All shall be well… | June 18

Twelve Hymns Project: When peace like a river

Text: Job 29:1-5; 30:16-20

In May of 1373 Julian of Norwich was deathly ill.  Close enough to death that she was given last rites.  No one knows what Julian’s birth name was.  She was an anchoress, meaning she had anchored herself, stationed herself, within a small church cell, itself attached to the larger building, like a barnacle on a rock, or a ship.  This was common in the late Middle Ages.  She had chosen a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, committed to staying in that particular place.  It was a tiny world spent mostly inside the anchorhold, food and water handed in through a window.  But it held a promise of opening one’s mind and soul to the vast expanse of Divine reality.  This is the life Julian had chosen, or the life that had chosen her.

Her cell was attached to the Church of St. Julian, which is where she likely got her name.  The church was in Norwich, England.  Julian of Norwich.

Along with her physical ailments, Julian had been overwhelmed to despair by sin.  It consumed her thoughts.  She felt so deeply about this, she wrote there was no harder hell than sin.  That sin itself was hell, inflicting its own awful suffering.

She was 30 years old, and deathly ill.  While receiving last rites, the priest’s crucifix raised above her, Julian experienced a series of visions lasting several hours.   During this time, she felt engulfed in the love of God.  Just immersed in love.  She saw a vision of Jesus saying to her the words she became most remembered for.  Jesus said to Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

It was an overpowering mystical experience that stayed with her the rest of her life.  She did recover, and lived another 44 years.  Aside from becoming physically healthy, her circumstances changed very little.  With 14th century England in turmoil all around her, reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Plague, engaged in a Hundred Years War with French rulers, she would go on to write about these revelations, living within the confines of her anchorhold on St. Julian’s church in Norwich.  The writings were called “Revelations of Divine Love.”  It’s the earliest known writing in the English language by a woman.  Because of the vastness of Divine Love, which she often likened to that of a compassionate mother, Julian wrote to whoever in the wide world beyond her anchorhold might read her words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

We don’t know if Horatio Spafford ever heard these words from Julian of Norwich.  Probably not.  But he echoes their spirit when he wrote the hymn that includes the line, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

This is a hymn born out of tragedy.  Chances are if you know the story behind just a couple hymns, this is one them.  Or maybe not.  Today is Father’s Day, and Horatio Spafford is remembered, through this hymn, as one who experienced great loss as a father.

He was a wealthy lawyer from Chicago, active in the Presbyterian church.  He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son.  They used their home to host meetings of church evangelists and abolitionists, supporting many of them financially.  He was heavily invested in real estate, and in 1871 the great fire of Chicago wiped out most of his wealth.  The same year their son died of scarlet fever.  Two years after the fire, the Spaffords had planned a family vacation to Europe, but at the last minute Horatio had business he needed to attend to.  The rest of the family set off, and he planned to join them as soon as he could.  In the Atlantic their ship was rammed by a British vessel also on its way to Europe.  As their ship went down, Anna was able to grab on to a piece of floating debris and was rescued, but the four girls drowned.  When she arrived in Wales nine days later, Anna sent Horatio a telegram that said: “Saved alone: what shall I do?”

He left Chicago immediately to be with Anna.  On the way, the story goes, his ship passed near the spot where the other had gone down.  Horatio was moved to write this hymn as they kept sailing.  “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  The sea billows of sorrow in the first verse are more than metaphor.  He was riding them as he wrote.

Phillip Bliss, who soon after wrote the musical composition, named the tune Ville du Havre, which I have no idea if I’m pronouncing right.  It was the name of the sunken ship.  And the sorrow continued.  Horatio and Anna had another child, a son named after Horatio, who also died of scarlet fever, when he was four.

In brushing up on the details of this story, and deciding to make a link to Julian of Norwich, I hadn’t realized the time span between them  is such a round number.  The tragedy and the hymn of response were in 1873.  It was exactly 500 years after Julian had her vision of Christ that all shall be well.

In looking for a biblical companion to this story, one need look no further than Job.  The scripture declares Job a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil.  Job is wealthy.  He is generous with his wealth.  He has many children, seven sons and three daughters.  But Job becomes a pawn in a rivalry between The Lord and the Satan.  In Hebrew, The Satan means “The accuser,” and the Satan accuses Job of being righteous only because of his prosperity and the relative ease of his life.  The Satan challenges the Lord to take away Job’s wealth and his children, and see if the righteous Job still praises God.  The Lord accepts the challenge, and Job loses everything, but still blesses God’s name.  The Satan comes up with another challenge, and the Lord takes away Job’s health, such that he’s confined to a bed, miserable.  Most of the book of Job is poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, with “friends” in heavy quotes.  These friends spout the prevailing theology of the day to explain Job’s circumstances, which Job eloquently, and sometimes sarcastically, rejects.

And here’s a thread that runs through all three stories – Julian, Horatio and Anna, and Job.  Julian had been loaded down with fear and guilt associated with sin.  Job’s friends defend the orthodox theology of their time, that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, and tragedy is a sign of God’s punishment for sin.  What have you done wrong Job, to offend God?  As best I can tell, in what’s been written about their lives, Horatio and Anna were confronted with similar accusations.  When they returned to the US, church leaders suggested to them that their daughters’ fate at sea was God’s punishment against their family for sin.  It was enough to cause them to leave the church.  They eventually formed their own sect, called the Overcomers, and moved to Jerusalem to found the American Colony.  That’s a fascinating story in itself, if you want to look into it.

One wonders if these questions of sin and punishment were already haunting Horatio in the writing of the hymn, or, if not haunting, if he was already pre-empting his “friends” in the writing of verse three.  Our verse three starts with “Redeemed, O the bliss of this glorious thought…” and then sticks with the original lyrics after that.  But the original writing says this:

“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

I’ve always thought it strange that a song born out of grief goes so quickly in this theological direction.  Why did Horatio feel compelled to write an entire verse about sin?  But now knowing this additional part of the story, I’m guessing this is what is going on.  This was perhaps Horatio’s way of expressing what Julian of Norwich and Job also felt they had to declare.  That the pain in their lives was not a punishment from God.  That God was fully aware of whatever sin might be in their lives, but wasn’t counting it against them.

