Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Unexpected Anointing

The baptism of Sarah Fedaie, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The author of the Gospel According to Mark ends with the story of an unexpected anointing.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body.  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome – say their names with me – Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome – they are the only women disciples of Jesus who are named in Mark’s Gospel.  This means we need to pay attention to them.

They were part of the group of women who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee.  They supported the movement he was organizing, and followed him along with the crowd who had marched with him triumphantly into Jerusalem just a short week ago.  Jesus had chosen the Passover Festival, the annual celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from oppression in Egypt, as the time to occupy the Temple and shut it down.   It was to be his final confrontation with the authorities to protest the sacrificial violence of the Roman Empire and in support of the alternative to empire:  what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Then, it all went wrong.  Jesus was arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and executed by the state with the full-throated support of a mob carefully cultivated by the authorities. Jesus died outside the gates of the city, crucified between two insurrectionists, a punishment reserved for the crime of sedition.  Jesus’ support for the victims of the regime’s greed and violence, his nonviolent advocacy for a new form of community based on justice and dignity, was perceived to be too great a threat to go unaddressed.  Jesus had to die because he resisted empire. 

The disciples – the twelve men in Jesus’ inner circle – betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  The previously supportive crowd turned against him and became a lynch mob.  Perhaps Jesus had failed to meet their expectations of a violent revolution.  At any rate, it was only the women who persisted, witnessing his crucifixion, death, and now burial.  Their coming to the tomb was in its own way an act of resistance.  It was forbidden to provide victims of crucifixion the normal burial rites to honor and remember the dead.  Unjust regimes are in the business of making bodies disappear and obliterating memory.  But the women refused to forget, despite the pain and the risk.  They defied the authorities one last time and brought spices to the tomb to anoint his body. 

In this very act, we see the seeds of an alternative memory of Jesus that contradicts the official record.  The minority report that would become the Gospel According to Mark was born in this refusal to accept business as usual.  But in that moment, I suspect that Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were just trying to find some closure, some relief from the trauma they had suffered.  They came to anoint Jesus. 

Imagine their shock upon discovering that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.  There was no body to anoint.  Even the dignity of burial, the usual rituals of grieving, was denied them.  This was when the crack in their world really came apart.  There was nothing left to hold on to.  They had finally hit the wall.  And in that moment, rather than anointing Jesus, it was they who received an anointing. 

It was an unexpected anointing, and not particularly welcome.  It would have been so much easier if the body had been there.  Then they could have grieved, and raged, and lamented – let all out and let it all go.  They could have moved on, holding their pain and their resentment inside like a tight little ball, said, “Well, at least we tried,” admitted defeat and called it a day.  Sometimes, it seems so much easier to just give up.

But instead of leaving behind a body, Jesus left behind a messenger who said, “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has been raised; he is not here.  He has gone ahead of you back to Galilee; just as he told you.  Tell the other disciples to meet him there.”  When someone tells you not to be afraid, you probably have good reason to be afraid!  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were terrified – and amazed – scared into silence. 

They came for a funeral and received an anointing; commissioned to share the good news that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us.  He isn’t an inspiring memory, a painful loss in the past, but rather the one who opens a way to the future.  But to get there, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome must go back to Galilee, to the place where it all started.   They must go back to the beginning, pick up the pieces, and renew the movement for justice and dignity that Jesus continues to empower through his Resurrection life.  The thought of starting over terrified these women – at first.  They got over it, else we wouldn’t be telling this story.  Scared silent at first, just as the empire hoped, they eventually found their voices.

The Gospel According to Mark refuses to make Resurrection easy.  It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns or Easter bunnies.  It isn’t about skipping down streets of gold hand in hand with Jesus after we die.  It is about being willing to choose life when it would be easier to give up.  Resurrection is about being vulnerable enough to allow who and what we love, and the love of Jesus for us and for all, to empower us to keep on keeping on. 

Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome came close to the pain in their community, the pain in their own hearts, and it brought them to their knees.  But they got up again because the tomb is empty.  There is no future there.  Jesus has gone ahead of us and is calling us to catch up. The Risen Jesus is the triumph of sacrificial love over sacrificial violence, but we aren’t done yet.  There is so much more life and so much more love left to share. 

You would do well to be a little afraid to discover the tomb is empty.  Meeting the risen Jesus is not a get out of jail free card.  It is an anointing to continue the work of love and justice that Jesus was just getting started.  It is more likely to be a go directly to jail card.  I imagine Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome could identify with a story that Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells.

Nadia is the founding pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, a new expression of church in Denver.  She is not your usual pastor – unafraid to sport really cool tattoos and speak, shall we say, in the vernacular.  Content warning for the next part of this sermon!  Anyway, she recalls Andi, a radical young queer woman, raised Unitarian, who started hanging out at All Sinners and Saints.  

