Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not white. This is ridiculously obvious, but I didn’t really appreciate that fact until I was a young adult.
As part of a college program in the Holy Land, I had the opportunity to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel. A shrine or church has stood on that site for a very long time, since at least the fourth century.
The latest iteration was built in the 1960s, and part of the design included inviting mosaics or paintings of Mary and Jesus from around the world, each depicting those figures in ways that were ethnically appropriate to each country or region. The result is a visual feast as visitors to the upper level of the basilica are greeted by dozens of diverse images of “Madonna and Child.”
Gazing on those images, I realized how narrow my own visual imagination had been—by default, I had always simply imagined the Holy Family to look like me. It was also important to realize that the images were not all Middle Eastern or Semitic, either.
The wide range of particularities and peculiarities in those beautiful portrayals carried a truly rich theological insight: God is with us, is with all of us—with Palestinians and Italians and Kenyans and Chinese and Indians and Irish and…the list is as long as every possible version of humanity we can think of. And I would also add to that list every possible version of God’s creatures, human and other-than-human alike.
God is with Us. That is the wonderful and always good news of Christmas. And as I realized many years ago in Nazareth, the Good News is made even richer with the glorious diversity of God’s creation. Merry Christmas!
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah,” Matthew says, “took place in this way.”
Here’s the short version: public scandal.
Sacred texts, their formal language and the ritual surrounding their proclamation can easily tidy up the scandalous bits, but traces of the mess still remain: a teenage girl; an unexpected pregnancy; her betrothed is not the father.
This is a human dilemma that has been told for millennia, of course, but this week before Christmas we’re invited to consider how that story shapes our worship of a God who comes among us with scandal.
Yesterday, many church-goers heard about God doing this with help from Joseph—a carpenter, a manual laborer, a good-old-boy, who is also tender and kind-hearted. His betrothal to his beloved Mary was interrupted with news of her pregnancy.
So Joseph had some difficult decisions to make, especially in that devout, religiously observant community. Even this short little cameo of Joseph that Matthew gives us (1:18-25) is quite moving: Joseph didn’t want to expose Mary to public ridicule or shaming, even though had every right to do so.
But this good and righteous man, as Matthew describes him, decided instead to quietly break off the engagement without any fuss, no public outcry, and just move on with their lives.
That alone would make this a gracious story. But then an angel appears to him in a dream. “Just marry her,” the angel says. “Just get married to the pregnant girl.” And that’s exactly what this dear man does.
So let’s note this carefully: what began as an unconventional and peculiar family became what we now call The Holy Family—not just “a” holy family but The Holy Family. The prototype of all familial holiness emerges from scandal!
This is truly worthy of our attention: the unusual, the strange, and uncomfortable becomes the location of sanctity, of holiness, of the very presence of God.
It has been occurring to me this year that the liturgical season of Advent can so often seem so peculiar in part because the God this season presents to us doesn’t behave in the way deities generally should. This morning confirms it: God shows up in unconventional families because God is unconventional.
Yes, some of our sacred texts carry hints of thunderbolts and dazzling images of heavenly glory, but mostly what we see in this season is a tender-hearted God, a God whose heart breaks with compassion, a God whose compassion makes God vulnerable to the whims and fancies and even violence of human history.
Gods are not supposed to act like that (go back and read some Greek mythology to see what proper gods actually do and think). The God of the Bible is actually a little embarrassing—if we can’t have something that looks like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz aren’t we afraid we’ll be stuck with that little man behind the curtain, the humbug pulling all the levers?
I’m guessing Matthew realized how hard all this would be for his readers to grasp, so he gives us a story about a tender-hearted carpenter to help us imagine a tender-hearted God.
This God doesn’t fix a scandalous situation, as if it were broken, but rather embraces it, owns it, and enters the world in a brand new way because of it.
Both Isaiah (whom many of us also read in church yesterday) and Matthew give us a name for this God: Immanuel, which means God with us.
Here we need to pause and ask, exactly who is this “us”? Biblical writers like Isaiah and Matthew were persistent in noting that God shows up especially among the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed; God stands especially with the orphan, the widow, and the alien stranger.
The religiously pious and socially privileged people of Isaiah’s day, just like the ones in Matthew’s, found this kind of God troubling, even offensive. Surely God cares about the standards of respectable society, about following the rules, about working hard and associating with proper people—just like a proper God would.
Matthew begs to differ; indeed, he insists otherwise by beginning his account of the Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, like a proper Messiah ought to have.
But there’s really nothing “proper” about that family tree, at least not for the religiously pious and socially privileged readers.
Matthew includes 42 men and four women in the genealogy of Jesus. That seems wildly unbalanced, except that ancient genealogies ordinarily include only men, so it’s highly unusual to have any women at all in such a list.