One of the potential challenges of a hymn like this, or a story like Julian, is that it can make the process of grief and sorrow appear too clean, too easily resolved.  One minute you’re on your death bed and wracked with guilt, the next minute you’re caught up in blissful communion with the love of God which alters your consciousness for the rest of your waking days.  One minute sorrows like sea billows are rolling all around, the next minute you declare with gusto “It is well, it is well with my soul.”  The entire life-long work of grief gets condensed into a few lines.

It’s one of the reasons the book of Job is so compelling —  Job’s grief, his exasperation with his lousy friends, his wrestling with God, his protests and shaking his fist at the universe.  This is most of the book of Job.  It is real and it is raw.  And when God finally does appear, it is not a revelation of all-encompassing love.  It is a revelation of the utter tininess of Job’s life and troubles in the vast creation.  The Lord appears to Job in a whirlwind.   It’s not exactly comforting, but it tells another dimension of the human journey through loss and sorrow.  Our ego confronts the vastness of the world outside the tiny anchorhold we thought was the whole of reality, and slowly we come to terms with our small place in the huge unfolding mystery.

To Julian of Norwich, God says “You are everything.”  To Job, God says “You are almost nothing.”  And Horatio and Anna Spafford likely lived between these two revelations their whole life.  And so do we.  I am everything.  I am almost nothing.

We do not come lightly and easily to the place of saying “It is well with my soul.”  But in singing the words over the years, we might come to experience them in new depths each time.

So, just one more thing to tie in here.  And now I invite you to be aware of the comforter that you’re leaning against.  Feel it against your back, look around at others in front of you.  These lovely works have been pieced together and knotted by many of you over the last year.  Today we will end our service by blessing these comforters and singing another of our Twelve Hymns, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  We’ll send them up to Mennonite Central Committee which will send them where they are most needed.  Often they go to refugee camps.  The Spafford family story of losing children en route has been re-lived by many of these refugees desperately fleeing violence.  The places that receive the survivors, like our own country, serve as an anchorhold onto something solid.  These comforters are a small revelation in themselves.  That there is love and compassion, and we all need it.

May it be well with your soul, and may these comforters, wherever they end up, do the very thing they are named for.





Endless song: Sacrament, Seeger, and the Sirens |June 11

Twelve Hymns Project: My life flows on

Texts: Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2



Back in the fourth century the great North African theologian Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.”  It’s a phrase that stuck.  Many Christian denominations still use this as a definition for sacrament.  An outward sign of an inward grace.

Through the centuries the Western Church developed the rituals and meaning of sacraments, eventually recognizing seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders or Ordination.  These signs are outward.  They are enacted, spoken, even tasted.  They involve material reality: water, oil, bread and wine, bodies.  Through these things, one experiences the Presence of God, an inward grace.  Eventually the church taught that although not everyone had to receive every sacrament, the sacraments were necessary for salvation.

It’s quite a thing for an institution, and its leaders, to hold the means of salvation.  To be the access point for experiencing the grace of God.  That’s a lot of power.

During the 16th century various Anabaptists questioned and ultimately rejected this notion of salvation and the sacraments.  They still practiced many of them, but debated whether they were “ceremonies,” “witnesses,” or “mere symbols.”  The Anabaptists emphasized the life of the Spirit rather than the authority of the institution.  The broader Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers taught that one need not go through an ordained priest in order to have access to God’s grace.  All this led to a greater leveling of power, a democratization of the sacred.  Later generations of Anabaptists, from whom Mennonite come, rarely used the language of sacraments.

More recently, in 21st century North America, we’re reconsidering the sacramental.  Marlene Kropf, a leading voice in Mennonite worship, has proposed the idea of “Singing as a Sacrament.”  She writes this: “It may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing…The experience of hymn singing in worship can and does satisfy the deep need for a personal encounter with the sacred in a way that engages the whole person: body, heart, and mind” (Singing: A Mennonite Voice, p. 132).

There will be plenty of time this summer to unpack that idea of singing as sacrament.  As someone who didn’t grow up singing hymns or harmony, I’ve experienced the practice as an acquired taste, and have yet to acquire full proficiency on the bass line.  But I have come to deeply appreciate worship where the congregation is the choir and the body is the primary instrument.  It certainly fits with a theology of community, where the sacred is democratized in the voice and daily life of each person.  The inward grace of each individual is expressed as an outward collective harmony – a sign of peace and beauty in our troubled world.  Augustine is perhaps giving an enthusiastic thumbs up from beyond the veil.

And so I find it fitting that the number one song for this Twelve Hymns series, the first song discussed and the top voted getter, is a song about singing.  “My life flows on in endless song…how can I keep from singing?”

The sermons this summer will take the song or songs of that week as their starting point.  We’ll look more closely at the words we’re singing and their relation to scripture and theology.  Some weeks we’ll look at the story behind hymn, and occasionally we’ll get some commentary on the hymnology.  And along the way, we’ll chew on this idea of the sacramental – song as a vessel for the Divine presence.


On Tuesday Phil Hart walked into the church office and delivered the document that became today’s bulletin cover.  It’s the original 1869 text and music for what we know as HWB 580, My life flows on.  It has remained mostly the same after nearly 150 years.  Two of the most obvious differences are a different title, and our current song making what was once the end of a single verse, verse 2, into the chorus now sung after each verse.

A less obvious, but significant difference is the change of one word in that line.  The original says “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”  HWB 580 says, “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”

It’s a change connected to what brought the song out of relative obscurity back in the 1960’s.  Pete Seeger learned about the song from his friend Doris Plenn, who had written an additional verse that said:

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Peter Seeger included this verse with the original, and changed some of the specifically Christian language to the more universal language of “truth” and “love.”  And with that, it entered the mix of the many folk music anthems of the 60s and 70s that sung of a better world beyond racism, nationalism, and warfare.

If you’re in my generation, or maybe this applies to other generations too, you’re likely more familiar with the Enya version from the early 90’s, which stuck with the Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn lyrics.  Our current hymn is mostly 1860’s with a dash of 1960’s,  although I’d love to see that additional verse about trembling tyrants and friends in prison cells in our hymnals.

For what it’s worth, when Pete Seeger died in 2014, of all the places in Columbus that could have hosted a concert honoring his life and music, it was this sanctuary that was filled to overflowing with folks hearing Bill Cohen and his friends play the Pete Seeger classics.  I was here for most of it, but can’t remember if this one made the cut.

