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Good Friday is a Cop Out

But Jesus turned to them and said, “Women of Jerusalem, stop crying for me. Instead, cry for yourselves and for your children.
— Luke 23:28 —

I know the title of this blog is shocking, but I must admit to an impatience with an attitude to Holy Week that is either sentimental or an indulgence in horror.

Although the Anglican Book of Common Prayer says piously, ” full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice,” our liturgies tend to revisit Jesus’ crucifixion in ghastly detail, with an unseemly savouring of its details, including encouraging people to shout out a call for his death. I have always hoped that I would be the person who said, “Don’t.”  It seems to me that Jesus’ horrific death millennia ago, has only one purpose in our memory. That purpose is to remind us that we remain complicit in erecting the cross of horror, shame, brutality, and injustice. We do not need to look to history to see the wounds and passion of Christ all around us, in our streets, in our families, in our own limitations that mask as convictions about truth and social status.

The cross is the potent, albeit dreadful sign of the failure of humanity to let the holiness within prevail upon the earth. As we walk through Holy Week, I think we need to focus on the paths we have taken over the last year, since the previous Holy Week. What have we done for the children of the world? What have we done for the planet and its other creatures? How have we stood against war, poverty, lies? Whom have we helped and why? The veneration of the cross is not about glorifying suffering but about an accusation to the Body of Christ. Have we fed the lambs? Have we brought the children to safe harbour?

On Maundy Thursday, in most churches, we are good at showing love for each other, at least superficially, but why are we washing feet that are fat and clean? When Jesus performed this action, it was an act of hospitality, a host, deferring to his guests, the convenor, acting as servant. Food for the journey, sustenance for those who would soon be tested and mostly found wanting. Do we understand that this baptismal act is not so much about cleansing as preparation to walk the way of the cross? To be called to testify to the uncomfortable, unpopular truth about solidarity with poor and the forsaken? The first eucharist celebrated the presence fo Christ at table with those he loved, whomever they might have been. The last supper in Emmaus reminded the disciples to study, to learn, to act, to pray for God’s reign of peace and justice on earth.

On Good Friday, when we say our prayers, when we remember Jesus’ act of self-offering, we need to remember also that although he has been resurrected, we have not yet taken down his cross, that it still scars our landscape. I started to weep as I saw the young people rallying against violence in the March for Our Lives — not just against them, but as an acceptable idea in this 21st century. I wept for their beauty and for their hope. As the church we have fought against the resurrection, attempting to keep that hideous cross instead of having faith in the resurrection. We, as the church, have been ingenious at maintaining violence of all kinds, of encouraging people to indulge in self-recrimination and shame instead of declaring their freedom in Christ, the freedom of the resurrection, the freedom to be new.

Jesus is risen and has been alive and with us for centuries. When will we believe it and act on it? When will we decide human evil and selfishness has had its day? I long for the Holy Week in which the cross has become a faint outline, a dim memory of what humanity was before we discovered the incarnation running in and through us, the resurrection of hope and possibility.

Please go to church this week, but go not for the memory of Jesus’ death, but to remember the path to resurrection that will call us to lay down the comforts and assumptions and lies that are blotted out by the reality of suffering. Go to weep for the children who are not yet free. Go to testify, to be present to the pain that exists in our world. Go to present yourselves as an offering, an offering to live out your baptismal promises with weeping, but also with the knowledge that the Resurrected One is with you. Go so that you know how to reveal Jesus’ resurrection that walked through passion and love to a life shared in action and faith.

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kenosis?

Kenosis is a theological term that simply means emptying. In Philippians 2, we read:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of humanity. Being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Again, in Hebrews 2, we hear an echo of this idea of Jesus as a divine being, who becomes a creature like other humans are creatures.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things. . . .
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.

My problem with kenosis as we have traditionally thought of it, is that separates the spiritual and the material, as if the divine were present only in the one. In 21st century consciousness, we have become aware of the problem of dualisms, up/down, over/under. We are aware that we share the DNA of a planet, not just a species. We know that the earth under our feet is a living organism, populated by untold numbers of other organisms from the microscopic to the gigantic. The so-called butterfly effect is simply a matter of obvious reality now.

I wonder how Jesus could possibly divest himself of the divine without simply disappearing. With many others, I experience the divine not only as an external presence, but also as the that which rushes between the atoms in the life of everything and can be seen in both the grandeur and simplicity of all that is. For our minds now, the question of the dual nature of Christ has ceased to have resonance or it is a matter of intellectual indifference. So what do we do with the idea of kenosis now?

