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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

“How good and pleasant it is,” declared the psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity.”

Many Christians recited that verse from Psalm 133 during Sunday worship yesterday. What a striking contrast between reciting what is “good and pleasant” and recalling Charlottesville, Virginia descending into chaos and violence, hearing with dismay the hate-filled speech, lamenting a country deeply fragmented.

Like many others, I long for just the right words, the most effective rhetorical posture, the finely-tuned strategy – anything at all to fix this broken society.

I pondered this as I sat and prayed with the other biblical texts for yesterday’s liturgy – the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Paul writing about Jews in a letter to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. These texts reminded me how deeply embedded we are in systems far larger than ourselves, systems that divide and fragment us with cycles of injury and vengeance, systems that remain invulnerable to reason, and logic, or just a “better argument.”

We are not dealing with mere partisanship here or ideological differences, as if all we need are persuasive facts to correct wrong-headed ideas.

Cornel West was among a line of clergy in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm to face a phalanx of white nationalist demonstrators. West is no newcomer to this work and witness; he’s been around the racism block many, many times. West described staring into the eyes of those demonstrators and noted: “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”west_charlottesville

What has recently become more directly visible, and its expressions more emboldened, has deep and stubborn roots. Festering in this country’s past is not only the institution of slavery but the construction of race itself as the means to justify and perpetuate the superiority of white people over all others. This creates a social system that cannot be uprooted or dismantled by fiat, much less by street brawls.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery as an institution, but it did not dispel the social system or its enduring legacy. Michelle Alexander reminds us how that system perpetuates itself in ever new guises – at first as “Reconstruction,” then “Jim Crow,” and today, in the “mass incarceration” of young men of color.

It’s tempting, in other words, to isolate problematic individuals – whether as neo-Nazis or white nationalists – and to suppose that rebuking them or arresting them or punishing them will solve the problem. But we are not dealing with a few bad apples in the barrel; the barrel itself is the problem. Or as a poet-activist recently proposed, white supremacy “is not a shark; it’s the water.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood the deeply spiritual character of this system of injustice and its hateful expressions, for which only a deeply spiritual response will suffice. This insight shaped the six principles of nonviolence that guided his life and work.

Principle #3, for example, urges us to remember that we are seeking to defeat injustice, not people. “Evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

How easy it is to forget this in the heat of confrontation and conflict, yet so vital to remember: the hate Cornel West encountered is just as soul crushing and corrosive for the hater as it is for the targets of their hate.

King believed that the only meaningful and lasting solution is for all of us, together, to create and sustain what he called the “Beloved Community.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what King meant by this, which is certainly much more than a social club. That galvanizing image first appeared in the work of Josiah Royce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher of religion.

For Royce, the communal bonds we share with each other, the ones that make us human together, are torn apart by treachery. Royce called that moment of betrayal “the irrevocable deed.” He chose that language carefully, to underscore the severity of treachery and its debilitating legacy, how it refuses to dissipate just by ignoring it or pretending it never happened. Apologies alone will not suffice to heal the rupture of betrayal; the deed still stands as irrevocable.

Treachery, Royce argued, demands atonement – for both the betrayed and the betrayer. This will mean creating something new, not in spite of that irrevocable deed but because of it. This new thing Royce described as the Beloved Community.

Royce turned often to the story of Joseph in Genesis, the climax of which was appointed for yesterday’s worship (Gen. 45:1-15). Recall how the story began: out of envy, Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him and he was sold as a slave into the house of Pharaoh.  Over time, Joseph becomes a trusted servant and even a “lord of Egypt.” And this: his ability to interpret dreams saves the whole land from a terrible famine.

Among those he saves, of course, are members of his own family, including his treacherous brothers. The storyteller does not give us a “forgive and forget” moment but an extended family reunion in which Joseph insisted that his brothers remember what they did to him. He insists on this, not for vengeance or retribution but to build something new and hopeful from their shared memory – the essence, Royce proposed, of “atonement.”

hands_multiracialGenuine community, Royce argued, the Beloved Community, emerges from a shared memory of betrayal and a shared hope for new life.

