“In the wilderness prepare the way” OR “What shall I cry?” | Advent 2 | December 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:46-55

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  


Wilderness, desert, valley, mountain, uneven ground, a plain.  These are the features that inhabit the words of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  And running through it all, a road, a highway straight and level.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For this way to become a way, valleys needed to be lifted up, mountains and hills brought low.  Obstacles would be removed, uneven spots leveled out.

The last time I was on a road in the wilderness was two weeks ago, although it was more a path than a road, and not so much a wilderness as a few acres of woods.  And there were plenty of uneven spots.  But stick with me.

It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, late afternoon, the final daylight hours of our family holiday on the farm in Bellefontaine.  It had been a sunny day, but we’d spent a solid four hours cooped up in the basement by the TV, watching young men collide into each other in an attempt to advance an oblong shaped ball down a field toward a designated zone.  With the game over, victory achieved, a renewed sense that all is well and right with the world, it was time for a walk.

We’d been wanting to do this all weekend.  Children and adults headed out toward the woods, an island of trees surrounded by farmland.

It’s difficult to make one’s way through these woods, even this time of year without the leaves or sprawling undergrowth.  But Dad had hired a friend who owned a large piece of equipment designed just for the task to come and clear out a path.  It had cut and ground its way through the dense thickets, avoiding the larger trees, making a path wide enough for a group of people to walk through comfortably.  It made a way in our little wilderness.

The trees are a mix of species, hickory and oak, black cherry, but the most common is honey locust.  A few years ago we had a forester walk through with us and he estimated the woods were about 50% honey locust.  That’s unusually high.

Honey locust is not a particularly pleasant tree.  Growing up, we just called them thorn trees.  This is because… they’re covered in thorns.  The trunks are covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns.  Even the thorns are covered with thorns.  There is a thornless variety that grows well in cities, but these aint no city trees.  One of my nephews, who goes barefoot just about everywhere, turned back part way into the hike after realizing the odds were not in his favor of returning without a bloody foot.

The woods are also overrun with honey-suckle, not to be confused with honey locust.  In this part of the world bush honeysuckle is known as an invasive.  It out-competes native species with its aggressive growth and prolific seed production.  It spreads fast.  It shades out the forest floor and prevents other seedlings from getting the sunlight they need to grow.  Without some kind of intervention the honey-suckle could keep choking out new generations of trees.  If it keeps doing that until all the other larger trees that got there first die out, it would be all that’s left.

These woods are not particularly healthy.

But they feature some beautiful old trees, including a burr oak that dad estimates is perhaps 200 years old.  It was there long before the honey locust and the honey suckle.  Standing under the extended branches of the burr oak is itself worth the trip back to the woods.  The path strategically goes right by it.

It’s not a perfectly smooth path, and it’s not a healthy woods.  Even in this peaceful corner of the world there are signs that all is not right and well.  But the path opens up a way to move through it all.  To witness and even enjoy it.

We arrive safely back to the house just as the sun is about the set in the west.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x (no refrain)

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 1 (no refrain)

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”  


There’s so much that needs said, so much urging us to cry out, or just cry.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Where to even start?

Isaiah starts with a road in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, the way in the wilderness was a message of comfort.  It was good news, spoken to a people living with generational trauma from having been violently uprooted from their homeland.

When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple they claimed not only the land, but also what they considered to be the best of the population, for themselves.  Palestine was on the western tip of the fertile crescent, Babylon on the east.  The captors would have marched their captives up and around that fertile crescent, staying close to water sources and other life support systems as they went.   Below the fertile crescent, directly between Palestine and Babylon, was an infertile desert.

So when Isaiah cries out to prepare a highway in the desert for God, he’s speaking about the most direct path from exile to home.  It’s the shortest distance between two points, and when that line goes through a desert, you better make it a grand highway.  Lift up the valleys, make the mountains low.  Level out that uneven ground.  We’re about to cruise the sandy hypotenuse of the fertile crescent, with the Lord leading the caravan.

All this talk of raising up valleys and bringing the mountains low is also pregnant with signs of a great reckoning.  It was the powerful conquerors who stood tall like mountains, the conquered who were in the valley looking up.  The work of the Lord involves a great leveling.

Mary echoes these words in her magnificat, spoken during her pregnancy with Jesus.  The song “My soul cries out” sets these words to an Irish folk tune.

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And Mary says: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout…”

Vocals: My soul cries out, v. 3, with refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. 

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We are witnessing, in these last weeks, a moral reckoning – the fall of powerful men, kings of cinema and politics and news media, being brought down from their thrones before our eyes.  Survivors of sexual assault are newly emboldened to cry out from the valley and speak the truth they have known for years.  It’s a densely populated valley.  And they’re being heard, and believed.

The prophet speaks of comfort and tender speech to a traumatized people.  It’s the kind of comfort that is good news, accompanied with a difficult reality.  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  A way is opened up through wilderness.  But there’s a long journey ahead.  A collective journey through a desert where there is no guarantee of life support systems at every turn.  It’s a road that demands the valleys be raised up, the mountains be brought low.  It’s the direct route back home.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x + refrain

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”



When John the baptizer cries out, the word on his lips is “Repent.”

In New Testament Greek the word is metanoia.  It literally means to change one’s mind.  In our age of neurological discovery, we can imagine metanoia as an act of literally rewiring the brain, forming new pathways that result in different destinations for how we live.  Repentance is nothing less than a collective change of consciousness.  In the wilderness that is our mind, the Lord prepares a way.  Baptism in the life giving waters of creation declares our intent to live a life of repentance.  To live in right relationship with creation, one another, and ourselves.  To have the high ego-inflated parts within us to be brought low, to raise up the parts of us that have been silenced or beaten down.  To receive the baptism of Holy Spirit that Jesus offers.

In Hebrew the word for repent Shuv.  It means to turn, or return.  Like you’re walking one direction, and then you turn, you repent, and walk another direction.  Or you return to the home you’ve either forsaken or that was taken from you.  The world is about to turn.

