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.

The Friday we call Good

Image: Isenheim Altarpiece- Niclaus Hagenau completed by Matthias Grunewald, 1515 commissioned for the infirmary of a local monastery, where patients could be comforted by message that they were not alone in their suffering

Today is the Friday we call good. Good does not mean good as we use the word but great as in significant. This day is a day of such significance for Christians that it warrants the name great. Alternatively, there is some evidence that good is a corruption of God as in God Friday. After all we say to one another good day, which can mean have a great day- as Americans now say or a more ancient form of greeting God be with you.

The liturgies of Holy Week and esp. the service simply known as the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday provide a vehicle – transporting us into the heart of the drama of Jesus last week in Jerusalem. On Good Friday our music is sparse and hauntingly somber as befitting a communal expression of grief and sorrow. Ritual familiarity insulates us in a kind of vicarious dramatic experience. We perform certain rituals and take certain actions dictated by the liturgical protocols of the day as observing participants – watching the action so to speak from the other side of the metaphorical viewing screen – though with livestreaming the screen is often nowadays a literal one. Often the role taken by preachers on Good Friday is to help evoke for the congregation a sense of mood. To encourage those assembled to get into the feelings – to be moved by the pathos of the drama unfolding before us.

Did Jesus feel compelled to journey to his death on the cross? Crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for political agitators who threatened the fragile stability of the imperial order. Therefore, death by crucifixion was a punishment for a particular kind of treason – thus turning Jesus’ death into a political act.

Did Jesus know how his last week in Jerusalem would end? The gospel narratives depict a degree of intention in Jesus’ decision to journey to Jerusalem. He seems to realize the likelihood of his death there. That he thought he would die by crucifixion is less clear. Nevertheless, his intention was firm because he believed himself to be acting within the drama of God’s dream for the world.

In 2022, Good Friday stands-out in stark contrast against the violence that Vladimir Putin has unleashed upon Ukraine. For me, the connection between the Ukrainian tragedy unfolding before us and Jesus’ death on the cross is so strong that I am impelled to go beyond the traditional pathos of Good Friday.

Tonight, I’m compelled to try to communicate the stark realities of courage in the face of a particular kind of imperial violence. Through the lens of Ukrainian courage we see the stark contours of God’s purpose through the death of Jesus on the cross. Imperial violence is always a form of sacred violence – that is the defense of political, cultural or religious values through violence. By the manner of Jesus’ death on the cross – with all its political significance – God demonstrates the nature of courage in the cosmic confrontation with human sacred violence.

There are two kinds of courage. The first is spontaneous courage – we simply react without time to think in the face of a threat either to ourselves or to others. The second kind of courage is deliberative – we have time to review the situation before deciding to act or not act – we have a choice. Jesus’ journey to the cross is the second kind of courage – deliberative courage. He always had a choice not to do so. Once in Jerusalem he had a choice to shape events towards a different outcome. He made the choices he did because through his deep rapport with God – he understood if not the manner – certainly the purpose of his death.

So, what was that purpose? In the example of Jesus, God demonstrates for all of humanity the ultimate victory in the cosmic confrontation with sacred violence. In the example of Jesus, God breaks sacred violence’s spiritual and psychological stranglehold over us.

Sacred violence is as old as humanity. It’s so instinctively programmed in us that we cannot imagine any alternative to its cycles of endless repetition. Violence becomes sacred when we come to believe that through it we are protecting God or some other supposed higher principle like national honor. Our propensity to remake God in our own image knows no bounds. Voltaire quipped that in the beginning God created man in God’s own image and ever since humanity has been returning the favor. Caught in sacred violence’s repetitive grip we are blind to the ironic paradox that it’s our sacred violence that killed Jesus – and continues to strike at the heart of God.

Our propensity to remake God in our own image means it is counter intuitive for us to believe in a God whose victory is through dying – even when the ultimate promise is resurrection.  To break the instinctive grip of sacred violence upon the human heart – Jesus knew that he – as God’s agent – must first demonstrate the victory that comes only through sacrificial death. 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. The Jerusalem Temple lay at the heart of an anxious and fragile Roman peace. It’s only by going to the heart of empire – that the roots of sacred violence as the ruthless projection of unrestrained power- that God, in Jesus, finally and for all time – breaks its power over us.