The Sirens

“My life flows on” has a universal appeal, and all versions remain rich in biblical imagery.  We selected two especially relevant passages to be read today.  The chorus “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging” is a lovely summary of the opening lines of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountain shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

The lyric about hailing the new creation is drawn from 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  For Paul, the time of salvation was not merely something in the distant future, but something present even now.  “See,” he writes.  “ now is the day of salvation.”

And this gets at one of the overarching big ideas within the hymn.

This is a song about song, and we are indeed the singers, but there’s something else going on with song here that makes this hymn so captivating.  The lyrics start with “My life.”  “My life flows on.”  But as they continue we are directed toward a much larger song.  The hymn is not just the hymn of my life or even our collective life, it’s about “the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”  It is something to first hear, and then join.  “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.  It finds an echo in my soul.  How can I keep from singing.”  Our singing is but a mere echo of the endless song that draws us toward itself.  This is the theological idea that we are not simply moved forward by history, all of the stuff in the past pushing us from behind into what comes next.  But we are drawn forward, lured into the future by the future, enticed by the new creation that calls us toward itself.  Sings us toward itself.  We are led into the space ahead of us where Christ already is.  We hear that far off hymn, and its beauty raises us above earth’s lamentation.

It’s like a reversal of the sirens in Greek mythology.  The Greeks told stories about the sirens who sang beautiful songs from their far off island.  Sailors would hear the songs and sail towards it, only to have their ships broken up on the rocks around the island.  The beauty of the siren song was deceptive.  Its ultimate purpose was to lure one toward destruction.

In the Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the siren song, but was fully aware of the danger.  So he had all his sailors bind him to the mast of the ship and under no circumstances were they to unbind him.  He was disabled from being able to steer the ship toward the island of the sirens.  The sailors were all protected by putting beeswax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the song.  As they got close enough to hear the sirens, Odysseus becomes entranced with the music and demands his sailors to untie him, but they keep to his original orders, and they sail through and out of range of the sirens, despite Odysseus’ protests.

“My life flows on” seems to flip this story.  We are already close to being dashed against the rocks to our own destruction, but the far off song calls us to itself.  And it is in moving toward that song that we move toward our salvation.  Not merely through the taking of certain sacraments – water, oil, bread, cup — as necessary as these may be along the way, but by participating in that very broadly defined sacrament of song.  It is a universal song, that draws activists and office holders toward it.  People in the pews, and people in the streets.   It is this song that rises above earth’s lamentation, of which our singing, as powerful as it may be, is merely an echo.



The Spirit of truth | May 28

Texts: John 14:15-17; Acts 1:6-14


Last Friday the New York Times published an essay titled “We aren’t built to live in the moment.”  The authors point out that none of the things we’ve previously proposed that set humans apart from other animals actually do.  It turns out language, tools, cooperation, and culture aren’t unique to us.

But, they argue, there is a defining characteristic that sets us, humanity, apart: “We contemplate the future.”  They write: “Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to ‘commencement’ speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.”

The essay goes on to weave insights from psychology, brain science, and various forms of therapy to make its case.  Much more than looking back at the past, we seem to direct most of our mental energy toward anticipating the future and adjusting our behavior accordingly.  We do the things we do and feel the things we feel because of the kind of future we anticipate, sometimes the one just seconds ahead, sometimes years and decades.

Our future mindedness impacts even the way we form and reform memory.  Rather than being an archive of past events that remain stagnant, the brain has a way of continually rewriting history.  New contexts, and the kind of future we anticipate add fresh content to past events and change the way we remember them.  The essay states: “The fluidity of memory may seem like a defect, especially to a jury, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a feature, not a bug, because the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.”

These authors propose that our gaze is a forward gaze, even when we seem to be looking back, and that’s what makes us uniquely human.

The essay comes out at the same time we are pondering this text from John 14, when Jesus is speaking to his disciples, anticipating his own death.  It was the lectionary reading for last week, but since we asked our new members to give commentary on their own faith journey rather than an exegetical study of the day’s lection, we’re carrying the John 14 passage forward into this week alongside this week’s lection of Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1.  ­­­

With his crucifixion looming just days away, a future Jesus has already determined he will not avoid, he tells his companions he will send them the Spirit of truth, to be with them forever.  The Spirit gets referenced in all kinds of ways throughout Scripture, but here it’s specifically referred to as the Spirit of truth.

In a time when we are discovering the fluidity of memory, we also seem to be encountering the fluidity of truth.

Truth is getting a lot of press these days.  It’s made its way from the Religion section to the front page.  A few years back Steven Colbert proposed the term “truthiness” as a sign of the times.  More recently, commentators have wondered whether we are in a post-truth society where alternative facts, fake news, and pure opinion rule the day.

So when John tells of Jesus offering the Spirit of truth, it has a fresh kind of urgency to it.

The word truth appears over 100 times throughout the Greek New Testament.  It’s a common word.  But I somehow missed until this past week what the word evokes.  It goes all the way back to Greek mythology.  So, on this Ascension Sunday, when Jesus rose into heaven, please come with me on a very brief tour of Hades, which I’m sure, is the reason you came to church today.  Hopefully it will help us discover something about the truth.

In Greek mythology, there are multiple rivers in the underworld of Hades.  Of these, the river Styx has the most name recognition, aided by the 70’s rock band that took on that name.  The river Styx served as the boundary between Earth and the underworld, the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  In the Greek imagination, the newly deceased were ferried across the river Styx to the entrance of the underworld.

Another river within Hades was the Lethe, and this is reason for the brief tour.  Its waters were shallow, not for ferrying, but for drinking.  The Lethe was the river of forgetfulness.  The dead would line up along its shores and were required to drink from the Lethe in order to forget the life they had just lived.  The Lethe was a meandering, murmuring river, peaceful.  When one departed the earthly life, its waters wiped away memories both painful and joyful.

This concludes our brief tour of Hades.

