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Jehovah Jireh! God Will Provide a Different Way to Live

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

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

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

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

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“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio (1602)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Good News of Easter: Disorienting, Unsettling, Terrifying

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Magdalene and Risen Christ (Ivanov)

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

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

Or this:

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

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“Doubting Thomas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Daniel Bonnell, “Road to Emmaus”

 

 

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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.

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A Contagious Hope in Times of Peril

We’ve been fussing and tinkering the last few days at Good Shepherd, the congregation where I serve in Berkeley. Fussing with how best we might offer an opportunity for prayer and worship without meeting together in person. We tinkered, too, because we wanted to get this right, or at least do the best we can with online worship because we’ve been realizing of late, as so many others have as well, that spiritual practice and religious traditions really do make a profound difference in our shared sense of wellbeing.

At its best, religious practice binds us together as a community—to shape us, challenge us, admonish us, and also to reassure us and comfort us in moments of distress and peril. For all of these reasons and more, we were committed to connecting in some fashion, to be encouraged and fortified by the sense of being woven together, even online, as a single Body with many members—to evoke one of St. Paul’s favorite images.

In this time of pervasive anxiety and unnerving uncertainty, the lectionary—one of our religious tools as Christians—the lectionary gave us some rich biblical texts for worship this morning.

From the Hebrew Bible, we heard the story of how David was chosen over and above his much more likely brothers to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The storyteller quite directly tells us what we should learn from that moment of divine selection: do not judge by size or outward appearance alone.

Here’s just one of many ways to take that lesson to heart: let’s notice how astonishing it is that something microscopically small is right now bringing nation-states to their knees; how a virus, invisible to the naked eye, is toppling a global economic system.

What we humans build and construct, even what looks sturdy and seems permanent, is actually quite fragile and temporary. This moment seems ripe, in other words, to ponder anew where we ought to place our hope and trust.

Let’s be very clear about where, at least in part, our hope just now belongs: science.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by retired Navy Seal and Admiral William McRaven offered some powerful words of reassurance in that regard, a reminder that some of the smartest scientific minds on the planet are working on a vaccine, on treatments, and a cure for COVID-19; that some of the most experienced people in epidemiology and public health are mobilizing at all levels; healthcare providers are courageously and heroically tending to the sick. These are indeed hopeful signs for what are surely very troubling days ahead.

In addition to that great list, let me also note where I hear hope from the story about David: it’s a reminder that God often chooses the least likely tools, the most unexpected methods, and the usually overlooked people to accomplish what God intends in the world. Put in another way: hope appears precisely at that moment when it seems the most unwarranted.

Or as Admiral McRaven put it, “because the only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.”

Hope where there seemed to be none at all takes on flesh in the story from John’s account of the gospel that was also appointed for today (John 9:1-41). As some early Christian commentators have noted about this story of giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus is the one who seeks him out, not the other way around.

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Jesus offers sight to a man born blind.

This is what God is like, those commentators suggest, always pursuing us with more gifts than we even thought possible to ask for.

John tells a rather complex story about this man born blind, about his parents and the wider community to which they all belong. The complexity of this story, it seems to me, reflects the complexity of life itself and the very real perplexities we encounter in our relationships with God and each other.

Even the notion of healing is multilayered, both in this story and in our own lives. Of course, we stand in need of healing from this new coronavirus; and we also need a healing balm for our collective anxiety; and we also need healing for the deep social and political divisions in our society; and still more, we need to heal and revitalize our relationship to Earth, with her many interconnected ecosystems and habitats and species, “this fragile Earth,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “our island home.”

Yet one more layer from this story deserves attention: the perennial human response to suffering by asking why. The frequent assumption humans so often make in such moments is captured perfectly in this story, an assumption continues in some quarters to this day. It is the assumption, in the face of suffering, that someone must have sinned.

Typical for John’s Jesus, he does not respond in any neat or tidy way to this question, except to say that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness.

John’s Jesus is crystal clear about this and it deserves repeating: Neither that man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness.

Hope where there seemed to be none.
Hope in the flesh, seeking us out.
Hope for more than we could think to ask.

These reminders about hope were beautifully framed this morning with the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm, which was itself a balm to hear in the congregation of the Good Shepherd.

As we confront still more difficult days ahead, let us hold fast to the assurance offered by the psalmist: God is with us. God is actually our shepherd, leading us to places of unexpected refreshment and renewal—green pastures and still waters.

And still more: God accompanies us through even the darkest valley, reassuring us that not even death can separate us from the shepherd’s care.

In the days and weeks ahead, may hope itself become the unstoppable contagion we spread for each other’s comfort and consolation…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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The Lamb of God in the Beloved Community

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.

It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.

I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.

This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.

All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).

That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.

What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):

We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.

Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.

A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.

Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.

For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.

This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.

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After defying an injunction against protesting, King, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center) and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left) were arrested and put in solitary confinement in a county jail in Birmingham, AL, on Good Friday 1963.

Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.

King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.

What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.

Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?

To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.

The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.