The nation of Ukraine – personified to an extraordinary degree in their President, Volodymyr Zelenski , is showing the world the nature of deliberative courage. We are transfixed in the headlights of the Ukraine crisis because for us – on Good Friday in 2022 – their refusal to be turned aside from their moral sense of destiny is showing us what sacrificial walking on the way of the cross looks like.

We all hope and pray that the courage of the Ukrainian people to confront the sacred violence being visited upon them will result in their victory – not despite of but because of the enormous material and human costs.  But there is a more important truth. Ukrainian courage and resolve – is a courage that courts a terrible vulnerability – a vulnerability through which they have already won a significant moral victory for humanity whatever the military outcome.

On the cross, God broke the power of sacred violence’s grip on the human heart. Jesus’ death on a cross demonstrates that the repeating cycles of sacred violence are no longer inevitable. The victory of God over death means the choice or refusal of sacred violence is now a matter of deliberative courage. Something to bear in mind as we stand in the shadow of the cross.

Holy Week Snapshots

In my address for Palm Sunday, I offered two metaphors – clashing storylines and snapshots – for thinking about the events of Holy Week and Easter.

Two themes have been running around in my head this Holy Week: the distinction between the holy and the sacred, and does Jesus know as tensions rise how his last week will end? 

The world is a holy place, and God’s holiness pervades every part of it. Human experience of God’s holiness is an enticing and infuriating experience of the numinous.  What is enticing about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed. What’s infuriating about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed – diffusing everything and yet remaining beyond out of our reach to grasp, capture, and control.

Our human response to the tease of the numinous is to create boundaries and name the space within them as sacred. Once created, boundaries need protecting and the sacred space within, policed. The very act of policing requires mechanisms of control and domination. In sacred spaces and places – there are two kinds of persons to be found:  those who police and those who are policed; those who control and those who are controlled.

Thus, the Jerusalem Temple was a sacred place, within which grace and violence formed the two sides of the same coin. In driving the sellers of cheap grace from the Temple, Jesus is clarifying the distinction between two distinct storylines – one sacred and one holy. Jesus must clarify the distinction between them because from the human perspective they are easily and often confused.

Throughout Holy Week, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the storyline of the holy -and in doing so – he presents himself as a danger to those who police and protect the sacred against contamination by the holy.

In the Holy Week snapshot we glimpse three clashing Messiah storylines.

  1. The disciples and those who gathered around Jesus to listen to him. They are still in the Palm Sunday storyline of hope in which Jesus is the Messiah – the long-promised figure of Jewish national liberation.  

2. The Temple authorities inhabit a variation of this storyline – but in this variation hope for the Messiah is replaced by fear of the Messiah. They fear Jesus. If he is the Messiah, then all is about to be lost.T

They fear the loss of their power to police the boundaries of the sacred space. They fear the loss of their political power as the quisling Jewish administration tasked with keeping the people compliant under the Roman occupation.They fear the loss of their economic privilege as a 1st century IRS and Wall Street rolled into one – the Temple, at the center of the complex web of taxation, insider trading, and profiteering.

3. Then there is the storyline of the Messiah as God’s agent.

The question about what did Jesus know or not know i.e., his omniscience, is sparked by a comment of Viktor Frankl’s: if you find a why, you can bear any how.

Does Jesus know how his last week amidst escalating tensions will end?  Of course, the gospel narratives portray him to varying degrees as omniscient – knowing ahead of time what was to happen and moving through events rather like the star actor in a well scripted play – the outcome of which is known by all in advance.

There is a theological rather than a literal purpose for the Evangelists in presenting Jesus this way. Yet, I feel this robs Jesus of his human limitation – for after all, isn’t the point that he is like us? The question is not – did Jesus at this point know the manner by which he would die? But how did Jesus understand his role in the storyline of the holy –i.e., God’s vision for the Messiah?

Jesus knows and has always known that his path is as principal agent in God’s unfolding storyline of a promise made to the whole of creation. This is the storyline that has been guiding and leading him to this week.