But wait! There’s more! These aren’t just any women. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Here’s a brief reminder of who they were:
Tamar tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her so that she could secure her place in the family after her husband dies. Rahab owned a brothel in Jericho—she was a prostitute—and helped ancient Israel conquer that city. Ruth was a Moabite, a people forbidden by divine law even to assemble with Israelites because they had mistreated God’s people in the wilderness. And let’s not forget about Bathsheba. King David had her husband Uriah killed so that he could have sex with her; one of their children was King Solomon.
Of course Joseph embraces the scandal of a pregnant fiancée—the very genealogy of the child Mary was carrying was peppered with scandal!
Now, why in the world (literally) are we confronted with all this just one week before Christmas?
If God shows up—as biblical writers insist—if God usually shows up with the alien, among the orphans, and beside the widows; if we can most reliably find God knitting families together with brothel owners and unmarried pregnant teenagers, then it really doesn’t matter whether we measure up to the standards of respectable society.
Personally, I find that liberating and life-giving. Even more pointedly, I need to realize nearly every day that if I’m spending my time and energy worrying about meeting those respectable standards, I could very well miss what Joseph’s wife said about God. We call that song from Mary The Magnificat, and in it she declares that God has cast down the mighty and lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away, empty.
I’m convinced Mary was inspired to sing that song, at least in part, because Joseph listened to his better angel, he did the scandalous thing and married her. In doing so he became the guardian and protector of God’s Word Incarnate.
Somehow all of this needs to be a Christmas card. I mean this: what kind of sanctified scandal is God calling us to become for the sake of life?
Images and reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., are of course flooding our social media feeds today. While I’m grateful to see him referred to often as Doctor King, I am dismayed by how many stories omit the Reverend part.
King was an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel. This was not somehow incidental or accidental to his world-changing activism; what he did and inspired is rooted in the socially transformative power of the Gospel itself.
Thirty-three years into a life of ordained ministry, and I’m still trying hard to learn the lessons King can teach about what a friend of mine years ago called “spiritual activism.” After serving as a full-time parish priest for my first three years out of seminary, I decided to go back to school for doctoral work. I did this because I realized even more profoundly in my pastoral work that theology matters. How we interpret the world and view ourselves in it—which is one way to understand what theology is all about—makes a significant difference in how we live in the world and the kinds of communities we create.
That conviction eventually led me to study some of the key figures in the emergence of American pragmatism, a distinctly American approach to philosophy that stresses the practical consequences of our ideas. The meaning of an idea or concept, in other words, is defined by the way it shapes our behaviors. I appreciate this approach to theology because it embraces the importance of both ideas and action; one without the other is sorely inadequate even for just daily life let alone for the living of Christian faith.
Among those key American figures was philosopher of religion Josiah Royce, who was convinced that the character of the whole universe is social and communal. For Royce this meant that evil most often takes the form of separation, fragmentation, and isolation, which then calls for the healing work of atonement, of re-uniting what has been torn apart. That healing work, Royce argued, is directed toward what he called “The Beloved Community.”
I was delighted to discover during my studies that Martin Luther King, Jr., also did doctoral work after seminary and that Josiah Royce had a profound influence on how King envisioned the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In short, Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community convinced King of the vital importance of bringing everyone to the table of healing, reconciliation, and justice.
That foundation later energized King to address even more directly the corrupting effects of militarism on the Western world (most notably at the time, the Viet Nam War) and the debilitating patterns of a global capitalism that consigned vast segments of the world’s population to permanent poverty.
In today’s world of entrenched animosity and hatred, I am reminding myself almost daily of King’s insistence that hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Christian love, he argued, “makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it’s directed toward both…seeking to preserve and create community. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” I am astonished by that inclusive posture, which continually prods me beyond my own petty resentments.
King also practiced what he preached by building a community of organizers, preachers, artists, and musicians to collaborate on the strategies and postures of the Civil Rights Movement. This is often overlooked by (white male) commentators who apparently imagine King as single-handedly steering that movement as if he were a solitary captain at the ship’s wheel.
Just one among many counter-examples is the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who not only performed at many of the marches and rallies in the 1960s, not only advised King and others on strategy, but actually prompted King to “talk about the dream” during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
Royce described the galvanizing power of what he called the “Spirit” of the Beloved Community, a spirit that so clearly infused Martin Luther King, Jr., and equipped his many companions for the work of social transformation, the work of peace with justice, the work of deep healing and reconciliation.
This is a strange day, for more than one reason. For the western Christians, we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile world. That world is represented by the Magi, astrologers from the far East who presented extravagant gifts to the infant Jesus.
Today is also the first anniversary of an armed insurrection against the government of the United States, which took place in this nation’s capital.
Reflecting on that national horror might deepen our appreciation for why Epiphany is a major feast of the Church, one that deserves attention, observance, and celebration. It also deserves our whole-hearted devotion—a devotion that relativizes and displaces all of the other loyalties we might otherwise harbor and even cherish.