If John the Baptist was a tree he might be a honey locust.  Not because of the bizarre coincidence between this tree’s name and the fact that John survived on honey and locusts in the wilderness.  And not just for the fact that John came across as thorny, referring to people who came to him as poisonous snakes, almost provoking them to stay away lest they get punctured by his sharp language.

As unfriendly as the honey locust appears, it’s a tree that’s in the business of preparing the way.  It’s known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, injured land.

It can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil.  It’s heat and drought tolerant.

Honey locust is a preparer and a repairer.  Its deep fibrous tap root takes up and removes contaminates out of the soil.  It releases a heavy load of leaf matter each year, replenishing nutrients in the soil and building up biomass.  A recent Yale study showed that the leaf litter of honey locust also replenishes nitrogen in the soil, something few other trees do.  It replenishes what has been depleted.  It does difficult work, and trees in the generations that follow all benefit.  The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree crying out: “Hey, I know it’s not pretty, but we’re doing some healing work here.  Step back and give us some space while we turn this place around.”

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”  Repent.  Change your mind.  Turn.

Flute: My soul cries out, 1x

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 2 (no refrain)

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”



If 21st century humanity were a tree, or a shrub, we might be honey suckle.  We’re excelled at colonization and conquering territory for ourselves, shading out other life forms, causing them to go into exile, or disappear all-together.  We cast a heavy shadow.  It’s yet to be determined how we might find a balance among the community of life.  Can honey suckle repent?

If Isaiah and Mary were a tree, they might be an old burr oak.  These mother trees not only bear witness to the generations that come and go around them, but they feed the growth of new trees through their roots systems, connected in what’s been called the “wood wide web” through roots and channels of fungi.  They are so established, so certain of themselves, they have such an abundance of life to give that they pour it out beyond themselves.

Mary not only gives birth to Jesus but she accompanies him along the road of life, is by his side during the excruciating hours of crucifixion, and becomes a leader in the community of resurrection.  We share in this community and cry out with her.  This is our Advent prayer and baptismal vow.  It’s the most direct route we know toward home.

Flute + Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 4 + refrain

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.


Be thou my vision | July 16

Twelve Hymns Project: Be thou my vision, HWB 545

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

“Be thou my vision” is a prayer.  It’s an ancient prayer.  The language feels old.  When’s the last time you were having a conversation and found yourself saying “naught be all else to me save that thou art?”  I haven’t decided yet whether I know what that means.  But we sing it.  One of the wonders of setting our prayers to music is that we say things, we sing things, without having to understand everything we’re singing.  Sometimes the music and the rhythm of the words are enough to make it a prayer.

The English feels old, but the song is Irish through and through, in text and in melody.  What we have is just a translation.  The original is old enough that no one’s quite sure how old.  It may go as far back as the 6th century, words of an Irish poet, Saint Dallan.  Or maybe it was written a couple hundred years after Saint Dallan and just got attributed to him.  The oldest surviving manuscripts of this Irish prayer are from the 10th or 11th centuries.

Before Saint Dallan, around the year 401, a young man and his family were walking along a beach in the Western part of Britain.  They were interrupted by a fleet of boats, Irish warriors.  The warriors demolished the nearby village and captured the young man, taking him back to Ireland and selling him to a local warlord.  The young man’s name was Patricius.

Patricius was enslaved as a shepherd, spending his time in the wild with his master’s animals, exposed to the weather and foraging for food just like the animals he kept.  He did this for six years.  During that time he had an awakening toward the Christian faith he had grown up with.  He prayed constantly.  Feeling led by the Spirit to do so, he fled 200 miles to the south and got on a ship.  He escaped Ireland, back the Britain, went to a monastery to study for the priesthood, found his way home.  And there, after many years, heard a voice calling him to “come and walk again among us.”  He took this as the voice of God, calling him back to Ireland.

Some of the details of his life are about as fuzzy as the origins of the text of “Be thou my vision,” but it seems that Patricius went about his mission work in Ireland by building monasteries which became places of refuge and transformation in an incredibly violent Irish culture.  The monasteries were places of spiritual formation, but also developed their own economies with craftsmen and farmers and cloth makers and artists.  In that economy shepherds were not slaves, but part of the fabric of the community.  A recent article in the Christian Century telling the story of Patricius, Saint Patrick, referred to these monasteries as “outposts of God’s kingdom.”  They provided a vision of the new heavens and new earth already being realized.  In this way, Ireland was converted to Christianity.  (“The gospel in a violent culture,” June 7 issue, p 31.)

Perhaps Saint Dallan, several generations after Patrick, was within one of those monasteries, praying with his eyes open, when he wrote the prayer we have translated as “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art.  Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

I suppose every hymn is a prayer, but some of our hymns, like this one, are addressed directly to God, using that old word, “Thou.”  This is the seventh of our twelve hymns, and the first to be thoroughly oriented to God in this way.  The other two that will speak not just of God, but to God are “Rain down;” “Rain down your love on your people.”  And “Come thou fount of every blessing.  Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”  In other songs we’re singing to each other: “Will you let me be your servant.”  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Even songs like “My life flows on” and “Amazing Grace” are songs that have us proclaiming these things to one another.  They speak of God, but not to God in the second person sense – “you,” “your,” “yours,” or, in our case today, “thou,” “thy,” “thine.”  Even the ultimate Mennonite praise anthem, “Praise God from whom,” the grand finale of this series, is addressed, technically, not to God, but to “all creatures here below,” who are being summoned to do the praising and the hallelujah-ing, Amen.

It’s a good question to ask while singing a hymn.  Who are we singing to?

And there’s part of the catch with prayer, sung or spoken.  Because God, the Divine, the Holy, is no ordinary who.  Not just a larger, stronger, more loving, better version of ourselves.  Those who study and think and write about these things frequently remind us that what we refer to as God is not so much a being as Being itself.  Characterized by perpetual relationship rather than singular existence.  Closer to nothing, no-thing, not-a-thing, than something.

