How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?
Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…
And the moral of the story is…Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.
The folk tale goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
It was a really nice Instant Pot.
But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.
How could that be possible?
The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.
And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:
I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.
Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.
Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.
I, he told them, am going to build a tower.
So start digging and hammering.
And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
And then he added:
Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.
This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.
God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!
But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.
And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.
Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.
And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?
His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.
But even the rich man knew that this was not true.
And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.
A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:
I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.
And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.
Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.
The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.
For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.
A couple of years back, the author Douglas Abrams traveled to India to record a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The resulting text is called The Book of Joy, and it is an account not just of the week that these two extraordinary people spent together but of their whole lives. They are, both of them now old men, and in The Book of Joy they talk of their lifelong search for meaning and service and love, their encounter with what Tutu would call God and what the Dalai Lama might call by another name. The conversation recorded in the book took place over a week at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And it is full of remarkable and inspiring moments.
The moment that I am thinking about this morning is when the two of them talk about hardship, about suffering, about unfairness. The Dalai Lama has endured years of exile – as a young person he had had to flee his native Tibet in the middle of the night. Like Jesus and so many other refugees before him, he went to another country to escape the violence of empire. But interwoven with this story of injustice, here is the joy from the book’s title. Even as the Dalai Lama talks of fear and unfairness, delight and laughter are never far away – he and Tutu together are this picture of holy mischief. After the Dalai Lama talks for a while, Tutu stops him and says:
You would expect the Dalai Lama to say that he is joyous in spite of adversity. But somehow he is saying that he is joyous because of adversity.
Tutu talks then about Mandela, about his 27 years in prison and the indignities and the hardships that he endured, but how he was able to emerge from prison somehow transformed. He left prison a kinder, more compassionate, more fully human person than when he went in. And so Abrams asks Tutu, How did he do it? How was he able to see his suffering as ennobling rather than rather than embittering. And Tutu corrects him:
He didn’t see it.
The two of them, these two masters late in their lives, are talking about mystery. And like a lot of mysteries, maybe like all mysteries, this one is laden with paradox. Because on the one hand, what they are discussing is rudimentary, almost a formula or a logical progression: they seem to be saying that suffering is necessary, good for us, that it is what makes us fully human. At one point Tutu says that we can almost be thankful for the Chinese invasion of Tibet, because without it the world would likely have been deprived of the Dalai Lama as we know him now.
Except that it’s not simple at all. We all know folks who have not been ennobled or in any way improved by suffering (maybe we’ve all been those folks). We all know folks who, quite to the contrary, have been almost ruined by it. Their cruelty and hostility has been magnified. It is overwhelmingly likely that a child abuser was themselves abused as a child.
And besides, who wants to say thanks for suffering or for unfairness? Who wants to say thanks for the invasion of Tibet or a car accident or for still another school or place of worship getting shot up? One of our family friends suffers from bipolar disorder – what another generation called manic depression – and he is beyond clear that we are not to talk as though there were “something good” about his mental illness, that we are not to talk about a life in which he swings from this fecund but out of control energy and then to thoughts of suicide as though it were a cloud with a silver lining. He is adamant that there is no silver lining, only cloud.
Similarly, among the many alcoholics whom I know and love, I don’t know that I have ever met one who says that there were some pretty good things about rock bottom, about that moment when they realised that booze was running and ruining their lives, that maybe even they understood that they could either stop drinking or die.
(And maybe the very definition of paradox is that we have to reach for the words “and yet” when we speak of it.) And yet so many of my friends who have seen suffering and unfairness have been, somehow, set free by it. To hit rock bottom and come back, to encounter a staggering grief and come back, to suffer injustice and come back: that stuff changes you. You are who you are because of that experience. We are who we are because of our experiences of trauma, of grief, of loss.
Sometimes these are the experiences which, while they could embitter us, instead transform us. Instead, they invite us into compassion, into possibility, into holiness and love.
Today, Jesus talks with his friends about peace. And maybe they are confused to hear him do so. After all, these are folks who are poor, some of them dirt poor, who are eking out a subsistence living as fishers and day labourers. They are folks who live under occupation, who endure the constant fear of the state’s violence. And they are living centuries before contemporary medicine. All of that together means that their lives can end brutally and abruptly at any time. To top it all off, Jesus has told them early and often that the state is about to lynch him.
More than one of them gathered in that upper room may be tempted to say:
Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?