It seems important to note first that I grew up in the heart of the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago, steeped equally in Evangelical Christianity and American patriotism. I loved this country back then, and I still do. What was revealed about this country a year ago is heartbreaking.
In addition to that word revealed we could say “appeared,” or “manifested,” or “shown forth.” These are all synonyms for “epiphany.”
There was an epiphany about this country a year ago: our deep divisions were revealed dramatically; a festering violence appeared and erupted; some of our fellow citizens manifested a profound disregard for the very lives of some of our elected officials, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice-President of the United States; the fragility of democracy itself was shown forth to the world.
What do Christians want to say (if anything) about an epiphany like that, especially given the epiphany Matthew portrays in the second chapter of his account of the Gospel? Do these two epiphanies have anything at all to do with each other?
There are likely multiple responses to that question, but I think we begin by pausing for longer than we usually do and puzzling over my phrase above the Magi representing the “Gentile world.” That distinction between “Jew” and “Gentile” certainly mattered for biblical writers, but most of us don’t talk that way today. No one in my little Midwestern parish wonders whether someone might secretly be a Gentile.
So that first-century language can quickly obscure why Matthew’s story should qualify as an epiphany—and not just any epiphany. Christians refer to this encounter with the Magi as TheEpiphany.
Needless to say, religion can sometimes divide and fragment communities in much the same way as race and ethnicity can, or as sexuality and gender can, and certainly as partisan politics can. The Christian Church itself has been a source of division over the centuries, even violently so.
But let us notice on this day that embedded in one of the Church’s own ancient stories from Matthew are the seeds for a very different kind of world, one in which God is not the source of what tears us apart but is rather the energy that draws us together and the balm that heals us.
Matthew—ostensibly the most “Jewish” of the four accounts of the Gospel—Matthew puts this story about the Magi right at the very beginning of his account of the Good News. Matthew is the only one of those four gospel writers to give us this story of the Magi, and with it, he would seem to be urging us to let go of any sense of ownership of this story—it belongs to no one and to everyone—and he would urge us to resist any tribal triumphalism, to surrender any privileged status we imagine ourselves to have in relation to God’s love and grace or, for that matter, because of any national origin!
The Magi declare with their gifts an astonishing and enduring beacon of hope: God is the one who presented a gift, the gift of God’s own self to us. And the “us” leaves absolutely no one out. The offering of God’s own self is for the whole world, for all people, indeed for all of God’s creation—no exceptions.
It’s time to revise how we describe the Magi; rather than saying the Magi represent the “Gentiles,” we need to say more clearly that the Magi represent all those we never imagined would be included, or those we thought would never belong with us or we with them, and the ones who never seem quite deserving of God’s love as they turn out to be the very first ones to witness that love in the flesh.
For quite some time over the last year, I thought it rather unfortunate and quite shameful, frankly, that a violent insurrection occurred on Epiphany, spoiling the feast, tainting it, and marring its brightness.
And honestly, how terribly parochial of me! As if my own distress, my own wounded patriotism, or my own country’s bruises are the full measure of whether a religious festival can still inspire us!
Beyond any doubt, plenty of other wounds and bruises and catastrophes have landed squarely on January 6th over the centuries, whether they were personal and familial heartaches or national blunders or global disasters.
What now seems so much more plain is how perfectly appropriate for all those wounds to land on this day. And for Americans on this day, the conjunction of Epiphany and insurrection seems nearly ordained.
Because now, our need for healing has appeared more clearly, and the source of our healing has been more wonderfully revealed.
The eleventh studio album by the Beatles, released in 1969, takes its name from the location of EMI Studios in London. The cover image of the band striding across Abbey Road quickly became a pop culture icon. That image came to mind as I worked on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas and as I reflected on roads and abbeys. Here’s what I mean…
In new ways this year it occurred to me that nearly all of the stories in this Christmas season feature people who on the move: pregnant Mary with Joseph journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem; shepherds left their fields and flocks to go see the baby in a manger; the Magi leave their home to follow a star; and when these stories turn grim, an angel warns Joseph to flee from King Herod’s murderous rage. He then takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they become political refugees.
When Herod eventually dies, an angel again visits Joseph and this time tells him that it’s safe for them to return to Nazareth—and so they migrate yet again!
All these external, physical journeys were surely accompanied by internal, spiritual ones. I think Matthew hints at this, in a rather understated way, when he brings the Magi’s story to an end in his second chapter of the Gospel: After the magi presented their gifts to Jesus, Matthew says, they “left for their own country by another road” (2:12).
They went home differently—yes, they did so for fear of Herod but also because they were different people now. We cannot encounter the Word of God in the flesh, Matthew seems to say, and remain unchanged.
Mobility and migration have marked human life from the dawn of time. We are a species constantly in motion, it would seem; whether we have lived in the same neighborhood our entire lives, or whether we’ve lost count of the geographies and communities that we’ve tried to call home, we rarely sit still.