In prayer, we address something, someone beyond our categories.

When we sing, “Be thou my vision,” who, where, what are we talking to?

For the prophet Isaiah, Thou was an overwhelming, life altering vision.  At least that once, told in Isaiah chapter six.

Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple and saw a vision of a god so large that the hem of its robe, just that bottom part, filled the entire temple, a container far too small for something so grand.  Fiery beings called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”  There is shaking and smoke, and Isaiah is overcome.

The vision is too much, and he is too small, too inadequate to even take it in.  But one of those fiery beings comes over and touches Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar.  A holy kiss.  And that’s enough.  Isaiah is proclaimed worthy.  The voice asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah, perhaps without even realizing it, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me.”  Isaiah is then commissioned to speak to people who, he is told, will not listen.

Isaiah’s vision involves being overwhelmed, then being assured and comforted, then being sent on a mission that by all reasonable measures, will fail.

Had Isaiah been singing “Be thou my vision” right before this, a wise elder may have leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Rather than converting an entire continent, like Patrick, Isaiah’s prayer sends him on a mission that looks like an exercise in futility.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.”  (Source: The Wisdom of Heschel)

It strikes me that prayer is also a great risk.  We risk that it goes unanswered.  Even more, we risk that it is answered.

“Be thou my vision…Be thou my wisdom….be thou my true word…be thou my dignity, my delight.”

We are those who, in the words of Heschel, have been given the “inconceivable surprise of living.”  But we don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know how to do it.  We are trying to walk in the way of Jesus and resist violence.  Resist being reduced to consumers.  Resist despair.  We don’t know what will result, but we address the Divine, if we dare, as thou.  Or, to update the language, “you.”  It’s intimate language.  The kind of language that opens our hearts.  We do not merely speak of the Divine, we speak to it.  The Glory fills the whole earth, it is much grander than us, and we are as nothing before it, and yet we are invited to address it as “You.”  You be my vision.  You be my wisdom, my language, my dignity.  I am listening.  We are listening.  I to you.  You to us.  We are praying.  To You.  And when we pray, there is always the risk that we will be addressed in return, Patrick and Isaiah sent into the unknown.  Here we are Lord.  Send us?

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.






Get lost | 4 January 2015 | Epiphany

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

For most of the last dozen years, between Christmas and New Year’s, Abbie and I have made the trek out to Western Kansas.  This is where Abbie grew up and where much of her extended family still lives.  Because it’s such a long drive we stay for over a week.  It’s a pretty laid back time.  We visit with family, maybe do a project in Grandpa Marlin’s woodshop, read, play games, eat, etc.  This year included some playing in the little bit of snow that fell a couple days after Christmas.

Some of you may know Kansas as that long stretch of nothing before you get to the mountains.  And you’d be mostly right.

What’s especially wonderful about Western Kansas is that it’s almost nothing.  When you get out of the car and spend some time there, there’s a rare spaciousness all around you, full of almost nothing.  It’s a place where the Advent prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled:  Every valley has been lifted up, every mountain and hill has been made low; the uneven ground has become level, and the rough places a plain.  Take a walk or a run on a dirt road outside Quinter, Kansas and you can see for miles:  just try to plan it so the wind is at your back when you turn around to make your way back to where you started.

Because of the time of year when we do this trip, it has come to serve as something of a buffer zone between years:  To reflect some on what has happened in the past year, but moreso to clear my mind and do some thinking about the year to come, which is still as open as a Kansas landscape, almost nothing.

On the church calendar the trip ends up occurring at the fulfillment of Advent, right before the coming of Epiphany, the climax of the Christmas season which is technically January 6th, but which many churches, including ours, celebrate the second Sunday after Christmas day, whenever that happens to fall.  Epiphany is the only Sunday I’m aware of when the four lectionary texts are always the same, no matter what the year.  Two of them have just been read.  Isaiah has been our faithful companion through the whole season and now declares with boldness, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  The gospel passage is the story of the magi who are coming to visit Jesus, the Christ, the light of the world.

It would be a stretch to draw too many parallels between the journey of the magi and our annual trip to be with Kansas family.  They are both certainly long journeys.  But the magi are explicitly not going to visit family.  Matthew either does not know of, or chooses not to tell, Luke’s story of the shepherds keeping their flocks nearby, visiting the baby Jesus recently born to their people.  For Matthew, the first visitors to see Jesus are from far, far away.  They are magi from the East, Persia to be more precise, present day Iran.  They have come, as they say, to pay homage, and to give gifts to this one born King of the Jews.  They themselves are not kings, although tradition has come to remember them this way, partly because of that verse in Isaiah to which they have become so closely linked: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  They are from the nations, Gentiles, Goyim, non-Jews, those not in the family who claim Abraham and Sarah as their biological ancestors and who look to Moses as their founding prophet.

The picture on the bulletin cover by a Chinese artist is an example of how other cultures have imagined their own visit to the Christ child and their welcome into the universal family that came through his ministry.

The magi weren’t kings, but they were advisors to kings and rulers who sought inside information on what the motions in the cosmos might mean for their kingdom.  The magi were astrologers, professional star gazers, priests of light and heavenly bodies.  They were, as their name indicates, magicians, magi, sometimes admired, sometimes mocked for their claim to special knowledge and power.  Wise men inasmuch as they were able to provide insight and guidance to decision makers.  Please, advise us, magi:  Will we prevail if we go into battle?  In what month should the princess marry?  Which assistant has been stealing from the treasury?  What do the stars say?

It was their business to be precise in their observations.  To track movements.  To record patterns and check them with past records.  To account for abnormalities and have hypotheses of what this may mean.  To make links between what they saw above and what was happening below.  To consult, to ponder, to devise.  Magi had official status in Persia, the center of the massive empire that controlled much of the ancient near eastern world before it was conquered by Alexander the Great and later the Romans.  The Romans who put Herod the Great in charge of one of their provinces, giving him the title “King of Judea.”