And at some level, they would be right to do so. If what we mean by peace is a more or less stable middle-class existence, the kind of life that many of us in this room lead, then peace for Jesus and his friends is an absurdity, an impossibility.
But maybe the peace of God is something other than that. Perhaps this is what the hymn is trying to get at when it says that The peace of God, it is no peace. Much as Christian hope is something harder and better than optimism – the resurrection doesn’t say that there is no death, it says that death is real and awful and that God is bigger than death. Much as joy is something harder and better than happiness – if you have ever been up in the middle of the night caring for a baby or for an older person whom you love and whose health is failing, you probably didn’t know much happiness in that moment, but you may have known joy. So is the Peace of God something harder and better than stability.
There is a reason that, come the end of the service, the blessing says:
The Peace of God which…
What does it do?
Which passes all understanding.
God’s peace passes all understanding. God’s peace isn’t easy. But it is good. It is in that peace that we may find that we are following Jesus.
For the past several weeks, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – has told us stories of resurrection. Beginning today, it returns us to the time before Jesus’ death: to the upper room, to the Last Supper, to what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which he tells his disciples what his work means, what his life means, what is coming next. With this return to the time before the great change, it is as though the lectionary, just like the disciples some 2000 years before, is looking back into its memory and saying, Now that we have seen the cross, now that we have seen the empty tomb, what do Jesus’ words and actions mean? How are they different in light of what we have experienced?
Jesus’ words today are prefaced by a brief and vital detail, by words that, if this were a play about the last supper, we would call a stage direction:
When Judas had gone out…
And drawing on the work of a scholar by the name of Frederick Niedner, I want to suggest that this preamble, this information about the departure of Judas, is our key to understanding what Jesus says next. In particular, these words are the key to understanding Jesus’ new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said to them, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The Gospels tell us that, as Judas walks out the door, Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. He knows that Judas is going to betray him. Maybe his other friends, the other disciples, guess what is going on as well. And so a possible a way of reading Jesus’ subsequent commandment is to say, You need to love one another. Don’t be like that guy, Judas, who is totally failing at the whole loving thing.
And maybe that’s right. There is a long and well-attested reading of the Bible in which Judas is the villain of this tale, the cautionary example, the guy whom we are permitted to loathe. I had a colleague in the theatre biz who toured for a while with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And he said that, come the moment when Judas hanged himself, there were audiences who cheered.
But there is actually nothing in the Bible that insists on that reading, that insists on Judas as the icon of contemptible evil and, therefore, as the one whom we may safely hate. Indeed, there are scholars who make the case that Judas is really not so different than Peter or the other disciples. Come the moment of the cross, come the moment when empire’s violence descends on them, 100% of the disciples fail Jesus. (Well, actually, that’s not true. 100% of the male disciples fail Jesus, running away, preferring their own safety over fidelity to their Lord. The women stay with Jesus to the very end.)
What if hating Judas gets Jesus’ words totally backwards? What if Jesus, as Judas walks out the door to betray him, is saying to his disciples: I know you want to hate Judas right now. I can understand that. But I’m giving you a new commandment, you need to love one another – including Judas – as I have loved you.
Maybe that sounds like a stretch. If it does, stay with me. Because I’d like to us to notice Jesus’ new commandment. What he says to his disciples, what he says to us, is a change, a variation upon, an expansion or magnification upon the golden rule. The new commandment is not Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nor is it Love your neighbours as you love yourself..
Now, those are a good commandments. It is good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Except what if the way that you want to be treated isn’t the way that another wants to be treated? If I love spicy food – and forgive me if this is a silly example – and my neighbour can’t so much as look at a jalapeno without starting to weep, then treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated by preparing a flaming hot dish would actually be kind of mean. There’s lots more examples, and lots more serious examples, of ways in which treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated would neither be loving nor kind.
But what about loving others as you love yourself? That might be a better commandment. Any time that we are talking about love, we are talking about God. As our Presiding Bishop rightly never tires of saying, the Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. But as several of my friends and acquaintances were saying recently in a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation on Facebook, what if you are in a season of your life when you don’t especially love yourself? Are you morally required, required by Jesus even, to share your hurt with the world, maybe even to have contempt for neighbour as you have contempt for yourself? Clearly, there are people in the world who are doing that very thing – who are projecting their misery and anger outwards. We have all been those people at one time or another. We don’t need to look further than the news to see more of them.
And maybe it is because of these problems that Jesus, on the night before his betrayal, gives us this new commandment. Jesus says:
Love one another, not as you love yourselves, but as I have loved you.