John writes that Jesus offers his followers “The Spirit of truth.”  The Greek word for truth is alethea.  The prefix “a” is a negative, as in “un” or “non.”  It negates whatever comes after it.  A-lethea.  And we know what lethe means.  We were just there.  It’s that river of forgetfulness.  It’s where you drink to forget what it has meant to be alive.  Truth, a-letheia, means the undoing of forgetfulness.  To do truth is to un-forget.  The Spirit of truth is the spirit of un-forgetting.  It negates the ultimate negator: forgetfulness.

Built into this concept of truth is the understanding that there is a wide stream of forgetfulness that flows not just through the land of the dead, but the land of the living.  Well before we breathe our last, we all drink from the river Lethe.

We forget who we are.  We forget where we come from.  We forget where we belong, and that we belong.  Not to mention we increasingly forget where we put our keys, but that’s another story.

In forgetting, our consciousness gets colonized by whatever is around to tell us who we are.  To tell us where we belong, or that we don’t.

And so here’s where we seem to be.  We are creatures who are future minded.  We contemplate and anticipate the future like no other animal.  These abilities have brought us to the point we are now in history.  They impact how we go about our days.  Even our past experiences can be shaped and molded by the kind of future we imagine.  Even what I’m saying now was put down with thought toward how it might relate to what might come next.  Our gaze is a forward gaze, however subtle it might be.

And yet we have been given the Spirit that would have us not forget.  The Spirit of a-lethea, the Spirit of truth.  “It will be with you always,” Jesus said.  It speaks of a reality that undergirds and makes possible everything else.  It preserves and seasons and enriches and guides.  It keeps us from forgetting what we must not forget in order to truly live.

So where does the Spirit of truth direct our gaze?  Is it a gaze backyard, forward, always both at the same time?  Is it working against or with our tendency to always be glancing ahead?

There’s another gaze going on in the Acts scripture for today.  It’s the one of the disciples gazing up into heaven.  Jesus had been appearing to them off and on after his Easter resurrection, but this is the final time.  He leaves them by ascending up into the heavens.  And they’re left there gazing up.

This story is a cosmological conundrum for us living on the other side of the Copernican revolution.  We no longer conceive of our world as a three tiered universe: the earth and underworld surrounded below by the deep seas, and above by the heavens.  In a universe in which we’re no longer in the center, up extends out in all directions depending on where you’re standing on the round earth, and satellites are yet to locate a place called heaven, it’s tempting to get hung up in the disconnect between premodern and contemporary ways of making sense of the world.  Ways of speaking truth.

What’s the truth here the author is trying to communicate?  What must the disciples and we not forget about who Jesus was and is in order to live truthful lives?

Just as the underworld played a key part in the pre-modern mind for the meaning of death, the heavens played a key part for the meaning of life.  What happened in the heavens had direct impact on the land of the living.  Whoever was or wasn’t exerting influence up there played itself out it what happened down here.

This story of the ascension has brought theologians to speak of the Cosmic Christ.  The Christ who was in the beginning, is now, and will continue to be.  The Christ who Jesus embodied, but is not limited to the short lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.  The ascension means that everything Jesus represented: mercy, healing, boundary shattering love, relentless truth telling, is a force making itself available to the universe on a cosmic scale.  It has ascended, or to put it in more philosophical language, it permeates the very fabric of Being itself.  It is cosmic.

But most of the time we don’t live on a cosmic scale.  We live in our earth bound fleshy bodies, oriented toward our little future, trying not to forget.  We wake up each morning to the first day of the rest of our lives and do what we need to do for the day’s work.  We gaze back, we gaze up, we gaze forward.

In a world permeated by the cosmic Christ, with the Spirit of truth ever with us, the living of our days hold out the possibility of being enriched from all directions.  To un-forget that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.  To live into a future in which the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.  To consider that we, like the disciples, are witnesses to all this.  To participate, even in small ways, in this great cosmic unfolding.

Deeply personal, radically communal | May 14

Text: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47

The sermon today and next week will be multi-voiced.  We’ll be hearing from our new members.  I’ve gently suggested they keep their sharing brief, so I’ll follow my own counsel.

Today’s scriptures speak of a faith that is deeply personal and radically communal.

Psalm 23 proclaims God as a shepherd.  And not just any shepherd, but my shepherd.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”  How many people have recited these lines through the millennia?

And who doesn’t need shepherded?  Is there anyone out there who has it all figured out, knows exactly where they’re going and why?  Does anyone always know the way to green pastures and still waters?  Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, or, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death.”  It doesn’t say we avoid the valley or the darkness.  It says we are accompanied through it, and that we need fear no evil.

There is a dimension of faith that is deeply personal, and there are paths we alone have to walk.  Psalm 23 proclaims that when we do, we are accompanied by the great Shepherd, with goodness and mercy trailing close behind.

And there is a dimension of faith that is radically communal.

Acts chapter 2 gives a summary of life in the early church.  “Awe came upon everyone,” Luke writes.   “All who believed were together.”  They “had all things in common.”  “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Radical is perhaps an overused word.  It means to get at the root of something.  For the early Jesus movement, the root of faith included an economics of sharing, and a life oriented around community.  We Mennonites are the heirs of the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe.  The Anabaptists set their sites on digging down to the root of faith, which rested in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In our highly individualized society, we hunger for community.  Community gives us life, but it also asks of us.  It asks that we participate in the Divine economy of sharing, that we give, and receive, and thus flourish together.

The Lord is our Shepherd.  Jesus is at the root of our faith.  We are welcomed into, formed within, and challenged by the community of faith that bears his name.

Nehemiah’s Action | April 30

Texts: Mark 3:1-6; Nehemiah 5:1-13

These shirts are going to be great for BREAD gatherings and the softball team and Pride parade and other events, but my favorite part is that I can get away with wearing a tshirt to church once a year.  Very comfortable.

Tomorrow evening members of 40+ congregations across Franklin County will gather at the Celeste Center at the fairgrounds.  We are white, black, and brown;  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Unitarian Universalist.  We’ll be joined by public officials with whom BREAD has been in conversation over the last months, and in some cases years.  We’ll ask them to publicly commit to working with us to achieve some very specific solutions to problems we’ve been researching.  Such as: creating a municipal ID card for immigrants and homeless folks to better access city services; preferential contracts from the city for companies that employ workers with criminal records who otherwise find it nearly impossible to get a job, and implementing restorative practices in Columbus City Schools to reduce suspensions and the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects people of color.

