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One and Only Noble Tree

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

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fog on the Kalamazoo River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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
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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

It’s an early Saturday morning. Gentle rays of sunshine are trickling through stained glass, kaleidoscoping around the baptismal font. I lift the wooden lid from the font and liberate a small spider who had wandered in there, who knows how long ago; the stone hasn’t felt water’s blessing for some time.

I unlock the front door of the church to help Mary bring in the Easter lilies from her car; she’s perfectly named for this occasion. Mary co-directs the altar guild and there’s work to be done, even when the sanctuary will remain mostly empty of people tomorrow and we stream prayers and chants and bread and wine through pixelated images into people’s homes.

Margie and David were just here and we all looked for David’s glasses; he thought he might have left them in the sanctuary after preaching one of the Good Friday homilies yesterday afternoon. We looked in the sacristy but didn’t see them anywhere amidst all the religious hardware strewn about, the candlesticks and altar books and kneelers and linens that had been stripped away from the Altar on Thursday evening.

Tom arrives, and then Valerie, all of us in casual Saturday morning garb—I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and the leather jacket I bought with my mother at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sixth anniversary of her death was this past Wednesday, and the rectory has been filled with the smell of roses since then; Bobbie and Margie brought the roses to me that afternoon, to help me mark that mid-week moment.

It’s a wonderfully strange day, this Saturday that sits betwixt and between, this day of ordinary patterns of everyday life that carry charged particles of hope and anticipation.

Not somewhere else, but here; not in some other time, but right now God moves and stirs among us. Holy Saturday reminds me every year about this everyday character of Christian hope. The drama of Maundy Thursday and the heartache of Good Friday have unfolded with whatever poignancy they hold for each of us still and then…Saturday. There’s cleaning to be done, some fussing with flowers, returning fair linens to the Table, freeing a spider from a dry font.

Meanwhile, as early traditions would have it, Jesus is not quietly dead in his tomb nor merely resting on this day but busily harrowing Hell. Descending among the dead, he tramples Hell’s gates beneath his pierced feet—the gates are destroyed, not only so no one need ever enter through them again but also to ensure that everyone there is freed—every single one.

One of my favorite icons of this underworld drama depicts Jesus yanking Adam and Eve from their graves, both of them apparently startled and maybe even a tad reluctant, unsure of what this new life might mean.

I appreciate that reminder, too: resurrection is not resuscitation, but something utterly new and fresh and disorienting. And also this: no one is left out of this shocking newness and no one is left behind.

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

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

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

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat dirt.

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

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

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

He’s there in all those of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us.

Together.

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Healing Shame, Changing the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

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

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

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

For God so loved the world…

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Living Temples

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

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

“Cleansing of the Temple,” Peter Koenig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s the third day again!

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

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

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

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

“Jesus Drives Out the Moneychangers,” Douglas Blanchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you join me?

“Christ Overturning the Moneychanger’s Table,” Stanley Spencer
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Alleluia: The Great Nevertheless

The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection belong among the queerest stories in the Bible—peculiar, strange, and downright odd. They don’t conform to the expected plot of a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a neat, happy ending. The risen Jesus isn’t even recognizable by his closest friends (John 20:11-14) and it’s not entirely clear exactly what he is—he’s clearly not a ghost but not a resuscitated corpse either (Luke 24:39). He is still Jesus but new.

These peculiar stories belong to a larger set of biblical stories that we might group together under “The Great Nevertheless.”

It makes little sense to seek out an obscure nomadic tribe of people, enslaved by a powerful nation, and claim them as God’s own people. Nevertheless, God did so with the ancient Israelites.

Few today would take the humiliating public execution of an obscure itinerant preacher as an occasion for life-changing faith. Nevertheless, gospel writers did so with the story of Jesus.

Not many would look to a ragtag bunch of uneducated day laborers to turn the world upside down, defy government authorities, create new kinds of community, and generate a worldwide movement of countercultural practices. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit did precisely that with Jesus’s followers (Acts 17:6).

I find it easier to see and speak that great “nevertheless” in ancient texts than in my own life and especially in the wider world right now, a world engulfed with a viral fear and anxiety. Easter feels a bit sequestered in theological theory.

In such difficult moments, I am particularly grateful for church. I don’t mean the institutional superstructure; I mean the worldwide community of all those who are the living members of the Body of Christ, all those who can believe for me when I doubt, who can summon joy for me when I’m mired in sadness, who can trust on my behalf when I’m paralyzed by fear, who can shout “Alleluia!” for me so I can hear once again The Great Nevertheless.

On this particular Easter Day, I am also mindful of all those who are separated from families and friends, isolated in their homes or, alas, quarantined in hospital rooms. Few of these can summon enough Easter joy even to imagine speaking an “alleluia”; those on ventilators would be unable to speak it even if they wanted to try. Perhaps especially for all of them, the church throughout the world lifts its collective voice to proclaim an Alleluia! whenever and wherever all these others cannot.

