The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17

Large crowds were coming out to hear John preach and to be baptized by him.  His preaching was pretty pointed.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and he publicly rebuked Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife.  His fiery preaching was probably one of the things that drew the crowds—that and the fact that he dressed and lived like a wild man of the desert, but the main attraction was clearly the baptisms.  Matthew says “the women and men of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the whole region of the Jordan, and they were baptized in the river Jordan by him, confessing their sins.”

It never really struck me before, but all these people going down to the river?  It’s  kind of remarkable.  What was it that made them feel a need to go out to the wild man at the river to confess their sins and be baptized?  Something made them all feel that they needed to clean house and have a fresh start.  I think we’ve all known that feeling at one time or another.

Their religious institutions with sin offerings and a Day of Atonement apparently didn’t seem to offer enough relief for the sense of not-rightness were feeling.  Watching a priest slaughter a poor animal on their behalf or send one wandering out into the wilderness didn’t give them the catharsis they were craving.  They wanted an experience that told them body and soul that they were washed clean inside and out—that their sins were forgiven and it was a new day. So they came to the wild man at the river.  It seemed like the right thing to do.

There is something deeply, powerful and symbolic about going into the water, whether it’s a baptistry, a swimming pool, the ocean, a lake, a river or stream—or even just the shower or bathtub.  It speaks to the body, mind, and soul all at once.  That’s what all those people coming to John at the Jordan were looking for—something that spoke to them body and soul.  They wanted that deeply personal, powerful feeling of being washed clean and made new, and at the same time a feeling of being part of a community of others who had the same experience.  

John made it clear that his was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And that raises a question: why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?  He didn’t need to repent of anything.  In Matthew’s telling of the story, John, himself recognized this and said to Jesus, “I can’t baptize you!  You should be baptizing me!”  

Jesus tells John, “Let it go now; for this way is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Basically, he tells John it’s the right thing to do.  But what does he mean by that?  Why is it the right thing to do?

Could it be that Jesus came to be baptized not because he needed something from the baptism, but because he wanted to give something?  

In his baptism, Jesus gives a gift of affirmation.  When he enters the water of the Jordan, he affirms the ministry of John.  He affirms the power and importance of confession.  He affirms the power of forgiveness, redemption and renewal.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms all those others who have come to John for a new start.  He acknowledges that he is one of them—one of us—and that he will do whatever is right and necessary so that they—and we—have no doubts about him being one of us.  He declares his solidarity with them, with us, with all humanity.  He inaugurates a fresh start for all of us.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms the goodness of water—the waters of the Jordan and all the waters of the earth.  He affirms creation, itself.  When he immerses himself in the water he is acknowledging the God-made goodness of the created, material world and showing us, if we have eyes to see it, that God is deeply present, immersed in this creation.

When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, he was immersing himself into all the beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into both the astonishing meanness and surprising generosity of humanity.  He immersed himself into all the joys and sorrows of daily life with all its battles and triumphs and defeats. He immersed himself in life as we experience it.  And so doing, he blessed it and affirmed it.

At the Jordan, Jesus affirmed the goodness and sacredness of all that God has made.  And that includes you…and me.  When he immersed himself in our world, our lives, Jesus affirmed that those words, “This is my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased” were spoken for us, too.

When Jesus immersed himself in the Jordan, he affirmed the power of grace and the bravery of new beginnings.  He affirmed our desire to turn things around and make things new when it’s the right thing to do.

We forget sometimes that this is exactly what Jesus has called us to do.  We forget that in our baptism the Holy Spirit has given us the power to  turn things around and make things new.  We forget sometimes that with a word we can bring the light of Christ to the bleakest places and situations.  

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love tells a story about someone who did exactly that on a cross-town bus during rush hour.  

“Some years ago,” she writes, “I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.

“But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. ‘Folks,’ he said, ‘I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water.’

“It was as if a spell had lifted,” wrote Gilbert. “Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?

“Oh, he was serious.

“At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.”

Gilbert goes on to say this: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.

“But what if you are the light? What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?  That’s what this bus driver taught me, that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.

“When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, ‘What can I do, right now, to be the light?’ Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. 

“No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”[1]

When John asked Jesus why he wanted to be baptized, Jesus replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  It was the right thing to do to remind us that by our actions we do have influence on each other. It was the right thing to do to show us that he was calling us to immerse ourselves in each other’s lives and in the life of the world.  It was the right thing to do to show his compassion for us, to show that he understands that sometimes we all need to take our troubles down into the water and let them be swept away.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we are constantly refreshed and renewed so that we can shine as children of the light, created in the image and likeness of God.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we can illuminate the world “one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”

[1] Elizabet Gilbert, posted by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Painting: Baptism of Christ by Vladimir Zagitov

God Gets Physical

John 1:1-14

This past week, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope, a remarkable remote observatory that will travel 1.5 million kilometers, about 3.9 times the distance to the moon, before it parks itself in a Lagrange point—a kind of neutral zone in the tug-of-war between the sun’s gravitational pull and Earth’s gravitational pull.  There it will unfurl its highly polished mirrors made of gold-plated beryllium, and begin to stare deep into space—deeper than we have ever seen before with any other instrument.  As it peers into the depths of space it will also be looking back in time because the light it sees was generated billions of years ago.  It will be able to see celestial events that happened before the earth was formed.

The astrophysicists, astronomers, and engineers who designed and programmed the Webb Space Telescope have given it four primary missions:

  • to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that were formed in the universe after the Big Bang;
  • to study the formation and evolution of galaxies;
  • to study the formation of stars and planetary systems;
  • to study other planetary systems to see if they can tell us anything about the origins of life.

The writer of the Gospel of John didn’t have a telescope, but in a poetic way John did have a clear view of the beginning of all things.  In the beginning was the logos he said.  The Word.  The Blueprint.  The Narrative.  The Story.  The Content.  The logos was with God.  The logos was God.  All things came into being through the logos, and not one thing that came into existence came into existence except through the logos.  

Here in the prologue of John’s gospel, the logos is another term for Christ.  John is telling us about the Cosmic Christ who existed before all things, who is present in, with and under all things because all things came into being through the Christ.  Christ, the logos, is that aspect of the Divine Presence where Spirit intersects with matter.  Christ is in those distant stars and galaxies that the Webb telescope will show us.  Christ is in the giant nebulae and dust pillars that Hubble has shown us, those columns of interstellar dust and gas where stars are born.  Christ is in the quasars and pulsars, the black holes and gravitational waves and dark matter.

But Christ, the logos, is not just in the macrocosm. Christ is also in the microcosm.  Christ is in the strings of string theory.  Christ is in the strange interactions of quantum mechanics where quite literally anything and everything is a possibility.  Christ is in the anomalies of quantum flux. 