Matthew writes: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Jerusalem was a bigger town than present day Quinter, Kansas, but perhaps had some of the same small town dynamics.  It was probably hard to hide, especially when you’re not from around those parts.  Word gets around quick, and Herod soon knows of their presence and their purpose, that they are searching for the whereabouts of a child they are calling by the title that belonged solely to him: “King of the Jews.”

Herod calls on his own advisors and wise men.  Those who concern themselves not with stars but with texts.  Scribes and chief priests who know their people’s sacred history.  The magi want to know where,  and this is exactly what Herod asks his selected advisors.  They have spent their life studying the Torah and the prophets.  Letters and words tirelessly recorded and preserved on scrolls. It was their business to read and interpret, to consult and ponder and teach.  “Where is the Messiah to be born?”  They have an answer and a precise citation to back it up: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”  They deliver a skillful interpretation of the prophet Micah.

Having received counsel on the general place, Herod then secretly calls the magi and asks them the time when this light they have been following first appeared.  He enlists them in a fact finding mission to learn of the exact place where the child is within Bethlehem.  Herod had maintained his position of power for over three decades by consistently and brutally eliminating the competition, so it should be no secret what Herod plans to do with this precise knowledge provided by those who gather wisdom from stars and those who gather wisdom from texts.

The philosopher John Caputo was recently interviewed, in the December issue of Christian Century magazine.  Caputo is currently working on a book called Truth which is somewhat ironic for him since he has spent most of his career, as he puts it, “trying to take the air out of the word truth, trying to debunk and deconstruct its absoluteness.”  Caputo talks about when his mentor and friend, the king of postmodern philosophy himself, Jacques Derrida, would come visit him in Philadelphia.  Caputo would want to show him the Liberty Bell or Valley Forge, but Derrida would never want to do that.  Caputo says, “His way to explore a city was to walk until he got lost and then try to find his way back.  In the process, he would discover all kinds of things.  Both personally and as a philosopher, he thought that being genuinely lost and seeking something is a crucial part of the journey.  We expose ourselves to the unknown and the unforeseeable.  Truth is like that” (Christian Century, December 24, 2014, pp. 30,31).

The interview never makes any reference to the visit of the magi, but I love how this bit connects with the story, and with our position in time of having a new year ahead of us.  The magi are successful in their search for Christ, and protect his whereabouts from the conniving Herod.  The mysterious light guides them to their destination in Bethlehem, and they arrive safely home by another route.  But I’d like to think that there’s more going on here than them simply finding what they were looking for.

I wonder if their encounter with Christ was just as much an experience of getting lost as it was of finding.  Being guided by mercy, justice, love, and forgiveness is a very different experience than being guided by a star, or even a text.  Just about anyone with access to the right resources and information can study the patterns, the history of interpretation, devise a plan, and follow a star.  Historically, very few had access to such things.  Epiphany is a celebration of a light that is accessible to all people and cultures, revealed from the humble setting of Bethlehem, a light for all to see.

Rather than being a light that tells you where to go, this is a light that tells you how to travel.  One could go through life knowing exactly where one is going, and getting there successfully.  Devise a plan, look at the map, or follow the voice of the GPS, see the Liberty Bell, check it off a list, and move on to the next destination.  If you jump on I-70 and head west, you’re bound to get there eventually, whether you’re headed to the plains or the mountains.

It’s harder to wonder around, not knowing where you’re going, but committed to paying attention to what you learn along the way.  It’s harder to constantly have to check in with life to see if one is being guided by love, justice, forgiveness, and mercy.  These are much less precise measurements, more difficult to gage and evaluate.  It’s a whole different world when truth is something discovered in the ambiguity of relationships rather than some fixed destination.  When the very act of seeking something is a crucial part of the journey.

If you don’t know what 2015 holds, join the club and settle in for the journey.  Even if your calendar is full and you think you know exactly what it holds, in order to travel well you will need to keep tending to love along the way.

Throughout this season we have been pondering the theme of disruption, and we close with this final note:

To borrow the language of postmodern philosophy: Despite all their learning, their understanding of the movement of the heavenly bodies, it’s quite possible that the magi returned home having their knowledge deconstructed to almost nothing.  This new light in their life leading them to destinations yet unknown.

A beginning without an ending | 7 December 2014 | Advent 2

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-11  

One of the things I like to notice when I read a book is the opening lines.  I’m interested in how writers choose to introduce what they have to say.  How does it set up the rest of the story?  How does it draw us in as a reader and make us a part of what follows?  What clues does it give about what we’re about to read?

One of the books that will forever be on my ‘pick up anytime and be delighted’ list is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s one of the few books I’ve handled so much that the cover has torn off.   It’s best read in small portions and digested over long periods of time.  It starts this way:  “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.  I’d half awaken.  He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood.  Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk.  And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.  It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm.  I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp.  What blood was this, and what roses?  It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.  This sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain.  I never knew.  I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the Passover.  We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…”   (pp. 1,2)

Annie Dillard goes on to write about her experiences and observations of the natural world around her house by Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.  In an early chapter she talks about the act of seeing, about what we notice and what we don’t notice.  What we let come through our open window, so to speak.  She sees in her surroundings untamed beauty, as well as devastating violence.  She feels an awareness of “something powerful playing over me,” all the while being baffled by its elusive presence.  In other words, her opening description of the tom cat and the blood that found its way on her body serves as a metaphor for the rest of what she has to say.

