An Exploration of the Trinity: God the Network

Every Saturday morning in the late 1970s, my brother Robert and I would wake up at 6:45 a.m. and stumble sleepy-eyed to the big cabinet television set in my dad’s study.  We’d turn on one of the three channels we could get in Paragould—ABC out of Jonesboro, CBS out of Memphis, or NBC out of Little Rock—and the screen would be filled with the static we used to call “snow,” because none of the channels began broadcasting on Saturdays until 7 a.m.  (Remember that?)  We’d sit expectantly in our pajamas, until at the top of the hour the Hall of Justice would appear, and the first Saturday cartoon, Super Friends began. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman would be followed by Bugs Bunny or Scooby Doo, and Robert and I would sit mesmerized in front of that television until lunchtime, when cartoons were replaced by professional wrestling or an old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie.

As much as I loved that weekly dose of cartoons, my favorite part of Saturday mornings happened in-between shows, when the T.V. producers subversively decided to teach us something about grammar, or outer space, or how a bill becomes a law.  If you’re near my age, you know that I’m talking about the series of cartoon short films known as Schoolhouse Rock.  They included “Conjunction Junction,” “Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “I’m Just a Bill.”  But my favorite Schoolhouse Rock episode was different from all the others.  Whereas they were upbeat and toe-tapping, it was thoughtful and quiet, as if it were inviting grade school children to plumb deeply into its subject.  Its name?  “Three is a Magic Number,” and the opening lyrics were, “Three is a magic number.  Yes, it is.  It’s a magic number.” 

That’s as much as I remembered, but as I was preparing today’s sermon, I got on YouTube and listened to it again.  To my surprise, the next line of this mass-produced, Saturday morning network cartoon is, “Somewhere in the ancient, mystic Trinity, you get three, there’s a magic number.  The past, and the present, and the future; faith, and hope, and charity; the heart, and the brain, and the body give you three.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the preacher is tasked to explain in thirteen-and-a-half minutes the Doctrine of the Trinity.  (This is generally considered by priests to be the most undesirable preaching date on the calendar.)  I’d looked up Schoolhouse Rock because I thought it might give me a nice, gimmicky launching point for today’s homily.  But instead, I sat at my computer stupefied for a moment, realizing that way back in 1978 Schoolhouse Rock truly had attempted to teach something of the nature of God.  Then I remembered (and this is true) that one of the creators of Schoolhouse Rock is Jay Sidebotham, who later became an Episcopal priest.  Wonder of wonders!

How is it that the one God is also three?  Why is it important in the contemporary world to maintain such a perplexing doctrine?  The other major monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, as well as the Christian offshoot known as Unitarianism, find our Trinitarian notion of God problematic.  They say that, deep down, we aren’t monotheists at all, that we’re asserting three Gods in place of one.  But it isn’t so.  In fact, most of the explanations of the Trinity discarded over the past two millennia have been declared heretical exactly because they skirted to close to polytheism.  The Church has always ultimately asserted that whatever we mean by the Trinity, its three persons make up one God.  So, how are we to understand that?   

The challenge begins, at least in the modern world, because we are thoroughly Enlightenment people.  (Don’t doze off!)  We are Newtonians, and like good Sir Isaac, we implicitly believe that hard, solid stuff is the most real there is.  To our common sense, material substance is the basic building block, right down to those papier mache models of atoms we used to make around the same time we were watching Schoolhouse Rock.  It is consequent of that common sense that we have difficulty imagining anything that could be more than one thing while at the same time being only one thing.

When considering the nature of God, the challenge continues because we also use as an implicit analogy our sense of our own human self.  I am the one and only me, and that is the surest and perhaps only thing I can know in life.  As Descartes said four hundred years ago, “I think therefore I am.”  By extension, we want to grant God’s self at least the individual integrity we grant ourselves, and a God that is three in addition to being one seems to compromise that.

But in recent decades, both our science and our social experience have outpaced such old modes of thinking.  We now know that those models of atoms were grossly inaccurate, that behind all solid substance is quivering, impossible-to-pin down energy that constantly shifts and moves.  And we increasingly know that even the human self is not so singular and monolithic a thing as we used to think.  Rather than old philosophical monism, philosophers and psychologists now use images of webs, or even more recently, networks to describe the human self.

Philosopher Kathleen Wallace says, “You are a network.  You cannot be reduced to a body, a mind, or a particular social role…It’s not only embodiment and not only memory or consciousness of social relations but the relations themselves that also matter to who the self is.”  Wallace argues for a “more relational, less ‘container’ view of the self.”[i]

So, what does that mean?  Whereas we used to think of “me” as a singular thing, a “container,” and all my relationships as things that merely touch or ping that container, the newer realization is that there is no unchanging container at all.  There is no unalterable “me” in the center of my experience.  Rather, my self—if we can even call it that—is the sum total of the network of relationships and identities I experience in my life.  I don’t just have a relationship with my spouse, kids, friends, co-workers, you…I am those relationships. 

Two illustrations that may help:  First, a spider’s web.  The center of the web is actually a hole, an empty space.  It’s not really a center at all.  It’s a void.  The “real” parts of the web are the many gossamer strands that connect the web.  Or, second, consider an electrical arc.  The two solid nodes on either end are not the arc at all.  The arc—the “real thing”—is the pulsating, moving electrical current between the nodes.

That’s the network theory of the self.  I am not a singular unchanging thing.  I am the network of relationships of which my constantly morphing existence in this world consists.  This makes perfect sense when we consider what it might be like to go back in time and speak to, for instance, the “me” that sat in front of that television in 1978.  To what extent can we say that the two Barkleys are the same person?  The social identities and relationships that have pulsed through me and re-created me a thousand times in the past five decades, and that make up my dynamic self, are anything but static, anything but singular. And yet, enduringly, I’m also still me.

And that helps us skirt, at the very least, an understanding of the Trinity.  The essence of God, the divine reality at the center of all that is, is not a singular thing, not solid and unchanging like those old atomic models.  The essence of God is a network of pulsating, dynamic relationships between what we call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  As in those of us created in the image of God, in Godself these three inform and interpenetrate and flow to and through each other, creating the one God made up of three arcs of flowing, moving, love. 

Can you envision it?  I know you experience it, the Father who creates you, the Son who redeems you, and the Holy Spirit who enlivens your faith and life.  And at the end of the day, that’s what matters more than any thirteen-and-a-half minute explanation.  In the end, Schoolhouse Rock said it best: “Somewhere in the ancient, mystic Trinity, you get three, there’s a magic number.  The past, and the present, and the future; faith, and hope, and charity…give you three.” 


Where is Jesus?

He wears a red and white-striped sweater.  Regardless of the temperature, he is never spied (when he’s spied at all) without his toboggan cap.  I’m told he wears glasses.  Since 1987, people have been searching far and wide for him: straining, squinting, trying to catch a glimpse.  Whether in a crowded city scene, on the beach, or at the circus, we struggle in vain to detect his presence.  Until sooner or later someone cries out, “Where’s Waldo?”

We read the Waldo books to our kids when they were little.  They would turn each page with glee to hunt for Waldo, but as their eyes scanned up and down to no avail, smiles would be replaced by furrowed brows, as the toboggan cap and striped sweater remained elusive.  And if  the kids were tired and cranky, the whole enterprise would end in tears.

This is the Sunday following Ascension Day, and this morning we read the passage from Acts in which Jesus leaves the disciples and, in Luke’s telling, literally ascends into heaven like some god in a Greek drama, as if hoisted into the sky by pulleys and ropes.  Just before Jesus disappears, the disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  The language in which the question is cast is opaque to us, but they are asking, in essence, “Now that Easter has happened—now that you have defeated death—is this the moment when wounds will be healed, brokenness mended, wrongs righted?  Is this the final scene, when all of God’s purposes will be fulfilled?” 

In response, Jesus equivocates.  He says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  And with that, like the Wizard of Oz rising into the sky in his hot air balloon, Jesus is gone.