Not all of these migrations are voluntary, of course. We are currently in the midst of a worldwide migration crisis with more displaced people and refugees than at any other time in recorded history—roughly 80 million or so.
That number is only going to grow as our climate catastrophe and ecological collapse push people toward more habitable zones on this planet. It’s already happening around the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest basin of freshwater. Duluth, Minnesota is even advertising itself as a hub for climate refugees!
We are living today in a time of profound, even turbulent change, physical and emotional movements. and chaotic social migrations. We need to face an unraveling world directly because how we live through such a time like this matters. Biblical writers thought so, too, as they frequently linked physical migrations and the spiritual movements of heart and soul.
Theologian William T. Cavanaugh offers some help in making our outer and inner journeys a matter of spiritual practice. In his book Migrations of the Holy, he proposes three different types of human mobility, of what it looks like when humans are on the move.
The first is the mobility of the “migrant,” whose identity is defined by national borders. By controlling who and what crosses those boundaries, nation-states actually control our perceptions of other people. Borders of all kinds create the oppositional dynamics of “us” and “them.”
The second type of mobility belongs to the “tourist.” Borders are important for this type, too, because borders create that sense of “home” and “abroad.” And the tourism industry relies heavily on that distinction between “domestic” and “foreign.” Borders of this type can also exist inside one’s own country, marking the difference between cities and farms, for example, or the industrialized north and the agrarian south, or the establishment East Coast and the Hippie West Coast.
I’m especially intrigued by Cavanaugh’s third way of thinking about mobility, with images of the medieval “pilgrim.” Pilgrimage is a spiritual form of mobility very different from both migration and tourism. Pilgrims embark on a journey of repentance, almost always in company with others, and for the sake of deeper communion with God.
For pilgrims, the destination matters far less than the journey itself; and that journey intentionally joins the outer mode of movement with the inner movement of the Spirit.
Significantly, pilgrims relied on abbeys along their pilgrimage routes, religious communities that were designed as places of hospitality, worship, prayer, and education—which sounds to me like a wonderful model for what it means to be church, and why church still matters, especially at a time of such profound change and disruption as we are living through today.
It is significant that this pandemic has been prompting some truly vital questions that we might not have pondered otherwise, or certainly not to this degree.
I will never say that Covid-19 has in any way been a gift—too many have died, too many are still suffering, too many are debilitated by anxiety; it has been horrible. But it can teach us some lessons, including this: what we used to call “normal” now resides in the pandemic’s shadow, and we’re not going back there, nor should we want to.
That’s an unsettling realization, to put the matter mildly, but journeys of transformation are always disorienting, just as they were for the shepherds, the Magi, and certainly for Mary and Joseph. No one in these stories “returned to normal”—can you imagine those shepherds encountering a heavenly host of angels, running to the stable in Bethlehem, and then just returning to their sheep as if nothing at all had happened?
All of these characters were changed by the journeys they undertook, and for Mary and Joseph, also by the state-sponsored terror they escaped by fleeing to Egypt.
Let us be sure, though, to note this about such stories: God does not make bad things happen just to teach us a lesson—that is not the God of Jesus Christ; set that God aside.
The God we do worship brings good things out of the bad in a process of redemption. Living faithfully with that insight means learning how to trust that God is with us, and that God is coaxing good things out of even the most tragic moments.
That’s a discipline Christians can practice week by week at the Eucharistic Table. We do not give thanks for bad things at the Table; but we do give thanks for the goodness of God in the midst of bad things. At the Table, we remember the Cross as a way to renew our hope in the Resurrection—and that hope is in part made visible by how we live with each other. and the kinds of communities we cultivate together, and the ways we bring new life to blossom precisely where it is least expected.
I am convinced that a lot more than just a few people are hungry for this religious approach to life even when they can’t name it. And just like abbeys were for medieval pilgrims, today’s churches can in fresh ways become places of hospitality, prayer, and education in a time of deep anxiety and stress.
A thriving congregation bearing witness to the transformative love of God would be a truly wonderful thing to emerge from this truly horrific pandemic.
Might it be so, and may all of us, just like those Magi, take that abbey road homeward.
The contrast could not be starker: on the one hand, a moment of transfigured splendor on a mountaintop, and on the other, a moment of unimaginable destruction and annihilation. I’m referring first to the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James, and John; and then second, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima. I’m pairing these because of our calendars: today is a “Feast of our Lord” when we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus; it is also the anniversary of the first atomic weapon used in wartime.
Yes, the contrast is stark, but the similarities are also striking: both of these commemorations include a brilliant, blinding flash of light. In Matthew’s account, Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2). Horrifically, we could say the same thing about the skies above Hiroshima seventy-six years ago today. Not long after becoming an Episcopalian, when I was learning about the liturgical calendar and the rhythm of common prayer, I was dismayed when I realized this confluence on the calendar—how could we possibly celebrate that wonderful Gospel story on a day with such a terrible wartime history?
