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Divine Vulnerability

The Gospel according to John has a nativity story, just like Matthew and Luke have one, but I can’t quite imagine making a children’s Christmas pageant from those opening verses of John.

John’s “nativity story” is cosmic in scope, rich in metaphysics, and conceptually dense in its prose. Countless philosophers have spent a great deal of time pondering the very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

That lofty language, stretching back to the dawn of time, sets the stage for an equally mind-bending claim in the fourteenth verse: the Word that was with God from the beginning, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Not everything about this “prologue” to John’s account of the Gospel, however, is quite so abstract. John writes of a divine advent, a coming into the world that is marked by very human, down-to-earth realities—feeling out of place, like a stranger in one’s own land, even outright rejection.

This Word-made-flesh that John extols with such lofty language actually seems quite precarious. So whatever John means by “nativity,” that sense of vulnerability—the notion that God shares vulnerability with us—that is what makes John’s version of the story not just astonishing but also life-changing.

Notice where John begins, with three simple words: in the beginning. These are of course the first three words of the Hebrew Bible, the very first chapter of Genesis: in the beginning.

This is, in part, why some scholars treat John’s gospel as early Christian commentary on Genesis. The refrain in that first chapter of the Bible about the goodness of God’s creation runs throughout John’s gospel as well.

Goodness stumbles, of course, with the so-called “fall” of humanity in the third chapter of Genesis. And “stumbles” would be too mildly phrased for some. That “fall” has led far too many Christians to suppose that just being human is a problem that we must overcome; for others, God’s creation more generally is therefore suspect, or tainted, or even irredeemably spoiled, and Earth itself is disposable.

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

To the contrary, John frames his account of the Good News by reminding us that the very Word of God is intimately involved in the creation of the whole world, in every aspect of it, from the very beginning. The universe, all that exists, has always been and remains God’s own handiwork; the imprint of God’s own hand is on everything.

This declaration, by the way, has direct bearing on our current climate catastrophe. Among the many reasons why ecological collapse is so distressing, theologian Elizabeth Johnson pointedly reminds us that our wanton destruction of ecosystems and habitats and countless species of plant and animal amounts to an act of blasphemy.

She can say this, without reservation or hesitation, precisely because of John’s close intertwining of God’s own creative Word with God’s creation.

This cosmic framing of John’s Gospel sheds further light on that pivotal fourteenth verse, what we might call the “Christmas verse” in John—the divine Word, with God from the beginning, and through whom all things were made, that Word becomes flesh.

Let’s pause here for a short lesson in ancient Greek. John had some choices in how to express this pivotal claim about God dwelling among us. He could have said that the Word became a person—prosopon. Or, he could have chosen to say that the Word more generally became human—anthropos.

Either of those two words is how most people likely hear that key claim from John, that the Word became a person or a human. But John didn’t choose either one of those options. John chose this instead: the Word, he wrote, became sarx—and that’s the Greek word for “flesh.”

And with that word—flesh—John signals how God chooses to be among us, not in garments of splendor or cloaked in military power or with superhero strength but in simple, frail, vulnerable flesh.

This prologue to John’s Gospel is not about the birth of Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman; Christmas is not the story of a divine superhero coming down from the sky to save us. The story of this season is far more astonishing than anything Marvel Comics has dreamed up: Christmas celebrates the Creator God choosing to accompany the creation—as part of it.

Consider what this means: Our vulnerability as fleshy creations of God is not a problem to overcome or a condition from which we need rescue or in any way cause for shame. No, our shared vulnerability as God’s creation is precisely where the Word of God meets us as one of us, in the flesh.

Surely in this time of ongoing pandemic and ecological fragility, we don’t need any further reminders of our own vulnerability or the weakness of our fleshy bodies and of the body of Earth itself; we know all this only too well.

Perhaps what we do need—what the whole wide world needs and what God is calling Christians to manifest with boldness in the world—is the reminder we hear from John: Christmas celebrates the God who meets us in our vulnerability by becoming as vulnerable as we are.

That’s what it means, John says elsewhere, to speak of God as love.

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First to Shepherds and Migrant Farmworkers

I live with a shepherd. His name is Judah, but he’s not a human being; he’s a canine, an Australian shepherd dog.

Just in case I’m in any danger of forgetting his genetic predispositions as a shepherd, he will sometimes circle around behind me on our walks when we’re crossing a street, to herd me safely across to the other side.

It was during one of those herding moments in downtown Saugatuck recently that my Christmas gaze landed on what we hear from Luke every year—the prominent role played by shepherds in the Nativity.

To break my sentimentality around that story, I need to recall some of the socially complex features of shepherds in the first-century Mediterranean world. They performed essential work to ensure the thriving of their communities but it was mostly thankless and invisible work. Shepherding was an occupation on the margins of that society, literally marginal as shepherds were required to do their work at a fixed distance from the city gates.

