A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering God’s Children: A Homily for Lent 2

Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness––The Hen (1939)

A homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA (Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 / Luke 13:31-35)

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid. Your story is not over.
It will continue long into the future.”

But Abram can’t believe this. “I have no offspring, no heirs. How on earth will my story continue?”

And God says, “Step outside, and look at the stars––more than you could ever count. So shall your descendants be.”

This kind of thing happens a lot in the Bible. God makes a way where there is no way. God turns nothing into something. God makes a barren marriage the seed of countless generations.

“Great!” says Abram. “But how can I know for sure?”

So God makes a covenant with Abram––a promise binding Abram’s story to God’s story, a promise to be with Abram’s people through the long journey of time.

Now we may find their covenant ritual pretty weird: cutting three large animals in half––a heifer, a goat, and a ram––but that was a common practice in the ancient Near East. The two parties making a covenant would walk between the cloven parts of animals, as if to say, if either party severs the covenant binding us together, there will be blood.

If one of the parties is human and the other is divine, we should not be surprised to find an uncanny dimension to the ritual, as there is in this story. Abram falls into the altered state of a deep sleep, and then God seems to pass between the cloven animals in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, anticipating the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud which will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This sense of covenant with God, a binding relationship enduring through all the ups and downs of Jewish history, is the central dynamic of the biblical narrative. And by the time of Jesus, twenty centuries after Abram looked up at those stars, the city of Jerusalem had been well-established as the geographical and spiritual center of that ancient covenant, because it contained the Holy of Holies, the enclosed void believed to be the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The Holy of Holies, situated within the Temple on the city’s highest place, was so sacred that it was forbidden to everyone except the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice to the Most High.

Jerusalem’s sacred stature is affirmed many times in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms:

Blessed is the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells in Jerusalem. (Psalm 135:21)

As the hills stand about Jerusalem,
so does the Lord surround God’s people,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 125:2)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

Jesus shared his people’s devotion to Jerusalem as central to both their self-understanding and their ultimate destiny. It was the place where earth meets heaven, where the blessings of God’s ancient promise would be most clearly manifested and fulfilled. And however Jesus thought his own mission would work out, he expected its definitive climax to come in the holy city.

Jerusalem is mentioned 139 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those mentions occur in Luke. His gospel might be called The Journey to Jerusalem. During Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jerusalem is so often on his mind. Every step of his itinerant life takes him closer and closer to that place of destiny. As Luke puts it, “his face was turned toward Jerusalem.”

But when he draws near his goal, some Pharisees try to warn him away. “King Herod wants to kill you,” they said. “Get out of here while you still can.” But for Jesus there is no turning back. “It is necessary for me to journey on,” he tells them. “today and tomorrow and the day after that, because Jerusalem is where a prophet must go to meet his fate.”

So on he goes, eventually making the long climb up from Jericho, through a series of barren hills, until he reaches the Mount of Olives, a high point where suddenly the holy city and its great Temple come into view, stretching across a ridge on the opposite side of a ravine called the Kidron valley.

Have any of you been there, and seen that view? It is a stunning sight. And we might imagine the thrill that Jesus and his disciples must have felt at seeing the end of their long pilgrimage, right there in front of them.

Five years ago, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I remember vividly the moment when I first saw the goal of my journey, the towers of Santiago’s cathedral, from the top of a hill a few miles away. Pilgrims call that hill the Mount of Joy, because joy is what you feel when you see for the first time the place which has pulled on your soul for so many days and so many miles.

So as Jesus descends the slope of the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem, he stops for a moment to take in the view. But joy is not what he feels. According to Luke, “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.”

Why does Jesus weep? Is it for himself, because he knows that this is where he is going to die? Or is he weeping for Jerusalem, because it is the killer, instead of the fulfiller, of God’s dream for human flourishing? The name Jerusalem means “city of peace”––salem means peace, like the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. God desired it to be a place of loving community, a just community, a neighborly community where divine blessings would be freely and gratefully shared with one another.

But the holy city was in fact closer to hell than heaven––divided by warring factions demonizing one another, distorted by vast inequalities of wealth, poisoned by fears and tribal hatreds, governed by political and economic forces resistant to change, and blinded by an obsolete pretension of being the greatest nation on earth.

From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gazes upon the broken and faithless city––and he weeps. Then he says, “If you had only known the things that lead to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

This compelling moment is commemorated by a tear-shaped church erected on the slope where Jesus had stood. Most churches are designed to face east, toward the rising sun, but this one faces west, toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did when he lamented the sad state of the City of Peace. The window behind the altar is made of clear glass, so that the worshipper can contemplate the same view which filled Jesus’ eyes with tears. The name of the church is Dominus Flevit: The Lord wept.

What if Jesus had not wept there? What if he had looked at the faithless city, so unloving and so unjust, and been filled with anger and judgment? What if the church were called, The Lord raged? There was plenty to be angry about in the way people lived together and treated each other in that city. But the heart of Jesus was all compassion. He came to show us the God of mercy.