Over the years since then I have come to understand that question differently as I realized that religion is not supposed to be kept “pure and untainted” by the world. To the contrary, as people of faith we’re supposed to “get our hands dirty” as we show up in the public square and at city hall and wherever power is marshalled for hate and violence rather than love and peace. Religion that’s kept separate from the world is not a religion rooted in the incarnation of the divine word, whose transfigured splendor is meant to inspire and illuminate our participation in God’s own mission of transformation in the world around us.
So the question is how we live our faith in the world, not whether we do, and that will always mean engaging faithfully with politics. I do not mean partisanship—the politics of one party over another. I mean politics in the broadest sense, which is what all of us do every day as we interact and relate with each other and the communities around us for the sake of shared interests and the common good, and ultimately for the thriving and flourishing of God’s whole creation.
The gospel writers invited this kind of analysis in their accounts of the Transfiguration, which functions as a pivot point in their storytelling. As soon as Jesus is transfigured and comes down from the mountain, he “sets his face to go toward Jerusalem,” as Luke put it (9:51), to that city where imperial politics and institutional religion were deeply entangled.
“Entangled”? How about testing the first atomic bomb at a place called “Trinity”?
Roughly three weeks before the detonation over Hiroshima, the technology was tested at a site in New Mexico with the code name “Trinity.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, was the one to name that site. He was inspired to do so by a sixteenth century poem by John Donne, including these lines:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Oppenheimer was eventually horrified by the weapon he had helped to create and lived with nearly unbearable regret. As he would later recall, as he witnessed the first explosive test, he thought of a famous line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The explosive force of an atomic detonation is truly overwhelming and gruesomely destructive. Nearly everyone knows this, but what the world does not appreciate nearly as much is the far greater power of love. I don’t say this sentimentally, as if a loving feeling conveyed such energy. I mean instead the kind of love that speaks the truth, heals wounds, confronts injustice, and breaks down even the longest-standing barriers to harmony and peace.
So on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that coincides with atomic destruction, offers a compelling invitation to ponder together what kind of power we wish to release into the world.
As I reflect on these powerful intersections, I’m reminded of another writer, a scientist, theologian, and poet of the early twentieth century, Teilhard de Chardin. He was convinced that in this dynamic, ever-evolving universe, God and humanity working together would one day transform—let’s just say transfigure—the world with love. May we remember that hope and confidence with the words Teilhard himself wrote:
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”
That’s how John begins the story of Easter—while it was still dark.
I tend to be an early riser, usually earlier than the breaking of dawn. It could very well be my favorite time of day—it’s quiet, peaceful, and full of promise, the unpretentious stirring of potential for what the new day might bring.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”
We’ve been shut down and shut in because of this coronavirus pandemic for a year now. More than 550,000 people have died in the United States alone because of this disease. And we have yet to emerge fully into the light of a new day from the darkness of this pandemic.
This has been a dark time, indeed—but not because everything has been bad. To the contrary, darkness can sometimes provide the impetus for the most compelling insights, the medium in which seeds germinate and eggs hatch, the stillness that is sometimes necessary for the fragility of something new to emerge.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene became the first witness of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and thus became the “apostle to the apostles”—she’s the one who is sent to tell the others what has happened.
John places this moment not in a graveyard but in a garden, and the new day about to break in this story is the dawning of a new creation. Among the many hints of this are the otherwise strange words the risen Jesus speaks to Mary.
“Do not hold on to me,” he says.
Do not cling to all that you’ve known before; do not cleave to the old patterns of relationship; do not recall only how things were in the past because this is the beginning of something new—a new dawn, a new creation, a new life.
No wonder John sets this scene not in a graveyard but in a garden.
No wonder Mary at first thinks Jesus is the gardener—in some vital ways, she was actually correct. The risen Jesus is not only the gardener but also the first fruits of God’s garden of new life.
Easter is not a ghost story.
We do not worship a resuscitated corpse.
Easter is the promise every gardener comes to cherish at this time of year: from the darkness of mulch and soil, new life will spring up.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”
This invitation shapes the hard road in Lent toward Holy Week and therefore, one might say, the challenge of the whole Christian life. But what does it mean?
The image of the cross and the urging to “take it up” (as many Christians heard from Mark’s Jesus just yesterday), has certainly meant more than just one thing over the last 2,000 years. Some of those meanings have been hurtful and damaging, and we might spend some time this Lent seeking forgiveness for how we Christians have used our central image in harmful ways.
We might recall, for example, those moments when someone might say, “Well, that’s just the cross you have to bear.” They say this as if violence is just obviously a means to a greater end, or perhaps (more insidiously) that some of us must bear burdens so that others may thrive.
Not long after coming out as a gay man (way) back in the 1980s, I remember some of my Evangelical friends assuming I would be leading a life free of sexual intimacy because, you know, that’s just the “cross I would have to bear.”