From that moment to this, the followers of Jesus have been waiting and looking.  We want Jesus to return to finish what he started.  And while each generation tends to think it lives in the midst of the very worst the world can get, it is true that our own present world is thoroughly broken.  Whether we consider war and devastation in far flung places like Sudan or Ukraine, the hunger we see each week here at home through our food pantry, natural disasters like the March 31 tornado that affected so many of our own parishioners, or the toxic polarization of relationships throughout communities across the globe, the project of redemption and repair Jesus began surely seems unfinished.  If we’re so inclined, we might borrow the words from Peter’s first letter today and say, “Like a roaring lion, our adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”[i] 

All of which begs the question, where is Jesus?  What is he doing?  When will he appear?  Where will we find him?  Is he up in some ethereal heaven, looking down on us like the Greek gods on Olympus, or is he hiding in our midst, like Waldo in those children’s books?  As we strain our eyes to see him, we can certainly sometimes meltdown like children in our confusion and sorrow, as Jesus remains hidden from us in our hurting world.  What, then, to do?  With Jesus that elusive, how do we direct our anxiety in his absence? 

In a number of recent sermons[ii], we’ve talked about how many modern strands of Christianity have coped with Jesus’ absence.  They turn faith into a binary dualism, focusing not on this life but on the afterlife.  In reaction to the furtive, subconscious anxiety that Jesus is missing altogether, they posit instead that Jesus is up there in that faraway heaven where he rose on those ropes and pulleys so long ago, and that the entire point of this life is to focus on our individual status as either eventually joining him there or being cast into hell.

Could that be what it’s all about?  Let’s turn to the Gospel this morning and find out.  My fellow Saint Mark’s clergy have already heard me say that I don’t prefer to preach on John’s Gospel.  That’s not to say that I don’t like it.  I love John’s Gospel.  But it is by far the most difficult of the four gospels to preach, because in it Jesus delivers extensive speeches on the nature of God and us, and—as today—Jesus engages in lengthy one-sided conversations with God the Father.  When Jesus’ thoughts are broken into bite-sized bits, as John’s Gospel tends to be when preached or studied in bible studies, the bits can be taken to mean anything we want them to mean and not at all what Jesus intends.  Consequently, John’s Gospel is notoriously easy to misunderstand, both by lay people and, frankly, by preachers. 

Take, for example, the idea of “eternal life.”  Because of the tendency I described before, when, in our desperation to find Jesus we dilute Christianity into being primarily the means by which we’ll eventually get to join the disappeared Jesus up there in heaven, we take the term “eternal life” and, in our minds if not in our words, we translate it to mean “afterlife.”  But that’s not what John means by eternal life at all.

Which gets us back to our search for Jesus.  Where is he?  Throughout John’s Gospel, read as a whole and not in bits, we get a completely different sense of what Jesus’ ascension might mean.  Absent are Luke’s images of a Jesus lifted up into the clouds.  Rather, Jesus’ many speeches and prayers in John instead talk of a union between God and Jesus’ followers that is accomplished in and through Jesus.  (Already confusing, isn’t it?  I told you John is hard to preach!)  It comes to a head in chapter seventeen, just after what we read today.  Jesus prays to God, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”[iii]  Just a few verses prior, Jesus gives a name to this union.  He says, “This is eternal life, that [my followers] may know you.”  It’s no secret that, in biblical parlance, the term “to know” means more than data points.  It means an intimate knowing, like that of lovers, an embracing union.

The biblical scholar William Countryman wrote a book called The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, and that title may help us to understand what Jesus is talking about more than anything else.  Eternal life is not the afterlife.  It doesn’t refer to us rising up to heaven to join the Jesus who got there before us.  It means that, somehow, Jesus has already joined us to God mystically.  Somehow, through his resurrection, just as the temple curtain was rent open, Jesus has opened our souls, and into us Jesus has flowed, like the current of a river.  Jesus has not ascended up there, John says, but in here.  And that presence of Christ in us, connecting us directly to the divine—to God—replaces the life we have lived with a new life, eternal life, the life in which God is not, even now, distant and apart from us, but in us, uniting us with God and with one another.  “I in them and you in me,” Jesus says.

Where is Jesus?  We can quit straining our eyes to look for him, hidden in the crowd.  We can stop pining for the day after death when we’ll finally rise up to meet him.  Jesus is here, right now.  Jesus lives in you and in me, and through us.  Jesus is a risen, living reality.  If we look inwardly for him, into our own souls, our anxiety will melt as we meet Jesus there.  And, we will find ourselves empowered by his presence to move through the world binding its wounds and mending its brokenness.  When we discover than Christ lives within—truly lives, connecting us to God—then eternal life begins this very day.  

[i] 1 Peter 5:8

[ii] and

[iii] John 17:23, English Standard Version

Poetry or Plastic: What is “the Way”?

Today’s Gospel passage reminds me of the story of the Episcopalian who dies and meets Jesus at the front door of heaven.  “Come right in,” Jesus says cheerfully, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  Let me show you around.”  As the two walk down a long hallway, the Episcopalian glances in an open door to see a jazz band playing and scores of people dancing with wild abandon. 

“Who are they?” the Episcopalian asks.  “That’s the Church of Christ,” Jesus says, “They weren’t allowed to play musical instruments or dance on earth, so here they get to cut loose.”

As Jesus and the Episcopalian walk a bit farther, they pass a room with an Olympic-sized swimming pool with water slides and diving boards and filled with scantily-clad swimmers drinking fruity rum drinks.  Everyone is having a great time.  “And who are they?” the Episcopalian asks.  “Those are the Southern Baptists,” Jesus replies.  They weren’t allowed to swim or drink in life, so now they get to have their day in the sun, so to speak.”

As they continue to walk down the hallway, the revelry quiets until things are so still all that can be heard is a slow, repeated creaking coming from the final door.  As they approach, the new arrival can see a room full of near-catatonic people in rocking chairs, hands folded in their laps, rocking back and forth.  The man asks, “And who are these?”

 “These are the Episcopalians,” Jesus answers.  “They got to do everything on earth, so they don’t get to do anything up here!” 

(Makes you just a little bit nervous, doesn’t it?)

“In my mansion, there are many rooms.”

Today’s Gospel reading is the single most frequently chosen scripture passage read at funerals.  In the hundreds of funerals at which I’ve officiated over the past two decades, I’d estimate that this passage has been read 90% of the time.  Why is that?  Because, on the face of it, it seems to be all about the destination, about where we go when we die, about what’s at the other end of that long, opaque tunnel we ultimately and only travel alone.  It serves as an assurance to us, and for those whose loss we grieve, that, whatever’s beyond that tunnel, it will be good. 

In a first century world in which the house of virtually anyone less than nobility would have consisted of one or two small rooms[i], Jesus paints a picture of a palatial house—or, as the King James Version puts it, a mansion—with many rooms.  And one of those rooms is prepared for you.  That’s a wonderful comfort.

Notice why: The image Jesus’ audience receives is one from their own fantasies and daydreams of maximal comfort and ease.  Heaven consists, in other words, of what we wish this life were like.  Our images of heaven are not a lot different than those of the joke I told at the outset.  Whatever we want life to be in the here and now but isn’t, that’s what we imagine heaven will be.

It has always been so in religions and cultures that have a conception of an afterlife.  For the Greeks, heaven was the Elysian Fields, the place the heroes and the chosen go upon death, described by Homer as, “where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor rain, but ever does [the] ocean send up the…west wind that [it] may cool men.”[ii]  The Greek poet Hesiod adds that Elysium is populated by “happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit.”[iii]  (Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?)

Sebastiano Conca’s Elysian Fields

In Islam, the Quran describes heaven similarly.  Heaven, it says, consists of “gardens of lasting bliss graced with flowing streams.”  Those in heaven “will be adorned with bracelets of gold.  They will wear green garments of fine silk and brocade [and] be comfortably seated on soft chairs.”[iv]

I love these images.  But here’s the thing: All such images draw the attention away from life and toward death.  They constantly look past the present to a future beyond knowing.

