Monday, February 1, 2016

The Walls Come Tumbling Down



“And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.’" Luke 4:24

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
January 31, 2016 – Epiphany 4C

Last week we were with Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth listening to him give his first sermon before the hometown crowd. You remember the sermon, the one in which Jesus quotes from Isaiah, saying the spirit has landed upon him, and that he now understands his task in life: Jesus is to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the captives, to restore sight to the blind and to offer freedom and wholeness to all. Luke tells us that the crowd was amazed, at least at first, but then things turn a little ugly.

The crowd is delighted to hear Jesus’ message of redemption, and that he has apparently already done miraculous works elsewhere, in places like Capernaum.  But they want proof, you see.  It is one thing to hear a good sermon about God’s saving grace, but the proof is in the pudding, and the crowd demands that they receive a sign of God’s blessing. “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,” they say to him.  They want evidence of Jesus’ claims; in particular, they want the hometown boy to bless his hometown friends and family first before he goes off to save the world.

And here is where Jesus’ message challenges, and ultimately, enrages them.  “God does not work that way,” Jesus in effect says. Grace is not to be manipulated by those who believe they deserve its favor. God’s saving grace is unbidden. Unbidden. It comes unexpectedly and freely, and it falls upon those who, in purely human terms, often seem the least deserving of its benefits.

And to illustrate his point, Jesus reminds the crowd of two well-known stories from the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and the story of Elisha healing the Syrian warrior Naaman. These stories deserve our attention, because understanding them both explains why the crowd gets upset and gives us an important insight into the nature of Jesus’ mission.

In the first story, you will remember that in the midst of a great famine Elijah is commanded by God to visit a Gentile woman in Sidon, and not just any woman, but a poor widow, on the brink of starvation. And, even though the widow and her young son are literally down to their last meal, God commands her to feed Elijah. Bewildered and confused by the command, the widow nevertheless trusts. And then, somehow, in the midst of their desperation, in the midst of utter scarcity, God provides enough food for Elijah, the woman and her son to eat; and not only that, but when the widow’s son then suddenly falls ill and appears to succumb to death, God works through Elijah to breath new life into the boy.

The great prophet, Elijah, begins his public ministry not by breaking bread with his kin, with the chosen people of Israel, but instead is directed by God to reach out first to the stranger. Elijah is sent by God not to rescue the elite, or the elect, or the devout; but first he is sent to a foreign nation, to a forsaken widow and her starving little boy, to the least of the least.

The second story Jesus mentions – the story of Elisha’s healing of Naaman – develops this same theme but pushes it even further. Naaman is the commander-in-chief of the Arameans, a powerful enemy of Israel’s in what is now southern Syria. Naaman’s problem is that, notwithstanding his power, he has contracted leprosy. Elisha reaches out to Naaman, through a messenger, and tells Naaman that bathing seven times in the River Jordan can heal him. Naaman at first is furious, thinking that there is nothing special about the River Jordan and that many of the rivers back home in Syria are every bit as impressive as the Jordan. But Naaman’s servants prevail on him to listen to Elisha, and so, Naaman goes down to the Jordan and does what he is told. And sure enough, Naaman’s leprosy vanishes. He is healed.

The last person on earth we would expect the faithful God of Israel to heal is the military commander of one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. It is one thing to extend hospitality and healing to a stranger, to a vulnerable widow; quite another to save the warrior of one’s bitter enemy. And yet such is the unbidden and unexpected scope of God’s grace.

So, why does Jesus cite these two stories to the hometown crowd in Nazareth? They are, I suggest, classic border-crossing stories, showing how God’s power and love refuses to honor human boundaries and seeks to push us out of our own prejudices and fears. Try as we might to erect social boundaries that separate the clean from the unclean, or the deserving from the undeserving, try as we might to fashion political boundaries to separate the good guys from the bad guys, the white hats from the black hats, God refuses to be contained by our line-drawing. God works not within the boundaries imposed by human conceit, but across and beyond all such boundaries.

The hometown crowd was apparently expecting Jesus to focus his redemptive powers upon them first.  They may well have shared the prevailing expectation of a Messiah for the Jewish people first and foremost, a new king to reclaim Israel’s kingdom from Roman rule.  Yet, by citing these two simple Old Testament stories, Jesus is telling the good people of Nazareth that his mission knows no political boundaries, that he comes not as a new Davidic king for a restored Israel, but instead a Prince of Peace for all humanity, a Savior whose loving arms seek to embrace not only the vulnerable, but even those we regard as our fiercest enemies.

