post

The Jewishness of Jesus for a New Year of Courage

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

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

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

Well, that got tidied up pretty quickly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must not let this become normal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

post

The Ground Cries Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post

The Best Easter Egg Ever

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

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

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

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

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

And that was the cross we venerated on Good Friday.

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

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

Just there and just then, we hear our name.

 

post

Moonstruck on Good Friday

This year’s “Paschal moon” just happened to coincide with a lunar eclipse. Not just any kind of eclipse but the kind that creates a “blood moon,” an appropriate image and color for Holy Week.blood_moon

This week’s stories and symbols carry more than most of us can take in all at once – bodily intimacy, vulnerability, loving tenderness, betrayal, imperial violence, suffering, and death. All of these populate human experience at various times to some degree and always have. Yet discerning or inserting God in these experiences lends further intensity to their already mysterious character.

Mysteries inevitably invite the urge to unravel and solve them (think Sherlock Holmes) and perhaps even more so for the religious variety. Encountering the uncanny mysteries of both love and death, human beings seek quite naturally to “make sense” from them; the results can range from the incredulous to the oppressive.

Making sense from the death of Jesus has animated Christian ideas of atonement for centuries. Some of those ideas convert the mystery into a mechanism of exchange (Jesus died in my place); others rely on blame and scapegoating (to which the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism bears painful witness). Love and death, especially as they intertwine, will always elude our sensible grasp.

This week’s lunar eclipse brought Rose to mind, the Olympia Dukakis character in the film Moonstruck. Rose sought eagerly to solve an irritating mystery: why do old married men chase younger women? Her brother finally ventures an answer: “They fear death.” Armed with this insight, Rose confronts her husband, who has been having an affair with another woman. “Cosmo,” Rose says, “you’re gonna die, just like everyone else.” To which Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Science solved the mystery of “blood moons” and Rose solved the mystery of adulterous husbands. The mystery of Good Friday remains, not to be solved but pondered and embraced: God’s own unfathomable journey through creaturely life, suffering, and death. And this, Christians have tried to say with our peculiar faith, is the journey toward new life.

cross_window_flowerSome strands of Christian history resist explanatory mechanisms and let the mystery stand, inviting and piercing. These are the strands I will take with me to Church this afternoon where I will venerate that old rugged cross – the strands that place that cross on a green hill; the strands that portray that cross as a flowering tree; the strands that see clearly an instrument of imperial torture and, just as clearly, the strength of divine love, a love stronger than death.

I will take with me the mysterious fourth century vision of Ephrem of Edessa, who imagined the “carpenter’s son” fashioning the cross into a bridge over which souls can flee from the region of death to the land of the living. That bridge, in turn, buds as a tree in spring, blossoming with desire:

Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

I will go to the cross today with the words of an ancient hymn, written some two centuries after Ephrem. I will sing these words, not with understanding, but as one struck by divine vulnerability and intimacy – yes, as one moonstruck with love:

Faithfcross_treeul 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.

post

Tina Turner and Maundy Thursday

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

Holy Week 2014: The hope of Divine Communion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post

Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.

post

Glossy Fashion and Adoring Flesh — an Epiphany!

magi_star“Enter, stage left, the Wise Guys.” That’s what a friend of mine in college liked to say about Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Stage “left,” I suppose, because these “wise guys” hailed from ostensibly “pagan” religious traditions. “Wise,” as I have come to see in recent years, because of their quest.

The Christian quest these days seems mostly marked with institutional anxiety. How will we save the church? In my view, that is entirely the wrong question. A better one: How will any of us participate in God’s own passion to save God’s fleshy creation? Perhaps if Christians attended carefully to that question, institutional anxiety would take care of itself.

It took me some years to see this, so let me back up a bit.

In the mid-1990s a friend from seminary ripped a page out of a glossy fashion magazine and sent it to me in the mail. The full-page photograph featured a rail-thin model, scantily clothed, and lying on piles of trash. She lay there with her eyes closed, lips colored slightly purple, and a man’s foot pressing down on her arm, planted there as if in triumph. It was an advertisement for the sneaker that man was wearing.sneakers_blue

My friend included a post-it note on the photograph: “Here’s an icon for Epiphany.” This confused me at first. I found that image disturbing for more than one reason: for objectifying women as disposable play things; for perpetuating masculinity as inherently domineering and violent; and for commodifying human bodies to sell other commodities, to name just a few. Pondering my friend’s note and that image, those disturbing qualities soon began to coalesce into an icon of human flesh, its denigration, humiliation, and abuse standing in desperate need of redemption. An ideal icon, in other words, for Epiphany.

