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.

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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

Of Super Powers and Spiritual Gifts

The earliest liturgy of my life occurred not on Sundays but on Saturday mornings.  My older brother, Robert, would rouse me from bed.  Wearing footy pajamas and shaking the sleep from our heads, we would trundle monk-like from our shared bedroom into the den.  With kids’ rocking chairs shaped like stuffed teddy bears as our pews and the boxy, pixilated color television serving as both pulpit and altar, we’d turn on the T.V. at 6:45 a.m. to nothing but staticky snow on the screen.  At 6:50 a.m., the snow was preempted by a ten-minute devotional program entitled “The Little Breadcast,” hosted by the local Church of Christ.  Enduring ten minutes of hellfire and brimstone was worth it, because as soon as the preacher on “The Little Breadcast” said “Amen” a burst of sound and color took over the screen.  Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Hall of Justice appeared.  Saturday morning cartoons had begun with the Super Friends, and both Robert and I were as mesmerized as two new converts to the faith.

I loved all the Super Friends, but my favorites were the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna.  I suspect I liked them because they were kids and they had super powers.  (I wanted super powers back then, too.)  But the powers allocated to Zan and Jayna were hardly equitable.  Jayna could take the form of any animal.  She could become a soaring eagle or a fearsome grizzly bear.  She could be big or small, sleek or powerful, depending upon the needs of the situation.  Jayna’s brother Zan, on the other hand, had only the power to become water in its liquid, solid, or gaseous form.  Once he became a puddle so as to make a super villain slip while trying to escape.  Once he became mist in order to disguise the movements of the Super Friends.  But that’s pretty weak compared to a grizzly bear.  The most demeaning example I recall is the episode when Zan transformed himself into a bucket of ice cubes.  A bucket of ice cubes? Why would a super hero need to do that?  When super powers were being parceled out, Jayna clearly got the better deal.

zan bucket of ice

Zan’s super powers left a lot to be desired.

In Corinth, the young Christians are bickering.  Unlike the Wonder Twins, they aren’t young in chronological age, but they are surely young in faith, barely babes, and their approach to the Christian life is juvenile to say the least.  In the fervor of their conversion to faith, God has bestowed upon the Corinthians spiritual gifts.  These are remarkable, according to St. Paul’s commentary today.  Some Christians in Corinth are performing miracles; others can heal injury and illness; yet others hear the voice of God and prophesy.  There are also other spiritual gifts, gifts less apparent and flashy, the spiritual gift version of being able to turn into a puddle of water, perhaps.  Regardless of the gift, like adolescent drivers behind the wheel for the first time, the Corinthians don’t yet have the experience or temperament to appreciate the powers at their command.  And so they, like children, begin to bicker over whose spiritual gift is the greatest.  They judge and weigh these gifts from God in the same manner they judge and weigh things in the other venues of their lives: What gives them the most attention, acclaim, status, and prestige.  It is to respond to this jockeying that St. Paul writes his letter.

When I was a little kid, I really did wish for a super power.  I used to daydream about whether I might wake up one day and be able to fly, or become invisible, or shoot heat rays from my eyes.  When I would play in the woods, I secretly hoped I might come across a power ring abandoned by a space alien or a magic bow and arrow.  (A good therapist would likely have a field day analyzing me, since I did, in fact, grow up to wear a costume and each week—Shazam!-like—incant the presence of God into bread and wine.)

As adults, we really do wish for, I think, either consciously or subconsciously, a spiritual gift, a power, something that makes palpable to us and to others evidence of our connection to God, and something that allows us to contribute in a meaningful way.  Like some of the Christians in Corinth, we look around us and see saints and heroes, people whose connection to God is apparent, who seem to have a clear purpose and the gifts to pursue it.  We want that.  We need that.  We want to be able to be the soaring eagle, or the fierce grizzly, or whatever God’s good but hurting world needs.  But for many of us, if we have a spiritual gift at all, by comparison we feel like we are, at best, a bucket of ice cubes or a puddle of water.

super-christian

We want a spiritual super power that makes evident our connection to God.

And the lectionary doesn’t help today, frankly.  Juxtaposing the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel with this passage from 1 Corinthians sets up Jesus turning water into wine as the gold standard of spiritual gifts.  That’s a surefire way to make the rest of us feel inferior.