A book that I read a few years back but was reminded of this week when a friend mentioned it in a post is Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead.  This is written as a reflection of an aging Midwestern pastor.  The pastor, John Ames, had married a younger woman and they had a son together and these reflections are written as if from this elderly father to his young son.  It begins this way: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.  And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.  I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.  And you said, Mama already told me that.  And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you.  You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s.  It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern.  I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks.  I will miss them.  It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything.  If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time.  I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself.  That seems to be the way of things.” (p. 3)

The rest of the book is a monologue of this elderly fictitious Reverend John Ames telling stories from his life.  But the way the book opens reminds the reader that this is more like a dialogue, with the son always present, listening, as if he were still sitting on his father’s lap, or they were at the bedside together.  It is a book full of life, and full of words, but also overshadowed by impending death and the silence that follows.

Both of these books drew me in from the very beginning, with their opening setting the tone for what was to come, helping define just what kind of story this was going to be.

Today’s scriptures in this second Sunday of Advent are also beginnings.

You can’t tell it at first glance, but Isaiah chapter 40 is the start of a new story, opening words for a new narrative that is taking shape.  In its finished form, Isaiah comes to us as one book, but contains within it multiple books from multiple Isaiahs.  Scholars believe that there are three distinct voices in the book of Isaiah, each speaking from a different time period, a different location, into different sets of circumstances.  Rather than a single person, Isaiah is more like a prophetic tradition, a school of multiple generations of prophets.  We could think of the final product of Isaiah as something like a trilogy, packaged together in one box set, so one can watch the whole thing unfold from beginning to end.

After chapter 39, when the first Isaiah has said all he has to say, there is a long pause.  150 years, or so, of silence.  During this silence the nation of Judah is destroyed, invaded and conquered by the Babylonians.  Many of its people are exiled, into Babylon — living as disoriented, displaced persons — grieving over what has been destroyed, longing for God to work salvation for them.  Out of this silence, the Second Isaiah speaks, in exile, from Babylon.  Book two begins, and its opening words set the course for where the story is headed.  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the Presence of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

‘Comfort, comfort my people’ begins this story.  Comfort plus comfort.  Comfort squared.  Extra fortified double strength comfort to meet the need of the double devastation the people have experienced.  These are welcome words for exiles.  They had fallen onto the hard, inflexible, unforgiving solidity of forces greater than themselves.  The aspirations of an invading empire, points of spears leading them away from their homes, forging a new life in a foreign land — the harsh realities of the world that many people continue to experience who are displaced by violence.  And now they are hearing words of comfort.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Words of tender speech.  Like a parent speaking gently to a child at bedtime.  Like life partners comforting each other.  The hard edges are softened.  The inhuman situation suddenly has a touch of humanity.  The prophet speaks words of assurance and consolation.  A way is being made for them.  They’re not stuck where they are.  There is a way being prepared that they will be able to walk.  They haven’t been forgotten here or abandoned in exile.  This is how this story begins.

I image we can each think of times when we have experienced words of comfort as having the power to open up a whole new path.  We felt as though we were trapped in our worries and fears and self-doubts, as if we are surrounded by mountains and valleys that we can’t see around or climb over.  And then words of comfort or assurance come to us, and we experience what Isaiah describes.  “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  And we see a way where before there was no way.  There are times when we need this kind of message to disrupt all the other disruptions.

If you are a person for whom certain phrases instantly remind you of a song which in turn gets stuck in your head, you may find through Advent that Handel’s Messiah will have a steady presence in your brain.  When writing The Messiah Handel chose these first words of Second Isaiah to be the beginning.  Comfort, comfort.  What unfolds in Isaiah and what unfolds through that music is a story about the offer of comfort, which changes the whole landscape of our world.

When Mark begins his gospel, he cites this passage from Isaiah as having to do with what he calls “the beginning of the good news.”

Mark’s can be a tricky gospel for the Advent/Christmas season – primarily because the Christmas story is entirely absent from it.  In Mark there are no angels visiting Mary or Joseph, and no birth story.  If we were to base our children’s Christmas play on Mark’s gospel it would be very low stress for all involved, with no lines to memorize.  I say this at the risk of having you demote Mark as a lesser gospel, which it most certainly is not.    Mark tells of the beginning in another way.

Mark’s first words are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  In the next few verses Mark goes on to tell of John the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, and of Jesus who is fully grown when we meet him who hits the ground running with a quick baptism, wilderness trial, and is very soon proclaiming his message that the kingdom of God has come near.

Mark’s gospel does not begin as one of pure comfort.  Right from the beginning he uses contentious language that sets the stage for later conflicts in the story.  He calls his writing “gospel”, “good news” which was a term associated with Roman propaganda as decrees of gospel would be sent out to the far corners of the empire to announce a military victory or the coming to power of a new emperor.  Mark claims another gospel.  In referring to Jesus as the “Son of God,” Mark is challenging the emperor who also carried this title, and making a claim about what it really means to be a representative of God on earth.  The first mysterious character on the scene, John the Baptist, also carries this sense of struggle.  Aside from being someone who lived in the wild, wore clothes made out of camel’s hair, and ate bugs, his message also had an abrasive edge to it.  His was a disruptive message.  He was a whistle blower on people’s sins, especially those in power, calling them to turn around 180 degrees and walk in the other direction.  Soon we learn that John is arrested, and later killed, for his message, a signal that not everyone found his message comforting.  Annie Dillard writes that “we wake, if we wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.”

But John’s message was one of hope.  He was cutting a path through obstacles in people’s lives and clearing a way for a fresh start.  He made the remarkable claim that people’s sins could be forgiven.  That all those mountains of mistakes that had accumulated in people’s lives and all those valleys of deficits that people felt they had could be made level.  It’s comforting to hear that no matter how deeply worn in our habits are there’s a possibility of a fresh start.  A fresh start with God, and a fresh start in a community of baptized people who live under the order of forgiveness.  John also said “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”  I’m guessing that he found this personally comforting.  That he recognized he didn’t have to hold everything together on his own, but that one more powerful than he would come along and build on his words and his mission.

This is how the story begins.  This is how the Second Isaiah and Mark introduce what they have to share.   And like the beginning of any good story, it sets the tone for what we can expect to come next.  And unlike a book with a final page, it’s a story that’s still being written.