In the temptation story, we read about Jesus divesting himself of human ambition, political power, even the authority of status. In the story of his baptism, he bows to the teaching of another. From the women whom encounters, his theology and his mission shifts. Jesus empties himself of the barriers that stand between people in relationship. For Jesus, this is also true of the Holy One. Jesus walks with confidence in the presence of his God. He seems to be free from the ordinary anxiety of being right, or judged, or needy of affirmation. With other people, Jesus is similarly free to associate, to speak, to interact, without the usual nervous hesitation most of us share.

Jesus divests himself of the bruised ego, allowing himself to be open to each experience as if it were new. Because he seems to be very little concerned about himself in these encounters. He sees others clearly, booth in our grace and in our hypocrisy.

Jesus offers us a picture of how that freedom might look. True freedom is neither harsh, nor judgemental, neither grasping, nor self concerned. Not many of us, even with a lot of spiritual direction and/or therapy will find ourselves as whole as Jesus. In our communities, however, we can begin to start thinking in wholistic terms. Instead of acting out of self interest, we can divest ourselves of institutional anxieties and ask instead what we are doing for the vulnerable, for the needy, the hungry, the refugees, and so on. We can begin to think about the earth as the first garden and choose the task of restoration. We can turn from the lure of power and privilege and adopt the kenotic quality of Jesus who counted nothing for himself and everything for the task of healing, of justice, of protection.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote about how it feels to live in the light of Christ.
The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love. (Glimpses of Grace)

A New Teaching?

Let’s think about religion and spirituality. I know what religion is. My favourite definition comes from dictinary.com:

“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Spirituality, by contrast is not concerned with externally created observances. it tends to be more individualistic and idiosyncratic. It may have a moral component, but not necessarily.

So what is Christianity? I think Jesus had no interest in creating another set of ritual practices or a theology or even a morality. I think he said that we already had all those tings that we could apply to our lives whenever we chose. What Jesus offered was the idea of deep, intentional relationship that had nothing to do with moral behaviour or belief. It remained endlessly perplexing for his followers, and continues to be so right until now.

For Christians of our era, this is a time of repentance, and by that I mean turning to a different insight. As a lifelong Anglican, I love our rituals and the possibility of the mystical wonder of life that interrupts the mundane. I just don’t think that has much to do with the particular faith that is Christ-centred.

The faith that is Christ-centred has I now think, a sense of holinesss, whole-in-us, in-relationship. That relationship usually begins with other humans. As children, we learn to trust or fear life through those early experiences. No matter how wonderful our families, however, we all enter adulthood with scars and self doubt and caution about others. Jesus teaches us to begin by letting it all go, or finding the way to let our fears about ourselves go. It begins with believing that the Spirit of the Divine, of Holiness that was present at the beginning of creation, resides still within the creation. Within us, despite our fears. Jesus has very little interest in people’s worthiness, but a lot of interest in their yearning to be whole, in their willingness to reach out, and to trust in the power of relationship to change them. The stories are there for the reading and the consideration.

About Jesus, the elders remark, “Is this a new teaching?” Well, yes and no. In the Genesis story, we read about God in relationship with the creation. In the stories of the prophets, God speaks in relationship. The stories about Jesus, speak of voices and a blessing that calls Jesus beloved. Over time, however, the Divine became entombed in codes and rituals, remembered history, a set of mutual expectations resembling that of human contracts. Quid pro quo. So the teaching of humanity in relationship with the Divine and with each other is ancient, but it is a radical teaching by the time of Jesus.

Jesus, however, simply does not deal with any of that institutional or moralistic piety. He says to get on with whatever you believe to be good and right, but in the meantime, look closely at the life that is before you and let it dominate your vision and your thoughts and then you will know how to act, how to feel. What you believe is secondary to the web of relationship into which you weave yourself.

Jesus could be quite intimidating in his refusal to debate, in his insistence that people deal with his person, not the rumours about him. How would it look for us to insist that relationship is the highest calling, that being in concert as friends is the defining characteristic of the faithful life?

It would mean we would have to discover each other, not as cardboard figures of our own creation, but with humility and a willingness to put our assumptions aside. In terms of the natural order, we would have to cease seeing the reaction as a commodity but as life with its own integrity and processes. Even in terms of the other creatures, we would have to allow that they have their own thoughts, their own constructions of reality. We do not even know how alien they are from ours, because we have always used them for our own needs.

Christian faith, not a morality, not a doctrine, not a prescribed set of rituals, but people in community doing what we need to do to realize the holiness in each other and in our world, and the Spirit of God leaping up in our hearts and the blessing of Jesus who draws us to each other and to his resurrected life.

