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.

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.

Voices crying out in the wild-erness | 8 December 2013

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

 The psychologist Carl Jung once said: “When religion stops talking about animals it will be all downhill.”  I wonder how we’re doing with that – if the nonhuman creaturely world has a strong enough presence in our psyche, our souls, or if we have been headed downhill for decades, or centuries.

If we are in danger of losing touch with animal nature, today it’s Isaiah to the rescue.  Although you wonder if Isaiah could benefit from learning a little more himself about how the natural world really works.  He presents a picture, populated with all sorts of animals that no one in their right mind would put in the same room together, or the same pasture.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

From where I stand, literally, right here, I have noticed that this congregation has one major banner in the sanctuary.  And that this banner is based on this very passage from Isaiah 11.  It fits well with our core value of peace, and I was curious where the banner came from and how it got there.   Here’s what I found out, the story of the animal banner at Columbus Mennonite.

It was made around 1990 by Jhan Yoder-Wyse and her mother Jean when they attended South Union Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio.  It was created for a peace conference put on by the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission and each congregation in attendance was asked to make a banner for the event.  So it began its life as one among many peace banners.  After the conference there wasn’t room for it in the South Union worship space, so Jean hung it in her cathedral ceiling home for a number of years.

In the meantime the family moved their membership to this congregation and when Neil Avenue Mennonite Church moved here and became Columbus Mennonite Church in the late 90’s there was this wonderfully large wall.  This banner fit the spot, and has been here ever since, keeping watch over you all.

Jhan wrote to me in an email and said, “I have fond memories of working on the banner. Its size and weight made it a bit unwieldy, so when it was finally sewn together, we hung it on my parents’ wall to finish the appliqué and needle work. We spent days on it, and when friends visited, they often picked up a needle and gave a helping hand (quilting bee style).”

The images for the banner are based on the painting called The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks, painted in the first half of the 19th century.

An ancient Hebrew prophet’s vision becomes an American folk painting becomes a banner at a Mennonite women’s peace conference becomes a fixture in this church building in Columbus, Ohio, reminding us that we too hold to this strange and marvelous hope of peace.

Also reminding us that religion should never stop talking about animals.

The words of the Peaceable Kingdom appear in Isaiah when the prophet is speaking of an inspired leader to come, who brings justice to the poor and equity for the meek of the earth.  Isaiah says that “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  This perhaps serves as a later inspiration for the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Ephesians about putting on the whole armor of God for a battle that is not against people, but against spiritual darkness.  The belt of truth, the shield of faithfulness, the breastplate of righteousness.  Both Isaiah and Paul use violent images to speak a message of nonviolence.  For Paul, the battle is explicitly not against flesh and blood.  For Isaiah, the weapon of choice is a rod that comes out of the mouth: words, language, truth spoken powerfully and boldly.

And then come the animals.

One way of reading these pairings of animals historically at odds with each other, now dwelling together in peace, is as predator and prey.  But it’s a little more nuanced than that.  If it were just predator and prey, it might say that the wolf will live with the deer, its prey in the wild.  Or the lion will eat together with the gazelle.  Instead the wolf is living with the lamb, and the lion eats together with the ox.  The pairings are not only predator and prey, but also the wild and the domesticated animals.  The leopard lies down with the little goat, the cow and the bear and their young graze together.

These are two sets of animals that we as humans have had very different kinds of relationships with.  For most of our existence as a species, it seems, just about all animals were wild to us.  Go back far enough and we were even wild to ourselves, which we still are in some ways.   We hunted and gathered, we moved around, we ate what was immediately available from the earth, we much more naturally lived out Jesus’ words of the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin.  Therefore do not worry about your life.”  We did not sow or reap or store in barns in any systematic kind of way that we’re aware of. We foraged, and the earth sustained us, at least enough to keep some of us alive.  Animals lurked at the fringes of our communities are were sources of wonder, honored for their spiritual energy, recognized for their danger, needed for their meat and skins.

And at some point, maybe 12,000, 15,000 years ago, or earlier, or later, we embarked on this grand experiment of domestication.  To be overly simplistic about it, rather than mostly conforming our lives to our environment, we began more and more conforming our environment to our lives.  We found plants and animals that were more useful to us than others, and with each passing generation those traits that we found most favorable were highlighted and expanded.  We changed plants and animals, and they changed us.  We became dependent on them in a different kind of way.  The evolutionary process became conscious of itself through us, and through us started making new kinds of choices about who thrives and who barely survives, or not.  Creation became humanized and the human imprint spread around the globe.  Humans became powerful.  Human creativity and culture flourished.  Humans became wealthy, or not.