The writer of John goes on to tell us that Christ was not only in the inorganic dance of chemistry and physics, but that through the logos, through Christ, life came into being. Through Christ nitrogen and hydrogen and carbon and oxygen came together to form amino acids.  Through Christ amino acids formed long chain proteins which then formed protein blocks which then evolved into single-celled organisms.  Through Christ single-celled organisms bonded to form symbiotic colonies which then evolved to become multi-celled organisms.  Through Christ life began to take on more and more diverse forms.  Plants, ants, beetles, fish, mice, dinosaurs, cats and dogs, monkeys, apes, humans.  

John tells us that Christ was the origin of life.  In the logos was life, and that life is the light of all humanity.  I suspect that’s because humanity not only lives life, but we also seek to understand it.  

In an age when we have figured out so much about the essential structure of things in physics and the intricate functions of things in biology, an age when we have delved deep into the geology of our own world and have begun to poke into crust of other planets, it’s tempting to think we can explain esoteric things like existence without God in the equation.  But one of the beauties of real science is that the more we learn, the more we realize there is so much more that we don’t know.  Those who dive deepest soon realize there is no bottom, no stopping point, because they have thrown themselves into the mystery of existence.  As Werner Heisenberg said, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” 

The word Christ, Christos, means anointed.  John is telling us that through the logos,through Christ, all of creation is anointed with, infused with the presence of God.  As Saint Paul said, God is never far from us because “in him we live and move and have our being.”[1]  Saint Patrick understood this intimate and inescapable presence of Christ when he prayed: 

“Christ with me, Christ before me, 

Christ behind me, Christ in me, 

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, 
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, 
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, 
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, 
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, 
Christ in the eye that sees me, 
Christ in the ear that hears me.”[2] 

Then entire physical universe is where God hides…but it’s also where God is revealed.  God is not “up there” somewhere—well, not only “up there”—God is right here.  Christ is in you.  Christ is in me.  That is what Jesus, the Christ is all about.  Jesus came to show us that God is with us.  In us. Working through us.  “We spend so much time trying to get “up there,” says Richard Rohr, “we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come “down here.” So much of our worship and religious effort is the spiritual equivalent of trying to go up what has become the down escalator.”[3]

Once we really accept the idea that through Christ God is present in all of creation, the world becomes “home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply.”[4]  The Webb Space Telescope will be looking deeply. It may even be able to see as far as the dawn of creation. There’s no telling what we will learn.  But whatever it shows us, it will simply be telling us more about Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.

[1] Acts 17:28

[2] Prayer of St. Patrick, 5th century

[3] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe

[4] Ibid. 

What’s in a Name?

What’s In A Name?

Matthew 1:18-25

In Act II, scene II of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is on the balcony lamenting the long-running feud between her family, the Capulets, and Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  Some ancient grudge that no one remembers keeps the two families at each other’s throats.  If you are born a Montague, any Capulet is your enemy.  And vice versa.  Their names are at war.  So Juliet, mooning over Romeo, protests to the night air:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague?  it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man.  O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

In one sense, of course, Juliet is absolutely right.  If you took away their warring surnames they would still be basically the same people—a couple of infatuated adolescents making bad decisions.  

In another sense, though, she’s absolutely wrong.  A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but its name has power.  If I ask you to imagine a flower, you might imagine a daisy or a carnation or any number of other flowers.  But if I ask you to imagine a rose, you will not only see a rose in your mind’s eye, you might even smell its fragrance.  Names have power.

Do you have a nickname?  Most of the time—certainly not always—but most of the time we’re kind of fond of our nicknames.  A good nickname is a kind of gift.  You can’t make up your own nickname.  You really can’t even ask for one.  Nicknames just sort of happen, organically, or spontaneously.  One day friends or family just start calling you Goober or Dobie or Winkie or Duke and it just sort of sticks.

Nicknames are often descriptive in some way or have a story behind them.  And very often the use of that nickname is reserved for a certain circle of people.

My sister has a nickname.  It’s the name we in the family have always called her, in fact I sometimes have to think twice to remember her actual name.  All her close friends from high school and college know her by that nickname, but everybody else just knows her given name.  Her business name.  A couple of weeks ago she was Facetiming with her best friend from high school and one of her work colleagues overheard her friend call my sister by her nickname.  The colleague said, “Oh!  That’s a great nickname!  I’m going to call you that from now on.”   This left my sister in a quandary.  On the one hand, she likes this colleague well enough, but on the other hand, she’s not “that kind of friend.”  She’s not part of the circle that uses that name.  That nickname belongs to a particular group of people from a particular time in her life.  That nickname belongs to family and certain long-standing friendships that are almost family.

Names don’t just label us as individuals, they can also socially locate us.  They carry context.  My dad, for instance, was known to everyone in his work life and social life as John or J.B.  But his brothers and sisters and all his nieces and nephews called him Norman or Uncle Norman.  He was always known by his middle among family and among all the people who lived in rural area of the Ozarks where he grew up.  But the military and the government and the business world don’t make allowances for people who are known by their middle names.  All the standard forms that you have to fill out at one time or another ask for first name and middle initial.  Those forms essentially renamed my dad.  In doing so, they not only changed his official identity, they changed his self-understanding.

The names people use for us can shape us.  They say something about how we relate to each other, about who we are and what we do in the world.   My wife’s students call her Dr. B.  Her grandsons call her Nani.  Same person, different roles, different contexts.  

Titles are something like nicknames.  If I talk about Professor Studious or Doctor Pokenprobe or Senator Foghorn or Judge Fairheart,  for instance, their titles immediately tell you something about them.  If nothing else, you know something about their role and function in society.  It’s interesting that both officially and in common practice, the title becomes attached to the name and can even function as the name.   

Messiah is a title.  So is Christ—and let’s be clear, Christ is not Jesus’ last name.  Originally Messiah and Christ meant the same thing.  Anointed.  Messiah is Hebrew and Christ is Greek.  

Some of the oldest Greek manuscripts of Mathew 1:18 read, “This is how the birth of Messiah happened…”  These older manuscripts don’t include the name of Jesus at this point, but everyone understood that Jesus is who the writer was talking about.  Ever since Peter’s confession, those who followed Jesus knew him as Messiah or Christ.  The Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus.  When Matthew introduces this story with the title of Christ or Messiah he is not only telling us that this is a story about the birth of Jesus, but that it’s also a story about God’s mission in the world through the person of Jesus and those around him.  It’s a story of how God works through people like us—people with doubts, fears, misgivings, but also hope and grace and a willingness to trust, even if it means suspending disbelief to believe the unbelievable.  The name Messiah, Christ, carries all that weight.