Beginning today, and continuing on for the next two Sundays, St. Paul has something to say about all of this.  Paul says that spiritual gifts all come from, just the name suggests, the Spirit of God.  In fact, they are nothing but the Spirit of God, finding its way to the surface of our lives and into outward expression.  And, there is nothing that a person of faith does in the world that is not, rightly understood, such a potential outward expression.  Consider that: spiritual gifts are not like super powers, it turns out.  I don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  You don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet.  We don’t have to prove that we are Samson or St. Peter.  We must simply do faithfully what we already do in the world.  We must simply live our lives as expressions of God’s Spirit.  The implications of this are seismic.  How might the doctor practice medicine differently, if she understood her healing craft to be the very Spirit of God finding expression in the world?  How might the businessman strike his deals, or the policeman enforce the law, or the teacher engage her students, or the preacher deliver his sermons, you name it—if we imagined all of these things as spiritual gifts, as expressions of God’s Spirit in the world?  Our lives would seem less mundane, because they would cease to be mundane.  Even our seemingly small interactions would take on weight.  We’d recognize that every encounter is a potential communication of the Spirit, a potential occasion of grace, and we’d take far less for granted.

Beyond today’s reading, Paul adds that our spiritual gifts are never exercised in isolation.  In that favorite cartoon of my childhood, the Wonder Twins could only exercise their power when they first came together.  The same is true of us.  It is when we engage one another in fellowship, and study, and faithful conversation that we first come to recognize the pursuits, skills, and gifts in our lives as spiritual, that we begin to see them all—no matter how grandiose or subtle and seemingly small—as the expressions by which God’s Spirit moves into and through the world.  Each of our contributions matters.  Each of our gifts is essential.

wonder twins

The Wonder Twins couldn’t exercise their powers in isolation.

St. Paul will end his soliloquy on spiritual gifts by asking, “How will we know when one’s life is an expression of God’s Spirit?”  Paul’s culmination is one of the best-known passages in all of scripture, but most of us likely have never considered it in this, its intended context.  Paul says a few verses beyond today’s reading that the barometer of the Spirit, the way we know whether the doctor, the teacher, the lawyer, the businessman, the prophet, or the priest is exercising life as spiritual gift is whether his actions are borne by love.  You see, it is here (and not as a wedding homily) that Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of…angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

You know the rest, about love’s patience, joy, and endurance.  At the end of the day—at the end of a life—this is the only criterion by which the exercise of our gifts is judged.  Did we speak and act in love?  If we can answer yes, then our lives have been expressions of God’s Spirit, a gift to us made a gift to the world.  It is a gift we have, everyone, been given and a gift we can surely give.

The Fourth Magi

My junior high school vice-principal, Harry Branch, was the world’s biggest Beatles fan. For the final day of my ninth-grade year, Mr. Branch planned a day-long lip sync concert of 1960s music.  Any student could perform, so long as the music was from the 1960s.  But the concert would end with a full set by the Beatles.  Mr. Branch hand-picked the Fab Four, and I was Paul.  He put us through a rigorous training regimen that included afternoon rehearsals in Chris McCurley’s backyard.  (Chris was John Lennon.)  We let our hair grow out as mop-tops.  We had to purchase black turtlenecks and slacks.  And I had to learn how to fake playing the bass guitar left-handed.  (That wasn’t too hard to do, since I couldn’t play it right-handed either.)

We lip synced “Help!,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” and more.  The day of the concert, the Paragould Police Department offered us a real-live escort to the front of the Paragould Junior High School (which tells you how low the crime rate was in Paragould; apparently the police had nothing better to do that day).  Screaming fans who’d been coached by Mr. Branch swarmed us as we ran to the auditorium stage.  We were the Fab Four.  It was great.

beatles

The Fab Four

But in real life, was it Fab Four?  Might there have been a fifth Beatle?  Ah, and thus we enter the perennial debate.  If there was a fifth Beatle, who was it?  There are numerous candidates.  Let’s focus on three.  First, there is Pete Best.  Best was, of course, the Beatles’ original drummer.  Best was part of the band during their sojourns to Hamburg, Germany in 1960 and 1961, when the band’s sound coalesced.  But after signing their first record deal with EMI in London, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.  The reasons differ.  Some reported that Pete Best was unable or unwilling to maintain the rhythm.  Others talked about his sudden mood swings and his desire to be in the spotlight to the detriment of the John, Paul, and George.  Some fans even took to calling the band “Pete Best & the Beatles.”[i]  Either way, Pete Best wanted to go and have his own way.  In a band called the Beatles, he wouldn’t keep the beat, either literally or metaphorically, and that’s no good for a drummer.