A disruption yet to come | 30 November 2014 | Advent 1

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you feel about disruptions?  You’re settled in for the evening, reading a book on the couch, and there’s a knock at the door.  Your day is going pretty well until you get a phone call that a family member has just been hospitalized.  Or maybe you are that family member hospitalized.  You’re driving along with a friend having a great conversation and you come to the top of an exit ramp where you are confronted with the person with the sign that says some version of: “Hungry and jobless.  Anything helps.”  Disruptions.

Or: Another kind of disruption, which happened to me a little while ago at home: the girls were playing and laughing and having a good time together and I turned up the volume on NPR to better hear the news.  Then I realized I was most likely committing some kind of grievous sin by drowning out the laughter of children to listen to the sorrows of the world.  I turned the radio off.  It was a welcome disruption, all things considered…

When the Advent planning group got together and pondered the scriptures for this season, the theme that emerged was the singular word of Disruption.  As a person fully at home in the modern Western world of clocks and scheduling and Google calendar, I admit that disruptions can be disorienting.  As a father of a two year old who still doesn’t regularly sleep through the night, I admit that some disruptions can be really disorienting.  As someone who has experienced enough disruptions to know that they often pull me out of my narrow focus and challenge me to rethink my priorities, and as a person of faith who notices that throughout scripture and history God seems to be a really big fan of disruptions, I confess I want to be more open to the goodness that disruptions can bring with them.

As we prepare for the birth of Christ, which is both a gentle and world-altering disruption, we are confronted this week with scriptures that speak of disruptions of apocalyptic proportions.

When the prophet Isaiah looks around at his world he sees that Jerusalem is in shambles, the temple is in ruins, the people are lost, and the world is adrift in injustice.  Things are coming apart at the seams, and God is nowhere in sight.  Isaiah speaks from within the ancient worldview of the three tiered universe – the gods and angels and powers in the heavens above, the humans and other living things on the earth, and the watery abyss and underworld below.  Within this geography, Isaiah cries out to the Lord, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Isaiah longs for the days of those stories his people tell, when the Lord did awesome deeds overcoming enemies, and mountains quaked at the Divine presence, and nations revered the Holy Presence.  Back when God had some real muscle and didn’t hesitate to show it – or so the stories go.  Now, Isaiah laments, it’s as if God is in hiding.  The moral fabric is fraying.  Isaiah confesses, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you.”

Isaiah’s poetic words sound similar to the poem included in the midweek blog, the Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, written in 1919 as smoke still filled the European air after the devastations of the first World War:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

If we would include our own laments we could add that the streets of Ferguson cry out for justice, the sands of Iraq and Syria are soaked in blood, and gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” says Isaiah.  Oh that the veil that separates the gods and humans would be torn, and we would be visited by One who sets things right.  For Isaiah, disruption of the status quo would be an act of Divine mercy.  Disruption is our only hope.  Disruption is salvation.

This hope for a Divine inbreaking, and this sense that things are so askew that they cannot simply be restored incrementally, came to be characteristic of later Jewish writings, collectively referred to as apocalyptic literature.  When we think of apocalypse our minds most likely go straight to the group of films that base their plot around the impending destruction of the planet.  The new movie Interstellar, in which a crop disease and second Dust Bowl bring the earth to the verge of being uninhabitable and require a search for a new home elsewhere, is only the latest installment of this storyline.

But apocalyptic writings that did and didn’t make it into the Bible don’t so much foresee the destruction of the world as they do the end of an era.  It’s not so much Bruce Willis Apocalypse, end of the world, as it is what the band REM sang about, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  The world as we know it is coming to an end, and something new is emerging.  The word apocalypse itself is Greek for “unveiling.”  To undergo apocalypse, is to undergo an unveiling of what lies just below the surface and is on its way into existence.  You may not see it yet, but an apocalypse is at hand.  The world as we know it is ending, and a new world is coming into being.

So in Mark 13, when Jesus goes all apocalyptic on his disciples, he’s not simply pulling this out of thin air.  He is pulling this out of air thick with centuries of apocalyptic images and declarations.  Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel had all said similar things and, most importantly, Daniel had spoken of a time when the reign of the Inhuman empires would be ended, and one like a Human Being would come and begin to rule.  One like a human being – or a son of man as it is often translated.  Compassionate, merciful, reconciling.  Humane.  Daniel saw it first, and Jesus adopts this title for himself, the Human Being, the Son of Man, but also uses it in the collective sense, which is how Daniel originally used it.  A new humanity, coming as if on the clouds with power and glory.  Or, as Jesus did throughout his life, the one who redefines power, and redefines glory.  The one who rules from the place of servanthood.  The one who gives away glory to the most despised and unworthy.  The one who turns the whole system upside down and inside out and breaks history wide open exactly by not grabbing power, but by giving it away.  The one who ultimately gives life away, his own, and counts it a victory.  How’s that for a disruption?  How’s that for an apocalypse?  Everything has been unveiled – our violence, our addiction to getting and maintaining power, our inhumanity to one another, the overwhelming love of God – everything has been unveiled, and now the question is whether or not we can see it.

Despite his borrowing of destructive imagery, Jesus’ message is not one of doom and gloom.  The coming of the Human One does not bring destruction, but emerges among us despite the destruction we cause.  The new collective Humanity, the Human Being, is learning how to live humanly despite inhuman conditions.  Jesus goes on: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near.”  “It” being the new humanity, which is near.

Jesus shifts his disciples’ attention away from things falling apart, and toward the fig tree, whose bloom ushers in a new season.   He ends his words in Mark 13 by urging his disciples to stay awake and pay attention to these things.