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Manger Matters: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Shame

In the Christian tradition of my youth, Christmas always anticipated Good Friday and Easter. Jesus was born in order that he might die for our sins; the manger mattered, in other words, merely as a means to a greater end—the cross.

Stressing the significance of the cross is certainly not “wrong,” but I have become convinced how inadequate that one symbol is to meet the multivalent challenges of being human. The manger matters all on its own, a vital symbol of the hope we now need for the flesh—our flesh as humans, the flesh of all other animals, and the fleshy body of Earth.

Ancient storytellers remind me of this, especially in the multiple ways one can read the so-called “fall” of humanity in the opening chapters of the Bible. That classic story is not only about guilt, but just as much about bodily shame—“who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11) How one reads that ancient story shapes how one celebrates Christmas. Atonement, for example, cannot heal our bodily shame; perhaps the only thing that comes close is Incarnation, the divine embrace of the flesh that so many of us treat so casually, at best, or worse, hatefully and violently. (I wrote about this in my 2013 book, Divine Communion. I offered some Christmas reflections based on that book when it was first published.)

John’s account of the Gospel makes incarnational hope explicit, declaring that the divine Word became flesh (1:14). I’ve been wondering recently how else that particular account can become a source of healing for our shame, an assurance of God’s own solidarity with us in the flesh. John is certainly not shy about multiplying the metaphors we might use to invite bodily encounters with God; how might such an invitation shape your Christmas celebration?

For these Twelve Days of Christmas, I offer here a canticle based on the full arc of John’s account of the Word dwelling among us. I offer it with hope for the world’s healing, with prayers for divine blessings on all of God’s creatures, and as a reminder of the dearness of flesh itself, which God so tenderly cradled in a manger.

Light of the World

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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.

That’s the Hobbit Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need not have read the books or seen the films to appreciate that quote. Simply know that Frodo had been given an epic task many times his size—and the world’s survival depended on his success.

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Elijah Wood as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” Gandalf responded, Frodo’s wizard companion. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide,” Gandalf declares. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What time is it, anyway? High time to wake up, take notice, pay attention?

Is it time, finally, to repent?

Haven’t we heard that before? Aren’t some of us sick of that word? Preachers, I mean, especially. How much time should this take, anyway?

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Those of a certain age will recognize those lyrics from a band called “Chicago.”

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

Chicago—where they broke some heat records this past summer, during this past July, the hottest month measured on Earth since records began in 1880.

“In those days…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.”

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Anton Raphael Mengs, “St. John the Baptist in the Desert”

We always hear about that wild man in the wilderness in this second week of Advent; this year, we heard Matthew’s version (3:1-12). But what exactly does Matthew mean by “wilderness”? Are there any wild places left on this planet not contaminated by plastic? Did you know that nearly every day it rains tiny plastic particles at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, and at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and likely over every mountain range on Earth?

It’s hard to know where my attention rightly belongs at a time like this, if not up there in the mountains, then maybe…

  • down here at the border, with the thousands of children separated from their parents, many in cages and put there by my government;
  • or maybe with more than a thousand incarcerated men of color fighting California wildfires for $3 a day and who are then barred from working as firefighters after their release from prison;
  • or where whales beach themselves, starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic—presumably with whatever plastic hasn’t already rained down on pristine mountaintops.

These days are those days when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Wilderness—a place of purgation, of starting over, of being refined by fire—and who exactly is that preacher out there? Matthew says he’s the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.

Isaiah, it should be noted, had some peculiar notions about the wilderness, about wild places—where the wolf lives peaceably with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the baby goat, and the calf dwells amiably with the lion, that wacky place where bears graze with the cows (Isaiah 11:6-7).

More than a few Bible commentators quickly propose that these are really only metaphors, poetic ways of speaking, not about wolves or sheep or lions and bears, but of humans, and about that day when human warfare shall cease.

That sudden eruption of peace would be wonderful, of course. But I see no reason to shy away from reading Isaiah just as wildly as his wilderness, to let him stretch our credulity and push us beyond—far beyond—what seems polite and reasonable; after all, not everything in the Bible that sounds just a bit outlandish is only, in the end, a metaphor.

I mean this: the God who can inspire humans to beat their swords into plowshares is actually too small for a prophet like Isaiah. The God Isaiah apparently had in mind is the God who rewrites the biological scripts of predation and reweaves the very fabric of creation without any trace of violence or destruction. “No one,” he imagines this God to say, “will hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (11:9).

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John Swanson, “Peaceable Kingdom” (based on Isaiah 11)

I’m guessing this is why Paul quoted Isaiah directly, by name, in his letter to the Romans. We heard from that letter for the second Sunday of Advent, too, probably because Paul really did single out Isaiah by name. I had never noticed that before, and these days it makes perfect sense.

Perhaps only Isaiah is sufficiently outrageous for Paul, sufficiently wild with hope to qualify as a champion for Paul’s outrageous take on the Gospel. Let’s recall some of its glittering nuggets that he offers to the Romans: this is the letter in which Paul invites his readers to imagine God acting “contrary to nature” by grafting the wild branch of pagan Gentiles on to the one true tree of Israel (11:24); in which he reassures his readers that by dying with Christ, we rise (6:1-11); in which he describes the whole of God’s creation groaning with anticipation for the day of salvation (8:19-23).