The work itself was challenging. Shepherds had to wrangle obstinate sheep and fend off predators, not only wolves but also larger animals, like bears and lions. They sometimes had to fend off humans, too, the sheep-stealers who would approach the herd under the cover of darkness. That’s why the shepherds in Luke’s story were awake that night, guarding the sheep.

Everyone knew how much they relied on shepherds for their economic flourishing but they were nonetheless treated as outsiders—“dirty, unsophisticated, brutish and vulgar,” as one commentator put it.

It takes little effort to imagine similar occupations in our own society today. I can’t help but think of the migrant farmworkers in the central valley of California, near where I used to live, and now closer to my new home in the fields and orchards of southwest Michigan during peak harvest.

In this affluent resort town, we live very near to a whole class of people most of us who live here seldom see or even think about, yet without whose work the shelves in our grocery stores and markets would have far fewer fruits and vegetables on them; some of these workers actually go hungry themselves.

To people like that, Luke says—from ancient shepherds to today’s migrant farmworkers—an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

Luke reports what this angel was sent to proclaim and he reports it this way: “I am bringing you good news,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all the people.”

For all the people. So here’s at least one reason why Luke has this angel show up first to shepherds—to make clear that the good news meant for “all the people” really does mean all, no exceptions.

“For unto you,” the angel says, “is born this day, in the City of David, a savior”—not only for the wealthy, or the powerful, or the influencers, or the movers and shakers, but for all the people, starting with the ones whom we rarely see and who don’t seem to count.

Now, that would have been enough, more than enough, for that tiny band of shepherds to absorb. It’s not every day, after all, that an angel pays you a visit in the middle of the night and makes your hillside bright with the glory of God.

But there was more.

After this solitary angel delivered the message, the whole sky above them was suddenly filled with a host of angelic beings singing God’s praise.

“Seeing Shepherds,” Daniel Bonnell

That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Surely the splendor of a single angel would have sufficed to deliver the message.

What might Luke’s purpose be in giving us this Technicolor spectacle of heavenly radiance and divine praise? Why all the fuss?

Luke gives us some hints about this by starting his account of the gospel with an elderly, childless woman who becomes pregnant, and then a young, unmarried virgin who becomes pregnant, and throughout his gospel account with story after story of the powerless, the lonely, the fearful, the marginalized and outcast all taking center stage as the story unfolds about the baby born this night.

A single, solitary angel, no matter how splendid, would not suffice for Luke’s purpose. To those shepherds and everyone else who lives as they do—on the margins and invisible—for them Luke wants to ensure that they hear the good news:

you are not forgotten;
you have not been overlooked;
your lives matter and you count.

So…here’s a heavenly host singing just for you!

Yes, it is excessive.

Indeed, it’s just as excessive as the grace that embraced the prodigal son and that was offered by the good Samaritan to the injured traveler; just as excessive as the compassion given to the widow of Nain whose son had died, to the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears; just as excessive as the generosity shown to Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan leper who was healed—these are just some of the stories that appear only in Luke’s account of the gospel.

Of course a whole heavenly host of angels would sing for just a few ragtag shepherds in a field. Because this is Luke telling the story, and Luke opens his account of the Gospel with a young girl praising God for bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

That song of Mary is found only in Luke as well.

May we hear her song throughout these Twelve Days of Christmas, echoed in that angelic chorus of praise. May we hear that song reminding us that the God we worship leaves no one behind; and showers grace first of all on those who are easily forgotten and dismissed; and for all of us becomes touchable, tangible love, a love we can cradle in our arms, like a baby.

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One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Ascension Day Audacity

Fog on the Kalamazoo River

Forty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the “Ascension.” Luke narrates this moment most directly: “As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). More than a few churches celebrate this day with elaborate liturgies and triumphal music even though the story itself seems terribly difficult for our modern Western minds to accept—how far “up” through Earth’s stratified atmosphere did Jesus have to go before reaching “Heaven”?

Many years ago, the talented organist at my seminary underscored the understandable incredulity so many have about this day. As we were processing out of the seminary chapel after marking this feast with great solemnity, with bells and incense and medieval chant, the organist deftly inserted a familiar but unexpected tune into the lines of the closing hymn. I finally realized what it was: “Up, Up and Away in my Beautiful Balloon.”

I always appreciate that wonderful mix of the utterly serious with whimsical light-heartedness. And still, and yet—really? Jesus lifting off the Earth like a SpaceX rocket? Isn’t this kind of, well, embarrassing?

I was reflecting on these things early this morning as I walked along the Kalamazoo River with Judah, my Australian shepherd dog. A heavy fog blanketed the harbor as the dawning sun struggled to wedge its way through the misty curtains. Judah chased a duck down one of the docks and it looked like he might disappear into oblivion where the dock ended and a thick gray wall obscured the water’s edge. That’s a wonderful image, I thought, for the Ascension, much better than thinking of Jesus rising endlessly up through the sky.