This is all a relatively new thing for planet earth.  This is our wonderful and complicated heritage.  Move into a 21st century city or suburb and one could go days, or years without giving much thought to animals.

But there is a wildness that remains.  There are animals and plants that did not, do not, conform to human domestication.  Whose lives flow on without any intervention on our part.

It is significant that when John the Baptizer appears he does not appear in Jerusalem or another city, or even the smaller villages of Judea or Galilee.  Instead, we are told, he appears in the wilderness, a place untamed and undomesticated by human technology or imagination, at the very outer edges of habitable space, off the grid, in the wild.  He’s some form of a hunter and gatherer, depending on locusts and wild honey for food, clothing himself with camel’s hair and a leather belt.  This is not the lifestyle of a “civilized” person.  He is, we are we told, an echo of none other than the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of “the voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

He hangs out by a river.  To anyone who will listen, he preaches a message of repentance.

Surprisingly, people come from everywhere to hear him.  Matthew says, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

It’s significant that Jesus is among those who go out to be baptized by John, and that Jesus sticks around in the wilderness even after his baptism.  The Spirit drives him deeper into the wilderness.  Matthew mentions that Jesus fasted this whole time and gives details about the temptations Jesus faced while in the wilderness, but Mark simply says this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  I’ve heard people talk about those temptations from Satan, but I wonder what kinds of encounters Jesus had with the wild beasts.  I wonder how this shaped his ministry.  His humility.  His sense of himself as a participant in the creatureliness of creation.  I wonder if he meditated on the dream of Daniel that we talked about last week.  Where the wild beasts representing empire have their power taken away from them and creation is ruled by the Human Being, a name he immediately starts using for himself, his name of choice for the rest of his life.  The Son of Man, the Human Being.  I wonder if he thought that wild beasts get too much of a bad rap in Daniel’s dream and that human beings could learn a thing or two from them.

When Jesus is born he is famously placed in a manger, a feed trough of domesticated cattle.  His ministry in his adult life is spent immersed in a culture that those cattle and other domesticated plants and animals have helped, with all its beauty and wisdom as well as its massive wealth and power imbalances. He will begin to enact the words of Isaiah: “with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”  He will say: “The Human Being came to seek and save that which is lost.”

In between his birth and his ministry, he is in the wilderness.  His vision for who he needs to be and the temptations and forces of what others want him to be, are all confronted and purified in the wilderness, among the devil, the angels, and the wild beasts.

The wilderness is a spiritual reality, but it’s not just a metaphor.  The wilderness is a very real place.  It might be one of the most important places we have.  A place we need to visit to learn who we need to be.  A place that teaches us about repentance.  A place where we encounter animals not so marked by our own fingerprints, who can help show us a way forward.  We are more and more aware, with Isaiah, that there is only one pasture, for us all to live in, the wild and the domesticated.

There is a small but exciting project going on in the Mennonite world called The Anabaptist Bestiary Project.  It’s the name of a band, based out of Bluffton University, a couple hours from here.  It’s headed up by Trevor Bechtel, a professor of theology, musician, and personal friend.  Many students contribute.

On their website they note: “Bestiarys are documents that flourished in medieval Europe. They collected the best natural science of the day, reflections from the bible, and developed a moral about how the animal revealed God’s will. Natural science has changed a great deal over the last 700 years, and it’s time for a new bestiary… We reflect on the things that scientists, primarily ethologists and naturalists, discover about the world and its creatures and then engage in a theological reflection about the behaviour and place of these creatures in the world.”

Each song by The Anabaptist Bestiary Project is about a different animal.  Sea turtles, honey bees, sloths, house cats, lions, and mosquitos are just some of the creatures that get their own song.

I want to close by reading the lyrics to a song called Murmuration.  A murmuration is a group of starlings that do all sorts of amazing synchronized patterns of flight, ballet in the air.  The brief description of the name of the song says this: Murmurations of  (starlings) have been studied because the collective behaviour that they show reveals deep patterns which all manner of creatures from small bacteria to large animal herds show. (Starlings) move in a murmuration by tracking their seven closest neighbours .. This way of being together gives body to the deep intelligence of the universe; to the mind of God.

Here’s a video of a murmuration.  To see video image, you may need to play in full screen mode.  It starts getting real interesting around 1:20 and then keeps getting more so.