More severely, battered women in situations of domestic violence are sometimes told to stay with their violent husbands because, well, that’s just the “cross they have to bear.”
People say things like this, often with the very best of intentions, usually because they don’t know what else to say, and also without any awareness of what this implies about our relationships with each other and our conceptions of God.
To say to someone who is suffering, maybe even terrorized, likely afraid or even alone, that their situation should be embraced as a spiritual discipline is simply not the Gospel; it would certainly not come from the God of Jesus Christ.
Among the handful of things I am absolutely sure about concerning God, this is one of them: God does not demand sacrifice from us in order to love us. I don’t mean that sacrifice itself is inherently bad—many of us make sacrifices both small and large for our children, our spouses, our friends, and good causes of all kinds. But God does not demand that we make sacrifices to earn divine favor.
Realizing this about God eventually convinced me of this: God would never, ever intend harm. Honestly, if each of us chanted that as a mantra every day during Lent, the world would change for the better.
But what about the cross?
That’s a big question that deserves a range of responses. Here’s just one proposal for the Lenten season and it begins by going back to Christmas.
Back then, on that most holy night, we celebrated the Word of God in the flesh—but not just any flesh. It was the vulnerable flesh of a newborn baby, newly born not in a house but a barn, a baby born into a province occupied by an imperial power, a power that regularly terrorized and oppressed his people.
That baby grew up and told his friends about his impending death—but not just any kind of death. It would be a death after bodily humiliations and with public shaming for political purposes and through the means of state-sponsored execution.
From cradle to tomb, Jesus experiences the fullest possible range of human life: care, tenderness, joy, and friendship, and also the precarious qualities of mortal existence on the margins of society and among the least powerful of his world. Jesus experiences all of this not only by the “accidents” of his birthplace but through his own choice to live and act in solidarity with those even more marginalized than himself—fishermen, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the demon-possessed, the outcast, the forgotten.
The cross stands as the supreme example of the solidarity he lived his whole life, not only with his own conquered people but also with the betrayed, the abandoned, and the tortured.
Why would anyone stand in that kind of solidarity with anyone else? Why would anyone freely choose to follow that way of the cross?
I can think of only one answer: love.
That’s what makes the cross a thing of beauty and not only an ugly reminder of state-sponsored torture. That’s why the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa could imagine the cross as a tree that blossoms in the spring. That’s why an ancient Latin hymn brings me to tears every Holy Week:
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.
This life I live, Jesus says, and this death I die, this is what God’s love looks like.
So, how then should we live?
Mark’s Jesus suggests this: Give yourself away. Lose your life. Take up your cross.
Mark phrases this exhortation to individual disciples, but I think it applies equally as well to communities of discipleship, to the work of creating communities of radical love.
I’m not sure the world needs anything more than just that right now, I mean something like this: communities who are safe standing with those under threat; communities of the powerful standing with the weakest; communities born in the center of privilege standing at the margins; white communities standing with people of color; human communities standing with other-than-human animals.
Communities like that, standing in solidarity and vulnerability—standing in love—might be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Are you pausing to learn or just trying to get through as fast you can? How much of what we used to call “normal” is worth trying to retrieve? What’s one big “take-away” insight from living in the midst of this pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?
Could we agree that we all just need to take a huge nap before trying to build a new world together and that it might be useful if we all took that nap at the same time?
I think I’m inching closer to a big take-away insight from all this, and I’ll share it below, but I’m intrigued by the intermediate steps to get there, the coping and fussing and experimenting and adjusting and canceling and scheduling and revising—all the time! (Did I mention a nap would be nice?)
I’m also intrigued, having returned to fulltime parish ministry, to find my capacity for innovation strengthened by turning frequently to my grounding in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. This is not unlike the old aphorism about jazz piano—learn your scales first. I used to say something similar in the seminary classes I taught on systematic theology—know first how to operate the interlocking gears and gadgets of doctrinal claims before trying to spin off those whirling bits of novel God-talk.
As many clergy have been discovering (while others are actively denying it), there are some things we can no longer do that we once thought we simply must do for effective liturgy, or more severely, for a “valid” sacrament. I continue to be grateful for my formation in what many consider the “rigidities” of liturgical tradition precisely because they shaped my sense of why we do what we do—and therefore how to omit those things responsibly by either replacing them with something else or inviting people to pray through the gap.
I still have a lot of thinking and pondering to do on the implications of liturgical leadership during a pandemic, but I feel the strong need to write these things down, even when they’re not completely formed. I worry that our (understandable) eagerness to “get through” this pandemic will mean rushing past the many lessons to learn and even “gifts” (if we dare use that word just now) of this peculiar time unless we take the time, right now, to record some of it.
As we lurch into Lent (remember a year ago when we were looking forward to being back in church on Easter—I mean, last Easter?) I’m thinking especially about two broad, gestating insights that could inform how I “do liturgy” even when we begin to gather again in person.