The point of today’s commemoration is simply and profoundly this: wherever life happens to take us, Jesus has led the way.  Whether it’s a major vocational decision, how to navigate a broken relationship, or just figuring out where to find some love and solace in a brittle world, we can’t always see the best way forward—but Jesus has led the way. Life itself offers few if any certainties, except of course that each of us will one day die. As we make that journey toward the mysterious edge between life and death, we don’t know with any precision what that crossing will hold for us. But we can be confident in this: Jesus has led the way.

I return often to an insight gleaned from a teacher many years ago: the opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s fear. I have plenty of doubts, actually, and I live with a lot of uncertainty about many things, every day. But in this Easter season, and on this Ascension Day in particular, I choose not to fear what lies beyond that line of fog. I choose not merely to tiptoe my way down the dock before me but rather sprint, as Judah did, trusting that the one who has gone before me will guide me still, beyond where I cannot yet see.

To be clear, I’m not talking about guarantees or anything like failsafe spiritual practices. I’m choosing to trust and to not be afraid. I’m choosing to live with confidence and to urge the congregation I have the privilege to lead to do the same. What this broken and weary world needs right now is not timidity or reticence from faith communities, and certainly not any more fear, but rather great courage and boldness.

Judah showed me what an Ascension Day faith looks like this morning with his reckless romp toward a foggy edge—it’s the audacity of hope.

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

The story Christians tell on this day, this Friday we insist on calling “good,” is quite familiar. The story is familiar not only to those who have attended church our whole lives or who have the read the Bible through many times, but even to those who may have never attended church or read the Bible even once.

Crucifixion was actually very common in the ancient Roman Empire. It was one of the tools deployed by imperial power to maintain control over unruly provinces. There were times in that period of Israel’s history when the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with dozens and dozens of crosses, rebels and agitators hanging from them. Anyone who has ever feared state power or law enforcement knows this story.

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

We should note as well the sexual shame and humiliation that was likely part of this moment of physical torture. We don’t often think about that because it’s not mentioned directly in the biblical text; the biblical writer didn’t have to mention it because first-century readers would have known quite readily that aspect of this form of execution.

As one scholar has noted, “a striking level of public sexual humiliation” was most likely part of this story, what we would today classify as sexual assault, with all the bodily degradation it would have carried both then and now. Far too many people today and throughout human history know exactly what that kind of shame feels like.

There are other reasons why this story is so familiar—it’s so thoroughly human. Is there anyone who hasn’t known at least some kind of betrayal from a friend? Hasn’t everyone felt the fickle loyalties of a crowd, the dread of an angry mob, the terror of a tyrant—whether a neighborhood bully or an imperious thug? Haven’t all of us shrunk from our duties, hid from our obligations, denied our associations with the righteous troublemakers, even just once?

Living through a global pandemic, hasn’t everyone been reminded viscerally of their own mortality? Certainly not everyone has felt it to the same degree—privilege can still blunt the sharper edges of an otherwise precarious life, but certainly not forever.

The arc of this gospel story is, in all these ways, both quite particular and still also universal. This is precisely the source of its transformative power. It’s the familiarity of this story that grabs our attention, how easily it’s recognizable, how quickly each of us can find ourselves in it at least once if not multiple times.

Just there, in its horrifying familiarity, is where we might start to grasp the “goodness” of this day.

I should note first at least two ways in which I have come to appreciate how the story we Christian tell about this day is not “good.” First, it is not good to use today’s story as a way to justify violence as the means to achieve greater purposes. Second, it is also not good to suppose that God the “Father” killed his only “Son” in order to forgive our sins; I actually do embrace the vital notion of atonement as part of the good news of Christian faith, but God doesn’t kill anyone to achieve it.

That point deserves repeating: the purpose of the horrific act of humiliation and torture that Jesus endured is not somehow to placate an angry God; honestly, that’s a monstrous idea. No, what is on display in this violent story is instead a profound and even beautiful moment of deep solidarity between God and God’s creation, between God’s own beloved and us. 

God freely chose to enter into our own vulnerability and fragility, to know it and embrace it. And God freely chose to do this because of unimaginable love.

The poet Sylvia Sands has written about this as she reflected on Jesus falling beneath the weight of carrying his own cross to meet his death. This is what she wrote:

Eat dirt.

We all like to see the mighty fallen.
Here’s God in the dust…

Except…
crumpled and tumbled beneath his cross
he resembles nothing so much as
a child.

Grown-ups don’t fall down, do they?
Well, not often.
Not unless they’re
drunk, crippled, down and out,
mugged, starved, queer-bashed,
frail, raped, stoned,
or plain suicidal.

He’s there in all those of course.

Dear Jesus of the gutter,
Friend to all humankind,
I cannot forget it was Roman feet you saw,
ready to kick you onwards…

Just as later,
your sisters and brothers
would see jackboots in Auschwitz.