Out in the front of our church building, along Broadway Place, is a ginkgo tree.  You passed by it when you were coming in.  I’ve been wanting to talk about this ginkgo tree for a while and this seems like an appropriate time because it fits just right into Jesus words about the fig tree.  “From the ginkgo tree, learn this lesson.”  The ginkgo tree is an ancient tree and has no known close relatives.  Its leaves are that unique fan shape with that rubbery texture that isn’t quite like any other tree I know.  What’s remarkable about the ginkgo tree is that it is a survivor.  It or a very close relative was around during dinosaur times and survived that mass extinction 65 million years ago.  One of the biggest apocalypses ever (Bruce Willis style) came to our planet and the ginkgo tree survived.  Much more recently, on August 6, 1945, at the end of World War II, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  In the apocalyptic landscape the bomb created, there were several ginkgo trees that survived the massive blast.  One was less than four football fields’ length from the center of the blast.  It not only survived, but began re-budding in the year following the blast and is still a thriving tree today, with steps up to a temple built around it, an international symbol of peace.

“From the ginkgo tree learn this lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Human One is near.”

I love that we have a ginkgo tree planted right by the peace pole and peace flags.  The meteor that brought down the dinosaurs, and the bomb that leveled a city were massive disruptions of apocalyptic proportions.  I’m not implying that Mark or Jesus was looking back or looking ahead to these events, but the language of apocalypse fits these and other times well. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and stars will be falling from heaven.”  In other words, everything you thought was most solid and sure is disrupted.  It prompts cries like that of Isaiah, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

But learn this lesson from the fig tree.  It’s the fig tree, it’s the gingko tree, it’s the coming of Christ, the creation of a new humanity, that is the real disruption.  These signs disrupt our violence and our fascination with destruction.  They interrupt our narrative of doom and gloom.  They are the real apocalypse, the real unveiling, of what God is doing in this world.  The branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, and you know that summer is near.  The young woman is with child, and brings forth the Christ in the most humble of settings.

I find it both troubling and delightful that the first Sunday of Advent always confronts us with these apocalyptic texts.  It happens every year.  We think we’re getting into a time of remembering the first coming of Christ and we’re immediately faced with texts about the Second Coming.  We want to simply look back, but instead we’re looking ahead, or better, looking into the present moment, for a disruption already here, and a disruption yet to come.  This second coming doesn’t appear to be merely a one time event at a time to be determined.  It’s more like a continual disruption of the present moment, as gentle as children’s laughter and as forceful as a collision, an inbreaking always happening, a second and third and fourth, and hundredth coming.  Christ coming to us every day in the form of the Human Being, or the tree, who disrupts our tired ways of living and offers a new way of seeing.

Stay awake and keep alert.

Three meditations for Advent IV | 22 December 2013

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25


1. Mystery

This Advent we have been guided by the theme of Mystery.  One of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed is seeing what the musicians have prepared each week and what new thing is going to be happening visually up front from week to week.  We approach our worship this in the same spirit as the Franciscan Richard Rohr, who speaks of mystery not as that which is unknowable, but that which is endlessly knowable.  Mystery, Divine Mystery, is that which is endlessly knowable.  You can’t get to the bottom of it.  The church dedicates more than a month each year to the drama of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and, however familiar we are with the story, we intuitively know that we have only scratched the surface of what this means for us and for the world.  Ponder again Mary bearing the Christ child into the world.  There’s always more to see.

This time around Advent has also happened to coincide with the death of a remarkable human being, Nelson Mandela.  As we have been pondering mystery, and with hopeful expectation of Christ’s presence among us, we have shared in the public remembrance of this life that represented so many of the hopes of his people and people around the world.  This is a man who spent 27 years in prison for his leadership in the South African movement to overthrow apartheid, some of that time in solitary confinement, and had his eyesight permanently damaged because he was forbidden to wear sunglasses to protect himself from the glare while he and other prisoners spent their days breaking up limestone into gravel.  He was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, and was not permitted to attend the funeral of his own mother and his oldest son.  There were times in these years when he was not allowed to read any books except for the Bible because of the threat he posed to apartheid government.  Had the government leaders actually read the Bible themselves, they may have reconsidered placing it in the hands of a revolutionary.

There was surely the mystery of the Spirit at work in his soul for him to emerge from prison willing to not only lead this emerging multiracial democracy, but to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focused on exposing the evils done under apartheid, not for the main purpose of punishing the perpetrators, but for the purpose of restoring the losses of their victims.  Imagine reconciliation as public policy!

It is those same revolutionary scriptures, and that same Spirit, that lead us into this final Sunday of Advent.  Today’s Psalm, Psalm 80, includes the cry, “Stir up your might, O God, and come to save us!”  We have high expectations.  Our hope is for nothing less than the salvation of the whole world, our own souls included.  Today we join with all those throughout history who have ever prayed this prayer.  Save us!  Save us from oppression.  Save us from oppressing others.  Save us from the prison of bitterness.  Save us from ourselves.  Save us, O Holy Mystery.


2. With us is God

Attempting to say something about this passage from Isaiah feels a little bit like walking into a war zone.  Its traditional connection to Advent is that it contains a line that is cited in Matthew’s gospel as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Most likely, that verse is the only thing that sounds remotely familiar from this portion of Isaiah.  It’s verse 14 of chapter 7.  “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  Immanu-el, translates as “with us is God.”  “God is with us.”  Matthew’s gospel is laced with references to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophet Isaiah, these ancient words coming to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  This is the first of those fulfillments.  For Matthew, the young woman is Mary, a virgin, and the son is Jesus, Immanuel, “With us is God.”

What happened to this Isaiah passage is that it became a proxy war for liberal and conservative Christians, focusing on the translation of one pivotal word.  Unfortunately, the word which has received so much attention is not Immanuel, “with us is God,” which feels like the real scandal of this passage, but the one translated either as young woman or virgin.  An extremely abbreviated history goes something like this:  the Hebrew word originally used in Isaiah usually means “young woman,” although it can mean virgin, although there is a different Hebrew word more often used for virgin.  But when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the Septuagint, the Greek word used can only mean virgin.  The New Testament writers read from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and saw Isaiah’s words as coming to completion in Mary’s virgin pregnancy which becomes a part of Jesus’ birth story which for complex theological reasons becomes a doctrine of the church.  Early in the 20th century Protestant Christians argue whether belief in the literal virgin birth is or isn’t fundamental to Christian faith.  The lines have been drawn ever since, although I think a fair amount of battle fatigue has set in for all involved.