Even more important is this: In the Gospels, Jesus is recorded as speaking over thirty-one thousand words.  By the best count, he speaks of heaven exactly twice.[v]  What does this tell us?  It reveals that our common, conventional understanding of Christianity—that it is primarily about our path to heaven—is wrong.  That’s not to say heaven doesn’t exist.  But it is to say that we’ve allowed our own insecurity, anxiety, and fear about what happens after we die to coopt a Gospel message that is almost entirely about something else

Let me put it this way: There are religious billboards throughout the South that pose in huge, ominous letters, “Are you ready to die today?”  That always seems to me the wrong question.  A better, more faithful Gospel question would be, “Are you ready to live today?”

How might we read this Gospel passage from John differently if we understood Jesus to be talking about not the way to where we go when we die, but the way to live in the here and now?  You see, Thomas does not ask Jesus, “How can we know the destination?”  Thomas asks, “How can we know the Way?”  That term is loaded with meaning in the Gospels and in early Christianity.  Indeed, in the Book of Acts, the followers of Jesus are primarily referred to as “People of the Way.”  Jesus’ original followers understood, in ways we have lost, that the Christian life—the life of discipleship—is not about where we go when we die, but how we live, a particular, God-centered way of being in the world.

At the risk of getting a bit esoteric here, I want to introduce you to my favorite early church theologian, a fellow named Origen who lived in the early third century A.D.  Origen’s careful study of the creation stories in Genesis—those first three chapters of the bible that tell us about how we were created and how we fell from grace—revealed to him that Genesis uses two different verbs for how we were created.  The first word, from Genesis 1:27, is the verb from which we derive our English word “poetry.”  The second verb, from Genesis 2:7, is the word from which we derive our English word “plastic.”[vi]  Origen argued, in effect, that God originally created us as God’s own poetry.  (Isn’t that a lovely image?)  But as we ignored God and grace and goodness and fell farther and farther from God, we hardened, and became less like poetry and more like plastic.  We became locked into our rigid, worldly ways of being and forgot how to be poetry in this world at all.

If we take Origen’s theology seriously (and I take it very seriously), then the Way of Jesus—the message and call of Jesus upon our lives—is to become poetry again in this world.  Through joy, and celebration, and worship, and fellowship, and embrace of the marginalized, and service (especially through service) we begin to lose our spiritual rigidity like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz when oil is added to his joints.  We shed our plastic coating and begin to be fluid with grace.  Like the words of Shakespeare or John Donne or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver, we once again become poetry in this world.

And what’s more, the point isn’t to be this way until we get to where we’re going when we die.  The Way isn’t the path to heaven.  The Way is heaven.  Jesus is not saying to Thomas today, “When you die, you’ll get there.”  Jesus is saying, “The Way I’ve been teaching you and showing you and exemplifying for you is the destination.  The Way is Truth and is Life.”         

Put differently, if we follow the Way of Jesus, all of life is heaven. If we do not, then we miss heaven entirely.  If we fail to follow the Way of Jesus, we remain rigid, plastic things.  If we follow the Way, we become the very poetry of God. 

Are you ready to live today? 

[i] See, for instance, St. Peter’s house in Capernaum on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

[ii] Homer, Odyssey (4.560–565)

[iii] Hesiod, Works and Days (170)

[iv] Quran, Surah 18:31

[v] Obliquely in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) and directly on the cross in Luke 23:43, when he says to the thief, “Truly, today you will be with me in paradise.”


Conversation and Conversion: An Emmaus Story

We’re going to begin this morning with a bit of self-examination.  Here’s the question: When was the last time you had a conversation with someone?  Your kneejerk reaction is likely, “In the narthex, just before church” or “At the breakfast table this morning” or “On the telephone last night.”  But is that true? 

When I reflect on my own interactions with other people, they often unfortunately take the form of (as my grandmother might have put it) “A talking at or a talking to.”  Either I’m attempting to give instruction, or I’m conveying information, or (if I’m brutally honest) I’m trying to impress.  Or, if I’m on the receiving end, I’m simply being pummeled by similar attempts from someone else.   Which begs the question, is “a talking at or a talking to” truly a conversation?

Former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori once made the excellent point that the words conversation and conversion stem from the same root.[i]  That etymology matters.  It reminds us that an interaction with another person is never really a conversation unless each party is open to being converted to the other person’s point of view.  Toward the other, each person must be inquisitive, curious, seeking, honoring, as willing to hear as to speak…each person must be, at least a little bit, open to conversion by the other.  Otherwise, each person is merely using the other as a reflective surface off which better to hear his own voice.  Or, as author Kate Murphy puts it in her aptly titled book You’re Not Listening, people are usually just “waiting for an opening, for someone to take a breath, so they [can] lob their [own] verbal firecrackers.”[ii]  There is no real conversation happening.  So, I’ll ask you to consider again: When was the last time you had a conversation?  When was the last time you engaged someone with an openness to having your mind, your heart, your soul converted?

It’s rarer even than we may think.  In his book Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell chronicles multiple instances in which even the most apparently careful and intuitive listeners fail accurately to receive the information being conveyed to them.  Gladwell reveals, for instance, that the best FBI interrogators are correct in their assessment of verbal and physical cues exactly 50% of the time.[iii]  Did you catch that?  The FBI’s most adept listeners hear wrongly just as often as they hear correctly.  Like the rest of us, they approach interactions with presumptions, biases, mental and emotional roadblocks that prevent them from entering into a true conversation.  And if those trained cannot do so, what hope have we?

Today’s Gospel passage in Luke takes place on Easter day.  Read in a vacuum, it seems as if these two disciples of Jesus are on a leisurely walk.  In context, however, it’s clear that they are actually fleeing Jerusalem.  They have been associated with a man—Jesus—who has just been horrifically executed for sedition by the Romans.  The only prudent course of action is to gain some geographic distance from the events—and thus disassociate from Jesus—as soon as the Sabbath has ended and they can scoot out of town.  As the two disciples make their escape, they hear whispers that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, that maybe Jesus isn’t dead after all.  It’s a weird and confusing story, but these former followers put no real stock in it.  As Luke tells us just before today’s reading, to these two (as with the other disciples), “it seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe [it].”[iv]

And so, they get the heck out of Dodge.  The two head to Emmaus, a village about seven miles away from Jerusalem.  While they are walking and talking—no doubt both about their fear of getting caught in a Roman dragnet and about the incredulous story that Jesus might have survived the crucifixion—someone they do not recognize approaches them on the road and engages them.  And we find ourselves at an important moment, both in the narrative of these two disciples and in our own lives.  What will happen next?  Will this be a talking at and a talking to, or will it be a conversation?

Maybe the disciples are too exhausted by fear and apprehension to be guarded.  Maybe they’ve walked just far enough that they believe they are out of reach of Roman agents.  Maybe there is something about this stranger that gains their trust.  Whatever it is, the two disciples share like open books.  They chronicle events as they understand them, but they also convey their hopes and dashed dreams.  Finally, they admit of their confusion.  They are vulnerable. 

The stranger responds in kind.  Though the NRSV has him begin by calling the two disciples “foolish,” other translations are gentler, saying, “It is unwise to be so slow of heart,”[v] as if the stranger is saying, “You are talking yourselves in circles, but you aren’t opening yourselves to understanding.” 

The stranger then begins to converse with them about Jesus and redemption, and the two disciples are so enthralled that Luke says their “hearts burn within them while he is talking [to them] on the road.”  When they finally arrive in Emmaus, they don’t want to leave the stranger’s company, so they invite him to stay and break bread with them.  The stranger does so.  He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them—a physical sacrament of the spiritual food he has given them on the road—and when he does so the disciples’ eyes are opened, and they recognize that the stranger has been the risen Jesus all along.