So it is hard to watch you squirm,
debased, degraded, filthy,
beneath your cross.

But where and how else could we understand
your solidarity with the dispossessed?

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Set the Table with Love

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save.”

That’s a line from a poem by Adrienne Rich and I’ve been thinking about it this week and for this Maundy Thursday night in particular as Christians gather at the table of remembrance, the Eucharistic table of both memory and hope.

As Christians hear the story of Passover from Exodus this night and Jews are this week observing it, my heart is moved by all those ancient Hebrews who never made it out of Egypt, who died enslaved before Moses was even born.

I’m thinking about all the Jews and communists and gypsies and gay men who never made it out of Buchenwald or Dachau or Auschwitz before those camps were liberated, and my heart is so moved.

After this past year of pandemic anxiety, surely all of our hearts are moved by all we cannot save—by the more than 550,000 who have died just in the United States alone before they could be vaccinated, all those who are now so terribly ill.

This is why religion still matters, just a few of the reasons, in an age when so many prefer to be “spiritual” instead. Religion helps us mark time and name sacred space, just as God commanded Moses and Aaron to do at the first Passover—“this month shall mark for you the beginning of months,” God says (Exodus 12:1-2).

We human beings need such marking and naming to orient ourselves to each other and to the world around us; so many of us have felt so adrift in these days and weeks and months (how long, really?) of this seemingly endless pandemic precisely because of having so few markers for time, so few places to go for space.

For Christians, tonight begins the great three days of Holy Week—the “triduum,” as it’s called in Latin—and our worship continues unabated from this night until Easter morning. Tonight begins one extended liturgical celebration stretching over three days.

There is no dismissal after the Maundy Thursday service, nor after the Good Friday service, because these services do not end; the ordinary passage of time is caught up and transformed by the shared observance of the mystery of our salvation—the Table, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, all of it as one single arc of divine grace.

Christians also heard from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tonight in which he reminded them that what he received from the Lord about the Table is what he handed on to them (1 Cor. 11:12-26).

That phrase—“handed on”—is what tradition is, what memory means for religion, the handing on of that which binds us together here and now and also to those who came before us and to those who will come after us.

For the ancient Israelites and for Paul and for us, these vital reminders are rooted in the importance of memory itself.

The kind of memory we practice as religious people is not just the opposite of forgetting. The memory Christians practice at the Table is in response to the violence of fragmentation and division; it’s a re-membering of what has been dis-membered and torn apart—the kind of recalling that heals and makes whole.

This then is what Christians might embrace about religion itself on this holy night: marking time and naming space at the Table; receiving from those who came before us the love Jesus had for his friends and for us; handing on to those who will come after us that same love that we dare believe can reunite what has been torn apart, that can stitch us together into a single body with many members, that might actually offer healing to a world of violence.

I cannot imagine doing any of this on my own. I must, by some unimaginable grace, “cast my lot” with others, the ones who share food, dream of love, and leave no one behind.

This is why I cherish now those words from the poet Adrienne Rich. Here is what she wrote:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

As Christians at the Table, as Jews gathered for a meal, as the lonely, the broken, the castaway, and the frightened, may this Passover week and these tender services of the Christian Triduum bathe us in the love that will heal us.

All of us.

Together.

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Healing Shame, Changing the World

Perhaps you’ve seen the random placard in a football stadium crowd with “John 3:16” written on it. If you grew up like I did, you probably memorized that Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

That’s supposed to be a life-changing snippet of Scripture, and it certainly can be. But for me, the two verses that come right before it prompted a profound re-orientation to Christianity entirely. This is rather odd, actually, because those verses are pretty obscure and they refer to a bizarre story from the Hebrew Bible.

I’m convinced that there are nuggets of spiritual insight here that carry the potential to change the world. To get there, I would invite you to consider that modern Christianity has focused so much of its attention on sin and guilt that it has left virtually untouched the issues of bodily shame and social violence.

“Redemptive Love of Christ,” Bronze door of the Grossmunster Church, Zurich

My own work as a teacher and pastor, my understanding of Christianity and the role Christian faith communities can play in the wider society, indeed my own life and sense of self changed significantly when I turned more directly to the problem of shame and its consequences (it prompted me to write a whole book rooted in this insight called Divine Communion).

What I’m referring to here, in shorthand fashion, is this: the problem of guilt says, “I did something bad”; the problem of shame says, “I am bad.”

Consider the difference between those two statements—having done something bad and being bad—it won’t take you long to feel the difference in your own body.

One of many social science researchers working on this issue is Brené Brown, and I would urge you to watch her videos and read her books just as soon as you can. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling…that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…”

Unworthy of love and belonging? That’s heartbreaking…and far too common.