Countless “irrevocable deeds” litter our past, some festering like an open wound, others leaving only traces of a scar. What transpired in Charlottesville is but the latest manifestation of what Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin” – racism. Unless and until we tell that story truthfully, remember it together courageously and humbly, the irrevocable deeds of white supremacy remain un-atoned.

Royce would argue that Christians already know what that kind of truth-telling looks like, or have at least a hint of its rhythms whenever we gather at the Eucharistic Table. At that Table, through a shared memory and a shared hope, the same God who made something good from the evil done to Joseph makes something good from us – the Body of Christ.

In a world torn apart by hate and violence, what Christians do at the Eucharistic Table matters. The Table matters; I have to believe this. At the Table we cease to be fragments – divided by race and nationality, split apart by color and gender, betrayed by envy and sold into the slavery of countless cycles of injury and vengeance – at the Table we are knit together into a single body, bound together by love and grace. This, at the very least, is our hope.

Learning to tell the truth in and with love at the Table will not solve our resilient divisions; but I am convinced it’s the only path on which a graceful solution will appear.

Martin Luther King, Jr., urged us along that path with familiar words that never grow old:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

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Love. Now More than Ever.

Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.

Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.

The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.

Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.

Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.

In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”

A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).

For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.

If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.

I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.

Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.

But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”

Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.

“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”

So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).

The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.

Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!

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He Qi: “The Song of Solomon”

What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.

I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!

Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).

I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.

As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.

The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.

And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.

Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.

And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.

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A Holy Harrowing and an Empty Hell

Whom would Jesus leave behind? Spoiler alert: no one.

I grew up in a brand of Evangelical Christianity percolating throughout with an ambient anxiety. Despite swimming through a constant stream of rhetorical grace and bathed in the assurances of divine love, the tradition bred considerable consternation: would I, finally, be included among the saved? Do I have enough belief, believe the right things? Have I filed all my spiritual insurance forms?

The popularity of the Left Behind series of novels (including the movie version) puts a slightly different spin on this apocalyptic disquietude: finding assurance for one’s inclusion by excluding others. Or as a friend of mine from seminary more pointedly asked of such a strategy, “How many people have to burn in Hell for you to feel comfortable?”

Today is Holy Saturday – a celestial silence and an earthly pause between the desolation of Good Friday and the rousing announcement of Easter. A lingering grief weights our steps, tugging us back from the rise of anticipatory joy.  This is a peculiar slice of liturgically liminal time when nothing much seems stirring.

Not quite so for some strands of the traditions that would have us see Jesus quite busily at work on this day. One of my favorite icons captures the drama of his labor: Jesus harrows Hell, smashes its gates, and yanks a startled Adam and Eve from their graves and into the blazing light of a new day.chora_anastasis

I see little reason to suppose that Jesus administered orthodoxy tests after tearing down Hell’s fortress, or that he sorted and divided between the worthy and the unworthy prisoners of death, or that anything other than a heart hungry for love and for life – for that Love that is Life – made any difference in his liberating reach. And why should we suppose any of this given the scandalous grace of Jesus’ life and ministry?

In the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived, no prodigal fails to return, no sheep remains missing, no coin ever goes unfound (Luke 15). “Gather up all the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6). Jesus said this after feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish and with twelve baskets of leftovers, an auspicious number: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples. Apparently even Judas is scooped up among the rescued bits so that nothing and no one will ever be lost.

The Gospel astonishes – or should – in an American society where Syrian refugees are left behind (even after they are gassed by others and bombed by us); where children living in poverty are left behind in the decimation of public education; where low-income elders are left behind in a health care system designed for the comfortably employed and independently wealthy; where all of the planet’s other animals and its very ecosystems are left behind to boil, choke, starve, shrink, and whither for the greater good of corporate profits.