What can get lost in this approach is recognizing that this Isaiah passage comes out of an actual war zone.  Jerusalem is being attacked by its neighbors from the north, Aram, also known as Syria, and Ephraim, also known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, those 10 tribes that broke off from Judah after the reign of King Solomon 200 years before Isaiah’s writing.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem are overpowered and outnumbered, and Ahaz, their king, is about to make a desperation move by making an alliance with the superpower of the day, Assyria.  But the prophet Isaiah, himself an inhabitant of Jerusalem, believes the alliance is foolish and reveals a lack in faith in God; and in good prophetic fashion, tells King Ahaz that God will provide a sign that the city and its people will be safe.  For whatever reason, the king does not want a sign, does not, he says, want to put the Lord to a test.  It sounds pious, but Isaiah refuses to not give the king a sign.

So what’s the sign?  What kind of sign would help give the assurance that the armies of the enemy will not prevail and that everyone inside the city will be secure?  How about this: Look, the soldier’s sword.  Sharp and ready.  It’s a sign that we will pierce our enemies, and they will retreat in shame.  What’s the sign? How about this: Look, the walls of the city.  Thick, tall, strong.  They will protect us from harm.

Neither of these are the sign that Isaiah gives to Ahaz.  Instead, rather than pointing to the might of the soldiers or strength of their technologies of war, Isaiah points to the most unlikely place one would look for assurance in times of battle.  You know what Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him “With us is God,” Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”  We don’t know who this young woman of Jerusalem is that Isaiah points to, but her pregnant body and the young life of her child become a time keeper for Jerusalem’s salvation.  A pregnancy lasts nine months, and it was believed that a child could start to tell right from wrong, refuse the evil and choose the good, after their first two years of life.

Curds and honey were not items readily available during siege warfare, yet Isaiah is assuring the king that before this child to be is even old enough to know right from wrong, in only a few years, the threats to the city will go away.  The child will be snacking on curds and honey, running around and laughing in the streets of Jerusalem just as every child should be able to do, safe and secure in the neighborhood, free as a bird.

The sign of Isaiah is that, in the most violent and threatening of circumstances, the very ones who appear to have no power and have nothing to contribute to the protection of their people, become the ones to watch.  Through the anonymous young woman, With us is God, Immanuel, is born.  Creation renews itself.  A new generation begins that has not suffered the trauma of their parents.  Every day of the growth of this child is a sign.  Soon the threats will pass and the son, the daughter, will be eating the good stuff, curds and honey.  And every time you whisper the child’s name, you are reminded, “God is with us.”  “God is with us.”


3. With us is God II

And now another child is born.  The threat of the Aramians and Northern Kingdom has long passed, Assyria has come and gone and with it other world empires.  But empire itself has not gone away.  And the scope of concern is no longer the preservation and safety of one city, but the whole world.  The character of Ahaz is gone and now a person of much lower social standing, Joseph must decide what to do with this new kind of sign.

It’s Joseph’s honor that’s at stake when his wife-to-be is found to be pregnant and he knows he’s not the father.  The law of Deuteronomy stated that such a woman could be stoned to death.  Joseph was a righteous man, obedient to the law.  Joseph was a carpenter.  A carpenter like Joseph worked not only with wood, but also with another common building material, stones.  Joseph was used to handling stones.  Every day he was working around them or with them, his hands touching and gripping and moving and placing stones.  Stones for building walls, stones for fences, stones for pavement.  Stones were solid.  Things built with stones last a long time.  Stones were heavy and hard.  A stone poorly placed could fall and crush an arm or a foot.  Joseph was a carpenter, skillful, and knew what to do with stones.

Joseph was a righteous man, obedient to the law, but he was not a literalist, he did not believe that stones were for punishment.  Although he had it in his power to do so, he was unwilling to expose his wife to public disgrace, and he planned to dismiss her quietly.

Joseph had a dream that told him that this child of Mary’s would save his people from their sins.  A dream in which the voice of Isaiah, surely lodged in the deep recesses of his brain from hearing it read in synagogue, seemed to be speaking directly to him: “Look, the young woman – a virgin, Matthew says – shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  With us is God.  God is with you, Joseph.  This child is from the Holy Spirit.

The young woman is Mary, although it would be more accurate to call her an older girl.  It was custom for girls to be pledged to be married right around the time they hit puberty, so if you’re a girl between 12 and 16, you could be Mary.  Mary could be you.

In fact there’s a whole stream of Christian spirituality that says Mary is you.  Not just teenage girls, but you, me, everyone who yields to God.  That Mary’s task is essentially the task of every living and breathing human being.  To receive the Word, the seed of God within you, to nurture it within the womb of your soul, like Mandela did in that dark prison cell, and to birth Christ into the world through your body, your life, and in this very act, to declare to the world, God is with us.  To take this great risk for God.

The salvation we long for does not involve removing ourselves from this world and going to some other place to be with God.  The current of salvation flows in the exact opposite direction.  It is God who is with us, in this world of atoms and molecules, and bodies.  Matter, animated by Spirit.  And it is through our very human and broken lives that the Holy Mystery does its work.

For Ahaz, and for Isaiah, and even for Joseph, the sign of God was something for them to look at outside themselves.  Something happening around them, in their environment, to be seen and watched.  But for Mary, the sign is something happening within her.  It’s not a thing out there to be looked at.  The sign is happening to her.  She is, you are, the environment of God’s activity.  The sign, Christ, is happening to us.  It’s name is With us is God.