Guess who’s coming to dinner

I was raised at the time when families still had a regular pattern of eating together at the kitchen or dining table. Growing up we ate together in the evenings and in my earlier childhood my mother still, kept to the custom of a roast Sunday lunch, although this was something that began to fall by the wayside as my sisters and I grew older. Yet, the experience of family meals forms a significant template in my upbringing.

It was important for my mother that her children had good table manners and knew how to use a knife and fork properly so that we would neither shame her nor ourselves in public.  Recognizing differences in national custom – for instance- in British table etiquette we use both knife and fork together, placing the knife to one side only to invert the fork and transfer it to the right hand for foods that require scooping rather than spearing. But I notice among Americans the knife is only used for cutting and then placed aside to use the fork alone. 

In the lexicon of tongue-in-cheek Episcopalian jokes there’s the one about the rabbi, the RC priest and the Episcopal priest confessing dietary transgressions. The rabbi can’t resist the smell of fried bacon. The RC priest secretly eats meat on Friday. But the Episcopalian confesses having been mortified when he inadvertently found himself using his salad fork while eating his entree.

To this day I can’t resist casting my eye around restaurants to note how oddly some people manipulate their eating utensils. Al and I took on the heavy responsibility of ensuring our granddaughter would know how to avoid public shame at the dinner table. Among many other injunctions was the oft repeated grandfatherly exhortation: Claire, remember spoon to the mouth not mouth to the spoon!

These are the strange associations that come to mind as I hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ behavior at the dinner party of an important Pharisee. Luke reports that

as Jesus was going to the house of a leading Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

It seems that at these dinner parties, Jesus was subjected to close surveillance. As someone who always feels my table manners are under scrutiny, I know the feeling. However, here the close surveillance seems to have been two-way. With a critical eye Jesus was also watching the host and other guests closely – noticing how the dinner party was used as an occasion to reflect and reinforce the inequalities built into wider social values. 

Luke is the writer who gives us the clearest picture of the importance of table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry. For Jesus, eating together was never about the food or the wine – it was not about what you ate, but who you ate with. Who we eat with and who we would not be seen dead eating with, reveals much about our social values. Social values lay at the heart of Paul’s accusation against the Corinthians, among whom the Eucharist had degenerated into an occasion that reinforced factionalism and the importance of wealth and prestige. In 1 Cor 11:21-22 he writes:

So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry, and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

Worship table manners are a distinguishing characteristic of Episcopalian life. For well over 100 years now, the Episcopal Church has tortured itself with its ambivalence to social status. While the church of the privileged struggled hard to expand inclusion and to champion the processes of social and political reform in American society, it nevertheless secretly, and at times not so secretly, re enforced the boundaries of its elite exclusivity. Today, all Episcopal Churches display the sign: The Episcopal Church welcomes you! At one level the message is sincere. At another level there’s an unstated proviso – hidden in the need to make such a bold proclamation in the first place. The Episcopal Church welcomes you –as long as you are one of us.

There’s nothing like complex table manners to communicate social inclusion and reenforce social exclusion. The message is – only those who know the rules of the table will feel comfortable eating together. That the eucharist lies at the heart of Episcopal-Anglican worship of God is one of our strengths.

The complexity of our Eucharistic table manners – the how we celebrate the Eucharist – is another matter entirely. You see the how, dictates the who – meaning, the way we celebrate the Eucharist is not unconnected to who we would rather, or rather not, share it with.

Jesus was welcome to break bread in Pharisee homes. It seems likely that his own religious formation owed much to the network of Pharisee scribes responsible for the education of village boys.

The anti-Pharisee polemic of the gospel writers is indicative of a later worsening of relations between church and synagogue. Therefore, it comes as a surprise for us to learn that at the time of his ministry, Jesus and the Pharisees were natural if at times contentious, allies. Among the competing factions of Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians that contended for power under the Roman occupation – the Pharisees and Jesus broadly shared a religious and political worldview. Jesus was welcome at their tables because – at one level he was almost one of them. He knew the rules of good Pharisee table etiquette. What made the Pharisees nervous however, was that Jesus knowing the rules was as likely to break them as to follow them.

