Explore and sign up for our series of weekly emailed reflections, which follow the Revised Common Lectionary liturgical calendar of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These reflections have been drawn from, and lend themselves to, sermons for preachers as well as private devotionals. All are rooted in perspectives “from below” that embrace abundance and peacemaking.

Deficiencies

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow…  
some seeds fell on the path…  
rocky ground… thorns… good soil.
Matthew 13:1-9

This week’s text proves it: Jesus was definitely a carpenter, not a farmer. No farmer worth his or her salt would indiscriminately sow precious and expensive seed on all kinds of soil – the good, bad, and ugly. It’s wasteful. It’s bad farming. It is also bad storytelling – unless, of course, the point of the parable is that God is a lousy farmer.

In our eagerness to rescue the farmer from his own incompetence we are tempted to focus primarily on the soil (the soil illustrates our receptivity to the Gospel). But shifting our attention too quickly from the sower to the soil is a dangerous move. Moralism is the death of Christianity. The world has many moral management systems, but only one Gospel, and Gospel is always crazy stuff to those of us who manage morality.

I am reminded of a good friend who tells the story of his visit with a Benedictine monk. He asked the monk what he’d been thinking about lately. After a lengthy pause, the monk replied, “I’ve been contemplating the deficiencies of God.” He offered a few examples. God has a bad memory; God is always forgetting our sins. God is terrible at math; God leaves the 99 to save the one. God is wasteful; God scatters precious seed everywhere.

When seen through the lens of scarcity, God appears to us as the wasteful one. Another word for wasteful is prodigal. Yes, God is the “Prodigal Father” whose squandering makes the “prodigal son” look frugal by comparison.

Bad memory, bad math, wasteful. Imagine if we patterned our lives after the deficiencies of God. Imagine if we were a little worse at remembering the score with those who have wronged us. Imagine if we were a little less calculating with our lives. Imagine if we were a little less frugal in how we give our gifts. Imagine how much better the world would be if we shared the holy deficiencies of God.

I find it interesting that all of the heresies of the early church bent in the same direction… toward fashioning a loftier, higher, and more holy God than the one Jesus reveals to us. I get it. The picture of God that Jesus paints is a portrait (self-portrait) that just doesn’t seem very flattering at first glance and at times is downright offensive. Mercy and grace look like a deficiency to a fearful and violent humanity… until, that is, it is experienced, and then it is the only thing that really matters.

Like all heretics, I too am tempted to “improve” on the picture that Jesus paints. But let’s be clear: with every improvement, the God of our own creation becomes increasingly unreachable, impassable, and unknowable. That God becomes increasingly angry, judgmental, and violent – and ends up looking a lot like us. We are simply incapable of inventing the prodigal God of mercy that Jesus revealed. That’s why we call it revelation!

So, along with the “prodigal” leaders we serve, who are sowing seeds of love with reckless abandon like mad farmers, we invite you to contemplate the deficiencies of God this summer.

Waste more, want more!

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Seeds of Geranium Flower by Jose Eduardo Deboni (CC BY 2.0)

My Well-Fitting Yoke

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:16-18, 28-30

On a terrace just off a smoky Kathmandu street, I sat in a circle with fellow aid workers gathered from across Asia. It was called a retreat – and for a number of us, it indeed felt like we had waved a white flag. We were beat. Wrapped in a blanket against the fog and chill, I stared into my little glass of chai. Vaguely I heard the visiting chaplain read some words of Jesus about yoke and a burden and felt my own gut sink brick-heavy with the sorrow and stress I had hauled to Nepal from many months in Bangkok slums.

“Churning, churning,” I wrote a friend later, of my stomach – which proved to be a wry premonition of the parasite I’d pick up later in the week. At the time though, the churning was set off by the words so jarringly dissonant from my recent experience: “easy” and “light.” BS, I thought. Nothing about what Jesus had invited me into had been remotely easy or light. I had been baited and switched; promised bread and given this stone. I pulled the blanket tighter and slumped further. The chaplain from Seattle was a good soul with an impossible task; we were too far gone to be cheered.

Over the course of the week our little group wandered along the streets and alleys of that extraordinary Himalayan town, sharing conversation over bowls of dal-bhat and snapping pictures like the tourists we didn’t quite admit we were. We talked with scraggy-bearded holy men and brightly-dressed market women. I bought a Tibetan prayer wheel, gave it a few spins, and wondered aloud whether it worked. As the days passed with my companions I noticed myself relaxing and even laughing. These were people carrying their own stones from hard places, but a lightness was rising among us.