This is the letter where Paul insists that nothing whatsoever can ever separate God’s creation from the love of God in Christ (8:38-39)—and this is the hope, he declares, that the scriptures (like the stuff that wild and crazy Isaiah wrote) are supposed to inspire in us (15:4), the hope which we cannot see but without which we cannot live, the hope each of us needs, desperately.

But wait. Why is hope so vital, so mission-critical?

Because without it, we could never take seriously the question Tolkien’s Gandalf poses to every generation: what will we do with the time that is given us?

In these days, in this time that has been given us, the answer to Gandalf’s question will likely be very difficult to utter much less live. It will mean the kind and depth of repentance few have ever attempted. It will mean living in radically and dramatically different ways.

It will mean tapping into hope as if our lives depended on it.

Because they do.

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Making Hope Visible: Advent and World AIDS Day

I remember the ambient anxiety of the early 1980s, back when people began to disappear. I knew a couple, Terry and Francis, who lived in New York.  Each of them worked for the same advertising company, sharing ideas and strategies both inside and outside of the office.  Quite suddenly, with hardly any warning, Francis struggled to manage work and home life without Terry, as if Terry had suddenly been snatched away by aliens from outer space.

A friend of mine told me about some of his friends in San Francisco, David and Brad.  They had moved there as roommates a few years earlier from the Midwest.  They might as well have been a couple as they spent nearly all their spare time together exploring the city, taking trips to Napa for wine tasting, or sailing on the Bay.  Just as suddenly as Francis had, David found himself alone, without Brad by his side.

Before long we knew more about the aliens who had been snatching these people away.  They were given names like pneumocystis pneumonia and kaposi sarcoma.  Some of us began referring to this phenomenon like a thunderstorm; no one knew where or when the lightning would strike next.  The storm itself was given a name, too. At first it was called GRID (“gay-related immune deficiency,” or what the New York Times called a “new homosexual disorder”) and then eventually HIV and AIDS (“gayness” was removed from the nomenclature but not from the stigma, which today’s younger generations have apparently revived by hesitating even to hug people infected with the virus).

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As it sometimes happens, this first Sunday of Advent—“New Year’s Day” on the Christian calendar—coincides with World AIDS Day. The strangeness of what many church-going Christians are hearing from Matthew’s gospel on this day actually sounds eerily familiar to those of us who lived through the pre-anti-retroviral drug years. In that gospel text, Jesus describes the early warning signs of the world’s end: two will be working side by side in a field, Jesus says, and one will be taken, the other left behind. Two will be grinding grain together, he says, and one will be taken, the other left behind (Matthew 24:36-44).

That ancient text describes rather well what life was like for many of us in the 1980s and early 1990s. British theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes about those years and recalls how, with very few exceptions, the vast machinery of the institutional church simply abandoned the sick and dying when they needed its ministry the most, in a time of deep anxiety and even terror. Stuart recalls something else as well: in the face of apocalyptic distress, we learned in new ways how to care for each other. “Lesbians and gay men sat in hospitals together,” she writes, “went to funerals together, and stared death in the face together.”

Back then, queer people offered a tangible reminder of what church ought to look like and why it should matter: in world-ending moments, we need visible signs of hope.

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This is also why New Year’s Day on the Christian calendar always presents us with apocalyptic texts, with stories and images of the world’s end. This can remind us, first, that all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly (to which the history of World AIDS Day bears witness), and then second, why the coming of Christ matters for each of those endings—a coming, as Matthew’s Jesus says, that is always unexpected.

To be sure, these texts sound threatening and ominous. But there is another kind of tone running through biblical texts and Christian traditions that also rightly belongs to the apocalyptic genre; it’s the tone of longing and yearning for intimacy, the tender tone of desire. It is—and this may be just as unexpected as a thief in the night—the tone of God’s own desire to be in communion with us.

Biblical writers present us repeatedly with precisely this God:

  • The God who goes searching for Abraham and Sarah in the distant land of Ur.
  • The God who goes searching for Joseph residing in Egypt.
  • The God who goes searching for Naomi, who brought Ruth along with her.
  • The God who goes searching for God’s own dear people in exile.
  • The God who comes as the Lover searching for the Beloved; the one who searches for us as one of us, in the flesh.

The hope we all need in world-ending moments can appear quite simply and quietly, as the touchable presence of accompaniment; it is the hope of not being alone.

Can we adopt that kind of hope today? Is the Creator God still with us, as ecosystems collapse and species disappear? What does hope now look like in this present age of anxiety and barely-contained terror?

We queer people offered visible hope to each other as our late-twentieth-century worlds unraveled. As worlds unravel again today, God calls us to that queer work of embodied hope again. Let us make it our shared Advent discipline—just in time for Christmas—to (re)assure each other of the One whose name stands forever as Immanuel—God with us.

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