These are all big issues, each one, and I frequently wonder if BREAD bites off more than it can chew each year as we collectively decide on the next area in Franklin County we want to focus our energy and power.  But BREAD has a track record for getting things done.  We helped create a land bank that demolishes homes on abandoned properties.  We worked with the Mental Health board to open a clubhouse that creates community and opportunities for folks living with mental illnesses.  And members of this congregation were influential in helping create restorative justice circles as a way of diverting youth from the juvenile court system.

Since December I’ve been serving on the steering committee for the current campaign for restorative practices in the schools.  BREAD asks a lot of us, and I’ve found it at times exhausting and exasperating, but overall, overall to be one of the best ways we have available to us, Columbus Mennonite Church, to be in solidarity with people across the county most affected by these problems, and to affect systemic change, as slow and incremental as it may be.

This big public gathering tomorrow is called the Nehemiah Action.  It’s called the Nehemiah Action because it is modeled after the narrative of Nehemiah chapter five in the Hebrew Scriptures, a common text for Jews and Christians.  So I’d like to walk through that passage together to see what it has to say and how this applies to the work of doing justice.

The passage is printed on the back of the bulletin insert, but first let me just set it up a bit with the historical context.

Painting with very broad strokes here: The Hebrews , the children of Israel, were formed as a people through enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt.  Moses emerges as a leader who has an encounter with the god Yahweh.  Yahweh delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through Moses gives the people the Torah, the law, the teaching.  And the aim of the Torah is the creation of a people who live under the laws of justice and love of neighbor as this kind of alternative society to the ways of Pharaoh.  The Israelites settle in the land of Canaan, they have judges and prophets and kings who lead them, they build a temple to Yahweh, but after about 400 years of kingship the holy city, Jerusalem, is conquered by the Babylonian empire under the rule of Mr. Nebuchadnezzar.  The temple is destroyed, and the people are carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind to work the land.  50-60 years later Babylon is conquered by the Persians, under the rule of Cyrus the Great.  The new Persian policy, by decree, is to encourage all these different ethnic groups under its rule to establish their own religious practices and local governance in their homelands.  So over the following decades many of the Jews, as they’re starting to be called, return to the area around Jerusalem.  They rebuild the temple, and they rebuild the protective wall around the city.  Nehemiah comes on the scene as a governor of Judea about 100 years after Cyrus’ initial decree.  We’re in the mid 400’s before Christ.

That’s the back drop of Nehemiah chapter 5.  There’s a rebuilding process going on after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.

Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Let’s pause here right away, and not get too hung up on the sexist language of “the people and their wives,” who apparently weren’t a part of “the people.”  That’s reason for its own outcry, but that’s how it was…The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.”  There is a crying out going on, a collective raising of the voice, signaling something aint right.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the outcry has an essential place in the redemptive work of God.  Way back under Egyptian slavery, the very first action to counter Pharaoh is that the people groan and “cry out” under their oppression.  It is this crying out that activates Yahweh, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham and Sara; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, and his collection of wives and reproductive partners.  It is the cry, the outcry, of those experiencing hardship that initiates the movement, activates new possibility.  The cry awakens the consciousness of those previously unaware of the pain, alerts even God to the injustice, and causes God and those tuned in to the spirit of God to remember who they are and what they are to be about.

There’s a specific cause of the outcry in this chapter.  There’ve been some poor harvests, and people need to feed their families, and those with means are requiring those in need to put up their fields and houses and vineyards and children in pledge for grain.  The only way to get food was to offer your dearest assets as collateral, your land, the labor of you and your children.  And once those are gone, you’re stuck in debt slavery.  And it is their own kin who are doing this.  The people say in verse 5: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves…we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  A key purpose of the Torah was to keep this kind of thing from happening.  To not become like Pharaoh’s Egypt.  But it’s happening.  Aaiigghhh.  We’re crying out.

Outcry can awaken the consciousness of those within earshot of the pain.  It is the first signal that something is not right.  It can help us to remember our covenant and commitments.  It’s the first key moment of this story.  The outcry.

A second key moment is this appeal from the people in the first part of verse five: “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.”  This assertion of a shared humanity, a common value for life, is at the basis of morality.  “Our children are the same as their children.”  You can almost hear the chant “Black Lives Matter” as a direct descendant of this.  Or, “Refugees welcome.”  “Our children are the same as their children.”  Theologically, we also say that we are all created in the image of God, or that we are all children of God.  This moment is what makes the cry of the other a shared concern.  If we have the same flesh, and our children have the same value and aspirations, we are tied up in a common reality, and your cry becomes a part of my story.

Believing this is a vulnerable way to live, and can become overwhelming without being grounded in the Source of Being and goodness and life which we call God.

There’s the outcry, and the appeal that this affects all of us.

Verse 6 is a pivotal part of the story.  Nehemiah says, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.”  This is the moment when the cry from the outside makes its way inside and lodges itself within the hearer.  If you hear the outcry, really hear it, you might get angry.  You might, like Nehemiah, get very angry.

I don’t know when it was in life that I was introduced to the idea that anger can be a constructive motivating energy, but it still goes against just about all of my peaceful Mennonite-ness.  I don’t particularly like being angry, and I just generally feel like a better person when I’m not angry.  I have even prided myself on being not angry.  The not-angry white guy.  Anger sometimes feels like a failure of will.

Hebrew is such a visceral language.  The literal translation for anger is usually to have burning nostrils.  They don’t say “she was angry.”  They say, “her nostrils were burning.”  Even God gets hot nostrils when God is angry.  Anger is hot, fiery, felt in the breath.

Anger is a powerful force.  It can be destructive.  We included the Mark 3 reading today because it’s the only time in the gospels when it explicitly says that Jesus was angry.  Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath and he brings forward a man with a withered hand.  And he asks everyone if it’s lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath.  And everyone is silent because there were strict laws about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.  The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, and they are silent.  Mark says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  How many paintings have you seen of an angry Jesus?  Not many.  Jesus proceeds to invite this man to stretch out his hand, which is restored.”  Jesus harnesses anger as an energy for healing.

Jesus gets angry. Nehemiah gets very angry.  At BREAD house meetings in the fall we are asked the question, “What makes you angry?”  How we answer this question helps determine the area of focus for the coming year.  I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.