What a gift, that week together! It would be years before I would find much better ways of weaving that communal gift of lightness into the fabric of all my days, rather than grasping for it as a patch of desperation after everything was in tatters. I would find it not only possible, but essential.

Later also, I would learn that “easy” is a particularly misleading translation of how Jesus described the yoke he offers. Scholars tell us a much better rendering would be “good,” even though it’s not the usual Greek word for good. It is good in the sense of “fitting” and “pleasingly useful.” “Christ’s yoke is like feathers to a bird; not loads, but helps to motion” (Jeremy Taylor). Unlike a poorly-fitted shoe, or dull knife, or bad eyeglasses, this yoke doesn’t strain. It suits. It befits its wearer. It outfits and equips the bearer for far greater service. Sure a person may need to grow into it, but with good growth it will fit better and better.

Such goodness of yoke and lightness of burden is cultivated in communities learning from Jesus that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive” (St. Irenaeus). In such community, we may come to discover that heavy stones we mistake for bread might not be what God intends us to carry at all. At the very least, we learn that burdens of any kind are not to be carried alone. We find rest for our souls and strength for good and fruitful work.

Coming to learn from Jesus, we see children in the streets of our cities playing make-believe. As kids do in their games, they imagine all the great range of human experience. Let’s make a funeral; you play dead and we’ll play the music. C’mon now, weep and wail everybody! Ok, now a wedding. You two be the bride and groom. Dance everybody! Hands in the air!

But some of us have quit dancing, or never did. We shuffle about in ill-fitting yokes carrying stones we mistook for something God dumped on us. We learn our ways of numbness and dissociation – lashing ourselves by addiction to an array of baggage straps that constrict and constrain. We grow dead to the music of the Spirit and to the life in our bones, neither dancing nor wailing. Anyone who dares to disrupt such addiction will suffer our cynicism or worse.

Jesus dares. Wear your own humanity as vibrantly as I wear my own, his story says. Freely open yourself to sorrow and joy, to life! Yes you’ve hurt – go ahead and wail. You’ve tasted happiness – sing! Dance when the music says dance, fling your limbs and shake your hair. Sure you’ll be called a demon or drunkard – but you’ll be in good company with that. You’ll survive and thrive. You will find this burden light – so much lighter than dreary numbness borne alone.

Your fully human self will suit you just fine, Jesus’ story says. Check in the mirror, you’ll see! Take a few steps. My good yoke will fit you so well that burdens you thought would crush you will not. Work you thought impossible, you will do. This fine yoke will harness you to others – and to me as your heart’s companion – in fruitfulness and delight.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Nepal by Scott Dewey

Hospitality Among the Flies

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me
welcomes the one who sent me.”
Matthew 10:40

I could tell that every moment of Diane’s hospitality was painfully dissonant for her. I sat on a piece of ragged cardboard and ignored the smell wafting from bags of tenants’ trash piled high in the corner. This room was meant to house an apartment building’s trash, not a human – not Diane. A bag of her clothes, a sleeping bag, her cell phone and charger, and a book or two were all she kept there.

Diane and I lived on the same Cincinnati street. But we might as well have arrived by way of separate solar systems. I had moved from the white, middle-class suburbs to Over-the-Rhine, the downtown neighborhood infamous for its 2001 racial uprising. At the time I was working as a reporter for a local paper. Diane was mostly homeless and long addicted to crack. She scraped by any way she could.

We met through a street writing initiative. She turned out to have a soaring written voice, the kind that can’t be taught. After that, we’d run into each other on Main Street where it turned out we both lived – me in a charming, renovated apartment, and Diane in the trash room two blocks south.

On this occasion, in that room, she read me her poetry. Her voice and her stories, singing of humanity, lifted us above the stuffy air. I think the visit also lifted us both above our narrow ideas of friendship, intimacy, and hospitality.

This week’s lectionary gospel verses speak of hospitality. I have recently been invited to join the Street Psalms staff, and the job description contains this: “As Street Psalms staff, Stephanie will be expected to evidence in her working relationships, both within the organization and with other partners, the ‘manners’ of Street Psalms: generosity, hospitality, simplicity, and vulnerability.”