In other words, it’s not necessary for Jesus at this point to know the how of the future, only to know the importance of the why the future must flow from his deliberative courage – courage born of choices he has the power to make or not make. Viktor Frankl again: if you find a why, you can bear any how.

Jesus is in the Temple because it’s here and only here – where the final confrontation between the holiness of God and the violence of the sacred must begin!

Please remember in your prayers over the coming days:

The cause of peace – remembering the people of Ukraine. We pray for them as they undergo this terrible national and personal suffering. We remember and give thanks for the example of their courage and resolve in facing down Russian sacred violence. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem – still a symbol of conflict and division.

The plight of all forced to flee from their homes to become strangers in a strange land.

The oppressed peoples of the world. For Russians dreaming of freedom from tyranny – esp. remembering Alexei Navalny; for China’s persecuted minorities; for the peoples of Myanmar, Yemen and Palestine.

For those among us suffering from loneliness and isolation; for the distressed in body, mind, and spirit; for those nearing death, and others facing different kinds of loss.

I look forward to seeing you, preferably in person or otherwise online for the Great Three Days of Easter.

Mark+

Perils of Choosing The Wrong Story

History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes. 
To paraphrase Mark Twain.

As human beings we construct stories to explain the world we experience to ourselves and to one another. This is the way we build meaning and purpose into our lives.

But there are always competing stories to tell – there are always -to use a current slogan -facts and then there are alternative facts.

To add complexity there is also more than one way to tell the same story – again there’s news and then there’s fake news. We construct meaning and purpose into our lives as we make choices between competing clashing and conflicting storylines – each vying for our attention and allegiance.

So, the question is: which stories will we choose? From among a bewildering choice of possibilities which stories matter most to us?

Palm Sunday offers a snapshot of a clash of storylines. Palm Sunday is the beginning of a series of snapshots from Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. On Good Friday we will arrive to stand before the image of a dying man on a cross.

Each Holy Week snapshot is like a prism refracting our associations into countless mirror images of our lives.  The snapshots of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem before his death at a particular turning point of history are also timeless mirrors of the clash of history’s repetitive cycles of sacred violence – a storyline as old as human memory.

From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we experience the repetitive cycles of human inhumanity.

Sacred violence is the violence inflicted to protect a storyline of empire. I’m defining empire as any unrestrained exercise of power in defense of a set of deeply held cultural, political, or religious beliefs. Usually, the motivation to sacred violence drinks from an intoxicating cocktail of all three.

From Rome to Rule Britannia and Europe’s legacy of colonial violence; from the revival of Putin’s dream of the Russian imperium or the legacy of American manifest destiny; history does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Emotionally and spiritually bloodied by our passage before the snapshots of Holy Week’s violence we will eventually arrive at a different story – a new story – a bigger and better story – the unlikely story of Easter. Yet, we’ve some way to travel before arriving here.

In the snapshot of Palm Sunday we witness a clash and confusion of storylines.

The first is a Jewish storyline of national liberation. The waving of palms is a significant echo from the crowd’s Jewish collective memory – a particular echo to an episode in their ancient national story.

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 – which the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes had defiled by placing his statue in the Holy of Holies.

Using palm branches, the Maccabean partisans cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement. On entering the sanctuary, they discovered miraculously the last light of the Menorah still burning – an event Jews, today, commemorate in the festival of Hanukkah.

This more recent Jewish story of national liberation found a powerful amplification in the more ancient story, Israel’s founding story of liberation – the Passover.

Inhabiting the story line of national liberation, the crowds ecstatically welcome Jesus into the city. But they are in the wrong story – as they will quickly discover – resulting in their disillusionment and anger. Jesus may be the Messiah – but his storyline is God’s not theirs.

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another storyline was unfolding as a second 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 much preferred the sea breezes and all mod-cons of Herod the Great’s former coastal capital of 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 swelling the city’s normal population of between 20-30,000 to over 150,000. The stability of Roman imperial rule required Pilate to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force to forestall any potential for insurrection.