Christian faith offers ample reason to resist these political postures and policies with a Gospel that so many Christians – myself included – find difficult to embrace. Preaching and living this Gospel ought to send shock waves through our social fabric, ruffling the preened feathers of productivity, even foment revolutionary unrest.

Perhaps it’s just unsustainable, this profound message of unrelenting and unqualified grace. The rawness of this grace, its refusal to consider merit of any kind, grates against ambition and taints the laurels of achievement. Perhaps too many of us Christians – myself included – worry that grace itself is a finite commodity, precious but scarce, or maybe we too often live as the prodigal son’s older brother: resentful of Daddy’s generosity.

Whatever the reasons, I find this Holy Saturday both bracing and harrowing. That icon I love? It’s no throwback to a literal reading of Genesis, nor mere nod to a sentimental reunion with Adam and Eve. As an iconic representation of humanity’s origins, those figures are us, all of us, no exceptions. And we, all of us, are yanked from our tombs.

May the joy of Easter season about to dawn inspire us to live with and among all other creatures as if no one is left behind – because no one is.

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The Jewishness of Jesus for a New Year of Courage

January 1, New Year’s Day, repeatedly blinks and flashes on the secular calendar like a giant reset button. It’s the opportunity and the invitation to start over and start fresh.

On the Christian calendar, this day sits roughly in the middle of the twelve-day Christmas season – roughly for more than one reason. In some traditions, this day is celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. This is, after all, the eighth day of Christmas, and Jewish male children are circumcised and receive their names eight days after birth.circumcision_jesus_rothenberg

Most contemporary liturgical calendars, however, call this day something else; they obscure that genital wounding by calling it instead the “Feast of the Holy Name.”

Well, that got tidied up pretty quickly…

I have to wonder: Does renaming this day reflect an ongoing discomfort with the genitals of Jesus or even acknowledging he had genitals at all or about human sexuality more generally or perhaps how easily bodies can be wounded? Probably a bit of each.

This somewhat peculiar moment in Jesus’ life seems particularly appropriate as we enter a new year in a deeply divided and anxious country. It matters to suppose that the divine Word of God is manifest not only in all the peculiar things specific to a particular human body but also in all the complex and fleshy entanglements of a human society.

Circumcision, as early Christians argued, confirmed the genuine humanity of Jesus, but it did more than this; it marked – quite literally carved – a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity in a province of the Roman Empire.

As theologian Graham Ward puts it, theology always entails a “cultural politics.”*

But we need to say far more than that and much more directly: it’s a cultural politics that comes with a wounding of the flesh.

As we’ve been seeing for some time now, a renewed wave of identity politics is sweeping across this country, fueling a severe fragmentation of our society, revealing painful wounds and old scars that many carry on their own bodies.

Two of the more recent examples: plans are underway for a neo-Nazi march in a small town in Montana later this month, quite specifically targeting the town’s Jewish residents. And this past week, in Chandler, Arizona, a Jewish family erected a menorah on their front lawn – this being the season of Chanukah – and someone refashioned it into a swastika.

These hostile if not hateful sentiments are not new, but their expressions are newly visible in a cultural climate that now seems so much more tolerant of these things than it ever should be.

We must not let this become normal.

Given the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, there has never been a good time to brush aside the Jewishness of Jesus – erasing circumcision from the name of a Christian feast day risks doing precisely that. But we need to say much more than that given the cultural climate right now in the United States.

Christians need to be proactive and vocal about our indebtedness to Judaism, about our ancient though certainly contested kinship with Jews, about the people of Israel living under the first-century imperial occupation of Rome as the very location for God to dive headlong into the beautiful and messy poignancy and bloody cultural politics of human life.

This is, I believe, just the beginning of the kind of courageous witness Christian communities will need to offer in the weeks and months ahead – about ethnicity, about race, about religion, about sexuality and gender – all the intertwined complexities of what it means to be human together and in which the Word of God was and is pleased to dwell, in the flesh.