What makes you angry?

Nehemiah does something with his anger.  Something big, and, ultimately, healing.  He does not hold his anger in, and does not try to deal with it as an individual.  Verse 7 says he called a great assembly. This great assembly includes the people affected by the problem, the ones who gave the initial cry, and the people with power to change the problem — the officials and, “the nobles.”

Nehemiah has already lost his Mennonite cred by becoming very angry, but he goes a step further and speaks plainly in the face of conflict.  How terrifyingly strange.  He tells the leaders “The thing that you are doing is not good.”  This is the point in the program where I start looking down at the floor, or remember I need to check my phone for something.  But I’m learning there’s a difference between attacking someone’s personal character, which this is not, and calling on someone to uphold their public duty to serve all people, which this is.  It’s a point where the tension that the people have been feeling in their lives is now made public, put out in the open.  You can feel the tension.

Nehemiah gives specific suggestions for how to address the problem: Verse 11: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields , their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.”  It’s a pretty direct and specific request, complete with a tight timeline.  This very day!

The very first Nehemiah Action turns out to be successful.  In front of that great assembly, accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, the officials agree to these requests.  They listen, and change course.  They are restored to their higher calling.  Nehemiah goes one step further and ensures there will be proper follow up to see it all happens.  The whole assembly ends with a collective Amen and expressions of praise.

And every Nehemiah Action since then has gone just as smooth and been just as successful.

We are hoping for as many of us as possible tomorrow evening to represent Columbus Mennonite, but whether you come or not, this story has something to say.  Are we willing, are you willing, to listen for the cry, wherever it comes from?  To nurture the kind of consciousness that acknowledges we are all one kindred and our children are of equal value.  And as you experience anger at whatever it may be, to do the difficult and necessary soul work that enables that nostril burning anger to be an energy that leads toward healing, in the spirit of Jesus, and not destruction.  To find a great assembly that takes you out of isolation.  A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome.  To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of your faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the Christ who invites us out of our guarded silence.  To join in spirit and in body with the great cloud of witnesses dead and alive who witness to the divine reign of justice and peace that is already being realized among us.






Dancing with death and resurrection | Easter | April 16

Matthew 27:45-53; 27:55-61; 28:1-10

If death were a dance, what would it look like?

When death dances with you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like… a meeting with Pilate – a rare conference with the political authority who held in his hand the power of life and death.  Who had withdrawn his power to protect life, and handed yet another subject over to a tortured death.  Who had been swayed by the fickle crowd.  Whose soldiers had done their job, carried out their duty, ensuring the security of the state.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like asking for a body, a dead body, from the one with power to grant or withhold that body.  With the wave of his hand, Pilate granted Joseph his request.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it felt like new linen cloth, clean and slightly course, wrapped tight around the body.  It smelled like myrrh and aloes.  It felt like stone, cold and hard.  A new tomb, hewn in the rock.  He laid the body in the rock tomb.  “Then,” Matthew writes, “he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away.

When Abbie and I danced with death it sounded like… nothing.  Our first two children were born the way we’d hoped and expected.  The work of labor was followed by the yelp of life and a flurry of activity – doctor and nurses who had done this many times before, skilled at attending to a child in the first minutes after birth.   As the father, who had not felt life slowly growing within me, one minute there was nothing, and then there was something, someone, very real, very real, and very alive.

But with our third child, we danced with death, something we had not expected.  The work of labor was followed by a deafening silence as our daughter Belle was stillborn at 22 weeks.  There was no flurry of activity afterwards because there was nothing to do.  We held her and sat with her, talked and didn’t talk for long stretches of time.  We received visitors who sat with us in silence, talking, and not talking, moving about and being still.  Eventually, hours and hours later, it was time to go.  Eventually, we walked out and drove away.  Back home, where life was very much the same, and very much different.

The two Marys danced with death from a distance.  They’d followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him out of their own means.  They had invested their resources, their money, their time in this man and his message about the kingdom of God.  They’d invested their hopes in the way he moved among the people, the way he touched people with his words and his hands.  People who hadn’t been touched for years.  The way he lifted them up, women!, as partners in this work.

The two Marys were there with “many women,” Matthew says, as witnesses to death, watching from a distance.  When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” danced with death they strained their eyes to make it out.  It was happening, over there.  Jesus’ other companions had fled for their own safety.  But Mary, and the other Mary, were there, with many women, watching.

They were distant, and then they came near.  The Sabbath had ended.  It was dawn, the first day of the week.  They came together to see the tomb.  They came near to see, when they danced with death.

What’s it like to be distant, and then to come near to death, to see.  Like walking into the labyrinth, winding your way along the only path there is. Eventually you make your way into the center, surrounded on all sides by the path that got you there.  And there you are.

When Jesus and death had their day to dance, Jesus was silent when commanded to speak.  “Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” Pilate demanded.

He was nonresistant when expected to fight back.  “Put away your sword Peter.  For all who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

For one who had demonstrated such power, he was remarkably powerless.  “He saved others, why can’t he save himself?”  Matthew 27:42

Matthew narrates Jesus’s last moments this way: “Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.”  Jesus gave up…his spirit, his breath, that thing through which the body has life.  He gave it up, let it go.

There’s a great mystery in that moment.  When the miracle of birth meets its mirror image.  Life is there, then it’s not.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus’ dance with death was a moment of rupture.  “At that moment,” he writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”  Temple, earth, rocks.  That which represents the most sacred, the most sure, the most solid thing we can imagine.  Is torn, shaken, and split.  The earth moves under our feet and we can only try to keep our balance.  Or sometimes, not even try.

If you were to dance with resurrection, what would it look like?

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

For Matthew, there is not one cataclysmic rupture, but two.  After the death of Jesus, the rock splitting earthquake, after Joseph of Arimathea’s careful attention to the body, after the women have looked on from a distance, they come near after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning.  It was Mary Magdelene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb.

“And suddenly there was an earthquake.”

And again that which was most sure and solid is torn, shaken, and split.  Only rather than life being shaken, this time it’s death.

When Mary and Mary dance with resurrection, it looks a stone being rolled away.  It looks like flashes of lightning.  It looks like guards becoming like dead men and a dead man becoming like… Life itself.

