When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him.
There are only two places where the Bible tells us that Jesus is amazed. In our lectionary text this week, Jesus marvels at the faith of a Roman centurion. In the other occasion (Mark 6:6), Jesus is marveling at the unbelief that he experienced in Nazareth.
Our text this week introduces us to a soldier who understands that God’s power is at work in Jesus. He understands that Jesus is not limited by time or place. And we learn that Jesus is amazed. “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).
What amazes Jesus about this soldier’s faith?
At first, the “elders of the Jews,” approach Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They plead for the healing of his beloved servant, and implore Jesus to act based on the deservedness of the man. “This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” The elders, it appears, appeal more to the righteousness of the centurion than the goodness of Jesus.
The centurion, however, takes a different tact. He realizes that he cannot traffic in the currency of merit, and instead appeals directly to God’s goodness. “Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you” (v. 7a). The centurion pronounces himself unworthy, to the point of contradicting the elders’ pronouncement of deservedness a few verses earlier. He has not sent messengers to Jesus because he is too proud to make his plea personally, but rather because he feels unworthy to have Jesus come under his own roof. The mediated message comes to Jesus in the form of “but say the word now, and my servant will be healed” (v. 7b). While it takes faith to believe that Jesus’ touch has healing power, it takes even greater faith to believe that his word has healing power— that he can heal from a distance.
As an afterthought, it seems, Luke reports simply that the servant is healed. When the messengers return, they discover a healthy servant. There’s no mention of what Jesus did to perform the miracle because that’s not the focus here. Luke wants us to be amazed by the centurion’s faith, just as Jesus was. Comparing the perspectives of the religious elders and the centurion, the Episcopal Priest Robert Capon refers to the “war between dullness and astonishment.”
In the light of the astonishing faith of the centurion, a religious outsider receives the grace of healing. What is earth shattering (happening over and over in the Gospel narrative) is that Jesus is engaged here again by a religious outsider. This man is a Gentile and has no claim to the God of Israel; however, he displays the kind of saving faith that causes Jesus to marvel.
The late Mike Yaconelli writes of a longing towards this kind of saving faith in the introduction to his book Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith,
Five years ago I decided to start listening again to the voice of Jesus and my life hasn’t been the same since. He has not been telling me what to do; He has been telling me how much he loves me. He has not corrected my behavior; He has been leading me into his arms. And He has not protected me from the dangers of living, He has lead me into the dangerous place of wild and terrifyingly wonder-full faith. Everyday I want to be in dangerous proximity to Jesus. I long for a faith that is gloriously treacherous.
At Street Psalms, we are privileged to serve incarnational urban leaders who, against all odds, live in dangerous proximity to Jesus and display terrifyingly wonder-full and gloriously treacherous faith. What they have taught us throughout the years is that God is neither limited nor limited by faith. It’s not the strength or perfection of one’s faith, but the object of faith that saves.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
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.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
This week we celebrate the Trinity.
Cynthia Bourgeault describes the Trinity as “love in motion.” Love in motion is the “inner big bang” of God that creates the “outer big bang” of creation. I like that. It’s not only a great way to describe the Trinity, but also a great way to describe mission. Mission is love in motion.
In this week’s text Jesus graciously spares us a theological explanation of the mystery we call Trinity. Jesus knows that our souls want experience more than anything, not explanation, even if it comes from the mouth of God! Instead, our rabbi says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” What kindness! I wish some of my professors had shared that disposition.
Instead of explaining the mystery, he sends his Spirit to “guide” us (v. 13). The Spirit is our companion as we experience life. Jesus’ approach matches reality. We undergo life long before we understand it, and even then, it’s mostly by hints and guesses. Unfortunately, our educational system is often at odds with this notion. It prioritizes theory over practice. We do the calculations, draft a plan, and then apply it to the problem we are trying to solve. This approach works well when building a bridge, or a skyscraper.
However, most of life does not work that way. We don’t figure it out and then live it. We live it and then maybe, just maybe, little by little, we start to figure things out. That’s the way of love in motion. We
What follows is a bit of a leap. Bear with me. In my experience, love in motion is a lot like laughter. There is nothing quite like a good laugh— the kind that comes in waves and is shared with friends. It is a full body experience that involves our whole being— body and soul. It involves community too, for we rarely laugh alone. I imagine that the outer big bang of laughter begins with the inner big bang of joy. That’s love in motion. Far fetched?
Perhaps this week’s Old Testament lectionary text will help. Proverbs 8 gives a privileged look inside the inner big bang of God. “Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence,” (Prov. 8:30). The word “rejoicing” is the Hebrew word sachaq, which means “to laugh.” Quite literally, we are created in laughter, and laughter is born of “delight.” The word “delight” is shaashuim, whose root meaning is “playful joy!” Yes, joy is the inner big bang of creation. We are God’s laughter in the world, born of joy. If we must be formulaic: The Father smiles with abundant joy in our soul. The Son giggles with delight in our body. The Spirit laughs with contagious love in the world. Or maybe it’s the reverse. All I know is that laughter is love in motion. It involves our whole being, and once it starts, it is difficult to stop.
Here’s the challenge. As Voltaire said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Who can blame us if we lose our sense of humor, especially when confronted with great suffering? And yet, even in the midst of great suffering, joy is at work calling forth new life. There is a great line in King Lear that puts it this way, “The worst returns to laughter.” I’ve witnessed it. I’ve experienced it. Every once in a while, even as things fall apart, we see joy revealing itself in the soul of things. We smile. Perhaps it’s a broken smile, but we smile. As joy becomes incarnate we get the giggles. The giggles give way to laughter, and we fall madly in love with the world again.
That’s love in motion – the inner big bang in the midst of suffering produces the outer big bang of abundant life.
17I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.
This week we celebrate Pentecost, which some call the birthday of the church. The Spirit is “poured out” on all flesh, just as the prophet Joel had prophesied. This is the same word Jesus uses to describe the cup of salvation at the Last Supper, which is “poured out” for all (Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20). In Greek it’s ekcheo, which is to “gush, or run greedily out.” That’s our model for church. We are the “poured out ones.”
But in what way are we poured out? Is there a shape to our poured-out-ness?
Each week at church growing up, we recited the Nicene Creed (325). Perhaps you did too. Do you remember the rough outline? “I believe in one God, the Father…I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit…” And then these words, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
“One, holy, catholic and apostolic.” This is the shape of our poured-out-ness. It is the shape of the new humanity— in Christ. Missiologist Charles Van Engen turns the adjectives into adverbs in order to draw out the implications for mission. We are one (reconciling), holy (sanctifying), catholic (unifying), and apostolic (sending) church. I like that, especially when I consider our rapidly urbanizing world, which is eagerly looking for just such
One: Because we are “one,” we reconcile. It’s good to remember that our denominations are the many different ways in which we are one. We love our ecclesiastical tribes, or perhaps hate them. Either way, there is only one church, expressed in many forms. Denominations are not the Church, rather they are like clothes to the body. There is only one body— the body of Christ, clothed in many ways, with many styles. In the later stages of faith development, style gives way to substance. We become aware of our oneness, and the heart for reconciliation grows in us. In the end, we can see that we are being reconciled into one body, clothed only with the love of Christ.
Holy: Because we are “holy,” we sanctify. The word holy carries heavy overtones of moralism. Whatever else the church is, it is not morally superior to the rest of the world. Studies consistently show that churchgoers have the same rates of moral failure in every category as do non-churchgoers. What makes us holy is not our moral superiority. We have none. As catholic theologian James Alison suggests, what makes us holy is that we are being forgiven. That is our holiness. It is what unites us with all of creation, which is also undergoing forgiveness. When we participate in the giving and receiving of forgiveness, we are a sanctifying presence in the world.
Catholic: Because we are “catholic,” we unify. I was raised in the Catholic Church, so naturally, I thought the Nicene Creed was our creed. It’s not! The word “catholic,” has nothing to do with the denomination. It means “according to the whole.” In other words, we are all catholic. To be catholic is to be a sign of unity— a unity, as we discussed last week, that is not “over and against” anything, but always “with and for” everything. We are a unifying presence in the world torn apart by division.
Apostolic: Because we are “apostolic,” we send. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word apóstolos, whose root is stéllō, “I send.” The Latin equivalent is missio, from which we get mission. We are sent-ones. An apostolic church is sent into the world as a sign of God’s love made visible.
Our cities and their most vulnerable eagerly await a new humanity poured out in the shape of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I ask…that they may all be one…as we are one….that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me…
My favorite scientific experiment is the one conducted by Mark Twain. 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 confined an Irish catholic. When he seemed tame enough, he added a Scotch Presbyterian. Next he added a Turk, a Greek, as well as an Armenian Christian, a Methodist, a Buddhist, a Brahman and finally a Salvation Army Colonel. He 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…not a specimen alive.” Twain concluded that the religious leaders disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.
It’s the seventh and final week of the Easter celebration. As you might expect, the seventh week is the full unveiling of what Easter is all about. On the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus prays for unity in the world. Yes, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is so that we may “become completely one” (v.23). That’s what Easter is all about!
Jesus’ prayer is a horizontal prayer concerned with human flourishing. It is not primarily about mystical union between God and humanity. It’s a horizontal prayer about humans learning to be in community in the same way that God enjoys community. What’s more is that Jesus is not praying to God that we might create some new reality that’s never existed—as if we aren’t one but maybe someday if we try really, really hard we will become one. That’s moralism, which always leads to death. Instead, Jesus is praying that we might one day know what has been true since the “foundation of the world” (v. 24) that, in fact, in Christ, we ARE one, and this has been true from the beginning if we can only see it.
Modern science is catching up to theology in this regard as it “discovers” that everything is connected in an ecological dance of relatedness. We are discovering the deep relationality of the universe at both the quantum level (infinitely small) and the cosmic level (infinitely large). I think of naturalist John Muir’s (1838-1914) famous quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We ARE one, which is why Jesus prays that we might wake up and become one. Even so, the question still remains. What kind of oneness or unity is Jesus praying for?
Jesus’ prayer draws a distinction between God’s unity and ours. God’s unity exists over/against no one and is in rivalry with nothing. God is always “with and for” never “over and against.” God’s unity seems impossible to us who are forever forging unity over and against the other, compulsively producing enemies and scapegoats to maintain our fragile sense of community. In this sense, our enemies hold us together. We don’t know how to function without them. God’s unity is born of love that calls forth peace. Our unity is born of fear and is based in violence. Jesus prays, “Be one…as we are one.”
Jesus’ prayer is particularly relevant in our urbanized world. Cities are filled with every kindred, tribe and nation bumping into each other. The stakes are high. We are desperate for a unity that mirrors the unity of God. Jesus’ prayer is not just a nice idea. It’s our only hope.
Unity, community, oneness, that’s it! That’s our Easter witness! That’s the sign that God is with us. It’s the only way the world will know that Jesus was truly sent by God.
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
As we approach the sixth Sunday of Easter, we are continually being challenged to see life by the light of the resurrection, through the eyes of our resurrected Lord. As we read in last week’s WFB post, looking through the eyes of the resurrected Jesus reveals the whole world as a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory. The resurrection is the beginning of our faith journey, not it’s end. The empty tomb invites us to see a life filled with potential and purpose.
The Gospel text this week puts us in the midst of a Jesus encounter pregnant with implications for resurrected living. Jesus approaches a man sitting by the pool of Bethesda with multitudes of other “invalidated” people. A place, the text alludes, where this particular man has been lying in wait for healing (resurrection) for 38 years.
The man, before and even after the miracle, seems to have no idea who Jesus is, much less an expectation that Jesus himself is the fountain of living water — the one to provide his long-awaited healing. Jesus singles him out of the crowd and asks a seemingly obvious question, “Do you want to get well?” The man’s response reveals the limitations of his vision. He does not answer Jesus’ question; instead, he simply seeks help getting into the waters of the pool at the appointed time. He is certainly open to “partnership” with the able-bodied man standing in front of him if that “partnership” guarantees his immersion in the water – the source of his perceived salvation.
I remember once awakening from a dream in a cold sweat. In the dream, I had been walking on the beach of an abandoned island with Jesus. It was a beautiful respite from the rigors of life as a pastor, ministry director, husband, friend and father. However, I found myself getting restless in the dream because I had determined the time of “respite” was concluding, and I needed to get back to the insurmountable importance of my “real world” tasks. The “cold sweat” occurred because, in my dream, Jesus asked me to consider why life on this island with him, in uninterrupted friendship, seemed like such a distraction from what I had determined was the real significance of my purpose on earth.
Like the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, I had determined what body of “water” held my healing and salvation. I was willing to partner with Jesus, even to take a walk together on an abandoned beach, if it meant that our partnership would help me to immerse in the waters of ministry success, the feeling of being needed, and the affirmation from others in my role as a caring husband, friend and father. In other words, my relationship with Jesus became a willing partnership of manipulation; Jesus became for me a means to an end. I used him to accomplish what I had determined would save me instead of seeing the fullness of salvation in him alone. I was, and remain, haunted by the words of Thomas Merton who wrote how easy it was to “spend ones whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to discover that when we get to the top, our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Jesus seeks to teach the man in Bethesda to open his eyes to a new vision of reality. He rejects the man’s idea of partnership — being helped into the pool. Instead, he says “You do not need help immersing into the water of that pool. Look upon me, as I am the never-ending fountain of Living Water” – “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.”
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point. It invites us to see from within the reality of the resurrection. From this new perspective, all of life comes into focus and we see and hear the resurrected Jesus.
As you move into the sixth Sunday of Easter, do you understand who is directly in front of you, asking the question at the heart of living a resurrected life? Are you learning to see from within the reality of the resurrection? Do you hear the invitation to participate in the ongoing work of creation that results from such empowered living? It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the light of the resurrection, but when it happens, all of life looks radically different.
Joel Van Dyke
Director of The Urban Training Collaborative
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…and the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
The poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said, “That only which we have within, can we see without.” If we see hope, love and beauty “out there” it’s because we have those same gifts at play “in here.” If we see the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven it’s because it’s rising up in our souls. If we see all things being made new its because we are being made new.
When we see through the eyes of Jesus the whole world is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory, and our cities are playgrounds of God’s grace. This is not pie-in-the-sky optimism or denial of the brokenness and suffering. It is Gospel hope, and Gospel hope is always experienced as a divine break-in. In Christ, the future breaks into our present reality transforming it from the inside out. The city of our dreams is coming down out of heaven, NOW! It harbors in our heart so we can see it at work in the streets.
The final vision in Scripture of the Heavenly City is Good News, given that more than half the world now lives in cities. The urbanization of the world mirrors the narrative arc of Scripture. It begins in a garden and ends in a city. The words “city” and “Jesus” each appear exactly 953 times in Scripture. God loves cities and so do we; we must, because we keep building them. Whatever else cities represent, they also represent our impulse to be together, in community, which is the very nature of the triune God. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream religion is still steeped in “garden theology” where the garden is idealized and the city is demonized.
The movement from garden to city is not a contest between rural and urban. It’s not as if God changed his mind somewhere along the way and started loving cities more than gardens. The city develops when we “tend the garden” of creation. As co-creators in Christ, we are vested partners in the ongoing act of creation, and cities are the fruit of this partnership. When the partnership is going well the biblical metaphor is Jerusalem — the city of life. When it’s going badly, it’s Babylon — the city of death.
Here’s the rub. For as long as I can remember, I have desired to see things whole. I want to see the big picture, connect the dots and work towards completeness. Unfortunately, my desire to see things whole also makes it easy for me to see what’s missing. I can easily get stuck and fixate on deficits. Instead of looking through the eyes of love and seeing the New Jerusalem, I look through the eyes of fear and become overwhelmed with Babylon. The deficits I see “out there” have more to do with my own brokenness, “in here.”
I am grateful for the spiritual genius of Ms. Jones. At 68 years old she was the president of the tenants association in the projects of Newark, the very place where her son was murdered. She said these words to a young Cory Booker (future mayor of Newark) who moved into the projects intent on rebuilding the community.
The world outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If all you see is
problems, darkness and despair, then that is all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes you see hope, you see opportunity, possibility, you see love or the face of God, then you can be someone who helps me
(and my city).
“See, I am making all things new.” Can you see it?
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.
Have you recently been disappointed by someone, or have you been the source of their disappointment? In a week’s time, those following Jesus went from a deep experience of the first to an almost tragic level of the second. Other than Judas, the disciple who likely experienced this shift the most was Peter.
Remember Friday night, standing in the courtyard with the smell of a charcoal fire wafting through the air. Not once, or twice, but three times Peter not only denied being a follower of Jesus, he denied even knowing him. This was certainly related to fear, but it was more than that. When the guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter courageously stepped forward and slashed an ear. Had Jesus yelled “Charge!”, is there any doubt Peter would have been at the front of the attack? Instead Jesus says, “Put your sword away…” and an emotion stronger than fear crept into Peter’s heart—disappointment. “We had thought,” another disciple would later say, “he was the one to redeem Israel….” All those following Jesus believed he was the Messiah, the appointed one. In their eyes, his arrest, crucifixion and death both disappointed them, and “dis-appointed” Jesus from his role as Messiah.
I wonder which Peter smelled first, the food or the fire? The first whetted his appetite while the second killed it. An-tha-kia, the word for charcoal fire, is used only twice in the Bible. Both usages are in the gospel of John, with one being here on the beach, while the other is in the temple courtyard where Peter failed. The beach smoke undoubtedly transported Peter back to that night and perhaps prepared him for punishment. Like a child in trouble waiting in their room for their parent to dole out the consequences, Peter waited. What would Dad bring? Stern words, a paddle or the disappointment speech?
I have been grounded, spanked, flipped off, yelled at, berated and threatened. But the worst punishments of my life sounded nothing like these. Instead, they came in cool, measured tones only one sentence long, “I’m disappointed in you.” Decades removed from those instances and I still feel a little stab in my gut thinking about them. There is incredible power in disappointment. We will move worlds to avoid it and dig our own graves as a consequence.
Peter eats and waits and dreads. Finally Jesus speaks, “Simon son of John…do you love me more than these?” Although scholars disagree on what Jesus pointed to when he said, “these,” I tend to agree with the theory that Jesus was pointing to the fishing net and boat, asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than his old profession. Did Peter love Jesus more than his previous appointed way of life? To which Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Then Jesus continues…
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Tend my sheep
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Yes, Lord you know it.
Feed my sheep.
Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus and three times Jesus asks Peter where his devotion now lay: in the boat or in Jesus. The word disappointment comes from a 14th Century French word which means to “dispossess of an appointed office.” Peter believed Jesus was disappointed in him and would therefore dis-appoint him from his office. What does he get instead? An invitation to love and a re-appointment to serve. “You did not choose me,” Jesus said earlier, “but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit— fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) Nothing Peter, the disciples, us, or even Judas for that matter, have done can change that appointment.
Is God ever disappointed with us? Many stories in the Bible seem to indicate so, and perhaps it is the case. In friendship, relationship and discipleship, the fear of disappointing is a powerful force. Martin Luther King once said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” And yet, Jesus’ approach with Peter leads me to wonder if there is an even deeper truth beyond Dr. King’s words. Could it be that it is only deep love that is able to redeem deep disappointment?
Board Member, Street Psalms
Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you….”
“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”
These are the words that English Jesuit Priest and Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins uses in the last stanza of a his poem entitled “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” He wrote the poem in tribute to five Franciscan nuns who died in a shipwreck fleeing persecution from Germany in 1875. It is striking to note how Hopkins engages the idea of Easter as verb rather than noun.
We currently find ourselves just a week removed from having passed through the narrative arc of Holy Week that lead us through the crucifixion, the disorientation of Holy Saturday silence, and finally the unbridled joy of an empty tomb. “The resurrection is God’s Amen to Jesus’ statement, It is finished” writes S. Lewis Johnson. Yet, while the tomb that had held Jesus is now empty, our lectionary text introduces us to disciples who have become self-entombed behind walls of fear, doubt and disillusionment. They have not yet experienced the truth of the resurrection, so they cower in fear behind locked doors and covered windows.
It is into that darkness that Easter becomes a verb. Jesus slips into the room as the forgiving victim and vividly creates the experience of Easter. The “verbness” of Easter is essential because the resurrection cannot be explained; rather, it must be experienced. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! When it comes to the resurrection, the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ who forever changes the world.
In a locked room full of discouraged disciples drowning in doubt and shaking in fear, the resurrected God’s first words are “Peace be with you.” He then lovingly shows them his wounds and commissions his disciples to be, for the world, ambassadors of the very forgiveness that they are now experiencing.The risen one then performs a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathed on them.”
The breath of God functions as the kiss of the Creator that remakes the world. With this divine kiss, Jesus is modeling the very core of the mission that flows from resurrection, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same, to forgive as God forgives in a courageous act of union and communion. This is how creation and re-creation unfolds.
Sadly, many of us don’t live in the perpetual experience of the kiss from the risen Christ. As a result, we “retain” (bind up) the sins of others and spend inordinate amounts of energy justifying our self-destructive behaviors of rivalry, bitterness and resentment.
Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to practice the “verbness” of Easter by entering the locked rooms that we (like the disciples) self-entomb ourselves within. What are the closed places of your life? What keeps you entombed today, a week after gazing into the empty tomb of the Easter story? Unexpected, uninvited and sometimes even unwanted, Jesus gently and gracefully (with a kiss) enters our closed lives, minds and hearts. Standing in front of our doubt, fear and disillusionment, he offers peace and breathes new life into us. All he asks is that we allow ourselves to be breathed upon, knowing full well that the person kissed by the risen Christ will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of creation itself.
This is the glorious truth of what it means to be “eastered.”
“Oh Lord, hear our prayer!! Easter yourself within, around and between us that we might receive your kiss and experience you as the dayspring that dissipates dimness.”
Joel Van Dyke & Kris Rocke
Street Psalms Staff
Inspiration garnered from Michael K. Marsh with his “Interrupting the Silence”
5Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen
Christ is risen!
This week we have tried to recover some of the shock of Holy Week and the truly odd narrative elements that are wildly liberating, but sometimes buried and lost.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus forgives us in advance of our sin. On Good Friday, Jesus declares himself our mother on the cross. On Holy Saturday, the Word goes forth in silence, and wounds become wombs of new creation.
Today, Jesus is risen.
The women come to the empty tomb, but the Gospel text says the risen Christ cannot be found “among the dead.” The risen Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with death. But there is more. The risen Christ cannot be found at all. No one finds the risen Christ, ever. Nowhere in any of the resurrection accounts do any of the disciples discover or find the risen Christ. The risen Christ always finds us. It is not the disciples who find Jesus. It is Jesus who always finds the unsuspecting disciples. They can make no
claim on being found and neither can we. This is a critically important detail.
Moralism is the heavy burden of having to find Jesus. It is like “looking for the living among the dead.” The Gospel is the reverse. It is the inexpressible joy of being found and counted among the living.
Confession: I sometimes find Easter the hardest of all the celebrations. Amidst all the cheery hoopla, I sometimes feel the need to engineer my own resurrection encounter. It is a deadening burden. Thankfully, the Gospel is the reminder that the hard work of Easter is on God, not us. It is God’s job to find us, not our job to find God. And when we discover ourselves found, our only burden is the very light and easy burden of joy itself, which is no burden at all. Anything heavier than joy is simply not the Gospel of Jesus.
So, relax. The risen Christ is eager to find us and will not stop until he does. Our task, if we can call it that, is simply to be found by the one who is knocking at our door…even now!
He is risen indeed!
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Today the world falls silent. The psalmist says there is no speech and there are no words. And yet in that silence a voice goes out; a Word goes forth and that Word will become flesh again in the resurrection. All of this is happening beneath, behind and even within us now! The Spirit is hovering in chaos. New creation is about to be born, from below.
The deepest mystery of the Gospel is that our wounds and the wounds of this world are wombs of new creation, bearing seeds of new life in Christ.
New life awaits! The mystery unfolds, but today we are encouraged to taste enough of the hopelessness to be truly stunned by the joy that will soon discover us.
27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
In the Beginning, on the sixth day, on the very first Friday, God created humanity and called us “very good.” Today is another Friday. We call it Good Friday. Today, Jesus recreates humanity in God’s image once again. Creation and the cross — the two are inseparable .
I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to recover something of the shock of the passion narrative. Yesterday Jesus insisted that we are forgiven before we sin. Today on the cross, Jesus compares himself to a mother giving birth. I am not making this up.
“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
Of course, the most obvious interpretation is that Jesus is saying to Mary, “Mom, John is now your son, take care of him.” And then he turns to John and says, “Here is your mother.” In other words, “My mother is now your mother, please take care of her.” It is a beautiful act. The cross reconstitutes and recreates the family. We are all family at the foot of the cross. This is a good and fruitful interpretation, but texts like these have many layers.
Theologian James Alison points out that when Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son,” he is referring not only to John, but to himself.” In other words Jesus is saying, “Mom, look at me. I am your son, the one to whom you gave birth.” And then Jesus looks at John and says something truly stunning: “John, behold, I am not only my mother’s son. I am not only your friend and brother. I am your mother giving birth to New Creation.”
It is not far fetched. Jesus had already compared himself to a mother hen longing to gather her chicks (Luke 13:34). And let’s not forget the first day of creation in Genesis when the Spirit of God (which is the feminine noun “Ruach”) hovers over the deep, like a mother hen brooding her chicks, calling forth life (Gen. 1:2). Yes, the first image of God in Scripture is the image of a mother giving birth!
In Jesus’ final act on the cross, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (v. 30). He released the same “spirit” that swept over the face of the deep in the beginning. Jesus released his spirit into darkness and chaos. For three days Jesus’ Spirit hovers and broods like a mother hen, calling forth life from death. In fact, the Gospels tell us, “darkness came over the whole land” at the crucifixion (Luke 23:44). We are back to the beginning!
Can we see it now?
Today, while we are at our worst, God is at her best — a mother giving birth to New Creation.
Behold, here is your mother.
34Love one another. Just as I have loved you.
The result of these next four days ultimately becomes the hope of the world. But today, just today, I want to try and recover one of the most shocking aspects of this hope.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Jesus issues a “new commandment.”
“Love one another. Just as I have loved you”(John 13:34). He demonstrates this with holy theater, and in doing so, radically reorders the entire narrative structure of life, and the way we tell the story of the Gospel.
Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (gives them a bath) and then breaks bread (feeds them a meal). They don’t get it. They resist it. They reluctantly accept what makes sense only later, after
As Philip Yancy says, “Some stories only make sense in the end.” This is one of them. We can only make sense of Maundy Thursday in reverse, which is what I am doing now. I am retelling this story by the light of the resurrection.
By the light of the resurrection we can see Maundy Thursday, not merely as the moralistic prelude to the main event, but as the cornerstone which makes the next three days possible. By the light of the resurrection, we can see the bath and the meal as an act of forgiveness that precedes the looming darkness. If we see it this way, the Gospel narrative becomes a stunning, wildly liberating, completely free act of grace, played out in full during Holy Week.
Imagine that forgiveness precedes our sin — precedes repentance. Imagine that forgiveness is built into the DNA of creation. Imagine that creation unfolds and comes into being through mercy. Imagine that! If this were true, it would change everything, wouldn’t it? It would change the way we teach, preach and bear witness to the Gospel. If what I am suggesting were true, somebody ought to shout it, show it, celebrate it and live it as if it were true, because it’s life-altering good news. Yes, it messes up the order of things as we see it — repentance first, forgiveness second. But what if Jesus is re-ordering our disordered view of the Gospel? What if we are forgiven so that we can repent and not the other way around?
Try it out this week; think about it in this re-ordered fashion. On Thursday we are forgiven. On Friday we kill God. We are forgiven for what we are about to do. We are forgiven before we do it. Forgiveness is in the beginning, just as Jesus was. Indeed, it is before the beginning. It is how creation unfolds. We are forgiven before we are born. Today, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into the mystery of reality itself. We are forgiven and always have been.
It is by the light of forgiveness that we come to know where things have gone wrong. This will become evident on Resurrection Sunday. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Today Jesus gives us a bath and a meal. We are forgiven!
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was
now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen
Laying down cloaks was an act of homage for royalty. By riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, Jesus was making a public declaration that in fact he was the King and the Messiah that had been prophesied about. People were out of their minds with excitement. They put a cloak on the donkey, put Jesus on its back, and laid cloaks on the ground. As the crowd swelled, people were swept up in the celebration and they shouted,
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”
Their day had come. Finally!
Except that one problem still remained. Who they thought He was, and who He actually was were two different things. Don’t you hate that? Isn’t it frustrating when things don’t turn out the way you thought, or when people aren’t who you expect them to be? The people’s expectations of their Messiah King were going to be completely crushed. He wasn’t going to miraculously free them from Roman rule. In fact, He was about to fail miserably according to their most long-held, dogmatic expectations.
And that was only Day 1 of Jesus’ last week. Every day that follows, Jesus continues to disappoint by turning expectations upside down.
In his last week, Jesus likens the temple to fruitless fig trees, calls out the hypocrisy of temple leaders during the moneychanger’s drama, and lifts up the Samaritan as the example of hospitality and neighborliness over religious leaders who ignore someone in dire need. To top it all off, he affirms the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume as the only disciple in the room who actually knew what was happening; her act preceded Jesus’ washing of the feet. And the list goes on!