I have taped those words – generosity, hospitality, simplicity, vulnerability – next to my desk at home. Three of those I grasp naturally and practice imperfectly, but as an introvert, even wrapping my head around “hospitality” can work me into a pretzel. I’d always understood hospitality to mean nice table settings and appetizers before dinner parties, and sometimes that is what it means. But now, I realize it is much broader than that.

I remember that visit with Diane and the reverence I felt for this invitation into her world. Flies buzzed around trash bags as grotesque symbols of her shame. It was not so unlike my own shame, just less hidden. This invitation into her home, however temporary a home – into her all-too-permanent world – was more intimate and vulnerable than any dinner party I’d ever attended. In turn, my role was to appreciate her hospitality, regardless of setting. Luckily, in that moment, appreciation came easily.

I remember, too, a string of days those years ago when I walked home from work sobbing openly. One day when I turned onto Main Street, Diane found me like that.

She put her arm around me and, moving as a pair, she walked me home.

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Two Women in the Park by Evan Bench

Pain as Gateway of Transformation

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Genesis 21:19

Our Old Testament lectionary reading this week in Genesis 21:8-21 submerges us into a desert of pain for a woman named Hagar: “She went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, I cannot watch the boy die. And as she sat there, she began to sob.”

At Street Psalms we recognize our own pain and the pain of others as the primary gateway of transformation. We are wounded healers; we recognize that, as Richard Rohr says, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” The way of the cross demands disorientation and loss on the way to renewal and life, both for individuals and communities.

In the “desert region” of Guatemala there is a men’s prison with a surprising group of residents. In what used to be the dining hall, a ragtag group of girlfriends, wives, sisters, and mothers of a hated group of Central American gang members sleep under and on top of cement slab tables. After an altercation in their previous “home,” the only option the prison system could find for the women was a converted dining hall in this out-of-the way facility.

One of the chaplains in our network began receiving requests from the gang members with whom he worked to please go and check on their “girls” for fear of their safety. After one visit, he could not stay away and started taking the three-hour ride every other week. On one of those trips he invited me to tag along, and I will never forget what I saw and experienced that day.

We entered the men’s prison and had to pass down a long corridor lined with shirtless, tattooed men looking out from locked cells. We came to a locked gate, and from the hallway could see several bed sheets hanging from the ceiling, visually blocking the former dining hall, now home to a couple dozen women – most of them guilty only by association to the incarcerated men they called brothers, boyfriends, or husbands.

We were allowed to enter and meet with the women. After a couple hours of small talk, we began a conversation centered in Hagar. The women quickly saw themselves in the story. They could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people who held positions of authority and power over them. They knew what it felt like to live in “deserts” of loneliness caused by rejection and marginalization. In Hagar’s story, they found their own, and they were captivated by surprise and wonder when they learned that Hagar was the first to name God.

A few weeks after our visit, the chaplain was able to complete the first phase of a prison remodeling project to build a cement block wall that physically separated the women from the men. Upon completion of that wall, the idea emerged to paint a mural. A discussion ensued as to what the women wanted to paint. They unanimously decided on the story of Hagar with the words, “El Dios Que Me Ve” (“The God Who Sees Me”) as the focal point.

As relationships with these amazing women have continued, it is clear that the desert of pain where these present-day Hagars find themselves has allowed them to see the great El-roi in a profound and unique manner. Ironically, the institutional church in Latin America often attempts to avoid pain – and in so doing, marginalizes the very people, like these women, who can provide the vision and sight the church so desperately needs.

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms partner in Guatemala City

 

Photo: 

The Manner of Going

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
Matthew 28:16-20

At Street Psalms we talk about the message, method and manners of mission. Our message is the transforming love of God. Our method is incarnational, or as we often say, “from below.” And our manners have to do with a particular way of loving the world. Mission without manners is not just impolite – it sows seeds of violence.

This week’s lectionary text is the classic missionary text, especially for protestant mission. Many call it the “Great Commission,” as though Jesus himself coined the term. He didn’t. It was made popular by William Carey in the early 1800s. Carey was the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society and the father of modern protestant missions.