 

Murmuration

Start off slowly and see, soon, how
everyone’s joining in

Dive to the center but see, soon, how
it’s never stable

In phase transition, we, turn, now
and everything changes

In perfect sevens we, turn, now
a quick rearranging

We’re a murmuration

Still then in waves, see, soon, how
continual movement

will keep us safe, and see, soon, how
we’ll never break apart

and trusting each other, we, turn, now
we are stronger than numbers

Warmer and warmer we, turn, now
Before the night cools us to sleep

We’re a murmuration

This is the mind of the universe
We are the ones who set it free
This is the mind of the universe
Who give it shape and wit and body

In tight formation, we, learn, now
just what we need to know

about tomorrow, we, learn, now
where we can be fulfilled

in swoops and soaring, you, learn, now,
collective behaviour

in every life form, you learn now
the answers you’re looking for

We’re a murmuration

“No one knows…” | 1 December 2013

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

In some ways Advent is one of the least surprising and mysterious seasons there could be.  Because we’ve been here before.  We’ve gone through it many times.  We know the words, the songs, the stories.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, how this is all going to unfold.  Jesus is going to be born to Mary and Joseph in the most humble of settings, will be heralded by angels, visited by shepherds and stargazers from the East, and honored as the savior of his people.

You know this story, and there’s a great comfort in knowing it, and hearing it again.

Advent means “coming,” and this is a time when we look again for the coming of Christ.

What always strikes me about the first Sunday of Advent, is that the texts each year seem intent on unsettling us from what we think we know is supposed to happen.  Instead of preparing us for the coming of a gentle birth – a memory of something long ago, something from out of the past – we are confronted with words from the adult Jesus, spoken in future tense, declared in his final days, spoken as if the world, or at least the world as we know it, is about to be shaken to its core.

“Many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed.”

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Then the Son of Man will appear in heaven.”

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

“Keep awake, therefore.”  The Son of Man is coming like a thief in the night.

All of these words come from Matthew chapter 24, and are part of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Just as we’re getting ourselves situated to enjoy the goodness of the season, or to settle in for a long winter’s nap, here is Jesus getting all apocalyptic on us and telling us, urging us, to stay awake.  Rather than give us assurances and certainties, we are beckoned into a state of unknowing and mystery.  “But about that day and hour, no one knows.”

The Coming of Christ that the first Sunday of Advent concerns itself with is not the birth of Jesus, but the so-called Second Coming.  An unfortunate phrase.  As if there were only two.

There’s all kinds of problems with how these words have been interpreted, a lot of them having to do with people attempting to assign dates and times to the end of history.  I’m not a biblical literalist, but when Jesus said “No one knows the day or the hour,” I take him at his word.  Especially since he said even he doesn’t know.

A bigger problem with how passages like this have been read is that the Christ of the future is imagined as one who represents the very things Jesus spent his whole life trying to undo.  A message of forgiveness, actions of healing, and welcoming the prodigal sons and daughters with open arms – the Jesus of the parables and the Sermon on the Mount – seems to be replaced with a representative of vengeance and a final shutting out of those who don’t qualify.  There’s something wrong with this picture.

Jesus’ favorite name for himself, showing up throughout the gospels, is not Savior, or Son of God, or even Messiah or Christ, but the Son of Man, or, more simply, the Human, the Child of Humanity.  It’s a title he preferred so much that even when he asks his disciples who they think he is, in Mark 8, and Peter answers by saying, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus tells him not to say this to anyone, and, in the very next verse, goes right back to calling himself the Son of Man, the Human One.

It sounds cryptic, but it’s not something Jesus pulled out of thin air.

It’s a title Jesus borrows, samples, from the book of Daniel.  The book of Daniel comes out of the Jews’ experience of living under the control of empire, and the book contains different stories of how to live humanly in the inhuman conditions imposed by empires.  Daniel is a dreamer, and in one of his dreams, in Daniel chapter 7, he sees four different beasts.  The first was like a lion, with eagle’s wings.  The second was like a bear.  The third like a leopard, and the fourth, the most terrifying beast of all, had teeth like iron and devoured everything in its path.  Each of the beasts corresponds with one of the empires the Jews had lived under – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the empire at the time Daniel was completed, the Greeks.

But there’s more to the dream.  It continues and morphs into another kind of dream.  Not just the kind of dream you have when you sleep, or day dream, but the kind of dream Martin Luther King spoke of when he said, “I have a dream.”  Daniel’s dream full of the symbolism of past traumas – the wild beasts of empire – now becomes a dream, a vision, of what can be, a realm in which things are set right, in which justice is enacted.  The dreamer sees a future infused with redemption.

