritual development from religion as a set of external laws to be communally obeyed and collectively observed to religion as a matter of the individual heart – focused on internal intention and loving acceptance within each individual. This development signals an emergence within Jewish understanding of a relationship with God as a mutual knowing that directly paves the way for the eventual arrival of a messiah whose primary focus of teaching will emphasize a personal response of the heart to God -experienced not as a demand to obey but as a call to love.

The first followers of Jesus heard Jeremiah’s words as a direct reference to the spiritual revolution that was reshaping their religious lives. Through our more accurate historical perspective, we know that Jeremiah was not speaking of the coming of Jesus as Messiah but of a shift in Jewish understanding about what relationship with God involved. Henceforth, Torah would cease to be simply a system of laws and duties and would become an internal guide to shaping religious observance as a matter of a heart-felt personal experience of God.

The first Christians, viewing Jeremiah through the Jesus lens understandably saw themselves as the people of the promised new covenant – and of course they were. But the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks was a process that emerged from within Jewish religious consciousness prior to Jesus. Jeremiah’s words signaled a shift in Jewish religious consciousness as a prerequisite for Jesus- and without which the coming of a messiah like Jesus could not have happened.

Personally I would like us to replace the reference to the Jews in the passion narratives. When referring to a large body of Jews we should say the people. When referring to the religious authorities prosecuting Jesus why not simply name them as the authorities.

We enter Passiontide in 2021, particularly aware of the nature of so much suffering in the world around us, yet also mindful of the power of faith, hope, and love to lead us through darkness into light. As Christians we live beneath the shadow of the cross. In the shadow of the cross, we find ourselves wriggling, often feeling daunted and overwhelmed by the scale of the work God calls us to – a work of naming and rendering evil homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time. We are empowered in this task because in the shadow of the cross we also discover it a place of homeopathic transformation – where evil and death are transformed by love into new life.

May our celebration of Holy Week and Easter this year be illumined by the realization that without the psychological shift in Jewish religious consciousness that Jeremiah proclaims to the exiles in Babylon, God’s entry into human history in the life of Jesus; God’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and his raising Jesus from the dead; these mighty acts in human history might have been further delayed.

Resetting the Discipleship Compass

Mark 8:31-38

If faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins.

I struggle with this text from Mark 8. Feeling stumped over several days, out of curiosity I looked back on how I addressed this text in 2015.

Then, I avoided my current struggle by writing on verse 35 –For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. Back then I wrote somewhat eloquently, if I do say so myself, on the psychological distinction between soul and persona; between living from the expansiveness of our soul which bears the imprint of the divine dream upon us – in contrast to lives dominated by our small individual personal stories constructed from neuronal misfiring of memory.

But times change. 2021 is not 2015. To repeat my 2015 message in 2021 feels to me like an intellectual luxury none of us can currently afford. 2021 asks a different question of Mark’s text – question much closer to the ones Mark wanted his readers to hear.

In 2021 I have to ask – is there anything remotely honest to say to a community like ours in the face of Jesus’ words predicting his passion and death?

Can there be anything more comfortable, more smug than being middleclass Episcopalians? Ours is a Christianity that exacts of us little if any cost at all. Our sense of discipleship – if we even think in these terms – meshes seamlessly with – and offers little challenge to the prevailing materialist worldview of our society.

I could stand here and expound on the costs of discipleship as Mark shows Jesus beginning to explain to the disciples. But by what authority would I do so? My fear is by the authority all hypocrites claim – to be holier than thou.

When it comes to following Jesus on the road of his passion – we are milk toast disciples at best. It’s not that we lack conviction, it’s that our convictions mostly come at no cost to us. That like the disciples as Mark depicts them – we think we can say yes to Jesus but dictate our own terms and reset the direction of travel for our discipleship’s direction.

Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

In 2021 I feel compelled to address the bruising encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

To fully appreciate the searing impact of the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter we need to go back to verse 27 where Mark reports that Jesus on his way to Caesarea Philippi asked his disciples about what people were saying about him? Reporting the general gossip – the disciples tell him: Well Rabbi, some say this, and some say that. To which Jesus asks: But you – who do you say I am? His question provokes Simon Peter to declare: We know who you are, you are the Messiah! But giving the correct answer doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what that answer means.

Today’s text picks up at verse 31 with: Then he began to teach them —. What Jesus has to teach them is not what they want to hear. Simon Peter – from his culturally conditioned misunderstanding of messiahship speaks up and taking Jesus aside rebukes him with what I imagine probably went like this: What on earth are you talking about, Jesus. What nonsense are you spouting about suffering and death. You are the Messiah – the great king sent by God to get us out of this mess of Roman occupation and restore us to our status of a great and free nation. So, let’s hear no more of this defeatist nonsense about suffering and death. Can’t you see the undermining effect on morale you’re having on the others when you speak like this?

Jesus’ response could not have been stronger. He fixes Simon with a steely gaze and with a heart stopping authority commands: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Flashback to Jesus experience in the wilderness. During his 40 days in the wilderness, faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not provide the satiation for the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice is not the fruit of omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus reaffirms his humanity. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his time in the wilderness – a kind of messiah confirmation hearing by rejecting human desire for mastery and acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

In the wilderness, Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptations by calling out the all too human desire for self-protection through the possession and exercise of power. Now, as he tries to open the disciples’ minds to the cost of discipleship he’s confronted by Satan – this time insinuating with the face and voice of Simon Peter.

Is there anything remotely honest to say in a community like ours about our response in the face of Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death? Like Simon Peter, these are not words we want to hear. But unlike Peter we don’t even have the courage to protest. We just tune out – preferring to think the choice is ours whether or not to follow along with Jesus on our own terms and with no cost to us.

Our temptations tend to come cloaked in very ordinary disguise. We enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to face down our temptations through bringing a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger feeding a legion of envious resentments and grievances. In some instances, the acknowledgment of sorrow demands of us a spirit of repentance for intensions and actions that have hurt others. But there again, it might require what is even more difficult – the offering of forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

All of this is costly enough on the personal and interpersonal level. But what about our connivance with benefiting from the evils of a society in which we still continue to deny that racism, gender identity oppression, sexual identity persecution, not to mention the really big ones – of pandemic and environmental injustice from which all social injustices flow and become magnified – have anything to do with us. Oh, we decry these evils, but are we willing to pay the cost of doing something about them?

What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs?

What will it cost us to be agents with God in the healing of the world? This is Jesus’ 21st century discipleship question. What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs.

My message is not entirely a counsel of despair with a focus on the cost of discipleship along the road of suffering and death. Living on the far side of the resurrection we know that the discipleship path opens us to undreamed fruitfulness of living. But if faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins. It’s from here we reset our compass needle towards the resurrection.

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