But let’s face it, our manner of mission has not always been so life-giving. History is littered with examples of missionaries who felt empowered by God to “make” disciples by any means necessary. Perhaps this is why Jesus warned us about our manners. “You cross sea and land to make a convert only to make them twice the sons and daughters of hell” (Matthew 23:15).  Clearly the Great Commission has been the occasion for much good.Many of the Western world’s great social concerns such as schools and hospitals originated through mission. A shining example of a well-mannered missionary is Bartolomé de las Casas, who was one of the first missionaries to the “New World.” He spent nearly 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. Our Street Psalms network is filled with modern day Bartolomés.

Street Psalms practices four manners of mission that imitate the manners of Jesus. “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does in like manner” (John 5:19). These manners are our version of “please and thank you.” True to form, we are learning our manners most powerfully from the vulnerable themselves – they who are the face and grace of Jesus, returning us to ourselves, clothed and in our right mind.

Generosity: “Enough for all!”

A largeness of vision derived from God’s abundance – a willingness to risk big, fail often, forgive much, share much, and act freely in ways that transform our lives and the city.

Hospitality: “Room for all.”

A largeness of heart that sets welcoming and open tables for all and gives preferred seating to those at the margins – a willingness to welcome, invite, gather, network and serve others in ways that nurture ever-widening community.

Simplicity: “Limits for all.”

A largeness of soul that trusts, honors and discerns the limits and healthy boundaries of our gifts, call, roles, and responsibilities. We are free to say yes AND no to opportunities. This discipline is born out of deep trust in the boundless love of God and the Spirit’s unwavering commitment to bring all things to completion.

Vulnerability: “Risk in all”

A largeness of strength and courage that risks on the power of vulnerability. Martin Buber said, “All real life is meeting.” Such “meeting” is born of vulnerability that feels a lot like weakness. And yet vulnerability calls forth life, or as Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Go, therefore…

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Dresden to Go by Martin Fisch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All Flesh Is One

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Acts 2:1-21

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit poured out on “all flesh” (vs. 7).

The primary miracle in Acts 2 is a miracle of the ear, not the tongue. The word “hear” shows up three times in this passage. Yes, the real miracle is the ability to “hear” one another amidst all the differences, and to celebrate that which is held in common. Pentecost is the celebration of a new humanity, a new kind of community made possible in Christ.

In our increasingly pluralistic world, difference is seen as the primary threat. This, of course, is the great lie of our age. The modern marketing machine naively implores us to “celebrate our differences,” as though difference were the issue. Difference is not nearly as threatening (or liberating) as sameness. Yes, it is sameness that we fear, and celebrating sameness is precisely what the Spirit makes possible. In the Spirit we can embrace our sameness without dissolving into an undifferentiated glob or devolving into violent chaos.

At the Tower of Babel, God scattered humanity because the threat of sameness had become too great. The only kind of unity imaginable at Babel was a unity born of fear and violence in which “we” could not exist without an enemy – “them” – to hold our “we”-ness together. Seen this way, dividing and scattering humanity by language was a mercy to protect humanity from destroying itself. At Pentecost the Spirit of Jesus offers a new mercy – a new open source language system by which we can hear one another. She gathers us and makes a new kind of unity possible – a unity that is over and against nothing, but with and for all. It is a unity of “us” that is not dependent on the enemy “them” to hold us all together.

Yes, sameness is the issue! Consider the people that irritate us the most. Almost always the thing that irks us in the other is the thing that we can’t stand about ourselves. Of course, this remains largely hidden to us, but the people we struggle with the most are most like us. Our enemies are more like us than we imagine: they are mirrors of our own soul. This is why Jesus calls us to love our enemies. To press the point further, consider that fact that twins were seen as threats in most ancient societies and were often banished, killed, or sacrificed. Think of the twins (Jacob and Esau) in Scripture. They are depicted as rivals from birth. Consider the fact that King Herod descended from the line of Esau and Jesus from the line of Jacob. Herod and Jesus twins? Yes, Jesus is our twin brother who is completely unthreatened by what we hold in common.

At Pentecost we celebrate that we are all created in the image of God. In Christ, the artificial and heavily-defended boundaries of race, culture, and even religion that seem sovereign and impassible are loosened. Instead of forging community over and against others, in Christ, we are free to form community with and for others (even our enemies). This is the miracle of Pentecost. Inside the Spirit, the artificial differences that we use to separate and divide are gone. In the Spirit, the borders are opened, made passable. We are free to come and go in peace. As the psalmist said, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). Yes, in Christ, we can enjoy a new kind of unity.