We are to love one another as Jesus loves us.
As Judas walks out the door, that raises a few questions. The first one goes something like this:
Whom does Jesus hate? Whom does Jesus exclude? Of whom, as he hangs dying on the cross, does Jesus say, Father, do not forgive them?
The second question goes like this: When Judas goes out into the darkness, do any of his friends follow him, do any of them search for him? Does anyone miss their friend? What about later, after Judas brings the soldiers to Gethsemane? Does anyone look for him them, try to reach him with God’s love, a love that extends even into his shame, his anger, what Niedner calls his rapidly deepening hell?
And what about the Judases in our own lives? The people who have betrayed us, who have hurt us profoundly? Dare we go looking for them? Dare we trust the difficult, beautiful news that the love of God extends to them as well? And – maybe this is still harder – what about the times when we are Judas to another, when what we have doneor left undone has left another feeling profoundly betrayed? Will we allow the possibility that they will follow us into the darkness?
Dare we accept this new commandment? Dare we abandon the comfort of having a villain who is outside of our love? Dare we to say yes to being part of the staggering love of Jesus?
The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.
First, seeing and being seen.
My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.
I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.
Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.
Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.
This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.
Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.
Second, being named.
Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.
If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.
In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.
In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.
But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.
And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.
Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.
Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.
It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.
So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.
Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.
Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.
Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)
And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.
Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.
The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.
What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:
Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.
This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.
We live in the time after the resurrection. And given that, here is the question with which we are confronted. Given the staggering mystery of the empty tomb, what should we do? How should we live? What does resurrection mean?
These questions are as old as the Christian movement.
We can imagine the apostles asking this question. After encountering resurrection, after living the strange, wonderful miracle that was the resurrected Jesus for fifty days, after being part of this holy party that waited on the far side of the cross, they say:
What now? What does everything that just happened mean?
Well, part of the answer to that question is recorded in the Book of Acts, a book that we might call What the Apostles Did Next or, maybe, How They Made Sense of the Resurrection. Part of it is recorded in a collection of letters, some of which are bound into the Bible. Part of it is recorded in ancient church documents: beautiful, searching texts like the one that we call the Didache, that tell us what it was like be part of the young church.
And part of the answer is recorded in this very service and in the three days that came before it.
The first Christians knew that the resurrection had changed everything. Now, they didn’t understand the resurrection, any more than you or I can understand the resurrection. To stand before the empty tomb is have an encounter that bends the very rules of life, of reality. But they knew that it made everything different. Resurrection (and forgive me if this is a flippant analogy, I don’t mean it to be), is like a twist ending in a story or in a movie. When you encounter it you want to go back and read everything or watch everything again to see the clues that you missed before, to see what they might mean in light of what you now know.
Jesus’ life and his death are different when you understand that resurrection is coming. Creation itself is different when you understand that resurrection is coming.
And so, over the three days that end Lent plus this, the anniversary of the day of the resurrection, the day of Easter, they crafted a series of practices and symbols that told the story of, well, everything. It was as though they wanted to cram absolutely all that there was and all that there ever has been and maybe all that there ever will be into church.
Maundy Thursday, where we remember and embody Jesus washing the feet of his friends and establishing the Eucharist, the holy meal that we will share together in a few minutes. Good Friday, where we journey with Jesus to the cross and watch helplessly and hopelessly as he suffers and the life bleeds out of him. The Easter Vigil, where we tell one story after another after another from scripture (way back when, that service lasted all night long, so that the worshippers would have literally journeyed from darkness and into light, so that the Vigil and today’s service would’ve been the same thing). And then today, where we hold this celebration, where declare that God has broken the very bonds of death.
The Vigil – the old beginning of this service – begins with the very first reading that there is in scripture, with the part of the Bible that says in the beginning.
One of the big questions that the first Christians wrestled with back then and that those of us who do our imperfect best to follow Jesus are wrestling with still goes something like this: When God became human and lived with us and told us stories and healed us and then died and then proved to bigger than death, did God do that because we humanity was terrible, because we had made so many, selfish mistakes, because we had spectacularly screwed up the world, because we were such awful sinners?
Or was there another reason?