We’re told this about ourselves almost constantly—our culture of celebrity; our idolization of wealth and popularity; mass marketing and advertising aimed at making us feel needy and empty without certain products; fitness crazes that make us hate our bodies; the list goes on.

Brown says that shame is likely the source of many destructive, hurtful behaviors; this sense of being unworthy of connection, she says, “can make us dangerous.”

She means, dangerous to ourselves (when we isolate and self-medicate) and dangerous to others (when we project our own unworthiness on those who are different from us and then punish them for it).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of resistance to dealing with issues of shame; ironically and tragically, a lot of people find it shameful to talk about shame—the problem feeds on itself, in other words. As Brown puts it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

If, however, we cultivate our capacity for naming it and addressing it, we can weaken its power over us. We can, at long last, find healing—for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our communities, dare I also say, for our nation.

All of that is preface to the rather odd verses in John’s account of the Gospel that introduce the more famous one so many of us have memorized. In those verses, John’s Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (3:14).

Stick with me here, because we need to know two interrelated things for this peculiar verse to make any sense.

First, the image of a serpent was a powerful one for ancient Mediterranean societies. Among the several meanings of this image, serpents could symbolize healing—the shedding of a snake’s skin evoked renewal and new life, for example. Serpents could also be dangerous and deadly, and this was important, too. That mix of risk and hope lingers in the old aphorism about how to soothe the effects of a hangover—you just need some “hair from the dog that bit you.”

More directly: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

The second thing we need to know is that the story John’s Jesus refers to is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites as they are bitten by poisonous serpents which make some of them ill and more than a few of them die.

God instructs Moses to do a very strange thing in response: to make a bronze image of a serpent and then lift it high upon a pole. Anyone who looks upon that image, God says, will be healed—and they were (Numbers 21:9).

Some have suggested that this story influenced the development of the familiar image of a snake wrapped around a pole as a symbol for the medicinal arts. Others have suggested that the “rod of Asclepius” wielded by the god of the healing arts in Greek mythology is the origin of the healthcare symbol. In any case, across these cultural contexts, the insight remains: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

John apparently wants us to think about that ancient story in relation to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If so, John invites not a mechanism of atonement to secure forgiveness; John wants us to gaze on the source of our pain for the sake of our healing.

If unnamed, untreated bodily shame can make us dangerous, as Brené Brown says, then let us seek out the cure for that disease within the disease itself—being fully human. God actually does this for us in Jesus—God becomes human, becomes the very source of our shame so that God can also become our cure, lifted high for all to see.

I am truly convinced that naming, addressing, and healing bodily shame would change the world. So much of our distress, our self-loathing, our fear and hatred of the “other,” our destructive behaviors and ecological suicide erupts from that grim pit of unacknowledged shame.

That’s not an easy trail of ideas to follow, I realize. Thankfully, John’s Jesus offers multiple ways for us to see his meaning. The very next verse, the famous one, is Jesus making his meaning plain: “for God so loved the world.”

That’s the key, right there—God’s love.

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

Forgiveness is a great antidote for guilt, and we all need it, but it won’t touch our shame and it won’t mend our violent divisions and it won’t soothe our social heartache.

The only thing that will touch all of that and then heal it is love—and not just any kind of love, but the love of God, who does not love us from afar—as if ashamed of us—but instead becomes one of us.

Not to condemn the world, John says, but so that the world might be saved.

For God so loved the world…

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Living Temples

Worshipping in Jerusalem involved a fairly complex economic system put in place by the ruling class and religious leaders of the temple. The poor were exploited, collusion with Rome was manifest, and Jesus tossed up the whole thing.

Sometimes referred to as the “cleansing of the temple,” this Gospel story of social disruption is a pivotal one in the narrative arcs of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the religious and political establishment in Jerusalem finally decides they’ve had enough of Jesus-the-troublemaker, and they begin to plot his demise.

“Cleansing of the Temple,” Peter Koenig

But John, as usual, is different. John’s version of this drama at the temple appears in the second chapter, which is way too early for anything “pivotal” (John 2:13-22). Why would John put this story right up front?

Back up with me for a moment and recall one of the many significant differences between John and the other Gospel accounts: John has no Eucharistic narrative. This is rather shocking, actually, but true: John’s Jesus does share a final meal with his friends but he does not refer to the bread as his body or the wine as his blood at that meal.

Does this mean there is no Eucharist in John’s Gospel? No, not necessarily. Some commentators have supposed that all of the stories John tells were recounted week by week around the Eucharistic table in John’s community. In that sense, every chapter in John’s gospel is either about Eucharist and Easter or points to Eucharist and Easter. This, it seems to me, shines a wonderfully peculiar light on the cleansing of the temple.

The temple story comes right after another notable moment when Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. A wedding, a feasting table, wine—aha! It’s a story about Eucharist!

Moreover, John begins the second chapter by noting that Jesus goes to that wedding “on the third day.” Now that’s an odd detail to include, unless we recall that Jesus was raised from the dead on the “third day.” Easter!