The familiarity of these seasonal stories at this time of year might still inspire us for the challenging work ahead, especially if we hear these stories in all their scandalous peculiarity. Later this week we’ll celebrate the Epiphany – Persian astrologers presenting extravagant gifts to a Jewish baby born in poverty. It’s hard to imagine a more counter-cultural story for this American moment.

It has always mattered and it’s soon going to matter quite directly for Christians to insist that bodies matter. And I believe the present moment demands as much specificity as possible in our insistence – no mere embrace of bodies in general or some abstract theory of the goodness of embodiment will do. As a short list, we must insist on this:

  • Black flesh and bodies matter.
  • The flesh and bodies of migrants and refugees matter.
  • The flesh and body matter of the eight-year old transgender boy who was just kicked out of the cub scouts.
  • The flesh and bodies of the Native Americans at Standing Rock matter as they seek to protect the flesh and body of Earth.
  • The flesh and bodies of other-than-human animals with whom we share this planet, they matter, too, as equally the cause of God’s ceaseless delight – they, after all, were among the very first witnesses of Jesus’ birth in a barn.

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I return to the Eucharistic Table week after week in my little Episcopal Church for many reasons. One of them is to find the courage to love in a world of hate, and to remember (again and again and again) that my own flesh and body matter.

In many ways, the Eucharist is my weekly “reset button” for my own life, starting over and starting fresh by encountering divine love once again in the flesh.

Perhaps on this Feast of the Holy Name we can reset the calendar by remembering the holy names God uses for us, for all of us – names like Delightful, Cherished, Beloved.

 

* Graham Ward, “On the Politics of Embodiment and the Mystery of All Flesh,” in The Sexual Theologian, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood

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Cradle It — Tenderly, Fiercely, Queerly

This holy-day season offers plenty of queerness, enough to inspire some gritty hope and ignite a fleshy faith in a world that has run completely off the rails.

Do you hear what I hear? Racist taunts and misogynistic jokes and the derisive mocking of the disabled; stock market bells clanging with stratospheric heights while people huddle under highway overpasses without any home or hearth; the panicked whimpering of cattle herded toward their slaughter in filthy factory farms.

Do you see what I see? Syrian cities in rubble; sinking rafts on the Mediterranean Sea; a deadlocked American jury unable to convict; polar icecaps vanishing like morning mist; the Hijab torn from a tearful head of a Muslim, her face wracked with fear and foreboding.

Do you wonder, as I often do, what possible difference any of us can make in world such as this? I know and affirm the standard response: we need to strategize, and organize, and pull as many legislative levers as possible to yank us toward a society of peace and justice.

And still I wonder: can we avoid playing a tit-for-tat game of political power? Do we measure success by how many votes are cast? How many “losers” can we tolerate when we finally “win”?

Perhaps we need to return or begin and then stay rooted elsewhere, which this peculiar season with a cradle in it urges me to remember. The God who shows up as an infant marks a way forward, the way of the flesh – touching it tenderly, caressing it carefully, embracing it fiercely.nativity_guatemalan

How romantically naïve that sounds, if not thoroughly ludicrous. Except for this: the powerful retain their power by keeping us divided and fragmented; by telling us that some people cannot be touched much less loved; that whole populations belong behind walls, out of reach; that entire species are merely disposable for the sake of economic growth and profitability.

As a white man entangled in all the horrific machinations of white supremacy and misogyny, I’m grateful for Toni Morrison’s reminder of why a fleshy faith matters in systems of oppressive institutional power. In her novel Beloved, the character of Baby Suggs preaches to her fellow ex-slaves, urging them to love their flesh, to “love it hard”:

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. … This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up.

Queerly, to work for a better world we must first and continually cradle the flesh and cherish it – I mean, really cherish it: hug it, feed it, sing to it, cuddle it, rescue it, stand up for it, brush out its matted fur, pour a river of cleansing tears over it as we massage it, adore it, and never, ever take it for granted.