A Responsive Soul

The best description of the irresistible call of Jesus is perhaps best characterized by Dorothee Söelle who wrote the following poem, “not without you.”

he needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

What made Simon and Andrew, James and John follow him, leaving behind work and family for a relatively unknown, itinerant preacher? We will never know except to ask ourselves why we are here today. What yearning in our souls draws us from our warm covers, from our book, our coffee, our devices? What is here that calls us from our comfort?

And to what call does Jesus respond? I think it is the call from a people who are alienated, disconnected; a people who are suffering and have lost hope for a better future. Jesus shapes his call as he walks the roads of Palestine, healing and challenging, teaching and practising compassion. He himself learns as he goes and sees that this road that he has chosen will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the powers in charge of the people for whom he cares.

I am not sure that there is anything such thing as an exterior call, that the Holy One singles anyone out for a special purpose. I think it is the incarnation, the abiding spirit of God that calls through our humanity, through our psychology, through our experience, even through our relationships. For Christians, that gets shaped in following the Way of Christ, and indeed, in his personal charisma that has stood the test of millennia now. In our heart, there is an unfulfilled longing that sends tendrils out into the world and for those of us here, those tendrils connect with Jesus. But that is just the beginning. Like Jesus, we are presented with choices at every branch in the road, The choices invite us to choose compassion or hate, indifference or connection, commitment or apathy. We are free agents, able to ignore the pulling of our hearts, the deep questions of our minds, the teaching in our relationships.

The touchstone for us around our choices is of course our baptismal covenant, which for many of us must be re-thought and re-chosen from time to time. It is the map that tells us how close we are to Gethsemane, how near the cross, how willing we are not only to love Jesus, but to make his choices.

The call that Christians hear begins within our hearts, but to be fully realized, we must hear also the cry of the poor, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, move from judgement to compassion.

Here is what Marcus Borg says: We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, pre occupations – to minds and hearts centred in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism – to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, minds alive to God’s passion for justice. (Days of Awe and Wonder)

The Cry of and from the Wilderness (Mark 1:1-8)

John the Baptizer’s story is created from bits and pieces of older scripture. The strain in the story rises from the disparity between John’s message and Jesus’. To this day, in the Mandean community, John the Baptist is still revered as the Messiah of the two ways, one of death and the other of life. In Islam, he is the great prophet Yayah. For the first writers of Jesus’ story, their problem was clear. How could they weave the story of John into that of Jesus without compromising Jesus’ message of reconciliation and forgiveness. Their solution was brilliant. We will never know if Jesus began as a follower of John or if he simply existed and preached at the same time. In any case, the solution lay within Torah; present John as the Forerunner of the true Messiah. Relate him to Elijah (although John himself rejected that idea).

‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.
2 Kings 1:8

The Forerunner would call for a new purity, a reclamation of the values of tribal culture, preceding that of king and city state. Jesus’ message, too, offered a possible return to the covenants of Noah and Abraham. John, in this case, is the trumpeting angel who calls for repentance and the subsequent promise of sanctuary. The Exodus passage 23:20 for example, suggests a requirement of absolute obedience to a way of life, and terror for those who oppose the righteous.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

Another echo comes from the prophet Malachi 3:1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

What is notable, however, is that it is the community that is called and individuals, only insofar as they constitute the newly redeemed and restored tribal community.  So how do we reconcile these two prophets for our time. John demands that the community remember a history and a covenant that probably existed as an ideal, rather than a lived reality. And Jesus, who called for a developed humanity that would choose justice with compassion, that would stand against power and privilege without violence, that would judge with forgiveness and reconciliation.

I think these two voices represent stages of our own insight into the problems of our own era. Some of us think to look back to an imagined better time and some of us look forward to the resolution of this stage of human history. Without doubt, we can hear the cry of and from creation, the cry of and from those being assaulted and oppressed.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Isaiah 40:1-4

We know with every fibre of our being that the world is at a turning point, a critical time, when change will come upon us suddenly and inexorably. I think many people in the world feel as if they have already been baptized with fire, either of the heart or physically and socially. The earth is wounded and lashing out in pain. This is not a question of an angry God, but of a body, the body of the world crying out to us to act, to teach the faith again, the faith of a new humanity, and death to our old ideas about power and safety. Our salvation is at hand but it involves protecting others, our world and all of us its creatures. We can forget about the old ideas of personal salvation and instead see the cosmic spirit within which Christ acted, that spirit into which we are all invited, that spirit that promises healing for all and life for all we had thought to be dying.

We can make Advent this year our commitment to act, to learn, to be faithful, not out of personal fear, but out of the love of Christ, who called us to be his friends and co-workers in the in the kindom of peace and joy.

 

Already here: Matthew 25:1-13

I am grateful to D. Mark Davis for reminding me that Matthew puts his own twist on Jesus’ parables, in this case to explain the delayed parousia. I also agree that this parable seems more like what the kingdom of God is not like.