It feels like fear and great joy, and leaving the tomb because what you were looking for is not there.  It looks like running out of the labyrinth without paying any attention to the lines.  The way has opened up ahead of you in all directions.

It sounds like being out of breath from running and still running into the light of day.  It sounds like encountering Life itself which says, “Greetings!” and, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9,10).  It looks like running to tell your friends.  Christ, and you, are on the loose.

About a month ago I was putting Ila to bed and she surprised me by asking “Where’s Belle?”  I told her that Belle had died when she was born.  We buried her ashes on grandpa and grandma’s farm and planted a tree there.  We can go and see the tree, but we can’t see Belle.  Ila wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer.  Neither was I.

I imagine one day, not too long from now, she’ll ask me an even more loaded question.  “If Belle hadn’t died, would I have been born?”  I’m not ready with an answer on that one yet.  What I want to tell her, eventually, is that it might not be the right question to get stuck on.  Whether the life you are living would have been entirely different, or would not have been at all, had death not intervened somewhere along the way.  I’d like to tell her the same thing I tell myself.  That we are surrounded by mysteries, and that one of the most wonderful mysteries of all is that we are alive right now, and that “now” keeps changing, even though it’s still now.  That Christ is Risen, on the loose, and is not confined to any singular package of cells and organs.  All to which Ila might respond: “Geeze Dad.  It’s like you’re preaching a sermon.”

The March 9 issue of Christian Century magazine included an obituary for Richard Reinhold Niebuhr.  He was the son of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr and himself a long time professor at Harvard Divinity School.  It included a quote from him he had written in 1960.  “The problem of preaching at Easter (is that) it is a relatively easy thing to muse on the story of the first Easter, for it is not Easter as such that is a scandal,” even to modern people. “The difficulty arises at the juncture in which the humanity of Christ and our own humanity are equated or not equated, at the juncture in which we either do or do not recognize ourselves in him and him in ourselves.”

To recognize ourselves in the one who was dead but is risen is an act of faith.  To acknowledge that even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like now?

Matthew includes in his gospel a brief anecdote not mentioned anywhere in the other accounts.  It is as delightful as it is bizarre.  It happens right after Jesus’ death.  Right after the temple curtain is torn, the earth shakes, and the rocks are split.  Right in the midst of the disruption.

Matthew writes: “(And) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After (Jesus’) resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52).

Now imagine this scene.  Many bodies of the saints have been risen to life.  They are waiting, just waiting in those tombs that held them for so long.  And after Jesus’ resurrection they start to come out, to dance their way into the holy city.  To move their way through the streets, making unannounced appearances to unsuspecting people going about their daily lives.  To appear to many.  To dance their way into the marketplace.  To dance their way into homes.  To dance their way in and out of the paths that people tread every day.

Matthew makes very clear that resurrection is not confined to Jesus.  The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead raises others from the dead.

Now, imagine that we are the others.  Even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.  Imagine resurrection dancing its way all around you and towards you.








No more scapegoating | Palm Sunday | April 9

Texts:: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14-25

If you were to randomly walk into our house anytime in the last four or five months, odds are pretty good you’d hear a certain Broadway musical playing at high volume.  A little before Christmas, Hamilton took our household by storm.  It’s still a favorite, although not quite as intense now as it was for a while.  It’s been such a constant at our house it’s nearly miraculous this is the first time it’s come up in a sermon.

For the uninitiated, Hamilton is the true story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became a Revolutionary War leader and the first US Treasury Secretary ; George Washington’s right hand man.  And it’s all set to hip hop.  As the opening number says, he was

“The ten dollar founding father without a father

got a lot farther

by working a lot harder

by being a lot smarter

by being a self starter.”

Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean and is played by the musical’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, himself the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York.  In the original cast, George Washington is black, and Thomas Jefferson has dreads.  Along with being lyrically brilliant, thoroughly educational, and impossibly catchy, another reason for its popularity in our house is that the female leads are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza, who marries Alexander, and Peggy.  Three sisters.  The Miller sisters quickly adopted and perfected their part.

Another feature is that the story is largely told through the eyes of Aaron Burr.  Burr and Hamilton shared much in common, but had very different ways of pursuing their aspirations.  In case we had forgotten or slept through high school US history, Burr tells us right away that he’s the fool who shot and killed Hamilton, in a dual.  So one of the threads throughout the musical is seeing how these two friends and collaborators eventually have their falling out.

When asked about his inspirations for writing Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda included the 70’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  That musical tells the story of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, who, in case you had forgotton or slept through Sunday school – every year – eventually betrays Jesus, aiding in his crucifixion.  That musical takes a lot of liberty with the psychology of Judas and Jesus, but it’s a powerful method: to hear a familiar story from the perspective of the “villain,” and thus see it in a new way.  As Aaron Burr sings, after he and Eliza are by Hamilton’s side as he dies from the gunshot wound: “Now I’m the villain in your history.  I was too young and blind to see.    I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

Today is Palm Sunday, and the lectionary gives two options for the gospel reading.  There is the standard reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He parades into the city in street theater fashion, met by cheering crowds and a road covered with cloaks and palms.  Greeted with shouts of joy: “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Less than a week later, he’ll be dead.

The other gospel reading, which we chose, features Judas.  It’s four days after that dramatic entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is gathered for supper with twelve of his closest companions, Judas among them.  As they eat, Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him.  All the disciples deny it, but we, the reader, have already been told that Judas had met with the chief priests.  He’d offered to betray Jesus, for a price.  The reading ends unresolved, the tension thick in the air.  Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You said it.”

Every story needs a villain, and here we have our man.  The one so close to Jesus that they would dip their bread in the same bowl, becomes the betrayer, the Judas, the villain.

If you need a villain, someone to blame for the death of Jesus, Judas is definitely in the running.

But let’s consider the possibility that the gospels are doing something far more interesting than giving us a story with a hero and a villain.  Something much bigger and ultimately far more revolutionary.  Something that calls into question the whole framework for how we tell our stories.