This is why Paul can say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

To be centered in Christ is to hold our boundaries loosely. When we are centered in Christ we can occupy the edges in new and fresh ways. No wonder this week’s lectionary text says the people were, “amazed and perplexed” (vs. 12).

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Unity by Luz_Spy (CC BY 2.0)

Union

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
John 17:1-11

To be one “as we are one.” Yes, this really is the heart of it! To become one. Union. Intimacy. The Gospel of Jesus opens us up to the possibility of becoming one in a way that seems utterly impossible – to enjoy unity without being in rivalry with anyone or anything. It is unity with and for everything – over and against nothing, not even death. This is the kind of unity that God enjoys and makes available to us. Impossible, but this is the promise of Jesus. This is Shalom.

This may sound heady and abstract, but let’s remember these words were uttered to good friends when facing imminent death. Jesus’ prayer was anything but an abstraction. It was his dying wish. People facing death don’t utter abstractions. They speak their heart’s desire.

I am writing this in my father’s bedroom. He is dying. He will likely be dead by the time you read this. (Update: Dad died Friday the 23rd at 3 p.m., just he and I together… holy intimacy… it is the closest thing to giving birth that I will know.) Two months ago, we moved my parents into our home. We wanted to share this holy time with them and they with us. It has been a hard but huge gift. We will be sharing holy communion in about half an hour from now. Yes, communion… co-union. This is my Dad’s heart’s desire. As Dad’s body wastes away, his heart is being renewed and ours with his.

Union… Mom came into our bedroom this morning and woke us up. It’s not easy for her to be with Dad. So she knocked on our bedroom door, wrapped in her blanket, and asked if she could come in. She got in bed with us. Yep, kinda weird for people like us. We held her. She too wants union, even as her grief overwhelms her.

Holy moments indeed, and not entirely sad or without humor. No time to reflect. Presence is what’s being asked for, but allow me this…

Intimacy, which is God’s desire, seems to flourish in the presence of naked vulnerability and deep trust – two gifts being given now. Not sure if this is exactly the heart of the Gospel, but I suspect it’s close.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Hands with Story by Hapal (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Advocate or Accuser

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever….”
John 14:16

The lectionary Gospel text this week from John 14 was brought to life for me in a very special way through a recent conversation with a ministry mentor here in Guatemala City.

Pastor William Quiñonez visits a maximum security prison once a week to spend time with members of a notorious street gang who have been incarcerated for unimaginable acts of brutal violence. Pastor William literally has to speak with them while he perches atop the cages where they are held in groups of 10-15.

He visited regularly for over a year, never being allowed to have any physical contact with the “basura“* in the cages below. Week after week he looked into the eyes peering up at him from the floor below and his heart softened toward these young men who had heard and experienced only the voice of condemnation and accusation their entire lives. William longed to find a way to represent for them a different reality.

He approached the guards one day and demanded an opportunity to get into the cages instead of having to be on top of them. To be in shared space as opposed to being above and looking down. His request was denied on multiple occasions but he persisted relentlessly. Eventually he was granted permission, but on terms that he would not come into physical contact with any of the young men and that there would be one group, the “ring-leaders,” who would be denied the opportunity.

William took what was offered and approached the appointed day with great anticipation. The day William was allowed to enter shared space, the young men were forced to stand against the far side of the cage, where they were stripped naked and humiliated with cavity searches performed right in front of their waiting visitor.

William had the opportunity to be with 4-5 different groups of young men, with the exclusion of the “ringleaders.” Eventually, perhaps because the previous group times had gone so well, the guards agreed to allow engagement with even the final group, provided it would be for half the time allotted the other ones.

Until this moment the rule of no physical contact had been observed, but upon conclusion of the time with this last group, the leader of the pack asked to give William a hug. The guards adamantly refused but the visiting pastor insisted.

As William recounted for me what happened next, his eyes welled up with tears. The guards were afraid the young man would suddenly try to strangle William during the hug, but instead he whispered into William’s ear, saying, “Thank you for coming every week to the prison to be with us when no one else will. On behalf of all the homies, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” One by one, in front of stunned guards, each of the young men in this most notorious of groups passed by and embraced William in an act of tender gratitude.