And in today’s gospel, when he responds to those Pharisees who urge him to avoid Jerusalem at all costs, Jesus gives perhaps his most startling self-description in all the gospels:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Altar mosaic, Dominus Flevit church, Jerusalem

Look at the image of the altar mosaic  in Dominus Flevit. Notice the golden halo behind the hen’s head. This is a holy creature, showing us God in a new way, as a maternal figure, protective yet vulnerable. Not the lion of Judah, or a mighty eagle, but a barnyard chicken! Her chicks don’t seem to be paying much attention to their mother. They are liable to wander off at any moment and get into all sorts of mischief. But Jesus their mother spreads her wings wide, trying her best to gather them in and keep them safe.

There’s another animal in today’s gospel––the fox. That’s what Jesus calls Herod––a fox. Now as leaders go, Herod was pretty deplorable. He was an insecure bully who didn’t care much about the divine covenant or the holiness of Jerusalem. He only cared about himself. And he was little more than a puppet, easily manipulated by a foreign power (it begins with an “R”).

Why does Jesus call him a fox? Did he mean that Herod was cunning? Perhaps. But in such close juxtaposition with the hen and her chicks, it seems more likely that Jesus was describing Herod as a predator. What a predator does is find a way to isolate and attack the most vulnerable. He divides his victims from the wider community, and then he attacks. If you’re a defenseless chick, a fox is very bad news!

Jesus wants to protect the chicks from the fox, but he refuses to do that with violence. That would only make him a mirror image of the fox. As Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her memorable commentary on this passage:

“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

For God so loved the world, that he gave the dearest portion God’s own self, that we might not perish. Self-offering for the sake of others, however costly, is the divine way.

When I first heard about the New Zealand massacre, I had just been reading a gospel commentary comparing the protective hen to Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her little students from the bullets with her own body.

In times like these, the gospel gets very real, and we are confronted with an immediate choice: do we stand with the fox, or with the hen? God forbid that any of us should ever be in the line of fire, but even at a safe distance, we can raise our voices to resist violence, hatred, bigotry and fear. We can spread our wings to shield the vulnerable.

When our leaders echo the rhetoric of white supremacists by referring to immigrants as “invaders,” we need to shout, “No more!” When defenseless children are taken from their parents and put into cages, we need to insist, “Not in our country!” When the toxins of tribalism inspire violence even in havens like New Zealand, we need to confess our divisive ways and beg forgiveness.

As St. Paul urges us, let us all be imitators of Christ, spreading our wings in welcome, offering warmth, protection, shelter and love without qualification. The foxes of the world want to scatter us, but God yearns to gather every single one of us from the places of isolation, alienation, division and rejection, and bring us home to the welcome table.

Look again at the mosaic of the Christlike hen. She is circled by the Latin text of Jesus’ saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” At about 10 o’clock on the circle is the verb congregare, “to gather.” You see, a congregation consists of those who have been gathered safely under the wings of Christ. You have been gathered under the wings of Christ. And we have all committed in our baptism to spread our own wings in turn, and offer our own selves––our souls and bodies––for the sake of the world.

Now just beneath the chicks, there is one more phrase. It is what Jesus says just after the text in the outer circle: et noluisti (“and they were not willing!”). Jesus wants to gather the scattered, but they refuse. For whatever reason––obstinance, foolishness, blindness, or plain old sin––they just won’t be gathered. They were not willing. And that troubling phrase, et noluisti, explains why Jesus wept as he gazed at Jerusalem, Those word are set apart from the rest of the text, and instead of swimming in the gold of eternity like the other words, they are drenched in a deep red color, the color of blood––echoing the message of that primitive covenant ritual with the butchered animals in Genesis. If you don’t find a way to live together in love, there will be blood.

Jesus offers a better way. He did it in his life and teaching, he did it on Calvary’s hill. The hen’s outstretched wings are like the arms of Jesus on the cross, still trying to gather us in with his last breath. “Father, forgive them,” he prays. Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus is trying to gather God’s children and bring them home.

In Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, there is an extraordinary moment during the crucifixion sequence. It is not literally scriptural––the screenwriter invented it––but it expresses so well the heart of the gospel message.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is allowed by a centurion to pass through security to approach her dying son. Then Mary Magdalene tries to follow right behind her, but the centurion stops her.

“Please,” says Magdalene. “I’m one of the family.”

Hearing this, the mother of Jesus turns around sharply, clearly stung by the impudence of this outsider, this woman of questionable reputation, pretending to be related to Jesus. We imagine her thinking, “How dare she try to intrude on our intimate circle!” The centurion asks Mary, “Is she family?” And at that moment, the mother of Jesus has to decide whether she’s going to be tribal and exclusive, or whether she is willing to embrace the welcoming way of her son.

After a brief hesitation, she nods, but it’s not easy for her. “Yes,” she says. “She is one of the family.” And at that moment, at the foot of the cross, beneath Christ’s outstretched wings, the welcoming and sheltering community of mutual and unconditional love is born into the world.

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)

A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.

It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.

Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.

The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.

Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.

The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”

The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.

Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear;
I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . .
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.

But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.

The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.

Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

The Widow’s Mite

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched people as they put money into it. 