When I read the scriptural account of Jesus’ final days, I am left with one prevailing thought— that Jesus was making sure His followers would embrace the “outsider,” the “marginalized,” and the “powerless” as those who have gifts necessary for the community of faith. Jesus put them right in the middle of the discussion— he brought the “margins” into the center of the faith dialogue. And it bugged people. More than once, the religious folk were described as indignant when Jesus went down this road of honoring the dishonorable. This way of thinking is just too threatening and upsetting.
A friend of mine calls it “deconstructing” the status quo. CS Lewis called it “shattering expectations.”
I first heard this CS Lewis quote here at Street Psalms.
“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” CS Lewis says in A Grief Observed. “It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
Lewis sure was right about that one! The idea of a Messiah who empowers marginalized people by bringing them into the center of the community of faith ruins everything. It could get you killed.
Nobody likes having their ideas about God, faith, or church shattered. Yet, perhaps, we should hold things loosely and consider that maybe, just maybe, these moments of shattering are gifts of God’s grace. They can serve as reminders to not be misled by our own best ideas of who we think God is. In humility, we know that we only see in part. God help us if we think we see it all.
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, who comes to save us.” Save us, Jesus, from our own best ideas of who you are. Shatter what keeps us from seeing you.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
We are approaching the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Things are heating up. This week Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Judas (who will betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, the cost of a slave) rebukes Mary for her wasteful extravagance. Judas protests that the perfume could have been sold for a year’s worth of wages and given to the poor. Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (12:7). Mary gets what Judas denies.
Jesus ends with this, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).
Why? Why will we always have the poor with us, and why must Jesus die? The two are intimately connected.
When Jesus says the poor will always be with us, he is not making a simple economic observation. He is naming an anthropological reality about how we create community. Humans tend to build community by defining ourselves over and against others. We want clear boundaries between “us” and “them.” When these boundaries break down and are threatened, communities disintegrate into chaos. In an attempt to save the community, we look for someone to blame – some individual or some group to bear the sins that we refuse to bear ourselves. We create scapegoats.
Scapegoats perform a vital function. It’s why we keep inventing them and why they will always be with us. They not only bear our sins, they unify us. They keep the community from falling apart. It’s a false unity to be sure, and it only lasts temporarily. But let’s be honest, it works!
Caiaphas, the high priest, understood the scapegoat mechanism. At a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin, where the chief priests and the Pharisees conspired to silence Jesus, he said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).
One more point, which is crucial to the scapegoating process, is that in order for the scapegoating mechanism to work and to justify the terrible things we do, we must see our scapegoats as cursed — truly deserving of whatever wrath we unleash. At the highest levels of scapegoating, we enlist God in the process and convince ourselves that they are cursed
In this week’s text, Mary knows the conditions are ripe for the next scapegoat. She anoints Jesus, who will bear the sins of an unstable community that is frantically trying to save itself. Jesus will soon be crucified on what James Cone calls the “Lynching Tree.” There he will do something unimaginable. The scapegoat of our own invention will forgive us the sin we forcibly refuse to bear even while we are lynching him. He will found a new community — one that is scapegoat free. It’s called the Church.
May it be so.
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We continue our trek this Lenten season toward the Cross and our journey this week takes us into a very familiar narrative.
Perhaps the most dramatic example in Scripture of God’s abundant, effulgent love is found in the parable of the prodigal son. The word “prodigal” means reckless, extravagant and wasteful spending. When told in its cultural context, however, it is actually the father who emerges as the reckless, extravagant, and wasteful
one – it is the story of a father’s scandalously shameful display of grace.
First, the father shames himself when he acquiesces to his youngest son’s request for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture, to request an inheritance from one’s father while he lives is tantamount to wishing your father dead.The only thing worse is the father’s willingness to grant the son’s request.
The father’s shame becomes community shame in a culture whose strength is derived from the dignity of its elders. Therefore, when the father shames himself for not standing up to the son’s insulting request, he is also shaming his entire village. One of their leading citizens has lost face and his authority as a man of great standing. Consequently, his whole community must unwillingly take on his shame.
The father shames himself a second time in front of his village when he rushes to meet his son who, after having exhausted himself on his wild binge, returns to seek refuge in his father’s house. No head of a household worth his manhood would go out to meet his son, let alone run to meet him. Worse yet, he throws himself upon his son with such effusive affection that again his authority and that of the community is completely undermined. No dignified man would kneel to his son’s transgressions. No man would cut short his son’s explanation in order to give his own cloak, ring, and sandals to such a scoundrel. This scene is more shameful than
The father shames himself a third time by throwing a party for his son. The father asks for a fatted calf, which would have fed about one hundred people. In Middle Eastern village culture, the entire community would have been expected to attend such a feast. Refusal would have been an offense. And so the whole village is pulled further into the delusions of a father who refuses to save face and deal with his incorrigible son in the privacy of his own home. This party is not only a shameful party, it is a party for shame itself. By now, even the most calloused and wasteful of sons would have been embarrassed, not for himself, but for the outlandish behavior of his father. There is music and dancing at this party, but it is probable that the father is the only one enjoying himself. The heart of the community turns inward as the father’s heart is poured out.
The final act of shame is when the father “comes out” for the second time in this story, but this time it is to meet his oldest son. He does this in full view of the villagers who are likely trying hard to look as if they are enjoying themselves. While the music plays, the oldest son comes in from the fields to discover, to his surprise, a huge party. A young servant tells him about his brother who has come home. True to form, the eldest son is filled with rage at his father’s idiocy. Jealously burns as he hears of his younger brother’s stories. He refuses to enter the party, but stands outside and waits.
The party stops. All eyes turn toward the father. We can imagine the guests whispering to one another, “What will he do now? Will he finally demand some dignity and tell his oldest son to show some respect?” But the oldest son stands resolute and we with him. The party, as well as the story, now takes its most awkward turn. The whole community looks on. Even the youngest son, by this time, can hardly watch his old man completely strip himself of all dignity. Heads fall as the father rushes out to meet his oldest son, shaming himself yet again in front of the whole world.
Jesus does not tell his hearers the last line of the story. The end of the parable is missing. It is what Jesus fails to say in the story – the missing conclusion – that fully and finally sticks in his listeners’ minds. Like the original audience, we are left to wonder if the eldest son ever goes into the party. Suddenly, we are the eldest son, standing face to face with God’s prodigal grace. We are scandalized by such extravagance and not at all sure we want to attend such an awkward party, let alone befriend such a shameless, prodigal God. It takes courage to celebrate such extravagant grace and build communities that reflect and revel in it.
Joel Van Dyke
Director of The Urban Training Collaborative
*Adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke (Chapter 16)
4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
“God hates me!” wailed Reba. Her outburst was a result of losing her husband of 40 years. Just days before he fell down the stairs, hit his head, and died within a few hours. In a society where we are taught to keep our grief civil and to ourselves, a woman openly wailing and blaming God in the middle of our worship prayer time made for an awkward situation.
Yet, although she expressed her emotions more publicly than most would, Reba’s reaction to God is not uncommon. Searching for someone to blame is often our response when we don’t understand why life can bring unfair situations, pain, and grief. When the people in Luke 13 approached Jesus and told him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” Jesus’ response indicates that these folks, too, were looking for blame. Were these Galileans hated by God?
No, Jesus says, no more so than the eighteen who died when the tower fell. Neither the car accident nor the miscarriage, the stomach cancer or the untimely death of Reba’s husband were judgments from God. “Rain,” Jesus might have said, “falls on the righteous and unrighteous.”
It would have been easier if Jesus had left it at that, instead he turns the tables on his listeners and uses the tragedies as warnings. “…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” The Galileans and tower victims weren’t to blame, but unless you change, you will be. What is Jesus doing? Isn’t he contradicting what he had just said?
Jesus knows the mind of God just as well as he knows the minds of those he created. Though God does not hate us or want us to suffer, the same can’t be said regarding the intent of all humans. If, Jesus seems to be saying, you persist in your militant approach towards Pilate, if you engage in the cycle of violence, your blood will become a sacrifice. If you persist in your violent response to your enemies, the towers will fall on you, as they have in the past. Violence leads to suffering for all involved.
And yet, in the midst of this conversation debating judgment and blame, we have the curious image of a tree caught in a persistent cycle of unfruitfulness. After three years it was still barren so the owner said to cut it down. “I can heal the tree,” claimed the good gardener, “but the process is going to stink.” So he dug, watered, taught and prophesied for another year. When no apparent fruit appeared, the people grew irate; demanding something, the Galilean gardener was nailed to its boughs so his blood mingled as their sacrifice. Such strange fruit. And three days later, such a strange seedling.
Back to Reba. Despite the shock, no one told her to quiet down or quit crying. Instead, a couple people moved closer and gently laid a hand on Reba’s heaving shoulders. Another and another and another hand followed. And then, we prayed to the very God who she claimed hated her, raising the possibility that just maybe there was fruit in that tree after all.
Board Member, Street Psalms
Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.
I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Luke 13:31- 35
Jerusalem was in trouble, and she didn’t even know it. Jesus’ prophetic words here in chapter 13 are dripping with sorrow and regret. Corruption in the temple, spiritual unfruitfulness and willful disobedience cause Jesus to weep when he looks over the City of Peace and laments its impending destruction.
Jesus has a clear picture of what is in his heart for his people, and he reaches for an image to adequately describe his feelings. The metaphor he chooses is instructive— a mother hen whose heart longs for her children.
Here’s what I’ve learned about
When they gather their chicks under their wings, like Jesus is talking about here, it’s usually about protection. Often in the face of danger, hens open their wings, and their chicks instinctively know that’s where they go for safety. No harm will come to them there. This is a surprisingly powerful image Jesus has chosen; it conveys his yearning for a relationship with his people. He longs to save them and protect them from what is coming; oddly, he is acting to save and protect his people from their own ignorance.
Typically (or stereotypically), the God-like attribute assigned to women is that of a “nurturer,” not a “protector.”
This passage suggests something different. Mother hens protect.
I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve seen women fight — physically fight — with men to protect themselves and their children. They’ve hovered over their little ones when violence erupts in their homes or on their streets. This narrative of “women/moms as protectors” is empowering and affirming, though it is probably not the norm in most Christian circles.
This is the kind of protection that Jesus wanted to provide Jerusalem and her children. They were unwilling to receive it because they didn’t know they needed it.
I have come to realize there are people who are willing to receive help and people who are not. I continue to sit in conversations with people about opportunities for job training, drug rehab, a chance to finish high-school, advocacy with health care, etc. After 30 years, it still surprises me when people are unwilling to receive real support and help.
Here’s the thing…
Sometimes I am unwilling, too. I’m unwilling to surrender what makes me comfortable, what gives me affirmation, what gives me power and what gives me security – even if it’s faulty.
I have to remember this paradox. We are all like mother hens – protecting and gathering.
We are also like chicks – scattering and unwilling to receive the grace, acceptance and
safety of Jesus.
Street Psalms is uniquely positioned to help deepen the kind of spirituality that can hold the tension I just described. I am not either/or. Instead, I’m both. The church is also both – called out to protect, love, and shelter, and also called to humbly confess our pride and unwillingness to act in obedience to God’s commandments.
Lent calls us to a deeper reflection on these things as we make our way toward Resurrection Sunday. May God meet you in the journey.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Friend and mentor, Dave Hillis, president of Leadership Foundations, tells the story from his days as a camp counselor when he was asked to lead a seminar for urban youth. A young lady walked in just as it was about to start and asked Dave what the topic would be. When he told her it was about how to survive in the city, she immediately replied with attitude, “Oh, that’s easy! You only need three things–a gun, a condom and a Bible.”
The woman was expressing what Ben Beltran calls the “symbolic universe”–the narrative structure of the soul that holds us together and makes meaning of life. In fact, the Latin word symbolum literally means, “to hold together.” If we can resist judgment and listen, the young woman is saying something profound. She lives in a world where guns, condoms and bibles are equally valid tools of survival depending on the situation. We need a gospel that can speak into this reality and transform it.
As we enter the first week of Lent, Satan meets Jesus in the desert to discuss the symbolic universe of Israel. Satan chooses the elemental symbols of life–bread, crown and temple. If we step back to see the bigger picture, it becomes clear these symbols represent the economic, political and religious systems by which society functions. When seen this way, the temptations are about the narrative structure of life itself.
Bread: From Scarcity to Abundance
Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus resists and insists that God’s economy is one of abundance not scarcity. Even though he is alone in a desert filled with nothing but sand and rocks, he does not react in fear; Jesus knows there is more than enough bread for all if we could only see it. In fact, later in the Gospels Jesus feeds five thousand to prove the point, and ultimately he is revealed as the bread of life that we celebrate at communion–a table open to all. There is more than enough. That is God’s economy.
Crown: From Domination to Doxology
Satan offers Jesus a crown, if he will “worship” Satan, but the crown that he offers is really a crown of thorns. Satan’s politics of domination and coercion, of might-makes-right and bigger is better, always ends with someone being sacrificed. Jesus exposes Satan’s twisted view of power and insists on a new kind of power–one that is perfected in weakness and is given away. That is God’s power worthy of “worship,” which is an important verb in this temptation. In Greek, the word is “doxa,” from which we get the word doxology (i.e. Praise God from whom all blessings flow…). The point here is that God’s power flows out, not in, and down, not up. Those are God’s politics.
Temple: From Sacrifice to Mercy
Jesus is taken to the temple, which is the sacred center of Israel. The devil tempts Jesus to throw himself into a religious system built on the sacrifice of innocents. Jesus resists, and in doing so, reimagines the entire premise of religion itself. In fact, he tears down the temple system and builds a new temple (himself) that is founded on mercy, not sacrifice. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). That is God’s religion.
The Lenten season is a reminder that we are desperate for a faith that reimagines our world through a lens of abundance, of blessing, and of mercy–a world that reflects God’s very heart. That is the promise which awaits Jesus, and us, on our way to Easter.
Adapted from Chapter 7, Symbolic Universe, in Geography of Grace – Doing Theology from Below.
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….
When my daughter Sofia was seven years old, she once unabashedly told me that I was the “best Papi in the world.” In a selfish effort to boost my fragile ego, I asked her why she thought this to be true. She simply smiled at me and said, “because you’re mine.”
Our Gospel text this week (Luke 9:28-36) stands as a profound signpost in the narrative accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. On the mountaintop where the Transfiguration occurs, we are presented with a definitive answer to a question that is repeatedly posed in the aforementioned Gospels. The question is: Who is this man that wind and waves obey? Who is this man that heals the sick and forgives sins? The Transfiguration becomes the place in each Gospel where the answer to these questions is proclaimed. It is where Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, opening the first chapter in the final act of his life on earth.
The images we see in Luke 9, of lightning, clouds, glory, and the voice of God, act as a recapitulation of the scene at Mount Sinai during the Exodus; Moses came down from the mountain with his face aglow. He was shining with a reflected light-a reflected glory. Just as the moon radiates with the light from the sun, Moses was reflecting a light from
However, in the brilliance of Jesus’ appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is no glory that comes DOWN on Jesus; rather, glory comes OUT of him. It emanates from him as opposed to being reflected upon him from some other source. Jesus is the source of his own light. The Glory Cloud in the Old Testament was a partial representation of the glory of God, but Jesus IS the glory of God. Hence, the writer of Hebrews states “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….”
As a witness to what is unfolding on the mountaintop, Peter is starstruck when he rubs the sleep from his eyes and sees Jesus standing in conversation with two heroes of the faith–Moses and Elijah. The three are discussing the fulfillment of Jesus’ departure. In Greek, the word “departure” is actually “exodus.” The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate exodus. While Moses liberated God’s people from economic and social oppression, Jesus will soon liberate them from sin, and even death itself.
As always, the reliably impulsive Peter blurts out his proposal to build a shelter (tabernacles) for each radiant hero, as if the three were equally prominent. However, the voice of God shatters that idea from within the cloud that envelops them. He declares, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
Jesus is NOT one more prophet in a long history of great prophets headlined by Elijah. He is not one more prophet trying to get near to God; instead, he is the God that all prophets are trying to get near. He is not a new and better lawgiver simply taking over where Moses left off. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is utterly unique!! Jesus doesn’t reflect glory; he IS glory. He is the chosen Son of God, and as such, worthy of total and complete allegiance.
My seven year-old daughter never doubted the core identity of the man standing in front of her, nor did she question to whom she belonged. The voice of God in the cloud of glory proclaims who Jesus is-Son, Messiah and the perfect and final representation of God. A transfigured Jesus, a supernatural Jesus, is the only Jesus. You either utterly reject him or totally build your life around him. It’s all or nothing as his face, and ours with him, now turns to what awaits in Jerusalem.
Joel Van Dyke
Director of Urban Training Collaborative
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Last week we heard Jesus’ first sermon. This week’s lectionary text keeps us in the same passage, but it focuses on the end of the sermon when things turn ugly.
In the first half of the sermon Jesus lifts up the expansive nature of God’s grace, which is why “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (v. 22). In the second half of
the sermon Jesus lifts up two outsiders – the widow and the leper. The congregation becomes so enraged at Jesus’ application of grace that they drive him out of the synagogue and attempt to throw him off a cliff.
I’ve given plenty of sermons – many of them very bad, but none of them have ended with the congregation driving me out of the church to the edge of a cliff.
At Street Psalms, we train urban leaders to see and celebrate good news in hard places. It’s tricky business because it’s easy for leaders to become puppets of the crowds we serve, or be filled with resentment and become bullies. Jesus is neither a puppet nor a bully. He speaks from a different place altogether. It is the place of the Incarnation – mystery of the Word made flesh.
Here are three beautiful mysteries of the Incarnation surfaced in this week’s text.
“…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Notice the first word of Jesus’ first sermon, “Today.” Yes, today is the day of our Lord. The Gospel always comes to us in the present moment. That’s the promise of the Incarnation. The present is pregnant with God, waiting and wanting to be born. Because of this, we are midwives to the holy in all things. Today, this moment, now, is the fulfillment of Word made flesh!
Grace and Truth
Grace is truth, and truth is grace. They are one, not two, but if we must have an order, grace precedes truth. Grace (when we relax into it) takes away fear of judgment and opens us up to truth. Without grace, our truth becomes very small and even dangerous. Jesus’ sermon demonstrates this order, and he maintains the Gospel order to the end when he declares on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is only forgiven people who can see the truth of things. If we see at all, we see by the light of forgiveness. That is why forgiveness precedes repentance. The Apostle John named the mystery of the Incarnation beautifully, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It’s the Gospel order of things.
Unfortunately,instead of relaxing into grace, the congregation is scandalized by it. They want to kill Jesus, but he does not return violence for violence. Instead, “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (v.30). Only God can pass through the flames of violence without being consumed by it. This too is the mystery of the Incarnation; it does not return violence for violence. It forsakes the myth of redemptive violence and shows us how to pass through the violence that consumes us. The Incarnation makes another “way” possible – the way of peace.
Last week we witnessed Jesus’ first miracle (water becomes wine). It ends well. This week we hear Jesus’ first sermon. It ends horribly.
His text is Isaiah 61:1-2a. His sermon is electric. It charges the crowd with a confusing current of wonderment and fierce anger. In the end, they drive him out of town to throw him off a cliff. That’s a tough first sermon.
I think about this when I consider that the Street Psalms Community anointed me with these very same words at my ordination. I have anointed many leaders throughout our network with these words. I pray these words daily as a reminder of my anointing. They were traced on my forehead with oil and they are written on my heart and the heart of the Street Psalms Community. Of course, the words are ten sizes too big for my soul, but they are so graceful and true that I will happily spend an eternity growing into them.
A Balm to the Soul
Isaiah’s words are balm to the soul, but it’s what Jesus doesn’t say that turns the screw. He doesn’t finish the quotation from Isaiah. Jesus leaves off the bit about announcing “The day of vengeance of our Lord”(Is. 61:2b). This could not have been an oversight. The gathering was stunned, which is why all the eyes of the congregation were “fixed on him” (v. 20). At one level, it warmed their hearts and they were “amazed at the gracious words” (v.22). But Jesus’ selective reading of the text and his sermon illustrations of two outsiders upon whom God’s favor rests (widow at Zerephath in Sidon and Naaman the Leper from Syria) ultimately filled the crowd with rage. They drove Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff.
It reminds us of Leviticus 16 when, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of a scapegoat (in effect, anointing the scapegoat with the sins of the community and the vengeance of God). The goat was then driven out of town to the edge of the cliff while it was jeered and mocked by the community. Ultimately, it was forced to jump to its death, taking with it the sins of the community, presumably all this under the approving (and vengeful) eye of God.
Living without Scapegoats
Jesus’ sermon turns Leviticus on its head along with the religious establishment. It is we who want vengeance, not God. It is we who want scapegoats, not God. Jesus comes to show us how to live without scapegoats. Heck, he becomes the goat so we can finally see what we’ve been doing in God’s name – persecuting God.
So, how do we know when the Spirit of the Lord is upon us?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us whenever we bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us whenever we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Jubilee) for ALL, friends and foe, insider and outsider, until there are no more scapegoats, none!
Perhaps this is why Pope Francis declared this a year of Jubilee – a year of mercy. Now, that is an anointing that will set creation ablaze with love.
“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase as you went to your first job interview or went to your first day at school. Researchers in the social sciences tell us that it takes a tenth of a second to form a first impression and longer exposure doesn’t significantly alter the first impression.
In our Gospel lectionary text this week, we see the “first” of Jesus’ miraculous signs. Of all the miraculous signs Jesus could have chosen to give a first impression, why does he choose a simple wedding and the situation of a young couple desperately in need of avoiding social embarrassment? Jesus’ first miracle is to keep a party going. As far as first impressions are concerned, wouldn’t it have made more sense to give sight to someone born blind, or cast out some demons?
An extravagant feast for all peoples
The prophet Isaiah helps paint a picture of a Messiah who will bring unbridled joy through displays of extravagant abundance, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6). Over and over throughout the New Testament we encounter Jesus turning the tables on scarcity by means of extravagant abundance. The miracle of water to wine is a beautiful example of this oft repeated theme.
It is no mistake that Jesus chooses the vessels of ceremonial cleansing to become the containers of liquid delight. The stone jars were used for ritual washing and it is notable that they were empty and in need of filling. Jesus does not reject the jars and what they stood for; he is re-purposing them for a different use. You might say that he is replacing the “water” rituals with “wine” meaning. Purity laws controlled by the Temple divided humans arbitrarily into designated categories of clean and unclean, but Jesus’ actions now serve to liberate that empty purification process into truly life-giving possibilities. The “water” from the containers of the Old Testament sacrificial system are replaced with the “wine” of Jesus’ love.
New wine, new guests
Dostoevsky makes poignant use of this story in the Brothers Karamazov. The great spiritual father Zossima has just died. When his decomposing body begins to create a stink, many of the people are disoriented, including Zossima’s follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the distraught Alyosha is praying in the hermitage near the body. Another monk happens to be reading the story of the marriage of Cana. The scene unveils a vibrant celebration and Alyosha see’s the elder monk rejoicing. Perplexed by what he sees, Alyosha confronts the monk in a spirit of disdain. The monk replies, “We are rejoicing….we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are? He (Jesus) became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests might not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”
Jesus scandously invites us all to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into the bread and wine of unbridled joy and feasting. It is a lavish party full of delight….Jesus indeed saves the best until last.
Joel Van Dyke
Director of the Urban Training Collaborative
Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” …Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
John 18:33, 36
Most of us in the Street Psalms network don’t live in autocratic political regimes. We catch glimpses in the news every day – Syria, North Korea, ISIS. Given the options we’re glad to live in our democracies, however corrupt and dysfunctional, instead of dictatorships.
I’ve lived in Thailand under the longest reigning monarch in the world, Bhumibol Adulyadej, referred to by subjects as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua (“His Majesty the Lord Upon our Heads”). Everyone I knew adored him as a wise ruler, and I did too, which was a good thing because Thailand has among the strictest lèse majesté (violating majesty) laws in the world. Never a hint of critique in the local or foreign press. A biography on my own bookshelf is banned, tourists overheard in bars have been prosecuted, and hundreds of citizens are incarcerated for indiscretions of speech. I met the king once, on his birthday, on my knees. He caught my eye. People around me fainted.
This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday as observed in many churches around the world. It is the last Sunday before Advent. The timing is interesting and worth reflection: How did our Lord and King enter this world, and move through his life in it? How on earth does he actually rule?
Closely woven with his way of being among us, Jesus taught us. His central metaphor was the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” – used 99 times in the New Testament. For those of us who don’t live under military occupation, the imagery can fall a bit flat and abstract – a theological term to be unpacked. For Jesus’s hearers the term “kingdom” must have elicited a visceral response, and not necessarily a pleasant one. Jesus’s hearers went about their lives under the rule of an emperor, governed by a vassal king, policed by soldiers not shy about brutality, and shaken down by slimy local tax agents. The image of “kingdom” stirred vivid thoughts and emotions.
In this week’s scripture passage Jesus is on trial, exposed. But the tables are being turned. Jesus has come bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37). In so doing he exposes the dominant – and domineering – world system for what it is. The Roman Emperor’s way of power is violence and control, and Pilate is his local stand-in. If that were this prisoner-king’s way of power – the sovereign who arrived in a manger and upon a donkey – his followers would be fighting. If his authority derived from dominance, his crown would not be woven from thorns.
“But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vs. 36). The key word is “from,” a translation of the tiny Greek word “ek.” Other translations have it “of” – which makes it sound otherworldly, removed. But Jesus has made it clear that his kingdom is very much for this world: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Interestingly, “ek” is most commonly translated elsewhere as “out of.” So: “My kingdom is not derived out of the ways this world rules itself.”
“God so loved the world” (John 3:16) in such a way that the world, and humanity, could be shown a different way of constituting itself. Not just shown, but loved to life! Such life will have an enduring and eternal quality, not derived from the world systems of power, control, and violence against rivals. Such systems permeate every level of human co-existence. A biblical word for this is sin. As such, the Roman Empire is exposed as humanity-destroying… but that’s hardly the extent of it. Social systems, religious systems, economic systems, the workings of our inner psychology that rely on dominance and exclusion – all are revealed to be death-dealing and false, in light of the embodied Truth being revealed in this courtroom drama.
A kingdom not from this world, but given in love for this world. Christ the King, Immanuel, enfleshed with us in breathtaking majesty and power.
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down…. Nation will rise against nation.”
A community without sacrifice is a really good thing. It is also a really dangerous thing, as this week’s text suggests.*
When Jesus told his disciples that the temple would fall, he was right. It was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. But there is another, more important, sense in which Jesus saw the temple falling. He saw the sacrificial logic that sustains the temple beginning to crumble, and when this happens the entire system falls apart – slowly but surely. This is what Jesus set in motion on the cross and it’s truly great news, but let’s be clear, it also creates an unstable and dangerous situation in which “nation will rise against nation.” How can this be?
The temple was the religious heart of Jerusalem. It was also the single largest economic engine organized around an elaborate sacrificial system. As James Warren writes in Compassion or Apocalypse? “[The temple] overshadowed Jerusalem and dominated life in the city. Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple, not only on its day to day ritual needs but also on the periodic pilgrim festivals and the ongoing building project which it constituted. Nine thousand priests and Levites worked there, although not at the same time, operating what was in fact a giant abattoir (slaughterhouse).
“The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh….”
Sacrificial logic is convinced that God needs innocent blood to be satisfied – and ultimately only the blood of God’s own son can appease his holy wrath. This has been the dominant view for the last 1,000 years. Tempers often run hot when this view is questioned, but I’d like to suggest the possibility that, like the temple and the sacrificial logic that sustains it, the dominant view is falling apart (whether we like it or not). When Jesus was crucified, he made a “public spectacle” (Col. 2:15) of the sacrificial system and the logic that holds it together. The minority view I am lifting up reverses the polarity of sacrificial logic. In other words, it’s our wrath, not God’s, that needs to be satisfied. It’s we who are angry, not God. At the cross, we became like violent gods and God became a peaceful human. The real abattoir is not the temple of God’s heart, but ours. God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
This view sees Jesus dismantling the sacrificial system by means of mercy. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Mercy is the only thing strong enough to break the cycle of violence. Imagine that! It’s taken 2,000 years for the stones to fall. They are still coming down.
The question remains. How does the elimination of the sacrificial system lead to “nation against nation”? Caiaphas, the high priest, connects the dots. “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Caiaphas sees the hidden truth of sacrifice. A little blood spares a lot of blood. We sacrifice the few for the sake of the many. But when we no longer have a sacrificial system to limit the spread of violence, communities become unstable. The potential for violence multiplies. Eventually, “nation will rise against nation.” Jesus warns us not to be surprised about this.
There is only one way out of the slaughterhouse and that is mercy. Lord, have mercy!
*Our work as a training organization demands that we reflect deeply on how the Gospel of Jesus makes peace in the context of violence. Our staff and network have varying views on how to interpret difficult texts like this week’s text, but on this we can agree – Jesus is the liberator, not our theology!
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”
“When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple….”
Our Gospel text this week is commonly preached at stewardship time to exhort faithful churchgoers to give their all – just like the widow who put into the treasury “more than all those who are contributing” (Mark 12:43). However, perhaps a look at the context of the story and the posture and positioning of Jesus challenges us to re-examine what might lie behind the comment Jesus makes to his disciples as he watches the widow’s actions.