I remember as a young boy, playing with my brother in the backyard.  We would build forts out of old cardboard boxes, and we would hunker down in them for protection from unknown dangers lurking just beyond our backyard fence.  We were the good guys, and out there somewhere were the bad guys, and we were sure that so long as we stayed behind the walls of our fort we would be safe.

Such thinking is entirely natural for a child, who is first learning to differentiate himself from others, learning what it means to have agency in the world, learning to protect himself from the risks of an uncertain universe.  But then, hopefully, we grow up and learn that the world is not so black and white after all, and that hiding behind walls is almost never the path toward growth and human flourishing.  And we also learn that ‘the other’ whom we once feared is usually not so menacing after all; and the more we get to know ourselves, the more we also appreciate that we are not necessarily always on the side of virtue.

In this election cycle, it is distressing to hear so much overheated rhetoric on the airwaves from candidates and pundits alike about the need to keep America safe from the bad guys, even to build massive walls around our country, even to exclude others from traveling here based on nothing more than a person’s appearance or religious convictions.

While I will not venture into the thicket of national politics, or immigration reform, or foreign policy, it is tempting to quote St. Paul here from today’s epistle lesson:  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

The impulse to build walls and demonize the other is, more often than not, a childish solution to the complexities of human brokenness. To play upon people’s worst fears, to exploit their prejudices, and to engage in simplistic line-drawing, likewise seems utterly contrary to everything Jesus is saying to us this evening. To be sure, there may well be occasions when people of good will, citizens of one land or another, need to defend themselves against violent attack from those unwilling to engage in a negotiated peace. But let us hear clearly Jesus’ words to us this evening:  his message is one of redemption for everyone, and much as we would like to reserve that salvation only for ourselves, and those people we like and who look like us, we are explicitly invited by Jesus in today’s lesson to look hard at all the boundaries, borders, and other lines we draw in a misguided attempt to limit God’s grace.

Stated simply, God’s vision for humanity is neither a restored kingdom for Israel, nor a “new Jerusalem” for America. Rather, as St. Paul puts it, what God discloses to us in Jesus is something radically different: it is “a new creation” for all people and all things. Jesus invites us into an altogether new way of being human in the world:  a humanity known not by boundaries, but by hospitality to the stranger; a humanity known not by violence towards one’s enemies, but by gestures of peace and healing; a humanity that is neither Jewish, nor Gentile, neither American, nor “foreign,” but a humanity that is remade and renewed in God’s image through Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Body of Christ

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  1 Cor. 12:27


The Rev. Luther Zeigler
The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
January 24, 2016 (Epiphany 3C)

We are the “body of Christ” and “individually members of it.”  In one of the more memorable images of the New Testament, Paul describes Jesus’ followers as a “body,” and not just any “body,” but the body of the risen Jesus himself.  In our time together this evening, I want to explore this image with you so that we might together discern what Paul is getting at, and how it relates to us, here and now, in this particular part of Christ’s Body in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As a starting place, it is, I think, important to know that Paul was not writing on a clean slate. The metaphor of the “body” as a way of understanding human community and social life was well known in Greek and Roman culture.  You are, no doubt, familiar with Aesop’s Fables.  Although the details of Aesop’s life are shrouded in mystery, Aesop is generally believed to have been an ancient Greek storyteller who lived during the seventh century BC, and whose stories, or fables, were elaborated over the subsequent centuries.  There were a number of collections of Aesop’s fables extant during the first century of the Common Era when Paul was alive, and as educated citizens of the Empire, Paul and his friends in Corinth no doubt knew of these fables.

Among the oldest and most well-known of Aesop’s fables is one called “the Belly and its Members.”  Unlike most of Aesop’s other fables, which involved animals as characters, this one is about the human body and its member organs.  Here is Laura Gibbs’ recent translation of this short tale from her Oxford edition of the fables:
“Back when all the parts of the human body did not function in unison as is the case today, each member of the body had its own opinion and was able to speak. The various members were offended that everything won by their hard work and diligent efforts was delivered to the stomach while he simply sat there in their midst, fully at ease and just enjoying the delights that were brought to him. Finally, the members of the body revolted: the hands refused to bring food to the mouth, the mouth refused to take in any food, and the teeth refused to chew anything. In their angry effort to subdue the stomach with hunger, the various parts of the body and the whole body itself completely wasted away. Eventually, they realized that the work done by the stomach was no small matter, and that the food he consumed was no more than what he gave back to all the parts of the body in the form of blood which allows us to flourish and thrive, since the stomach enriches the blood with digested food and then distributes it equally throughout the veins.”

Plainly, one of the morals of Aesop’s fable is that there is a fundamental interdependence in the social order, just as there is among organs in the human body.  We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and rely upon each other in different ways.  And yet, while the Greeks and the Romans well understood this basic insight about interdependence in human community, their interpretation of the metaphor went in an entirely different direction than Paul takes it.

Classical culture extrapolated from this metaphor the further claim that there is a natural hierarchy in the social order, just as there is hierarchy in the body.  While there is interdependence, to be sure, just as clearly, some organs are more important than others, and the key to a well-functioning body is for every member to know his or her assigned role.  The wealthy and the powerful of Athens and Rome were quick to deploy the metaphor to rationalize a stratified social order, where a powerful elite ruled over the lesser parts of the body politic, just as the head or the stomach rules over lesser members of the human body, such as hands or feet.  You get the drift.  Thus, one first century Roman commentator’s pithy take on Aesop’s metaphor was this:  “The publick is but one body, and the prince the head on’t; so that whatever member withdraws his service from the head, is no better than a degenerate traitor to his country.”

Greek and Roman civilization weren’t alone in deploying this body imagery to warrant hierarchical social orders.  Most of the other developed civilizations in the ancient world did as well.  Thus, as Professor A.D. Taylor notes in his recent book, Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence, we can locate one of the earliest appearances of the body metaphor in the Rig-Veda, the collection of Sanskrit hymns that is the oldest religious text of the Hindus, where there is an account of the gods sacrificing Purusa (who is the archetype for the human race) so that they might create different social classes from the different parts of his body:

“The Brahman [the priestly class] was Puruasa’s mouth, and from both of his arms were the Rajanya [the warrior class] made. His thighs became the Vaisya [the agrarian shepherds], and from his feet the Sudra [the servant class] were produced.”

The traditional caste system of Indian culture has theological roots in, among other things, an ancient interpretation of the “body metaphor” not dissimilar from how the Greeks and the Romans interpreted Aesop.

With this background in mind, we can now appreciate just how radical is Paul’s elaboration of this metaphor in his letter to the Corinthians.  Notice how he turns the orthodox interpretation of Aesop on its head (so to speak!).  In a direct rebuttal of the classical model, Paul writes:  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Stated differently, Paul is exploding all the traditional categories of social hierarchy and insisting upon an utterly egalitarian interdependence.  This insight, becomes for Paul, the driving impulse of Christian community.  We labor together, worship together, celebrate together, suffer together – Jew and Gentile alike, man and woman alike, elite and slave alike. The Body of Christ, the Church on earth, becomes a foreshadowing of the community, and sorts of relationships, that define God’s Kingdom.

Paul, of course, is not making this up as he goes, but rather, he is giving theological articulation to the core of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  Indeed, Paul’s conception of the Body of Christ as an egalitarian community is but an extension of the message we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel, where Jesus, in his first public sermon, quotes from Isaiah, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”  Jesus promises to inaugurate a year of Jubilee, that holy year of liberation and universal pardon, first spoken of in Leviticus, during which captives are to be freed, land and life is to be restored, debts are forgiven, and everything is once again made whole.
 
This gospel message is, of course, profoundly counter-cultural still because it refuses to honor the insidious boundaries we human beings tend to create between the haves and have nots, between those who are in and those who are out.  Instead, Jesus fashions a human community that welcomes everyone, honors each person’s distinct gifts and talents, and celebrates difference without allowing such difference to become the basis for division or exploitation.

God, you see, created us to be in relationship.  We find our ultimate fulfillment in relationship.  A relationship of mutuality.  As individuals, we have distinct talents and gifts, to be sure, but no one has the full complement of gifts.  It is only in community that the rich diversity of human gifts and talents can be fully and completely expressed and shared.  Indeed, in this sense, our life together, and fulfillment together, is but a reflection of the Trinity itself:  God Himself lives and has being in the eternal dance of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is relationship. And we too are called to be in this same divine dance, not as atomistic individuals, but as a community of persons who need each other, who want each other, who depend upon one another.  Christian community is not always easy, it is not always pretty, it is not always what we wish it to be; but it is always holy and, ultimately, it is the only place where we can find our truest self.  Amen.



Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Christian?

“’Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone casting out demons in your name.  We stopped him, because he wasn’t following us.’” Mark 9:38

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
September 27, 2015




For those of you who were with us at dinner last Sunday evening, you know that Olivia led us in a brief conversation about the recent conference she, Laura and I attended in Minneapolis last weekend, a 2-day conference entitled “Why Christian?” that was organized by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans.  I confess that I have continued to be affected by what I experienced that weekend, and as I have prayed on our gospel lesson this week, I have heard echoes from the conference in Jesus’ teaching.  I’ll explain that in a bit, but first, for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, let me give you some context about the conference. 

Nadia and Rachel are two of the more interesting voices in the Church out there these days, although they are on the surface an unlikely pair to be working together.  Nadia is a former stand-up comic and a recovering alcoholic turned Lutheran pastor, whose colorful array of sleeve tattoos is the first thing that most people notice about her.  Physically imposing at 6 foot 1, Nadia likes wearing leather and has the mouth of a trucker.  Rachel, on the other hand, could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting: sweet, polite, and wholesome-looking. She comes from a conservative evangelical background, but more recently has found her way into the Episcopal church, and writes about the Christian life with a light and graceful touch. While these differences between Nadia and Rachel are quite real, what we learned at the conference is that their identities as fellow followers of Jesus run deeper.  What they share more than anything is a passion for the good news of Jesus Christ and a conviction that some of the traditional ways we have done church in this country are not always serving that good news very well and not reaching the people we need to be reaching.

And so, Nadia and Rachel had the idea that it might be fruitful and interesting to disregard denominational niceties and the ordinary business of our respective churches and instead invite a dozen or so other women from across the country and from diverse backgrounds to share their stories around the simple question:  why Christian?  Why, as Nadia and Rachel frame the question, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do we continue to follow Jesus?

What emerged from the conference was not a 10-step plan for how to grow our churches or a symposium on community organizing or a referendum on this or that social justice initiative.  Rather what we experienced were brutally honest, flesh-and-blood stories of how the Gospel of Jesus has entered into the lives of these women in unexpected and extraordinary ways, such that they are themselves now vibrant voices for how the good news can continue to bring life to broken people and a troubled world despite the Church’s best efforts.

I have been to many conferences in my life, and I can honestly tell you I have never been part of a gathering that was quite so alive with the Spirit.  And over the past week, as I have been processing the experience, I have tried to sort out just what it was that made this conference different.  It is tempting, of course, to say that it is because women organized and led this conference.  As we know, the Church has a long and unfortunate history of silencing women’s voices, and there is no question, I think, that one thing the Church needs to continue to do is to empower women to speak and lead so that we might learn from the richness of their lives.  But I’m not persuaded that the difference here was really about gender per se.  Rather, I think what made these testimonies uniquely powerful was the shared experience out of which these voices came:  experiences of being disempowered, of being pushed to the periphery, of being abused, of being told by the church and other cultural authorities that the only way to be accepted is to conform to a certain way of being a woman, or a person of color, or a person with a nontraditional sexual identity.

And yet, these testimonies were not filled with anger, or bitterness, or cynicism, as they easily could have been; nor, were they mere pretexts for some thinly veiled political agenda.  Rather, the focus of these women’s reflections remained constructively centered around the question “so what do we the people of God have to learn from these experiences of disempowerment and how has Christ kept us sane and whole and breathing notwithstanding what we have experienced?”  That was what was amazing about their stories.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whom, you may have noticed, I never tire of quoting) once said that to be a follower of Jesus is to assume “the view from below.”  We must, Bonhoeffer wrote, see and feel things from the perspective of those at the wrong end of power, not so much to avenge their plight, but rather so that we might try, with God’s help, to restore their humanity when they are at most risk of losing it.  At our conference, Nadia and Rachel led their choir of women’s voices in singing just this song.

Today’s gospel lesson from Mark is all about the risks of abusing the power God has given us, and disabling others from living into the abundant life God desires for all.  We are at the end of chapter 9.  Most close readers of Mark will tell you that the decisive turning point in Mark’s gospel is Peter’s confession that Jesus is indeed the Christ at the end of chapter 8, and the subsequent transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop witnessed by Peter, James and John that opens chapter 9.  After these pivotal events, the central question that drives Mark’s narrative shifts from “who is this man Jesus?” – who we now know to be God’s son – to the more challenging question:  “so, what does it mean to follow Jesus?”

And, over the past few weeks we have heard the beginning of Jesus’ answer to that question.  Jesus shares with the disciples that his destiny lies in Jerusalem and will involve suffering and death.  His future is the Cross, he tells them, and their own role is to share that destiny – to pick up their own cross and to deny themselves for the sake of the gospel and for others.  He tells them that if anyone would be first, they must be last and servant of all.

Uncomprehending and afraid, the disciples either refuse to accept this news or fail to understand it.  Instead, they pretend that the future will be otherwise, that Jesus will somehow achieve his glory, and they wonder among themselves how they will celebrate this victory and who will end up with the choicest position in Jesus’ new Kingdom.  And so, last week, we overheard the disciples arguing among themselves about who is the greatest.

This week, we have another variation on this same theme.  The disciples have apparently been out and about flexing their muscles as Jesus’ true followers when they come across another person healing in Jesus’ name.  Obviously miffed that someone else would dare to usurp their appointed role, John runs up to Jesus and announces:  “’Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we stopped him, because he wasn’t following us.’”  He wasn’t following us.

Presumably John expects Jesus to be pleased with his ability to police the good followers from the pretenders, but he’s wrong.  Jesus corrects him:  “Do not stop him,” Jesus says.  Anyone who heals, anyone who does good, in my name is not against us but for us, Jesus reminds them.

Power is such a dangerous thing, isn’t it?  We clamor for power, convinced that the world will be a better place if only we had more of it, and then as soon as we do, we inevitably use it to advance our own interests and marginalize others.  We do it in politics, in business, in families, and yes, in the church. We use power to get ahead, inevitably leaving others behind, often throwing stumbling blocks in their way.

Which is why, I think, Jesus gets so mad at the end of our lesson today.  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in the sea.”  Jesus’ hellfire and brimstone speech about mischievous hands, and feet, and eyes, is not an admonition against certain forms of sexual behavior, as it has often been so grotesquely misinterpreted, but rather, as the context makes clear, this is an admonition against abusing power to promote one’s self while disabling others.

The problem, I hasten to add, is not power itself.  Jesus, after all, had power; and he confers power upon his disciples; indeed, he gives them the power to change the world.  Its just that, as Jesus teaches time and again, the secret to power, its paradoxical key, is that it is best exercised by letting it go, giving it up, and sharing it with others. 

This is not to say that the Christian life is about powerlessness and suffering for their own sakes. 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 and deny ourselves is not this.  Indeed, if anything, it is the inverse of this:  To share in the paradox of Jesus’ power is to suffer for and on behalf of others, when such suffering is required to oppose injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to defend the innocent, to heal the sick, or just to shoulder the pain of another as an act of solidarity and mercy.

One of the reasons most of us have been so moved and captivated by Pope Francis’ visit to America this past week, I suspect, is because we see in him just such a Christ-like concern for those on the wrong end of power – whether it is his decision to eat with Washington’s homeless rather than its leaders or to stop his motorcade to kiss a child with cerebral palsy or to congratulate the workers who restored St. Patrick’s.

So, to return to last week’s conference with Nadia and Rachel:  I guess what I have taken away from listening to these women’s stories is that I have a lot to learn about the faith from those who have lived it in the face of being told they are not welcome or worthy.  These are voices that need to be heard, not only for their sake but for ours too.  

Amen.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Conversion

This sermon was given by Micah Fellow Zach Maher at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, May 3, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

As someone relatively new to the Episcopal Church, I’ve noticed a whole new set of comfort levels with different topics. One topic that strikes me as taboo is conversion.  If mentioned at all, it would be in a sentence like, “We’re not trying to convert people.”

This Episcopalian hesitance makes sense to me.  There are many reasons to be concerned about the concept of conversion.  Many (if not most) people feel some sense of disrespect, particularly for their own religious experience, when someone “tries to convert them.”  And when religion gets tied to power, conversion can become even more problematic, exemplified most disturbingly by historical events like the Spanish Inquisition.

And yet we live in a world in desperate need of conversion – of people opening themselves to be changed by God and by other people.  We see this in the barrage of news accounts of black men being wrongfully treated, even killed, by police.  We see this in all the systemic abuses where individuals and companies disregard the human dignity of their workers and the fragility of our environment.  And particularly at Harvard, we can see this in the pursuit of high-status careers above all else.  The list goes on, and I’m sure you can think of countless problems that matter to you and could be fixed – or at least improved – if people changed their hearts, minds, and lives.

Conversion, you see, is about turning to God.  In fact, the Greek word that gets translated convert means something like “to turn.”  Our first reading is one of the many fantastical conversion stories in the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church and the early spread of the Good News.  An Ethiopian eunuch, curious about the Jewish scripture, asks Philip to explain a passage from Isaiah that Christians understand to be about Jesus.  Very little of their conversation is presented to us, but we know that by the end of it, the eunuch asks to be baptized, a marker of conversion to this new Way of following Jesus.

It can be tempting to see ourselves in Philip in this story.  We’re the ones proclaiming Good News to those who want to listen.  But I see even more power in viewing ourselves as the eunuch in this passage.  The eunuch invites a total stranger in the middle of the desert to shed light on a confusing passage.  He has no reason to expect this person to be responsive to him; indeed he was reading a Jewish text, and the Torah forbids eunuchs from entering the Jewish assembly.  

Not only does the eunuch openly invite this potentially judgmental stranger to speak into his life, he responds quite suddenly with his desire to be baptized.  If I were in his shoes, I can’t imagine making a life-changing decision so quickly.  I myself was baptized three years after a profession of faith.  As an instution, the church often puts up some red tape before baptism, usually a class and some meetings with a priest. 

In fact, the early church felt some need for pushback, too.  If you were to look at this passage in most Bibles, you’d notice that there isn’t a verse 37.  Verse 36 is where the eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In this missing verse 37,  Philip adds a qualifier: "And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And [the eunuch] replied, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"  This missing verse isn’t missing at all.  It wasn’t in the original version of Acts, but was added later, assigned a verse number, then later discovered to be inauthentic. Whoever added this qualifier to Acts wanted to apply a little pressure on the brakes in this conversion story.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I do think life changing decisions should be preceded by a great deal of thought.  And we aren’t privy neither to the process that led the eunuch to search for God in the Jewish scriptures nor to most of the conversation between the eunuch and Philip.  Because that’s not what’s important in the telling of this story.

Rather, the lesson here lies in the eunuch’s openness to quickly respond to this new experience and new information – in a word, his openness to convert.  That kind of change is really hard.  It pushes against our cultural value of “sticking to your guns.”  It challenges our pride, our desire to have already had everything figured out.  Political science researchers have even discovered a “backfire effect”: when we encounter facts that contradict our opinions, we actually become more convinced of our initial opinion.  We want to be people who don’t need conversion, and we’re wired to retreat further and further into a false sense of righteousness just to avoid letting ourselves see otherwise.

And yet this kind of change can happen.  We see it in the story of Philip and the Eunuch, as well as the conversion story of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus,  which immediately follows.  And we can see it today.  Last week’s episode of This American Life centered on the theme of people changing their mind.  They tell a story of a group of canvassers in California trying to change people’s mind to become in favor of same-sex marriage.  The canvasser, a gay man named Richard, invites a voter against same-sex marriage to talk about his experiences around the issue, and when invited, shares his own story.  By the end of the encounter, the voter changes his mind to be strongly in favor simply through the power of an open conversation.  While this episode focused on conversions from conservative to liberal political views, we would entirely miss the point if we don't stay open to conversions in other political directions and other areas of life.

When I think about all the times in my life where, looking back, I was wrong or biased in ways I didn’t even realize, I can’t help but question how I am now.  There must be areas of my life where I need to draw more closely to God and God’s vision for the world. And I hope that someone allows me to see those areas and helps me to convert.

As Brother Curtis of SSJE puts it, a conversion experience is “not an experience of a lifetime; it is an experience of how to live life all the time … Conversion is about our life-long turning and returning to Christ Jesus for his cues and for his power as we navigate life.”  Today’s Gospel passage points to the pruning that Br. Curtis is talking about. Jesus says: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

Just as moments of conversion often prove difficult for us, the process of pruning would be a hard one for the plant.  And yet, this is just what the plant needs. Br. Curtis puts it: “Unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season.” 

God uses this ongoing conversion process to make us who we were created to be, one conversion at a time  On an individual level, this can mean many different things – switching from resentment from forgiveness, switching from viewing rivals as competition to companions, owning up to implicit racism and sexism that very few of us avoid internalizing to some degree – and maybe even coming to new understandings of God.

And Jesus isn’t just talking to each individual branch; he’s talking to the whole plant.  As a church, we are a community being pruned, being converted as we listen to the experiences of other people and other communities with humility.  I see that happening a whole lot in the Episcopal Church, which has been experiencing an identity shift from a community of the rich, white, and powerful, to an advocating voice for including the marginalized in leadership.  Just yesterday, for example, I attended a confirmation service with Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican communion. As people of conversion, we can continue to ask: whose voice haven’t we heard?  What pruning have we avoided?  It’s the people and communities who we’ve learned to dismiss who are best equipped to convert us through their stories.     

And when we come in with the eunuch’s attitude of openness for conversion, then we can be ready to play the role of Philip– or the vinegrower, facilitating moments of conversion for others.  After all, this is Easter season, the time we celebrate rebirth as a church.  What is to prevent us from being baptized?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Good Shepherd?

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, April 26, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.


This Sunday is, for whatever reason, a day I look forward to more than almost any other Sunday in our church year. Something about the imagery of shepherds and sheep is incredibly attractive. Normally, I’d hesitate to project this onto anyone else, but then I read the following story, from a man who lives in the English Lake District:  
I'm not really an “early-adopter.” In fact, I'm the exact opposite. I'm a Luddite and a shepherd. Our shepherding work in the English Lake District is all about continuity and being part of a living cultural tradition that stretches back into the depths of time. Our work is often little changed from the way things were done when the Vikings first settled these valleys. Even our dialect is peppered with Norse words…I am, in short, about as unlikely to get excited by something like Twitter as anyone alive….So I was a little behind the curve on getting an iPhone, and accepted it reluctantly as a free “upgrade” when my perfectly fine old mobile died after years of good service…Whatever I wanted to happen, I suddenly had a camera and Twitter app in my pocket whilst I worked. And though it took me a while to realize it, I had the tools to connect to thousands of people around the world. I could now defend the old in my own quirky and probably misguided way. I first tweeted as an experiment in whether anyone might be interested (some friends told me it would be popular and I thought they were crazy). I’d just helped a ewe to lamb on a snowy morning and took a quick photo of the newborn lambs and posted it on Twitter. By nightfall we had something like 200 followers. My wife heard the phone pinging, “What the freaking [heck!] is going on with your phone?”

What is it with us about sheep and shepherds? How on earth has self-proclaimed Luddite and late adopter @herdyshepherd1 ended up with 59,400 Twitter followers in the last three years? Why do so many of our grandparents have framed needlepoint versions of Psalm 23 posted on their walls? Why on earth is this my favorite Sunday?

I think there are a few reasons. For starters: Sheep are really cute. You don’t get 60,000 followers on Twitter by tweeting pictures of an ugly animal. Nobody makes stuffed animals of the naked mole rat and gives them to their children. As anyone who’s ever hugged a sheep when it’s about to be shorn—in other words, Alice—will tell you, a sheep is about a foot and a half of soft, springy wool on either side of a one-foot torso. There is no “Bah, bah, black bull.” This is, of course, the way people sometimes experience this Good Shepherd Sunday: a day of cozy and comforting barnyard imagery. It is. And it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing about these texts. It’s not the only reason we should love them.

Another part of Herdy Shepherd’s popularity, at least the way he tells it, is that sheep imagery lets us participate in an ancient part of our life and our culture from which almost all of us are completely disconnected. And the metaphor of sheep and shepherds really is ancient.
Shepherd imagery was as pervasive in the ancient Mediterranean as, well, being a shepherd. We particularly see the image of the king as a shepherd. We know this, of course, from the story of King David, the shepherd boy who defeats Goliath and later “shepherds” the people of Israel to unity and greatness. But it’s everywhere. Homer’s Iliad has about a dozen references to kings “shepherding” their people, and the first recorded references to kings as shepherds are about as old as the first recorded writings we have of any kind, some Akkadian tablets from around 2500 BC. The Israelites, of course, placed God as a higher shepherd, above any human king: “The Lord” in “The Lord is my shepherd” is a conventional way of translating the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, which Jews don’t traditionally pronounce. “YHWH is my shepherd,” not the King. God or a king in this role is someone who guides and leads the people, correcting them when they stray but also comforting and tending to them when they are wounded. And so we apply this name to other sorts of leaders who do the same thing: “pastor,” you may know, is just the Latin word for “shepherd.”

There’s a certain sense of comfort and security in seeing a leader as a shepherd. It means there’s someone greater and wiser than myself who is guiding our whole flock and caring for us. The best leader, one can easily imagine, is just like a shepherd: she wants the best for the sheep, and she knows better than they do what’s good for them. She can lead them and guide them, and is able to comfort and tend to them in ways they cannot comfort and tend to themselves or one another, even if they cannot understand or even sense the care being given to them.


For me, ultimately, I think the reason this is my favorite Sunday is pretty simple. Look at the icon of the Good Shepherd that I put on the front of the bulletin. This is the only icon I own myself. It’s associated with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which we find in Matthew and Luke: “Which one of you,” says Jesus, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:4–6 NRSV)

Look into the eyes of that sheep. I don’t know how well it came out in print, but that sheep is pooped. That sheep is beat. That sheep has wandered far away from its flock, and it is lonely and it is tired and it is scared. And that shepherd comes and picks it up and bears it like it’s no burden at all. I’ve felt like that sheep. I suspect many of you have felt like that sheep. And the notion that Jesus is a shepherd who will come and bear that exhaustion and that pain, a shepherd on whose shoulders I can rest, has been an immense comfort to me.


I think sometimes some of us are so accustomed to biblical imagery that we need to be reminded to look at it with fresh eyes. I want to make two points about God, our Good Shepherd.

First: The Lord our Shepherd is one who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. What better God for Harvard? I know it’s a busy time, and I know you’re busy people. But as a friend and shepherd’s deputy I have a request for you: some time during reading period, or on the last day of class, or after your last exam, on a beautiful spring day when the sun is there to drive out all darkness go down to the still waters of the Charles River, lie down in that green grass beside it. Take a friend or two or a picnic or a book, something to eat and something to drink, and restore your soul. And if anyone asks you why, just tell them: God is making you do it. As an alumnus of this wonderful, venerable institution I can say to you that three of my five best memories of Harvard consist of doing exactly that, sitting by the river and resting. Thanks be to God.


My second point: Jesus doesn’t just say he’s a shepherd. He says he’s The Good Shepherd. And what does that mean? The good shepherd, he says, lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand sees the wolf coming and runs away, saving himself and sacrificing the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life defending them. The good shepherd leaves behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one who has wandered. The good shepherd lays out a delectable spread for the sheep, even though enemies all around are coming to beat the sheep up and steal its lunch money. Think about that. Think about it not as a metaphor, not as something you might have heard since you were a little kid in Sunday School, but really think about it.

I joked at our Bible Study on Tuesday that I don’t know where Jesus learned shepherding, but it sure wasn’t at Harvard Shepherding School. I mean, what kind of ridiculous business plan is that? What principle of animal husbandry says, “Yep, if wolves come, you just, uh, die. Yep, lay down your life for the sheep.” Sheep are sheep. People are people. Shepherding is a livelihood. If the owner of the sheep can’t fight off the wolves, he should run away and save himself! It’s unfortunate. It’s a mishap. It might even count as a calamity. But it’s not worth dying for. You can buy more sheep! And you sure shouldn’t risk 99 percent of you wealth in sheep to go find one that’s gone astray. This, I have to think, is ironic advice to people who are very familiar with the reality of what it means to be a good shepherd in this world. It doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t make any sense at all.

And that is the Good News. Sheep are sheep. People are people. God is God. Humans are humans. The shepherd is incomparably more valuable than the sheep, and yet he lays down his life to defend them. This is not a decision driven by economic calculation. This is a decision of love.
God loves you. God is unreasonably, outrageously, irrationally in love with you.


Year after year our lectionary cycle pops out two stories in the Easter Season: Doubting Thomas and the Good Shepherd. And why not? Aren’t those at the heart of the Christian faith? Despite all our failings, all our doubts, all our inadequacies, all our meanness and wrongdoing, all our woundedness and brokenness, all our inability in our sheep-sized brains to understand God’s vast love, in the midst of and because of all these things God loves us. In the words of my friend Brother Curtis Almquist, “God loves you. God wants to spend eternity with you. You make God’s day.”

What makes that one sheep so important that the shepherd should leave behind the ninety-nine others to go and save it? What makes that one flock so valuable that the shepherd should lay down his life to defend it? What makes that sheep worthy of a table prepared in the presence of its enemies, of a cup that overfloweth and spills wine out onto the ground? What makes the sheep worthy of the shepherd’s irrational, superabundant love?

Absolutely nothing. There is nothing in the world you could ever do that would earn the right to such love. And so there is nothing in the world that you ever need to do to earn that love. God is going to love you beyond your ability to comprehend it, “for,” as the hymn goes, “the love of God is wider than the measure of the mind.” And we are worthy of that love, each and every one of us. 

All the rest of Christian thought, I think, is just a series of footnotes to that. All the rest of theology, Christology, and eschatology; of ecclesiology, missiology, and homiletic anesthesiology, is a catalog of different responses to the question "God is love; What are you going do about it?" God is foolishly in love with you. What are you going to do about it? God loves you. And the person next to you. And the wolves, and the thieves, and the enemies. The martyrs and their murderers alike. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t want them to change; God wants all of us to change, to grow into God’s vision for us. But like a faithful parent God loves us, each and every one, in the midst of it. What are you going to do about it? Can you give yourself the permission to be loved and to love yourself? To love your neighbor as yourself? To love your enemies, internal and external, as yourself?

As many or maybe all of you know, my time as part of this community is finally, belatedly coming to an end. This is sort of my farewell sermon for the year. In August, Alice and I will be moving to New Haven and I’ll be starting at Yale Divinity School. Six years into what I thought would be a four-year Harvard affiliation, I’m finally moving on. I’m very excited about this, and I’m very sad to be leaving this place, this community, and all of you. I’ve known some of you for three years and more. I’ve known some of you for not even nine months. This year feels like it’s flown by, and yet it feels like I’ve known some of you for a long, long time. 

We are unlike an ordinary parish community, where people might stay for decades, even their whole lives, where they might raise children and grandchildren together. Each one of us at some point will graduate and will leave this community behind. And that’s a good thing. Although parting is difficult, it’s a part of what we all do here. We are all sheep that “do not belong to this fold.” Our Shepherd will call us away to other flocks, and yet one day we will be brought together again,
“So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Amen.

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.”

Amen.