First, don’t pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t.
And second, creed and confession are more entangled than I realized; I’m not sure yet what that means, except it has something to do with healing.
So here a few observations about both of these, and then a note or two about that bigger “take-away.” And I would love to hear from others, lay or ordained, about your experiences of church over this last year, either in conversation with these insights or others.
Everything is Not Okay and That’s Okay for Now When I first arrived to Saugatuck, Michigan after driving across the country from Berkeley, California last summer, I kept wanting to create video productions for worship in my new parish that mimicked as closely as possible “real” church. After a few weeks of that labor-intensive effort, I began to wonder what in the world was “real” about church to begin with. I also started to realize that I was trying to pretend everything was still “normal,” except for being online.
Everything is not, of course, normal; hardly anything is, actually, and I stumbled into a space of liberation and relief by acknowledging that to myself and then saying it out loud to the other clergy and lay leaders in the parish. That freed up my energy to start noticing, prayerfully, just how not-normal things are and what this means for we pray and worship.
This past Ash Wednesday is a case in point. I considered, briefly, some of the clever and ingenious ways I was reading about from other clergy for how safely to impose ashes on foreheads, including sprinkling them on tops of heads instead. But I noticed again the hankering in my pondering for pretending that everything is normal when it isn’t. I also couldn’t imagine how anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality right now.
I decided to keep the ashes as part of the live-streamed liturgy that evening, but only in a crystal bowl that sat on the altar. They will sit there for the whole season of Lent, not as a reminder of our mortality but as a reminder of the promise God always makes at that Table: to bring new life out of death. We will then sprinkle those ashes around the parish memorial garden on Easter morning.
During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I blessed the ashes in their little altar-bowl with these words, borrowed and adapted from the Scottish Episcopal Church:
Living God of renewal and hope, in their life palms draw sustenance from the Earth and give of their own vitality to the air we breathe, and to the animals they host and shelter; in the worship of this community, they help us mark with joyful anticipation the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his death: Grant, O God, that these palms now reduced to ashes may remind us of the mortality we share with your whole creation, and may also stand as a sign of your love, which is stronger than death. May we recognize that love at work in us even now, replanting our lives in the sure and humble soil of your grace and generosity. We pray all this in the name of Jesus in whom you have become one with us in our mortal flesh, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Presiding this morning at our Eucharistic liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent, I was quite moved to see the little bowl of ashes on the Table as I prayed that we might all “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.”
Creedal Confessions for Healing For reasons I cannot yet fully articulate, this pandemic has heightened my awareness of the intimate relationship between what I believe and my failure to live fully the consequences of those beliefs. This has caused me to reflect in new ways on what I learned many years ago in seminary: not only sins or faults but also beliefs are items we confess, and both types of confession might actually play a significant role in our healing, both individually and corporately. (That’s a dense sentence because I’m not sure yet what I really mean to say.)
Reflecting in this way prompted me to wonder whether connecting belief and failure more closely in our liturgical language might assist us in deepening our shared sense of trust in God’s presence among us, as the Creator, the incarnate Word, and animating Spirit. “Trust,” after all, is probably the best synonym for faith.
I’ve been working on such a “creedal confession” for some time, and I’m considering using the following draft for our midweek service of Evening Prayer:
I place my trust in the creative power of God, maker of all things, known and unknown, source and sustainer of life; and I confess my failure to respect the dignity of every creature God has made. I place my trust in the Word of God incarnate, who gathers us as a mother cradles her children, as a father who binds up wounds, as a lover who mends broken hearts; and I confess my share in the patterns of violence that fragment, divide, and harm. I place my trust in the Divine Spirit, who animates the whole creation with the breath of life, drawing together all creatures with the assurance of forgiveness, the promise of healing, and the hope of communion. Receive my trust, O God of endless compassion, and strengthen me for your service. Amen.
Those two insights will continue to evolve, no doubt, and they can stand on their own as “keepers.” But we also just concluded a weeknight adult education class here at the parish (via Zoom, of course) on Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. I knew that Julian had lived during of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe; I had not realized that her entire life was spent encountering wave after wave of that disease.
And yes, I knew that Julian had a remarkably unswerving confidence in both the love of God and the goodness of creation in the midst of unspeakable bodily horrors. All shall be well—she didn’t merely hope this, she insisted it was true. Jesus told her so.
More than all of that, Julian-via-Fox has done something to my thinking right now that feels, if not “new,” then fresh. It’s this: the imperative to notice and address the links between and among climate change, this current pandemic, racism, sexism, misogyny, matricide, and patriarchy, all in a single “mystic-prophetic” posture.
I do believe the world’s religious traditions were made for just such a time as this—for just such a time, that is, for rooting ourselves sufficiently in those traditions to innovate.
It’s not so much what we say but what we do that really matters.
