Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Foolishness

A Homily for Wednesday in Holy Week
Memorial Church, Harvard University – April 1, 2015
The Reverend Luther Zeigler

“Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”  (1 Cor. 3:18-19)

Happy April Fool’s Day!  Some might think it incongruous that April Fool’s Day should fall smack dab in the middle of Holy Week this year.  Holy Week, after all, is a solemn time as we re-live the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and accompany him on the painful journey to the Cross.  The truth, however, is that “foolishness” is very much at the heart of Christian living.

This year during Lent I have been reading Michael Higgins’ biography of the late Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen, as you may know, was a Roman Catholic priest and prolific spiritual writer whose influence some compare to C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.  Born in Holland, Nouwen moved to this country in the 1960s and went on to teach at Notre Dame and Yale.  Then, in 1983, he came to our Divinity School at Harvard, where he taught courses on the spiritual life.

Nouwen did not have an especially happy experience at Harvard.  Rightly or wrongly, he found Harvard to be overly preoccupied with academic achievement and worldly success.  To paraphrase his friend, Robert Ellsberg, Nouwen was a person who wanted to generate community, to foster a deeper spirituality in his students, to talk about how one cultivates a close relationship with Jesus, and he was doing this at a time when most of the graduate students at Harvard wanted to stick to the academic study of religion.  As a consequence, Nouwen was seen by many, Ellsberg writes, “as a bit of a nut, an evangelizer of some sort,” who just didn’t get the Harvard culture.

So, in 1985, Nouwen decided to leave Harvard.  At the time, he was sufficiently famous that he could have gone on to any of a number of other prestigious universities or seminaries.

But instead, Nouwen felt called to join L’Arche, a network of homes for intellectually disabled persons.  L’Arche’s philosophy is not primarily to provide services, or programs, or resources to disabled persons, but rather, in the words of its founder, to say loud and clear to such persons:  “we love you, and with you, we want to create a place of belonging.”  Nouwen would spend the last decade of his life in residence at a L’Arche community near Toronto.

Many of Nouwen’s friends at the time thought he was a fool for leaving a world-renown university to live an obscure and  difficult existence with a group of people who weren’t able to care for themselves and were on no one’s list for a Nobel Prize.  Yet, Nouwen intuited that he just might find God there.

And so he did.  Nouwen writes:  “Living in a L’Arche community is seeing a world where people open themselves up in a spontaneous way, no contrivance, no artifice, no strategizing . . . .  The people in this world are uninterested in impressing you with achievements and credentials.  They are just themselves – broken and without cosmetics or rationalization.  They helped me see beyond the easy divisions we put in place between the well and the unwell, and they gave me the courage to relate to them not in spite of my frailties, but in and through them.”

Nouwen often told the story of a little disabled boy, Jacques, who was making his first holy communion.  After the liturgy the family had a party, at which an uncle said to the boy’s mother:  “Wasn’t it a beautiful liturgy?  The only sad part is that Jacques didn’t understand anything.”  The little boy happened to overhear his uncle and, with tears in his eyes, said to his mother, “Don’t worry, Mummy, Jesus loves me as I am.”

This is the gospel truth into which L’Arche communities try to live, and into which Nouwen sought to live.  What Jesus offers us, Nouwen came to understand, is a fundamental identity of truthfulness.  Not so much the “objective,” impersonal, and academic pursuit of veritas of the university, but rather the inter-subjective truthfulness of that little boy, Jacques:  a consciousness that God loves us in our weakness, and that because he does, we need no longer seek glory and accolades from others, but are instead free to love God’s world with the abandon of a fool.

Let us pray:  Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own mind, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A New Covenant

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 22, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Jeremiah the Prophet.
The Bible, as we have it, is printed as one book, divided into two halves: what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament (in English) contains 569,267 words—I hope you had fun over Spring Break while I was counting them all. This is the first three-quarters of the volume. The New Testament is 176,417 words: the last quarter.

And yet of our four weekly readings, two are from the New Testament; one is a little snippet of a psalm, cycling through about 5% of the Bible; and only one is from the remaining 70% of the text, the Old Testament, the only Bible that Jesus or Mary or Paul, Matthew or Mark or Luke or John ever knew. And even then, our lectionary doesn’t always follow through. Today’s first reading is the second-to-last reading we’ll hear from the Old Testament (not counting the psalms) this year—at least at our Sunday evening Chaplaincy services. Next week we have one more, and then during the season of Easter we switch over to the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading, and then we leave for the summer.

So it seems appropriate this week to preach on our reading from the Hebrew Bible. (Christians call it the Old Testament, Jews call it the Tanakh, I’ll mostly call it the Hebrew Bible—they all mean more or less the same thing.)

This passage from Jeremiah is in the midst of a series of readings from the Hebrew Bible that we’ve had throughout Lent. Rather than reading through a single book, we’ve had themed readings in two sets.

The first have been covenant stories, stories about God’s promises to humanity. On the first Sunday in Lent we heard the story of God promising Noah never again to destroy all life with a flood, and setting the rainbow in the sky when it rains to remind himself to stop the rain. This shows God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins. It’s God’s covenant with all living people through Noah and his family. The next Sunday we heard the story of Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah. For Paul, Abraham is the central example of faith. He faithfully answers God’s call in response to God’s promise of children, even though he is so old he’s nearly dead and his wife Sarah has been unable to bear a child. He’s also the first one to enter into the covenant through circumcision, which would become a defining Jewish act later. Abraham narrows the story down from Noah to be God’s covenant with all monotheistic people; so we hear Judaism, Christianity, and Islam referred to as the “Abrahamic faiths.” The next week we heard the Ten Commandments, the central precepts of the Law, which would become—again, for Paul—the defining characteristic of God’s covenant with the Israelites, and later the Jewish people. These covenant stories tell us about God: God is merciful and forgives sins, God is faithful and values faithfulness, and God is ethical and calls us to be ethical.

Then the readings flip over to a second set, readings that are supposed to point us toward Christ. I’ll recap last week’s reading in case you skipped church during Spring Break. It’s sort of a bizarre story. The Israelites are wandering in the desert with Moses. The people complain about the food—they’ve been eating in the dining hall for too long—so God, in a not-very-proportionate response, sends a plague of poisonous snakes. The people repent, so Moses prays that they be saved. God agrees. Okay: now God tells Moses to make a snake, and put it on a pole, and raise it up in the air; when people are bitten, they’ll look at it and live. Here’s how the Gospel of John explains: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

So last week points us toward the cross. Then you’ve got this week’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, promising a new covenant; and then next week, on Palm Sunday, a reading from Isaiah that’s in the first person, that almost demands, in the context of Palm Sunday, that you put Isaiah’s words into Jesus’ mouth:
“I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
And then you have this week’s reading from Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord”; so this is a future time from Jeremiah’s perspective, days which have not come yet but surely will. Jeremiah’s writing right around the destruction of the last Israelite kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the traumatic period of the Babylonian exile. This is a promise for some sort of future restoration of the fortunes of these people, who have had their lives upturned. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:31–32). And how will it be different? “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). So God will make a new covenant; the law will no longer be an external thing we have to learn, but an internal thing, part of our inmost being; and God will forgive our sins.

This sounds like the God we’ve been hearing about throughout Lent, right? God is faithful and keeps her side of the covenant; God is ethical and teaches ethics; God is merciful and forgives sins. But what is this new covenant?

As Christians, of course, we answer: the new covenant is the one God makes with us in Jesus Christ. I think the Old Testament readings from the last few weeks through Easter guide us toward a certain idea of what this means. This new covenant looks a lot like the Christian faith we hear about in a certain way of reading Paul, Augustine, or Luther: a law of the spirit, rather than a law of the flesh or a law written in a book; personal knowledge of God; and the forgiveness of sins.

Taken as a whole, the story goes something like this: God makes covenants with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. Although the people repeatedly fall down on their half of the covenant, God keeps the promises, gives warning after warning through the prophets, and finally fulfills all those promises in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is our half of the new covenant; forgiveness of our sins is God’s half.

I think we can take this reading of Jeremiah too far, and many Christians have. Augustine, for example, goes on to equate the new covenant not only with Jesus, the Christ, but with Christianity, with the Christian New Testament: “Nowhere,” he writes, “or hardly anywhere, except in this passage of the prophet, do we find in the Old Testament Scriptures any mention so made of the New Testament as to indicate it by its name. It is no doubt often referred to and foretold as about to be given, but not so plainly as to have its name mentioned” (On the Spirit and the Letter 33). In other words, according to Augustine, in this passage Jeremiah explicitly names the New Testament.

I think I must have dozed off during that part of the reading. Well are some interesting translation questions here. But basically, Augustine is reading a text of Jeremiah that he understands to say, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will will to the house of Israel and the house of Judah a New Testament” (Jeremiah 31:31). Even though Jeremiah is living and writing six or seven centuries before any piece of the New Testament is written, and maybe nine or ten centuries before it will be called the “New Testament,” the Holy Spirit is somehow guiding his hand to write those words, “the New Testament,” as a promise to later Christians and an argument to persuade later Jews. All throughout the Old Testament, clues are hidden about its replacement, the New Testament that tells us about Christ.

I think there’s a danger if we take the reading this far. It’s what we call “supercessionist.” Supercessionism is the idea that the new covenant in Christ has replaced or “superceded” the old covenant of the Law given to Moses, and so Christians have replaced the Israelites—and their Jewish descendants today—as God’s chosen people. (This is why the name “Old Testament” can be offensive to Jews). Incidentally, the New Testament book of Hebrews, from which we read today, is one of the classic examples of supercessionism; commenting on this passage from Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews writes, “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). As a sort of understated note from the Jewish Annotated New Testament puts it, “Such language helped foster the view that Judaism was an inferior religion, a temporary guide prior to Christ.”  Similarly, in John’s Gospel, you see frequent, charged references to “the Jews” as if they’re somehow a separate group from Jesus (a Jew) and his band of Jewish followers. Particularly during readings of John’s Gospel on Good Friday during the Middle Ages, this has historically led to huge amounts of violence by Christians against Jews.

In a certain way, you can follow the logic. If in Jesus Christ, God has offered a new covenant, replacing the old one, then Jews have rejected a covenant with God. In the Old Testament, in their own Tanakh, when the Israelites reject a covenant with God, God punishes them—either supernaturally or through human means. So the whole history of Christian violence against Jews can be (and has been) explained away as the victims’ collective fault for rejecting God’s new covenant with them.

The point is not that every Christian who believes the supercessionist view is an anti-Semite; but that pretty much every Christian anti-Semite needs to believe something like that supercessionist view. In this season of Lent, we are called to repent not only for our own individual sins, but for our collective sinfulness; and one of the great sins of the Christian Church has been the violence it has inflicted or accepted in the name of God.

So how do we deal with this in a religiously pluralistic society like ours? How do we affirm our Christian faith without accusing our Jewish brothers and sisters of rejecting the covenant God has offered them?
Well of course, if you don’t believe that the covenant in Christ has replaced God’s covenant with the Jewish people, on the other hand, then you don’t believe that the Jews have abandoned that covenant, and so there’s no reason to try to get Jews to convert to Christianity, violently or otherwise. If you believe, for example, that God has extended this covenant to all people, without turning away from the covenant with the Jewish people through the law of Moses—God, after all, we’re reminded in the story of Abraham, is a faithful God, who keeps his promises—you have no theological basis for anti-Semitism. But then what about this new covenant in Christ? I think Jeremiah’s promise actually supports this idea.

There are some plot holes in Augustine’s version of this story. Let’s take a look back at Jeremiah. Do we still teach one another? If you say “no,” I can just sit down. Of course we do! Do we still say to one another, “Know the Lord”? Sure! Do we all know the Lord, from the least to the greatest? No… Is the law—here the word is torah, law or teaching—is God’s Torah written on our hearts, or is it written in a book? We Christians, as much as Jews, rely on a book to understand God’s teaching. Our lives today do not look like the world of the new covenant Jeremiah is promising.
How then can we understand what this new covenant means? I think the very “flaws” I just pointed out are the key.  The world we live in today does not look like the world that God describes to Jeremiah. (Interestingly enough, the world today is also not the one the author of Hebrews predicted, where the obsolete and old Jewish covenant has passed away.) God’s promise to Jeremiah is not completely fulfilled for us in the earthly life of Jesus, or even in his death and resurrection.

I think in particular the notion of a covenant “with the House of Israel and the House of Judah” gives us a clue. The House of Israel is the Ten Lost Tribes, whose kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and who were exiled and lost. The promise of the descendants of the lost tribes being returned, being gathered together from all over the world, to make a new covenant with God, is an eschatological promise, a promise about the end. There is some future time in which the world will be this way; not necessarily a time we can identify as July 3rd, 2315, but an eternal time outside our understanding. Just as the Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey long before they arrived there, we too have been promised a new world brimming with God’s beautiful possibilities; and we cling to the vision of that world, even as wander in the desert.

Most of us are students. All of us have been students, at one time or another. And all of us are, in fact, students still, students of that God who is writing her teaching, her Torah, on our hearts. Our God—the God of Jews and Christians alike—is like that outstanding teacher we could all name. The one who teaches us facts, knowledge, sure; but who, even more importantly, inspires us to care about what we’re learning, draws us out of our focus on grades or college admissions or internships, and shapes the path we take in the future.

The Torah—the first five books of our Bible—if you think about it, is so much more than a series of laws, or even teaching. It is a vivid set of stories, stories that range from poetic hymns of creation and covenant, to funny fables of trickery and betrayal; stories shared for centuries around campfires and among families, repeated over and over again and finally, painstakingly edited together and written down, the holy texts of a people faithful to God through many trials and setbacks, just as God was faithful to them. In and through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God is writing that story on our hearts, writing us, indeed, into that story; so that just as he is the God of the Jews slowly writing the Torah on their hearts in careful study, so too he might be the God of all the nations. Not cutting off the covenant created in Moses with the Jewish people, but restoring and renewing the covenant through Noah with all people, until that day when we shall all know him, from the least to the greatest, Jews and Gentiles alike, the chosen people of God and those who have afflicted them for so long.

“For I will forgive their iniquity,” says the Lord, “and remember their sin no more.”


An update on the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education program

A piece of artwork created by one of
the men we mentor at MCI Norfolk.
Over two years ago, our first Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis, started an exciting partnership that has allowed students at ECH to mentor incarcerated students in the Boston University Prison Education Program.  We formed the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education program (HIPE), where students from various faith (an non-faith) communities at Harvard have volunteered through the mentoring organization Partakers.  In this time, about twenty students have visited and written letters to four incarcerated men at MCI Norfolk.

Now that HIPE has been around for a few years, we’ve discovered the challenges of keeping a sustainable program.  Students graduate or have schedule changes between semesters.  Also, few Harvard students have cars, making the prison trips difficult.  Because of this, we are excited to expand the HIPE program to include parishioners at Christ Church Cambridge, continuing to strengthen our connection with the parish!

In November, Arthur Bembury, the executive director of Partakers, gave an information session at Christ Church, and his presentation was met with enthusiasm.  Since then, Arthur has returned to provide an orientation for the volunteers, and five parishioners are in the process of scheduling their first visits.  It’s great to have some new energy in the program, and I hope that this will help to sustain it for years to come!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–1889

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest and poet, is one of the great religious poets of the Victorian era. Although it is not quite Spring, it still feels like it on this warm day after a long, cold February. We'll take it when we can!

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
  Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
  The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
  The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
  A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
  Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
  Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Follow Me

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 1, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Mark 8:1

When I was in seminary, a professor once challenged us wannabe priests with the following question:  If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Now, that is a provocative and somewhat humbling question, isn’t it?

After posing the question, the professor then asked us to participate in a little exercise.  Close your eyes, she invited us, and review your own life’s story as if it were a silent film.  Just play back your life in your own mind’s eye:  your childhood and adolescence, your college years, the relationships you formed, the people you’ve loved and been loved by, the work you’ve done and now do, your family life, your contributions to your community, all of your day to day actions and interactions with the people around you, the legacy you will leave behind.  How would your life look to an outside and independent observer, to an imaginary audience watching your life unfold?  More importantly, would Christ recognize himself in this film?  Is this life of yours a distinctively Christian life?

If you’re like me, this little exercise makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable.  Indeed, I feel convicted by it.  Truth be told, my actions and relationships rarely seem to measure up to Christ-like standards.

The point of the exercise is not to depress us, but rather to remind us that the Christian faith is far more than just having the right beliefs and showing up at church on Sunday.  Christianity is as much a way of life as it is a set of creeds or worshipping practices.  Indeed, if you read the gospels closely, you’ll notice that Jesus never asks the disciples to believe this or that; rather, what Jesus asks is that they follow him.

This is a hard message and one to which the Church, quite frankly, has not always paid heed.  As the great American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick used to joke, so-called Christians have for thousands of years been trying to get rid of Jesus. First, they crucified him. And when that didn't work, they started worshipping him. Worship can be just another form of crucifixion because we often use it to get ourselves off the hook of answering the real question Jesus poses. For the truth of the matter is that Jesus doesn't ask to be worshipped, any more than he asked to be crucified.  What he asks is to be followed.

So, how then are we to follow Jesus? What Jesus tells the crowd in today’s lesson is that following him requires two things: to deny oneself, and to take up a cross.  Let’s talk a little about each.

First, what does it mean to deny oneself?  We oftentimes mark Lent with spiritual practices of denying ourselves this or that satisfaction, whether it be certain kinds of food, spending time on Facebook, or whatever.  And these can be small steps towards the type of self-denial that Jesus speaks of today.  But ultimately the denial of self that Jesus embodies and invites us into is something much more radical one.

To deny one’s self involves, at bottom, an act of trust:  trust that we don’t have to fret about our own needs because we will be cared for by God, come what may, and that we can therefore turn our attention outward rather than inward.  In this act of faith, we are freed from the idolatry of the self, and all the worries that come with self-absorption, to live in freedom for others.  As Martin Luther put it, in faith, we are freed from the tyranny of ourselves so that we might, through love, become slaves to one another.

But there is more to discipleship than denying one’s self.  Jesus tells us that we also must take up our cross.  This is the first time in the gospel of Mark that the word ‘cross’ appears, and while we have become so familiar with the symbol that we take it for granted, you can only imagine the shock of Jesus’ hearers when he invites them to take up a cross.

The cross, as we know, was an instrument of torture and death used by the Romans to punish those who dared oppose their power.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells of thousands of crucifixions in the area of Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.  It was primarily a political punishment, inflicted above all on the lower classes, slaves, violent criminals, people the Roman government perceived as dangerous if they got out of control.  Death by crucifixion was a long and painful ordeal, done quite publicly, so as to terrify all who saw it.

We will, of course, vicariously re-live the ghastly drama of Jesus’ own crucifixion when we get to Holy Week and Good Friday, for his own experience of the Cross, his Passion, is at the center of our faith.   But the question today’s lesson poses is what does it mean for us, here and now, to take up our cross, when persecution and martyrdom by the Roman Empire are no longer dangers?

Jesus is not, I think, inviting us to manufacture suffering in our lives for the purpose of establishing our own Christian credentials, as if being Christian were a contest to see who has the most courage or endurance.  Mel Gibson to the contrary notwithstanding, imitating Christ does not require us to become superheroes who inflict pain upon ourselves in a vain effort to prove our merit.  This is the way of narcissistic martyrdom.

Nor, I think, is Jesus asking us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  A lot of harmful nonsense has been said across the generations about “redemptive suffering” by people in power who seek to retain their privilege by persuading those who don’t have power that they should look for the blessing in their lot.  Whites have done it to people of color, men to women, “upper classes” to “lower classes.”  Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross is not this.  Indeed, if anything, it is the inverse of this:  As his life and ministry abundantly demonstrate, taking up the cross is about suffering for and on behalf of others, in an entirely selfless way, when such suffering is required to oppose injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to defend the innocent, to heal the sick, or just to share in the pain of another as an act of mercy.

To take up the cross in this sense means to identify and accept all those opportunities in our lives where we can stand in solidarity with those who are without.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “the view from below”:  assuming the perspective of those at the bottom of the ladder and on the wrong end of power, not so that we might avenge their plight, but rather out of a desire to restore their humanity when they are at most risk of losing it.

What does this look like for you and for me?  It can be anything and everything from devoting your vocational life to a cause aligned with the gospel, to caring for a child with disabilities, to volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen, to visiting the aged and infirm, to befriending the lonely, to refusing to engage in social patterns of exploitation, abuse or neglect of others.  But in whatever form it may assume in your life, taking up the cross, by its very nature, requires stepping out of the safety and security of privilege and stepping into the messy chaos of human pain and suffering.  Not for the sake of suffering, not for the sake of our own egos, but for love’s sake.

The wise Episcopal priest and teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, talks about ‘taking up one’s cross’ in these terms:  Crucifixion was used by the Romans, Taylor says,  to “reinforce the idea that death is the most awful thing in the world and that people with any sense should do anything in their power to avoid it.  By telling his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus defied that idea.  He suggested that there are things worse than death in the world, and that living in fear is near the top of the list.”

If we let fear run our lives, Taylor explains, then fear becomes our god.  And if fear becomes our god, all our days are consumed by anxiety and worry, such that when our anxious days finally come to an end – for death cannot be avoided forever – we come to discover that we have really never lived at all.  This is, I think, what Jesus means when he says that those who are preoccupied with saving their lives will lose them.

Let us not give in to, much less worship, fear.  Let us instead offer up our selves, our souls, and our bodies to Christ, to His world, and to each other; let us take up our cross, whatever it may be; let us be willing to give up our lives so that we might save them; let us, in short, follow Jesus.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Marked by Ashes

by Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Growing up into God

This sermon was given by Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, February 8, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

If we were living in biblical Palestine, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you. I’d be dead. I probably would have died at the age of eighteen, when I had an emergency surgery to remove a massively infected wisdom tooth after twenty hours of antibiotics squeezed in just before a blizzard. Or perhaps I would have died a little earlier, when I was seven years old and had my tonsils removed after two years of escalating strep infections, each held off for a while with stronger and stronger antibiotics. No antibiotics, no modern surgery, no Greg.

Most of you would probably have similar stories, in one way or another. Life expectancy at birth in ancient Rome, was about twenty-five to thirty years. Half of children didn’t making it past the age of ten. Once you had escaped childhood, you could reasonably hope to live to about forty-five or fifty —less for women, who ran a high risk of dying during childbirth; less for everyone during times of war and rebellion; and, generally speaking, not very high in a world wracked by famine and plague.

You can see why whole cities came flocking to Jesus. In our Gospel reading for today, we see examples of physical and mental healing drawing in increasing crowds. What’s most interesting to me, though, isn’t what Mark says Jesus does here. It’s what Jesus doesn’t say he’s here to do.

Let me explain. The Gospel reading for today breaks down into three short episodes, picking up shortly after the demonic fight scene we heard last week, a week later in our lectionary but only a few hours in the story. Later in the afternoon on the same day as this opening battle, Jesus goes to Simon and Andrew’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Hearing that she has a fever, Jesus takes her hand and raises her up. He raises her up, foreshadowing how Jesus himself will later be raised up, in the resurrection—not from the brink of death but from beyond it. Mark uses the very same verb. The fever leaves her, and she begins to serve them. (If it troubles you, by the way, that the one, unnamed woman in the story is healed in order to serve the men, good. You’re not alone. Hold that thought for a few minutes.)

Then just after sundown, the whole city comes to him, and he heals many who are sick or possessed by demons. In Mark’s gospel, these demons are mostly associated with what we would probably now diagnose as mental illnesses of various kinds: powerful supernatural forces seemingly external to our own selves that control our actions in ways that strip us of our dignity. In Greek literature the demons are semi-divine creatures, between humans and the gods. This builds a parallel structure: demons, pagan demi-gods possessing individuals; the Roman Empire occupying the Jewish homeland; and the powers of evil, sin, and death embodied in the character of Satan corrupting God’s whole creation. And so it’s unsurprising that the monotheistic Jewish authors of the New Testament uniformly have Jesus triumphing over demons, casting them out of Jewish bodies and out of Jewish land. And all this combined with real physical healing in a world where you only had a fifty-fifty chance of becoming a teenager.

So Jesus is a hero. He’s overturning the powerful forces that are holding down his people: sickness and death, demons and false gods—and by extension, the crowds hope as they wait for their Messiah—Rome and its armies. Jesus comes into a town and all other powers are cast down.

And then, a few hours later, he goes out to a quiet place to pray. The disciples hunt for him, trying to find the man everyone’s looking for, to bring him back to heal more people. And he turns away.  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38 NRSV). I said before that this reading fascinates me not for what Mark says Jesus does there—healing and casting out of demons—but for what Jesus doesn’t say he’s there to do: healing and casting out demons. Let us go elsewhere, not in order that I may heal the people; not in order that I may cast out demons, but that I may “proclaim the message, for that is what I came out to do.”

So what does that mean? The phrase “proclaim the message” is one Greek verb, κήρυσσω kēryssō. Although it’s occasionally translated as “preaching”, its sense is not primarily teaching moral behavior, or telling strange parables, or discussing and interpreting holy texts, but rather “proclaiming” as in heralding: announcing, declaring, making known and, in a sense, making real the good news. Just as when Neil Armstrong, in that iconic image of the moon landing, plants a flag in the moon, it’s a statement that “the United States of America are here,” when Jesus goes from town to town “proclaiming the message” it’s a statement that “the kingdom of God is here.”

I’m reminded of an analogy from the Egyptian theologian and bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the fourth century:
You know how it is when some great ruler comes into a large city and dwells in one of the houses in it; all people consider the city to be honored by this, and enemies and robbers no longer come down to attack it. So it is with the Ruler of All. At his coming into our land, and dwelling in a body like ours, the entire plot of the enemies of humankind has been brought to an end, and the corruption of death, which was formerly powerful against them, has been put away. 
God, dwelling in a human body in Christ and dwelling in the metaphorical “city” of the earth, pushes away all the enemies of her human children. All the loyal subjects of the realm come looking for Jesus—for healing, for teaching, or simply to be in the presence of the conquering king, like kids young and old at the Patriots’ victory parade.

And then he abandons them. There may be a nicer way to put it, but I’m sure that’s how it felt at the time. Jesus leaves behind all those in that city who are still looking for healing, still hoping to be for a moment in his presence, and moves on. Many of us, I suspect, know the feeling. We have wandered through months or years of spiritual desert, with no sense of God’s presence. We have suffered from physical illnesses, or seen loved ones die without the intervention of a sudden, divine cure. We have been crushed by the unrelenting grip of the demons of mental illness; we have lived two thousand years, even in our ostensibly Christian societies, without Jesus our Messiah overturning the structures of oppression, exploitation, and evil. It often seems that the city in which we’re living is not the same one in which the Ruler of All has come to dwell.

If it’s any comfort at all, Athanasius wasn’t among the “fair-weather faithful.” He was born in Egypt in the last few decades of illegal Christianity. His teachers and mentors were slaughtered in the last great gasp of persecution, which was most ferocious in Egypt and Palestine. Athanasius was a bishop for forty-five years, of which he spent seventeen years in five different exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors—all, it’s worth noting, Christians—not counting the six times he fled Alexandria to escape attempts on his life. He truly earned the nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum: “Athanasius Against the World.” And yet he maintained the faith that God, in Jesus Christ, had come to dwell in our earthly city, defeating evil and death.

The line that is perhaps Athanasius’s most famous statement is this: “God became human, that we might become god.”  This is not about becoming gods, in the sense of super-heros with divine powers. It’s about growing up into our nature as human beings created in the image of God. Although we cannot take on what Eastern Orthodox theologians call the “divine essence”—the indescribable and transcendent inner nature of God—we become godly when we participate in the “divine energies,” the work or actions of God. When we love one another, when we comfort one another, when we heal one another, when we pray with one another, we are joining in God’s love, in God’s compassion, in God’s healing, and in God’s prayerful relationship with Godself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the divine community of the Holy Trinity. When we gather to offer our lives and our selves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving at the altar, or when we see the light of God in the eyes of those around us, we are entering into the kingdom of heaven that is veiled just behind everything we see. This is not a restoration to the days of innocence before suffering and death, nor of the days of Jesus’ ministry of miraculous healing. Rather, God comes into the pain and the brokenness of our world, and—having experienced it himself at its very worst—brings us through it to the other side.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, you see, is the only one who really gets it. If you look through Mark for the moments when he says someone serves Christ—the few times he uses the Greek verb διακονειν diakonein, “to serve,” the source of our modern word “deacon”—it’s never about the male disciples, who are usually looking out for their own status, or disputing among themselves who will get to sit at his right and left sides in heaven. No. It’s the angels, when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness; it’s Peter’s mother-in-law; it’s—fast-forward fifteen chapters—the women watching at the cross: Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James and Salome, who had followed and served him in Galilee. And, crucially, it is Jesus himself, who says to the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant [διάκονος diakonos], and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45). Peter’s mother-in-law, the first to serve God in Christ, the first to be deacon to his followers, has shown herself to be great among the disciples.

Jesus has proclaimed the good news: God’s reign is here, God has claimed us for God’s own, God’s flag is planted in the soil of our hearts and of our minds, of our societies and of our world itself. We can choose to participate in that divine life or not; to serve God and one another or to seek our own glory. It isn’t the instantaneous cure we’ve been expecting—if there’s one thing we can say for sure about Jesus, after all, it’s that he rarely does what we’re expecting—but the love, care, and support we show in serving one another are God’s miraculous intervention in our world.

God, the Ruler of All, turns out to be pretty good at delegating—not because God doesn’t care about comforting and healing us, but because God cares even more about giving us the opportunity to grow into our human nature as images of God, by comforting and caring for one another.

“When [the disciples] found [Jesus], they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’” (Mark 1:37–38)