Lest we fail to recognize the depth of their conversion—the way that Jesus’ conversation with them has utterly changed their hearts and minds—these two disciples, who that morning had fled Jerusalem in fear, get up from the table and with courage immediately begin walking back to Jerusalem.  Panicked confusion is replaced by ardent faith, and they cannot wait to get back to share what they now know to be true, no matter what the danger.

There is a provocative scene in the movie Waking the Dead in which Fielding is searching for Sarah, who may be alive or dead.  Fielding walks through an airport terminal, and each person he passes is Sarah.  He walks past her a dozen times but never pauses, never notices, never engages.  I wonder how many times the two disciples passed Jesus on the road before finally conversing with him, finally opening their hearts and minds to conversion.

I’ll return to our opening self-examination, but this time allow me to pose the question slightly differently: When was the last time you had a conversation with God?  Not the last time you talked at God, or asked God for something, but rather the last time you engaged with your Creator and Redeemer with an open heart and open mind?  When was the last time you set aside your anxiety, your fear, your confusion, your dogged desire not to change and listened to what God might have to say?  That voice might come from the ether, but today’s Gospel also reminds us that sometimes the strangers we meet in this world turn out to be Jesus.  Indeed, we may walk past Jesus each and every day.  That is to say, it may be that engaging God in conversation requires that we first learn or re-learn how to engage one another in conversation.  We need sometimes to tune out all the voices with which we already agree and instead seek out those who may have something to teach us about God, about grace, about goodness and joy, about this world’s deep yearning for redemption. In conversation we may find conversion.  Our hearts may burn brightly on the road.  We may meet Jesus, and when we do, we will find the courage to face anything. 

[i] I don’t recall the exact reference.  I believe I heard her preach this in a sermon.

[ii] Murphy, Kate.  You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters, pg. 14.

[iii] Gladwell, Malcolm.  Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, pg. 73.

[iv] Luke 24:11.  Luke makes clear that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are among those who didn’t believe the women’s account of the empty tomb.  Luke says in verse 24, “Now on the same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.”  The “of them” clearly refers back to the “them” who disbelieved in verse 11.

[v] See, for instance, the Holman Standard Christian Bible.

A Reflection on Priesthood

The following homily was delivered on April 18, 2023 at an annual gathering of clergy friends and colleagues in Memphis, TN.

I’m going to break every homiletic rule this morning and acknowledge that this reflection is, in many ways, all about me.  That said, I hope it’s all about you, too.  In two months, I will have been ordained twenty years.  The last two of those twenty have presented me with greater physical challenge and more angst than this already-angsty priest would have thought possible.  Things are much better now, as you’ll hear when we check-in with one another, but my recent experience, most especially weeks upon weeks during which I was mostly lying flat on my back, gave me protracted pause for reflection on what was, and what is.

In the 2017 indie film First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Ernst Toller, a clericals-wearing minister who serves the two hundred-fifty-year-old colonial First Reformed Church.  Ernst is a damaged and conflicted soul who determines to keep a prayer journal for one year as an attempt to tease sense from his torment.  Much of the film consists of Ernst moving through the motions of his days, with the internal monologue of the journal playing on screen.  That monologue is mostly a consideration of calling to the ordained life.  In one among many memorable scenes, Ernst writes, “Discernment intersects with Christian life at every moment.  Discernment. Listening and waiting for God’s wish what action must be taken.”  Immediately after these lofty, highbrow, and true words, the camera shows Ernst pouring Drano into the church toilet and going to work furiously with a plunger to unstop a clog.  It’s a great juxtaposition. 

I still remember the first time I put on clericals.  Just before seminary graduation, I had ordered a black, long-sleeved clergy shirt and collar from Almy.  I put them on, sat at the edge of the bed in our little Austin rental house on Harris Park Blvd., and stared at myself in the bedroom mirror.  Though I was still a few weeks away from my diaconal ordination, I thought I sensed, for the first time, what Professor Bill Adams meant when he spoke of the ontological change that comes with ordination.  Like Peter Parker bitten by that radioactive spider or Clark Kent bathed for the first time in the light of our yellow sun, I felt as if something in me was—or was about to be—different.  (I should also acknowledge that as a teenager I was a prolific reader of comic books, and a therapist would no doubt have a field day analyzing my lifelong desire to wear costumes and play superhero.)

I was ordained in Memphis at age thirty, and I immediately fell in with a small cadre of other youngish, new priests who sat in the back at clericus, rolled our eyes at our older colleagues at clergy conference, and generally believed that the ails of the church were due to the laziness and ineptitude of its priests.  We called our group Goya, which we told others derived from the Hebrew Goyim—the people—but which was really an acronym, G.O.Y.A., standing for Get Off Your Ass, our indictment of our fellow clergy.  I’m pretty sure we were insufferable.

Despite our attitudinal deficits, our intention was true.  We—I—believed that the grace and power of God would redeem this good earth, and I believed with only slightly less fervor that through my own relentless hard work and dogged will, I could bend the world in God’s direction.  Sort of like a superhero.

A few years ago in Santa Fe, Kayleen Asbo taught our Urban-Suburban group Dante’s Divine Comedy, leading us through hell to heaven, and the following summer I took it upon myself to study Dante in greater depth.  That resulted in a Dean’s Hour series I taught entitled, “The Way Down is The Way Up,” and both the study and the course title proved prescient for my own life.  As you know, in February of 2021, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a rare thing for a forty-eight-year-old man, and as proved to be true in my case, a more aggressive cancer when manifest in the forties.  No sooner had I recovered from cancer surgery than a lumbar spine that had been deteriorating for more than a decade finally gave out, and three back surgeries later I ended up with a tear in the lining of my spinal cord and a spinal fluid leak.  That leak caused brain sag, which resulted in persistent headaches more intense than I knew possible.  The only relief came from equalizing the pressure in my head and spine, and the only way to do that was to lie flat.  Which I did for five months, including one week in neurological ICU and twenty-three full days on my back. 

During the past two years, I first shed my pretense of invincibility, then my pretense to be able to bend the world to my will, then the pretense of just being o.k.  I experienced guilt, fear, depression, and finally despair.  I was on the way down, but I did not see how that trajectory could ever be the way up. 

The way down began to be the way up in late October last year, when I was able to visit the Mayo Clinic.  Good counsel, good medicine, and time have allowed me to adjust to a life that is different, a life with some chronic pain and some limitations, but that is now, strangely, fuller and richer than it’s ever been before.  It’s a life in which I now think back on that scene in First Reformed, and I am taken less by Ernt’s lofty words about discernment and more by the plunger in the toilet.  Or, better said, the plunger in the toilet gives new meaning to Ernt’s words: “Discernment intersects with Christian life at every moment.  Discernment. Listening and waiting for God’s wish what action must be taken.”

At some point in each of our lives, we discerned that God and the church were calling us to the priesthood.  And, as I’ve gleaned from our annual conversations, we continue to discern all the time whether or not God still calls us to the priesthood.  As for me, I don’t really like to wear clericals anymore.  I wear a collar as seldom as possible.  Not because I reject my ordination—God’s calling is more palpable to me than ever—but because the notion that priesthood is somehow like the bite of a radioactive spider is now so completely foreign to me.  Priesthood, for me, is now about plunging clogged toilets, and in the best way.

In First Reformed, Ernt’s journal, reflecting further on calling, reads, “Some are called for their gregariousness.  Some are called for their suffering.  Others are called for their loneliness.  They are called by God because, through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands.  They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our savior.”

I believe that today as profoundly as I believe anything.  As I skirted despair the last couple of years, there was nothing left but Jesus.  As my physical being betrayed me, the only way to arrest the spiritual downward spiral was to look to Jesus and hope Jesus would pull me up.  Lest I preach an entire homily without a nod to the Gospel text, this is my story of Nicodemus approaching Jesus under cover of night and slowly coming to grips that the emptiness of things can only be filled by the presence of the savior.  In First Reformed, Ernst Toller says, “Reason provides no answers…Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.  Hope and despair.  A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our heads is life itself.”