Passover was Israel’s founding story of liberation from slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds hailing Jesus’ arrival saw him as the Messiah, but a Messiah from the wrong story. 

In the week leading to the celebration of Passover we see with hindsight the lethal intersection of competing storylines.

There’s the storyline of imperial domination and political violence intersecting with the storyline of populist resistance and longing for national liberation. Both are confronted by a third storyline concerning the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world-through-Israel. This clash of storylines results in a chain of events that takes an unexpected turn – rapidly spiraling out of anyone’s control.

On Good Friday, we will revisit the twin themes of deliberative courage and the confrontation with sacred violence – the violence of empire. But on Palm Sunday, that is still several snapshots along.

History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion – surface in identification with Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal.

As liturgical Christians we journey with Jesus as a community – each liturgical step along the way. Each snapshot is a prism refracting our own individual suffering and our identification with the overwhelming suffering of the wider world .

Liturgy is the transport – conveying 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 events that engulf Jesus and echo across time into our current experience. We are well acquainted with of the world of sacred violence currently unleashed in Ukraine and countless other places.

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

Choosing the right story to explain the world to ourselves is crucial. Choosing the wrong story leads to disillusionment and an impoverishment of hope.

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.

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 courageous 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.

With the disciples, we will accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we too, will fight sleep to keep watch with him through the night and early hours of Friday’s morning.

With the disciples we will follow Jesus on the way of his suffering, for like them – we will long do the courageous thing – until the moment when we we won’t.

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

Fathers and Sons ( Lent IV)

Image: Prodigal Son, Wayne Pascall

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This week we have for the Gospel portion Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Earlier in the week I was breathing a sigh of relief remembering that I had a sermon dating from 2013 on the Prodigal Son. But when I looked back I realized that I was hearing the text very differently from the way I heard it in 2013 when my focus had been more on the narcissism of the younger son. My starting point in 2020 was to reflect on the experience of parenting. Who among us does not know the experience of a wayward child? If that is too strong an expression at least we all know the pain and concerns felt when our children begin to chart courses in life very different from the ones we had anticipated for them – making decisions we would have wished they made differently.

Like all the parables of Jesus that only Luke records, this parable has always been a rich seedbed for profound mischaracterization. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m indebted to the Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Neuchterlein – for his rich insights into this text.

We might begin with what to call this parable? Traditionally referred to as the Parable of The Prodigal Son, it’s as much about the elder son as the younger and is particularly rich in its portrayal of the father. Hence some refer to it as the Parable of the Loving Father, but it could equally be the Parable of the Envious Son.

Imagine, Jesus leaving the Synagogue after a lengthly discussion with the Pharisees following the Shabbat service. As he comes out into the street, he’s mobbed by a crowd who may have been loitering with intent to waylay the teacher outside the synagogue doors. In describing them as tax collectors and sinners, Luke is drawing our attention to the fact that these are the ritually unclean, those excluded from 1st-century Jewish worship. Unable to listen to Jesus debate with the Pharisees – they are eager to hear him, nevertheless. The Pharisees, following Jesus out of the synagogue begin to grumble behind him about the shameful way Jesus is comporting himself with the hoi poloi. Clearly aware of their grumbling Jesus begins to tell everyone a parable.

Parables were stories – the details of which were drawn from the ordinary everyday lives of the storyteller’s audience. They build a tension seemingly towards a familiar conclusion – only to at the last minute dramatically veer off into a completely unanticipated ending. This is the case in this parable. The father’s behavior towards is profligate – the meaning of prodigal – younger son is countercultural and not the conclusion anyone expected.

We can’t know with any certainty what ending the crowd outside the synagogue of Pharisees and sinners expected from this story. But we do know how subsequent interpretations have sought to reduce it to a rather simplistic morality tale about the wages of sin with strong patriarchal themes – namely, sex with prostitutes, disobedience to father and duty. The younger son in following his hedonistic desires comes -predictably – to a sticky end. He is forced to humiliate himself by going back home with his tail between his legs to beg his father’s forgiveness. You can hear the tut tutting down 2000 years of interpretation – be this a lesson for all you rebellious sons.