–– Mark 12:40

 

How many of you have used a mite box? It’s a little blue cardboard box that’s a sort of Christian piggy bank. You put money into it every day in thanksgiving for the blessings in your life. As you call to mind the gifts you have received, your sense of gratitude is deepened.

When your box is full, you give it to a church mission fund. In the Episcopal Church, this fund is called the United Thank Offering (UTO), an early form of crowdsourcing that turns many small contributions into sums large enough to do something special. The UTO was started by Episcopal women in 1889, and it continues to fund innovative mission and ministry work throughout the Anglican Communion.

When I was growing up in the Diocese of Los Angeles, there was an annual ingathering of our mite boxes. Children from all over the diocese came together in an outdoor amphitheater to sing and pray and listen to a little preaching. And then came the big moment when all us kids got up and carried our mite boxes down a long aisle and up onto a stage, where a large hollow cross stood in the center. Then each of us in turn would place our little blue box inside that cross.

It was something I looked forward to every year. It was exciting to come together with so many other children, to see myself as part of a larger community––the community of Jesus’ youngest friends. Isn’t that one of the reasons we come to church––to see with our own eyes a living image of the communion of saints?

I was a shy child, but the experience of carrying my mite box down the aisle to put it in the cross gave me a sense of agency, a sense that I could make a difference, that my contribution mattered. It was an exercise in self-offering, a tiny imitation of the self-offering performed eternally in the trinitarian heart of God––though I certainly didn’t grasp the depths of that theological mystery at the time! It just felt good to give.

The part of the ingathering I loved best was watching all our little mite boxes, one by one, stack up inside that hollow cross. The stack grew higher and higher, turning the cross bluer and bluer, until it was completely filled in by the color of our collective gratitude.

The term “mite box” isn’t used much anymore. They’re simply called blue boxes now, but the original term is from the King James Version of the gospel story about a widow who puts two “mites”––an old English term for the smallest of coins––into the Temple treasury.

The widow’s action has become a model for sacrificial giving. The text says that the rich put “large sums” into the Temple treasury, but Jesus knows they are just showing off. The wealthy have so much money, their contribution amounts to little more than spare change. The poverty-stricken widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has. Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation draws this contrast sharply:

“The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford––she gave her all.” [i]

Those of us who have enough, those of us who do not want––we may feel the sting of this verse. We could all give more. Who does not hold something back when it comes to the collective responsibility of caring for one another, sharing God’s word, serving the needy, and repairing the world? It’s only practical. Times are uncertain, and budgets can be tight. Still, some of us might wonder how our contributions to mission and ministry stack up against our contributions to Starbucks, Comcast, Apple, and Costco.

And so it is that countless preachers have asked: Are we going to be stingy like the scribes or generous like the widow? That’s a very good question, and well worth considering. But many biblical scholars tell us that it is not the question Jesus is asking in this particular story.

There are certainly many places in the gospel when Jesus challenges our priorities, as when he tests the commitment of the rich young man, or warns his friends about the cost of discipleship, demonstrating just how serious he is by giving himself up to death, even death on a cross. The way of Jesus isn’t easy, and when he asks whether we can drink the cup that he must drink, we do tend to stammer.

But this particular moment at the Temple treasury is not a stewardship story. It’s a justice story. You see, the Temple was not just a place of worship in the benign sense we might assume from our own church experience. It was a marketplace, an exploitative economic system which fostered and exacerbated the extreme economic inequality of first-century Palestine. The money collected into its treasury did not go to things like pastoral care or outreach. It funded a bureaucracy of sacrifice which benefitted the few while sucking up the meager portions of the many. As Ched Myers says in his study of Mark’s gospel, “The Temple, like the scribal class, no longer protects the poor, but crushes them.”[ii] Or as Jesus puts it so succinctly, the rich “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40).

Now in Mark’s account, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, saying a lot of critical things about the powers-that-be. The crowd is eating it up. Then Jesus takes a break, and goes to sit down by the treasury, the offering box where people drop off their contributions. And he says to his disciples, “Listen up. I want you just to watch for a while and see what happens.” And so they do. Mostly, it’s one well-dressed person after another strutting up to the treasury, pulling out a handful of money and, with a quick glance to make sure he’s being noticed, dropping it ostentatiously into the box. They didn’t have paper currency back then, so a big offering made a lot of noise as the coins clattered into the box. It was a good way to get everyone’s attention.

But as Jesus points out, all that theatrically lavish giving was not really sacrificial for the rich folks. For them, it was a bit of spare change. I like to think Jesus makes this comment in a stage whisper loud enough to trouble the pride of the prominent givers. And then this widow steps up, very quietly, to drop in her two mites: an insignificant act by an insignificant person, the kind of thing no one usually notices. Such a small, humble gesture by the sort of person who has been virtually invisible in every society––poor, powerless, unimportant, not male.

Look, Jesus says. Look at that woman. See her situation, see who she is. Don’t just see what she is doing; see what is being done to her. She is being exploited by the injustice of an economy which takes everything from her and gives nothing back. But do you notice how, instead of acting like a helpless victim, she is taking as much charge over the situation as she can?