That is priesthood, I now believe: Holding up the hope of the savior in the face of despair.  If we think we are about anything other than that, then we are merely putting on costumes, at worst playing superhero and at best playing parts that are for others to play. We plunge toilets.  We unclog spirits.  We hold up hope.  We speak of the savior.  We hold beating hearts in our hands. 

What a privilege.  What a gift.  Amen.

Those who believe in me…

If one is fortunate in life, at least once or twice he’ll encounter someone whose vision, passion, dedication, and charisma capture his imagination and his heart.  He will find himself setting aside, or at least suspending for a time, his own goals and intentions and putting himself in service to that figure who has inspired him.  Importantly, such a following is not slavish and unquestioning.  A truly inspiring leader does not attempt to squelch questions or critique.  But even so, inspiring leaders exude an infectious desire to do right and do well, to further some virtuous goal with verve and passion.  If you’ve ever encountered such a person—if you’ve ever followed such a person—you know what I’m talking about.  And if you haven’t, you’ll know it when it happens.

I have encountered such a person.  And some of you will know the person I’m talking about.  It is Ellis Arnold, the current president of my alma mater, Hendrix College, who will retire from that role in just a few months.  In his long and illustrious career of leadership, Ellis has served as president of three institutions, and his achievements unquestionably now mark him as an elder statesman of education (though, in truth, he’s not that old).  But I first came to know Ellis when I was a twenty-one-year-old Hendrix student, and he was a thirty-six-years-young Hendrix vice-president already evidencing the talent that would lead to his rise.  A few years later, when I was twenty-five and Ellis was forty-one, Ellis served as president of a university in Tennessee, and he hired me to be his director of admissions.  We worked closely side-by-side for two years before I left to go to seminary, and I’ve never had an experience like it, before or since. 

Ellis Arnold as President of Lambuth University, c. 1998

Ellis articulated a vision for the university that was hopeful and necessary.  When he spoke about it, Ellis lit up, even at times when he was otherwise weary.  Ellis labored for the college harder than anyone else around him, and his dedication made those around him want to work harder and more faithfully, too.  In those years, Ellis was not flawless.  He would occasionally second-guess, or misstep, or move too quickly for others.  But his humanity simply made us want to follow with greater dedication, not less.  Though it seems strange to say so, Ellis was the embodiment of the vision and the hope he pursued—he lived and breathed it—and that is what inspired the rest of us.  That is what inspired me.  At the end of the day, the best and perhaps only way to say it is that I believed in Ellis Arnold, and I followed where he led.  

Today’s reading is the story of the death of the only individual in John’s Gospel who is referred to as Jesus’ friend.[i]  There is so much in this story to plumb.  But today I want to focus on Jesus’ statement right in the middle of the reading—the statement that may have perked your ears and reclaimed your attention—because it is at the same time one of the most cherished and the most divisive statements in the Gospels.  Here it is: “Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’”

We read these words at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral service.  In that setting, they are words of profound comfort, with the promise that life has not ended, but changed.  Thank God for them.  But in other settings, marked less by grief than argument, these same words become lines in the sand, dividers, even litmus tests.  “Whoever believes in me will never die,” Jesus declares, and then asks, “Do you believe this?”  And that presents the rub.  What does it mean to believe in Jesus?

Jesus raising Lazarus

For the past couple of centuries, especially in American Christianity, the answer has leaned toward “beliefs,” with an “s” on the end.  And by beliefs we mean propositions about Jesus that are claimed to be factually true.  A good example is the literal virgin birth, but there are plenty of others.  “Believing in Jesus” is generally taken to mean that you assent to the laundry list of propositions.  You affirm them, whatever they are, as literal fact, and if you can check all of the boxes, then you believe in Jesus.  And thank God that you do, since checking those boxes is what is required to inherit eternal life.  By the same token, beware if you can’t in good conscience check all the boxes, because eternal life depends on it.

Is that depiction of belief in Jesus familiar to you?  For those who grew up in more evangelical churches, it almost certainly is.  And such a primary understanding of belief can create intense anxiety, guilt, and despair of salvation if, internally and deep down, we harbor doubts and aren’t so confident of our intellectual assent.

An example: During my seminary summer of hospital chaplaincy, I had a patient who’d had a stroke and was suffering from aphasia.  He was unable to understand or form complete, coherent sentences.  His wife was desperately afraid of his damnation because he’d never declared propositional belief in Jesus, so she wanted me, as chaplain, to go to his room and encourage him to speak after me, word for word, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  As if assenting to that formula aloud was some sort of magical incantation that made all the difference; as if that’s what belief in Jesus means.

Hear me say: It isn’t.  Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are surely wondrous.  In Jesus, God did something cosmic and unique.  But our assent to any particular dogmatic articulation of how to understand God’s action in Jesus is not what John—or Jesus—means by belief.

The first thing we need to notice, in this and all of the great “I am” statements in John, is that Jesus is not even referring to himself in the first part of the statement.  Remember, “I Am” is the first and proper name that God gives to Godself way back in Exodus.  At the burning bush, Moses asks God who God is, and God says, “I Am.”[ii]  So, when Jesus says, “I Am the resurrection and the life” he’s not saying “I, Jesus, am the resurrection and the life.”  Jesus is actually saying, “God, the ‘I Am,’ is the resurrection and the life.”  If we misunderstand that, we misunderstand the rest.  That is Jesus’ vision.  That is the Way, the Gospel he wants us to understand: that God is resurrection; God is life.

To believe in Jesus is not to say or affirm all the right things about Jesus.  Remember how I described a young Ellis Arnold at the outset.  Believing in Ellis didn’t mention that I affirmed facts about Ellis, that he grew up in Little Rock, has a law degree, or likes to bird hunt.  When I said I believed in Ellis, I meant that Ellis inspired me.  I caught his vision, trusted it, gave myself over to it, and followed him towards it.

Amplify that cosmically, and we come to understand what it means to believe in Jesus.  It means we give ourselves over in trust—heart, mind, body, and soul—to the vision of God that Jesus embodies in his words, his life, his death, and his ultimate resurrection.  That’s what it means to believe! 

When you go home, take your leaflet insert and read this passage again.  A story like the raising of Lazarus, in which Jesus doubts himself not once, but twice, in which Jesus expresses deep grief and sorrow, and in which Jesus channels the profound power of God, inspires like nothing else.  The passage ends by saying that those who walked with Jesus and experienced all of this believed in him.  Not things about him.  Not propositions.  Jesus spoke and lived the vision that God—the great I Am—is resurrection and life, and Jesus’ own fulsome trust in that vision inspired others to trust and follow.  It was contagious.         

It still is.  Next week we will be invited to give ourselves over to that vision completely, as we march into Jerusalem with Jesus and walk with him through the week of the Passion.  Will he inspire us?  Will we trust him?  Will we believe in Jesus enough to follow him and live into his vision of God?  If we can, then on Easter Day we will experience resurrection and life.


[ii] Exodus 3:14

Life Flashing Before Our Eyes

One of the most familiar tropes in film and fiction is when a character in distress or at the point of death sees his entire life flash before his eyes.  Events from birth to the present moment cascade rapidly through consciousness, as the protagonist looks on in wonder at his life’s review.  This happens in Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky, even in the Shrek spin-off cartoon Puss in Boots, though in that instance Puss in Boots sees all nine of his kitty cat lives replayed in front of him.  Most recently we saw this in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, when Max is near death and sees the events of the previous seasons flash before her eyes.

In most of these examples, the rapid life review is reminiscent, poignant, or even a comfort to the protagonist.  It is a means by which he can culminate his life before letting go.  But let’s pause and ask: Is that what it would feel like for us to have our lives flash before our eyes?  To have everything from our lives flash before our eyes? 