The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in pompous clothing, high-fiving their homies while they demand seats of honor and offer up pretentious prayers. The cumulative effect of their actions, Jesus says, is that they “devour widows’ houses” (v. 40). That last piece is highly significant because of what unfolds next.
Jesus, sitting opposite (over against) the treasury, watches a bunch of guys wearing expensive clothes take a widow’s last two coins (mites) – all that she has to live on. He makes a comment about the beauty of her actions, but behind his words we can also read a scathing socio-cultural criticism of temple-based economics. In fact, he shows her actions as prophetic in revealing an oppressive system that no longer protects and serves the poor but instead “devours” them.
“Did you see the offering of the widow?” Jesus asks his disciples. “In case you think that the warning I just made about the scribes is unwarranted, this woman has just deposited all she had into an offering used to maintain the very oppressive system that has devoured her house in order to build another.” Could it be that Jesus is calling attention to the widow’s actions not so much for her giving but as a continuation of his pesky habit of pointing out the injustice of the scribes, the wealthy, and the oppressive system of temple-based economics that had been built for self-sustainability by those in power?
Perhaps the focus of this story is not tethered to the significance of her generosity in giving her last two “mites,” but rather in the might of her prophetic action that exposes systemic injustice for what it really is.
The rich give out of abundance while the widow gives out of her poverty. The question before us is: who truly ends up poor and rich in this story? Aren’t the power-mongers who play games of death in the sacrificial cults more impoverished than this widow who reveals the cults’ true nature by throwing in her entire living? She is a prophet; they are not. Their gifts do nothing to reveal the nature of the sacrifice. Her actions, on the other hand, have the prophetic might to reveal what is at the heart of the matter.
In 2005, we held in Guatemala City a consultation on gang violence called Street Psalms. In attendance were some 75 pastors and community leaders from the capital of every country in Central America. In an attempt to talk with gang members and not about them, we gave the first word of the extended three-day conversation to active gang members.
But because many of the gang members we wanted to engage at the event were incarcerated and unable to attend, we had given them an assignment: a month earlier, we asked them to write for us what they wanted to say to the pastors and community leaders. Here is a portion of the “offering” that came from their written communications:
“Frequently we have seen growth in the physical structure of many churches. We see leaders with a competitive attitude choosing, it seems, to compete with other churches while abandoning the needs that exist in prisons, neighborhoods, slums, and rehabilitation centers. The priority of these churches always seems to be focused on the comfort of their respective members so they can feel like VIPs. They have lost, or perhaps just forgotten, the vision of Jesus Christ, who said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” We don’t want to criticize just for the sake of being critical. [We do want] to stand for the truth that while churches are constructing huge sanctuaries and creating Christian clubs, there are children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another, and prisoners suffering greatly – all the while you Christians comfort yourselves in your nice, big, comfortable churches.”
Are we open to learn from Jesus the prophetic sight to see in the words and actions of the oppressed and marginalized the might to shed the light of truth on corrupt, self-serving systems – religious or otherwise?
Joel Van Dyke
“Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
– Mark 12:29-31
I recently heard an acronym popular among church youth groups for helping shape their understanding of faith: J.O.Y., which stands for Jesus, others, yourself. It’s a memory tool used to help young Christians in their understanding of discipleship.
Although I wasn’t familiar with J.O.Y., its general meaning was something drilled deeply into my young faith as a Christian. Having attended church all my life, I had been conditioned to see my spirituality through the following lenses: 1) put God first in your life! 2) love your neighbor, and 3) your own needs are not as important.
Much of the notion of placing God first in our life comes from this week’s crucial text. Jesus sure seems to communicate the weight of this message when he adds in a parallel Gospel passage, “All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).
Here’s what Jesus says the entire law and message of the prophets hinges on:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'” (Mark 12:30) and “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 31).
This was his response to the question asked by a Pharisee within the larger audience of pious religious gatekeepers, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (v. 28) Considering his audience, getting the answer wrong would have surely fast-tracked the process of his crucifixion.
In order to meet their rigid requirements, Jesus begins by quoting what is known as the Shema, the centerpiece of traditional Jewish prayer: “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength'” (v. 29-30).
This was the response that saved his neck from immediate lynching. We see Jesus cleverly sidestep similar deadly traps many times throughout the Gospels. He really he wasn’t asked to offer anything more than this simple answer. But Jesus takes the risk to expound and expand on his response. Seemingly without taking a breath, Jesus continues, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Through the filter of Greco-Roman translation, many current-day Christians in America shape this message into the three-fold checklist I referenced at the beginning: 1. God 2. neighbor 3. self.
But was Jesus really offering us an orderly spiritual checklist?
In order to answer that question, it’s crucial to see two pieces of ancient context. The first, Jesus wasn’t Greek or Roman. He lived and breathed from an integrated and holistic perspective. He simply wasn’t shaped by categories and lists in the manner my western (Greco-Roman) paradigm has shaped me.
The second piece of context comes down to the section that The New Living Translation interprets as “the second is equally important” (v. 31, emphasis mine), echoing the parallel passage from Matthew. This translation captures the essence of the original language, through which Jesus conveys that healthy neighborly love mirrors healthy self-love, and this translates into worship of the one true God.
In other words, there is no ordered list. Perhaps a healthier image would be of three concentric circles pointing to the reality that everything is connected. It’s far less about practices of personal piety and far more about our collective participation in God’s expansive design for harmony and wholeness.
As Jesus says, all of the laws and messages of the prophets hinge on this way of integrated seeing and being. There is no area of my life, my work, or even my leisure and play that is not an intimate encounter with God’s love. Coming to terms with this allows me a sense of liberation from the cosmic checklist as I’m drawn forward and deeper into the experience of joy.
“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly”
Our lectionary text this week invites us into one of the principal issues for us at Street Psalms – knowing how to see. Ironically, our teacher this week in learning how to see is actually a blind man. Many Biblical scholars have placed this text at the end of a portion of Mark’s Gospel that begins with the healing of a blind man, thus the section starting with Mark 8:22 and ending with Mark 10:52 is bookended by the healing of blind men. In between these two miracles, Jesus is trying feverishly to get the disciples to see and understand what he’s saying about his death and resurrection, but they are blind to his teachings.
In the text (Mark 10:46-52), we are introduced to a blind man sitting by a roadside begging. As far as the art of begging is concerned, this occasion holds the potential for significant income because it’s during a great religious parade of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Bartimaeus cannot physically see anything as the people pass in front of him, but he discerns something with his heart that seizes his attention. He asks those around him what is occurring and learns that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.
To the embarrassment of those around him, Bartimaeus yells and screams until Jesus stops to invite him to a meeting in the street. Those around Bartimaeus had tried desperately to shut him up in an attempt to save him from impending shame. Bartimaeus, however, relentlessly pursued an audience with Jesus.
Considering the absurdity of his actions, he becomes a living metaphor that embodies the heart of the conclusion to Last Lovers, a novel in which author William Wharton writes that “perhaps sometimes it is best to be blind, so one can see the way things really are, and not be blinded by the way they look.”
During this encounter in the middle of the street, Jesus asks a beautiful question of Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” This kind of beautiful question animates our work at Street Psalms as we explore together what it means to have the ability of Bartimaeus to see with one’s heart the presence of Jesus of Nazareth in unexpected people and surprising places. This is the ability first to discern the presence of the Divine and then the courage to not let the sacred moment pass by without hearing one’s personal “beautiful question” from the lips of Jesus. It is the art of knowing how to see.
In his book entitled Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet described a 1999 Panasonic ad campaign called “Leonardo de Vinci: The Art of Seeing.” It centered on da Vinci’s philosophy, summed up in two words: saper vedere, or “knowing how to see.” As a scientist, philosopher, inventor, and artist, da Vinci enlisted the concept of saper vedere to engage the world around him. To him, life was measured by one’s ability to see correctly. He described the almost mystical process of artists as not simply painting what they see, but their ability to see what they paint.
While the folks on that road to Jericho were blind, Bartimaeus was able to see using the eyes of his heart. The temptation to move ahead without saper vedere – before knowing how to see – is strong. But usually when we cave to that temptation, we cause more problems than we solve. Then it is easy to miss the beautiful question rolling off the lips of the Master who speaks through some very unexpected people and in some very surprising places.
As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in “Aurora Leigh”:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
Joel Van Dyke
Image: “Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus” by William Blake (c. 1800)
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, reminds us that Jesus was glorified and crowned king in the most unusual coronation ceremony imaginable: on the cross. Of course, we like to think the coronation ceremony happened sometime after the nasty business of the cross – perhaps sometime after the resurrection in heaven as a reward for having done such a difficult deed. But this is not Jesus’s understanding of his own kingship, as this week’s passage makes clear.
Wright points out that Jesus was crowned king and glorified between two “brigands” – one on his right and the other on his left. The Greek word here is “leistes,” which is often translated as thieves or robbers, but is more properly brigands. A brigand is literally a “gang member.”
In this week’s text we are confronted with holy irony. James and John cluelessly ask Jesus if they can join his kingly court. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This request angers the other 10 disciples, but Jesus does not reprimand James and John. Instead he tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” It’s true. They have no idea. How could they? They have no clue about the radical difference between God’s glory and human glory. They have no clue what it means sit on the right and left of Jesus. No clue that the only court in Jesus kingdom is a band of brigands.
The Gospels are filled with conversations like this, where the disciples are operating out of one frame of mind while Jesus responds from another. It’s as if the disciples are living in two dimensions while Jesus is living in three dimensions.
The famous novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbot is a wonderful illustration of this. Abbot’s parable illustrates how those who live in the two-dimensional world of “Flatland” simply can’t see or imagine a three dimensional world. One day a three-dimensional cube enters Flatland, but the two-dimensional figures see the cube through their two-dimensional eyes and the cube appears to be just like them: just another flat square. Eventually, a Flatlander is intrigued by the possibility of something bigger and takes a step of faith. He enter the third dimension. It is scary and risky – even blasphemous – on the front end, but wildly liberating on the back end. Here is a short video of this parable.
Similarly, the disciples are trapped in the flatlands of their imagination. They simply cannot see the three-dimensional nature of God’s kingdom unfolding. They cannot imagine the coronation ceremony that Jesus talks about. Their vision of glory requires an all-out grab for position and power. As a result they are left to interpret the three-dimensional teaching of Jesus from a two-dimensional perspective. James and John are simply being good flatlanders. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to blame them for it.
Instead, Jesus gathers a cursed band of brigands and transforms them into a community of the cross. Together, they reveal a dimension of glory that has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Matt 13:35). Together they reveal a kingdom in which the last are first, the first are last, and the greatest is the servant of all. There is plenty of room on the right and the left of Jesus in this kingdom, if we would but count ourselves among the brigands of the Lord.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
We’ll find out in a few verses that “give up your wealth” isn’t what this man wants to hear. But putting aside for a moment the questions about entering heaven with or without our respective riches, or what size holes camels can actually fit through, first let’s consider just one word: “good.”
All three synoptic gospels note that Jesus takes issue with the phrasing of the rich man’s use of the word “good.” And each time Jesus says that only one is good, and that one is God.
This seems a little strange, because the Bible starts with the goodness of everything. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is nothing but God unfolding creation, sitting back, and seeing that it is good every step of the way. Actually, the first thing God calls not good is Adam’s solitude: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
We know, from scripture and often from experience, that being too long without companionship is not good. But scripture also reveals to us another easily-recognizable facet of human nature: that rivalry is ever lurking beneath or at the edges of our relationships, from Cain and Abel up through this week’s encounter. We have already seen the hapless disciples bickering over who of them is greatest. They wanted Jesus to castigate any ministers working without the proper certification.
And despite Jesus’s efforts, the rivalry will continue. In a thorough essay on envy and jealousy, scholars Anselm Hagedorn and Jerome Neyrey point out that the Gospel of Mark says it explicitly: “For [Jesus] realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over” (Mark 15:10).
Perhaps we can see Jesus’s somewhat harsh initial response to this man’s question as another in a series of Jesus’s efforts to slow the growing rivalry that will ultimately lead to his death.
The perfect breeding grounds for envy, according to Hagedorn and Neyrey, are: (1) the idea that there is a limited amount of good, (2) rivalistic society, and (3) cultural values of honor and shame. From the time of his humble birth, Jesus has been trying to flip the script on ancient notions of honor, shame, and prestige. As we saw last week when he defended a child from the disciples, his followers’ insistence on clinging to old ideas of power is really starting to make Jesus mad. His crankiness seems to carry over here into his response to the wealthy man.
Maybe he also knows the man’s phrasing is more illustrative then the man realizes. Perhaps for those of us who are not the Creator, the presence of “good” seems to necessitate a “bad.” Like money, there is only so much good to go around, the voice of scarcity tells us.
Which brings us to the rich man’s actual question, and Jesus’s famous answer: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25).
The disciples quickly recognize Jesus’s words are not about the rich man alone: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus is talking about all of us whose attachments to the stuff of this world blind us to the reality of God’s goodness that’s available to everyone.
What if what binds us isn’t just the stuff of this world, but also – and this can be especially tricky for some Christians – attachment to the very idea of personal “goodness”?
One adage of 12-step programs is “let go and let God.” More informally, another truism is that “everything I’ve let go of has had claw marks all over it.”
What do you cling to that keeps you from seeing? As with wealth, could an obsession with the idea of “good” be keeping you from the one ultimate good: God?
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
– Mark 10:13-16
During the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States, one optic stood out: his daily embrace of children. Cynics might dismiss this as calculated media strategy or worse. An online commenter sneered, “Imagine that, another priest hugging and kissing children.” But Pope Francis, the “pope of the periphery,” makes cynicism difficult with his transparently genuine delight among the vulnerable. He often references the life of Jesus as the model for his own life and leadership.
In the gospels we find Jesus among children – taking them into his arms and blessing them. People brought children to be touched. As with others, including those considered “untouchable,” Jesus engaged body and spirit as inseparably whole in his welcome and blessing. As we have seen, children in the Jesus stories are yet another embodiment of the outsider – the scorned, the rejected, the powerless, the victimized, the vulnerable.
For Jesus it is a teaching moment. In the previous chapter, children prompted teaching about exclusion and welcome (Mark 9:36-37). Following up here, Jesus connects his favorite metaphor – “the kingdom of God” – to the precarious social standing of a child.
Now, however, the Rabbi does not simply present a cerebral analysis of metaphorical parallels. He is incensed! Seeing how his own disciples “spoke sternly” to exclude, a fire rises. We can imagine him red-faced. His rebuke must have set the disciples aback. “Whoa… where did that come from? Just trying to help keep things under control here.”
Control is the issue. The disciples have been wrestling with issues of power (Mark 9:34), which they associate with control. And they have come to imagine themselves to be privileged insiders – gatekeepers managing entry for outsiders.
Jesus finally blows a gasket. Right in front of the children! How badly his words have been misunderstood. “The kingdom of God [will] come with power” (Mark 9:1). But how very strange a power. He has begun to speak of his coming humiliation and execution – utter loss of control, utter ostracism. So also he speaks of children – without power to manage or control, dependent on others to even plea on their behalf for a touch of blessing.
In the last chapter, Jesus’s point is that the children should be welcomed. Here he goes further, proclaiming the powerless outsider-ness of children to be the prerequisite condition for any of us to experience the realm of God at all. It comes as a gift, to be “received” (v. 10). Tough gift, because we’re not inclined to take loss of control easily. Given such resistance, Jesus elsewhere compares it to a death march to the gallows (Mark 8:34), or the dark passage of childbirth (John 3:3). A gift much more readily received by people powerless and ostracized already, than by those with much to lose.
In short order Jesus will leave, trusting these very disciples to lead – with power! But not before they will lose all imagined ability to manage and control their own fates, let alone manage the good news of God.
Photo: Pope Francis greets children from Maryland’s Catholic Coalition for Special Education (CCSE) (photo credit: Mary Frances LaHood of St. Joseph’s House)
This week’s lectionary Gospel text, Mark 9:38-50, is not for the faint of heart. The disciples encounter “someone” casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They want to shut down this rogue minister and put an end to his ministry because he’s not part of their inner circle.
But the outsider and his ministry is no threat to Jesus whatsoever. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The real threat that Jesus exposes in this text is the hidden envy brewing in the disciples’ hearts. Jesus warns the disciples that if they insist on picking a fight with the freelance minister, it is they – not the freelancer – who will end up in hell. Whoa!
By the way, the unnamed “someone” in this text is the patron saint of all those ministers who live and serve on the margins without the right credentials or official ordination from the home mission office. I am tempted to focus on such unsanctioned ministries that are blessing our cities, but this text is primarily about the envy of the disciples. It is about how envy inflames rivalries, and creates what Jesus calls stumbling blocks (skandalizō), from which we get the word scandal.
Jesus repeats the word scandal in verb from (stumble) three times throughout the text. Jesus does not mince words. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” In other words, get rid of whatever leads you (and others) into scandal because scandals always produce scapegoats, and that is truly the hell of your own making.
The disciples are green with envy at the unauthorized ministry of this rogue minister. The problem, of course, is that they can’t see it. That’s how envy works. It is obvious to all who look on, but it remains hidden to those who have it. Envy secretly sows seeds of rivalry and rivalries become scandals that produce scapegoats. That is why Jesus says that it would be better for the disciples to cut off their hands, chop off their feet, and gouge out their eyes, than to let envy run its course. The tragic irony is that this is exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross.
This is not the time nor place to catalogue the untold scandals created by competing mission agencies and churches who are each convinced that they have a mandate from God and program from heaven that will save the city from destruction. I’ve seen (and participated in) ministry turf wars that would make rival street gangs blush.
By the time a turf war is full-blown, the competing rivals may look like bitter enemies who are completely at odds, but underneath it all they truly envy one another and are actually very much alike. This is what the disciples are blind to and what Jesus sees with utter clarity. This is precisely what happened in the Garden of Eden. It happens in urban ministry and around office water coolers everywhere.
Scandals have dual energies, as Rene Girard points out. We are both fascinated and repelled by those we envy. Like certain chemical compounds, this dual energy is combustible. For Jesus, envy is the root sin of humanity, which is why Jesus speaks so dramatically, even grotesquely, to make his point. The great writer Flannery O’Connor said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” This is precisely what Jesus is doing. He’s using the grotesque image of self-sacrifice and self-mutilation to expose the even more grotesque nature of what we do to each other when we burn with envy. A world gone mad with envy will destroy itself.
The only way out this scandal is to let the cross of Christ confront our hidden envy and do what we cannot do for ourselves, which is—forgive us! There is no other way.
He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him…. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
– Mark 9:31-32, 36-37
Children are overbearing, supercilious, passionate, envious, inquisitive, egotistical, idle, fickle, timid, intemperate, liars, and dissemblers; they laugh and weep easily, are excessive in their joys and sorrows, and that about the most trifling objects; they bear no pain, but like to inflict it on others; already they are men.
– Jean de La Bruyère (Les Caractères, 1688)
“Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful,
and gives one a feeling of reverence,
as at the presence of something sacred”
– Lewis Carroll (Letters, 1865)
Reading Jesus’s comments about children, we are prone to overlay modern notions of the innocence, wonder, and simple delight of childhood. Social historians tell us that at least in the West, this conception especially arose and flourished with the “cult of the child” in post-Enlightenment Victorian times. Romanticized, idyllic images of the child abounded in books and on tea towels. Wordsworth would gush, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”
Whether childhood was actually so in the Victorian age was another story. Then as now, and in the ancient world, children bore the downstream impact of every social evil. Roman rulers particularly delighted in children, having no qualms owning them as sexual playthings. In Jesus’s time children had no legal protection except as property, to be treated well or poorly at the whims of others.
In the gospel texts there is no evidence of Jesus making reference to the innocence, wonder, and delight of children – worthy as those qualities truly are. Nor any reference to the potential and possibilities embodied in childhood that developmental psychology has given us, or democracies where supposedly “you can be anything you want to be.”
Rather, children in the Jesus stories are clearly yet another embodiment of the outsider – the scorned, the rejected, the powerless, the victimized, the vulnerable. This is simply taken to be so.
Jesus does not put the child “among them” knowing the disciples will instinctively bounce her on their knees and play pattycake. Elsewhere this rough bunch is not nice around children. At this very moment (Mark 9:33-35) they are men grappling for power, which is never a safe space for the vulnerable. The child is located “in the middle” – precisely the most terrifying place for those who are marginalized to find themselves on display – among scorners.
It is precisely the place Jesus will find himself soon, as he has been trying to teach: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” (v. 31). Now he shows. Strangely (how un-Victorian the image!), it is his most ominous and unflinching picture yet of the cost of discipleship.
Precisely here, Jesus shows tenderly, is the welcome of God.
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
– Mark 8:29
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
– W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Perhaps the most beautiful question Jesus ever asked his disciples is found at the very center of the Gospel of Mark. In ancient Jewish literature, the key to a story’s meaning is often found in the middle of the story rather than the end, as is often the case in Western storytelling. This emphasis on the center is most obvious in Jewish “chiastic” poetry, often found in the Psalms; the very center of the poem gives the main point. For the Jewish storyteller, each story has a “sacred center” that contains its unique treasure of meaning.
The Gospel of Mark contains sixteen chapters, so if we follow the notion of the “sacred center” with our lectionary text this week, something really important might be found around Chapter 8. There we find Jesus in Caesarea Philippi. What is so special about this place, and why does Jesus choose it to ask such a beautiful and important question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
If you look at a map of the time, it will show Caesarea Philippi to be at the extreme northern border of Jesus’s ministry, and as far as we know, he never ventured further away from Jerusalem than this point. Perhaps there are some questions that can only be asked in certain places? Why didn’t Jesus save this riveting question for Jerusalem, the sacred center of an entire culture? Perhaps because a place like Jerusalem would have elicited a different answer. There, an entire history and culture would have weighed in, making it an unfair place for the disciples to consider the full possibilities of Jesus’s identity. It seems that Jesus knew that his disciples needed to be removed from that context in order to even consider anything other than prevailing viewpoints, unexamined assumptions, and accepted norms.
This is a core principle of the vision trips that Street Psalms hosts around the world. It is this journey to “Caesarea Philippi” for groups from far away places that provide the same kind of space that Jesus gave his disciples before posing his all-important question to them. Perhaps we today, like the disciples 2,000 years ago, simply cannot consider certain questions amid the sacred centers of our personal upbringing or respective denominational camps because those places tend to answer the questions for us. The question of “Who do you say that I am?” sounds very different when asked in a cemetery overlooking 3,000 people working in a garbage dump to scratch out a meager existence than it does from the comfort of a Sunday School classroom.
Jesus saves his highest and holiest question for a place on the northernmost edge of his ministry, furthest away from all that is most sacred to his disciples. In the same way, God takes us through circumstances far “north” of our sacred centers of understanding and experience to pose what may be the most vital questions. God holds in reserve the highest and holiest questions for remote and sometimes dark places at the edge of our own cultural, physical, theological, emotional, and spiritual maps.
Not only in this text, but also in our personal lives and in the dynamics of our communities, we can see the severe mercy of God de-centering and re-centering. When things fall apart – when centers we cherish as sacred and secure “cannot hold,” to use Yeats’s poetic image – there is invariably the possibility for new and life-giving sight.
What does the place of “Caesarea Philippi” represent for you this week? Where is the northernmost place that God has taken (or is taking) you, and how do you answer the question in Mark 8 differently because of where you have been or are going? How has your personal journey opened your eyes to a deeper encounter of who Jesus is?
Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke
Adapted by Joel Van Dyke, Director of Urban Training Collaborative, from Geography of Grace
Featured photo: View from the cemetery overlooking the largest dump in Latin America (Stephanie Dunlap, Street Psalms)
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
– Mark 7:24-37
Spread out in front of José was the ragtag congregation of drug addicts and alcoholics to whom he had come to preach. The problem this particular morning was that as he settled in behind the pulpit, he was unable to speak. He stood there feeling helpless until one of the ladies in the front row came up asking him if he was okay. Then she turned and proclaimed to the people around her, “The preacher can’t talk. He needs us to pray for him!”
The folks got up off of their plastic stools and formed a circle around José. The smell of alcohol and body odor was so strong that José almost passed out. However, as the people began to take turns praying for him, José says, the bad stench turned to sweet aroma. The smell was overwhelming. It was like nothing he had ever smelled before or since. Recounting the incident to me later, he said, “I smelled grace that day, and it was magnificent.”
Our lectionary text this week begins with the statement, “Jesus left that place….” Could it be that the place he was leaving meant far more than a simple change in geography? In the earlier part of Mark 7, we saw Jesus having a heated argument with the Pharisees and scribes over their angst that Jesus didn’t make his disciples wash their hands before eating . Soon after, the disciples asked Jesus about the meaning of a parable and he responded, “Are you so dull?”
More than changing his physical location, it seems Jesus is trying to “leave” a stench of hypocrisy and dullness. He does not smell grace in the church leaders, nor in his own disciples. So he enters a house in the vicinity of Tyre, hoping to get a time of respite. However, a Syrophoenecian woman learns of Jesus’s proximity to her. She “falls at his feet” to ask for healing for her demon-possessed daughter.
The response from Jesus as she grovels at his feet is disorienting and aggravating: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
How can Jesus be so rude as to call this woman a dog? How does he have the nerve to do so publicly, in front of a listening crowd of bickering church leaders and dull disciples?
Could it be that Jesus decides to do so in order to confront those watching this interaction with the absurdity of hearing out loud what was swirling silently in their own heads? Could it be that Jesus makes his disorienting proclamation to her only after a wink of his eye that only the Syrophoenecian woman could have seen?
Instead of bitter defensiveness, her response according to the New American Standard Bible translation is simply, “Yes Lord, but…”
According to the religious tradition, she has no right to be in Jesus’s presence, let alone speak with him and even make a request of him. She is a Gentile, not a Jew. She is a pagan, not a God worshipper – and a woman, not a man. She knows she is on the wrong side of the tracks of every moral, gender, cultural, and racial boundary. She has none of the credentials necessary to approach a Rabbi. Yet she risks all anyway.
Yes Lord, what you say is true, but all my daughter needs is a crumb from your table. Contained in a crumb of your goodness there will be an overabundance of what my daughter needs. It is in front of your abundant goodness that I throw myself.
Does your life smell like the grace that wafts out from this kind of dependence on God’s abundance, or do you more resemble the Pharisees, dependent on rules that you’ve established from your own version of the gospel? Or perhaps you can relate to a “dullness” – has life just become a thoughtless, unexamined religious parade?
It took a rejected, marginalized Syrophoenecian woman to invite those around her to recalibrate their vision. Through her story we are exposed anew to the aroma of scandalous, abundant grace.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
P.S. For a deeper exploration, listen to Joel Van Dyke’s sermon on this passage.
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?…. Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
At Street Psalms, as at our longtime organizational partner Mile High Ministries, we lift up a perspective of peacemaking. This week we experimented with this podcast in which we interview Mile High Ministries Executive Director Jeff Johnsen about his take on the 2011 book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality by Richard Beck.
Richard Beck is Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. On his blog Experimental Theology, Beck writes: “This radical openness to the Other always seems to get undermined in our churches. Why is that?, I mused. After thinking about it, the answer hit me. And it was a simple answer. The same thing that caused the exclusion of people from table fellowship in Jesus’s day is the exact same thing that causes the exclusion today. That is, a group of people is considered to be ‘unclean’ and these people are just not welcome. The reasons for being declared ‘unclean’ might have changed, but the underlying dynamic is still the same. And I began to realize: The logic of being ‘unclean,’ a source of ‘spiritual pollution,’ was undermining Jesus’ radical call to love.”
Jeff Johnsen of Mile High Ministries, with Stephanie Dunlap and Brian Rossbert
Street Psalms Community
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
As this week’s lectionary reading wraps up a series of passages in which Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life, we conclude a five-week series of excerpts from Meal From Below with this prayer:
Jesus, like the disciples who were blind to your presence until they dined with you in the Resurrection, we too are blind to your presence until you dine with us. You are the stranger among us, revealed as the loving Host of the meal of our salvation. Open our eyes, Lord, to the stranger among us. We want to see and celebrate you at work in the world – creating, sustaining, and uniting all of creation in the meal of our salvation. Amen.
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.
Photo: Street Psalms and friends break bread together in Guatemala, 2014 (Stephanie Dunlap)
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
– John 6:51
Meal From Below rests on a bold and liberating assumption: there is a eucharistic shape to life, not just the Christian life, but to all lives everywhere. Celebrating Holy Communion may be particular to the Christian tradition, but it is not a religious rite that separates us from the rest of the world – quite the contrary.
Our participation in Holy Communion unites us with the world, particularly those people and places in the world with whom we are most estranged. The Lord’s Table is a radically inclusive table that not only makes room for the “least of these,” it gives them preferred seating. These honored diners are precisely the ones who best remind us that the Eucharist is not the property of Christians as it is sometimes portrayed. It is the universal sign of God’s peace for all.
As Christians, we are not only invited to enjoy the feast, we are also called to be table waiters who bear witness to the abundance and goodness of God’s meal, as well as the unlimited seating at the table of God’s grace. Consequently, we don’t own the table. It is the Lord’s Table and we are all God’s guests. Christians are guests who bear witness to God’s goodness at work in all creation.
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This week’s lectionary passage continues a series of Gospel excerpts in which we see Jesus setting the table for Eucharist.
Our 2012 book of devotionals Meal From Below rests on a bold and liberating assumption: there is a eucharistic shape to life, not just the Christian life, but to all lives everywhere.