The twelve days of Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar begin when gift-giving on the secular calendar ends, on Christmas Day itself. Those twelve liturgical days in turn end with still more gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. According to Matthew’s gospel account, magi from the East, perhaps astrologers or magicians from the region of Persia, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Ancient Mediterranean societies sometimes used those latter two gifts for embalming, as burial spices. Matthew thus offers a literary foreshadowing of events to come. The child receiving those gifts shall not escape the fate of all mortal flesh. Indeed, he will suffer the kind of indignity no human deserves, but which continues to this day, even in the glossy pages of what passes for the latest fashion.

Icons serve as windows into an unseen or perhaps forgotten reality. The flesh portrayed in that disturbing “fashion” spread opens a window on Western culture and can help to strip away the sentimentality that so often drenches the Christmas/Epiphany holiday cycle. The original story behind those holidays actually startles, or it should.

Matthew describes the magi’s gift-bearing journey as a quest. But for what? They search not for an idea, a strategy, a program, or an institution, nor even a place, but instead for a person, a flesh-and-blood child. This child does not bear ideal flesh, the kind suitable for Greek or Roman statuary or for today’s cult of youth and beauty. The child eventually found and adored by the magi bears entirely unremarkable, ordinary flesh. Flesh ordinary enough to trade like a commodity on Wall Street, or to disrobe on Hollywood’s silver screen for quick titillation, or to go homeless and starving on city streets.

The flesh of that child appears bruised and conquered on piles of trash in a fashion magazine.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The hint (only just intuited by ancient Persian astrologers), that gift (only barely grasped by gospel writers), the epiphany still so desperately needed today appears as this: with us and among us and in our very flesh, God takes great delight. Not abstractly or generally or vaguely but in all the material details of human life, the magnificent and tender ones as well as the heartbreaking and tragic.

communityProgressives and conservatives alike tend to extol the incarnation at Christmas, perhaps also at Epiphany, and each in their own ways. Relatively few make clear that the flesh of the Incarnation comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors (what modern Westerners call “races”), or that Western society has generally cared far more about male- rather than female-identified flesh (and still does), or that “flesh” stands for much more than whatever we mean by “human.”

Today’s liturgical feast invites Christians to do what so many of us have been taught resembles a scandal if not a sin: adore flesh – not for the sake of fashion, but to be decidedly out-of-fashion. When Christian churches figure out how to do that and why, we will change the world (for the better).

A changed world might well be what set those ancient wise guys on a long journey. Happy Epiphany!

(This post is a revised version of a section of my forthcoming book, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon!)

post

Merry (Messy) Christmas!

Carnal existence is wonderfully and terribly messy. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Most of us do notice, yet few Christians seem to talk about the messiness of bodily life at this time of year, when we celebrate the Word of God in the flesh.

“Away in a manger,” we Christians sing, while Mary tended to a baby who spits up and poops, like all babies do. And that manger? It smelled like pig saliva surrounded by the odor of cow shit.manger

Christians know all this at some level, but it’s rather remarkable how infrequently we talk about it. Progressives, like me, prefer to talk about the glories of bodily life after hearing for far too long about the “sins of the flesh.” Spiritual honesty and vitality demand more than that facile dichotomy.

If this feast of the Incarnation is ever going to break free of the titillating tinsel of cheery commercialism and actually seize the human imagination once again it will take both the glories and the humiliations of the flesh with the utmost seriousness – just as God did and does.

Bodies do exult with joys and pleasures sufficient to make angels sing. Bodies also grow weak, fall prey to disease, get very messy, and then they die. I think regularly about the messiness of bodies as I care for my 92-year old mother. Quite literally millions of others likely do, too, as they care for elderly parents with diapers on one end and dementia on the other.

Things can get just as messy on the inside as the outside. Each of us lives with a vast interior space crowded with all kinds of cultural voices: go on a diet; work harder; be more polite; stop being so uppity; know your place; clean the kitchen (like Martha Stewart pays someone to do).

Quite frequently all those voices reduce to just one – our own. Many of us could easily win the prize as our own fiercest critic. There’s a name for that voice; it’s called shame.