Rene Girard was a literary critic who did extensive research into how the scapegoating mechanism has worked throughout human societies.  Because groups are inherently unstable, with desire and conflict threatening cohesion, we need a way to keep ourselves together.  The scapegoating mechanism provides a powerful means to do this.  We may not be able to agree on everything, but if we can, at key times, agree that this particular person, or this particular group of people, are what is causing our problems, and if we can direct all of our energy toward casting out, eliminating, defeating, executing this person or group, we will achieve a remarkable unity.  It will hold us together, for a while longer.  The unity will inevitably start to weaken as the energy from the scapegoating event dissipates, and so eventually another scapegoat is needed.

Girard proposed that human sacrifice began as a way of regularly ritualizing the scapegoating act.  Sacrifice obviously pleased the gods because it brought the powerful blessing of group cohesion.  It was a miracle every time.  By directing the anxiety and anger and scattered energy of the group all in one direction, all laid upon that sacrificial victim, the group managed to both restored their unity and affirm their own goodness.  They have cast out of their presence the cause of all their strife.  This is the right and righteous thing to do for the security of the group. And it’s self-evidently true that the sacrificial victim was the cause of the strife because it’s such a unifying act to cast them out.  The priest who carries out the sacrifice mediates the gift of the gods to the people.  The victim is declared guilty and offered up, and the crowd, the congregation, is redeemed and declared innocent, born again as a people.

Even though we don’t do human sacrifice, or animal sacrifice in the same way these days, the scapegoating mechanism persists.  The more anxious the society, the more passionate and urgent the scapegoating.  It doesn’t matter who the current scapegoats are – the communists, the terrorists, the Jews, the gays, the immigrants.  What matters is that there is a space that must be occupied by some small group in order to keep the larger group together.  This can also happen on a very small and mostly harmless scale.  Parents eventually figure out that one way for their fighting kids to get along is to get them mad at you.  It’s a desperation move, but sometimes making yourself the scapegoat temporarily can create a miraculous harmony for everyone else.  It can shift the dynamics in a snap.  So I’ve heard.

Scapegoating is a gift from the gods.


Unless the story starts to get told from the perspective of the sacrificial victim, the designated villian.  From the perspective of the crowd, the ritual and mechanism is the truest and best thing they’ve been given.  It’s what holds them together.  It’s what renews and redeems creation.  It’s what brings safety and security, and purity.  But when the story starts to get told from the perspective of the scapegoat, it starts to crack.  It starts to be revealed as a lie.  It starts to be revealed for what it is.  A lynching.  A murder.  A form of unity based entirely on the power of violence and death.

Girard was a secular philosopher and literary critic and came to believe that the difference between good literature and bad literature was that bad literature covered over the scapegoating mechanism, and good literature revealed it.  In the latter part of his career he focused much of his attention on the literature of the Bible and came to see it as a document filled with standard examples of cultural and religious ritual around the scapegoating mechanism.  Except that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are ultimately concerned with revealing and exposing and doing away with scapegoating.  It’s the story of empire told from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves who get blamed by Pharaoh as the cause of all his ills.  It’s the story of a nation told from the perspective of the prophets, who defend the most vulnerable in the public square.  It’s the story of conquest from the perspective of the exiles and the occupied, who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society.  As is echoes in so many of the Psalms and the Isaiah reading today, the God of the Bible takes up the defense of the one surrounded by the accusing crowd.

And it’s the story of a Messiah who refuses to play the role of Messiah.  It’s customary to comment this time of year how strange it is that the crowds who one day are cheering and Hosanna-ing Jesus into Jerusalem, turn around so quickly and shout “crucify him, crucify him.”  But this is exactly how the whole thing works.  This is standard procedure for human culture.  The Messiah, the king, the president, the quarterback is either the savior or the villain.  The dynamics can shift in a snap.  We either demand that they fix everything, or demand that they be crucified so we can move on to the next potential Messiah.  Either way, we are innocent of this man’s blood.

One of the reasons I loved the story from Mark’s sermon last week was that it captured the exact moment when the hero was about to become the villain.  The guy who fixed everything was about to lose favor with the crowd, and he was pondering at the edge of the cliff whether he should just save them the trouble and do to himself what the crowd was about to do to him anyway.

How strange and terrible are the events of Holy Week.  That Jesus would knowingly walk into that space occupied by the scapegoat.  That space that has taken a thousand forms and faces throughout human history.  Jesus will occupy that space not because scapegoating saves us, and certainly not because God demands a human sacrifice in order to forgive us.  But because scapegoating kills us.  We are the ones who demand a human sacrifice.  It’s just what we do.  We demand someone else pay for our sins, so that we can remain convinced of our own innocence and righteousness, assured once again that god is on our side.

Crucify him, Crucify him, shout the crowds.  It’s such a powerful force that even Pilate, the Roman governor, is like putty in its hands.  It’s what the crowd demands.  It’s what will pacify anxiety.  It’s what will keep the peace and restore order.  It’s what will confirm what we whisper to ourselves.  That this man deserves every bit of it, and we are innocent.

Jesus occupies the space of the scapegoat, and thus exposes it.  Exposes it as violence – and not just violence against another human being.  But violence against God.  Jesus, the god-man, occupied the vulnerable space of the scapegoat, and so everyone who has been in that same place becomes the image of Christ among us.  This is why James Cone would declare with authority that Christ is black.   Jesus assumes the place of the scapegoat.  Exposes the lie, breaks the spell that entranced us, and blinded us.

The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities by making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15).  The scapegoating mechanism has been disarmed and need not hold any power over us any more.  God redeems freely and abundantly, and Jesus, by refusing to be the Messiah, becomes the Messiah, who saves us from our perpetual need for victims.  Jesus overcomes sin by becoming the sinful one, the scapegoat, and offers a new way of being human.  A way that has no need of victims.  A community made up of victims, and perpetrators, who recognize their own complicity, who live into the gift of grace, who give themselves over to being a community of love and repentance and reparation.

Christianity has often fallen right back into the old pattern.  God becomes the ultimate demander of sacrifice with Jesus on the cross, the Jews get blamed for it, and Judas embodies the villain.  But Christianity at its best has offered to the world a peaceful and redemptive form of community.  We are all complicit, which strangely frees us up to become something else.  The world is wide enough for us all and there need be no more scapegoats.  It is our gospel, good news, message.

As Aaron Burr sings in one of his many fabulous numbers: “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”  (“Wait for it“)

During this Holy Week may you know the gift of Christ who gave of himself so that we can be free from the powers of death and participate in the parade of life.