Though the system is corrupt, she will not be deterred from the devotional practice of making a sacrificial offering to God. She has the heart of a giver, and she will not let that be taken from her. Nor will she live in fear. Even though she has little and is living on the edge of survival, she refuses to act out of a grasping sense of scarcity. She trusts that the Lord will provide. And perhaps she is even having some fun at the expense of the preening scribes, making an ironic contrast between their stinginess and the breathtaking costliness of her two little mites.

The text doesn’t say any of this, but when Jesus tells me to look at the widow, that’s what I see. So it’s not a stewardship story in the usual sense. Jesus doesn’t end with “Go and do likewise” the way he does when he’s urging exemplary behavior. No, this is a justice story.

And I think what Jesus is telling us here is this: Look! Look closely at what’s happening around you. Start to notice what is too often invisible: the injustice of the way things are, the people who are left out or left behind, the people who are invisible. Look at the way we ourselves participate in that injustice, consciously or unconsciously. Look at the assumptions and blindnesses which allow us to enable or perpetuate the brokenness and harshness of the world with insufficiently troubled consciences.

Let the widow in the Temple be our teacher, inviting us to wonder about who she is and what she does, and about who we are and what we do. Yes, do have the heart of a giver. Fill up the hollow cross with your blue boxes. Yes, refuse the fearful mentality of scarcity, and trust that the gifts you need will continue to show up in your life. And yes, open your eyes to everything that diminishes human flourishing, and discern the actions you can take––and the actions we can take together––to restore justice, repair the world, and welcome the Kingdom of God.

In that small moment, Jesus invites us to see the wrong in our world. But he also encourages us to see the possibility for a life of gratitude and giving, manifesting itself in even the smallest of gestures.

This gospel reading happens to coincide in the Lectionary with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, known to us now as the First World War. November 11, Veterans Day, used to be called Armistice Day, to commemorate the moment when the guns ceased their terrible thunder on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the moment when a 4-year nightmare came to an end and peace was declared at last.

At the outset of that conflict in 1914, Europe was almost buoyant with anticipation. The poet/soldier Rupert Brooke spoke for many when he romanticized the clash of armies as a way to arouse western civilization from its slumbering decadence:

Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary. . . [iii]

This kind of romantic nonsense made even news reports start to sound like medieval sagas. “Soldiers” were called “warriors,” the “enemy” was the “foe,” to “die” was to “perish,” the battlefield dead were the “fallen,” and the blood of young men became “the red/Sweet wine of youth.” [iv]

It didn’t take long for the grim futility of trench warfare to dispel such illusions. “Never such innocence again,” wrote Philip Larkin, while Robert Graves spoke of the “Extinction of each happy art and faith /. . . The inward scream, the duty to run mad.” A German soldier called the Great War “the suicide of nations.” [v]

When it was over, the old world was finished, and one could argue that we’ve never quite recovered. Certainly the ideology of history as steady progress has been thoroughly discredited. We worry––a lot––about the future, and about our power to shape it wisely. But let me end by dropping a few mites into our common treasury, in the form of words from someone who lived through the Great War with her hope intact.

Vera Brittain was a brilliant young woman studying at Oxford when the war broke out. She left school to volunteer as a nurse, working near the front lines in France to treat the seriously wounded. The man she was in love with, as well the brother she adored, were both slaughtered in muddy battles. As a woman, and as a young person, Brittain was hardly a major player on the stage of history. She had only a few small mites to give for the repair of a world so wounded and shattered.

But for the rest of her life, she did what she could. Her memoir of the war, Testament of Youth, would inspire many over the years. And what she wrote at the end of that book a century ago still speaks to us today:

It did not seem, perhaps, as though we, the War generation, would be able to do all that we once hoped for the actual rebuilding of civilization. I understood now that the results of the War would last longer than ourselves; it was obvious . . . that its consequences were deeply rooted, and farther reaching, than any of us, with our lack of experience, had believed just after it was over. . .

 If the dead could come back, I wondered, what would they say to me? . . . In spite of the War, which destroyed so much hope, so much beauty, so much promise, life is still here to be lived; so long as I am in the world, how can I ignore the obligation to be part of it, cope with its problems . . . ? The surge and swell of its movements, its changes, its tendencies, still mold me and the surviving remnant of my generation whether we wish it or not, and no one now living will ever understand so clearly as ourselves, whose lives have been darkened by the universal breakdown of reason in 1914, how completely the future of civilized humanity depends upon the success of our present halting endeavors to control our political and social passions, and to substitute for our destructive impulses the vitalizing authority of constructive thought. To rescue [hu]mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself . . .[vi]

What Brittain called “our present halting endeavors” to repair the world was too soon interrupted and mocked by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and now, in our own day, is under assault again by the shocking resurgence of authoritarianism and tribal hatred in so many countries, including our own. In the face of such immensely discouraging challenges, we feel the poverty of our own capacities. Can our two mites make any difference at all?

Jesus thinks so. When he asks us to look at that widow, he wants us to see her two mites not as an indicator of poverty, but as a sign of strength.

Weakness shall the strong confound, as an old carol reminds us. That woman wasn’t daunted by  how corrupt the system was, or how uncertain tomorrow felt, or how insignificant her actions seemed. No matter what, she was going to continue being who she was: generous, grateful, and trusting.