Christians spend a lot of time talking about guilt and forgiveness and hardly any about what forgiveness alone can never really touch – shame. I tried to write about this in my recent book where I defined shame as “alienation from our bodily goodness.” Everyone knows what that means and some need anti-depressants to address it. But bodily shame can just as easily issue outward as inward. In my book I described it like this:

When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation from bodily goodness can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can also exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships and even wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations.

hands_multiracial3I truly believe bodily shame lies at the root of human distress, and probably always has. We know that distress as racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and horrific self-loathing, which breeds all the rest. Christmas, this Feast of the Incarnation, invites us to come out from our shame and to discover anew – or for the very first time – the antidote to bodily shame in a divine embrace. Christmas invites us to imagine what for most is literally unthinkable: God takes great delight in our flesh, our smelly, delectable, terrifying, itchy, silky, unmanageable, glorious flesh. I tried to imagine that as I wrote this for that recent book:

Most of us take the skin covering our bones for granted, except perhaps when we bruise it or cut it—or perhaps when a friend grabs our hands in a moment of crisis, or our fingers intertwine with the fingers of a beloved partner. Human flesh feels remarkably soft and resilient, creased and textured, smooth and supple. Human flesh comes in a stunning array of colors for which just “black” and “white” seem terribly crude. Pink, mocha, tan, auburn, chocolate—these are just a few of the tints and tones of the flesh that can occasion joy for us, and for the God who made it…hands_multiracial4

Imagine, in other words, God taking great delight in your body. I mean the naked one, the one with creases and dents, the one with the quirky smile and crooked nose, the one that gets messy and tired and cranky, the one that you never think is good enough or does enough or measures up to today’s cult of youth and beauty. I mean the body you cover with festive holiday clothes and workaholic frenzy just as Adam and Eve covered theirs with fig leaves. God asked those first humans about that. Read about it in the third chapter of Genesis. Who told you, God asked them, to be ashamed of how I created you?

If we can start to imagine God truly loving our own, messy bodies, then we might start to see other bodies that way, too. That would change the world. And that would give angels reasons to sing yet again.

angels_sheperdsMerry (messy) Christmas!

aside

I don’t usually post sermon texts here (sermons are performance pieces and difficult to capture in text). But given the recent government shutdown drama, the spectacle of a deeply divided country, and all the horrors generated by a globally divided humanity, I want to share some reflections on what many churches will mark tomorrow, October 27: Reformation Sunday. The texts here are Joel 2:22-32 and Luke 18:9-14. (I’ll be preaching this live at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California at 11am. Join us!)

Many churches – especially Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations – will mark October 27 this year as Reformation Sunday. The last Sundaluther_thesesy of October each year is set aside to commemorate the day, October 31 in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. (You have to be careful how you pronounce that word “theses.” Though of course Luther himself would appreciate a good scatological joke.)

That moment in 1517 was Luther’s line in the ecclesial sand, a watershed moment in what was emerging as the Protestant Reformation. That movement redrew the map of institutional Christianity and therefore also the map of Europe, because it also marked the emergence of what we know today as “nation states” at roughly the same time and for reasons deeply intertwined with Luther’s agitations.

Needless to say, Reformation Sunday does not appear on the liturgical calendar used by Roman Catholics. On the other hand, given what we’ve witnessed so far from Pope Francis, I’d say with gratitude that the reforming spirit seems to be stirring in the Vatican these days as well.

That’s an important reminder, it seems to me, of one of the slogans those early reformers adopted: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, or “the reformed church always reforming.” (And I quote that in Latin because I find it mildly amusing that some Protestant theologians today still like to quote that slogan in the language of the institution their ancestors critiqued.)

More to the point: reformation is not an isolated event, relegated to a distant past some 500 years ago, but is rather part and parcel of what the Church always does – or rather should always do. It’s a reminder, in other words, that just like housework the Church’s work is never really finished. Or in more traditional language, conversion is not a single moment in the life of Christian faith but rather a lifelong process of transformation. Actually, some would say more than lifelong as death marks but one milestone – albeit a significant one – on our journey ever deeper into the life of God.

So I’d like to offer just a few observations about what this seismic shift in Christianity 500 years ago might still offer to our lives of faith today, what this dusty old moment from the past might still offer to that call always to be reforming. And I’m thinking especially of a twin concern shared by many of those early reformers – justification and sanctification. More precisely, being justified, or saved by grace alone through faith, and being sanctified, or transformed in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great theological code words but, really, does this stuff matter?