One morning Andi called up Nadia and said, “Hey Rev, I need some pastoral care.”  “Sure,” said Nadia, “what’s up?” “I think I’m having a crisis of faith.”  Nadia thought to herself, “Huh, I wonder what a crisis of faith looks like for a Unitarian,” but set a date to meet for coffee.  When they sat down together, Andi said, “I think I’m starting to believe in Jesus.”  Nadia just shook her head, “I am so sorry.  You’re, like, really screwed now.  Sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there is nothing you can do about it.”

That is what encountering the Risen Jesus is like.  It can turn your world upside down.  Just when you thought you were comfortable, or at least willing to accommodate your discomfort; just when you thought you’d arrived, or decided to give up; Jesus hunts your ass down and you have to go back to Galilee and start all over again.  The difference is that held in the loving gaze of the Risen One we know we have everything we need.  No matter how challenging it may be, God’s anointing is sufficient.  God isn’t done with you – or us – yet.  The movement Jesus inaugurated is still in need of recruits.  The work for justice, human dignity, and now care for the planet still goes on.   That is the church’s work, the work of the movement Jesus continues to empower. 

The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not the end of the story, all tied up in a nice bow.  It is just the beginning.  Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome persisted to the end – and beyond – to a new beginning.  They persisted and so must we.  That is what it means to share in the Resurrection life of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Sermon

The sacrifice of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia

The death of Jesus marks the end of religion. 

C.S. Lewis, who was very familiar with the history of religions and their mythologies, seemed to understand this intuitively in his Christian allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia.  In Lewis’ popular fantasy novel, the lion Aslan, the Christ figure, allows himself to be killed in exchange for creation’s release from bondage to the evil powers of this world.  This exchange is proposed by the evil powers based on the ancient law that an innocent victim may die on behalf of others to free them.  This sacrifice is referred to as “deep magic from the dawn of time.” 

The evil powers exploit this arrangement and have no intention of honoring the bargain.  When Aslan is resurrected, this comes as a totally unexpected development.  The evil powers of this world are adept at making victims disappear and hiding the injustice of their deaths.  Aslan’s death and resurrection exposes this “deep magic” or “religion,” if you will, as a lie told to maintain an unjust social order. 

When Aslan rises from the dead, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles to pieces.  It is destroyed and will never be used again.  This is a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” says Aslan.  The Gospel, in Lewis’ view, announces the end of religion: replacing the practice of sacrificial violence with the practice of sacrificial love.  The Gospel is not about the substitution of victims, but rather about their vindication as God’s beloved.  God does not require sacrifice, but rather mercy for the victims of history.[1]
It is hard to see clearly and without illusions the victims of sacrificial violence, the “collateral damage” or “unintended harms” justified as necessary to preserve our social and economic structures.  We hide them behind ritual sacrifices and theological mystifications – “deep magic” such as theories of “market efficiency” or of “just war” that legitimate the death of innocent victims.

How does this deep magic of sacrificial violence work?  It goes back at least to the foundation of human culture.   In his studies of comparative religion and anthropology, René Girard argued that social life in its origins is marked by rivalry and violence:  think of the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel’s rivalry ending with Cain murdering Abel.[2]  This leads to escalating cycles of violence:  the original sin of human culture.  “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence,” we are told at the beginning of the story of Noah.[3] 

Girard notes that such violence almost undoes human culture before it can even get started, and the ability to break this vicious cycle is considered miraculous.  When the cycle of violence threatens to destroy a community, spontaneous and irrational mob violence directed against a particular individual or group erupts.  The identified victim serves to unite the community.  They are scapegoated, accused of terrible crimes, and lynched; restoring peace as the sacrifice “clears the air.”  Paradoxically, the scapegoat comes to be regarded as the source of unity, and becomes a god.  This is the root of religious myths and rituals of sacrifice, which obscure the violence at the origin and center of human culture. 

The prescription for treating unchecked cycles of rivalry and violence is the reduction of divisions within the community to just one division between a common victim or minority group and everyone else.  Those who are weak and marginal, isolated or foreign, become good candidates for sacrifice.   The innocence of the victims is forgotten in the quest for unity and order.  It is obscured through myth and ritual, even though the cure is only temporary and the need for new victims is insatiable.[4] 

If you think this description of human culture is an exaggeration, consider the dynamic of the class “fairy,” the child identified as the victim of group teasing and harassment who haunts our school hallways and playgrounds.  The specter of the class fairy forces us to sort out the social pecking order and conform to the demands of social acceptance that we crave to feel secure.   This dynamic gets replicated in different ways and in different social structures up to and including national security policy.  How do we know who we are without an enemy against whom we can define ourselves?   