This is how the birth of Messiah happened.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  It was named a betrothal, but it was in fact a marriage.  It just hadn’t been consummated yet.  “But before they came together,” Matthew tells us,  “she was found to have a child in her womb from the Holy Spirit.”  Mary is pregnant but she’s a virgin.  And that circumstance gave her a new name.  She will be known forever as Virgin Mary, and just saying her name brings the whole birth story of Jesus to mind.

Because the marriage isn’t consummated, Joseph plans to divorce her quietly and privately so as not to expose her to all the cruelty, ridicule and meanness that she might experience if he were to denounce her publicly.  Certainly it’s his right in these circumstance to shame her and her family along with her.  That would be regarded as perfectly righteous and just according to their law, tradition, and culture.  According to the law, she could even be stoned to death—although that was almost never actually done.  But Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man.  A righteous man.  And now Joseph has another name:  Joseph the Just.  Fortunately for both Mary and Jesus, Joseph understands that there is more to being just and righteous than simply adhering to the letter of the law or meticulously observing cultural traditions.  Joseph understands that real justice, real righteousness requires compassion and mercy. 

The fact that he is unwilling to expose Mary to public shame says something really touching about his affection for her.  What he decides to do is, in fact, an act of love in its own way.  He decides to divorce her—to release her—but quietly.  Privately.  He doesn’t want to see her punished. 

It’s a good plan.  A grace-filled plan, but before Joseph can act on it, an angel intervenes in a dream and tells him to go ahead with the marriage because the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  So now the unborn child has an additional name, a title:  Holy.

Joseph agrees to proceed with the marriage as instructed.  But the angel wants more from Joseph than just his forbearance.  The angel tells Joseph to name the child.

Naming a child is an act of adoption.  Even before the baby is born, the instruction to name the child creates a new relationship between the boy and Joseph.  Joseph will be his adoptive father.  The baby will be Joseph’s adopted son.

Joseph is told to name the boy Jesus.  Yeshua.  Which means God Saves.  That name will guide his destiny.  That name will define his relationship to all who follow him throughout history.  God saves.  Jesus saves.

What’s in a name?  Identity.  Relationships. History.  Even destiny.  Messiah is the long-awaited liberator who fulfills the hopes of the Jewish nation.  Christ is the savior of all humanity but also the very presence of God in, with and under all things in creation.  Jesus bears in his very name the message that God saves.

But Mary’s child, Joseph’s adopted son, has yet another name, and that name may be the most important one for all of us who long for the presence of God.  Matthew tells us that he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”  

To my mind, there is no name more meaningful, no rose as sweet as that one.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

Mothers of Reconciliation

Luke 1:39-45

Do you have any favorite relatives, favorite cousins, aunts, uncles?  If you found it necessary to make yourself scarce for a while, do you have a relative you know you could go stay with who wouldn’t judge you and would maybe even be glad to see you?  

Immediately after Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary decided to get out of town.  Nazareth was a small town, and a small town is not always the friendliest place for a not-yet-married mother-to-be.  People talk.  And when they don’t have all the facts, they tend to invent them, often with an unkind or salacious spin.  So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, “Mary set out in those days and went in a hurry to a town in the hill country of Judah.”  In a hurry, with haste, Mary went to stay with her older, loving, wise, nonjudgmental relative, Elizabeth, who also happened to be miraculously pregnant.

If someone told you that you that you could only have one of the four gospels to read and study for the rest of your life, the Gospel of Luke would not be a bad choice.  Luke has a good sense for drama and he tells the story of Jesus in very human terms.  

Luke anchors his version of the Good News in history.  After a brief introduction, his narrative begins with the words, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…”  He tells us that Jesus is born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, when Quirinius is governor of Syria overseeing the collection of the first census and poll tax.  He wants us to have historical context, not so much so we can pin events down to exact dates, but rather to give us a political, social, and cultural backdrop as he stages the story of Jesus.

Another reason to consider Luke if you could have only one gospel is that political and economic justice are important themes in Luke.  Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, using Isaiah’s poetry to make it clear that his proclamation of God’s reign is all about good news for the poor, healing, justice and liberation (Luke 4).  Subversion of the dominant paradigm is insinuated between the lines.

In Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is named more often and more directly and plays a more visible role than in Matthew and Mark and John.  Jesus tells more stories in Luke.  Some of our favorite and best-known parables are found only in Luke.  And Luke uses scripture from the Tanakh, the Old Testament, in subtle ways to link the story of Jesus to his ancestors, because when all is said and done, Luke understands that Jesus is the crowning glory of generations of his people and his family; his story is the ultimate chapter of a long continuous narrative about the trials, triumphs, and brokenness of God’s people.    

But if you only get to have one gospel, maybe the best reason to choose Luke is the women.  Women play a larger role in Luke and speak more in Luke than in any of the other three gospels.  And the things they say are prophetic. 

When Mary meets with Elizabeth, even their names are telling part of the story and linking them to the heritage of their people and a family tradition of liberation and new order.  The name Mary is a diminutive form of Miriam.  The name comes from the same root as myrrh and has multiple meanings:  bitter, beloved, rebellious.  Miriam in Exodus was a prophet, sister of Moses.  According to a tradition[1], when Pharaoh’s army was about to overtake the Israelites, Moses held out his staff and his hand to part the Red Sea, but Miriam is the one who led the people through the parted waves, calling the women to follow her, the women in turn then calling their men to follow them as they raised their tambourines and sang and danced her way across the dry path between the walls of water.   The name Elizabeth is a form of Elisheba from El shava, meaning “God is my oath.”  Elisheba was also part of the Exodus story.  As the wife of Aaron she became the mother of all the priestly line of Israel.  When Mary and Elizabeth meet, it is a meeting of generations of priesthood and prophecy, but in a marvelous twist the mother with the priestly name will bear a child who will become a prophet, and the mother with the name of a prophet will bear a child who will be later be called, “a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”[2]

And where are the men in all this?  Absent or silent.  Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah the priest, has been silenced because he did not believe the angel Gabriel when Gabriel told him that Elizabeth would bear a child.  He will not speak again until his son John is circumcised.  And Joseph, Mary’s betrothed?  The surrogate father of Jesus barely appears at all in Luke’s gospel. He is named only four times and never speaks.  And Luke gives the distinct impression, reading between the lines, that Joseph stayed behind in Nazareth while Mary went to see Elizabeth.  Luke tells us that when the order for the census came, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem…”[3]  The implication is that he stopped by the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah “in a town in the hill country of Judah” to pick up Mary on his way to Bethlehem.

The men are silent, but the women speak.  Oh do they speak.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  A loud cry.  Krauge megale it says in the Greek.  A very loud shout.  Elizabeth’s words are included in the prayer of the rosary, but I’ve never heard them shouted.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  BLESSED ART THOU AMONG WOMEN AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF YOUR WOMB…

No, it’s not usually said that way. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was—to remind us of the great joy Elizabeth feels when she is filled with the Holy Spirit and recognizes the child that her young relative is carrying in her womb.  She speaks prophecy.  She speaks profound blessing.  Why should that be merely whispered or mumbled?  These are words of joy for the whole community of humanity!