And that young rabbi, who paid such homage to her in the Temple? It turns out that he is also the Lord of history, calling to us across the ages:

“Look,” he says. “Look: I am making all things new.
And all it’s going to cost you is two mites.”

 

 

 

This homily will be preached on November 11 at Grace Episcopal Church, Lopez Island, WA.

[i]Mark 12:43-44, trans. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language(Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 1836.

[ii]Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[iii]Rupert Brooke, “Peace,” in Max Egremont, Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014), 57.

[iv]Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 21-22.

[v]Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV,” in Fussell, 19; Robert Graves, “Recalling War,” in Egremont, 294; German prisoner interviewed by Philip Gibbs after the battle of the Somme, in Fussell, 72.

[vi]Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth(London and New York: Penguin Books, 1933/2004), 645, 655-56.

Jesus and the Rich Man: “Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is a careful reconstruction of a Roman villa. Funded by the estate of a 20th century oil billionaire, it is a lavish display of the wealth of two eras: the ancient world and our own Gilded Age.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

–– Hebrews 4:12-13

 

Is that why we come to church––to be pierced by the sharpness of God’s word, to have our innermost selves laid bare to the eyes of the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?” [i]

Not all the time, surely. Who could bear that? In a world of sin and strife, we all need an oasis of rest and refreshment, a word of consolation and encouragement. But God is not always easy, as our first two readings make clear.

“Today my complaint is bitter,” cries Job. “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning. . .
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” [ii]

And the Psalmist who sings of goodness and mercy, and a soul restored by divine presence, is now heard to cry out one of the most terrible lines in all of Scripture:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [iii]

No, God is not always easy. And neither is Jesus. One moment he’s the Good Shepherd, saying “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you,” and the next moment he’s challenging you to change your life.

The poet John Berryman captures this contradictory quality when he says that Jesus’ words were “short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.” [iv] Another poet, James McAuley, echoes the image from Hebrews in his own poem about Jesus:

He thrust his speech among them like a sword. . .
And told them nothing that they wished to hear. [v]

Today’s gospel, Mark 10:17-31, is a case in point. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” At first, Jesus gives the stock answer, like something out of the catechism:

“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The man, impatient for an answer he has not yet found, shoots back, “Yes, Teacher. I’ve always kept those commandments, even when I was young.” This gets Jesus’ full attention. The text tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s such an interesting description. He looked at him and loved him. It sounds a little like love at first sight. There isn’t another sentence quite like it in the gospels.

If this were a movie we’d get a closeup of Jesus’ face, taking in the man’s truest and best self with a gaze that is both affectionate and inquisitive, as though his eyes are asking, “Are you the disciple I’ve been waiting for so long to show up, the disciple whose singleness of heart, shorn of all lesser desires, wants nothing but the only thing truly worth having?” Then we’d cut to a closeup of the man’s face, so earnest and hopeful, on the verge of finding at last his heart’s true desire.

But then Jesus says to him, “There’s just one more thing you need to do; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”

We can imagine the man’s expectant face slowly collapsing into disappointment. This is not what he wanted to hear. He lowers his head and stares at the ground, trying to absorb the shock of Jesus’ shattering directive. Then he gets up and backs away slowly, like a boxer reeling from a punch, until he finally turns his back on Jesus and disappears into the crowd. As Mark reports, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve had to listen to this gospel many, many times in the liturgy––for seven decades. And as a North American person with more privileges and possessions than most of the earth’s inhabitants, I have always shared the agonizing discomfort of that man who found it way too hard to give up everything for the sake of the gospel.

Some Christians have taken this story quite literally. In the 3rdcentury, a wealthy young man named Antony heard it read at Sunday mass. He could not escape the feeling that the words were aimed directly at him. As soon as the liturgy was over, he rushed out to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and move to the desert, where for the next 80 years he lived a life of radical simplicity and exemplary sanctity––a life which had a great impact on the development of monastic spirituality.

A thousand years later, another wealthy young man shocked his family and friends when he renounced his worldly goods to embrace a life of poverty, service and prayer. We are still in awe of that man, Francis of Assisi, who found himself utterly unable to say no to Jesus.

In the 20th century, Dorothy Day would sacrifice the comforts of her class to live in solidarity with the poor, founding the Catholic Worker and devoting her heart and mind and strength to the vision of a just and peaceful society.

Many other saints have done the same. And even though you and I are not going to walk out those doors this morning to give away everything we have, we cannot repress the questions which the story of the rich man poses for us. We’ve heard this gospel before, and we’ll hear it again. And each time we must wonder, what is it trying to say to us?

There is no single answer, no single response to the challenge of this gospel. It’s a story, not a rule, and most Christians have not felt compelled to take Jesus’ words to the rich man in the demandingly literal way of an Antony, Francis, or Dorothy Day. But this gospel will never cease to trouble us with questions about both personal and social economics. Is the common wealth of society justly distributed? What is true wealth in God’s eyes? And where does our own treasure lie?