Perhaps a striking example is the life, death and memorialization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  King was the exemplary innocent victim, representative of a demonized minority group blamed during his lifetime for disrupting social order and sewing division in our country.  Only after his murder was he idealized as the miraculous source of unity created through his sacrifice as a scapegoat for white racism.  His apotheosis was finally realized in the national holiday and monument which honor him as a kind of god; a mythology of King that obscures the threat he posed to an unjust order and downplays the racism that maintains that order through ever renewed acts of sacrificial violence, right up to the murder of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot dead by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento last week.[5]

The whole trajectory of the biblical narrative is an attempt to help us see through the mythology of sacrificial violence and the mechanism of scapegoating innocent victims that underlies it.  Such scapegoating is perhaps the deepest structure of human sin, foundational to human culture, the “deep magic from the dawn of time.”  As Mark Heim points out,

The revelatory quality of the New Testament on this point is thoroughly continuous with Hebrew scripture, in which an awareness and rejection of the sacrificial mechanism is already set forth.  The averted sacrifice of Isaac; the prophet’s condemnation of scapegoating the widow, the weak or the foreigner; the story of Job; the Psalm’s obsession with the innocent victim of collective violence; the passion narrative’s transparent account of Jesus’ death; the confessions of a new community that grew up in solidarity around the risen crucified victim:  all these follow a constant thread.  They reveal the “victimage” mechanisms at the joint root of religion and society – and they reject those mechanisms.  Jesus is the victim who will not stay sacrificed, whose memory is not erased and who forces us to confront the reality of scapegoating.[6]

In the Passion Narratives we see a profound demythologization of sacrificial violence.  The story is now told from the perspective of the victim, whose innocence is understood clearly.  We know that his execution by the state, cleverly orchestrated through the manipulation of mob violence, was unjust.  The resurrection of Jesus makes his death a kind of failed sacrifice.  When a mythical sacrifice succeeds, it brings peace, obscures the innocence of the victim and the violence of the perpetrator, and prepares the way for the next scapegoat.  When it fails, either because the community is not unanimous in its collective violence or the victim is not sufficiently demonized, it just becomes another killing in the tit-for-tat of retaliatory violence, and the cycle escalates. 

With Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have an entirely new and unexpected development.  People do not unanimously close ranks over Jesus’ grave in celebration of a faux peace, nor is there a spree of revenge killings escalating the violence another notch in response.   Instead, a novel community arises dedicated both to the innocent victim vindicated by God in the resurrection, and to a new life inspired by Jesus’ sacrificial love that puts an end to sacrificial violence.  The identity of this new community is not formed in solidarity against victims, but rather in solidarity with the crucified one.[7] 

Against the deep magic of sacrificial violence, our only hope is the deeper magic of sacrificial love.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus enacted and his disciples commemorated the death of religion.  The making of new sacrificial victims can no longer be justified.  Jesus died in our place because it is literally true that any of us could, in the right circumstances, be the scapegoat.  In so doing, he became the victim of sacrificial violence to subvert it from within.  Through him, the power of God is at work to unmask the lie that only violence brings peace, and to free us from our bondage to this lie.  This is what it means to be set free from sin and death:  to no longer receive our identity from the system of sacrificial violence in any of it manifestations.  The Risen Jesus is now the source of our identity and security, the innocent victim who comes to us, not to avenge himself, but to say, “Peace be with you.”  Through him we are set free to create genuine, lasting community rooted in forgiveness, repentance, creativity and joyful service. 

Whenever we gather at the table for Holy Communion, we are reminded of Jesus’ bloody death.  We recall a real sacrifice and celebrate a substitutionary atonement.  But unlike the mythic victims who became sacred models of an ever-repeating pattern of creating unity through sacrificial violence, Jesus offered his very real body and blood as a new pattern of living in which bread and wine are substituted continually for victims – substituted for any, and all, of us – so that we may find our unity in that which gives life rather than death.[8] 

What makes this Friday good is the celebration of the end of religion, and its replacement with the deeper magic of deathless love.

[1] S. Mark Heim, “Visible victim:  Christ’s death to end sacrifice,” The Christian Century (March 14, 2001), p. 21.  I’m indebted to Heim for what follows as well.
[2] Genesis 4:1-24.
[3] Genesis 6:11.
[4] Heim, p. 20.
[5] Paige St. John and Nicole Santa Cruz, “As outrage over Stephon Clark's killing grows, his grandmother asks: 'Why? Why?'” Los Angeles Times (March 27, 2018).
[6] Heim, p. 22.
[7] Heim, p. 22.
[8] Heim, p. 23.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Palm Sunday: Resisting Empire

Resisting Empire 2017
 In preparation for Easter, I tell the Godly Play “Faces of Easter” stories during our preschool chapel services.  Over seven weeks, these stories tell about the life of Jesus beginning with his birth.  The final part of the story covers Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Inevitably when I tell this story, one of the children will ask, “But why did he have to die?”   Four year-olds know how to cut to the heart of the matter.  During this Holy Week, we, too, will grapple with the question of the meaning of Jesus’ death.  It is not an easy question to answer, which is why we return to it year after year.