This is a story of women proclaiming the Word of God.  This is a story of a family living out God’s power and presence.  God builds community, peoples, nations from proclamation and from families.  

Sadly, far too often proclamation is misguided and families are dysfunctional.  Too much of our story as a human family is a story of anger, disruption, fracture, and violence.  Maybe because the men have been doing most of the talking.  Too much history and not enough herstory. The descendants of Abraham fighting the descendants of Abraham—the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar locked in hostility for generations.  The descendants of one race locked in a vicious spiral of fear of and hatred for other races when we are all related in the human race, when we are all family.

These two women who meet in this unnamed town in the hills of Judah, these two women who rejoice loudly and prophesy in each other’s presence, these two women are the mothers of reconciliation and renewal.  Their sons will enter a fractured world of unreconciled peoples to bring a call for change and a vision for peace and understanding . God will use this family to bring healing and renewal to all families—to the whole human family—if we can learn how to listen. 

The son of Elizabeth will preach repentance, metanoia, a summons to change course.  The child of Mary will proclaim a direction for that change of course, a vision of the reign of God, a new way of being, a way of embracing our heritage and responsibility as children of God and siblings in humanity.  One will embody God’s call to be transformed.   One will embody God’s power of recreation and renewal.

These two women are family.  Their sons, these cousins, enter the world to remind us that we are all family, all related, all our stories intertwined.  Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through families even if it’s the slow work of generations.  Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through women to heal the world.  They are the mothers of John and Jesus.  They are chosen by God to be the mothers of renewal and reconciliation.

[1] Exodus 14-15

[2] Hebrews 5:10

[3] Luke 2:4

Painting by Corby Eisbacher @ArtByCorby

Look Again

Luke 1:26-38

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.”  If you’ve been a Christian for more than five minutes, you’ve heard these words before.  These are the opening words of The Annunciation, that part or the Christmas story we all know and love so well when Gabriel tells Mary she will become the mother of Jesus.  We know this story.  We know this episode of the story by heart.  But I wonder… When is the last time we really listened to it or read it carefully?

Look again at the opening line: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth…”  I have always pictured Gabriel just suddenly appearing before Mary and probably startling her.  Certainly it’s depicted that way in any number of paintings.  But look at what Luke has actually written here—he is bringing the focus of the story from heaven to earth, to a specific territory, then a town, then to a person.  Gabriel comes from God to Galilee to Nazareth to Mary.  As I re-read this, I suddenly had a picture of Gabriel arriving unseen on a hilltop in Galilee then making his way down the hill past grazing goats and sheep to the road, cloaking himself to look like a traveler as he made his way into town and found his way through Nazareth’s dusty streets until he came to Mary.  Maybe she saw him coming and was watching him as he walked toward her house.  Maybe she wondered who this mysterious stranger might be as he approached and then became a bit wary as she realized he was coming directly toward her. Maybe she thought he had some business with her father. 

When you picture it this way, it opens you up to the idea that maybe angels walk among us all the time.  Maybe they emerge from heaven make their way into town then find their way through the streets until they get to where they were sent.  It makes you wonder how many times you might have walked right by an angel or sat a few seats away from one at McDonalds.  

So maybe she saw him coming, but even if Mary had seen Gabriel approaching, it really would have been a surprise when he spoke to her.  And what he said was so unusual: “Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!”

Between timidly formal translations, millions of persons repeating the rosary millions of times,  and Franz Shubert’s lovely but overly romantic musical setting of Ave Maria, the shock value of Gabriel’s greeting was bled off a long time ago.  And that’s unfortunate, because what he said rocked Mary’s world and, if we’re paying attention, should rock ours, too.  

Hail Mary, full of grace?  Not exactly.  First of all, “Hail” or “Greetings” are subdued translations of the angel’s first word to Mary.  “Chaire!” is what he says.  It can mean “greetings” or “hail” but those are timid choices.  Chaire!, which is what Gabriel says in the original Greek text, is the imperative form of Chairo – to rejoice!  Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!  Rejoice!

No wonder Mary was “thoroughly troubled by what he said and tried to discern what sort of greeting this was.”  Some translations say she “pondered” what sort of greeting it was, but the sense of the Greek word, dialogizemai, is that she had a pretty serious inner conversation with herself as she tried to sort it out.  The word dialog is in the word and the word means inner dialog, to think or thoroughly reason through something.  It’s easy to read right past all that, or listen right past it, but this is one of the places where we really are supposed to slow down or even stop for a moment and stand a moment in Mary’s bare feet.  

Imagine what she was thinking.  Who is this mysterious stranger?  Why is he telling me to rejoice? Why is he even talking to me, which is not exactly smiled upon in our society, and why did he call me “favored one?”  Favored by whom?  What does that mean?  He said the Most High God is with me.  Why me?  What makes me so special?

Now imagine Gabriel watching her as she puzzles through his words and wonders about his intentions.  Imagine him seeing that she is thoroughly troubled by his presence and what he’s said.  Imagine him letting her take a good long moment to think before he speaks again.

“Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  That’s the second time he has told her that she is favored.  Favored by God.  

And now he will tell her what that favor brings with it.

“You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Sovereign God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his sovereignty there will be no end.”[1]

“Hang on a minute,” said Mary.  “Let’s back up to the ‘conceive in your womb’ part.”  Actually, what Mary said is better than that.  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I have not known a man intimately?”  In one question she does three things: she lets the angel know that she knows how babies are made, she makes it clear that she has no personal experience of that kind of relationship, and she challenges the divine messenger to explain how this impossible thing will be accomplished.  

The name Israel means “wrestles with God” or “contends with God.”  It is an important part of the tradition of Israel to question God, to ask for explanations, to challenge God or bargain with God.  Jacob physically wrestled with God.  Abraham bargained with God.  Moses tried to talk God out of using him to lead the people because he wasn’t good at public speaking.  Elijah on the mountain top begged God to just go away and let him die.  And now Mary, good daughter of Israel, says to God’s messenger, “Hang on a minute…I know how this works and what you’re describing is simply not possible under the current circumstances.”

It’s okay to argue with God.  There is a lot of precedence.  If you find yourself arguing with God, contending with God, questioning God, you’re in good company.  

“How can this be?” asks Mary.  So Gabriel explains how it can be.

And here is a place where we have missed something important in just about every English translation ever.  In Greek, the word spirit, pneuma, is gender neutral.  All our translations simply say, “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”  What we miss is this:  Mary, in Nazareth in Galilee, would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew, most probably Aramaic.  In both Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for spirit is feminine.  Ruach in Hebrew.  Rukah in Aramaic.  

