Gliding an inch off the ground

When I was ordained, I received many useful gifts.  I received a Prayer Book-Hymnal combination embossed with my name.  I received an oil stock, in which to keep holy oil with which to anoint the sick.  I received a stoles of every liturgical color, so I would be appropriately appointed throughout the church year.  But the most memorable gift I received was not a bible, prayer beads, or even a gift card to a restaurant.  It was a Jesus action figure.  (Yes, you heard that correctly.)  The Jesus action figure was 11 inches and 5.6 ounces of glossy, molded plastic salvation.  His posable arms could be raised to heaven in prayer or forward to bless the masses.  Most spectacularly, Jesus action figure was equipped with what the manufacturer emblazoned across the packaging as his “gliding action.”  The figure had at its base tiny casters, so that Jesus rolled from placed to place, hovering, God-like, a millimeter in the air.  Jesus’ feet never touched the ground.

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In case you’re thinking that a Jesus action figure is unconnected to reality, we might ought to look again at today’s Liturgy of the Palms Gospel.  This is the year we read from Luke, and Luke’s palms narrative is different from that of the other Gospels in one very important respect: In it there are no palms!  Did you notice that?  In Luke, we have no mention at all of the people waving palms fronds before Jesus.  Instead, in Luke the people take off their cloaks and cover the road in front of Jesus.  And so, it turns out the Jesus action figure is, at least in this instance, biblically accurate.  In Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.

There are, of course, innumerable instances in literature where a cloak is placed on the ground to prevent earthly contact with someone’s feet.  The most pronounced examples are from the Age of Chivalry, when dashing knights protected the feet of lovely maidens by laying their cloaks across muddy paths.  Those maidens are always surrounded by a heavenly aura, as chivalry insisted that they are something more than merely human, that the knight must protect them from being sullied by the world.

That is exactly what’s going on in Luke.  The Evangelist even adds that the people laid their cloaks on the road and praised Jesus “for all the deeds of power that they had seen.”  In other words, the people want Jesus to be God-like, something powerful and other.  They don’t want Jesus to be like them, and they create a pretense to the contrary, so that Jesus is not sullied by the dirt and grime of the world.

Christians today very often might as well be those gathered on the downslope of the Mount of Olives in Luke.  Too often, the Jesus described by churches and yearned for by people is the one who glides a half inch off the ground; the one who performs deeds of power on request; the one who, though he looks like us, isn’t quite the same thing.  Indeed, such a Jesus has been desired throughout Christian history.  Two huge movements in the early Church, Docetism and Apollinarianism, each in its own way claimed that Jesus wasn’t really like us, that he wasn’t of the mud and muck of this world.  Jesus was God pretending to be a person, akin to the Greek god Zeus taking on human form.  Jesus glided above us, so to speak, full of power and never quite human.

But it turns out that Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and will not perform deeds of power.  Instead, he gets angry, and then sorrowful, and then anxious, “sweating tears like blood,” as Luke describes him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The people see this, and suddenly the illusion they’ve constructed is dispelled.  Jesus doesn’t exist above the fray; he charges into it.  Jesus doesn’t stand apart from the things that vex us, and weaken us, and bring us to the ground on our knees; he opens himself to the full range of human joy and pain.  Jesus doesn’t glide above the dirt; he lives in it.

I think that’s why, later in Passion Week, the crowd so quickly turns on Jesus.  That’s why the joyous hosannas so easily become enraged cries of “Crucify him!”  The crowd is looking for a particular kind of messiah, and once Jesus gets down off that colt, he just looks and acts human.  In their disappointment, disillusionment, and disgust, the crowd encourages Pontius Pilate to treat Jesus like the dirt in which he plants his feet.  And as Jesus succumbs to being humiliated, scourged, and hung on a cross, the crowd feels justified in abandoning an all-too-human messiah.

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But here’s the thing: Docetism and Apollinarianism were both declared heretical by the Church, and the Jesus action figure is, too.  Rightly, the Church can have nothing to do with a Jesus whose feet don’t touch the ground.  Such a Jesus is good for the occasional parlor trick, but not for real life.  We don’t need the Jesus of Southern Sunday school portraits, with doe-y, upcast eyes and a gauzy glow.  We don’t need the Jesus who glides around in, but is not of, the world.  We need the Jesus who shows up in the ambulance bay, and after the hurricane, and when we feel abandoned as the world around us is crashing.  We need the Jesus who embraces us because he has known our joy, our sorrow, and our loss.  We need a fully human Jesus, who steps, deliberately and repeatedly, into the muck and mud.

That Jesus is not one who hurls a lightening bolt or wrenches us out of the world, but he is the one who will walk through the world with us, from the hosannas of the Mount of Olives to the agony of the Mount of Calvary.  He himself makes that trip this week.  I hope we will walk with him.

A Prodigal Love

This past Wednesday at the Cathedral, as I had finished the early bible study I lead and Flo Ray was preparing for the late morning bible study she leads, I asked Flo if she had any nuggets of wisdom to share about the Prodigal Son.  Flo chuckled and acknowledged that it is difficult to find a fresh word on a story so commonly known and often told.  Indeed, Flo is correct.  There is perhaps no other of Jesus’ stories that so deeply pervades our consciousness.  Consider a small sampling of the films over the years that draw inspiration from, if not direct correlation to, the Prodigal Son: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Legends of the Fall, The Notebook, even The Lion King.  What more can be said?

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The parable is customarily titled the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but as several biblical scholars have pointed out, it would be more accurately titled the “Parable of Two Sons.”  The story itself does not privilege the character of one son over the other; it is as much about the elder son as it is the younger.

Here is a fresh way we might approach this ancient story: Tim Keller argues that the two sons in Jesus parable represent extreme examples of the two basic ways people seek happiness and fulfillment in life, both then and now: the way of self-discovery and the way of moral conformity.[i]  Each of these paths can be life-giving to be sure, and yet in the parable, we see that each path also has its dark side.

The younger son follows the path of self-discovery, chafing against the lifestyle of his father, his family, perhaps his culture.  He wants to pursue his own identity, his own sense of self, his own self-actualization.  He breaks free and leaves, and though the results in his case are extreme, some lesser variant of him is not uncommon to us.  In our own day, the wing-spreading and experimentation that at first feel like freedom can ultimately become just a different kind of captivity.  At the end of the road of self-discovery, we can end up, like the younger son, alienated from what we’d known and loved and dependent upon things (sometimes controlled substances) and people that are not good for us.

The elder son follows the path of moral conformity.  He seeks happiness and fulfillment by putting a premium on carrying out life’s duties (even the smallest and most incidental), upholding astronomically high standards, and—though he may not be conscious of it—insisting that others maintain his standards as well.  It is a form of control that he desires, of himself, his world, and, he hopes, his father.  As a result, the elder son becomes, as we can do, frustrated and angry when the world around refuses to conform.  Like the elder son, we can become resentful when the world fails to commend or reward us appropriately for our rectitude in playing by the rules.  In extreme cases, that resentment can lead one to find a secret release valve of non-conformist behavior, which if it comes to light may be potentially more destructive than the younger son’s wide-open rebellion.

It is clear, from the beginning to the end of this parable, that the father loves his sons, and his love is true.  Why is it that they seek their fulfillment apart from him, either by rebellion or control?  What is it about his love that from which they seek a barrier?

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The most remarkable person I’ve ever known, the one to whom I look up the most, was not an elected leader, a celebrity, a titan of business, or a priest of the church.  Her name is not etched on any wall, or included in any book, and in a generation those who remember her at all will be gone.  But she was, in my life, the closest thing I’ve known to Christ Incarnate.  She is, for me, very often the only lens through which the stories of scripture finally take on flesh and become compelling in my own life. She is my maternal grandmother, Beulah Barkley, whose last name I wear as my first name, and who was known to me only and always as “Boo.”

When I was a child, Boo granted me sophistication of understanding that I did not deserve.  When I was a teenager, for my safety she broached uncomfortable subjects with me that no grandmother would enjoy discussing with her pubescent, hormonal grandson.  When I was in college she wrote me letters in pencil, offering deeply wise counsel and guidance.

boo teaching me

Boo, wearing the green shirt, teaching me some important lesson.

Whenever I describe Boo, I fear that the description comes across as syrupy and Pollyanna-ish.  Boo was neither of those things.  Boo was also not naïve.  She knew full well who I was, and how I could and did fail, and wherein I needed to drop to my knees and ask for God’s forgiveness.  And yet, she also looked upon me with her eyes of love and saw the “me” God’s goodness intended.  She believed I could, with God’s grace, be that person, and she saw me as if I already was.

That is the way God gazes upon us, and it is not an easy thing to be seen in that way.  Sometimes one wants to rebel against that vision, to test whether in can be clouded and the love behind it proven untrue.  Other times one wants to control that kind of love, to manipulate it in order to be master of one’s own life.  Sometimes that love is simply too much; knowing ourselves as we do, we cannot fathom that we are so loved, and therefore we cannot bear it.

In the novel A World Lost, Wendell Berry imagines a time at the end of time when all those who have lived and died emerge in the light of that gaze.  Berry says:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time.  It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed.  It it Hell until it is Heaven.  Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment.  And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled.  In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.”[ii]

My grandmother Boo loved me completely.  She saw me through eyes of grace, and somehow because she could see me as God hoped I would be, I wanted—and I still want seventeen years after her death—to be the person of her vision.  Her love for me was prodigal, which means, after all, extravagant.  And even now when I recklessly stray, it is Boo’s love—which is, in truth, God’s love—that brings me to myself like the Prodigal Son and orients me toward home.

Boo’s love, which I am forever grateful to have encountered, is but a flicker compared to that shadowless light of love God has for us.  It requires vulnerability to be gazed upon with that kind of love.  It requires giving up the option of running away.  It requires relinquishing control.  It requires a willingness to see ourselves as we are and exhale, knowing that we are loved even so, and then wanting to be the people of God’s greater vision.  And when we allow that gaze to wash over us, and we accept that love, the possibility of becoming the people of God’s greater vision becomes real.

God’s love is prior to repentance, prior to doing any duty. It is a love that has its eye always oriented toward the path looking for the younger son, that longingly expects our return and is ever-ready to embrace us.  It is the love that says, as to the elder son, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” without condition, without exception, and without earning.  God’s love, it turns out, is the most prodigal of all.

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[i] Keller, Timothy.  The Prodigal God, 29.

[ii] Berry, Wendell.  A World Lost, 104.

To be a blessing

Have you ever gone to bed with a sense of foreboding, where some threat seemed just outside your peripheral vision, or with an apprehension that some crucial detail had slipped your mind?  Have you ever slept fitfully, with fevered dreams that sought to dredge something from your subconscious into your conscious mind, and sat bolt upright in bed, wild-eyed and sweating, with no understanding why?  Have you ever moved through your morning routine, ominously certain that things were askew but equally unsure how they might be, oblivious about what to do?

Sit with these questions for a moment or two.  Live with them and see if your heart doesn’t pump a little faster, if the hair on the back of your neck doesn’t stand on end.  If you are at all like me, this phenomenon is not unheard of in your life.  It also give us immediate insight, across eons of time and a world of space, into the experience we read today of Abraham.  Midway through our first lesson today, we read, “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”  Abraham tosses and turns.   Something isn’t quite right, but he can’t figure out what’s wrong.

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What has led to this?  Before he has succumbed to his nightmare, Abraham communed with God.  God promised Abraham descendants, and God said, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  God then instantiated God’s promise through a liturgy which began before Abraham’s nightmare and ends the next day, when God says again, “To your descendants, I give this land.”

And from the mists of prehistory to today, we have seen the results of Genesis 15.  That tiny sliver of land in the Near East has been a crucible of tension, violence, and religious self-righteousness that sometimes simmers and other times boils over.  Beginning in the generations after the Exodus and continuing into the twenty-first century, the promise of God has led inexorably to the serial subjugation, oppression, and death of God’s children.  Such was surely the case in Jesus’ own day, when, as we read in the Gospel today, Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s chronic and repeated failure to heed justice and the prophets of God.  Hebrews to Canaanites, Philistines to Hebrews, Muslims to Jews, Christians to Muslims, Jews to Palestinians…the thousands-year cycle is, so far, endless.  Recognizing this reality is not dependent upon one’s political leaning.  The fact is so stark, brazen, and sharp-edged that it refuses to be smoothed or enfolded into gentler interpretation: The Holy Land is too often unholy.  And the tap root of that fact is God’s promise to Abraham: “To your descendants, I give this land.”  The implication being, and to no other.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all believing themselves to be Abraham’s rightful and righteous descendants, take God’s promise as their own, and the results are often horrendous.

And yet, that night eons ago when God’s covenant was sealed, in the very intermission of that world-changing liturgy, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”  Abraham knows but cannot articulate, I believe, that he’s misunderstanding something, that he’s getting it wrong.  In the cradle of God’s promise, Abraham cannot rest.  What should be a dream of hope and joy is, instead a nightmare.  Some crucial detail has slipped Abraham’s mind, some essential component that defines the whole.   He does not remember it, and history happens as we know it.  Abraham’s nightmare finds its way from dreams to reality.

What is it that resides just beyond the periphery of Abraham’s memory?  What is it that, had Abraham and countless generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims remembered would have made God’s dream come true?  We don’t have to wonder; scripture tells us.  It is a prior conversation between God and Abraham, the first conversation, in fact, of their relationship.  It also likely happened in the middle of the night, causing Abraham to sit bolt upright in bed, and it was also God’s first articulation of the promise that would define not only Abraham’s life but the trajectory of much of world history.  Then, in Genesis 12, God spoke through the haze to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.”

So far, this promise is virtually identical to what God repeats three chapters later, in what we read today.  This is also where Abraham’s memory ends.  But the word of God does not end here.  There is one additional phrase, tethered to the promise with one, minute conjunction.  It trails God’s promise like the tail of a comet, and like the comet’s tail it is the brilliant light that illuminates the whole.  Back in Genesis 12 God says to Abraham in full, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

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Abraham and all those countless generations of descendants even to our own day remember the that of God’s promise, but we fail to remember the why of God’s promise.  The blessing is not a thing to be held and possessed like a fetish.  The blessing is a calling, a responsibility, to be the conduit of God’s blessing to others—all others—in God’s world.  The blessing is the sacred duty of Abraham and all those who claim him to be agents of grace.   This is what Abraham forgets, or perhaps never fully hears in the first place.  And God’s dream becomes a nightmare, with the blessing understood as a thing to set apart and above, rather than to share.

The Gospels go to great pains genealogically to connect Jesus to Abraham, and thereby to claim for us, the followers of Jesus, that we, too, inherit God’s promise.  And so, it is our turn to toss and turn, to squirm in the pews, perhaps, to sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and ask ourselves, “What is askew?  What are we forgetting?  Why do the dreams of so many become nightmares for so many others?”

The answer to these questions is always a question: Are we who are blessed also a blessing?  Do we recognize and embrace that our blessings are all and only so that we, in turn, can bless others in God’s world?  “I will bless you,” God says, “so that you will be a blessing.”

To be a blessing sermon quote

We are in Lent, that time of year when we remind ourselves of our blessings by setting some of the lesser and more trivial ones aside, giving up chocolate, wine or some such.  But Lent better serves as the concentrated time to ask: To whom am I a blessing?  Whose lives do I actively seek to bless?  Not just my partner, spouse, children.  Rather, for whom is the world more nightmare than dream, and how can I be a blessing to that person?

That question is the tail of the comet.  It illuminates the entire promise of God.  If we will ask and answer it with our whole hearts and our whole lives, we will become, indeed, the people of God’s covenant.  By being a blessing, we will become truly blessed.  And finally, God’s hope for the world begun in Abraham and assured in Jesus Christ will be a dream come true, from Jerusalem to Houston.  May it be so.

The Dragons

**I first preached this Ash Wednesday reflection at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke, Virginia, in 2008.

 

O the dragons are gonna fly tonight

They’re circling low and inside tonight

It’s another round in the losing fight

The seasons come and bring no relief

Time is a brutal but a careless thief

Who takes our lot but leaves the grief

 

The mournful voice of Emmy Lou Harris keens these words in her song, “The Pearl.”  The CD on which it is found collects dust on my shelf.  I’d not listened to it in years, but Emmy Lou’s words sprung up in my mind effortlessly the first time that I, dressed for the burial office in the glorious white vestments of Resurrection, was handed a heavy, solid and nondescript black box carrying the ashes of one I had known and to whom I had ministered.  I had to transfer those ashes to a container that would fit our columbarium, and when I looked at my fingers, I realized I had ash on my hands.  Cremation is not pristine and sterile.  It, like life, is messy.  The ash left my hands smudged, and the contrast between the glitter of my vestments and the stark reality of the ashes dredged up Emmy Lou Harris’ words:  The dragons fly relentlessly, and in the end they leave but ashes.

Author Anne Lamott lost her best friend to cancer.  She shares this reflection:

I tossed a handful of Pammy’s [ashes] into the water way out past the Golden Gate Bridge during the day, with her husband and family….  I was able to see…the deeply contradictory nature of ashes—that they are both so heavy and so light.  They’re impossible to let go of entirely.  They stick to things, to your fingers, your sweater.  I licked my friend’s ashes off my hand, to taste them, to taste her, to taste what was left after all that was clean and alive had been consumed, burned away.  They tasted metallic, and they blew every which way.  We tried to strew them off the side of the boat romantically, with seals barking from the rocks on shore, under a true-blue sky, but they would not cooperate.  [Ashes] rarely will.  It’s frustrating if you are hoping to have a happy ending, or at least a little closure, a movie moment when you toss them into the air and they flutter and disperse.  They don’t.  They cling, they haunt.  They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes.[1]

 

Our lives on this plain are brief, and we—like all those who have come before us—will be but ashes.  In our broken world, it is all too easy to nod in cadence with Emmy Lou’s words, “Oh the dragons are gonna fly tonight; they’re circling low and inside tonight; it’s another round in a losing fight.”

On our worst days, maybe.  And yet, even then we must realize that there are those who will hold our ashes in their hands and toss us into the wind when we are gone.  And depending upon the way we have marked the years, those ashes will either sting their eyes with pain or impress themselves upon our loved ones’ hands with substance and grit, hearkening back to lives lived with forbearance, compassion, and grace.  Ponder this Lent which kind of remembrance you will leave.  Dwell upon how your ashes will cling to those who remain when you are gone.

And there is more.  We know, even as the ashes fall onto earth or water, that there is more beyond the ashes.  We know that after “all that is clean and alive has been consumed, burned away” there is new life still, to which we look in hope.  That light is just beyond the horizon, and even Emmy Lou Harris looks yearningly toward it.  She ends her song with these words:

 

Hoping for a glimpse of Galilee

Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled

Down through the long loneliness of the world

Until we behold the pain become the pearl

Cryin’ Allelujah, Allelujah

We cry Allelujah.

 

But that is the last “allelujah” we will hear for a while, because first there is Lent.  First we must reflect upon the character of the ashes we will leave.  For we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

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[1] Lamott, Anne.  Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 94-95.

Thin Places

Last month national newspaper columnist Michael Gerson gave a most remarkable sermon at Washington National Cathedral.[i]  Gerson begins by acknowledging that he’d originally been slated to preach weeks prior, but that a conflict caused him to reschedule.  He then surprises the congregation by revealing that the conflict was that he had been hospitalized for depression.  Gerson poignantly and painfully carries the congregation through his experience of a deep depressive episode.  “The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it,” Gerson explains, “Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.”

Michael Gerson uses his experience as a launching point to say that one need not have a chemical imbalance in one’s brain to lapse into despondency.  Gerson says, “All of us—whatever our natural serotonin level—look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair. By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.”

With regard to his depressive episode, Gerson acknowledges that he was fortunate to have had access to mental health services that shepherded him back to and through the surface of his depression.  He credits medicine and medical professionals as agents of his restoration.  But he is also preaching, and from the Cathedral that is his own spiritual home, and he offers in faith that, for each of us, whether clinically depressed or merely at risk of despair as we observe our individual worlds and the world round about us, the first moment of freedom and hope comes when we “begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of [our] sadness…some shred of beauty or love.”

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Michael Gerson

In Exodus today, Moses comes down Mount Sinai, where he has been in the immediate presence of God, and Moses enters into the midst of the people of Israel.  But the Moses who comes down the mountain is not the same Moses who ascended.  Being in God’s presence has changed him.  Now, Exodus tells us, “the skin of Moses’ face was shining, and the people were afraid to come near him.”  The Hebrew word for “shine” used here is not used elsewhere in scripture, and it seems to mean that something like a ray of light or an aura emitted from Moses.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out the peculiarity of this passage.[ii]  Whereas the chapters just before and after it focus on God revealing Godself through words and commandments, in this passage God’s disclosure is different. While today’s passage mentions in passing that, upon reaching the foot of Mount Sinai Moses shares God’s law with the people, its overriding emphasis is that God conveys Godself simply through God’s palpable, teeming presence.  On the mountain Moses has, Brueggemann says, “entered deeply into God’s own life.”  Moses has been immersed in God—he has been enveloped by God’s beauty, and wonder, and grace—and once that has happened, Moses cannot help but bear the presence of God in himself and through himself.  Moses is changed in a way that all can see—he emits that aura of light—and through that change, before and beyond any words that are spoken, the presence of God is communicated to those Moses meets.

That fascinates and tantalizes me.  As many know, I am a student of the ancient Celtic Christian tradition.  The Celts believed that heaven and earth are only three feet part, and that there are some geographic places on this earth where even that distance collapses.[iii]  The Celts called these thin places.  As I often say, a thin place is where the veil between the spiritual and material realms is stretched so thin as to become porous.  Spiritual reality flows into the material world, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a torrent.  In such places, the presence of God is often palpable.  As Walter Brueggemann says of Moses on Mount Sinai, in thin places people sometimes realize to their surprise that they enter deeply into God’s own life, or, better yet, God enters deeply into theirs.

And often, at that point, there is a transference.  The encounter strips away from the person all those layers of defense that we accrue over time to prevent God or other people from entering into the deepest recesses of our lives.  Where we were thick, so to speak, we are laid bare before God’s presence, and the thin place of geography becomes a thin place of personhood.  This is what happens to Moses in Exodus today.  He encounters God in the thin place of Mount Sinai and is himself rendered a thin place.  And when he descends to the people, we read that they are afraid to approach him.

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William Blake’s illustration of Moses shining with the presence of God

Why might that be?  Walter Brueggemann says that Moses “goes deeply into the mystery of God with all its danger and receives guidance for the ways in which presence can be mediated and made available.”  What is the danger?  They danger is that the encounter with God will change us.  It has changed Moses, clearly, and any who then commune with him run the risk of being stripped thin themselves, of having God come to reside in them and through them.  Becoming something different than we are, even if we don’t particularly like who we are, even if our present reality is despondent and near despair, is a frightening prospect.

Michael Gerson knows this personally.  He knows the despair; he knows the fear; and he knows that the encounter with God is salvation.  Gerson says, “The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument, [not words]…It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away.  It is the fragments of love and meaning that arrive out of the blue…[the] experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world…There was Paul’s blinding light on the road to Damascus.  There was Augustine, instructed by the voice of a child to ‘take up and read.” There was Teresa of Avila encountering the suffering of Christ with an ‘outpouring of tears.’  There was John Wesley’s heart becoming ‘strangely warmed.’”  Today we can add, there was Moses coming down the mountain, his face shining with the presence of God.

But we can also add the innumerable anonymous instances in which we have encountered thin places of both geography and personhood.  We, too, have encountered in places and in people transcendence that we cannot explain, or explain away, where the veil is so thin as to be porous, where the curtain is pulled back and we briefly see the landscape of the broader world.  Those encounters push through the despondent surface of the world.  Those encounters are the really real.  They can be fearful, and we can run from them and back into the material world of our familiarity.  Or, we can recognize that such encounters are the first moment of freedom and hope, when we begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world, some shred of beauty or love.

          This is the last Sunday of Epiphany.  On Wednesday of this week, we liturgically leave behind the season where we are attuned to epiphanies of God’s presence and enter into the introspection of Lent.  But epiphanies do not cease with a turn of the liturgical calendar, and revelations of God are especially gifts in Lent.  We may be, like Moses, the one who encounters God on the mountain, or we may be, like the Israelites, the ones who meet that person as he descends.  Either way, God communicates Godself through God’s presence even before words.  Through thin places God seeks to render us thin places, and if we will respond we may find that from us shine forth rays of light.

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[i] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/read-michael-gersons-sermon-sharing-his-struggle-with-depression

[ii] Brueggemann, Walter.  “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, 953-954.

[iii] Weiner, Eric, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012.

The Sermon on the…?

Today our Gospel reading is well-known to us.  It is, of course, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  Pictorial renderings of this scene are as familiar as its words.  From ancient icons to childhood Sunday school images, we recognize Jesus standing on a high place above a yearning crowd, spatially intermediate between the people and God.  The crowd literally look up to Jesus, perhaps with his beatified aura reflected in their eyes.  The scene is set with today’s opening narrative description of the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke says, “Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.”

Wait a minute…That’s not right.  Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place?  It’s as if someone has punked the Gospel book.  That is, until we realize that today’s Beatitudes are not from the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, in Luke’s Gospel there is no Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew, and it, indeed, begins with the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down…he began to speak, and taught them.”

Are these two separate occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus?  Did Jesus preach two different sets of Beatitudes?  Maybe, but that misses the point, I think.  Matthew and Luke are trying to convey different theological truths in the ways they portray this sermon.  So, what are those truths?

Matthew wants to emphasize the spiritual, and in so doing it is important to him to locate Jesus on a “high place.”  It is both geographically and metaphorically universal in religion that people meet God and connect with the divine on mountaintops.  By setting the Beatitudes on a mountain, Matthew hearkens to this pervasive spiritual phenomenon.  Jesus’ Gospel words come down the mountain to the people just as, for instance, God’s commandments came down Mount Sinai through Moses millennia before.

Luke’s less-referenced version of the story, which we read today, actually offers a much more radical and uniquely Christian truth.  In Luke, it is not God’s words that waft down a mountain and settle among the people.  Rather it is God’s Word, the very person of Jesus, who himself comes down onto a level place with the people.  God deigns to descend to our level, in other words, and be intimately with us.

Image result for sermon on the mount vs. sermon on the plain

God deigns to descend to our level and be intimately with us.

This is further emphasized by the difference in the message Jesus preaches.  Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes, in Luke, “Blessed are the poor.”  “Blessed are you who hunger for righteousness” becomes “Blessed are the hungry.”  In other words, Luke takes Matthew’s spiritual claims and recasts them with a gritty realism.

Let’s hear again the Beatitudes from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

I think we prefer Matthew’s more spiritualized version of these promises because in Luke it seems as if Jesus may be peddling an opiate for the masses by promising those who actually, physically suffer in this life a delayed reward in the next life.  But what if Jesus isn’t talking primarily about the afterlife?  What if what Jesus means is that the poor, and the hungry, and the sorrowful, and the persecuted have a blessing, an advantage, now, in this life, in this moment that the rest of us lack?  That seems like a contradiction.  Can it be that the suffering simultaneously are blessed?

Writer Monika Hellwig thinks they are.[i]  Hellwig believes that the acutely vulnerable understand their vulnerability while the rest of us live under the willful illusion that we are self-sufficient.  It is that illusion that often prevents us in the here and now from a living connection to the Spirit of God.  Hellwig uses the category of the poor to make ten declarations about their blessedness. We could substitute anyone who is vulnerable or suffering.  Hellwig says:

  1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.
  2. The poor know not only their dependence on God…but also their interdependence on one another.
  3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.
  4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.
  5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.
  6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
  7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
  8. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.
  9. When the poor [hear the Gospel], it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.
  10. The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.

What about those of us who are not poor, or grieving, or in distress?  Philip Yancey suggests we take Hellwig’s list and turn them into “I” questions, in order to reveal to ourselves the false security in which we sometimes live, and which hinders our connection to God.  Let’s try just a few:

Do I really and truly recognize that I am in need of redemption?  Do I recognize my interdependence with other people?  Can I distinguish between true necessities and luxuries?  Do I have patience to wait on good things?  Does the Gospel feel like liberation or scolding to me?  Am I able to respond to God’s call with joy and abandon rather than begrudging hesitancy?  What about you?

Philip Yancey says that the Beatitudes are “profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down.  The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed.  Not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries [and so should we].  Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient…Human beings do not [easily or] readily admit desperation.  When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.”[ii]

If today we aren’t poor, or hungry, or sorrowful, or oppressed, then the Beatitudes remind us that we have been, or someday will be.  (That’s what the second half of the Beatitudes are all about.)  As fragile, mortal creatures, our well-being is always temporary, and our self-sufficiency is always illusory.  The Beatitudes cause the scales to fall from our eyes and grant us the gift of shedding the illusion, so that we realize anew just how dependent we are upon one another and upon the God who creates us in love.  Then, for us, too, the Gospel becomes Good News.  We recognize with wonder that God does not dwell on high but on a level place among us.  We recognize that rich or poor, joy-filled or sorrowful, we are blessed because God comes down into our real lives, our daily routines, our actual struggles, and abides with us and in us.  And when we know that Jesus speaks to us, we cannot help in turn but speak those words of blessing to God’s suffering world.

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[i] Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew, 115.

[ii] Ibid, 116-117.

Disruptive innovation

1908 was the year.  Karl Benz had introduced the first road automobile to use an internal combustion engine in 1885, but it was in 1908 that the first Model T Ford rolled off an assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan.  It was in 1908 on the streets of New York City that the number of automobiles surpassed the number of horses for the first time.[i]  After that, the transformation was so swift as to cause whiplash.  Horses had been the primary means of transportation since 3000 B.C., and all that changed in a heartbeat.

Car and horse.jpg

Almost immediately after the ascendancy of the car, automated taxicabs followed.  The taxi medallion, that iconic license to operate a cab, became for most of the twentieth century an investment as rock solid as gold.  A dozen years ago in San Francisco, taxi medallions sold for $250,000.  It New York City, they went for upwards of $1 million.[ii]  As recently as 2006, New York taxi medallions were advertised with this tagline: “In New York, the capital of world finance, the hottest investment isn’t stocks, bonds, commodities or even Manhattan apartments. It’s taxi medallions, the metal plates affixed to the hoods of the city’s 12,779 yellow cabs.”[iii]  Entrepreneurs and family patriarchs alike would invest in a taxi medallion as the safest of bets.

Then, in 2009 Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanik launched a little company named Uber, through which one could summon a complete stranger through a smartphone (which was itself a new thing) and take a ride in his Toyota Corolla.  A decade later, according to Forbes Magazine, Uber and Lyft control 70% of the business traveler market in the United States, while the taxi industry controls 6%.[iv]  (Yes, you read those percentages correctly.)  New York City taxi medallions have lost 85% of their value.  They’ve crashed faster than tulips in seventeenth century Holland.

Harvard University business professor Clay Christiansen coined the term for such phenomena: “Disruptive innovation.”[v]  Initially, in its nascent moments, such an innovation is received by people as novel and whimsical.  People see it as intriguing but don’t detect the portent that the innovation may redefine their entire lives.  (Think of old, grainy photos you’ve seen of the very first automobile drivers in their goggles and gloves, smiling blithely as they pass horse-drawn wagons on dirt roads.)  But then, as the full impact of the innovation slowly dawns, lighthearted infatuation gives way to wary apprehension, followed by startled anger and fear as the full implications of what is occurring settle in.  Life is disrupted.  The world is changed.  What was thought to be reliable and valuable suddenly doesn’t seem so.  Nothing can ever be the same again, and there is no going back.

Taxi medallion

This morning’s Gospel passage follows immediately upon last week’s Gospel.  In fact, today’s reading repeats the final line from last week in order to underscore the connection.  Last week Jesus arrived in his hometown of Nazareth.  There, Jesus went to the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61, which says, “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.”

In today’s Gospel passage, the good people of Nazareth react.  At first, Jesus’ performance seems novel and even whimsical.  The son of Joseph the carpenter, who left home months (maybe years) before on a hair-brained journey to follow his crazy cousin John, has come home and taken the place of a teacher in the synagogue.  And, to his fellow Nazarenes’ surprise, Jesus recites well.  Jesus’ neighbors and kin are casually intrigued.  Word has previously reached Nazareth about Jesus’ remarkable acts in other towns around the Sea of Galilee.  The people of Nazareth hope that Jesus will, perhaps, offer them a parlor trick or two.  Some may even imagine that he’ll set up shop now that he’s home and draw a little more business to their tiny town.  Life will go on as usual, except that Jesus will add a dash innovation to their mundane lives.

But Jesus keeps talking.  He’s not a sideshow, he tells them.  He is a prophet, and more than a prophet, and he hasn’t come to tweak the town and add spice to their lives.  Jesus has come to disrupt their lives, to change their world.  He has come to claim Isaiah’s future-oriented prophecy as his own present mission.  They’ve all been blind, Jesus says, but his Good News will give them new sight.  What they had thought was valuable in the world isn’t really so.  They will come to value what God values, to love what God loves.  Now that Jesus is there, nothing will be the same again, and there’s no going back.

For the neighbors and kin of Jesus, the full impact of what they’re hearing slowly dawns.  Casual infatuation shifts to wary apprehension, which morphs quickly into seething rage.  The good people of Nazareth don’t want their world disrupted, and so, Luke tells us, they physically manhandle Jesus south of town to a precipice and prepare to throw him off the cliff.

Image result for jesus nazareth cliff

Here’s the thing: You can’t kill disruptive innovation that way.  Try as they might, the taxi lobby hasn’t slowed Uber and Lyft down.  I suspect the horse-and-buggy cabal probably sought to stop the automobile, but to no avail.  When one stands at the precipice of a value-altering disruption, a world-changing innovation, rage and bluster may grant momentary satisfaction, but they do nothing to stem the tide.  One can check out and leave the grid entirely, or one can align one’s life with the new reality.  Those are the only options.

Granted, when we are talking about disruptive innovations in technology and economics the social results, especially in the short term, are a mixed bag.  Real people experience real distress.  As Harvard professor Clay Christiansen says bluntly, “It hurts to be disrupted.”

The pain is no less real when our lives are disrupted by the Gospel, but then it is the pain of shedding things that are not God’s good for us, the pain of giving up commitments that are not in keeping with Jesus’ vision from Isaiah, the pain that is a necessary part of healing our spiritual wounds.  The pains of Gospel disruption, individual and social, are always Good News.

We are the Nazarenes.  We hear the words of Jesus, and we are casually infatuated.  We enjoy the aesthetics of worship.  We like that when we are low Jesus buoys us up.  But Jesus is about more than that.  He is a prophet and more than a prophet.  Jesus is God incarnate, and especially in this Epiphany season, he bestows upon us new eyes to see the world completely differently.  He redefines what is valuable in this world and in a life.  He shows us what to love and how to love.  And now that Jesus is here in this space and has entered into our lives, he will not leave.  He is the cosmic disruptive innovation, through whom God is remaking the world, and it turns out that it is us, and not Jesus, who stand at the precipice.  Will we go off the grid and pretend that nothing has changed, or will we, blessedly, realign our cares, our loves, our lives to his new reality?  It hurts to be disrupted, but it is also the way to new life, and that abundantly.

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[i] https://www.quora.com/How-long-did-it-take-to-get-horse-drawn-carriages-off-the-roads-in-favour-of-cars

[ii] https://www.npr.org/2018/10/15/656595597/cities-made-millions-selling-taxi-medallions-now-drivers-are-paying-the-price

[iii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelgoldstein/2018/05/09/uber-and-lyft-the-cost-and-benefits-of-disruption/#515289eedfcb

[iv] Ibid

[v] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2019/01/28/689198803/tech-industry-confronts-a-backlash-against-disruptive-innovation