In first-century Palestine, wealth was measured more by the amount of land you owned than by the number of things you had. And since land acquisition usually came through the default of debtors who could not keep up their payments, wealth at the top was accrued at the expense of those further down the economic ladder. More wealth for the rich meant more poverty for the rest.

We have a similar imbalance in our own day. Right now in America, the richest 10% own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest individualsown more than the entire bottom half of the population. As wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the poverty of the many grows wider and deeper. As in the time of Jesus, those at the top get richer by taking from those below them. The recent tax cuts are a perfect example, siphoning huge increases in wealth to the rich, while cutting survival assistance to the needy. Fewer school lunches for poor children, more private jets for the rich.

But if ours is an age of grotesque economic inequality, it is also an age of remarkable private generosity. We have come to look upon billionaires and wealthy foundations as the solvers of public problems, as they dispense impressive grants to improve the lives of the many. So when Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos give away enormous sums or underwrite beneficial actions, are they in fact doing what the rich man fails to do in the gospel story? Are they doing what Jesus asked?

Anand Giridharadas has studied this critical question, and in his provocative book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, he argues that the powerful rich who address problems without changing the very conditions that create those problems is at best a failure of social imagination. A lot of good may be done by the rich, but the system that perpetuates the wrongs being addressed remains firmly in place. In fact, such acts of benevolence provide justification for the continuation of the status quo, making it appear more benign than it really is.

In a recent talk in Seattle, Giridharadas put it this way:

“You can tell rich people to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give back, but you can never tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of the system that benefitted them, but you can’t ask them to concede that system.” [vi]

If this is true, then the question that Jesus poses to the rich man, and to us, is not simply about the individual stewardship of our personal wealth, but about our willingness to work and pray for a very different kind of economy.

As biblical scholar Ched Myers has argued in his commentary on this gospel story, if you want to enter God’s kingdom, you have to make an exodus from the dominant paradigm of economic inequality. “The only way [into the Kingdom],” he says, “is to restore to the poor what is theirs by the right of community justice.” [vii]

Perhaps a better term for the Kingdom of God would be the Economy of God, something that was first described in the Book of Exodus. God delivered the people of Israel from the unjust slave economy of Egypt, and then spent the next 40 years providing a desert workshop, trying to teach them a new economy, a new way of living together––without greed, fear, or self-protective violence.

In the desert, God’s people learned to depend on what the Lord’s Prayer calls “our daily bread” – whatever each day provides for you (“give us the bread we need today”).

In Egypt, the idea was to accumulate enough stuff that you didn’t have to depend on others. You didn’t have to trust that you would be provided for as you went along. You could live without God and live without neighbor. But in the desert, you needed God and you needed each other. Whenever the Israelites tried to hoard the manna that fell from heaven each morning, the manna would rot.

Now when the people of Israel came into the Promised Land, they succumbed to the trap of accumulation like the rest of us. But they did not entirely forget their desert wisdom. In the concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, as well as the impassioned exhortations of the prophets, the Economy of God opposed the concentration of wealth through accumulation, while advocating the circulation of wealth through redistribution.

The Economy of God is an interdependent, communal condition where there are no more divisions of rich and poor. So when Jesus says that the idea of a rich man getting into the kingdom is as absurd as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, is he judging individual behavior? Or is he saying that in the Economy of God the categories of rich and poor will vanish with the just distribution of divine abundance?

The Economy of God is not like our commodity economy, where things are accumulated, hoarded, and protected by the threat of force. The Economy of God is a gift economy, where the gifts of creation and the gifts of human labor and skill are freely shared, the way manna was shared in the desert by the Israelites of the Exodus.

We practice that economy in this church every Sunday. Every time we break the bread and share it at Christ’s table, we remember the economy of grace taught to our ancestors. The eucharist is a rebuke to the selfish economics of haves and have-nots. It is an invitation into a new way of living and being together.

Is this too much to ask? The rich man in the gospel thought so. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”

When Jesus invites the rich man to let go not only of his wealth, but also of his participation in an unjust economy, he is calling him out of his comfort zone into an entirely new way of being. That’s what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do. As one of my former theology professors, Harvey Cox, has said,

Meeting [Jesus] always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required – in short, to use their imaginations.” [viii]

In 1969, BBC television aired an unusual production on the life of Jesus, written by the brilliant David Potter. [ix] My favorite scene in this film shows Jesus trying to convey another one of his most challenging teachings––in this case, to love your enemies. As he moves among the crowd, Jesus gets them to embrace one other, as in our liturgical Passing of the Peace.

“Go on,” he says, “love each other. See? It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s easy––easy to love your brother, easy to love those who love you. Even the tax collector can do that. But tell me, tell me, happy people, what is so extraordinary about holding the hands of your brothers and sisters? Do you want me to congratulate you for that, for loving only those who love you? But I say, love your enemy. Love your enemy!

[The crowd is taken aback. Some murmur in protest.]

Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you,
love the man who would kick you and spit at you. . .

[The protests grow louder.]

Listen to me! What I’m telling you now hasn’t been said since the world began.
I bring you the Way. I am holding up a light in the darkness. . .

 We cannot divide ourselves. We must love each other. . . Pray for your enemy, love your persecutor. . . It is easy to love only those who love you. Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?