If this is true, the Lord’s Table is not simply a ritual performed on special occasions in clearly recognized “sacred settings” – though it is often exactly and beautifully that. Like Jesus’s “I Am” statements, including his statement about being the Bread of Life, a sweeping universality is held in the particularity of this Meal. The sacrament is a window into fundamental reality, in the same way the incarnation of Jesus is a window – it reveals that the divine is actually most fully expressed in the physical (Heb. 1:3). It is God’s great work of bringing all things – all things! – into union and communion (Col. 1:20).
The Eucharist inducts us into Reality and reveals its hidden patterns at work in our lives. Using verbs we explored last week, Jesus “took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me'” (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). In the same way, we too are taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken in God’s love – so that we might re-member the body of Christ for a hurting world and become instruments of peace.
How might you be an instrument of peace today?
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.
Photo: “Garlic Naan – Northern Indian, Palms Food Court AUD3” by Alpha (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus modeled for us the life-long human liturgy of being taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken into existence. This week’s lectionary passage continues a series of Gospel excerpts in which Jesus prepares for the Eucharist by proclaiming that he is the bread of life. As we wrote last week, we structured the book of devotionals Meal From Below around the five verbs of Jesus’s Eucharist invitations:
Taken. We feast on God’s love as the foundation of all life and transformation.
Blessed. We drink deeply of the Incarnation and life of Christ as the blessing of God’s presence.
Broken. We taste God’s own experience of suffering on the cross.
Given. We savor life inside the Resurrection and its gift to the world.
Spoken. We digest the living Word that speaks all of life into existence.
As summer reaches its height, we invite you to relax into the poetry of these words. Which speaks to you today?
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
– John 6:9
For the next five weeks, our lectionary Gospel passages explore abundance – this week we see Jesus feeding the 5,000, and soon Jesus will proclaim that he himself is the “bread of life.” That idea will carry through to the Last Supper and inspire our tradition of celebrating Eucharist.
Meal From Below is a book of devotional reflections as well as an introduction and companion guide to a 40-week spiritual formation experience that includes daily, weekly, and monthly practices. It is patterned after communion at the Lord’s Table. Liturgical Christian traditions aptly call this shared experience the Eucharist, which literally means good gift.
Jesus hosts a table at which there is always enough; in fact, more than enough. As if to underscore this point, the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four Gospels. Aside from the Resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded in each Gospel (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Each Gospel recounts the miracle using the same highly liturgical structure – Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave.
These same verbs show up again at the Last Supper, and again after the Resurrection on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30). At the Last Supper, we are supplied with an additional verb; it is an interpretive word. Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood.”
Jesus models for us the life-long liturgy of being taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken into existence. Jesus the Word revealed in his own humanity the shape of God’s divine abundance. Jesus is teaching us that there is a Eucharistic shape to flesh-and-blood human life, and this shape is the very essence of reality.
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.
He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
– Mark 6:31
This week our globally dispersed Street Psalms staff gathers to work and to rest through a retreat in the far upper left of the United States (that is, Hood Canal, WA).
As Jesus shows us in this week’s lectionary, even the most devoted disciples need to set boundaries for self-care.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others,” says vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown. (Her TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” has more than 20 million views.)
Vulnerability is also one of what Street Psalms and our partners in the Urban Training Collaborative call our “Manners of Mission.” (Read more about our UTC Training Foundations.)
So we will be vulnerable with you, friends, and tell you that we are tired and we will rest, and we will go fishing and crabbing and running, and we will read some good books, eat good food together, enjoy good conversations, and pray for our next season of good work.
And we pray that this summer, you too find ways to come away and rest.
The Street Psalms Team
When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”
Growing up as a relative outsider to the Christian faith, but born into its cultural heritage, I understood this passage to be another exhibit in the “women are seductive and untrustworthy” narrative.
A young woman danced and by dancing got what she wanted, right? And another prophet of God was sacrificed to crowd desire and people-pleasing – a mirror of what would soon enough happen to Jesus Christ.
And yet this girl either did not know what she desired, or knew her desires came second to those of her mother. So “she went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” (Mark 6:24).
What young person does not know what to ask for? As a kid I had my running mental Christmas wish list populated by February. Of course, fulfillment is another thing entirely. But what child is not connected to what she or he would desire? Probably someone whose desires have been circumscribed – by poverty, by oppression, or by exploitation. Even, perhaps, the exploitation of a parent.
So the young woman ran to her mother Herodias, who did not appear to wonder why her daughter was dancing to inflame a roomful of men, but instead told her charge exactly what to ask from the most powerful of those inflamed men. And so it was done: John the Baptist’s head delivered – because Herodias had manipulative plans of her own, because Herod could not bring himself to stand up to his crowd (a dynamic we’ll see again later with Pontius Pilate), and because a young girl was caught in a morass of intertwined desires.
So perhaps the girl seemingly at the center of this Biblical intrigue is not completely at fault. But the implications of victim-blaming reach further, right up into our present day: the Human Rights Project for Girls recently released a study recommending that juvenile women who are sex trafficked be spared from prostitution charges.
In an article titled “History of Abuse Seen in Many Girls in Juvenile System,” The New York Times said, “Laws in many states allow the police to arrest girls as young as 13 on prostitution charges, even when they are victims of sex trafficking.”
The Human Rights Project for Girls study concluded that “When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed.”
According to the study, sometimes as many as 80% of the young women in the juvenile justice system have a history of sexual or physical abuse. They are disproportionately poor African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.
“Our girls, and especially our girls at the margins, are suffering, and what the study shows is how violence is part of their lives and how the response is criminalization,” Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told The New York Times.
As sex trafficking survivor Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew recounted in the report, “Suffering, isolated, tired and helpless at the age of 15, the concrete box that represented my cell in… the girls’ section the largest of the juvenile facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, seemed no less invasive than the horror of the streets. As much of a real physical confinement as it was, it wasn’t all too different than the mental confinement I endured from my pimp…. I was faced with charges of solicitation and/or prostitution, a crime that as a minor who wasn’t of legal age to consent to sex, couldn’t seriously be charged to commit. But yet, there I was, facing them. No one assessed me or ever even asked me what got me there, no rehabilitation services were offered. I just sat locked in a box while being interrogated and talked-down to.”
Perhaps amid the swirling themes of bending to crowd desire and of turning the profane (or quotidian) into something sacred, we can take a moment to consider the young woman named as agent in this drama – a girl who is remembered for her seduction rather than her humanity.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.”
– Mark 6:7-10
Having given away or sold most of our stuff, my wife Melanie and I were headed to Asia as community development workers with an organization called Gooddeeds. The name pretty much summed up what we wanted to do. As a young couple we wanted to engage our lives and our faith with the poorest, someplace. Woefully clueless but eager, we cast about for, well, clues. Tips, training, insights – anything to steer us in the right direction.
Decades later I’m immensely glad somebody put us onto Tom and Elizabeth Brewster. Deeply troubled by their observations and experience of Western missionaries’ typical approaches to new cultures, the Brewsters were helping ministry workers of their era imagine a new and better posture of engagement with local people. Their prescriptions were controversial and groundbreaking for their time, though others were calling for even more extreme remedies (“a moratorium on missions,” some Christian leaders advocated). Our world has shifted and some of the Brewsters’s ideas sound quirky and dated, but their core insights might be even more instructive today.
The Brewsters outlined four simple, basic conditions under which outsiders should engage a vulnerable community. In fact, in their own organizational circles, they would not enlist foreign staff or volunteers who were not eager to commit to each of these:
1. Be willing to live with a local family.
2. Limit personal belongings to 20 kilos (44 pounds).
3. Use only local public transportation.
4. Carry out language learning in the context of relationships that the learner is responsible to develop and maintain (rather than enroll in language school).
Oh, and one other thing. These four conditions start from day one, minute one, right off the plane. No guesthouse the first night. No seasoned expat showing you the ropes. No language school or phrasebooks. No posse of teammates with identical T-shirts – just two people at the most, or possibly a couple with kids. Plunk in the middle of family life, usually in a poor community, ideally with not a word you can understand.
Melanie and I were crazy and naive enough to try this. Before the sun rose our second day in an Asian city, we regretted ever having heard of the Brewsters. We were in a riptide of disorientation, utterly helpless. I recall almost whimpering. I couldn’t grasp what had happened or how, and fought for air.
By the second and third day it was… worse. I can’t even say when it was better. Weeks? Months? Surely we had been poorly advised.
What I know now is that we were being born, again. Having watched births, I don’t know how anyone survives it.
Elizabeth Brewster watched a lot of births. A student of infant bonding and attachment, as well as newborn “imprinting” in the animal world, she understood that from the first moments of life, humans bond and belong to those who meet their needs – typically our mothers. If basic needs are provided by hospital staff instead, babies may be imprinted with a surrogate. If by some misfortune needs are not met, babies may fail to bond at all, with crippling and socially toxic consequences.
In other words, infants are profoundly vulnerable. It is a necessary condition of any belonging, and eventually any robust life that will bless the world.
According to Jesus vulnerability is, most counter-intuitively, an absolutely necessary condition of authentic authority.
Of course the Brewsters’s four conditions aren’t absolute, thank goodness. I’ll be in Nairobi shortly, staying in a guesthouse the first night after my Kenyan friends pick me up. But I see now the humble, learning posture these four simple rigors were designed to cultivate. They gave birth to a new form of life that was just not gonna happen by gentle means.
The Brewsters’s crazy ideas weren’t new. Jesus divvied up his raggedy band so they’d be even more raggedy. “No bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” What a strategy! The absolute and necessary conditions of an authority that would astonish all who encountered it. An authority profoundly nourished by the very people and communities among whom the disciples would speak and be the good news of God.
Any other kind of authority has proven tragically to be bad news all over. Youch, don’t ask me how I know. We messed up plenty in that Asian city, and got messed up. But whatever good news I’ve ever been part of – by amazing grace – came with the strangely powerful authority of open, empty hands.
And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
– Mark 4:35-41
I spent my formative childhood years in wilderness. Every day prompted a new foray into the woods with my dog Bessie leading the way. This was actual wilderness, not the national kind with streams of visitors. Bessie and I were the only outsiders; our hosts were cougars, bobcats, coyotes, bears, owls, skunks, and rattlesnakes. We imagined ourselves insiders, and learned to read signs of every sort. We climbed cliffs and forded streams. Any given day the wilderness might injure or kill us, and nobody would know until at least dinnertime. My pocketknife would be flimsy defense. That awareness sobered and exhilarated me. I vowed never to live anywhere near a city.
Everything changed when I turned 18. My college outside Chicago was multiple days’ drive from wilderness, and I was left staring at mountain posters on my dorm wall. How would I not shrivel?
One night some new friends and I decided to head downtown and catch a Bulls NBA basketball game. We knew nothing about the city but we’d figure it out. We got off the train in the “Loop” business district and asked around for directions to the old Chicago Stadium. “You can’t walk there from here” was everyone’s reply. What? Five miles, ten miles – we didn’t care, we got legs. Shortly we were in the heart of the Near West Side, surrounded by forces that might injure or kill us. I doubt I am exaggerating, given various verbal greetings that came our way along the streets. I had never seen so many buildings that appeared bombed out, or such impressive rodents. How we made it to Chicago Stadium I can’t say, or how we made it back.
I fell into bed that night knowing we had been foolish and naïve – and very lucky. That awareness sobered me. In a strangely familiar way, it also exhilarated me. There was a wild and formidable energy to the city, to crowds – forces fantastically larger than I might control. At best I might eventually learn to see, to read the lay of things, and to navigate. The next weekend I was in Chicago again, walking.
For peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world and nearby desert regions, water was both absolutely essential and terrifyingly wild. Water held enormous significance in life and in imagination. Of course water had practical significance, as it does today. Life doesn’t happen without it. But water transcended the practical, surging into the mythic. Fickle and forceful, “the waters” held the possibility of life and death – divine and demonic (more on this here). “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat,” our scripture says. Hmmm, talk about out of the frying pan into the fire! From the swirling and unpredictable crowds, to the fickle and fearsome waters. What follows is a nature miracle story – one of the few miracle stories in the gospels that does not involve Jesus healing sick or demonized people. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm” (Mark 4:39).
For many modern readers this episode stretches belief. Jesus’s moral example and influence is widely recognized. But supernatural, divine power over untamed natural forces? The ancients were similarly incredulous. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41).
Having spent time deep in both nature and crowded communities, I’m not sure what might be the greater challenge: peacemaking in a storm squall or peacemaking amid the great energies churning within gathered humanity. I might put my money on humanity for downright impossibility. Though I’ve learned a bit of navigation in cities since my college days, large urban realities can still make me feel foolish, naïve, and small. Stories from our global network are daunting. Seeing what we’re all up against, I grip the sides of the boat.
Yet Jesus speaks peace, proclaims blessing on peacemakers, and opens imagination for the impossible. He shows compassion, not disdain, for crowds. Moving among masses of humanity, Jesus is at home in creation and makes creation at home with itself – shalom. This is divine work, amid the disordered and chaotic. Even this nature miracle is more about human fear and its effects (“Why are you afraid?” v. 40) than meteorology. It speaks to the work of peace we are invited to, even amid our smallness and fear.
The kingdom of God is like seeds that grow while we sleep and weeds that invade the garden.
– a paraphrase of Mark 4:26-34
Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello said, “The shortest distance between a human and truth is a story.” Arguments rarely do anything but invest us more deeply into our little “truths.” We almost never see Jesus being sucked into a debate. Instead he tells stories and riddles that confuse and disorient his hearers. They are like time-release capsules that work on us from the inside-out. They frustrate our analytical left brain long enough for our right brain to breathe and see things from a new perspective.
In this week’s text Jesus tells two parables that lift up the twin graces of the Kingdom of God – radical abundance and radical acceptance.
In the first parable Jesus reminds us of the most elemental truth about the Kingdom of God, a truth that mirrors creation itself. There is a wild fecundity inscribed into the DNA of creation. Creation always and everywhere calls forth life, even while we sleep. The Kingdom of God, like creation itself, relentlessly comes into being – so relax! Take a breath. Take a nap. Interestingly, there are no active verbs in the Gospels associated with the Kingdom of God. All verbs related to the Kingdom are passive. Jesus invites us to notice, accept, receive, and bear witness to the Kingdom, but nowhere does he tell us to build it. We can’t! It already exists and that’s the point. Our job is to see it – to harvest and harness its goodness.
This is especially good news for justice workers who can easily burn themselves (and others) out trying to “build” the Kingdom for the “least of these.” As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Yes, Christ is the deepest impulse in creation, calling all things toward wholeness! The heavy lifting of the Kingdom is on God’s shoulders, not ours. This is why we can trust what others have called “spiritual evolution.” If we can’t see this, I don’t know how we work for justice and remain sane.
The second parable of the mustard seed reveals the scandalous grace of the Kingdom. It subverts the closed and controlling moral systems that we create in the name of God to protect the in-group from the out-group, dividing the clean from the unclean and eliminating anyone or anything not on our team.
Unfortunately, in a big-box culture like ours where size matters, the parable of the mustard seed is often interpreted as a parable about growth; what starts as a small seed becomes the largest of trees. However, if growth was his main point, Jesus chose a poor metaphor. A fully grown mustard tree is only about six feet. The farmers in the crowd would have quickly recognized the parable was not about bigness. The mustard tree is a weed no farmer wants in the garden. It is an unclean shrub that farmers spend their days trying to eliminate. Small mustard seeds grow into large weeds that attract birds that in turn eat the good seeds the farmer spends his whole life trying to cultivate and protect.
We serve among the mustard seeds that our world is eager to eliminate. But Jesus reveals that these weeds are at the center of God’s kingdom! That which we are so eager to eliminate and judge holds the key to our salvation… always!
Radical abundance, radical acceptance, these are the twin graces of God’s Kingdom.
A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”
– Mark 3:32-34
Spend any time at all in communities challenged by poverty and violence, and you will encounter people who have spent formative stages of life without the blessing of family. Such hardships may be part of your own story, and you know the reality all too well.
For abandoned people – who may be found in any corner of society – the words of Jesus in Mark 3 can provide genuine comfort and hope. Jesus re-frames and re-constitutes “family” in such a way that it includes those formerly excluded. It follows a pattern deeply embedded in the gospel story: Jesus sets a table for all, and gives preferred seating to the most unexpected guests.
If that were all, it would be plenty. But there is more to Jesus’s teachings and actions here. Much more – a thundering earthquake in fact, shaking the foundations of humanity to the core and re-ordering all. The Teacher is not simply re-arranging the chairs for a few overlooked guests. If so, at most there might be murmurs of protest among regular folks and guardians of the social order. Instead we find this comforting passage situated amid near-chaos.
“The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.'” (3:20-21)
Whoa! It’s only chapter 3, Jesus is just getting warmed up, and things have gone from zero to redlined in a flash. “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.'”
It’s a rhetorical trap, of the sort Jesus is often portrayed deftly evading. Fearing his popularity as a healer-exorcist, they tag him with the rap that he’s actually using the Satanic power of the “Ruler of the House” (Beelzebul in contemporary notions of the supernatural) for his liberating work.
Instead of evading, Jesus pivots directly into the accusation. “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (3:26). He goes on to give a vivid image of the ruler of a house burglarized, bound, and plundered.
The reason Jesus is not content to evade the accusation is that in itself it illustrates the very nature of the demonic at work in humanity. At its very essence, the demonic dynamic is to divide and expel. It is the essence of the scapegoat mechanism – the relentless impulse to accuse and cast out. It is the impulse that will by the end of Mark’s gospel have Jesus murdered.
Of all blasphemies, Jesus teaches, there is none so fundamental as this: to identify the accusing, dividing, and expelling energy as the energy of God’s spirit. Yet that is exactly what these human accusers are doing, because they have imagined a religious and social order around exactly such catastrophic energy.
It is a deception that has permeated every strand of human social fabric – down into the weave of family life itself. Families have been understood as closed systems that must maintain clear demarcations between insiders and outsiders. The family name must be honored and preserved, with the dishonorable cast away. But here is a rabbi who casts out and casts forth in a way that no one has seen! Unlike with other healers and exorcists, the “castings out” of Jesus are for the liberation of all, not division and expulsion.
Such plundering and ransacking of the self-oppressed household of humanity – for breathtaking liberation and inclusion of all – is the work of God in Christ, but would remain incomprehensible as an abstraction. Mercifully and most powerfully, Jesus simply shows. “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” (3:34). That’s it. To reinforce the simplicity, Jesus says they are the ones who “do the will of God,” which he has shown to be nothing more or less than living into the liberating delight of the One who welcomes and gathers all.
The good news is not merely that Jesus makes more space in a human family that has forgotten its hospitality. Jesus announces another way of humanity; a reframing and reconstitution of family itself. It is a blessing of family we all may share, as we embrace the true liberation the Spirit of Christ brings.
Read more about Scott’s experience creating family with Romanian orphans here.
“He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.”
– John 16:14-15a
Last week in Guatemala City, the work of the Holy Spirit as described by Jesus in John 16 was brought to life in vivid texture amidst a senseless tragedy. Blanca Gomez, loving mother of eight, descended the path into the densely inhabited ravine known as “La Limonada” to bring some lunch to her son. She was caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs and died from multiple gun shot wounds the next day on the operating table.
Pastor Erwin “Shorty” Luna had served as pastor to Blanca and her children for the past several years, and news of her violent and senseless death devastated him.He was so distraught that he himself was admitted to the hospital emergency room with serious respiratory problems. Released after a few hours of care, Shorty would go on to bear the most concrete image of the Paraclete – the Advocate – that I have ever witnessed.
“In Guatemala, even the dead have to wait in line.”
– Pastor Erwin “Shorty” Luna
The day of Blanca’s funeral, there was such a long line at the morgue from people who had died over the weekend that Blanca’s family had to wait in line to receive her body before preparing the internment.
I arrived at the cemetery only to enter the chaos of seven simultaneous funeral processions all lined up and waiting to enter the same small corridor where the caskets would be inserted into the rectangular holes that lined both sides of the walls. I made my way through the throngs of mourners in line around their respective caskets looking for Pastor Shorty and Blanca’s family and friends.
What I discovered will forever be etched into my mind as an image of the way Jesus described the work of the Holy Spirit in John 16. Near the end of Jesus’s life he promises his disciples that while he will not be with them much longer, he will be sending to them the “paraclete.” The Greek word Parakletos is translated from the Greek as “advocate,” “helper,” “comforter” or “intercessor.”
The idea of Jesus’s departure no doubt sparked fear and anxiety into the hearts of the disciples, but in this week’s lectionary passage Jesus promises the presence of His Spirit in another who will be sent.
In the middle of mourning and the wailing of children calling out for the mother who would never again respond to their cries, I saw Pastor Shorty at the head of Blanca’s casket with his arms around the wailing children, crying with them and taking turns holding them up against his broad chest. He said nothing, preached no sermon, read no Scripture. He was just there, and it was obvious to all that his presence was what made all the difference.
Jesus tells his disciples that they need not despair his impending death, for the work of the paraclete who is to come will be to testify by the side of victims, to be their advocate, and to expose that which is wrong.
For the children of Blanca Gomez this week, the “paraclete,” that divine voice of God’s unrelenting presence, was made tangible in the person of Pastor Erwin “Shorty” Luna.
Michael Hardin writes in his book The Jesus Driven Life, “if the Satanic is the human religious impulse toward scapegoating, using violence to cast out violence, then the work of the Spirit (Paraclete) is to defend the victim of unjust persecution, expose the victimizer’s lies and vindicate the victim. The paraclete is directly opposed to Satan. The paraclete will prove the world wrong about judgment, because the prince of this world, Satan, has been condemned. It is the sacrificial process that is on trial, the accuser who is accused.”
As I watched in reverence and deep respect the pastoral ministry of my friend Shorty in the midst of grief this past week, I was struck not only by his presence as balm of healing for wailing children – but also as a deep conviction to the shirtless shooters and their fellow gang members, some of whom had attended the services prior to the internment, and others of whom now looked down upon the scene from atop the corridors.
I have long thought of the Paraclete as a “defense attorney.” But this week I realized that Shorty’s presence with this family was an artful dance of Gospel subversion. His posture in the midst of the injustice in no way felt like a traditional word-centered tirade of defense. Instead, it was a subversive, marked presence that simultaneously offered deep comfort to the victims and deep conviction to the victimizers, both of whom were present. And all that without saying a word.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
“As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.”
– John 17:18
We call it “The Great Commission”: “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” (Matt. 28:19). It has become such a key text for many Christians devoted to mission that we might imagine Jesus alerting his disciples to get their pens ready; “Ok, listen up! Now I am about to give to you MY GREAT COMMISSION.” Or perhaps the disciples, upon hearing Jesus tell them to go and teach the world, looked at each other in awe and said, “We must be receiving in this moment “THE GREAT COMMISSION.”
However, the term “Great Commission” never actually came from the lips of Jesus nor his disciples. According to David Bosch in his groundbreaking book Transforming Mission, it never even appeared in the annals of church history until the 1800s. It was William Carey, the father of modern mission and founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, who dubbed Matt. 28:19-20 as the “Great Commission” while he was raising support to serve as a missionary in India.
Is Matthew 28:19-20 the “Great Commission? Is it the text that should guide how we understand God’s mission? Could it be that the near canonization of the term has actually caused damage to our understanding of the Christian mission?
We need to remember that there are four Gospel accounts, not one, and each has its own equally valid and important “Great Commission.” The issue is not that there is anything wrong with Matthew’s Great Commission, but rather, what occurs when Matthew’s commission is elevated as more important and greater than the commissions in the other Gospel accounts.
Consider, for example, what we might consider the Great Commission of John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus spoke these words at a moment he had his disciples’ absolute, undivided attention – appearing to a group of them for the first time after his resurrection. The disciples would have recognized these words he had prayed earlier after the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:11, 18).
Pay attention to how these words sound in comparison to Matthew 28. It is not a matter of accepting one and rejecting the other; but rather, noticing the nuances that each brings to the other. Matthew exhorts us to go and make disciples and then to baptize them but tells us nothing about the methodology of how those disciples are to be made. John emphasizes the “how.”
This prompts us to ask: If Jesus sends us as the Father sent him, exactly how did the Father send Jesus? The answer sings out from the beginning of the Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God sent Jesus in flesh and that is how Jesus is sending us-in the flesh, mingling with the world “God so loved” (John 3:16).
The Apostle Paul uses another metaphor to unpack the incarnation in Ephesians 2:10. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do.” The Greek word here for workmanship is poiema. For Paul, the incarnation means that “we are God’s poetry” to the world. God is speaking poetry to us and through us to the world.
It is our distinct privilege to be in community with people in hard places who live as God’s poetry in this world enfleshed in human form. Raising up poets to incarnate God’s gospel song to lost, disenfranchised, and marginalized people is a vital enterprise. Wallace Stegner beautifully portrays how poets create place:
“No place is a place until it has had a poet…. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own.
The incarnation is not merely a “doctrine” disconnected from street reality. Rather, it has profound implications for day-to-day life and ministry. At the risk of reducing the incarnation to a formula, we might think about the incarnation at three levels:
God in Christ
Christ in us
Us in the world
We exist in the world to point to, lift up, and celebrate the incarnate Christ. We need to learn to hit the streets with the poetic license found in Ephesians 2:10. This calls for a radical presence.
Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke
This reflection adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, Chapter 4.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
– John 15:4
The more closely we examine Jesus’s words in John 15 – among the last words he would speak before his death – the more it seems an awkward mix of metaphors. On the one hand, he uses as the key verb “abide,” which sounds to our ears almost transcendental, serene, relinquished. Something that could happen most comfortably on a couch.
On the other hand, a simple look at the grammar (in original Greek or in translation) shows the verb to be imperative. Something we oughta to keep doing, or at least start doing! Jesus even adds tough words about what happens when the abiding doesn’t happen – cutting, tossing, burning. Seems we should take this seriously and get after it. But how to go after simply being a branch? Especially when, as Jesus says, we already are?
What’s happening here, and which is it? First, a few important observations about background and context…
1. Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (verse 1). Not only is “vine” a familiar image in his cultural setting (the teaching may have even taken place in a local vineyard shortly after the Last Supper), it is a familiar Jewish scriptural expression referring to the people of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus was reframing and re-locating “the people of God.” The provocative claim likely wasn’t lost on those listening.
2. Jesus employs the even more provocative I am divine identification (verse 1, echoing Exodus 3:14) that nearly got him murdered earlier (John 8:59), and now will bring his death in a matter of hours. “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the gate” (10:9); and “I am the way” (14:6). While the Hebrew scriptures do carry themes of God’s desire for nearness with humanity, here we have an intermingling of the divine and human pressed to a degree of oneness that is frankly hard to fathom – then and now.
3. The verb “abide,” in addition to being imperative, is also plural. “You all abide” – together. Further, it shares the same root (in Greek and in English) as “abode,” or dwelling place. In other words, “Y’all make yourselves at home.”
4. At home where? In me. At home how? As I make myself at home in you (15:4). Yes the intermingling is hard to fathom, which is why Jesus actually has lived it together with his followers these many days and years, and will live and die it with humanity in the hours to come.
5. Still confused about this imperative and begging for a more familiar rule-command format? Ok then, Jesus says, here it is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). It’s been quite a journey, this love as I have loved, and will be quite a journey to come. “Pruning,” while a tad harsh to the ear, hardly even begins to evoke the extremes Jesus and his followers will undergo in coming hours, days, and years – “made perfect through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10).
6. But here’s the mystery: what needs to be accomplished is already deeply true. “You have already been cleansed” (John 15:3). The word “cleansed” here is actually pruning lingo; the vine has been nipped and tucked into shape exactly as the vinegrower wishes. Already. Yep, you friends of mine, who as it happens will betray and deny me before the morning rooster crows, are already fully inside the abode of love.
What richness here! What an image of intimacy and vitality! Yet utterly devoid of sentimentality in these last hours. All but essentials are stripped bare, and the stripping experience is frankly quite rough.
Reflecting on Jesus’s multi-layered use of this very simple image of vine and branches, together with our multilayered lives, we can discern a pattern of unfolding stages of life in Christ:
First, our belonging in belovedness. The amazing good news that we already “are” deeply at home in love, and love finds its home in us. “As the Father has loved me” – remember the words at Jesus’s baptism and transfiguration? – “so I have loved you” (15:9). Which is to say, we are deeply at home in God.
Second, becoming alive to love. Together in the humanity we share with Jesus, we may give our yes to love’s invitation, struggle to learn obedience to love’s imperatives, suffer love’s deaths, and awaken to love’s resurrections. We become pruned of whatever is not life, not love. Which is to say, we are becoming alive to God.
Third, simply being. We become love’s very way of flowing, as life-sap flows through vine and branches and fruit, with an effortlessness beyond our efforts. Christ is “in us,” as Jesus puts it here and Paul is fond of saying later. Our experience becomes less about any uncertainty of belonging or any struggle for loving – we are simply part of God’s flow.
In all is grace; “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
– Luke 24:36-43
The story of God in the world, because it is a love story, moves ever toward intimacy, toward oneness.
As with all love stories, obstacles abound – comical and tragic misunderstandings, turnings away, outright betrayals, and faltering reaches toward the other. There are risks of disclosure and perils of shame. Longings awaken; emotions surge. Bodily sensations pulse.