All of this frames what comes next, when Jesus goes to the temple. Our attention falls quite naturally on the physical disruption Jesus causes there, but that’s not really where John seems to want our focus. Rather than the crash of overturned tables, the crescendo in this story is the invitation to see what the true temple of God’s presence really is and where it resides—it is not a building; it’s a body.

“Destroy this sanctuary,” Jesus says, “and I will raise it up in three days.”

There’s the third day again!

This story really is about Easter, and it’s also about Eucharist, about the bodily presence of God.

Remember, this is the same Gospel that begins by declaring that the Word of God became flesh. In this second chapter, John could not be more direct: when Jesus referred to the Temple, John writes, he was speaking “about the sanctuary of his body,” his flesh as the temple of God’s presence.

As John makes clear throughout the stories he tells, it’s not only the body of Jesus that manifests the presence of God but the bodies of many others, too, including the flesh of the doves, the sheep, and the oxen, all of whom Jesus liberates from their marketplace captivity in the temple.

The micro-economic system Jesus disrupts, in other words, reduced bodies to commercial goods; it turned the flesh into a commodity for buying and selling.

“Jesus Drives Out the Moneychangers,” Douglas Blanchard

This is clearly not a problem that is neatly sequestered in first-century societies. Reflecting on this Gospel passage for today, I thought back to my years of living in California and the many things I learned there; some of them were deeply troubling. I’ll mention just three.

First, in the central valley, lined with farming communities, it’s not uncommon for a gay teenager to come home from school and discover the locks on his house have been changed and to find his belongings piled on the front lawn. With nowhere else to go, he will likely migrate to San Francisco and live on the streets as best he can.

I also learned that Interstate-5, running like a spine through the middle of the state, is a primary corridor for sex trafficking, for transporting young women, even girls as if they were livestock, from ports of call to brothels. California actually has the highest rates of sex trafficking in the whole country.

And third, the fresh produce I loved in California was of course picked mostly by Mexicans and others from Central America who are forced to keep picking even during wild fires and during this pandemic and always in the midst of toxic chemicals with no safety gear.

The bodies of gay teenagers tossed out of their own homes.
The bodies of young girls trafficked by sex traders.
The bodies of migrant farmworkers picking our fruit.

These are the temples of God’s presence, just as our own bodies are also sanctuaries. How often do we treat bodies as temples? Do we ever?

How would our lives be different, how would the world around us change, if we treated bodies reverently, with reverence? Not just some bodies, not only the bodies like ours, not only the bodies of our own species, but all bodies as living temples? What would that be like?

This story from John unites the sanctity of bodies with the critique of religious economics. And just as he does in all of John’s stories, Jesus presents his own body in that temple as the very presence of God. John then reminds us in that when that body is rejected, betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and killed, God raises it up.

This bodily reminder of Easter can shape the rest of our Lenten journey in some profound ways. I’m praying for the courage to let this story renew my commitment to treat every body with the reverence it deserves—as the temple of God’s presence.

Will you join me?

“Christ Overturning the Moneychanger’s Table,” Stanley Spencer
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Jehovah Jireh! God Will Provide a Different Way to Live

These are strange days, an unsettled time of deep anxiety, and yet also, perhaps, a time of emerging potential for a different way to live on this planet, and with each other, and with so many other creatures of the same God.

I have in mind of course this frightening coronavirus pandemic—which is far from over—and the ongoing ecological crisis that threatens countless species (including our own), and also the renewed urgency to address the longstanding pain and trauma of systemic racism fueled by white supremacy in this country. Still more, we are near the end of Pride Month, and today, June 28th, is the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which many mark as the beginning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to notice how the biblical texts many Christians heard today from the lectionary might stitch together these various markers of this current moment. I’ll begin with where I want to end, with the wonderful phrase from the story in Genesis: “The Lord will provide.”

Abraham said that, and it’s the name he gave to the mountain where he was preparing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. At the very last minute, God provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son (Genesis 22:1-14).

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“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio (1602)

I’ll return to that story, but first do notice some things about the other two texts for today, beginning with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Frankly, hearing a passage from Paul during Pride month, especially from his Letter to the Romans, is a bit like pouring a diabolical salt in a religious wound. As you may know, the first chapter of this letter has been a source of great pain and anguish for gay and lesbian people; it has often been cited by those who wish to condemn and exclude LGBT people.

I strongly suspect Paul himself would be truly horrified by such a hateful use of his letter; at the very least, using it that way is a bit ironic given that one of Paul’s purposes in writing this letter is to critique the self-righteousness of the gentile Christians in Rome, and an overarching theme of the whole letter is to praise the God who shows us a wildly extravagant grace and divine generosity in Christ.