Jesus might have said the same to the rich man. And to us.

Do you want me to tell you easy things?

 

 

 

 

[i] Collect for Purity, The Holy Eucharist Rite Two, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

[ii] Job 23:2, 16.

[iii] Psalm 22:1.

[iv] John Berryman, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Love and Fame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Berryman attributes the description to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165).

[v] James McAuley, “Jesus,” Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess & Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104. McAuley (1912-1981) was an Australian Roman Catholic.

[vi] Originally delivered September 20th, 2018, at Seattle’s Southside Commons as part of the Town Hall Civics lecture series, it was broadcast on the Seattle NPR station, KUOW, in their Speakers Forum: https://soundcloud.com/kuow/anand-giridharasdas-full-talk-at-southside-community-center

[vii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[viii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 25-6.

[ix] Son of Man (BBC, 1969), directed by Gareth Davies. Irish actor Colin Blakely played Jesus. Dennis Potter, who wrote the script, also wrote the strange and brilliant serial drama, The Singing Detectivein the 1980s.

Preaching on Jesus, Divorce, and the Kavanaugh Problem

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

 –– Mark 10:11-12

 

Is there any way to hear these words without wincing? It’s not exactly a preacher’s favorite text. We’d rather skip ahead to the part about Jesus blessing the little children. Divorce is a very painful subject. It’s painful to experience, painful to watch, painful to think about, painful to remember. But Jesus doesn’t sound very pastoral here. Don’t his words just add to the pain?

Certainly some Christians, and some churches, have used this text to judge and shame those whose marriages don’t endure. Some have even used it to deter spouses from leaving abusive or dangerous relationships. But I think that kind of hardheartedness to be a sadly mistaken reading of both the context and the content of this gospel passage. Let’s take a closer look.

In the full passage on divorce in Mark 10:2-12, there are actually two different conversations. One is public, and one is private. In the first, “some Pharisees” approach Jesus to “test” him. The Greek verb for “test” is the same one used by Mark for what Satan does to Jesus in the wilderness. So we know it’s not going to be a friendly dialogue. It’s going to be a verbal contest.

This happens a lot in the gospel. The Pharisees try to trip Jesus up, make him say something that will turn the people against him. In this case they ask, in a public setting where everyone can hear his answer, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Well, divorce was a hot topic at the time. Some Jews said yes, some said no. Whatever Jesus answers, think the Pharisees, he’s going to turn off anyone who takes the opposite position.

But Jesus doesn’t fall for this trap. Instead, he reframes the question in two ways. First of all, he makes it personal. The Pharisees present the question as abstract, not about a particular person’s situation but about a hypothetical “man.” But Jesus knows that the bond between two people is not theoretical but very personal and situational. So he asks his inquisitors, “What did Moses command you?”

In other words, “As individuals who wonder WWMD––what would Moses do?––tell me how you interpret Scripture when the question affects you personally? When Scripture and tradition speak on this matter, what do they say to you?”

It’s the kind of tactic Jesus used when he was asked about keeping the Sabbath. He made it personal and situational: Who among you wouldn’t bend a general principle when the need arises? The Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around.

So the flustered Pharisees, hoping to evade the existential dimension of divorce, try to keep the conversation theoretical. “Moses,” they replied, “allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Jesus now has them on the run.

“Why do you suppose Moses said this?” he asks. “It’s because your hearts are so hard, that you just aren’t very good at marriage. Nobody is, actually. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to let go of your selfishness and your power struggles and learn to give yourselves to one another with the same sacrificial self-offering that defines the divine life.”

Well, he didn’t exactly say it that way, but his employment of the Genesis image of two becoming one flesh implies everything which we believe about our calling as human beings: to give ourselves away for the sake of others, to live not for ourselves alone but in communion with one another. This is true whether you are called to be married, or to be single as Jesus himself was. The Trinitarian God desires that our lives reflect the divine life, that we be bonded with one another in a most holy communion. And woe to anyone who tries to divide and separate those whom God has joined together.

That was Jesus’ public teaching, and his inspired and exalted view of our vocation to love one another evidently reduced the Pharisees to silence. We imagine them slinking away, shaking their heads. Then Jesus and his disciples go inside, where they can speak more frankly as friends.

The disciples, who aren’t always so quick to understand their difficult teacher, want to know how his exalted idea of marriage applies to the specific question of divorce. We may wish for a more nuanced report of their private discussion, but all we get is the verse linking divorce and adultery, a saying which has caused so much trouble and hurt over the years.

The assertion that the remarriage of divorced persons is equivalent to adultery sounds extreme and unrealistic to us today. And it conjures up in our minds the pointed finger of judgment and shame, an image which hardly fits our understanding of Jesus as the model of compassion, the friend of those whose lives are fraught with brokenness and pain.

When we hear the phrase, “commit adultery,” it can sound like a specific act of a salacious nature, reinforced by countless movies. But in the original Greek text, the word “commit” is not even there. The verb Jesus uses is “adulterate,” and it is rendered in the passive voice, suggesting a condition or state of being rather than a specific occurrence. A more literal translation of the text would say that “whoever” experiences a broken marriage “is adulterated.”