I want to share with you how I am coming to think about the answer, and I want to begin by putting the question slightly differently; “Why was Jesus willing to die?” not “Why did he have to die?” Jesus didn’t want to die but he was willing to die.   Mark’s Gospel is clear about that.  Jesus anticipates his arrest and death with great anxiety and grief.  He prays for deliverance, and for the willingness to discern and accept God’s will for him.  Jesus had a choice.

The choice wasn’t about how he would die.  It was about how he would live.  And he prayed to live in such a way that fear of death would not constrain his freedom and courage to love as God loves.  God’s will for Jesus was the same as it is for us; not that we should die, but that we should live in the power of love. 

There is a strand of reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death in Christian tradition which understands it as a kind of metaphysical transaction between God the Father and God the Son:  a sacrifice to restore God’s honor, which had been dishonored by human sin.  This dishonor was so great that it could only be restored by the sacrifice of the divine-human Jesus.  God’s love for us is demonstrated by sending His Son to bear the punishment we deserve.  Some people may find this to be a helpful analogy, but I don’t. 

Demanding the death of an innocent victim is hardly a morally inspiring image of divine benevolence.  It makes God complicit in human injustice and violence.  In fact, it all too readily serves to justify our own sacrifice of victims as the price of conventional morality; or, at least, conventional economics, which is the same thing under empire, then and now.   We call it “collateral damage.” 

To the contrary, what makes Jesus’ death meaningful to me is his refusal to accept the human sacrifice required by empire.   It is Jesus’ life that gives meaning to his death.  How was that life lived?  In resistance to the forces of empire that exploited the poor, discarded the vulnerable, and killed those who questioned the system of sacrificial violence.  Jesus created a movement building community around sharing resources, offering free healing and open table fellowship to everyone.  He invited people to embrace God’s covenant with Israel, the creation of a form of humane culture built on justice and mercy that is an alternative to empire.  He called it the kingdom of God, and announced that it was being realized here and now. 

This alternative culture was a threat to the Jewish aristocracy, as well as to the Roman imperial authorities with whom they collaborated.  That threat was crystallized by Jesus’ protest march into Jerusalem, riding on a humble donkey in contrast to the Roman governor arriving in the City in splendor.  Jesus escalated the protest by nonviolently occupying the Temple precincts, and announcing of the end of the sacrificial system that the Temple symbolized as the center of power in Israel:  part sacred cult, part central bank, and entirely sold out to the Roman empire.  Such a protest, at a time when the City was filled with millions of pilgrims to celebrate a festival marking Israel’s liberation from the empire of Egypt, was just too much for the authorities.  We know how that ended.

The short answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” is “Because he resisted empire.”  But the more important question is “Why was he willing to die?” and the answer, I believe, is that Jesus chose to live in solidarity with the victims of empire because he loved them as God loves them.  Jesus replaced sacrificial violence with sacrificial love.  That is what gives his life and his death and his resurrection, meaning.  It shows us what God is like, and what it means to be human in God’s image. 

The first hearers of Mark’s Gospel were Jewish Christians who had lived through the terrible sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple during the Jewish uprising against Rome, some forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus.   As “Christians,” other Jews rejected them as heretics, and as “Jews” the Romans targeted them as insurrectionists.   They understood persecution and suffering.  They also could identify with the disciples who deserted Jesus; not all of them had been brave either.  Mark recalls the story of Jesus to embolden them in their resistance to empire, and to assure them of forgiveness when they fail to do so.   That is why we tell the story today.  We remember his death so that we might share in his resurrection:  the continuation of the imperfect movement Jesus inspires to build an alternative to empire. 

Robin Meyers writes,

The church of Jesus Christ today rides the horse of empire, but needs to be thrown off.  We are altogether too comfortable in this saddle of death.  Illusions about being a ‘Christian nation’ must also be undone.  Evangelicals are correct . . . when they say that the cross is the center of our faith, but not as the mark of a cosmic bargain – rather of cosmic resistance, the ultimate symbol of the lengths to which love will go to save us from ourselves.  (Spiritual Defiance: Building A Beloved Community of Resistance, p. 85)

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How have you been loved?

Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal"

How have you been loved?

A disciple very much wanted to renounce the world, but he claimed that his family loved him too much to let him go.  “Love?” said his Guru.  “That isn’t love at all.  Listen . . .”  And he revealed a yogic secret to the disciple whereby he could simulate the state of death.  The next day the man was dead to all outward appearances and the house rang with the cries and wailing of his family.