Imagine your whole family doing this as a Christmas gift, setting aside petty disagreements and all the fretting over suitable presents and showering each other with hugs and kisses.

Imagine your neighborhood, your whole circle of friends and colleagues, pausing to hold hands and rub sore shoulders and linger in a protective embrace. And then more: inviting all those “others” to join you in that arc of fleshy touch – the stranger and alien, the differently colored and accented speakers, the hungry and lonely, the despised and abandoned.

Imagine people everywhere, starting in your own cozy nook and familiar cranny, and extending across this country and around the globe honoring and worshiping the flesh – assigning worth to it, as “worship” quite literally means.

Adore the flesh that God made, just as God does. Taking unimaginable delight in this flesh, God dives headlong into this whole beautiful, poignant mess with us, landing in a cradle. And for no other reason than endless, deathless love.

If we imagine these things and do them, we might hear a heavenly chorus of angels break into song once again, probably weeping as they do, overcome and undone by the glory of God…in cherished flesh.

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Advent 4: Comrade Mary

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The Blessed Virgin Mary – it’s complicated.

It’s been complicated for a long time, ever since Christian men started telling Christian women to be like Mary – passive and submissive.

It’s complicated, not least because Mary’s traditional title includes the word “virgin,” which has cast a Christian spell of suspicion over human sexuality for centuries. (And this is certainly odd since I’m pretty sure Jesus’ brothers and sisters were not delivered by storks.)

So is Mary the model for humble obedience to the will of God? Or is she the fierce pioneer of God’s intervention into human history with radicalized love?

Yes, both; it’s complicated.

Christians arrive to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Mary greetsmary_elizabeth1 us. What she says ought to provoke in us what happened to her cousin, Elizabeth: our insides should twist and tumble and tweak (Luke 1:44).

Mary greets us in this week before Christmas having done quite a remarkable thing indeed: saying Yes to God. This is not easy.

This Yes is not passive submission, but deliberate, engaged, active participation in a divine encounter. This woman had precious few opportunities to chart her own course or even ponder it, yet she not only questions God’s own emissary but then boldly says Yes – as if that mattered, and it does.

Mary greets us as the One-Who-Says-Yes-to-God, and then tells us what this Yes means:

God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Mary’s exclamation ought to send shivers down the spine of all those who wield power, whether through votes or by force or in the mechanisms of social privilege.

But no, not quite. That would be the rhetoric of the opposition party countering the power of the ruling class. Mary’s greeting is more revolutionary than that.

Mary echoes the words of Hannah, from centuries before her own time. Hannah lamented not having children of her own and dared to present herself in the Temple, repeatedly, to demand a divine remedy. The male guardian of that holy site even worried that she might be drunk. But then God answered her fervent prayers, and the prophet Samuel was the result. Hannah’s song of praise lingers in Mary’s exultations:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth…
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil (1 Samuel 2:3-5).

Mary2Mary, in solidarity with her ancient sister Hannah, greets us, not with cozy platitudes but a challenge: God is found among the least likely; God attends to the forgotten, the outcast, the throwaways, the utterly insignificant. God pays heed to the ones not even the most “progressive” among us try to feature in our programs of charitable assistance. Mary voices the astonishing solidarity of God with the absolutely voiceless.

Where God is, most cannot hear – but Mary does.

And so I think of my own mother, Rosemary, who died this year at the end of March. That faithful, pious woman who refused to let God off the hook. Like Hannah, she fretted over not having children – and complained bitterly to God about it (whether she complained about the result is another story…).

My mother was tender and tenacious, stubborn and strategic, frivolous and fierce. She was complicated; and so was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mothers do and speak and live what few take as important, significant, or laudatory. Most of us don’t even know the half of it.

Our complicated mothers are our complicated selves in countless ways, even as our social systems reduce us to the neatly drawn categories of gender, race, and religion. Mary said No to all of that by saying Yes to God – the God whom she encountered as our Uncanny Comrade.