Adulterate, from the Latin verb to alter or change, means to dilute or weaken an original substance by the admixture of other elements. When love is mixed with something less than love, it becomes adulterated. So perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words more as a statement of fact rather than an accusation or judgment.

There can be bad reasons for ending a marriage, and there can be good reasons. But a failed marriage, whether broken by commission or omission or irreconcilable differences, is an alteration, an adulteration, of the original intention expressed in the marriage vows: to be united in heart, body and mind.There is undeniable pain in such a ripping asunder, but there should be no condemnation or shame. We all come short of perfection, in relationships and a lot of other things. But God loves us anyway.

Marriage can be hard work, for any number of reasons. And try as we may, it doesn’t always work out. Divorce happens: it’s sad and it’s hard. But whether our story be sweet or not sweet, God is always in it with us, wiping away the tears and turning darkness into light.

That is my pastoral reading of the gospel text. But I find a prophetic word in it as well, a word that couldn’t be more timely at this moment in America. You see, when Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, he is also addressing the unequal distribution of power, not only between men and women, but between the powerful and the vulnerable.

In Jesus’ day, the divorce debate wasn’t about the degree to which a couple was expected to fulfill a romantic ideal. It was about the vulnerability of women and the exercise of male power. Jewish law allowed the husband, but not the wife, to end a marriage whenever he wanted. For a first-century woman, the consequences of divorce were devastating. If she didn’t have any family to take her in, her choices for survival were either begging or prostitution.

We know that Jesus always sided with the vulnerable, so we may read his critique of divorce as a forceful way to address the harm inflicted on women by the gross inequity of power between the sexes. This was not just an ancient problem. Despite all our best hopes for social progress, we have all seen in recent days how gross that inequity remains.

We have seen a white male judge seethe with sarcasm and rage in his Senate confirmation hearing. We have heard a white male Senator respond angrily to the accusations of abuse survivors by saying, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this!” And we have witnessed a white male president lead a laughing mob in the mockery of a woman who has suffered sexual assault, while claiming at the same time that the really scary thing is that the powerful might actually be held accountable.

It seems bizarre to see abusers, and the enabers of abusers, to act as if they are the real victims. But the analysis of writer Rebecca Traister helps us make sense of this strange reversal of victim and oppressor. Traister has just published an important book called Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, examining the role of disruptive anger as an engine of social change. And in it she asks the question of who has the right to be angry in our society. As we have seen in the Supreme Court hearings, it’s okay for white males to openly display their rage, but women and minorities had better learn to keep it hidden.

Now we know that women and minorities have plenty to be furious about. But why are all those privileged white males so undisguisedly angry? It’s because anger is a weapon powerful people use to protect their power. As Traister puts it:

“It’s powerful men saying, ‘We shouldn’t have to put up with this. We shouldn’t have to listen to and absorb and in any way have our power diminished by, or assent impeded by, the angry dissent of these people who have less power than we do.’ That is very openly what they are angry about.”[i]

This is why, in what was essentially a job interview, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could weep and rage freely about his own victimhood without suffering immediate disqualification. As Traister explains, making exaggerated claims of personal suffering is a common response by the privileged when they are challenged from below. She writes:

“[Their] hyperbolic language of injury and death gives you a sense of perhaps the degree to which the power of a particular kind of white man is so tied to his identity that the lessening of that power feels like a death. The fear that facing any kind of repercussion at all for power abuse is tantamount to ‘revolution,’ to ‘social upheaval,’ to ‘violent insurgency.’ Right? That’s the language they immediately go for.”[ii]

Have I wandered too far from the gospel here? I don’t think so. While the topic of divorce, and our pastoral and compassionate response to it, is a critical one, touching most of us in one way or another, Jesus’ persistent objection to inequity in general––and the abuse of power that flows from it––is also something that needs to be high on the agenda of every faith community.

As God’s coworkers, laborers in the vineyard of love and justice, we are called to resist “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” That’s what we promised in our baptismal covenant, and this vocation is more critical than ever as the love which binds us becomes adulterated by inequity, selfishness and fear.

This is a time of crisis on so many levels, but we are not yet acting as though this is true. And perhaps the greatest emergency of all is “the lack of a sense of emergency.” [iii]

My brothers and sisters,
we have so much work to do.
Sleepers wake!
The wolf is at the door.
This is not a drill.

Therefore, rise up, you saints of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
to serve the King of kings.

Rise up, you saints of God,
God’s kingdom tarries long;
Lord, bring the day of truth and love
and end the night of wrong!

 

 

This homily on the gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost will be delivered at Faith Episcopal Church in Poulsbo, Washington.

[i]Rebecca Traister, from an interview on All In with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, Oct. 2, 2018. Her book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was published on October 2 by Simon & Schuster.

[ii]Traister, “Women, Rage and Power,” on Why Is This Happening?, a podcast with Chris Hayes (Sept. 27, 2018): https://art19.com/shows/why-is-this-happening-with-chris-hayes/episodes/5f30cc4e-bc1f-4b73-a920-4eca8960db25

[iii]Martin Heidegger, q. in Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 2.

Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus