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True Religion

All four Gospel writers seem to agree on at least two things. First, whenever Jesus wanted to emphasize something important about his ministry, he almost always turned to table fellowship to do so. And second, when he wanted to underscore the importance of table fellowship, he usually talked about weddings.

He did both of those things in what many church-goers heard yesterday from Luke’s account of the Gospel (14:1, 7-14). So why did this matter so much to Jesus and to the gospel writers?

“Table Fellowship,” Sieger Koder

Let’s start with food: first-century rules and expectations for sharing food at a common table were rather complex, not just for Israelites but for the whole ancient Mediterranean world. Family, ethnicity, economic class, religious observance—those are just a few of the components that well-behaved members of respectable society would take into account very carefully when gathering for table fellowship.

This is why the Gospel writers tell us frequently that Jesus was constantly getting into trouble for eating with the wrong people. The commonly used collective label for them was “prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.”

I know this sounds odd and probably far removed from our own day. But consider the arc from “Downton Abbey” on television to the White House in the news and whatever the fanciest restaurant might be where you live: it matters who sits at all those tables and how they are arranged; that’s how the very structure of a society is made visible; it’s how we know where power and influence reside; the table reflects in microcosm a well-ordered world.

This is why Luke introduces yesterday’s passage about a dinner party by noting that the religious leaders who had gathered at the party were “watching Jesus closely.” They were monitoring how well Jesus would conform, if at all, to the expectations of table fellowship. Luke confirms this when he tells us that Jesus noticed, right away, that some of the other guests at this party chose to sit in places of honor.

Jesus himself is quick to acknowledge the complex social game unfolding at the party. “You know,” he says, “everyone invites friends, family, and rich neighbors to dinner parties.”

And why exactly is that the case? Because they can return the favor. This was one of the primary criteria for good table fellowship—reciprocity. The ones you invite to dinner are the ones who can pay you back.

Good dinner parties, in other words, happen around tables where everyone is just like you. That’s just good manners in a well-structured society; it’s also precisely not how Jesus would have us behave.

The Kingdom of God, he says, happens around dinner tables with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Those aren’t just random categories. Those were the standard first-century ways to describe people on the margins, the ones left out, the forgotten and displaced, those who had no social or political capital whatsoever and therefore could never repay any favor or act of kindness—and those are the ones, Jesus says, that you should invite to dinner.

“Invitation to the Feast,” Eugene Burnand (17th century)

It’s not just any kind of dinner party that Jesus usually has in mind; here and in so many other places in the Gospels, he means especially wedding feasts.

Now, to talk about weddings in these Gospel passages, we need to talk about sex, and that’s surprisingly easy to do. There’s really just one thing, and it’s the most important thing, to understand about sex in the ancient Mediterranean world, namely, power.

In those ancient societies socially appropriate sex always involved inequality: one partner had more power than the other, and that’s what made the relationship acceptable. Curiously enough from our modern vantage point, gender didn’t actually matter much in those ancient assessments of what makes sex good and proper, except insofar as gender itself was about power—who had it and who didn’t.

Here again, this can sound like I’m describing some exotic culture from long ago and far away—until we recall the “#MeToo” cultural moment from just a few years ago. Let us not sweep that moment under the rug; remember, a wave of brave women spoke their truth about sexual harassment and ended the careers of more than 200 socially and economically prominent men.

Along with many other men—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—I was truly shocked to watch the flood of “MeToo” stories on social media. I suddenly realized what I should have known back then but didn’t: nearly every woman I know, just about every woman I ever meet, has experienced sexual harassment, abuse, or violence—all manifestations of male power.

First-century readers of the gospel accounts would have known all this whenever Jesus talked about “table fellowship” and “weddings.” We modern Western folks, by contrast, need explicit reminders: the issue of power sits right at the heart of the Gospel.

I could stop right there and create a “to-do” list about how to unmask and dismantle the corrosive forms of patriarchal power in our world today—and we should do that! But I worry that in doing so we will miss the life-changing invitation of the Gospel.

In addition to the passage from Luke, Episcopalians also heard a Collect yesterday from the Prayer Book, right at the beginning of the liturgy. We prayed that God would “increase in us true religion.”

Whatever else “true religion” may be, I am convinced it inspired Jesus to engage frequently in table fellowship and to talk often about weddings. The essence of Christianity blossoms around the Eucharistic Table, where everyone is just as precious as everyone else. And this is so because we encounter the God who made us at that Table and who longs for us, as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

I want to urge and beg everyone to reflect for a long time on that last phrase: the God who made us longs for us as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

That’s why Jesus talked so often about weddings, and that kind of love will change your life. It keeps on changing mine as I realize in ever deeper ways that “true religion” makes me vulnerable to love; helps me be grasped by it; to be undone because of it; to give myself over to it; and to be remade in it.

True religion will usher in that day when we yearn to see those on the margins joining us at the table; that day when we are so happy to welcome the forgotten and displaced among us; that day when we realize to our shock and unending joy that we have been embraced by those who are most different from us.

We will yearn and we will be happy and we will sing with joy about all these things on that day because of love. (I urge you to watch the short video about the making of the mural below, “The Banquet,” by Hyatt Moore; the link is provided beneath the image.)

That’s what makes religion “true” and what creates the only kind of community I can imagine for healing our violent and divided world.

So let’s get on with it.

“The Banquet,” Hyatt Moore
(see this mural being made)
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Follow the Jackass

I never thought much about donkeys growing up. I mean, why would I? It’s not like I saw many—or any—in the western suburbs of Chicago. But I did think a lot about horses; they were in all my storybooks about heroes and adventures. Horses seemed quite obviously more noble than donkeys.

There are some cultural reasons for these biases: Donkeys are usually the butt of jokes, they provide a convenient stand-in for the outsider, or the underachiever, or simply the useful nuisance we keep around to do the stuff we don’t want to do ourselves.

Let’s not forget the MTV Television series called “Jackass” and the ridiculous movie spinoffs it generated (I may have seen one). Those movies were about stupid humans, but the film’s title betrays the deeper human disdain toward the lowly donkey—the jackass.

Today there are roughly 40 million donkeys in the world and the vast majority of them—more than 90%—are found in rural societies and serve as pack animals, for transportation, and in roles of agricultural labor. Working donkeys are most often associated with those living in poverty, rarely ever with the wealthy or the powerful.

Every year on Palm Sunday we celebrate a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem as if a hero had mounted a white horse to ride into our lives and save the day. But that is not the story that launches us into the Christian Holy Week.

“Entry into the City,” John August Swanson

The donkey, all on his own, makes perfectly clear that Jesus is not a military commander, nor a rival of the Roman Emperor or even the provincial Governor. So why were the crowds cheering his arrival? Let’s be clear: they were not mocking him but cheering him.

It has taken a very long time for me to let go of the “triumph” of Palm Sunday and appreciate what the donkey teaches (I wish so desperately to know that dear creature’s name). Here’s the lesson I need to learn: Jesus on a donkey is an image of God’s deep solidarity—with the laboring classes, with the downtrodden and forgotten, with those oppressed by Empire.

More specifically for our own day, that image signals God’s solidarity with migrant farmworkers; with women of color who are single mothers working two full-time jobs; with the indigenous people of this land who are still unable to find justice with our own government.

Those are the ones lining the streets of Jerusalem and cheering the arrival of Jesus on a donkey. Perhaps, they think, just maybe, God has not forgotten them, maybe (hope beyond hope) God is standing with them.

But there’s still more to say about this story: God is also in solidarity with the donkey. After all, this beast of burden plays a starring role in this opening chapter of what we Christians call the holiest of weeks.

A donkey leads us into Holy Week!

So after we shout our “Hosannas!” it’s time to follow the Jackass into new life.

What might that look like?

Let’s start modestly. Let’s remember that this so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem features a city whose holiness is shared by at least three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The calendar this year all but begs reflection on those religious intersections. Even as Christians enter Holy Week, Muslims have already begun observing the holy month of Ramadan, and Passover begins this Friday—Good Friday.

While religious folks pray for peace in the world—and rightly so, and especially right now for Ukraine—religious folks have our own peace to make with each other. We need to work for peace with other Christians, with our Jewish neighbors, and with Muslims all around the world.

It matters that Jesus entered Jerusalem, that Holy City, not on a warhorse or as a general leading armies or in the garments of victory, but on the back of a donkey.

It’s long past time for us Christians to stop referring to this moment as “The Triumphal Entry”; this story should be called the “Parade of Solidarity.”

Poet Sylvia Sands writes so beautifully about this, about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All over the world, she writes, donkeys are beaten, starved, tortured, and worked until they drop.

And Jesus chooses that creature to accompany him on his entry into Jerusalem, to lead the “Parade of Solidarity.”

This is how our Christian holy week begins, not in triumph, not even with a whispered hint of domination or any kind of “victory” but rather with the lowly, humble, usually disdained little donkey plodding his path into an ancient city.

The Church has mostly forgotten this but queerly retains it in our lectionary texts and calendar images: the holiest of weeks marks a path of new life for us, if only we would follow the jackass.

Another poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, prays in precisely that direction: “O God, give me courage to follow the Foolish way, / to go the way the world discourages, / the way of love.

“May Jesus,” he writes, “riding into a set-up / on his little donkey, lead me.”

The donkey is leading Jesus where we must follow if we wish to live. It’s where God desires to be in communion with us, where God is always already in solidarity with us and with the whole of God’s creation.

Those are lofty ideas and rather far removed from how most of us live day-to-day—but not so for the donkey.

Sylvia Sands poetically imagines that one, first-century donkey being so grateful for that one man’s gentle touch on his reins; and for that one man’s sweet voice on the road; and for that one man’s improbable invitation to join him in the work of redeeming love.

We are invited to that same work of love, to travel along that same road, and to take our lead from a donkey.

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The Slap that Truly Matters Comes from Earth

I’ve enjoyed watching Will Smith in some of his movies; I’ve never really cared for Chris Rock’s humor. And that’s as much as I want to say about either of them.

I know there are other things that probably should be said after their recent performance during the televised Oscars ceremony—topics that include race, and white supremacy, and patriarchy, and celebrity culture, and toxic masculinity, and…the list goes on.

I have some opinions—even passionately held ones—about all of those topics. But here’s what I really care about right now: while white America debriefs the spectacle of two Black men in a fight (hardly ever mentioning race, let’s note), the planet is literally burning up and I’m wondering exactly when Earth’s slap across our collective face will finally wake us up.

Statistics rarely help but here are a few to ponder: the Western third of the United States has basically run out of water and it’s not coming back (the Washington Post says “the West is tapped out”); nearly 75% of Earth’s land area is already degraded on the way to desertification (please read that again: 75 per cent of this planet’s land is on the verge of becoming desert); according to the U.N., 27 of the 35 countries at greatest risk from climate change are already experiencing “extreme food insecurity”—food shortages are soon coming to an American grocery store near you if they haven’t already.

I know, stats are mind-numbing, especially since Smith’s slap of Rock’s face this past Sunday evening has now garnered more social media views than all six IPCC assessment reports on global climate change combined. I have no hard data for that statistic, just the intuitive conviction that many, many more know what “The Academy Awards” is than what “IPCC” stands for (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); here’s an analysis of that agency’s sixth assessment report.

I didn’t want to write a blog post about any of this because everything feels demoralizing these days and hardly anything seems particularly ripe with any hidden fruit of hopefulness. I prefer to find reasons for hope and write about those, especially when I can recommend promising action steps—of which I have precious few to propose. But then it occurred to me: maybe it’s worth writing about “anti-action steps,” about the things we should stop doing.

I’d say it’s time we stop having awards ceremonies of any kind—no more Oscars, Grammys, Tonys, or local Tulip Queen Crownings at the local 4H Club come May. Just stop giving out awards for anything on a planet that is dying right before our eyes. Glitzy gowns draping over red carpets under the glare of media lights? Honestly, as my dear mother would say, that’s just tasteless in the midst of so much wanton destruction.

I’d say it’s time we stop all televised sports, all collegiate sporting events, every single music concert, each and every art exhibit, and any other gathering for the sake of “culture.” This planet’s ecosystems have selected us for extinction—exactly what kind of cultural artifact would you like to make right now and who would be left to enjoy it?

I’d say it’s time to stop going to school and earning degrees and teaching classes—just as teenager Greta Thunberg did for two years—because let’s get real: on what part, exactly, of a burning planet with little water and shrinking arable land for farming would you like to use all that fancy education? More to the point, what kind of job do you hope to have when food shortages in this “wealthiest country in the history of the world” leave our grocery stores mostly empty?

Some climate scientists themselves have said it’s time to stop issuing reports on climate change because no one is reading them and no one is doing anything about them. It’s time instead to go on strike. Good Lord, these are scientists—can we please pay attention?

It’s time we stop doing all these things (and more) because it’s past time to stop settling for half-baked measures from politicians who pander to their “base” constituencies—on both the “right” and the “left” not to mention the useless “middle.” As George Tsakraklides persuasively (alas) argues, our elected politicians feed us just enough empty promises about climate action to keep us mostly well-behaved and unwilling to rock the (leaky) boat. It’s past time to write to our legislators; as Extinction Rebellion urges, it’s high time for civil disobedience, and we Christians need to be clear that such disobedience counts as spiritual activism and sacred work; there is no “Planet B.”

It’s time for every single one of us simply to stop, to stop everything, right now, and let the buses run idle and the bakery shelves stand empty and the dry cleaning go unfolded and the construction projects languish unfinished and the garbage rot uncollected and the livestock roam unslaughtered.

And then, in that pregnant pause, it’s time for all of us to stand in the streets, or on our front yards, or along the sidewalks of our cities, or at the edges of shopping-mall parking lots and gaze upon what we have wrought, what we have allowed, what continues day after day despite what we have known for many decades is our collective suicide.

It’s time for us to gaze upon all of that and then refuse to do anything more until someone steps up, or multiple such ones lead the way into a different future, a future away from mutually assured destruction and toward something like collaborative renewal and collective healing for the possibility of shared flourishing—if it’s not already too late.

I’m thinking and pondering all these things after watching what should have been an unremarkable moment of feuding between celebrities on live television go viral on social media as we Western Christians approach the waning days of Lent and Easter is teasing us over the horizon.

I had some high hopes for this Lenten season as we emerge gingerly from the Covid-19 pandemic but I have mostly failed to preach repentance persuasively in this parish I’m privileged to serve because I really don’t know how to repent myself—only that I should.

“Crucified Land,” Alexandre Hogue (1939)

I’d like to harbor high hopes for the Easter season when Spring here in the northern hemisphere underscores with natural italics the reassurances of the new life embedded in the liturgical cycle.

But my hope runs terribly thin that we’ll stop much of anything or pause for long, if at all, or pay any serious attention to what climate scientists have been warning us about since 1896. Everything we know today about climate change we knew in 1970—and we’ve done nothing. The biggest spike in greenhouse gas emissions has actually occurred in the last twenty years.

This is precisely the kind of moment the world’s religious traditions were invented to address, certainly Christianity, with its endemic apocalyptic flavors. Religion exists for the end of the world—to remind us of its end (its purpose) while also helping us navigate its other “end”—its demise.

So I’m modulating my posture these days, adopting what I call “radically modest hopes.” I’m hopeful that Christian faith communities can become sites of climate refuge and solace as we face storms, droughts, famines, and civil unrest (all of which will not get better but will only continue and worsen).

I’m hopeful that a renewed discipline of shared worship in our congregations can create communities of genuine care, islands of infectious compassion and rejuvenating tenderness in a sea of violent divisions and toxic self-absorption.  

And I’m hopeful that playing with our companion animals and hiking in our forests and wandering along our beaches will soften a sufficient number of our hearts to fall back in love again with Earth.

Surely none of us is too old, ever, to remember what it’s like to fall in love: that heady rush of infatuation, surfing those tides of giddy daydreaming, and then that sudden realization that all you ever really want is the very best for your beloved. We cannot allow the modern Western forces of industrialization and the ongoing onslaught of global capitalism to keep rendering Earth an inert lump of coal for us to burn at will; we must love her back to health.

Sociologist William James Gibson calls this vital need a process of “re-enchantment” with Earth. Or as biologist and environmentalist Stephen J. Gould once urgently noted, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.

So, for the love of God—for the love of Earth—stop caring about that stupid celebrity slap and go take a hike.

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A Transfigured (Black) Jesus and a Eucharistic Solidarity

As Black History Month draws to a close, Women’s History Month begins this week on March 1. This moment on the calendar invites deeper reflection on the potent intersection of race and gender, and how that kind of reflection might shape the season of Lent, which also begins in this coming week.

To do that work—especially as a white man—I’m particularly grateful for the insights of M. Shawn Copeland, an American womanist and Black Catholic theologian who taught for many years at Boston College. She helped me think differently about a foundational question in Christian theology: what does it mean to be human in relation to God? How one answers that question shapes so much else of Christian faith and practice.

M. Shawn Copeland

For many centuries, the European (white) male was considered the “standard issue” human and thus the primary reference point for answering that key theological question. The whiteness of Jesus himself became a question in new ways during the 1960s, which Copeland writes about in relation to the (Black) Jesus of Detroit.