So I’m wondering if we might take that stress on grace and map it to what we heard from Matthew’s gospel about a hospitable welcome. It’s a deceptively simple little passage, and also a powerful one about mission, which is something Matthew seems to care quite a lot about.

Matthew’s Jesus is sending out his disciples to do the work of ministry and what we just heard is part of the instructions he gave them. Anyone who welcomes you, he says, welcomes me, and those who welcome me, welcome the one who sent me (Matthew 10:40-42)

This posture of welcome—and I can’t help but use this image—this daisy-chain of welcome sounds infectious. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this when the energy of a welcoming hospitality feels contagious and it spreads in the community—but here it is for life, not death, for breathing not suffocating.

Welcome, hospitality, grace, generosity—these infectious characteristics of a faith community are so important in a society like ours today where so many have experienced religion as hurtful, damaging, and even lethal. Here, in this passage, Matthew frames ministry itself with the hospitable embrace of God, a welcome that is encountered in the unconditional welcome offered by God’s ministers.

This sense of divine grace and generosity offers a much-needed framing for the story about Abraham and Isaac from Genesis. It really is a troubling story. Does God really demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, his only son, the son he loves so much?

No, it turns out, God does not demand it. Set aside all the troubling bits for a moment about God testing Abraham in this story. Please, do not fail to notice that God interrupts that act of sacrifice and provides a ram instead. That’s why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up in my Evangelical Christian home, Jehovah jireh!

That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story. In Hebrew, what we see translated as “The Lord will provide,” is just two words. The first is what’s known as the Tetragrammaton, or the very name of God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; to this day, Jews generally don’t try to pronounce that name—it’s not entirely clear how one would pronounce it, actually, but they don’t try mostly out of a sense of piety, of deep respect for the Name itself. So instead they substitute “The Lord” wherever God’s name appears in the text, which many English translations today also do.

The second word, yireh, actually means “to see.”
God sees.
God will see to it.
The Lord will provide.
Jehovah jireh.

This phrase became much more important to me than I ever imagined it would when I came out as a gay man as a young adult. That same Evangelical tradition made clear that I was faced with a significant choice: either sacrifice my sexuality for my faith, or sacrifice my faith for my sexuality, but I couldn’t have both.

No, that’s not true. Jehovah jireh. God will provide another way.

Remarkably, I believed this as a young adult—and thank God I believed it because many who don’t end up taking their own lives, even to this day.

I believed God would provide another way to live, a life in which I could love Jesus and still be gay. Lo and behold, God’s grace is even more wildly generous as I managed to live a life far richer than even that; I became a better Christian because I’m gay, and that has shaped a wonderful fruitful life of writing, teaching, preaching, and activism.

  • So whenever religious leaders and faith communities insist on sacrificing their own LGBT children for the sake of doctrinal purity, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever politicians insist that our elders and grandparents must be sacrificed for the sake of the economy—remember calls for exactly that at the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic? Whenever we hear that we can and must say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever multinational corporations insist on sacrificing entire ecosystems to ensure profits shareholder value, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever the institutions rooted in systemic racism insist on sacrificing black and brown bodies we must rise up and say No! Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way for us to live together in peace and with justice.

It turns out that God provides another way by inspiring white people to do our homework and become better allies for our siblings of color; and by inspiring economists to come up with different models for sustaining our common life; and by inspiring whole communities to rally around their most vulnerable members to protect them from viral infection; and by inspiring straight, cisgender people to march with us queer folk in pride parades, and accompany us to wedding banquets, and to honor whatever gender anyone wishes to manifest in the world.

Jehovah jireh—God provides all these other ways to live, and more, for the sake of thriving, flourishing life, and not just for some but for all.

The world is hungry for that reassurance, for that good news, for even just the possibility that religious traditions are up to the challenge of this present moment. Indeed, people are desperate to learn how to tap into the deep wells of faith, hope, and love.

Let us encourage each other as people of faith with those words of an ancient faith: we may not know what the future holds, and indeed, we have no idea what the future will bring. But somehow, someway, God will provide.

welcome_rainbow_church

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The Good News of Easter: Disorienting, Unsettling, Terrifying

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

You might guess that I’m describing our current lockdown condition during this Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps. But I might also be describing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Here are those same words, again; think about them in relation to Easter:

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

Easter is a very peculiar season, and the stories about the risen Jesus are some of the strangest stories in the Bible. So strange, in fact, that these stories simply wouldn’t be suitable for Hollywood blockbuster movies; the biblical storytellers refuse to give us the kind of neat and tidy endings big movie directors crave.

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Mary Magdalene and Risen Christ (Ivanov)

Imagine with me a director trying to film scenes from, say, John’s account of Easter:

Cut! Hey, Mary, you know what? Just go ahead and touch him! No, really. I’m wanting the soundtrack to build right there toward a big crescendo, and we can’t have Jesus just wandering off! Could you hug him, or something?