So what Mary heard Gabriel say would have been something like this: “The Holy Spirit, She will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born will be holy.  He will be called Son of God.”[2]

The feminine aspect of God would envelop her and bring the power of God to do the impossible.  

What does that do to your understanding of this story?  What does that do to your understanding of who God is and how God works? 

Gabriel then tells her that her pregnancy is not the only “impossible” conception.  Her kinswoman, Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years has also become pregnant.  “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary surrenders to God’s plan.  Mary surrenders to God.  And once again, most of our translations have drained most of the power out of Mary’s words by being too genteel.  Most of our translations say something like, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”  Some use a more gender-specific term; she calls herself a handmaiden or maidservant.  But what she actually says is, “Look!  The woman-slave of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to your word.”

“Look, Angel.  See me.  See what saying yes to God, yes to this plan will make me.  You make it sound so glorious.  You tell me I’m ‘favored.’  But I know that saying yes to all this makes me a slave.  So look.  See the slave woman of the Lord.” 

Have you heard a different story now?  Have you heard this familiar story in a different way?

What is the takeaway?  For me there are four.

  • If you take time to look again at things you think you already know, you can learn a lot.  You can hear old stories in new ways.  And maybe they can speak to you in a new way to draw you deeper into the mystery of the presence of God.
  • It’s okay to wrestle with God, to debate and discuss and challenge God when God is calling or challenging you to embark on something impossible.
  • When you do say yes to the thing God is asking, God will take you at your word, so it’s best to surrender completely.  Mary understood that.
  • When God asks you to do the impossible, it helps to remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.”  And you have an angel’s word on that.

[1] Translation by Dr. Wilda Gafney, A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

[2] Ibid.

Dear Pontius Pilate

Dear Pontius Pilate

John 18:33-38a

Dear Pontius Pilate,

I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Surely you remember it.

One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity.  I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome.  As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history?  I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it?  To make your choice?

After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic.  He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened.  Details can become blurred.  Languages don’t always translate precisely.  Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language.  Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”?  All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek.  The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant.  The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight.  Personally, I like belongs.  It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am.  Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant.  This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving.  I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth.  I belong to truth.  It owns me.  So I listen to the voice of Jesus.

You asked a simple question in response to Jesus.  Well that’s not quite true.  It’s not a simple question at all.  It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia.   Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:

Quid est veritas?  What is truth?

Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect?  Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat?  Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also?  Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?  

Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question?  Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?

The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect.  I don’t say that out of piety.  I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him.  I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.

Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:

Heaven was confronting empire.  

As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome.  In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy.   In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s  domination.  All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect.  And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.  

Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life,  the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity.  Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence.  Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  

All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.  

But so was everyday life.

The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes.  Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city.  Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration.  Truth stood before you as one of the little people.

Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons.  He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known.  But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing. 

Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision. 

“What is truth?” you asked.  Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts?  Can you see yet that truth is a person?  All of us stand in that truth one way or another.  And empire will always have trouble seeing that.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.  

Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.  

Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.  


Mark 13:1-8

“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky.  They’re twenty years behind everything.”

The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English.  Apokalypsis to Apocalypse.  The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.”  It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.  

The word can also describe a particular kind of literature.  That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:

a great disaster a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.

In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”

From disclosure to disaster.  That’s quite a shift in meaning.  

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World?  What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking?  And why has our interest in this topic been growing? 

I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films.  It paints an interesting picture.  Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies.  The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World.  And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie.  That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World.  American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells.  So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed.  Four.  

And then they stopped.  That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s.  People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.  

Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre.  From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.  

From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies.  From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies.  In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much.  That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.  

After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s.  From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again.  In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes.  It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be.  The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.

So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse?  Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale? 

I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say.  They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution.  The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed.  The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it.  John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome. 

Hope and courage for people in dire straits.  That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery.  They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances.  If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.”  So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills.  You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.

The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things.  That’s not why they were written.  They were written to give a simple clear message:  “Hang in there.  Yes, these are scary times.  But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever.  They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome).  Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope.  Have courage. God is on your side.  And God wins in the end.”

That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.

With one apocalyptic exception:  the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE.  There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome.  They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel.  Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.

The temple was in particular danger for several reasons.  It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol.  That would make it a target for the Romans.  It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people.  It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists.  It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy.  It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world.  Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity.  The temple was Israel.  Israel was the temple.  To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation.  That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift.  Their spirit and resistance would be broken.  For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.

In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down.  Not one stone will be left on another.”  A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach.  The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details.  “When is it going to happen?  What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”  

Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy.  The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking.   They are desperate for a timetable.  As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?

They want a timetable.  They want signs to look for.  But Jesus isn’t going to give them one.  “Stay on the path,” he says.  “Don’t let anyone lead you astray.  Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah.  Don’t fall for it.  If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it.  All these things are going on always and everywhere.  They are not signs of the end.  They are birth pangs.  Something new is being born.”

When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows.  Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”  

This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point.  Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage.  But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite.  Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple.  He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance.  He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.

Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse.  This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks.  This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks.  This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.  

Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.

This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence.  The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better.  The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.

In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual.  It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual.  The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse.  A revealing.  It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things.  It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better.  Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world.  It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.  

How’s that for an apocalypse?

The Cloud of Witnesses

My very earliest memory is full of lightning, thunder, and freezing rain.  And my mother crying.  

I was not quite 4 years old.  It was nap time at the preschool, and we were all supposed to be stretched out on our rugs relaxing and thinking sleepy thoughts, but most of us were curled up in a fetal position because the lightning kept flashing and the thunder kept thundering and the little beads of freezing rain pelting the windows sounded like something skittering and malicious trying to break in.  And suddenly, there was my mom, appearing out of nowhere, bending over the teacher’s desk and whispering something to her while my teacher made an “Oh no!” face.  The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of the car.  Mom sat in the driver’s seat.  But she didn’t start the car.  We just sat there.  Then my mom put her face in her hands and wept.  

Clearly something was very wrong.  Something awful had happened.  And since I was not quite four years old, I assumed that whatever it was, it was my fault.  So I started apologizing, just saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.  And, of course, I started crying, too, because I was confused and scared and not quite four years old, and my mother was crying, and the thunder kept thundering and the lightning kept flashing, and the wind was howling as it threw freezing rain against the windshield.  But mostly I cried because I was absolutely positive that I had done something very, very bad that made my mother cry, though I couldn’t have told you for the life of me what that might be.

Finally, Mom composed herself and reassured me that I had not done anything wrong.  She told me that my grandpa had died.  Her father, the person who, at that point in my life, I loved more than anyone else in the world, except maybe her,  had died.  I had sat in his lap in the farmhouse kitchen just one week before, sneaking sips of cream and sugar coffee from his saucer.  And now he was dead.  