I hear that a lot and I’ve even been known to preach it myself. But it’s actually not entirely true. What we say about God and what we say about the Bible and what we say about each other can have profound consequences for how we live. For some, theological ideas can be a matter of life and death.
I make this point rather abstractly to help frame more concretely what just occurred at Washington National Cathedral. The Rev. Max Lucado was invited to preach at the cathedral yesterday, from the “Canterbury pulpit” as it is called, which is a high-profile, prestigious place from which to offer a sermon, and especially on a Sunday morning.
This was and is a controversial decision because of the Rev. Lucado’s opinions of LGBT people and our relationships, and especially his opinions about what God thinks of people like me. It is dismaying and confounding to see such a person invited to preach in that space; it tears open old wounds and triggers past traumas with the institutional church.
Regardless of what he said from the pulpit (he said nothing about sexuality) the outcry over this, both before and after the sermon, was swift and direct, mostly (it should be noted) from LGBT people and our advocacy organizations. (See Susan Russell’s blog post on this latest instance of “throwing LGBT people under the bus” for the cause of unity.) Cathedral leadership, the bishop of the diocese, and others were also swift to suggest that Lucado’s invitation to preach was something like an “olive branch,” a way to initiate healing across an acrimonious divide. It was also suggested that the Rev. Lucado might be “struggling” with his previous positions on sexuality, and it’s important to help that process along (I’m unaware of any such public statements by Lucado).
All of these caveats from religious leaders, to put the matter mildly, are red herrings. We’re not talking about sitting down with family over a holiday meal and gently helping a dear old uncle come to grips with the reality of lesbian couples. We’re talking about a New York Times bestselling author of over 100 books with more than 130 million copies in print, who was named “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine, has appeared numerous times on television, and was a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast.
What does such a high profile Christian minister think about people like me? Just two examples from his own writing in 2004:
He asks, rhetorically, “How will homosexuality impact our culture?” He then answers: “What about the spread of disease? If gay lifestyle and gay marriage is endorsed—what follows? Polygamy? Legalized incest?”
His “slippery slope” argument is familiar to many of us, of course, but he takes another familiar trope, the one about bestiality, to new heights, rather literally: “If they recognize gay marriage, what will keep them from the next step? Who’s to say that one man can’t marry five women? Or two men and two women? How about a commune marriage? Or a marriage between a daddy and a daughter or a woman and a giraffe?”
“A woman and a giraffe”—might we not want a bit of clarification on this before asking someone to preach from the pulpit of something called “The National Cathedral”?
I wish I could make perfectly plain, somehow more viscerally clear to my “straight” friends and colleagues what it is like to be an LGBT-identified person and to read things like that penned by an ordained Christian minister. Perhaps if they felt their own stomachs lurching and their own hearts pounding and their own bodily shame galloping off the charts, their own empathy might deepen a bit. To see that same minister then invited to preach to thousands (online) from The National Cathedral is simultaneously outrageous and galling. I don’t know how else to say just how demoralizing and, for some, lethal these moments are, so I’ll just say this: bad theology kills.
Just talk to anyone who staffs a suicide hotline or any of the wonderful people who run the Trevor Project (devoted to preventing LGBT-suicides) or all those who keep LGBT community centers open for runaway LGBT youth—ask any of them what homophobic sermons and judgmental pastors do to the psyches of queer youth. It’s heartbreaking.
Yes, bad theology kills. It is also true, perhaps even more importantly true, to insist that good theology saves lives.
I can bear witness to all of this personally, in my own life, and have been doing so for more than three decades. Coming out of an Evangelical Christian community as a young adult, which had planted in me the notion that I was broken, flawed, and perhaps even unlovable because I’m gay, it took years for me to trust instead that God loves me unconditionally, without reservation, and whole-heartedly—years of work, that is, with precious little support for such work from the institutional church.
Yes, the world and the church have changed since I first wrestled with my own faith and sexuality. Things are better now—but not everywhere and not for everyone. We must never take for granted that people have heard, that they know, much less that they truly believe that God loves them. There are far too many messages to the contrary, too many messengers of hate standing uncorrected, too many vulnerable bodies hearing those lies to ever take the Gospel for granted. The struggle is not over if even one dear child of God thinks they are in any way unlovable.
So let me be even clearer: trusting in God’s love saved my life. It’s as simple and as profound as that. And I have devoted my vocational and professional life to helping ensure that others can trust in that love, too. I’m happy to do that work, even though the work is often difficult in a society where so much bad theology is so easily accessible—work that should not be made still more difficult by having a minister of bad theology preach on a Sunday morning in a cathedral of my own church.
If we’re going to do the work of reconciliation (to which I am also gladly committed), let’s not start with a sermon, especially from that pulpit. Let’s start by having a public forum after the liturgy, or with a published article from the Rev. Lucado on “how my mind has changed” (if it has), or a public apology for unintended harm. But please do not invite such a figure to preach until he makes clear that he does not think lesbians want to marry giraffes.