The Guru then showed up and told the weeping family that he had the power to bring the man back to life if someone could be found to die in his place.  Any volunteers?  To the “corpse’s” astonishment, every member of the family began to bring forth reasons why it was necessary to keep their own lives.  His wife summed up the sentiments of all with the words, “There’s really no need for anyone to take his place.  We’ll manage without him.[1]  Sometimes, we confuse being needed with being loved.  But we don’t love people because we need them.  Love is not transactional.  It is sacrificial.

“Do you think you will be able to give my daughter what she wants?” a man asked his daughter’s boyfriend.  “I certainly do, sir,” he replied.  “She says that all she wants is me.”  No one would call it love if what she wanted was money.  Why is it love if what she wants is you?[2]  Sometimes, we confuse being desired with being loved.  Love is not a feeling of attraction.  It is an act of the will.  

Love is the decision to seek the good of the beloved, regardless of whether, or not, they are “desirable” or “deserve” it.  How have you been loved?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nicodemus how God loves us.  “God loved the world in this way:  God gave the only begotten son, in order that anyone who trusts in him would not be destroyed but have life in the age to come.  For God did not send the son into the world in order that he might judge the world, but in order that the world might be rescued through him.”[3]  I’ve followed Mark Davis’ more literal translation to highlight a few points.

First, Jesus is telling us the way in which God demonstrated love for the world, not how much God loved us.  It is a qualitative, not a quantitative description.  This may seem like a fine point, but it underscores that love is not a feeling but rather an action.  It isn’t that “feeling” loving is a bad thing, but that it isn’t enough.  How is love enacted?  That is what Jesus is getting at here. 

Secondly, Jesus is telling us that God’s love is demonstrated by giving his son.  We know from the reference earlier to the son being lifted up, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that the “giving” of the son refers to Jesus’ impending death on the cross.  Here we see the sacrificial nature of love: it is about giving ourselves away.

In this discourse, the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial love is expressed by means of the de-mythologizing of two Old Testament stories.  In the Book of Numbers, we are told that God sent serpents to kill the people of Israel when they complained about the manna – the bread of life – that God provided to sustain them.  The people repented, and God instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up; when the people saw it, they were healed.[4] 

Jesus death – his being lifted up on the cross – is like the bronze serpent; it is the sign of our refusal of God’s gracious provision, which leads to injustice and death.  The de-mythologizing move here is that it is God’s son who suffers as an innocent victim because of the injustice of human culture; rather than the people who suffer because God punishes them.   It is human rivalry, envy and violence that create injustice and death: not God. 

This is reinforced by an allusion to another Old Testament story:  Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in obedience to God’s command.  Recall that in that story, God provides a ram at the last minute and Isaac is spared.[5]  Jesus tells us that instead of God demanding a sacrifice from us, God’s love is demonstrated by offering a sacrifice for us.  God gives us a son, rather than taking one from us.  It is we who require sacrificial love, not God.

Finally, Jesus emphasizes that this self-giving movement is not about judgment, but rather about healing.  Jesus gives himself away so that we might have life in the age to come; so that we might enjoy the good life that God desires for us.  Love seeks the good for the beloved. 

Throughout this discourse, Jesus makes it clear that God is in the saving business, not the judging and punishing business.  We judge ourselves and experience the consequences of our judgment when we refuse to trust God and refuse to live in the light that would expose our complicity with evil.  Evil must be exposed so that it can be healed.  We must see the serpent – acknowledge the consequences of our refusal to love and trust God – to be healed.

Jesus’ death on the cross is the world’s judgment upon itself, the revelation of our culture’s injustice and violence.  It is the revelation of our profound need for healing.  God’s rescue operation begins with Jesus’ act of solidarity with the victims of history, so that we can no longer deny the reality of evil in the world.   It is the act of sacrificial love par excellence that wakes us up to our need for this healing love.

In Jewish tradition, there is a distinction made between the current age – marked by injustice, oppression and violence – and the life of God’s age to come – marked by justice, freedom and peace.  What we translate as “eternal life” in the New Testament refers not to life in another world, in heaven, but rather to redeemed life in this world.   Jesus comes, not to judge us, but to rescue us from the power of evil so that might live in this age to come. 

St. Paul speaks of this when he writes that, in spite of our complicity with evil, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”[6]

This is the language of the mystics.  We participate in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as we move from the death-dealing life of the present age to the life of the age to come that God promises:  God’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace.  When we recognize our need for healing and place our trust in Jesus’ sacrificial love, we are raised up with Jesus into a life of self-giving service for the sake of the healing of the world.  We participate together in the creation of the life of the world to come. 