In addition to the things we do or leave undone, human beings spend much of our lives creating powerful psychological defenses, and we use these to suppress some painful or shameful memories and revise others.  We magnify our victories and minimize our failings.  In short, we tend to recast ourselves as the heroes of the story of our lives.  But here’s the thing about the breakneck life review that flashes before us at life’s end: It doesn’t care a whit for our psychological defenses.  The life reel that we will see (if indeed that’s how it works) will be not be varnished by our recasting.  It will show us the blunt truth of who we’ve been in each and every moment.  It will show us our joys but also those times when we faltered by mistake and when we willingly did harm.  We want the movie reel to be a superhero movie or a romantic comedy, but for some of us it might be closer to a horror film.

The reality is that the movie reel of our life already exists in its stark and unembellished form.  We know this, and we acknowledge it at the beginning of our worship each Sunday.  We’ve already done so today.  Immediately following the procession, the Celebrant prayed, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”  We might even add a tagline from the prophet Jeremiah: “I am watching, says the Lord.”[i]

The revision of our life stories may deceive us, but it does not deceive God.  God knows who we are.  God knows who we are.  And if that doesn’t make you the least bit nervous, you’re a much better person than I am.

This is the circumstance of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel today.  This is a long passage, filled with theological heft and nuance, but among its most striking aspects is the few lines of dialogue between the woman and Jesus sandwiched in the middle.  After Jesus has told the woman all about the water of life (and more about that momentarily), Jesus instructs the woman to go and fetch her husband.  Attempting to shroud the truth of her life and its circumstances, the woman offers sheepishly and obliquely, “I have no husband,” upon which Jesus says, “It is true that you have no husband,” and then, as Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, Jesus “pierces her life at center.”[ii]  Jesus proceeds to run the movie reel and flash the woman’s life before her eyes, describing her unorthodox repetitive marriages and revealing that she is now living with someone to whom she isn’t married.  We don’t know the nitty gritty details beyond that, but it is clear that Jesus does, just as it is clear that the woman’s lifestyle sets her, fairly or unfairly, outside the bounds the morality of her day and time.

Just as we would be, the Samaritan woman is taken aback by Jesus’ prescience.  That much we would expect.  What we would not expect is what the woman tells all her neighbors when she goes back to town.  She says to one and all, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done!”  Having spent so much effort—as we all do—building her psychological walls of defense, having obfuscated to herself and others (including Jesus) in order to preserve her sense of self as a good person, now the Samaritan woman rejoices that Jesus has seen her entirely and held that true mirror up to her.  And beyond that, her reaction is contagious.  Inexplicably, John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’”  All of a sudden, they want to see the true reel of their lives, too.  They want to face themselves square-on and without varnish.  Somehow, Jesus has turned the horror movie into a miracle story.

How is that so?  How is it Jesus can draw us to the very thing we’ve so diligently and assiduously avoided all our lives: The vision of our truest selves, light and shadow both?

It is because of the way today’s passage both begins and ends.  Before Jesus has held up the mirror of the Samaritan woman’s life, before the good, bad, and ugly have flashed before her eyes, Jesus shares with her the Good News of living water.  He does so already knowing everything about her.  To Jesus, already, the woman’s heart is open, her desires known.  From him no secret is hid.  And yet, even before he reveals all of this to her, Jesus offers her the water of life.

And what about after he told her everything about her?  Was the prior Good News just a ruse then to pull the rug out from under her?  Did Jesus intend, like some Puritan preacher of old, simply to begin with the Gospel in order to show us how depraved and fallen—how beyond grace—the Samaritan woman was?  No.  After the woman is faced with the stark reality of herself, Jesus continues to sit, and teach, and offer that grace fully and freely.  He stays with her, ignoring even his incredulous disciples, until she (not he) is ready to move.

The second half of the Collect for Purity we say at the outset of the Holy Eucharist—the prayer that reminds us God is the one “from whom no secrets are hid,”—says, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”  The answer to that prayer is what we see happen in the Samaritan woman.  She can endure, and even welcome, seeing her life flash before her eyes, because Jesus is with her before and after the viewing. Jesus is the one who shows her her true self, but he does so already having extended grace.  In the metaphoric language of the passage, he provides her with the food and drink she needs in order to face who she has been.  In a phrase, Jesus loves her first, and through his love she can bear to see her life truly, allow it to be washed clean by the living water of Christ, and begin to love more perfectly in return.

Part of who we have been is glorious, to be sure.  As I preached two weeks ago at the beginning of Lent, God says that we are good.[iii]  But there are also those parts of us and things we have done that we prefer to keep hidden in the shadows, that we don’t want to admit to ourselves, much less the world around us.  Do we trust Jesus enough to let him show us everything we have ever done?  Are we thirsty for the living water that will strengthen us for the viewing?  Redemption begins with only and exactly this trust.  Only in it and with it can we be honest about who we have been and who we are.  Jesus reveals us to ourselves not to condemn or shame or abandon.  Jesus rehearses our lives so that we, too, can love more purely and live in the light.  Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  Are you ready for your life to flash before your eyes? 

[i] Jeremiah 7:11

[ii] See Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 259-260.

[iii] Thompson, Barkley.  “Why Lent?”

Why Lent?

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  Every year on this day, we (along with Anglicans across the globe) chant the Great Litany, where we say, among many other similar things, “From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us…From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.”  And so on.

Every year on Ash Wednesday, which was five days ago, we confess to God, “our…unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience in our lives…our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.”[i]

Every year for Lent we give up things we love—that make us smile and grant us a bit of pleasure after our daily slog—like chocolate or beer.

And every year on the First Sunday in Lent—every year—we read the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when the devil relentlessly pummels a tired, weak, and famished Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but we’re thirty minutes into the First Sunday in Lent, and I’m already miserable!  After the Advent season of expectation and anticipation, the Christmas season of joy, and the Epiphany season in which our eyes are opened to the wonder of God, we find ourselves—like Jesus—swiftly cast into a barren Lenten wilderness in which anticipation dies of thirst, joy withers, and our eyesight is dimmed by darkness.  Jeez, Louise, I want to crawl in a hole for the next forty days.

Have you ever asked why?  If Lent were a resolution passed by us in convention, the many things I’ve just described would be the “whereases”: Whereas we acknowledge our sin, whereas we repent in sorrow, whereas we deny ourselves, whereas we read of the temptation of the Savior…  But what is the “Be it therefore resolved” in this resolution?  Why do we subject ourselves to these forty days of self-abasement before we dust off the seersucker and flowered hats for Easter?  Is misery good for its own sake?  Why Lent?

Are we supposed to be miserable in Lent?

It’s probably a good idea to look closely at the Gospel reading today, the temptation of Jesus that gives us the model for Lent.  Though in church we’ve had six intervening Sundays, in Matthew’s narrative today’s reading follows immediately after what we read in church way back on January 8, the day Jesus was baptized.  On that day, you may recall that Jesus had an epiphany.  The eyes of his soul were opened to the presence of God, both around him and in his own life.  Some scholars believe it was at that very moment that Jesus began to recognize that he was different, that he was set apart for some special purpose.  And it was right then, in the wake of that profound, heady, and life-altering experience, that Jesus found himself cast into the wilderness and tempted by the devil.

That makes good and evident sense.  It is often when we feel unexpected wind in our sails, in those moments when the world seems to bend to our will, when a voice from God (or somewhere) says to us, “You are special” that we find ourselves tempted to believe our own hype and find first our behavior and then our very selves twisted into people we scarcely recognize and don’t want to be.

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation is sparse.  The way he tells the tale, Jesus immediately rebuffs each of the devil’s propositions.  But I doubt that’s the way it happened.  I suspect the reality was something much closer to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus very humanly indulged fantasies of his temptations, imagined in lengthy detail what his life would look like if he went down various avenues, anguished over the loss of things that he knew weren’t good and right for him but that he nevertheless desired and craved.