Mary, too, is our comrade, who points to the outrageous God of Jesus by pointing at her own body – her rounded belly, the charges of scandal, the forced migration, the painful journey, the lack of any hospitality, the bloody, messy stable. Mary’s life and witness, her words and her body, are as complicated and as glorious as your body and mine. There, she says, in all that bodily complexity, right there is God.

But “comrade”? Why risk evoking a revolution? Because Mary voiced what Hannah voiced and my own dear mother voiced, each in her own way: take God seriously, and the world will not stay the same. Take God seriously, and your own world will turn upside down. Take God seriously…seriously enough to complain and cajole and insist and demand that God make good on God’s promises. That’s what mothers do.

Yes, it’s complicated, but not so terribly much. Because we are the story of Mary and her Child, a story of God’s unending, passionate love for God’s own creation.

So may Mary, the mother of a precious and vulnerable child, help us see the piercing love of mothers for their terribly vulnerable children – on the streets of Ferguson, in flimsy boats on the Aegean Sea, on the beaches of Greek islands, in our schoolyards playing, and in our backyards laughing.

May Mary’s brazen Yes animate our own affirmations of God’s justice, especially when it seems risky and unreasonable.

May this blessed and ancient comrade in divine mysteries inspire us to see and treat all bodies as blessed – all of them, without exception.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Padvent_3_altrayer
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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The Ground Cries Out

There’s a lot of blood in the Bible, just as there is the world today. Whether in ancient texts or the daily newspaper, we seem awash in blood.blood_dripping

You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to stumble into blood. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain by saying, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

Couldn’t we say the same thing about the fratricidal madness in Israel/Palestine? What about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? They garner headlines by beheading two Americans but most of their victims are actually fellow Muslims.

There’s plenty of blood closer to home, too. It’s everywhere: the horrifying image of Michael Brown lying on a Ferguson, Missouri, street in a pool of his own blood; the revelation that the Ferguson police department in 2009 actually sued a man they had beaten for staining their uniforms with his blood; every “drive-by shooting” that happens nearly every day in the U.S. spilling still more blood.

I was astonished to realize recently that the FDA still prohibits gay men from donating blood, a policy established in 1983 at the advent of the AIDS crisis. And I do confess: I like vampire fiction, from Brom Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and, of course, television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ( a great source for theological reflection, I have to say).

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula, several characters repeat in mantra-like fashion a key line: “The blood is the life!” That summarizes pretty well an ancient Israelite conviction as well — one we might do well to consider in today’s blood-soaked world.

Blood signaled not merely violence in that ancient society; it was the visible, tangible, taste-able, smear-able, odiferous presence of life. Or rather, precisely because blood is the coursing, flowing presence of life itself, the careless, wanton, violent shedding of it is truly horrific.

This weekend, many Christians will hear from the biblical book of Exodus and about blood, the blood of a lamb smeared on doorposts. It is of course the foundational story for Passover. Most Christians likely also hear in that story intonations of the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and will think about the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God.”

Blood becomes visible with violation or violence, and life is seen, manifested and displayed, even as it is being degraded, demeaned, destroyed. I wonder if we Christians might take that insight with us to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday.

In a world awash in blood, I wonder if we Christians might consider anew what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb of God. Is this conceivable anymore? I think it should be.

As we ingest the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, we take into ourselves the very life of God:

  • We take in God’s own deep solidarity with all victims of violence, made visible in the blood of Jesus spilled by Roman soldiers.
  • We take in God’s unswerving affirmation of life, made visible in the wounded hands of the risen Jesus from which his blood flowed.
  • We take in God’s own participation in the risk of bodily intimacy – the risk for everyone and not just gay men, the risk made visible in Jesus sharing the cup of his life with the one who betrayed him.