The first possibility is maybe the one that we are the most familiar with. This is the possibility that God, like a disappointed Dad getting up from the TV to deal with the yelling in the living room, God had to come to earth because we were kind of awful. In that reading, the first two humans introduced this thing called original sin into the world. (“Original sin,” by the way, is a phrase that appears exactly nowhere in scripture.) Ever since the first humans ate from the wrong tree and original sin got introduced, humanity has gotten worse and worse, running up a bigger and bigger tab of sinful debt with God, until the debt was so bad that humanity no longer had the capacity to pay it.
And because the debt had to be paid, because someone had to die, and die horribly, for all of our sinning, God sent God’s only son to suffer and suffer and suffer and finally die on our behalf.
And that’s an okay understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I guess.
With the lone problem that it makes God into a psychopath.
Why in the world would God require that his only son be tortured to death? And if God did require that, why in the world would we worship that God? Wouldn’t we have a moral duty to refuse to worship such a God?
Thanks be to God, we’re not stuck with that explanation. Because for someone like the wonderful Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, the Incarnation was not an in-flight correction but, rather, was God’s plan from the very beginning. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God digs out God’s paintbrush and chisel and creates this world of wonder and beauty. God says that it is good. Some theologians reckon that we should not speak of Original Sin but of Original Blessing.
And God decides that God will neither watch what God had created passively from a distance, and nor will God operate reality like a puppeteer pulling on the strings of a marionette. Rather, God will participate in reality, with all of the grief and the joy that comes of being alive.
God will walk the earth.
If that’s right, then the cross isn’t something that God wanted or needed. Rather, it was something that we in our fearfulness and our anger and our violence did to God. Jesus, as Marcus Borg would put it, did not die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world. But here’s the amazing thing: God figured out how to turn even the cross, even the worst that humanity could come up with into something wonderful and something freeing. And even more than that – and this is a part of the story so beautiful that it puts you on your knees – God accepted that very worst thing that we could do. And God kept on loving us anyway.
There are lots of stories where the hero comes back from the dead at the end. Go see a Marvel movie. So that part of the story is maybe not so different. But there is a part of the Gospel that is entirely different. Because what does the hero say when they crawl out of the rubble?
The villain is going to pay.
That is what we would expect from Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus refuses to return our violence or our hatred to us. The resurrection is all about shared meals, shared possibility, shared loved.
We are people who live after the resurrection. And we have this ancient question: What now? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have seen the staggering goodness of God? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have participated in resurrection?
There are moments in our lives that are more than one thing at the same time. These are the moments that are full of big feelings, intense feelings – and they are the moments in which we are surprised to realise that two feelings that we maybe think of as opposites are coexisting in the same place. To my mind, the quintessential early-life example of this mixing is when you wipe out on your bike or fall out of a tree and you find yourself moving with this easy fluidity between crying hard and laughing hard. Even as your skinned knee sings with pain and maybe with the embarrassment of having taken a huge tumble in front of an audience, another part of you is laughing at the absurdity of your predicament, of having just done a real-life pratfall.
As life moves on, here is the last day of summer camp, an occasion when you are full of joy at new friends and new experiences and newly found independence (I just had five days in a row without Mom or Dad!) and full as well of this wistful sadness that it is all at an end. When I was un the theatre business, the end of every show hung out in this same strange and blurred territory, so that we celebrated what we had just accomplished (it’s a lot of work to put on a play) even as we mourned that it was over. (It was our own John Hammond introduced me to the idea of having an apprenticeship with grief. A lot of my own apprenticeship has happened on and around stages.)
How many other examples can we come up with? Here is the day you leave for college, full of anticipation as well as of sorrow at leaving your home. Here is the day that you are present for a birth or that you give birth, and right beside the wonder is an awareness of death. Here is the day of a marriage, the day when you retire, the day when you celebrate a milestone birthday, the day when you mark the anniversary of everything changing.
To call our feelings mixed in these moments is not strong enough language. The experience in these moments is something more like two planetary bodies, both of which have a huge gravitational pull, coming near one another and bending and sculpting one another.
Grief and jubilation together, shaped by one another.
In many ways, this Sunday is one of the strangest in the church year. This is not Palm Sunday. This is not Passion Sunday. This is Palm and Passion Sunday. And maybe that is a mistake by the architects of the church year. Are we cheering for Jesus, waving our palms in triumph, as he rides into Jerusalem? Or are we on a hill outside of the city, standing gutted with grief before the cross?
But maybe this isn’t a mistake at all. Maybe this contradiction names something real in our own lives, real in the lives of Jesus and his followers.