I have some problems both with the parable and in how we translate it. Firstly, I do not think these unmarried women are bridesmaids as we understand them, guests and attendants. I think these are the servants for the event, or the household, with some particular set of tasks. They are probably tired after a day or a month of preparation and so they drift off to sleep. Some of them are shrewd and some of them are “morons’ as the text says. Some of them guess about how the rich behave and prepare for that eventuality; others do not even consider the possibilities.

In the story, it seems to be night, so it is unlikely that the women without enough oil would be able to leave to go into town and get more; nor is it likely any would be easily available. Oddly, there is no offer to share what oil remains.

I wonder if people might have heard the parable as a cautionary tale about trusting in princes to deliver justice and prosperity. The state is notoriously fickle and unreliable for the least of its citizen. There are promises made, but delivery on those promises may be attenuated, if they happen at all. The danger in trusting in the state is that it tends to pit the least in society against each other. So the shrewd have to always be on guard. The unprepared, the “morons,” will be left to their own devices, which will be disastrous; in the harsh world of the state, there is no mercy for these people, even from their own class.

In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, the bridegroom is always present, always available to heal and to restore, to lift up the lowly and scold the proud.The kingdom of God is about abundance and enough for all, not more for some and less for others. Worthiness has less to do with morality or wisdom and more to do with compassion and cooperation. In the kingdom of God, the bridegroom already has come and is returning simultaneously.

It is only “in the world” that a person would look for external signs; they are immaterial in the land of the faithful. In the life in Christ, time has ceased to hold its power over human life. The banquet of the Lamb has begun and continues, despite being unrecognized by those who took for signs of power or “put their trust in princes.”

This is an opportunity to interact with the text and ask who the bridegroom is in our world. Does it matter whether we are asleep or awake? Does it matter how much we have or how prepared we are? Is it really more a question of showing up? of being present to serve and to celebrate? to die and to live in the life of the Holy One, expressed in Jesus?

Caesar’s Face

With thanks to D. Mark Davis for his comments and translation.

In Matthew 22:15-22, we hear about the trap forming around Jesus. In this case, the temple and the Roman sympathizers form an unlikely and probably uncomfortable alliance. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. There is no safe answer to this question. The temple, of course, also collected funds. The coins in either case were different. Temple coin could not be engraved with a human face or God’s face. Roman coins were engraved with the face of the emperor.

If Jesus said the coin should go to the Temple, it would be blasphemy, and also treason, a double whammy as they say. He turns the question back to them. He says, “Whose face is engraved here?” Then, it is logical that the coin belongs to the state. But God has presence over all, so the power of this coin is minimized by being part of a greater reality. It is a clever response, but also one to cause the listener to think. To whom do I owe my life? To whom do I owe my loyalty? To whom do I offer my service? Whose gifts do I appreciate and why?

Suddenly, we are confronted with some troubling thoughts. We in Canada, may not be living in occupied territory politically, but we might ask ourselves who owns our water? our natural resources? our fields and farms? our dairy and forests? How much control do we have over our daily lives?

Jesus was very political in his time and we must be too. It is not enough to hand over our coin to the state and then turn a blind eye to how it used, for good or ill. Politicians receive hate mail all the time. I wonder if they receive equal amounts of encouragement for their service in ecology, in justice, in compassionate legislation. We live in fractious times, but it is not all bad. I am proud of Quebecois who are wearing face coverings to protest the new law prohibiting such dress. Apparently even some bus drivers are protesting. This is an example of peaceful, but strong resistance to racism and martial law. I am happy to see Lloyd Longfield (MP) writing in social media about what he is thinking. Agree or not, it is an effort at transparency.

The best society is the one which understands sharing of resources , sharing personal as well as corporate responsibility. Jesus addresses not only social victims but also power brokers, demanding justice and consideration for all. The coin may belong to Caesar, but Caesar is accountable to God. In Hebrew scripture, in many passages, we hear the prophets warning rulers that security in leadership requires integrity. When integrity fails, so will the state ultimately. The lesson is that natural law will prevail because God shelters all.

The question for us in the passage is how do we use the coin that is stamped with our Caesar’s names? How do we decide whose agenda dominated our decisions? How do we weigh the easy prize against the long term care for the earth, and its people? Sheri Tepper, the novelist, commented that justice must be weighted on a case by case basis. God sees the sparrow, sees the tree, sees the whale, sees us. God sees the particular as well as the whole. Where do we place ourselves as church, as city, as family in that mirror; what do we see?

If asked the same question as Jesus was, how do we say with integrity how we support our society, our church, our family? Is it even a question we ask ourselves or have we forgotten to whom we belong, whose service liberates us?