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The Beauty of the Cross

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

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?

“Take Up Your Cross Daily,” Stephen Hanson

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.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell

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.

That’s a Lenten road worth traveling.

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Tabling the Ashes, and Other Religious Choreographies for an Insightful Pandemic

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.

Ludovic Florent Photography

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.

“Lady Julian,” Evelyn Simak

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.

Now, about that nap…

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Bad Theology Kills

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.

The fence in Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied and left to die in 1998.

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.

I mean, for the love of God—literally.

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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.

welcome_rainbow_church

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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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