Jesus and his friends have made this journey to Jerusalem and Jesus has told them early and often how it is going to end, that it is going to end with him dying on the cross. And they have tried their very best to talk him out of it. Peter has taken him aside and said Jesus, you have to stop talking like that. You have to quit talking about dying. But Jesus would have none of it. Get behind me, Satan, he told his best friend.
And so what is the triumphal entry like for those who have been with Jesus through it all, those who have been with him since the beginning, who have heard Jesus’ persistent warnings? All around the disciples on the street is this joyful, subversive parade. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom, a scene in which a defeated and occupied people claim, at least for a moment, their dignity and their agency, a scene in which they declare that another world is possible, one in which they do not live underneath the boots of Roman soldiers. And at the very same time inside of the disciples, there is this anticipatory grief, this knowledge that if Jesus is right about what’s coming next – and Jesus has not been wrong about much – then at the end of the parade route there is a soldier waiting with a post and a beam and a hammer and a handful of nails.
Although maybe it is not just the disciples who feel this way. Maybe a bunch of the people waving palms and shouting in triumph feel the same way too. Because they know what the Romans are like. They know how brutal they are. And even as this celebration, this protest, continues, they are thinking to themselves:
There’s going to be hell to pay for this.
And maybe some of them, like Judas, have an even more ambiguous and troubled relationship with Jesus than that. Because it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the people who are on the streets cheering today will, in less than a week, be outside of Pilate’s headquarters shouting, Crucify him!
I think it’s Nadia Bolz-Weber who said that, in Jerusalem, it isn’t a long journey from Hail him! to Nail him!
This is the first Palm Sunday that I have celebrated since my fellow pilgrims and I went to the Holy Land last year. We were there for Palm Sunday. Do you know how you sometimes build something up in your mind, maybe a movie, maybe a trip, maybe a milestone day of your life like graduation or getting a driver’s license or the first day at a new job, you reckon that it’s going to be amazing or life changing, and then it’s a let down when the day happens? The day can’t actually live up to your imagination. Prior to going to the Holy Land, I reckoned that marching in the Palm Sunday procession would be amazing.
And you know what? It was even more amazing than I expected.
The experience was a sacrament, an outward and visible of faith, of my faith and the faith of so many others. Thousands of us marched into the holy city, following the path that Jesus walked. It was a celebration, a kind of carnival or parade. We sang these high-energy, celebratory hymns in Arabic. The head singer or cantor led us by singing into this squawky little speaker mounted on a stick. I didn’t understand the words, but I joined in when we called out the name, Hosanna!Hosanna!
Hosanna being a name of adoration, an ancient word that means something like Save us, we pray.
And at the same time, in the midst of the celebration, were the soldiers. Standing on walls and peering down on us, marching through our midst, their machine guns at the ready, their heavy body armour moving in the sun. We complain, sometimes, about our country. And maybe we have reason for doing so. But here in the States we enjoy a really vigorous expectation of freedom of expression. In that procession into the city, no sooner did a Palestinian flag appear than the soldiers were wading into the crowd to take it away, no sooner did a young man lose his temper and begin to yell at the soldiers than he was in handcuffs.
It is close to two thousand later. And still there are the soldiers and still there are the people singing Jesus’ name and marching for freedom. All of it together, on this day: joy and sorrow, jubilation and grief, triumph and loss, as we march into the holy city and towards the cross.
When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.
But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.
The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.
And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.
All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.
He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.
Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.
And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.
Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.
The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.
I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.
Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.
We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.
Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.
That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.
That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.
The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.
And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.
The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.
Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.
And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.
I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.
But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?
As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.
Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame down.
Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.
There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.
But notice a few things.
First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said.
100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poorbut woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.
All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.
Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.
And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.
And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?
My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?
Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:
After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.
No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.
Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.
In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.
That’s not a bad way of encountering life.
The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.
I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)
One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:
Oh no, I was no good.
My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.
Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?
I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:
If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.
Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:
You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.
But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”
you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible: Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.
Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.
And then God says:
Now I have put my words in your mouth.
And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)
I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:
Thy will be done.
One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.
A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?
And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:
I was afraid.
I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.
For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.
How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?
Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.
And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.
When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.
May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.
I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?
For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.
And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.
The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.
The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:
The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.
But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.
A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.
Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.
How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.
The campfire is a place of holy possibility.
The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.
When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.
Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.
Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.
Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?
Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.
It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.
And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.
What do we do then?
Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:
…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God.
The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.
And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.
And so, in his version, it is gone.
Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?
Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.
And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.
If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.
Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.