Among the many moments of Black American history that white people (among others!) should not forget, Copeland draws our attention to the “rebellion” of 1967 not far from where I currently live. The following is her synopsis of that moment and the blackness of Jesus that it surfaced (taken from her essay on the Black Jesus in the collection edited by George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do?):

“In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, a routine police vice-squad raid on an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, escalated into one of the most furious racial rebellions in modern times. Five days later 43 persons were dead, more than 450 injured, more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

“A little-known, yet highly symbolic, incident during those days involved a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the grounds of the major seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. At the intersection of West Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, two blocks west of the site of the rebellion, stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which looked out on a then increasingly black neighborhood, even as the seminary faculty and students remained predominantly white.

“On the second day of the disturbance, an African American housepainter reportedly applied black paint to the hands, feet, and face of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At least twice, the color was removed, but black paint prevailed and, over the past four decades, the seminary has kept it fresh. In an interview during a 40th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion, the Assistant Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary’s Institute for Ministry, John Lajiness, said, ‘the City really has no other positive visible symbol like it. The painted statue speaks less of violence and more of the internal struggle for identity and the human tension which, intentionally or not, bled into making this statue an icon.’”

“Black Jesus” at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit

If a white man cannot represent the sacred heart of Jesus (much less in marble), then the European male certainly cannot stand as the only, or even the primary answer to the question of what it means to be human. The (brown and Middle Eastern) body of Jesus resides at the center of the Gospel, Copeland reminds us, a body that was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and raised to new life by God. To understand and embrace such a Gospel, especially given the social, economic, and political history of Western society, Copeland argues that women of color belong at the center of our theological work.

I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of that claim are for how I live, but I am convinced of how crucial it is that I keep reflecting on it and shaping my life because of it. Her book—Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being—helped convince me of this, and as Lent begins, I’m especially mindful of her work on the Eucharist.

Copeland recalls the gruesome history of lynching in the United States and how it prompted the same kind of terror as crucifixion did in the first century. Rather than avoiding that painful history, or feeling a vague sense of guilt about it (especially as white people), Copeland urges a practice of “divine solidarity.” To stand with and for those who are poor, outcast, and oppressed is to bear witness to the Gospel hope for a new world, a hope that shapes Eucharistic worship in Christian communities. Copeland expresses this in a powerful way:

“A Christian practice of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine practice of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination—recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self” (Enfleshing Freedom, p. 126).

Perhaps one of the ways I can take Copeland’s urgent call for solidarity to heart is to resist how I usually imagine the transfigured Jesus—with a shiny white face. As I prepare to preach tomorrow on the Transfiguration, a story often told on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, I’ll keep that Black Jesus of Detroit in mind instead, and even more as we move into the season of Lent.

Following Jesus on the road toward the Cross can itself be an act of solidarity if, as Copeland would urge, we see in him all the countless women of color strewn through so many forgotten stories of American history. Remembering them, even though we cannot now know their names, could contribute to how a “compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin.”

May that be the hope that breaks open an Easter dawn.

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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic may or may not be winding down, but what’s heating up are the assessments of “online worship” and what we think we have been learning as we enter the third year of this pandemic.

Among the many recent essays in that vein, two have seized a sizable share of social media buzz. Just yesterday, New York Times opinion writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren declared that it’s time to stop online worship services entirely. On the flip side of that coin, Church of England priest and theologian Richard Burridge argues in a new book that Holy Communion via online platforms (like Zoom) is “valid and effective.”

I’ll toss my hat into that ring by referencing an essay of my own that was published last year in Concilium about what I called “Eucharistic cyborgs” and the conundrums Christian congregations face when nearly all of the activities we call “worship” become vectors for a deadly infection. (That issue of Concilium, by the way, is well worth exploring for its theological and spiritual framing of the “post-human” in a digital world.)

We will likely be living for quite some time with a patchwork quilt of ecclesial policies and liturgical postures around these issues, and it’s far too early for definitive conclusions. We are, after all, evaluating innovations we had not planned on making, and using theological principles we are not sure directly apply, while quite a few of us are finding ourselves (surprisingly) grateful for a new set of tools and skills to use in this challenging era of religion’s putative decline.

As a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I facilitate and lead worship in a hybrid space, with masked, in-person worshippers receiving the Eucharistic bread while offering a prayer for “spiritual communion” for those joining us online. The tension between these two forms of “communion” can, I hope, provoke fresh engagements with what communion itself means and why it matters in a world of pain and for the sake of healing.

Like most hybrid spaces, this one is not always comfortable and includes awkward moments. Naming that discomfort, pondering why such worship can feel awkward, is important for our ongoing discernment about why Church still matters for exactly such a time as this.