As the very life of God courses through our veins and arteries, eventually, perhaps regularly, maybe even daily, this life will be made visible in acts of compassion, generosity, and love. It will declare itself in the refusal to allow, ever again, the body of a teenager to lie in a city street for hours as blood drains from his body. It will manifest itself in a new kind of world devoted to abundant life for all and not just for some.passover_blood_door

It will be as obvious as blood slathered on a doorpost.

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The Village People on Easter

I confess: I still enjoy dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People, complete with all the goofy hand gestures that accompany each of those four letters. A dance floor filled with people, arms stretched above their heads to make a “Y” – it looks like a prayer meeting.

That song became something like a gay anthem way back in the disco days of the late 1970s. Earlier this year, some activists suggested including that song in the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Sochi, to protest Russia’s stance toward LGBT people. But Victor Willis, the song writer, insisted that he really didn’t have gay men in mind at all when he wrote it.

Willis’ protests notwithstanding, The Village People have endured as gay icons, not least for their costumes. The biker, the sailor, the soldier, the cowboy, tvillage_peoplehe American Indian, the construction worker, and the cop – these hunky cultural stereotypes fueled the erotic fantasies of many gay men (including me). This might make The Village People rather gay, certainly kitschy, but not terribly queer.

Something far queerer happens toward the end of Luke’s gospel account, a story that features another kind of village that many Christians will hear about this weekend, as we always do on the third Sunday of Easter.

emmaus_breaking_breadAn alluring stranger joins two disciples of Jesus traveling along a road toward a village called Emmaus. When they arrive, they invite this stranger to join them at the village inn. There, sitting at table, the stranger breaks bread. In that moment the disciples finally recognize the stranger as the risen Jesus; in that same moment, he disappears (Luke 24:31).

But wait! What happened to the joyful reunion part? If not a Hollywood-style orchestral soundtrack why not at least a hug? Or as Dorothy put it in the Wizard of Oz, “My! People come and go so quickly here.”

Luke’s village people underscore the peculiar character of Christian faith and indeed its queerness. “Queer” not so much for its LGBT sensibilities but for its refusal to give what so many of us want: a clearly defined God we can grasp and control.

Luke set the stage for that moment several chapters earlier, when Jesus appeared in glory on a mountain. There, Peter did what I would have done and excitedly proposed to build a booth, a place to capture and contain the glory (Luke 9:33). But Jesus refused to be boxed in and captured, just as he did in a village called Emmaus.

First-century Emmaus and twentieth-century Village People – together they can remind us about the risks and dangers in trying to categorize, classify, and capture both God and humans. On the one hand, we risk living with little more than an idol, and on the other, all the dangerous cultural divisions drawn by race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender of the kind NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling just recently displayed.

Black men play basketball. Asian women are bad drivers. Gay men lust after American Indians, especially if they just happen to be construction workers. Familiar stereotypes are easily dismissed but they linger, fortifying the categorical assumptions most of us adopt nearly every day.

The familiar made strange.
The reliable unraveled.
The status quo ecstatically undone.

These are the peculiar hallmarks of Christian faith and they invite us into queer moments of encounter. In the midst of what we think we already know – racial profiles, sketchy neighborhoods, exotic cultures, the familiar stench of decay and death – right there strange new life awaits. Queerly enough, according to Luke, hospitality is the best way to see it.

For Luke, it takes a village to raise the ensign of Easter over the familiar categories of our despair. Even The Village People can help when we see their campy costumes as parodies and we dance not with categories but with people, our arms raised in the shape of a “Y” – or even better, as a “V”.village_people_ymca2

God’s victory over death appears when we break bread with strangers, and even more in the courage to dance with them.

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The Best Easter Egg Ever

There’s a scar on my left index finger. A visible reminder of that moment when I was twelve and accidentally closed my father’s jack knife over that finger’s middle knuckle. Not just a visible reminder. If I bump that finger just right and hard enough the nerve endings quiver, triggering a vivid memory of pain, a bodily flashback to the twelve year old I used to be, and in some ways still am, yet changed.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping near an empty tomb. She spoke to someone she thought was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him as the risen Jesus (John 20:16). Stranger by far than an empty tomb are those gospel moments of resurrection when the closest friends of Jesus fail to recognize him. John quite oddly insists that the disciples finally rejoiced in their recognition only when they saw the scars on his risen body (John 20:20).

Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion as if it never happened. Trauma denied or repressed is trauma that will haunt us forever. Easter startles and transforms not by covering over pain and suffering but by bringing new life up from its depths.

I venerated the “old rugged cross” on Friday with a congregation still rebuilding from a devastating, traumatic fire. The bell tower survived the fire, including the wooden cross that had stood at its peak for nearly 137 years. That cross survived the fire but apparently not the many decades of weather erosion.gs_cross_full

The wood of that cross had rotted and decayed, despite the many layers of paint, and the whole thing will need to be replaced. Removing it from the tower, the contractor discovered something else: the very center of that cross had deteriorated so severely that a swallow had built a nest inside. Egg shell fragments still remained there with the nest, a quiet witness to the nurturing of life in a symbol of death. Surely the best Easter egg ever.

And that was the cross we venerated on Good Friday.

gs_cross_nest_exposedI knelt there to touch and kiss that crumbling cross to remember my own bodily fragility, my fears and anxieties, the betrayals I have endured and the ones I have perpetrated, the love for which I yearn and the loves I have spurned. Into those depths God has plunged to build a quiet nest of new life.

Easter invites us to follow Mary to the tomb, weeping. We go there with the grief of mistakes and loss, with the regrets over what could have been but never was, with all the scars we still carry and that still jangle our nerves with what might still be. We go there, not in spite of all these memories and hopes that make us who we are but because of them.

Just there and just then, we hear our name.

 

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Tina Turner and Maundy Thursday

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner sang that question in the 1980s. The peculiar faith of Christians offers an answer: everything.

Holy Week 2014: The hope of Divine Communion

Christianity began, not with an institution, or a doctrine, or a text, but with table fellowship. The many meals Jesus shared equally with the socially powerful and the least likely, the stories he told of wedding banquets and feasts, the tender washing of feet and the risky, self-offering of bodily vulnerability – all this and more set the Table around which the earliest Christians gathered. In short, love set the Table, and it turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Since then, texts, doctrines, and institutions have (sometimes well and sometimes poorly) tried to pass on that social witness to radical love, and for a singular reason: Love changes everything.

Landmark legislation and milestone judicial rulings can change many things (from civil rights to environmental protections). Strategy sessions and protest rallies can change the course of social policies and labor practices. All of these make a difference for a better world but they can’t give what each of us truly wants and what the world really needs: Love.

The Apostle Paul apparently agreed. To the first century Christians in Corinth he wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

More than most people today seem to realize, the history of Christian reflection and practice simmers with love’s peculiar, life-changing energy.

“Love bade me welcome,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert in the 17th century, just as Julian of Norwich, writing two centuries earlier, insisted that “Love was our Lord’s meaning…and in this love our life is everlasting.” Maximus the Confessor, writing still earlier, in the seventh century, went so far as to name that divine love “Eros.” If Eros is love, he wrote, then that love which unifies all things is God.

Encountering Love, receiving it, and bearing world-changing witness to it defines the essence of Christianity’s peculiar faith. And I too often and rather quickly forget this.

So tonight I join millions of Christians around the world and return to the Table of Love. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day to remember especially the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends and the mandate (from which we get the word “Maundy”) he issued at that Table: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

I go to that Table not first because I need forgiveness (though I certainly do), or because of religious obligation (though it is that). I go because Love draws me there.

I may not fully believe it and I might go haltingly. I will likely go worrying that I’m not quite ready or that my thoughts aren’t focused clearly enough or that I myself am not nearly loving enough to receive love. Nonetheless, Love draws me.eucharist_hands_bread_wine

A wise colleague once noted that “love changes us so that we can change the world.” What’s love got to do with it? Everything.