Actually the Bible might help us find reasons for why these things do matter and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the lectionary texts for today signal the twin concerns I just mentioned. Luke’s Jesus tells a parable about a sinner finding justification before God and the text from the prophet Joel is often associated with the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit. So a few thoughts about each – and seriously, just a few. This topic has filled countless volumes.

First, justification: what in the world is that about? No really, what does this mean? Both the tax collector in Luke’s parable and Martin Luther himself could easily tell us. Luther, you might recall, was an Augustinian monk before launching on his institutional reform project. It was, Luther himself would say, a life of torment. He did everything his religious order demanded and the institutional church proscribed to lead a life of faith – and he was tormented by doubt. He was never fully convinced of his own salvation, he was never satisfied that God was satisfied with his efforts.

Never enough. Never enough. Never enough. … Oh, Martin, how I can relate!

Curiously enough, the turning point in his life came from reading carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther embraced as a sustained elegy to divine grace. The whole point of Christian faith, Luther realized, is not about what we do to justify ourselves but instead how God sees us through Christ, through the lens of divine grace – as cherished, and loved, and forgiven.

(Just a side note for the theology geeks among us: a similarly dramatic turning point occurred in the early twentieth-century life of the pioneering theologian Karl Barth when he also studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans; if you think the only thing to do with that letter is to refute Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter, think again.)

Luke’s parable captures far more concisely what Luther experienced. There Jesus contrasts the religious leader who boasts of all his good works and the tax collector, a despised Roman collaborator and social outcast who bewailed his sinfulness. It was not the clergy person in that parable but the cultural pariah who returned home justified, Jesus says. And that is justification by grace through faith, as Luther declared in his world-changing insight.

I totally identify with both that tax collector and Martin Luther. Oddly enough, I did so especially in the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In that tradition, preachers frequently issue “altar calls,” the invitation to turn one’s life over to Christ and be saved. I did precisely that as a teenager – multiple times. I responded to those altar calls again and again because I worried and fretted that the conversion hadn’t really “stuck.” I had to be sure, I had to know, I had to keep providing evidence that this time I really meant it. This time, God, really, I mean it.

And of course, just like Luther, I had missed the point. It’s not what I do – not even responding to an altar call – but rather what God does, that provides all the justification anyone needs. Or as my liturgy professor in seminary likes to say, we are “drenched” in grace.

Good news, to be sure. But there’s something more lurking around this text that deserves our attention. Luke’s parable is not only about the promise of divine grace; it is of course just as much a parable about not judging others.

No one’s life project is finished. No one has sufficient reason to boast before God. No one has it all figured out.

Or in more traditional language, this parable is calling of us all back to a profound posture of spiritual humility.

By saying that I just provided a classic illustration of a preacher preaching to himself with the hope that it might also be helpful to others. When I am convinced of something, I am not exactly known for sharing that conviction humbly. Yet I do believe we need more of precisely that, both in our political discourse these days as well as our religious circles.

Actually, that’s probably stating the case a bit too mildly. Some would say that the ideological and political divide in our country today is as bad as it has ever been, with each side unswervingly claiming the moral high ground. More still, religious conviction is fueling war and the rumors of war around the globe.boehner-obama

Yet even more: the despicable treatment of lesbians and gay men in Russia; the unabated practice of hanging gay teenaged boys in Iranian public squares; the draconian legislation in Uganda that makes “homosexuality” a capital crime. All of these moments and more spring from absolute religious conviction. Did you see the image of fully vested Russian Orthodox priests throwing stones at marchers in a gay pride parade? If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a scene from a Monty Python movie.

But here’s the thing: Even if I am right about something, I am no less in need of grace than the person with whom I disagree. I am absolutely convinced that those Russian Orthodox priests are wrong. And I need divine grace as much as they do.

I read Luke’s Jesus as offering a not-so-subtle nudge to level the playing field. To do that, I need to revise how I associated myself above with the tax collector. I am just as much the Pharisee in this parable – probably more than “just as much.” And that’s why sanctification and not only justification was so important for the Protestant Reformers.

Martin Luther used a medical analogy to illustrate the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Being justified is like a doctor having just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. The physician pronounces the patient cured (read “justified”) even though the next step is also required for a full restoration to health: a process of rehabilitation (read “sanctified”).