In John 14:16, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as Advocator for his “imprisoned disciples.” The word parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of “advocate” or the Latin advocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, chief defender, and destroyer of all representations of persecution. With a personal defender by one’s side, there is no need to feel scandalized or live a life always trying to defend oneself.

There is something profoundly significant to be harvested from John 14 in the distinction between Advocate and Accuser. The Spirit NEVER accuses. Could it be that the difficulty in “knowing” the Spirit is because we are so easily inebriated by the desire to accuse? The normal way of seeking peace is through violence, but the Advocate (Spirit) teaches another way… a way of pulling out of the violence altogether and moving into a totally new pattern of desire that is not based on rivalry. God is not in rivalry with anyone or anything, EVER.

Joel Van Dyke
CTM Guatemala
Street Psalms partner

*The term “basura” means garbage and is the word often used by the guards to refer to the prisoners.

Way, Truth, Life

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father  except through me.”
John 14:1-14

Do you remember Mark Twain’s famous experiment? He placed a cat and a dog in a cage and to his amazement they became friends. Encouraged, he added a rabbit, a fox, a goose, a squirrel, and even some doves and a monkey. They too became friends and lived in peace.

In another cage he put an Irish Catholic. When he seemed tame enough, Twain added a Scotch Presbyterian. Next he added a Turk and a Greek as well as an Armenian Christian, a Methodist, a Buddhist, a Brahman, and finally a Salvation Army Colonel.

“No one comes to the father except through me” (vs. 6). For many, Jesus’ statement raises one of those “theological details” that produces “a chaos of gory ends.” With all due respect to Mr. Twain, at Street Psalms we think real peace is possible, not in spite of the Christian faith, but because of it. We are exploring ways of lifting up Jesus without putting others down. We are practicing ways of following Jesus without excluding those who don’t. We are learning ways of being inclusive without diluting the Gospel into some milquetoast, undifferentiated, lukewarm soup. This is the genius of the Gospel Jesus preached even if it is not the Gospel we always practice.Twain left both cages for two days. When he came back, he found the animals still at peace. But in the cage of religious leaders he found, “A chaos of gory ends, of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh, not a specimen alive.” Twain concluded that the religious leaders disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

Sadly, when the Gospel of Jesus is treated as if it were some kind of exclusive real estate owned and occupied only by Christians, we reduce the faith to a Christian ghetto. And when we reduce it to specific creeds and doctrines, the ghetto shrinks even further to the size and shape of our particular denominations – most of which are dying. And when we reduce Jesus to merely a “personal Lord and savior,” the ghetto shrinks again to the size and shape of our own lives. The smaller the ghetto, the more we feel the need to defend it and fight for it. Such an approach produces a self-perpetuating cycle of violence born of scarcity.

Thank God, Jesus is not interested in Christian ghettos or any other kind of ghetto. The Gospel of Jesus is not the property of anyone. It is like an ever-growing, radically open and utterly free operating system that is making it possible for us to be fully human. Yes, Jesus is calling forth a new humanity, not a new religion. St. Irenaeus said it beautifully: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” This new humanity is born of God’s abundance and is brought into fullness by the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. But what does this mean?

When Jesus says he is the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me, he is not offering us an exclusive formula for salvation. He is stating a fact. Our way to the Father is the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. And as it turns out, this way, truth, and life is God coming to us. Can we see? No one come to the Father. No one! Not Christians, not Jews, not Muslims, not Hindus, no one comes to the Father! The Father comes to us! God has come, is coming and will always come to us – This is the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. There is no other way. The Gospel is the relentless download of love from the Father, who is always coming to us. We are all on the receiving end of a great gift.

God’s coming to us frees us from our gated ghettoes. It frees us from the rivalries that fuel violence. The way, truth and life of Jesus sets us free to become fully human and live in peace.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms
Photo: Sixth Day wood engraving by Elfriede Abbe

Mercy Gate

“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
John 10:1-10

“I am the gate.” These words are confusing, if not downright terrifying, especially if you are a sheep near a temple. No wonder the disciples “did not understand” Jesus’ teaching in this passage.

The Sheep Gate (see John 5) was the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led to the holding pens where they would await their turns to be killed inside the gruesome sacrificial slaughterhouse of the temple. I’ve seen animal sacrifices at a temple. It is loud. It is anxious. Flies are everywhere. People are packed in. It smells of blood, defecation, and death.