Or this:

Cut! Hey, Thomas! For heaven’s sake, don’t put your finger in there! That’s gross! Speaking of which—makeup! Get over here! Could you make that scar look a little less…I don’t know…icky? We’re going for happy here, not macabre!

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“Doubting Thomas”

The oddness of these Easter stories and the oddness of this virus lockdown—what might one have to say to the other?

The story many heard yesterday in church for the third Sunday of Easter offers at least three things that might illustrate particularly well the unsettling and therefore hopeful character of Easter. The story comes from Luke, and it features two disciples of Jesus on a road toward a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples are then joined on their journey by a stranger. Those familiar with the story know that this stranger is none other than the risen Jesus. But don’t rush ahead to Emmaus quite yet. Pause and ponder this rather curious feature that shows up in other accounts of the resurrection as well: even Jesus’ closest friends don’t recognize him.

We’re not told why Jesus is unrecognizable and there could be multiple reasons. But it seems to me that the unrecognizable Jesus is one way for the Gospel writers to remind us that the risen Jesus is not a ghost nor is he a resuscitated corpse; he is instead something new.

Pope Leo the Great pondered this back in the fifth century and suggested that the hearts of these disciples burned within them along that road, as Luke describes it, because they caught a glimpse of “their own glorified humanity.” We do not yet know, in other words, what the fullness of human life in all its flourishing actually looks like, and yet that is precisely what God intends for us all, a life of thriving into which the risen Jesus leads the way.

A second feature of this story is hospitality. But here again, it is not the welcoming of what is known and familiar that Luke describes but instead the increasing intimacy of these disciples with a stranger—sharing with the stranger their inmost anxieties and griefs, and then extending an invitation to lodge with them, and finally sharing food with this stranger. Not just in the breaking of bread, in other words, but in this whole arc of extending hospitality, the risen Jesus eventually becomes known.

And third, this risen Jesus who eventually becomes known in this story is also the one who quickly disappears. Without so much as a teary embrace for a stunning reunion or a “Whoa! It’s really you!” from the disciples, Jesus simply vanishes.

All of our grasping after God, all of our yearnings for certainty just slip through our fingers, like trying to catch water with a net, as one theologian puts it. Whatever the future of God’s promise of new life holds for us, it won’t be reducible to the known objects of our faith, not even the most familiar and cherished ones, the ones we can control and manipulate.

Many biblical writers and theologians of all kinds return to this cautionary note quite frequently, the caution against idolatry. As Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, centuries ago, “concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

So I’ve been pondering these and other features of a very disorienting set of stories, these stories we hear every year during the Easter season and that we insist on calling “Gospel,” or good news. And it occurs to me that the news of Easter is truly good not because everything is put back in exactly the way it was before, but because everything is made new.

As Christians, we are not baptized into nostalgia; we are baptized into the hope of the “new creation,” the first fruits of which God gives to us by raising Jesus from the dead—a Jesus we cannot at first recognize, a Jesus who becomes known to us by extending hospitality to a stranger, a Jesus we cannot seize and put on display like a museum artifact.

Luke spells this out for us, actually, in the opening verses of Part 2 of his account of the Gospel, what we call “The Acts of the Apostles.” There, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Or, we might say, is this the time, Lord, when you will make America great again?

I’m not trying to be politically partisan here because, indeed, the urgency to return to so-called “normal life” in this country infects both sides of the political aisle. And Luke would urge us to resist it mightily. Luke is pretty clear about this: the Gospel doesn’t restore anything at all but instead, as he says toward the end of Acts, it “turns the world upside down” (17:6).

A recent editorial in the New York Times noted something similar, and rather pointedly: the United States was already suffering from severe pre-existing conditions long before this novel coronavirus arrived to our shores. This pandemic has simply made those conditions starkly and painfully visible, whether the shameful gap between rich and poor, the shocking fragility of our health care system, the house of cards called our economy, the near-total disregard for ecological sustainability and vitality—these are just a few of the features of what many assumed was “normal life” and to which we must not return.

Even when we realize the need to go forward rather than back, this in-between moment is filled with anxiety.

Let’s be honest with each other: we are living through a terrifying moment and we can’t see what kind of future it will bring. Luke appreciated this as well. The chapter from which this morning’s story comes begins with the women who discover that the tomb is empty and their first response is terror (24:5).

Whatever new thing God is always bringing about will always startle us, will always make us uneasy, and will sometimes terrify us. This is why, it seems to me, Luke is so keen to narrate new life around a shared table of hospitality, and why so many Christians are so eager to return to the table on Sunday mornings—we need each other as we let go of what has been and try to embrace what is, even now, emerging.

When we do that faithfully, with a posture of hospitality, Luke assures us that we will eventually recognize that future as the dear companion we have always longed for, the love that renews us, and the life that will make us thrive.

emmaus_bonnell

Daniel Bonnell, “Road to Emmaus”