Everything about the following days after that moment is blur in my memory.  Except for this: I have a very clear memory of looking at my grandpa laid out in his casket at his funeral.  I must have looked at him for some time, because when I close my eyes, I can still see him.  As I looked at him, I realized that he was both there and not there—that the body lying in the casket was my beloved grandfather, but that the something that made him the person I knew and loved was not in that casket.  And yet, I felt him so close to me.  As a matter of fact, I have felt him close to me many, many times since then.  

I learned some very important things about death at the tender age of not quite four.  

The first thing I learned is that death hurts.  It may or may not hurt the person who dies.  That depends a lot on how they die.  In fact, if pain is involved, death is a blessed release from that pain.  Still, death hurts.  It hurts those who are left behind, those of us who love the one who has died.  Death rips a piece out of the fabric of our lives, and there’s no patching it.  It hurts to know that the loved one who has died won’t be here with us any more—at least not in the tangible, put-your-arms-around-them-and-hug-them way they were here before.  It hurts to know you won’t be able to sing with them or cook with them or walk with them or joke with them or have lunch with them or any of the million little things we do with each other.  At least not in the way you did those things before.

Death hurts.  So we weep.  My mother wept.  Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He felt the pain survivors feel in the face of death.  In fact, the original language of the story hints there was anger in his weeping—anger at the pain and bewilderment that death always brings with it.  Death hurts.

I also learned when I was not quite four that death comes to everyone.  No exception.  As my mom talked to me about my grandfather’s death, she made that pretty clear.  She grew up on a farm, so she didn’t pull any punches.  I am going to die, she said.  Someday.  Your dad is going to die.  Someday.  You are going to die.  Someday.  It happens to everyone.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  It’s a part of life.

Death is a part of life.  Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And if you don’t find a way to make peace with that idea—make peace with the idea of your own death—you will find all kinds of ways to make yourself crazy trying to deny death.  Our whole Western culture is built around exactly that kind of craziness.  Ernest Becker described our collective insanity from denying death and its destructive consequences so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Denial of Death.   Money, seeking fame, gluttony, narcissism, surrounding ourselves with stuff, addiction—all these things and more can be ways to hide from the deep truth of our mortality.  

We just don’t want to think about it.  We use euphemisms so we don’t have to say the words.  He passed. Passed away.  Passed on.  She’s gone ahead.  He kicked the bucket.  Bought the farm.  Gave up the ghost.   Went to be with the Lord.  Went to heaven.  Met his maker.  Was called home.  Has gone on to a better place.  Even the military will say that there were X number of casualties instead of saying that X number of people died or were killed.  They died.  They are dead.

Death.  It’s a spooky word.  There is a finality about it.  I think sometimes we’re afraid to say it because we think might summon it.  But guess what?  We’re not that powerful.  We might have mojo, but we don’t have that kind of mojo.  And besides, death coming eventually anyway.  For each and every one of us.

I’ve thought a lot about death since I was not quite four years old, especially during the last twenty-five years.  As a pastor, I’ve been in the room with Death a lot more often than the average person.  But that’s not why I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.  I’ve thought a lot about death because I’m in the Life business, specifically the Life in Christ business.  And one of the things that’s essential for Christians to remember is that we were baptized into death.  Saint Paul said so in Romans:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Newness of life.  That’s the thing you get if you make peace with death.  You don’t need to be afraid of death anymore.  You understand that life and death are part of the same thing, the same continuum.  So you can be free from all the crazy-making things that shackle you if you’re trying to deny your mortality.  You can be free to live life in all its fullness. 

There are some fairy-folk in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels called the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re six inches tall, blue, mischievous, wear kilts, and speak with a Scottish accent.  They are absolutely fearless and embrace life with joyful ferocity.  The thing that makes them fearless and so fiercely, joyfully alive is their one central belief:  they believe they have already died and that the world they now live in is heaven.  There’s no need to be afraid of death.  It’s already happened.  And if they do happen to die, they believe that they are just going to another part of heaven they haven’t been to yet.  I can’t help but think that as Christians, we’re supposed to believe something like that.  We’ve already died.  In baptism we have died with Christ so we can walk fearlessly, freely, and even with a fierce joy into newness of life.

Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And it is a continuum that continues.  Life. Death. Resurrection.  As Saint Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  It is Christ’s life in us that carries us through death.  It is Christ’s life in us and our life in Christ that guarantees our resurrection. Someday.  In God’s own good time.  

In the meantime, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.    In so many, many ways our loved ones who have died still walk with us and stand beside us.  Their lives have shaped our lives.  We feel their presence.  They gather with us at the table in the Communion of Saints and share the sacrament that connects us through all the generations in an unbroken line all the way to the apostles and to Jesus himself.  

At his last supper, Jesus told us to remember him.  He didn’t mean that we should simply think about him with fondness and nostalgia.  He meant it in the Jewish way of remembering.  He meant for us to bring him forward out of the past and into the present to be fully with us so we can be fully with him.

This is a day when we remember the saints—those people of faith who have died in Christ and will rise again in God’s own good time.  But they arise with us now in a different way when we remember them.  

We remember them.  Re-member.  To receive again as a member.  To reassemble the whole from parts that were separated.  We speak their names. We remember them.  We call them out of our memories and acknowledge their place in the assembled body of Christ.  We remind ourselves that they have died, but they still stand with us in the body of Christ.

We believe that on this day and every day the saints live on in the love of God and life of Christ.  This is not a denial of death.  We do not deny death.  We defy it.  We defy it as we fiercely and joyfully embrace life eternal.

Stand Still

Mark 10:46-52

One of the things you can do to really bring stories from the Bible to life and get more meaning from them is to picture yourself in the story.  Read through it slowly and think about each of the characters, then ask yourself, “Who am I in this story?”  

So let’s go through this episode again, and as we do, think about who you might be if you were one of the characters in this narrative.  

Jesus and his disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem.   As they pass through Jericho, there’s a large crowd with them because by this time Jesus has become pretty well known, but also a lot of people are travelling to Jerusalem for the coming Passover.  As they’re leaving town—Jesus, the disciples, the crowd—they encounter Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road.  Very few of the minor characters in Mark’s gospel are named, so we have a clue that maybe we should pay a little more attention to Bartimaeus.  

Bartimaeus hears the crowd shuffling by and when he hears someone mention Jesus, he shouts out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him, but he persists and shouts out all the more loudly, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  

And this is when a fascinating little thing happens in the story.  It’s fascinating, but it’s small, so it’s easy to slide right past it.  It says in the text, “Jesus stood still.”  Jesus hears Bartimaeus over the hubbub of the crowd and he stops.  And stands still.  