There is a story told about the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes.  Diogenes was standing at a street corner one day, laughing like a man out of his mind.  “What are you laughing about?” a passerby asked.  “Do you see that stone in the middle of the street?  Since I got here this morning, ten people have stumbled on it and cursed it.  But not one of them took the trouble to remove it so others wouldn’t stumble.”[7]

Seeing the serpent - acknowledging the crucifixion of the innocent – isn’t enough.  Neither is merely cursing the evil we deplore.  We must decide to remove the stumbling blocks that cause suffering.  That is how we participate in the life of God’s age to come.  Jesus invites us to “do the truth” – to expose evil, beginning with ourselves, so that it may be healed by the light of God’s love.[8] 

We begin, always, with the question, “How have you been loved?”  But realizing how we have been loved by God, we must ask also, “How have you loved?”

How have you loved?

[1] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 148.
[2] De Mello, p. 150-151.
[3] Loosely following D. Mark Davis’ translation of John 3:16-17 at
[4] Numbers 21:4-9.
[5] Genesis 22:1-19.
[6] Ephesians 2:4-7.
[7] De Mello, p. 161.
[8] John 3:19-20.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Being Good Doesn't Save Us

protestors block gate at ICE facility in San Francisco

Being “good” doesn’t save us.   It is the joy of falling in love that saves us.  Jesus didn’t come to make us good people.  He came to share his joy with us.   Too often, we settle for being merely “good;” when, in fact, conventional morality can be the greatest barrier to love. 

God’s love frees us from sin and the fear of death so that we can live creatively and joyfully.  Obeying the rules because we fear God stifles joy and blocks the flow of divine love that energizes life.  Our willingness to live freely and fully is the surest sign of trust in God.  In the words of Anthony De Mello, “When people are joyful they are always good; whereas the good are seldom joyful.”[1] 

Humans are notorious for following the letter of the law while missing the spirit altogether.  The story is told of a Catholic Bishop who decreed that the priests in his diocese were forbidden to have female housekeepers under the age of 50.  During one of his diocesan visits, the Bishop was shocked to discover a priest who thought he was observing the law by keeping two 25 year-old housekeepers.[2]

Does that mean we should ignore moral rules altogether?  Of course not.  Consider the words God spoke to Moses concerning the people’s covenant obligations toward God and each other.  The initial list of ten commandments recorded in the Book of Exodus are well known to us and rightly considered foundational moral teachings. They invite a transformation of the heart that goes much deeper than checking boxes off a list of do’s and don’ts.

In rabbinic tradition, interpretation of Scripture gives special attention to the first and last items in a series of texts or a list of proscriptions.[3]  Applying this procedure to the Ten Commandments, the interpretive key becomes the first commandment – to have no other god than God – and the tenth – not to covet what belongs to your neighbor.  The embrace of a genuine transcendence that frees us from envious rivalry with our neighbors leads to spiritual transformation. 

When we receive our identity from God’s desire for us, rather than from imitating the desire of our neighbors for what they possess, we experience a spiritual breakthrough in awareness that is much more than moral respectability.   We know ourselves loved by God, and receive the fulfillment of our deepest desire by reciprocating that love and becoming transparent to it in relationship with our neighbors.   We experience a joy that is rooted in something deeper than transient feelings or changing circumstances: including changing moral codes. 

The 1st commandment is expressed elsewhere in the Torah in terms of this love: “Hear, O Israel:  the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”[4]  The 10th commandment also is stated positively in the Torah as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus approvingly quotes these passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus as the summary and greatest of all the commandments.[6]  

Undergirding all the other moral rules is this invitation to imitate God rather than one another; or, at least, to imitate others only to the extent that they are imitating God.  Jesus tell us, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another and I have loved you.”[7]  Morality must be rooted in this passionate desire to love as God loves, and not by fear of punishment.  Such fear only leads to self-righteousness, and a fanatical desire to punish those who break the rules.   The joy of being in love is what makes genuine goodness possible.   

Perhaps ironically, this passionate love will often bring us into conflict with the moral conventions of our culture.  This was certainly Jesus’ experience.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes his first public appearance at a wedding feast in Cana, where he turns water into wine:  specifically, the water used for rites of purification is turned into the wine that makes our hearts glad.  The kingdom of God often is depicted as a wedding feast where we are united with God in love.  The note of joy is hard to miss, overshadowing our preoccupation with moral or ritual purity. 

It is a bit jarring that Jesus moves directly from the wedding in Cana to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he begins to clean house.  Whereas the other Gospel’s place this symbolic action protesting the guardians of conventional morality at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John moves it to the beginning.  Jesus is appalled by the materialism and economic exploitation at the very center of the religious and political life of Israel.  He drives out the cattle and sheep with a makeshift whip of cords, overturns the tables of the currency exchange, and even orders the dove sellers to clear out.  He rejects any attempt to cover over exploitation and injustice with a veneer of religious legitimation. 