This rather traditional interpretation designed to support the patriarchal world view has largely remained silent on the elder son’s reactions to his brother’s return. It’s also conflicted on father’s response. The father – having daily pined for his son has kept a continual watch in the hope of his return. In this sense he seems to behave more like a mother than a father – an insight Neuchterlein suggests in one of his sermons on this text.

This parable offends against the patriarchal tradition which emphasizes the virtues of obedience and duty to strict fatherly rule and the honoring the first born over the younger. Thus it does not know what to do with Jesus’ portrayal of elder son – who is outwardly compliant but inwardly deeply contemptuous of his father’s response to his wayward brother’s return. Being dutiful and hard working on the family estate seems to have bred only envious resentment in him. In confronting his father, he refers to his brother, not as my brother but as this son of yours – aptly articulating his anger towards both.

The patriarchal reading of this story is likewise conflicted on how to picture the father – whose indulgent generosity flies in the face of conventional inheritance custom. This is bad enough, but his willingness to take his son back – holding him seemingly unaccountable for his profligate ways smacks of more than a little moral weakness on his part.

Reading this story through the filter of patriarchal relations is only one of the two main ways this parable has been misconstrued.  The other has been to read it through the filter of antisemitism. The father is God. The elder son is the Jews. The younger son the Christians. We can all see where this reading is headed.

If Jesus were standing in this pulpit, orienting himself to our 21st century mindset he might ask us:  so who do you identify with in this story? This is not simply an individual question it also has wider social-relations implication -as in – which identity do we inhabit within the social structures of 21st century American life? As middle-class white folk –dutiful, obedient, hardworking, and schooled in the virtues of delayed gratification, I imagine few of us identify with the headstrong younger son and his deeply countercultural choices – unless we do so secretly – which tells a story in itself.

It’s likely we believe that the prodigal’s decisions have been – to say the least – misguided, but how do we feel about the father’s non-judgmental and seemingly uncritical response to his son’s return? How do we account for his disinterest in holding him to account? He not only fails to call his son to account he throwing caution and financial prudence to the winds – giving completely the wrong signal he rewards him with a lavish party?

Of course, this parable is a story about God, whom Jesus portrays as an noncritical and non-judgmental father – recklessly generous; indiscriminate between worthy and unworthy recipients of his love – always keeping a watchful eye out for his wayward children’s return – and treating such return as the occasion for a celebration of new life.

Yet, I want to draw our attention to the parable’s conclusion. What do you conclude from hearing this story? Whatever you do conclude you will be wrong for this parable has no conclusion – a skillful teaching ploy on Jesus’ part.

The parable operates at two levels. In the setting of its telling – the street outside the synagogue – the Pharisees can be depicted as the sincerely religious; men of real integrity and longing to know and love God more. Yet, their ability to be sincere in their spiritual quest is a product of their privileged social and economic status. In debate with Jesus, they are intrigued but remain cautious for they feel that they have much to lose by the wrong decision. They want to know what the right path is before they commit to following it. Contrastingly, it’s those whose occupation or lack of one excludes them from the promise who have nothing to lose and who seem open to, and excited by, the invitation implicit in this parable.

In the context of our receiving this parable we need to sit with its open-endedness – its lack of firm conclusion.

We don’t know if the elder son did eventually swallow his hurt pride and join the feast – the parable leaves this both unclear and also a possibility for the father’s invitation remains open ended.

Although the parable does not have a clear concluding moral message, it nevertheless has a rub that chafes. The rub is – grace is never free. Oh, it’s offered freely by God and there is no pre qualification required to receive its invitation. The offer is free, the acceptance is costly. As elder son – what would it cost us to relinquish our resentment and go in to the feast? As the younger son – what has it cost us to return home, humiliated?

The younger son knows that the grace of the father’s undying love is costly. Like him, the crowds outside the synagogue know that grace is costly. As the socially marginalized and religiously excluded they’ve already paid its price.

Like the father in this parable, which among us does not know the cost of unconditional, nonjudgmental love? Which among us has not suffered the pain of watching our children chart different life trajectories that inevitably lead to painful and unsuccessful outcomes? We know that like grace, love is not free, it exacts its own cost.

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