In other words, I don’t think Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a speedy chess match in which Jesus quickly bested the devil.  I think it was a protracted time (forty days in the bible simply means “a really long time,” after all) when Jesus struggled with his own shadow in all the ways we are encouraged to do in Lent.  Jesus’ temptation truly is our model in these forty days.

But again, that begs the question, why?  And the answer comes in what is usually considered a throwaway line at the tail end of today’s Gospel passage, when Jesus’ trial is done.  But it’s no afterthought.  It’s actually the key to the whole thing, the “be it resolved” of our entire Lenten proclamation.  That final line is the “why” of Lent: “Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, gives this verse its more telling emphasis.  Peterson says, “The Devil left.  And in his place, angels!  Angels came and took care of Jesus.”  I believe whole-heartedly that the trajectory of the story—its entire point—is those angels who rush in at the end. I’ll say more about that in a moment…

Too often, too many Christian preachers and Christian people treat Lent as if for forty days a year God wants us to be self-abasing and self-loathing.  Hear me say (and pardon these strong words): That is heresy.  If all our Lenten observances are intended to make us feel lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut, then we are forgetting God’s proclamation at the dawn of the world upon creating humankind in God’s own image, when God gazed upon us and said, “Indeed, it is very good.”[ii]

At Jesus’ baptism, it was revealed that Jesus was destined.  And before Jesus could fulfill that destiny, Jesus had to undergo the difficult and almost upending experience of temptation in all the ways human beings are tempted.  Jesus was tempted by indulgence, by status, by power.  In a phrase: Even Jesus was tempted to take on a false self.  And so, Jesus’ own wilderness time was not self-abasing; it was a stripping bare.  It was a casting off of the layers of temptation so that what remained was only the core, only the goodness, only the image of God that was Jesus’ heart.  And then, like magnets to a pole or moth to flame, the angels of God rushed in to Jesus, to tend him, minister to him, build him up in truth rather than falsehood and temptation, so that Jesus could be the One God had called him at his baptism to be.

That is our Lenten model.  Over time—over life—the temptations that beset us, the temptations to which we too-often give in, accrete upon us layers of indulgence and false selves that bury deep underneath our delusion that image of God in which we are created.  Our Lenten observance—the drone of the Great Litany, the practices we take on, the things we give up, the reminders of our mortality—all of these intend not to abase us or make us miserable, but to strip us bare of that delusion, to shed our false selves, to bore down to the image of God at the heart of us.  In us, as in Jesus, that image then shines forth to the angels, who will rush in to us and bear us on their wings.

We see this at other times in life, when our stripping bare is unintentional, times of illness, or economic hardship, or family crisis, when, as our layers are shed in the midst of it all, we encounter God in a profound way.  Lent is simply the same thing, but with intention.  That is the “why” of Lent.           

So, this Lent, hear the words of the Great Litany.  Renew your repentance and faith.  Give up something meaningful, or better yet something that should be given up altogether, or take on a new discipline.  But in all these things, remember always that you are good.  You are created in the very image of God.  And God loves you so much that, when you are stripped bare and in greatest need, God’s angels will rush in to tend you. 

[i] Book of Common Prayer, 268.

[ii] Genesis 1:27-31.

To whom do we belong?

In this season, our second reading each Sunday—the one we most often neglect, the one during which congregants are most likely to jot down their grocery lists on the back of a welcome card or wonder how long the preacher is going to talk—is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  Chopped into weekly bits, the letter doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but read in a sitting, as one would normally read any letter, it’s a fascinating piece of writing.

Paul has spent eighteen months in Corinth, first preaching the new Gospel of Jesus, then recruiting the church there, and finally establishing the structures of that church so that when Paul leaves it can continue to flourish.  But, barely down the road toward his next stop, a rider catches up with Paul to tell him that, back in Corinth, all hell has broken loose.

To understand this, we first need to understand Corinth itself.[i]  Corinth had been an ancient city, but when Rome conquered it, it scattered Corinth’s inhabitants and leveled the old city to the ground to build a brand-new Corinth on the ruins of the old.  Rome then transplanted people from all over the empire with promises of land and other incentives to populate the new Corinth.  The result was a polyglot city that was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  Corinth was a glittering, anything goes, “What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth” kind of town, and even the newly-converted Christians had trouble leaving their old habits behind.

“Corinth was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.”

So, what are the presenting issues that furtive rider shares with St. Paul on the road?  What is going on in the Corinthian church that causes Paul to stop in his tracks and write an often-furious letter of warning to his former flock?  The first issue Paul addresses is that a lay leader in the Corinthian church has taken up an intimate physical relationship (to put it mildly) with his own stepmother.[ii]  Next, it turns out that affluent church members—the ones who don’t have to work at wage-earning jobs all day—show up early for the evening Eucharist and sit around getting drunk on Communion wine.[iii]  And even further on, Paul castigates church members for arguing over whose spiritual gifts are greater: the healers, the prophets, those who speak in tongues, etc.  The image is of school kids bickering on the playground about who is the “coolest.”  It’s at that point that Paul calls them all “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.”[iv]  And so on.  You can’t make this stuff up.  (See how interesting the bible can be?!?)

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reads, in many places, like a parent saying, “That thing you’re doing?  Stop it!”  But in other places, St. Paul takes a step back and offers a theological diagnosis to the overall problem of Corinth.  He recognizes that all the Corinthians’ foibles, errors, and gross transgressions are symptomatic of something much deeper and more pervasive.  Once in chapter one and again today in chapter three, Paul poses the overarching question, and it’s a question that pertains throughout the ages, as much to us as it does to first century Corinth.  Paul asks his readers, “To whom do you belong?”

That’s an interesting word, belong.  Its etymology traces to two meanings, both of which are worth notice.  The first is from the Dutch, and it means “to concern.”[v]  In other words, we belong to that with which we are concerned.  That makes perfect sense.  That which occupies our thoughts, which populates our anxiety, on which we spend our time, our energy, our money…that which concerns us, owns us in a sense.  We belong to that with which we are concerned. 

The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich took this notion to its logical end and said that our god is that with which we are ultimately concerned.[vi]  And in that case, if we’re honest, the God we claim to worship when we come to church is not, by Tillich’s measure, our true god.  That’s hard to hear and even harder to accept, but what Tillich forces us to confront is this: How much of our time outside of these walls; how much of our consideration when we make decisions throughout our daily lives; how much of our interactions with other people; are determined by our devotion and adoration of God?  Not much, Tillich would say.  Most of us don’t often pause to consider the God of grace incarnate in Jesus as we tick through the moments of our day, and thus Tillich would say that God is not really our ultimate concern.  Instead, our ultimate concerns are placed in many other things: our ideology, our politics, our finances, our biases, our addictions, our petty grudges, our legitimate personal worries.  Some of these things are toxic, and some are benign.  But Tillich says that whichever of these things, or combination of these things, preoccupies our thoughts and drives our decisions, those are our ultimate concerns and thus those are our gods.  Those are the things to which we belong.  St. Paul is saying the same thing to the Corinthians.  “To whom do you belong?” Paul asks them throughout his letter.  Judging by their behavior, they belong to any number of things, but they don’t belong to Christ.

And that points to the second meaning of the word “belong.”  It is from the Middle English, and it means “to be fitting.”[vii]  In other words, we “fit” ourselves—we conform our thoughts, our actions, our decisions, our behavior—to that to which we belong.  If our ultimate concern is wealth, we act materialistically.  If our ultimate concern is winning in business, politics, life, we become vicious.  If our ultimate concern is a bottle, we will ignore all other responsibilities in order to get that drink.  We fit our actions to that to which we belong.  Paul’s deep frustration with the Corinthians is that their actions are entirely unfitting with discipleship.  The Corinthians claim to follow Jesus, but in their actual lives they follow anything and everything but Jesus!

And that is worth some introspection for us, too.  We may rebel against the notion that our gods are something other than God, but Paul presents us with a way to check ourselves: How do we act?  Do we fit ourselves to the ways of love and grace?  Or, do we, in Paul’s words, “behave according to human inclinations”[viii] and chase after other gods?

The Rector’s Book Club discussed C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce this past week.  Lewis’ book is about heaven and hell, and his conclusion is that hell is the life lived with something other than God as its ultimate concern.  Most of the characters in The Great Divorce who find themselves in hell don’t even realize where they are.  They are so consumed by concerns other than God, they so entirely fit their attitudes and actions to those other concerns, that, though they are miserable, they fail to recognize why.  Some seek to possess their spouses or children as instruments of their own worth and meaning; some are obsessed with their superiority, others by their victimhood; some thrive on their arrogance and indignation; some are consumed by addiction.  But in every instance, the characters belong to, and fit their lives to, something other than God.

Heaven is constantly held out to each of them, and for those who ultimately enter heaven the threshold is crossed when they say, in essence, “I will no longer fit myself to this other thing.  I will no longer allow it to be my ultimate concern.  I will no longer belong to it.  I will belong to God.” 

Then the world changes.  Hell becomes heaven.  God, as the new ultimate concern, becomes the prism through which all other concerns are viewed and considered.  Grace becomes the milieu through which all else is encountered.  And that, then, changes action.  The characters find that they begin to fit themselves to God.  They begin to interact in ways that channel grace to others.  Love itself becomes purer, as all other loves in life flow first from their love for God. As it is in C.S. Lewis’ fable, so it is in our very real lives, in our very real world.  St. Paul says to us, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, you belong to God.  Let go of all else.  Allow God to be your ultimate concern.  Fit yourself to God’s grace.  Then even the hells we encounter in life we will find transformed into heaven.

[i] Horsley, Richard A.  1 Corinthians, 22-28.

[ii] 1 Corinthians 5:1

[iii] 1 Corinthians 11:20-22

[iv] 1 Corinthians 13:1


[vi] See Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith.


[viii] 1 Corinthians 3:3

God’s Slogan

Last week I went down a YouTube rabbit hole.  Someone sent me a link for an early 1980s commercial for the Sony Walkman, and my nostalgia got the better of me.  I proceeded from one vintage commercial to another, until (an hour of time wasted) I’d been reminded of virtually every famous commercial slogan from the past forty years.  You’ll remember many of them, because, well, they’re memorable.  That’s the whole point.  Here’s what we’re going to do:  I’ll name a company or brand, and you call out the slogan.  We’ll have to pretend we’re Baptists for just a moment, since we Episcopalians—the Frozen Chosen—don’t usually cry out in church.  Don’t be afraid; give it a try!  Here goes:

         Kentucky Fried Chicken: “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!”

         Wheaties breakfast cereal: “The Breakfast of Champions”

         Folger’s Coffee: “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup.”

Well done!  Here are a few more.  Remember the Wendy’s slogan in the 1980s that, in turn, became a catchphrase in the 1984 presidential campaign?  “Where’s the beef?!?”  Or, recall Volkswagen’s mid-century slogan to launch the original VW Beetle in the United States, during a time when the trend in American cars was to be as big as a boat?  VW instead encouraged people to “Think small.”  I always liked MasterCard’s slogan, “There’s some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”  In a split second, the viewer believed that a wallet-sized plastic card gave access to every dream.

That’s what good slogans do.  They are short, catchy, and memorable.  They bring to mind the product they represent, and they present to the imagination the vision of a different world and make us want to be part of it.  As a trite but effective example, KFC’s slogan—“Finger lickin’ good”—first makes us hungry and then transports us to a place where we are satiated with delicious comfort food.  Or, Wheaties’ slogan transforms the couch potato into a gold medal Olympian. 

I like to think I’m an intelligent, sophisticated person, immune to the manipulation of Madison Avenue advertisers.  But I’m not.  Last year I was at a clergy conference in Washington, D.C.  By the time my plane landed, I’d waited on my bag, and Ubered to the hotel, I was travel weary and irritable.  My back hurt, and I wanted to take a nap, but instead I dropped my bag in my room and went reluctantly downstairs to meet a few friends who were also attending.  On a bulletin board just outside the hotel bar was an advertising poster showing smiling, carefree, happy people lifting their cocktail glasses in a toast.  The sign’s slogan said, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”

Oh, brother, I was hooked.  Without even realizing it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s right!”  So, I walked into that bar with a new spring in my step, not even noticing that it was a dingy and shabby bar, and proceeded to run up a tab.

This morning’s Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We hear these verses often, but we rarely take note of where they fall in Matthew.  Just prior to the sermon, Jesus has called his disciples, that first small band of closest confidantes and friends, and now Jesus’ message has begun to catch steam.  Immediately before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, “Jesus’ fame spread…and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”[i]  In other words, Jesus’ Galilean start-up has suddenly gone viral.  And it’s at that moment that Jesus messages his famous sermon, which is the very heart of Matthew’s Gospel.

The sermon is long; it goes on for three entire chapters.  That said, the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount can be distilled into its opening verses we read this morning, the Beatitudes.  They serve as an abstract, a thesis paragraph of sorts for the sermon, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…” And all the rest.

The Beatitudes are certainly briefer than the entire Sermon on the Mount, but even they run on for twelve verses.  Given a full weekend spiritual retreat or a several-session Adult Forum course, one could study all nine Beatitudes and glean a depth of meaningful understanding.  It would take at least that long.  That’s why most preachers will select a single Beatitude on which to preach rather than the entire list.  But such a homily can capture only a sliver of what Jesus is talking about.  It would be a partial understanding, which could even lead to a misunderstanding by accentuating one Beatitude and ignoring the rest. 

What to do?  It would surely help if Jesus had a slogan, something to capture the imagination and call to mind a new vision of life as effectively as, for instance, Disneyland’s slogan “The happiest place on earth.”

Those here at Saint Mark’s who have already taken classes with me are aware that I am generally not a fan of slogan Christianity, because too often whatever slogan Christians choose is really more about what they want Christianity to be than what the Gospel actually says.  That said, in our harried lives and TikTok world of minute attention spans and it would be helpful to have a succinct and memorable way to understand and truly articulate the Gospel, a genuine Gospel slogan of sorts. 

And, in fact, we do.  We read it today, too.  It is not directly from the mouth of Jesus, but rather from the Old Testament prophet Micah.  It is proof that the Gospel does not begin with Jesus but much farther back in God’s salvation history; that Jesus came, as he himself says in Matthew, to fulfill the work that God’s prophets had begun.  In today’s Old Testament reading, in his challenge to the people of Israel, Micah presages the Beatitudes.  He takes their truth—already distilled from the entire Sermon on the Mount—and distills it further into a single sentence, provocatively posed as a question.  Micah asks, “What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

There it is, the entire Gospel in a phrase.  A slogan worthy of Jesus: What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 

Succinct.  Memorable.  Drawing our minds immediately to our Creator, and casting before our imaginations a new vision of life.  Micah first calls us to recognize that, despite our pretensions otherwise, we are not God, and we must recognize our fragility, our contingency, and our need for humility before the one who makes us in love.  And the faithful response to that God is both to deal kindly with one another and to labor tirelessly in this world to mirror God’s own act of creation by creating just structures ourselves.

Micah poses his Gospel slogan in the form of a question, and the answer to that question is the Church.  Not MasterCard, not Disneyland, not any other organization in this world, but the Church—the Body of Christ—is called to be the crucible in which the vision Micah presents first become reality. And that finally brings me back to that poster I saw outside the Washington, D.C. bar.  It was a cynical poster, selling alcohol as happiness.  But God can redeem anything!  Recall that that slogan asked, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”  Here, at Saint Mark’s Church in the middle of Little Rock, Arkansas. What if?  What if, right here, God means for you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  As Micah says, that is, indeed, good.

[i] Matthew 4:24-25