The sheep metaphor shows up throughout the Gospel of John. The first words spoken to Jesus in the Gospel of John are, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In this week’s passage (John 10:1-10), Jesus extends the sheep metaphor by referring to himself as both the “good shepherd” as well as the “gate.” Lamb, shepherd, gate. If we are caught inside the sacrificial system and the sacrificial logic that makes it work, this whole passage seems to be condoning the very thing it is dismantling. Yikes!

Consider the possibility that Jesus is actually subverting rather than affirming all forms of the sacrificial system. To enter that system as such (we all do) is to be a thief who “steals, kills, and destroys.” At the most basic level this is precisely what sacrificial systems do – whether on religious or social grounds. Just ask a sheep whose blood feeds it. Ask any modern day victim of societal injustice if we still practice sacrifice.

In the sacrificial system, each of us plays both a victim and victimizer role. We are both sheep and thief. The Good News of Jesus is a severe mercy that unmasks our participation in both roles, and points to our salvation.

In John 10, Jesus is turning sacrificial logic on its head. He transforms the very gate through which he invites us to walk. It is no longer a gateway of sacrifice. Through his own act of passage, it becomes a gateway of mercy. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13/Hosea 6:6). Those who enter through the gate of mercy are good shepherds. Instead of locking vulnerable sheep inside holding pens of false righteousness, the good shepherd set us free to “come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). Ahh, this is abundant life!

At Street Psalms we are learning to read Scripture and see our faith through the lens of mercy – not a sentimental kind of mercy, but a mercy forged in the harsh realities of our world hell-bent on sacrifice. Yes, we are sheep among wolves and yes, we’ve seen, helped build, and still benefit from far too many “sheep gates” built and maintained by wolves. Systems of sacrifice still thrive in all cultures and in our own hearts. Let’s face it, the best way to justify evil is to wrap it in righteousness. In fact, righteousness (false righteousness) is the preferred hiding place or “holding pen” of evil, ALWAYS.

And so, the Good Shepherd walks through the sheep gate transforming it into a gateway of mercy. He exposes the system from the inside. The Good Shepherd reveals the system of false righteousness that in the end “steals, kills and destroys” not only weak sheep, but even God. Each time we feed the sacrificial system with one more sheep, this is precisely what we do.” Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus removes the lynch pin that holds it all together – the belief that the system itself is God’s own design and God’s own desire.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.”
(Isaiah 1:11)

“Whoever slaughters an ox is
like one who kills a human being;

    whoever sacrifices a lamb, 
like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain offering,
like one who offers swine’s blood;

    whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
     and in their abominations they take delight;”
(Isaiah 66:3)

Thought Experiment:

Imagine there is a very rich white man who owns an NBA team that is in the midst of a playoff run. Imagine that he is exposed as a racist by his mistress, who is, herself, a person of color. Imagine that he makes a lot of money off the very people he can’t stand and has been known to treat people of color unjustly through his other businesses that have also made him a lot of money. For a culture that is trying to distance itself and wash itself clean of its own racism, it would be very tempting and quite convenient to call for this man’s head – to lead him through the sheep gate to the slaughter house, throw him in a holding pen, strip him of his team, make a public spectacle of him, and crucify him. We’d be worked up into a frenzy, “Crucify him, crucify him!” We’d be justified, wouldn’t we? We’d celebrate our own righteous indignation, wouldn’t we? In doing so, it is also quite possible that we would be feeding the very sacrificial system that we abhor – a system that will one day call for our heads too. That’s what these systems do.

Thought Experiment #2:

Imagine there is a local chapter of a national civil rights organization that has chosen the rich white NBA owner for a lifetime achievement award based on local philanthropy for its causes. After it is revealed that the rich white man is a barely-closeted racist, the organization is in a bind. The chapter president releases a statement referencing Christian values of reconciliation and forgiveness, and suggesting the door might be open for a way forward together. By the end of the week, the chapter president is out of office. From many corners, there has been blame for the organization’s hypocrisy in accepting money from such an appallingly unworthy source for its worthy causes.

Thought Experiment #3:

Might there be a way through the Mercy Gate for the disgraced NBA owner, the disgraced organization president, and the rest of us who carry our own closeted disgraces? How might the Good Shepherd lead?

“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice”
Matthew 9:13 / Hosea 6:6

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Herod’s Gate in Jerusalem circa 1940