Do note the distinction between the broader category of “online worship” and the more sacramentally peculiar question of the Eucharist in that broad category. Personally, I endorse what the Episcopal Church seems to have adopted: embrace online worship but refrain from what has become known as “remote consecration” of bread and wine.

That distinction blurs when reading the two essays I noted above, and I find compelling arguments in both—on the one hand, I heartily endorse Warren’s reliance on physical proximity as paramount in a religion of incarnation and, on the other hand, I tend to agree with Burridge’s insistence that the cyber-distance between a presiding priest at the Eucharistic Table and an online worshipper should make no difference in the ability of the Holy Spirit to bless and, yes, consecrate bread and wine remotely.

Compelling arguments from both, but I am not fully persuaded by either author. I find Warren’s categorical dismissal of online worship not only hasty (watching someone die from Covid-related causes should quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that we can safely manage Covid infections); but she also seems insufficiently attuned to the pastoral benefits of reaching people unable to attend worship in person (just because the Church has found ways to do so in the past without computer technology does not mean we should eschew such technology today). In my own congregation, we have also appreciated the evangelistic reach of our streamed worship—we have been welcoming new members to our physical sanctuary on Sunday mornings who worshipped with us first online.

Concerning Burridge, I would (ironically) cite Warren’s arguments about embodiment as a rebuttal to his apparent disregard for the significance of being physically distant while only visually and audibly present online. I think Warren rightly worries that online worship makes embodied presence optional for too many people, or akin to a “consumer preference,” rather than essential and vital to sacramental efficacy. She likewise proposes that bodily risk itself is inherent to the story of God’s Word becoming flesh and that our avoidance of all risk (which is never actually possible) amounts to a form of resistance to divine embodiment.

Reading those two writers side-by-side, I realize and I freely admit that my embrace of worship online but not consecration online is probably incoherent. But I still think it matters, theologically, that the Church has always insisted that the priest must touch the bread and wine to consecrate it, and I cannot do that for the bread and wine that people have at home while they watch me on a screen.

I suppose one could argue (and some have, like Burridge) that the Holy Spirit can just as easily bless the bread I touch as the bread people themselves hold at home. Perhaps, but I certainly wonder whether inviting people to treat “cyber touch” the same as we would “physical touch” underestimates just how physically touch-deprived so many have become during these last two years of social distancing in a pandemic; I am so grateful to see my friends on a screen, and yet for months I have longed finally to hug them once again. That longing is the very foundation of the liturgical insistence on touching the bread.

These conundrums seemed utterly novel and to appear quite suddenly in the spring of 2020, but the Church has actually wrestled with the liturgical theology at the root of such questions for centuries, including during times when Eucharist was interrupted or not permitted. Christians have always found ways of “being Church” nonetheless, and we are in one of those moments once again—a “moment,” by the way, that certainly deserves a healthy dose of patience and generosity toward each other as we sort this out.

Like many others, I had to grapple with all these issues in “real time” wrestling simultaneously with how to stream anything online and what it means liturgically to do so. I offered no conclusions about such matters in my essay for Concilium but I did land on some questions that I continue to find theologically stimulating and pastorally compelling; in various ways, I keep inviting the congregation here in Saugatuck to land there with me.

For example, are we human online? That question is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. Having now clocked hundreds of “Zoom hours” in committee meetings and worship gatherings alike, I wonder what physicality and proximity actually mean in relation to bodies. Just how close exactly do we have to be to one another to be “in proximity”? And what does it mean to be “physically present”? Do we suddenly become immaterial when we enter a Zoom room? As a theologian who appreciates the concept of “deep incarnation”—supposing that God’s Word incarnates all the way down to the microscopic, cellular level—I cannot help but wonder why I resist the notion of God’s Word showing up in a pixel.

On the brink of Black History Month, I’m also reminded of womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s concise declaration that the “body provokes theology.” She offers that declaration with the Eucharist clearly in view, insisting that the Table has material significance for how we treat racialized and gendered bodies. This is especially so because of the bodily communion the Eucharistic Table performs and what Copeland insists must be our Eucharistic solidarity with the oppressed, forgotten, tortured, maimed, and lost.

Do virtual bodies provoke theology in the same way that Copeland so persuasively argues that physical bodies do? Or does that question assume that our electronic digitization makes us substantially (note that word!) less human?

Another womanist theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas, has argued why we should even care about such questions. The carnal or fleshy character of Christian faith matters, she argues, for how we address a misogynistic society of white supremacy. Sexism and racism flourish, in other words, in contexts where our bodily lives are not honored with profound respect. So it’s at least worth wondering whether online gatherings can sustain bodily engagements sufficiently to promote social justice.