The story of Jesus, as the story of God, moves ever toward intimacy in just such a tumultuous way. On the evening of his own betrayal, Jesus’s fingers are among his guy friends’ toes, caressing away the dirt of the long road they have traveled together. He must remember the soft hair and tears of a sex worker between his own toes on another occasion, as Peter now blurts out “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9). It surely is a fumbling, terribly awkward affair, as genuine intimacy – outside of movies – invariably will be. It was a move toward communion, toward oneness.
This week’s gospel account picks up in the aftermath of betrayal, tragedy, and loss. His presence, while it has been desperately missed, now could not be more awkward and even terrifying.
Every Wednesday evening with our young friends in Romania follows a pattern, a liturgy of sorts, that provides reassuringly regular rhythm amid lives of tumult. After sharing a meal, we gather in a circle for a moment of connection before the training time. Mind you, the average age here is 25. And mind you, for our friends who were abandoned as children, connection is the greatest of all challenges. A typical symptom of attachment disorder is the inability to make eye contact at all. Overzealous caregivers get into wrestling matches over attempts at it, with the kid winning every time.
So it is a miracle of sorts, though a fumbling one, that finds us massaging lotion into a partner’s hands within the circle. Or playing Rock Paper Scissors to determine who will look into another’s eyes with a word of affirmation. Or molding something together out of Play-Doh, or applying band-aids to physical or symbolic wounds. It’s a resurrection miracle possible only after years of traveling a dusty road together. Anyone can opt out and sometimes someone does, but not often. We have our awkward fun, and thank God no one’s looking in.
Very most challenging of all, we take turns feeding candy into each other’s mouths. What is it about the intimacy of food, and the primal function of accepting nourishment from another into our own bodies? Daunting and exposed for any of us – not to mention for a person who never had a mother’s breast or even a warm bottle with a loving gaze. We’ll feed our own selves thank you.
“Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:43). What vulnerability! What trust! What a move toward communion, toward oneness.
As was the case the night before he died, Jesus began to “open their minds” (Luke 24:45) only after he shared both physical touch and dinner. “Connection before correction,” is a mantra we caregivers of traumatized children have learned to practice. Connection in the aftermath of trauma is terrifying – fraught with resistance and doubt. It can’t be rushed. Thankfully love is patient and kind, even when firm. But it moves, moves, moves toward oneness, as Jesus moves in this beautiful story of good news.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he
had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins
of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain
the sins of any, they are retained.”
– John 20:21-23
The resurrection cannot not be explained. It must be experienced!
A few years ago I was sharing about my own experience of the risen Christ. I was speaking in parables and one young man urged me to “explain” myself more clearly. I was tempted to try. And then, in a flash of inspiration (sometimes my “inspirations” go terribly wrong), I paused for a moment and asked if he was married. He was thrown by the question, but he willingly played along and answered, “Yes.” Here’s the risky part… I asked him if he would explain to the group what it was like to make love to his wife. There were a few nervous chuckles and an uncomfortable pause.
And then he began to offer what I sensed was going to be a truly awkward explanation. I quickly stopped him and spared us all. Relieved, we laughed.
When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! In fact, explanation tends to diminish the experience. When it comes to the resurrection the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. There is no privileged insider information. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ and these encounters change the world.
What stands out in this week’s text is the intimacy of the encounter. It was evening on the first day of the week (we are in the first day of creation). The disciples hid behind locked doors in fear. Chaos and darkness reigned. Jesus passed through the locked doors and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He vulnerably showed the disciples his wounds. And then the risen/wounded one re-creates the world with a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathed on them.”
The breath of God is the kiss of God that remakes the world. In this divine kiss Jesus is modeling the very core of mission, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Can we see? In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same – to forgive as God forgives, in a courageous act of union and communion. This is the meaning of the kiss. This is how creation unfolds. If we insist on an explanation, this is it!
Sadly, too many of us have yet to experience the kiss of the risen Christ. As a result we retain the sins of others and spend precious time and energy justifying it. All of creation groans.
Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to enter locked rooms, blowing kisses into the chaos of our lives. All he asks is that we receive them, knowing full well that one who has been kissed by God will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of Creation itself. Now that’s Good News!
“I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another. How my heart yearns within me.”
We made it!! For us as a community following Jesus, this Easter declaration by Job in the midst of his intense suffering, pain, and loss is a fitting bridge from the season of Lent into the great light of resurrection.
We began the Lenten journey over six weeks ago and have persevered through a long, arduous journey toward and through the cross. Today is Easter Sunday, and we declare with S. Lewis Johnson that “the resurrection is God’s ‘Amen!’ to Jesus’s statement, ‘It is finished.'” The intense birthing pains and excruciating suffering of Friday have now given birth this day to the resolute hope that we find in an open and empty tomb.
Job’s declaration in the above scripture is a resignation to joy. He has lost all else. He thus resigns himself to seize the only thing that yet remains: “I know that my Goel (kinsman-redeemer – a relative who restores honor and rights to an enslaved family member) lives.” Job realizes that while his friends have been a complete failure to him and even his wife has told him to curse God and die, Yahweh is Job’s Kinsman-Redeemer.
The kind of suffering that Job has experienced gifted him with the ability to live in an elevated awareness of truth. It is this gifting that allowed Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga to describe the murder of his friend as “A Beautiful Gospel Time.” His friend, a fellow priest, was killed at a police station where he had gone to protest the mistreatment of two indigenous women.
Have we not seen over and over in our work that suffering and pain have a relentless way of driving us into the realm of truth? In our Street Psalms networks we often find ourselves marinated in contexts of affliction. Easter thus becomes for us an opportunity for heightened awareness of the great gift of living truth that has been bestowed upon us.
I want to challenge us to lean into our gift in a new and fresh way this year. In the bold, clear declaration of truth that is birthed in pain, we as a community of the incarnation live out our prophetic role in the world. It is part of our unique charism to have the privilege of pointing to the “beautiful Gospel times” in hard places that others often do not have the capacity to see.
I am especially drawn to Job’s use of the pronoun “my” when referring to the Redeemer who lives in the midst of his pain and incalculable loss. The Redeemer – who in the end will stand upon the earth after Job’s skin has been destroyed – will be seen by Job in full clarity. Luther wrote somewhere that “the marrow of the Gospel is in the pronouns,” and this is vividly true in Job’s personal declaration of truth. My young daughter once brought this home to me when she told me I was the “best Papi in the world.” Selfishly wanting to hear her reasons for making such a declaration, I asked her why she thought this to be true. She simply smiled at me and said, “Because you are mine.”
I am well aware of Martin Buber’s admonition that “woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God.” It is not that Job thinks he “possesses God” – the reality of his pain and suffering would never allow him to make that leap into arrogance. Rather, God allows himself to possess Job in a fierce and tender kinship that restores honor from disgrace. It is that truth that transports Job into such a state of wonder and awe that he can make this declaration. It’s a declaration we share this Easter morning.
Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “Job’s declaration is a kind of paradoxical resignation to joy that is nothing else than the recognition of the strengthening presence of God and the community – a recognition in which our fears, doubts, and discouragement are routed by the power of God’s love.”
What an indescribable joy it is for us as the Street Psalms Community to declare on this Easter Sunday that we know our Redeemer lives! This is indeed a most Beautiful Gospel Time.
Joel Van Dyke
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered, “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives.” (From “An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday” written by an anonymous author in the Liturgy of the Hours.)
Our journey through Lent has almost culminated. We find ourselves this morning in a black hole of silence. We are in the in-between day. The church has no official liturgy in Holy Week for Saturday. If a church body celebrates Holy Saturday at all, it is traditionally simply a day of somber reflection.
On Holy Saturday we enter into the mystery. Today we contemplate Jesus, there in the tomb, dead – exactly the way each of us will be one day, dead. We don’t easily contemplate dying, but we rarely contemplate actually being dead. What is important is that we keep this day holy, and let our “sense” of the mystery of death shape our reflection as it drips into our longing to celebrate the Easter gift of Jesus alive, for us and with us.
Yesterday Jesus was crucified, dashing to bits the dreams and aspirations of all those who had thought he had come as the promised Messiah to overthrow the yoke of suffering and pain. We await tomorrow’s ultimate victory with anticipation – but that is tomorrow’s story. Our present reality is Saturday.
Alan E. Lewis paints a vivid picture of this tension in Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. He writes, “The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel.”
The central drama in the Gospel narrative spans just three days – the hinge of salvation history. The first day portrays what humanity did to Jesus and the third what God did for humanity in the resurrection, but the center of the three-day drama is an empty space. The irony of this is that scripture all but completely ignores the middle day of the three. Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who says anything about what happens on Saturday, and that comes in a span of just five quick verses (Matthew 27:62-66).
We read here that the silence of Saturday – the day after – is haunting the chief priests and Pharisees. They come knocking on Pilate’s door in great fear of the power of the “Great Deceiver” to win over followers even in death. They express great concern that the “last deception could be even worse than the first.” Pilate bends once gain to their wishes. He assigns them a guard detachment and the power of royal seal to go and “make the tomb as secure as [they] know how.”
As I spent some time with Lectio Divina in this passage, I was blind-sided by the words of Pilate. How often I find myself living like the Pharisees, not able to rest in the holy silence of Saturday, not allowing it to simply be what it is. The silence haunts me and I find myself needing to make some noise. There are doors to knock on and things to secure. I need to do something, anything to help, to protect, to secure. Sitting in silence is a blind acceptance of impotence in the face of circumstance, and that is simply not permissible. I must take a guard and go make things as secure as I know how.
However, in light of Sunday’s promise of hope, the actions of the Pharisees on Saturday were an act of utter futility. The best that they knew how was no match for the Divine, transformative power of resurrection. Oh how I wish I could learn to lean into the silence of today! In so doing, I might actually celebrate my personal impotence in the face of circumstance. I must, we must – and the Gospel demands that we do.
“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Romans 6:3-11).
Joel Van Dyke
The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
– John 18:17
Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Life Together, a treatise on community written from the underground church situation in Nazi Germany, with the startling reminder that Jesus suffered and died bereft of the community he held dear. The crowds turned on Jesus in the end; okay, everyone knows fame is fickle. And from the day of his first public sermon, he had enemies. But his closest friends had shared the intimacy of a long meal the evening of his arrest. In a matter of hours they would be gone. Mark reports, “They all ran away” (14:50).
Along with the physical wounds suffered by Jesus in his darkest hours, there were the kind of wounds that reach deeper than thorns, nails, or spear. His cry, “I thirst” (John 19:28) surely was not limited to cravings that a damp sponge could alleviate. This is not to minimize the impact of physical trauma on the whole human psyche. But added to his afflictions is this trauma: to be deserted, alone in extremis, in the most vulnerable moments of his life!
I have loved ones in hard places, and the hardest place of all may be the place of abandonment.
In Romania, when I have asked my longtime orphan friends to tell something important about their life story, they have replied, “sunt abandonat” (I am abandoned). It is the central wound of their lives – a wound that festers far into adulthood.
It is a tragic thing for a child to have parents die and to be left alone in the world. My young friends might envy that circumstance – to be able to cherish the memory of their flesh and blood taken away by some turn of fate. For almost all of them, however, their parents live in the next village or the next valley. For reasons a sociologist might try to explain but a child cannot fathom, they were not wanted. Their abandonment was a deliberate act. “I know the feeling of hugging,” one said. “And I know the feeling of being tossed out like a useless rag.”
A young man counts from one to five on his hand, unfolding his fingers from his fist. “One, two, three, four, five children in my family. I was fourth.” He taps on his fourth finger. “Fourth, and the only one abandoned. It was catastrophe for me! Why me, the fourth? I could understand if I had been the first, and my parents were too poor and not ready. Or the last, and they could handle no more. But the fourth?”
“Once I showed up at the door,” another related. “I had planned this for a long time, and one day I did it. I saw my siblings through the doorway, and it was like looking in the mirror. They had my features! I thought to myself,
‘In there is safety, and security, and love. They have a place to be, and they know whom they belong to.’ I asked my mother if she knew who I was and she stammered, ‘Yes.’ I asked her if she loved me and she did not respond. I asked her, ‘Why did you abandon me?’ and she had no answer. Before I could speak any more she slammed the door.”
On hearing his friend relate this story, a fellow orphan said, “There is not a night in my life I do not lie on my bed and remember the reality of this: that I have been left alone in the world by those who should have cared for me. And there is not a day in my life I do not feel in some way absolutely alone.
Jesus knew, and knows. On this of all days, abandoned. By a great mysterious paradox, the One who was born Immanuel – God With Us – is now on his dying day with us in the absolute extremity of alone-ness.
It is dark, dark, strangely good news today for all who thirst for presence and experience only the bitter ache of absence.
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
– John 13:12-15
Sweat, blood, blisters, infected sores… those emerged as central images from the very jazzy riffs of conversation around the 13th chapter of John’s gospel downstairs at Anchor of Hope Church. For my bright kids in children’s church, “pus” struck their imagination around washing grungy feet that might have been a little worse for wear on roads shared with livestock. On the lips of young boys around a table with young girls, we discovered the word “pus” to be simply delicious. Along with the gross-out factor that provided at least five more minutes of attention span, I appreciated the vividness of the scene they conjured up as we talked together.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the traditional commemoration of the evening of the Last Supper. “Maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, or mandate. It is used of the “new commandment” our Lord gave to his followers: to love one another (John 13:34). This commandment was not introduced in the abstract or engraved on stone tablets; it was demonstrated by an action striking in its human physicality. After rising from the meal he shared with friends, he took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began the process we imagined so vividly in children’s church – wet fingers among the toes and calluses, massaging away donkey dung, soothing sores.
Some scholars believe this story forms the narrative backdrop for the Kenosis (“emptying”) Hymn in Philippians 2. The “pouring out” of the water into the basin (John 13:5) parallels the “pouring out” of Jesus in his life and death (Philippians 2:7). The descent and ascent of Jesus in the poetry of the ancient hymn is embodied in the foot-washing story by Jesus stripping and kneeling at the disciples’ feet, performing this most priestly and prophetic task in humility, and then rising to clothe himself again.
For centuries, Maundy Thursday services have been marked by foot-washing. Some traditions refer to this day as “Thursday of Mysteries.” I like that. To me, it speaks of the mystery of flesh and spirit, divine and human, intermingled not only in the blood and wine but in the fluids and flesh of hands moving over feet. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the liturgy includes this prayer: “Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither will I give Thee a kiss like Judas. But like the Thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”
In remembrance of Jesus’s actions on this last supper night, I have participated in numerous foot-washing ceremonies – with ministry colleagues, with church members, with friends. Perhaps the most memorable times have been in a forest clearing in Romania with teen orphans, some of whose feet actually rivaled my own fungus-infested pair for grossness. There’s always an awkwardness to the proceedings, a fumbling wet mix of touch, shame, and caressing affirmation that seeps somehow through skin into spirit. We are quite unaccustomed to loving our neighbor’s feet in this way, as we love our own. Toweled off and tugging our socks back on, there is a palpable sense of having been both exposed and embraced – perhaps even cleansed – blisters and warts and pus and all.
It is an affirmation and intimacy we will surely need – we cannot remotely know how much – as the gospel story will soon descend into depths.
Photo by Scott Dewey
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
– Mark 8-9
This Sunday is Palm Sunday, when Jesus makes what some Christians refer to as his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. Crowds cheered and hailed him. “Hosanna!”
So there’s Jesus, fully human and fully divine – but he couldn’t have felt all that triumphant. He knew well to distrust fickle crowds, and he probably knew that in this very crowd were the same faithful who would crucify him five days later. Not that he disdained crowds – he is always portrayed viewing them with great compassion, and acting to bless. Nor simply that he mistrusted the crowds with his earthly fate. Far more significantly, Jesus has made it clear he didn’t trust crowds to fashion his true identity and calling. What temptations – either to mirror or despise the swirling energy. We can only imagine the stirrings within his spirit amid the fray this day.
Depending on your reading, the donkey he rode was a fulfillment of scripture, a sign of peace in lieu of a warrior’s stallion, an embodiment of humility within the pageant, or a straight-up lampooning of the whole spectacle. But is any of these truly “triumphant”?
Robert Farrar Capon says the Triumphal Entry is one more vexing parable, one acted rather than spoken – from Jesus that master of vexing parables. “In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding,” Capon writes.
We watch as Jesus did the “next right thing” he knew to do. There was Jerusalem and only Jerusalem for his journey home.
In our own journeys, it often doesn’t feel triumphant to come home – to self, to our past actions, to our hidden motivations, to our deepest fears, to our flawed selves, to our deepest desires. To truth. Sometimes bits of grace come through just when we are most uncomfortable. Someone places a palm frond underfoot, whether or not her sentiment will last. Someone else gives up his cloak for a cushion.
Years ago my friend tested her young marriage when she told U.S. customs that she’d brought agricultural goods back from her Italian honeymoon. Two hours of bureaucracy later, confused customs agents held aloft the dried palm frond Pamela had saved from Palm Sunday services. “This?” Her new husband shook his head. But Pamela wasn’t the sort to lie to authorities. She had to be who she was.
Not being true to her nature would have caused Pamela unbearable anxiety. For others it leads to more destructive habits. In 12-step recovery programs, the 4th step asks us to face who we are. “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It’s about as much fun as it sounds. But true recovery – in the form of spiritual connection – isn’t possible until we first come home to ourselves. In addition to the serenity prayer, the coins used to mark time in recovery often say “To Thine Own Self Be True.”
Jesus’s triumphant journey of truth has another week to go before it’ll look anything like real triumph. Before then the skies will darken and his closest friends will turn. Crowd adoration or crowd bloodlust, disciples or no disciples, Jesus resolutely will be who he was made to be, and the truth he is becoming. The truth is misunderstood, vexing – and will grow ever more vexing in the coming week.
With God, Jesus holds the course. And so must we, whether or not we understand what it means.
P.S. Find a beautiful prayer from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous here.
It was a case of mistaken identity, but five years ago “Sugar” – Daniel Antonio Puac Calderón – was riddled with bullets and killed as he was closing up his little store in Guatemala City.
We all knew him simply as “Azucar” (“sugar” in Spanish). Anyone who had ever met Azucar and witnessed the way he sweetened his neighborhood understood immediately the rationale behind his nickname.
After reforming his own life, Azucar had returned to his troubled neighborhood and helped other troubled youth find God and exit the cycle of gangs and violence. Read more of his beautiful story and watch a video on our Magazine story about Azucar.
“Truly I say to you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
– John 12:24
In this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, Jesus utters these words in anticipation of his own death – and Sugar’s.
Herein lies a solemn statement that illuminates profound truth – we truly must die to self to be reborn. Appropriately, we encounter this text on the fifth Sunday in Lent, just before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The time is nearly upon us – “the hour for the Son of Humanity to be glorified” is about to arrive.
The judgment of the world will be Jesus on the cross. It doesn’t occur at the end time, and neither Jesus nor God does it. Like Azucar’s killers with guns in hand, we hang up an innocent man. It is a truth that we have always wanted to hide from. We find ourselves trying to keep peace by marginalizing, rejecting, even murdering those we dislike. Nearing now the end of our Lenten journey, we are assaulted by the reality of who hangs on the cross before us and, even more hauntingly, how he got there.
The cross is God’s mind and heart, shattering the window of the world’s values. The gospel of the cross is not one more philosophy to add to countless others the world has to offer. It is, in actuality, the overturning of all of them. The cross says the way up is down. The way to real power is to give power away. The way to real influence is to seek to not be influential. The way to get real riches is to give all your money away, etc. In other words, “seeds need to fall into the ground and die.” Jesus fell into nothingness so that we might be able to fall into him.
Azucar represents the best of the grassroots leaders that we at Street Psalms have the distinct honor and privilege of serving around the world. He will be profoundly missed. In his life we hear the voice of God saying, “I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28).
Joel Van Dyke
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.
– John 3:17-21
Glancing back, I saw my father slowly slide his belt from his trousers. He folded it in half. His face was ashen; I turned away. I tried in vain to relax my buttocks – rumored among friends to make it not hurt so bad.
I wouldn’t know. I’d never gotten the belt before, though our family was among a subculture that fostered what bordered on enthusiasm for corporal punishment of children. My Baptist school principal had no religious imagery on his office wall that I recall, but he resolutely displayed one magnificent implement none of us could miss – a bolt-reinforced wooden paddle. Both symbolic and functional, it hung heavily from a strap. I often heard smacks and groans from down the hall.
As my dad raised the belt, I flinched for the smack and readied my groan. Down came Dad’s arm. Against my skin I felt the belt, and gasped. It was simply a brush – a caress!
I turned and stared. Dad’s eyes slowly overflowed. We both trembled. He held me for a long time. I can’t remember what was said, if anything. Of course I didn’t know the moment was a pivot, a hinge in a life story, a door to a way.
What I’d done was hardly trivial. I almost burned down our house on purpose, nearly killed my sister by accident, and lied for a day as if incredulous to be the innocent victim of a diabolical setup. The first was exciting, the second terrifying, and the third utterly exhausting. Isolated by my denials and the crushing shame that fueled them, I saw no way out whatsoever.
Over the course of life I came to know my father as a man of uncommonly good judgment and vision. He could size a thing up. “This is the judgment, that the light has come” (John 3:19). Light!
Suffocating in shame and fear that dark day, I imagined only condemnation and retribution. Nothing whatever in my father created that notion. Where did it come from? In eight short years I’d picked it up – the world just works that way, right? Play with fire and a whuppin’ might be the least of it. Just ask the principal or the playground guys. I was condemned already – dead dude walking.
This was my dad’s good judgment, his marvelous sight: I wasn’t condemned at all! He did not simply withhold retribution – it was never in his character or posture toward me to harbor such a thing.
Nothing changed about my dad that day. Everything changed inside of me. Everything.
Caveats are in order:
1. Dad’s a gentle but firm man; plenty of discipline would come over the next decade. But he so loved me to life, that my trust only grew.
2. I’m surrounded by loved ones with no such dad; to you treasured friends I don’t know how to speak of this in a way that won’t hurt somehow.
3. To Dad I’ll say… whatever I’ve managed in a few paragraphs here, all these years later I’ve still got no words for the gift of that day.
Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
– John 2:15-19
Jesus did not “cleanse the temple.” Sadly, most Bibles add this heading to the story. It is misleading.
Rather, Jesus closes it down! Better yet, he creates a new temple in its place – an abode of mercy that is himself. This is the heart of the Gospel!
Several years ago I visited Kolkata, India as part of a doctoral class along with Joel Van Dyke, my wife Lana, and our good friend Tim Merrill from Camden, NJ. We visited Kali Temple, which is the holiest of sites in that great city and from which the name of Kolkata is derived. It sits adjacent to Mother Teresa’s hospice house for the dying.
The day we visited Kali there were throngs of people lined up to perform the ritual animal sacrifice and gain favor with the goddess Kali. It was muggy hot and the smell of blood and incense was intense. When we got close enough to see what was happening, I saw a mother ceremoniously place her child’s head on a bloody chopping block as if to offer her up to Kali. As the priest theatrically lifted the long knife, the mother withdrew the child’s helpless head and a small goat was offered in its place. We gasped and turned away.
One doctoral student in our group snarled in self-righteous disgust. He insisted that we (North American Christians) are above that kind of primitive religious violence. I wanted to believe him, but I had my doubts. To be honest, there was a part of me that preferred the honesty of animal sacrifice to the hidden forms of sacrificial violence that we practice in our culture.
For example, authors/activists like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) argue convincingly that the U.S. criminal justice system is a sanctioned system of sacrifice of young African American and Latino males. It represents an utter failure of imagination for any more peaceful and productive means of establishing social order.
Currently, one in every 15 black men and one in every 36 Latino men are incarcerated in the United States, compared to one in every 106 white men. Even more alarming, one in every three black male babies born today is expected to be incarcerated. We are creating our own permanent under-caste – or what others call an “American apartheid” – that is creating even greater disparity with each generation.
Particular strains of fear-driven theology conspire to maintain our modern day sacrificial systems. And this doesn’t even begin to count the untold millions who still believe that God, like Kali, is fundamentally angry and on the prowl for God’s next victim. (In a Christian version made popular only in recent centuries, Jesus himself becomes the bloody victim of such a God.) Our ever more sophisticated forms of sacrifice – and the sacrificial logic that supports it – make it hard for us to see and take responsibility for the bloody mess we humans (not God) are making.
This week’s text shows up in all four Gospels, as if God knows we need to hear it again and again! Jesus’s action in the temple is the critical event that seals his fate with temple authorities.
A popular interpretation of this passage is that Jesus was cleansing a corrupt system that needed a bit of spit polish. It was a system that wrongfully excluded the poor, women, and gentiles from participating. Jesus cleansed the temple to open it up and make it a “house of prayer for all nations” (Jer 7:1-11). In this interpretation, Jesus would go on to fulfill God’s sacrificial requirement on the cross, bringing the temple system to its fulfillment with a final sacrifice once and for all. This interpretation signals an end to the temple system of sacrifice, but it also preserves the sacrificial logic by which the temple operates, which is always the problem with sacrificial theology.
Thankfully we are learning to see the text afresh. Notice that when Jesus turns the tables, he drives out both merchants and sacrificial animals (cattle, sheep and doves) alike. He sets both sacrificial victims AND their victimizers free. It is a forceful, dramatic act of profound disruption. It is a beautiful act of liberation.
Can we see? Jesus is mercifully driving out the victims that feed the temple slaughterhouse – and with them, the victimizers who presume they are satiating a vengeful God. Without victims the temple can’t survive and neither can such an image of god. We can hear Jesus shout – standing on the shoulders of the prophets before him – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice!”
These are perhaps the most revolutionary and liberating words the world has ever heard.
Thanks to Dr. Thomas Truby’s sermon on this passage that inspired this reflection.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
To live is to suffer, Gautama Buddha taught. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
Raise your hand if by some chance your life experience has taught you otherwise. Maybe you are an extraordinarily fortunate child reading above your grade level here. Even then, I might prompt you to think again upon your few years.
I was texting with a couple old high school buddies last week. Yes we are old and yes, high school was a long time ago. One of us wisecracked about our hair, then and now. That moved us quickly to the topic of our kids, who might have something to do with the hair issues. The mood on our little screens turned very, very pensive.
Each of us three dads has children who have suffered. As it happens, each of us has a child who has attempted to end the living and the suffering. It is the deepest single valley of the shadow of death we have ever walked through.
We couldn’t have imagined the pain, forty years ago with our fishing poles. In our pensive moments even then, we imagined being in love. Probably good for us that we didn’t know all that love might entail.
I sat in a cave in the jungle in Northern Thailand a few years ago – my buddy Kris Rocke hiked up there too and remembers this – talking with an old Buddhist monk about our faiths. Bats swirled in the candlelight. The monk had been a professor of comparative religion at the university. “The Lord Buddha taught us about the nature of suffering,” he observed. “The Lord Jesus showed us about love.”
Indeed the gospel accounts of Jesus show us – above all – love. Like Peter in this week’s lectionary passage, we cannot from the beginning possibly imagine all that love entails. Were we to imagine it, we would protest strenuously – and possibly refuse its invitation altogether. Or we might embrace it with bravado and later flee before the morning rooster crows.
But Jesus teaches, rebukes, and shows. He would show in his death and resurrection what he had shown his entire life. Reflecting later about the night of the Last Supper, the Apostle John would make a most beautiful remark: “He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he showed them the full extent of his love.” (The Greek in John 13:1 is “eis telos” or “full extent,” per NLT translation footnote and other commentators.)
Past Word From Below reflections (for example here and here) have explored the demonic nature of Satan and the “human” perspective that Jesus rebukes in this passage (verse 33). Coming Lenten reflections will explore the “divine” nature of the Atonement – how the cross brings a troubled humanity into union with a loving and peace-making God. For now we can recognize from “The Son of Man” a truly noble truth about God: If to live is to suffer… then to love is to “suffer with.”
It is a truth three old fishing buddies know now. At least in part, in our own ways as parents – we glimpse the love of God the Father, even as we are invited ever deeper into the way of the Son. It is the way of the cross.
“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
This week we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Christians worldwide will enter into a heightened time (40 days) of prayer, reflection, and spiritual companionship with Jesus to the cross. At Street Psalms we are grateful for this annual pilgrimage that awakens our individual and collective hearts to our own true desire.
Our lectionary text this week, the first Sunday in Lent, has Mark inviting us to this year’s Lenten journey with his usual economy of words. In rapid fire succession we see Jesus being baptized, immediately sent out into the wilderness, and then traveling to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God (Mark 1:9-15). While all three elements are worthy of focused attention, it is specifically time in the wilderness that captures our imagination this week as we embark with Jesus on the circuitous path to the cross – the Lenten journey.
In biblical parlance, the wilderness (desert) is that place in Scripture where we go to figure out who is who and what is real. It is the place where souls are revealed. What happened during the “temptation by the devil” and what are the implications for us this Lenten season? Mark, of course, gives us little detail on what actually happened in the wilderness, so we need to visit the accounts of the other Gospel writers to get the full picture.
After traveling forty long days and nights without food, Jesus rests. Exhausted and hungry, he meets the devil – and so do we, for this is not Jesus’s story alone. This is our story too. Jesus carries all of humanity into this meeting or, to be more precise, he carries the fullness of humanity into his divine appointment with the tempter. We are rehashing a conversation that began in a garden so many ages ago and continues to this day.