The Talmud saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. Family disagreements are often the fiercest around the dinner table. That Jesus ate with Pharisees and that they welcomed him to their tables reveals that more was shared between them than divided them.

For the Pharisees, table fellowship was a way to maintain ritual-spiritual exclusivity. In a tainted world of secular and political accommodation and compromise, the exclusivity of table fellowship offered a place to share the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. Table fellowship was where they disputed with one another about textual interpretation, and Jesus seems to have entered into this process with gusto.

What aroused Pharisee suspicion of Jesus was that for him, table fellowship expressed the open-ended inclusive invitation at the heart of the kingdom’s coming. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not something to prepare for through guarding one’s spiritual identity as a member of a pure Israel. It was rather an invitation to welcome a wider inclusion. The kingdom’s coming demanded embracing the prophetic dream of God’s inclusion of all-in sundry within the scope of Israel’s salvation.

Despite all they shared, the central point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees revolves around the issues of who’s welcome and who is not. It’s not just who is included and who is not but what are the terms for inclusion? Who will and who will not get an invitation to dinner? This is a universal tension – resurfacing again and again throughout religious history. It remains a tension we are still contending with today.

Jesus’ message to his fellow diners is that humility rather than certainty; a tolerance for diversity rather than a need for uniformity is what should shape our attitudes to table fellowship with one another and with God.

For Jesus, table fellowship is a place where connection is forged, brokenness is healed, and all are invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners.

Jesus encourages us to take our seat at the bottom of the table, where we will find ourselves sitting beside persons who are not like us and whose table manners may well not come up to our standards, but with whom we have the potential to be surprised by the richness of new connection.

We now find ourselves in a society where eating together around the common table with family or friends is an increasingly unfamiliar experience. In a world of fast food instantly consumed on the run as it were – table fellowship withers as eating becomes an individual activity performed while attending to the endlessness of other demands. Despite the many alures of social networking, table fellowship is not among them.

For Christians and especially for Episcopalians, the Eucharist is the primary expression of our need for table fellowship with one another. Luke’s story about Jesus at the dinner party of a notable Pharisee spotlights the issue of who do we eat with and who do we never eat with? To become a community where Eucharistic table fellowship becomes the place where connection is forged, brokenness is healed, and all are invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners, requires more from us than placing a sign outside proclaiming an invitation to dine in the vaguest of terms. For the way we celebrate may be saying more than we care to admit about the who it is we want to invite.

If all of this has your head spinning, then maybe we should return to basics and value what many of us still know how to do best. Before inviting others to Jesus, we should invite them to dinner first.


Image: Tissot- The women with an infirmity of 18 years

In religious tradition and institutions, evil is to be found in the hardening of the human heart which privileges the protection of human power – a universal tendency to resist the continual reshaping by the demands of divine justice and mercy. If there is a judgment to be borne, then it’s that we are all found wanting when faced with the judgement of God’s justice and mercy.

Revisiting the story of the healing of the woman bent double from Luke 13 triggered memory for me. In an episode of the iconic series The West Wing, now alas, a faint whisper from a long-gone age, the issue of capital punishment is explored in the context of a request for a Presidential pardon for a man waiting on death row. Toby Ziegler, who is White House head of communications questions his Rabbi after Shabbat Service during which the Rabbi stated that vengeance is un-Jewish. Toby counters citing the Torah’s prescription of the death penalty for countless offences and infringements of the religious code.

The Rabbi replies that the Torah represented the best teaching in an historical context that saw the death penalty as the ultimate expression of reparation, i.e., sacrifice to God. He goes on to remind Toby of how over the following centuries the Rabbi’s in their commentaries on the Torah texts go to great lengths to confine and restrict the application of the death penalty by redefining reparation in ways that avoided the execution of the offender. Vengeance became un-Jewish – resulting from a deepening – a gradual evolution in Jewish understanding of divine justice.

In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath provoking a hostile response from the synagogue leader who objects to this as an infringement of the Sabbath work prohibition.