Jesus places himself in direct conflict with the sacrificial system of his day, in which moral convention is founded upon structures of sacrifice:  not just of animals, but of women, the poor, the sick, and the alien.  The priests and scribes, the folks buying and selling in the temple, obeyed the law.  They followed the rules.  They were certain that their goodness would save them.  The problem was that there “goodness” was rooted in rivalrous envy and fear, rather than love.  It led to violence and death, rather than joy.    

Too often, the story of the cleansing of the Temple has been used to justify anger and even violence in the service of protecting conventional structures of morality. St. Augustine cited it to justify the torture and killing of schismatics and heretics; reading the text contrary to the previous three hundred years of interpretation, which understood it to be a nonviolent protest.   The Greek text makes it clear that the whips were used to herd the animals; not to punish humans.  There is nothing in the Gospel accounts indicating that Jesus was angry.[8]

It is Jesus’ absolute commitment to love, the joy of the wedding feast, that brings him into conflict with the guardians of conventional morality.  John’s Gospel wants us to understand the meaning of Jesus in terms of this commitment to love that brings us joy, and the risks that we will undertake for the sake of love:  even if it means being “bad” from the perspective of conventional morality.   Rather than legitimate the structures of sacrifice upon which the Temple is built, literally and figuratively, Jesus signifies its end, replacing it with the sacrifice of his body: creative of a new, joyful form of human community based on sacrificial love rather than sacrificial violence.

Hundreds of protestors gathered downtown last Wednesday in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in response to the arrest and detainment of more than 200 undocumented Bay Area immigrants.  I thought about the students at June Jordan High School with whom I met last month, who spoke movingly of the sacrifices their parents made to bring them to this country; risking everything, defying conventional morality, for the sake of the joy of love. 

One of these students, “Jorge,” is a DACA recipient (for now), whose parents are undocumented.  When he became aware of the threat of deportation his parents face, it filled him with great anxiety and sadness.  He felt threatened, outcast and alone.  He bravely attended the protest on Wednesday, accompanied by our sister, Lorena Melgarejo.   When he looked around at the hundreds of people, his eyes widened with inexplicable wonder as he said to her, “They really love us, don’t they?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.[9]  Jesus willingly occupied the place of shame in solidarity with the unloved, for the sake of the joy of sharing God’s love with them.  That is what Jorge’s parents did.  That is what the protestors were doing downtown on Wednesday, and those accompanying detainees at their courtroom appearances inside the building.  When morality stands in the way of love, then let us willingly occupy the space of shame for the sake of the joy that is set before us.  As Anthony De Mello laments, “Most people, alas, have enough religion to hate but not enough to love.”[10]   

Being good doesn’t save us.  The joy of falling in love saves us. 

[1] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 92.
[2] De Mello, p. 172.
[3] The following draws from C.K. Barrett’s discussion of covetousness in his A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (p. 141-145) at 
[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
[5] Leviticus 19:18b. 
[6] Mark 12:29-31; cf. Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28.
[7] John 15:11-12.
[8] See Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15,” Biblical Interpretation, v. 20 (2012), pp. 73-96.
[9] Hebrews 12:1-3.
[10] De Mello, p. 80.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Listen to Your Soul

According to a rabbinic parable,[1] when God was creating the world, God shared a secret with the angels:  human beings will be created in the image of God.  The angels were jealous and outraged.  Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift when they are flawed mortals?  Surely if humans find out their true power they will abuse it.  If humans discover they are created in God’s image, they will learn to surpass us!  So the angels decided to steal God’s image.

Once the divine image was in the angels’ hands, they needed to pick a place to hide it so that humans would never find it.  The held a meeting and brainstormed.  (I imagine they used flipcharts and markers!)  The angel Gabriel suggested that they hide God’s image at the top of the highest mountain peak.  The other angels objected, “One day humans will learn to climb and they will find it there.”  The angel Michael said, “Let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.”  “No,” the other angels chimed in, “humans will find a way to dive to the bottom of the sea and they’ll find it there.”  One by one the angels suggested hiding places, but they were all rejected. 

And then Uriel, the wisest angel of all, stepped forward and said, “I know a place where they will never look for it.”  Then the angels hid the precious holy image of God deep within the human soul.  And to this day God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it; so close, and yet so far away.

The Christian mystics express a similar understanding of the soul as the seat of the image of God in us.  In one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart, wrote that “[T]here is a power in the soul which touches neither time nor flesh, flowing from the spirit, remaining in the spirit, altogether spiritual. In this power, God is ever verdant and flowering in all the joy and all the glory that He is in Himself. There is such heartfelt delight, such inconceivably deep joy as none can fully tell of, for in this power the eternal Father is ever begetting His eternal Son without pause. . .’[2]  According to Eckhart, Christ, who is the image of God, is continually being born in the soul.  