The conversation centers around three symbols that have shaped the soul of Israel, and the world, since the beginning – the symbols of bread, temple, and crown. Each symbol is packed with meaning and a narrative history that represents a way of seeing the world and God. The bread is an economic symbol, the temple a religious symbol, and the crown a political symbol. Jesus meets with Satan to talk about things of ultimate significance – bread, temple, and crown are about reality itself.
Bread-From Scarcity to Abundance
Imagine Jesus after a long fast and a lonely walk in the desert. He sees a barren landscape, a wasteland – no gardens or streams, no milk or honey, only rocks and sand and the occasional desert fox. The scenery matches his interior, as the land is as empty as his stomach.
It is not hard to imagine Jesus being overwhelmed by the vision of scarcity before him. What kind of God allows his people to starve? When seduced by a worldview of scarcity, the mystery of God’s abundance is not easy to see. Jesus, however, takes another look at the barrenness that surrounds him and listens more carefully to his own stomach. Here, deep in the soil of relentless scarcity, Jesus discerns the seeds of his Father’s abundant and fruitful love.
It takes some time, but eventually he becomes fully present to the reality of God’s abundant love allowing him (and us) to re-imagine the whole of God’s economy as one of reckless abundance. Jesus resists the myth of scarcity and declares God’s Word reliable in the face of deprivation. God is friend, not foe. God can be trusted. There is enough!
Jesus’s fidelity to the “mystery of superabundance” moves humanity from the bondage of scarcity born of fear to the freedom of God’s abundance born of love. There is enough bread for all, if we can only see and embrace it.
Temple: From Violence to Peace
No symbol made greater claims on the imagination of Israel than the temple. What bread was to the body of Israel, the temple was to its soul. The economics of scarcity had produced a religion of scarcity and it followed the same deadly logic. As is always the case with scarcity, violence was its governing principle, hidden under layers of rules and regulations that masked the fear that sustained it. This was the sacrificial system of the temple – it was a highly regulated and sophisticated system of violence that had been given sacred meaning and justified by virtually every religious authority, except a handful of prophets.
In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple overlooking Jerusalem. There he says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”Jesus looks again at the meticulously designed religious system with all its rules and regulations and discerns another law at work. It is the law that rules his own heart. It is the inviolable law of love.
Jesus stares the devil down and quotes the ancient text, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7). Jesus refuses to throw himself into the temple trap and test God’s love with his own act of violence. He opts for another way – the way of mercy – a way that would one day turn the temple inside-out and become the hope of all those who have ever cried out, “Lord have mercy.”
Crown: From Above to Below
The crown is the symbol of the political system, which is concerned with the stewardship of power. While this symbol is not named directly in the temptation narrative, it is clear from the context that we are dealing with the temptation to power. In a monarchial system, the crown is the ultimate symbol of power. As such, it is something of a summary of the previous temptations. The economic, religious, and political systems are of one piece – each needs the other to survive.
Jesus ponders the potential of wearing the crown-the potential for good, not evil; the potential for life, not death. Who better to wear the crown and steward power than a benevolent king who genuinely cares for creation?
However, the glittering gems on the crown being offered are quickly seen for what they are – a crown of thorns. Satan’s twisted view of power is exposed. The whole world is turned upside-down. The cross ascends and Jesus is “lifted up.”
During the next 40 days, we invite you to consider what the implications of bread, temple and crown are for you personally and for your city. Is there enough bread on your life’s “table” for all, or are you deceived by the myth of scarcity and hoarding little crumbs? What would your relationships look like if you were to resist throwing yourself into rivalry with others – rivalry that leads, always, to some sort of violence? How would your view of life change if you were able to look up from below, envisioning power made perfect in weakness as opposed to strength?
May you travel with courage on the way to the cross this Lenten season, and may a careful consideration of the implications of bread, temple and crown be your companion for the journey.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
Portions of this reflection were adapted from Chapter 7 (Symbolic Universe) of Geography of Grace by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke. We encourage you to read that chapter for a much deeper reflection on the images of bread, temple, and crown of the desert narrative.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
–Mark 9:2-4, 7-9
There is nothing quite so dangerous as trying to occupy the place of resurrection glory prematurely or falsely.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples not to mention his identity too soon. Theologians often refer to this as the “messianic secret.” After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah in Mark 8, Jesus tells Peter and the disciples not to say anything to anyone. And in this week’s lectionary text, Jesus strictly warns Peter, James and John not to say anything about the extraordinary mountaintop event until after the resurrection (Mark 9:9). What a strange remark!
Why is it okay to speak of Jesus’s glory after the resurrection and not before? What will they see after the resurrection that they cannot see before?
One thing we know for certain is that when Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, Jesus had not yet been crucified. Had the disciples become evangelists on the basis of their limited vision on the mountaintop, they would have run the risk of proclaiming a false gospel in the valley. And so Jesus tells his disciples not to speak until after they have witnessed the resurrection. Jesus asks them to wait, like Job, until they have seen for themselves (Job 42:5) what it means to pass through death and come out safe on the other side. He tells them not to speak until after they have seen in Jesus’ resurrected body the very marks of death that he triumphs over. Then and only then will they have the authority to speak, not before. Then and only then, will they see things as they really are – most especially, death itself.
We have a hunch that one of the primary reasons there is so little transformative authority in the Church today is because there is so little transformative vision. So much of what passes for authoritative speech is not wrong, as much as it is formed prematurely in a kind of blindness devoid of the paschal mystery of death as a gateway to life.
Jesus implores his disciples to wait. Could there be times when we too must wait – to not speak prematurely of good news – until we are able to discern a circumstance in light of its passage through death?
Adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke (Street Psalms Press, 2012), chapter 18.
Photo: JESUS MAFA
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
How odd. Once again Jesus orders the demons to be quiet about his identity. A few chapters hence, Jesus will “sternly order” his disciples to do the same (Mark 8:30). This odd behavior is particularly striking in the Gospel of Mark. In fact scholars have a term for it: the “Messianic Secret.”
Last week we read that Jesus cast out a demon in the synagogue, and his “fame began to spread throughout the region” (Mark 1:28). This week Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons. Crowds grow. Expectations rise. “The whole city gathers” (Mark 1:33). Jesus slips away under the cover of darkness to a deserted place where he prays in silence (Mark 1:35).
While praying, “Simon and his companions hunted for him” (Mark 1:36). When they find Jesus they tell him, “Everyone is searching for you,” (Mark 1:37) as if to say, “What are you doing out here? The crowds love you, your stock is rising, let’s ramp this thing up!” Instead of caving in to the cravings of the crowd, Jesus says, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns.”
Jesus handles the crowd the same way he handles the religious authorities and even the demons – which is to say, he handles them very carefully, as if they were some kind of unstable explosive that could detonate at any moment. The word “crowd” in the Gospels is something of technical word that can also be translated as “mob.” (While the word “crowd” is not specifically used in this week’s text, it is clearly implied and it’s used repeatedly throughout the Gospels).
Anthropologist Rene Girard and theologian Walter Wink have written extensively on how crowds are highly unstable and volatile socio-spiritual realities. They are more than the sum of their parts. They are easily moved, especially towards violence. This is why at every turn throughout the Gospels Jesus refuses to be the puppet of the crowd’s desire, which can one day shout “Hosanna, Hosanna,” and the next “Crucify him, crucify him.”
Crowds hold the collective spirit of those who inspire them. In the Gospels, it is primarily the religious authorities and the religious system itself, steeped in sacrificial violence, that gives the crowd its collective spirit. And the crowd is completely unconscious of the spirit that holds them captive. That is why Jesus is so hard on spiritual leaders and so filled with compassion when it comes to crowds (Mark 6:34).
Jesus sees through the superficial shouts of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him.” He knows that crowds need kings and scapegoats like junkies need a fix. Highly charged crowds are constantly on the hunt for ways to release their pent-up energy.
In recognizing the reality of satanic power, we must consider the possibility that when Jesus is casting out demons, he is casting out the very spirit of the religious system itself and the hidden violence of the crowd. In other words, demons are the manifestation of bad religion. If you think I am making this up, notice how this week’s text ends with an undeniably strong association between the religious system and demons. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons (Mark 1:39).
Reading the text this way forces us (especially those of us who are religious leaders) to take responsibility for the “demons” that we keep producing. Demons are mirrors for what we want to keep hidden about ourselves. They are the visible incarnation of society’s collective fear and violence turned outward and concentrated on a vulnerable person or group.
Jesus clearly understands the triangular relationship between religious authorities, crowds, and the demonic. He knows that to blow the cover on this stuff is to put himself in harm’s way and become the ultimate scapegoat. That is why he flies under the radar and hopes not to be detected too soon. That is why Jesus orders demons and disciples alike to be quiet and keep the “messianic secret” as long as possible.
Jesus knows that in due course he will be crucified, and the fruits of violent religion will be put on full display for the whole world to see. When we look upon the face of the Crucified One, we will see the demonic fruit of our own violence and the mercy of the One who forgives us completely. In so doing, Jesus will make it possible for “crowds” to become genuine, loving, and stable communities of peace that will transform the world.
May it be so.
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Making my way down to the canal behind a ramshackle Bangkok slum, I spotted an orange-robed Buddhist monk sitting in a small wooden pergola. Flower garlands lay at his feet, and lotus flowers bloomed in the surrounding swamp. I approached and greeted him as properly as I could by pressing my palms together in the traditional “wai” and using Thai high pronouns for “exalted one.”
I’ve greatly enjoyed many times bantering with monks, who are typically more easygoing than you might expect. I’ve learned a lot from them. Even with his head and eyebrows shaved, though, I immediately could tell that this monk was older and more serious than many of the younger guys.
I offered a bit of small talk. “Come here often, honored sir?” Ok that was lame, but hardly warranted what came next.
“Do you not know I have the power to kill you right now, right on this very spot? Right at this instant!” His eyes drilled into mine. “I have authority from a spirit with immense power – the power of death. Do you doubt it?”
Whoa. A chill swept over me in the tropical heat. In rapid succession, voices from both my cultures weighed in with equal force. From my adopted Thai eastern culture I thought wow, this is deadly serious – as genuinely grave as handling high voltage wires while wading in the swamp. Then from my native western culture I thought, who is this dude? A cranky old guy in an orange bedsheet sitting in a flowery outhouse? And animist spirits aren’t even a Buddhist concept, technically speaking. Facts are I could, and possibly should, toss him in the canal. Sheesh.
The eastern voice quickly won out. After all, I was shaking. Grasping for calm, I drew a breath. “I don’t doubt it sir. With respect, I too have authority from a Spirit with immense power – the power of life. The Spirit of the Exalted One named Jesus – creator of heaven and earth. This Spirit of life is more powerful than any powers of death. It is the Spirit that sets us free.”
What came out of my mouth surprised me far more than what had just come out of his. Where did that come from in me? Had I rehearsed in advance, I would not have said anything remotely like that. I’m not well versed in these dynamics and would see no advantage in trying to one-up a spirit master.
It was his turn to look stunned. Were his lips actually quivering? He looked away, then turned back without any of the previous sternness at all. “You have spoken truthfully. Death has no power over you, and neither do I.”
That encounter took place decades ago, and I’ve hardly spoken of it since. To be honest, I’ve not fully understood it. To this day, both my eastern and western voices speak with equal force in my head. What realities were afoot that afternoon in the swamp?
Reflecting on this week’s lectionary passage, I’m struck by many of the same realities – at least in the same ballpark. Spirits. Fear, freedom. Life, death. An encounter involving power and authority. And to anticipate a theme later in Mark’s gospel, the need to keep quiet about the story.
One difference: I ain’t Jesus.
I asked Street Psalms friends this week about spiritual authority. Having seen and experienced its misuse – resembling the old monk’s power play more than the meekness of Jesus – we’re not high on the term. But we’ve known, and needed, genuine authority that makes space for life amid death. Death in our contexts presents with such force, such power! We tremble, and grasp for calm. And sometimes – sometimes! – the voice and power of life rises within. We are astonished by its gift of peace in our communities. We’re reluctant to speak of it, but we know. We know.
Have I said too much already? I have other ideas, analysis, and hypotheses about authority. My friends suggested spiritual authority is a grace grounded from within, and recognized by its fruit from without – in community. Helpful insight. My eastern voice – like this passage from Mark – reminds me there is also much behind the veil of sight and insight.
“Time’s up! God’s Kingdom is here.
Change your life and believe the Message.”
–Mark 1:15 (The Message)
This week we read of four fisherman Jesus encounters while strolling along the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:14-20). We don’t know if these hardworking fishing professionals have ever even heard an actual sermon from Jesus. It seems that Jesus’s preaching in Galilee was finished prior to this encounter on the shore.
Why these men? What about them leads Jesus to issue them his first call to a life of great adventure? If the first thing that Jesus does after his formal commission into ministry is seek out companions for the journey, we’d assume he wouldn’t be thoughtless about his choice of those companions. Yet in a conversation taking less than a minute, he swoops up one-third of his final group of 12 disciples. So what about these particular four fishermen has captured Jesus’s imagination?
As I sit with the text this morning, however, I am struck most by the decisiveness of the four fishermen and the urgency of their responses. Perhaps a more revealing question than “what does Jesus see in them?” is “what do they see in this Jesus?“
What do they see that compels them to immediately leave their nets to follow him? Would it not be much wiser and more prudent to first consult with their families and closest friends? Or perhaps enter a designated period of discernment regarding the possibility of such radical life change? Maybe they should have discussed it with a spiritual director, or at least taken some time to “pray about it.” No, our text tells us that these four “at once left their nets and followed him.” This leaves me feeling both confused and inspired by their responses to immediately (perhaps irresponsibly) leave net and family.
Maybe life in the “kingdoms” they had built for themselves paled in comparison to Jesus’s invitation to align with the great adventure of a different Kingdom – the Kingdom of God.
What kind of kingdom have I been trying to build through devotion to the nets that I daily put my hands to? I wonder what the nets represent for me in my life. How many of the seemingly altruistic decisions that I make each day are really motivated by the fish I hope to catch when casting my nets into the waters of self doubt? Is the catch I seek really the affirmation of others to prop up my soul?
I am shocked by how often I am driven to cast nets into the sea of rivalry. I tend these nets amidst waves of misplaced desire that break violently on those around me. Am I willing to leave those nets behind, whatever security they seem to provide, and instead follow Jesus into the deeper, unknown waters of Christ-like desire? “We dance,” wrote Robert Farrar Capon, “under the banner of God’s desire.” I am realizing that could very well mean turning my back on what I have spent my entire life fishing for.
There is something very powerful here about the intensity of Mark’s cut-to-the-chase witness. The sparse narrative emphasizes that Jesus is really important and is in the midst of a really important adventure.
The Street Psalms community often finds that the places we serve are also a kind of Jesus-like smelling salt waking us to the reality of life. But sometimes it seems the only things in our own lives worthy of immediate attention are the cares of our daily worlds that seem so large. The intrigue of Jesus’s invitation, assumed but not explicitly stated in the passage, is that there must have been something quite captivating about this Jesus and his mission. Not a Mission Impossible-type narrative that appeals to ego, pride, and the sense that we need to go do something important – but rather an invitation so freeing that it allows us to leave that which up this point in our lives has seemed all-consuming and impossible to release.
What an amazing thing Jesus is calling us into: an open-ended adventure of radical discipleship where our nets are left behind.
“Time’s up! God’s Kingdom is here.”
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
P.S. I find that praying the Examen keeps illuminating the need to leave my own nets. Street Psalms invites you to pray it as well.
Jesus answered (Nathanael), “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
This week’s text is a reference to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” in the Old Testament and the radical implications of the Incarnation.
Remember Jacob’s Ladder? Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and fled into the desert. Eventually he stopped running and fell asleep, exhausted. The heavens opened and he saw angels ascending and descending on the place he occupied. Celtic spirituality calls this sort of thing a “thin place” where the boundary between heaven and earth thins out – the divine and human greet each other with a holy kiss and unite in holy matrimony. As a result, Jacob awakens to God’s loving presence, and he sees his place of desolation as holy ground and a gateway to heaven. He stacks a pile of rocks and calls it Bethel – “the house of God.”
Jesus builds on this familiar story. The heavens open again. This time, however, the angels ascend and descend not on a place, but on a person – “The Son of Man.” In Jesus, the divine and human become one. In other words, Jesus is God’s holy presence in a hurting world, sanctifying this world and everything in it. We might call Jesus the ultimate “thin person,” who reveals what has always been true, but hard to see. In Christ, everything is holy. Not the kind of holy that separates and divides, but the kind that unites and makes whole – the kind that sees all things as related, of one piece. This is the mystery of the Incarnation.
Yes, everything is holy, even and especially desperate fugitives in desolate places. The sacred is hidden inside the profane, wanting to be discovered! Every person and every place is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory – if we can only see it. Creation is a cathedral, and each person is an altar at which we kneel and give thanks to God. The world itself and everything in it is a sacrament. This, I believe, is the “greater thing” Jesus speaks of in this week’s text.
I realize this perspective is challenging, but the most orthodox teaching has always insisted that the Incarnation unites what the world divides. It turns common ground into holy ground. There is nothing that is not saturated with the loving presence of God – nothing! There is nowhere we can flee God’s presence – nowhere (Ps. 139)! Love and laughter are everywhere.
This simple insight radically changes our posture in life. It is the difference between drudgery and delight. In the end, the world is not holy because we love it. We love it because it is holy. Our job is to see and celebrate this joyful reality, especially with those who are blind to it. Everything is holy now. Can we see it?
Check out this short video that introduces the Born From Below training to explore the meaning of the Incarnation in hard places.:
Or check out this song, “Holy Now,” by Peter Mayer. It is the unofficial anthem of the Street Psalms Community.
“You are my son whom I love,
with you I am well pleased.”
We are familiar with the red-letter Bibles that highlight the words of Jesus. I’d like to see a blue letter edition that highlights the words of the Father. It wouldn’t take much ink. We only hear the voice of God the Father four times in the New Testament. In each case it is the voice of blessing. The Father’s economy of words serves only to magnify their meaning.
The first two times the Father speaks he repeats himself – once at the baptism of Jesus (which is our text this week), and again at the transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:35). The third time we hear the voice of the Father is when Jesus nears the cross and calls out, “Father, glorify your name.” The Father responds, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28). And finally in Revelation the Father says, “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Half of all we hear from the Father is limited to these most elemental words, “You are my son whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” When these words become flesh in our lives we are transformed.
The key to this verse for me is not in the word “love.” After all, if God is love then it sorta makes sense that God would love us. It’s the second part of the verse that stands out: “with you I am well pleased.” St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible translates this phrase with the word “complacent.” To our ears the word “complacent” sounds negative, but it literally means to “dwell with like.” A grassrootsy but fully truthful translation of this verse would be, “You are my son whom I love and I really like you.” Catholic theologian James Alison explores this beautifully in his book, On Being Liked.
Perhaps the greatest of all the miracles is not that God loves us, but that God actually likes us. I am convinced that until “love” matures into “like” it is not complete. When we know ourselves as liked by God, we come to see ourselves, this world, and even God’s love, in a whole new light! In a word, we relax and actually become likeable and capable of great love in return.
When I asked my wife to marry me, I began by saying, “I love you and I really like you.” Take away the “liking” part and I honestly don’t know where we would be today. In the delivery room the first words that each of our boys heard in this world were, “You are my son whom I love and I really like you.” They still let me bless them with these words at bedtime. Last year, at my father’s bedside the day before he died, I felt led to bless him with these words – a son returning the blessing to his father. In turn, he placed his hand on my head (too weak to speak by then) and he silently blessed me in like fashion. I will never be the same.
I don’t know of anything more vital than the blessing of the Father. That is why each day I receive afresh the baptismal blessing when I pray the prayer of the Street Psalms Community. I invite you to pray it with us now.
Father, baptize us again in the sea of your love as we release our useless fears and relax into your mercy. Inside this new love we die to all that is false. By your power made perfect in weakness, awaken us to the mystery of life and speak to us again the truth of our deepest identity hidden in you: “You are my son/daughter whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
“In him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received
grace upon grace.
–John 1:10-18 (excerpts)
About a hundred years ago the poet T.S. Eliot produced, some would argue, his best and most influential work. It was before his conversion to Christianity. Physical ailments, an uneven academic career, and a tortured marriage left him in a frame of mind that produced “Waste Land” – 76 memorably bleak lines such as “April is the cruelest month.” Likewise “Hollow Men” concludes, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”
In 1927 Eliot underwent a profound shift toward faith – drawn particularly to the incarnation of Jesus. Like the incarnation itself, it was an awkward and messy move toward light amid darkness. He fumbled for words as he groped for this new reality of the divine and human embrace. His first post-conversion poem, “Ash Wednesday,” receives mixed reviews to this day. The great master of words seems to be peering as through a glass dimly, scarcely grasping what he is attempting to clothe with language.
Perhaps the disciple John, putting pen to papyrus in the first decades after Jesus’ birth, faced the same struggle? John and Eliot clearly share a wordsmith’s relentless desire to deploy each word, each nuance, each turn of phrase precisely for its mission of meaning. How ironic that for both John and Eliot, when words fall so clearly short of that mission in describing God with us in Christ, they settle simply for the word “Word.”
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.
– T.S. Eliot, excerpt from “Ash Wednesday”
Eliot would go on to find a bit surer footing in later poetry, though it was hardly the case that he lived happily ever after. He would always be part of the “unstilled world,” but like John he had found a “centre of the silent Word.”
We too live in unstilled worlds. Unto us a child has been born, inarticulate, unable to speak a word – the Word. Maybe it is fitting we find ourselves also inarticulate in the light of this very human and very divine presence, and find in silence a space to listen.
“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
In the Spanish language the verb esperar means both “to hope” and “to wait.” It is a beautiful Advent verb, capturing the essence of the season that we have journeyed together these past four weeks.
This waiting, essential to the spiritual life, is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting bathed in hope and a promise that makes present what we wait for. When architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked at the age of 83 which of his works he would say was his most magnificent masterpiece, he said, “my next one.” We have waited during Advent for the birth of Jesus. Our waiting has now been fulfilled, and we celebrate the birth of he who has been the object of our pregnant hope:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….”
In the Gospel reading this week (Luke 2:22-40), two old folks happen upon a couple carrying a child. Luke describes Simeon and Anna in terms that he will use later of the early Christian movement. Simeon is “righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit is upon him.” Anna is a prophetess and a long-time widow who spends every waking hour in worship and prayer. Both spend their final days “esperando” (hopefully waiting) for the “consolation of Israel”(Simeon) and the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Anna).
Simeon and Anna both saw the Christ and welcomed him because they were longing for his coming and his redemption. What have you been waiting for this Christmas? What have you been longing for? What have you been expecting to receive? Did you see Jesus? In whom? How? When?
I am fascinated with the person of Simeon. My mind races to what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to have their baby taken out of their arms by a strange, old man. What did the face of Simeon look like as he held in his arms the “consolation of Israel” for whom he had been waiting his entire life? Oh the joy that must have enveloped him – a sense of utter fulfillment, coming as it did after a long time of waiting, impregnated by hope. How do Simeon and Anna’s lives at the time of meeting Jesus speak to you having just had the same experience this Advent?
How are we to wait for God? We wait in hope, patiently. But patience does not mean passivity. Waiting patiently is not like waiting for your date to pick you up, the snow to stop, or the sun to rise. It is an active waiting, one in which we embrace the present in order to experience here and now the signs of the One for whom we wait. The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer.” The art of waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, marinating within the juices of current reality, all the while learning to see life through the lens of unbridled hope.
In a recent e-mail to the organizational directors with whom we serve at Street Psalms, Kris Rocke quoted Paula D’Arcy who said, “God comes to us disguised as our own life.” He then went on to explain that in D’Arcy’s words, we find a poetic way of saying that the Incarnation reveals itself most powerfully not only in the past or in the future, but also in the present reality of everyday life. “Jesus is coming to us whether we have raised lots of money for our organizations or find ourselves in the hole,” Kris wrote. These are merely the circumstances into which Jesus comes… either way, he comes!
Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote in a 1943 letter that “a prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various seemingly unessential things and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
Our time of hopeful waiting, like Simeon and Anna’s, has led to the opening of the door to freedom in the birth of Jesus. We hold in our arms the new birth of promise, we gaze in wonder at the mercy, grace, and love of the Almighty, and we revel in the words of the Old Testament prophet whose vision has been fulfilled:
“Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1)
At the conclusion of this Advent season may you, like Simeon and Anna, have in your arms and in your heart the One who has come – the object of your deepest longings and most profound desire.
Merry Christmas, and may you have a hope-filled 2015!
Joel Van Dyke
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God…. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
–Luke 1:35, 38
“Let it be.” These are words of faith in their most distilled form.
The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she will bear the savior of the world. Mary is understandably confused. She asks, “How can this be?” And then, after some consideration, she says three very simple words that changed her life and the course of human history. “Let it be…” (Luke 1:38)
The Beatles song, “Let it Be,” echoes this event:
“When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me.
Speaking words of wisdom.
Let it be, Let it be…”
As a rule, Street Psalms is an active network that makes things happen. We come out of the prophetic tradition and are very much concerned with issues of social justice. Nobody has accused us of being overly contemplative. Perhaps that is why the words of Mother Mary are so challenging. She reminds us that transformation is not something that we can either will or work into existence – ever. It is always a gift. At its most fundamental level, the transformative power of the Gospel is something we accept, receive, and let happen.
The problem, of course, is that Mary’s words, like so many words in Scripture, are easily distorted. In the mouths of the mainstream, “let it be” can easily become a cover up for the status quo. It can easily mean, “We like the way things are, so let it be.” On the other hand, in the mouths of the marginalized, “let it be” can easily become an utterance of despair, resignation, and fatalism. It can easily mean, “We are tired and things will never change, so let it be.” Mary’s words (the Beatles’s too) resist both temptations. They offer us another way.
As I see it, the key to understanding Mary (and the Beatles) is in the word “it.” When she says, “let it be,” the “it” that she is referring to is not the external conditions of the world she inhabits – a world enslaved by violence. The “it” that she is referring to is the goodness and grace of God’s favor on the world she inhabits, and the mystery by which that favor will be demonstrated in Christ. God’s favor is the “it” – the only “it” that we are called to accept and let be.
Check out this clip from the movie Across the Universe. It beautifully, if painfully, highlights the tension in Mary’s words. The scene is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the tumultuous 1960s when the Beatles wrote their song. Hear it as a prayer – a prayer for God’s favor. Hear afresh the words of Mary this Christmas, as God’s favor in Christ draws near again: “Let it be.”
Photo: “Let it be + Come together, John-Lennon-Wall, detail, Prague” photo by helst1 – off for some days (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way
of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.
–John 1:6-8, 19-28
It’s the third week of Advent and soon the “Word will become flesh.” We will hear the voice of an angel announce “peace on earth.” But let’s be clear, the pathway to peace is paved by the disruptive voice of the prophet.
Again this week we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. John the Baptist is not only speaking to highly charged hearts, he is speaking to a highly charged community fractured by radically unjust social, economic, and religious disparities. He draws his inspiration from the prophet Isaiah:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Is. 40:3-5)
The prophet’s word induces a massive social and spiritual upheaval. Something big is being born along with the Messiah. The valleys of injustice and the mountains of oppression are being leveled so that ALL PEOPLE (not just some) can see the salvation of God.
It’s an audacious claim that is hard to believe given the uneven landscape (then and now). The modern prophet Martin Luther King Jr. echoed John the Baptist’s bold vision when he said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, even though it’s hard to see in the moment, God is flattening our world as well as our hearts. God is giving us a new reality. That’s the gospel promise! The barriers of false protection that pit us against each other and divide our own hearts are coming down like the Berlin Wall. Ultimately, as the apostle Paul says, God is creating a world in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
The Gospel is a divine leveling – a leveling of love. But here’s the catch! This leveling cannot be survived unless we are transformed by the love that levels us.
Those who have experienced the leveling of their own soul or participated in the leveling of unjust social barriers know firsthand how dangerous it can be when dividers are gone. Without the false protection these barriers provide, things become chaotic! That is why the Gospel of Jesus urgently insists that we clothe ourselves in love (not our favorite political, racial, or religious identity flag). Without love we will tear each other apart. Jesus knows that we simply cannot survive the divine leveling if we are not also given new hearts – the very thing he so eagerly gives. “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 11:19).
For several years now I have prayed the Isaiah 40:3-5 passage daily (see Examen Prayer). I have witnessed firsthand the leveling of love and the slow but sure gifting of a new heart. It is without a doubt the most liberating and dangerous kind of love imaginable.
Word made flesh, giving hearts made flesh. Advent hope!
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'”
The beginning of this “good news” according to Mark is a blaring alarm. You know the obnoxious, grating kind that jackhammers right into your dreams? Or worse, the roommate who flips on all the lights, shakes the bed, and yanks off the covers?
Ugh what time is it anyway? Just give me another 20 minutes, c’mon. Why not? This had better be good.
Over the next couple months, the lectionary will take us on a tour of the openings of each of the four Gospels. Each has its unique flavor and tone. Other gospels nudge us with at least softer wake-up music, or a kiss.
In Mark we get a smelly guy yelling – dressed like a nutcase. Right from the opening verses.