Luke 13:10-17 presents an example of Jesus’ embrace of nonviolent protest – in this instance against a religious tradition that is not evolving towards a deeper understanding of divine justice and mercy but rather the opposite – an interpretation of the tradition reflective of a hardening of the human heart. History reveals that if unchallenged religion – designed to be a conduit for divine grace – will inevitably degrade into an instrument for prevailing human interests – the business as usual of worldly oppression and discrimination.

For modern ears it’s easy to hear this episode as just another example of Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal sickness. Luke describes a woman seriously crippled. Yet, crippled is a rather smooth English rendering of Luke’s Greek synkypto – bent togetheras in doubled over. She appears to be suffering from a form of spondylitis known as Marie-Strümpell Disease.

Noticing her, Jesus stops proceedings and addresses her saying you are released from your weakness. Placing his hand on her, she immediately straightens and gives glory to God causing the leader of the synagogue to accuse Jesus of breaking the Law of Moses by performing an act of work on the Sabbath.

Jesus accuses the religious leadership of hypocrisy. Citing the Sabbath exception to feed and water livestock – he argues that if this is allowed out of necessity then:

... ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham who Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?  

For Jesus, the hypocrisy lies in the use religious tradition to imprison and not to liberate – a use of tradition to mask the hardness of the human heart.

The gist of this encounter centers on Jesus’ recognition of the woman’s ailment as satanic binding. According to Jewish understanding of the time illness was either a punishment for sin – illness as moral judgement, or the result of satanic influences – illness as possession. What is significant in this encounter is Jesus’ prompt diagnosis of satanic influence.

This is no ordinary healing – if there is ever such a thing in Jesus’ ministry. His intention here is not to alleviate the woman’s physical suffering but to free her from bondage – an action he proclaims as particularly appropriate on the Sabbath as an action that give glory to God.

From Episcopal pulpits it is unusual – at least these days -to hear mention of Satan and satanic influences. So let me say a little to redress this deficiency.

In The book of Revelation, chapter 12 we read:

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

This passage has fed the gnostic heresy that pictures humanity caught in an epic struggle between good and evil– between God and the Devil. Today this ancient heresy is very much alive and kicking in conservative and nationalist Christian circles. According to this worldview, any misstep on our part runs the risk of tilting the balance between the competing forces of good and evil. The mechanistic imperative to save souls is the only way to tilt the balance back in God’s favor.

Such a viewpoint is a profound denial of the victory of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a willful turning away from the power of the Easter story of victory and hope in favor of an ancient Middle-eastern  story of the unending struggle between good and evil – which is neither Jewish or Christian.

That this heresy of cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and the devil is embraced among conspiracy minded Christians should come as no surprise. However, the imagery of Revelation is clear. Lucifer-Satan is defeated. His fall to earth is a metaphor for evil as something to be found only on earth – rooted in the human heart and enshrined in social systems of control and oppression.

The French philosopher, Rene Girard, states it neatly -Satan exists, [only] because we exist. By this he means that evil is an anthropological – a human, cultural construction, not a cosmic rival to the victory of God.

In religious tradition and institutions, evil is to be found in the hardening of the human heart which privileges the protection of human power – a universal tendency to resist the continual reshaping by the demands of divine justice and mercy. If there is a judgment to be borne, then it’s that we are all found wanting when faced with the judgement of God’s justice and mercy.

Here, we come back to heart of the matter in Luke 13: 10-17 where we find in Jesus’ confrontation with the synagogue leadership a foretaste of both later New Testament and rabbinic traditions that came to understand that it is compassion and mercy not vengeance that lies at the heart of divine justice.

Resistance Costs!

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

Luke 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobin cites the great William Stringfellow who commented:

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

Tobin p125-6

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

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

In so doing, he explained:

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

Tobin p126

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

John Coburn then Dean of ETS later confessed:

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

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

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

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

Luke 12

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hands on the Plow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Methodist Pastor David Barnhart writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Coincidences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Image of —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Remembering

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

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

We continue to mourn events in Uvalde this past week.

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

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

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

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

‘When, Oh Lord, will enough be enough?  

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

When, Oh Lord, will enough be enough?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit History.Com

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.


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.


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.

Blog at

Up ↑