All of these questions strike at the very heart of our shared distress in a world of runaway climate chaos, unrelenting racialized violence, and gendered oppressions. These are material, bodily concerns for which Eucharistic worship provides vital framing and shaping. For that reason (among others) the parish that I’m privileged to serve as rector will continue to stream our worship services online and we will continue to refrain from “remote consecration” of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

I believe and I hope that such an approach to worship is a coherent balance to strike for the sake of refreshing our shared engagement with what communion itself actually means at a time when we are more desperate for its depths than we likely realize. I mean “communion” in the widest sense—communion with each other as humans; communion with other species; communion with the ecosystems of Earth; and therefore communion with God-in-Christ.

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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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LGBTQ Pride Month: Praying at the Intersections

Same-sex sexual acts have been legal nationwide in the United States only since 2003. Read that sentence again—I identify as a gay man and even I am shocked by how recent that is. That moment came as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

As LGBTQ Pride Month launches today, it might be helpful to recall why that case in 2003 mattered so much and also why it’s still important that faith communities pay attention to this history. Not only to the history but also to the crucial intersections this month invites for our commitments concerning racial justice and gendered equity, and still more, for ecological renewal.

First, let’s recall this: prior to 1962 in the United States, same-sex sexual activity was illegal in all 50 states and punishable by fine or imprisonment or coerced psychiatric hospitalization and electroshock therapy. (The term “homosexuality” itself was invented by nineteenth-century medical researchers and carried with it the stigma of pathology that could in theory be “cured” or reversed.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the police routinely raided gay bars and lesbian clubs and arrested patrons merely for gathering there. These laws changed slowly, state-by-state, until a series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1996 and 2015 finally decriminalized “homosexuality” nationwide and granted same-sex couples full marriage equality.

A turning point in that history came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back when the police raided that bar. The “Stonewall Riots” launched the modern gay liberation movement in the United States in new ways. Anniversary marches began the very next year, and by 1971 more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and Europe remembered that watershed moment with “Pride Parades.” Today, those celebrations and rallies occur all around the world and in nearly every town and city in the United States. Embracing these public expressions of sexual identity with pride is an attempt to reclaim human dignity after decades of being shamed or coerced into silence.

Rather than supposing that “pride” is a “deadly sin,” as many religious communities have long taught, some embrace pride as a path toward flourishing; in contexts where self-denigration and violence are expected, pride is actually lifesaving. This has also been true in various ways for communities of color struggling against structural racism and for women grappling with patriarchal structures of oppression.

“Between Worlds,” Delita Martin

While gender, race, and sexuality are distinct aspects of everyone’s identity, they also overlap and intersect in some complex ways. Indeed, those “intersections” can help all of us appreciate our own multiple layers of identity and how labels simply fail to express fully the richness of human life and relationships.

Anne Sisson Runyan helpfully reminds us that paying attention to the “intersections” isn’t just about adding layers of identity, one on top of the other, like a big stack of labels. As she notes, “women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women. In this sense, gender is always ‘raced’ and race is always gendered.”

As a white man (albeit a gay one), I had a lot of trouble appreciating that sense of racialized gender when I first encountered it; but of course, people of color get it right away. As Runyan explains, “racialized sexist stereotypes of white women portray them, under the still-prevailing legacy of the Victorian age, as passive, physically weak, undersexed, and needful and deserving of protection. In contrast, racialized sexist stereotypes of black women…under the still-prevailing legacy of slavery and colonization, construct them as aggressive, physically strong, oversexed, and undeserving of protection.”

Attending carefully to the rich diversity of human experience eventually expanded “gay liberation” to include “lesbians,” and then “bisexuals,” and more recently “transgender people” in cultural and religious efforts for justice and inclusion. These labels, however, don’t work for everyone. Many African Americans, for example, adopted “same-gender loving” or “SGL” in the 1990s as a way to distinguish themselves from primarily white notions of “gay and lesbian.” There is also a long history among indigenous peoples in the Americas of using the term “two-spirit” as a way to name how gender and sexuality don’t fit into the neat binary boxes that often accompany European ways of describing the world. And still others prefer the word “queer” as a way to name their experience of not “fitting in” with any modern categories and expectations.

“Renewal,” Nancy Desjarlais

The complexity (and the richness) of these intersections grow when we expand this kind of analysis to include other species and the wider worlds of intertwining ecosystems. Leah Thomas is the founder of the online resource hub for Intersectional Environmentalism and writes compellingly about the urgent need to foreground the lives, experiences, and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in movements of ecological renewal.