St. John of the Cross tells us that “The center of the soul is God; and, when the soul has attained to [God] according to the whole capacity of its being, which is the strength and virtue of the soul, it will have reached the last and the deep center of the soul, which will be when with all its powers it loves and understands and enjoys God.”[3]  St. John is inviting us to look deep within ourselves, in the center of the soul, to satisfy our desire for God.   Listen to what your soul is saying to you.  Why is that so hard to do?

The rabbinic parable offers some clues.  The angels were “jealous and outraged.”  Human beings were thought unworthy of such a precious gift.  The angels wanted it for themselves.  When we are consumed with guilt and shame, feeling unworthy of this gift, and when we are consumed with envy and rivalry, focused on the regard of others, it is hard to listen to the soul.  We don’t even try to connect with the image of God within us.

In his correspondence with the churches in Corinth, St. Paul writes something astonishing.  He says that we should no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, but rather in terms of the image of God that they bear “in Christ.”  When we are “in Christ,” it is like we are a new person.  The past no longer defines us.  God doesn’t hold our trespasses against us!  In Christ, God is reconciling the world to Himself – including you and me.[4] 

God became human in Christ Jesus – allowing him to become “sin” or separate from God – so that we might become the righteousness of God; so that we might become transparent to the image of God in us.  Our transparency to God is made possible, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, through "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."[5]  In the face of Christ Jesus, we see reflected the image of God in us.  Thou art that!

The question of whether we deserve this gift is moot.  God shares God’s life and love with us because that it what it is God’s nature to do.   The question is, will we listen to what our soul is saying to us?  Will we accept God’s forgiveness and the invitation to become transparent to God’s love?

Fear of being unworthy gets in the way of listening to our soul.   So, too, does preoccupation with what other people think about us.  This is what Jesus is getting at in his teaching about receiving our reward from God in secret, rather than in public from other people.  We get caught up in envy and rivalry, looking to others to reflect our identity and secure our reputation, rather than looking within, in secret.

The word “secret” here is mystikos in Greek, with the connotation of mysterious or even clandestine.  Our identity is hidden in Christ, in the soul.  It is mysterious and can only be discovered as we listen to our soul.  We are like secret agents operating undercover, while people mistake us for someone other than who we are.  The reward we truly desire is communion in God’s life and love, which is always available to us in secret.  We need only stop seeking for ourselves outside of ourselves, and listen to what our soul is saying to us instead. 

The Christian mystics of every generation are emphatic about this: fulfillment comes from receiving our identity from God alone.  “The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of Divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken, the bird cannot fly.”  And yet, paradoxically, St. John of the Cross also says, “Now that I no longer desire all, I have it all without desire. [6]   

When we entrust ourselves entirely to God, we receive more than we can ask for or imagine: the heavenly treasure of communion with God in which all things find their being.  We can relate to people and situations with a sense of freedom, no longer outsourcing our identity and happiness to them.  When we are in touch with our soul, we will know how to deal with circumstances that used to drive us crazy!   This was the source of St. Paul’s serenity in the many difficult circumstances he faced in his life and ministry: “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[7]  This is the language of the mystics.  It is the peace which surpasses understanding, the peace that the world cannot give.  It is the fruit of listening to what your soul is saying.

During the season of Lent, I invite you to consider the following questions, suggested by Rabbi Naomi Levy,[8] to help you reconnect or deepen your connection with your soul.  What has my soul being trying to say to me that I’ve been ignoring?  Set aside some time to listen, free from the usual daily preoccupations and pressures.  Whether it is 10 minutes in the morning or a five-day silent retreat, take all the time you need to listen to your soul.   You may be surprised by what you hear.

What activities and experiences nourish my soul?  Imagine your life as a diet, and examine the balance of soul food vs. junk food that you are consuming.  Don’t spend life eating that which does not satisfy, when you can feast on the bread of heaven. 

What does my soul want to heal that my ego is too stubborn or afraid to acknowledge?  “In the inner stillness where meditation leads, the Spirit secretly anoints the soul and heals our deepest wounds.”  You may not even be conscious of what needs healing, but God is.  Become willing to rest in God’s love and you will be healed at the deepest levels of your being.

What does my soul want me to do?  The temptation is to rush into action out of guilt or pride, rather than taking the time to discern what is mine to do.  Ignore the voices telling you what you should do.  Listen instead to the invitations to love that your soul is whispering.  You may well be responding to those invitations already.  Give yourself credit for it!  Obedience means “to listen.”  Listen to your soul and allow it to guide you.  This is the meaning of holy obedience.   This is the key to the observance of a holy Lent.  Listen.

[1] Naomi Levy, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), p. 31-32.
[2] Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises, trans. and ed. M. O’C. Walshe (Longmead, Shaftsbury, Dorset, Great Britain: Element Books, 1979), 1:74.
[3] St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, st. I, v. 3.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
[5] St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies V, preface.
[6] St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul.
[7] 2 Corinthians 6:10.
[8] Levy, p.32.