Can you picture it?  Jesus is standing perfectly still, so the crowd stops.  They stand still, too.  Everybody stops to see why Jesus has stopped and is just standing there, right there in the middle of the road.  That—that moment when everything has come to a standstill—that is when Jesus says, “Call him over.”  So someone in the crowd calls out to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up! On your feet!  He’s calling you!”  

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaps to his feet and sprints over to Jesus.  So now they’re face to face, and Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “My teacher,” says Bartimaeus, “let me see again.”  The Jesus says to him, “Go.  Your faith has healed you.”  And just like that, Bartimaeus can see again.

But he doesn’t go.  At least he doesn’t go back to what he was doing before.  Instead, he follows Jesus on the way.

So if you put yourself in this story, who are you?

Maybe you’re a bystander.   You live in Jericho in a nice little house right there on the main road.  It’s a great place for people-watching.  Everyone who’s on the way to Jerusalem goes right by your door.  You see Jesus passing through, and you’re interested.  You’ve heard a lot about him.  You would certainly be willing to engage in a polite conversation with him if he suddenly wandered over to your porch and asked for a drink of water.  But he seems determined to keep moving, so that’s not going to happen.  Plus there are all those other people with him, so even if you felt moved to go over to him, how close could you get?  And what would you talk about anyway?  No, all things considered, it’s easier to just watch the Jesus parade from the safe distance of your front porch.  You don’t need to get in the middle of it.  Better not to get involved.  But wait a minute… he’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  What’s he doing?  O look!  He’s going to do something about that annoying beggar who’s always just sitting there across the road from your house, bothering people for spare change.  About time somebody did something about him.  You know, there ought to be a law to keep people like that from cluttering up nice neighborhoods like this.  

So is that who you are in this story?

If you’re not a bystander, maybe you’re one of the disciples.  You’ve been following Jesus for quite a while now, so long that sometimes you forget why you’re still with him, especially with some of the things he’s been saying lately—telling you he’s going to be rejected by the priests and authorities and then crucified… What the heck does all that mean, anyway?  He’s got to be talking figuratively, right?  You’d ask him to explain it again, but it’s so hard to get any time alone with him lately.  This crowd is around all the time and it just seems to keep growing.  He talks about getting to Jerusalem like it’s so urgent, but then he’ll stop to heal someone or share an observation about something or debate someone, and the next thing you know you’ve lost half an hour—or half a day.  Maybe after Jerusalem, after the Passover, things will get back to normal…not that your time with him has ever been anything like normal.  You can’t remember the last time you just had a day off to sit in the shade and think.  Every time you try to get away the crowd seems to find you and they bring along everyone who so has so much the sniffles to see if he can heal them.  It seems like you’re spending all your time and energy lately on crowd control.  And even when you’re on the move there are people on the road who want his attention—like that noisy blind beggar over there.   Aaaand, there it is.  He’s stopping.  Huh… he’s just standing there.  Okay, here we go, he’s calling the beggar over to him.  The way things have been going, that guy’s going to want to join the group and follow you.  Just what you need.  Another hanger-on.  Another mouth to feed.  Maybe after Jerusalem you can just chuck it all and head back to Galilee.  

So is that who you are in this story?  One of the disciples?

Maybe you’re part of the large crowd.  You’ve been trying to get closer to Jesus so you can hear what he’s saying, and there’s so much you want to ask him, but every time you think you see a way to squeeze in closer, someone jostles you aside and you’re back where you started.  It’s no fun just being part of the crowd, surrounded by all this noise.  Every time Jesus starts to say something the people right behind you start talking about some mundane thing or another and you can’t hear Jesus over their loud voices.  It seems like everybody just shouts, and the bigger the crowd gets, the louder they get.  Haven’t they ever heard of nice, quiet conversational voices?  Oh great.  Who’s shouting now?  Someone tell that beggar to shut up.  It’s hard enough already to hear what Jesus is saying.  Wait… what’s Jesus doing?  He’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  Everybody’s stopped.  Hey, this is your chance to get closer to him while everyone’s just standing there.  Oh no.  He’s calling the beggar over to him.  And isn’t that just your luck.  Well, it’s still a good hike to Jerusalem.  Maybe you’ll find a way to get close to him while you’re on the way.

So is that who you are in this story?  Someone who is travelling the same road in the same direction but not really getting close enough to Jesus to get the full picture of who he is and what he’s about and what he means for you?

Are you, maybe, Bartimaeus?  You sit passively by the side of the road as the rest of the world rolls along in front of you, waiting for any little bit of grace or kindness that someone might toss your way.  You would be proactive, making your own way forward, but there’s that one great affliction that stops you, that limits your opportunities and abilities.  And you’ve become so dependent.  If only you could see again.  Or hear again.  Or walk again.  Or think again.  Or laugh again.  Or feel again.  If only there was some light in your darkness, or music in your silence, or strength in your limbs, or clarity in your heart and mind.  You are so tired of being invisible on the sidelines, so tired of the miasma that your life has become.  You hear the crowd ambling by and out of your darkness you ask over and over again, “Anything for me?  Can you spare anything for me?”  And then someone mentions Jesus.  Jesus of Nazareth.  The teacher.  The healer.  The life changer.  You grasp at the straw.  You’re surprised at the force of your own voice as you cry out, “Jesus, Son of David!  Have mercy on me!”  Somebody tries to silence you.  They’re annoyed with you.  They tell you not to bother them—and not to bother the teacher with your need.  With your existence.  But suddenly all the noise stops.  There’s an unnerving silence.  The shuffling crowd is standing still, holding their breath.  Then someone says, “He’s calling you.”  You throw aside everything as you leap to your feet.  Finally, there’s hope for you.  Unseen hands guide you to him until you feel his presence right in front of you.  With you.  And then he asks you the oddest question:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  And part of you just wants to scream.  Can’t he see your affliction?  Can’t he see the great obstacle that’s keeping you from really entering into the fullness of life?  But then it dawns on you…Jesus is not presuming that dealing with your obvious affliction is the thing you most want most from him.  He is treating you like a whole person.  He is waiting for you to tell him what you want most.  And you realize that what you want most, what you need most, is to follow him, but you could do that so much more easily if first he heals you.  So you say let me see again.  Let me hear music again.  Let there be a spring in my step again.  Let my mind and heart be clear again.  Let me laugh again.  Let me feel again.  

So is this who you are in the story?  Are you the person in need at the side of the road?  There’s no shame in that.  Most of us have been that person at one time or another, waiting for our moment of healing.  Is that you?

Or are, perhaps, you’re Jesus?  Don’t dismiss that idea with false humility.  Don’t inflate it with ego, either.  Martin Luther said we are called to be “little Christs” to each other.  Saint Paul tells us that as followers of Jesus on the Way, Christ is in us and we are in Christ.  Jesus, himself, said that just as he was immersed in the life and love of the Father, so we are immersed in his life and love.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:20-23)

So you could be Jesus in the story.  You could be the one who brings compassion and healing and sight to someone crying out from the side of the road.

Is that who you are?

I think we have all been all of these—the bystander, the distracted disciple, the person going along with the crowd, the person in need.  But for a moment, let’s just stand still.  Let’s stand still so we can hear the voice calling out for mercy.  Let’s stand still so we can see the need that’s begging at the side of the road.   Then from this turning point on the Way, may God empower us to be “little Christs,” bringing attention, compassion, and healing to those who cry out from the side of the road.

In Jesus’ name.

Image © Julia Stakova, Bulgarian artist

Whatever We Ask

Mark 10:35-45

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

There’s an interesting picture that’s been popping up here and there in social media.  It’s a picture of a middle-aged man washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen.  Now you might think, “What’s so interesting about that?”  Well the thing that makes this picture interesting is that the man washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jon Bon Jovi, the front man for the very successful rock band, Bon Jovi. 

Back in 2011 Jon and his wife Dorothea wanted to do something to help hungry people, but they didn’t want it to be just another food pantry or soup kitchen.  Food banks and soup kitchens do good work, but they also tend to isolate hungry people from everyone else or spotlight them—and not in a good way.   

Jon and Dorothea decided to open a restaurant where payment is optional so that folks who cannot afford a restaurant meal can dine right alongside those who can.  That’s how JBJ Soul Kitchen came to be.  The menu has no prices.  You select what you like and are encouraged to make a suggested donation. If you are unable to donate, you are invited to participate in what they call “volunteer opportunities,” which usually entails working in the kitchen in one way or another.  When he’s not on tour, Jon Bon Jovi himself often stops in to volunteer as a waiter, cook or dishwasher.  

When the pandemic hit, though, JBJ Soul Kitchen had to change its model.  “Due to the pandemic,” said Jon in a recent interview, “we couldn’t have any volunteers work. But we still had mouths to feed. So Dorothea and I worked five days a week for two months before we went to Long Island and opened a food bank that fed 6,000 people a month there.”

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

If you log in to a particular YouTube channel on any given evening, you’ll find one of the richest, most successful women in the world sitting on her bed in her pajamas reading a children’s book.  The lady in her PJs is none other than Dolly Parton, and her YouTube program, Goodnight with Dolly, is targeted toward preschoolers, because children who have someone read to them on a regular basis develop their own reading skills earlier and more easily.  Dolly understood that not every parent has free time to sit and read with their kids, especially single parents.  And not all parents read well enough, themselves, to provide their kids with that important head start.  That was the case with Dolly’s own father who started working while still very young and as a result never learned to read or write.  So Dolly Parton decided that, in honor of her father, she would help as many kids as possible develop those very necessary pre-reading and early reading abilities.

Goodnight with Dolly is the newest venture in Dolly Parton’s long-time campaign for literacy.  In 1995, Dolly launched the Imagination Library in Sevier County, her home county in East Tennessee, to inspire a love of reading by giving one free children’s book a month to every child in the county from age two until they start school.  With the help of local community partners, the Imagination Library has now spread throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Ireland.  Nearly two million kids are now registered in the Imagination Library, and the organization has given away more than 165 million books.  But there are still others who haven’t been reached.  So Dolly Parton sits on her bed in her pajamas and reads to the kids whose parents aren’t available or able to read to them.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

The Disciples James and John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  When he asked them what they wanted, they said, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and one at your left when you come into your glory.”  

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t chastise them even a little for asking something so audacious.  He simply tells them that they don’t know what they’re asking.  He hints at the ordeal he will soon endure when he asks them,  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  They answer just a little too quickly:  “We are able,”  and it seems pretty clear that they don’t know what they’re in for.

We shouldn’t be too hard on James and John.  To their credit, they really do have faith.  They believe that Jesus can give them what they want.  They believe that he will soon “come into his glory.”  They just don’t understand what that means.  

A lot of us have come to Jesus at one time or another saying, “I want you to give me whatever I ask of you.”  A lot of people have thought that this is really the essence of praying.  Give me what I ask for.  And a lot of us have asked at one time or another to be put in positions of authority and prestige—right seat or left seat, either one is okay as long as we have a seat at the table.  We want that position that gives us the authority to fix all those things that other people are messing up.  We have ambition.

Jesus doesn’t chastise them for their ambition.  But the other disciples do.  So Jesus has to remind them all of what he has been saying all along.  You want to be a leader?  Fine!  Good!  Now, can you be a servant?

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

When Boris Baranov was appointed to the position of Shift Supervisor at the powerplant where he worked, he was given significant authority over some of the plant’s operations.  Along with that authority, of course, came some extra responsibilities.  Boris never dreamed, though, that saving most of Europe from becoming a nuclear wasteland would be one of those responsibilities.  But then, the powerplant where Boris worked was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. 

On April 26, 1986 one of the four reactors at Chernobyl exploded releasing 400 times more radioactive fallout than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  The toll of that explosion was significant.  Two workers were killed instantly.  Another 29 would die from radiation burns or poisoning over the next few months.  

All the fires were extinguished within six hours, but now there was a risk of an even larger explosion—an explosion that would be many times more devastating.  

Several days after they thought that everything was under control, they discovered that the reactor in unit 4 had continued to melt down. Below the reactor was a thick concrete slab and below the slab was a large pool of water which was normally used to cool the reactor.  The core of the badly damaged reactor was now melting its way through the concrete slab.  If it were to reach the water, it would create an gargantuan steam explosion with a force of 3 to 5 megatons.  The enormous cloud of radioactive steam and ash that would have risen into the wind from that explosion would have made much of Europe uninhabitable for 500,000 years. 

To prevent the explosion, the water under the reactor had to be drained, but the only way to do that was by manually turning the right valves which were in the basement, and the basement was already flooded with radioactive water from putting out the fires.  Boris Baranov, the shift supervisor, Valeri Bespalov, the senior engineer, and mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko volunteered to wade into the flooded basement and turn the valves.  Their brave and selfless act of service saved millions of lives.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke James and John for their ambition.  He even affirms that they will in the end drink from his “cup” and be immersed in his “baptism.”  But he wants them to understand that ambition for ambition’s sake can lead to responsibilities you’re not prepared for, challenges you haven’t even begun to imagine.  

James and John wanted to be great, to sit in positions of prestige and authority.  And in the end, in a way, they got what they asked for.  According to tradition, after ten or twelve years proclaiming the gospel in Palestine alongside his brother John and the rest of the disciples,  James took the gospel to Spain.  In the end he returned to Jerusalem where he was killed by Herod Agrippa.  Again according to tradition, John took the gospel to Ephesus.  James and John found direction for their ambition.  But along the Way they had to learn a very hard lesson. 

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.