“Innocent Black and brown people are the most impacted by climate change,” Thomas writes, “but those same people are not present in environmental policy.” Just as race and gender are often co-constructed, environmental activism is typically populated with white people and actions are directed toward locations where predominantly white communities are affected. As Thomas notes, the health and vibrancy of BIPOC communities around the world are the only adequate standard by which to assess our progress on ecological renewal as well as the degradations we’re inflicting on ecosystems.

Given the history of religious condemnation of LGBT people, communities of faith bear a particular responsibility to promote social justice and to respect the full dignity of every human being, and indeed, of all creatures of the same God. “Pride Month” is an opportunity to make that commitment visible and intentional in every way we can and at as many intersections as we can name.

All Saints’ Parish, where I have the privilege to serve as the rector in Saugatuck, Michigan, will be “praying at the intersections” of human identities this month and endeavoring to appreciate in deeper ways the rich diversity of God’s creation, especially when gender, race, sexuality, and ecological renewal all coincide and overlap and intersect.

We will also be posting profiles on our Facebook page of LGBTQ pioneers in the Episcopal Church as well as artists who come from “two-spirit” indigenous communities in the United States. I hope and pray that these posts can elicit the complex beauty that arises from the intersections, those potent locations where God’s handiwork shines brightest when the fullness of our diversity is embraced and cherished.

“Harmony,” Alima Newton
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Easter and Eucharist for Earth

The religious training of my youth was steeped in what I call “escape hatch Christianity.” The subtle and sometimes explicit message from sermons and educational programs and just the ambient spiritual culture of those Western suburbs of Chicago shaped my impression of the Christian Gospel as the means by which we eventually escape Earth for a disembodied place called Heaven.

One can, of course, simply leave such religious images behind, as I did, but they also linger in public policies and in civic organizations and in how communities of all sorts treat Earth and her many ecosystems. If “heaven” is elsewhere, in other words, we can quite literally let this planet go to hell. More than a few books and scholarly articles argue persuasively for precisely those links over the last two or three centuries.

What if, instead, we pray as Jesus taught us, that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” and then live accordingly? That has been a guiding question in (among other places) the social media presence we’ve been cultivating at All Saints’ Parish in Saugatuck, Michigan.

We observed and celebrated Black History Month in February, followed by Women’s History in March. Each stands on its own with its own integrity and significance. Taken together, however, they also frame in vital ways the month of April, which includes Earth Day on April 22–an important opportunity to provide a compelling religious alternative to “escape hatch Christianity.”

To that end, I’m inviting the parish to observe April as “Mother Earth Month,” for which both Black history and women’s history offer important insights. The history of the United States, for example, is marked throughout with the painful white/black divide and the sometimes violent segregation of Black people; this is not unlike the various ways in which modern Western culture has segregated itself from the vibrant ecosystems of the planet, setting humanity apart from and above all other animals.

“Mother Earth,” Starr Hardridge

Likewise, patriarchal societies perpetuate male dominance by subjugating women in both overt and subtle ways (just one among many of these ways in the U.S. is through income inequality; today, women make just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes). These patriarchal dynamics are replicated in humanity’s relationship to Earth, especially in modern Western culture in which the planet is objectified (just as women’s bodies are by men) and Earth’s natural resources are decimated.

April also marks, of course, the season of Easter as Christian communities celebrate with great joy the raising of Jesus from the dead and the assurance this provides that divine love is stronger than death itself. How might this Easter promise provide an occasion for considering the role played by ecological healing and renewal in Christian faith and in our celebration of new life? As part of that intention, we will celebrate Earth Day as a parish on Sunday, April 25th, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

In social media, especially on Facebook, we will also feature Native American artists each week and their portrayals of humanity’s relationship to the beautiful web of ecosystems on this planet. As a primarily white congregation here in Saugatuck, we want to avoid romanticizing indigenous communities and also resist treating them as exotic “others.” At the same time, many Native American tribes have historically lived in greater harmony with Earth and other-than-human animals in ways that have much to offer to the wider world. We pray such offerings might be received gratefully so that all God’s creatures might thrive and flourish on this “fragile earth our island home.”

May we find over the course of this month that Christian hope has nothing to do with escaping from this planet to a disembodied place called “heaven” but rather inspires the longing for that day when Earth will become fully the heaven of new life God has promised by raising Jesus from the dead.

“Mother Earth,” Angela Babby