Another candidate for the fifth Beatle is Billy Preston.  Preston joined the band on keyboards for the “Get Back” sessions, including the Beatles’ final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Records building on January 30, 1969.  This was a period in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo were barely on speaking terms with one another, and virtually every week someone threatened to quit the band.  By all accounts, Billy Preston’s sudden presence leavened the others.  He brought peace and a sense of joy in their work.  But just as soon as he arrived, he was gone.  His impact was transient, and two years later the Beatles were no more.

A third candidate for the fifth Beatle is producer George Martin.  Martin produced the overwhelming majority of the Beatles’ songs.  He is often credited with honing their music into a coherent sound.  He helped the Beatles mature into artists.  George Martin was himself an accomplished musician, and he plays on numerous Beatles songs, most famously providing the harpsicord interlude on the song “In My Life.”  Perhaps most importantly, Martin was constant.  He was there almost from the beginning until after the end.  Long after the Beatles broke up, George Martin continued to shepherd their legacy with a sense of duty and a fair measure of grace.  No matter the histrionics or disfunction of the band (and there was plenty of both), George Martin was faithful.  After Martin died in 2016, Paul McCartney said, “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George.  From the day that he gave the Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”[ii]  I don’t know about you, but I’ll call whatever McCartney says gospel!

fifth beatle candidates

Pete Best, Billy Preston, and George Martin

Speaking of Gospel, in Matthew today the three Wise Men have traveled from the east guided by a star to pay homage to the baby Jesus.  But wait…something is wrong with that statement.  What is it?  Nowhere in Matthew’s account does it state that there are three Magi.  Have you ever noticed that?  There are three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but the number of Wise Men is left undefined.  What if there were another?  What if there were a fourth Magi?

What qualities would be required to be credited with such a role?  What does it look like to pay homage to Jesus, to leave all behind to follow him, to lay one’s gifts—one’s life—at his feet?  Maybe those fifth Beatle candidates can give us hint about the fourth Magi.

Is it the drummer who won’t keep the beat; who refuses to serve in the background as the foundation that carries the rest; who seeks to put himself always in the spotlight, whether for adulation or mere attention?  The work of the Gospel cannot crescendo into music that can move the world when the followers of Jesus will not follow.  When a guitar string breaks or a voice cracks, the Wise Man knows that keeping the steady beat is the most important gift of all.  It buoys all others and keeps the music moving when it would otherwise falter.  The same is true of discipleship in the world.

Is, then, the fourth Magi like Billy Preston, the one who brings peace and an injection of joy, who soothes and inspires, but who shows up late and leaves early and soon?  It may seem so in the short term, but often such a figure ends up wounding where at first it looks like healing, and distresses where at first he appears to encourage.  It can be intoxicating to join a cause, or an effort, or a faith and share one’s gifts.  But when enthusiasm just as quickly wanes and the disciple fades away, people feel abandoned.  The Gospel is left bereft and there is no one to share grace in a world that desperately needs it.  The gifts that one left at the feet of Jesus remain unused in the stable stall, to be swept away with yesterday’s hay.

What about the third option, the George Martin option?  George Martin’s gifts were abundant.  He may have been a better musician than any of the Fab Four.  He shared those gifts in whatever way was needed, at whatever time circumstances required.  He did not need to be center stage, and he patiently received the sometimes swirling turmoil around him and melded it into something enduring, moving, and beautiful.  He arrived early and stayed until well after all others had gone.  He was committed; he was tireless; he was faithful.  We might even say he was wise.

magi

I would love to have been the fifth Beatle.  (I’ve been singing Beatles songs in the shower since ninth grade, after all.)  But that’s not happening.  It can happen, though, that you or I become the fourth Magi.  It requires not virtuosity or unnatural enthusiasm, but only a willingness to seek out Jesus, to offer to God our gifts whatever they may be, to place the Gospel of love in the foreground and provide a steady and supporting beat for God’s work in this world.  Being the fourth Magi entails dedication to that work from now until the very end, knowing that it won’t always be easy or harmonious when we have personalities, and agendas, and the feelings of others with which to contend.  It means being faithful to the star wherever it may lead.  These things make us wise.  They count us among the Magi.  And they contribute to the music of grace that will change the world.

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[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vbBXFnLAXEo#t=684

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Beatle#cite_note-16