While I find that analogy useful, I have to say that I find it troubling as well. It’s probably a theological hangover from an Evangelical youth, but that analogy comes perilously close to identifying the human condition itself as fatally flawed, or as John Calvin would say, suffering from “total depravity.”

Now, to be sure, there are days when I read the newspaper and think that humanity as a whole is thoroughly and utterly depraved. But I don’t read the Bible that way and I don’t read my friends and colleagues that way. Do I read my detractors and enemies that way, as totally depraved? Of course I do. That’s why Luke’s Jesus makes me squirm.

And that’s why I appreciate that the reformers stressed sanctification as a process. No one’s life project is finished. No one has reason to boast. No one has it all figured out.

And indeed, that’s why Christians keep coming back to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday mornings. We might come to that Table for the reminder of the justification and forgiveness that God has already accomplished in Christ. Even more, we come to the Table to deepen the sanctifying process.

eucharist_contemporaryThis process of meal sharing at this Table invites us to see ourselves ever more clearly as cherished, loved, and forgiven so that we can see everyone else in the same way – everyone, no exception.

We have a long way still to go in that process. But by God’s amazing grace, the reformed church is always reforming.

post

Living on the Edge

This peculiar day reminds me of the 1990 film, “Postcards from the Edge,” mostly because of its wonderful title. I imagine Jesus sending one of those postcards especially today, called “Holy Saturday” on the Christian calendar. It would read, “Don’t be afraid.”

Edges can certainly trouble and terrify when living on the edge of foreclosure, or the edge of terminal illness, or the edges of a crumbling relationship. Edges can also intrigue and entice as gateways, portals, and thresholds.

In ancient mythologies “liminal deities” preside over doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman pantheons, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of gateways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.janus

“Holy Saturday” sits on the potent edge between Good Friday and Easter, and it certainly qualifies as a peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves preparing for tomorrow’s liturgical festivities. Christian tradition has Jesus busy with something else.

On this day in the Christian imagination Jesus descends into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

chora_anastasis3One of my favorite depictions of this sacred edge resides in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. More accurately, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

I love Advent and Christmas for the reassurance that flesh matters. I love Epiphany for its expansive horizons of who celebrates God in flesh. I pay attention to Ash Wednesday (for the sake of my mortality) and Lent moves me to live for what matters. But Good Friday proves painful and Easter somehow premature. I love this day in between, this day that sits on the edge. It feels both honest and fantastical all at the same time.

Reflecting on edges I nearly always think of a beach, that liminal space where land and sea meet. Most human beings seem ineluctably drawn to those sandy liminal locations – dry yet also wet; solid but shifting; navigable while also treacherous. Humans stroll along them, launch ships from them, enjoy bonfires and picnics on them—and occasionally fall prey to their unpredictable dangers. A “day at the beach” can entail hours of frolicking in the surf yet they always lead back to the familiar comforts of a place to stand, or more likely to sit and enjoy food and drink.

I imagine the Eucharistic Table sitting on that kind of liminal edge, where Christians share bread and wine on the edge between memory and hope. There we remember suffering and death even as we proclaim resurrection. The former is barely past; the latter hasn’t quite yet arrived.table_beach

To me, Easter is above all a liminal, edgy season, which “Holy Saturday” captures so well. This season invites us to live on the edge, refusing to remain mired in a broken past yet not quite sure what stepping over the horizon will look like. Edgy living is both hopeful and humble, marked by a confidence about the future but without any swagger.

It also takes courage to live on the edge, which is why I’m grateful for this peculiar day and the postcard I imagine Jesus sending from his sojourn among the dead: “Don’t be afraid.”

As a spiritual practice I enjoy returning to some of my favorite hymn tunes and writing new lyrics to accompany them. I did that this Lenten season with the wonderful American folk melody, “Land of Rest” (you might recognize it from the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on US National Parks). I offer it here for a bit sustenance for our lives on the edge.

Harbor Home

From mountain high and ocean deep
along a distant shore,
a starry host with vigil keep
a bright and open door.

Unfurl the sails to conquer fear
‘midst gale and storm-tossed wave,
the Spirit guides all creatures dear,
these mortal ships to save.

The Table set in trackless seas
where Christ before us trod,
will chart the course with mysteries
to harbor home in God.

(Words: ©2013, Jay Emerson Johnson
Music: Land of Rest, American folk melody)

shore_water_distant