To speak and shout and sing for those who cannot—this reminds of an Easter tradition I learned many years ago when I was in seminary. The liturgy for the Easter vigil in the chapel included something called the “great noise.” It happened upon hearing the presiding priest announce God’s victory over death and the gathered community would make a loud noise with whatever we brought with us: gongs, wooden clappers, kazoos, and especially bells.

As the Great Noise rose up as the Great Nevertheless from the chapel stalls, a seminarian stood outside in the bell tower, yanking on the rope attached to that gigantic bell with all his might. That bell pealed the news of resurrection across the Wisconsin countryside. A dear friend of mine, Cynthia Gill, later wrote about that moment with words I never want to forget:

In the chapel itself an orgy of bells, every person clasping his or her own personal Easter bell, ringing and ringing as though eternal life depended on it. And on through the liturgy, the ringing of bells. With every “alleluia” in a hymn, a chapel-full of arms raised with bells ringing. All the while, Michael [the bell] was joyously tolling—through the baptisms, through the communions, through the Easter party in the dining hall that went on and on into the wee hours of the morning. Children and students, faculty and staff, those who would never ring a proper bell again in their lives, took turns pulling on Michael’s rope with all their might, telling the Wisconsin countryside that their Lord and Savior had burst the tomb, that feasting, not fasting, was the order of the day. The gospel told the story; the bells tolled the story.

“Now I know,” Cynthia concluded, “that if I ever should lose my words, my voice, my vocabulary; if I ever lose the ability to comfort, to argue, to complain, I shall not lose the chance to proclaim ‘Christ is risen!’  For I still keep my little Easter bell close at hand, and come the Queen of Feasts, I too shall ring, ‘Alleluia!’”

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“Michael” the bell at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

I am so grateful for all those who are bolstering my faith and my hope today with the loving acclamation of Easter joy. Their Alleluia is helping me voice the Great Nevertheless for all those who have no voice this morning nor even any bell to ring.

Faith is sometimes (often?) a struggle.
Hope seems just out of reach.
Nevertheless, Christ is risen!

Alleluia.

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Divine Solidarity

The traditional service of Stations of the Cross traces the journey Jesus made from condemnation to crucifixion and burial. I noticed something new on that journey after reflecting on it through the frame of pandemic.

At the fifth “station,” we remember Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ for him, for at last part of that excruciating journey. The gospel accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Simon, but something from Mark’s version caught my attention.

As Jesus struggles to bear the weight, not only of his cross but his impending death, Mark says that the soldiers “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21).

A simple verse, but it’s a poignant moment, with multiple layers.

I’m indebted to a Jesuit priest who reminded me, in connection with this Gospel encounter, of the Blanche DuBois character in A Streetcar Named Desire, and her often quoted line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

How much kindness had to do with Simon’s assistance in this story is an open question—Mark says he was compelled to carry the cross. But Jesus must have been grateful nonetheless for the temporary relief from shouldering that burden all alone.

COVID-19 disease is inspiring many of us to offer assistance to strangers in ways we hadn’t imagined even just a month ago. Perhaps we feel compelled to do so; perhaps it feels like kindness when we ourselves receive help from a stranger who just happens to be passing by.

For Mark, however, this Simon of Cyrene was not much of a stranger at all. And only Mark among the gospel writers makes this plain. Simon of Cyrene, Mark says, was the “father of Alexander and Rufus.” Today we have no idea who Alexander and Rufus were, but back then, Mark’s readers must surely have known—you know, that guy from Cyrene, Rufus and Alex’s dad; that Simon.

When the novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, I was concerned but not terribly troubled; it was, after all, far away in China, across a vast ocean. Then it got closer, in South Korea. Then closer still, Washington State. A few days ago, I heard from someone I actually know who is ill with the disease.

It matters differently somehow, with more texture and depth, to know someone who knows someone who was there; to know a friend of a friend who is in trouble; to know someone directly caught up in the drama, because then we are, too.

One more layer, because every story about Jesus is also a story about God. And this story, Mark seems to be saying, is a story about the astonishing nearness of God. God is not far off and distant, involved only with people we will never know and places we will never visit. Look, even old Simon from Cyrene is in the story—you know, Rufus and Alex’s dad!

Look, Mark seems to be saying, look how close God is; how near to us.

Look how deep God’s solidarity runs with us all.

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“Simon of Cyrene,” by Sieger Koder

 

I’m grateful for the ecumenical, online offering of this year’s Stations of the Cross co-hosted by a number of congregations here in the San Francisco Bay Area and during which I offered a version of these reflections.