Daniel’s dream continues like this: Power is taken away from the beasts, and then a fifth figure appears.  “I saw one like a son of man, like a human being, coming with clouds of heaven.  To him was given dominion and authority.”  In Daniel’s dream it is not the beasts of empire who have the final say or power in history, but it is the human being.  And just as each beast was an image of a collective realty, the human being is an image of a collective humanity – a humanity who lives humanely.

Daniel’s dream is not unlike that of Isaiah’s, who saw a day in which people will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.  In the days to come, the raw materials that humanity has manipulated into instruments of war will be whipped into shape in a redeeming way, refashioned as instruments for producing and harvesting food – swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.   Tanks get turned into combines, guns become spades, razor wire fencing gets remade into tomato cages.  Soldiers become gardeners, and the energies and resources and human capital that were dedicated to war making are redirected to community building.  “Nations shall learn war no more.”

It’s a beautiful vision, one much of humanity can affirm as desirable, but when does this happen?  When should we expect it to come?  What will be the signs?  Isaiah’s agenda is not to predict a date, to get stuck in a linear timeframe.  He only says “In days to come.”

When, where, does the Human Being of Daniel show up?

The Son of Man, Human Being, is Jesus’ preferred name for himself.  He is the Human One who comes and teaches us how to be human.  And in Matthew 24, in his final days, he talks about the presence of the Human Being extending beyond his own lifetime.  This section of Matthew is laced with the apocalyptic imagery from Daniel, of the collapse of the old and the breaking in of the new.  Matthew 24:15 even mentions Daniel specifically.

The coming of the Human One, he says, isn’t about days and hours.  If we’re caught up in that kind of linear time, we’re asking the wrong question.  Jesus redirects our attention away from an undetermined future, and back to the present moment.   Jesus says to keep awake.  Keep alert.  We’re going to be going about our daily lives, like in the days of Noah, when people were eating and drinking, marrying, normal every day stuff, shopping, making lists, running errands, but they weren’t awake to this greater reality that was about to happen.  Two people can be side by side, and one gets taken, and one gets left.  Contrary to popular belief, and rapture theology, in this case you don’t want to get taken.  To stick with the metaphor of Noah, being left behind means that you didn’t get swept away by the floods of things that can turn our attention away from the Human One.

The whole point of the gospel is that this “coming” is good news and should not be perceived as a threat.  The “coming” of Christ isn’t held over us as a punishment to watch out for.  The “coming” of Christ, the Advent of Christ is this forgiving presence –  the Human One – self-giving love.  That power which topples empires.  And we’re supposed to live so we don’t miss it, don’t get swept up and flooded out with less important things.  Because apparently this can be missed.  Jesus says, “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Human One is coming at an unexpected hour.”  The thief in the night isn’t coming for your flatscreen TV, he’s coming for you, and this is a good thing.

We live in time such that each hour is, in some way, that unexpected hour.  That time when Christ could burst into our lives in the form of forgiveness that overcomes vengeance, love which overcomes hatred, peace which overcomes anxiety.  In the form of another human being.  Be alert.  Be ready.  Stay awake.

I’m a little late in getting around to it, but about a year ago I figured it was about time I read The Grapes the Wrath, and watch the movie.  And there’s a scene at the end that fits well for some closing thoughts here.

The story goes that Tom Joad has been released from prison, and returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma, only to find that the whole family is about to move to California.  It’s the Depression, and Dust Bowl, apocalyptic times, the properties are being foreclosed on by the banks, and there’s promise of work and good pay further West.  They make the long trek to this promised land type place, only to discover that there’s not near enough work, wages are barely enough to live on, and law enforcement favors the large landowners rather than the masses of laborers looking to take care of their families.

Tom Joad has witnesses all this and gets more and more disaffected with the way things are, drawn into solidarity with the striking workers and impoverished people.  Toward the end of the story he is being hunted by the authorities.  He decides to become a fugitive and tries to sneak out of the camp at night where he is staying with his family, but his mother hears him and asks him what he’s doing.  He tells her he needs to go away, and she fears she’ll never see him again.  She says: “How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?”  It’s a question that sounds similar to that of the disciples: Tell us, how will we know?  What will be the signs of your coming?

Speaking out of the shadows of the night, Tom Joad tells his Ma:  “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

Advent has begun, and the Human Being – a humanity yet to come – is surely on its way into the world – infiltrating our present, our time, pressing in from both the past and future.  Breaking into our here, our place, from everywhere, wherever you can look.  Our task is to stay awake to this great mystery.