“Repent!” Literally, “get a different mind!” Wake up! Rub the sleep boogers out of your eyes. Splash some water if that’s what it takes. Brew a strong cup. Yes this is going to be good, and you’re going to miss it in the state you’re in.
No time to take this slow. Been slumbering for way too long already. Let’s get moving! We’ll figure the meaning out (or not) as we go. The first chapter of Mark alone has nine different stories of Jesus, some of which get whole chapters in other Gospels.
This is Mark’s way of announcing Good News. It’s not the only way, as we’ll see. But for some of us, and some of our communities stuck in ruts, it’s a much-needed way.
Qs: Could it be the way that is most needed in your context now? What alarms are already going off, announcing Good News in ways you might even overlook as such?
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory…. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Who can keep awake always? Certainly not the apostles with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, a scene soon to follow in this story. With danger that close and yet sleep so heavy upon even Jesus’s closest, bumbling friends, how are we expected to keep awake nearly two millennia later?
I lay sleepless in bed long into the night that the decision was announced not to indict a Missouri police officer for the homicide of an unarmed black teenager. From my apartment in Colorado I heard choppers overhead: probably police monitors as well as news teams looking for drama in the demonstrations and protests below. In my days as a reporter I would have been looking for the story too. I knew that many Street Psalms friends were congregating in the city’s central park, urging peace and civil conversation around deep communal wounds from systemic oppression and police brutality. But peace and civil conversation don’t make for compelling news reporting. “If it bleeds, it leads” the evening newscast. Unlikely partners choosing to share a meal instead of decking each other doesn’t pay the bills.
I felt guilty for not gathering that night with my Street Psalms friends. Earlier that day I had lunch with a friend who works at a legal clinic for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She had wanted to be more active in our last political campaign cycle, she said sadly, but she was too busy visiting her friend in hospice.
How much and how many can we care about before our hearts grow sleepy? There is so much to be aware of that things can dull to a low hum. It’s a struggle to stay present. Addictions large and small help take the edge off, keeping us drowsy. These days “Netflix binging” is even a thing. (Guilty.) By the time this reflection reaches your mailboxes, some people will have stood in line for hours to pay less for more on Black Friday.
In this lectionary passage, Mark presents Jesus speaking in the fullness of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek “uncover.” Uncover what exactly? In Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie writes, “What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence…. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence.”
Some scholars point out that much of what Jesus predicts has come to pass, save the glaring omission of the “Son of Man’s” return. The Jewish Temple fell in 70 A.D., before the last of Jesus’s generation had indeed passed away. We see that violence continuing today, and it will probably continue tomorrow as well.
Notice, however, that not once does Jesus pin these apocalyptic upheavals on a vengeful God. Instead, “suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions” (Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred) – all stuff humanity is perfectly capable of without any divine help.
In the arc of the gospel narrative, we’re here with Jesus in the quiet before the storm that leads us to the violence of the cross. It’s also the first Sunday in Advent, beginning our season of waiting for (re)birth. Pastors everywhere will urge us to take time for the waiting and listening: presence along with presents. But even (or especially) pastors can get swept with us into the maelstrom of the holiday season.
What exactly are we to wait and listen for, anyway? Isn’t there someone, something to get busy caring for? A congregation, children, a fundraising campaign, a live-in mother with dementia, homeless teens on our streets, overtime to pay for Christmas presents, mandatory overtime so others receive their Christmas presents.
Some of us wait for the birth, again, of hope. Maybe we pray for the willingness to pray. Maybe we even wait for the ability to stay fully awake.
Contemplatives like Thomas Merton helped integrate mindfulness into Christian practice. Members of the Street Psalms community are introducing mindfulness techniques into member care programs for missionaries living in slums and other challenging settings throughout the world. Mindfulness can be no fun, especially for beginners like me. Staying either asleep or one frantic step ahead of that “still small voice” seems infinitely preferable. It’s easier to hit cruise control. Waking up can be like bringing your car to a screeching halt with all your baggage heaped in the back seat: all that baggage just ends up on top of you.
As people of God we can work to uncover violence – not with further violence, but with love and presence. But those efforts are only sustainable if we also offer love and presence to ourselves. We don’t know when we’ll be brought to screeching halts, or when those skies will darken and the stars will fall. Might we try contemplative prayer, mindfulness, and other practices to stay awake? Every day, hour, minute offers a new opportunity.
P.S. For Apple users, here’s a good contemplative prayer app.
“The horizontal arms of the cross are the
two sides of every dilemma, the vertical line
is the third way, and the way through.”
The Gospel reading before us from this week’s lectionary is a famous one about sheep and goats from Matthew 25:31-46. It is a passage that has been used most often as a teaching illustration for the eternal separation of good from bad.
- The goats are the unbelievers
- The sheep are the believers
- The unbelievers go to hell
- The believers go to heaven
As a youngster, I liked the affirmation found in my assumed identity as one of the “good sheep.” While I pitied the eternal destiny of the “goats” around me, I have to admit there was a tinge of satisfaction in knowing that the “goat people” (those revelers in sin) were one day going to get what they had coming to them. I felt at home in the dualism found in the existence of a “TEAM US” vs. a “TEAM THEM”.
There is something very self-assuring about choosing a side and then “goatasizing” (scape-“goating”) those not on yours. In so doing, we sow seeds of violence and rivalry in our hearts and in the hearts of those we’ve identified as other.
What would it look like if we were able to come to our passage this week suspending the traditional manner in which some of us have entered this text? What if we were willing (as Christ often did) to dance a little, to take a breath and a step back for a more intentional look? Could it be that we’ll see something more profound that Christ is offering us here, rather than a simple statement on eternal destination?
Perhaps there is third way through, as opposed to the temptation to divide up the world so clearly into choices between two-sided moral dilemmas? The third way of Jesus moves us out of dualistic morality into the freedom of a whole new kind of relationality. Jesus locates himself among the goats of the world – those whom we tend to judge – and there among the disposed he invites us to learn to suspend our judgment. When read this way, Jesus is actually erasing the line between insiders and outsiders that divides the world neatly into sheep and goats.
At Street Psalms, we have a hunch that in many instances, the line between insiders and outsiders (us vs. them) is an invention of our own making. Often wielded like a sword of self-righteous judgment, it is far too common a tool of control forged from a worldview of scarcity.
Jesus isn’t simply telling us we’ll go to hell if we don’t visit prisoners. He’s telling us that there’s great peace found in encounter with and caring for the outcast, and that the greatest position of power is often found in engagement with those who, according to the parable, would be found on the left side with the goats.
Consider the missional implications of what Jesus is teaching here. Traditionally the church approaches mission with the idea that there are many unconverted people out there who need the Good News of Jesus Christ; therefore it is our responsibility to go to them for their benefit. This is certainly true, but what else might be happening as we go out there?
We discover Jesus….
The hungry, thirsty, and naked reveal to us the third way of Jesus that frees us from the very judgments we are so quick to make.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
P.S. Please consider taking five minutes to meditate on the profound insight of Bryan Sirchio in his song “I See You,” written after an encounter with a little girl on the streets of Haiti.
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
… So sang Billie Holiday in 1941. The song “God Bless the Child”* sold over a million records, on the force not only of “Lady Day’s” achingly lovely voice, but also the blunt realities of the world to which it attests:
Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
In her autobiography, Holiday recounted an argument with her mother over money that seared these words into her psyche as a young girl, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Holiday went on to get her own, largely raising herself and going on to make millions in her brilliant career – though the final arc of her life ended with less than a dollar in her bank account and not a friend by her side.
Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more
Holiday’s spirit clearly longed for something else, a different sort of world, and glimmers of it flashed in the wistful songs she favored.
I confess, as your Word From Below correspondent this week, to wrestling even more than usual with the meaning of this text the lectionary offers from Matthew’s gospel. Wrestling in mind and spirit. Many cross-currents here. One consolation is that if we’re baffled, we’re hardly alone! Jesus’s first hearers commonly were, and every generation since. Another consolation is that sowing confusion actually seems to be a key strategy for Jesus – agitating us from ruts of the status quo.
And what is the status quo? The default way of the world is clearly what Billie Holiday heard from her mother, and what we’re conditioned to hear at first impression from this gospel story: “Them that’s got shall get/Them that’s not shall lose.” Better get your own, because if you don’t, this world will shred you and spit you out. If you do, as Lady Day found out, the world may bless you – buy a million records and shower you with adulation. Jesus found that out too.
A few chapters back in Matthew, Jesus couldn’t even escape the fawning crowds when he tried. A chapter or two ahead, and he will be utterly abandoned. In between, he laments how the true prophets have been killed in the name of God (chapter 23), and warns of calamity when the faithful will be once again hunted down and terrorized (chapter 24). In fact the graphic-novel-style apocalypse of the previous chapter escalates the horror to the highest level, as the lords of violent power in heaven and earth claim their place as God.
Yes, Jesus knows how all this works. He knows what’s been building these three years. Soon it will crush him, and he will be thrown by the powers outside the city gates to the “Place of the Skull.”
The “Parable of the Talents” here in chapter 25 depicts three house slaves who have been entrusted with their master’s possessions. The stakes are high; the slaveholder is known to be a violent, “harsh man” (verse 24). One hides the money (a “talent” being the name of an extremely valuable coin), while others invest. The investors are rewarded with favor. The guy who squirrelled away his single entrusted coin is brutally cast out.
I have loved ones crushed by the powers of the world and thrown out. They’re struggling. Sometimes they are faithful, sometimes not. Me too. Sometimes my loved ones think it’s God crushing them, casting them aside. I’m not so sure about that, but my arguments are not always convincing. Together we hunger for good news. We talk about Jesus, a lot.
Is Jesus the voice of Billie Holiday’s mother here?
Is God the harsh slaveowner, ruling by terror?
Does God simply sanction the status quo, the way of the world – playing by its rules of rewards and punishments with even higher cosmic stakes?
It seems a tremendous stretch, given what Jesus has taught on the Sermon on the Mount, how he has lived and loved, how he will die, and how he will rise. It seems farfetched, if in him we truly have seen the glory of God.
Or could it be, as a small minority of interpreters has suggested, that the hero of this parable is actually the slave who is cast out and crushed? Crushed not by God, but by God’s imposters? Like true prophets through time, this slave has subverted the status quo through an act of resistance – and paid a terrible price. Could it be that like the prophets, he points through his faithfulness to another sort of world? Could it be that the slave in fact has paid this price for his allegiance to the “kingdom” Jesus has spoken of and modeled? Could it be the brutal price Jesus himself knows he will pay, at the hands of harsh men, so that these very dynamics of power might be dismantled and transformed?
If so, it would be a glimmer of very good news not only for the poor but for all people, as Jesus boldly announced from the beginning. Is this what Jesus wants us to see? But oh my – what stunning courage it calls forth. We are headed with Jesus for Jerusalem.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Last week I “had the talk” with a group of young leaders in Romania, on the topic of “God and sex.” What was I thinking when I volunteered for that? While I’ve had countless informal conversations with these friends over the years on both subjects, it’s the first time we’ve tackled it formally in our leadership training.
Hmm, really, who wants to hear an old guy talk about sex? Someone suggested we just show pictures, which certainly might offer more engaging possibilities. Fortunately I’m only one part of the mix. While we wondered if the whole thing would unravel into goofy-ness, our young people’s earnest desire to learn and grow shone through. We had fun for sure, and had to reel it in at points. But they pressed in with many whiteboard brainstorms about what questions to explore – which became a plan for a number of weekly sessions.
Our session went great last week – beyond expectations. More about that in a moment. What caught me up short was a phone conversation with someone in the USA afterward. “I hope you started by teaching about purity. That has to be the foundation,” my friend advised. “Use the verse in Philippians and go from there.” Think, think, I thought. The verse on purity? Oh yes I remembered, chapter four. “Nothing else about sex will matter if there’s not purity.” I wasn’t so sure about that, but in the moment I couldn’t put my finger on why. Who can argue with purity? Snow and gold and Ivory soap? Lamely I offered that we’d be talking about purity.
At the risk of betraying precious individual confidences, I’ll paint with a large brush here and say that as a group our young people – formerly abandoned and institutionalized – have experienced sex in almost every way imaginable since they were very small children. Sex before they knew what sex was. Sex with orphanage staff. Sex with local officials, as a perk. Sex with bullies. Sex as bullies. Sex for money for other people. Sex for cigarettes. Sex with each other. Sex with both sexes, sex in groups, sex by themselves. Sex they didn’t want and sex they did. Yes, sex in every way imaginable except “purity.”
So where to start?
A “pure” place to start would be “the seat of Moses” the lawgiver. Famously, there were 613 Mosaic laws and quite a few were about sex. Moses’s seat is a good seat to sit on, when you can possibly imagine yourself pure.
No one imagines our young people pure. Least of all, themselves.
From the seat of Moses we might say “You’ve had it done to you wrong, and done it wrong yourselves, now get it right and here’s how.” But sex… ah sex. Sex! It goes so far, far, far beyond doing. It goes to being. To every blessed and dark corner of being. It becomes our being.
When you understand yourself to be a pool that’s been peed in, gum that’s been chewed, a flower with plucked petals – to use purity metaphors that yes actually get used – you can’t un-pee or un-chew or un-pluck. Any of us, if unflinchingly honest, have a lot more of this in us than we let on. Our young leaders in Romania have it in every cranny of their bodies and souls, with the added feature of seldom being able to hide it.
Our young people will wither before the seat of Moses. It will crush them. In fact it already has crushed them in a thousand ways. It’s much of what they think they know of God.
So where did we start? We started with Moses the storyteller. We started at the start of the story he told, with the Spirit moving over the face of the deep and bringing life. We started with a story of stuff – earthy, physical stuff – spinning out from delight and raucously cheered as good. We talked about hands down in dirt, playing, messing around, squishing and pushing body parts into humanity, lithe and sensuous. We went around the room telling each other about our own favorite pleasures of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We rubbed fragrant lotion on each other’s hands. (Nope I didn’t lead that part. But it was nice!)
We asked each other the most beautiful question: whose image do we bear? Not could we, or should we, or might we bear. Whose image do we bear?
Afterward a young man pulled me aside. “This is the first time I have ever felt good about myself, even for a few minutes. This is the first time I have had hope.”
If the “seat of Moses” the lawgiver has become a hulking marble throne that crushes, could it be that Jesus calls us back – back to Moses of the liberating Exodus, further back to Moses barefoot before a burning bush, still further back to fingers in the mud? Those are the fingers Jesus lifts. He makes the burden light, calling us forward, forward, forward into marvelous light from which we need not flinch.
Good thing, because next session is about vaginas and penises.
So reads a phrase on the many battered T-shirts stacked up in the back of my closest. I just don’t have the heart to discard them – those old shirts contain so many beautiful memories of my summers serving the children and families of north Philadelphia over twenty years ago.
The phrase above became the motto for a little outfit with which I served back then. Eventually that little group evolved into a bustling organization. The phrase on the shirt was lifted from the words of Jesus responding to the Pharisees’s trap question (another of the many “un-beautiful” questions that were referred to in last week’s Word from Below). Jesus responds:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Sitting here in Guatemala City, this week’s lectionary text enters a very personal space for me. Over the past few weeks my inbox has filled with concerns and questions from others regarding the life trajectory of a friend connected to those 20-year-old memories – a friend who has been one of the chief inspirations helping to put me unto the trajectory that my own life has followed. A friendship, by the way, that continues to inspire and encourage.
As I try to remain emotionally present to the many unanswered questions swirling around the issues, I feel compelled by the text in front of me to consider anew the words that jumped off the T-shirts and perforated my heart two decades ago:
“Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters.”
Is that really true? Is this statement about love in two directions all that really matters?
For my part, I guess some could say that it’s just a blind allegiance to a kind of nostalgia that keeps my closest full of unworn, tattered T-shirts bearing catchy sayings. However, what about for he who uttered these words in the first place? Was there something far more foundational, revolutionary, and practical that roots his response in an earth-shaking exclamation – in the face of which “Nothing Else Matters?” Could it not be argued decisively that the church today has tweaked the statement to read: “Love God, Love People and a whole lot of other stuff also matters.”
If Jesus’s words to the Pharisees meant anything then, they mean no less today. They even take on further texture if we see the words through the lens of the expanded definition of “neighbor” revealed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. An additional layer comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44).
The big surprise for the Pharisees comes with the addition of this second commandment – “love your neighbor” – that Jesus says is equally important as the first. The Pharisees had definitely not asked for two. It is this second that made them squirm, because they had organized themselves around a love for themselves more than their “neighbors.” In fact, they assumed superiority to their neighbors and certainly felt superior to those stinkin’ Sadducees that Jesus had just finished shutting up in the previous verses.
I see far more of my current self than I’d like to admit in the Pharisees of this story. Why, like them, have I allowed so many other things to “matter” more than the cruciform-shaped dimensions of love? Why do I allow my pride, reputation, success, and comfort to matter more than love? What was it (in relationship with either friend or foe) that the younger version of the person wearing those T-shirts 20 years ago understood, that this older version seems to have forgotten?
Perhaps a righteous Christian life is not one that obeys the law of God impeccably, but a life that loves relentlessly. Love, Jesus tells us, is the way to unplug from the cage of violence and rivalry that the teachers of the law are trying to lock him – and all of us – up inside.
Maybe Jesus is again giving permission to take to heart the greatest gift of God in this life – to continually and repeatedly and relentlessly embrace the ones we love while extending the goodwill of heart, soul, and mind to all the world – even, or maybe especially, to those who seem furthest away.
Joel Van Dyke
P.S. For those among our readers who remember being in high school in the late 70s and early 80s and need to laugh: please consider taking a peek at the memories from the pop culture of my youth that surfaced for me in my mind’s eye while working on this reflection.
Perhaps motivational speaker Bill Murray has something to say to us about what does or just does not matter in relationship to what we typically find so important in life.
Or perhaps Steve Martin wasn’t such a “jerk” after all with this parody on life about all that’s really needed.
“Tell us, then, what you think.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
At Street Psalms we’ve grown to love “beautiful questions.” They provide doorways to freedom and life.
Unfortunately un-beautiful questions abound as well. These questions prove to be traps – luring us to small, confining spaces with doors that snap shut.
How very crucial to discern the difference!
Beautiful questions spring from the pages of scripture and from the life experiences of people in our communities. By some counts, there are over 3,000 questions in the Bible. Beautiful questions may be hard and haunting, or gentle and inviting – but they are capable of opening our spirits to wider and richer realities. Questions such as…
– Where are you?
– How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
– Who do you say that I am?
– What do you want me to do for you?
– How many times should I forgive?
Beautiful questions prompt us to deeper life with God and each other, especially as we explore them together.
Other questions are NOT beautiful. We come to know them by their fruit. Scripture records plenty of this variety too.
Un-beautiful questions can be posed sincerely, but start from false premises that run us off the rails every time. A classic example opens John chapter 9: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who sinned questions virtually never become beautiful questions for our communities. Who’s to blame? Who can we scapegoat? We would do well to pay careful attention to how Jesus avoids such a trap in this important story, and prompts his hearers toward freedom.
Other un-beautiful questions come from flat-out ugly motives from the start – which brings us to this week’s lectionary reading in Matthew 22. Here Herodians and Pharisees are unlikely collaborators in a plot they hope will prove deadly. Usually on opposite sides of the political fence (loyal vs. resistant to Rome respectively), they now unite to scapegoat Jesus. No matter that they happen to have completely different views of Roman taxation. Fear and loathing bring them together. Their question represents not honest inquiry but a rhetorical trap, which Jesus calls out immediately as “hypocrisy” (Matthew 22:18). It’s not the first time for this chronic trap-question: “Is it lawful?” (v. 17).
Jesus asks for a coin used for the imperial tax imposed on every man and woman in Palestine. His questioners hand him a silver coin stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar, and inscribed with the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” The reverse bears a goddess image with the words “High Priest” – i.e. of the cult of emperor worship. The coin was literally the property of the divine “son of god” who demanded unquestioning allegiance and subjugation. For Jews the graven god-image and inscription represented blasphemy of course, and indeed sparked a Boston Tea-Party style revolt in the year 6 A.D. that was brutally crushed.*
Jesus answers the “lawful?” trap-question with a beautiful question. “Whose image?” (v. 20). Echoes from the Hebrew creation story are unmistakable:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
“Whose image?” What vistas this opens! What imagination it sparks! What freedom it invites! What a vibrant, life-giving contrast to petty wrangling about “what’s lawful,” and what if anything might be owed to a distant despot who maintains grudging allegiance by swords and stooges. Fine, return his little coin, if that’s the extent of his claim. But the beautiful question is: Who are the true image-bearers? What might it mean to render the image of the divine giver of life?
May we cultivate discernment among questions, and eagerness for questions that open us to good news.
*For background see Craig Keener, here.
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.'”
The tension has been building, building. If this were simply the story of a nice guy – with kindness for the sick and friendship with the forgotten – things could have been different. Jesus might have flown under the radar. We have instead a story sliding toward violence.
As the conflict stretched to the snapping point between respected religious leaders and this rogue rabbi, we might imagine any number of ways to ease the tension. At this precise juncture Jesus opts for nothing of the sort. Just the opposite; he ups the torque. No longer roaming the desert or the villages of Galilee, Jesus is now approaching the sacred center – geographically in Jerusalem and chronologically with the upcoming Passover.
Without an awareness of what’s at stake here, we might misread Jesus’s reference to Psalm 118 simply as an inspirational quote about making cornerstones from castoff junk. You know the motivational posters in middle managers’ offices… “POTENTIAL: Your Marvelous is Ready to Be Seen.” In other words: a bland, innocuous statement about what might be possible for anyone anywhere with a dose of resourcefulness!
Though Jesus continues to speak in parables and metaphor, the references are becoming more explicit. The “builders” are those who construct and manage the prevailing religious, political, and social systems. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (verse 45).
Throughout his public life, Jesus defied the architecture of these systems, welcoming people whom the dominant structures rejected and excluded. As we’ve seen in recent readings, these rejects included prostitutes, foreigners, slackers, and lawbreakers. Jesus might now be expected to clarify: “Okay, I’ve been hanging out with this unsavory bunch for strategic reasons – to bring them around for help making my point – but make no mistake, I’m not one of them!” Instead he brings a new clarity: “This is exactly who I am.”
The news isn’t that Jesus has finally managed to wedge himself into the old conventional architecture, finally accepted as the expected Christ. The news instead is an unexpected wrecking ball crashing the very structures that craftsmen take pains to conserve. To put an even finer point on it, not only the buildings but the builders themselves: “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (verse 44). Sound harsh? Earlier Jesus announced that nothing less is required for salvation: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Ironically, this is the way of love. It is the way of true life. It is the way of nonviolence and peace, which Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us is not simply the absence of conflict but a new arrangement of reality expressed in the “beloved community.” It is the way of good news for the poor – over which conservators of the old order will stumble and flail – often violently. In each of three “synoptic” gospels in which this cornerstone reference appears, it immediately follows the dark parable of vineyard tenants killing the son of the vineyard owner.
The new comes – a marvel! But as we see the gospel story unfolding, the old will not go quietly. Should we be surprised when it sometimes does not go gently around even our peaceable work in vulnerable urban communities?
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
At Street Psalms we embrace a particular perspective that invites us into a grace to see from below. We do theology from below, reading the Bible with the excluded and damned. We practice spirituality from below, together learning to see and celebrate good news in hard places. We share a spirituality of imperfection that delights in the Spirit’s dance among awkwardness and disarray.
A perspective like this often leads to profound, disorientating questions about authority.
In the Dominican Republic, Pastor Francis Montas and his wife, Loly, shepherd a church of young people – Casa Joven – that meets on Saturday nights in a converted Santo Domingo nightclub. They have been core members since the beginning of our Dominican Republic missional community, led by CTM Caribbean Director Mario Matos. Their work with street kids, incarcerated juvenile delinquents, and las chicas de Sarasota (prostitutes) serves as a prophetic wake-up call to many others in the Dominican church.
One Thursday night, Francis and Loly called a special prayer service because so many young people in their flock were having serious problems. They did not know what else to do in the face of such difficult circumstances. They met in a little house near one of Santo Domingo’s most infamous streets for prostitution – La Avenida Sarasota. Their prayers for one another seemed strained and blocked somehow in a way that they had not experienced before. They began to question their own authority related to their work as a church, and a prayerful attention began to shift to the young women working on the street outside of this prayer meeting. They began talking about the women and praying for them. Eventually they felt compelled to leave from where they were and spent the next several hours outside asking beautiful questions of the “Chicas de Sarasota.”
I had the chance to go out to the streets with Francis and Loly and their team seven weeks later, during which time they had not missed a Thursday night encounter with the girls.
We experienced a numbness-shattering picture of God’s scandalous grace in the strange world of evening call girls. Every sex worker we talked to lit up as the young women from the church called her by name and embraced each with bear hugs. The women on the street updated us on their week, shared stories about their children, and received prayer with eager anticipation – all the while completely ignoring potential clients who passed by.
We had just finished sharing and praying with a group of three sex workers when one of them, whom I will call Gloria, asked if she could pray for us. Needless to say, that was an inversion of roles I had not anticipated. We all joined hands on the sidewalk of Avenida Sarasota at 2:30 a.m., and I heard one of the most beautiful prayers of my life. When Gloria uttered her “amen,” a smile exploded onto her face. She sheepishly confessed that it was the first time she had ever prayed out loud. I pretended to cough while trying to wipe away tears. Gloria received more bear hugs from the ladies and an awkward handshake from me. She said that she planned to come to church that Saturday night where I was scheduled to preach.
I thought about her promise several times over the next several days, and on Saturday night, Gloria indeed came. When the service concluded, she received hug after hug from the young worshipers, including this guest preacher, whose awkward handshake on the street a few nights earlier would no longer suffice for Gloria. She approached me with arms opened wide and a smile erupting with joy. Authority remixed??
How blessed the church in Casa Joven has become, and how their vision and mission for their city has been recalibrated through their interaction with these young women! Casa Joven is living out the missional implications of questioned authority in which the outsiders “get it.” As a result they are encouraging many other “insiders” throughout Central America and the Caribbean to exchange hugs with the “outsiders” of their respective cities and neighborhoods. And in so doing, they are giving the question of “authority” a graced-filled facelift.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Director for Latin America
Guatemala City, Guatemala
“Jesus says ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who…'”
“Pray then in this way…. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
For those of us who wrestle with earning our place – either in heaven or in our office – through good and hard work, this passage about a lavishly generous landowner might not go down easy. This landowner’s economics are not like those we learned in school, or on the streets.
Obviously, this passage tells us that the landowner of the kingdom is concerned for all his workers. The invitation to join in keeps coming throughout the day. When I sit with these words in lectio divina, it appears the kingdom is about giving everyone the opportunity to participate in the life, the purpose, and the work of the kingdom. It all belongs to him and he is generous. It is about how he chooses to love and lavishly pour grace on everyone.
But for a moment let’s place ourselves among the workers. What is our response? Am I the first or the last? Am I the jealous worker who has toiled all day long? Am I the grateful one who joined the team at the last minute and reaped the full benefits?
Or perhaps there are better questions. What were all these workers to learn about themselves and about God as they encountered this part of their individual journeys?
The ones hired in the morning – did they need to work all day and reap the benefits of a full day’s labor?
Those hired at the end of the day – was theirs a gift of purpose when all seemed lost?
So it brings me to think that we all have a place, and I ask myself what else we receive along with our wages. As they stood in line to receive their reward, did workers unwittingly already hold in their hands, and in their experiences of the day, riches that they did not readily recognize? Was that not part of the “your kingdom come, your will be done” plan?
Once I loose myself from the math in which I think that working harder or longer should earn me more, the mystery of the kingdom always strikes me with wonder and comfort. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord in Isaiah 55:8.
When our thoughts (and feelings!) center on fairness, reward, and ourselves, we are most often looking in the wrong places. As our friend Richard Rohr says, after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole, as if you are actually inside of a larger mystery.
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…
Director of Joshua Station at Mile High Ministries
Street Psalms Community
“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
On the surface, here is another parable that seems to contradict itself. Jesus starts off by painting a picture of mercy and ends with frightening judgment that seems to undermine the original point.
The parable begins with Peter asking about whether there are any limits to forgiveness. Peter asks, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus completely blows the roof off the limits that Peter wants to impose and says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (18:21-22).
“Seventy-seven” is biblical code language of eternal completeness. In other words, there is no limit to forgiveness inside the Kingdom. God does not merely have mercy, as if it were a commodity to be dispensed when feeling generous, God IS mercy.
To make the point, Jesus goes on to tell the parable about an unforgiving servant. At first the point seems obvious. Give mercy to others as you are given mercy by God. It is a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God in action.
But the whole darn thing seems to flip right at the end. At the end of the parable, God’s judgment seems to mirror our own. Is Jesus saying forgive others as God forgives you… OR ELSE? Is he suggesting that God wants to be nice, but if you are a jerk then God will be a jerk too? What’s worse, Jesus seems to suggest that God will “torture” you big time if you don’t play according to the rules. What started as a revelation of limitless mercy ends as some kind of spiritual terrorism.
Or so it seems…
The key word in this passage is the phrase “handed him over.” It is a passive verb. The King “handed over (the servant to be tortured.” This phrase is used repeatedly throughout the Gospels referring to Jesus himself. For example, later in Matthew, “The Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion” (Matthew 26:2).
The point is that the King is not actively punishing the servant any more than God was punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross (as is commonly taught). That would make the master no different than the servant. Instead, the master releases the servant over to the hell of his own making. In other words, if we opt out of the Kingdom principle of seventy-seven, we are reluctantly handed over to the hell of our own choosing. This process will feel very much as if God is punishing us.
The diabolic logic of tit-for-tat debt-keeping binds us and blinds us. We end up seeing God and the world in the same light. We see God in our own debt-keeping image, and in the end that image tortures us. Of course, this is a hell of our own making and has no basis in reality, but it’s hard to convince someone of that while it is happening. It’s a hellish way to live, which is why Jesus was “handed over” to the crucifixion – to show the world the true end of its diabolic logic. And while being crucified Jesus declares the only way out of the vicious cycle in which we are trapped: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Therefore, forgive as you have been forgiven.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Jesus’s ministry as peacemaker was characterized by – paradoxically – disruption and disorientation. It is clear he viewed this as essential to the movement toward shalom. At every turn in the gospel accounts, we find the status quo challenged by his words and actions. In this week’s gospel reading, here we have it again! Jesus is making a major shift in the location of authority.
The language of “binding and loosing” would have been familiar to his hearers as a responsibility and privilege reserved for respected religious authorities such as the Pharisees.* These teachers interpreted gray areas and practical implications of the Jewish law. The fourth commandment, for instance, forbids work on the Sabbath. But what about carrying something? How heavy? How far? What exactly can I carry, and what for? A piece of bread across the room? A sack of flour across town?
Religious authorities debated and decided this stuff – allowing and forbidding. Things allowed were “loosed” and things forbidden were “bound.” The implications ranged across all of life – personal, social, spiritual, legal. Some teachers were stricter and others were, well, looser.
In this and similar passages, Jesus doesn’t weigh in on whether he falls in the strict or loose camp. As a rabbi he makes a far more profound move. He grants to his immediate hearers the responsibility and authority to make such discernment. Not only that, he gives their “binding and loosing” the weight and sanction of heaven.
When we remember who Jesus’s followers were, this becomes downright alarming. Unschooled social castoffs making the rules for everybody? Here I want to say very personally how challenged I am even as I write this. I’m a religiously educated person groomed for authority, who happens to have spent many years among social misfits by way of programs, friendships, and even family. I think I probably have more appreciation for their messy gifts than most people do – having undergone so many of my own painful and beautiful rebirths with them. But… but… the homeless coffee house guys setting the rules for the place? Making moral judgments for others? Exercising spiritual discernment that impacts the whole community?
I need to sit with this and you do too. As we do, we will do well to explore the contexts (both in the immediate text and the larger story) in which Jesus makes this shift in authority. As well as our own contexts!
Here in this passage, the authority shift comes as a response to practical questions of conflict resolution (Matthew 18:15-17). “Binding and loosing” judgments are not made in an absolutist or theoretical vacuum. Commenting on this passage, J.H. Yoder observes that in our own day, “Christian debate about moral issues makes the mistake of concentrating on what the standards ought to be rather than on how they are to be discerned and implemented…. Conversation with reconciling intent is the most powerful way for a community to discover when the rules they have been applying are inadequate, so that they may be modified.”
Jesus was gathering a rag-tag community whom he trusted – even mandated – to do this ongoing work of discernment. Do we have this same trust?
*One excellent discussion of “binding and loosing” in Jesus’s day is here.
She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Can I say that I find this story the single most intriguing account of Jesus in all the gospels?
Taken at face value, it would seem to portray Jesus undergoing a complete change of mind and heart toward this foreign “Caananite” woman he encounters. As it happens, there are a number of ways to read this story – each revealing at least as much about us as readers, as it does about Jesus. I’d like to highlight three ways possible to read the story.
First, some readers are not bothered by Jesus’s apparent condescension toward the woman or her request. She is in fact not worthy of Jesus’s attention. Nobody is. Humanity is entirely unworthy and undeserving of any divine mercy whatever. The few who get it should be grateful and the rest can’t complain. I’m troubled by the picture of both God and humanity in this view, but some form of it seems common. In any case, Jesus takes note of her faith and “throws to the dogs” a token of his goodness.
Fr. Robert Voyle introduced me to another reading of this passage, highlighting what he calls the “mischievous” energy of compassion Jesus employs. (Voyle identifies three essential energies of compassion: fierce, mischievous, and tender.) Jesus sees in this woman low self-esteem and high potential. He could say, “You poor little thing, let me grant your wish” (tender voice of compassion) – fixing her perceived problem but likely reinforcing her core issue of shame. He could also rebuke his disciples for their prejudice and take her under his wing, sheltering her from emotional harm (fierce voice of compassion). But he discerns a mischievous, though quite risky, tactic for empowerment in this moment. “Why should I do anything for a dog like you?” Wow. Jesus. What? From deep within, the woman’s blood boils. A dog? Did he just call me a dog?? She squares her shoulders, raises her head, and looks Jesus in the eye. “Even the dogs,” she sputters, her own fierceness rising – “Even the dogs get crumbs!” Whoa, THAT’S what were’ talking about, Jesus exclaims – NOW we see what you got, baby, bring it! Let’s have some more of that. Now I can really get to work with you!
I love Voyle’s reading here, and I love reading through all the gospels watching these three dynamic energies of compassion at work. But there is a third reading I also find not only possible but compelling, introduced to me by Dr. Vie Thorgren. In Thorgren’s reading, this is primarily a story of Jesus himself learning, growing, and re-centering in his mission and call.
For Thorgren, solitude and presence with the poor were Jesus’s two essential teachers during his adult life. He was continually aware of his need for both, as keenly as his need for bread and water. Solitude and the poor both centered him. Both created space for him to hear the voice of his Father and the music of the Spirit. Both allowed him to grow into the fullness of his humanity and the fulfillment of his mission. Some people find the notion of Jesus learning and growing in his adult life offensive, which I in turn find odd. He surely grew, learned, and developed as a child in multiple ways (Luke 2:40, 52). How strange and inhuman it would be if he did not learn as an adult. What a shame if he could not be a model of open-hearted and open-minded growth for us as adults?
This returns us to the most face-value reading of all. Was this in fact a critical, transformational learning moment for Jesus? If so, what did he learn? How did he listen? What shifts was he open to? In a similar way as his times of desert solitude, how did he allow this encounter to stir his spirit and open his eyes for steps ahead?
We who wish to be apprentices of Jesus would do well to let our imaginations roam with this. Reading the full passage, we notice that for a time as the woman was pleading, “He did not answer her at all.” What might Jesus have been wrestling with internally, as he allowed her cries to echo in his soul? What did he allow her to teach him?
Might we grow and change with Jesus as well?
The Street Psalms Community
He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
I can say from experience that there is a difference between reading a book about childbirth and being present for one. I’m told there’s a difference between being present for a childbirth and actually bearing a child. I’m assuming, though don’t quite remember, that it’s still another thing to be born.
This week’s gospel reading, about Jesus and Peter walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33), clearly makes for better armchair reading than firsthand experience. For instance, there is a tiny little narrative gap between verses 24 and 25. Into that gap slides hours of terror. In the evening, the disciples’s boat was battered by waves and wind, unable to reach shore (v. 25). Skip to the morning, same conditions (v. 26). Can you imagine the night? I can – but conveniently, without retching up my breakfast.
I have also read, in fairly detailed study, about the concept of “the waters” in classical Middle Eastern imagination and mythology. In many ancient literary works, including the Hebrew scriptures, the waters represent untamed chaos and overwhelming danger. True, there is healing and life in water. But the same water when deep and windblown will turn and devour you like a monstrous force. In fact the ancients named an array of terrible sea creatures with supernatural power (Leviathan and Rahab, to name two in the Bible that are mentioned in other regional literature). It makes for interesting reading.
Reading this passage, we can see images and hear echoes of the Genesis creation story – where God moves over the surface of the waters, bringing order and life from chaos. And the terror and rescue of the flood and the ark, and the Exodus story of salvation in the Red Sea. Our story places Jesus precisely on the angry waters, against this backdrop of a God who prevails amid a cosmic battle of powers. Jesus is divine victor and peace-bearer. Not so many chapters later, Jesus will be submerged by these same powers, descending to the depths, with his followers scattered and wrecked. But our story foreshadows resurrection triumph and solace.
On we might go with study and reflection on the nature of miracles and faith and fear and doubt and risk, which is all genuinely fascinating, but the narrative hinges on the moment Peter GOT OUT OF THE BOAT.
Transformation begins when we do too.
The Street Psalms Community
“Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”
He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells of two lavish feasts, back to back. The juxtaposition is startling – clearly arranged by the narrator in vivid contrast.
The first feast takes place in a likely setting for extravagance – amid wealth and power. Herod Antipas, a Roman surrogate “King of the Jews,” was known for a level of royal excess only perhaps surpassed by that of his father Herod the Great (mentioned at Jesus’ infancy). What Herod Antipas desired, he typically got. Not in line for the throne? An execution or two fixed that. Upgrade on a wife? Out with the old, in with the young. New palace? Sure, and a new city to put it in.
We can only imagine what a birthday party for such a man might entail. Most of it is left to our imagination, except for a few lurid details we are not spared here. Seems Herod had a fondness for young skin and became particularly enthused with his stepdaughter’s dance performance for the occasion. Probably well lubricated by that point, a gleeful Antipas makes a wild oath to grant the girl any wish. Prompted by the queen, the girl asks for the macabre appetizer of John the Baptist’s severed head. Why not? Past a certain point in the night, anything goes.
Almost anything, apparently. Even Herod has to stifle a gag reflex at this proposition. There is a backstory. In Jewish prophetic tradition, John has been the moral conscience of his people – publicly opposing the king’s new marriage arrangement. Prison fixed the “public” part. Ruthless as he was, Herod wasn’t ready for the death penalty for his critic – out of sight and earshot was enough.
On this night, however, no extravagance was too much. To save face in front of guests (rather than, surely, to maintain any integrity of his word), he ordered the gruesome platter to be served.
“When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t deserted for long. Any mournful reflection and action would have to be done in the company of five or ten thousand of his closest friends and followers. Jesus might have preferred a fast, but would soon host a feast. And what a feast it became! The story is familiar, starting with five loaves and two fish and ending with baskets of leftovers.
Less familiar, and worth pondering, is the contrast in the extravagance of the two feasts. For starters…
Motive: Narcissism – Compassion
Venue: Personal palace for royal hubris – Springtime grassland, natural beauty for the refreshment of all
Invitation: Exclusive to royal guests – Welcome to all
Serves: Lusts of the host – Nourishment of guests
Empowers: One wealthy family in depraved, fearful way – All participants and families, especially servers and especially the poor
Leftovers: Revolting, useless, limited – Savory, abundant, available
Outcome: Violence – Shalom
I would invite you to think of more comparisons and contrasts, and to reflect on the two stories on a number of levels – particularly the level of public life and leadership.
Many of us are accustomed to reading the Bible with privatized application to our personal spiritual lives, which is vital. But I would like to ask an equally vital question here: What do these two stories say about urban public policy? There is lavish abundance in all of our communities. But lavish for whom?
To the extent we exercise our public leadership opportunities and responsibilities, how do we best foster a life-giving mix of:
Urban spaces: Private vs. publicly shared
Recreation and celebration, festivals: Privately vs. publicly enjoyed
Economic opportunity: Pathways for a few vs. many
Basic resources: Health care, education, nutrition, legal representation, public safety, communication systems, transportation – for people across ALL economic and social lines
Differing political and social ideologies will certainly suggest very different approaches to these ends. We should welcome the dialogue; complex urban realities defy single-ingredient recipes. While it would be a misuse of scripture to find ready-made “answers” for the challenges of our cities in its pages, gospel narratives such as these two lavish feasts can frame contours of the conversation for those of us who desire to follow Jesus in both a private and public way.
The Street Psalms Community
“The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.”
-Father Anthony de Mello
In a supersized, Big Box culture where dimensions rule, the parable of the mustard seed is often interpreted with the assumption that its meaning is about the Church, and the conclusion is that God wants the Church to be big. The story is familiar. What starts as a small seed becomes the largest of trees. However, if growth is Jesus’ main point, he chose a poor metaphor – so perhaps here again is proof that Jesus was certainly more carpenter than farmer. The farmers in the crowd would have been shocked by this story. It simply makes no sense.
Robert Farrar Capon points out that the mustard tree is a weed no farmer wants in his garden. It may start off as a small seed, but even at full height, it only stands six feet tall. It could hardly compete for splendor with the cedars of Lebanon that filled Solomon’s temple. If Jesus is after size, he picked the wrong shrub. And this is the point he is trying to make. He probably did know, after all, that the mustard tree is a “shrub” – a weed that farmers spent their days trying to eliminate because these weeds grew into homes for birds that destroyed crops. If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, then who would want it?
In a world where clean and efficient megachurches are often celebrated as clear evidence of God’s special anointing, it is important to consider that not all growth is good growth and not all growth leads to unity. It is reminiscent of what we call the ‘mustard seed syndrome’ that afflicts so much of the church – the unexamined belief that God delights in bigness and that somehow the growth of the Church automatically equals blessings to the world. As a result, we often project our desires onto the Gospel and squeeze into the text interpretative calisthenics that satisfy those desires.
Jesus presses on with another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). This one sentence capstone of Jesus’ teaching is the stone that Israel rejected, and so do we – for good reason. Yeast is a mold that was considered unclean in Hebrew culture. With Jesus using a weed and a mold to illustrate the kingdom, what is he suggesting?
Could it be that the Kingdom of God in our cities appears in forms that our culture, our ideologies, and our theologies have conditioned us to reject? Could it be that the weeds and molds that we have systematically tried to get rid of are the very things that reveal the presence of God and are the keys to genuine community and unity? These texts invite us to move toward a kind of unity that makes room for the “other,” particularly the “other” that we are most conditioned to reject.
Jesus continues his riddles with the image of a fishing net (v. 47-48). The fishing net of that day was a dragnet, which interests me as a wannabe fisherman. When I “pretend” to go sport fishing, I attempt to use specific lures of just the right color and size, and choose just the right test-line for certain conditions – all to land a specific fish during a specific season. (At least this is what I imagine real sport fisherman do).
The fishing culture in Jesus’ day was markedly different. The dragnet was tied to a weight that would go down to the bottom and scrape up everything – from bottom feeders to the fish on the surface and all the sea life that comes in-between. It’s really a crazy, dirty way to fish.
Are we sport fishing for the fish we desire, or laying the dragnet that brings in all kinds? Are we worshiping size and “bigness,” wrongly assuming that growth in numbers automatically corresponds to blessings for the world? Have we become blind to the possibility that the yeast (mold) that we have systematically tried to get rid of might be the very thing that reveals the presence of God and is the key to genuine community and unity? Are we trying to sort our crops before the harvest, or are we trusting the sower to do the harvesting? If we dare to enter such riddles of grace, then mustard seeds, yeast, and a dragnet ministry with a wheat-and-tares discipline can radically broaden access to the one whose cross welcomes all.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Director for Latin America
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Imagine that it’s 1633 and you are hearing for the first time that the sun does not revolve around the earth. This bit of insight is being promoted by some odd guy named Galileo, who has just been branded a heretic by the Church:
We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine – which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures – that the Sun is the center of the world…
–Papal Condemnation of Galileo, 1633
In spite of this judgment, Galileo continues to share his vision. You can tell that he really believes in what he’s saying. There is an intuitive sense in you that he might be right, but it demands an entire re-wiring of your own vision of the universe, and it carries the brand of heresy.
Now just imagine – what if after hours of making his case before the skeptical and unreceptive audience, Galileo had changed tactics entirely. Instead of continuing to argue for what was true, imagine that he gave the audience what it wanted (what it knew) – and he did so in a way that highlighted the consequences of their “orthodox” view.
As if he said, I’m revealing a liberating truth, but if you insist on seeing things your way, then at least look carefully at your orthodoxy. Your truth makes you the center of the universe. If all you want is your own truth, you can have it; but you will need to spin a lot of large lies to maintain it.
Perhaps something like this is happening in the parable of wheat and tares. Jesus begins by illustrating God’s truth and ends by mirroring back to us our own. He serves up two dishes and invites us to dine as we please, knowing that in the end we all eat our own judgments.
Jesus begins the parable by illustrating a wildly permissive God who lets the wheat and tares grow together. He invites us to do the same. A tare is a particular kind of weed that looks a lot like wheat. The farmer says, “Let both of them grow together. Don’t rip it out.” The implication here is that there is a way to sort all this out, but not with our methods of sorting things.
Paul Nuechterlein points out that the key word in the parable is “let,” aphete. It means “permit,” or “suffer.” It is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “forgive.” Whoa!
Yes, God permits evil, suffers evil, and forgives evil. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the Cross, and it paves the way for true justice – restorative justice. God’s judgment upon evil is… (are you ready for this?) mercy! The point is clear: attacking evil/tares will ruin everything, including the good/wheat. Using violence to cast out violence is like Satan casting out Satan. It doesn’t work.
Realizing that his teaching is a strong cup of coffee, Jesus changes tactics. Robert Farrar Capon suggests that in the second half of the parable, Jesus mirrors back to the crowd their own bloodthirsty orthodoxy. He gives them what they want (or think they want). Jesus makes it painfully clear to the disciples that the crowd’s truth ends in “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We experience God the way we express our judgments. To people who are bound by their own judgment, God’s liberating truth seems like heresy.
P.S. Even in the face of overwhelming proof, it took 359 years for the church to recant its judgment on Galileo. It’s been more than 2,000 years and we are still struggling with the mercy of Christ. We should not be too hard on this. As Emily Dickinson said,
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
May we dine on God’s judgment, not our own.
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.
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!
“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.
The Street Psalms Community
Photo: Nepal by Scott Dewey
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me
welcomes the one who sent me.”
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.
“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”
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.”
“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
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).
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
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.
“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
“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.”
“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;”
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?
When we think of creation as an event that happened a long time ago in a garden far, far away, we can easily forget that creation is the ongoing activity of God, here and now, made visible through the resurrection.
In this week’s lectionary text of John 20:19-31, we see Jesus, the resurrected murder victim, re-creating the world and inviting us to participate in the ongoing act of creation.
1. “The doors… were locked… Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19).
The murder victim lovingly breaks into the locked prison of his disciples. Jesus returns as the Good Thief intent on taking only one thing. He comes to take away the sins of the world. This is not a violent break-in. It is a peaceful presence – a coming among us in a way that makes it clear Jesus has always been with us.
2. “Peace be with you” (vs.19).
Peace is the first word of new creation! Jesus doesn’t begin with a rant about how the disciples abandoned him and were complicit in his murder. Jesus begins by declaring peace.
3. “He showed them his hands and his side… then the disciples rejoiced” (vs. 20).
The murdered one shows his wounds. It is through Jesus’ wounds that the disciples recognize him. What’s odd is that they rejoice… not in the wounds themselves, but in the way Jesus becomes visible through them. Jesus is ALWAYS revealed as the wounded one. Jesus bears his wounds without resentment, vengeance, or wrath, and it’s in this way we recognize Jesus as the Christ. The wounded one does not shame us. Instead, he calls forth our deepest joy.
4. “Peace be with you” (vs. 21).
Jesus declares peace again. Wow, still no hint of resentment! The murdered one is filled with one reality… PEACE.
5. “As the Father sent me so I send you” (vs. 21).
Jesus commissions his disciples. He sends them out of their fear-filled prison the same way he entered – peacefully, as a Good Thief. We are commissioned to enter the prisons of this world in the same way Jesus enters ours.
6. “He Breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22).
God animates creation with God’s breath. The Spirit (which means breath) breathed life into the watery chaos in Genesis. On the cross, Jesus released his last breath into the violent chaos of this world. And now in the Resurrection he breathes again into the disciples’ prisons of shame. Jesus breathes on us, in us, and through us the breath of life that we might become fully human and be one with God.
7. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vs. 23).
The breath of life empowers the disciples to do what God does. This is the clincher. This is the whole point of receiving the Spirit. It is the whole point of the Gospel revelation. This is the reality that has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Matthew 13:35). It is so utterly simple that it is easily missed. God forgives! And we are invited to do the same.
Creation advances one way – through forgiveness! When we forgive, we participate in the ongoing work of Creation. To make the point more emphatically, Jesus reminds us that when we withhold forgiveness, we interrupt and diminish creation.
8. “But Thomas…” (vs. 24)
Thomas missed the big show. The absence of Thomas invites an encore presentation from Jesus. So, a week later Jesus breaks into another locked room, and once again declares peace, and once again shows his wounds (vs. 26-27). Once again there is sight.
Thomas comforts those of us who just don’t seem to get it, who are always late to the party, who refuse, reject, doubt, and deny. Such blessed ones call forth yet more grace and mercy from God. Interestingly, it is Thomas, the late-coming doubter, who not only touches the wounds of Jesus, but also offers the clearest, most personal declaration of Jesus in Scripture, “My Lord and my God” (vs. 28).
This passage is a foundational passage for us at Street Psalms. It has shaped our community as well as our training for many years now. We are ALL being re-created in Christ, especially the “least of these.” May this bring you joy.
Jesus calls us friend today, knowing we will betray him tomorrow. If there is an order to salvation, this is it.
God is love” is a theological statement that is true to the core. But “God is friend” – this is the deeper mystery made real in Jesus.Friendship is salvation. All else is theological pretense and drivel. The Friend who dines with us and washes our feet today will lay down his life tomorrow. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15).
“You, heart closed up in a chest, open,
for the Friend is entering.”
Hear afresh these words at the meal of friendship,
On the night that Jesus was betrayed [by his friends from below, and arrested by his other friends from above], he took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink, and said, ‘This cup is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.’
Dear friends of Jesus, who will soon be enemies, we are forgiven – now – completely! May the great befriending of God break our hearts wide open.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
We select and reject, every minute. I am selecting and rejecting words as I type. I pay attention to this task and push others away. We sift and sort by the second and the hour and the year, consciously or not. You filtered a hundred bits of data in the moment it took to click on this email or click away.
In this most essential human process of sorting there are, obviously, rejects.
Scripture abounds with rejects, which is unremarkable in itself. The world abounds with scrap heaps also, which we often do our best to ignore. If the scraps prove hard to overlook, we push them out of sight more forcefully. If they won’t be pushed, they may need to be crushed.
What bears remarking is how rejected scraps in Scripture find their ways to the center. This image recurs: the discarded stone becomes the chief cornerstone. The castoff rock is strangely employed as the most important structural element – either to square off the building or as the capstone of an arch. This week’s lectionary Psalm (for Palm Sunday) depicts an unlikely king of ancient Judah expressing incredulous joy after an even more unlikely escape from military defeat and death. The lyric of the cornerstone becomes the chant of the victory parade in Jerusalem. The language is later picked up by Jesus about himself (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17) as the one both rejected and chosen.
The stories of Jesus double down on this theme of castoffs. He tells stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. The gospel writers have him with rejected, overlooked, and even crushed people – proclaiming the realm of God to be among them. Nicodemus, one of the rare admirers with actual respectability, snuck in to see Jesus by cover of night.
Ok, but we builders know what we are doing. We are adept at selecting and rejecting to best effect. We construct our personas and societies and religion from the bright and beautiful as well as we can, with what is at hand. We can at least see when things are trending, lay palm branches in the road, and shout hosanna. We hitch our fortunes to what is winning and celebrate incredulously down the home stretch. As of course we should! Those were giddy days of acclaim in Jerusalem – both for David, and a millennium later for “the Son of David.
There is no mention that Jesus protested the fanfare, such as it was. But in a very short time, all that was overlooked in the jubilation would be bluntly revealed. The donkey, for starters, instead of a war horse. Within a week, desolation and death. This too is the “Lord’s doing,” the mercy, the marvel: precisely that after all shatterings, there is no shard so remotely cast off that it will not be reclaimed. Even death.
This gospel of rejects is the “way of salvation” hinted from the early pages of Scripture and revealed fully in Jesus. It’s at work in the world and in us. In our busy-ness building, are we paying attention?
The Street Psalms Community
As I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.<
The dead still speak – at least they do in Guatemala. In our Street Psalms network we are learning to listen intently to the breath and voice of God even among the dead.
One of the most powerful listening places for us has been with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). The FAFG uses forensic science to investigate human rights violations that occurred during Guatemala’s 30-year internal armed conflict. Forensic anthropologists exhume mass graves, identify the bodies through interviews from witnesses and DNA samplings, and then determine the cause of death to create the possibility for criminal prosecutions. FAFG has exhumed more than 5,000 of the more than 200,000 skeletal remains of victims of the war, 20% of which are children.
As the bones of each “case” are carefully laid out on tables and the skeletons reassembled, they slowly take the shape of a person. The bones begin to speak and tell the story of what happened until they eventually are reconnected to their names, faces, and histories. Their stories are honored, and they are then ultimately returned to their families for burial.
Once the bones have said all that they can say, Rob, the FAFG photographer, comes to document the findings with photographs, which are archived for evidence in case of a future trial. Rob is meticulous about his work. He needs to be. He shared that one of his greatest joys of his work is when the Foundation finally returns the bones to the family members – most of whom are Maya campesinos (peasants) who live in the hill country.
When they return the skeletal remains to the families, the FAFG staff engages in a process called “dressing the bones.” The image is as intense as it is intimate. The family insists on re-dressing the skeleton with clothing – a painstaking process, as you might imagine. What used to be just a pile of unidentified bones in a mass grave, denied the dignity of name and story, let alone their very lives, are now not only reassembled and named, but they are carefully clothed. It is a process exploding with theological significance.
The significance of this work takes on further importance when considered in light of elements of Mayan culture so poignantly described to us by the FAFG staff. The Mayan peoples, we are told, believe that the elderly, children, and female victims are still crying because they weren’t buried with dignity. Mayans believe that as long as their dead relatives are not at peace, the living cannot be at peace either. In Mayan culture, the dead are brought to the church to be before God, not to be prayed for as in other cultures, but to face God in person, to tell God of their angers, tears, and indignation, and to make their cry for justice in hope that God will adopt their cause. While lying dismembered in mass graves like forgotten animal carcasses, this healing process was not possible for the victims or their families.
Furthermore, when a body is taken out of the church after such a “God encounter,” the open casket is taken out into the daylight to publicly honor the deceased. To the Mayan families, the re-burial of the remains is more important than the exhumation. The re-burial is a public proclamation by the deceased of their ordeal, pointing to the need to make amends.
It is impossible to forget the deplorable loss of so many innocent lives, but the memory and dignity of a wounded people is being restored to a life-giving voice. The FAFG has its work cut out for them as they continue to find Guatemala’s missing sons and daughters so they can be named, their stories told, proper burials given, and justice served – all necessary steps to forgiveness and healing of a wounded nation.
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
Adapted from Geography of Grace, chapter 14
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
We are now in the third week of Lent, a season that commemorates Jesus’ forty days in the desert wilderness. It was a hinge event in the timeline of his life, a liminal transition space, a solitary gateway of passage that immediately preceded his years of public ministry.
The geography of “desert” and the duration of “forty” bears unmistakable spiritual connection to the forty years the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt. The ancient location name “Sin” in this week’s lectionary text refers either to “clay” or “thorny” (rather than English meaning of “transgressions”). It evokes images of parched soil where only the toughest, prickery, stickery brambles manage to eke out life – and by their own stubborn force of nastiness, ward off any critter seeking nourishment.
We also recognize Jesus’ desert sojourn as foreshadowing his journey to the cross – which culminated in another sort of desolation. Amid the Jerusalem crowds, all would abandon him. As he cried out in his last lament of forsakenness, his head was crowned with thorny desert vines.
This week’s scripture yanks us out of idyllic notions that wilderness space always provides delight for the soul. We hear that Jesus sometimes withdrew to solitary places. We figure if we do the same, we will be rejuvenated! A little breather and we’ll perk up. Yes it works that way sometimes, like it should. Like the freed slaves of Egypt should have been perky, now with a breather after 400 years.
Instead, open space often exposes all that is thorny, fearful, and troublesome. It surfaces ugly shadows of desire. For the people of the Exodus, quarrels and panicky demands quickly erupted out of their hunger, thirst, and fears for the future. Trust in God’s abundance and guidance evaporated in the desert glare.
So maybe we have finally taken a personal retreat. Or experienced new freedom from a stressful grind; for instance, a transition from school to work. Or on a social level, an organization or community may find itself in “in-between” space. Here in the open, where we expected to be led to green pastures beside still waters, there seems to be nothing but clay and thorns. Even taking ten minutes of quiet prayer and reflection, we may find our thoughts clamoring and demanding rather than at peace.
In these spaces we may undergo what the medieval mystics called spiritual purgation. Like physical purgation, which ain’t pretty and clogs the toilet, spiritual purgation is a messy process of disgorging false urges and identities. It is a cleansing and clarifying of the true identity into which we are being called and into which we are being formed. The Exodus wanderers were exposed, and so are we.
Our Lord and brother Jesus has gone before us even into this geography. Here in a place of clay, among thorns, Jesus underwent strenuous formation for his mission. Exposed to the natural elements and deprived of basic needs, he was especially vulnerable to the haunting and taunting voices that preyed on his deepest sources of desire.
Exposure to the extremes of the desert was an essential part of Jesus’ journey, as it was in the epic history of God’s people in the scrolls from which he read. Sooner or later, the desert will be an essential part of our journey, too.
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